Friday, April 1, 2011

Radio Daze Vol. 5: March/April 2011

This is a bi-monthly segment meant to explore what is happening in pop music at the moment. This edition is based on the top 10 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart dated April 2, 2011.

1. "Born This Way," Lady Gaga

I've actually already written about this song's video before, but I didn't actually say much about the song itself. If "Bad Romance" was Gaga's first musical masterpiece (and I do think it so), then "Born This Way" is her second, superior masterpiece. Gaga has been compared to Madonna countless times, to the point that many of her detractors refer to her as a Madonna knockoff. And up until this point in her career, she has drawn on Madonna's pop tradition and brought it into the 21st century, with more sexually ambiguous lyrics. However, what makes Gaga so exciting as a pop star is that she's constantly subverting expectations, something she's gained a lot of attention for fashion-wise but little musically (just listen to the way her sound evolved between The Fame and The Fame Monster for evidence: same Gaga, different sounds). She may have played it more straightforward here, but the result is that she's taken on another new sound, and this one is probably her best yet. Despite the "Vogue"-ish spoken-word bridge, Gaga channels Gloria Gaynor here more than Madonna, positioning herself as a disco diva in a post-post disco world. It's a remarkable, perfect pop song, and if this is what her next album (also called  Born This Way) sounds like, then we're in for a real treat this May. A+

2. "E.T.," Katy Perry featuring Kanye West

It's coming up on a year since my first post in this series, and I have yet to do an entry that has not involved at least one Katy Perry song (only Bruno Mars and Rihanna can share that claim). This means, along with her Grammy nominations, I've been listening to a lot more Katy Perry than I used to. And you know what? I've gone from disliking her cherry-chapsticked faux-bisexuality to embracing her as a genuinely great pop star. "E.T." is the latest in a string of Perry songs that are fun and enjoyable, given that you don't spend too much time thinking about it. Granted, it is a disappointment compared to the unabashedly perfect "Firework," but vocally Perry sounds more at home here, singing about a lover who's so far and away better than everyone else that he must not be from this planet. Perry stutters and coos over a spacey beat that supposedly was meant for Three 6 Mafia, and West mostly just makes terribly obvious probing puns in his cameo verses. It's silly, but enjoyably so. B+

3. "S&M," Rihanna

Ever since her 2007 album Good Girl Gone Bad, Rihanna's been playing up that conceit, becoming more and more overtly sexual in her music. For the most part, sex has been alluded to without being literal, such as in "Rude Boy" or "What's My Name." But with a title like "S&M," you have to have some inkling of what you're getting into, and there's really no way around being straightforward and directly talking about it. Rihanna dives into her favorite fetish, letting you know that though "sticks and stones may break my bones...chains and whips excite me." This would be incredibly icky and entirely too much information if not for the fact that she sounds absolutely giddy on the track, inflecting her vocals with a sense of playful fun over a driving electronica beat. It's easy to get swept up in the song's breezy sugar rush that matches the lawsuit-inspiring visuals of the video, making the more personal and unwanted details of the lyrics forgivable. But thanks for letting us know what gets you going, Rihanna. I guess. B-

4. "Fuck You," Cee-Lo Green

I've been waiting a long time for this one to turn up in the top 10 so that I could write about it here, but I never thought that it would make the bizarre journey from viral Internet hit to unlikely Grammy nominee to top 10 radio hit, albeit in the much-cleaner "Forget You" version. The song is a deft balancing act of vengeful and profane lyrics about seeing the girl of your dreams with someone else and a bouncing, rollicking retro-pop beat, all sung through Cee-Lo's distinctive nasally falsetto. The truly phenomenal achievement here, though, is that almost none of the song's schadenfreudal glee is lost when the profanity is removed, allowing it to still pack the same punch through it's sanitized-for-radio version. This is bold pop, and it's the kind of song that only a singular talent like Cee-Lo could pull off. A+

5. "Just Can't Get Enough," Black Eyed Peas

In promoting their latest album The Beginning, Black Eyed Peas' frontman has said that he intended the album to capture the feel of a BEP concert, in which they tend to mix and remix their songs and integrate portions of others' songs into their work (and thus, "The Time (Dirty Bit)" is born). Having been to a BEP concert before, I can tell you two things: 1. they only do this remixing a little, and 2. if you want to capture that concert feeling, do a concert album instead of releasing a half-assed collection of tunes that were probably recorded with ProTools on's iPad. "Just Can't Get Enough" is the second disappointing single to come off that album, and it's a schizophrenic piece of dance-pop that can't decide what it is other than a Frankenstein's monster of styles. The first half is a piano-built slow jam with everyone contributing a clumsy rap verse and Fergie's breathy chorus; it's what a collaboration of BEP and Owl City would sound like. Then, with hardly any warning, the song transitions into what sounds like a club-based Riverdance, abandoning the first half of the song completely. It's as if the group got bored at this point in the song and decided to do something completely different. Mostly, though, I think I was disappointed that the song wasn't a cover of this:

