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 for March 3, 2012.
Katy Perry, “Part Of Me” (No. 1)
Steven: Before she won a bajillion Grammys last month, Adele appeared on 60 Minutes and said she didn’t want to be “some skinny mini with my tits out.” Katy Perry, of course, has no problem playing that role, and while she hasn’t sold as many albums as Adele, she’s been an absolute monster on the singles charts. Perry debuted “Part Of Me” at the Grammys, and it subsequently became only the 20th song ever to debut at No. 1, making it Perry’s seventh chart-topping single overall. Like Adele, Perry turned some romantic lemons into musical lemonade for “Part Of Me,” though in Perry’s case her not-so-veiled swipe at ex-husband Russell Brand (and possibly ex-boyfriend Travie McCoy)—though she denies it’s about Brand—tastes more like her usual cotton candy. The lyrics are pretty dopey—as a copy editor, I’m sure you’re not thrilled about the double “me” in the chorus, GK—but the thumping beat and the reliably catchy chorus (courtesy of Max Martin and frequent Perry collaborator Bonnie McKee, among an army of co-writers) is pretty damn sticky.
Genevieve: “Usual cotton candy” pretty much nails it. With so many Teenage Dream singles saturating the charts over the last couple years—and others biting the same sound, as we’ll see in a moment—I’m starting to get a little bored with the Katy Perry sonic template. A thumping beat and soaring chorus is great when you’re trying to get through those last few minutes on the treadmill, but off it, “Part Of Me” sounds like a slightly rockier “The One That Got Away” sounds like a slightly gloomier “Firework” sounds like a slightly more inspirational “Last Friday Night,” and so on. (“E.T.,” while lyrically confounding, gets points for bucking this pattern somewhat.) That said, the template works well in the context of a break-up anthem, and “Part Of Me” succeeds in that regard, coming off like a chintzier, 2012 version of “Since U Been Gone.” (But seriously, they couldn’t come up with a better rhyme for “me” than “me”?)
Steven’s grade: B+
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven: “We Are Young” is one of those songs you might as well decide to like, because you’re going to be hearing it on the radio, in commercials, in movie trailers, as a ringtone, and any place else that can house that enormous chorus for the next two years. “We Are Young” is basically “Chorus: The Song,” though the more I hear it the more interested I get in the verses, which are mercifully less piercing and stridently uplifting. Divorced from the life-affirming chorus, “We Are Young” is actually a pretty dark song, spinning a Bret Easton Ellis-like tale of young lovers kept apart by the youthful flotsam and jetsam of drugs, booze, and non-stop partying. At least it sounds depressing to me as an old married person. What say you, GK?
Genevieve: Oh come now, Steven. I did the math, and “We Are Young” is only 70 percent chorus, at most. It just feels like the chorus is all there is because it’s a fucking epic chorus, the kind of chorus that imbues whatever you’re doing while listening to it with deep significance, which fits the song’s theme perfectly. It also makes it a perfect fit for Glee, which did a version of “We Are Young” that landed in the Hot 100 and dragged the original along with it. Of course, the Glee version doesn’t have the benefit of including the excellent Janelle Monáe, though her delightful weirdness is mostly wasted on “We Are Young.” Nonetheless, it’s a crowd-pleaser, especially if you don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics. But “We Are Young” also possesses and air of instant nostalgia, and—especially considering the lackluster response to Fun’s new Some Nights—seems destined to burn bright and fast.
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Jessie J, “Domino” (No. 18)
Genevieve: Despite hustling her debut album, Who You Are, on pretty much every late-night and awards show that would have her, British R&B-popstress Jessie J failed to catch on in a big way in the U.S. last year, selling less than 50,000 copies and falling victim to “big-in-the-UK” also-ran status. But she’s had a late-stage resurgence with “Domino,” a bonus-track-turned-single that shrugs off the more UK-urban sounds found on her previous singles—dancehall on “Price Tag,” grime on “Do It Like A Dude”—in favor of that most American of current pop influences: Katy Perry. “Domino” sounds like a Katy Perry mega-mix, all bouncy, anthemic chorus and half-assed imagery (“Take me down like I’m a domino” is this year’s “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?”), which likely explains why its Jessie J’s highest-charting U.S. single. The only element distinguishing it from a Perry jam is Jessie J’s signature over-singing (as brilliantly catalogued by Rich Juzwiak of FourFour), which is actually somewhat toned down on “Domino,” allowing her admittedly strong voice to occasionally peek out through bursts of melisma. That balance alone is enough to render this her best song, though its derivativeness comes off a little desperate in the wake of her previous washout.
