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. This month, they take a look at the Hot 100 chart for April 30, 2011.
Genevieve: 50 Cent recently said that he saved “Birthday Sex” crooner Jeremih’s career with his verse on “Down On Me,” though his appearance in a viral video associated with the song probably has more to do with its success than his mediocre eight bars: Fiddy’s “surprise” guest appearance on a video from one of YouTube’s most confusing breakout stars, Keenan Cahill, currently has more than 30 million views and has been on Chelsea Lately, giving “Down On Me” a much wider audience than the 100,000 or so people who’ve bought Jeremih’s latest album, All About You. And frankly, this song needed the novelty factor to be a hit, because it’s generic as hell. Sure, it’s not without its charms—I particularly like the minimal, percussive beat—but the lyrics, Auto-Tuned hook, and lazy guest verse are all Top 40 R&B boilerplate.
Steven: That viral video aside, the most impressive thing about “Down On Me” really is 50 Cent’s still-potent star power. Fiddy’s lame-brain Twitter feed has gotten more attention than his music lately—though there have been some recent signs of life—but the success of “Down On Me” has to be due more to the guest star than the nondescript leading man. (The album that spawned this single, 2010’s All About You, tanked on the charts.) That said, I actually like Jeremih’s voice, which flows out smoothly without much effort. Unfortunately, “without much effort” sort of sums up this whole operation.
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Steven’s grade: C-
Lady Gaga, “Judas” (No. 10)
Steven: If Lady Gaga was out to inspire us with “Born This Way,” she seems hell-bent on annoying pop-music fans with “Judas.” Angry Christian cardboard cut-out Bill Donohue of the Catholic League has already made his requisite visit to Fox News to rip the song, which baits the faithful by applying a sympathetic, Last Temptation Of Christ-style perspective to the Bible’s public enemy No. 1. Then there’s the music, a pounding headache of aggro-synths, punishing beats, and Gaga’s hammy “Jud-dah, Jud-dah-ah-ah” vocalizing, an obvious nod to Gaga’s own (and far superior) “Bad Romance.” Like “Born This Way,” “Judas” sounds a little bloated, weighed down by over-calculated provocations that are more silly than scintillating. “Judas” is funny at times, but in ways that don’t seem intentional; Gaga is flirting with self-parody here and I’m not sure realizes it.
Genevieve: These days, in order to be a Lady Gaga fan, you have to believe that she’s not taking herself seriously—but she sure doesn’t make it easy, with her constant crying and assertions that her songs are sent from God. Then again, I have to believe that the woman who claims God sent her the lyrics “wear an ear condom next time” has a sense of humor, and assume her self-reverence is part of her “character.” And it’s a lot easier to do that with “Judas,” which to me reads as less calculating and provocative than Big Statement Songs like “Born This Way.” Its similarities to “Bad Romance” go beyond the “ah-ah-ahs”; it’s basically a song about falling for the wrong guy, the “bad boy,” but dressed up in a Bible-thumper-baiting high concept worthy of Gaga—or Madonna, if you want start that conversation again. It’s cheeky rather than self-righteous (and the fact that it sounds like “Bad Romance” doesn’t hurt, because “Bad Romance” fucking rocks). This I believe. I have to.
Steven’s grade: C-
Genevieve’s grade: B
Bruno Mars, “The Lazy Song” (No. 11)
Steven: As you know, GK, we’ve had our ups and downs with Bruno Mars over the course of This Was Pop. First we decided he was a wince-worthy sapmeister after his smash ballad “Just The Way You Are.” Then, based on the strength of his Grammy performance with Janelle Monáe and the pretty good single “Grenade,” we realized that, hey, this kid is pretty talented. I’m not about to revise my opinion on that count based on “The Lazy Song”—this kid still has the goods, he just might not have good judgment yet. I mean that only in the artistic sense; “The Lazy Song” is a lighthearted ditty that has been coldly constructed to give Mars another hit, so his commercial instincts are still firmly intact. But Mars also seems concerned about his credibility with the PBR&B crowd, and aping the sexless Caribbean rhythms and “I’m just chillin’” affectations of Jack Johnson (and his country brother from another mother Kenny Chesney) puts him back at square one with those folks.
