by Jon Hunt
Time was, you knew everything on the radio.
This was because the radio station you listened to (in Minneapolis, WLOL if you were cool and KDWB if you weren’t) played everything. It played pop music. It played rap music. It played R&B music. It played soul. It played metal. It played what was then called “college rock.” It’d go from Human League to Michael Jackson to Def Leppard to REM to Cameo and that, somehow, made sense to everybody. Nobody complained. People listened. People called in and voted for things. You knew who “Hines” and “Berglund” were and the lyrics to a song called “Hubba Hubba Zoot Zoot.” It was a magical time.
When the Great Radio Segmentation happened in the late ’80s, it was seen as a good thing. See? they told us. You can now listen to just the kind of music you like. Everybody was overjoyed. But that was, honestly, the death of radio. Prior to that, everybody knew everything. Now everybody was split into separate little “scenes,” and everybody thought their “scene” was better than everybody else’s little “scene” and nobody crossed the line anymore, ever.
The end result? Pop radio, circa now. It’s a weird animal. It exists in a kind of parallel universe to the stuff you listen to on the Current. Your neighbor is listening to it right now. So are your kids, if you have kids. You might not even know what it sounds like anymore. What’s popular? The other day, I heard an older man bitching about “the rap stuff those kids are listening to.” Guess what? That’s not what the kids are listening to. What they are listening to is this bizarre hi-NRG-sounding dance/pop hybrid that…but I’ll get to that.
Thing is: you probably think pop music sucks. You might not even be aware of what’s out there anymore, but you’re left, thanks to the Great Radio Segmentation, with the notion that music that’s on the top 40 is automatically inferior to the stuff that’s on indie radio. Without even having heard it. Without even knowing what’s popular. And I bet you’re right now preparing an angry response to this assertion that starts with “but it does suck,” but you’re becoming aware, vaguely, that I’m right, and that you probably haven’t listened to pop radio in — god, when was the last time? The late ’90s? When you were riding in your car with so-and-so and that one song that sucked came on?
Thus begins a new feature of We Will Rock You called “I Listen To The Top 20 So You Don’t Have To.” Just like any other kind of music, there’s good pop music and there’s bad pop music. Something like 60% (if I’m being generous) of it sucks. But something like 60% of indie music sucks, too, and 60% of R&B and…well, you get the drift. Lots and lots of music sucks. But that, conversely, means 40% of it is good.
Look: I’ll take the bullet. I’ll vet it for you. I’ll listen to the top 20 periodically, and give you my thoughts on it, and you can sort of skim and listen to the stuff I enthuse about and then your mind will expand and you’ll be up-to-the-minute and you can kind of do one of those “oh, yeah, this song? Yeah, I was into this months ago” things to your friends, who’ll look at you like you’re insane but secretly will be thinking wait, why don’t I know this song? Is this cool, or something? And you’ll rise up one hipster level. For liking pop music.
Trust me: it works.
We’ll go in reverse order. Note: it gets better as it goes along. I’ll provide a handy rating system for you, too:
Terrible: Avoid at cost to your very sanity.
Eh: Listen if you want, but you’ll probably be very, very bored.
Maybe?: Give it a shot. Why not? What have you got to lose, except three minutes of wasted sunshine? You were probably just gonna skim Twitter anyway. Jesus, get outside more. After you listen to this, I mean.
Hell Yes: You need to hear this, ASAP. Run, don’t walk.
20. Flo Rida, “Whistle” – The thrust of this song, if you will, rests upon a single entendre: when Flo Rida says “blow my whistle, baby,” what he actually means is “please perform oral sex upon me.” Does this work? If you’re a million-selling party-rap artist and you come up to a girl in a club and say “blow my whistle,” does she actually S on your D, right there on the spot? I’m guessing not. I’m guessing Flo Rida just thinks it’s hilarious that he managed to get such a thinly-veiled entendre on the radio and rack up another pile of chump change. Helpful “whistling” earworm included to get point across. Terrible.
