Every month, A.V. Club writers Genevieve Koski and Steven Hyden explore the Billboard charts in search of the good, the bad, and the ugly of contemporary pop music in all its forms. This month, they take a look at the Hot 100 chart for September 29, 2012
Maroon 5, “One More Night” (No. 1)
Genevieve: Why is Maroon 5 still a band? I don’t mean that in a curmudgeonly “why does this exist?” way; it’s just that at this stage in the group’s career, the non-Adam Levine members of the band seem to serve no greater function than flanking Levine in photo spreads in order to give a nice sense of symmetry. Levine isn’t a bandleader, he’s a pop vocalist—and a decent one at that—and at this point, the success of a Maroon 5 song is more dependent on the contributions of producers like Max Martin and Shellback than on a kickass riff from James Valentine. (He plays guitar in Maroon 5, not that you need to know that.) That said, whatever the non-Levine contingent of Maroon 5 did on “One More Night,” it seems to be working out for the possessors of the No. 1 song in the country. Like all Maroon 5 singles, this is mainly a showcase for Levine’s vocals, which are slightly distorted here as they wrap around a catchy yet nondescript reggae beat and do little falsetto acrobatics to sell cheesy-ass lines like “Got you stuck on my body like a tattoo.” (Also helping to sell this song: The Peter Berg-directed music video has Minka Kelly co-starring with Levine’s naked torso, thereby making it a Friday Night Lights mini-reunion.) It sounds pretty much exactly how an Adam Levine—sorry, Maroon 5—song produced by Max Martin and Shellback should sound, which is to say, it sounds like a No. 1 single, albeit one no one will remember in 10 years.
Steven: Why is Maroon 5 still a band? Because even as Adam Levine has come to completely eclipse his bandmates—if you made that James Valentine reference without Googling “Maroon 5 guitarist,” I’ll pay you $1 million—Maroon 5 remains the brand name that moves weight on the pop charts. Maroon 5 is synonymous with mass-producing disposable pop-song doohickeys like “One More Night” that can top the charts in an efficient and inoffensive manner. It’s a name you can trust to routinely turn out songs that sound exactly like this one. On his own, Adam Levine’s star power only gets him as far as a guest spot on the latest Gym Class Heroes single. He’s wise to stay with the highly successful corporation he’s helped to found.
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: B-
Justin Bieber, “As Long As You Love Me” (No. 6)
Genevieve: While I’ll still always be partial to the original, “As Long As You Love Me” is a pretty good pop single, the best possible outcome of the dubious proposition that is “Justin Bieber meets dubstep.” The core of this song is the slinky production from Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins—not especially known for dubstep, but rather for producing, among other things, many of Destiny’s Child’s millennial hits, hence this song’s D.C. shout-out—which lends some much-needed dark, brooding atmosphere to Bieber’s milky-white vocals. To his credit, Bieber sings the shit out of this song, almost to the point where I can forget (forgive?) that he’s an 18-year-old multi-millionaire singing about being homeless and starving. As for that Big Sean verse? Well, at least it’s over quick and the song comes back stronger than ever in the ever-crescendoing final minute.
Steven: It’s too bad that the totally okay “As Long As You Love Me” will be Justin Bieber’s final single, as I can only assume that Michael Madsen ripped out Biebs’ still-beating heart and ate it immediately after filming the opening scene of this video. Otherwise, this is considerably less swaggy than Bieber’s previous single, “Boyfriend”; it sounds like a lesser outtake from Usher’s Looking 4 Myself, only without the showmanship that makes that record’s opportunistic trend-chasing likeable, even noble. For as big of a star as Bieber is, as a singer he’s still somewhat lacking in personality. I’m not sure what defines this guy as a vocalist yet, and the dubsteppiness of this song only makes him seem more generic.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: B-
Alex Clare, “Too Close” (No. 8)
Steven: Alex Clare’s “Too Close” was one of 2012’s least avoidable songs long before it entered the Hot 100, thanks to being prominently featured in an ad campaign for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9. Even if you don’t recognize the song title or the artist’s name, you probably know the glitchy, full-throated chorus if you’ve been anywhere near a television in the past six months. And, truth be told, it is a pretty grabby chorus, neatly juxtaposing Clare’s soulful pipes with some easy-listening dubstep flourishes. Now, if only I could move to place where I’d never have to hear it ever again. We are so far into the post-“sell out!” era in pop music that remarking how a commercial might negatively affect a song seems quaint. And, surely, Clare has benefited from the exposure, so good for him. But the relationship between the song and the world’s shittiest web browser has been pounded into my brain (and likely yours) so relentlessly that it’s impossible for me to hear “Too Close” as anything other than an annoyingly catchy jingle. It’s the 30-second song I hear on YouTube before I get to watch the video I want to see.
