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 Nov. 13, 2010.
Ke$ha, “We R Who We R” (No. 1)
Steven: Do I dare utter the name of the brazenly debaucherous, brilliantly stupid paragon of bag-lady stylishness that once threatened to tear our happy little This Was Pop family apart? Well, Ke$ha does have the No. 1 single in the country, which shot to the top of the charts the first week of its release. Not bad for a ridiculously fun shit-talker who you seem to think is a referendum on the state of modern pop. “We R Who We R” is the lead single from the forthcoming Cannibal “mini album,” which will be sold on its own and in tandem with a deluxe edition of Ke$ha’s 2010 debut, the junk-pop pleasure chest Animal. Yes, I know this whole mini-album concept is yet another idea Ke$ha stole from Lady Gaga, but let’s give her some credit: On “We R Who We R,” she’s moved on up to ripping off herself, producing yet another “Let’s get fucking fucked-up” anthem in the mold of “Tik Tok” and “Take It Off.” Only this time, Ke$ha seems a little more self-aware, imploring each and every one of us to start “dancing like we’re dumb.” (I’m also pretty sure that the “DJ turn it up-up-up-up-up” part was intended to piss people off.) C’mon, GK, aren’t you sick of being serious? I think it’s making your brain delirious.
Genevieve: You know, since the Great Ke$ha Throwdown Of 2010, I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating my hatred of Her Trashiness, and while I stand by the points I made about her in our Crosstalk, I’ve come to the conclusion that it might boil down to something much simpler: I can’t stand her voice. We all have different tolerances for different sounds—I’m sure there are people who want to gouge their ears at the sound of Willow Smith shouting “I whip my hair back and forth,” whereas I want it as my ringtone—and Ke$ha’s voice is my own personal air-raid siren. I don’t love her singing, but it’s at least Auto-Tuned into near-oblivion in the chorus of “We R Who We R.” But her talking (I refuse to call it “rapping”) in the verses makes me wish for the sweet silence of death. I can hear her fucking self-satisfied smirk in every nasal “A” sound, and it nullifies whatever fun dumbness the song might have. And yes, the “DJ turn it up-up-up-up-up” pisses me off; unlike you, though, I don’t think willfully antagonizing listeners counts as a positive in pop music.
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: I want to give every Ke$ha song an “F” on principle, but objectively speaking, I know there are far worse songs out there, so let’s average out a subjective F and an objective C+ to a D+.
Willow Smith, “Whip My Hair” (No. 11)
Genevieve: This is definitely one of those “love it or hate it” songs, and you can place me square on Team “Whip My Hair.” Don’t get me wrong, this song is dumb, dumb, dumb—see, Hyden, I can like dumb music too!—but it’s danceably dumb, and that’s really all I expect from an 10-year-old who was probably created in a lab in order to further extend the Smith family’s sphere of pop-culture influence. Seriously, did you see her debut performance on Ellen?
She’s freakishly polished and poised for someone who hasn’t hit puberty yet. Sure, she’s a little pop-bot, and I’m dubious of her ability to maintain a career beyond this song, but I kind of dig Willow Smith’s whole “Gosh, I’m so weird, aren’t I?” shtick, mainly because it’s fun and age-appropriate, and I like the idea of a legion of pre-teens aspiring to be freaky-haired weirdoes doing step routines rather than gyrating, Spandex-clad pedo-bait. I just hope they don’t give themselves whiplash.
Steven: You warned me ahead of time that I’d probably hate “Whip My Hair,” but I surprisingly don’t. Sure, the car-alarm chorus is the stuff migraines are made of, but “Whip My Hair” is otherwise pretty standard radio R&B stuff. The strangest moment in “Whip My Hair” is when Willow Smith first starts singing—the strength and confidence of her delivery is a lot stranger than her totally quirky hair. She isn’t Spandex-clad, but Willow Smith is still the product of pushy, overachieving parents who likely hired publicists for their offspring when they were still in the womb. Still, I guess every generation needs its own “Pass The Dutchie,” and “Whip My Hair” just might be the underaged party song to fit the bill.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: B-
Neon Trees, “Animal” (No. 13)
Steven: Just in case it wasn’t already obvious after my endorsement of Linkin Park (Linkin Park!) a few columns ago, I have a weakness for brainless, big-sounding ear candy made by dumb ’n’ dorky modern-rock bands. One of the recent classics of the dumb ’n’ dorky modern-rock genre is The Bravery’s self-titled 2005 debut, a record that Provo, Utah synth-rockers Neon Trees appear to love nearly as much as I do. Driven by a danceable beat, a rubbery bassline, and soaring guitars that ape U2’s first three albums, “Animal” jumps on the ’80s new-wave bandwagon about five years too late, but it’s peppy and likeable enough to transcend its status as a retread of a retread.
