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 July 28, 2012.
Katy Perry, “Wide Awake” (No.3)
Steven: Few things in life give me more pleasure than arguing with you about Katy Perry, GK. (One of the things I enjoy more is arguing with you about Ke$ha, but I won’t open up that can of glittery binge-drinking worms just yet.) For those of you just checking in, I’m generally pro-Perry, and GK is generally anti-Perry. I like my pop divas to be goofy, self-mocking, and self-consciously ridiculous, and that’s generally been Perry’s M.O. during her incredibly successful run of hit singles going back several years now. Recently, though, Katy has been kind of heavy, with her “eff you Russell Brand” No. 1 hit “Part Of Me” and now “Wide Awake,” a splashy, shiny, yet sneakily pensive ballad about piecing your heart back together and moving on after a breakup. This isn’t my favorite look for Perry—she appears to be in full-on Blood On The Tracks-for-juniors mode—but the involvement of Dr. Luke and Max Martin guarantees a level of catchy pop craftsmanship that makes the song’s bitter core go down sticky-sweet.
Genevieve: Sorry to deprive you of one of your favorite pastimes, Steven, but I’m afraid our tastes are pretty much aligned on this one. Though I will say, I like that Perry is injecting a little maturity into her cartoon persona, rote though it may be. Pretty much the only thing I liked about Perry’s recent concert documentary was the brief look it gave at the conflict between Perry’s hyper-superficial professional façade and the real-life ordeal of her divorce, and songs like this and “Part Of Me” at least try to resolve that conflict in an appropriately Perry-esque manner. It isn’t deep or especially personal in any way—it wouldn’t be Katy Perry if it were—but it expresses universal feelings in a relatable, well-produced way. It’s not my favorite breakup anthem on this month’s list, but it is easily digestible and moderately invigorating, which is all a Katy Perry song needs to be.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: B
Pink, “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” (No. 9)
Genevieve: Steven, I’m already anticipating what you’re going to say about this song based on the annoyance you’ve expressed before in this column with Pink’s faux-renegade shtick, but I’m hoping you’re willing to forgive Pink her bad-girl posturing on “Blow Me (One Last Kiss).” Yes, that ain’t-I-a-stinker title is a little eye-roll-inducing coming from a 32-year-old mother, but “Blow Me” is a classic pop breakup anthem in the mold of “Since U Been Gone,” and its big-as-all-get-out chorus is well-suited to Pink’s throaty bellowing. With its liberal sprinkling of “shit” and mentions of whiskey-dick, it isn’t the most mature kiss-off, but it sure is cathartic—a description that could, not coincidentally, also be applied to Pink’s last great single, 2008’s na-na-na-na-ing “So What?” I like Pink and think she tends to be underrated as a pop star, but I’ll admit she’s not particularly well-suited to the earnest and uplifting. For stuff like this, though, she’s fuckin’ perfect.
Steven: I just don’t get what you see in Pink, GK. And I definitely don’t think the comparison to “Since U Been Gone” is apt. “Gone” was one of the best pop singles of the ’00s; this is another forgettable reiteration of Pink’s bad-ass B-list diva persona. The chorus starts okay, but by the time Pink gets to “shit day” (which sounds like “shit-tay”), it sounds so shrill and annoying that I’m solidly on the side of the dude she’s splitting up with. The only thing I find cathartic about “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” is telling you how much I think it sucks.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: C
Neon Trees, “Everybody Talks” (No. 20)
Genevieve: A No. 1 debut single is no easy feat, and satisfactorily following up on a No. 1 debut single is even tougher. Such a position can inspire either confidence or paralyzing uncertainty in a band; thankfully, Neon Trees seem to have chosen the former with “Everybody Talks,” the debut single from the band’s upcoming sophomore album. “Everybody Talks” is noticeably similar to 2010’s multi-platinum “Animal” in its bouncy synth-rock cheerleading, but it feels fuller and more assured of its own bubbly nature than its predecessor, which always struck me as a little strained and overreaching. “Everybody Talks” also has a slight retro lean that goes beyond Neon Trees’ new-new-wave appropriation, complete with an introductory vocal nod to “At The Hop” (not to mention the cute drive-in-themed music video). It’s hard to listen to this song without feeling the urge to start doing the Pony.
Steven: I kind of want to give Neon Trees credit solely for the fact that they’re still capable of having a hit song. I liked “Animal,” but Neon Trees seemed like such an obvious flash-in-the-pan that “Everybody Talks” comes as a surprise, even if it is essentially “Son Of Animal.” The new-wave sleaze and hooky chorus are in the same place, though as you say, it is a little slicker this time around. At the very least, the group has earned a second spot on the inevitable “Totally ’10s” compilation.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: B+
Owl City and Carly Rae Jepsen, “Good Time” (No. 21)
Steven: An earworm as diabolical as “Good Time” could only be cooked up in a back room among long-time record-industry cronies, and according to this Billboard story, that’s pretty much how the song was born. The head of Carly Rae Jepsen’s label is childhood buddies with Owl City’s management, and they decided that the only way to melt the synapses of millions of innocent people was to pair their artists together for this epically insipid ditty. “Good Time” is indeed about having a good time—or rather, the act of getting psyched up to have a good time at some point in the immediate future. Jepsen is here, apparently, to lend her unique phone-related pop-song skills to the proceedings, while Owl City’s Adam Young gooses up his usual Postal Service-lite sound with generous dollops of Europop. “Good Time” is as edgy and substantive as a beach ball, but ’tis the season for beach balls, no?
