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 September 1, 2012.
Taylor Swift, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (No. 1)
Genevieve: It’s hard to believe, but “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” marks Taylor Swift’s first time atop the Hot 100, in spite of her being one of the top-selling artists of the last five years. (Up until this week, she shared this dubious honor with another pop-music mega-force, Justin Bieber.) It’s not hard to see why, what with the big, shiny Max Martin-branded production and that sing-along-baiting “Wheeee!” in the chorus making this the gosh-darn cheeriest breakup anthem in a summer full of them. But Swift’s teen-speak inflection on the verses and the talky interlude make this song sound as if it were composed using Emoji; it’s adorable, which is kind of Swift’s thing, but after five years of superstardom—and all the controversy and high-profile romances that come with it—it would be nice to see Swift letting some of the worldliness she’s undoubtedly picked up along the way inform her music somewhat. The fact that she has done so before—see 2010’s Speak Now—makes “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” seem like a regression, albeit a very likable, listenable one.
Steven: I don’t know if “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is so much a regression as Taylor Swift producing the Taylor Swift-iest song imaginable. Taylor Swift putting out a single called “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is like AC/DC writing a track called “Wink Wink Double Entendre Balls.” Sassy break-up songs are just what she does, and coming after the sometimes-overbearing self-pity of Speak Now (which weighed down even likeable tunes like the hit “Mean”), the cheeriness here is a nice change of pace.
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: B
Flo Rida, “Whistle” (No. 2)
Genevieve: Flo Rida is sort of the opposite of Taylor Swift, notching multiple No. 1 singles while remaining one of the most anonymous, ineffectual pop stars in recent memory. Unlike all of his other high-charting singles, Flo goes it alone on “Whistle,” without the benefit of T-Pain, Ke$ha, or Etta James goosing the hook into something memorable. Instead, he leans on the second- and third-hoariest pop-hit formulas (after a guest-sung hook): whistling and double entendre. Then again, Flo Rida’s instruction to “put your lips together” before blowing his whistle suggests he puts about as much thought into blowjob technique as he does into his lyrics. But that’s sort of the way it goes with Flo Rida songs: They’re catchy, lobotomized party jams that aren’t meant to be thought about too much, or preferably at all.
Steven: When I was 8, I thought a woman got pregnant from sleeping in the same bed as a man. I wonder if Flo Rida is similarly misinformed about oral sex, which cannot be successfully completed by simply putting your lips together and coming in close. Seriously, somebody close to Flo Rida: Give this dude the lowdown, please. Now… what were we talking about again? Oh yeah, “Whistle.” For whatever reason, Flo Rida’s once-in-a-generation combination of mediocre rapping, unexceptional songwriting, and by-the-numbers production keeps resulting in hits. I don’t understand it, and I don’t understand how this is the No. 2 song in the country. And, come to think of it, Flo Rida doesn’t deserve to have blowjobs explained to him.
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Steven’s grade: D
Cher Lloyd, “Want U Back” (No. 16)
Genevieve: “UNGH!” Well, that’s one way for a burgeoning UK pop star to call attention to herself in the notoriously UK pop-star-averse U.S. market. “Want U Back” is the first U.S. single from fourth-place X Factor contestant Cher Lloyd, who’s already scored two Top 5 hits in her home country, and the track’s grunt-centric chorus makes for a noteworthy introduction to these shores. However, Lloyd’s vocals are the hammiest this side of Jessie J, and we’ve all seen how well her stateside transition has gone. There’s a quality to the way both Lloyd and Jessie J sing that registers as mugging, a sort of “dear God, please love me” desperation that doesn’t square with the sassy, confident characters their songs portray them as. The pieces are all there—on the surface, there’s not that much to distinguish “Want U Back” from “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” with which it shares a co-producer (Shellback, who’s also done work for Ke$ha and Britney Spears) and an overall cutesy sensibility—but the fit is slightly off, like a mass-market designer knockoff being passed off as the real thing.
Steven: It says a lot about our blessed This Was Pop readers that we can freely toss around references to something like Jessie J and just expect them to know what it is. Jessie J might be a future Trivial Pursuit question that nobody will know the answer to, but Cher Lloyd won’t even get that far. This song annoys the holy hell out of me. Where do I begin? There’s the part where she almost says “shit,” the part where she says “want you back, want you back, want you want you want you back,” the part with all the goddamn grunting—oh my God, the fucking grunting. “Want U Back” is like something out of a Daniel Clowes comic intended to illustrate the emptiness of contemporary culture, only it’s real and even emptier than could ever be imagined.