Genevieve: I agree with pretty much every point you make about this song, yet the material it’s regurgitating is not as close to my heart as it is to yours, so it leaves me a little cold. It’s peppy, and to use your word, likeable enough, but it feels disposable… which makes it perfect pop-radio fodder, I suppose. For me, it’s a head-bobber, but not a shout-along anthem; it’s pleasant in the moment, but I’m probably not going to find myself humming it later on.
Steven’s grade: B+
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Genevieve: I doubt anyone with any substantial awareness of pop music could listen to a Chris Brown song today and not conjure up a mental image of Rihanna’s face pulverized by his hands. I know I can’t. That’s a hell of a legacy to have—just ask Ike Turner—and while I certainly can’t say I feel sorry for the asshole, I’m cognizant of the fact that he’s going to have to carry that burden for the rest of his career. With “Deuces,” a kiss-off ballad to a drama-filled relationship, I’m sure Brown was aiming for a statement of “Let’s move on, shall we?”, but he comes off as a petulant child when he’s saying “You’ll regret the day when I find another girl.” Whether or not “Deuces” is specifically about Rihanna, it’s still about Rihanna, ya know? And in that context, it moves from being a bland, radio-friendly R&B ballad to something that’s mind-bogglingly bad in its lack of self-awareness. Chris, you dropped a deuce with this one.
Steven: First off, let’s not compare Chris Brown to Ike Turner, who for all of his poor husband skills is still a legitimate legend and innovator in the history of rock, R&B, and soul. Chris Brown, meanwhile, was making mediocre records before he beat Rihanna, and he’s defiantly maintained his shoulder-shrugging standards afterward. I agree that “Deuces” is borderline offensive at times (“I know you’re mad, but so what? I wish you best of luck”), but its chart success suggests that either 1) enough time has passed that people no longer automatically think about Rihanna whenever Brown nonchalantly tells off some shorty in a song, or 2) domestic-abusing pricks like music, too. Either way, we’ve already spent too much time contemplating this guy.
Genevieve’s grade: D
Steven’s grade: C
Kanye West, “Monster” (No. 18)
Genevieve: I talked some shit on Yeezy’s “Runaway” last column, so I feel the need to atone with a discussion of “Monster,” which is tied with “Power” for my favorite track off My Stupidly Titled Album thus far. Yes, at six-plus minutes long, it’s overstuffed, but it never crosses over into completely indulgent, thanks to the merry-go-round of guest vocalists switching things up every 90 seconds. Rick Ross and Jay-Z’s contributions are a bit phoned-in, but Kanye sounds reinvigorated, and Bon Iver’s contribution is just this side of WTF. But Nikki Minaj really sells “Monster,” easily earning her “50K a verse” boast. She absolutely slays on this track; it’s easily my favorite thing she’s ever done, and single-handedly justifies all the hype surrounding her.
Steven: Yep, this is better than “Runaway,” but your point about Kanye always trying to blow our fucking minds still applies to “Monster.” I feel like this song would have twice the impact if it were half as long; I could do without the window-dressing from Jay-Z and Rick Ross, who just crowd the aisles before Nikki Minaj blows “Monster” the fuck out of the water. West does no favors for Justin Vernon of Bon Iver—a guy I’m obligated to say nice things about because of our mutual Wisconsin roots—by placing him after Minaj’s absolutely scorching, bravura performance. Overall, I like “Monster,” but I’m a little worried about sitting through an album’s worth of overcooked huffing and puffing in six-plus-minute increments.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: B
Steven: “No Hands” makes me think of King Night, the grossly overrated debut by obnoxious “witch house” (shudder) trio Salem. A corny goth-pop record goosed by a pronounced, questionably sincere Southern-rap influence, King Night sounds positively limp next to a genuine article like Waka Flocka Flame’s “No Hands,” which lives and breathes with an infectious, larger-than-life swagger that trenchcoat-donning chumps like Salem are too self-conscious to legitimately emulate. On its own, “No Hands” is fairly straightforward Atlanta crunk, but given the lack of balls-out, unadorned hip-hop songs on the charts lately, the biggest single yet from Waka Flocka Flame’s 2010 debut, Flockaveli, feels like a much-needed infusion of energy into the Billboard Hot 100.
Genevieve: Mr. Flocka Flame is the beneficiary of a great collaborative effort, of which he is the weakest part. Credit Southern-rap production staple Drumma Boy with that horn-hit synth beat, Roscoe Dash with that brash chorus, and Wale with a guest verse that blows the headliner out of the water. Flocka is on record saying he “ain’t got time for lyrics,” and that much is obvious on “No Hands”; fans contend that his bold swagger and aggressive delivery make up for this apathy, but I don’t hear it in “No Hands.” Maybe it’s unfair pitting him against an MC with a style as different as Wale—though he does ratchet up the laid-back, Southern-rap affectation in this verse—but Flocka’s loping delivery sounds bored next to his and Dash’s verses. Luckily, he’s buoyed by the song’s other elements, which work well together in service of a great mindless club track.
Steven’s grade: A-
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Katy Perry, “Firework” (No. 29)
Steven: How have we been doing a pop-music column for this many weeks without addressing Katy Perry? Oh, I know why: She’s terrible. Well, the time has finally come to face our fear, and unfortunately, it’s with maybe my least favorite Katy Perry single yet. I know you think Ke$ha is the worst thing in pop music right now, but I’d argue that Perry is worse, because at least Ke$ha wouldn’t mess with the hogwash of “Firework,” which begins with an allusion to the “plastic bag” metaphor from American Beauty and only gets more cringe-spirational from there. Ke$ha knows better than to attempt to inspire us; she knows her role, and “Firework” shows Perry does not. Perry is a lot of things, but lines like “after a hurricane comes a rainbow” suggest she isn’t exactly a fountain of wisdom.
Genevieve: Let me preface this by stating that I also think Katy Perry is terrible, and Ke$ha just barely beats her out for the title of The Worst. But in the interest of splitting hairs, I’ll bring up my old point that inspirational is better than jaded when it comes to pop music, no matter how terribly it’s executed. And hoo boy, is “Firework” badly executed. Perry’s lyrics have always been middle-school-poetry caliber at best, but this is particularly schlocky. The only thing saving it is the soaring chorus, which provides the emotional oomph that the lyrics can’t. I kind of wish Perry would do with “Firework” what Avril Lavigne did with “Girlfriend,” and release seven different foreign-language versions. I think I’d be able to enjoy the grandeur of “Firework” a lot more if I couldn’t tell how banal the lyrics were.
Steven’s grade: C-
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Sara Bareilles, “King Of Anything” (No. 36)
Genevieve: I’ve had limited exposure to Sara Bareilles—mostly her 2007 mega-hit “Love Song”—but her music strikes me as the sonic equivalent of a better-than-average romantic comedy: simple, palatable emotional statements delivered via clever-but-not-too-clever lyrics and bright, shiny melodies. “King Of Anything” is technically a kiss-off song—“Who died and made you king of anything?”—but it’s so damn cheery (Handclaps! Twinkly piano!) that it makes being bitter and resentful sound like the most awesome thing ever. This is a song for singing into a hairbrush, dancing to in your underwear, karaoke-ing with girlfriends, or some other clichéd female “healing” ritual. I have to admit, I don’t hate that kind of song, and I really don’t hate “King Of Anything”—in fact, I think it’s a pretty good pop song, especially that mega-catchy chorus. Sure, it’s a little formulaic and calculated, but it calculates the formula well.
