The Chart Thickens
America's Top 10 Songs Don't Rock—at All
Welcome to the second annual survey of Billboard's Top 10 Singles Chart by The Stranger's resident weird-music specialist. Critically speaking, this is your basic fish-out-of-water scenario, and I'm hoping not to flounder. Let's dive into the pop-radio shallows, shall we?
10. "Safe and Sound" by Capital Cities
"Safe and Sound"? No kidding, guys. This is like baby's first EDM tune—an airbrushed swoosh of a dance track that strives for the nonchalant sensuality of Hall & Oates's "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)," but the vanilla textural patina, painfully earnest, bland vocals, and trance-lite synth arpeggios keep this rated PG. Capital Cities' Sebu Simonian and Ryan Merchant are LA-based jingle writers who met cute on Craigslist and then got a deal with Capitol Records. That backstory makes so much sense.
9. "Cups (Pitch Perfect's When I'm Gone)" by Anna Kendrick
Anna Kendrick is a major American actor with a decent, strong-fragile, coffeehouse-singer voice. The best part of "Cups" is the brief, spare clapping and cup-slapping-on- table percussion intro. The main lyrical theme of this old folk ditty (done by the Carter Family in 1931) is "You're gonna miss me when I'm gone," but it's about 100 acid trips away from the 13th Floor Elevators' manifestation of that message. Kendrick's "Cups" is 129 seconds of winsome, innocuous folk pop.
8. "Treasure" by Bruno Mars
Department of Obviousness: Bruno Mars is Michael Jackson—if MJ ate a sensible diet and didn't try to morph into a white woman. Vocally, Mars has mastered Jacko's panoply of tics (rhythmic hiccups, gliding "oohhs," believable sincerity, etc.). The irrepressibly upbeat R&B of "Treasure" positively sparkles, yet it also cracks with militaristic crispness. One can detect hints of Ray Parker Jr. circa "You Can't Change That," too. Certainly, Mars oozes pizzazz and possesses smooth dance moves and a winning smile. He has the looks and aura of an old-school entertainer, and Hollywood is surely slavering to slot him into a juicy rom-com role any minute now.
7. "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams
You will probably never get sick of this track. Classy, platinum-plated vet Nile Rodgers's guitar lick chatters laid-back luxuriousness, and the nudge-nudge bass line suggests discreet libidinousness. Pharrell Williams sings with confident restraint, and the beat knows it can keep it up till the break of dawn (the beat was an indefatigable porn star in another life). Try to hate the sun-melting-into-the-sea disco of "Get Lucky," but realize it's like attempting to repel the zapping sensation of lust at first sight. Just give in to zee French robots... or bow out of the eternal mating dance, because you're old and in the way.
6. "Applause" by Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga songs are merely excuses for her to blow more money on videos than the entire Stranger editorial staff—including Dan Savage—makes in one month. If her music were as interesting as her wardrobe and set designs, Gaga would be a stunning amalgam of Kraftwerk, Donna Summer, and Sparks. But no. "Applause" is an oddly stilted, unbeautiful Eurodance quasi-anthem about Gaga's voracious hunger for adulation... of which she already has too much. Fascinating, darling. Now give your hairdresser a raise.
5. "Holy Grail" by Jay-Z feat. Justin Timberlake
"Holy Grail" reeks of synergizing corporate stratagem. Are the skreets listenin'? Do Fortune 500 CEOs like hiphop? Do you want to make Shawn Carter even richer? Whatever the case, "Holy Grail" starts out like a maudlin ballad, Justin Timberlake viscerally emoting like something's actually at stake ("This is where we reel in the sentimental schmaltz lovers"). Then the rapping bit starts, N-bombs drop, cautionary tales of fame stream out ("Here's where my vastly poorer fans shed tears of sympathy for me"), Hammer, Tyson, and Cobain references commence (zzz), and then JT faux-croons the chorus to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ("This is where we snag '90s-rock nostalgiacs"). Then Jay and J alternate between perfunctory rapping and heart-on-sleeve singing; the beat plods, the strings waft. Bet your snapback that this song is on Mayor Bloomberg's iPod.
4. "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons
If this is what passes for popular rock in 2013, we have a crisis on our ears. "Radioactive" is grandiose yet self-pitying, an anthem with a defeatist demeanor. Imagine if Bono had self-esteem issues and the Edge watered down his guitar tone to a pallid, shimmery whimper. Imagine Dragons are the new U.02.
3. "We Can't Stop" by Miley Cyrus
Oy. Have daddy issues ever been worked out in public in a more desperate, crass manner? The VMAs hoo-ha—forget about alleged cultural appropriation and counterarguments about slut-shaming for a second; we're strictly focusing on aesthetics—triggered an epidemic of cringing from which it will take weeks for the nation to recover. The video for "We Can't Stop" channels shock-tactics-era Madonna, as Miley Cyrus strains to rile cultural guardians—and her father—with provocative gestures and allusions to varieties of hedonism ("dancing with Molly," "everyone in line at the bathroom, tryin' to get a line in the bathroom"). But for such a single-minded paean to hedonism, the poppy R&B of "We Can't Stop" dawdles at a sluggish pace. Oh, look, though: Miley's gettin' turnt up and twerkin'. Let's hope this slanguage lasts longer than her musical career.
2. "Roar" by Katy Perry
A vacuum-packed, empty-caloried pop confection like "Roar" makes one yearn for sonic roughage like 1930s blues or Indonesian gamelan. Maybe this song comes off as an empowering "We Are the Champions" for conventional young women, but from my salty vantage point, the tune palls by the time the second chorus blusters in. Let's blame Russell Brand.
1. "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke feat. T.I. and Pharrell Williams
This stinks to low hell with douchebro come-ons. No wonder it's the most popular song in America. (Hey-o!) Yes, it shamelessly appropriates the sparse funk rhythm from Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up," and that's the best thing about it—followed closely by the kinetic, Liquid Liquid–like cowbells hits. "Blurred Lines" perilously tightropes that thin line between plagiarism and homage. If privileged ofay Robin Thicke were cool, he'd just hand the Gaye estate a few mil and move on. Anyway, by this point, you've watched the video for "Blurred Lines" 19,000 times because you enjoy supermodely titillation with your Tamla/Motown rip-offs. In it, Thicke is thoroughly unlikable, boasting about his "big dick" (uh-huh), blowing cigarette smoke in a topless blond's face, and making Justin Timberlake sound like Michael Jackson. Let's hope Thicke receives his comeuppance in the most humiliating way possible.