meta-script10 Reasons Why 'ARTPOP' Is Lady Gaga’s Bravest Album | GRAMMY.com
Lady Gaga performs onstage during The ARTPOP Ball tour

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10 Reasons Why 'ARTPOP' Is Lady Gaga’s Bravest Album

Released in 2013 and following the iconic 'Born This Way,' Lady Gaga's 'ARTPOP' was maligned and misunderstood. Yet the avant garde album took admirable leaps in genre, style and presentation — and deserves serious applause.

GRAMMYs/Nov 6, 2023 - 02:27 pm

A decade ago, the music industry was practically eulogizing Lady Gaga’s career. Cause of death: her fourth album, ARTPOP.

Universally deemed a misfit (even among Gaga’s off-kilter discography), it was all too easy to crack “artflop” jokes as the record’s reception paled in comparison to the thunder of 2011’s Born This Way. In addition to Billboard-charting bangers aside, Born This Way pledged to be a champion for LGBTQIA+ rights, employing the word “bravery” so frequently that the two are now inextricably bound. The album’s daring demeanor had created a tough spectacle to follow, even for the shock-pop maven.

But rebukes of ARTPOP’s avant-garde concepts and stylings, disregard the record’s brazen interweaving of music, fashion, technology, and digital art. Released after Gaga broke her hip and canceled the  Born This Way Ball tour, ARTPOP was a canvas of earth-shattering bursts of pain and passion, and an electronic confessional.

For her efforts and vision, Gaga's maligned 2013 album would become a blueprint for contemporary alt-pop artists — not just with its experimental clash of genres, but through its winking subversion of industry expectations.  

In honor of ARTPOP’s tenth anniversary this month, read on for 10 reasons why  the overlooked outcast of Gaga’s catalog is actually the bravest album of them all.

It Prioritized Creativity Over Sales And Charts

When the public slams an artist for “only” selling one million copies of an album in a week, record sales lose their shine. After facing flack for her Born This Way numbers in 2011, Lady Gaga entered the ARTPOP era with clear intentions: creativity for creativity’s sake.

“Really, it’s about freeing yourself from the expectations of the music industry and the expectations of the status quo,” she explained during an interview at SXSW. And you know she meant it, because that same week she bucked those pressures by climbing atop a mechanical bull, where she served as the human canvas for the "creative output” of vomit artist Millie Brown.

“I write for the music not for the charts,” she tweeted, addressing a comparison between her lead single “Applause” and Katy Perry’s song “Roar,” which outperformed “Applause” on the Billboard charts. The singles were released days apart, stirring up a heated conversation about which singer was a more powerful pop star. Gaga was, of course, quick to crush the debate.

“Applause” peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and despite being released in mid-November, ARTPOP nabbed 2.3 million album sales worldwide by the end of 2013. In contrast, Born This Way sold 2.1 million copies between its May 2011 release and the end of its debut year in the United States alone. 

It Put Gaga In The Producer's Seat — Alone 

By 2013, Lady Gaga boasted an impressive list of co-producing credits from working alongside collaborators like RedOne, DJ White Shadow, and Fernando Garibay. Yet ARTPOP marks the first time she slipped behind the soundboard by herself.

For "Venus," an intergalactic ode to lust that blossoms into starry-eyed infatuation, she saluted the titular goddess of love and pushed the men out of the room, folding a hybrid Sun Ra reference/Zombie Zombie sample into her sexually-emboldened EDM. Gaga cites "Venus" as the first song she ever self-produced, a major milestone for the multi-hyphenate and for women producers as a whole.

It Wasn't Afraid To Get Messy

One decade’s definition of "sloppy" is the next decade’s epitome of style. In 2013, the general consensus among critics was that ARTPOP’s sound was often too messy to take seriously. Their examples were copious; "Aura," for instance, dedicates 15 seconds to nothing but hysterical, autotuned laughter over an unraveling country western guitar riff. Manic deep cuts "MANiCURE" and "Jewels N’ Drugs" were labeled choppy and sonically inconsistent, as Gaga allegedly struggled to find common ground between rock, trap, and electronic music.

Compared to the streamlined pop sound of the time — including some of Gaga’s prior hits — ARTPOP’s frenetic mishmash of sounds felt totally alien. "I was desperate, in pain, and poured my heart into electronic music that slammed harder than any drug I could find," Gaga reflected, explaining her need for catharsis over catchiness (a choice that she was lambasted for at the time). 

Ten years later, her avant garde approach to pop suddenly seems remarkably en vogue, as genre-hopping and highly-textured sonic palettes become the norm — especially in the alt-pop sphere. In hindsight, it’s apparent that ARTPOP was ridiculed so artists like SOPHIE, Charli XCX, and Dorian Electra could rave.

It Was, Literally, Designed To Be Out Of The World

ARTPOP prioritized pushing art into uncharted territory, and not just on Earth.In addition to a naked Jeff Koons sculpture of Gaga herself, the album’s release was feted with the debut of a flying dress named Volantis. The original creation from Gaga’s TechHaus (a branch of her Haus Labs team) is technically an "electric powered hover vehicle" that fits around Gaga’s body to hoist her into the air. Gaga offered a less technical term for it, calling the dress a metaphor. "I will be the vehicle of their voices," she said during a press conference, sharing her vision for representing young fans in the sky.

Volantis arrived alongside news that Gaga would become the first musician to perform in space aboard a Virgin Galactic ship. The flying dress successfully cleared its first flight; the Virgin ship unfortunately did not. After a fatal test flight, the plans for Gaga’s galactic debut were canceled.

It Crushed Tabloid Trash-Talking  

It’s admittedly hard to recall ARTPOP’s ill-conceived R. Kelly collaboration "Do What U Want" without wincing. Beyond Kelly’s unnerving presence on the track, his lone sexually-charged verse ultimately skewed the true message of the song, transforming a kiss off to tabloid journalism into randy radio fodder.