Genevieve: Oof, I’m less forgiving than you, Steven. Consider this a big ol’ “down” in our up-and-down relationship with Mars. In fact, this might be enough to warrant a breakup, or at least some time spent seeing other Top 40 artists. I’m sorry Bruno. I want to like you, and you still have a nice voice and really cool hair and all… but I just can’t be seen listening to a guy who drops P90-X references and rhymes “chillin’ in my Snuggie” with “Teach me how to Dougie.” And that Jack Johnson-ized melody, devoid of the appealing percussive backbone you’ve shown in your previous singles, is causing unwelcome flashbacks to some poor decisions I made in college. What I’m trying to say, Bruno, is that I’ve outgrown you, at least in your “The Lazy Song” incarnation. Maybe someday, I’ll be able to listen to “Grenade” again and think back fondly on our short time together.
Steven’s grade: C-
Genevieve’s grade: D
Tinie Tempah featuring Eric Turner, “Written In The Stars” (No. 14)
Genevieve: The transition from UK pop supremacy to U.S. chart success is fraught with peril, especially for rappers—just ask Lady Sovereign and Dizzee Rascal. Like fellow Brit Award winner Jessie J, Tinie Tempah is currently trying to ride a wave of UK buzz Stateside, but “Written In The Stars” is a much stronger opening salvo than “Price Tag,” and hopefully the unfortunately named Disc-Overy will prove less disappointing than Who You Are when it’s released here next month. “Written In The Stars” is a good fit for the U.S. Top 40, featuring the sort of soaring, melodic, Swede-produced chorus that’s so hot right now, and Tinie Tempah’s rhymes, which manage to reference both Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” and YA author Malorie Blackman, are clever without being too self-conscious. There’s nothing about “Written In The Stars” that says “scrappy newcomer”; this is precisely calculated and immaculately produced—almost oppressively so—pop music.
Steven: I like “Written In The Stars” okay; it seems like music for sports highlights montages, which is fine, because dunks and touchdowns need an uplifting soundtrack, I guess. It reminds of Lupe Fiasco’s breakout single, “Superstar,” where the rapper was relegated to the verses and then blown out of the box by the melodramatic dude belting out the chorus. I just wish there was a little more of Tempah on “Written In The Stars,” because he seems like a solid force on the mic. (I’ve enjoyed some of the other, less overblown tracks that I’ve heard from Disc-Overy.) So, yeah, I agree “Written In The Stars” sounds calculated and produced to an almost oppressive degree—I just don’t see this as a good thing.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: C
Steven: With Tyler, The Creator’s Goblin set to be released in May, let’s set aside for a moment the cavalcade of hype accompanying the rise of SoCal rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All to ponder another group of teenaged California rappers, New Boyz. Earl “Ben J” Benjamin and Dominic “Legacy” Thomas scored their first hit several months before they turned 18, way back in the olden days of 2009, with the irrepressibly snotty “You’re A Jerk.” Now with one summer jam under their belts, and a second record—titled, with appropriate insouciance, Too Cool To Care—coming out the same day as Goblin, New Boyz settle into the professional pop product phase of their career with “Backseat.” Slick, sleek, and troublingly generic, “Backseat” sounds like a not very subtle reworking of Far East Movement’s “Like A G6,” employing that record’s guest stars, The Cataracs and Dev, to give the song a familiar club flavor. Man, when did these kids get so cynical?
Genevieve: Too cool to care indeed. I’m willing to bet more effort was put into filming the video for “Backseat” than went into conceiving, writing, and recording the song. But who needs to expend effort writing rhymes more complex than “see” and “me” and “poppin’” and “rockin’” when you can simply recontextualize an au courant, earwormy hook into a song that will slot seamlessly into your average teen’s shuffled “Party” playlist. I really can’t blame New Boyz for taking this route; they’re young kids taking the path of least resistance to fame, and hey, they got a pretty cool-sounding club banger out of the deal. But “Backseat” won’t be cool forever, and when that day comes, it’ll disappear like the piece of fluff it is.