19. Train, “Drive By” – Train are my least favorite band of all time. That’s because they’re responsible for the crime against humanity that is “Drops of Jupiter,” containing, as it does, the worst lyric of all time: “The best soy latte that you’ve ever had…and me.” Props to ‘em, however: they manage, decade after decade, to morph their sound into the most innocuous, generic tripe possible to fool “the kids” into thinking they’re not 40-plus-year-old music biz hacks. This song has ‘em trying to sound like they’re “down,” if you know what I’m saying, by vaguely referencing modern R&B beats and rap cadence. And it actually manages a lyric that rivals “Drops” – “My love for you went viral.” Because, you know, viral stuff on the internet! Get it? If you have taste – and I know you do! – this song will make you want to stab your eardrums with an icepick. Terrible.
18. Owl City ft. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Good Time” – Hometown boy (he’s from Owatonna!) makes good. I wanted to hate “Fireflies,” and I mostly did, when I was trying to, but every so often it would creep into my subconscious and I’d think, if I was being honest with myself, “Eh, I don’t really hate this.” “Good Time” is far, far better – a cheerful, entertaining dancefloor filler with a propulsive little disco beat and a nicely sung hook by Carly Rae Jepsen, whom we’ll meet again later. You start to hear hints of the “sound of today,” i.e. the sound of house/techno music circa ten years ago. I actually quite like this one. Maybe?
17. Luke Bryan, “Drunk On You” – Pop radio features tons of “crossover” music, from indie and R&B and, in this case, country. Which makes sense, since country turned into Disney Channel pop music ten years ago; if you put a female vocalist on this, it’d be any damn generic pop ballad. Bryan, though, throws a little southern accent into the mix and voila – mid-America pop hit. Rhymes “speakers go boom boom” with “full moon.” Terrible.
16. Pitbull, “Back In Time” – You probably didn’t see Men In Black III. Which is a shame, as it was a perfectly great little popcorn movie, but that’s not the point. The point is: the other Men In Black movies featured a Will Smith musical number at the end. Smith, for one reason or another – maybe because this thousand year period has not officially been called the Willenium – has apparently dropped out of music entirely, leaving us with this piece of frivolity, which hangs entirely on a magnificent hook stolen wholesale from Mickey and Sylvia’s excellent “Love Is Strange” from ’56. The rap bits are, well, Eh.
15. Kanye West ft. Big Sean, Pusha T & 2 Chainz, “Mercy” – Look: I love Kanye West. I do. Ninety-eight percent of the time, his songs rise far above the rap milieu on a combo of excellent, clever samples, innovative, genre-pushing production and (relatively) smooth flow. This one belongs to the other two percent. The hook is irritating (it’s slowed down. Why is it slowed down? Does this bug anybody else?) and the flow isn’t anything close to smooth. And there’s far too many guest appearances by far-less-good rappers. Also it’s about two minutes too long – meaning it actually rambles, which is weird for a rap song in general (there’s a big, long middle eight that goes nowhere). It ain’t bad enough to be terrible, but it ain’t great either. Eh.
14. Justin Bieber, “Boyfriend” – Yes, I’m about to assert that a Justin Bieber song is better than a Kanye West song. Because fuck you, it is. That insistent beat, an ear-wormy hook, a subtly-delivered verse, and a healthy amount of – oh Jesus, dare I say it? sexiness amounts to a great song, full stop. You can laugh at the kid all you want, but he’s got talent a-plenty and more staying power than you think. Also, plus points for not having a “rap breakdown” in the middle (“ft. Akon” or whatever) and for sticking around for, like, under three minutes. Hell Yes.
