Music/Popular Culture

I feel a disturbance in The Force: quick, check the Billboard Hot 100 chart

Not to belabor the point – because it doesn’t really need a lot of explanation – but the US Top 40 has sucked moose balls for a very long time. The fashion in recent years has tended toward prefabricated diva pop, braindead hit-hop and cynical producer-driven techno-pop music-like product. Imagine Simon Cowell’s iPod, in other words. Oscar Wilde once described fox hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.” Find a way to work “unlistenable” into the phrase somehow and you have the whole US hit music industry just about nailed.

So imagine my bafflement at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 2012. Sure, you have the predictable Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson pablum, plus a smattering of LMFAO and Rihanna, but you also have – wait for it – some real, legit music. No, seriously. Adele hit #1 for a couple of weeks with “Set Fire to the Rain,” and while I know Adele is a sanctioned pop star, she’s not your usual pop star. For starters, she doesn’t look like a supermodel. Also, she writes songs instead of sitting around at the mercy of the Svengali Machine. And she has more actual talent in her little finger than everybody else on the charts combined. She is, in other words, the real fucking deal.

Then there’s Fun. They spent six weeks in March and April atop the Top 40 with “We Are Young.”

Yeah, it’s certainly a radio-friendly tune, and yeah, it features a drive-by from one of hip-pop’s rising stars in Janelle Monae (who’s actually damned substantive by that genre’s standards), but this is a band fronted by Nate Reuss, formerly of Arizona indie-rockers The Format. Both bands are/were plenty accessible but…#1 radio hit, in this day and age? You have to be kidding me.

And check out the charts now – #1 for the eighth consecutive week: Gotye. Freakin’ Gotye.

Now, there’s no doubt – this is a fantastic song, and it’s the kind of song that ought to be at the top of the charts. (In fact, it’s a damned fine CD in general, as is the Fun. disc.) But it isn’t synthesizer pop. People are writing their own songs and playing actual instruments. Nobody here is sleeping with (or ever has, far as I know) Sean Combs. It is, from an industry standpoint, as unlikely as a Top 40 hit gets. Again, seriously indie.

All told, we’ve had real artists atop the charts for 16 of 2012’s 24 weeks to date. I’ve been furiously riffling through the Book of Revelation all morning and I can’t find any reference to this at all. As soon as I post this I’m going to see if Nostradamus mentions it.

In any case, the rest of the chart still blows lepers. But hell, maybe this is an early sign of things to come? Is it possible that corporate programmers will see this and say to themselves, hey, maybe the public will tolerate good music after all?

Who knows. Not holding my breath. But I am enjoying the momentary upset in the natural order.


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6 replies »

  1. Wow, you’re a huge elitist without a clue as to what you’re talking about. First of all, you claim that all pop music in recent years has been terrible. You know that your father was saying the same thing at your age? People always pick out the worst of whatever and use it as evidence of how badly that area has slipped in recent years. Remember when Train had a Hot 100 hit in the ’90s? Genesis in the ’80s? Pat Boone was a huge force in the ’50s but no one remembers him because all his music was terrible.

    Second, while artists like Katy Perry and LMFAO are quite bad, I’d argue that Rihanna and Kelly Clarkson have some great songs. Just because they don’t write the majority of them doesn’t make them bad artists. Perry and LMFAO were involved in the writing of all their songs and look how that turned out. Meanwhile, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley never so much as picked up a pen during their careers and yet they’re widely respected in the music community. Rihanna has Umbrella (a timeless pop classic), Don’t Stop the Music, Only Girl (In the World), We Found Love, and Where Have You Been, while Clarkson has Since U Been Gone (another timeless pop classic), though not much else, as all her songwriters have been rehashing that same song for years now.

    Third, just because Adele is “not your usual pop star” and “doesn’t look like a supermodel” doesn’t make her any more legitimate of an artist. Sure, she’s a great vocalist and she does co-write all her songs, but her song’s lyrics aren’t THAT great. Sure “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You” are quite good, though that’s mainly because of her huge voice. I’d argue that “Umbrella” and “Since U Been Gone” are better on the whole than either those Adele songs.

