Hey strangers! I’m Sam Lansky, a pop music writer who left his dignity in the Hollywood Hills (seriously, have any of you guys seen it? It’s probably at LC’s house), and this is Pop Think, where we recognize unjustly ignored and generally flaw-free pop icons. This week’s topic? Hilary Duff (or, as I call her, the Great Hilegend), who has been making incredible dance music since before it was popular in the states, even if she was rarely recognized as the sonic trailblazer she indeed is.
See, if you hadn’t heard, Hilary Duff has been pregnant for the last ten years (approximately), but even while she’s looking radiant as the most adorably enormous pregnant person ever, she’s been back in the studio working with some major talents on an album that I’m expecting to blow my mind apart. This week, I’m taking a look back at Hilary Duff’s criminally underrated career as the pop princess to beat — and making some educated guesses about what we can expect on her next studio album. Buckle up, because the return of the Great Hilegend is quite literally what dreams are made of.
Before the era of Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Demi Lovato, there was Hilary Duff, the OG millennial Disney princess-turned-pop star. If her musical career feels like a distant memory, I can’t hold it against you since Hilary has spent the last several years working on other projects, like guest starring on “Gossip Girl,” shooting a handful of respected independent films, writing a pair of young adult fiction novels, launching a clothing line with DKNY, getting married to hunky hockey player Mike Comrie, and most recently, getting spectacularly and glamorously pregnant. Clearly, she’s a Renaissance woman, but despite her acting roots — Hilary first rose to prominence playing the title role in the wildly successful Disney Channel original series “Lizzie McGuire” — for me, her primary strength has always been her work as a recording artist. Hilary might not be a Beyonce-level vocal talent, but that’s never stopped her from making addictively listenable dance-pop music, which she was doing way before it was back in vogue. Actor-turned-singers are often unfairly attacked for being pedestrian or manufactured or talentless, but that doesn’t change the fact that their musical instincts are sometimes right on the money, as, I think, Hilary’s have been.
Read more about Hilary Duff’s return to the studio after the jump.
Hilary Duff’s 2002 debut (not counting the holiday album released a year earlier), Metamorphosis, was bubblegum pop with a few surprising highlights, most notably the fuzzy The Matrix-produced pop-rock jam “So Yesterday,” which fits nicely among the Avril and Ashlee singles of the day, and the swirly, downtempo techno of “Come Clean,” which memorably served as the theme song for the MTV series “Laguna Beach”; listening today, it’s unarguably one of the most interesting hits from that era of Top 40 pop music, which was dominated by anodyne guitar pop. Her self-titled follow-up in 2004 continued in the pop-rock vein, but failed to produce any major charting singles.
But it’s with 2007’s Dignity that things get interesting. Dignity is one of those albums that’s revered by many pop music enthusiasts for its forward-thinking sound and sonic consistency; even now, at five years later, it sounds modern and lively. Slick and focused, fueled by vibrant electro beats and clever lyrics, the polished dance sound of Dignity is all the more striking given the musical climate from which it emerged. In many ways, 2007 was the final year that urban pop really dominated the mainstream charts — for context, the No. 1 song on the Hot 100 the week of Dignity’s release was Akon’s “Don’t Matter” — and the glossy sheen of this self-assured pop record didn’t fit with what was popular at that time. Hilary co-wrote every track on the album save one, mostly with the help of master popsmith Kara DioGuardi, with whom she’d collaborated on past songs (including “Come Clean”), and accordingly, the lyrics reflect the feelings of a young woman forging a path through the crass, shallow world of the entertainment industry. The crisp electropop of “With Love” became Hilary’s highest-charting single to date, and tracks like “Stranger” and the title track became cult favorites among pop nerds, who compared Hilary to Kylie Minogue. (Her 2008 best-of collection featured two new songs — “Reach Out” and “Holiday” — both of which are equally prescient in their hypnotic dance vibe, especially the tropical synths of “Holiday.”)
Lady Gaga is frequently credited with bringing dance-pop back to the United States after urban pop reigned supreme for much of the 2000s, and she did, ushering in a new wave of artists drawing inspiration from dance and house influences. But still, the sleek dance production of Dignity — which wasn’t really recognized in 2007 for its progressive sound — prophesies the dance invasion that followed in the coming years. And now, five years later, with dubstep overtaking the four-on-the-floor beats that have become rote and sleepy in their predictability, Hilary’s back in the studio — and she’s working with some interesting producers.
Because even in her very, very pregnant state, Hilary’s been recording tracks for an upcoming album, due (hopefully!) later this year, and she’s hooked up with some unexpected collaborators: Not the predictable Dr. Lukes and RedOnes who are making contemporary dance-pop hits, but instead, a handful of pop-rock experts like Matt Squire, who shaped the sound of Panic! At the Disco, Boys Like Girls, and 3OH!3, and Martin Johnson, himself the frontman of Boys Like Girls who has also penned tracks for The Cab and Hot Chelle Rae. (Intriguingly, Martin Johnson also co-wrote my girl Taylor Swift’s stunningly gorgeous track “If This Was a Movie,” which might just be my all-time favorite Taylor Swift song.) Hilary has also been writing with Ali Tamposi, who co-wrote Kelly Clarkson’s recent disco-rock smash “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger),” and Damon Sharpe, who penned the glittering “Get Outta My Way” for Kylie Minogue’s most recent album. These are diverse collaborators, and not the obvious ones, which suggest that Hilary’s next album could go in a number of different directions.
Personally, I’m gunning for a rock-influenced dance sound, still beat-driven but with a little more crunch than the pristine Europop that’s fallen into favor as of late — and given the respective backgrounds of her various studio partners, this seems like a plausible bet. But regardless of the final product, I’m confident that Hilary will deliver, with the maturity imparted by a few years away from the game and a whole new generation of fans to court. And if motherhood takes precedence and we never get that next album, well, we’ll always have our Dignity.
Sam Lansky is a writer and editor from New York City. He goes hard for Swedish pop music, “Real Housewives” GIFs and juice. Follow him on Twitter or Tumblr.