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Week of Oct. 30, 2010

A.V. Club writers Genevieve Koski and Steven Hyden have decided to explore the Billboard charts every two weeks in search of the good, the bad, and the ugly of contemporary pop music in all its forms. This week, they take a look at the Hot 100 chart for Oct. 30, 2010. 

1. Nelly, “Just A Dream” (No. 3)

Steven: It’s been a long time since one of the most reliable pop-rappers of the early ’00s had a single as successful as “Just A Dream,” which has brought Nelly back to the upper reaches of the Billboard singles chart for the first time in five years. Unfortunately, “Just A Dream” is far removed from the irresistible fun of “Country Grammar,” “Hot In Herre,” and even his last No. 1 single, 2005’s “Grillz.” An uneasy alliance of wan modern-rock balladry and Nelly’s own “Dilemma” (with a downbeat twist), “Just A Dream” is full of regret that’s outwardly romantic but could also be subtly autobiographical. (“I was at the top, now it’s like I’m in the basement” might as well be a reference to his recent chart troubles.) I prefer Nelly in party mode, though the success of “Just A Dream” and the poor showing of the recent “Tippin’ In The Club” suggests I’m in the minority on that one for some reason. But Nelly, please, for me—bring back the face Band-Aid.

Genevieve: I understand why Nelly made this song and released it as a single. Since “Hot In Herre,” most of his biggest chart success has come via slow jams like “Dilemma,” “Over And Over,” and “My Place”; and at age 36 (yes, Nelly is 36, and you’re old), he probably feels the pressure to mature beyond rapping about his Air Force Ones and sampling children’s handclap rhymes. Then again, the first thing “Just A Dream” inspires in me is the desire to cue up “Country Grammar” in the ol’ iTunes. Like you, I also prefer Nelly in party mode. But once I get over the nostalgia for the Nelly soundtrack of my high school and college years, I can appreciate this song on its own merits. Yeah, it’s a little dirge-y, but the chorus is catchy, and Nelly pulls off the sing-rap thing better than most. And, whether intentional or not, the absurd video’s floating car and giant spinning wedding ring inspire some giggles. You may be all mopey now, Nelly, but you can still make me smile.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: B

2. Rihanna, “Only Girl (In The World) (No. 4)

Genevieve: If you were to ask a random person to name the biggest female pop star in the U.S., chances are good you’d get one of two answers: Lady Gaga or Katy Perry. But here’s a fun fact: Rihanna has as many career No. 1 singles as the two of them combined. Granted, she’s only had three No. 1s since Perry and Gaga started releasing hits, and nothing’s come close to the success of 2007’s ubiquitous “Umbrella,” but she more than deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as them. Maybe the reason she gets somewhat overlooked is that she lacks a distinctive visual aesthetic, falling in a middle ground between Gaga’s ultra-visual art-pop and Katy Perry’s ultra-visual slut-pop; but she makes up for it by being a stronger vocalist than either of them. Rihanna’s vocals are the best part of “Only Girl (In The World),” transitioning from a breathy coo to that soaring chorus. (Yes, like everything else on the radio right now, it’s processed as hell, but there’s definitely more raw vocal power behind the digital manipulation.) The driving Europop dance beat may not be to everyone’s liking, but I love a song that sounds like a strobe light looks, and this is one of those. If nothing else, it’s energetic as hell, which is refreshing considering how weak-sauce most of what’s passing for “dance music” on the Hot 100 is.

Steven: Hear, hear! I think this is the first Rihanna song that I’ve ever really liked—she usually strikes me as being a little too icy and remote, which is why I think she’s not always put in the first class of female pop stars where she belongs. Unlike the overrated “Umbrella,” which was the purest distillation of the chilly fembot persona that’s turned me off her in the past, “Only Girl (In The World)” finds her kicking all kinds of ass and belting out a great disco chorus with incredible gusto and sexiness. And, yes, it’s nice to hear a genuine dance song on the Billboard Hot 100, which lately has been choked with so many dreadfully dull and draggy excuses for pop music, not the least of which was that awful Eminem duet Rihanna subjected herself and rest of the world to earlier this year. If “Love The Way You Lie” was the absolute pits, “Only Girl (In The World)” finds Rihanna soaring triumphantly into the cotton-candy clouds. 
Genevieve’s grade: A
Steven’s grade: A