Steven’s grade: C+
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Selena Gomez & The Scene, “Who Says” (No. 37)
Genevieve: Hey, Selena Gomez/Demi Lovato/Vanessa Hudgens: Please stop singing completely interchangeable whitebread music so I have some way to distinguish you beyond which Bieber/Jonas/Efron you’re currently dating. Like just about everything else to come out of the latest incarnation of the Disney Channel Cabal, “Who Says” sounds like it was written to play under the credits of Sonny With A Chance Of The Suite Life Of Wizards Of Hannah Montana Place: The Movie, with its unobtrusive, vaguely orchestral hook, cheery “na-na-nas,” and “go get ’em, you pretty princess” lyrics. I’m The A.V. Club’s resident champion of all things teen-girly, but even I can’t abide this level of cookie-cutter blandness. There’s a reason the Internet is waiting for the various nude-photo/eating disorder scandals of this generation’s Disney Princesses to bloom into full-fledged Lohan-ity: It’s the only interesting thing about them.
Steven: Wow, and I thought I was the one who was supposed to have a knee-jerk dislike of chirpy, aggressively inspirational, “up with girls” pop songs. You’ve stuck up for all the Colbie Caillats and Sara Bareilleses that have come down the This Was Pop pike, and now you’ve left it up to me to defend the junior division. Okay, I’ll do it: To my own disbelief, I don’t hate this song. The “na-na-na” hook is solid, and Gomez has just enough charm to win over the girls that probably hate her for smooching it up with Justin Bieber. But the real highlight here is The Scene, who rank solidly between The Range and The News—but still far behind Cult Jam—on the anonymous backing-band funkiness scale.
Genevieve’s grade: D
Steven’s grade: B-
Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger” (No. 41)
Genevieve: Sara Evans fell off the country-music radar after 2005’s platinum-selling Real Fine Place, and “A Little Bit Stronger” is her bid to get back in the spotlight, with an assist from inclusion on the Country Strong soundtrack and a writing credit/guest vocal from Hillary Scott of Grammy juggernauts Lady Antebellum. And as those credentials suggest, it’s boring as hell. There’s nothing wrong with a good breakup song, but “A Little Bit Stronger” has no backbone, either lyrically (“Even on my weakest days, I get a little bit stronger”—blech) or melodically. Yeah, there’s an electric guitar solo thrown in at the end, but a soaring riff does not an anthem make. Evans’ vocals are rich and heartfelt, and come close to elevating the lackluster song above second-tier soundtrack fare, but in the end, it’s just as beige and boring as the oppressively neutral-toned video.
Steven: I don’t want to defend “A Little Bit Stronger” too voraciously, because I agree that it’s not all that great. But given how most country songs on the charts these days seem to be about happy, loving relationships, I appreciate Evans throwing a bone out to the romantically miserable for a change. Sure, the lyrics are sappy, but people say dumb things in order to pull themselves out of post-break-up depression, including the old con about adversity making you a better person. I guarantee there’s been at least one heartbroken sucker out there whose spirits were lifted by this trifle, and for that reason alone “A Little Bit Stronger” has justified its existence to a greater degree than any other song on this month’s lackluster list.
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Steven’s grade: C+
Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee” (No. 47)
Steven: I held out faint hope that this was a cover of Tom Petty’s “Honey Bee,” a hilariously randy garage-rock deep-cut from 1994’s Wildflowers. Alas, Blake Shelton has not paid homage to one of the classic albums of my youth with “Honey Bee”; he’s produced another variation on the “we complement each other ’cause we’re so diff’rent, darlin’” song that’s long been a fixture in country music. Shelton does himself no favors by acknowledging the classic of the genre—Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty’s “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man”—a song that oozes so much vitality, sex, and greasy funk that “Honey Bee” can’t help but sound ineffectual in comparison. Shelton is a solid singer with a likeable persona, but I expect Miranda Lambert’s husband to be much feistier than this.