Gaga scrubbed the song from streaming services in 2019, sparing the alternative version that instead features Christina Aguilera. Here, Gaga’s intended retaliation shines: "You can’t have my heart / and you won’t use my mind / but do what you want with my body," she taunts on the chorus, welcoming the public’s superficial — and therefore meaningless — judgments.  

When unveiling the track in October of 2013, she took to X (then named Twitter) to trounce a litany of rumors and nitpicks about her weight, likeness to Madonna, and erroneous identity as a hermaphrodite. At its core, "Do What U Want" proved that the only gesture more pointed than a middle finger is cackling while inviting the world to do its worst. 

It Invented A New Artistic Concept 

Lady Gaga can’t take credit for the notion of art-pop, but she did coin a new phrase, calling the conceptual glue of ARTPOP a "reverse Waholian expedition." Translation: if Andy Warhol transformed mass-produced items like Campbell’s soup into high art, then Gaga wanted to flip the process, placing high art where it could be easily accessible to the public.

As a result, the visual aspects of ARTPOP present a mosaic of the most esteemed masterpieces of all time. The busy album cover fuses the brilliance of American sculptor Jeff Koons with fragments of Sandro Boticelli’s magnum opus "The Birth of Venus," while her outfits for public appearances nodded to greats like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali with brash makeup and fake mustaches. The concept opened her up to mockery — including from Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine — but introduced the basics of art history to millions of listeners worldwide.

It Openly Examined Gaga's Relationship With Drugs And Alcohol

Many of ARTPOP’s most exuberant moments orbit high or drunken states, such as Gaga sneaking around Amersterdam while stoned and incognito on "Mary Jane Holland." Trap outlier "Jewels N’ Drugs," which collects verses from T.I., Twista, and Too $hort, packs the same giddy punch despite its somewhat awkward execution. Yet the party pauses on "Dope," ARTPOP’s sole piano ballad.

The sobering single gazes inward, where Gaga finds a startling void, her spirit gutted after years of addiction. While the song’s lyrics vow to prioritize loved ones over drugs and liquor, Gaga revealed the most personal promise during her album release show.

"I do not have to be high to be creative," she professed from behind her piano, hand raised in the air as if taking an oath. "I do not need to be drunk to have a good idea. I can sit with my thoughts and not feel crazy." On an album bursting with innovation, "Dope" is her firmest pledge to self-improvement, delivered with aching sincerity.

It Ventured Into The Tech World 

Designing mind-bending art? There’s an app for that. Or there was, anyways. ARTPOP arrived with a supplemental app, designed to enhance Gaga’s multimedia approach to the album’s release. As a way to empower fans to dabble in digital art, one of the app’s main features was a gif and still image generator that allowed users to choose from a rainbow of gyrating geometric shapes and backgrounds. Most creations straddled the line between optical illusion and Tumblr-ready art. The app also offered fans the ability to stream the album and chat with each other.

It was an entertaining endeavor, albeit ultimately a short-lived one. Despite an in-app countdown for other features, including a stream of new behind the scenes videos and a digital audio workshop called TrakStar, neither element came to fruition. Due to Gaga’s shift in management, the project was never developed further. 

Still, the ARTPOP app remains a unique addition to pop’s first brushes with modern tech, long predating crossovers like Charli XCX performances on Roblox and AI-created music.

It Refused To Shy Away From Themes Of Sexual Assault

When ARTPOP hit shelves, the world was still three years away from the awareness about pervasive sexual assault revealed by the #MeToo movement. But a hush around the topic didn’t stop Gaga from eeking out a screech or two about her own experiences with abuse in 2013. While Gaga has since divulged more information about her unfortunate experiences with predators as a fledgling popstar, the ARTPOP track "Swine" dropped some of the first angsty breadcrumbs about her survival story.

"I know you want me / You’re just a pig inside a human body / Squealer, squealer, squealer, you’re so dis-GUS-ting," she practically spits with revulsion on the chorus. The deep cut is an exorcism dressed up as a rave, revealing a gut-churning snapshot of a woman publicly processing her own violation years before the act was deemed acceptable.

It Was Her First Record After Canceling The Born This Way Ball 

Scrapping a major tour over an injury shouldn’t warrant a comeback, but that’s what the world demanded of Lady Gaga when her Born This Way Ball hit the brakes. Gaga was forced to end the tour early in February 2013 when she broke her hip, thwarting her ability to walk, let alone dance. As she underwent surgery and paparazzi vied for photos of her in a Louis Vuitton wheelchair, the public largely viewed the truncated Born This Way Ball as a personal failure on Gaga’s part. 

By the time ARTPOP arrived, the expectations for her next move couldn’t have been higher — which made Gaga’s spasmic, genre-jumping, vomit-covered return to pop all the more daring.

10 Reasons Why Outkast's 'Speakerboxxx/The Love Below' Is One Of Rap's Most Influential Double Albums

Amy Winehouse performs "Rehab" during 2007 MTV Movie Awards
Amy Winehouse in 2007

Photo: Chris Polk/FilmMagic

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How Amy Winehouse's 'Back To Black' Changed Pop Music Forever

Ahead of the new Amy Winehouse biopic 'Back To Black,' reflect on the impact of the album of the same name. Read on for six ways the GRAMMY-winning LP charmed listeners and changed the sound of popular music.

GRAMMYs/May 17, 2024 - 01:05 pm

When Amy Winehouse released Back To Black in October 2006, it was a sonic revelation. The beehive-wearing singer’s second full-length blended modern themes with the Shangri-Las sound, crafting something that seemed at once both effortlessly timeless and perfectly timed. 

Kicking off with smash single "Rehab" before blasting into swinging bangers like "Me & Mr. Jones," "Love Is A Losing Game," and "You Know I’m No Good," Black To Black has sold over 16 million copies worldwide to date and is the 12th best-selling record of all time in the United Kingdom. It was nominated for six GRAMMY Awards and won five: Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, Best New Artist, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and Best Pop Vocal Album. 

