Jesse Jarnow

it’s got a good beat!

“sexy and i know it” – LMFAO

An occasional project, where I arbitrarily write about the #1 pop song du jour from the perspective of somebody who barely listens to that kind of music and has only a passing knowledge of current mega-stars. It doesn’t sound as strange to my ears as it did when I started doing this in 2003, but it still sounds like it’s from another planet.

“Sexy and I Know It” – LMFAO
released by Interscope

week of 14 January 2012
#1 this week, #1 last week, 18 weeks on chart

After a year of world travel and robust sleep research, my pal Vape Stiles recently observed to me that the two most dominant genres of global pop music are hip-hop and mutant techno-disco, both derivable back to fringe cultures of early ’70s NYC. Probably so. Not sure what it means that two are finally starting to bleed into each other, which probably happened during my last sojourn away from the pop charts. The bleed was the dominant force in the last song I listened to, Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” though that felt mostly like a production choice compared to LMFAO, whose “Sexy & I Know It” makes their second #1 and finds a gaudy new way to cross the proverbial club with the proverbial Thai beach rave.

I kind of like it. Don’t love it. But it seems properly stupid. It’s self-produced, too, which makes it easier to think of as less manufactured, even if these guys were assured at a major label contract. At least one them is Berry Gordy’s grandson. That is, this slab of ridiculous 21st century pop (the chorus: “girl, look at that body, I work out”) named after a piece of internet slang was made by a descendant of the man who founded Motown. If the song is still in my head in a few weeks, maybe I’ll think more about what that means. At the very least, I dig goofy dance-pop far more than Rihanna’s self-serious melodrama. “Wiggle wiggle wiggle wiggle,” one of the Gordys (they’re both Gordys) chants, which is one of the many nooks available in the song for dance moves, cheers, sing-alongs. It’s fun and busy, but that seems about it, but a lot less has been done with a lot more.

“we found love” – rihanna feat. calvin harris

And now back to an old occasional project, where I arbitrarily write about the #1 pop song du jour from the perspective of somebody who has only a passing knowledge of current mega-tunes. It doesn’t sound as strange to my ears as it did when I started doing this in 2003, but it still sounds like it’s from another planet.

“We Found Love” – Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris
released by Def Jam

week of 17 December 2011
#1 this week, #1 last week, 11 weeks on chart

To my ears, the most initially attractive bit of this song–at least in that it gives me a little giddy rise–is the swell that happens at :53-1:08 and detonates into a millisecond sugar-rush of generic techno-plink. Later, it repeats the move, possibly with slight variation, and a longer sugar-rush dance resolution. But not really. The chorus comes back almost immediately. And, I suppose, in the case of the modern day global hit, it really is about the chorus, since the rest of the lyrics are a bunch of non-sequiturs strung against the hook, “we found love in a hopeless place.” Narratively speaking, this is very specific: there is a place, and it is hopeless. But while soft-focusing the rest of the words, it’s also the song’s broadest selling point. Something universal if (as made pretty clear by the video) pretty despairing. Hence the techno-swells and sugar-rushes, handy signifiers/call-outs from the international language of untz.

On second listen, the part of the song I actually like is the narrow valley it finds for the bridge, where pretty much everything drops out except a hanging keyboard bounce, whose existence is cheapened when it becomes obvious that its sole purpose is to allow Rihanna and producer Calvin Harris an excuse to get to the second techno-swell. It lasts all of six seconds before a miniature lead-in drops back into yet another iteration of the chorus. It’s funny to me, especially, that Harris gets a “featuring” credit here, given that his only presence on the song seems to be as a producer. Perhaps it is a new custom in this world. I’ve been away for a while.

“crank that (soulja boy)” – soulja boy tell’em

“Crank That (Soulja Boy)” – Soulja Boy Tell’em (download) (buy)
from (2007)

released by Collipark Music/Interscope/Stacks on Deck Ent.
week of October 27, 2007
#1 this week, #1 last week, 14 weeks on chart

(file expires November 1st)

The question that “Crank That” poses is thus: can a single chord, played ad nauseam, count as a hook? Perhaps, when played at an enormous volume, the overloaded piano hit here sounds dope. Streaming through Hype Machine, though, there’s not much to it. At first, the ear moves towards it. What is it made from? Is that just piano? Is there some orchestral oomph behind it? Kettle drums, maybe? It’s almost like the way illusory melodies suddenly surface in the elongated shimmers of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (or any other feedback session), except mega-compressed, so it goes by too quickly to distinguish. Ultimately, though, who cares? Yeah, a single chord can probably carry a song (any suggestions?), but not this one. Not nearly weird enough. It’s kind of lame, as big chords go. I do like the layered vocals, though only as a potential source for cascading/refracted remixes.

I also like that his album is called, that the album is indistinguishable from the project as a whole — which now includes 179,295 streamable answering machine messages from, er, Soulja Girls — one medium pointing at another. More, I like that the Soulja Boy concept is embedded at every level — the song title, the album title, the artist name, in the lyrics, etc..

“this is why i’m hot” – mims

“This Is Why I’m Hot” – Mims (download here)
from M.I.M.S. (Music is My Savior) (2007)
released by Capitol (buy)

week of March 10, 2007
#1 this week, #32 last week, 6 weeks on chart

(file expires March 21st)

I appreciate the Zen/pop logic of the line “this is why I’m hot/I’m hot ’cause I’m fly/you ain’t ’cause you not,” I really do. And I certainly appreciate any song that employs a theremin, as “This is Why I’m Hot” does occasionally.
But Mim’s #1-with-a-bullet feels completely rudimentary, all but ignoring the symphonic beats that occasionally crest and distort behind it, instead using them to frame a bland, linear melody. There’s a simplicity to it that I like in theory, no particular tongue-twisters, or even trickery, just a beat and a vocal. The regional shout-outs are kinda curious and, likewise, there’s probably something to be said about the fact that (per Wikipedia) it samples Kanye West, Mobb Deep, and Dr. Dre, possibly about the boring recursiveness of hip-hop sampling itself, but I didn’t pick up the samples. Mostly, reduced to its hook, the song still feels like a placeholder. Nothing about it makes me want to put it on, and it feels too sluggish to dance to.

More Zen: if a bullet misses its target, and there’s no force to stop it, is it still a bullet?

“say it right” – nelly furtado

Forays into alien terrain
“Say It Right” – Nelly Furtado (download here)
from Loose (2006)
released by Mosley (buy)

(file expires February 26th)

week of February 24, 2007
#1 this week, #2 last week, 14 weeks on chart

“Say It Right” is such a cohesive construction that its principle charm seems to be its atmosphere rather than its melody, at least until the chorus drops, and the vibe suddenly becomes epic and distinct. Specifically, for me, it conjures the set of a video. Which is odd. Songs usually trigger something, y’know, real, even if it’s just the proverbial dance floor. But the only place in which Timbaland and Danja’s production sounds organic, where the echoing of Timbo’s voice between murky digi-trees and the subliminal gurgle of water makes sense, is an artificial world. It would sound diluted if even the best live band arranged it. Yet it employs naturalistic cues throughout: bells playing a stereo-panned ambient counterpoint to the chorus, a woman’s voice (Furtado’s?) counting off an overdub, and (a few seconds later) the shimmering of an electric guitar during the outro that almost becomes a solo. So, even if the music exists firmly an imaginary world, it also sounds impossibly comfortable there. Totally mature, but I wish I liked the chorus more than I do, though I usually don’t at first listen.

“this ain’t a scene, it’s an arms race” – fall out boy

Further forays into the alien world of actual pop
week of February 10, 2007

#2 this week, #2 last week, 2 weeks on chart (download) (buy)

(file expires February 13th)

The Wikipedia entry for Fall Out Boy’s “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s an Arms Race” notes that the song’s #2 placing is “the highest Hot 100 debut for a single by a rock band since Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ debuted at #1 on the Hot 100 in 1998.” While Fall Out Boy might be a rock band, I’m not so sure “Arms Race” is a rock song. That is, like Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable,” the instrumentation feels arbitrary. It’s got a big kick drum, sure, and — eventually — a chorus with power chords, falsetto ooh-ooh-oohing, self-effacing lyrics like “all the boys who the dance floor didn’t love” and such, but the beat could be constructed of anything and the drama is single-minded. The overwrought verses could be sung by a diva over a synth pattern. Fall Out Boy’s recent flirtations with Timbaland and Jay-Z only underscore this: pop is welcoming back the idea of rock, at least as a signifier. (FOB play with this notion in the video, too, apparently.) What’s really happening, though, probably isn’t so simple. Pop divas pretending to be singer-songwriters? Drama queen emo acts pretending to be hip-hop stars? Really, nobody’s pretending to be anything, though, because all’s equal in the top 10. Anything goes, be it Timbaland’s Egyptian samples or FOB’s earnest/”earnest” guitar riffage.

