A.V. Club writers Genevieve Koski and Steven Hyden have decided to explore the Billboard charts every month in search of the good, the bad, and the ugly of contemporary pop music in all its forms. Today, they take a look at the Hot 100 chart for April 28, 2012.
Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe” (No. 8)
Genevieve: The upper echelon of the Hot 100 looks a lot different than it did a year ago, with MVP Katy Perry barely hanging on after two-plus years of never leaving the top 10, and nary a Rihanna, Britney, or Gaga to be seen. In their place are a couple of out-of-nowhere heat-seekers (Gotye and Fun), the vanguards of the latest boy-band invasion (The Wanted and One Direction), and Justin Bieber, who’s been absent from the top 10 for a while (minus that Christmas single). Much of this is just the predictable rise and fall of the pop-music sine wave—and album-release schedules—but it’s refreshing to see some new blood in the top 10, even if that new blood doesn’t always sound much different from the old. Former Canadian Idol runner-up Carly Rae Jepsen is probably the most out-of-nowhere of these new faces, but her appearance at No. 8 is far from unpredictable: “Call Me Maybe” was originally championed by Bieber and Selena Gomez, who also appear in the song’s mega-viral (and super-endearing) “unofficial” video. Faster than you can say “Scooter Braun,” Jepsen was signed by Bieber’s manager and “Call Me Maybe” rocketed to the top 10 in half the time it took Fun and Gotye to get there. Even without the Bieber association, though, it’s not hard to see why: This song has to be on the shortlist for the most maddeningly catchy song of 2012. It’s also sweet and straightforward and classically “poppy” in a way most top 10 singles of late aren’t, with their big Euro synths and dubstep breakdowns. In keeping with the boy-band resurgence, it’s very reminiscent of candy-coated millennial teen pop—somewhat ironically, as Jepsen is 26—but cresting trends aside, there’s a strange, lightning-in-a-bottle magic quality to “Call Me Maybe.” Whether it turns out to be Jepsen’s first or only hit, it’ll likely be remembered, if nothing else.
Steven: Clearly, when we wrote last month about the latest boy band invasion, we weren’t being broad enough. “Call Me Maybe” suggests that late ’90s pop in general is making a comeback. As you noted, the teen-pop touches in the song are obvious. But because of Jepsen’s relatively advanced age, “Call Me Maybe” also reminds me a bit of the era’s post-Alanis thinking-woman’s popsters—the Natalie Imbruglias and Meredith Brookses who expressed a slightly older female perspective in relation to Britney and Xtina. There’s not an ounce of the boilerplate angst those singers brought to their singles in “Call Me Maybe,” but Jepsen’s conversational delivery and down-to-earth persona is positively grungy in the context of this era’s hella flamboyant Hot 100. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that “Call Me Maybe” will not for the love of God leave your head even after hearing it only once. But it’ll be interesting to see if this is just a blip or a sea-change on the pop chart.
Genevieve’s grade: A-
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve: Based on this song’s association with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. music and the fact that it was (intentionally) dropped the day before Good Friday, I assumed the title of “Mercy” was evoking the more biblical definition of the word; alas, Kanye West and Co. have taught me yet another lesson in hip-hop materialism, as “Mercy” apparently refers to a Lamborghini Murciélago. Considering the presence of Big Sean, Pusha T, and 2 Chainz on this track, though, a Watch The Throne-style stunting round-robin seems more appropriate than a 808s And Heartbreak-style reflection on compassion and forgiveness. But the lugubrious beat doesn’t live up to either of those comparison points, sounding like a watered-down “Niggas In Paris” until a well-timed bassline injection appears during Kanye’s verse to drag the limping track over the finish line. Frankly, this sounds more like a mixtape throwaway than the opening salvo of a bold new hip-hop project, a good (or G.O.O.D.) but not great exercise in arrogance over a standard-sounding beat.
Steven: To quote Wayne Campbell, “Mercy” sounds like something Kanye ate and dropped while making Watch The Throne. (Given the ’90s-ness of today’s pop music, I’ve decided that Wayne’s World references are relevant again.) This isn’t the worst sin in the world, considering WTT is one hell of a feast. But just in case anyone didn’t already think that the upcoming G.O.O.D. music compilation is a mere appetizer between real Kanye records, “Mercy” confirms it. West has been on such a roll lately that even his table scraps are preferable to most of what’s on the chart, but “Mercy” is still a pretty minor track that he’s tossed out while traveling (hopefully) toward another major statement.
