And we’re done…

When I started this project, I had two goals. One, I wanted to do a long-form project and see it to the end. With Happy wrapping up the chart, I have accomplished that goal. Two, I wanted to understand the pop charts, and I think I’ve managed that as well. So, what have we learned?

1- The Billboard number one doesn’t mean everything. There are a ton of musical movements that never got their spot at the top, many acclaimed artists that never reached there either. When you look back on decades of music, the actual number one single in America is giving you an incomplete vision of what people are listening to. Take the ’90s, when ballads reigned supreme, that was hardly what everyone was listening to, but it was what shot to the top, and what Billboard recognized. My own playlist from any era isn’t going to reflect the big hits.

2- The Billboard number one means something, however. Even if it’s a bit late on the uptake, this was still popular culture, and these are still popular songs. There are often cases where the more difficult, more hard hitting songs are nowhere near the top of the charts, but stuff that’s a bit more palatable can catch on, and a movement can gain steam and sweep the nation. Pop music isn’t a vacuum, and it’s often the case where underground movements find their way into the mainstream.

3- Everything works in cycles. The pop cycle goes that something breaks through, gets increasingly popular, the charts get saturated and things begin to stagnate until the next breakthrough. We are currently overdue for another breakthrough, there have been some promising movements – especially in 2012 – but it feels as though we’ve been stuck in the stagnating part of the cycle for a while. Then again, it’s hard to judge what the next trend will be when you’re in the middle of it. If someone does this same effort in 2054 they might be better able to grasp where we were going.

4- Novelty songs signal death. Seriously, they only really reach the top during the stagnation period, when just being mildly amusing can get you more ears than anything else. Every time novelty songs start becoming frequent, it doesn’t take long before a style shift takes place and we get a new song gracing the top of the chart. Novelty songs are also the worst songs, but that’s my highly biased opinion because I hate the damn things.

5- The actual worst song is the Macarena. This was the one song that I couldn’t listen to the entire thing. There was some crap on here, some real outright garbage that had no business being as popular as it was. But I could, and did, listen to the whole thing. The Macarena defeated me.

So now what? I’m not going to tackle another chart, this was a long form project that took a great deal of energy, and I would like to focus that energy on other projects for now. I haven’t decided whether or not I will keep track of the Hot 100, I at least have another week before I have to make up my mind on that one. For now, I think I’ll just enjoy the fact that I’ve succeeded in my goals, listened to the entire chart, and even gained an appreciation of artists and genres I used to ignore. Thanks for reading, if you commented thanks for commenting, and for now, we’re finished.

Posted in 1940s, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Pharrell Williams – Happy

First Hit #1: March 8, 2014

And here we are, the last song of the daily We Are Number Ones. The end of this multi-year project to see what we can learn from decades of music. I haven’t decided what I’m going to do next with this, or even if I’m going to do anything else with this (outside of a summary post tomorrow), but at this point, we’ve reached today. And I’m happy.

The song is also Happy. It’s not anything complicated, just a kind of generally joyful little song. It’s kind of a throwback to another decade, but nothing very specific, it’s just some pretty infectious dance music with a charming video and a general good-vibes production. It’s more than a little repetitive, but it’s great for Pharrell because he’s got a great audience-participation song, it’s great for audiences because it’s got that old chestnut, a good beat and you can dance to it. It’s the ideal song on which to end this project, because it’s a good summary of pop music since the 1940s – Good, bad, in-between, it makes people happy. Even if you hate it, how can you deny that?

