|Album Review: Jon Bellion – The Human Condition|
The Human Condition
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In 1981, Frenchman Jean Baudrillard penned a treatise called Simulacres et Simulation (in English: Simulacra and Simulation), analyzing the differences between a simulacra versus a simulation. It basically breaks down like this…
Simulacra: Copies of things that no longer exist, or never existed to begin with. Think of simulacra like a Chrysler PT Cruiser. It's trying to be retro, but the retro it's trying to be never really existed. It's just a product that preys upon nostalgia for the sake of a feeling.
Simulation: This is the imitation of something real. Playing Forza is a simulation. It's not real, and you know it's not real – it's a video game. (Duh.) But in theory, the cars do exist, the racetracks do exist, and the handling physics are supposed to be real.
When listening to Jon Bellion's new album, "The Human Condition", I was left to ponder where this album came from, and why it exists the way it does. Is The Human Condition a careful simulation of his reality, or is it the simulacrum of a better world Bellion wants to exist?
In order to deconstruct what's happening in this album, it's important to remember the snapshot of America we're looking at, and the culture Jon Bellion was born into. Jon Bellion was born in 1990, which means when he reached the age of adulthood, the United States economy was on the verge of its 2008 collapse. Being 18 in 2008 was basically a hopeless proposition, because the top was pushing down onto everyone, so Bellion seems to have constructed something better for himself — even if that "better" is a simulacra of what it's like when the bottom pushes back.
When you think of chain restaurants like Applebee's or Chili's, you're thinking about simulacra. They're carbon-copied versions of something that you think existed, that never actually existed. It's supposed to feel like a mom-and-pop spot, with "American-style" food, because everything on the menu is a triple-bypass waiting to happen. There are bikes on the walls, 1950s lacrosse trophies, and canoe paddles. Of course, this restaurant never existed – but that's the point of simulacra. It's supposed to make you feel "some type of way" about an idea that doesn't exist, but their progenitors want you to believe is totally real. That's why you, a Millennial, (probably) think Applebee's and Chili's are a complete waste of space. You're hard-wired to have a strong distaste for simulacra.
In your hometown, you probably have a few local restaurants you like. For me, in East Nashville, it's Drifter's for BBQ and beer. If I'm feeling like fancy drinks I'll head to Bar No. 308. If I need a really good burger, it's Three Crow Bar. My go-to Mexican spot is Rosepepper. If my girlfriend is trying to make me eat something healthy, it's Wild Cow. Every single establishment is totally and completely different, because each spot really needs its own vibe. You wouldn't think to wrap all your favorite restaurants into one restaurant, because that would ruin the entire experience.
However, let's say you did want all your favorite restaurants under one roof, in the most cartoonish way possible. Enter, Cheesecake Factory. There is no greater symbol of pre-2008 American non-style and audacious spectacle than Cheesecake Factory. Think about the decor inside Cheesecake Factory; a fine mix of Greek revival column, Vegas gold-accents, and 1500s Spanish ballroom. Within the confines of this cartoonish reality, you can have seared Ahi tuna with a side of macaroni and cheese, with a dirty Grey Goose martini, and Tiramisu cheesecake for dessert.
After sorting through their 50 page menu, Cheesecake Factory's servers return with enough food for a family of four — the Spinal Tap amp of dinner. These plates go up to 11. Why? Because 11 is more than 10. You're not just getting what you ordered. You're also getting a serving of guilt — about how many starving kids there are in Africa after you leave 4,000 calories of your 8,500 calorie nachos still on the plate. It's just too much, too cartoonish, and too American.
The Human Condition is Cheesecake Factory. It's pop, hip hop, rock, some electronic styling, acoustic indie, and bits and pieces of everything else. It's not just that – everything on each song is just a little more than you want. Even the album art depicts a cartoonish, hyper-vivid un-reality where (I assume) Bellion must exist in his head. Don't get me wrong, because I love Frozen, I just wouldn't want to live in Arendelle. You can get anything you want when listening to The Human Condition, as long as you want Jon Bellion's simulacra of whatever that genre-blend can/should be.
Case in point: Jon Bellion was born in 1990, which is why the song "80s Films" seems awkward and forced. He's referencing 80s films, something that were simulacra, even when they were originally made. I would know, because I lived through the 80s, and Bellion did not. It's awkward, like Cheesecake Factory, because it's a simulation of simulacra. Like, back in the 80s, when you could make a copy of a VHS tape, and then another copy of that copy, and then another copy of that copy — on and on. Eventually though, the quality degraded, and it becomes 100% clear you're watching a degraded copy.