Winehouse accepted her golden gramophones via remote link from London due to visa problems. At the time, Winehouse set the record for the most GRAMMYs won by a female British artist in a single year, though that record has since been broken by Adele, who won six in 2011.

Written in the wake of a break-up with on-again, off-again flame Blake Fielder-Civil, Black To Black explores heartbreak, grief, and infidelity, as well as substance abuse, isolation, and various traumas. Following her death in 2011, Back To Black became Winehouse’s most enduring legacy. It remains a revealingly soulful message in a bottle, floating forever on the waves. 

With the May 17 release of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s new (and questionably crafted) Winehouse biopic, also titled Back To Black, it's the perfect time to reflect on the album that not only charmed listeners but changed the state of a lot of popular music over the course of just 11 songs. Here are five ways that Back To Black influenced music today.

She Heralded The Arrival Of The Alt Pop Star

When Amy Winehouse hit the stage, people remarked on her big voice. She had classic, old-time torch singer pipes, like Sarah Vaughn or Etta Jones, capable of belting out odes to lost love, unrequited dreams, and crushing breakups. And while those types of singers had been around before Winehouse, they didn’t always get the chance — or grace required — to make their kind of music, with labels and producers often seeking work that was more poppy, hook-packed, or modern.

The success of Back To Black changed that, with artists like Duffy, Adele, and even Lady Gaga drawing more eyes in the wake of Winehouse’s overwhelming success. Both Duffy and Adele released their debut projects in 2007, the year after Back To Black, bringing their big, British sound to the masses. Amy Winehouse's look and sound showed other aspiring singers that they could be different and transgressive without losing appeal.

Before she signed to Interscope in 2007, "nobody knew who I was and I had no fans, no record label," Gaga told Rolling Stone in 2011. "Everybody, when they met me, said I wasn’t pretty enough or that my voice was too low or strange. They had nowhere to put me. And then I saw [Amy Winehouse] in Rolling Stone and I saw her live. I just remember thinking ‘well, they found somewhere to put Amy…’" 

If an artist like Winehouse — who was making records and rocking styles that seemed far outside the norm — could break through, then who’s to say someone else as bold or brassy wouldn’t do just as well? 

It Encouraged Other Torch Singers In The New Millenium

Back To Black might have sounded fun, with swinging cuts about saying "no" to rehab and being bad news that could seem lighthearted to the casual listener. Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s clear Winehouse is going through some real romantic tumult. 

Before Back To Black was released, Fielder-Civil had left Winehouse to get back together with an old girlfriend, and singer felt that she needed to create something good out of all those bad feelings. Songs like "Love Is A Losing Game" and "Tears Dry On Their Own" speak to her fragile emotional state during the making of the record, and to how much she missed Fielder-Civil. The two would later marry, though the couple divorced in 2009.

Today, young pop singers like Olivia Rodrigo, Taylor Swift, and Selena Gomez are lauded for their songs about breakups, boyfriends, and the emotional damage inflicted by callous lovers. While Winehouse certainly wasn’t the first to sing about a broken heart, she was undoubtedly one of the best.

It Created A Bit Of Ronsonmania

Though Mark Ronson was already a fairly successful artist and producer in his own right before he teamed with Winehouse to write and co-produce much of Back To Black, his cred was positively stratospheric after the album's release. Though portions of Back To Black were actually produced by Salaam Remi (who’d previously worked with Winehouse on Frank and who was reportedly working on a follow-up album with her at the time of her death), Ronson got the lion’s share of credit for the record’s sound — perhaps thanks to his his GRAMMY win for Best Pop Vocal Album. Winehouse would even go on to guest on his own Version record, which featured the singer's ever-popular cover of "Valerie."

In the years that followed, Ronson went on to not only produce and make his own funky, genre-bending records, but also to work with acts like Adele, ASAP Rocky, and Paul McCartney, all of whom seemingly wanted a little of the retro soul Ronson could bring. He got huge acclaim for the funk-pop boogie cut "Uptown Funk," which he wrote and released under his own name with help from Bruno Mars, and has pushed into film as well, writing and producing over-the-top tracks like A Star Is Born’s "Shallow" and Barbie’s "I’m Just Ken."  To date, he’s been nominated for 17 GRAMMY Awards, winning eight.

Ronson has always acknowledged Winehouse’s role in his success, as well, telling "BBC Breakfast" in 2010, "I've always been really candid about saying that Amy is the reason I am on the map. If it wasn't for the success of Back To Black, no one would have cared too much about Version."

Amy Showcased The Artist As An Individual

When the GRAMMY Museum hosted its "Beyond Black - The Style of Amy Winehouse" exhibit in 2020, Museum Curator and Director of Exhibitions Nicholas Vega called the singer's sartorial influence "undeniable." Whether it was her beehive, her bold eyeliner, or her fitted dresses, artists and fans had adopted elements of Winehouse’s Back To Black style into their own fashion repertoire. And though it’s the look we associate most with Winehouse, it was actually one she had truly developed while making the record, amping up her Frank-era low-slung jeans, tank tops, and polo shirts with darker eyeliner and much bigger hair, as well as flirty dresses, vibrant bras, and heels.

"Her stylist and friends were influential in helping her develop her look, but ultimately Amy took bits and pieces of trends and styles that she admired to create her own look," Vega told GRAMMY.com in 2020. While rock ‘n’ rollers have always leaned into genre-bending styles, Winehouse’s grit is notable in the pop world, where artists typically have a bit more of a sheen. These days, artists like Miley Cyrus, Billie Eillish, and Demi Lovato are willing to let their fans see a bit more of the grit — thanks, no doubt, to the doors Winehouse opened.

Winehouse also opened the door to the beauty salon and the tattoo studio, pushing boundaries with not just her 14 different vintage-inspired tattoos — which have become almost de rigeur these days in entertainment — but also with her signature beehive-like bouffant, which hadn’t really been seen on a popular artist since the ‘60s.It’s a frequent look for contemporary pop divas, popping up on artists like Ariana Grande, Lana Del Rey, and Dua Lipa.

