By design or simple proximity, America usually winds up with a first couple of pop.
In 1985, Madonna and Bruce independently wrangled received ideas about working-class saints and sinners for an audience that got it backward half the time. In 2015, we have two pairs — one hot, one cold — who couple up consciously.
Kanye and Rihanna work the orangey white end of the spectrum. Rihanna maintains an even heat: She directed a music video for "Bitch Better Have My Money" that flickers between stunning and baffling (and which Ellie Goulding just quoted in her "On My Mind" video); she livened up a song by Kanye and a Beatle; and she slouched better than you strut. Kanye, not prone to quiet, came close, releasing holding-pattern singles and a flat couture line that seemed to be about calming down the room, which is not usually on Kanye's punch list. Who knows — Kanye, who performs two Hollywood Bowl shows this weekend, has been in Kanye Shrug mode and could easily make his biggest move in the fourth quarter.
The year's more interesting duo is our ice couple — Lana Del Rey and Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye. Tesfaye cited Lana as an inspiration in an interview with Pitchfork and featured her on his new album. She hasn't returned the favor, but there's no reason to believe she wouldn't. Tesfaye's been using "The Hills" and "I Can't Feel My Face" to knock himself in and out of the No. 1 single slot. (He can afford the missing vowel now.) And like The Weeknd's "Beauty Behind the Madness," Lana Del Rey's third full-length, "Honeymoon," will probably hang around the top of the album charts until Christmas.
What unites Del Rey and Tesfaye, though, is not popularity or musical affinity but an abiding interest in anesthesia, intentional and incidental. They are anhedonic hedonists, performers who make sex and drugs sound like a day job they've taken drugs to get through. What they seem to be interested in are the powers afforded by living the ice-cold life. What's cooler than being cool?
With Tesfaye, his inability to feel his face or the world around him is part of a confessional come-on built on the reliability of his weaknesses. Tesfaye trembles and whines, trumpeting his flaws as he unfolds a narrative lifted from some off-brand pick-up manual: "Please save me from this pile of cocaine, you patient woman, you."
With Del Rey, the chill is different: Her numbness is an index of strength. She reclines, uninterested in letting you in on what she's feeling. Why would a queen give you the intimate view?
"Honeymoon" is an expression of royal immobility, Del Rey planted in the middle of a string section, her string section. There's no reason to move when you're on top of the world. The view's so nice — you down there, you do the moving.
Tesfaye's stated ambitions don't entirely cohere. To the New York Times, he copped to dreams of being the next Michael Jackson. "Who else is there? Who else can really do it at this point?"
This is a strong and welcome question, but the answer is not Tesfaye.
In a Pitchfork interview, he was more pragmatic about his skills, admitting to not being a "technical singer." He also attributes some of his vocal tendencies to growing up around Ethiopian music in his Toronto home.
But Tesfaye doesn't need to be of any tradition or the next Michael to be valuable, and not just because he doesn't seem particularly interested in dancing. (We got the Weeknd version of Michael in 2012, with Usher's "Climax." All refrigerated sexual misdirection and graceful suspension, that hit showed off Usher's range as a singer, and if he feels like dancing when he performs it, Raymond Usher gets into the MJ blast radius faster than Tesfaye ever will.)
Tesfaye is an intriguing figure in pop precisely because his blunt imagery and his ability to disappear during his own songs stand against pop norms.
Before "Beauty Behind the Madness," Tesfaye hadn't spent much time looking into his hollows. For his first three albums, his emotional deadpan established a moral texture that matched the music, more gas than solid. On "Beauty," bolstered by brand-name collaborators, the Weeknd is a more "musical" enterprise, which is a weird game for Tesfaye to get into. The software upgrade works on "I Can't Feel My Face," possibly because co-writer and producer Max Martin is from a planet where nothing goes wrong, everyone can hit a high C and, hey, disco. The strong pre-chorus melody and bright 4/4 beat offset Tesfaye's narcolepsy with the right kind of contrast. A new twist to Tesfaye's ongoing three-way with stimulants and humans makes it more compelling: "I can't feel my face when I'm with you, and I love it."
This could be the drugged-out club Roomba we already know or, for once, Tesfaye could be feeling the effect of somebody's presence, not just their pills.
But for most of "Beauty," Tesfaye is surrounded by music that's more awake than he is. I'm fairly sure whatever we call R&B now is stocked with plenty of people who want to be bumping and bumping and bumping more than Tesfaye does. The fancy Scandinavian lighting just shows us how little Tesfaye wants to do. When the room was all fog, none of us had to care what the others were doing, and it worked.
Tesfaye doesn't need a victory lap or another gold star or whatever he thinks "Beauty" represents. He released three weird albums on Tumblr, for no money, repackaged them for Republic as "Trilogy" and watched it all go platinum. We all felt that.
Del Rey, our Xanax Cleopatra, is doing a better job now of combining big numbers and small movements. "Honeymoon" is a matched set of songs, a primer in languor. Del Rey and main collaborator Rick Nowels use the string section to scrape the metadata from any quotes. You'll hear bits of the pop songbook — "got it going on" or "ground control to Major Tom" — but they sound like Lana first and the referent second.
There is a man lurking in the lyrics, yes, and a honeymoon to go on, and beaches to take boys to, none of which makes Del Rey break a sweat or rev up her sounds. Maybe it's all just a case of titration — Tesfaye has gone numb, but Del Rey is now just high, higher than most of us.