Genevieve: It’s hard to sound like a badass singing the word “honeysuckle,” but as we’ve established repeatedly in this column, modern dude country singers generally out-schmaltz their female counterparts by a factor of 10, so I can’t get too upset about Shelton getting all gooey. Yes, he’s more Loretta than Conway on this one, but hey, this is a new millennium with new gender expectations; “I’ll be your strong and steady” doesn’t have to mean “I’ll wrestle the alligators in the Mississippi River for you” anymore. Besides, I’m sure Miranda is more than capable of wrestling her own gators. I’d be fine with the toothless-but-sweet charm of “Honey Bee” if it weren’t so gall-darn repetitive, both lyrically and melodically. Shelton picks a formula and pounds it into the ground with his guitar for three and a half minutes, offering no surprises or clever twists: Wine is to whiskey as sun is to shade as sugar is to iced tea. Repeat until your sweetie succumbs or nausea sets in.
Steven’s grade: C
Genevieve’s grade: C
Steven: I’ve long held a soft spot in my heart for Kelly Rowland because she was the overshadowed Mary Wilson to Beyoncé’s ascendant Diana Ross in Destiny’s Child. (Or, to use a less obvious analogy, the forgotten JC Chasez to Beyoncé’s domineering Justin Timberlake.) Rowland hasn’t had a Top 40 hit since 2007’s “Like This,” which went to No. 30, or come close to replicating the chart-topping success of her duet with Nelly, “Dilemma,” in 2002. “Motivation” probably isn’t going to change that; this is a standard-issue sex jam distinguished by a sleepy Lil Wayne cameo and some uncomfortably odd lovemaking instructions from Rowland. (Apparently, the guy at the other end of the sexual activity in “Motivation” is unclear on how “hard” or “long” he should go.) I pull for Rowland to re-establish herself as a pop presence, but “Motivation” isn’t going to do it for her.
Genevieve: You’re right that this probably isn’t going to be a big radio hit for Rowland, but it’s a nice little slow jam all the same. I could do without the verse from the completely asexual Lil Wayne—seriously, try to picture that guy having sex, then wish you didn’t—but I like the spare, chilly production and Rowland’s understated singing. This is more strip-club sexy than knockin’-boots sexy, but it gets the job done.
Steven’s grade: B-
LMFAO, “Party Rock Anthem” (No. 56)
Genevieve: Ah, LMFAO, foremost purveyors of songs that lower the listener’s I.Q. on every downbeat (a designation the zombified video all but acknowledges). “Party Rock Anthem” doesn’t quite attain the same heights of moronitude as its predecessor, “Shots,” but it certainly does its best. “Party Rock Anthem” sounds like a castoff from Black Eyed Peas’ terrible The Beginning, but it has a beat tailor-made for dry-humping, a chorus simple enough to sing along to through a Red Bull-and-vodka haze, and a video that might was well be subtitled “Kids These Days,” so I’m sure it’s getting plenty of play at high-school house parties across this great land. And as much as I try, I can’t hate this song; it’s like a puppy, sweet and dumb and just dying for you to pay attention to it. Viewing pop music through the lens of lowered expectations is a slippery slope, I know, but it’s the only way I can cope with LMFAO’s continued existence.
Steven: In a land of morons, the self-aware moron is king—at least that seems to be LMFAO’s idea. “Party Rock Anthem” can’t really be compared to Black Eyed Peas because these guys aren’t fully committed to being sub-mental; they’re too busy winking at the camera, showing us how they’re in on the joke. I guess that passes for smarts, though it means LMFAO’s most noxious characteristic is actually smugness, not stupidity. In that sense, at least, I prefer Will.i.am—at least he shits out his brain-dead “party rock anthems” without air quotes.
Genevieve’s grade: C+
Steven’s grade: C