Genevieve’s grade: C
Steven’s grade: C
Usher, “Climax” (No. 25)
Steven: When “Climax” first appeared online back in February, music critics tripped over themselves to declare it a very early frontrunner for jam of the year. Since then, “Climax” hasn’t exactly been burning up the charts, especially by Usher standards—which isn’t a surprise, given the song’s understated, slow-burn nature. Producer Diplo described “Climax” as “Radiohead Quiet Storm,” with its melding of icy electronics, Usher’s spine-tingling falsetto, and subtly organic rhythms. It’s not really a song that grabs listeners, or even demands their full attention the first couple of times. It slinks in slowly, seductively, and takes its time getting to its titular promise. With pop music currently in full-blown head-thumping mode, listening to “Climax” is like sitting in a dark, air-conditioned room with somebody you can’t quite see or feel, and really wanting to. I hope it can stick around radio for a while.
Genevieve: I think the reason critics have been drooling over “Climax” is the same reason radio has been relatively cool on it: It’s sort of indefinable and unexpected, particularly within the context of a pop mega-star with an easily defined, stylistically predictable 15-year career. Sure, it still sounds like an Usher track, but it sounds more like a Diplo track… Then again, it’s much more subdued than your average Diplo track, yet possesses a dance-music structure and energy that isn’t often paired with R&B of the slow-jam variety. See where I’m going with this? “Climax” is sort of everywhere and nowhere, which makes it intriguing, yes, but also, as you say, Steven, not immediately arresting. But it is definitely a grower, thanks mostly to Diplo’s production, which mirrors the build-and-release of dance music more than the steady bump-and-grind of R&B.
Steven’s grade: A-
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Jason Aldean, “Fly Over States” (No. 39)
Steven: I went into “Fly Over States” expecting it to play on the resentment of middle-Americans over how big-city people on the coasts look down on them. And you know what? That’s exactly what “Fly Over States” delivers, in pretty much the most literal way possible. Aldean’s song takes place on a flight, and observes “a couple of guys in first class” who are, in fact, flying over the middle of the country, rather than referring to the region metaphorically. Like Talking Heads’ “The Big Country”—this is the first and probably last time Jason Aldean has been likened to David Byrne—the characters look down on the mundane, unsexy parts of America and wonder why anyone would want to live there. As a lifelong Midwesterner, I’m predisposed to enjoy a song that sticks it to condescending coast-folk. But “Fly Over States” doesn’t have much spunk or wit to it. As for the music, the mid-tempo track is as broad, flat, and generic as the plains of Oklahoma appear from 20,000 feet.
Genevieve: Yes, the setup is pretty laughably literal, but after the first verse, “Fly Over States” settles into an admittedly sappy yet inoffensive series of Midwestern vignettes that highlight the humble beauty and simple outlook of the vast spaces between L.A. and New York. While I generally hate when country music draws on the “us vs. them” strain of Middle-American pride, I find it much more palatable when it does so with straightforward sincerity rather than clever condemnation. (Looking at you, “Bait A Hook.”) That said, “Fly Over States” is as dull as the dirt roads Aldean glorifies, reinforcing the wrongheaded view of the Midwest as a perfectly nice yet uninspiring place.
Steven’s grade: C
Genevieve’s grade: C+
Kirko Bangz, “Drank In My Cup” (No. 44)
Genevieve: Houston rapper Kirko Bangz has been dogged by comparisons to Drake, and listening to his second mixtape-born single, “Drank In My Cup,” it’s not hard to see why: He sounds exactly like Drake. Then again, that laid-back flow and loping, slightly screwed beat are hallmarks of Bangz’s hometown sound, a point he drives home with the titular nod to drank (which has almost no bearing on the rest of the lyrical content), and he’s been putting out mixtapes since 2009, so this is probably more a case of timing than bandwagon-jumping. Nonetheless, the sexy, slow-banging club beat is the real star of “Drank In My Cup,” as evidenced by the number of unofficial freestyles it’s spawned, from the likes of J. Cole, 2 Chainz, and Trey Songz. For his part, Bangz plays second banana to both his beat and his most obvious comparison point, though overall, he’s a capable understudy in the role of hip-hop lothario.
Steven: Is this the best hit single with “drank” in the title since T-Pain’s immortal “Buy U A Drank”? I’m going to go out on a limb and say yes. Yes, Kirko Bangz is a blatant Drake knockoff, but Take Care didn’t have a single as enjoyably mindless as “Drank In My Cup.” Bangz might not be much of a rapper, but that woozy, woobly beat is appropriately intoxicating. This is a song for when you’re too drunk to get up from the bar to dance, and decide to order that one last drink that you’ll end up regretting in the morning. (Love the pouring sounds at the end.) Who says country singers are the only ones allowed to have songs about hilarious and not-at-all problematic drunkenness on the pop chart?
