Welcome to The Week In Pop, Stereogum’s new weekly pop column. I’ll be here every Thursday with a look at mainstream pop music via essays, track reviews, chart updates, and more. The phrase “Stereogum’s weekly pop column” probably raises some questions, so let’s get to them right away:
How are we defining pop? Typically, we’ll be looking at music that cracks Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart or gets airplay on Top 40 radio stations — or music that aspires to those destinations. Rap and R&B songs that rule urban radio without crossing over into the Top 40 might merit a closer look, too. We’ll also steer into mainstream country here because these days the Hot 100 crosses over with Nashville almost as often as it crosses over with rap and R&B. Anything that goes viral might fit here — and, therefore, anything your parents might ask you about. As usual, the definition of pop will be malleable enough to encompass any music that is popular and widely accessible. Suffice it to say most of the time pop is self-evident.
Why are we launching a column like this? We love pop music, even when we hate it. We love celebrating it, we love picking it apart, and as with any other kind of music, we love ridiculing it when it’s terrible. Exploring the music that dominates our culture is fun, and it can provide valuable perspective about our world and ourselves. In other words, it’s just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection.
But Stereogum is an indie site! In the internet era, the idea of a musical guilty pleasure has been rendered irrelevant, rightly dismissed as the product of racism, sexism, and convoluted concepts of authenticity. This is truer than ever in an era when the boundaries between genres are disintegrating before our eyes. Even if Stereogum’s focus will always be whatever passes for “indie” music, over the past 12 years we’ve become a site about music, period. This is a place to ponder and explore everything from Death Grips to Beyoncé. That’s how we, the staff, consume music, and it’s how many of our readers consume music too. In recent years we’ve launched specialized columns to lead readers deeper into the worlds of metal and rap; this is the next phase of that, a chance to extend the conversation that springs up every time we cover events like the Grammys, the VMAs, or even wide-ranging festivals such as Lollapalooza.
If genres are disappearing, why separate pop (or any genre) into its own column? Great question! Even as our established genre definitions evolve beyond recognition, the concept of genre is still valuable for the purposes of communicating about creative endeavors. Just because the musical landscape is being redrawn doesn’t mean everything sounds the same. We need categories to understand and discuss music. A big part of examining music involves understanding how listeners define themselves according to what they do and don’t like. With that in mind, part of the fun here will be relating pop music back to the “indie” music world that remains Stereogum’s bread and butter. Where do those worlds intersect, and why? How might Tame Impala help us understand, say, Macklemore? I’m not sure, but I look forward to finding out.
As we embark on a journey into the sometimes baffling world of music charts, let’s search for some context: Smooth soul-pop ladies’ men Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke won the respective races for the best selling album and song of the year on the charts. Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience moved 2.43 million copies, besting Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (1.73 million); JT’s tally is the lowest #1 figure ever, worsting Lil Wayne’s 2.87 million for The Carter III in 2008. Meanwhile Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” sold 6.5 million throughout 2013, beating out 6.15 million for “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Is it feeling especially white and male in here, or is it just me? Anyhow, now that the ball has dropped, the field for the annual sales crown is wide open.
That doesn’t mean there’s no momentum to consider in the weekly charts. Last week, Beyoncé’s BEYONCÉ began 2014 atop the albums chart for a third consecutive week, and the year’s first Hot 100 rankings marked four straight weeks at #1 for Eminem and Rihanna’s “The Monster. Both those champions have been dethroned on today’s charts, though. Your new #1 album is the soundtrack to Disney’s animated feature Frozen, up from #4 last week with 165,000 in sales. As Billboard reports, it’s only the fourth time in the chart’s 58-year history that the soundtrack to an animated movie has gone to #1, preceded by The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1996) and Jack Johnson’s Curious George soundtrack (2006). Don’t feel bad if you, like me, were not aware that Jack Johnson did the soundtrack for the Curious George movie or that it sold enough copies to finish #1. There wasn’t much other action of note on the albums chart thanks to a dearth of debuts, and mainstays such as Eminem, Katy Perry, Lorde, and One Direction held steady in the top 10, so we’re on to the Hot 100.