Genevieve: Context is a funny thing, Steven. Up until a few weeks ago, I had never heard “Too Close”—probably because the combination of DVR and AdBlock has eliminated 90 percent of the commercial jingles from my life. No, my first exposure to this song came not from a commercial or the radio, but from a recent episode of So You Think You Can Dance, which featured an excellent jazz routine performed to this song (well, 90 seconds of it). I specifically remember noting the song’s name and artist because I liked it so much at the time, though I’m sure some of what I was responding to was the way the dance’s slightly threatening tone complemented what I was hearing, and the way the dancers’ movements exploded in unison with the arrival of that dramatic chorus. (This happens a lot on SYTYCD, actually, which is why I maintain the show is a great way to discover new music, particularly pop.) It’s a far more pleasant introduction to a song I actually like quite a bit for its striking combination of acoustic and dubstep sounds. Though it gets a little repetitive in the last minute or so, Clare sings at a frequency that gives me the chills, particularly when combined with that clattering percussion and rumbling drop. I’m sorry you had to experience “Too Close” the way you did, Steven, because I think you’re missing out.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Psy, “Gangnam Style” (No. 11)
Genevieve: Finally, someone on the Internet is going to write about “Gangnam Style”! Steven, we’re later to the party on this one than an email-chain-forwarding aunt with an AOL address, coming to the K-pop satirical sensation on the heels of countless TV appearances, YouTube tributes, and thinkpieces. And here we thought “Call Me Maybe” was going to be the left-field hit of 2012. The radio success of “Gangnam Style” is inextricable from the viral success of its singularly strange music video, which in less than three months has already blown past a quarter-billion views on YouTube and set the Guinness World Record for the most-“liked” video in that site’s history. But the strangest thing about the success of “Gangnam Style” is that it’s a biting parody of K-pop tropes sung by a lower-echelon K-pop artist and embraced by a culture with little to no knowledge of the genre Psy is satirizing. What does this mean for the slow crossover K-pop has been making to U.S. shores? Will the success of—and, inevitably, burnout on—“Gangnam Style” cut it off at the knees, or expedite its infiltration? I honestly have no idea how this one’s going to play out, but I have no doubt Psy is going to keep riding this ride as long as he possibly can.
Steven: I’ll be honest: The first time I heard “Gangnam Style” was when it was parodied on Saturday Night Live. I’d certainly heard about it before then, but like Jersey Shore and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and whatever other stupid reality show people are watching ironically these days, “Gangnam Style” seemed like one of those pop-culture institutions I felt comfortable being aware of without having to investigate further. But now that I’m investigating further for professional purposes, the video is a pretty damn irrepressible distillation of why it’s great to be alive. I have no idea what impact “Gangnam Style” will have on K-pop’s stateside commercial prospects, but I suspect that Psy is a phenomenon far bigger than any genre. And that “Gangnam Style” will go down as the most 2012 thing ever.
Genevieve’s grade: “Gangnam Style” needs no grade. “Gangnam Style” just is.
Steven’s grade: We don’t grade “Gangnam Style,” “Gangnam Style” grades us.
Jason Aldean, “Take A Little Ride” (No. 32)
Steven: “Take A Little Ride” is the first single from the forthcoming Night Train, Jason Aldean’s follow-up to one of the most successful country records of the last few years, 2010’s My Kinda Party. “Take A Little Ride” suggests that Night Train won’t be straying far from Party’s blockbuster formula; it’s a redneck party song about shining up the truck for a night on the town after working all day bailing hay, because this is something that people actually do even when they’re not characters in a country song. Musically, “Take A Little Ride” fits squarely in Aldean’s wheelhouse of guitar-heavy, vaguely countryish arena-rock, reiterating his established style of watering down the crunch of AC/DC and crossing it with twanged-up Tom Petty. Aldean, along with Eric Church, has made this pop-friendly update of Southern rock a genuine phenomenon in contemporary country music, inspiring scores of copycats. “Take A Little Ride” isn’t a grade-A example of the form, but it’s totally solid and should satisfy those who liked My Kinda Party and want more of the same.
Genevieve: I feel like I shouldn’t like “Take A Little Ride,” not just for its Chevy sloganeering (I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Ford gal), but for the way it rigidly adheres to the pop-country-anthem formula, right down to the way the guitars drop out in the song’s final third for a repeat of the chorus—complete with a basso vocal counterpoint—before coming screaming back louder than ever. But damn if Jason Aldean hasn’t tapped right into one of my major musical weaknesses: driving songs. These are not necessarily just songs about driving—“Take A Little Ride” is more focused on Aldean’s pretty, pink-toed passenger than the open road—but rather songs that invite high-speed sing-alongs, preferably with closed windows and steering-wheel-drum accompaniment. “Take A Little Ride” fits that bill perfectly, though formulaically, and makes me hope I hit upon this one next time I’m flipping the car’s radio dial.
