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 May 28, 2011.
Lady Gaga, “The Edge Of Glory” (No. 3)
Genevieve: Steven, we’ve both been a little underwhelmed with the singles off of Born This Way—though I’ve come around in a big way on the title track—but I suspect that the over-the-top ’80s anthem “The Edge Of Glory” will win you over, as it has me. The more I listen to Born This Way, the more charmed I am by its ridiculousness; it’s so consistently ludicrous that it circles back around to awesome, and “Edge Of Glory” totally embodies that. The bombastic late-’80s arena-pop vibe, the ever-crescendoing vocals (“The edge, the edge, THE EDGE, THE EDGE”), the cheesy synths, the freakin’ Clarence Clemons sax solo: It almost seems like a joke, but it’s so committed to the aesthetic it becomes pure and hyper-emotional instead of calculated and silly. (It helps that Gaga sings the shit out of it instead of winking her way through.) At five-plus minutes, it’s a little too long and convoluted to be a true summer jam, but nonetheless, I look forward to hearing that saxophone solo pouring out of many a car window in the coming months.
Steven: 2010 was the year that indie-rock embraced the soft-pop sounds of the late ’70s and early ’80s, a trend that’s continued in ’11 with Destroyer’s much-loved and sax-sational Kaputt and Bon Iver’s upcoming self-titled record. Knowing how Gaga prides herself on being tuned-in to all corners of pop culture, past and present, I wonder if “The Edge Of Glory” (and really all of Born This Way, which similarly embraces cornball sonic touches with zero irony) was influenced by Ariel Pink and Gayngs, or if Gaga was simply biding her time until attempting to launch a full-scale Bonnie Tyler revival. Either way, you’re right, I surrendered to “The Edge Of Glory” almost immediately. I don’t think it’s a joke at all—Gaga is among the few performers working in any genre today with the ambition to rock stadiums; with “The Edge Of Glory,” she has a shot.
Genevieve’s grade: A
Steven’s grade: A-
Lady Antebellum, “Just A Kiss” (No. 14)
Steven: GK, I’m sure your Twitter feed was as clogged with hi-larious zingers about the rapture as mine was last week. What’s interesting about Lady Antebellum’s “Just A Kiss” is that it reminds us snarky non-believers that there’s a whole other America out there that takes things like apocalypse and redemption seriously. “Just A Kiss” isn’t about the end of the world per se; it’s about a severely chaste couple that decides to halt all potential fornication dead in its hot and sweaty tracks, with Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley agreeing to give “just a touch of the fire burning so bright” on each other’s cheeks before parting for the night. The line about “fire burning so bright” seems to refer to humanity’s natural, God-given desire to doink its brains out; but it also nods toward the evil that’s inside of us all, and how it must be contained lest it swallow us into a dark crevasse of never-ending flame. Some might hear a simple love song in “Just A Kiss”; I hear a warning about Satan lusting for our souls to simmer for all eternity at a soft-rock boil. Chilling, yet strangely boring stuff.
Genevieve: I’ll give you boring, but I’m not ready to read into this song as abstinence propaganda. “Just A Kiss” is nothing but trite, boringly romantic music made for trite, boring romantics who imagine fireworks and swelling violins accompanying every lip-lock. It’s the Disney Princess vision of romance, where every emotional aspect of a romantic relationship can be conveyed via a cinematic, closed-mouth kiss. It’s the opposite end of the chastity spectrum from Enrique Iglesias grunting “Tonight I’m fuckin’ you,” but it’s just as reductive, unrealistic, and ultimately silly—though frankly, I’m glad there’s something on the radio to balance out that sort of hyper-sexualized sentiment. “Just A Kiss” is prudish, sure, but prudes also need music to soundtrack their staring-into-each-other’s-eyes-by-the-fireplace sessions.