“irreplaceable” – beyoncé

Time to revive the occasional Good Beat entry. What better way than to get back into it but with the newest single by Beyoncé, whose “Crazy In Love” revived my faith in pop.

week of January 27, 2007
#1 this week, #1 last week, 13 weeks on chart
(download) (buy)

(file expires January 31st)

The use of the acoustic guitar on Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” interests me. Specifically, it’s that in pop there’s nothing given about using one. The normal palette is so much wider than that. The song’s bed could just as easily be a reconstituted horn section and nobody would bat an eye. But here, the Norwegian production team Stargate has chosen to go into strum overdrive. The vibe, then (at least, as a white male accustomed to acoustic guitars), becomes more girl next door than melodramatic pop diva. Of course, it’s one shiny m’fuckin’ acoustic guitar. On first listen, the beat seems nothing more than an amped-up version of the bland drum machines many singer-songwriters normally employ. Considered as that, it’s way more complex, filled with lots of subliminal fills and cross-patterns. And, considered as that, Beyoncé’s vocal performance suddenly becomes more intricate, as well, vocals cooing and layering and harmonizing in a way no coffeehouse crooner could conjure. In creating a little box for itself (Beyoncé as singer-songwriter) and then using pop spit-polish to make it sound so much bigger than that genre, there’s a visceral excitement in “Irreplaceable.” It also reminds me a lot of Mike Doughty’s version of Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love,” especially the “you must not know about me” refrain, which really is rather wistful. Or maybe it’s just Norwegian.

“disco inferno” – 50 cent

week of March 26, 2005
#3 this week, #5 last week, 16 weeks on chart

More sex as seductive boredom from 50. There’s comedy, too, but it’s the kind I can’t put my finger on; the kinda resigned bleakness of Waiting for Godot that doesn’t make any particular sense as humor, but can’t really be recognized as anything else Like in “Candy Shop,” 50 laughs midway through, and — again — it’s a totally secret laugh, closed. And I guess there’s an allure to that — the private joke — and, as an audience member, I should wanna get in on it.

The groove — an ethereal theremin keyboard melody, handclaps, a tinny orchestra hit, a few synths — is subterranean: low and mean and slinky. There’s a little moment of transcendence that I almost like. The song drops out in some indefinable way (backing tracks just dimmed slightly?) and 50’s boredom, for a minute, blurs and refocuses into a dreamier fantasy: “See me shining, lit up with diamonds,” he sings. “Catch me swooping, gently couping (?), switching lanes…” And that’s where the laugh is. The “switching lanes” line — nestled atop this music — makes me imagine a late night driver, switching lanes for no other reason than that there’s nobody else on the road, and he can ’cause he wants to. I don’t imagine that it was intended, though lethargy as transcendence is kinda dreamy.

Still, not enough to carry the tune. So it goes. Long weekend. I’m taking a damn bath.

“candy shop” – 50 cent featuring olivia

week of March 19, 2005
#1 this week, #1 last week, 7 weeks on chart

So, there’s all this backstory to 50 Cent and — while I guess I’ve read it through a few times — I don’t instinctively connect it to “Candy Shop.” No matter how much I listen to it, the music that tends to penetrate the Top 10 often sounds positively exotic to my ears. Or at least it does so in this context, sitting at my desk late at night. Hearing pop in public makes perfect sense to me. “How obvious!” I’ll think if I hear one of these tunes coming out of the speakers of a passing car, its sonics blending with the natural audio environment of Brooklyn or Manhattan, circa 2005. But here, in my private space, amidst poctcards and Polaroids tacked to the walls, it feels very foreign.

A history of drugs and violence notwithstanding, the voice that sings “Candy Shop” sounds — to me — either bored or real baked. Either way, I don’t believe it when he intones “so seductive” during the song’s lead-in. (But, then again, I already admitted that I’m basically a tourist, so I’m willing to concede that maybe it’s a part of some local mating ritual.) But, to me, 50 sounds apathetic about the whole process of seduction — possibly even disdainful, if one allows the ominous orchestral loop to be some kind of mirror of the singer’s emotional state. I heard somebody say that this song was tailor-made to be played in strip joints, and I think that about nails it. That is not sex as a treat; this is sex as an inevitability, a reality as desperate and weirded out as other parts of the human psyche.

What makes the song unique — and creepy — is its lack of humor (well underscored by the mechanical deep thump/finger snap groove). It’s not that the lyrics aren’t funny. Because they could be. Sex as candy ain’t exactly a new conceit, but it’s a reliable one. “I’m trying to explain, baby, the best way I can / I melt in your mouth, girl, not in your hand,” 50 sings, and then laughs. It’s a satisfied laugh, not a shared one. The punchline serves nobody but the teller. It’s amazing how much the backing track defines this. It could be remixed into something way happier, but it would likely lose all of its peculiar sexuality.

Pop music is often so positively dumb that surrendering to it becomes a compact between two people dancing with each other, both willing to overlook (or just not care about) how silly it is, such that they might get it on. “Candy Shop” inspires a similar effect, except — instead of its mindlessness — our potential couple must jointly forget about the song’s pimples-and-all pathos. Together. Isn’t that sweet?

“boulevard of broken dreams” – green day

week of February 19, 2005
#3 this week, #4 last week, 13 weeks on chart

1.) A guitar song. This is probably the only second one that has come up in the weeks I’ve been doing this (the other being “This Love” by Maroon5). I have a hard time thinking about it on the same terms as Ciara and Mario and Lil Jon, because its form is familiar, less exotic, though it does sound contemporary (especially the intro, which sounds like it could include some kinda spoken-word tag-line).

Mostly, I feel like I’m at a family gathering and have been introduced to a distant cousin that I will undoubtedly get along with because we share common ground in some wholly unspecific interest, like music. “This song has guitars. You like guitars.”

2.) The title seems hackneyed to me, like a shitty lyric off of a latter-day Allman Brothers album. I know I’ve heard the expression before, but it’s one that’s lost a specific meaning. Is it a reference to something older? Google searching, the popularity of the Green Day tune has overwhelmed and obscured other bits. In the first 10 pages, we get: a vinyl-only 1985 Joy Division bootleg, a celebrity studded parody of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” a graphic novel, Final Fantasy fan fiction, and a 1933 song by Al Dubin and Harry Warren (along with an instrumental MIDI file that automatically fired up inside Explorer and played atonally along with the Green Day song streaming through my iTunes). This, I suspect, will be the oldest reference to be found Googling.

The very diversity of results goes to show just how well the expression has melted into common usage. I still don’t like it much.

3.) Pirates of the Caribbean has circulated around my building recently, so I’ve watched various bits of it here and there. I saw it in the theater and – for a big budget Disney movie – I quite enjoyed it. There’s something to be said for a picture that’s accessible without being excessively stupid, that keeps the viewer locked in through a nice pace of swash-buckling sequences, chases, cannon fire, bawdy “family” humor, and the high seas. The Aviator does this, too, in its own way.
And Green Day’s American Idiot is a musical version of that: a Pirates of the Caribbean for us rockist savages. But there’s a difference between Pirates and AI, at least for me: listening to popular music is very different from seeing a popular movie, the latter being such a forcibly immersive experience, compared to the flexibility of songs and the ways we listen to them. Unless it is an artist I am intimately familiar with, it is rare that I sacrifice myself to a piece of music the way I automatically do if I go to the movies (or even watch one at home). All of which is to say that I dig “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” for what it is, but it’s not likely to make any of my playlists anytime soon.

4.) I like the brief, wordless verse that begins at the 1:15 mark. I can imagine this becoming a big sing-along at an arena show. It is for this reason that I like this song ideologically. It means that, at least while it’s popular, kids will still wanna go to big-ass rock concerts and do things like sing along. Hey, I think guitar-based pop music is a form worth preserving beyond the future equivalent of contemporary jazz clubs.

5.) That main riff is familiar, the melody kinda haunting, like it’s lifted from a Dire Straits record or something else I can’t place. The phrasing certainly helps — methodical, assured, sweet as candy.

“1, 2 step” – ciera featuring missy elliot

week of January 29, 2005

#2 this week, #2 last week, 14 weeks on chart

Listening to the leaked Guero last week, I got to thinking about the still-yawning divide between the music that I sincerely, unabashedly enjoy and, well, songs like Ciara’s “1, 2 Step,” currently hovering at #2. As a piece of music, “One Two Step” is beautiful. I admire it immensely. The arrangement is fantastic and adventurous. There are a million things going on: strings, kettle drums (or maybe very deep bass drums), a half-dozen synth patterns and countermelodies, bells, near-ambient filter beats, backwards masking, echoes, voices talking back, and probably a good handful of tricks that I’m missing owing to the lo-fi mp3.