Posted in 2014 | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Katy Perry feat. Juicy J – Dark Horse

First Hit #1: February 8, 2014

Dark Horse is interesting, even if it’s kind of a mess. It certainly doesn’t make any sense at all, basically just a car crash of metaphors, and while Perry does manage to wrangle a hook out of it there really isn’t much here that is all that coherent. It seems to be Perry and company reaching for something that’s a bit more underground than they might otherwise be expected to embrace, especially given that it has the bass-heavy production of a high school student playing around without great speakers – listen to this with a subwoofer and it’s window shaking, reminiscent of the music my friends made in high school themselves trying to squeeze some low end out of cheap PC speakers and subsequently shaking the trim off their cars. Perry and co’s pop instincts naturally break through that low end, but it’s not a sound you expect to actually hear on the radio, which makes it compelling in its own way. Perry’s taste in rapper seems to have declined unfortunately, Juicy J is just not particularly interesting here and could be cut without losing anything. Still Dark Horse is notable just for being a decidedly odd song from one of the most mainstream artists out there.

Posted in 2014 | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Pitbull feat. Ke$ha – Timber

First Hit #1: January 18, 2014

My first impression, the first few seconds in fact, was positive. I don’t remember hearing a harmonica on a pop track in ages, it was nice to hear a sound that was not exactly new, but different, something you don’t hear every day.

My overall impression of the song is less positive, it quickly devolves into big beats and club nonsense, but then it’ll reference square dancing ant that’s kind of goofy and interesting. There’s some sort of old time fiddle party influence in there, which is certainly strange, but it’s appealing as well. The problem is that those elements conflict with modern affectations, like drowning singers in autotune and making a song that’s largely about butts. Going old time is at least new, but Pitbull and co. – There are 11 credited writers, which is too many credited writers – can’t quite quite figure out how to make the two elements work together. It just sounds like a club banger played over something more traditional, and while that’s an interesting idea, it’s not quite musically successful. Still, there is value to an experiment even when it doesn’t get the right result, and I like that it’s at least a new direction in some ways.

Posted in 2014 | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Eminem feat. Rihanna – The Monster

First Hit #1: December 21, 2013

It’s the end of the year, time for Rihanna, though in a feature spot instead of a headline. Instead we have Eminem, and a bit of a retread. See, Love the Way You Lie was an example of a man making a raw and personal portrait of a damaged person in a damaged relationship. The Monster is an attempt to do the same thing, but it’s less successful. The Monster is more generalized insanity, Rihanna’s chorus is sillier, and it doesn’t quite reach beyond the platitudes. The Marshall Mathers LP 2 was kind of the same problem of the song – Eminem has done all of this, better, earlier. The pop charts are built on doing variations on a formula – and hey, it worked here as well, because we’ve got another hit – but it’s disappointing when you hear an artist that is trying so hard to replicate past success without quite going to the same lengths to achieve it. The Monster is confessional Eminem by the numbers, which is good enough to reach the top of the charts, but it’s not nearly the best he can do.

Posted in 2013 | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Lorde – Royals

First Hit #1: October 12, 2013

It’s interesting that it’s taken this long to get a song that’s against hedonism. Lorde, with her minimal, finger-snap beat, has made a song about rejecting the hedonistic fantasy and then aiming for something else entirely. It’s not completely clear what she’s replacing the fantasy with – there’s a kind of power thing going on but it’s never really clear what the Queen Bee parts are actually referring to – and it’s still a song about clubbing. It’s a song about clubbing on the cheap and being fine with that, but it’s just removing any bragging about wealth. This is only new to the pop charts, of course, country music has always had a pride in being less than wealthy, but it’s at least kind of interesting for that. It’s also fairly interesting in the way it’s performed, since Lorde at least gives a relatively unorthodox performance on the chorus which keeps things interesting. It’s no revolution, but it’s kind of neat anyway.

Posted in 2013 | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Miley Cyrus – Wrecking Ball

First Hit #1: September 28, 2013

Miley Cyrus wants to be considered a grown up. Apparently that means getting naked. Yeah, the conversation surrounding Wrecking Ball starts with the insane video, which is kind of an attempt to be sexy by someone who doesn’t quite understand sex. It’s certainly got a ton of nudity, and licking, but it’s not even remotely erotic. It’s like a train wreck with a bit of butt cheek. Of course, since everyone wanted to see the totally insane video, it got a ton of views through streaming, and videos are back to driving the charts, but possibly not in the way you want.

