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. 9, 2010.
Genevieve: I’m sure I’m not the first person to point out how weird it is to have Rihanna sing the chorus on “Love The Way You Lie,” Eminem’s paean to the agony and ecstasy of abusive relationships. It makes the song simultaneously more interesting and more off-putting: I can’t be the only one who hears Rihanna sing “I like the way it hurts,” then pictures that police photo of her bloody, pulverized face. But at least that squirmy feeling adds a little intrigue to Em’s autopilot delivery and lyrical missteps. (“Watch her leave out the window / I guess that’s why they call it window pane.”) This song has been chilling atop several charts—Hot 100, Rap Songs, Pop Songs, Radio Songs—for several weeks now, which means radio listeners are either much more anesthetized, or much more twisted than I give them credit for.
Steven: Why can’t Rihanna just meet a nice guy for once? First she hooks up with Chris Brown, and now she’s hanging around this jerk? She’s stuck in this loop of abuse and exploitation, and for what? So Eminem can contribute yet another ugly, shouty song to spiteful mix-tapes made by assholes for their poor girlfriends? The icky, tabloid-y veneer of “Love The Way You Lie” that you refer to really does seem like the overriding “appeal” of the song—it’s so musically blah otherwise—which to me is only off-putting and not interesting in the least. But hey, at least dysfunctional couples finally have a make-up sex soundtrack.
Genevieve’s grade: C
Steven’s grade: D
Steven: Do I like “Magic” for being good on its own merits, or for merely being better than “Can’t Stop Partyin’”? “Magic” isn’t a Weezer song, but it’s like a Weezer song in that I’m tempted to overrate it for not being terrible. If I didn’t think Rivers Cuomo was already a few Sparks cans short of a four-pack, I’d hope he’d learn a lesson or two from B.o.B on how to make a serviceable contemporary pop song that isn’t riddled with mid-’90s homie-speak and expired pop-culture references on loan from a Friedberg/Seltzer movie. As it is, I’ll just pat Rivers on the head for his passable MC skills and move on.
Genevieve: It’s interesting that you think of this song in terms of Cuomo, because I think of B.o.B’s last hit, “Airplanes,” in terms of his collaborator on that song, Paramore’s Hayley Williams. Both songs are tailored to the guest vocalists’ own musical style, which makes it difficult to decipher what exactly B.o.B’s sound is. It’s like he’s making a cameo in his own song. Granted, I haven’t heard anything of his other than those two songs, but at this point, he’s still a cipher, in spite of his complete dominance of pop radio this summer. That said, “Magic” is a serviceable party-starting pop song, though not nearly as earwormy as “Airplanes”; two minutes after listening to it, all I can remember of it is “Magic, magic, magic,” which just gets The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” stuck in my head. Of course, radio stations play a B.o.B. song every 17 minutes on average, so I imagine it’ll bore its way in there eventually.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: C
3. Kenny Chesney, “The Boys Of Fall” (Hot 100 No. 35)
Steven: I’m confident that you’ll loathe this tribute to our nation’s sadly underappreciated high-school football-player population as much I do, but you likely won’t have the grudging respect I have for it. You see, I love football, and yet Chesney, magnificent beach-bumming bastard that he is, has actually made me hate my favorite sport a little. “The Boys Of Fall” isn’t just awful, it’s persuasively awful on a subject I’ve been a solid supporter of since I was 5. That’s some kind of achievement there. Instead of playing up what’s awesome about football—the violence, the camaraderie with other fans, the socially acceptable excuse to drink heavily every weekend—“The Boys Of Fall” is all about “makin’ your dad happy,” “livin’ vicariously through the game,” and all sorts of overwrought, sappy nonsense. It’s like one long backslapping session for the last people on Earth who need positive reinforcement: small-town teenage boys “that rule the school” and who all the girls (and many of the middle-aged men) “dream about” because they’re in a special “club.” Oh, and Chesney also has Brett Favre do his “Just have fun and dream big!” act in the video, just in case you didn’t already want to strangle every last member of the Bumblefuck High School offensive line.
Genevieve: I have a slightly more romantic view of football, informed about 5 percent by actual football and 95 percent by Friday Night Lights, so the overwrought sappiness of “The Boys Of Fall” doesn’t really bother me. And the fetishizing of small-town, down-home values is a touchstone of country music, so I can’t get too fussed about Chesney sanctifying the choady varsity players who bring so much joy to “little towns like mine.” (I assume he’s referring to his home in East Tennessee, not the other little town he lives in on St. Johns.) No, what really bothers me about “The Boys Of Fall” is that it is so goddamn boring, using that same old pop-country-ballad chord progression and feeble guitar solo that sounds like it was formulated to soundtrack a vaguely patriotic car commercial. It’s slow and plodding enough that even the drunkest tailgater could probably slur along with the words… and maybe that’s the point.
Steven’s grade: C-
Genevieve’s grade: C-
4. Nicki Minaj, “Your Love” (Hot 100 No. 55)
Genevieve: Nicki Minaj hasn’t even released her debut album—Pink Friday, due November 23—but she’s already cracked the Hot 100 eight times as a guest vocalist. I can see how some people might find her vocal fluctuations between baby-voiced girliness and snarling hip-hop posturing annoying, but personally, I find her to be the highlight of whatever song she’s contributing to, from the otherwise-execrable Trey Songz track “Bottoms Up” (currently at No. 13 on the Hot 100) to the guest-packed Kanye West track “Monster.” But she’s so watered-down on her solo single “Your Love,” it makes it hard to get excited for Pink Friday. Part of it is her lackluster singing—I don’t understand why female MCs always have to sing as well as rap—and part of it is the sample of “No More I Love Yous,” a song I’ve never particularly liked. I really want to like Minaj, but I fear she’s following in the footsteps of Amanda Blank, another fiery guest vocalist (notably on Spank Rock’s “Bump”) who was rendered absolutely toothless on her own album.
Steven: Granted, “No More I Love Yous” isn’t my jam, either, but I think the sample is used well enough here. Also, you’re being overly harsh with the “lackluster singing” comment. This is Minaj in slow-jam mode, and while it’s true that she’s shown more personality on other people’s records, I think “Your Love” is solid enough to not completely sandbag expectations for the upcoming record. Besides, based on the video, it appears this song is about the romantic entanglements that occur between a hunky karate instructor and his horny female students in a mysteriously abstract dojo. How is that not interesting?
Genevieve’s grade: C
Steven’s grade: B-
5. The Ready Set, “Love Like Woe” (Hot 100 No. 56)
Steven: Sometimes you’ll hear a song that’s so brilliant and ahead of its time that you don’t like it the first several times you hear it, because your brain and ears simply are not prepared to understand it. It’s like that scene in Amadeus where Jeffrey Jones tells Mozart he’s using too many notes; it’s enough to make me wonder whether The Ready Set is my Mozart. The blasted brainchild of 20-year-old pride of Fort Wayne, Indiana Jordan Witzigreuter, The Ready Set’s confounding “Love Like Woe” is post-Bieber puppy-love pandering that’s part emo, part pop-reggae, and all asexual. How do you wrap your head around a song like this? It’s like a musical version of a Zhu Zhu Pet.
Genevieve: Wrapping your head around a song like “Love Like Woe” is easy, Steve: You just have to be (or have been) a 12-year-old girl. Of course it’s pandering and asexual: That’s all preteen girls can handle from their celebrity crushes. “Non-threatening” is the name of the game, and it has been for decades. In a way, I feel sorry for you, since you can’t tap into the deep recesses of your brain and call up the prepubescent version of yourself who would create dance routines with your girlfriends to “Love Like Woe” during a sleepover. Modern me may recognize the banal lyrics, patchwork post-production, and derivative melody, but 12-year-old me is totally jamming out. I’m not going to go hang Witzigreuter’s poster on my wall or anything, but I recognize and accept this song’s right to exist.
Steven’s grade: C
Genevieve’s grade: C+
6. Little Big Town, “Little White Church” (Hot 100 No. 69)
Genevieve: I’m a sucker for boot-stompin’, thigh-slappin’ country rave-ups like Little Big Town’s “Little White Church,” and so are a lot of radio listeners, judging by the way it’s moving up the charts. Little Big Town is a pretty innocuous group with a tendency toward blandness on its ballads, but when it abandons the treacly twang and moves toward the rockier end of the country spectrum, it’s good for singing along with in your car or at karaoke. I sort of hate the cliché message of “Little White Church”—which is basically “Marry me already!”—but the harmonies and rock guitar save it.
Steven: God, how could anybody not like this song? This has what must be the best-sounding guitar lick of any song on the charts right now. (Not that there’s any guitar on most of these songs, but still.) And I can’t think of a song that hasn’t been helped by a hearty hand-clappin’ breakdown. (I even have a soft spot for KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse And The Cherry Tree.”) Plus, fetching singer Karen Fairchild rhymes “no more chicken and gravy” with “ain’t gonna have your baby,” which cinches it for me. This is the first Little Big Town song I’ve ever heard—based on your description, I’m not sure I’ll rush out to hear more—but “Little White Church” is the most infectious wedding song I’ve heard in a really long time.
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: A-
7. Jazmine Sullivan, “Holding You Down (Goin’ In Circles)” (Hot 100 No. 71)
Steven: You and I both screamed “Mary J. Blige!” the first time we heard “Holding You Down,” though I can only assume that the Queen Of Hip-Hop Soul’s refusal to press charges for grand larceny means she isn’t upset about this obvious, but very likeable rip-off of her early-’90s sound. It helps that Sullivan can seriously blow; her gospel training takes the song to church after a quick visit to her no-good, cheating man. “Holding You Down” nods to the past without being overbearingly retro, proving that an assertive singer and a vintage backbeat are all you need to establish your own kingdom.
Genevieve: Not only is Blige not pressing charges, she’s taking Sullivan on tour with her, and she participated in a remix of this song, along with Swizz Beatz and his trusty air horn. Hearing the two of them back-to-back highlights both how much Sullivan sounds like Blige, and how far she has to go to be able to really hang with the Queen. I’m not hating on Sullivan; I like “Holding You Down” a lot, for all the same reasons you do. It just feels a little thin, and a little too reliant on throwback charm.