The Dap-Kings Got The Flowers They Deserved

Six of Back To Black’s 11 songs, including "Rehab," got their "retro" sound via backing from the Dap-Kings, a Brooklyn-based soul act Ronson recruited for the project. 

While Winehouse’s lyrics were mostly laid down in London, the Dap-Kings did their parts in New York. Ronson told GRAMMY.com in 2023 that the Dap-Kings "brought ['Rehab'] to life," saying, "I felt like I was floating because I couldn’t believe anybody could still make that drum sound in 2006." Winehouse and the Dap-Kings met months later after the record was released, and recorded "Valerie." The band later backed Winehouse on her U.S. tour. 

Though the Dap-Kings were known in hip musical circles for their work with late-to-success soul sensation Sharon Jones, Back To Black’s immense success buoyed the listening public’s interest in soul music and the Dap-Kings' own profile (not to mention that of their label, Daptone Records).

"Soul music never went away and soul lovers never went away, but they’re just kind of closeted because they didn’t think it was commercially viable," Dap-Kings guitarist Binky Griptite said in the book It Ain't Retro: Daptone Records & The 21st Century Soul Revolution. "Then, when Amy’s record hit, all the undercover soul fans are like, I’m free. And then that’s when everybody’s like, Oh, there’s money in it now."

The success of Back To Black also seems to have firmly cemented the Dap-Kings in Ronson’s Rolodex, with the group’s drummer Homer Steinweiss, multi-instrumentalist Leon Michaels, trumpeter Dave Guy, and guitarist/producer Tom Brenneck appearing on many of his projects; the Dap-Kings' horns got prominent placement in "Uptown Funk."

Amy Exposed The Darker Side Of Overwhelming Success

Four years after Winehouse died, a documentary about her life was released. Asif Kapadia’s Amy became an instant rock-doc classic, detailing not only Winehouse’s upbringing, but also her struggles with fame and addiction. It won 30 awards after release, including Best Documentary Feature at the 88th Academy Awards and Best Music Film at the 58th GRAMMY Awards.

It also made a lot of people angry — not for how it portrayed Winehouse, but for how she was made to feel, whether by the British press or by people she considered close. The film documented Winehouse’s struggles with bulimia, self-harm, and depression, and left fans and artists alike feeling heartbroken all over again about the singer’s passing. 

The documentary also let fans in on what life was really like for Winehouse, and potentially for other artists in the public eye. British rapper Stormzy summed it up well in 2016 when he told i-D, "I saw the [documentary, Amy] – it got me flipping angry... [Amy’s story] struck a chord with me in the sense that, as a creative, it looks like on the outside, that it’s very ‘go studio, make a hit, go and perform it around the world, champagne in the club, loads of girls’. But the graft and the emotional strain of being a musician is very hard. No one ever sees that part." 

These days, perhaps because of Winehouse’s plight or documentaries like Amy, the music-loving population seems far more inclined to give their favorite singers a little grace, whether it’s advocating for the end of Britney Spears’ conservatorship or sympathizing with Demi Lovato’s personal struggles. Even the biggest pop stars are still people, and Amy really drove that point home.

We Only Said Goodbye With Words: Remembering Amy Winehouse 10 Years Later

Lady Gaga holds her 2019 GRAMMY Awards
Lady Gaga

Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage/Getty Images

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GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Lady Gaga Advocate For Mental Health Awareness During Her 2019 Win For "Shallow"

Lady Gaga accepts the Best Pop/Duo Group Performance award for "Shallow" from 'A Star Is Born' at the 2019 GRAMMYs while encouraging the audience "to take care of each other."

GRAMMYs/May 3, 2024 - 04:00 pm

Between two award seasons, A Star Is Born received seven nominations — including Record Of The Year and two nods for Song Of The Year — and four wins for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media, Best Song Written for Visual Media twice, and Best Pop/Duo Group Performance.

In this episode of GRAMMY Rewind, travel to 2019 to watch Lady Gaga accept one of the album's first GRAMMY wins for Best Pop/Duo Group Performance for "Shallow."

After thanking God and her family for their unwavering support, Lady Gaga expressed gratitude for her co-star, Bradley Cooper. "I wish Bradley was here with me right now," Gaga praised. "I know he wants to be here. Bradley, I loved singing this song with you."

Gaga went on to express how proud she was to be a part of a movie that addresses mental health. "A lot of artists deal with that. We've got to take care of each other. So, if you see somebody that's hurting, don't look away. And if you're hurting, even though it might be hard, try to find that bravery within yourself to dive deep, tell somebody, and take them up in your head with you."

Press play on the video above to hear Lady Gaga's complete acceptance speech for A Star Is Born's "Shallow" at the 2019 GRAMMY Awards, and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of GRAMMY Rewind.

Run The World: How Lady Gaga Changed The Music Industry With Dance-Pop & Unapologetic Feminism

Jungkook performing in 2023
Jungkook performs at the 2023 Global Citizen Festival in September.

Photo: Gotham/WireImage

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New Music Friday: Listen To New Music From Jungkook & Jack Harlow, PinkPantheress, *NSYNC And More

As September comes to a close, listen to these new songs, albums and collaborations from Ed Sheeran, Lil Wayne and more.

GRAMMYs/Sep 29, 2023 - 08:18 pm

As we close out the month, this New Music Friday has loads of fresh beginnings and highly anticipated reunions.

Several big-name collaborations dropped on Sept. 29, from an electric team-up of the Rolling Stones and Lady Gaga to an R&B and rap fusion from Jungkook and Jack Harlow

Two nostalgic releases arrived as well, with Lil Wayne's new album Tha Fix Before Tha Vi continuing his "Tha Carter" series, while *NSYNC fans were treated to the boy band's first new song in 20 years with "Better Place."