3. Pink, “Raise Your Glass” (No. 11)

Genevieve: Max Martin was responsible for Pink’s last big single, the mega-earworm “So What,” so it’s unsurprising she’d turn to him for “Raise Your Glass,” one of three new songs from her upcoming greatest-hits compilation. This is a quintessential Max Martin single: ultra-poppy, vaguely rock-tinged, and calculated for mass consumption. It’s also a soundalike of another recent Martin hit, Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” (Though for some reason that piece of radio flotsam required four other writers and two other producers in addition to Martin.) Poor Pink: Back around the turn of the millennium, she played second fiddle to the Britneys and Christinas of the world; now she’s moved on to living in Katy Perry’s shadow. It’s too bad, because I really dig Pink’s pack-a-day vocals, and she has a propensity for big, dumb party anthems (see “Get This Party Started,” “So What,” etc.), which are always fun. But “Raise Your Glass” is too bland and expected to disguise what it really is: a throwaway track meant to be tacked on to a cash-grab compilation of superior singles.

Steven: A perennial second-fiddle forever in the shadow of each new generation of sexy teen-pop starlets—does that make Pink the new Taylor Dayne? I agree that “Raise Your Glass” is bland, but I think it actually fits well on a Pink retrospective, since it falls in line with her usual “rock” aesthetic of doing the devil horns and sticking out your tongue like you’re totally wild and crazy. I’ve found this posturing annoying on her past hits, and I definitely hated it here, too: It took me 12 whole seconds—until the part where she asks, “What’s the dealie-yo?”—before I checked the fuck out of “Raise Your Glass.”
Genevieve’s grade: C 
Steven’s grade: D

4. The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” (No. 19)

Genevieve: Country ballads are a tricky proposition, too often veering into overwrought schmaltz. “If I Die Young” is pretty damn wide-eyed and earnest in terms of subject matter, but Kimberly Perry’s vocals render it more sweet than sappy, and the lyrics are nicely crafted. (I love the mellifluence of “the sharp knife of a short life.”) Sure, the melody is a little by-the-numbers—though I think the addition of mandolin and accordion gives it a nice, earthy twang that’s missing from a lot of modern country—and it drags on about half a minute too long, but there’s good bone structure beneath the sagginess.

Steven: This is the pop music chart, right? People talk about indie-rock being sadsack music, but my God, is “If I Die Young” a morbid song. In the voice of a fresh-faced angel, Perry sings that she’ll be “wearing white when I come into your kingdom” and be “as green as the ring on my little cold finger.” Later on, she almost cracks a knowing smile when she says thoughts will be worth more “after I’m a goner,” but for the most part “If I Die Young” is a straight-up death ballad in pop-country clothing. And here I thought that Pink song would make me want to kill myself. Middle America sure is stuck in a never-ending funk, huh?
Genevieve’s grade: B 
Steven’s grade: B-

5. Mike Posner, “Please Don’t Go” (No. 34)

Steven: This poor man’s Justin Timberlake nearly ruined a decent Giorgio Moroder disco thump with smarmy mugging on his debut single “Cooler Than Me”; on the follow-up single “Please Don’t Go,” he’s less obnoxious but the music is also less catchy. I guess that makes “Please Don’t Go” a wash, though the song’s twitchy electro-pop bounce is pleasant enough to make me wonder whether this 22-year-old Duke graduate will eventually get around to crafting meatier tracks by the time Timberlake finally releases a follow-up to 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds. I just wish JT would take a break from the extracurriculars to make the question moot.

Genevieve: Wait, you’re saying Posner graduated from Duke? Man, I wish he’d advertise that fact, maybe on some sort of article of clothing he could wear in the video for this song. Posner’s wardrobe choice in the video is about as obvious as this song, a radio single if there ever was one: vaguely “urban,” hip-ified by 10 percent or so via some electronic flourishes, with cuddly-cute lyrics—and bland, bland, bland. It’s the pop-music equivalent of beige. That weak-sauce dance music I was talking about before? Yeah, that’s this.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: C