Wrecking Ball itself isn’t actually a bad song, provided you listen without the fairly embarrassing video. It is definitely trying to latch onto the trend for big choruses while also being tender and heartfelt, so you’ve got the “I will always love you” half of the chorus before launching into the incongruously big part, and while I’m not sure the big part actually makes sense in context it does give you an attention grabbing hook and that’s as important as anything else. Cyrus herself manages the transition fairly well, and overall the song is actually a pretty solid pop ballad that is sullied by her desperation to shed her Disney-approved former image. Ignore the video, and it’s pretty decent.

Posted in 2013 | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Katy Perry – Roar

First Hit #1: September 14, 2013

Katy Perry’s general “everything is awesome” template did gain a wrinkle post-divorce, and Roar is pretty much “everything is awesome, except for some jerk who may or may not be my ex-husband”. So here we have a song about how great Katy Perry is, which is probably meant to be a general inspiring song for people coming out of a breakup. Yes, the unnamed Brand of jerk is a terrible person, but they won’t hold you down, because you know how to make Rocky references and have self confidence. It’s not unexpected from Perry, of course, and I’m actually kind of glad she’s never really shook her Christian rock instinct towards at least trying for uplift. In an era where pop music is generally influenced by a crew of different writers and producers, it’s to Perry’s credit that she’s forged her own musical identity while still being attached to the Dr. Luke/Max Martin hit machine. You can tell a Perry song, even if it’s very similar to other songs, which is an accomplishment of sorts.

Posted in 2013 | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Robin Thicke feat. T.I. and Pharrell – Blurred Lines

First Hit #1: June 22, 2013

Blurred Lines has the problem that Robin Thicke comes across as an unrelenting perv. He’s far from the first pop artist to come across as a perv, I mean R. Kelly has had a career for years, and honestly the majority of the charts is people trying to remove the pants of someone else. I mean, the song is mostly fun, Thicke keeps jumping to different parts of his range in order to give a varied and rather enjoyable vocal, the entire thing is above a goofy carnival beat that remains jaunty and fun in spite of not being particularly varied. It’s easy to get carried away in the whole thing, and honestly it shouldn’t feel any worse than all those songs about butts that littered the charts for years.

But then he sings domesticated, or repeats the line “I know you want it”, and I just can’t help but think he’s kind of asking for a drink to the face. It’s just that the lines put me in mind of an old man who tries to pick up much younger women with very little success. There’s a line between sexy and creepy, sometimes it’s a blurred one, but Thicke is kind of on the wrong side of it here, accidentally making the theme song for creepy uncles.

Posted in 2013 | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Ray Dalton – Can’t Hold Us

First Hit #1: May 18, 2013

Can’t Hold Us isn’t really the follow up to Thrift Shop. Oh sure, it hit later, and it follows the general pattern of an artist going a bit more serious and thoughtful after smashing through with a novelty single, but that wasn’t the plan of either Macklemore or Lewis. Hell, the single itself was initially released in 2011. But, as a follow up, it’s not as though the duo could have actually planned it better, since this is a pretty good follow up to a novelty hit.

The strength of it is that unlike what I mostly complained about with Thrift Song, this is something where it seems like Macklemore put a bit of effort into the lyrics and the delivery. He isn’t serious, he still prizes a humorous turn of phrase, but here there’s no obvious lyrical clunkers, and his unrelenting flow helps hide any weaknesses that might be there. This is the song that proves Macklemore can rap, and he’s actually got something to say which he finds meaningful. It is quite referential – direct name drop to Wu Tang, references to Kanye West – but it’s a respectful referential, and it does come across that Macklemore considers this an attempt at a breakthrough, an attempt to inspire via music. It didn’t work quite as planned, but this is a much better showcase for him than his actual breakthrough.

Posted in 2013 | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment