As the weather warms up, so do the charts, and the result is weeks like this, with twelve debuts, and without even the excuse of a big album release or a TV singing competition (the pop-chart equivalent of steroids; they bulk you up, then they drive you insane). There is, however, controversy, which puts no less than three records on the chart this week. Add a YouTube phenom, a non-LP country (!) single, and a batch of new tracks from artists who have been away for awhile, and you almost have a case study in how records make the charts these days. All we need is a track from a commercial, one from a TV show, and somebody who died.
The real secret of Psy’s success isn’t his goofiness in both looks and approach, or his so-called satire (he’s more an ironist than a satirist), but his masterful command of pop structure. “Gangnam Style” was probably the best structured pop record to hit the chart since Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”, and “Gentleman”, though simpler, is even tighter. It also helps that he knows how to write captivating melodies over his austere beats, and comes up with lyrics that, even if you don’t know what they mean, fit perfectly in terms of sound with the beats and the music. In other words, Psy’s success isn’t just a freak happening; he really knows what he’s doing.
Luke Bryan—“Crash My Party”
This is a surprise, at least in business terms: a non-LP single released at the same time as the album, which already had a lead-in single, “Buzzkill” released a month ago. But then, “Buzzkill” hasn’t done that well (it’s been sitting at 38 on the Hot Country Songs chart for three weeks now and isn’t on the airplay chart at all), and with the increasing power of digital in the country market an experiment like this makes a lot of sense. It also sets up a possible deluxe edition of Spring Break…Here To Party sometime in the near future. But even though I have a soft spot for non-LP singles and think there should be more of them, the mediocrity of this record leaves me cold. For a guy who’s supposedly making party records, Bryan sure does have a fondness for sluggish tempos.
Hunter Hayes—“I Want Crazy”
Remove Hayes’s vocals and what you have is a Nashville session group’s version of Mumford & Sons, or rather what Nashville session groups think M&S would sound like if they were country boys who could actually play. This is interesting. Put Hayes’s vocals back in, though, and all the interest goes away.
Selena Gomez—“Come & Get It”
I’m all for Gomez becoming a dance music diva, but if she’s going to succeed she needs to find better material than this, and she especially needs to find something that suits her voice. She’s trying too hard on the chorus, and the strain shows. The best part of this record is the bridge, where her voice matches perfectly with the music and you can hear the promise in it. Working with Esther Dean and StarGate isn’t going to fulfill that promise, though. I hope there are some RockMafia cuts on the album. They know how to set her voice better than anyone else ever has.
Ray J featuring Bobby Brackins—“I Hit It First”
There are, of course, examples of rap sexism more despicable than this, but not by much. Whatever you think about Kim Kardashian and her version of celebrity for celebrity’s sake (I don’t think about her at all, myself), no woman—no human being—deserves to be talked about the way Ray J talks about her here. That is, as an object (not even an object, but an amorphous thing, an “it”, desired for nothing but sexual pleasure) to be passed around, with the first person to temporarily enjoy its services claiming permanent ownership, even though they’ve long ago moved on to other “its”. In terms of maturity, this song is roughly the equivalent of blog commenters shouting “First!” I just hope Kanye West doesn’t make an answer record: anything he could do would only be stepping down to Ray J’s level, and suggest that his feelings for Kardashian aren’t on a much higher plane.
Avril Lavigne—“Here’s To Never Growing Up”
Written by Lavigne, her producer, her boyfriend, and a couple of song doctors, this is product at it’s purest. I bet her boyfriend wrote the chorus, since he’s shown a talent for that sort of thing in the past, and the rest was filled in from various Ke$ha records. I wonder which of the five came up with the Radiohead line, the only hint of life in the entire track? Does anyone actually shout along to Radiohead, though?
