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 week, they take a look at the Hot 100 chart for Oct. 1, 2011.
Steven: After taking a few months off from the Hot 100, we’re back, and it’s like we never left. Similar to how Ke$ha name-checked the venerable leader of The Rolling Stones (and current member of the misbegotten “supergroup” SuperHeavy) Mick Jagger in one of 2010’s biggest pop hits, “Tik Tok,” Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera bank on Gen Y’s knowledge of classic-rock icons with “Moves Like Jagger.” As it turns out, familiarity with Sticky Fingers isn’t required in order to get this somewhat racy dance-pop confection. It certainly sounds nothing like the Stones, though you sort of have to know that Jagger is one of rock’s greatest ho-bags to get the lyric allusion to his sexual prowess. Actually, Keith Richards might have something to say about that, but I don’t want to get sidetracked here: “Moves Like Jagger” really testifies to the popularity of The Voice, pairing up two of the show’s stars on a likeable but slight duet that likely won’t become the “Satisfaction” (or even the “Love Is Strong”) of its time, but is fine for what it is.
Genevieve: Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera at the top of the Billboard Hot 100? What is this, 2003? Considering both Maroon 5 and Aguilera are coming off serious commercial flops from last year (Hands All Over and Bionic, respectively), the success of “Moves Like Jagger” does a lot more than testify to The Voice’s popularity; it owes its existence to The Voice’s popularity. But even with that serious boost, “Moves Like Jagger” wouldn’t be spending its 13th week in the top 10 if it weren’t a serious crowd-pleaser, which it is. As cheeky as it is to attribute the success of this song (and “Tik Tok,” for that matter) to Sir Mick’s raw animal magnetism, the real reason is obvious: That demandable whistled hook, which possesses the sort of instant memorability that ensures you’ll be humming this song even if you don’t like it. But it is easy to like, with its snappy disco sway and non-threatening sexuality. “Moves Like Jagger” is most likely a happy anomaly and nothing more—but frankly, I’m just happy to see someone not named “Katy Perry” in the top spot.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Cobra Starship featuring Sabi, “You Make Me Feel” (No. 7)
Genevieve: Cobra Starship reeeaaallly wanted another radio hit to follow up 2009’s “Good Girls Go Bad,” so Gabe Saporta’s pop-punk-turned-synth-pop outfit ditched its signature verbose song titles (“Being From Jersey Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry,” “Prostitution Is The World’s Oldest Profession (And I, Dear Madame, Am a Professional),” “Pete Wentz Is The Only Reason We’re Famous,” etc.), punched in Generic House Beat No. 67A on the ol’ Radio Singleometer, and fired up the Auto-Tune for “You Make Me Feel.” Then, just to hedge its bets, the band populated the song’s music video with cutting-edge pop-cultural figures like Elle’s creative director, Robin Williams, and Bing For iPad. But really, Saporta and co. don’t need the cool-kid cachet brought by Mr. Bicentennial Man to sell “You Make Me Feel,” which is a perfectly calculated slice of Hot 100 bait—which means it’s also perfectly boring. The roboticized guest vocals by Sabi—a mildly buzzed-about rapper-singer best known at this point for contributing 2011’s most WTF line to Britney Spears’ “(Drop Dead) Beautiful”: “Steam me like a pot full of vegetables”—add no personality, making this song the equivalent of those Midori cocktails that are so prominently featured in the video: sugary, colorful, and formulated for mass, mindless consumption.
Steven: Is it possible for a pop song to pose a sentiment that’s more noncommittal than “You Make Me Feel”? How about “I Care Somewhat For You” or “It Might Be Okay To Kiss You”? Nah, even those titles seem more human than this song. “You Make Me Feel” is an utterly nonspecific song by nonspecific artists for a nonspecific audience. It’s an upbeat, brainlessly “fun” ditty that absolutely nobody who created it cared about. It’s the kind of empty cultural vessel that makes you wonder if the pod people have finally taken over. I feel depressed; did you say something about Midori cocktails? I’d like a tray of them, please.
Genevieve’s grade: C
Steven’s grade: D
Hot Chelle Rae, “Tonight Tonight,” (No. 19)
Steven: Here’s another song cut from the “Moves Like Jagger” mold—“Tonight Tonight” is a vaguely rock-like song with light funk overtones and several glops of poppy sheen. (Though the Zach Galifianakis reference is certainly more “now,” which means “Tonight Tonight” probably will sound “2011” by this time next year.) So aggressively ephemeral that it makes Maroon 5 sound like Joy Division, Hot Chelle Rae has the substance and flavor of a Dorito-and-whipped-cream soufflé, but this song succeeds at achieving its modest ends. As far as I can tell, the lyrics consist solely of four words: “la,” “all right,” “tonight,” and “whoa-oh.” But the beat is bouncy, and singer Ryan Follese is self-aware enough to know he’s here to deliver pure bubblegum trifles to the public—yes, even the white kids.