Dive into these seven new releases that blend the old generation with the new. 

Jungkook ft. Jack Harlow — "3D"

BTS singer Jungkook takes us through a nostalgic journey with "3D," a song reminiscent of an early 2000s boy band hit. The hypnotizing lyrics illustrate his close connection to someone he can't reach, so he'll watch them in 3D.

"So if you're ready (So if you're ready)/ And if you'll let me (And if you'll let me)/ I wanna see it in motion/ In 3D (Uh-uh)," he sings in the chorus. 

Jack Harlow pops in, dropping a few verses boasting about his global attraction with women. "Mr. First Class" claims he can "fly you from Korea to Kentucky," as he closes out the song.

With an addictive chorus and groovy baseline, this track has a different vibe from his "Seven" collaboration with Latto. The song marks Jungkook's seventh solo single and second of 2023.

Rolling Stones & Lady Gaga ft. Stevie Wonder — "Sweet Sounds of Heaven"

The Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga and Stevie Wonder blended their talents, to create a harmonic symphony of a song that lives up to its heavenly title. Seven minutes of gospel- and blues-inspired rhythms, enriched by Gaga and Mick Jagger's distinct riffs, make this collaboration an immersive experience. Stevie Wonder grounds the track with his command of piano and melodic tempo.

The track is the second peek of the Rolling Stones' upcoming album, Hackney Diamonds, their first LP release in 18 years; their first release, "Angry," arrived Sept. 6. With production from GRAMMY-winning Andrew Watt, the soulful essence makes "Sweet Sounds of Heaven" an exciting taste of the long-overdue album.

*NSYNC — "Better Place"

Yes, you read correctly. After two decades and a recent reunion at the 2023 MTV Video Music awards, *NSYNC is back with a new single, "Better Place," appearing in the new animated Trolls movie (due Nov. 17). With a nostalgic dance-pop beat, familiar production and breezy lyrics, this single is a remarkable comeback.

"Just let me take you to a better place/ I'm gonna make you kiss the sky tonight," they sing in the chorus. 

The reunion was first teased Sept. 14, through a video of the group's emotional studio session, as Justin Timberlake shared on Instagram. "When the stars align… got my brothers back together in the studio to work on something fun and the energy was special," he wrote in the post. 

PinkPantheress — "Mosquito"

Dive into this musical daydream as PinkPantheress serenades us on her new single, "Mosquito," a dreamy, lucid song reminiscent of old-school R&B. After recently hopping on the energetic remix of Troye Sivan's "Rush" and teaming up with Destroy Lonely on "Turn Your Phone Off," PinkPantheress is transporting us through a new era, full of charm and surprises.

"Cause I just had a dream I was dead/ And I only cared 'cause I was taken from you/ You're the only thing that I own/ I hear my bell ring, I'd only answer for you," she sings in the chorus. 

Co-crafted by GRAMMY-winning producer Greg Kurstin, this song is a transcending, surreal experience. This single isn't about romance, instead she takes us through her entanglements with treasures and money. That's further portrayed in the lavish video, which features a European shopping spree starring "Bridgerton" stars Charithra Chandran, India Amarteifio and "Grown-ish" star Yara Shahidi.

Ed Sheeran — Autumn Variations

The era of mathematical-themed albums seems to be over, as Ed Sheeran has entered a new chapter with Autumn Variations, his second project this year. Sheeran is singing from his heart, sharing soulful tales from emotional events in his life including the death of his dearest friend Jamal Edwards and his wife's health challenges during pregnancy — an extension of the stories he told with May's Subtract.

Autumn Variations is very raw, stripped down and authentic as he takes us through his personal journey. Amidst this, Sheeran still brings in some buzzing tracks including catchy songs like "American Town," "Paper Bag" and "Amazing."

Lil Wayne — Tha Fix Before Tha Vi

Lil Wayne celebrated his 41st birthday with a special present to his fans: the release of a new album two days later. The alluring 10-track project,"Tha Fix Before Tha Vi" dives into past vibes with songs like "Tity Boi," a reference to 2 Chainz's initial stage name, which may be a reference to the upcoming joint album between the two. Each song has a different feel including "Tuxedo," which features a more punk-rock melody and "Chanel No.5 ft. Foushee," which features a sensational beat.

His first album since 2020, Tha Fix Before Tha Vi features rather unexpected collaborators, including Jon Batiste, Fousheé and euro. With different sounds and features than past projects, we could possibly be entering a new Weezy era. 

Thomas Rhett & Morgan Wallen — "Mamaw's House"

Country superstars Morgan Wallen and Thomas Rhett unite for "Mamaw's House," a country-folk track relishing the memories of their grandparents' home and cozy fireplace tales. 

"It's where I spent my summers and she put me to work/ Shellin' peas and shuckin' corn until my fingers hurt/ No tellin' who I'da been without Mamaw's house," Rhett sings in the second verse. 

Rhett said the duo decided to write about their small-town culture — Rhett is from Valdosta, Georgia, while Wallen hails from Sneedville, Tennessee — and the significant presence of grandparents brought to their upbringings. 

"This song just kind of brings up how our mamaws used to act when we were little kids," Rhett told Audacy.. "It's an ode to all the grandmas out there."

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Mark Ronson Behind The Hits
Mark Ronson with Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars, Miley Cyrus, Dua Lipa and Paul McCartney

Photos: Antoine Antonio/Getty Images; Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images for NARAS; Kevin Winter/Getty Images For MTV; Denise Truscello/Getty Images for iHeartMedia; Don Arnold/Getty Images; Harry Durrant/Getty Images

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Behind Mark Ronson's Hits: How 'Boogie Nights,' Five-Hour Jams & Advice From Paul McCartney Inspired His Biggest Singles & Collabs

GRAMMY-winning multihyphenate Mark Ronson details the stories behind 11 of his favorite releases, from "Valerie" and "Uptown Funk" to 'Barbie The Album.'