    Fourth, fun.’s “We Are Young” isn’t all that great. Listen to the intro: “Give me a second / I need to get my story straight / My friends are in the bathroom / Getting higher than the empire state / My lover, she’s waiting for me / Just across the bar / My seat’s been taken by some sunglasses / Asking ’bout a scar” What does that mean? “Higher than the empire state”? “Taken by some sunglasses? Asking ’bout a scar”? The song has one kickass chorus, but that’s about it. Monáe has quite a bit of talent, but it’s kind of wasted on this song.

    • You know, we welcome comment and have no problems when people disagree. But it is a little off-putting when they lead with insults, especially uninformed ones. You know nothing about me (or my father, for that matter), and as for knowing what I’m talking about, let’s see. I’ve worked in radio and been a DJ (commercial radio, college radio and club). I own thousands of CDs and work my way through a hundred or more new ones each year, even though I don’t work in the industry. Been writing about music of many genres, both for pay and for pleasure, for over 20 years. Have even come at popular music from an academic perspective, presenting on the subject at one major conference (and I may be forgetting more). And as for the suggestion that I’m a geezer type who thinks music was better back when I was a kid, you really, REALLY need to acquaint yourself with the dozens, if not hundreds of music posts I have authored at S&R over the past five years.

      You have a great deal of detailed data on what is frankly a trivial form. I’m not suggesting that this knowledge is of no value. But I am suggesting that your comment would ring with a little more credibility if you hadn’t felt the need to kick it off with a silly potshot at a guy you know nothing about. Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean they’re idiots. It might be because they have a knowledge base informing their perspective that you’re unaware of.

      Something to consider.

  2. Actually, it was a potshot, but I thought it was a relatively mild one and embedded in it was a legitimate question on your credentials. Unnecessary, but not really vitriolic (at least by the standards of the Neanderthals who respond to my posts on gun control and healthcare.) Overall, I thought it was a pretty good comment. Now having said that, I know so little about music that you could probably put in a paragraph about how catchy lou reed’s metal music was and i’d probably fall for it. Still delighted to read two knowledgeable folks engage on it. although i do have a hard time with the idea of kelly clarkson as an artist. i know that much.

    • Clarkson isn’t an artist. She’s a singer. Good voice, good performer, but the rise of the Beatles and their contemporaries in the 60s asserted that popular musicians could and should be artists as opposed to mere entertainers. I clearly have a bias in that direction and make no bones about it.

      I don’t deny that I am an “elitist.” But we have been round and round about this before here and we know what I mean by that term. Elitism about excellence and quality, elitism about legitimate accomplishment, elitism about having something meaningful to say, absolutely. The shame is that more people aren’t elitists.

      Finally, that it was a comparatively mild potshot vs. the more egregious douchenozzlery we sometimes get in here doesn’t excuse it. The comment led with a uninformed assertion that I didn’t know what I was talking about. Gratuitous and inaccurate is often not well received, I guess.

  3. Every now and then, circumstances force me to listen to commercial pop radio. “Sucking moose-balls” is putting it mildly. It’s difficult for me to distinguish one sound-alike, AutoTuned song from another, and that has been true for years.

    I’ve realized that the really good music (and my tastes are extremely eclectic) does not get aired on commercial radio in the US. It’s on the satellite channels, buried in SoundCloud, BandCamp and MixCloud, or playing in Europe and Asia. I’m just glad I have some access to it. And I wish that the barriers that keep the good stuff off the air would fall.

    • Sunfell: I’ve gotten to the point where I tend to believe that the chances of a given artist hitting the Top 40 are inversely proportional to that artist’s actual ability. This isn’t always the case, of course – sometimes great talent sneaks through the perimeter – but if you’re betting, this is the way to go.

      Which is where this post came from. I was absolutely stunned to see two out and out indie artists atop the charts. Still am.