We just need a night like
We just need a night like this, yeah
Take me back to 9th grade
Take me back to 9th grade shit, yeah
When Bellion was in the 9th grade, it was (probably) 2004/05. By that time, the 80s had been gone for fifteen years, so 'hooking up in the backseat while you let your best friend drive' is something you probably don't want to understand the reality behind. The 80s were a dark time, and hooking up in a Lee Iaccoca edition Chrysler K-Car is all the worst parts of the 80s. Hitting it raw in the back of a K-Car loses all its romantic nostalgia when you remember we were collectively at the height of an AIDS scare, and teenagers were terrified about having sex. Also, have you ever seen a K-Car? They were supposed to be a simulation of small, Japanese cars, but ended up more like Bellion's vision of pop music.
Bellion seems recognizant of the simulacra surrounding him, and acknowledges as much on "Woke The F*ck Up".
We live in an age where everything is staged
Where all we do is fake our feelings
I've been scared to put myself so out there
Time is running out, yeah
Need to let you know that
Through some of Bellion's lyrics though, I began to see something universal and consistent about the entirety of the album. Simulacrum doesn't always equate to a negative. In fact, when viewed through an entirely different prism, this album could be a stroke of brilliance. Perhaps it's cartoonish for the pure sake of creating a better place, with intent. Bellion's Disney-ready lyrics, album art, and style have alternatively stated, "This is all a cartoon. This is a movie soundtrack to intentional simulacra."
This is not an album in the usual sense of an album. This is a concept album. It's the soundtrack to a Disney movie that doesn't exist. It's the Frozen soundtrack, with f-bombs, and rapping. This is the simulacra of a simulacra. Think of it like aiming a mirror back at itself, assuming each time the recursion hit, it was just slightly transformed. Of course it's going to be a carnival house of mirrors – because that's the whole point of this exercise. Disney movies exist, but they are simulacra by definition. It's a reconstruction of a reality that we want to exist. There are princes and princesses, because those used to exist – albeit in a much more maligned way. We got tired of feudalism and moved past it, so we show the best and most glamorous parts. We show children a better version of reality than truly exists, because we wouldn't want to explain Donald Trump to a child.
"Well Trevor, you know the monsters in your closet? They're totally real, and one of them is bright orange and racist…"
In Bellion's head, 9th grade was a good time. It was pre-housing-crisis, and pre-social-media. Pre-everything-being-bleak-as-fuck. Social media is what he means, with 'living in an age where everything is staged' – because in the 9th grade, he remembers a time without social media. Don't get me wrong, we could text, and AIM, and a few of us had Livejournal, but it was different. You weren't obsessively staging every event in your life for Instagram in 2005, and for that, it was a simpler time.
At this moment, I should note something that an event/Tweet took place between the album release, and this review. Something happened between Jon Bellion and Disney/Pixar. I have no idea what this means.
— Jon Bellion (@jonbellion) June 26, 2016
I was prepared to give this album a 6/10 and move along. I really was.
… but then I got high. – Afroman
Looking at all the clues in front of me, I think I almost missed the genius that Bellion pored into this, because I was looking for a pop album, and not a Disney soundtrack. The Human Condition features a sterile, pure, and almost Broadway-perfect singing style from Bellion. We're talking about Nate Ruess levels of cornball singing. It's so cheesy and overblown, it can't be a mistake. You have to work hard to make something feel so Broadway. When you're being compared to Fun. in terms of cinematic appeal, and you're hitting wide left of even that target, maybe it's time to re-think what you're looking at.
The Human Condition requires a fresh perspective on what an album can be. This is a soundtrack without a movie, and that's why the transitions between songs are so jarring. The storytelling throughout the album is cohesive, but it requires you, the listener, to close your eyes and imagine a cartoon-or-CGI world that isn't here.
In terms of pure songwriting capability, Jon Bellion is in some truly rare company. I wouldn't hesitate to put him with composer/songwriters like Emile Haynie and D.A. Wallach. I took the time to actually deconstruct this album, and break down why it's a Disney soundtrack, and not a typical pop album. Earlier in this same review, I noted that one of my critiques of the album was that it sounded like these songs belonged in the movie Frozen. So rather than lambasting this album for being a mediocre pop effort, being too-Disney, let's assume he meant to do this. It's too intentional and obviously a Disney soundtrack – and I missed that… for two weeks.