GRAMMYs/Sep 26, 2023 - 03:08 pm

Mark Ronson's fingerprints are everywhere in pop music. 

Whether he's behind the board as a producer, penning earwormy hooks for some music's biggest names, or employing a crate digger's mindset to create his own records, you'd be hard-pressed to find something on your playlist that Ronson hasn't touched. The seven-time GRAMMY winner might as well be considered the industry’s Kevin Bacon — he's worthy of his own "six degrees" game. 

Today, Ronson is on his way back to New York City from some time spent in the Hudson Valley — a much-need reprieve after a blockbuster summer that saw his Barbie movie soundtrack top charts around the world. 

"I love this film so much and I did something I've never done before by executive producing and overseeing [its music]," he tells GRAMMY.com. 

That Ronson still has things to check off his professional bucket list is something of a surprise. The stepson of Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones, Ronson got his start DJing in New York in the '90s, bridging his twin loves of funk and hip-hop. In the latter part of the decade, Diddy hired Ronson to DJ several parties, thus opening up the then-twentysomething to a world of A-list talent. Ronson's elite status only grew over decades — from DJing Paul McCartney's wedding in 2011 (for which he refused to accept payment), to creating the ubiquitous hit "Uptown Funk," and curating the final night of the iconic 2023 Montreux Jazz Festival.

Ronson has released five of his own albums — beginning with 2003's Here Comes The Fuzz and up to 2019's Late Night Feelings — each of which is a star-studded affair, featuring everyone from Miley Cryus and Camilla Cabello to Bruno Mars and Mary J. Blige (as well as the occasional lawsuit over interpolation and sampling). Over the years, he's developed a cadre of session musicians and production collaborators, creating an incredibly pop savvy sound often built on horn-driven funk and soul.

At the bedrock of Ronson's production — and among his best-known works — is Amy Winehouse's GRAMMY-winning album Back To Black. Since that 2006 release, Ronson has collaborated with an ever-increasing number of major acts, composing, arranging, producing, writing or playing on (and sometimes all of the above) works by Lady Gaga, Duran Duran, Dua Lipa, Adele, Queens of the Stone Age, and even Sir Paul himself. 

Ronson will add another first to his list: author. A hybrid memoir and cultural history, the still-in-progress 93 'Til Infinity will cover the New York downtown club scene of Ronson's salad days. 

"It's really fun to revisit that era, and it was a very specific time in DJing where DJs weren't really famous," he recalls. "There was no stage; sometimes the turntables were shoved in the corner at the end of the bar and you would have to crane your neck to even see the crowd. I sound like Grandpa Simpson, but I loved it." 

Ronson is en route to a DJ gig as we speak, though the new dad says he'll be "kicking back into high gear on the book" soon. "[Writing it] requires really falling off for seven hours in the basement, like Stephen King says in his book. But I like that," he says.

Ahead of a celebration of Barbie The Album at the GRAMMY Museum on Sept. 27, Mark Ronson shared the stories behind some of his favorite productions – including the song that makes people "stupidly happy." 

"Ooh Wee," Here Comes The Fuzz feat. Ghostface Killah, Nate Dogg, Trife and Saigon (2003)

I went to see Boogie Nights in the theater and I remember this scene where Mark Wahlberg's a busboy on roller skates and in the background there was this song playing that had just this string thing that just hit me so hard. I bought the Boogie Nights soundtrack and it wasn't on there — obviously this is 20 years before Shazam — then I figured out it was the song called "Sunny" by Boney M

When I was making my first record, I was sort of locked up by myself in the studio on 54th Street just experimenting, making tracks all the time. That string line, I could never figure out what to do with the sample. I tried 80 different tempos and drum beats over it, and it wasn't until I just put that drum break behind it, the drums from the song, and it just all sort of gelled together. 

Because that was an era in hip-hop where people weren't really using drum loops or drum breaks anymore. It was about chopping and having hard kicks and snares,  like DJ Premiere and Timbaland. The DJ in me was like, f— it, let me just try putting a drum break under it. It all gelled and felt good.

I was a huge Wu-Tang fan, and at that point Ghostface was my favorite out of the group and I loved his solo records. I've never been more nervous in some weird way to talk to somebody — nervous and giddy, and what if I just sound so dorky? 

I remember he was like, "Yeah, I get it. I think it's dope. It's like some Saturday Night Fever with Tony Manero s—." I guess because of the strings and it was so disco, and Ghost always had this pension for those disco kind of uptempo beats. 

The album had to be handed in and I didn't have a hook that I liked on this song yet. Sylvia Rhone was the head of Elektra and she said, "I could try and get Nate Dogg on it." Of course that was the dream. I sent him the track, and it was probably two days before I had to master the album, on a Sunday. He sent me the files back, and all the waveforms were blank.

I had to call Nate Dogg at like 10 a.m. at home on a Sunday. While he's on the phone, he goes back in the studio and turns all his equipment on, trying to do the session. 

The fanboy thing is still very real because I still work with people all the time that I'm a fan of. At that age, being in the studio with M.O.P., Mos Def, Q-Tip, Jack White, Freeway, Nate. I was just trying to keep it together some of the time.

"Rehab" - Amy Winehouse, Back to Black (2006) 

"Rehab" just came about in general because Amy was telling me an anecdote. She was really together when we worked — she might not have been sober, but she got her whole life together. She was telling me about this time in her life that was difficult and she was in a really bad place. She said, "And my dad and manager came over and they tried to make me go to rehab and I was like, 'No, no, no.'"

I remember that it instantly sounded like a chorus to me, so we went back to my studio and we made the demo. That was when the Strokes and the Libertines were really big. I remember [the drums] sounded much more like an indie beat, even though it came from soul and Motown and the original rock 'n' roll. She would tease me; she's like, "You trying to make me sound like the bloody Libertines."

When [studio group] the Dap-Kings played it, they just brought it to life. I didn't really know anything about analog recording at that point. I only knew how to make s— sound analog by sampling records, so to hear them all play in the original Daptone studio, all the drums bleeding into the piano…. I felt like I was floating because I couldn't believe that anybody could still make that drum sound in 2006.

