The Number Ones

August 25, 2012

The Number Ones: Flo Rida’s “Whistle”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

Nobody predicted the great Josh Hutcherson comeback of fall 2023. Hutcherson, a former child actor, had one extended moment of pop-cultural relevance about a decade ago, when he played one of the two blandly handsome guys vying for Jennifer Lawrence’s affection amidst the dystopian melodrama of the Hunger Games movies. Those Hunger Games joints were huge hits. They turned Lawrence into a household name, and they did the same, to a lesser extent, for Liam Hemsworth, the other blandly handsome guy. (Hemsworth will be a supporting character in a future column.) But the films didn’t do too much for Hutcherson, who’s spent his recent years making straight-to-streaming things that you would only watch if you were really, really bored.

All of a sudden, though, Josh Hutcherson is back. Last fall, he played the lead in Five Nights At Freddy’s, a near-unwatchable horror movie, adapted from a video game about haunted kids’-restaurant animatronics, that inexplicably became a cultural sensation among 10-year-olds. The confused response to Five Nights At Freddy’s reminds me of the response to the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, which was a cultural sensation among 10-year-olds when I was 10. But that first Ninja Turtles movie at least had the advantage of being pretty fun. I took my kids to see FNAF, and whoof. Still, that thing made vast piles of money, and Josh Hutcherson will be starring in sequels for the foreseeable future. He’s also the bad guy in the new Jason Statham movie, apparently, which means that I will watch at least one more Josh Hutcherson film performance.

Another big fall-season hit was The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes, the new Hunger Games prequel. (Took my kids to that one, too. Not bad!) Josh Hutcherson and his Hunger Games character aren’t in that motion picture, but its existence evidently reminded at least a few gen-Z types of their old feelings for Hutcherson. As a result, Josh Hutcherson achieved the goal of anyone operating in the cultural space these days. He became a TikTok meme.

I don’t fully understand this fucking meme, but I’ll explain it as best I can. (I’m really just summarizing this Polygon article here.) Way back in 2014, some crushed-out fan made a YouTube tribute video dedicated to Josh Hutcherson — one of those early-YouTube things where it’s just still photos of the guy dissolving into one another. It’s a relic of a bygone Tumblr era, and its existence activates the nostalgia reflex of people much younger than me. In recent months, some mysterious mass of internet users has exhumed that video and turned it into a running TikTok joke — a thing where people suddenly encounter the Josh Hutcherson video in unexpected places. I don’t really get what’s funny about it, but I am 44 years old, so this is as it should be.

When you’re an actor looking for recognition and work, this kind of thing is a godsend. Just last week, Hutcherson was on The Tonight Show, displaying the expected level of amused bafflement to his own meme status. Suddenly, Josh Hutcherson has returned to the zeitgeist, and he’s not the only one. The song that soundtracked that original fan video is another piece of ’10s ephemera that would’ve otherwise gone completely forgotten. Now, my kids are walking around the house humming Flo Rida’s “Whistle” to themselves. Once again, the mysterious forces of the algorithm have turned in Flo Rida’s favor. The man simply cannot lose.

Even more confoundingly, the track that soundtracks that Josh Hutcherson video isn’t even the original Flo Rida version of “Whistle,” a song that had seemingly disappeared into the ether before this whole resurrection. Instead, it’s a cover from a YouTuber named Joel Merry. Whatever. Doesn’t matter. It’s happening, and Flo Rida is taking advantage. You have to hand it to the guy. He had a run of flavorless, interchangeable club-rap hits that lasted way longer than anyone could’ve predicted. Then, when those hits dried up, he continued to ride on their momentum, amassing a vast fortune in the process. His story would be inspiring if it wasn’t so fucking stupid.

I’ll give it up for “Low.” Have to. Can’t pretend otherwise. In 2008, the Dade Country rap journeyman Flo Rida emerged from total obscurity with a mercilessly catchy dance-rap smash. He seemed like a born one-hit wonder, but he just kept making hits. I will not give it up for most of those other hits, but hits are hits. After “Low,” Flo Rida returned to #1 with “Right Round,” which was just as big despite being a truly abysmal song. Then, three years after “Right Round,” Flo Rida found himself atop the Billboard Hot 100 one more time, filling up a late-summer dead space between epochal smashes.

