A.V. Club writers Genevieve Koski and Steven Hyden have decided to explore the Billboard charts every two weeks in search of the good, the bad, and the ugly of contemporary pop music in all its forms. This week, they take a look at the Hot 100 chart for October 16, 2010.
Bruno Mars, “Just The Way You Are” (No. 1)
Genevieve: Bruno Mars sang the hooks on two of this year’s biggest pop singles (B.o.B’s “Nothin’ On You” and Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire”), and now he looks to have one of his own with “Just The Way You Are,” which has been sitting pretty at No. 1 for three weeks now. Of course, crafting a chorus that goes “’Cause you’re amazing just the way you are” is a pretty good way to ensure a song’s inclusion on every teen girl’s “favorites” playlist and every working DJ’s go-to prom/homecoming/wedding mix. Yes, this song is calculated as all get out, but it’s not as cloying as it could be. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s plenty cloying, but Mars’ voice has a genuine, sunny quality, and I kinda dig the chugga-chugga drumbeat. Does that make up for lyrics like “Her hair falls perfectly without her trying”? The jaded part of me says, “Ugh, no,” but the part of me that still likes being told I’m a pretty, pretty princess says “Sure, why not?”
Steven: I think the world owes Billy Joel an apology for giving him so much shit over writing a sappy song called “Just The Way You Are” that was a lot more genuinely emotional and heartfelt than this laughably wimpy, smarmy trifle. Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” also shreds like a motherfucker compared to Bruno Mars, who just released his debut album, the self-explanatory Doo-Wops & Hooligans. (The Nylons are gonna be pissed when they find out somebody stole that title.) Maybe it’s not as cloying as “it could be,” but “Just The Way You Are” is still pretty barfy, GK. Let’s just say James Blunt’s “Beautiful” is a little less embarrassed to exist now that this song is in the world.
Genevieve’s grade: C+
Steven’s grade: C
Far East Movement, “Like A G6” (No. 2)
Steven: I give Far East Movement points for hipping me to the phrase “gettin’ slizzered,” because I’m forever looking for new and creative euphemisms for drunkenness. But I get confused when this pioneering Asian-American hip-hop group says it’s feeling “fly like a G6”—is the song referring to the Cannon G6 digital camera, the howitzer G6, or the “great 6” largest European Union countries? I think FEM is referring to a jet plane, which I guess means coked-up club kids are so knowledgeable about aircraft that they casually use aviation terminology as metaphors for getting fucked up. This is probably not a song I should be playing through headphones when I’m sitting behind my computer; I should be hearing it played at ear-splitting volume in a bar that I want to leave within 30 seconds of paying the $20 cover. Then I’m sure I’d love “Like A G6.” As it is, this song just makes me wish I was gettin’ slizzered instead of merely writing about it.
Genevieve: Oh goodie, I get to use my “Hyden is so old and unhip” card! Clearly Far East Movement pulled out the G6 reference because it rhymes with “Three Six,” as in Mafia, to whom they are apparently paying homage by drinking syrup and getting “slizzered.” Of course, anyone who was sippin’ sizzurp would probably be totally unable to handle this amped-up song, which is so far from the slowed-down “chopped and screwed” style that it’s absolutely laughable Far East Movement has the gall to reference it. No, this song is clearly about getting blitzed the old-fashioned way—on vodka and Red Bull—and as a soundtrack to that sort of partying, it’s perfect: It’s easy for drunk girls to sing along to while they’re grinding on each other, and gives guys in button-down shirts lots of opportunity to pantomime “popping bottles.” The world needs this kind of music too, and as you point out, there’s a specific time and place for it—and this is not that time or place.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: C+
Lil Wayne featuring Drake, “Gonorrhea” (No. 17)
Genevieve: Thankfully, the only thing this song really has in common with the titular STD is that it’s catchy. (Hey-o!) But it’s still pretty gross, what with references to “2 Girls, 1 Cup” and diarrhea, not to mention the line “we in this bitch like tampons.” A pretty straightforward, punchline-laden boast track with a gross-out undercurrent, it’s far from Weezy’s best work, but it’s not bad, and the guest verse by the usually smooth Drake is surprisingly aggressive. Yet I can’t really see the line “I wish I never met ya, I wouldn’t wanna be ya / Pussy-ass nigga, I don’t want your gonorrhea” going down as one of the all-time great hip-hop couplets. In fact, I can’t even see it getting radio play, yet here it is at No. 17. Then again, maybe after the musical abortion that was Rebirth, Lil Wayne fans are just excited to have him back doing what he does best: somehow managing to rhyme the words “nine” and “moms.”
Steven: I’m not at all surprised by Drake’s nimble aggression on the otherwise flaccid “Gonorrhea”; dude’s still pissed about getting capped and paralyzed on Degrassi. As for Lil Wayne, am I wrong to read this song as a comment on the mating rituals of residents at his current home in Riker’s Island? If I am wrong, I don’t really care, because this interpretation makes “Gonorrhea” a lot more interesting. (In this context, Wayne would presumably be open to pussy-ass niggas without gonorrhea.) As it is, the song seems like a pretty clear-cut case of Lil Wayne working in coast mode. (Drake was practically apologetic about the dashed-off nature of “Gonorrhea” in an interview last month on MTV.) If Wayne doesn’t care, then I won’t either.