Steven: “Derivative” is too kind of a word for “Domino.” The guitar part is exactly the same as Perry’s “Last Friday Night,” a song you actually gave a lower grade to when we reviewed it last summer. I know you kind of have a soft spot for Jessie J, the plucky upstart who just won’t give up on being a pop star in America already. But, c’mon, “Domino” is a cheap rip-off of an already over-taxed formula, and Jessie J’s acrobatic enunciations are hardly an improvement.
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: C-
The Wanted, “Glad You Came” (No. 23)
Steven: Has it really been 10 years since the last boy-band boom? The British-Irish group The Wanted has already kicked off a new boomlet of its own in the U.K.; “Glad You Came” became its second No. 1 hit overseas last year, and it’s the first Wanted song to crack the Hot 100 Stateside. Musically, it’s reminiscent of those late-’90s groups that Lou Pearlman mass-produced out of Orlando, though singer Max George (the one who opens the song) sounds more like Chris Martin than Justin Timberlake, and it has the Euro-pop sheen that’s already familiar from contemporary American acts on the charts. With so many American pop stars aping Euro-pop trends, it makes sense that actual European pop stars are infiltrating our shores. The upside is that we might finally learn the proper use of “well.”
Genevieve: What, Steven, no comment on the song’s title, the least-subtle boy-band double entendre since “I Want It That Way”? It fits the song’s trashy Euro-house beat, which initially seems at odds with The Wanted’s puppy-dog eyes and crooning vocals, but settles into a likable groove around the song’s midpoint. Giving this genre a club-music sheen is a canny way to usher boy bands back to these shores, which are still wary of groups with four-plus male members and coordinated dance moves. (Though I think the gradually cresting wave of K-Pop is also helping open those doors back up a bit.) It’s not an exceptionally great song by pop or dance-music standards, but it’s a good introduction to The Wanted: accessible, easy to sing along to, and non-threateningly sexy. I kinda dig it. Now where do I purchase my oversized novelty Max George button?
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: B
Luke Bryan, “I Don’t Want This Night To End” (No. 40)
Steven: Luke Bryan makes a triumphant return to This Was Pop after you gave his epically moronic “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” an extremely rare F+, in spite of all the joy it brought you. “I can’t remember the last time I literally laughed at how terrible a song was,” you wrote. Does “I Don’t Want This Night To End” live up to those incredibly low standards? Sadly, no. “I Don’t Want This Night To End” is merely terrible in a conventional, unfunny way, and I say that as someone who’s more forgiving of Nashville cheese than you are (as you’ll recall from last month’s contentious “Bait A Hook” controversy). On the bright side, Bryan’s ability to sing lines like “You’re looking so damn hot” with earnest sincerity is to be commended, though the best I can say about “I Don’t Want This Night To End” is that it sounds like a country version of Mouse Rat.
Genevieve: Bryan does have a great voice for country; it’s too bad he can’t figure out how to wrap it around this clunky song, whose pacing is almost as awkward as that “so damn hot” line and the tacked-on electric guitar solo. There’s something sort of amateur about “I Don’t Want This Night To End” that goes beyond the middle-school-poetry lyrics, and while it’s far too boring to inspire the sort of hate-glee “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” does, it’s somewhat distressing that such a mundane song could be so popular. Then again, even boring couples need an “our song,” and Bryan seems happy to oblige with this one.