Steven’s grade: C
Genevieve’s grade: C
Enrique Iglesias featuring Usher And Lil Wayne, “Dirty Dancer” (No. 18)
Genevieve: Hey, it’s that gross “Tonight (I’m Loving You)” song that we both hated back in January! Oh wait, no, it’s Enrique Iglesias’ latest slice of raunchy cookie-cutter clubnip. “Dirty Dancer” isn’t quite as off-puttingly rape-y as “Tonight,” (though the line “She’s a five when she drinks / But she’s a 10 when she’s on top of me” is its own special kind of creepy), but its crotch-pumping synths are drawn from the same Pro Tools template. Lil Wayne’s cameo adds nothing aside from a much-needed reprieve from the droning “dirty dirty dancer” chorus, and Usher and Iglesias seem to be competing over who can deliver his lines more apathetically. This is what coasting sounds like, folks.
Steven: We’ve been pretty hard on Enrique Iglesias lately, GK. Perhaps it’s time to blame the victim(s): If all the women that Enrique Iglesias wants to fuck would just fuck Enrique Iglesias already, the world would be rid of his lame club-trash stylings. I know it sounds insensitive, but think of the culture: Iglesias keeps sticking his overactive wang in the ears of millions of pop-music listeners, a violation that continues with “Dirty Dancer.” Actually, “Dirty Dancer” isn’t the epic affront to good taste that “Tonight (I’m Loving You)” was, which means it doesn’t even have a “so bad it’s not good but sort of funny” quality. On the bright side, the numbing repetition of “dirty dirty dancer,” which Iglesias only repeats 57 times in four minutes, suggests that he might finally be spent.
Genevieve’s grade: D
Steven’s grade: D-
Nicki Minaj, “Super Bass” (No. 22)
Genevieve: “Super Bass” is a bonus track from the deluxe version of Pink Friday, but if it had appeared on the original, I might have given the album a slightly better review based on the charms of this song alone. “Super Bass” finds the sweet-spot combination of Minaj’s distinctive rapping and her predilection for bubblegum radio sounds. It’s summery and effervescent—if a bit slight—but still distinctly Minaj, equal parts Barbie-doll cuteness and sly, girly-thug posturing. (See also: the pitch-perfect, candy-coated video.) While I would prefer a third verse to the slowed-down bridge, it does give the catchy-as-hell chorus some extra oomph as it comes around a final time, ensuring that you’ll be hearing “boom-ba-dum-boom-boom-ba-dum-boom” bouncing around your brain long after the song’s over.
Steven: I like the chorus of “Super Bass,” but to me this song is all about the verses. Those who know Minaj from her instant-classic cameo on Kanye West’s “Monster” will recognize her rapid-fire blend of bad-mama venom, sexy posturing, and endearingly weird inflections, like the Valley Girl and British accents she slips in and out of on “Super Bass.” The chorus is catchy, but it’s somewhat standard-issue; Minaj sounds like nobody else (except maybe Missy Elliott here and there) when she’s coloring outside the lines. I’ve tended to appreciate Minaj more when she’s guested on other people’s songs, but “Super Bass” shows she carry her own singles with similar flash and panache.
Genevieve’s grade: A-
Steven’s grade: B+
Steven Tyler, “(It) Feels So Good” (No. 35)
Steven: When Steven Tyler first appeared as a judge on American Idol, I admit I was charmed by his free-form obscenity and pushover adoration of seemingly every contestant with a half-baked, faux-blues, Taylor Hicksian vocal growl. But now Tyler just looks like a geezer husband strutting around with a new, embarrassingly young girlfriend when he really should just wise up, swallow his pride, and patch things up with the wife. Tyler’s awful solo single “(It) Feels So Good” is an overt paean to getting your wrinkled rocks off with a “little kewpie,” and it marks the nadir of his Idol-ization. The man who gave the world Toys In The Attic and Rocks—dude, I’ll even put Pump on Tyler’s Honor Roll—must know how pathetic this song sounds. When confronted with the sad excuse for guitar crunch on “(It) Feels So Good” (Maroon 5 sounds like AC/DC in comparison) I hear a veiled cry for Joe Perry to knock down Randy Jackson’s door, lift Steven Tyler into his arms, and take him back home to Aerosmith. Until then, Tyler will be stuck playing patty-cake on the ass of fellow talent-show judge Nicole Scherzinger. Pathetic.