Whereas Frozen’s momentum built slowly over the course of four weeks, Pitbull and Ke$ha’s “Timber” held it down at #2 for four straight weeks before finally toppling “The Monster” this week. The song had already been ruling the digital singles chart, so it was only a matter of time. (Bad week for Ke$ha otherwise, although good in the sense that she’s seeking help.) Also notable: Katy Perry and Juicy J’s “Dark Horse” vaulted up from #11 to #6 largely on the strength of digital sales; it’s #2 on the iTunes chart and #4 on Billboard’s Digital Songs chart. We named “Dark Horse” one of the best songs of the week when Perry’s Prism dropped back in October, but it didn’t become an official single until December, when it had already caught on as a grassroots hit, or as close to a grassroots hit as you can get when your last album produced five #1 singles. It certainly feels more natural than Perry’s pronunciation of the word “unconditionally,” and definitely more so than the impending remix with Pitbull.
WHO IS BASTILLE?
This week SNL announced Jonah Hill will host the 1/25 episode with musical guest Bastille. Maybe you’re thinking, “Who is Bastille?” Here’s who:
That video already has over 50 million views, by the way. These guys are a British rock band signed to Virgin — Stereogum premiered the Yeasayer remix of their first single a few years ago — whose first three singles flopped and whose fourth, “Pompeii,” caught on to become a silent radio killer and a sales power (#6 on the iTunes singles chart this week!). Still, these guys are far from a household name. SNL has booked some low-profile guests in the past, but they’re usually critical buzz bands, from this year’s Haim appearance to Lana Del Rey’s 2012 flop. But occasionally the show books an aspiring mid-level pop act with no such cool factor whose presence seems like the product of back-room dealing. Karmin spring to mind; that band is both terrible and not that popular, yet they seem to pop up everywhere on TV. Bastille seem like the same kind of situation — their hit song is so insubstantial and unremarkable that it barely even seems to exist — although it’s hard to deny those sales numbers. And anyhow, it looks like we’ll be seeing a lot more of Bastille in 2014 — at Coachella, for instance.
Perhaps as a corrective to 2013’s sausage fest at the top of the charts, almost all the notable new singles this week are by ladies (unless you count these clowns, and I just can’t bring myself to encourage that kind of thing). Below, find a flurry of female-fronted tracks plus one exceptionally dudely dude.
Lady Gaga – “Do What U Want” (Feat. Christina Aguilera)
By now there was supposed to be a video for Lady Gaga and R. Kelly’s uptempo sex duet “Do What U Want,” the one they performed evocatively on SNL and the AMAs. It was to be directed by the ever-controversial Terry Richardson, who released a still from the shoot on his blog on 12/13. But as Molly Lambert’s great Grantland essay explains, two other important things happened on 12/13. One is that Beyoncé dropped 17 music videos at once, which made Gaga’s promise of a video for every ARTPOP track seem a little flaccid. The other is that Jessica Hopper published an interview with Chicago journalist Jim DeRogatis revisiting the many “stomach-churning” allegations against Kellz over the years; it wasn’t new information, but returning to it afresh cast a disturbing light on R. Kelly’s recorded sexploits. No one wants to picture a grown man “doing what he wants” to dozens of underage girls. A week after Gaga’s unlucky Friday the 13th, she released a “Do What U Want” remix with Rick Ross, not exactly the guy you call to project an empowering message toward women after his “Molly all in her champagne” date-rape controversy. Third time was the charm for Gaga, though. On The Voice, she performed “Do What U Want” with Christina Aguilera, transforming it from a salacious flirtation to what Lambert called “a body-positive anthem from two women whose bodies are regularly scrutinized and slammed in the media.” So that’s what we’re dealing with here, and I gotta say it leaves me feeling a lot more uplifted than when Gaga and Kellz were skeezing it up on SNL.