That means that Flo Rida has three chart-topping hits to his credit, to say nothing of all the other big songs that he cranked out in a reign of terror that lasted nearly a decade. Every big Flo Rida hit seemed like it would be the last big Flo Rida hit, but he just kept coming back. It was remarkable. Flo Rida didn’t sell albums. He didn’t have fans. He was simply a delivery mechanism for shameless beach-party earworms, but those earworms kept coming. After “Right Round,” Flo Rida returned with the 2010 album Only One Flo (Part 1), which only yielded one hit: “Club Can’t Handle Me,” a David Guetta collab that showed up on the Step Up 3D soundtrack and peaked at #9. (It’s a 6.) That song, which isn’t terrible, seemed like a “Right Round” aftershock. Surely, I thought, it would be the last time we heard from Flo Rida. Shows what I know.

In 2011, Flo Rida got back together with his “Right Round” collaborator Dr. Luke to release “Good Feeling,” a song that sampled Etta James’ “Something’s Got A Hold On Me.” (“Something’s Got A Hold On Me” peaked at #37 in 1962. Etta James’ highest-charting Hot 100 single, 1967’s “Tell Mama,” peaked at #23.) “Good Feeling” happened to come out around the same time that Etta James died. It also came out around the same time as the late Swedish house DJ Avicii’s international smash “Levels,” which was built from a sample of the very same part of the very same song. (On the Hot 100, “Levels” peaked at #60. Avicii’s highest-charting single, 2013’s “Wake Me Up!,” peaked at #4. It’s a 7.) I truly have no idea how these two massively similar-sounding songs came out with the same sample at the same time, but that’s what happened. In the US, “Good Feeling” was a much bigger hit, going all the way to #3. (It’s a 3.)

While “Good Feeling” was still soaring up the Hot 100, Flo Rida came out with another bit, bland, instantly-forgettable smash. He recorded “Wild Ones” with a crew of collaborators that included Avicii’s fellow Swedish house DJ Axwell and Sia, an Australian singer and songwriter who will eventually appear in this column. “Wild Ones” sounded a whole lot like “Good Feeling,” and that’s apparently what the world wanted from Flo Rida. “Wild Ones” was a big hit all over the world, and it went to #5 on the Hot 100. (It’s another 3.) Flo Rida was planning a new album called Only One Flo (Part 2), and he abruptly changed the title to Wild Ones.

The whole idea of a Flo Rida album is a little bit absurd. Flo Rida has never made a cohesive artistic statement in his life, and nobody has ever cared about his full-lengths. For all the hits that Flo Rida has made, none of his albums has so much as gone gold. He’s a definitive singles artist, and as it happens, his next single was his third #1 hit. I was going to say that it’s his third and final #1 hit, but I don’t want to tempt fate.

Flo Rida didn’t have any big-name collaborators on “Whistle,” and I have a hard time imagining that anyone thought that the song would do as well as it did even before the whole Josh Hutcherson revival. “Whistle” has six credited songwriters, but none of them are big-deal behind-the-scenes figures like Dr. Luke or Sia. One of the co-producers of “Whistle” is the Denver-born DJ Frank E, who also worked on “Right Round.” The other people with pieces of that “Whistle” publishing — Breyan Isaac, J. Ralph, Jovii Hendrix, a co-producer who’s just named Glass — are best-known for their work on the Flo Rida song “Whistle” and not really for anything else.

As a few TikTokers have performatively discovered in the past few months, “Whistle” is a dirty song. Specifically, it’s a song about blowjobs. When Flo Rida invites you to blow his whistle baby whistle baby let him know, he’s talking about his dick. He’s saying that he wants you to suck his dick. This invites several questions. For instance: Does Flo Rida’s dick look like a whistle? I hope not. That sounds like an unfortunate medical condition. Elsewhere in the song, Flo Rida also refers to his dick as his banjo, which is only slightly less upsetting. Honestly, I wish Flo Rida kept the gimmick going. I wish he spent the entire song comparing his dick to various random musical instruments. Xylophone. Zither. Harpsichord. Kettle drums. Sousaphone. Theremin. He could’ve gone all-the-way avant-garde with it. He did not.

Those TikTokers are acting shocked because “Whistle” doesn’t sound like a dirty song. Flo Rida never makes a big show of his horniness. He doesn’t cuss. He doesn’t plead. He doesn’t get loud. He just discusses his amorous aims in brisk, businesslike fashion. A child could presumably hear “Whistle” and not realize that it’s a song about blowjobs. An adult could do the same, really, since “Whistle” is built to be passively enjoyed. You’re not supposed to notice the lyrics. If you were, then the bit about “talented with your lips like you blew out a candle” would hit harder. (Do you have to be talented with your lips to blow out a candle? That doesn’t seem to require much skill.)

