White-Bread Pop, Hero Worship, and the Vacant Hooks of Charlie Puth
Each day Puth creeps closer and closer to Bieber territory—meaning he’s heading in the wrong direction.
I’ve heard every single one of Charlie Puth’s hits at least five times, but never on purpose. His songs seep in through the cracks of drugstores, hair salons, chain restaurants, mall loudspeakers. It’s music destined for ubiquity. It’ll hunt you down like a sniffing dog.
With almost ten million Instagram followers and non-threatening good looks (he has modeled for Hollister, if you know what I mean), Puth could be the next Bieber. Though his debut album, Nine Track Mind, boasted the fifteenth lowest Metacritic rating of all time, singles “We Don’t Talk Anymore,” featuring Selena Gomez, “Marvin Gaye,” featuring Meghan Trainor, and “One Call Away,” featuring the humble refrain “Superman got nothing on me,” all received non-stop radio play. Puth’s 2015 track “See You Again,” written with Wiz Khalifa for the Furious 7 soundtrack as a tribute to Paul Walker, held the number one spot on the US Billboard Hot 100 for twelve weeks. The corresponding video has over 3.5 billion hits, making it the second-most viewed YouTube video ever (only recently surpassed by Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito”). Puth has co-written and produced songs for Jason Derulo, Liam Payne, and his buddy Adam Levine, plus he’s dated—and publicly discussed his breakups with—Selena Gomez and Bella Thorne. This is a kid (or twenty-six-year-old adult, but who’s counting), intent on courting the spotlight. A few months back, Puth admitted to Billboard that he is “inspired by materialistic things.” In another interview, he discussed his Rolex and how happy it made him. Three cheers for capitalistic glory.
Puth grew up in a New Jersey suburb with copious musical training; pre-college, he studied jazz and classical piano at the Manhattan School of Music, and later attended the Berklee College of Music. He has perfect pitch—meaning he can identify any musical note instantly, even if the tone comes from a car horn—and it’s a possible curse disguised as a blessing, as his trembly falsetto comes across rather generic on recordings. His songs (which he does write, and very quickly at that) also lack flavoring. You’d be hard-pressed to explain the key differences between, say, Puth and strikingly similar fellow pop star Shawn Mendes: Puth’s initial success came via YouTube, Mendes’s from Vine; both are cute and clean-cut, though Puth has a scar across his eyebrow from a childhood dog attack; both are pretty singers (Mendes’s range is lower); both churn out cliché-ridden, non-distinctive hits with catchy hooks, and you couldn’t find a spark of profundity in either’s lyrics with a fine-tooth comb.
Puth admitted to Billboard that he is “inspired by materialistic things.” In another interview, he discussed his Rolex and how happy it made him. Three cheers for capitalistic glory.
Most of what dominates the record charts has historically been pop, despite a performative public tendency to regard pop hits as guilty pleasures we should squirrel away in clandestine car-belting sessions, empty calories to binge on and forget. But in the 2000s, poptimism crept into professional critique. And over the past decade, female pop stars in particular have inspired increasing adulation and meaty think-pieces. Rihanna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, and Lorde are dominating the game.
In spite of their occasional lack of political transparency, embarrassing displays of wokeness, and penchant for shallow feuds, none of these women are wholly unlikable, and they certainly aren’t bland. They’ve found strength in their femininity—writing about race, the perils of fame, indulgence in drink and drug and sex, infidelity, slut-shaming, depression, men who have altered their identities, and any number of selfish, superficial, and earthly desires. They convey all this in short- to medium-length songs of the verse-chorus structure variety, but in their repeating choruses there is melodic ecstasy, and in their lyrics, an honest solipsism. “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” memoirist Anaïs Nin wrote. These women embrace that.
Male pop stars with substance, on the other hand, are in short supply. There’s been a rash of white-bread, uncomplicated boys crooning on the airwaves: Puth and Mendes were preceded by our Lord and Savior Justin Bieber, whose contemporaries include Nick Jonas, Ed Sheeran, Austin Mahone, and all five ex–One Direction members, now starting to head out on their own, with Harry Styles alone cultivating an intriguing persona—all roguish smirks and rock star mystery—and interesting music, beginning with his first solo single, the existential anthem “Sign of the Times.” Non-traditional pop artists like Drake and Kendrick Lamar, men whose pop sensibilities are wholly infused with rap and R&B, are the ones who seem intent on artistic invention rather than on filling arenas with impressionable teen girls.
In their music videos, the traditional pop boys wander through landscapes of cars and cute girls without evident connection to any of it. Nick Jonas (considered semi-woke after ditching his Jonas Brothers purity ring and appearing on the cover of Out) traipses blankly through the desert. Niall Horan also finds himself, inexplicably, in a desert. Zayn Malik (slightly atypical as a half-Pakistani) rubs up against supermodel girlfriend Gigi Hadid. Liam Payne dances poorly. Ed Sheeran hangs with his lover at an expensive-looking ski resort. And Bieber rolls around in bed with a lady who’s ambivalent about him, until he stages a kidnapping to spice things up. (Oldest trick in the book.)