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Steven’s grade: D-
Phillip Phillips, “Home” (No. 17)
Steven: In the bizarro world of American Idol, Philip Phillips’ annoying twisty-face and shuffling-feet Dave Matthews shtick qualified as “really fresh, dawg!” After Phillips’ inexorable climb to the top of the Idol heap finally drove me away last season—I know, I got what I deserved—I was ready to hate his first single, “Home.” Even Phillips sort of hates this song, telling Rolling Stone back in May that “it’s a little too pop for me… I’m a little more rock than that.” Oh man, it appears Phillips has already entered the “I’m too deluded to know what I really am” post-Idol phase that eventually derailed his predecessor, Taylor Hicks. No matter: I actually don’t mind this song! It’s a perfectly acceptable fake-indie radio tune. It reminds me a little of the other “Home” by Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeroes, both lyrically and musically, and it builds to a stirring, Mumford-esque climax. It’s a boilerplate song that was forcibly foisted on Phillips by his handlers, and it’s not really true to his musical personality. But as someone who can’t stand Philip Phillips’ musical personality, this is actually an improvement.
Genevieve: Not being an American Idol fan, now or ever, I can’t really speak to Philip Phillips’ musical personality beyond what’s presented in this song, which is… totally fine! Would “Home” be making any waves on the radio if it weren’t for Phillips’ Idol connection and, probably even more significantly, the massive amount of play it got during NBC’s Olympics coverage this year? Almost certainly not, but considering the mass-appeal instincts both of those venues cater to, “Home” is the perfect amalgam of trendy and timeless sounds, an offend-no-one blend of acoustic instrumentation, uplifting vocals, and what might be the most comfortingly familiar, common song title and theme in modern music. (Seriously, I could make a decent-length playlist composed entirely of guitar-slingers singing about “Home,” including the next artists on this list.) It’s as difficult to hate this song as it is to love it.
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: C+
Mumford & Sons, “I Will Wait” (No. 37)
Steven: I’ve taken plenty of cheap shots at Mumford & Sons in this column and elsewhere. But, come on, I am not made of stone. The band’s new single “I Will Wait” from the forthcoming, sure-to-be-mega-selling Babel has been designed to lift spirits and hoist pints of beers to the heavens, and that’s precisely what it does. The band’s corny Cracker Barrel image appears to have subsided a bit, leaving only the foot-stomping rhythms and spirited banjo-strumming that are undeniably derivative and rousing. “I Will Wait” might replicate the formula of Sigh No More to the letter, but you can’t fault Mumford for playing a card that still works. Really, unless you are bound and determined to dig down deep and hate these guys, “I Will Wait” will pick you up like a wave and whip you rapidly forward for five minutes.
Genevieve: I was wondering when you’d come around on Mumford, Steven; I never quite understood your aversion to them beyond the derivativeness, which is kind of a moot point when we’re discussing pop music. My theory: Unlike the previous Mumford singles we’ve covered here, “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave,” which both start slow and let the rollick build, “I Will Wait” storms out of the gate with propulsive banjo-picking (not strumming, she said snottily) that keeps the song chugging through its, let’s be honest, too-long runtime. The placeholder video that accompanies the audio of “I Will Wait”—an endless rush of asphalt road—is incredibly apt, as the song induces the same sort of trance as speeding down an empty highway, an engaged-but-not reverie that’s simultaneously lively and lulling. It’s that combination that makes Mumford & Sons such a popular live act and gives “I Will Wait” its unchallenging appeal.
Steven’s grade: B+
Genevieve’s grade: B
Matchbox Twenty, “She So Mean” (No. 49)
Steven: I guess absence really does make the heart grow fonder: When Matchbox Twenty was being played on the radio every 15 minutes in the late ’90s, Rob Thomas’ white-bread bland-outs made my skin crawl. But now that the M-boxers have been on hiatus for a decade, I was kind of excited to hear “She’s So Mean.” Would Thomas’ ability to write frightfully popular songs whose lack of personality and character makes them perfect for multiple radio formats continue abated? Based on “She’s So Mean,” the answer is: Of course! This is the “Smooth” guy, you dummy! I can’t say I love “She’s So Mean;” at best, it is the most rocking Maroon 5 song ever. But I can appreciate it from the perspective of professionalism. Thomas is nothing if not a proud craftsman who is one of our culture’s greatest conjurers of cozy ambivalence.