Genevieve: First things first: Musicians, please stop with the unnecessary parentheticals in titles. “It Feels So Good”—you say it right there in the chorus, Steven, there’s nothing subordinate about that “it’s.” This has been a weird trend in pop music for a while now, and I can’t quite figure out why, though in this case, I suspect it’s supposed to convey that this song has some sort of second-level shit going on, man, when in actuality it’s struggling to get its arthritic hips up onto the first level. Yes, this is an embarrassing showing, for all the reasons you enumerated. The song’s only saving grace is Tyler’s vocals, which are remarkably well-preserved and dexterous in the way most American Idol hopefuls could only hope to be.
Steven’s grade: D-
Genevieve’s grade: D+
Luke Bryan, “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” (No. 51)
Genevieve: Not since “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” has a country song failed so hilariously in its attempt at leering male sexuality. I can’t remember the last time I literally laughed at how terrible a song was, but here I am, cracking up at my desk over “Country Girls (Shake It For Me).” This could easily be a parody of brain-dead Nashville radio fodder, from the mall-kiosk production to the lyrics “Shake it for the catfish swimmin’ down deep in the creek / for the crickets and the critters and the squirrels.” I could almost believe that Luke Bryan was going for a jokey, self-aware thing here, especially after browsing through some of his other songs. (From “Rain Is A Good Thing”: “Rain makes corn / corn makes whiskey / whiskey makes my baby / feel a little frisky.”) The cornpone novelty song is a longstanding country tradition, after all. But there are no winking, “aw-shucks” undertones here to save “Country Girl” from being 100-perecent cheese. I have to give Bryan a little credit for giving me such a good laugh, but not much, considering that probably wasn’t his intent.
Steven: How can you give a failing grade to a song that’s already given you so much joy? My personal rule with corny songs is that they are a lot more tolerable if they’re intended to be fun (as opposed to emotional or, worse, serious in a social, political or philosophical sense). Bryan isn’t trying to be an idiot here, but he’s also not after anything other than provoking mass shaking whenever this song plays. And, to be fair, “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” is pretty infectious, and it has a decent beat, so it’s a moderate success as far as Bryan’s goals go. Which is not to say it’s not a moronic song, just not a failure.
Genevieve’s grade: F+ (The “plus” is for the giggles.)
Steven’s grade: C-
Lonely Island, “Jack Sparrow” (No. 69)
Steven: At this point, you’re either buying what the Lonely Island is selling or you’re a miserable scold who hates fun. I’m one of the fun people, and I like “Jack Sparrow,” though I’m not sure that it’s quite as strong conceptually as other LI hits like “I Just Had Sex” and “I’m On A Boat,” which are catchy and laugh-out funny even without seeing the video. As a song, “Jack Sparrow” doesn’t work as well without seeing an incredibly game Michael Bolton decked out in the clothes of his various cinematic guises. (My favorite is Scarface, because it’s an excuse to make Bolton sing “this whole town is a pussy, just waiting to get fucked” in that canyon-scaling man-voice of his.) Even if the jokes don’t always translate in musical form, “Jack Sparrow” is another earworm in the Lonely Island arsenal that has the added (perhaps questionable) benefit of making Bolton seem like a credible R&B singer again.
Genevieve: I have four words for you: “The jester of Tortuga.” That line has been rattling around my brain, making me giggle like an idiot in public, for a couple of weeks now. It sums up what’s so great about The Lonely Island: Their lyrics are so, so silly, as opposed to wry or clever, and that silliness is amplified by the spot-on pop production. The music is 100-percent serious, the lyrics are 100-percent silly, and using hyperbolic music-critic math, that equals 200-percent awesome. I agree the concept for this one is a little wonky compared to the straightforward, declarative-statement humor of “I Just Had Sex” and “I’m On A Boat,” but I don’t think it’s overly dependent on the video. Seeing Michael Bolton dressed as Jack Sparrow is really funny, sure, but hearing his spectacularly earnest croon exalting “Davy Jones, giant squid,” punctuated by the Lonely Island guys’ “what?” and “noooo” is just as hilariously absurd.