It’s really cool. And, if it were on Guero with Beck doing his thang on top, I’d probably not only like it a lot, but also think it one of the best songs on the album. That said, I can’t realistically see myself getting excited about “1, 2 Step” coming on in shuffle. My first inclination is to say that it’s probably because of the lyrics. But that’s sorta dumb, ’cause there are tons of songs that I love (like most of Automatic For the People and Astral Weeks) that I couldn’t quote more than a phrase or two from, and enjoy them simply because I am enamored with the way they sound.

Of course, I feel confident that “1, 2 Step” isn’t meant to be listened to sitting at a desk, under headphones, repeatedly (12 times now), while consciously dissecting. It’s meant to be listened to… well, lots of places – the car, at a party/club, in passing – but certainly not here, like this. From a distance, like an impressionist painting, the details might blur into something mysterious, something not meant to hold up over time at all, but simply to hold up in your imagination until next time, and – when that time comes – over again before you could entirely remember to remember it. So, with that, I’ll leave Ciara on my harddrive. Perhaps, some day, we’ll meet again…

“let me love you” – mario

week of January 22, 2005
#1 this week, #1 last week, 14 weeks on chart

What’s amazing to me about the “Let Me Love You” isn’t the tune’s particular catchiness (I mean, it’s alright), but the way it places itself in that very specific slow-dance space. More, it conjures the same vibe as (say) “Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton, even though it literally sounds nothing like it, and draws from an entirely different palette of synthesizers and sonic gimcracks. In some ways, it’s like discovering that we can keep finding new and exciting ways to mix different elements with (basically) the same results. (In other ways, it’s like remembering that one can mix any number of radically vivid colors together and still get brown.)

But let’s go with the former for the duration of this post.

The base of Scott Storch’s production is an alternating groove of subtle bass drum (with subtler melodic properties) and handclaps. Then there’s swelling synth string section that sounds on the verge of shorting out (though it could be the mp3). There’s also another keyboard that surfaces occasionally that sounds a bit like a pedal steel swoop, but it disappears quickly. This all makes the vibe, Mario’s voice merely reinforcing it, and adding a few more hooks to the top.

I particularly like the not-really-call-and-response that feeds into the chorus, where no questions are posed (and no answers are given), and Mario sorta sounds like he’s reacting to obviously rhetorical inquiries even though it’s just obvious boasting. Lots of voices: “You’re the type of woman.” Mario: “deserve good things.” Lots of voices: “Fistful of diamonds.” Mario: “Handful of rings.”

Maybe that’s what good pop is: answering questions that weren’t asked with answers that aren’t answers. How’s that for a Greil Marcus-y conclusion?

Cue Warner Brothers outro theme, Porky Pig, and “That’s All Folks!”

weird al

Weird Al’s brilliant polka medleys were my first exposure to oodles of popular songs, including a good portion of the Stones’ repertoire (“Hot Rocks Polka,” from UHF), early ’90s power pop (“Polka Your Eyes Out,” from Off The Deep End), and – since my hippie parents (Jah bless ’em) never got cable – even MTV standards (“Polka Party” from, um, Polka Party).
Tonight, I downloaded everything that I’d been missing — mostly from the albums Al has released since my 1997 high school graduation. And, having since become that most impolite breed of listener known as a “rockist,” this is some of my first exposure to many of the relatively contemporary numbers included. Once again, Al is serving as my Cliff’s Notes.
The polkas are incredible: succinct indexes of melody that create a surprisingly level playing field for the quality of the songs. Somebody could write a wonderful musicological essay about the timeless (?) themes revealed by these juxtapositions. (I’ll just add that to the list of things to do…)
In consulting the ever-helpful All Music Guide, I discovered several refreshingly thoughtful reviews of Al albums by the likes of AMG founder Stephen Thomas Erlewine and avant-garde banjoist Dr. Eugene Chadbourne (when the hell did he write for All Music?).
Erlewine’s critique of the recent Poodle Hat is genuinely impassioned — though his charges against “Angry White Boy Polka” seem overblown. While the title certainly doesn’t describe The White Stripes or The Strokes too well (at least compared to, say, Eminem), the juxtaposition of the latter and the former is preceisely what’s important. The Strokes’ “Last Nite” as doo-wop ragtime is a Zappa-like twist of genius
(And, at the risk of turning into the guy from The Onion‘s “I Must Take Issue with the Wikipedia Entry For ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic” piece, I’d also like to correct a repeated gaff in Chadbourne’s insightful reviews of Al’s first three albums — specifically that “no children of any age have expressed much interest in the original material [on In 3-D].” As literally one of the mythical 11-year olds Dr. Chad refers to elsewhere, I loved his original tunes just as much as his parodies, so much so I don’t remember even differentiating between ’em.)
Well, now that that’s outta my system…
(PS. Anybody know when The Onion’s archives became subscriber only? Weak.)

“overnight celebrity” – twista featuring kanye west

#6 this week, #6 last week, 11 weeks on the chart

Here’s the second appearance of motor-mouthed Twista since I relaunched this project. The follow-up to “Slow Jamz” is cool, and I like a lot of the production a bunch, but it doesn’t gel for me as a song. There is no single moment that I can latch onto — a little in-joke, or a vocal hook that lodges itself in my brain. Of course, there are things we’re supposed to notice: Twista’s hyperspeed vocals, West’s sing-songy chorus, etc., but none of them – for me – create that really satisfying sense of fun that comes with a great pop tune (and certainly did so with the hilarious/sexy “Slow Jamz”).

I do like the beginning a fair bit, though grimace when I imagine stodgy old LA session string players performing this at the Grammys or some shit. Either way, it’s a cool little tension builder (like the crashingly bombastic orchestral flourishes that would often begin old Sinatra sides). There’s that bit of braggadocio (“you didn’t think we could do it again…”) and the drums somehow overtake the orchestra, which simultaneously accelerates and fragments into stuttered samples. Great effect. It’s a great 30-second tag opening, then into the chorus.

West’s chorus drives the point home, before handing off to Twista. A lot of Twista’s appeal is his virtuosity, I think — something about the way he is able to effortlessly overlay rhythms atop his precise delivery. I like that, too. (Though I also suspect he might be looked back on as the Yngwie Malmsteen of rappers, where it’ll later be revealed that the whole thing was a ProTools-altered sham…)

The collage of samples and production throughout the song – which switches, quasi-episodically, between Twista and West – is subtly astounding. The beats meld perfectly with the string samples, as well as a twinkling little piano figure that’s too fast to be an arpeggio, but too slow to be a chord (is there a word for that?). There’s also a sample of singing woman. Together, all of these elements syncopate grandly, locking in around each other. Unfortunately, they never quite transcend themselves, never quite combine themselves into that magical arrangement of elements unglimpsable during the song’s opening.

I do quite like the bit later in the song when West proclaims “see baby girl, you see how you make a brother break down” as the fractured beats suddenly smooth back out into a “live” orchestra. That, too, is a cool effect — a sonic/technical feat, at the very least. After that, though, it jumps back into the chorus, which I think is unfortunate. I think I’d like this song more if there were more attention paid to its architecture — the way it flows, and the way it ends. Likewise, after the intro, it’s a fairly simple ABABCAB structure (or something), where the C (“see baby girl…”) reaches no further out than to reprise the intro. I wish it went deeper.

“the reason” – hoobastank

#5 this week, #8 last week, 11 weeks on the chart

There’s definitely something afoot here. Well, maybe not definitely, but I do find it a mite interesting that the #5 slot, both this week and last, has been occupied by an honest-to-“Bob” guitar-driven band playing a song with fairly normal/innocuous verse/chorus/verse songs. Last week, it was Maroon5, who slipped down to #7 this week. This time, it’s Hoobastank (whose name I remembered from a walk with my friend Paul around lower Manhattan, repeatedly reading their name on construction site wall posters, and collapsing into hysterics at our exaggerated elongated pronunciation of “Whooooooo-bah”).

When I was driving around Los Angeles last month, I was flipping through the radio stations on my aunt’s car, and found some station playing one of the cuts from The Postal Service album. The station announcements informed me breathlessly that I was listening to “The Indie” (or some variation thereof) the same way Z1000 in New York used to brag about being “the alternative station” (or some variation thereof). The Indie, as I read later, was just another ClearChannel station. The intro to Hoobastank’s “The Reason” kind of reminds me of that feeling — a half-second rush of excitement that maybe something cool has triumphed, followed by a muted acceptance that the reality is actually very different.

“The Reason” begins with a repeated piano note. It is joined, at three seconds in, by a cool modern sounding beat. At six seconds, an icily spider-like guitar figure is uncoiled. Both very cool. At 12 seconds come a sorta cheesy bassline. It doesn’t feel wrong, exactly, ’cause it still seems like a cool song could be made out of those elements. Then, at 14 seconds, things veer off horribly. The vocal melody comes in and, like The Indie, “The Reason” turns out to be just another mid-tempo love ballad. In fact, it hit a peak that is uncannily similar to Clay Aiken’s “Solitaire” (and achieved with a power metal-sorta build) when they get to the first, dramatic “and the reason is yoooooooooooooooou” (after that, it’s more like metal).

