The big news this week, of course, is the addition of YouTube streams to the formula Billboard uses to create the Hot 100. The new system propels “Harlem Shake” to number one (the first time a previously unknown artist has debuted in the top spot), and causes a lot of movement in other areas of the chart as well. Rihanna’s “Stay”, for instance, thanks to an appearance on the Grammy awards and a video in which Rihanna is naked in a bath tub, leaps 60-some spots into the top ten, and songs like “Gangnam Style” get a a new lease on life just as they were about to drop off the chart.
Overall, I think it’s a good idea. YouTube is a far better gauge of popularity than radio, and though the system is ripe with opportunities for abuse, it’s no more ripe that the pre-Soundscan days. We can look forward to a few years of constant novelty hits until the culture adjusts (as it will), but that doesn’t seem too great a price to pay for more accuracy. Besides, some of those novelties will be great.
The most important thing to remember about “Harlem Shake”, the track, as opposed to the Harlem Shake phenomenon or the Harlem Shake controversy, is that it isn’t finished. This is a backing track, a beat designed for someone to rap over (Azealia Banks had her contribution rejected by Baauer, but the freestyle versions are starting to roll out). This is obvious from the huge open spaces in the record, and the way the track drops in volume in the places where the vocals would go. It’s not meant to be listened to on its own, and its sudden discovery and viral infestation of the culture has more to do with luck and the desire of people to be silly than anything else. Even considered only as a beat, though, it isn’t much, though it’s good enough that the right rapper could make something worthwhile out of it. Of course, it’s too late for that; we’re stuck with it the way it is.
“Suit & Tie” has its great moments, but it’s a mess. As a follow-up, “Mirrors” is less of a mess, but it doesn’t have any great moments. What it has, instead, are bits and pieces of 80s pop and soul loosely strung together and stretched out for over 8 minutes of head-scratching mediocrity. It’s meant to be a love song, but the lyrics, and the way Timberlake sings them, create an odd sense of distance from the subject. When Timberlake says he couldn’t have gotten “bigger” without her, what exactly is he referring to? His career? His soul? The length of this song? At the same time, while she’s reflecting him, and he’s reflecting her, they’re both being reflected by a third mirror, which Timberlake says he could watch all the time (I thought he was watching her). Who or what does this mirror represent? God? The press? Timberlake’s third eye? One final question: if your lover reflects you back so perfectly, are you actually seeing her at all?
One Direction—“One Way Or Another (Teenage Kicks)”
I’ve mentioned One Direction’s rock tendencies in the past, and on this charity single they live up to them more wonderfully than I would have dared hope. They smartly play both songs for maximum aural impact, i.e. fast, hard, and loud, and don’t make any attempts to modernize or decorate them. I’m sure it’s something they dashed off in a couple of hours, but that’s a large part of its charm. Also, though this wouldn’t be as big a deal in the U.K. or Ireland, where “Teenage Kicks” was a big hit, it’s nice to know that somebody still remembers the Undertones.
Ace Hood featuring Future & Rick Ross—“Bugatti”
This is fairly ordinary, as might be expected, but I find myself fascinated by the title line, “I woke up in a new Bugatti”, if only because of the mystery it creates. Hood never explains where that Bugatti came from. Since he woke up in it, I assume it’s his, either through purchase or purloinment (most likely purchase, because who would bother to brag about stealing a car anymore?). The question is whether he even remembers how he got it. If he fell asleep in the car, that suggests he was pretty much wasted when he got in. Did he buy it when he was stoned or during a blackout? If so, has Hood achieved what might be considered a higher level of boasting? If he has so much money he can buy a car that costs over a million dollars when he’s wasted and not worry about it, his bragging rights would be somewhere in the astronomical range. $6,000 shoes are nothing compared to this.
P!nk featuring Nate Reuss—“Just Give Me A Reason”
P!nk’s permanently exasperated view of herself and her relationships mesh perfectly with Nate Reuss’s feigned confidence tinged with desperation, making “Just Give Me A Reason” an effective and affecting duet even if the lyrics don’t always connect. Still not sure whether the situation is resolved or left hanging, though that may be the point. Realest moment: when Reuss sings “My dear [addressing her this way, of course, is a sure sign that he has no idea what she’s talking about], we still have everything, and it’s all in your mind”, and P!nk replies in an undertone, “Yeah, but this is happening”.
J. Cole featuring Miguel—“Power Trip”
I’ve never heard anything from Cole that wasn’t mediocre, and here’s another one. Even Miguel’s presence doesn’t help, though it doesn’t hurt.
Joe Budden featuring Lil Wayne & Tank—“She Don’t Put It Down”
This has charted, I assume, on Lil Wayne’s presence, because Budden himself is so negligible I find it hard to imagine anyone would buy one of his records for him alone. Of course, Wayne hasn’t been that much better than Budden lately, and he doesn’t do anything to recover his standing here. He is easier to understand than Budden, but given what he’s saying, that’s not much of an improvement.
One disadvantage to the rapid embrace of EDM by just about everybody is that it has driven a lot of the minor artists who first brought the sound to the charts onto the sidelines (anybody else remember Cascada?). So it’s something of a pleasant surprise to see someone totally new make the charts on the formula. Not a great record, maybe not even a good one, but simpler and less aggressive than a lot of the big name EDM attempts, and hence a more enjoyable listen. I don’t expect to hear from Krewella ever again, but that doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy them while they’re here.
Alabama Shakes—“Hold On”
I wish this was better, I really do. I like to see people with legitimate musical sensibilities succeed, even if they can easily be lumped in with pretentious hacks like The Black Keys or Mumford & Sons. Brittany Howard has a voice, but she has a tendency to play up the worst sort of pseudo-blues phrasing. She often gets it just right, but too often she sounds like she’s either faking it or trying too hard. It would help if she had a more finished song to work with; this one sounds like a rough sketch. And though it’s no surprise that Howard’s vocals are sometimes reminiscent of Janis Joplin, the band’s application of the same earnest semi-competence as Big Brother may be carrying the idea of honoring your influences a little too far.