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: C+
Paramore/Glee Cast, “The Only Exception” (No. 25/26)
Genevieve: “The Only Exception” brings us a chicken-or-the-egg chart conundrum this week. After falling steadily the past few weeks, the Paramore ballad shot back up to No. 25 this week, just one spot below its peak position. And the song right on its heels? “The Only Exception,” performed by the cast of Glee, debuting this week at No. 26. It’s hard to say which version is less bland: Hayley Williams’ voice has a little more rock edge than Lea Michele’s baby-voiced belting, but Michele’s crazy melisma at least lends some variation to this incredibly repetitive song. It’s like trying to determine a preference between vanilla and French vanilla ice cream. The reappearance of “The Only Exception” this week is less a testament to its strengths as a pop ballad and more a testament to the power of the Glee juggernaut: The cast shows up six more times in the Hot 100 this week. And yet for all their Beatles-stomping chart clout, the Glee kids are still pulling in next to nothing in royalties, while Williams, who co-wrote the song, was surely well-paid for the cover rights. Sometimes it pays to be the original.
Steven: Since “The Only Exception” is Paramore’s big ballad move, I was hoping it would be the band’s “Don’t Speak.” Disappointingly, it does not appear to be a song about how the faceless background guys in Paramore get bummed about being overshadowed by their foxy female singer. Still, I like “The Only Exception” more than you do—it’s surprisingly reminiscent of the big, romantic, tinkling guitar ballads perfected by The Man Who-era Travis, a band that’s strangely remembered for copying Coldplay before Coldplay actually existed. As for the Glee version, I’m a little angry that all the effort I’ve expended avoiding Glee is now all for naught. Melisma aside, Michele’s version is similar enough to the original to render it redundant. But how this song sounds is not nearly as annoying as the concept behind it, which is reproducing current hit songs with the insufferable mugging of high-school theater kids spontaneously launching into “Luck Be A Lady Tonight” during the post-musical party in the Hardees parking lot. Gah, I’m on Team Vanilla.
Genevieve’s grade: C- (both versions)
Steven’s grade: B- (Paramore), D+ (Glee)
Jay Sean featuring Nicki Minaj, “2012 (It Ain’t The End)” (No. 33)
Steven: It’s been 11 long years since the expiration date ran out on “1999,” so we’re more than overdue for a song that turns fears of global annihilation into an excuse to slam bottles of Cristal until six in the morning. It’s too band Jay Sean’s limp “2012 (It Ain’t The End)” isn’t that song; this is a puny pile of smoking rubble compared with Prince’s epically apocalyptic party jam. (Also, why set the song only two years in the future? I get the Mayan-calendar connection, but why not give yourself more of a window for New Year’s Eve parties and set it in 2099?) The only thing that salvages “2012” is the cameo by the ubiquitous Nicki Minaj, who sweeps Sean aside like a pile of toxic ash.
Genevieve: Seriously, what is going on with so-called “party” music right now? It’s all synth strings and anemic beats. If the world really is ending, can we at least send it off with some thumping bass? “Puny” is the perfect word to describe this song, and Minaj’s verse makes that especially apparent: Her rapid-fire flow is so out of place on top of that nothing melody, it sounds like it was recorded before the rest of the song even existed. Jay Sean’s last hit, “Down,” had a similarly ill-fitting guest verse from another Cash Money associate, Lil Wayne, but at least that song had some legitimate energy, whereas “2012” sounds like it’s going to pass out on the couch before the clock hits midnight.
Steven’s grade: C
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Daughtry, “September” (No. 37)
Steven: Shortly after prematurely exiting American Idol in 2006, Chris Daughtry turned down the lead-singer gig in post-grunge moan-rock outfit Fuel because he figured (rightly) that making mediocre modern-rock power ballads is twice as sweet when you do it under your own name. Daughtry has since become one of the biggest purveyors of histrionic butt-rock schmaltz, as the wistful nostalgia of “September” once again shows. Proving that cold-hearted craftsmen can easily turn personal experience into an impersonal, generic product, “September” echoes Daughtry’s popular ballad “Home,” reflecting on the North Carolina town the singer left in the fucking dust when he rose up to indifferently rock an entire nation. Hey Chris, anytime you want to quit music and return to that porch swing and pitcher of lemonade, just let us know.
Genevieve: I had managed to remain blissfully unaware of Daughtry until listening to this song; after listening to it, I’m just about as unaware as before. Talk about forgettable. Power ballads might be my single least favorite type of song (this from someone who grew up around polka music), and “September” pretty much solidifies that position. I don’t think pop music needs to be overtly emotional or even particularly sincere to be successful—in fact, a lot of what I like about pop music is the superficial artifice, which I’d argue is its own art form—so when a song tries and fails so hard to be meaningful, man, it’s especially annoying. If you want to rock out, Daughtry, rock out—if nothing else, you’re a solid rock vocalist. But don’t couch it in some sort of wistful nostalgia so you can trick listeners into thinking you’re saying something important.