By the end of the song, when all of the elements have been cycled into the ground, it’s almost embarrassing for me to admit that I was even fooled by them during the song’s intro. All the pop trappings are added – synthesizer, strings, even giant “Disarm”-style bells – and it loses whatever it was that was interesting about it during its opening seconds.

“this love” – maroon5

#5 this week, #5 last week, 15 weeks on the chart

In the upper reaches of the chart, like a team 15 games ahead of the nearest competition at All-Star Break, Usher is doing battle with himself (“Burn” and “Yeah,” flip-flopped between the first and third spots this week). It’s boring in some ways but insistently enthralling others. Meanwhile, a few slots down, there’s a surprise in store — one that I’m still not sure if I understand correctly. If their AMG entry is to be believed, Maroon5 is an actual rock band (they’ve got, y’know guitars) from New York, recording for a genuinely independent label (Octotone). It seems like a Spin Doctors story, since their album, Songs About Jane, came out in 2002. But wherever they came from, here they are.

“This Love” really does crossbreed indie and pop-circa-2004. Atop a decidedly hip-hop beat are stabbing guitars and a singer who sounds (to my ears) uncannily like Woody Ranere from Lake Trout. In fact, come to think of it, the whole package sounds like Lake Trout during the verses (kinda minimalist jungle rhythms with an assured dry melody). When they hit the chorus, Maroon5 is definitely pop — albeit made with a weird fusion of hip-hop/reggae/ska-punk (ie. those indie guitar stabs sped to stuttered upbeats and threaded with a syncopated vocal line). And if they didn’t make the point with the chorus, the all-soul bridge emphatically drives it home: they are all of these things.

But, ultimately, the switch between the verse and the eventual bridge is drastic. The mood in the verses is decidedly cool — a narrator in fine, even refined, control of himself. The chorus’s switch to sexy pop-mode works. The singer is still playing high status (“her heart is breaking in front of me”), or trying to, but then comes that bridge, where the singer breaks down to pleading (“I’ll fix these broken things, repair your broken wings, and make sure everything’s alright…”) and reveals in his inner softy who’s happy to, say, listen to Enya if it makes his girlfriend happy. It’s a cool little trick of musical narrative.

It’s also kind of a depressing song, a break-up song or maybe a make-up-in-resignation song. There haven’t been many of those, at least while I’ve been watching the charts, and I wonder what that means in relation to the national psyche (or maybe just in relation to the psyche of the Independent Promoters and other keepers of the gated playlists). And just in time for summer, too, huh? I gotta admit, I’m confused on that level, however well the song is written (and, as the song cycles for its eighth play on iTunes, I’ve come to admit that it’s quite clever). No shit? Does this turn in mood have anything to do with a turn in current events? The UFOs’ arrival over Mexico? That’s probably a stupid assumption to make. The only thing to do, I suppose, is to keep watching the skies.

“naughty girl” – beyoncé

#4 this week, #4 last week, 8 weeks on the chart

Been a while. Almost a month, folks. (Say, are there folks? Drop me a line if there are. I never bothered to install a counter on this thing.) In the time I was gone, it doesn’t look the top three have shifted at all, so I guess I didn’t as much as I feared. At number four this week, same as last, is what somebody recently called the “single of the summer” — Beyoncé’s “Naughty Girl.” I can definitely see that happening. The song doesn’t feel like an event or a defining/epic musical destination. The way some songs are meant to hit you big, some are meant to not so much hit you as slide around you. “Naughty Girl” is one of those. It’s really undramatic. It’s kind of just a groove that I can easily imagine in the background of summer weather — a cool contemporary groove, at that.

It’s definitely the center of the song. The tune begins with (and is based around) a repeating funk guitar riff. It’s like the guitar figure is the alpha male and everything else that comes into the mix must fix itself relative to that part. And they do — which is precisely what maintains the ear’s interest throughout. The first sample is just a Zeppelin-like quasi-Egyptian string thang, which begins at the beginning of the pattern. A wash leads to Beyoncé’s intro vocal, soaring over the changes, then different Egyptian string parts, which disappear intermittently (and not predictably) during the verse. The first cool trick comes when Beyoncé’s voice suddenly doubles one of the rising exotica samples and finds itself then doubling the main funk riff. I like the effect — two figures that were once laid atop one another (string sample and the funk riff) are now laid back-to-back linearly. I’m not sure if there’s term for that or not, but it’s satisfying to me as a listener — it makes the pre-chorus of the song feel inevitable, which then feeds to the title chorus which feels like a release from everything that’s come before.

The chorus, though, doesn’t feel dramatic. There’s a slight rise in the melody to let you know that it’s the chorus, but it doesn’t soar or anything. It barely moves — which is why it feels like a summertime song. It’s not aggressive about making you wanna dance. If you’re dripping in the heat fanning yourself with a newspaper, the song still feels right. On the other hand, I can imagine the song having a pleasantly sultry impact on the dance floor. In fact, the song feels like a dizzying heatwave where one must beat it or be beaten. The song capitalizes on that feeling in a sexy, confident way.

“burn” – usher

#5 this week, #10 last week, 6 weeks on the chart

Usher, whose “Yeah!” has been nestled at number one since I relaunched this blog a month or two back, is now competing with himself in the Top 10. It’s a ballad, a love song (and a solo one at that), but retains the performative structure, where it flows from section to section in a… well, I want to say “cinematic,” but that doesn’t feel right. It’s more “episodic,” or something other metaphor that can be tied to television. The idea of the beginning, middle, and end do seem important to this kind of songwriting, even if that beginning/middle/end isn’t literally tied to a plot.

So, “Burn” begins with a quick spoken intro over, first, noise, then, strings and mellotron (I think). For the first two seconds of the song (noise and “I don’t understand… why…”) it sounds as if the song could kick in with one of those sharply mixed techno grooves. Instead, Usher’s voice changes, the strings establish themselves, and it makes the turn/commitment to be a slow tune. I love the way the keyboard and the strings work with each other, the keys sounding really sweet and romantic and ballad-like, in a way that would seem incongruous with strings that also sound really sweet and romantic and ballad-like… but it doesn’t, and they don’t. As the classical guitar comes in, this becomes the ambient base of the song, and the spoken part crests into an overemotive/soulful vocal (the strings drop out there).

There is no over-arching melody (at least one that jumps out), but – instead – there are lots of very small hooks (“I do but you don’t”, a quick jump to falsetto, an almost South African vocal break later on, etc.) that are predominantly rhythmic. I like that, actually, even if it’s not as elegant as having one really good melody. They’re like little nooks for the ear to discover (and definitely lend to the picaresque – there’s the word! – effect). The little blurp of white noise used to lead into the spoken intro also cues the chorus, and lets us know that we have achieved title. The picaresque is a neat trick. It makes music more playful, and keeps it from being entirely grandiose and serious. In terms of Usher, it also lets him find his own voice and way of singing.

As a follow-up to “Yeah,” it seems like a good choice. If one imagines that the only two tracks by Usher that somebody knows are “Yeah” and this – and those are the only two that I know – then they serve to establish Usher as a character. And, since this is a slow song, the message would seem to be that, gee, Usher has depth. I’m not convinced of that yet, but “Burn” is a pretty impressive performance, even if Usher himself comes off as a tad hyperactive and eager to show off his vocal range.

Well, buckaroos, I’m off for some travel this week. I’m not sure if I’m gonna update next week, or the week after… but circumstances will tell.

“i don’t wanna know” – mario winans featuring p. diddy and enya

#4 this week, #9 last week, 8 weeks on the chart

There’s a fantastic, fantastic article in The New Yorker this week by Jake Halpern about the Trackboyz and J-Kwon. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It confirms what I suspected (or maybe wanted to suspect): that there is no firm, singular, one-way star system in the music industry. Sure, the right wheels need to be greased, and the right folks have to get paid, but – the point is – anybody who succeeds has to follow a long, hard path of greasing wheels and the like. That, in itself, is a talent with a certain accompanying skill set and even musical qualities. The Trackboyz are from St. Louis, and that’s cool. The article talks about where/how they live, and generally paints a picture of how they got there.

I don’t know much about Mario Winans – he appears to be predominantly a producer – but I can only imagine that he’s had to beat his own path, especially if he’s producing his own full-length debut. The first thing that jumps out at me about this song is a production thing: the drums are dominant with flaming oodles of practically ambient strings and keyboards and what floating beneath. There’s a lot of stuff happening, but it’s hard to make out any specifics. The second thing that jumps out (which I only noticed after a few listens) is the nature of the beat. On one hand, it’s not insistent. It doesn’t draw me in at all, and feels far too mellow to be effective in a club. But, the more I listen, the more I can get into it. Somehow, the tempo is just right. It’s punchier than a ballad, but slower than anything else. Likewise, it’s got a cool stuttered kick that doesn’t quite repeat the same way each time. (I also like how it drops out for half-a-second before P. Diddy’s solo.)