Steven’s grade: D
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Train, “Drive By” (No. 43)
Genevieve: I have to admit, when I picked “Drive By” to write about this week, having not heard it yet, I did so with the hope that it would provide us with some good zingers at the expense of the adult-contempo lugs who brought us “Hey Soul Sister.” Little did I know they would make it so damn easy with lyrics like, “Just a shy guy / lookin’ for a two-ply / Hefty bag to hold my love,” and “On the upside of a downward spiral / my love for you went viral.” The lyrical content of “Drive By” is so close to that of a Lonely Island song I have to wonder if Train is just fucking with us—especially considering “Drive By” is a jump-along earworm of epic proportions, ensuring you’ll be humming about viral love for hours after hearing it. It’s so obliviously goofy it almost—almost—becomes likable in its horribleness, like The Room with Hefty bags full of love instead of short-range football. Assuming it doesn’t reach the ear-gouging ubiquity of “Hey Soul Sister,” I feel comfortable living in a world where “Drive By” exists—as long as I’m never forced to listen to it in a situation that requires me to stifle my giggles.
Steven: Oh man, where do I start? First of all, I think you’re suffering from case of Stockholm Syndrome. “Drive By” is not “likeable in its horribleness”; it is temple-flaring, nerve-shredding, gouge-out-your-fucking-ears hateable in its shitpile of stinking horribleness. Don’t embrace this monster, GK; join me in sending it back to the hell from whence it came. As you noted, the lyrics are ridiculously bad, but the music is even worse, with its dippy, dum-dum acoustic-guitar riff and lazy vocal melody. I think your instincts are correct: Train is just fucking with us now. And we keep rewarding them by putting this garbage on the radio. I wish this song had a face just so I could break its nose.
Genevieve’s grade: D-
Steven’s grade: F-
Rascal Flatts, “Banjo” (No. 63)
Genevieve: Rascal Flatts are the foremost purveyors of the current “stadium-rock” strain of country music, and “Banjo” is appropriately as over-the-top as its namesake is humble. It’s a mega-cosmopolitan ode to easy country livin’, with a screaming electric guitar eventually, inevitably overpowering the twangy banjo line that drives the song. This is certainly not the first time traditional country instrumentation has been abused at the hands of more-is-more cock-rockers—remember Seether’s steel-guitar-aided “Country Song”?—though the disconnect between the down-home concept and big-city sound of “Banjo” is staggering in its irony. It’s not a terrible song, especially by the standards of the usually terrible Rascal Flatts, but it seems scientifically calibrated to incite maximum teeth-gnashing from country-music purists.
Steven: Considering the MOR treacle that Rascal Flatts normally doles out—the all-time worst example being the TV-movie melodrama of the sickening “Skin (Sarabeth)”—I can’t say I mind “Banjo” all that much. I’m actually surprised that “Banjo” features as much of the titular instrument as it does; even after the cock-rock guitar enters the picture, the banjo-plucking is still audible, and there’s even a nice little solo later in the song. Yes, Rascal Flatts still belongs in the undistinguished wing of contemporary country music, but I’ll take the group’s upbeat blandness over the manipulative ’n’ maudlin stuff anytime.
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Steven’s grade: C+
Ellie Goulding, “Lights” (No. 84)
Genevieve: Nearly a year after it was released as a single in the UK and its eponymous album was released in the U.S. (and two full years after the album’s UK release), Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” has found its way onto the Hot 100. That roll-out strategy doesn’t necessarily scream “next big thing,” but Goulding is slowly developing a following of those who like chic, restrained dance music in the vein of Goldfrapp or La Roux, whose U.S. career enjoyed a similarly slow build. “Lights” likely got a boost Stateside thanks to the popular Bassnectar remix that burned up clubs last summer, but I’m happy to see it in its original incarnation, which trades on organic-sounding (for dance music, anyway) production and Goulding’s ethereal, restrained vocals. It’s perhaps a little too restrained, fostering an aloofness that keeps it from overtaking you in the way the best dance music can, but it’s still a great little song that will hopefully continue to catch on.
Steven: I say “Lights” is definitely too restrained for the very reason you point out: It’s a dance song without the necessary drive and sweep that might actually make you want to dance. I wish Goulding would push it out a little more; she is aloof to the point of emotional constipation. “Lights” starts off okay, but there’s no build, no pay-off, no anything to maintain interest through the end of the song. Even Goldfrapp can kick a little ass—or provide an intriguing atmosphere that compensates for the lack of ass-kicking. “Lights” just blinks on and off with little flair.
Genevieve’s grade: A-
Steven’s grade: C