Genevieve: I have a similar aversion to Matchbox Twenty, so I had my mental dial turned to “apathy” when I clicked “play,” but darned if “She’s So Mean” didn’t bump it up to “moderate enjoyment.” I have to take some issue with you levying the “lack of personality and character” criticism—which certainly does apply to some of Rob Thomas’ biggest hits—at this song, though. I’m a sucker for details in songwriting, and while “She’s So Mean” is far from poetry, it does get in some nice observations about its titular hellion without venturing too far into eye-roll-worthy “Hefty bag to hold my love” territory. (Though I’m not quite sure what a “hardcore, candy-store” girl is supposed to be.) I don’t want to overpraise “She’s So Mean,” which is still pretty down-the-middle, but if the ascension of Train in Matchbox Twenty’s absence has taught us anything, it’s that down-the-middle pop-rock can be much, much worse than this.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: B-
No Doubt, “Settle Down” (No. 58)
Genevieve: No Doubt is making a tricky play here, returning to music a full decade after a self-imposed hiatus with a sound that’s more or less a continuation of 2001’s Rock Steady, specifically the single “Hey Baby,” which has many echoes in “Settle Down.” It’s a sound that was successful for the band—to the tune of multiple platinum certifications—but that’s also a few degrees removed from both what’s popular today and the “classic” No Doubt sound of the mid-’90s. The dancehall-inflected track is still unmistakably No Doubt, but it’s a version of No Doubt that isn’t necessarily a slam-dunk for either nostalgists or potential new fans. All that said, the song’s island-y rhythms, skank-friendly beat, and beefy chorus—not to mention Gwen Stefani at her most Stefani-est—are a mighty refreshing change of pace on the Hot 100, even if they, at this point, feel more like a fun curiosity than a triumphant comeback.
Steven: It’s been interesting to see how kind history has been to No Doubt. When it emerged in the mid-’90s as part of the ska-punk boom, No Doubt wasn’t most people’s idea of a legacy band—and with good reason, considering how quickly ska came and went. Even after No Doubt was able to string together lots of hits in the late ’90s and early ’00s, evolving into a modern-day Blondie with the ability to bend its sound freely to current pop trends, it would’ve been very easy for the group to fade away after Rock Steady, especially in light of Gwen Stefani’s successful solo career. But here No Doubt is, in 2012, picking up pretty much where it left off. This isn’t entirely a good thing: “Settle Down” seems like a warmed-over Rock Steady leftover. And I’m not sure what makes “Settle Down” a No Doubt track and not a Stefani solo joint. Then again, No Doubt has long had a Phil Collins/Genesis-like duality with its lead singer. Even if the new album isn’t a full return to form, I expect the record to have at least one other single that’s a little better than this one.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: B-
Tim McGraw, “Truck Yeah” (No. 59)
Steven: This was the one song we had to cover this month, not only because it’s a song called “Truck Yeah,” but also because our boss, Keith Phipps, insisted on it. So here goes: “Truck Yeah” is exactly as good as you’d expect it to be. It’s a Rorschach test! If you’re playing it on a computer in the middle of the day, it’s pretty lousy. But if you encounter “Truck Yeah” on, say, a Friday night after two, three, or 12 beers, “Truck Yeah” is awesome. The guitars and drums are big and dumb, McGraw sings it like he picked up the song and dropped it after two minutes, and the lyrics are a bunch of nonsense about redneck pride but it says “Truck yeah!” in the chorus, so who cares?
Genevieve: Oh come on, Steven. A little consistency, please! If “Truck Yeah” (sorry, #TruckYeah) were by Brad Paisley or Toby Keith, you’d be all over this one like mud on tires. We have a long tradition on This Was Pop of praising the big, dumb, and redneck-proud when it comes to male country singers, but apparently Tim McGraw is exempt due to his history of being the biggest hunk of cheese to ever stink up the FM dial. But unlike with schmaltzy, leaden love ballads, cheese is totally acceptable when it’s slopped all over something as nutrient-free and instantly gratifying as “Truck Yeah,” which seems to be angling to fill the “club-ready country” slot carved out by Big & Rich on radio playlists. This isn’t the most genuine look for McGraw, but frankly, nothing is, and at least this song isn’t aspiring to anything beyond mindless fist-pumping and drink-hoisting.
Steven’s grade: C+
Genevieve’s grade: B