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Imagine Dragons, “It’s Time” (No. 33)
Steven: Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time” has created a mini-controversy because of supposed similarities with the song “Daylight” by the insufferable indie-pop duo Matt & Kim. To be honest, I think I prefer the Imagine Dragons version. The group’s debut album Night Visions recently debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart, and while it’s no masterpiece, it is a pretty canny combination of ’90s alt-rock atmosphere and the anthemic uplift of ballad-y, hip-hop-influenced pop songs. (Night Visions was executive-produced by Alex da Kid, the writer-producer of Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love The Way You Lie” and Dr. Dre’s “I Need A Doctor.”) “It’s Time” leans more to the alt-rock side, and it’s highly effective (if somewhat generic) radio-oriented kibble that has been designed to work across multiple formats. As on most Imagine Dragons songs, the star of the show is singer Dan Reynolds, who already emotes with the outsized confidence of a budding Bono.
Genevieve: “Supposed similarities” my foot, Steven; “It’s Time” sounds exactly like “Daylight,” with mandolin subbed in for keyboard. And like that song, it’s freakin’ everywhere—movie trailers, TV promos, Glee—to the point where I have the same reaction to “It’s Time” that you have to “Too Close.” It’s true, it doesn’t have quite as much bang and rattle as Matt & Kim’s song, but that smoothing out causes it to kind of fade into the background if you’re not paying close attention to it—which I’m sure is why it’s soundtracked so many advertisements. Dan Reynolds does indeed sing it with plenty of gusto, but for all its drama and echoing emotion, it still feels hollow.
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: C
Miguel, “Adorn” (No. 35)
Steven: After hearing “Adorn” for the first time back in May, when it was originally released on one of Miguel’s free Art Dealer Chic EPs, I rushed to Twitter and declared it the “Sexual Healing” of its generation. I immediately regretted it, since it seemed like over-excited hyperbole. But after four months of steadfast love for this song, I’m more willing to stand behind my initial statement. It’s not just that Miguel’s vocal and the percolating synths seem to actively conjure the spirit of Marvin Gaye; “Adorn” is just so unabashedly happy in its sexuality, a real left-turn given how the tortured libidos of The Weeknd, Drake, and Frank Ocean have come to define some of the most exciting sounds in R&B lately. Miguel is the first soul singer in a long while who actually seems like a decent boyfriend, and the sweetness of “Adorn” makes for one powerful statement of seduction.
Genevieve: I don’t think the “Sexual Healing” comparison is too hyperbolic, Steven, though it does ignore one of the song’s (and Miguel’s) other obvious influences: Prince. Throw some D’Angelo in there and you have a pretty sacred trifecta of R&B comparison points. Those sorts of comparisons are a hell of a burden to saddle a relative newcomer with, but Miguel certainly invites them with songs like this. (Then again, his newer single, “Do You,” shows he also has a little bit of Weeknd/Frank Ocean in him too, what with its “Do you like druuuuuugs?” chorus.) The unavoidable associations that Miguel conjures with “Adorn” are what’s keeping me from really loving the song, though I’m more than happy to spend a little quality time with it, if you know what I mean. This sort of easy, soulful sexuality is in short supply these days, and if Miguel finds a way to really make it his own, well, that will be worthy of some hyperbole.
Steven’s grade: A
Genevieve’s grade: A-
Genevieve: Steven, when we talked about Calvin Harris’ “Feel So Close” last March, I balked a tiny bit at you characterizing it as “more sensation than song,” which you compared to being “artlessly bludgeoned” with a ball-peen hammer. I still think that song had a little more going for it than you gave it credit for, but I’m all for applying those exact statements to “Let’s Go,” which doesn’t even pretend at an emotional component the way Harris’ last single did; this song literally demands dancing right there in the title. It’s not even an insult to call Harris’ music mindless, as it seems specifically calibrated to make listeners lose their goddamn minds on the dance floor. After catching some of Harris’ brain-exploding set at Lollapalooza this year, I can absolutely see the heady appeal of this approach in its native setting—that is, a strobe-bedecked rave—but I still can’t imagine listening to this sort of stuff say, in the car, or doing chores, or even working out. (I’d be passed out in three minutes at this tempo.) There is a craft at work here, a science to those builds and explosions, but “Let’s Go” is ephemeral by nature, an ode—lyrically and musically—to living in the moment. It may as well not even exist after those three minutes and 46 seconds are over.
Steven: Yeah, I’ve softened a bit on “Feels So Close” since then, which as a sensation finally beat me into warm submission. Maybe I’m feeling weak, but I actually enjoyed “Let’s Go” right off the bat. Part of that has to do with Ne-Yo, whose vocals are always a welcome presence in any song. But as you suggest, Calvin Harris has become the emblematic sound of young, dumb, in-the-moment America. And unless you let your brain stupidly get in the way, this song sweeps you away forcefully and completely. The ride (thankfully) doesn’t last long, but worrying about shelf life for a song committed to denying that the future exists would miss the point.
Genevieve’s grade: C
Steven’s grade: B