Genevieve: Jepsen is a good fit for “Good Time,” with a voice that’s like sentient sunshine (in spite of the appalling sleep schedule she espouses in this song), and her proven ability to render songs that should be supremely hateable into inescapable radio hits. But whereas “Call Me Maybe” felt like a glorious fluke, “Good Time” has a severe case of trying-too-hard-itis, in large part due to Young’s contributions. Jepsen’s preternatural cheerfulness goes a long way toward selling such aggressive joy-mongering, but something about Young’s smirking delivery comes across as just a bit too calculated, straining at the seams of the song’s perfectly pre-fab construction. The near-wordless, completely mindless chorus does a lot to drive away the icky aftertaste of Young’s verses, but not quite enough to make “Good Time” the slam-dunk it so desperately wants to be.
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Genevieve: Considering “No Lie” is the lead single from 2 Chainz’s upcoming Def Jam debut, it’s a little surprising he cedes so much of the song to Drake, especially considering that Drake’s loping, comparatively assured flow only serves to highlight 2 Chainz’s shouty, not-especially-nimble style of rap. (When Drake is the superior wordsmith on a song, something’s amiss.) Then again, when 2 Chainz returns in the third verse, he does so with the energy and zeal of three Drakes. (3 Drakez?) Too bad it’s in service of a thoroughly boneheaded track that has all the thoughtfulness and nuance you’d expect of someone who used to call himself “Tity Boi.” The beat is as mindless as the lyrics, but thankfully, much easier to like.
Steven: The best part of “No Lie” is imagining the moody, morning-after song Drake will record when he’s feeling remorseful over hanging out with 2 Chainz. I bet it will be the third most depressing song on the follow-up to Take Care. As for “No Lie” itself, will you hate me if I sort of love it? The draggy, dreamy beat is perfect for a crawling late-night cruise during this hot-as-hell summer, and Drake’s sing-songy Drakeness is a nice complement to 2 Chainz’s forcefully free-flowing filth. My gut tells me the 2 Chainz album will probably be shit, but “No Lie” is a fine guilty pleasure.
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Steven’s grade: B+
Ca$h Out, “Cashin Out” (No. 39)
Genevieve: It’s pretty audacious to name your debut single after yourself, especially when your debut single is just terrible. From the Casio-keyboard beat to Cash Out’s (sorry, Cash Out, you have not earned that dollar-sign stylization) gulpy, marble-mouthed flow, everything about “Cashin Out” is half-assed and uninspired. Is it worse than a lot of what passes for “party rap” these days? Not particularly, but it’s certainly not any better, and any of the various freestyles and remixes it’s inspired should serve as a superior substitute.
Steven: Geez GK, who took a piss in your party punchbowl? I’ll grant you that that “Cashin’ Out” isn’t the most refined song on the chart, but I actually like its rinky-dink cheapness and Ca$h Out’s borderline-amateurish flow. The debut single by 21-year-old Georgia rapper John-Michael Hakim Gibson, “Cashin’ Out” sounds like it was recorded in the lobby of a record-label office five minutes before his deal was signed. It’s no masterpiece, but it has a likeable junkiness that I prefer to the overly professional product taking up much of the pop chart.
Genevieve’s grade: D
Steven’s grade: B-
Hunter Hayes, “Wanted” (No. 46)
Steven: I can’t decide whether Hunter Hayes is the country-music Justin Bieber or the male Taylor Swift. Based on the romantic ballad “Wanted,” the 20-year-old Hayes works the middle ground between cute-guy puppy-dog pop and singer-songwriter-oriented country. Hayes’ voice is essentially a placeholder; his no-frills tenor delivers the song just fine without making an impression one way or the other. The same could be said of the song, which is the sort of mid-tempo “pledging my love” tune Rascal Flatts routinely turns out. (Hayes co-wrote a song for Rascal Flatts’ 2010 album Nothing Like This, so he’s done his homework.) What Hunter Hayes has going for him is a nice smile and some catchy consonance; otherwise, “Wanted” is a zero.
Genevieve: According to his bio, Hunter Hayes has been making his bid for superstardom since age 4, and “Wanted” certainly sounds like the product of someone who has gone through years of smoothing out every possible rough edge that could offend anyone, anywhere. It’s musical porridge that’s served up neither too hot nor too cold, and as you say, Steve, it leaves no impression whatsoever. Hayes is obviously talented, but talent and charisma are not interchangeable, and Hayes is going to have to add some of the latter to his vanilla-on-vanilla sundae if he wants to forge a brand that doesn’t hinge on comparisons to other singers.
Steven’s grade: C
Genevieve’s grade: C
The Lumineers, “Ho Hey” (No. 64)
Steven: It would be reductive to call The Lumineers a cynical attempt to cash in on the popularity of Mumford And Sons and Arcade Fire by lifting the clothes and instrumentation from the former and sonic expansiveness from the latter, but … where was I going with this again? Oh yeah, The Lumineers aren’t exactly a rip-off of those other bands, but they are certainly, ahem, strongly inspired by them. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, because “Ho Hey” is a pretty solid song, especially once the chorus kicks in, with its warm, campfire sing-along quality. But the genre of yelping, guitar-slinging, radio-friendly indie-folk bands has officially entered its Bush/Live phase.
Genevieve: You gotta be careful with that sort of influence-mapping, Steven; The Lumineers’ formation predates Mumford And Sons’ by at least a couple of years, even though they only recently scored a record deal. It’s not the band’s fault it’s suddenly en vogue, and lumping it onto the tail end of an ill-defined “wave” (really, Mumford and Arcade are contemporaries now?) based on one song is a tad unfair. Especially considering you like this song, as do I. “Ho Hey” is timely in its timeless-sounding qualities, but it’s still a sound that’s mostly underrepresented in the dance-happy pop mainstream, and it feels particularly refreshing in the wake of everything else on this month’s list.
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: B+