What’s the cutoff for putting in a bid for the song of the summer? Apparently, the date is officially May 31, judging from how seemingly every notable diva decided this was the day to reenter the marketplace. Miley Cyrus, Cardi B and Katy Perry simultaneously released their first solo singles of the year, with Bebe Rexha and Camila Cabello returning as featured singers on records by the Chainsmokers and Mark Ronson, respectively. When it rains superstar women of pop, it pours, so right now it’s “wet like Florida,” as Cardi says in her new song (not exactly in this same context).
Far be it from us to pit women against one another, though. We’ll leave that to Cardi, whose target in “Press” is not actually, as initially reported, the press — the media really barely come in for a mention in the tune — but rival women. Which rival women? She doesn’t specify, but maybe all of ‘em, for all we know. “Put blood on her dress,” she threatens, early on, long before the gunshot sounds occur. “Bitches in my business, they tryna plot / Hoes poppin’ shit like they hot but they not.” Her chutzpah is in peak form when she takes a break from the bloody shade-throwing to flaunt sexuality and new motherhood literally in the same breath: “Ding dong / Must be that whip that I ordered / And a new crib for my daughter / You know a bad bitch gon’ spoil her.” But she will not be distracted from her haterade by S&M or cradle-rocking for long, as Cardi gets back to her enemies with a line that is either the song’s funniest or most heinous, or both: “MAC to your face like contour,” she raps, making wordplay of a reference that, of course, doubles for cosmetics and artillery. With that bit of menacing, we can wave a fond farewell to May and any illusions of the sisterhood all at once.
If Cardi is refraining from naming names — and risks just seeming misogynistic instead — Cyrus isn’t bashful about injecting herself into any feuds, in a name-checking, quotable way. “I love you, Nicki, but I listen to Cardi,” she says in “Cattitude,” one of six songs in her surprise-release EP, “She is Coming.” (Cyrus has explained in radio interviews about the song this week that this lyric really is intended to leave Nicki Minaj and Cardi B on equal footing in her book, as if anyone in listening range would be naïve enough to believe that Miley has no dog in that catfight.) Cyrus generally comes in peace, though, and so “Cattitude” is really all about kitty power, to use the family-friendliest euphemism. The empowerment persists, if in less sexualized form, in the EP’s single, “Mother’s Daughter,” which has Miley insisting: “I’m a Nile crocodile, a piranha… / Don’t f— with my freedom / I came up to get me some.” Do we think she’s a nasty girl? “I’m nasty, I’m evil,” she confirms.
This renewed Bad Bitch Miley persona is quite a pendulum swing away from the Pastoral Hippie Miley of just two years ago, if you haven’t forgotten “Malibu” and the album “Younger Now” from 2017. But she was so much older then, and she’s back to embracing her inner brat now, as indicated by her wearing a cutoff Sex Pistols T-shirt on the cover art. (Not that anyone gets a blatant Sex Pistols reference anymore, as outlets like Entertainment Weekly reported that she is “posing in a crop top with the words ‘Never mind the bollocks’ splashed across the front” as if that iconic album title were some kind of indecipherable alien code.) The Glen Matlock influence definitely does not make it into the grooves. But she does mean to put the last project’s hausfrau maturity in the rear-view mirror and bring back the cheerful, nonchalant shock value of her “Bangerz” years, as well as the urban sounds she set aside in her very brief oceanside-country phase.
Results, as they say, are mixed. The less said about “Cattitude,” her duet with RuPaul, the better — yes, cat’s got my tongue on that one. I admit I can’t really make heads or cattails out of her collaboration with Ghostface Killah on “D.R.E.A.M. (Drugs Rule Everything About Me),” the title and some of the sampled music of which reference Wu Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rule Everything Around Me).” It’s either ironically pitched as a heavy anti-drug song or unironically positioned as a sheer ode to “Purple Perc, sticky green mollies, sippy lean (and) the white” (in Ghostface’s verse). When it comes to this release date’s chutzpah points, Cyrus may deserve more of them than Cardi, since she has the boldness in this song to rhyme “molly” with “Dolly” (yes, her beloved aunt’s name).
The aggro-feminism in the single, “Mother’s Daughter,” is nothing special, and you have to question Cyrus’ wisdom in using “swish swish” as a key phrase in the tune so soon after that bombed as a concept for Perry. But there are a couple of other songs on the EP that do bode well for the longer album allegedly to come. “Party Up the Street,” a quietly excellent collaboration with Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee, is moodier, weirder and more agreeably impressionistic. (There’s a great line in the hook about “…even though there is no place to park,” the ultimate impediment to partying.) Meanwhile, the “mature” Miley finally returns in “The Most,” an apologetic ballad with a beat, that finally leaves us with something that’s a little more Dolly than molly, after all.
Cyrus and Perry both find themselves at a similar career crossroads: They both had their last No. 1 hits in 2013, although they both managed to crack the top 10 in 2017, and either could be aging out of top 40 radio play at this point, though there’s no real danger of them going off the general pop radar for probably decades to come. Besides the “swish swish” thing, they also share similarly long, wavy blonde hair right now — Perry having gravitated a little bit towards Cyrus’ post-hippie “Malibu” look right now, with an outstanding-in-her-field video of her own. But their approaches at this juncture differ sharply. While you feel Cyrus nervously or naturally drifting back to the role of pop provocateur that she fleetingly abandoned, Perry doesn’t seem to be out to push anybody’s buttons this time around. Of these three major singles that came out all at once, “Never Really Over” is the one that feel like it’s not trying too hard. (This is Katy Perry we’re talking about, so she’s still trying pretty hard.)
Like Cardi and Miley, Katy has done her share of both bitch-slap songs and empowerment anthems. But with “Never Really Over,” she seems to be taking her cues more from Robyn and her crying-on-the-dance-floor aesthetic. Co-produced and co-written by Zedd, it’s better than “365,” the song that recently came out under his primary aegis. And it’s fairly old-fashioned, compared to these other songs, as a lament about the “rabbit hole” of romantic regret, with a newfangled ode to Internet –ex stalking in the second verse. The way the word “over” is repeated about 1,000 times in the chorus — because over is never really over! — somehow works to the song’s tongue-twisting advantage.
The accompanying video for Perry’s song is all “I’d like to teach the world to sing,” with an undercurrent of mental illness and culty group therapy — and what’s not to love about that, along with fashion sensibilities that make the whole thing look like a teaser for “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”? It won’t be a No. 1 song, let alone the song of the summer, any more than Cardi’s or Miley’s tunes likely will. But Perry might win the weekend, at least, just by reminding us, as Lana Del Rey once did, that summer can be a bummer…. good advice to take into the sticky season, especially if you can dance to it.