Amy couldn't be there for the recording, so I was taking a CD-J into the studio with me and I had her demo vocals on a cappella. I was playing it live with the band so that they could keep pace with the arrangement. I loved it so much.  

"Valerie," feat. Amy Winehouse,Version (2007)

Amy had never met the Dap-Kings, even though they had been the band for all the songs that I had done on Back to Black. There was this really lovely day in Brooklyn where I took her to the studio to meet all the guys. The album was already out; there was a very good feeling about it [and] they obviously made something really special together. Amy loved the way the record sounded so much, she was so grateful. They loved her.

While we're all having this love-in in Bushwick, I was finishing my album Version and I said, "Maybe we could just cut a song for my record?" The whole theme of the record had sort of been taking more guitar indie bands like the Smiths, the Jam, the Kaiser Chiefs, and turning those into R&B or soul arrangements. I asked Amy if she knew any songs like that. She's like, "Yeah, they play this one song down at my local. It's called 'Valerie,'" and she played us all the Zutons' version. I didn't really hear it at first.

The first version we did was this very Curtis Mayfield kind of sweet soul. Part of me was just like, This is really good, but I feel like there's a hit version as well. I don't have that kind of crass thing where everything needs to be a hit, but…

Everybody was already packing up their instruments and I didn't know the guys that well yet, so it was kind of a pain in the ass to be like, "Hey, I know everybody just wants to go onto the f—ing bar and get a beer right now, but can we just do one more version where we speed it up a little?"  Everybody flips open their guitar cases and we do like two more takes, and that's the version on my album.

"Alligator" - Paul McCartney, NEW (2013)

We've done other things together, but I've only really [worked on] three songs on his album, NEW. "New" I just loved as soon as he sent me the demo, because as a McCartney fan, it gives you the same feeling as "We Can Work It Out"; it just has that amazing uplifting feel. That's just his genius. I love "Alligator" maybe a little more because it's more weird.

He definitely gives you a day to f— up and be an idiot because you're just so nervous to be in the studio with McCartney. By the second day it's like, okay, get your s together.

I remember running around just like, What sound can I find for Paul McCartney that every other amazing producer who ever recorded him [hasn't found already]? He was like, "Anybody can record a pristine acoustic guitar. Give me something with some characteristic that's iconic. That feels like someone just put the needle down on track one on an album." 

That's something I always try to remember: don't just make it sound like a guitar, make it sound like a record.

"Uptown Funk" feat. Bruno Mars, Uptown Special (2015)

My enjoyment of the song is now gauged by the people that I'm playing it for. I was playing at this party at Public Records [in Brooklyn] on Sunday. I knew that I wasn't going to play that song on that night; it wasn't right for that crowd or something. And then an hour into my set, the vibe is really good, and I was just like, f— it and I dropped it, and people went crazy.  

I'm a little extra critical sometimes on the more commercial songs, thinking nobody wants to hear this or this doesn't really have a place in this space. I think it's just a song that makes people stupidly happy, and that's cool. 

The lyrics [to "Uptown Funk"] came really quick. We had the jam: Bruno was on drums, I was playing bass, Jeff Bhasker was on keys, and then Phil Lawrence was there and we jammed for five hours. We just chopped up our favorite parts of the instrumental jam, and then just started writing lyrics almost like a cipher. Bruno had been playing the Trinidad James song ["All Gold Everything"] in his live sets and playing it over a sort of uptempo, funky James Brown, "Get Up Off That Thing" groove.

We were just throwing about lyrics, throwing a little bit of the cadence of the Trinidad James song. Then when Jeff Bhasker said, "This s—, that ice cold/That Michelle Pfeiffer, that white gold." It was like a great rap line. Then everything started to elevate a little bit from there on up.

That first day, we had the whole first verse and it felt great. Every time we went back in the studio, a lot of the times it would feel labored and not as good as that first verse. So it really took a long time to get in. Sometimes we'd go in the studio for three days and then at the end of the whole session we realized, we actually only liked these four bars. 

So we kept building on it, and luckily Bruno didn't really let it die. Bruno was touring Unorthodox Jukebox; I was just flying around the country with a five string bass just to get the song done.

"Uptown Funk" still ended at Daptone…to do the horns last with Dave [Guy] and Neil [Sugarman], me. It's almost like you've always got to go through Daptone to finish something. 

Bruno came up with that horn line. He was like, "I know you're going to kill me because you're trying to get away from being the horn guy, but I have this horn line and I think it's kind of killer." He demoed it from whatever backstage room on tour and I was like, Okay, here we go.

"Shallow" - Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born Soundtrack (2018)

It's very rare that I write on a song that I don't have to produce as well. We wrote that song in the middle of sessions for [2016's] Joanne, and then Gaga produced the whole Star is Born soundtrack herself. I remember we all had some tingly feelings when we were writing it.

It wasn't meant to be a duet ever. Then Bradley wrote it into the film; it becomes the beginning of their love story. Bradley showed [me a rough cut] at his house, I remember just being like, he's taking this special song [and] made it put its hooks into you. This film, and the story, and the way this song is unfolding is so special.

Then also shout to Lukas Nelson, because that guitar that he came up with that opens the song was not in our demo, and that is such an iconic, memorable part of the song.

The film and the script was really powerful, and I think that me, [co-writers] Andrew [Wyatt], Anthony [Rossomando], Gaga were all in this sort of heartbreak place. We're all just going through our own dramas in the song. The juju was really good and a little spooky in the studio that night.

"Electricity" - Dua Lipa & Silk City feat. Diplo, Mark Ronson, Electricity (2018)

That song just always makes me happy. I don't have a lot of other songs [that sound] like that. I'm always psyched to play that in a set or to go see Diplo play it live.

