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Week of Jan. 29, 2011

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 Jan. 29, 2011.

Britney Spears, “Hold It Against Me” (No. 1)

Genevieve: Last year was only the second year since 1998 that didn’t see a new Britney Spears radio single, and apparently that’s long enough for people to call “Hold It Against Me” a “comeback” single. What she’s coming back from isn’t exactly clear (the 4 million-selling Circus? A literal three-ring-circus world tour?), but a year off is a long time in pop music, particularly for a figure as ubiquitous as Spears. However, unlike her last single—2009’s “3,” an add-on to a singles collection—“Hold It Against Me” heralds a new full album, due in March, and if this song is representative, it continues Britney’s progression from dance-pop to straight-up dance music. (Is that a dubstep breakdown? Why yes it is!) This song essentially comes pre-loaded with strobes and lasers, with a house beat so aggressive it overshadows Spears’ characteristically thin vocals—though she does get in a bit of her signature syllable-mashing with that “haaay-zaaay.” The first half of “Hold It Against Me” is pretty standard-issue club-cheese (I’m not even going to dignify that single-entendre chorus by discussing it), but Spears approaches genuine sexiness as she coos through that breakdown, and the last minute or so is worthy of Jersey Shore-caliber fist-pumping. (That’s actually a compliment, I think.) 
Steven: Isn’t it strange that Britney Spears is entering her 12th year as a pop star? She’s practically Dame Judi Dench compared to Ke$ha and Katy Perry, and yet “Hold It Against Me” shows she not quite ready to commence the “This Used To Be My Playground/Take A Bow” portion of her career quite yet. I’m a little amused by your lukewarm endorsement of “Hold It Against Me,” considering Britney is the godmother of pretty much every current pop-music trend you claim to hate: She still can’t sing, the chorus is pure hedonistic trash, and the overall enterprise feels like a flimsy and cynical stab at capitalizing on shtick her imitators are now pulling off with a lot more energy and wit. “Hold It Against Me” debuted at No. 1, so I’m not going to question the power of Britney’s hit-making juice. But she doesn’t have many songs like this left in her before it starts getting embarrassing. At this point she’s the Kobe Bryant of female pop stars: She’s still a young woman, but she’s been in the game for so long that the mileage is starting to show. 
Genevieve’s grade: C+
Steven’s grade: C

Wiz Khalifa, “Black And Yellow” (No. 5

Steven: We’ve had bad luck with football-related songs in This Was Pop, GK. First there was the sentimental hogwash of Kenny Chesney’s “Boys Of Fall,” a song that came dangerously close to convincing me that I secretly hate my favorite sport. Now there’s Wiz Khalifa’s “Black And Yellow,” a song I hate precisely because it reminds me of how much I love football, particularly my NFC Champion Green Bay Packers. Because I’m such a huge Packers fan, I’m inclined to loathe “Black And Yellow” on principle, since it’s become a rallying song for Khalifa’s hometown team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Because I know you don’t follow football unless it’s scored by wistful Explosions In The Sky songs on Friday Night Lights, I should point out that the Steelers are playing the Packers in the Super Bowl in one week.) Without that context, this song’s incessant “black and yellow, black and yellow, black and yellow” chorus would simply be grating; with the big game just over a week away, it’s a finger repeatedly jabbing me in the chest. After four minutes of “Black And Yellow,” I’m even more ready to see Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews take down these Pennsylvania clowns.
Genevieve: Here’s the thing, though: “Black And Yellow” isn’t really about football. Yes, Wiz Khalifa uses the team colors in a display of “reppin’ his town,” but they have little to do with the song’s theme, which is standard “I’m so rich, these are the expensive things I have” stunting. However, the real appeal of “Black And Yellow” lies not its subject matter nor city allegiance, but in that rich Stargate production. The Norwegian duo is responsible for recent hits like Rihanna’s “Only Girl In The World” and Katy Perry’s “Firework,” and their beat on “Black And Yellow” is similarly radio-friendly. Combine that pop sensibility with the hometown pandering, it’s no wonder this is Khalifa’s crossover hit. If you can look past the repetition of the offensive color scheme, the beat underneath that chorus is more lively than 90 percent of what you hear in mainstream hip-hop, and the synths that drop in during the final verse are a nice touch. Just pretend he’s saying “green and yellow,” Steven, and maybe you’ll start to feel the love.
Steven’s grade: I recuse myself due to a conflict of interest 
Genevieve’s grade: B

Avril Lavigne, “What The Hell” (No. 13)