Steven’s grade: C
Genevieve’s grade: D+
Yolanda Be Cool & Dcup, “We No Speak Americano” (No. 63)
Genevieve: I kind of love that a song like “We No Speak Americano” can still find a place in the Billboard Hot 100. It’s the epitome of a novelty single, what with its obscure foreign-language sample (hello, “Macarena”) and ringtone-ready melody (hello, Crazy Frog). It’s also catchy as hell, and just begging for a synchronized group dance routine (or hand-dance routine). Granted, that 8-bit backing track and manic tempo—is it just me, or does this song feel like it’s getting progressively faster as it goes on?—are the stuff panic attacks are made of, but I kind of like losing my mind to “We No Speak Americano.”
Steven: Clocking in at just over two minutes, “We No Speak Americano” is slight even by the heady “irritatingly catchy dance-pop novelty song” standard. That said, this song is impervious to criticism; everyone involved in “We No Speak Americano”—from Yolanda Be Cool to Dcup to anybody who has downloaded it—would have to agree that it’s a frivolous piece o’ shit in the proud Lou Bega tradition. Just remember: Songs like “We No Speak Americano” are only fun until they start blaring from phones during your next movie down at the Cineplex.
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: C+
My Chemical Romance, “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)” (No. 77)
Genevieve: I can’t tell if “Na”x12 is brilliant or brilliantly dumb, but I kind of love it regardless, what with its arena-ready chorus and driving punk energy. It makes me feel like a teenager in the best possible way. I actually really liked 2006’s The Black Parade, but it was a tad portentous; this song retains a lot of MCR’s signature dramatics without getting too self-indulgent, a good omen for the upcoming Danger Days: The True Lives Of The Fabulous Killjoys (which looks to be yet another concept album, but hopefully focusing on a cheerier subject than The Black Parade’s cancer motif). It’s sort of the opposite of self-indulgent, actually, what with its invitation to “sing it with me” and protest-anthem lyrics. What do you think, Steve? Are you down for a sing-along with me?
Steven: Sure, though I’m wondering if you’d rather sing along to The Bravery’s 2007 hit “Believe,” the song that originated “Na” et. al’s lead-off guitar riff. Also I’m not really seeing how this song isn’t self-indulgent; get a load of that album title, for crying out loud. Self-indulgence isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my book, but MCR seems a little desperate here, with the “gimme drugs” chant at the start and the melodramatic eye-rollers about blowing yourself up “to change the world.” (Is this rock’s first pro-suicide-bomber anthem?) Then there’s the part where Gerard Way consecutively rhymes “sad man,” “jazz hands,” “madman,” “Batman,” and “gas can,” unwittingly summing up his whole career.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: B-
Linkin Park, “The Catalyst” (No. 93)
Steven: If I were to make a list of statements I thought I’d never make, “Hey, this Linkin Park song isn’t bad!” would rank near the top, next to “I laughed at an episode of Becker” and “These Tea Partiers are starting to make a lot of sense.” Nevertheless, it must be said: This Linkin Park song isn’t bad at all; in fact, I really like it. “The Catalyst” is just a big, dumb noise with Mortal Kombat synths, an undeniably pulse-pumping chorus, and—here’s the kicker—no rapping. (I fully expect “The Catalyst” to become a staple of pre-game shows.) It’s nice to see Linkin Park dial back on the bilious, baby-face pouting of old and embrace being a pop band, because as annoying as this band has been for years, its way with a hook has always been undeniable. Now Genevieve, I know you saw Linkin Park in concert several years ago during your moody, hoodie-wearing phase, so maybe you miss the angst, man. Here’s your chance to scream our ears off about it.
Genevieve: Shame on you, Steven, for turning a kind act—taking my best friend to see her then-favorite band on her birthday—into a jab at my imagined Linkin Park superfandom. (And what do you have against hoodies? They’re comfortable and practical.) However, that experience did teach me one thing, which is that Linkin Park has always been a good pop band and a forehead-slappingly cheesy rock band. If anything, I think “The Catalyst” veers closer to the cheesy side of the spectrum, thanks to its trying-to-be-epic scale—there’s three different songs in here, by my count. Linkin Park may have ditched the silly rapping, but it’s gotten a lot more bloated since it moved away from the three-minute rap-scream-rap formula. That said, some of the bloat is good: The first minute and a half is totally blood-pumping and gleefully anticipatory—I feel like I’m ready to run a marathon just listening to it—and Mike Shinoda’s non-rapping vocals are a surprisingly good counterpart to Chester Bennington’s caterwauling. But the song soon plateaus, and it gets downright silly by the final breakdown. Still, a Linkin Park song that’s half-good, half-boring is better than 90 percent of the band’s discography, so this one squeaks into the “W” column.
Steven’s grade: B+
Genevieve’s grade: B-