When I came up DJing in the mid-'90s in New York, if you're a hip-hop DJ you had to be versed in dancehall, old R&B dance classics, and a little bit of house. So I knew 12 house records, but I love those records.

It came out of a fun jam, just me and Diplo — who I'd known probably at that point for 10, 15 years, but we never got in the studio together. He's just firing up drum s— and I'm just playing on this old tack piano that was in the studio I just moved into. But it also sounded quite housey. 

We came up with those chords and [singer/songwriter] Diana Gordon came over. I never met her before and she just started freestyling some melodies, and it was just so soulful instantly.

We'd moved the key a little bit lower for Dua — she has this amazing husky voice — but we still left Diana's demo vocal in. She's singing these mumble, non-word melodies that sound like a sample.

We had that old studio where we did Version and all the Amy demos. It has an old-school elevator that was sort of manual and it would always break down. There were people that were just too afraid, like Cathy Dennis — the  brilliant songwriter who wrote "Toxic" and "Can't Get You Out of My Head" — she would just always be like, "I'm taking the stairs." We were on the fifth floor and it was a steep, steep walk up. [Editor's note: The music video for "Electricity" features Ronson and Diplo stuck in an elevator. He notes that he's gotten stuck several times in real life.] 

"Nothing Breaks Like a Heart" feat. Miley Cyrus, Late Night Feelings (2019)

I was in L.A. working in Sound Factory [Studios], and I had seen Miley a couple years back sing "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" on the "SNL" 40th anniversary; I had never heard her perform with that stripped-down arrangement. I was just so in love with her voice and the tone. I remember hounding my manager, because usually somebody who knows somebody, but Miley Cyrus was completely unreachable and just in another stratosphere.

I was in the studio with [Dap-King] Tommy Brenneck; he's just such a wonderful player, such a soulful touch. We got this thing going, and then Ilsey [Juber] was saying, like, "What about all these things that break, but nothing breaks like a heart?" 

[I thought], You know what? I've been trying to hit this girl up for years and nothing ever happened, but let me just try it one more time. I sent it off to Miley, and I guess she was just in a really motivated part of life. She's like, "This is cool. Where are you guys? I'll be there Monday." She came down Monday to the studio, and then her and Illsey wrote the whole rest of the song. 

"Break Up Twice" - Lizzo, Special  (2022)

[I produced a few other songs on Special], but they didn't make the cut. There's one that I really love called "Are You Mad" that might hopefully see the light of day once.

We spent a lot of time together and I love working with her because she has a really eccentric/ avant garde music taste. Like, the Mars Volta is her favorite-ever band; she's a conservatoire flute player; then she has a strong Prince heritage because she spent time in Minneapolis and she's been to Paisley Park. 

The thing that I really love about her is, even at the status that she was at when we were working, there was never anything too silly or too left field to try. It's really freeing when you're with a big artist who isn't afraid to just f— around and jam and make some s— that you know might not be the thing. 

"Break Up Twice" was actually an instrumental that we had done at Diamond Mine with [Daptone family] Tommy [Brenneck], Leon [Michels], Victor [Axelrod] and Nick [Movshon]. I just played that, and it instantly spoke to her and she just started freestyling, adding the harmonies and the sax and the vocal arrangements. I just didn't quite know how versatile and talented that she was when we first went in the studio. I just remember constantly being impressed and amazed.

Barbie: The Album (2023)

I'm really proud of the Dom Fike song ["Hey Blondie"], the Sam Smith song ["Man I Am"], [Dua Lipa's] "Dance and Night," of course. Even the Billie [Eilish] song that we did the string arrangement for. I played the tiniest bit of synths on the Nicki [Minaj]i/Ice [Spice] song

I love this film so much and I did something I've never done before by executive producing and overseeing it. There's so many songs that I had nothing to do with creatively; sometimes I was just doing admin, hounding Tame Impala to send in a demo.

I'm really proud of "I'm Just Ken." Of course Ryan Gosling is a superstar in a different kind of way, but the fact that he's not some superstar pop artist, and the fact that that song has managed to do what it's done….Obviously it's so much to do with the film and his performance, but I'm really proud of that song. I was so inspired by the script. I just instantly had the idea for that line.

There was never anything in the script that said Ryan was going to sing a song. It was just something where Greta [Gerwig] and him really loved the demo, and she loved it enough to write it into the film, which was just so exciting. It was happening in a way that felt wonderful and organic, and to then get Josh Freese and Slash, and Wolf Van Halen to play on it and even bring it to even this next level of sonic fullness. 

On TikTok and Instagram, I've seen people singing it; [even] in Spanish, really intense, really earnest covers. We were never trying to write a parody song or anything that wasn't earnest, because there's nothing parody about the film. I guess the chords have a bit of heartbreak in them, a little melancholy, and Ryan's performance is really lovely.

Barbie score (2023)

We worked equally hard or harder [on the score]. It doesn't have quite the same shine because obviously it's not Billie Eilish, Lizzo, and Dua Lipa, but it's something Andrew [Wyatt] and I did. A piece called "You Failed Me" — that's during both Barbie and Ken's meltdown in the middle of the film — I'm quite proud of that. I really love the "Meeting Ruth" orchestral interpolation of the Billie tune as well.

I've contributed music to other films and little cues and things like that, but this is the first time that Andrew and I really did a whole movie from start to finish while also doing the soundtrack.

It's incredibly humbling, too, because when you make a song for someone's album, you're working. It's certainly the most important thing that's happening. In a film, it could be the second most important thing. You could sometimes say it's the third most important thing after dialogue and the sound effects. All that's programmed into your mind about hooks and things like that it's like, No, actually sometimes get the f— out of the way and just provide a lovely emotional texture for things to sit under things.

The thing that I guess is universal is you're reacting to an emotion. Especially if it's a film that you really feel emotionally partial to, you're watching this wonderful performance on screen and how could you not be inspired by that? We're so spoiled to have this as our first film where we're reacting to the emotional heart of this film, which is so rich.

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