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 Jan. 8, 2011.
Enrique Iglesias, “Tonight (I’m Loving You)” (No. 7)
Steven: Hey Genevieve, remember way back in the mid-2010s when a nation loved and laughed to Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You”? I wonder if people would’ve felt differently about that song had they known that it indirectly paved the way for Enrique Iglesias’ “Tonight (I’m Fucking You).” To what depths can pop music sink in order to be shocking now that the word “fuck” has finally been demystified? Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself—the innocence of the seven radio listeners on the planet without Internet connections has been preserved thanks to the cleaned-up version of Iglesias’ sexually pushy and musically pedestrian hit, now known as “Tonight (I’m Loving You).” Just like when “Fuck You” became “Forget You,” turning “Tonight (I’m Fucking You)” into “Tonight (I’m Loving You)” negates the point of a song that relies on several well-placed F-bombs for its impact. The part where Iglesias tries to act like a gentleman and says “please excuse me, I don’t mean to be rude” before kindly violating the vagina he has targeted makes no sense in the relatively tender “I’m Loving You” version. It’s a worthless version of an already worthless song. Love this, motherlover.
Genevieve: “Fuck” is a funny word, changing connotation and implication depending on whether it’s a verb, adjective, noun, or exclamation. Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” is cheeky, gleeful, and universal; Enrique Iglesias’ “I’m fuckin’ you” is skeezy as fuck. I think if Iglesias did a duet with Buckcherry, some sort of singularity would occur, infecting the entire human population with gonorrhea. I actually slightly prefer the radio edit of this song to the explicit version (NSFW: boobies), if only because it saves me the mental image of Iglesias’ mole thrusting back and forth on top of me. But really, the only thing somewhat redeeming about this song is Ludacris’ half-assed verse, which at least seems to have a sense of humor to balance out Enrique’s hip-swiveling machismo. Everything else ranges from actively gross to offensively lazy, right down to that same rubbery synth line every dance song—including the next one on this list—seems to be using right now.
Steven’s grade: D
Genevieve’s grade: D+
Black Eyed Peas, “The Time (Dirty Bit)” (Hot 100 No. 9)
Genevieve: Pointing out that Black Eyed Peas—or, more specifically, evil mastermind Will.I.Am—are opportunistic trend-whores is no great revelation; hell, Nathan Rabin has written entire columns about it. But if Will.I.Am insists on pooping these things out every few months, we music critics are going to keep saying it, because holy shit is “The Time (Dirty Bit)” an opportunistic bit of trend-whoring. Take one part club-kid favorite Deadmau5, one part inane nostalgia, and one part Auto-Tune, and bam, you have—well, not a song, exactly. “The Time” is really two songs, with that “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” sample shoehorned into a driving dance beat that’s rife with Auto-Tune and lazy rapping. (That would be the “Dirty Bit,” I suppose.) One verse even bites Ke$ha’s “swagger/Mick Jagger” rhyme scheme, which COME ON! I’m not a blind BEP-hater; their songs are basically aural lobotomies, but some of them—“Hey Mama” and “Let’s Get It Started” spring to mind—are as good a soundtrack to a drunken dance-seizure as I’ve ever heard. But “The Time” seems stuck in a no-man’s-land between club track and radio single; you can dance to the “Dirty Bit” or sing along to the chorus, but you won’t feel good about either.
Steven: Jon Pareles of the New York Times recently observed that pop music’s current “keep it simple, stupid” phase is reflective of past musical movements toward single-minded escapism during tough economic times. This approach has yielded lots of great pop music in the past, though lately its seems, as Pareles writes, like “less is merely less.” Black Eyed Peas wrote the book on “less” in the current pop marketplace, and while going dumb is certainly nothing new for Will.I.Am, “The Time (Dirty Bit)” is a whole other level of “these morons will buy anything I shit out” laziness. At some point reality has to start being a more viable option to this. Grafting the chorus from a Dirty Dancing soundtrack staple onto a bleep-bloop fart and forcibly grunting about “having … a good … time … with you!” is the musical equivalent of staring into the abyss.
