Bells are ringing, empowered women are singing. All is going according to plan in the first few minutes of “Don’t Call Me Angel,” the lead single from Ariana Grande’s co-curated soundtrack to the forthcoming Charlie’s Angels reboot. Miley Cyrus, in her rodeo yowl on the song, warns some boy to quit it with the pet names. Grande trills at an ogler that she bites. The gals shadowbox and scheme in the music video. The arrangement clatters and bangs. Kapow!
Then a presence—the ghost of gender roles past?—floats in, snuffing out the sparkler candles. The tempo cuts in half. “I appreciate the way you want me; I can’t lie,” Lana Del Rey gasps from all directions. In the video, she sings partly in Ophelia pose, on her back. Grande and Cyrus had been telling guys to knock off their objectification so they can fight. Del Rey is here to beckon the gaze and take a nap, per usual.
Modern feminism allows, or even revels in, contrasts like these: Aggressive or passive, businesslike or libidinous, womanhood need not have one “correct” expression. This liberating idea has, among other things, helped reinvigorate the archetype of the pop diva. Less and less, stars like Grande, Cyrus, and Del Rey appear to contort to fit a boardroom-shaped ideal. They instead can present as auteurs, pulling from their own odd passions and private trials to achieve a spectacle of domination that, no matter what route it arrived by, still triggers the universal yaass.
Grande in particular has let loose in the past two years, with back-to-back albums mining her personal life for svelte hybrid hits. She’s now in a position to show off her clout with what’s become a superstar right of passage: the soundtrack album. When Beyoncé oversaw a Lion King sonic tie-in and Kendrick Lamar did the same for Black Panther, they cemented themselves as artists-slash-impresarios on a mission to lift black voices. Grande has co-created the Charlie’s Angels soundtrack with her manager, Scooter Braun, and the producer Savan Kotecha not simply to pay back a franchise that helped inspire Grande’s thigh-high-boot aesthetic. She’s taking a crack at rebuilding a common space, once reducible to the tag “girl power!,” in a complex moment for identity.
But isn’t feminism already the text, not the subtext, of much modern pop? Does Lizzo not put out the equivalent of a Charlie’s Angels action scene with every tweet? Perhaps the sense of redundancy explains the underwhelming streaming numbers thus far for the soundtrack, which have Grande already trying to downplay the project as a lark. Certainly the sound of the album does not shy away from retreads. There’s obviously the original TV show’s late-’70s cheese to play with: Mighty horns and surf drums blare from the start of the opener, “How It’s Done,” to the closer, an EDM remix of the Charlie’s Angels theme. There are also more recently discarded tropes, like, for example, EDM remixes—though you’d need to be truly jaded to eye-roll at Gigamesh’s gloriously fidgeting take on Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls.”
The pop of the early 2010s is, really, the mode most energetically revived here. That’s the bright-and-bouncy era when Max Martin’s team ruled the charts with less competition from internet-rap revolutionaries, an era whose sound arguably peaked with Grande’s 2016 album, Dangerous Woman. On the Angels soundtrack, Danielle Bradbery of The Voice seems to put on a Sia wig for the sad-resilient ballad “Blackout.” For “Bad to You,” Normani, Grande, and Nicki Minaj provide a sequel to the ad-jingle reggae of Grande and Minaj’s hit “Side to Side.” “Eyes Off You” sees the relatively obscure trio of M-22, Arlissa, and Kiana Ledé competently recycle the ’90s house that Disclosure and Calvin Harris trotted out when everyone was still into Mr. Robot.
Unoriginality on a would-be blockbuster soundtrack is hardly a scandal, though, and there’s something generous in the sudden shipment of uncomplicated cardiovascular-workout fare right before the holidays. Where Grande and her team make slight innovations is in the seamless stitching of a range of feminine voices. The Brazilian star Anitta gets her own track to taunt and flaunt in Portuguese. The album’s opener bridges American and U.K. hip-hop in the devilish voices of Kash Doll and Stefflon Don. That song also includes the Madonna-worshipping Kim Petras, whose rising-star status is both a success story for trans acceptance as well as a queasy tale of music-industry compromises. (Petras is signed by the producer Dr. Luke, who has fended off Kesha’s sexual-assault allegations cannily enough to still be included in the thank yous for the soundtrack.)
Grande herself gets a few showcase moments, though they each feel like castoffs from her recent solo albums. Her diet–Muscle Shoals collaboration with Chaka Khan lives up exactly to the description that Khan hilariously gave it in a viral interview: “It’s a cute song. It’s a song, y’know, about Charlie’s Angels. It’s, y’know, it’s … It’s not gonna change the world, okay?” Then there is the slinking R&B of “How I Look on You,” which production-wise is the most current-sounding tune in the mix. In it, Grande tells a tale of dating some jerk who just used her for the fame. Is this a relatable struggle for all of womankind? No, maybe not. But amid a Hollywood blur of prefab excitement and catchall slogans, the glimpse of a heroine’s actual lived life lands like a punch.
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