Genevieve: Hey, it’s my favorite Avril Lavigne song, “Girlfriend!” Oh wait, no, it’s just a sound-alike, right down to the cheerleader chants and bratty “nyah-nyah” vocals. That’s not really a bad thing: Dumb as it is, “Girlfriend” is a definite guilty pleasure, and considering it’s her only U.S. No. 1 single, it makes sense she’d want to replicate it. And to be fair, “What The Hell” is slightly beefier than “Girlfriend,” with more actual (processed-to-hell) singing and even the slightest bit of guitar joining the wall of keyboards on the chorus. This is about as poppy as it gets, though, which is a little ironic coming from a singer who was ostensibly an alternative to the second pop-tart wave of the early 2000s, though that distinction really boiled down to her wardrobe more than her music. While I’m glad Lavigne isn’t still doing the mall-punk thing at 26, this isn’t that big a leap or improvement; she’s still mining the same pseudo-rebel vein as Pink (especially in the ridiculous “ain’t I a stinker” video), despite the fact that both of their sounds are maybe 2 millimeters left of center, at best. But if you can get past the posturing, “What The Hell” is a decent slab of Max Martin ear candy, catchy enough to bang around your brain for a while after you hear it, but insubstantial enough that it won’t leave any lasting impression. 
Steven: You know what I love about you, GK? That you can actually begin a sentence with, “Hey, it’s my favorite Avril Lavigne song,” and not be sarcastic. Also, you have good taste in Avril Lavigne songs, because “Girlfriend” really is the best thing she’s ever done. So I’m not totally against her recycling the formula for “What The Hell,” especially since “Girlfriend” is really just recycled “Mickey.” What’s interesting about “What The Hell” is that Lavigne seems to be adopting a Ke$ha-esque bitch-slut persona, unapologetically making out with her boyfriend’s pals, going on a million dates, and—I’m speculating here—brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack. Lavigne is still too nice to fully commit herself to this guise, which seems especially phony and wrong considering she’s been reduced to acting like a spoiled, rich teenager on the outset of her child-bearing prime. But I guess mall-punk ain’t selling like it used to, so here we are.
Genevieve’s grade: C
Steven’s grade: B-

Kanye West and Jay-Z, “H*A*M” (No. 23)

Steven: “H*A*M” had two strikes against it before the song first appeared online earlier this month. No. 1, it was coming on the heels of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an album that’s been scientifically proven to be the best thing to happen to music since the invention of D minor. No. 2, it was the first track from West’s new album with Jay-Z, Watch The Throne, and if there’s anything that could possibly be more hyped than MBDTF, it’s Watch The Throne. So, after being saddled with those kind of expectations, how does “H*A*M” fare? Eh… okay, I guess. The production by Lex Luger is big and frothy in a cheap ’80s film score kind of way, but it’s not quite grabby enough to detract from West’s iffy lyrics, which find Ye scrambling for haters to shred now that he’s been universally hailed as a genius. Of course that could change once people catch wind of groaners like, “Niggas telling me, ‘You back’ like a nigga ever left up out this bitch, huh?/ And if life a bitch, then suck my dick, huh?”
Genevieve: Yeah, Kanye doesn’t really bring it here, though I guess once you’ve contributed “I put the pussy in a sarcophagus” to the musical lexicon, there’s no place to go but down. Jay-Z, on the other hand, is in fine form, and I think the production is suitably dramatic, particularly the choral backing during the chorus. That said, the coda crosses over into indulgent; if there’s going to be something after the second chorus, I’d prefer a shared verse between Ye and J to a minute and a half of operatic vocalizing. Considering that will almost certainly be cut out during radio play—or rapped over by a guest in remix versions—I’m willing to overlook it in favor of the first two thirds of the song.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: B

Pink, “Fuckin’ Perfect” (No. 30)

