It should not have been an issue.
Cassadee Pope might have made her name as the frontwoman for pop-punk outfit Hey Monday, but she was not truly fit for the genre. Her voice, though unique and emotive, traded any semblance of edge for an abundance of syrupy sweetness. Her personality, though perhaps not that of the manufactured teen heartthrob, favored youthful likability over bratty rebelliousness.
A student of the game, Pope knew how to write and deliver a melody for the genre, but she never figured out how to become a member of the club.
Initially obscured by Hey Monday’s release of singles like “Homecoming” and “How You Like Me Now,” which aimed to fill a territory somewhere between the empires of Paramore and Avril Lavigne, Pope’s suitability for the country genre ultimately became clear to astute music observers. For all her voice’s superficial cleanness, it was colored by a conspicuous vibrato and guided by the cry of heartbreak, two signatures of Nashville. And for all the effort her band put into pop-punk songs like the aforementioned two singles, as well as “I Don’t Wanna Dance” and “Obvious,” it was “Candles,” a ballad that could easily be country with a different instrumentation and rhythm line, that garnered the band its most significant recognition.
That Pope would gravitate towards country under the guidance of her “The Voice” coach Blake Shelton should have been as glaringly obvious as it was warmly embraced. And it was by a strong portion of the NBC reality show’s viewership.
Fueled by memorable performances like “Over You,” Pope cruised to victory on season three of “The Voice,” simultaneously becoming its most country and most commercially-appealing winner.
But despite its musical justification, the transformation did not win the approval of all onlookers. To a segment of country fans, whose genre values nothing as intently as it does authenticity, Pope’s rebranding seemed unappealingly calculated. To a segment of pop-punk fans, Pope’s shift represented an opportunistic abandonment of a genre she cherished enough to still call poster girl Avril Lavigne a key influence.
In the eyes of both segments, Pope won “The Voice” because her voice was too beautiful, her personality was too likable and her performances were too memorable. But sincerity, a factor of limited relevance on reality competitions but of optimal importance in the music marketplace, was not her strong suit.
“Wasting All These Tears,” her first post-show single, did little to curb such concerns. Undeniably good (though a commercial slow burner that is only now, months after release, gaining marketplace traction), it was nonetheless a magnet for criticism about Pope’s indecisive direction. By showcasing an artist teetering between pop-punk and country, critics argued, it proved that the “Voice” winner had not confidently settled on an identity.
An easy criticism to offer given Pope’s reputation, it was without merit in reality. Though the song certainly leans towards angsty pop, its presentation is strikingly similar–unsurprising given the commonality of producer Dann Huff–to that of The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two.” But when discussing the two songs, critics saw no double standard in ripping the former’s indecisiveness while praising the latter’s ambitious pursuit of a unique new sound.
Moreover, and more significant to the discussion of Cassadee Pope’s career, why were critics vociferously dismissing the possibility that the hybrid sound was a sincere reflection of Pope’s voice? Why was it so shocking that someone with a country skillset and a pop-punk background would feel most comfortable blending the songs together?
It seemed to be lose-lose-lose for Pope. Since she made her name in pop-punk, she couldn’t genuinely go country. But since she proved she had a flair for and connection to country, she couldn’t genuinely return to pop-punk. And if she wanted to fuse the two sounds together, she was being indecisive rather than creative.
Illogical, ignorant to the state of contemporary music (which is embracing hybrids across all genres) and unproductive, the sentiment prevented the strong “Wasting All These Tears” from getting the look it deserved.
Worse, it apparently existed inside the heads of Pope and her production crew. Her debut solo album “Frame by Frame,” which released October 8, largely refrains from identifying the singer as a pop-punk/country hybrid.
Unfortunately, it also largely refrains from giving her any identity whatsoever.
An undeniably fun, catchy set of songs, “Frame by Frame” is sadly without any sense of uniqueness or meaning. Coincidental commonalities in lyrics and compositional structure occasionally emerge, but they never speak to a consistent heart or soul. The songs never provide an underlying, unifying reason for their shared existence on this album.
Despite contributing to the writing of nearly every track, Pope’s signature–assuming she was even trying to imprint one–is completely unnoticeable. This album of eleven country songs is designed as a platform to showcase her singing voice rather than to tell her story or communicate her message. Instead of answering the questions of who she wants to be and what she wants to say–matters of relevance to all artists and particularly those in Pope’s shoes–she is using “Frame by Frame” as an opportunity to sing and nothing more.
That attitude, disappointing given the fact that Pope is a songwriter with a unique literal and figurative voice, is rendered even more problematic by the familiar nature of several tracks. Instead of just coming off as bland, innocuous country songs, they come off as insincere attempts to echo other artists.
Though they lack her lyrical acuity, songs like “11,” “Champagne” and “One Song Away” call to mind Taylor Swift. The “Good Times” chorus feels like it came from the B-side of a Blake Shelton single. Echoing tendencies of Avril Lavigne and Kelly Clarkson, “You Hear a Song” sounds like Cassadee Pope’s attempt at their “Breakaway” collaboration.
And, in the most egregious departure from identity, “Everybody Sings” calls to mind Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” on the intro before seguing into a song reminiscent of Carrie Underwood’s “Crazy Dreams” (no shock given Troy Verges’ involvement in both songs). The song, easily the worst on the album, also features a half-hearted attempt at the chant interlude Avril Lavigne invoked on her “The Best Damn Thing” LP.
Stylistic similarities notwithstanding, the “Frame by Frame” songs are not copies or mirrors of any specific songs but instead constant, vivid reminders that this album, while perhaps constructed for Pope’s singing voice, was not created to support Pope’s artistic identity. It was created to produce a digestible country album, and while it does not fail in that pursuit, it certainly does not display any ambition.
And that is a shame, and not simply for the obvious, repeatedly mentioned fact that Pope is someone who should sound unique on her album. The disappointment also comes from the fact that the “Frame by Frame” team did stumble upon some songs that are not only winners but indications of where Cassadee Pope could have gone with this record.
In addition to the uniquely-crafted “Wasting All My Tears,” “Frame by Frame” also reaches a high point with “I Wish I Could Break Your Heart.” It is neither a revolutionary song nor one successful in masking Pope’s struggle to keep up with the rocking chorus, but it is absolutely an interesting rock-country hybrid. More importantly, when all is said and done, it sounds fresh. It sounds like something that belongs on a promising, unique young talent’s debut record. It sounds like a Cassadee Pope song.
Sadly, whatever songwriting processes that led to that song and “Wasting” were not successfully replicated throughout the album. That “Easier to Lie,” a song by cross-genre hitmakers Max Martin and Shellback, not only feels like one of the album’s most commercial tracks but one of its most organic speaks volumes about the disappointment that is the “Frame by Frame” track list.
Poor strategy, indecisive branding and generic songwriting irrefutably plague the album, but they are not enough to destroy Cassadee Pope’s charisma and vocal talent. Saying she sells the songs would be going too far, but she absolutely puts her all into performing them, and she absolutely makes the album work far better than it should.
She is not perfect. The natural “cry” in her voice, which is superb for conveying heartbreak, prevents her from truly coming across as fun or happy on the uptempos. Her lower register still leaves something to be desired.
But she is a real talent. And she deserves a better debut than this. She deserves an album with more sincere and introspective lyrics, more original and tailormade song concepts and, most importantly, an identity.