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 Feb. 26, 2011.
Lady Gaga, “Born This Way” (No. 1)
Genevieve: Okay, let’s get this out of the way: “Born This Way” sounds like “Express Yourself.” Pretty much everyone has made this comparison (rightly so), and even Gaga herself has addressed the similarity, saying she’s heard from Madonna’s people that Her Madgesty likes the song. (Madonna, however, seems unwilling to commit to that endorsement.) But “Express Yourself” was and is a kick-ass song, and I’m not going to argue against more songs sounding like it. I have bigger qualms about her trying way too hard to write a “gay anthem” with “Born This Way.” Set aside the fact that gay anthems (or any anthems, for that matter) are usually appropriated by the gay community, not foisted upon it; what troubles me about “Born This Way” is that it seems to treat gay pride as a marketing gimmick. It’s a delicate balance: I love that the No. 1 song in the country shouts out gay, lesbian, bi, and transgendered people, but coming from an artist as image-savvy as Gaga, it definitely rings hollow. (Plus, you’d think an artist writing a tolerance anthem could come up with a better adjective than “Orient-made.” And let’s not even get into that “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen” line.) But if I set aside those niggling doubts and ignore Gaga’s annoying self-satisfaction, “Born This Way” is a lot of fun. It’s nowhere near my favorite Lady Gaga tune, but I’ll definitely sing and dance along to it when it plays every 20 seconds at this year’s Gay Pride parade.
Steven: I think it’s a little harsh to say “Born This Way” rings false, because Gaga seems pretty genuine in her advocacy for all kinds of people, whether it’s gays, blacks, or orient (?). What bugs me about Gaga, at least lately, is the rush to intellectualize everything she does. Nobody is more aggressive about this than Gaga herself; she recently described herself as “a student of fame” on 60 Minutes, and lectured Anderson Cooper on the death wish the public has with celebrities. Gaga, please: Marilyn Manson was doing the same thing more than 10 years ago, and he wasn’t wearing any pants, either. But whether Gaga is ripping off Manson or Madonna isn’t the issue—she thieves with panache, and “Born This Way” lands squarely in the all-fun, no-brain zone of pop music where Gaga thrives. That doesn’t make the message of “Born This Way” invalid or non-subversive—in fact, I’d argue that “Born This Way” is subversive precisely because it’s tailor-made not just for gay-pride parades but also big, dumb sporting events, where I expect this song will inspire mass dancing between innings and during timeouts like another shameless gay anthem with (fishnet-covered) legs, “Y.M.C.A.”
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: A-
Rihanna, “S&M” (No. 8)
Steven: Here’s something I’m not sure I wanted: a song that sexualizes the battery of Rihanna. “S&M” has already ruffled some feathers because of the singsongy smuttiness of the chorus—“Sticks and stones might break my bones, but chains and whips excite me”—but if Rihanna’s status as R&B’s most famous domestic-abuse victim since Tina Turner is going to be used as a prop in a pop song, I much prefer this to “Love The Way You Lie.” At least Rihanna sounds playful engaging in some consensual fisticuffs on “S&M,” even if she is a little overly pushy about expressing her love of rumble-and-tumble doinking. (I could’ve gone without the line, “sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it,” which is more “ew!” than “ow!”) Still, I’ve been a sucker for the singles off of Rihanna’s 2010 album Loud, and like the previous smashes “What’s My Name? and “Only Girl (In The World),” “S&M” is a big, banging StarGate production driven by metronome disco beats and pulse-pounding synths.
Genevieve: It’s weird that this song doesn’t make me think about Rihanna getting beaten up, because pretty much everything she does is shadowed by that nasty incident. Maybe it’s because “S&M” feels more like Rihanna donning a costume and play-acting like a kinkster than really reveling in it. (Not to mention the fact that there’s really no correlation between play-violence in the bedroom and real violence outside of it, but this ain’t Savage Love.) That’s not necessarily a knock against her: The ability to step into characters and sell material that you didn’t necessarily write is the mark of a good pop vocalist, and Rihanna’s sex-kitten delivery sells “S&M” well enough. Sure, what she’s selling is a candy-coated, Barbies-with-ball-gags version of BDSM—especially in the trying-way-too-hard video, with its DayGlo latex and pretty pink bondage rope—but that’s all I expect (or want) from a pop princess dabbling in the darker side of sex. The real appeal of “S&M” lies in the big-ass chorus and aggressive synths, which create a propulsive wave of dance energy for Rihanna to ride.