Genevieve’s grade: D
Steven’s grade: F
Diddy-Dirty Money, “Coming Home” (No. 18)
Steven: I haven’t heard Last Train To Paris, the album Diddy made with his new “futuristic soul” trio Diddy-Dirty Money and released a week before Christmas. But based on the single “Coming Home,” I’m guessing that it sounds a bit like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, only with more references to Notorious B.I.G. (R.I.P.) and fewer quotable lines about oral sex. “Coming Home” finds Diddy in self-flagellation mode, fretting about the toll his unbeatable level of superstar awesomeness has had on his kids, his sense of identity, and his ability to find love as he grows older. Damn, he even relates to the protagonist of “Tears Of A Clown,” for crissakes! But the melodramatic “Coming Home” shows that Diddy isn’t really a crying-on-the-inside type, nor should he be. Co-written and co-produced by Jay-Z, “Coming Home” is yet another fascinating examination of a raging egomaniac’s delicate psyche.
Genevieve: Generally the words “an introspective ballad by Diddy” don’t fill me with a ton of excitement, but this is an unexpectedly not-terrible look on him. The Kanye West comparison is apt, and understandable; Sean Combs is arguably as famous (or more, in some circles) as Kanye and Jay-Z. But he doesn’t inspire the same sort of respect that they do. He’s wildly successful, and clearly a good businessman, but he lacks Ye and Hova’s artistic cache. This song seems like an attempt to show that he still has something new to contribute to pop music beyond product endorsements and VH1 reality shows. In general, it works—though I wonder how much credit for that should go to Jay-Z—and “Coming Home” succeeds at showing us a different side of Diddy. It doesn’t have the same authentic, mad-genius smell about it that Kanye’s recent work does, and perhaps slides a tiny bit over the line into “schmaltzy”; but it’s likable and semi-relatable, and the “I hate/love that song” structure is fairly clever. I don’t love this song, but I can’t hate it, either.
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Genevieve: What sets The Lonely Island apart from the hundreds of sketch groups churning out song parodies and joke raps on YouTube is its ability to write a Top 40-caliber hook. “I Just Had Sex” stands in good company with “I’m On A Boat,” “Jizz In My Pants,” and “Dick In A Box” in that regard. Throw in that bridge (“still counts!”) and the most triumphant-sounding key change since “Livin’ On A Prayer,” and “I Just Had Sex” turns into one of my favorite pop songs of the last year. No, really. Is it funny? Yeah, sort of, in that one-note, declarative-statement, Lonely Island kinda way. But this column isn’t called “This Was Musical Satire”; it’s “This Was Pop,” and this is pop, and pretty damn good pop at that.
Steven: This is going to sound like a put-down but it’s really not: The Lonely Island is basically the 21st-century version of The Blues Brothers, an SNL-related tribute to R&B music that straddles the line between jokiness and sincerity. If The Lonely Island seems a lot better than the Blues Bros, it’s because Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone understand that they’re not really musicians, which is not something that could be said of Belushi, Aykroyd, or the countless Jake and Elwood impersonators haunting county fairs every summer. “I Just Had Sex” is a rehash of the previous Lonely Island songs you mentioned, right down to Akon taking up the T-Pain/Justin Timberlake “ironic pop-star cameo” slot. It still works both as comedy and music, though Enrique Igelesias edges out The Lonely Island in the “ridiculous songs about fucking” category this week.
Genevieve’s grade: A-
Steven’s grade: B+
Keri Hilson, “Pretty Girl Rock” (Hot 100 No. 31)
Genevieve: According to Keri Hilson, “I want everybody to feel like they can do the ‘Pretty Girl Rock’… don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful, ’cause you are. Everybody is beautiful.” The lyric “I'm cuter than the girl that’s with ya” throws a bit of a wrench in that logic, but “Pretty Girl Rock” is a generally innocuous bit of I’m-so-fly R&B posturing. It’s sort of Beyoncé-lite, stripped of all that independence and inner strength mumbo-jumbo and placing the focus back where it should be, on your pretty, pretty face. Superficiality aside, I can’t hate on “Pretty Girl Rock”: It’s cute, catchy, and contains the boast, “I’m sweeter than a Swisher,” which hits the sweet spot between stupid and awesome. Or maybe my opinion’s been swayed by the colorful, decade-hopping video, which is about 10 times better than the song.