Steven’s grade: B+
Genevieve’s grade: B
8. Florence And The Machine, “Dog Days Are Over” (Hot 100 No. 73)
Genevieve: Music critics love to joke about how the Video Music Awards are a pointless exercise in self-promotion and they don’t really mean anything, but they definitely meant something to Florence Welch this year. Florence And The Machine’s performance on the awards show—a weird anomaly that was basically the product of nepotism, as laid out in this article—sent the single “Dog Days Are Over,” from the long-dormant but excellent album Lungs, rocketing up the charts as high as No 21, though it’s dropped since. Flo’s baroque, Kate Bush-esque pop isn’t the most logical fit for pop radio, but as someone who’s been championing Lungs for a year now, I’m happy to see it get a late-stage bump. She’s had six singles chart in the UK, but there’s not usually a ton of crossover between the U.S. and UK charts, so I’m a little dubious that this will translate to further chart success for her on this side of the pond: She’s a little too weird—and not the sort of polished, club-friendly weird of Lady Gaga—and her music’s a little too sprawling for Top 40 tastes. Regardless, “Dog Days” is an excellent, welcome respite from the sort of club-baiting dance-pop dreck that litters the charts.
Steven: I don’t think you have to be a snooty music critic to conclude that a moon-man statue—an honor bestowed on the likes of Jesus Jones, Hootie & The Blowfish, Gym Class Heroes, and Justin Bieber, among other luminaries—is a meaningless cudgel waved by the gods of self-promotion. Not that there is anything wrong with that; like you said, it helped Florence And The Machine. As for the song, I don’t like it as much as you do, and I really don’t like the video, though it does make me wish for a Beavis And Butt-head comeback, because this is a softball for them. “Dog Days Are Over” just screams “one-hit wonder” to me—it’s a respite from the club-baiters, sure, but by the end of the song, most people will be ready to ditch the art-school quirk-fest and head back to the dance floor.
Genevieve’s grade: A
Steven’s grade: B-
9. Mumford & Sons, “Little Lion Man” (Hot 100 No. 76)
Steven: I’ve spent as much time as any A.V. Club writer praising generously bearded indie-folkies in the last couple of years, but now I’m feeling exhausted. There’s still an exciting group of singers, songwriters, and musicians taking up the bones of American music and re-assembling new beasts for the new century, but as I wrote in my recent review of the new EP from Megafaun—a great band you all should check out once you recover from that Ready Set song—the scene has finally reached the oversaturation point. Not that Mumford & Sons cares; these hokey cornpone-ographers have parlayed the popularity of the Bon Ivers and Avett Brothers of the world into a rapidly ascendant career by playing it very, very straight. I suppose this is intended to be “gritty,” but to me it just sounds like David Gray’s sepia-toned period.
Genevieve: “Little Lion Man” references a lot of styles, many of which I love—particularly the bluegrass inflections—so it’s impossible to hate it. But it also smoothes those sounds out so much, it’s hard to find something to really grab onto. This toothless nature makes it perfect radio fodder, because it can play as rock, alternative, adult contemporary, or even “college rock” without offending anyone’s sensibilities or coming on too strong… as long as that F-bomb in the chorus gets bleeped, of course. Even that lyric—“I really fucked it up this time”—seems like a calculated bit of pseudo-defiance that hints at some sort of rebellious nature without actually delivering on it. Then again, not every indie-folk group has to be a punk band at heart.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: B-
10. Miranda Lambert, “Only Prettier” (Hot 100 No. 96)
Genevieve: The pop country charts aren’t a complete wasteland, more like a tundra with a few bright patches dotting a mostly bleak landscape. The brightest spot, in my opinion, is Miranda Lambert, though she often gets overlooked in favor of higher-profile blonde cutie-pies Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, both of whom place higher on this week’s charts. “Only Prettier” is relatively low on the Country Songs list and even lower on the Hot 100, and doesn’t seem to be gaining the way her last No. 1 single, “The House That Built Me,” did. This latest single isn’t as sweetly affecting as “House,” nor is it the best song on last year’s Revolution. (That would be “Me & Your Cigarettes.”) But it’s a better example of Lambert’s strengths, namely her playful lyricism and spunky delivery.
Steven: Miranda Lambert is Exhibit A in the case for women having way bigger balls than men in contemporary country music. She’s even pulling her punches on “Only Prettier,” turning the other cheek and saying “bless your heart” instead of fucking shit up, and yet she still beats the hell out of callow creeps like Kenny Chesney. (I’d love to hear Lambert’s version of “Boys Of Fall,” which would likely end with her shooting the team and dumping a bottle of Jack on their graves.) Until Lambert records the answer record of my dreams, I’ll be more than pleased with “Only Prettier,” a sly, clever (I love the line that goes “let’s shake hands and reach across those party lines”), casually spirited number from the sexiest ass-kicker in country music right now.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: B+