It’s been said that the concept of the “guilty pleasure” is outdated. When cool-kid guitar-slinger Ryan Adams covers Taylor Swift’s plastic pop, when the Pulitzers lend their rarefied air to a platinum-selling rapper, when the musical subversive Grimes dates capitalist caricature Elon Musk, who are you to fret that any particular Max Martin song or any particular bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos is not for you? “If you want to listen to Rihanna while reading the latest from Dean Koontz, just go ahead and do it,” wrote Jennifer Szalai in a 2013 New Yorker piece “Against ‘Guilty Pleasure,’” and it’s come to feel as though plenty of folks took her advice.
So I will not call Charlie Puth, the velveteen-voiced crooner who’s ladled dollops of schmaltz onto the radio over the past few years, a guilty pleasure. But the 26-year-old might represent the culmination of the no-pleasures-are-guilty paradigm, in which a breathy singer can break out by channeling the deeply dorky, without a hint of irony. The sound of Puth’s new album, Voicenotes, brings to mind Wham!, Sting, and Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.” Boyz II Men and James Taylor lend their quavers, and at one point there’s a Hall & Oates interpolation. In a class of new Millennial singers whose successes haven’t quite come with superstar status—can you tell apart Bebe Rexha and Zara Larsson?—Puth’s disinterest in cool actually gives him an edge. So does his craftsmanship.
Puth’s fame arrived in truly corny fashion, via “See You Again,” Wiz Khalifa’s 2015 Fast and Furious soundtrack song mourning the death of Paul Walker. Puth’s falsetto, simpering and sticky, immediately seemed well-suited to an era when producers commonly manipulate voices to sound superhumanly high and squeaky. But it was “We Don’t Talk Anymore” off his 2016 debut, Nine Track Mind, that hinted he could be a somewhat interesting cog for the soundtrack-industrial complex. Loping and sinuous, built around a beguilingly meek and bleated melody, the duet with Selena Gomez may survive as one of the only lasting artifacts of the recent “trop pop” wave.
Puth produced and co-wrote that song, as he does most of his songs. I mention this not to hold him up as a more “genuine” creator than the Justin Biebers of the world, but rather because it helps explain why his work sounds a bit different. The only memorable fun fact about his biography is that he