It begins with a bit of performative plot (a ringing phone, “let me call you right back, we’re doing this mix tape right now…”) and drops into a little spoken intro that’s slathered in echo. The strings are impossibly distant, like Jordan and Daisy from The Great Gatsby listening to a symphony recording in a small corner of a vast, airy porch. I like the feeling of longing they create, both in general (their syrupy tone) and their liternalness (wanting to hear more). The chorus is catchy, and P. Diddy’s appearance is pleasant enough (I swear he drops a line about Western Beef, which is hilarious), but the whole thing is just sleepy sounding to me.

“solitaire” – clay aiken

#4 this week, first week on chart

I don’t think I really like the music on the pop charts, or – at the very least – I don’t find so much pleasure in them that I put them on when I’m listening to music outside the time I’m working on this weekly blog. But I’ve been getting into the idea of pop music as a game, comparing and contrasting these different songs and seeing what moves they’re making in terms of the structure and hooks and all the little tricks that go into Top 5 pop (like the way “Good Vibrations” is often revered because it had different sections, used a theremin, etc.). Mike Doughty wrote that music isn’t a technology and that it doesn’t “progress.” Well, perhaps, but try explaining that to genuinely pop songwriters and producers.

The number one record this week is “Solitaire” by Clay Aiken, who I gather was a contestant on American Idol. I’m not sure if this is the recording that’s made the charts, but it appears to be taken from a live taping. (Even if it’s not the one that’s on the chart, it’s the one that’s circulating on the networks, so that probably says something.) There’s a crowd that cheers for half-a-second at the beginning. And, then, the performance. The two things that jump out immediately for me are the fact that it’s barely longer than a minute long (which can be explained by the fact that was for a segment of a television show), but also that it’s a real performance by one person (a sharp contrast to all of the other songs I’ve listened to for this project) singing in the traditional image of pop (as opposed to hip-hop).

I’ve never seen a full episode of American Idol, though I remember reading a commentary somewhere that the contestants on the show essentially present a composite of some subconscious idea about both what talent and pop music should be. I like that argument — especially because this conception of pop music and virtuosity is nothing at all like the other things that have been in the Top 5 lately. That’s not to say that it’s an original-sounding song. It’s not; precisely because it does seem to represent subconscious ideas about talent and what pop should be. It’s a bit of a paradox.

The song is very straightforward: a band backs a singer singing of heartache. But, at the same time, it doesn’t really follow the formula because it’s boiled down for television. Everything has to be condensed into just over a minute. It just cuts to the chase. Fuck this verse/chorus shit, “Solitaire” is just one big build towards The Big Note at the end. That Big Note is the song’s calling card and, even though it’s a moment that’s not repeated, it serves as the hook. After all, the song was performed to demonstrate Aiken’s vocal agility, and The Big Note is the most agile of ’em all. That’s all that’s important, really. I don’t think people really listen to the lyrics on a song like this. Though it appears to be a narrative (there’s a “he” and a “she” and some elements of time and a story) there’s nothing one could reasonably flesh out without liberal doses of imagination. Key words pop out “solitaire,” of course, which comes up in different places (the lyrics of the song are just one extended metaphor). Clearly, the song (or this arrangement of it) is arranged for a showcase performance.

I like, then, how the equation changes. I feel like there could be a cool flow chart made to demonstrate this (like something offa Last Plane to Jakarta, except a little less ironic). The first box is “Idea of Pop Song,” with an arrow into two successive boxes, labeled “Television” and “Demonstration of Virtuosity,” and a resulting box, labeled “Idea of Pop Song (x)” (where “(x)” represents the transformation). Right. The point is, it’s something unique and different than what got fed into it to start.

What’s bizarre is that the song begins with applause (to cue the listener into the fact that this is, in fact, live, a real/”real” performance), but there are no applause at the end. You’d think there would be, to underscore the fact that the crowd reacted wildly. But maybe there is a good reason. Presumably this is getting played on the radio. Without that applause, the song would just have to feed instantly into whatever’s next. Since the Big Note is also the last note, there’s no time for anything but a super-quick crossfade, or the DJ (or robo-DJ) runs the risk of ruining the song (though maybe they do). That’s probably gives the song even more visceral impact, leaving one a little dizzy as the next song begins, still trying to assimilate what he just heard. Maybe. That’s sort of my conception of it. Some time, next time I’m on a long car trip (a few weeks, actually), maybe I’ll put on a pop radio station and see how much I recognize, and how it works in context.

“tipsy” – j-kwon

#3 this week, #4 last week, 11 weeks on the chart
I’m constantly reminded how little I actually know about pop music — real pop music. It’s a natural inclination to reach for other songs to make comparisons. Context. But there’s so little I can reach for here. I wonder what year it escaped me. What would be the last chart one could put in front of me where I could hum a few bars of even 50% of the songs on there, or identify 75% of the bands? What decade would it even be in? My guess it that it happened sometime around 1992, which is about the year where I started making conscious decisions about what music I wanted to listen to (ironically via listening to Nirvana). That’s a 10-year blackout in my cultural memory, which is weird to think about. But it also makes me a relative blank slate when listening to these songs. Go figure. That’s kind of nice.

So, here we are with “Tipsy.” Or, more accurately, here I am with “Tipsy.” It’s by J-Kwon, a guy so new that the usually reliable All Music Guide is of no help. Arista’s website reveals that this is his debut single. His first full-length won’t even be out until next week, and this tune has been on the charts for almost three months already. Here it is at number three. That seems like a pretty well-timed promotional campaign. But, well, that’s the kind of cynicism I want to avoid. The song is here, someplace in the public consciousness, regardless of how it arrived. What is it doing?

Even before I read Arista’s marketing pitch about J-Kwon as a streetwise 17-year old, the song seemed to have split personalities. The verses of the tune are delivered in a sort of inward mumble, a kid walking down the street (or walking through a club) quietly rapping to himself, working on his flow. The vocals are tight-lipped, and – indeed – the lyrics serve this kind of delivery well, which seems like an internal monologue of sorts (“Now I’m in the back…”). The chorus, then, has J-Kwon (no guests here, even!) busting into a more open-throated delivery (“Everybody in the club get tipsy”) and one can imagine the shy kid suddenly on stage, or at the center of attention, and delivering the lyrics. There’s a video to this too, I suppose, which I probably now have to watch to see if that seemingly obvious version of the song is how they choose to portray it. I’ll check that out later.

The production on this is pretty fresh-sounding to my ears, though not hugely experimental. It’s all sterile synthesizers and beats. I imagine the whole beat carved in imperial grays and silvers, the sort of sharp shapes that might decorate the inside of the Empire State Building. It feels very electronic — like IDM stripped of all its self-qualifying pretensions. The music is very even throughout, and the structure is very simple verse/chorus/verse/chorus, etc.. The episodic structure definitely lends itself to the of guest appearances. It’s sort of natural for that. None of that here. I like it. It’s definitely a change for the ears. Okay, time to watch the video.

“slow jamz” – twista featuring kanye west and jamie foxx

#3 this week, #3 last week, 16 weeks on the chart

Hey, I’m a honky. I like this song. I think it’s really clever, and can see how and why it works. For starters, it takes the episodic structure of these pop tunes and not only defines the sections well, but keeps them somehow both varied and intrinsically connected. The basic structure: a slow female-sung slow jam, a pair of verses by producer Kenye West, and (finally) Twista’s own contribution. Once each element is introduced, it is free to appear underneath the other ones. The female voice comes back a few times for her own verses, but it also appears underneath Twista’s hyperactive rhymes as a counterpoint (a fugue sample?).

The song works, I think, in a very complex way, as far as being genuine social music. For starters, it’s sexy. That’s obviously important. But what’s equally important is that it’s playful. It’s an icebreaker song, the kind of thing that bridges that void in the conceptual gymnasium that will always exist between guys and girls. So, it’s sexy, with all the tension that implies, but it also breaks that tension down with sheer humor. Great lines like West’s priceless “Got a light-skinned friend looks just like Michael Jackson / Got a dark-skinned friend looks just like Michael Jackson” are the kinds of things that everybody can just shout along with when they hear it in a bar, and then – bam – back to the sexiness. The first line breaks the ice with humor, and the second keeps it hot.

For my money, an even better line – albeit swallowed in the mix – “Imma play this Vandross / You gonna take your pants off.” Hilarious. And it’s made even better ’cause it’s a relevant reference (just like, say, the Tom Tom Club shout-out to funk heroes in “Genius of Love”) and because West’s base for the song is a sped-up Luther Vandross sample (which, despite being chipmunked still retains its fundamental qualities). After the brief two-line interval from Jamie Foxx, in comes Twista — a full two minutes into the song. On one hand, that’s kinda cheesy, being that it’s his single and all. But, on the other hand, I can dig it. Every goddamn single these days is driven by guest appearances, to the point where the marquee name really begins to disappear. Twista’s entrance, in some sense, is dramatic.