Steven: You know what else hits the sweet spot between stupid and awesome? Rhyming “Keri” with “derri … ere.” I’m less enamored with the “don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful” hook, unless rocking Kelly LeBrock taglines from the ’80s has suddenly become hip again in pop culture without me knowing about it. But, yes, this is very sweet and fun song, and the video sells it like gangbusters. Hilson knows she has a good pop structure here, and she’s content to ride it out with a minimum of fussiness.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: B+
Tim McGraw, “Felt Good On My Lips” (No. 47)
Steven: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing This Was Pop with you, GK, it’s that female contemporary country singers generally have way bigger balls the male contemporary country singers. Tim McGraw is another case in point. The man has a wadded-up ball of wet paper where his backbone should be, but as his recent double-album compilation Number One Hits shows, you don’t need functioning testicles when you have a winning formula. “Felt Good On My Lips” is one of two new songs the collection—the other being a “dance mix” of the 1994 hit “Indian Outlaw”—and it’s just another bit of pandering soullessness about a good woman teachin’ a man how to live life the right way. But what really blows about “Felt Good On My Lips” is the music, which crams at least three crappy MOR pop-rock songs into an epic shit sandwich of listless basslines, limp guitars, and a hollow “whoa-oh” chorus that echoes in its own emptiness.
Genevieve: Yeah, the music is the real problem here. The lyrics may be castrated, but at least they’re marginally clever, progressing through all the different things that feel good on his lips: her name, the song they sing together, the girly drink she orders, and eventually, of course, her kiss. It’s saccharine, but not entirely banal, unlike that weak-ass guitar line. It turns everything around it to mush, and I can actually feel myself forgetting this song as I’m listening to it.
Steven’s grade: C-
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Michael Jackson, “Hold My Hand” (No. 49)
Steven: I reviewed 2010’s Michael for The A.V. Club, and, to put it lightly, the record’s stifling stench of exploitation—of Michael Jackson’s vast archive of leftover music and the legion of fans all-too-eager to buy up anything with MJ’s name on it—put me off. That said, the single “Hold My Hand” is the album’s most likeable song, assuming that it’s actually Jackson singing on the track. When I reviewed the album, I operated under the assumption that the vocals, at least, were Jackson’s work, though the reluctance of Jackson’s label Epic Records to delineate what was done before and after Jackson’s death will always put this music (as well as all subsequent archival releases from Jackson) under a dark cloud. If you can set all that aside and judge “Hold My Hand” solely as a soft-rock pop song, it’s passable waiting-room fare.
Genevieve: Michael Jackson in slushy pop ballad mode is probably my least favorite MJ; “Heal The World” and that Free Willy song may soundtrack a bunch of YouTube tributes, but they don’t even crack the top 20 of his best songs. So I’m glad that Akon’s contributions on production and vocals punch this up into something a little more midtempo and lighthearted—a posthumous Michael Jackson release doesn’t need to be any more maudlin than it inherently is. The dramatic crescendo, handclaps, and choral arrangement at the end give it that Michael Jackson “we are the world” gravitas, but it’s all anchored by a kicky backbeat and simple piano line. It’s sentimental, sure—could any posthumous MJ release really not be sentimental?—but it also has the pop structure and attitude that was so fundamental to his music.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: B
Dr. Dre, “Kush” (No. 50)
Steven: If you were like me and raced to buy Chinese Democracy the day it came out, you know that eagerly anticipated albums have a shelf life that goes from “can’t miss” to “shouldn’t miss” to “shouldn’t have been released” as their release dates get pushed back. But based on “Kush,” my optimism for Dr. Dre’s eternally delayed third album Detox remains unabated. “Kush” is supposedly Detox’s first official single after “unofficial” leaks of the songs “Under Pressure” and “Turn Me On.” It’s not an Earth-shattering track or anything, but I kind of like that about “Kush,” which kicks in with a Chronic 2001-style piano part over a club-banging beat. It’s Dre at his poppiest, and a sign that Detox could very well be another singles machine for the good doctor should he finally get around to releasing it.