Think about all your shitty trap-DJ-producer friends for a moment. (Sadly, I have a few of these.) They all dress like proto-Ninjas from a low-rent 70s Kung Fu flick. It's so overt, you can't take it seriously, and the saddest part is these trap DJ's aren't self-aware enough to know they look like a cartoon. Trap-DJ-morons dress like ninjas, and it's sad because they don't know how stupid it looks. If you're not aware you're a cartoon, it's pathetic.
Conversely, Bellion is aware he's a cartoon. He's a cartoon on the album cover. He's writing songs for a cartoon. His singing is hyper-polished. The song arrangement is 100% cartoon movie. Luckily, I like cartoons.
In every Disney musical, there is a rubric to follow. Every song has a place, and a purpose. At first glance, I missed this construction on The Human Condition. That's why I almost gave this album a 6/10 – because my perspective was all fucked up. As a writer, I had to rectify this, because I came dangerously close to hitting "Publish" and not giving Bellion the credit he's due.
The Opening Song with Protagonist Narration:
Every Disney musical needs the opening volley to set the tone. That's what "He Is The Same" does. Bellion reflects on himself, and his career, in the most sing-song, cheeseball way. In Frozen, it was "Frozen Heart", Aladdin was "Arabian Nights" and Beauty and the Beast had its "Prologue". Usually these songs are voiced by external characters, so Bellion breaks the mold a little in this regard, but it's still obviously setting the stage and emotional balance for the rest of the movie.
The How We Live Our Life Song:
There are several songs on The Human Condition that can occupy this slot, much in the same way "Do You Wanna Build A Snowman" did for Frozen. (I know all the words, and will sing it, in a falsetto, on karaoke nights. Fuck with me, fam. I ain't playing games with this Disney shit.) "80s Films", "All Time Low" and "New York Soul Pt. II" can all occupy this slot. Something of note: I really prefer the acoustic version (above, on VEVO) of "All Time Low". That's the subtle genius of Bellion's songwriting; when you subtract the Disney-flourishes, it's perfect songwriting form.
When you're telling a story in a Disney movie, and you're not being held by typical radio-pop structure, it's easier to write in the highs and lows. You can have the introspective, vocal-with-too-much-reverb, soft piano moments. You can over-produce without being penalized, because it's supposed to be a cartoon, and it's supposed to change pace with no regard for single narrative. "New York Soul Pt. II" has two voices and two narratives competing for a storytelling angle. There's the soft singing, contrasted with sharp, backpacker hip hop flows. It's reminiscent of "Empty Cans" by The Streets in its dual narrative, storytelling formula.
The Frustration Song
Every Disney musical needs frustration. The protagonist feels the needs to explore, and something is holding them back. That's "Fashion", on The Human Condition, without a doubt. Lyrically, it's a perfect frustration song. In the same light, this would be "Let It Go" from Frozen, or arguably the best Frustration Song ever, "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid. At the 1:40 mark, "Fashion" builds and soars into a restrained, but yearning voice. Descending into the violin-backed pads, in the mid-two-minute mark, Bellion belts out his plea. Then, from 3:24 to the end, it blends into an outro suited best as a hip hop track – which is exactly what a Disney musical outro should do, and change pace. It's perfect in execution.
Partial Credit — Confusion
"Maybe IDK" seems like an addendum idea, and can also occupy the "Frustration" concept, but it's less frustrated, and more confused. Some Disney songs have elements of confusion, but Bellion doesn't convince me here. The builds are more pop than Disney-musical. It's one of the few soft spots on this whole soundtrack.
The Mentor/Friend Song
The best encapulation of "Woke The F*ck Up" is "Under The Sea" from The Little Mermaid. You need a friend, because you came to a sharp realization about something, and "I realized I need you here, as desperate as that sounds", per Bellion.
The Love Song
"Overwhelming" is a prototype love song, straight from the same machine that made "Under The Sea", "A Whole New World", "Love Is An Open Door", "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" and many others. If you're doing the Disney thing, your love songs are the memory that everyone has to come out of the theater singing. Bellion's love song chops have a bright, flattering movement about them. Even the breakdown at the 2:12 mark is perfect in how it builds back into a booming, bouncy chorus.
The Song About Someone Saving Your Life
"Weight of the World feat. Blaque Keyz" follows the same rubric as "Hakuna Matata" from The Lion King, or "Friend Like Me" from Aladdin. Bellion's is much darker, themed with what I think are some suicidal thoughts. The simple empty spaces filled with acoustic guitar and the subtly mic'd electric flow into a 90 second outro that shifts into hard rapping at the end. It's adult, and doesn't have a Disney counterpart, but works for its direct and honest anger. Timon and Pumbaa are replaced by harsh rapping, and it works.