And his vocal part is cool, too, I think. It’s frenzied as fuck, but it’s never obnoxious. While it’s obviously virtuoustic, it’s never at the expense of the song. The words just tumble out, and Twista’s voice never sounds strained (also a little ironic titling the song “Slow Jamz” when Twista’s main gimmick is being a motormouth). The rhythms, too, are cool, and the arrangement works around the machine-gun vocals well. There are some cool drum fills behind Twista. Likewise, the samples sound neat behind him too — the Vandross, the female voice. In places, Twista’s rhythms are so weird that they remind one (or, at least, me) of some of the crazy vibraphone breaks on Ruth Underwood-era Frank Zappa.

This is not fulfilling music to me, and – as always – it’s a bit odd taking it out of context and pointing out all the stupid/silly tricks that exist within it. But, on the other hand, it’s still fun to try to figure all that out. For what it is – music designed to be consumed by a lot of people, probably in a public place – it’s extremely satisfying music, and very well done

“one call away” – chingy featuring j. weav

#2 this week, #4 last week, 7 weeks on the chart

The last time I wrote about Chingy, I wondered about the existence of regionalism in his music. It was maybe, I posited, detectable in the singer’s accent and the lyrics, but not necessarily in the beats and production itself. But, listening to his latest chart-topper, I’m having a stupid revelation: just how can one detect the existence of regionalism, anyway? I mean, it’s real obvious in music from the ’40s and ’50s. There is a marked existence between the Texas swing of Bob Wills and the Kentucky high and lonesome of Bill Monroe, and I’m inclined to believe – on some level – that difference is at least as much about the difference between what it’s like to live and write music in Texas and what it’s like to live and write music in Kentucky as it is about the difference between Wills and Monroe as human beings — mostly based on the evidence that similar differences can be derived between the various bands that followed in Wills’ and Monroe’s wake.

So, Chingy. Is this what the Dirty South sounds like? Sure, I can picture it, though perhaps not as unconsciously as I might be able to if I had never been to Atlanta, and not had it defined by other musical associations. There’s a warmly airy quality to the guitar part, underscored by the strings that blend nicely with the guitar. On top of that is a distorted beat. It feels like a warm night in an urban environment — the strings creating the quality of the air, the tone of the beat carving out a closed-in space (though one with wide streets and low buildings, as opposed to cluttered with tall buildings). I mean, more or less, I’m imagining Atlanta. Am I projecting because of what I know about both Chingy and the city of Atlanta? Most probably, but I think that’s how it’s supposed to work. By mentioning it with such frequency in their songs (though not here), Chingy and others of the Dirty South certainly do their best to create it as a place for the listener to imagine. Given music’s ambiguity, every listener will imagine something different.

I like the different vocal parts on the chorus. There are two or three vocal parts floating around, not to mention the guitar and the handclaps (which morph neatly into the beat). The drums all throughout the opening (a non-repeated element that leads into the chorus) are cool, methodically accelerating into the main groove (a cool rhythmic hook to pull the listener in). The first verse has strings, but no guitar. The second verse has guitar, but no strings. They meet back up again in the chorus. The third verse has both, but – at first – they don’t play at the same time, alternating snugly, before overlapping as the verse transitions into the chorus.

Of the songs I’ve listened to for this project, this one seems to have the closest to the verse/chorus/verse that I ignorantly figured would be prevalent on nearly all the tracks (preconceptions of pop?). Oddly, I also find this to be one of the most unexciting tunes I’ve listened to for it. Meh.

“yeah!” – usher featuring lil’ john and ludacris

#1 this week, #2 last week, 8 weeks on the chart

In an effort for this blog not to become just another web statistic, and me not to become further out of touch with what most of the people in the country are actually listening to, I’m gonna revive this here project with this week’s #1: “Yeah!” by Usher, featuring Lil’ Jon and Ludacris. Though the last thing I wrote about was by Lil’ Jon (“Get Low”), I really don’t remember all too much about it except what I wrote about (and, obviously, the “to the window… to the wall” hook).

Like “Get Low,” “Yeah” doesn’t have a verse/chorus/verse structure. Instead, it has what I’ve started unconsciously referring to as a “performative” structure. And though that’s a fucking pretentious term, I’m not sure how else to describe it. There is a catchy-ass repeating element in the tune, of course, but it’s not a vocal hook or a chorus or any of that — it’s this little three or four note synth figure that never quite lands the way I expect it to. Everything is organized on top of that, which is to say: Usher’s performance, as well as the guest appearances from Lil’ Jon and Ludacris. And since the different sections of the song by the different performers are all drastically varied in terms of rhythm and melody, it is that keyboard riff that ties everything together and guides the song from part to part.

The track begins with a quick shout-out to A-town (a “news” element that either serves to ground the song as part of reality or a hint that this is the beginning of a performance), and then what I figure is Usher’s vocal: a soulful/”soulful” vocal with a heaping helping of vibratto. Production-wise, there are high-pitched stereo-panned chimes. The vocal melody dives around the keyboard loop, which literally repeats until the end of the song. The second verse is marked by the introduction of a counterpoint on a synth flute. (I’m guessing the gruff vocals are Lil’ Jon.) The third verse, a solo by Usher (I think) is impassioned, with a different, sweet harmonized call-and-response.

The keyboard loop is really quite liberating, structurally. It repeats endlessly. Stupidly. At least, that is, until one thinks about it. Having it there for the entire song allows practically every other element of the song to change — different vocal arrangements, for example (multiple voices emphasizing different phrases in each verse), the different singers, etc.. It allows the tune to sustain a lot of different work.

Of the different sections, I think Ludacris’s is my favorite, because he pushes the hardest against the keyboard loop. (At least, I’m assuming it’s his, based on the identification.) There’s a nice atmospheric shift right before he starts singing. Not sure how, since there’s no real change in the production. It all hinges on the line “gimmie the rhythm,” where he crams about a billion syllables into one breath, and – for that second – the possibilities seem limitless, but the song quickly snaps back into line, and something that sounds like a chorus, even though I don’t retain a note of it when the song ends. Besides this middle part (the Moment of Being for the tune, maybe?), the track doesn’t excite me all too much.

“get low” – lil jon & the east side boyz featuring ying yang twins

#3 this week, #4 last week, 24 weeks on the chart.

Y’know what this reminds me of? Captain Beefheart. The timbre of one of the singer’s voices (the first one), specifically, combined with the absurdity of some of the lyrics. It’d be absurd to say that Beefheart had a direct influence on this track, but it might be relevant to point out how patently absurd base-level pop lyrics are these days. And, by “patently absurd,” I mean genuinely absurd. These aren’t the simple handholding stories of pre-Beatles stuff, nor are they simply thinnly veiled sex/drugs references (I don’t think). I mean, obviously, the bulk of it is (“Bend over to the front touch toes / Back that ass up and down and get low”), but it seems to be held together by this sense of urgent lunacy.

But there’s also the call and response, which is the part that first seemed Beefheartian to me: “to the window (to the window), to the wall (to the wall),” with the response being in the Beefheart voice. I’m not sure what it means, exactly, but it does seem to mean something, and does so for some of the same reasons that Beefheart lyrics do: they’ve got an internal logic to them. This song has a bunch of different repeating elements — multiple choruses, in a sense. Each one of them is catchy. It gives the song a different character than the usual, though, and adds to the sense of being driven by an internal logic. Here’s one of the choruses: “To all skee skee motherfucker (motherfucker!) all skee skee got dam (got dam!)” (I grabbed the lyrics off the web, and that seems to be the consensus.) So, does “skee skee” mean anything? Maybe. Objectively, probably not.

Also particularly Beefheartian to me, or at least absurd (or Absurd) in the same sense, is the intro to the song, transcribed as “Brr dum dum dum—dum da da da da dum.” In practice, it’s a cool little riff, just a little flat off the intended notes, I think. Either way, it sounds rough, like an old blues, except not really like an old blues at all. But it’s got a compatible weirdness. (Which maybe explains the Beefheart thang; one could probably draw parallel paths from old blues stuff to both Beefheart and the Dirty South crews.) It’s playful, and that playfulness runs under the whole track, which (along with the different repeating elements) lend it this vibe of spontaneity. I can’t say it necessarily has me convinced, but it’s one way to get at it.

I really like the structure of having lots of smaller call-and-responses, as opposed to one chorus that keeps getting driven home (though it hits the “skee skee” bit a bunch). It makes the track seem a little bit more like a performance, even if there’s no clear narrative (musical or lyrical). It’s what allows the tune to thrive for over five-and-a-half minutes. If it kept reverting to the same chorus, it wouldn’t be able to sustain itself for that whole time. In that sense, the tune feels musically episodic, jumping from one “incident” to the next. I can’t say it feels like a journey, but it moves through time nicely.