6. Kanye West, “Runaway” (No. 38)

Steven: Even after all of his bullshit (and partly because of his bullshit), Kanye West is still one of the most compelling figures in pop music. He’s certainly one of the only people that could get away with a single like “Runaway,” which is less a song than another self-referential nod to the Kanye West persona. Visually arresting performance on Saturday Night Live aside, “Runaway” and its “let’s have a toast for the douchebags” chorus would barely register as a novelty song coming from a lesser-known artist; it’s a half-formed track that West invites his audience to complete with their shared opinion of what he signifies. In typical Kanye West fashion, it’s difficult to extract what’s good about “Runaway” from what bugs me—its pretension and self-pitying sentiments (“Run away from me baby!”) are both a drag and sort of gripping, and while I’d rather hear “Gold Digger” or “Flashing Lights,” I’m continually amazed by this guy’s willingness to court potential brilliance on the precipice of embarrassment.

Genevieve: It seems that in the past few years, Kanye West has let the “artist” side of his persona take over the “producer” side. He’s so focused on defying expectations and blowing your fucking mind that he seems to have forgotten that what he was good at—what he made his name with—was tight, incredibly listenable hip-hop. The advent of “singing Kanye” is divisive, but personally, I hate hearing him warble through hooks that the producer Kanye of a few years ago would know to sample (“Stronger”) or hand over to a guest vocalist (“Gold Digger”), and “Runaway” is a perfect example of that. Obviously he could clean up and tune up his vocals, so the fact that he doesn’t—at least not much—indicates that he’s going for a personal, “raw” feeling, but I’d rather hear that rawness expressed through his rhymes and production, not whiney sing-song over sparse piano and synths. It’s the definition of “anemic.” Luckily, the single that preceded this, “Power,” proves Kanye still has some hard-hitting sampled beats and rhymes in him, so I’m not ready to write off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy yet, but chances are good that when it comes out, I’ll be skipping “Runaway.”
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: C

7. Taylor Swift, “Speak Now” (No. 45)

Steven: One of the many things I love about Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is the conceit that a woman that looks like Dolly Parton would worry about any man desiring somebody else. This liberal use of artistic license has similarly made the stunningly beautiful and prodigiously talented singer-songwriter Taylor Swift relatable to millions of pop-music fans that might otherwise resent the hell out of her. On “Speak Now,” the title track from her soon-to-be blockbuster album, Swift sneaks into a wedding and talks some sap out of marrying a rival “wearing a gown shaped like a pastry.” As he walks down the aisle, Swift taunts him—“You wish it was me”—but never says anything about actually loving the guy. Not that it would matter to most red-blooded American males between the ages of 18 and 30—I’m being conservative with the age range here—but Swift should be careful when she’s playing around with people’s lives like that.

Genevieve: Every Taylor Swift song I hear makes me think, “I should like this more.” All the elements are there: sassy girl-power themes delivered with a sweet-as-sugar twang and a bouncy guitar hook. It’s everything I love about Miranda Lambert, but for some reason it never quite rings true with Swift. (Sidebar: Could we get a duet from those two? The world needs more girl-on-girl duets. Double the cute, blonde sass!) Maybe it’s because, as you say, it’s hard to buy coming from a drop-dead gorgeous 20-year-old who’s been crazy-famous since she was in high school. But I think it has more to do with the fact that Swift, unlike Lambert, refuses to veer too far into either country or pop, firmly straddling the line between them without committing fully to either sound. Obviously, this balance has made her ridiculously successful, but it’s also made her kind of boring. I like the sense of place and storytelling elements in “Speak Now,” and Swift’s naughty-baby voice is a fun counterpoint to the subject matter, but I just want a little more. I just wish I could put my finger on what it is I want more of.
Steven’s grade: B+
Genevieve’s grade: B

8. Glee cast, “Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy” (No. 48)

Genevieve: Another Glee song? Another Glee song. Look, considering every new episode spawns at least three Hot 100 singles, we’re all just going to have to accept that Glee is as ubiquitous a chart presence at this point as Nicki Minaj. But I bring this song up as a counterpoint to the last column’s “The Only Exception,” because it’s a fine example of what I consider “the good Glee.” In my opinion—and I know there are many fans who’d argue—Glee is at its worst when it’s in karaoke mode, parroting back Top 40 singles that have barely had a chance to grow moldy. I went into the show expecting campy showtunes and corny oldies—in other words, the kind of stuff a bunch of choir/theater dorks would actually sing—and sadly, it only delivers on that about 25 percent of the time. But when it does, it’s so go-for-broke and over-the-top I can’t help but love it. I mean, come on: a straight-faced homage to Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland’s “Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy” sung by a gay teenage boy and a high-school diva wearing outfits that call back to those worn in the original 1963 duet? It’s kind of amazing that not only does something like this exist in 2010, but also that it’s popular enough to land on the Billboard Hot 100. Steven, I understand that as a straight male, this song is probably like kryptonite to you, but can you at least appreciate how wonderfully absurd its mere existence is?

