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Drop the Pop: Dubstep Elements in Pop Songs

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House and trance elements have already infiltrated Top 40 pop songs, so it’s about time that dubstep is given a try. Justin Bieber’s latest single “As Long As You Love Me” highlights the gradual influence of dubstep in pop music but also brings attention to the flaws of merging these two genres. Mainly, when you want a pop song to be equally apt for the dance floor as it is for the radio, you don’t dabble with lower BPMs and a wobbly bass. The result is frequently an incoherent blend that’s too experimental for the radio and too languid for the club.

Plenty of dubstep producers have put out remixes of top 40 songs, with the most prominent being Skream’s take on La Roux’s “Bulletproof.” Not too many songs are being produced from the get-go with dubstep elements, however, and a bass drop or wobbly bass – signature dubstep elements at this point – are often blink-and-you-miss-it moments.

Artists from Bieber to U.K. dubstep singer Katy B have experimented with the genre. So, which tracks blend this EDM genre successfully, and which others were better leaving it alone?

1. Justin Bieber – “As Long As You Love Me”

Bieber and producer Rodney Jerkins create a tween-friendly version of dubstep for the pop star’s latest single. But, unlike his competitors on the Billboard charts, Bieber isn’t frequently someone name-dropped for dance floor-friendly tracks, like Lady Gaga or even Rihanna. “As Long As You Love Me” works better as a pop song with dubstep tinges, rather than as a dubstep song with Bieber providing vocals.

Apparently, the teen singer was inspired by a trip to London to include dubstep on the track, and Jerkins did a fair, if not restrained, job tackling the genre. “As Long As You Love Me” has a consistent flow of wobbles and a build up to a bass drop, but any grit and dirt have been scrubbed out.

2. Katy B – “Katy on a Mission”

Dhany, a frequent collaborator of Benny and Ale Benassi, and Nadia Ali, who appears occasionally on Armin Van Buuren tracks, are associated with house and trance, respectively, without having to get behind a production desk or DJ booth. U.K. singer Katy B appears to be developing the same relationship with dubstep. But, based on recent track “Katy on a Mission,” produced by Benga, is she a pop star who tries dubstep or a singer that defaults to dubstep producer collaborations?

Unlike the Benassi Brothers and Van Buuren, Benga plays it safe with “Katy on a Mission,” still creating a pop song in the process. The emphasis on percussion, without synths choking the snare, and rhythmically distorted bass are certainly pluses, but “Katy on a Mission” won’t be mistaken for a pure dubstep track any time soon.

3. Britney Spears – “Freakshow”

This song’s title sums up Britney Spears’ life in the public eye at the time album Blackout was released, from shaving her head to beating a car with an umbrella. Any album, at all, was a surprise from Spears at this point in her career, and her presence is purely as a producer’s plaything, with her voice manipulated beyond recognition. Yet, “Freakshow” is considered the first dubstep-pop merging. The opening features that womp-womp-womp bass, and fractured vocal lines foreshadow a technique on which Skrillex falls back too often.

4. Rihanna – “G4L”

While the title of this song sounds like an acronym off the Jersey Shore, Rihanna’s “G4L” features more than the Barbadian singer’s attempt at rapping. Pervading the entire track, however, which appeared on Rihanna’s darker Rated R album, are subtle dubstep elements, such as an unstable, ever-changing bass line.

5. Kanye West & Jay-Z – “Who Gon Stop Me”

Hip-hop operates side-by-side pop on the Billboard charts, and these days, with rappers like Nicki Minaj straddling the two genres, production techniques are practically interchangeable. While Kanye West and Jay-Z’s collaborative album Watch The Throne does not rely on pop hooks to be memorable, dubstep made its way onto the release by way of track “Who Gon Stop Me.” A slower tempo, prominent percussion, a bit of dirty bass, and vocal distortions make the influence clear, but, unlike Rihanna’s “G4L,” the elements aren’t always acknowledged by the two performers – who even nonchalantly continue rapping over a noticeable bass drop at one point.

6. Britney Spears – “Hold It Against Me”

Britney Spears’ light, paper-thin voice is perfectly malleable for any producers, including Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Billboard, who added her to a dance-friendly beat with “Hold It Against Me.” From the beginning, “Hold It Against Me” is just yet another iteration of the house-influenced pop song, until the two-thirds mark, when a dubstep refrain kicks in. It’s prominent and distinct enough that the first three minutes of this generic track are actually worth sitting through.

7. Alex Clare – “Too Close”

Unlike Britney Spears, Alex Clare offers a voice with substance, soulful with emotional depth and character. Clare’s voice, on the other hand, isn’t the type a producer wants to chop up and stutter across a dance beat – which is exactly what producer Diplo didn’t do. Instead, Diplo, who’s dabbled with practically every electronic genre, brings out the bass wobbles on the chorus of “Too Close,” but the dubstep element emerges from minimal, pleasant synths and guitars. It’s not that Diplo can’t produce for a strong vocalist – check out his work with Usher on “Climax” – but the dubstep here, while present, is superfluous.

8. Leona Lewis – “Come Alive”

Not an official release yet, “Come Alive” was introduced at Lewis’ recent Hackney Weekend performance. Expected to appear on upcoming album Glassheart, “Come Alive” has sparse dubstep elements low in the mix: some sub-bass wobbling here and there and a couple of bass drops. But while the Avicii-sampling “Collide” works for the dance floor, “Come Alive” is disjointed – even for dubstep – and awkward radio-variety pop.

9. Rihanna – “You Da One”

With Calvin Harris, Rihanna scored a dance-friendly hit with “We Found Love,” but follow-up “You Da One,” while still incorporating electronic elements, egregiously misses the mark. Producers Dr. Luke and Cirkut take the singer back to her dance floor origins (consider it a lighter follow-up to “Pon De Replay”) and then add some dubstep at the end as an afterthought. The dubstep bridge stands out for all the wrong reasons and, seconds after it’s over, makes you ask yourself, “What did I just hear?”