Steven’s grade: B+
Genevieve’s grade: A
Zac Brown Band featuring Jimmy Buffett, “Knee Deep” (No. 73)
Steven: Jesus, does Jimmy Buffett ever get sick of the fucking beach? How does the guy not have skin cancer by now? Jimmy Buffett long ago made himself into a walking steel-drum sound; if he’s playing on your song, chances are you’re a hacky country singer trying to write a beer-friendly “island song.” I’m sure if I were “knee deep in the water somewhere,” I might like “Knee Deep.” But I’m not. I’m sitting behind a laptop computer and trying not to confuse “Knee Deep” with the dozen or so songs just like “Knee Deep” that Buffett did with Kenny Chesney. Unless you’re sipping a Corona in 80-degree heat at an overpriced resort south of the border, there’s absolutely no reason to play this song—and even then, I’d rather hear the Baha Men.
Genevieve: As you so bitterly point out, Steven, mindset has a lot to do with how we experience music: Lady Gaga is meant to be listened to while dancing drunkenly and/or working out (you can do both!), and songs like “Knee Deep” are meant to be listened to while drinking cheap domestic beer, surrounded by citronella candles. To enjoy this music outside of its context, you have to at least be able to mentally teleport yourself into those situations. Maybe it’s because I’m wearing a summer dress and can see a sunny Chicago day outside my office window, but I can almost wriggle my brain into a place where “Knee Deep” is appealing. There’s nothing original or exciting about it—I could make you a mix CD of 20 nearly identical songs, which you could and should immediately throw in the garbage—but it’s blandly comfortable, like an old pair of linen drawstring pants.
Steven’s grade: C
Genevieve’s grade: C+
Beyoncé, “Run The World (Girls)” (No. 76)
Steven: First off, I’m happy that Beyoncé is now at the beginning of a new album singles cycle, because pop-radio is usually a much better place with Beyoncé in it. That said, I’m not overly enamored with “Run The World (Girls)”; I like the aggression and unconventional song structure, but there’s not much of a song here. (No wonder the single has under-performed on the charts.) It’s just a chorus that Beyoncé keeps spitting out like a car-alarm won’t just shut off already. Female empowerment is a recurring theme with Beyoncé, but “Run The World (Girls)” seems a little forced compared with, say, “Diva,” which laid on the ’tude heavy with an endlessly quotable chorus. “Run The World” has a nice energy, but nothing else really sticks with me.
Genevieve: I should love “Run The World (Girls).” It heavily samples Major Lazer’s drum-tastic “Pon De Floor,” one of my favorite songs to completely lose my shit to; it’s centered on Beyoncé’s signature you-go-girlisms, which, as a girl who’s in favor of going, I always welcome; and it’s fuckin’ Beyoncé, one of the few pop artists capable of really selling those kind of sentiments. But something about “Run The Word (Girls)” just isn’t clicking, no matter how many times I watch the spectacular video. (Seriously, if nothing else, that video is fiyah.) I think it’s the lack of a strong melodic element tying together the incessant chorus, the aggressively spit verses, and the sultry bridge. It’s a bunch of catchy elements that refuse to cohere into a catchy song; you won’t catch yourself humming this, because what would you hum? That said, as club music, it’s pretty powerful, thanks mainly to that Major Lazer beat; it’s not a song everyone can dance to, like “Single Ladies,” but those with the fortitude to keep up with the beat will find themselves dancing hard.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: C
Jordin Sparks, “I Am Woman” (No. 82)
Genevieve: It’s hard not to compare “I Am Woman” to “Run The World (Girls),” what with the proximity of their themes, release dates, and chart positions. “I Am Woman” sounds like a song Beyoncé would have released five years ago, which is totally a good thing—especially considering what Bey is releasing now is “Run The World (Girls).” The chorus is mind-numbingly repetitive and the lyrics—written by a man, by the way, specifically OneRepublics’s Ryan Tedder—are trite, Sex And The City-lite lady-affirmations. But the thumping electro beat, Sparks’ high-energy vocals, and the handclap-laden breakdown (my weakness!) tip the scales toward “fun” on the fun-to-dumb spectrum.
Steven: Let’s pause for a moment to marvel that Jordin Sparks still is making hit records four years after her rein on American Idol. When was the last time we wrote about Kris Allen or Lee DeWyze in this column? (Hint: never.) It seems perverse that we’d both like a bald Beyoncé rip-off like “I Am Woman” more than the latest single from the genuine article this month, but Sparks is a woman, and nobody can do it like she can.
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: B