Ellie Goulding – “Goodness Gracious”
Although 2011’s “Lights” completed its international slow-build by going all the way to #2 in the U.S. more than a year later, British pop singer Ellie Goulding was still far from a household name. When I saw her at Hangout last year, she was gushing about how great it was to perform in front of a large audience for a change instead of the 20-odd people she was facing most nights. By the end of 2013, her profile had risen significantly stateside thanks to a pair of widely circulated, EDM-oriented singles, her own “Burn” and Calvin Harris’ “I Need Your Love.” Her first new look of 2014, “Goodness Gracious,” veers away from digitized bass drops and untz-untz climaxes toward the big-hair/big-synths ’80s pop sound embraced by the likes of M83 and Tegan And Sara — though the glitchy intro could pass for any of the artsy tropical bands that sprung up in the wake of Vampire Weekend’s debut album and Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Foxes – “Let Go For Tonight”
Speaking of British pop singers who benefitted from singing on a major DJ’s EDM hit last year: Foxes, aka Louisa Rose Allen, belted her way into ubiquity throughout late 2012 and all of 2013 as the voice of Zedd’s “Clarity.” That song drummed up some attention for her full-length debut Glorious, which Sony is releasing in March. The album’s first single, “Youth,” dropped late last summer. Its second, “Let Go For Tonight,” has actually existed since before “Clarity” hit, but the original’s post-Florence pop has been made over as a disco rager whose chorus sounds as if the producer was trying to come as close to Gaga’s “Applause” as possible without the two songs merging into one unified being. The string-laden verses help to remind us this one has an identity of its own.
Will Champlin – “Eye Of The Pyramid”
Will Champlin finished third on The Voice this season by marshaling all his brotastic powers for covers of acts like Imagine Dragons and Gavin DeGraw. So it makes plenty of sense that his first single since the show sounds like DeGraw sitting in with Imagine Dragons on a cover of Alex Clare’s Windows commercial dubstep ballad “Too Close.” I thought I had this guy pegged as soon as the beat dropped, but I have to admit I did not see that banjo coming. Although it still seems like douchebag music to me, “Eye Of The Pyramid” gets honest-to-god weird by the end, like a ritualistic Eastern ceremony tacked on to a live action remake of Disney’s Aladdin.
Lucy Hale – “You Sound Good To Me”
Lucy Hale is one of the stars of the ABC Family drama Pretty Little Liars, one of those shows that’s ostensibly for kids but has attracted a fervent adult fan base (at least among the people I follow on Twitter). We’ve become accustomed to seeing stars from kids’ shows graduate to pop careers, but from the sounds of her first single, Hale’s gone country. “You Sound Good To Me” is propelled by fiddles, pedal steel, and back-porch strumming infused with the digital polish that’s become standard in Nashville. It’s nothing too exciting, but it does, in fact, sound good to me.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Besides that Daft Punk/Nile Rodgers/Pharrell/Stevie Wonder business, the Grammys will include performances by Lorde, Katy Perry, Metallica with Lang Lang, and Robin Thicke with Chicago in addition to the previously announced :-/ combos Kendrick Lamar with Imagine Dragons, Pink with Nate Ruess, and a Merle Haggard/Kris Kristofferson/Willie Nelson/Blake Shelton extravaganza. [GRAMMYS]
- Justin Timberlake won three People’s Choice Awards last night. Katy Perry nabbed two. Other musical winners included Britney Spears, Demi Lovato (and her fan base, the Lovatics — not kidding on that name), Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, One Direction, and Fall Out Boy. [USA Today]
- Paramore and Fall Out Boy, both mall-punk royals turned rock ‘n’ roll pop stars, are co-headlining a summer jaunt called the Monumentour. [Paramore]
- Drake’s sonic architect Noah “40” Shebib says he’s no longer working on the posthumous Aaliyah project due to public outcry over Drake’s involvement, ambivalence from Timbaland and objections from Aaliyah’s mother. [Vibe]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Every week in this space we’ll share a notable piece of pop-related digital ephemera — a .gif, a tweet, a Vine, a video, whatever’s weird and/or wonderful. This week, please enjoy the cast of the acclaimed Boss-hoggin’ CBS drama The Good Wife in a music video for “Tricky Thick,” an original song that was part of the latest episode’s plot, inspired by Glee’s ripoff of Jonathan Coulton’s “Baby Got Back” cover. I had no idea Logan Huntzberger from Gilmore Girls was on that show, and I have no idea on how many levels this is supposed to be funny, but I do know it’s… really something.