13. The Wanted, “Glad You Came” – The Wanted are one of two British boy bands currently popular with the Kids (the other being One Direction, and more about them later). I’ll talk about teen-idolism itself later on, but what I think is funny is that the Wanted are kind of the Stones to One Direction’s Beatles, in the sense that they’re, you know, British-er than One Direction, teeth-wise, and actually suggest that maybe they have sexual intercourse and that maybe the title is actually an entendre of some kind and doesn’t just mean “came to the party” or whatever. Again, hints of the “sound of today” – this thing lives on a beat that would have sounded great at a nightclub in 1998. Eh.
12. Flo Rida ft. Sia, “Wild Ones” – Far, far better than the other Flo Rida tune in the top 20. Nothing more and nothing less than a fist-pumping summer dancefloor tune. Depth? None. Lyrics? Stupid. Hook? Insistent and nothing to do with the rest of the song. Fun? Oh, yeah, sure. It moves along nicely. Grab a bottle of bub, throw yr hands in the air “like you just don’t care,” turn your mind off. Maybe?
11. One Direction, “What Makes You Beautiful.” – Okay, I promised a few thoughts on teen idolism. Basically, just this: every generation has a bunch of cute boys (Fabian, the Beatles, the Monkees, the Osmonds, the Partridge Family, KISS – yes, KISS – the list goes on and on) that make music and cause “serious” “music” “listeners” to go into paroxysms of anger. “Rock is dead,” they say. “Listen to this garbage,” they say. Thing is: 80% of the time, the bubblegum they are purveying is more enduring than more serious songs of any given era (still remember “Sugar Sugar?” Thought so, and fuck you if you think it’s less good than, say, a Zeppelin song from the same year), and this little tune is no exception. I kind of love it. It’s catchy. It’s exuberant. It is the power of youth, young love, summertime, hormones, and gigantic, earwormy hooks. Its charms are simple, obvious, and I dare you to listen to it with an open mind and not love it. I’m voting it Hell Yes, but I’m sure YMMV. Bubblegum, as they say, is the naked truth – and it’s what pop music was invented for.
10. Usher, “Scream” – Here is the sound of right here, right now – the sound of house music circa-late-’90s, basically, with just a hint of overdriven dubstep stirred in (but just a hint, there in the bass – too much and you stand to alienate sensitive club-goers). You know the sound if you ever stepped foot in First Ave on Saturday nights – THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! And dammit, it’s a stone blast. Usher knows how to manipulate your ass onto the dancefloor, and he’s a dynamic enough singer to make it work damn well. This is killer R&B, great disco, magnificent pop – one of the best singles of the year. Hell Yes.
9. David Guetta ft. Sia, “Titanium” – Guetta, if you don’t recognize his name, is a superstar DJ. Meaning again, we get the sound of right now – pure bubblestep (though, again, nothing too underground, and mixed in with some plain ol’ guitar pop) with a hugely throbbing beat. This one, though, lives and breathes on Sia’s great delivery of the biggest damn hook on this damn chart – it’s actually a little goosebump-inducing. Maybe a touch of actual emotion in this one, too. Hell Yes.
8. Nicki Minaj, “Starships” – I like Nicki Minaj’s attitude. I like her clothes. I like her sort of drag-queeny audacity and a million other things about her. I’m not at all sure, however, that I like her music. This thing is popular for two reasons – a big hook, though one that sounds like a less-good version of every other damn song on the charts, and the fact that it sneaks the word “motherfucker” in there in a way that makes it still okay to play on the radio (you gotta hear it to know what I mean). It’s not godawful, but it’s not anything close to great. If it came on in the club, I wouldn’t leave the dancefloor (if I’m dancing which – if you’ve ever seen me try – you pray I’m not, and never will again) but I sure wouldn’t actually reach for it. Eh.
7. Fun., “We Are Young” – You know this one. It gets Current airplay, and lots of it. I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t like it – everybody I know, including my wife, my friends, my daughter, love the hell out of it. I love Janelle Monae in every other context, and I love her far-too-brief cameo, but there’s something ingratiating about the big ol’ chorus and the way the singer kind of shouts his way through it that drives me nuts. I vote it a big giant Eh, but you guys probably think it’s way more Hell Yes, and I’m willing to sort of go along with the crowd, with the notion that I might be missing something good by dint of my own stupidity.