Genevieve: Dave Holmes summed up “Tonight Tonight” so much better than I ever could when he tweeted that it’s “just barely not a Lonely Island song.” Songs like this are why it’s so hard to convince naysayers that there’s worthwhile music on the radio: It’s basically a parody of bubblegum pop-punk, with its generic hook (which sounds like it was swiped from the late ’90s, then gussied up with some newfangled synths) and lyrics that vacillate between lazy (a for-no-good-reason Zach Galifianakis reference? Sure!) and completely apathetic. (Nothing says “I put effort into this song” like a chorus that shrugs “oh well,” “whatever,” and “it doesn’t matter” between la-las and whoa-ohs.) What you deem self-awareness, Steven, I hear as the smug entitlement that comes with being a bunch of music-industry progeny—three-quarters of Hot Chelle Rae are descended from successful country-music songwriters—who have the money and resources to hire a bunch of co-writers to help them craft an artless piece of radio-programmer bait. I hate this song, and as one of “the white kids,” I say you can keep it, Hot Chelle Rae.
Steven’s grade: C
Genevieve’s grade: D
Drake, “Headlines” (No. 23)
Steven: Drake marks the midpoint between the Bon Iver-ification of indie-rock and Kanye West’s long, gloomy, egomaniacal shadow over hip-hop. The ground Drake treads on the characteristically self-flagellating “Headlines” is suddenly very crowded in contemporary pop music, with all kinds of wannabe troubadours tripping over themselves to chronicle how fucked-up they are over downbeat synths and jittery 808s. I think Drake pulls it off better than most—his flat rapping style is far more expressive than it should be, perhaps because he’s worked as an actor for much of his life. This hasn’t been a great year for hip-hop albums, but “Headlines” gives me hope that the forthcoming Take Care will boast a similar mix of introspection and subtle pop smarts.
Genevieve: I like Drake and want Take Care to be good, but “Headlines” isn’t an encouraging first single for his upcoming sophomore album. (The not officially released “Marvin’s Room” was better.) The monotonous beat and moody flow have a hypnotic quality that makes the song seem to grow bigger and deeper over repeated listens, but as a radio single, standing amid dozens of other earworms, it seems flat and hookless, and seriously lacking in the good-natured swagger that characterizes previous Drake singles like “Best I Ever Had” and “Fancy.” If I wasn’t already looking forward to Take Care, I don’t know that “Headlines” would pique my interest.
Steven’s grade: B+
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Kelly Clarkson, “Mr. Know It All,” (No. 35)
Genevieve: It seems Kelly Clarkson (or rather, the four songwriters responsible for “Mr. Know It All”) decided to simply copy Bruno Mars’ “Just The Way You Are” and replace the cheeseball smarm with spunkier lyrics more in line with Clarkson’s Ms. Independent persona. While this is an upgrade, lyrically speaking, it’s undeniable that this is even more of a retread of “Just The Way You Are” than Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” was of “Express Yourself.” That isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker in my mind—there are plenty of sound-alike singles populating the airwaves at any given moment, and Mars himself could be accused of biting other songs with “Just The Way You Are,” notably Alicia Keys’ “Doesn’t Mean Anything.” However, it sucks that Clarkson, once such a lively pop-rock presence, chose to ape such a lifeless song in her attempt to revive her radio-single supremacy.
Steven: I feel like Kelly Clarkson is still cashing checks based on all the credit she earned way back in 2005 for “Since U Been Gone,” a smash hit and crossover favorite for the “too cool for pop music” crowd. Since then, Clarkson has put out solid-though-unspectacular singles spotlighting her powerful voice, ample charisma, and lack of a consistent artistic identity. I feel like she’s been flailing a bit lately; her recent hit duet with country singer Jason Aldean, “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” was popular but a little bland, and “Mr. Know It All” betrays a similar willingness to churn out product without much distinction. I still like Clarkson, but all this coasting has drained her reserves with me almost dry.
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: C
Kreayshawn, “Gucci Gucci” (No. 68)
Genevieve: It’s hard to believe we haven’t talked about Kreayshawn on TWP yet, Steven. It seems like she’s been around forever, inking a massive deal with Columbia and snagging a Best New Artist VMA nomination on the strength of her self-produced YouTube video for “Gucci Gucci,” which received 3 million views in under three weeks when it premièred back in May. Then again, in the ensuing four months, she’s done little but ride out that buzz and court controversy, and “Gucci Gucci” hasn’t risen above No. 57 on the Hot 100 in its eight weeks on the charts. (For comparison’s sake, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” peaked at 58 during a six-week chart run.) Yes, “Gucci Gucci” is catchy in an obnoxious way, and almost endearingly mindless (again, see “Friday”), but with every week that it lingers in the lower reaches of the Hot 100, it seems less and less likely that both the song and the artist responsible for it will be able to break out of the Internet-buzz ghetto.
Steven: As our many legendary clashes over Ke$ha have shown, I have a weakness for trashy ladies on the pop charts. And so it goes with Kreyshawn and “Gucci Gucci,” which makes me smile in spite of myself, no matter how often I hear it. I know the idea of Kreyshawn tends to make lots of people’s skin crawl, but only the most humorless hip-hop fans would honestly get upset over what’s clearly a novelty song by an artist who, as you say, probably doesn’t have much of a career ahead of her. In a way, that’s too bad, because as flimsy as “Gucci Gucci” is musically, the song’s snotty lyrics hit the target more often than not. (“Bitch, you ain’t no Barbie, I see you work at Arby’s, No. 2, super-size, hurry up, I’m starving.”) I wouldn’t be surprised if Kreyshawn really does eat at Arby’s.
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: B+
Brantley Gilbert, “Country Must Be Country Wide” (No. 69)
Steven: I know you love a good “this is what country music is all about!” country song, as do I. I’m not sure that “Country Must Be Country Wide” fits the bill, though—at least not the “good” part. Is it really a shock to Brantley Gilbert that somebody from Ohio likes country music? Or do folks born south of the Mason-Dixon really assume that people from Cleveland listen to Vivaldi while eating scones with their pinkie fingers extended in the air? What really does this song in, aside from the sorta-stupid lyrics, is the generic music, which sounds lifted from a demo tape of Toby Keith outtakes, from the mumbled verses to the predictably rocking chorus. (Doesn’t Gilbert know that Keith has moved on to Built To Spill knock-offs?) I get that this kind of song is about reaffirming listeners’ identities, but there’s precious little personality in “Country Must Be Country Wide.”
Genevieve: Setting aside the fact that, regardless of their relationship to the Mason-Dixon Line, most cities don’t have a station that plays “Hank, Willie, and Waylon,” those aren’t the right musical touchstones for this song anyway. (This often seems to be the case with songs that name-drop those artists, but that’s another article.) This song was begat by Bon Jovi, Kid Rock, and sure, Toby Keith—it’s arena-rock dressed up in cowboy boots, meant to engender a sense of community in people who may or may not actually belong to that community. In this case, the community of country-music fans. Is it original? No. Is it pandering? Sure. Is it an effective party-starter, sure to get concert-goers on their feet and dancing? Absolutely. But is it country? It really doesn’t matter.
Steven’s grade: C-
Genevieve’s grade: C
Hugh Laurie, “Police Dog Blues” (No. 74)
Steven: Having never seen an episode of House—unless you count the accumulated clips I’ve watched over the years in commercials during Fox’s NFL coverage—I feel I can evaluate the musical merit of Hugh Laurie’s “Police Dog Blues” without prejudice. Here’s my verdict: It’s pretty okay! I appreciate that this low-key country-blues tune is so out of step with the rest of the chart that it’s practically a novelty song, and Laurie is no more a pedestrian singer than the dude from Hot Chelle Rae. I felt like I got the point of “Police Dog Blues” by the two-minute mark, so it feels pretty long at 3:34. But still, this is a decent-enough curveball that doesn’t require being a fan of irascible TV doctors in order to be appreciated.
Genevieve: This is such an oddity in terms of the Hot 100, I wish it was more of an oddity musically speaking. But, as you say, it’s a pretty straightforward cover of an old blues tune, and it’s pretty okay! The fact that the British actor is basically channeling a wizened old bluesman is a little weird, and pushes this even further into “novelty” territory—but as Laurie’s accent on House shows, he pulls off the American act pretty well. As far as actors foraying into music go, this attempt seems more respectable than most, but that doesn’t make its popularity any more puzzling.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: B
Genevieve: It seems ghoulish to wonder whether a straightforward cover of a 1930s jazz standard by an octogenarian crooner would have a place on the Hot 100 if it didn’t also happen to feature the last recorded vocals of Amy Winehouse, so I’ll just say that “Body And Soul” is a nice song. It has solid performances from Winehouse, whose voice sounds reassuringly strong, though a little too reliant on her signature vocal tics, and Tony Bennett, who sounds like Tony Bennett. The string-and-piano arrangement is pretty and lush, though it’s 100 percent Bennett, lacking any of the dark, urban undertones that characterized Winehouse’s throwback sound. It’s a fine song and a sad reminder of Winehouse’s squandered potential, but it’s more footnote than finale.
Steven: I don’t think it’s ghoulish to wonder whether this song would’ve charted had Amy Winehouse not died, though I think the answer is fairly obvious: No, it wouldn’t have. I don’t think “Body And Soul” is a great single—it’s a little sleepy, I’m sorry to say—but it does find Winehouse in fine voice, and she looks good in the video, smiling warmly throughout at her grandfatherly duet partner. Hopefully, the reggae-flavored posthumous album that will likely see the light of day at some point will prove to be a little livelier than this nice-enough curio from the end of her tragic life.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: B-
Steven: Pass the bucket.
Genevieve’s grade: Can’t grade, too busy barfing.
Steven’s grade: Ditto.