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Colbie Caillat, “I Do” (No. 23)
Genevieve: Colbie Caillat continues to pump out the most aggressively breezy, obnoxiously adorable adult-contempo on the radio dial with this shuffling ode to holy matrimony. I’m on record as generally despising wedding songs, but Caillat earns some slack by keeping the whole thing lighthearted with a sunny tune that takes a laid-back, “do-do-do” approach to putting a ring on it, rather than the maudlin tripe of something like Carrie Underwood’s “Mama’s Song.” That said, this song is about as flimsy as it gets, from the ukulele to the handclaps to the aforementioned “dos” to Caillat’s wispy voice. The hook is catchy enough, though, and the song is so unrelentingly happy that hating on it seems akin to kicking a puppy. Since I like puppies, I think I’ll instead treat this song the same way I do people who won’t stop annoying me with talk of their impending nuptials and just tune it out.
Steven: “I Do” is like a puppy that’s self-aware enough to be impressed by its own cuteness; if puppies were really like that, people would be kicking them all the time, and rightfully so. Fortunately for puppies and unfortunately for Colbie Caillat, the maddeningly forced adorability of “I Do” belongs in its own category of bland innocuousness. “I Do” is essentially Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” with a sex-change operation (right down to that damn ukulele) but it does serve one potentially helpful service for society: If you’re significant other wants this to be your wedding song, run.
Genevieve’s grade: C
Steven’s grade: C-
Justin Bieber feat. Jaden Smith, “Never Say Never” (No. 25)
Genevieve: When I reviewed Never Say Never—a movie titled after a song written for a different movie, The Karate Kid—I came out of it hating the movie but possessing a new, begrudging respect for Justin Bieber. Yes, Never Say Never is pure propaganda, and yes, Bieber is a corporate tool, but he’s not a talentless tool. He sings, dances, plays instruments, and possesses a freakish amount of poise and charisma for a 16-year-old. He will probably go the way of other teen phenomena soon enough, but it seems a lot of the knee-jerk hatred of him stems from people’s knee-jerk hatred of things that excite teenage girls (which is a whole other issue). I’m speaking only of the phenomenon of Justin Bieber here, because the songs of Justin Bieber have yet to make much of an impact on me, though of those I’ve heard, “Never Say Never” stands out the most, thanks to a catchy vocal hook and a laughable guest rap by 12-year-old “martial arts expert” (as he’s billed in Never Say Never) Jaden Smith. The lyrics and production are pretty mundane, but Bieber’s boyish vocals are smooth, and while I wouldn’t say he convincingly sells the song, he slots in well with its generic sound. That sounds like more of a slam than it is; workmanlike pop-R&B is a radio staple, and hearing it done well is pleasant enough… but it’s nothing to get too excited about, Beliebers.
Steven: I don’t get the hate for Bieber. Grown-ass people were actively happy when he didn’t win the Grammy for best new artist. Why? Because giving it to Bieber would diminish an honor that’s been bestowed on the hallowed likes of Hootie & The Blowfish, Evanescence, and Sheena Easton? I actually think Bieber could have a lasting career once this teen idol thing runs its course; as you pointed out, the kid is multi-talented, and he’s already demonstrated in that recent Best Buy ad and on The Daily Show that he can make fun of himself—which, strangely, is maybe the essential quality that people perceived to be non-serious must have in order to be taken seriously. “Never Say Never” isn’t as good as the sorta-sweet “’Baby” (and the cameo from Ludacris on that song is much better than what Fresh Prince Jr. musters up here) but, as you say, it’s suitably workman-like and (honestly) pretty likeable.
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: B
Dr. Dre feat. Eminem and Skylar Grey, “I Need A Doctor” (No. 32)
Steven: There’s something very wrong with a song that’s ostensibly about the world missing Dr. Dre where the good doctor doesn’t even show up until the final third. Before then, Eminem spends the first three minutes of “I Need A Doctor” rapping about his de facto father figure with uncommon tenderness and emotional expressiveness. Just kidding! Em preaches the Dr. Dre gospel using the same shouty, angry-dude cadence that’s become his default delivery no matter the song. (Is there a less inviting sound on the radio right now than Eminem once again grinding his teeth at you?) The laughably melodramatic chorus from Skylar Grey amps up the ridiculousness before Grandpa Dre finally wakes up and sleepily dismisses the back-stabbin’ “faggots” and fair-weather friends that (I guess) haven’t stood by him during the long gestation period for his forthcoming album Detox. “You can kiss my indecisive ass crack,” he grumbles. Whatever, Dre—if anything, you should be shaking a fist at his back-stabbin’ ghostwriters who penned that stinker. We were both pretty forgiving of Dre’s okay-ish single “Kush” last month, but after this thoroughly underwhelming mess, I’m starting to wonder if Dre’s fair-weather friends were right not to stand behind Detox.