That would have been something worth hearing. C-

6. "Loser Like Me," Glee Cast

I've also wanted to write about Glee here for a while as well, since the cast now has more charting singles than any other group in Billboard's history. And how fortunate that they're first appearance in this column is one of the show's first original songs. Of the two that were showcased in the episode "Original Songs," "Loser Like Me" was the stronger of the two, as it captured the show's theme of losers having a good time before their sad realities set in post-graduation. It's a goofy song, with pretty obvious lyrics and a "Hey Mickey" breakdown. And most of the cast have proven to be talented vocalists, especially Lea Michele, so I'm not sure why the producers felt the need to AutoTune the hell out of everyone's voices. But it's still plenty of fun as a stand-alone song, and makes sense as a pop hit. (Though I used the April 2 chart, the most recent chart, dated April 9, has this song falling all the way to #52; so much for being a legit pop hit.) B

7. "Fuckin' Perfect," P!nk

The first of two holdover's from Vol. 4, this song has grown on me since the original write-up. Maybe it's the passage of time or my own personal trials since then, but I've grown much more fond of it than I originally was. It's a great song, maybe not original in it's uplift but no less effective. It's become one of my go-to songs when I'm in a funk, and it deserves a better grade. A-

8. "Look at Me Now," Chris Brown featuring Busta Rhymes and Lil' Wayne

I should hate this song on principle of it being Chris Brown, whose music I've never particularly enjoyed and who more or less has proven himself time and again to be a detestable human being. If that weren't enough, he also takes a stab at rapping here. But I thoroughly enjoy this song in spite of itself for three reasons. For one, the seductive, spacey minimalist beat is excellent. Secondly, Busta's rapid-fire tongue-twisting verse is impressive, suggesting that it's about time for him to make a comeback. Third, Lil' Wayne continues his incredible streak of sophisticated, riveting post-prison work with a stunning verse that steals the song. As for Brown, he mostly boasts about how fresh he is and repeatedly mentions his penis. It's a shame whenever a song's guests outshine the owner, but in this case it's all for the better. B+

9. "Grenade," Bruno Mars

This is the first song to appear on three consecutive columns here. So congrats, Bruno Mars. B+

10. "Down On Me," Jeremih featuring 50 Cent

Back when Jeremih first found chart success with "Birthday Sex" a few years ago, I wrote him off as the latest one-off R&B star to come and go from our airwaves. But look at him, defying my judgement and scoring another hit. "Down On Me" is another stripper-love song, as he sings about the kind of love that lasts forever, and by forever I mean until the night is over or the money runs out, whichever happens to come first. The beat's catchy and great, which works well in the song's favor. And Jeremih is quite the charmer, with a sensual voice that gives some levity to the gutter-minded lyrics. But he does make an odd attempt at dark humor at the expense of his guest ("Let's go and take nine shots / We'll just call it 50"), which is kind of off-putting. And speaking of 50, his voice is much higher than his usual bass drawl, and though it could be him using a higher register, it's probably because he looked like this when he recorded his verse:
You'll never get that image out of your head. And he's still rapping about his favorite post-Get Rich or Die Tryin' theme of sex, so there's not much new in that respect. Still, the song is fairly successful and catchy, so it's hard to hold that against it. B


Kimithegreat said...

So, if Rhianna is TMI, then what is everything else sex-related on the radio? Just because it's fetish does not mean it should be more censored than some rap song (cough*cough* Birthday Sex?) Look at Kid Cudi's "Make Her Say" (which I KNOW you like,)it's pretty explicit,IF NOT WAY MORE explicit than S&M. Instead of judging on your own bias (possibly male based? I notice a regular distaste for female's who are sexual. Perfect example: You hated Lady Gaga until she was a little less blatant. The less sex in her songs, the higher you rate them.) I say you should step back and rate that song more on the fact that it sounds just like all of her other songs (Disturbia, actually) or that it's a step down from Rude Boy.

Love, your free-thinking girlfriend

P.S- I'm using your I-Pod, it's reaaalllyyy making my argument <3

Jason H. said...

Perhaps I should elaborate. It's not that I have anything against sexually-charged songs by female artists; by all means, that's perfectly acceptable. My issue with "S&M" is that lyrically it crosses the line between sexy and icky. "Make Her Say," on the other hand, isn't trying to be either; it's being goofy, so there's a different scale there. Lady Gaga's "Lovegame," which I despise, is too dumbed down lyrically to be either sexy or icky, and it lacks an interesting beat. And, for the record, "S&M" is a step down from both "Disturbia" and "Rude Boy," and though I've never been a huge Rihanna fan, she has yet to top the pure pop bliss of "Umbrella."