I’m reminded of Kate McKinnon’s Bieber impression on SNL: Brooding without anything to brood about. Prancing about in Calvin Klein undies, posing with her face scrunched in half-hearted iterations of pain or swagger, McKinnon bears an eerie resemblance to most of the aforementioned pop stars. These singers have certainly felt real pain—who hasn’t?—but their self-conscious attempts at replicating it for the camera feel insulting. Granted, we rarely listen to pop for highbrow gratification, but the baseline assumption of these stars seems to be that we can’t tell the difference between authentic passion and shameless promo.
Young, white, attractive male pop artists begin to bleed together in a haze of beige. It’s difficult to discern their value systems or to understand what, exactly, they intend to represent. Charlie Puth could be an ardent Trump supporter, for all we know; although on Voicenotes, he pointedly collabs with James Taylor on an acoustic song called “Change,” dedicated to the Parkland shooting victims and posing such thoughtful questions as “Why can’t we just get along?” Puth performed this at the March for Our Lives a couple months back, but advocating a little bit for gun control is hardly revolutionary in 2018. We can all agree that murdering children is wrong. “Change” panders, encouraging listeners to love each other but offering no further insights or comfort.
Young, white, attractive male pop artists begin to bleed together in a haze of beige.
Pop stars reflect moments in time, holding up a mirror to the culture. Whatever’s most celebrated at the box office, on streaming sites, on social media, signifies what the masses care about—and perhaps what we care about now is feeling safe. Not having to think too much. As more exposés on powerful men who have threatened, coerced, and assaulted their way to the top are published each month, women are equal parts furious and cautious. We’re all a little raw. But by contrast, Ed Sheeran is simply demure. Sam Smith is sweet. Justin Timberlake just released the most boring record of his career. Twelve years ago, Timberlake brought sexy back, but he’s a dad now; sexy has been put up on a high shelf where his toddler can’t reach it.
Despite their neutered appeal, these artists aren’t entirely harmless. The lead single off Voicenotes, “Attention,” is a smooth and spiteful tune about a girl who wants Puth’s attention but not his heart. (Because most young men go after girls for their hearts.) To his credit, Puth has acknowledged that it’s a mean song. But when a smug bass line drops, it’s also a funk-infused banger. While Nine Track Mind was doo-wop-inspired, Puth’s sophomore effort leans into R&B, disco, and funk. He’s growing up. In the corresponding video, he sits cloaked in darkness while a supermodel slinks around his apartment; seemingly apropos of nothing, aside from feminine irrationality, she begins smashing his fancy-looking vases. Charlie tries to stop the property destruction, but to no avail, and when the smashing options are exhausted they start making out.
On the Kehlani-joined “Done For Me,” the album’s groovy fourth single (Kehlani is an openly queer WOC, so props to Puth for branching out there, at least), he displays further charms. “I die for you, baby / Cry for you, baby / But tell me what you’ve done for me,” he whines, to which Kehlani responds in verse, “I never cheated / Deleted everyone ’cause they made you uncomfortable.” Sounds like a healthy dynamic.
In 2015, Puth told Vulture about working with rapper Lil Wayne on “Nothing But Trouble”: “The song I penned for us used to be called ‘Instagram Models,’ and my team thought it would be good to call it ‘Nothing But Trouble’ because that’s where the coda ends,” he explained. “It was a good chance to work with Wayne, and he put a brilliant spin on how girls can be pretty shallow on the Internet. The video is pretty cool. The girls turn to two-dimensional figures, which represents how shallow they are.”
“And guys can be shallow, too. Let’s be fair here,” the (female) interviewer interjected. ‘“Oh, yeah, I’m sorry. Everybody can be shallow,” Puth parroted, somewhat unconvincingly.
As far as heartthrobs go, adolescent girls deserve men with more depth to fuel their fantasies. These stars play an influential role in their lives, and it’s moved far beyond tacking boy band posters up on bedroom walls. The Internet has exacerbated the problem, as kids have more access to celebrities than ever before, and a false sense of intimacy has been established. While fans are abstract numbers to celebs, teens feel their bonds with preferred musicians or actors or YouTubers goes both ways. Selena Gomez received numerous death threats from fans lusting after then-boyfriend Justin Bieber. The same thing happened with Bieber’s next girlfriend, Sofia Richie. One Direction buffs harassed Louis Tomlinson’s baby mama and even threatened the child’s life after it was born. “Fans” believe they have ownership over these stars; they’ll defend their honor or their music to the death. Where’s the reward for such loyalty?
As far as heartthrobs go, adolescent girls deserve men with more depth to fuel their fantasies.
In most Bieber interviews, you can sense a monstrous ego brewing beneath his delicate features. He doesn’t seem interested in books or film, he’s not into politics, and his knowledge is first and foremost grounded in his own personal history. He answers polite questions with unhelpful monosyllables. Additionally, he buys into his own hype—to hear him speak about Beliebers is to hear a man who accepts and delights in their fealty without question, like a God. As if he’s accomplished something better than singing and dancing and shilling products. It’s possible that, deep down, Bieber realizes he’s hoarding a disproportionate amount of wealth; he doesn’t laugh much or seem particularly happy about any of it, and he’s terrifically serious, even when behaving like a brat. We all remember the deposition. And the monkey he abandoned in Germany. And the pee bucket.
As for Puth, he shared an anecdote in that same Billboard story about visiting a psychic with his dad as a teenager: “She said, ‘You’re not going to be famous, but it’s OK!’” Charlie recalled. “I was like, ‘Fuck no! Dad, go give her money and tell her to check again. I am going to be fucking famous.’”
“A great man is always willing to be little,” to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, and supremely talented creatives tend not to profess that they are the best. There’s typically a modicum of self-doubt, or at the very least self-awareness. (Subtweet: Kanye West.) Wisdom comes in recognizing how little you know, how mediocre you are in the grand scheme of things. (I learned that in Intro to Philosophy.)
Thus this quality shared by Bieber and Puth isn’t confidence—it’s arrogance. Puth might, indeed, have had an intuition that he would become famous. But why is fame, specifically, what he craved? More so than talent, the ability to express himself, the potential to earn a living doing what he loved? Teens are starry-eyed, and one can hardly blame Puth for hoping to see his name in lights. But he shared this psychic story at age twenty-six, without a hint of sheepishness or learned perspective. According to his own recollection, he didn’t so much want his dad to believe in his talent—or to impress some record label executive or fellow musician—as he wanted his dad to shell out more of his hard-earned cash, crawl back to a street-corner psychic, and prove the poor woman wrong. Puth demanded a better reading. Fame was owed to him. He’s a product of the digital era, wherein people presume their every thought is tweet-worthy, their every ice cream sundae Instagrammable. Prestige can be accrued by amassing a social media following and establishing a brand. Originality matters less.
There’s a particular moment from David Letterman’s 2012 Late Show interview with Justin Bieber that has been permanently seared into my brain. This was the last time Bieber ever appeared on Letterman, who remained on the air until 2015. (He’s been on Ellen upwards of twenty times, incidentally, likely because she’s never asked a question harder-hitting than “Who are you dating?”) In their interview, Letterman playfully ribbed the pop star, as was his custom: suggesting Bieber should take college courses, encouraging him to take an interest in voting, and wondering whether his interest in tattoos could lead to body art rivaling the Sistine Chapel.
“I’m not going for the sixteenth chapel,” Bieber assured the host. A better response could not have been scripted: Letterman grinned toothily, the crowd laughed in disbelief, and Bieber sat frozen, thrown off his game, no idea what went wrong. “Sixteen chapel,” Bieber said tentatively, but that correction didn’t help. “Canadian high school,” Letterman joked, before correcting him, “Sistine Chapel.” “Sixteen,” Bieber countered, now purposefully defiant. “Sistine,” Letterman said again. “Four,” Bieber told him. “Eleven.”
Some (read: Bieber’s millions of rabid supporters) might see this interview and defend him with claims of nerves or stage fright. But it’s not just that Justin didn’t know what the Sistine Chapel was—a lot of eighteen-year-old Americans wouldn’t, sadly—it’s that he showed no interest in finding out. Ignorance is nothing to him. He perked up considerably when Dave moved on to the topic of “Girlfriend,” a perfume Bieber was there to promote, though he couldn’t tell Letterman what it smelled like (“really, really good” was what he came up with). Minutes later, the singer had a new inspiration: “Secret ingredient: Bieber sweat,” he told the audience, evidently thinking this some great witticism. To add insult to injury, Bieber spent twenty-thousand Euros on a private tour of Vatican City a couple years after this interview, reportedly pissing off employees by kicking a soccer ball around inside the buildings. At least he knows what the Sistine Chapel is now. Presumably.
I guess I don’t want Charlie Puth to be the next Justin Bieber. I want Puth to be smarter. There’s still time. On Voicenotes opener “The Way I Am,” Puth sings in time with an electric guitar riff: “Maybe I’ma get a little anxious / Maybe I’ma get a little shy / ‘Cause everybody’s trying to be famous / And I’m just trying to find a place to hide.” Perspective is something many pop stars lack. Puth should drop the act and own up to wanting fame, quite badly. He has achieved it. But it didn’t happen by mistake. FL