One Final Look Back At How Far We've Come
"The Good In Me" is a yearning track that sets back to the opening narration. Mulan set this tone perfectly with "Reflection" by Christina Aguilera. It's supposed to start wrapping up the story before our protagonist rejoins the story and saves the day. "Morning in America" and 'iRobot" also provide some finality to the story, about getting exposed, being a robot, and growing as a person. That's what every lead Disney character has to learn about themselves before the big finale: The power to do all of this was within you the whole time, but you just have to believe in yourself.
Oh yeah, "Hand Of God – Outro" is exactly what a finale is supposed to be. When I listened again, judging as a complete soundtrack, thinking about this whole concept as a movie, I felt real emotion. It felt like the end of a Disney movie. It's supposed to call back all the earlier elements from the movie, tying everything into a package that makes you feel good about our protagonist. It came back to the beginning of the film, with "nothing has changed, he is the same" – and Sheldon Ray belts our a soaring solo, with a full vocal choir backing it. Everything about the outro is 100% perfectly done. It's the difference between this album being a 9/10 and 10/10.
Simulacra and Jon Bellion
Earlier in this same review, I drew an unfair comparison between Bellion and Cheesecake Factory. As a writer, reviewing this album was a learning paradigm – because halfway through my own thought process, I realized I was dead wrong. I misunderstood the intent behind the album, and that's the inherent danger of creating simulacra. When Bellion was drawing this cartoon of an album in his imagination, I never saw the single art. I just hit play on Spotify and expected Bellion to be a mix between G-Eazy and James Vincent McMorrow. "He's singing and rapping, doing some indie-pop rap stuff." – that was my original process, and I started writing an essay assuming his goal was to pursue a lane I understood.
The Human Condition isn't competing with any contemporaries, and Bellion has few peers; That's why Bellion's simulacra was so overt. The "everything is overblown" aspects make more sense when you consider what Disney is, at its core. It's supposed to be magical, bright and airy. It's supposed to be hopeful and introspective. It's supposed to be dripping with fantasy love stories and cinematic Broadway vocals. If anything, Bellion's only musical peers are Michael Giacchino, John Powell, and Alan Silvestri. When you're in that kind of company, you'll be around for a long time.
John Bellion is a once-in-a-generation talent, but his talents preclude him from being the kind of solo artist we've come to expect. He'll never be Drake, because he's more Giacchino/Soundtrack than Meme/Hotline Bling I walked away from The Human Condition hoping Bellion's next effort is a movie that features him and more of Sheldon Ray as a vocalist. (Seriously, go listen to the outro again and just be blown away by how much soul and passion is behind that dude's voice.) Yes, I'm a grown ass man, but I love Disney musicals. I love singing along. I love how they build. I love how cheesy they are.
Five years ago, I took myself too seriously to give this album a 10/10. But I'm not that cool anymore. I wear jorts all the time. I thought Steph Curry's dad shoes were actually kind of cool. It's okay to love cartoons when you're an adult. It's okay to cry when Bing Bong dies in Inside Out. It's okay if you got choked up at the end of Toy Story 3. (Note, neither are musicals, but the aforementioned Giacchino did score Inside Out, and you can stream the whole thing on Spotify.)
Having worked in music for a dozen years now, I can tell you one thing: It's hard as hell to carve out a niche and find something that might make you enough money to retire. Jon Bellion found his "thing", and I'm willing to bet the next time we hear from Jon Bellion, it won't be on Spotify and iTunes – it'll be IMAX. Honestly, that's not the worst pivot you can make as an artist. For perspective, the best selling album of 2014 was Taylor Swift's "1989", netting 3.66 million copies to Frozen's 3.53 million soundtrack sales. So yeah, Frozen sold 100,000 fewer copies and got beat by Taylor Swift — but Frozen has something that 1989 does not: An entire film and merchandising franchise underneath it, with ticket sales grossing $1.3 BILLION, and merch sales pulling in (an estimated) $1.5 BILLION.
So if I'm in Jon Bellion's shoes, I might say, "Fuck the typical pop lane. I'm going to make cartoon soundtracks and generate Oprah-style wealth, while still delivering a magical experience." Isn't that the whole point of listening to an album? When I press play, I want a magical experience — and Bellion delivered. It's perfect simulacra.