Steven: If Sara Bareilles having a new hit song makes it less likely that I’m going to hear KT Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See” the next time I shop for towels with my wife, then I’m all for “King Of Anything.” (Seriously, Tunstall owns department-store soundtracks.) I admit, it’s my instinct to roll my eyes at Bareilles’ innocuous update of corny Sarah McLachlan/Shawn Colvin Lilith Fair fare, but “King Of Anything” is oppressively peppy even by her lofty standards. “Love Song” sounds like PJ Harvey compared to this. Your romantic-comedy comparison is apt: “King Of Anything” is a brightly lit, brilliantly accessorized, lifelessly mechanical commercial for “feelings” and “the power of the human spirit.”
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: C
Rodney Atkins, “Farmer’s Daughter” (No. 53)
Steven: I first encountered the music of Rodney Atkins last week, when I heard the song “It’s America” right before the new Republican governor of my home state of Wisconsin gave his victory speech. “It’s America” is basically just a list of stereotypes about small-town folk—high-school proms, Springsteen songs, rides in Chevrolets, kids sellin’ lemonade, all that bullshit—that really fires the engines of ginned-up right-wingers. On “Farmer’s Daughter,” Atkins once again turns the everyday experiences of millions of Americans into generic pabulum that sounds like an episode of Hee-Haw without a sense of its own silliness. Do people who actually work on farms really relate to this phony singing about working in the “daggum heat”? Maybe, though the main attraction of “Farmer’s Daughter” is Atkins’ impossibly masculine, militantly heterosexual baritone, which wraps you up in flannel-covered, shit-smelling arms until you believe in the patently false fantasyland this song is pushing. At least I think that’s how I’m supposed to feel.
Genevieve: I thought that this was going to be a cover of Merle Haggard’s impeccable “Farmer’s Daughter,” so perhaps my disappointment that it isn’t is coloring my opinion of the song. Or maybe it’s the fact that it’s daggum terrible, rolling around in a pile of inane rural-fantasy stereotypes like a pig in slop. The hard-working farmer? The pretty farmer’s daughter bringing him sweetened iced tea? Fuckin’ swimming in the creek? This is one grisly tractor accident away from the plot of Man In The Moon. One of the things I like about country music is that its lyrics often have a strong sense of place and detail, which makes it a great storytelling genre. But the story Atkins is telling in “Farmer’s Daughter” is about as richly drawn as a Family Circus panel, and almost as clichéd and pandering.
Steven’s grade: D+
Genevieve’s grade: D
YG, “Toot It And Boot It” (No. 81)
Genevieve: Google tells me that “Toot It And Boot It” has been ubiquitous on California radio since the summer, but I’d never heard it before, and I picked the song this week based solely on its name. I assumed “toot it and boot it” referred to doing lines and dancing like a madman, so I expected a high-energy dance track along the lines of “Like A G6,” but what I got was an R&B-influenced ode to “hit-it-and-quit-it”/“toot-it-and-boot-it” one-night stands. Kids these days with their confusing jargon. Expectations aside, “Toot It And Boot It” is pretty catchy, but the chorus’ Motown-y piano line and deep low end aren’t enough to alleviate the grossness of misogynistic lyrics like “Girl, let me toot that boot and stop acting stupid” and “She fucked back like a little slut.” (I know, I know, complaining about misogyny in rap lyrics is a fool’s errand, but it’s hard to ignore when it’s this stupid.) Plus, YG has the same sort of marble-mouthed, apathetic flow as 50 Cent—who’s apparently a fan of the Compton rapper—which I’ve always found supremely boring. If this song was just the chorus, I’d like it a lot more.
Steven: You’ve got to hand it to YG: He’s taken an awesome title like “Toot It And Boot It”—which could have spawned mind-blowingly great songs about coke, weed, and/or flatulence—and he’s produced a big, wet ball of snooze-worthy nothingness. I can’t even get behind the chorus, the tootiest and bootiest part of “Toot It And Boot It,” because it’s delivered with maximum listlessness. Have we reached the point as a culture where even the prospect of empty, meaningless sex fails to inspire enthusiasm? C’mon YG, if you’re going to toot it, really rip it nice and hard next time.
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Steven’s grade: D+