Steven: C’mon GK, I’m totally gay for showtunes! If you can leave your heterosexual male stereotypes at the door, I just might let you listen to my newly purchased vinyl copy of the Cabaret soundtrack. (Liza!) As for Glee, I get why you like this song, since you’re a fan of the show. But as someone who has never watched Glee, I’ve yet to hear a hit single that’s originated from this show that makes sense as a stand-alone recording. Divorced from the visual context that you’ve described, “Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy” sounds to my ears like a passable but faceless and utterly inessential cover of an absolute classic. You seem to be reviewing the idea of this song more than the actual track, which only sends me scurrying back to those two peerless pros who really knew how to put a personal stamp on an old standard.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven grade: C

9. Adam Lambert, “If I Had You” (No. 51)

Genevieve: “If I Had You” starts off promisingly, with a vaguely industrial beat, before transitioning into a more straight-ahead, high-energy Euro-pop dance track (once again courtesy of Max Martin). I know I was just praising the synth-laden pleasures of “Only Girl (In The World),” but in the case of Lambert, I kind of wish he’d stayed on the path laid out by the first 30 seconds of this song. Lambert has a great glam-rock voice and vibe, so it’s a little underwhelming to hear him go in this direction. That said, on a purely visceral level, “If I Had You” has a lot to offer those seeking a soundtrack to an illegal-substance-fueled night of debauchery, and Lambert’s vocals are skillful, if a bit clinical.

Steven: I’d argue that “If I Had You” very much plays to Lambert’s glam-rock strengths, since it’s basically a poppier, pared-down version of the gleefully over-the-top “Queen goes Europop” sound of Muse, whose Matthew Bellamy contributed the song “Soaked” to Lambert’s 2009 debut For Your Entertainment. When I reviewed that album for The A.V. Club, I wrote that Lambert is “one of the few genuine, possibly lasting talents” to come out of American Idol, and I stand behind that, even if he seems far less provocative outside of AI’s anachronistic bubble. But I’d love to see him evolve into this generation’s (slightly less creepy) Gary Glitter, and I enjoy “If I Had You” in that spirit. 
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: B

10. Carrie Underwood, “Mama’s Song” (No. 70)

Steven: There are two ways to approach “Mama’s Song”: You can roll your eyes at the cynicism of Carrie Underwood for releasing such a sentimental song that’s been obviously engineered for weddings, or you can compliment the utilitarian know-how of Carrie Underwood for releasing such a sentimental song that’s been obviously engineered for weddings. Predictably my head says the former and my heart says the latter; I don’t really have a strong desire to hear “Mama’s Song” ever again, but there’s clearly a need for this kind of song so long as there are mothers, daughters, and good, deep, public crying jags in the world. Hating on “Mama’s Song” is like hating on toilet plungers; yes, they’re both a little gross, but the world would be a lot dirtier without them. 

Genevieve: I wish this song had a face so I could punch it. Few things get under my skin like our culture’s obsession with marriage and weddings, so I was never going to like this song, but it homes in on an aspect of the whole thing that simply infuriates me: the idea that a woman is defined by her relationship with either a) her parents or b) her husband, hence the whole “giving the bride away” tradition. This song is basically saying, “Don’t worry about me, ma, I found a nice young man to take care of me so you don’t have to anymore!” I love my mom dearly, and I know that she would love to see me get married one day, but I also know that she, as a single parent, would see this song for the bullshit it is. Carrie, you’re 27 years old with multiple platinum albums and a buttload of Grammys: You don’t need your mother or a husband to pat your head and tell you you’re a pretty princess, and you certainly don’t need to be advocating that attitude to your fans, either.
Steven’s grade: C+
Genevieve’s grade: D