Brad Paisley featuring LL Cool J—“Accidental Racist”
If this record stopped before LL Cool J comes in, you’d have a sincere, if often mistaken, attempt to make sense of the disconnections of southern life, history, and myth. It wouldn’t be a great record, and it would still, especially in the country market, be a controversial one, but it wouldn’t be the laughing stock LL Cool J’s ignorant presence turns it into. I can forgive the clumsiness of his rap (it’s not like Paisley gave him much a of a beat to work with), but not the stupidity of it, which is half ignorance and half the entertainer’s desire to play along and reinforce his host’s point of view no matter what that might be. If there’s a demonstration of anyone’s moral corruption on this record, it isn’t Paisley’s. Not that Paisley is right. Any form of southern pride that embraces the myth of the confederacy as opposed to the reality (face it, folks, your ancestors fucked up, and for all the wrong reasons), should be rejected by anyone with half a brain. Maybe Paisley realizes that, but if so it doesn’t come across here.
Paramore—“Still Into You”
Cutting down to a three piece has worked wonders for this band. First off, it allows them to concentrate on playing up to the strengths of Haley Williams’s songs instead of rolling over them and squeezing the life out. Second, and even better, Williams rises to the opportunity by broadening her approach, widening her emotional palette, and refusing to back down from her view of reality. The end result, Paramore, is the artistic breakthrough of the year, the equivalent, say, of what Soundgarden did on Superunknown, or Lil Wayne did on Tha Carter III. There are a couple of ordinary songs, and a couple of less than successful experiments, but there are no bad tracks, and the best of them are more than great, they’re revelatory. Even when Paramore utilize pop cliches (pomp-rock synthesizers, gospel choirs, ukelele), they make them signify by putting them in service to William’s sarcastic, angry, never bitter, and ultimately optimistic point of view (the gospel choir goes “Don’t go crying to your mama/’Cause you’re on your own in the real world”).
“Still Into You” is a love song, of sorts, but one dedicated not to new love but to a long standing relationship. Williams removes any chance of sentimentality by singing it in a slilghtly sneering but still emotional voice, as if she felt the need to cover up her gooier feelings for fear of making a fool of herself. It’s a perfect match for the music, which rocks up and remakes what would otherwise be a hackneyed set of changes. Williams means every word, though, and the verse about meeting her boyfriend’s mother and then telling him for the first time that she loves him is perfect, even in its ambiguity (was meeting mom wonderful? terrible? The sentiment works either way, and we don’t really need to know). Here’s hoping they can continue in this vein for a long while to come.
WE the Kings—“Just Keep Breathing”
I knew there’d be fun. imitators, I just didn’t think they’d be this bad. But how could they not be, when fun. itself skirts the edge of self-parody? Maybe I was lying to myself.
Scotty McCreery—“See You Tonight”
I wish his material was better, but McCreery is turning into one hell of a singer. It’s not just his voice, which has always been a wonder, but the way he handles it. He knows he sounds best when he’s smooth and controlled, so he makes a point of never overstepping, even on the chorus (he also wisely downplays his lower register, which was beginning to sound like a gimmick). As his voice matures, that control is going to sound even better. Now he just needs to find more mature songs. He’s only nineteen, so it makes sense for him to still be singing material pointed at a teen market, and this is smarter than it appears at first. But in another year he’ll be beyond this sort of corn-fed, safe romanticism. Here’s hoping he’s smart enough to make something out of it.
Fabolous featuring Chris Brown—“Ready”
Brown’s hook is bland and the beat is nothing, but even if they were better I would find it impossible to listen after Fabolous says “get your shit wetty/Oops I mean your shit ready, can’t believe I said that”. I can. Fabolous may not be the dumbest rapper in the world, but he’s certainly the dumbest on the charts.
Rocko featuring Future & Rick Ross—“U.O.E.N.O.”
Decent beat, good hook from Future, a competent rap from Rocko, and then in steps Rick Ross and his big mouth to mess everything up. And I don’t just mean the molly-rape lyric. Ross has become so full of himself that almost every word he utters drips with self-love, so much so that he’s lost the ability to distinguish between what’s “street” and what’s stupid. If he says it, it must be right, right? His product-placing of Reebok (right before the rape line; no wonder they dropped his ass) is on a much lower level of offensiveness, but it’s still offensive, and the rest is nonsense. What’s even more depressing is that even without the controversy this would probably still have made the chart on name recognition alone. That’s how rap works these days, and this is what you get.