Steven: Really, Billboard Hot 100? Another “fuck” song? Look, I thought Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You” was nice, though a tad overrated and, let’s be honest, sort of ordinary once the whole “fuck” thing wore off. Enrique Igelsias’ “Tonight I’m Fucking You” is skeezy and repellent, but I recognize that the skeezy and repellent moments of our lives need a soundtrack, too. But Pink’s “Fuckin’ Perfect”? No, that’s it. This is some fucking bullshit I can’t abide. Not only is the F-bomb a completely unnecessary and empty gimmick, it’s dropped into a bland, wholly forgettable song that’s trying to be an edgier version of Katy Perry’s “Firework.” Honestly Pink, isn’t there a BMX champion somewhere you should be busy fu—I mean, having conjugal relations with?
Genevieve: Man, Steven, you’ve put me in the uncomfortable position of defending Pink for a song I don’t really even like. Like Avril Lavigne, she’s milked the whole pop-rebel thing too long, considering she was never that rebellious to begin with. However, her voice has a pack-a-day quality that I dig, even when she’s using it in service of sappy drivel like this (though I vastly prefer it on uptempo party numbers like “Get This Party Started” and “God Is A DJ”). I’m not as hung up on the “fucking’” as you are, mostly because it’s easily ignored—I listened to the clean version first and didn’t even register the edit. Without it, “Fuckin’ Perfect” is a serviceable “you are a precious, unique flower” girl-power ballad à la “Beautiful,” something that doesn’t do much for me now, but as a former teenage girl, I recognize its place on the radio dial. The absurdly manipulative video, on the other hand, is pure-cut bullshit.
Steven’s grade: D-
Genevieve’s grade: C-


David Guetta featuring Rihanna, “Who’s That Chick” (No. 51)

Genevieve: French DJ David Guetta has an innate ability to distill everything bad about pop and dance music and turn it into something that’s almost charming in its soullessness. Almost. When people say dance music lacks emotion, Guetta’s hedonistic pop-house is what they’re talking about. You’ll dance to it, sure, but it’s not visceral or cathartic; it’s a mechanical reaction, your heart rate simply trying to align itself with the bpm. The fact that this song features Rihanna—an empty vessel if there ever were one—Auto-Tuned to the point of comedy almost suggests an experiment in how emotionally distant a song can get before it turns into white noise. It’s almost as if this song were commissioned by some major corporate entity looking to project a homogenized version of this strange concept you call “fun.” Oh, what’s that? It’s also an ad for Doritos? Yeah, that sounds about right. The thing is, “Who’s That Chick” is so proficient and workmanlike, it almost tricks you into feeling something approaching joy… or maybe that’s just a craving for delicious cheese-dusted tortilla chips.
Steven: Pop music is playing a fascinating game of chicken with its audience right now. The more depressed we get, the more vapid the music becomes. It’s like we’re willing each other to even greater depths of despair and dumbness. Just when it appears like this push and pull can’t possibly continue, leave it to a Frenchman like David Guetta to find an even more potent strain of what Joe Carducci once called “the pop narcotic” to further numb the public down to blotto-levels of cognitive activity. Incredibly, I don’t hate “Who’s That Chick” nearly as much as you do. In fact, I think I sort of like it. Only the French could get away with taking one of the biggest American singing stars on the planet right now, and turning her into a barely recognizable disco-dancing robot. C’mon GK, you’re talking about mechanized fun like it’s a bad thing; it’s not like there’s a ton of organic fun on the charts right now. If times (and pop music) get any worse, happiness may only be possible via superior European engineering.
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Steven’s grade: B

Cage The Elephant, “Shake Me Down” (No. 78)

Genevieve: Cage The Elephant has been tapping at the windows of the indie-rock cognoscenti for a few years now, amassing a vocal cult audience and good critical notice, but little in the way of cool cachet. I haven’t heard the band’s new album, Thank You Happy Birthday, but if “Shake Me Down” is any indication, it’s ditched its likable Southern funk-rock for a trendier, grungy psychedelic sound indebted to Pixies and Nirvana. Whether that’s enough to get musical tastemakers to take notice is yet to be seen—and, ultimately, irrelevant, seeing as the band managed a No. 2 album debut and now a spot on the Hot 100 without them. “Shake Me Down” is kind of an odd duck on the Top 100, with its chunky guitars, ominous drums, and Matthew Schultz’s quavering vocals, but it’s nice to hear a real rock song in the mix. The song’s quiet-loud-quiet structure builds to a satisfying, if slightly derivative, climax, and there’s almost enough frustrated aggression in Schultz’s voice to sell the tortured lyrics. It’s not exactly earth-shattering in terms of concept or execution, but there’s enough there to make for an enjoyable listen.
Steven: It’s funny that you describe this grunge throwback as trendy, because until recently I’m not sure ripping off Nirvana would’ve ever been classified that way. But it does seem like mainstream rock music, incredibly, is swinging back toward grunge as the 20th anniversary of Nevermind looms. It’s a relative improvement over the grumbly Nickelback template, for sure, though not by much: Cage The Elephant reminds me of those forgettable radio bands that clogged alt-rock radio in the mid-’90s after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, right down to the dopey, unwieldy name. “Shake Me Down” doesn’t have a lot to grab on to; the only thing that sticks in my head is Schultz’s shaky voice, and that’s not a good thing.  
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: C