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: B+
Demi Lovato, “Give Your Heart A Break” (No. 71)
Genevieve: Demi Lovato has an odd vocal delivery I can only describe as “chewy.” You can hear her wrapping her mouth around every syllable on “Give Your Heart A Break” in a manner that comes across very stagey, which doesn’t always mesh with the song’s pop-rock feel. But even though it sounds a lot like the Glee cover of “Give Your Heart A Break,” the song’s string-based rock production provides good bone structure that looks a little like ’80s power-pop if you squint and turn your head just right. (The bridge in particular is very “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” in both instrumentation and delivery.) This is the sound of a singer trying to shake off her Disney-musical past and not quite succeeding, but it’s a valiant effort at rockstar dress-up.
Steven: Demi Lovato is the “fallen” teen pop singer, with a series of well-documented struggles with bulimia and drug and alcohol abuse, among other issues. Last year’s Unbroken was Lovato’s first album to come out since she became a tabloid regular, though she recently suggested via Twitter that she was “holding back” on the record. “Give Your Heart A Break” certainly doesn’t suggest any sort of leap in maturity, insight, or catharsis in light of her recent life experience. I recognize the “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” signifiers, but this song isn’t nearly big or emotional enough to truly justify the comparison. This is just a stock pop song, delivered with anonymous competence, by a singer I suspect is a lot more interesting than she lets on.
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: C
Josh Turner, “Time Is Love” (No. 79)
Steven: Josh Turner is a country singer with a voice like blended whiskey and thick barbecue sauce. His barrel-chested baritone has earned obvious comparisons to Johnny Cash, but on “Time Is Love,” he adopts a sweeter, more lady-friendly tone. Turner sings the song well enough, though he doesn’t sound terribly invested in the lightweight jangle or the earnest romantic platitudes of the lyrics. Turner’s voice is better suited for songs about beer or trains, not songs about being a decent romantic partner. Male country singers are required by law to put out songs like this that appeal to the female fantasy of the kind, considerate husband/boyfriend who takes time out of his busy schedule to lament how many kisses he’s missed out on because he’s working all the time. Turner might sing about taking time off, but “Time Is Love” is all about punching the clock.
Genevieve: I’d actually posit that a better comparison point is Randy Travis—with whom Josh Turner has dueted on a couple of occasions—another recognizable baritone with a decidedly friendlier, smoother-edged reputation than The Man In Black. “Time Is Love” is so smoothed-out it essentially slips out of your brain a second after you hear it, definitive background music distinguished only by a nice mandolin-based instrumental bridge. I don’t doubt that, like Travis, Turner is capable of putting his formidable voice to better use when he wants to, but he seems more focused on endearing himself to God and women in the most mawkish manner possible.
Steven’s grade: C+
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Of Monsters And Men, “Little Talks” (No. 80)
Steven: The cynical part of me wants to point out that “Little Talks” bites hard from Arcade Fire and Gotye’s chirpy he-said-she-said ballad “Somebody That I Used To Know.” Only the Arcade Fire comparison isn’t totally fair—groups were making orchestral indie-pop before Funeral came out, after all—and “Somebody That I Used To Know” wasn’t a hit when this song was recorded. The only thing Of Monsters And Men is guilty of is good luck and solid commercial instincts; based on the group’s early sales numbers and easy-to-swallow marketability, this band could very well be this year’s Mumford & Sons. I’m not sure if all the horns and “hey!” chants are as uplifting as the Icelandic band wants it to be (cynical me lives!), but if this is going to be the token “quirky” song on the local Top 40 station, we could certainly do worse.
Genevieve: Steven, I’m starting to think you listened to a different version of “Somebody That I Used To Know,” a song you described last month as “shouting” at you, and which sounds absolutely nothing like “Little Talks.” I’ll happily see your Arcade Fire comparison, though, and raise you Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. But really, it’s pointless to play name-the-reference with Of Monsters And Men, who traffic in one of the purest forms of pop music: feel-good sing-alongs. I’ll happily play the hand-clapping optimist to your cynic when it comes to “Little Talks,” which I find exactly as rousing as the band wants it to be. It’s not exactly a surefire radio hit, and I’ll be surprised if it cracks the Top 40, but it’s one of those broadly likable songs, like “Home,” that’s going to keep popping on iTunes playlists, YouTube videos, and CW shows for a long time to come.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: B+