March 31, 2012

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 digital songs chart for March 31, 2012

Nicki Minaj, “Starships” (No. 3)


Genevieve: Well, say this for “Starships”: Listeners who have grown weary of Nicki Minaj’s progressively more cartoonish flow since she blew up “Monster” with her heavily affected guest verse will have little to complain about here, at least as it pertains to Minaj’s rapping. The lead single from the upcoming Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded has only a few bars in the way of Minaj’s unmistakable flow, opting instead to focus on a massive Eurodance beat and a Rihanna-evoking, hands-in-the-air hook. I’m not the first person to note the similarities between “Starships” and “Til The World Ends,” by Minaj’s former tourmate Britney Spears. But as readers of this column will recall, I love “Til The World Ends,” so I can’t fault “Starships” for that; I can fault it for essentially burying one of today’s most distinctive—for better or worse—pop-music voices in what’s essentially a guest appearance on a Rihanna/Spears song. As a Nicki Minaj song, this leaves something to be desired, but as a party jam for the impending summer, it’s pretty irresistible.

Steven: I count myself as a Nicki Minaj fan, and I like her because she’s cartoonish and heavily affected and plain old weird in the best possible sense. I can’t understand anyone who likes Minaj wanting her to be anything other than that. Which is why “Starships,” for me, is a big old shit-sandwich, made with two slices of compromise and pandering and a heaping pile of standard-issue radio crap in the middle. Not only is “Starships” devoid of all the things that makes Minaj unique, it has all of the characteristics from other recent hit songs that I absolutely hate: the cookie-cutter Eurodance beat, the relentlessly chirpy synths, and absolutely no emotion or personality at its black-hearted core. Minaj is supposed to be an unpredictable live wire; “Starships” is cold, calculated product on autopilot.
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: D-

Gotye featuring Kimbra, “Somebody That I Used To Know” (No. 4)

Steven: Gotye (pronounced like “goatee-yay”) is 31-year-old Wouter “Wally” De Backer, a Belgian-born and Melbourne, Australia-based singer-songwriter who’s become one of the more unlikely pop-star success stories of recent years with his breakout hit, “Somebody That I Used To Know.” The song initially caught on thanks to an eye-catching video on YouTube, where the clip has logged 132 million views and counting. Heard apart from the video, “Somebody” reminds me a bit of Fun’s “We Are Young,” in that it has a humongous chorus that dwarfs the verse and everything else in the song. Like Fun singer Nate Ruess, De Backer’s vocals go from soaring to piercing to almost unbearable as the chorus descends like the mothership connection. I’d classify “Somebody” as merely inoffensive soft-rock if it weren’t shouting at me so much. Instead, it’s aggressively annoying. 

Genevieve: Man, if this counts as “shouting,” Steven, listening to The Police must be agony for you, because all I can hear when De Backer gets to that chorus is Sting’s voice. Maybe that Nicki Minaj song broke my eardrums, but I’m having trouble hearing this song’s chorus as “humungous”; it’s catchy, certainly, and I suppose it has the potential to be irritating over repeat listens, but there’s a muted quality to “Somebody That I Used To Know” that renders it sort of quaint and likable, and New Zealand singer Kimbra’s contribution adds a little extra texture to an otherwise pretty same-y song. I’ve been hearing this song for a while now, but until now would have been hard-pressed to tell you who sung it; it’s one of those tracks that I’ll happily hum along to, but doesn’t inspire me to seek out more. Though apparently I don’t have much choice in the matter: Gotye plays Saturday Night Live April 14.
Steven’s grade: C 
Genevieve’s grade: B

Calvin Harris, “Feel So Close” (No. 11)

Steven: After listening to the one-note club thumper “Feel So Close,” it’s no shock that Scottish DJ and producer Calvin Harris is also the man behind Rihanna’s one-note club thumper “We Found Love,” as well as songs by Kylie Minogue and LMFAO. “Feels So Close” is more sensation that song, with that familiar house beat and ball-peen-hammer synths that you’ll hear on a million radio songs right now. I can’t say it’s not effective, because almost in spite of myself “Feel So Close” gets my blood pumping. But it feels more like a reflex to physical stimuli than an honest emotional reaction; I feel uplifted, but only after being artlessly bludgeoned. 

Genevieve: I was all set to disagree with you when you dissed “We Found Love,” Steven, but I can’t argue that “Feel So Close” is on the level of that (awesome) song. While I like it a little more than you—due mainly to Harris’ low-key vocals and the simple piano line, which are unusual in this sort of dance music—the droning “wah-a-wah-a-wah-a” wordless chorus is pretty bloodless, an artificial heartbeat that requires dancing rather than inspiring it. 
Steven’s grade: C+
Genevieve’s grade: B-

Gym Class Heroes featuring Neon Hitch, “Ass Back Home” (No. 21)

Genevieve: Gym Class Heroes have built their singles discography on the backs of superstar-sung hooks: Their two top 10 singles, “Cupid’s Chokehold” and “Stereo Hearts,” were defined by their choruses sung by Patrick Stump and Adam Levine, respectively, and Gym Class Hero Travie McCoy’s hit solo single “Billionaire” pulled the same trick with Bruno Mars. So while it’s not surprising that the unfortunately titled “Ass Back Home” relies heavily on a catchy, guest-sung hook to compensate for its trite, lackadaisical raps, it is a little surprising that it comes from relatively unknown British singer-songwriter Neon Hitch. Her presence here can likely be attributed to confirmed hitmaker Benny Blanco, who discovered her and produced this track, as well as previous single “Stereo Hearts.” Blanco’s dubby, snare-hit production and Neon Hitch’s chorus are almost enough to save “Ass Back Home,” but in the end, it’s still a Gym Class Heroes track, which means it’s the definition of “middling.”

Steven: Can Kid Rock sue Gym Glass Heroes for taking the title “Ass Back Home”—which we can all agree is better suited for the American Badass—and ruining it with this weaksauce? “Ass Back Home” is like two different songs, shifting gears from McCoy’s unconvincing verses to Neon Hitch’s lame but relatively tuneful chorus. But, hey, it works, thanks mostly to Blanco, who does nothing special here beyond sounding enough like his other hit productions to get “Ass Back Home” over the hump. With Black Eyed Peas in semi-retirement, Gym Class Heroes is poised to be the next popular radio-rap group we can all agree on being the absolute worst.
Genevieve’s grade: C
Steven’s grade: C-

Jason Mraz, “I Won’t Give Up” (No. 24)

Genevieve: Now that John Mayer has essentially retired, Jason Mraz seems to have taken his place as the cheap, sensitive-guitar-guy reference for music snobs in need of a whipping boy, but the truth is, he’s forged a low-key, decade-long career by being generally unobjectionable. As far as gentle acoustic music goes, you could do a lot worse than songs like “I’m Yours” or “I Won’t Worry (The Remedy),” assuming you can overlook Mraz’s proclivity for wearing silly hats. “I Won’t Give Up” is the first-dance-song-to-be at the wedding for that nice but kinda boring couple you know from college, a sweetly strummed and sung ode to working through the tough times in a relationship because “we’re worth it.” It’s not original or even particularly interesting subject matter, but Mraz has a way of coating his lyrics with just the right amount of sugar, enough to send the trite sentiments down smooth without gagging on the sweetness. 

Steven: Ha, nice try, GK. You’ve sabotaged me by positioning any critic of Jason Mraz as a “music snob” needlessly taking a shot at a harmless, nice-enough guy. Well, call me what you will, but it must be said: This guy sucks. Man, that felt great! Let me say it again, this time in all-caps. THIS GUY SUUUCKS! Just so you don’t think I’m a total hater, let me go out on a limb and defend Mayer in this context: I think he’s gotten a bad rap in some respects, considering he’s written legitimately good (or at least serviceable) songs like “Waiting On The World To Change” and that one about running through the hallways of his high school. Mraz, on the other hand, is the world’s most successful dorm-room guitar-slinger, with all the self-satisfied smugness and limited musical ability that implies. I could get behind the sentiments of “I Won’t Give Up” if I believed for even a second that Mraz was connected to the words he’s singing, and not merely trying to bang the cute girl from the fourth floor. But I don’t believe that, or anything else about Mraz’s irritating regular-dude shtick. 
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: D

B.o.B., “So Good” (No. 25)

Genevieve: I don’t know if it’s the unseasonably warm weather Chicago’s been experiencing, but I’m really responding to the “summer songs” on this week’s chart. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m dying to do a little traveling, maybe it’s that B.o.B. shouts out to Virgos on this song (Team Virgo high-five, Steven!), or maybe it’s just those damn “na-na-nas,” which are my musical kryptonite, but I’m totally buying the globe-trotting optimism of “So Good.” The plinky piano base nicely complements B.o.B.’s crisp, erudite-but-not-too-erudite flow, and Ryan Tedder’s sunny production work infuses the song with summertime good vibes. There’s really nothing else to say about this song; it’s all right there in the title.

Steven: Most of the summery songs you’ve enjoyed on this chart have brought out the wintery grouch in me, but “So Good” instantly won me over. B.o.B. is hardly a paragon of hip-hop authenticity, but “So Good” has a throwback vibe to it, with the rolling beat and clipped piano chords providing a strong underpinning for the life-affirming verses. I’m not sure if this is as good as I think it is right now, or if it just sounds great after being bombarded with so many songs I flat-out hated this month. But I appreciate B.o.B. for keeping it at least a little real.   
Genevieve’s grade: A-
Steven’s grade: B+

Eric Church, “Springsteen” (No. 32)

Steven: I was a fan of Eric Church’s 2011 album Chief, a party record composed of “simple songs about uncomplicated subjects” that I likened to prime-era (meaning pre-“Obama is Hitler”) Hank Williams Jr. But my favorite song on the record deviates from the beer-and-bros script a bit: “Springsteen” uses the titular rocker as a metaphor for the power of music to sum up and evoke long-buried emotions from the past. This is a theme I’ve long been obsessed with, and Church appropriately plays down the emotion of the song in order to let listeners fill in the gaps with their own lives and lost loves. Musically, “Springsteen” is as solid as, well, a Springsteen song, with able backing from Church’s band (which sounds earthy and rough by Nashville’s sterling standards) giving it some nice Southern-rock spit and soul.

Genevieve: Yeah, I’m pretty Springsteen-neutral, but this song really stirs up how one perfect, well-timed song can transform a regular ol’ night into a lifelong memory. It’s a romantic song in the most universal, non-saccharine sense of the word, one that should resonate with anyone who’s experienced that head-rush that comes with an unforgettable shared musical experience, be it an amazing concert or a spontaneous sing-along with someone special. It’s fruitful fodder for a country song, and it’s nicely portrayed by Church both vocally and instrumentally, but I wish it had just a little more payoff. The “whoa-ohs” are nice and fit the song’s low-key sense of joy, but they’re not quite enough to bring about that sense of euphoria the song is trying to evoke. 
Steven’s grade: B+ 
Genevieve’s grade: B+

Bonus cut: Justin Bieber, “Boyfriend”

Steven: Justin Bieber’s latest single “Boyfriend”—the first from his upcoming album Believe—came out as we were compiling this installment of This Was Pop, so it’s not actually part of the chart we’re writing about. But it’s a safe bet that “Boyfriend” will be an instant No. 1 hit on the digital songs chart (and possibly the Hot 100) and be everywhere on the radio by next week, so GK and I figured it was worth covering anyway. And I’m glad we did, because “Boyfriend” ranks with “Baby” as the Biebs’ best-ever single. The influence here is not subtle: “Boyfriend” is practically a straight-up homage to the first Justin Timberlake album, 2002’s Justified, particularly the singles “Senorita” and “Like I Love You.” Fortunately for Bieber (and me), Justified is my favorite pop album of the last 10 years, and even though the lyrics here are pretty awful—I’ll keep “swaggie” but the Buzz Lightyear reference has got to go—I’m happy to forgive the wholesale thievery of “Boyfriend” given that the real Timberlake remains retired from the pop game.

Genevieve: I’d actually place “Boyfriend” above “Baby” and call it my favorite Justin Bieber song, period. Sure, the rapping is kind of awkward, but I’m pretty much immune to the obnoxiousness of “swag” and its variations at this point, and Bieber keeps it relatively unembarrassing with a smooth, whisper-sing flow that’s closer to R&B than rap. (I never want to hear Justin Bieber attempting to “go hard.”) But the sparse, Neptunes-ian beat—actually courtesy of Mike Posner, who knew?—is irresistible, and when Bieber launches into that Timberlakian falsetto, it all feels pretty perfect. He still has a way to go before he earns the goodwill Justin Timberlake had in the early-to-mid-2000s, but this is a good start. Swaggie, indeed. 
Steven’s grade: A-
Genevieve’s grade: A-

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