“baby boy” featuring sean paul

#2 this week, #4 last week, 6 weeks on the chart.

My first collection, at least that I can remember, was baseball cards. I loved completing sets — getting a sequence of card numbers, getting a few cards of the same player, of the same team. As far as my pop collection goes, “Baby Boy” is officially a member of a set. It’s part of two sets, actually. At least this week, it fills in the hole between #1 (“Shake Ya Tailfeather”) and #3 (“Right Thurr”), both of which I’ve listened to and written about. It’s also my second Beyonce song (with “Crazy In Love”). So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice. And which also means I can start generalizing/theorizing a little more. Yay.

On “Crazy In Love,” Jay-Z’s rap made a weirdly literal interpretation of craziness (just as bizarre as those Greil Marcus descriptions of What The Songs Really Mean). Here, instead of “crazy,” the concept is “fantasy” — as in the chorus of the song: “Baby boy, stay on my mind, fulfill my fantasy.” So, again, there’s this literal undercurrent to it, as the song brims with cool escapist cues. Frickin’ sitars, for example. They’re awesome — squiggly and completely weird during the intro, dropping curiously into the verse, but then they kind of just morph into the instrumental bed of the track until they’re completely indistinguishable (though brought back for a short solo/fill during the outro).

Then, there’s Sean Paul, who toasts through his breaks and does vocal fills throughout that add reggae off-rhythms to Beyonce’s lead. As a musical trick, that’s cool, but it also works with the fantasy conceit of the tune. Amidst dance pop (and especially atop the sitars and other noises), Paul’s vocals are exotic, the singer’s fantasy, and the subject of the tune.

All this connects back to Greil Marcus again, oddly. I read this quote when the article first came out, but a post today on RockCritics Daily reminded me. Anyway, Sir Greil posits, “I really used to believe, and I haven’t any reason to think differently, that in the ’50s and ’60s, with clear exceptions that you find out about later, for the most part the best records did break through, did get heard. There were exceptions to that, but the cream did rise to the top–I think that’s true. Nobody can make that argument today. You simply cannot make an argument that the top 10, the top 20, the top 40 on the Billboard charts of any given week represent the most adventurous, the most challenging, the most creative, the most surprising music being made today. It would be a ludicrous joke to try to make that argument today. It’s been a long time since the most striking work was showing up in those kinds of charts.”

There’s certainly some grumpy hippiness to what he’s saying but, for the most part, he’s right. The most adventurous music isn’t on the pop charts. But, that’s not what the pop charts are for. That’s not what pop is for. It can be, and it’s exciting when it is. But, for the most part, that’s what the avant-garde is for. And that’s not to separate the two, necessarily. There is an important correlation between them, as experimental ideas begin to infiltrate the mainstream like applied, functional research. So, “Baby Boy” by Beyonce has some shit going on it that wouldn’t be possible, even in the ’60s: a typical pop tune, fused with Indian melodies and Jamaican rhythms. Likewise, within that, there are all manners of experiments: big block piano chords (hints of Cage?), fractured electronics, irregular handclaps. Yeah, good stuff. I like Beyonce.

“three short words” – josie & the pussycats

(“If I could go back in time, I would want to meet Snoopy.”)

I watched Josie and the Pussycats tonight, which I like maybe more than I should. Whatever. It’s a great movie, and it reminded me that I should post to this thing more often. But, before I get to that, I just wanted to exult (briefly) about “Three Small Words,” one of the Pussycats’ tunes. It’s great. Go download it. It pretty much perfectly adheres to The Residents’ Commercial Album theory: that most pop songs can be boiled down to one minute — a verse, a chorus, and a bridge/solo. Sho’ nuff, after exactly a minute, “Three Small Words” jumps to its second cycle, and it’s hard to think the songwriters don’t know. Anyway, great song, catchy-ass chorus. A good, simple way of getting around the obvious phrase, never actually speaking/singing it. Two minutes and fifty-three seconds of goodness. Now, on with the countdown.

“right thurr” – chingy

#3 this week, #2 last week, 19 weeks on the chart.
(meant to do this last week but never quite around to it.)

Not quite as good as “Three Small Words,” but what can be, eh?

Mmmm, instant handclaps. My roommate has me well attuned to that. Again, right into the chorus/hook. Before downloading, I was sorta wondering what “thurr” was. A southern drawled “there,” apparently. Thoughts of Josie and slang-coining. Yeah, the use of “thurr” is totally jerkin’, indeed.

Like pretty much all pop songs, the song is built around the chorus. But, in this case, the chorus isn’t particularly triumphant, nor is it really a release from the rest of the tune. After a short prelude (introduction of handclaps and the various production tricks that run through the song), the tune jumps right into the chorus. For the first minute of the song, there’s virtually no variation in the arrangement, and the vocals stay rhythmically close to the chorus. Thus, there’s always an expectation that the tune is about to return to the chorus, but one doesn’t particularly yearn for it.

At around 1:15, a vocal solo begins. The arrangement stays almost the same, but something drops out. I can’t really tell what it is. I think it’s the big distorted kick drum. At the very least, I’m pretty sure it’s big distorted something. Anyway, it’s a rap that cuts out the sing-songy stuff of the chorus, and we have our first little moment of tension. Gratification comes thirty seconds later, when it resolves back to the chorus. Then another verse/solo/rap, and even more stuff drops out, starts to fall back in during a second verse/solo/rap, and then back to the chorus. A neat structural trick.

The song basically exists to drive the chorus home. The components of the music behind it that I can pick it up: handclaps, kick drum rhythm, almost accordion-like synth, subtle fireworks-like whistle, occasional white noise whooshes. I can’t make out a bassline, though that could be due to the inferior quality of the mp3. Meh, doesn’t seem too exciting to me, though the chorus is catchy enough to keep it afloat.

I just read the entry on Chingy, from which I learned a few things worth considering. He “boasts a Southern dialect,” according to the description, which I don’t particularly notice except for the chorus, and there it seems like a forced caricature. “The party track blew up in the clubs first, especially throughout the South, and quickly infiltrated urban radio in the midst of summer.” Which means, I guess, that there still is some regionalism in American music — something I’ve long wondered about. That said, to my ears, that only applies to the song’s reception. It doesn’t sound like it came from a specific region, and the lyrics don’t seem so either (short of “hit me with what you got fo’ a po’kchop,” which – again – seems like caricature, though maybe it only becomes so when I point it out). Maybe I’m missing something. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Anyway, I’m gonna listen to “Three Small Words” again. Goddamn. Word. G’night.

“crazy in love” – beyonce featuring jay-z (part II)

A tactic I frequently try to take when I write about music is to try to imagine what an imaginary listener with no foreknowledge of the group (or maybe even of the genre) might think. What would stand out? What would be puzzling? Usually, the reason to do that is try to force myself to listen with a fresh ear, and ultimately be able to communicate what it is that I love about a favorite track or band that I take for granted. Here, I find myself being genuinely naive. Here that comes to bear with the way I parse “Crazy In Love” without much knowledge of who Beyonce and Jay-Z are.

Given the nature of the song (R & B/pop-style love tune), Jay-Z’s appearance in the middle, rapping about stuff that has little to do (upon first inspection) with the rest of the song, which is a fairly normal set of verses about being (not to sound too stiff or nothin’), er, crazy in love. Slowed down with the horns playing live, these parts could basically be an early Motown side (and a good one, at that). Jay-Z’s rap, then, is a far more literal interpretation of “crazy in love” might mean, hinging on the “crazy” part. “Crazy and deranged,” he sings. “They can’t figure ’em out, they’re like ‘hey, is he insane?’ Yes sir, I’m cut from a different cloth, my texture is the best fur, of chinchilla.” (Or, of course, this could be totally bunk. Me trying to figure this shit out reminds of that Bloom County strip where Michael Dukakis, George Bush, and Bill The Cat present their versions of the “Louie, Louie” lyrics.)

The two sections – Beyonce and Jay-Z – are vastly different. How is this meant to be read? As (like above) a literal embodiment of crazy, via the sudden shift from a sultry slice o’ R & B/pop to a rap? Or, does it hinge on the listener’s knowledge of Beyonce and Jay-Z? I dunno much about ’em, but her All Music entry refers to Jay-Z as “her man.” Okay, so we’ve got that. Whether or not one knows that, though, one is likely expected to know a bit about Jay-Z, which would then contextualize his appearance. (Though if one is expected to have background on Jay-Z, is he also expected to know that he is/was in a thang with Beyonce?) Can it be both? If one knew what Jay-Z normally sounded like, and even knew what was going on, would his appearance then be jarring and crazy-sounding? In this case, I don’t think one can have it both ways.

It’s not a matter that’s likely to be given much thought, nor should it be. That’s the nature of pop, and that’s why I’m probably more inclined to go with the latter explanation, even if the producers are going for the former. (Does it work, in my case, then, for the wrong reasons?)

