In This Was Pop, 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 February 2, 2013.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, “Thrift Shop” (No. 1)
Genevieve: Steven, we haven’t visited the Hot 100 in This Was Pop since way back in September, and there’s been a lot of changes in the chart’s top tier since then. For example, who the hell are Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and how did they sneak their way to No. 1 while we weren’t looking? Well, like 2012 dark horses turned chart-toppers Carly Rae Jepsen and Psy—remember them??—Seattle rapper Macklemore, along with his producer Ryan Lewis, is a beneficiary of Billboard’s decision last March to start incorporating online streaming plays into its Hot 100 metric, a decision that can propel an artist with no major-label support and a beast of an earworm to the No. 1 slot. “Thrift Shop” has garnered around 70 million plays on YouTube since it was uploaded last August, and based largely on its popularity, Macklemore’s full-length debut, The Heist, debuted at No. 2 when it was released in October—independently released. That’s quite the sea change, especially considering how damn goofy “Thrift Shop” is. The skronky ode to secondhand clothing isn’t entirely indicative of Macklemore’s sound, which leans more toward witty-yet-personal indie hip-hop than Asher Roth-esque gimmick rap. But listened to in isolation—and especially while viewing the video—it’s tough to gauge how self-aware Macklemore is being on “Thrift Shop,” which toes the line between funny and insufferable with lines like “Probably shoulda washed this, smells like R. Kelly’s sheets (pisssss).” Me, I lean toward funny, not to mention as catchy as whatever’s festering in that mangy fur coat he’s wearing in the video.
Steven: The first time I heard “Thrift Shop,” it was on Spotify, not YouTube—and I hated it. After watching it on YouTube—which truly is the ideal format for this song—I hate it slightly less, but c’mon GK, this dude is about as wack as it gets. If we judge rappers solely on the basis of how cool they sound saying “motherfucker,” Macklemore belongs at one end of the spectrum and Ice Cube on the other. But the worst part of “Thrift Shop” is how brutally unfunny it is. You already mentioned that terrible R. Kelly joke—is there a line in this song that isn’t terrible? Hey Macklemore, I know The Lonely Island, I’ve laughed at Lonely Island songs, and you, sir, are no Lonely Island.
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: C-
Bruno Mars, “Locked Out Of Heaven” (No. 2)
Steven: We’ve written about Bruno Mars quite a bit in this feature, and he’s released some out-and-out dreck in that time. (If The A.V. Club ever sanctions a This Was Pop shit-mix, I nominate “The Lazy Song” for side one, track one.) “Locked Out Of Heaven” is the opposite of out-and-out dreck; in fact, if this song had come out just a little bit earlier last year, it would have been a lock for our 2012 best-of list. When I first heard “Locked Out Of Heaven,” like a lot of mid-30ish pop listeners, I instantly thought of The Police. (Video blogger Chris Ott offers a definitive breakdown of this song’s Police-esque qualities here.) Mars’ cross-breeding of new wave, reggae, and R&B is highly infectious—so much so that the verse battles to the death with the chorus for the catchiest part of the song. Credit the murderers’ row of producers on this track—which includes Mark Ronson, Jeff Bhasker, and The Smeezingtons, Mars’ collaborators on the entirety of his sophomore effort, Unorthodox Jukebox—for how well “Heaven” evokes the early ’80s. But Mars is the one who really sells it with his ecstatic, Sting-saluting vocal.
Genevieve: I’m with you on the Police comparisons, Steven (because I’m not deaf), but I’m not as wholeheartedly in love with “Locked Out Of Heaven.” It definitely falls into the “good” pile of singles by Mars—who maintains a ratio of one terrible single to every good one with startling consistency—and his “Roxanne”-aping vocals are the main selling point. But the song’s horndog vibe gives me just a touch of the willies; it seems so ill-fitting for a smiley, cuddly artist like Mars, who’s never seemed more at home than when playing a sad, fuzzy mouse on SNL. And I also think your description of the song’s genre-crossbreeding glosses over the EDM touches, which make “Locked Out Of Heaven” feel a little sonically overstuffed. But these are minor quibbles; overall, it’s a winner, if not quite an instant classic.
Steven’s grade: A
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Taylor Swift, “I Knew You Were Trouble” (No. 5)
Steven: “I Knew You Were Trouble” was an obvious would-be single from Taylor Swift’s latest album, Red, and not just because it’s the record’s “dubstep song.” On an LP loaded with cannily assembled earworms that straddle multiple genres, “I Knew You Were Trouble” is among the earwormiest. The wubby chorus hits like a sticky-sweet ice-cream cone wrapped in a leather-studded glove, but the pop-punk verse isn’t easily extricated from your cranium, either. The lyrics are another example of Swift projecting her “love ’em and leave ’em” fatalism on an unnamed dude; Swift plays the victim, but the skill of “I Knew You Were Trouble” suggests she’s the one who’s always in control.
Genevieve: “Taylor Swift does dubstep” sounds about as appealing as that horrid cotton-candy vodka stuff, but if there’s anyone who can make it work, it’s Max Martin and Shellback, the producers behind “Trouble.” What really sells this unholy union is the interplay between Swift’s up-and-down vocals and the dreaded wub, which is utilized with admirable restraint here. I know it’s cliché to harp on the way Swift harps on her exes in her lyrics, but I would probably like “Trouble” a lot more if it was about something, anything else. Well, not anything, but some variation on her go-to theme would be nice; she pulled it off musically, why can’t she do it lyrically?
Steven’s grade: A-
Genevieve’s grade: B
Will.i.am and Britney Spears, “Scream & Shout” (No. 6)
Genevieve: Will.i.am was responsible for “Big Fat Bass,” perhaps the worst song on Britney Spears’ Femme Fatale (which I still love, dammit), and she returns the favor on his latest solo joint, the even-worse “Scream & Shout.” Though Britney, in full drag-diva guise, is the best part of “Scream & Shout” by far. (I still maintain that Spears’ greatest asset as a singer isn’t her voice, but her ability to adopt and project different personas in her vocal performances. Those personas just all happen to be some variation on “sexy robot” lately.) Spears’ contributions are mindless but not aggressively so, unlike Will.i.am’s “rapping,” which grows more indifferent by the year. It’s one thing for a chorus to repeat the same generic phrase over and over; that’s what choruses, dance-music choruses at least, do. But Will.i.am specializes in verses that can be shouted along with no matter how many Red Bull-and-vodkas one has chugged: “Rock and roll / Everybody, let’s lose control / On the bottom we let it go / Going faster, we ain’t going slow.” Ugh, I feel dumber just typing it. There’s nothing wrong with a mindless club-banger now and then, but “Scream & Shout” isn’t just mindless, it’s actively mind-numbing, lulling listeners into an adrenalized stupor.
Steven: Credit where credit is due: “Scream & Shout” is the most Will.i.am song title ever. He will achieve singularity when he finally releases a single consisting only of screams and shouts over a ringtone of screams and shouts. Will.i.am isn’t far off from that on “Scream & Shout,” though the energy level is noticeably dialed down. Will and Britney sound absolutely drained of their life essence; if there’s such a thing as perky malaise, this is what it sounds like. “Scream & Shout” isn’t the club banger that the drunks and dry-humpers will be screaming for at 1 a.m. It’s the dead-eyed vampire music that drones on at the after-party when you just want to go home already.
Genevieve’s grade: D+
Steven’s grade: D
Swedish House Mafia featuring John Martin, “Don’t You Worry Child” (No. 7)
Steven: Hey, it’s the final single from Swedish House Mafia before its indefinite hiatus! It also happens to be the group’s highest-charting U.S. single by a mile. Just think: There will only be 30, maaaaybe 40 songs tops in the Hot 100 that sound exactly like “Don’t You Worry Child” once Swedish House Mafia exit the international stage. Where will we find the next endlessly chirpy, laser-spitting mechanical hummingbird riding a sledgehammer beat to write about for This Was Pop, GK? Where?
Genevieve: I think I’m sensing some sarcasm there, Hyden. But snarky hypotheticals aside, Swedish House Mafia is a “does exactly what it says on the tin” outfit: They’re Swedish and they make house music. True story. “Don’t You Worry Child” is similarly free of nuance, as driving and predictable as a hammer meeting a nail. John Martin’s vocal is the only element of the song that’s even remotely noteworthy, more theatrical and blustery than the sort of ethereal, soaring caterwauling that typically accompanies this form. But only just. As a song, it’s almost completely anonymous, but loudly so; that’s great as a soundtrack to a night of hedonistic arm-waving, but less so as, you know, a song.
Steven’s grade: C
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Alicia Keys f. Nicki Minaj, “Girl On Fire” (No. 14)
Genevieve: This is the “Inferno Remix” of “Girl On Fire,” which shoehorns two ill-fitting verses from Nicki Minaj into a song that really doesn’t need them. In fact, I’d say Minaj’s verses actively hurt “Girl On Fire” by interrupting the soaring flow of Alicia Keys’ vocals. Hunger Games jokes aside, “Girl On Fire” is a top-notch girl-power anthem: soulful, powerful, and sung to perfection by Keys. The pounding drums, taken from Billy Squire’s “The Big Beat,” are an excellent counterpoint to Keys’ delicate piano work, a balance of hard and soft elements that reflect the song’s theme as well as Keys’ vocal performance. It’s been too long since Alicia Keys has released a single I truly loved; I just wish Minaj hadn’t weaseled her way into this one.
Steven: Is it an insult to Alicia Keys if I say that I really appreciate her and her talent even if I don’t like her music all that much? Like you say, Keys’ vocals are a knockout on “Girl On Fire”—she can soar without sounding show-offy, and sound soulful without resorting to the usual R&B singer clichés. But the song itself is a little flat. No matter how hard Keys sells the chorus, it’s never really grabby, which explains why Nicki Minaj was forcibly inserted into the mix to do her pushy Nicki Minaj thing. You’re right that these two don’t really belong together, but I doubt “Girl On Fire” would’ve done as well on the charts without somebody commanding people’s attention.
Genevieve’s grade: A-
Steven’s grade: B-
Calvin Harris f. Florence Welch, “Sweet Nothing” (No. 17)
Genevieve: At this point, I think Calvin Harris has released every single song off 18 Months as a single, but “Sweet Nothing” is my favorite, for the way Florence Welch’s art-school vocal drama plays against Harris’ hyperactive house-music sheen. It’s comforting to know that if Welch ever wears out her twirly flower-woman shtick, she can easily transition to a second career as a dance-music diva. The build-and-release production is standard Harris, but Welch’s big, triumphant performance make that release hit so much harder when it comes. It would be nice if the knob-twiddling breakdowns between her vocals were a little less cookie-cutter, but they do the job well enough. Like all of Harris’ singles, it’s an aggressively euphoric song that demands dancing—in spite of its somewhat mournful lyrical content—but in this case, I’m happy to oblige.
Steven: In spite of some initial misgivings, I eventually came around to Calvin Harris’ stridently YOLO power dance anthems. He’s essentially making the hair-metal equivalent of EDM, distilling the genre down to its least subtle and most celebratory components, and turning the volume up to 11. “’Sweet Nothing” varies not one iota from Harris’ other singles—other than Welch’s vocal, of course. Like you say, Welch is a surprisingly good fit for Harris’ build-and-release formula, since it’s not all that far removed from the shout-through-the-valleys art-girl drama of Florence + The Machine.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: B
Gary Allan, “Every Storm (Runs Outta Rain)” (No. 29)
Steven: Gary Allan has been a reliable mid-level country singer for more than a decade; he’s had his share of hit singles on the country charts, but he’s never been a big crossover star. “Every Storm (Runs Outta Rain),” the first single from the fine, just-released Set You Free, was his first No. 1 on country radio in five years. It’s easy to see why “Rain” is also rising on the pop chart: Allan is a natural fit for the heartland rock sound currently in vogue among male country singers, though he can also soften his brawny delivery for a melodic, melancholic number like this one. The harmony vocal from the song’s co-writer, Hilary Lindsey, sweetens the pot just a little bit more, but “Rain”’s peppiness never comes off as cloying. This is just a fine example of rock-solid Nashville songcraft, delivered by an old pro who knows how to give a slow burner the soft sell.
Genevieve: “Every Storm” is a confident, efficient song, evocative and endearing without overselling itself on either account. The central metaphor is dirt-simple, but Allan and Lindsey (along with co-writer Matt Warren, who completes this triumvirate of people with two first names) milk that simplicity for all it’s worth, and the song comes across as plainspoken and folksy instead of clever and self-congratulatory, as this sort of song can sometimes get. The harmonies extend that impression through their interplay, which reflects the song’s content in Allan’s gruff melancholy and Lindsey’s sunny sweetness. It’s almost too assured and professional, to the point of not being especially striking on first listen, but its charms grow more apparent on repeats. And that chorus will repeat on you.
Steven’s grade: B+
Genevieve’s grade: B