This gets at the Flo Rida paradox. He’s a rapper, a product of the teeming South Florida scene, but “Whistle” isn’t a rap song. Flo Rida raps on it, but he doesn’t project personality like most rappers. Instead, he just kind of melodiously blends in with the track, singing his own hook and turning all the verses into quasi-hooks, too. It’s not the Drake sing-rapping approach or even the Nelly one. Instead, Flo Rida’s rapping is mechanized filler. Years before we were all up in arms about AI music, Flo Rida was demonstrating how an AI rapper might sound.

Flo Rida isn’t the only thing that keeps “Whistle” from sounding like a rap song. The instrumentation is just replacement-level 2012 radio pop, from the acoustic guitars to throbbing synth-bass to the quasi-EDM drum programming. There’s a whistle on “Whistle,” of course. That whistle, along with Flo Rida’s voice, is pretty much the totality of the hook. It’s irritating, but it’s not actively grating like the whistle on “Moves Like Jagger.”

For the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone would pay money to listen to “Whistle.” The song isn’t unpleasant in any memorable way. Instead, it’s so generic that it’s almost daring. The only things about the song that demand any kind of attention — the clumsy sexuality of the lyrics, the whistling on the hook — are just slightly obnoxious. Everything else is forgettable. That’s what makes “Whistle” a perfect soundtrack for the Josh Hutcherson TikTok meme. It’s the kind of song that evaporates instantly from your mind. When you encounter it a decade later, it might just tickle some faraway part of your memory. It becomes the Josh Hutcherson song.

Most of the big hits from 2012 were memorable moments that actually had a hand in defining culture — “We Are Young,” “Somebody That I Used To Know,” “Call Me Maybe,” the song that’ll appear in next week’s column. “Whistle” isn’t one of those. It’s pure radio bait that captured the #1 spot in a couple of quiet weeks, between those smashes. Nevertheless, “Whistle” was a legit hit. It went quintuple platinum, and while it was Flo Rida’s last time at #1, it wasn’t his last hit.

Flo Rida’s Wild Ones album came out while “Whistle” was still climbing the Hot 100, and it yielded one more hit: “I Cry,” which is not actually emotional and which reached #6. (It’s a 3.) In 2014, Flo Rida teamed up with Bay Area rapper Sage The Gemini and dance producer Lookas on “GDFR,” the song built around Flo Rida saying that it’s goin’ down for reeeeal. (“GDFR” peaked at #8. It’s a 6.) And in 2015, Flo Rida soared to #4 with the actually-catchy “My House.” (It’s a 7.) None of those hits displayed anything resembling a persona, and none of them got the public invested in the whole Flo Rida career arc, but those singles all landed.

After “My House,” Flo Rida only appeared on the Hot 100 with a couple of minor singles, none of which came out after 2016. That was fine for Flo Rida. He had other things going on. In 2014, he endorsed an energy drink called Celsius. The makers of Celsius didn’t pay him the bonus that they agreed to pay if sales reached a certain threshold, so Flo Rida sued. During the trial, Flo Rida’s lawyers played hits like “Whistle” in the courtroom, with the artist on the stand. Last year, a jury found in Flo Rida’s favor, awarding him $82 million in damages.

Flo Rida also seems plenty comfortable on the nostalgia circuit. The shamelessness that led to songs like “Whistle” has served him well. He’ll play county fairs, regional festivals put on by local governments, whatever. Last year, The New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos wrote a story on the private-party circuit — the big-name artists who accept big payments to play gatherings for rich people and their families. That circuit is a bit of a dirty music-industry secret, and most of those stars weren’t about to go on the record, but Flo Rida didn’t care. Osnos followed him to suburban Chicago, where he performed at a bar mitzvah for a financial executive’s son.

Last year, Flo Rida was on the pop radio-station Jingle Ball circuit, playing Christmas shows with the currently-relevant Tate McRaes and Jelly Rolls of the world. I’m sure it was fun for the kids at those shows to hear “Low” and “My House,” but Flo Rida was on those shows for one reason. He was there to do the Josh Hutcherson song.

GRADE: 4/10

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BONUS BEATS: This whole column has basically been a Bonus Beat, so this bit feels superfluous — but then, so does “Whistle.” In any case, for reasons that I cannot imagine, the dance producers Laidback Luke and Tribbs got together with British singer Bertie Scott to make a cheesy dance version of “Whistle” in 2021. Here’s the video:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Buy it here because there’s only one Tom and one Breihan.

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