The All Music Guide is a great resource, but it is unable to account for things going on now (again, that’s fine, it’s not what it’s designed to do). For example, much of the impact of “Crazy In Love” probably has to do with extra-musical things — bits of “news” about the musicians not conveyed by/through the medium of recorded music, but through culture at large: star gossip rags, websites, etc.. To me, that’s a very big element of pop music. For a listener who knows about Jay-Z and Beyonce’s history, that would add an amount of pleasure (in the form of expectation) when listening to the track for the first time. Star power, in other words.

Maybe that can be simplified into saying that it’s music that very much relies on its place in current culture. In that sense, content aside, pop can always be considered relevant, can always be considered “news” of a sort, in a way that more insular/consciously art-minded musicians (like, say, Phish or Yo La Tengo) never could be.

notes on pop

Over the past few days, I’ve tried to describe the blog to a few people. One of the reasons I came up with is that, to me, a lot of Top 40 pop music sounds like it was made on Mars. That’s not exotify pop specifically, so much as all music. Every genre has the potential to sound this weird, whether it’s from Bali or Hollywood or Des Moines. There’s so much crazy music circulating out there that there’s no reason why any one kind of music should sound any blander than another. (Whether or not one wants to listen to it is another question.) So pop is ubiquitous. Big deal. Just listen to less of it. It’ll sound way cooler. I’ve listened to more gamelan music over the past four years than Top 40 pop. Gamelan hasn’t lost its magic, but Top 40 sure has gained some.

“crazy in love” – beyonce featuring jay-z

#2 this week, #1 last week, 16 weeks on the chart
Ooh, I like this one very much.
It begins with just this fucking joyous horn blowout, grabbed from the peak of some other song. I swear I’ve heard it before, but it could be from anywhere. My brain is pulling up all kinds of explanations for where it’s from, which range from the Five Stairsteps to one of the horn arrangements from John Henry by They Might Be Giants. Either way, it comes in full-force, then drops into this sly “uh-oh, uh-oh” vocal, alternates very quickly back to the horn loop, then right back to Beyonce’s lead. It establishes the pattern for the rest of the song: alternation between Beyonce’s sexy/playful vocal and the horn chorus. Like the intro to “Shake Ya Tailfeather,” it’s got bumper elements to it — in this case, Jay-Z introducing the track. Again, that notion of performance.
And, since the horn is an obviously repeated figure, introduced first, it becomes the song’s chorus before we even get there. During the verses, we spend the whole time just waiting for that part to arrive, expecting it. And, yippee, it comes back reliably. The “uh-oh”s return, too, like a repeating riff separate from the chorus. When they return, they loop like the horn figure.
After the second chorus, instead of “uh-oh”s, we get Jay-Z. Sure, it’s a slight frustration, but it’s okay — they come back towards the end of his segment, just before the penultimate chorus rides in, which leads to a short gospel rave-up, which – in turn – is a prelude to the finale. The song, of course, ends with the horn part. Indeedy, indeedy, a fine slice o’ summer fun.
Tomorrow: do we have to know about the performers to dig the tune? Do I have to grasp Beyonce or Jay-Z’s characters to appreciate the collaboration? (Same question could be applied for “Shake Ya Tailfeather.”)

“shake ya tailfeather” – nelly, p. diddy, & murphy lee (part II)

The vocals flit by pretty quickly. Maybe I’m a 24-year old classist geezer, but I don’t think you’re particularly supposed to pick up on all of ’em. At any rate, I’m not gonna try. The vocal arrangement is centered around the chorus.

During the chorus, the three vocal parts interweave pretty much equally: I’m not sure who’s who, so I’ll just assign numbers to ’em:
1.) Vaguely epic “whoa”ing.
2.) A rhythmic semi-chant, building around the title.
3.) A slightly higher melody, building around the phrase (I think): “Just take your ass to the floor…”There might even be another layer or two in there.

Each of the song’s sets of verses – one each, I’m assuming, from Nelly. P. Diddy, and Murphy Lee – takes an aspect of the chorus and puts it in the foreground. A common trick through all is to have alternate (sometimes unpredictably pattern) words/phrases doubled.

The first verse, pulling from the “whoa”ing is the catchiest to me, especially the first few lines: “Who your names is, where you’re from, turn around, who you came with…”

The second verse, pulling from the title chant, has a cool little game. It begins with a call-and-response/echo between the lead voice and the background. Then, the lead phrase expands until there’s no room for an echo. Cool effect.

The third verse has a cool high voice doubling some lines to great effect (“when I’m really a Thundercat!”)

Since I can’t pick up on the vocals too well, I don’t really get a narrative outta the tune, and I don’t think I’m supposed to. Like I said last night, there’s no real instrumental narrative, either, in terms of solos. What pushes the song along is the combination of elements — in this case, the voices. In that sense, I guess it is a performance, albeit not the kind of literal/live/linear type that I (unfairly?) expect out of a song. It’s a collaborative performance in the one-off studio sense — not quite improvisation, but not quite pre-conceived (and certainly more of a collaboration than a random guitarist sitting in with a band and soloing over changes). And given that these are all megastars, it’s also a performance in a cultural sense — a specific combination of star power, perhaps never to be repeated again.

“shake ya tailfeather” – nelly, p. diddy, & murphy lee

I like how there’s a bumper identifier at the beginning and end of the track: “My man Nelly, Murph Lee, Puff Daddy! … Off the Bad Boys, part II…” It’s as if it was a video. There’s the acknowledgement that the listeners might tune in midway or even that they might be checking out an mp3 and that there will be no DJ to announce what it is — might as well embed the information, eh? Either way, it implies a nice autonomy, which I dig. The track exists on its own in the world.

Though I listen to plenty of guitar-less music, my ears still tend to grab for obvious chord changes. The approach here sounds alien to me, rhythmically. And even though I listen to plenty of electronic music, I still think of a song as a performance, and therefore look for instruments that are, y’know, doing things — a guitar playing a fill, a drummer accenting a rhythm, etc.. There’s a certain vocabulary of tricks that I can point to. Listening to “Shake Ya Tailfeather,” which doesn’t call on the same tricks I usually hear, underscores how much those effects become shorthand, understood as general tropes. Being pop music, there are obviously tricks at work here also, but I’m not attuned to them yet.

Anyway, the point is, what I think I’m looking for are describable things. There’s a police siren that turns up throughout the song. It’s one of the few elements that stand out. It’s not locked with the rest of the rhythms, and seems like a solo voice (which is why I think I keep noticing it). Rhythmically, the song is way more complex than the usual rock tune with guitar/bass/drums, at least in the way the rhythm shifts between different instruments. First, there’s the beat, with a snare that sounds like a handclap. There’s a high-pitched keyboard note that comes every four bars. Then, as the verse accelerates towards the chorus, a distantly faded brass hit. The way the rhythm shifts between these different voices creates an inevitability in the track the way the tension/release of chord changes building to a chorus would.
The vocals on top, almost all rhythm as well, add the final layer. With the exception of the first verse, and the neat “whoa”ing underneath the chorus, I don’t find the vocals so much catchy as texturally cool. I like the way they pull on the rhythms. There’s no big build, no climax, no solo. I like that. Admittedly, I know jack shit about Nelly, P. Diddy, and Murphy Lee, but it seems like their relative star power is the attraction, the sense of “place” that the song creates for the listener, the thing (whatever it is) that the song has achieved.
Lyrics, eh? Maybe tomorrow.

it’s got a good ideology and i can visualize it!

A while back, I thought it would be a good idea to check out the number one song each week. It didn’t happen. For a combination of reasons, it seems like a good time to start.

Like a lot of people of my general disposition – which is to say, white, liberal arts educated, etc. – I have a natural bias against truly popular music. It’s ingrained, and probably more than a mite classist, that if it’s on the charts, it’s probably not worthy of my attention. Snobbish, no?

In a backwards way, pop music has become the most challenging style of music I could possibly approach. Free jazz? Avant-garde experimentalism? Noise? Yeah, yeah. Now, I love me some feedback, minimalist skronk, and atonal bleeping and yowling as much as the next fella, but it’s not that challenging, y’know? Pop music, though? Shit, that’s the avantest of the garde right there.

Pop music is bland because it’s obvious. At least, that’s how that argument runs. (Or, maybe not — but that’s why my guts tell me that I shouldn’t like somebody who’s popular.) But what’s so obvious about it? I dunno. It seems worth investigating. Is there some hump that I need to get over? Some mental block to fart through?

A few things convinced me that I should try this: the first, and most important, is my roommate’s blog. He’s turned me on to some ill pop stuff lately, and I think I’m ready to venture out on my own. The second is an absolutely killer Slate article by Sasha Frere-Jones. Seriously worth reading. Da Capo Best Music Writing material, y’dig? Dunno how it’ll all turn out, but why not, eh? Likewise, a blog, the most instantly ephemeral of critical forms, seems like the perfect forum for this kinda project.

On with the countdown…