Gwyneth Paltrow, “Country Strong” (No. 87)

Steven: Some readers might be wondering why I gave a D- (affectionately known in A.V. Club land as “the gentlemen’s F”) to Pink’s “Fuckin’ Perfect.” Well, while I was doing research for this column, I came across a clip of Gwyneth Paltrow performing “Forget You” on Glee, which made me realize that there’s a whole other level of shittiness out there that “Fuckin’ Perfect” doesn’t touch. Paltrow’s “Country Strong” is thankfully a lot better than her “Forget You” cover, though it helps if you pretend that Paltrow isn’t singing it. (I imagine this is a lot harder to do if you see the movie Country Strong.) Paltrow is a solid singer, but it’s impossible to take her seriously when she sings lyrics like, “I know you see me, like some wide-eyed dreamer, that just rolled down on a dusty Midwest bus.” Sure Gwyneth, except replace “wide-eyed dreamer” with “beautiful and glamorous movie star” and “dusty Midwest bus” with “that kick-ass private plane I bought with my rock-star husband.”
Genevieve: I was just talking to my mom on the phone today, and she told me about seeing Country Strong with my aunt, going on to rave about how great the music was. And that makes sense: “Country Strong” is mom music. It’s inoffensive lyrically and musically, vaguely emotional, and just all-around competent. If you’re not saddled with the Gwyneth Paltrow preconceptions that a life of reading GOOP-mocking blogs will give you, there’s really not much to argue with here, other than the fact that it’s boring, boring, boring. It’s shiny, happy country in the Shania Twain or Faith Hill vein, which is a sound that doesn’t really get either of our engines purring, but has its place on modern-country and adult-contemporary radio. 
Steven’s grade: C+
Genevieve’s grade: C

The Black Keys, “Tighten Up” (No. 88)

Steven: Like most bearded white male Midwesterners between the ages of 25 and 40, I had a Black Keys phase once. Mine happened around the time of 2004’s Rubber Factory, which I subsequently discovered sounds pretty much like every other Black Keys record. But since Rubber Factory is the first one I discovered, that’s the one I’ve stuck with. “Tighten Up” is a poppy update of the Keys’ standard soulful blues-rock sound; it doesn’t set my world on fire, but I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a part of me that didn’t love a song like this popping up in the Hot 100. The Black Keys’ traditionalist tendencies open them up to scorn from too-cool-for-blooze wiseacres, but who cares when they’re turning out singles this breezy so deep into their career?
Genevieve: Hey, I had a Rubber Factory-inspired Black Keys phase too! Guess I need to grow me a beard. The Black Keys’ sound is one that I’m never surprised by, but I still like revisiting occasionally. That said, I think “Tighten Up” is about as left-field as Black Keys get: The blues stomp and Dan Auerbach’s distorted vocals are the same as ever, but the production by Danger Mouse—who produced the duo’s last album, but only this one song on the new one—injects a neat funk-soul vibe, and that catchy whistling loop lightens up Black Keys’ usually sludgy sound. If there were such a thing as “pop-blues,” this would be the template for it. If it’s not already, this will certainly be the group’s biggest single to date, probably opening Black Keys up to even more scorn from haters. But I think “Tighten Up” is an unexpected treat, in terms of both the Hot 100 and the band’s discography.
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: A-

Lupe Fiasco, “The Show Goes On” (No. 92)

Genevieve: As a Chicagoan, it is my civic predisposition to like almost everything Lupe Fiasco produces—that terrible Twilight misfire excluded—but he makes it easy with “The Show Goes On.” Granted, its anthemic, rock-sampling sound may be a little 2007, but Lupe’s flow is in fine form (if a bit more plainspoken than usual), and the “Float On” sample gives the song a communal, uplifting vibe that complements its inspirational theme. I don’t think this will be the song to launch Lupe to superstardom—it’s already fallen out of the Hot 100 once, before resurging this week—and I hope the upcoming Lasers contains some more forward-looking tracks; but “The Show Goes On” isn’t a bad foot to start off on by any means. And it’ll be a lot of fun to sing along to in concert.
Steven: “The Show Goes On” wouldn’t make my Top 10 list of favorite Lupe Fiasco tracks, but I’ll gladly lap it up after walking through the desert of garbage we’ve traversed lately on the pop charts. The chorus bites Modest Mouse hard, and it works better than it should, but I’m fine with Lupe going this route so long as Lasers brings the goods like his first two records did. Now more than ever, we need guys like Lupe to class up the pop charts a bit.  
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: B