Genevieve: Dre might not show up until the third verse on “I Need A Doctor,” but that doesn’t make him a guest on his own song; this is a psalm, with Em and Skylar Grey praising the Good Doctor and begging him to return until finally, their benevolent, elusive hero bestows the gift of a verse upon them. At least, I’m sure that was the intent. But between the Eminem-to-Dre lyrical ratio and the production by Alex Da Kid (of “Love The Way You Lie”), “I Need A Doctor” sounds more like a latter-day Eminem song than a latter-day Dre song. You can argue that Eminem’s shouty delivery hasn’t aged well, but at least he’s giving us some energy; Dre is sleepwalking through his verse, and it only makes his protégé look better by comparison. Unlike you, I haven’t completely written off Eminem, and I think there are far less inviting sounds on the radio than him “grinding his teeth” at me. (Chief among them: Ke$ha hocking a musical loogie at me.) Eminem still has something to offer, we know what Dre is capable of, and the Skylar Grey hook is good in a pop-radio-circa-2011 way: “I Need A Doctor” has the right ingredients, but the chemistry is off.
Steven’s grade: D
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Glee Cast, “Thriller/Heads Will Roll” (No. 38)
Genevieve: What’s this, another Glee song? We placed a moratorium on including these songs in TWP anymore, because Steven’s tired of enduring the karaoke jams and, considering I’ve pretty much checked out on this season, I’m not really up for playing Glee booster anymore. But I had to toss this one in here because I think the presence of Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the usually Top 40/Broadway-mining Glee is notable, and because I think it’s one of the stronger non-showtune songs the show has done. Glee has an annoying reliance on mash-ups, but this is one of the better ones I’ve heard, thanks in large part to frequently underused cast members Kevin McHale (Artie) and especially Naya Rivera (Santana), who sings the hell out of Karen O’s part. Like all Glee songs, it’s overproduced to hell (why Glee continues to maintain the fantasy that its singers are accompanied by a live band is beyond me), and having Cory Monteith try to recreate Vincent Price’s breakdown was a huge misfire, but I dig the song’s energy. C’mon Steven, can’t you shrug off your Glee hatred and embrace this one for the disposable-but-enjoyable pop candy it is?
Steven: I dunno, GK. Hating Glee just comes so naturally to me. Would you ask the sun not to rise in the morning, or Enrique Iglesias not to be fuckin’ you at night? Okay, for you, I’ll be nice: I actually don’t mind “Thriller/Heads Will Roll.” Unlike the 29 other Glee singles we’ve covered in this column, at least “Thriller/Heads Will Roll” brings something new to the table instead of just making wish that I was hearing the original songs. I’m still pretty unimpressed by the Glee singers, who as always register a big zero on the personality scale, but I can’t deny that Michael Jackson and Yeah Yeah Yeahs sound cool together.
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: B-
Adele, “Rolling In The Deep” (No. 41)
Steven: Wow, it’s like someone went into a laboratory and created the perfect song for Genevieve Koski! “Rolling In The Deep” has a big-voiced singer, a stomping disco-gospel groove, snappy backing vocals, a shout-along chorus, and a show-stopping, hand-clapping breakdown. Can you stand so much goodness in one song, GK? I know you love “Rolling In The Deep,” and I do, too, so much so that I wish the rest of Adele’s ballad-heavy new album 21 had as much energy. Thanks to pipes that could make the Buckcherry songbook sound soul-stirring, Adele has already taken over the pop charts in her native England. But “Rolling In The Deep” is an utterly unique (and welcome) curveball for the American Top 40. At the risk of being (perhaps) overly reductive, Adele sounds like a powerful woman among willfully silly girls on the pop charts right now, taking what’s possibly an instant classic of modern pop songwriting straight to the stratosphere.
Genevieve: You’ve got my number, Steven. I’ve been having shower sing-alongs to “Rolling In The Deep” for the past month or so, along with the rest of 21. I’m thrilled to see it getting radio play, and I hope it inspires people to give the album a spin. (Or in your case, Hyden, a few more; it’s definitely a grower.) Unlike, say, Duffy, who got a lot of radio play on one up-tempo song (“Mercy”) from an album full of mopey ballads, Adele has more where this came from: She’s known more as a skillful balladeer, but “Rolling In The Deep” and the other up-tempo songs on 21 prove she’s just as great, if not better, in soul rave-up mode. More of this, please, Adele.