Genevieve: Man, Akon is all up in This Was Pop today; his guest appearances account for 30 percent of the songs this week. While he’s easily the best part of “I Just Had Sex” and a fitting MJ complement in “Hold My Hand,” he’s a bit of a square peg in “Kush,” a very new-school addition to Dre and Snoop’s unmistakable G-funk sound. It’s a little jarring to hear his Auto-Tuned vocals amid that unmistakable piano plink and Snoop’s loping flow, but it definitely ups the song’s 2011 pop potential. “Kush” sounds a bit like “Still D.R.E.” after a can of FourLoko, slightly amped up but still bleary-eyed. It’s a good sound for radio, and while I hope Detox holds more than radio fodder when it’s released, this is a good way to kick things off. Like you said, Steven, “Kush” isn’t Earth-shattering, game-changing music, but it’s a good evolution for Dre.
Steven’s grade: B+
Genevieve’s grade: B
Brad Paisley, “This Is Country Music” (No. 65)
Genevieve: Brad Paisley might be the most comfortably, unapologetically un-hip country singer recording today. His songs are well-adjusted, frequently goofy, and just generally full of easy, unaffected “aw shucks” charm. That’s why he’s able to get away with “This Is Country Music,” a song that basically lists every cliché thrown at country music—it’s corny, preachy, and full of uncool topics like tractors and lovin’ your mama—and says, “Yeah, so?” It would seem self-righteous and, well, corny coming from, oh, let’s say Toby Keith; but Paisley turns it into a good-natured paean to a genre he genuinely loves, making the list of country legends he references in the song’s coda—Merle, Conway, George, Johnny, and, uh, Lee Greenwood—seem like a humble tribute rather than opportunistic name-dropping. Yeah, this song is cheesy as all get out; but as Paisley points out, sometimes that’s okay.
Steven: Like Brad Paisley, I love country music, and even if we don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on what we love about it, I can appreciate what he’s trying to do here. I just wish Paisley didn’t overlook some of my other favorite country music clichés, like the ones about whiskey-drinkin’ and butt-kickin’ and being a defiant, take-no-shit iconoclast. Paisley’s stinging guitar work aside, “This Is Country Music” doesn’t kick, cut, or comfort you like this music does at its best. Like a lot of contemporary country, it’s mid-tempo pop-rock that’s long on working-class platitudes and short on grit and guts. Oh, and fuck “God Bless The U.S.A.” right in the ear. George Jones ought to drive a Cadillac into Paisley’s swimming pool for mentioning that treacle in the same sentence as “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a song that communicates the message of “This Is Country Music” in a much clearer and less heavy-handed way.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: C+
Troop 41, “Do The John Wall” (No. 81)
Genevieve: Is the “John Wall” the laziest dance craze since the “Lean Back”? The Internet tells me the “John Wall” is the signature celebration move of some Famous Basketball Guy of the same name, but being the basketball greenhorn I am, Troop 41’s song is my first exposure to it. It appears to be some sort of rhythmic flexing of the wrists, something that can only be called a “dance” in the loosest sense of the word, but Troop 41 fleshes it out into something that actually looks pretty, ahem, baller. “Do The John Wall” is the definition of a niche novelty song, an insider’s ode to some throwaway fan trivia, but it has crossover appeal; it’s earwormy, has a simple, sing-along-friendly chorus, and you can dance to it—John Wall-style or otherwise. It’s a throwaway, ringtone-ready jam, but a jam nonetheless.
Steven: This novelty song about the star rookie point guard for the Washington Wizards started out as a YouTube sensation, which after several months of constant clicks finally got the attention of Universal Republic, which gave the record a national release. It’s a decently catchy song, and it’s practically Thriller compared to most songs about popular sports figures. I’m just at a loss as to how much shelf life these rappers have. Will they break out of the novelty-song ghetto, or will the world be partying to “Hit It Like Durant” by this summer?
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: C+