6. Ellie Goulding, “Lights” – Another great one. A little bit “sound of now,” mixed in with a bit of retro ’80s synthpop a la La Roux or Little Boots. Would have sounded terrific on the radio in 1985, too. Would fit on the indie radio perfectly if it wasn’t so damn scared of electronic music. A gorgeously wispy vocal, a killer arrangement, a healthy helping of pure ominous mood. A deservedly huge hit. Hell Yes.
5. Rihanna, “Where Have You Been” – There are better Rihanna songs – I still think “Umbrella” was possibly the best song of the last decade – but this is still pretty damn good. The thing about her is her ability to sing outwardly cheerful/uptempo songs and make them sound so goddam sad, and this song is no exception. She sounds pleading, anguished, pained, even singing over a fairly generic dancefloor beat and even without any kind of real hook or melody. The best bits are the parts where she’s not singing, and I don’t mean that as any kind of pejorative thing about Rihanna – it’s just true, those instrumental interludes are so damn cool. I’m gonna give it a Hell Yes so you listen to it, but you should note that Rihanna can do better.
4. Katy Perry, “Wide Awake” – Disclaimer: I fucking love Katy Perry. If there is a modern equivalent to Madonna (i.e., pure, awesome pop music that she either writes or co-writes, a billion zillion hits, bleeds over into every genre and vaguely popular with everybody in the world) it is her. She also works with my favorite producer in the world, the great Max Martin (see also: every other hit ever). Teenage Dream was such a great album it spawned, like, more hits than Thriller did – and then they added two songs to it and those became hits too. There ain’t a single beardo or indie dude who has written a more indelible, accessible, beautiful, epic tune this year. Fact. Hell Yes.
3. Gotye ft. Kimbra, “Somebody That I Used To Know” – I don’t need to say anything about this one. You know it and either love it or hate it. I will say this, though: if you’ve not taken the opportunity to listen to Kimbra’s solo record yet, now is the time. It’s a different thing than Gotye – less folky, more poppy – but she’s the real deal. Her voice is terrific and she’s a remarkable songwriter. Rating: Oh, what the hell, one more time.
2. Maroon 5 ft. Wiz Khalifa, “Payphone” – Here’s the problem with Maroon 5. I hate them, right? I mean, like any right-thinking person should. But every single time they put out a song, it ends up earworming its way into my brain like this thing from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan:
and turning me into a fucking zombie. The other day I was driving home and I found myself idly singing this. My forebrain knows this is a terrible fucking song in every possible way, and yet I cannot help singing it. The same thing happened with the appalling “Moves Like Jagger.” It makes me hate myself, and makes me write this phrase, which I am loathe to write: you gotta hand it to ‘em. Wiz Khalifa shows up sans pot and raps the whitest middle bit that he’s ever rapped. Rating: Terrible, with a hint of Maybe? begrudgingly awarded.
1. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe.” This song has been #1 for a hundred million weeks. I hated it the first two times I heard it, but by the third time it had morphed into my favorite song in the universe, where it still is. Somebody on my Facebook page compared it to “Dancing Queen,” and it kind of holds up – a swirling, hypnotic verse mixed with literally the catchiest chorus ever, with some interesting production thrown in. So amiable, genial and likable is this song that it literally dares you to be angry or pissed off during it. You can’t. I dare you to try. It is the exact opposite of a song by Henry Rollins – it is the white that allows his black to exist, if you know what I mean. It is full of guile, sure – she’s not as young as you think she is, and this thing has been tarted up a lot to appeal to the youth of today. But it doesn’t matter, really. We need music like this to exist, if only to provide contrast to more substantial indie rock – if this wasn’t here, Trampled by Turtles would be the LCD, and we can’t have that. Fuck, this one is a huge Hell Yeah, and I don’t care who knows it.