Steven’s grade: A
Genevieve’s grade: A
Mumford & Sons, “The Cave” (No. 68)
Steven: Aside from Arcade Fire and possibly B.o.B’s monocle, nobody benefited more from the Grammys than Mumford & Sons, who moved nearly 50,000 copies of its already big-selling debut, Sigh No More, in the wake of a well-received performance of “The Cave.” The band was at its best on the Grammy telecast, throwing itself energetically into this boisterously uplifting number and looking fashion-model handsome in the process. While charming, the primetime TV appearance confirmed an essential fact about Mumford & Sons and what’s been driving their meteoric success: This is basically the pop-friendly and telegenic boy-band version of indie-folk, designed for people who think they’re above pop-friendly and telegenic boy bands. I wonder how many people were disappointed when they heard the studio version of “The Cave,” which doesn’t have nearly the magnetism or sweaty joyousness of Mumford’s live show. They still look awfully cute in those matching white suits in the video, though.
Genevieve: Wait, I’m confused: Am I still allowed to like this song if I don’t think Mumford & Sons are totes hotties? Because I do, and I don’t. I still think Mumford & Sons are trying to have it all ways with their please-everyone-offend-no-one blend of palatable musical styles, but it works better here than in “Little Lion Man,” perhaps because it lacks the pseudo-defiance of a shoehorned-in “fuck” in the chorus. “The Cave” has a really satisfying build-and-release structure, which is why it translates so well live, and that energy still shines through the studio polish of the album version. If nothing else, Mumford & Sons have managed to take an understated genre and similarly understated instrumentation and pump it up into something big, bold, and radio-friendly.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Sunny Sweeney, “From A Table Away” (No. 84)
Genevieve: Sunny Sweeney’s been plugging away at it for years—I saw her singing at 2 p.m. at a mostly empty barbecue joint in Austin during SXSW in 2008—but “From A Table Away” is her first single to chart, and it’s easy to see why: It’s a much slicker, radio-friendly take on her old honky-tonk sound, and it has a neat twist on the old “other woman” country-music trope. Sweeney’s clear, slightly nasally voice (which sounds a lot like Natalie Maines’) is perfectly suited to country twang, and she conveys the song’s sadness without getting overly sentimental; she’s sad, but she’s not pathetic. The banjo-and-steel-guitar instrumentation is a little rote, and the song’s production is typically Nashville-slick, but the concept, lyrics, and Sweeney’s delivery elevate it to something memorable.
Steven: “From A Table Away” might just be slick Nashville pop, but it’s an example of how good and emotionally resonant this music can be when carried off with top-notch craftsmanship and more than a little genuine feeling. “From A Table Away” is just a really well-written song—uncommonly well-written for today’s pop chart, I’d say—but it doesn’t let its own cleverness get in the way of the melancholy in Sweeney’s powerfully understated vocal. I disagree that the instrumentation sounds rote—the lead guitar here, in particular, seems sadder and more distinctive than on any Nashville pop song we’ve reviewed. This is the first Sunny Sweeney song I’ve heard, but I’m already a fan.
Genevieve’s grade: A-
Steven’s grade: A
Miranda Lambert, “Heart Like Mine” (No. 95)
Steven: We’re both Miranda Lambert fans, so I’m sure you’re as relieved as I am to be reviewing “Heart Like Mine” instead of the latest steel-guitar-spiked mall ballad from Carrie Underwood. But while there’s plenty to like about “Heart Like Mine”—the chugging acoustic guitar, the gently syncopated rhythm, the warm organ fills—this is Lambert at her least compelling. I can get behind the sentiment that Jesus would overlook the occasional cigarette and ill-considered tattoo and love Miranda as much as we do, and “Heart Like Mine” is certainly a solid country-pop song. But this ultimately just seems like a big star who’s in coasting mood, playing off a well-established persona for decent but uninspiring results.
Genevieve: This is definitely Lambert at her most safe-for-radio, and while I’m of the mind that coasting Miranda is better than no Miranda at all, I agree that this is one of her less exciting singles. Everything that usually makes for a great Lambert song is dialed back: The lyrics aren’t as clever, her delivery isn’t as sassy, and any rough edges are smoothed way down. “Heart Like Mine” is still worthy of a stop on the radio dial and a sing-along in the car, but this isn’t a song I’d use to convince people that Lambert has more to offer than most pop-country radio artists.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: B-