The Number Ones

January 18, 2014

The Number Ones: Pitbull’s “Timber” (Feat. Kesha)

Stayed at #1:

3 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.

One of last year’s best-reviewed novels was Nathan Hill’s Wellness, a story about a middle-aged married couple dealing with profound late-capitalist alienation, both from each other and from the world at large. In the book’s early stages, we see that alienation manifesting at an afternoon playdate, where a group of kids excitedly sing and dance along to a slightly-refashioned pop song that, in its original form, would not be remotely appropriate. Here’s how Hill describes it:

The song that all the little children were right now exuberantly singing was a popular dance number about a woman getting really drunk at a nightclub and having haphazard sex with a stranger and then blacking out so she doesn’t remember any of it the next day.

Except, no, that wasn’t exactly right. The song the children were actually dancing to and performing in front of their parents was — you had to listen carefully — a remake of that other more debauched song, this new version having been superficially edited, the adult singer replaced with a dulcet preteen, the most raunchy lyrics replaced with family-friendly alternatives. It was now a song sung by children, for children, part of a series of child-appropriate pop covers that was the only music ever broadcast during these playdates at Brandie’s big suburban Park Shore house…

The song was of that dance music subgenre that might be called “Look at Me I’m in a Club!” It was music that you heard in the club, about the club, on the subject of being seen in the club — basically uptempo drunken solipsism, with sporadic sexual depravity.

Nathan Hill could be describing any number of songs there, but this particular track is the Kidz Bop version of Pitbull and Kesha’s “Timber,” which is indeed about being horny in a club. Songs like that basically created the vacuum that the Kidz Bop cultural institution rushed in to fill. For at least a generation, the catchiest and most commercially successful turbo-pop music in America has been the kind of thing that generally appeals to kids — hooky, demonstrative, energetic, fun — with lyrics that kids should probably not sing. I’ve heard little kids singing along to “Timber” before, and yes, it is a little uncomfortable. But if you were to list the top thousand reasons to feel alienated in this strange stage of American life, “Timber” and its ilk wouldn’t come close to making the cut.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that “Timber” is a towering pop classic. It’s not. But “Timber” does fit into the rich tradition of excitably hedonistic ear-candy. For as long as popular music has existed, it’s been full of bright, plastic assembly-line melodies and lyrics about making questionable decisions. This particular brand of turbo-pop was near the end of its dominant run when “Timber” topped the Hot 100, but the song would not be denied. It was going down, and somebody was yelling timber. When that kind of thing happens, you better move. You better dance.

Funny thing about “Timber”: It represents the ultimate bastardization of one form of music that, at least for a minute, looked like it might wipe Max Martin-style turbo-pop off the charts. In the early ’10s, groups like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers played around with the aesthetics of old-timey folk music — banjos, washboards, bolo ties. They welded big, barrel-chested singalongs to Instagram-filter dress-up ideas of authenticity, and they conquered arenas. It’s the kind of reactionary back-to-basics movement that swoops through pop music every so often; we’re in another one right now. But this early-’10s revival turned out to be the kind of thing that turbo-pop could easily assimilate.

Avicii figured it out. In 2013, the late Swedish house DJ teamed up with retro-soul singer Aloe Blacc and Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger to record “Wake Me Up,” a gigantic international hit that combined Mumford-style folk-pop revivalism with the big-room thump that served as Avicii’s stock in trade. As it turned out, the leap wasn’t as big as you might think. Mumford & Sons didn’t have a drummer, so they kept their own time onstage with a single kick-drum, banging out the kind of simplistic beat that tied the band, in a strange way, to house music. Avicii picked up on that thread, juicing those house trappings, and “Wake Me Up” went all the way to #4 in the US. (It’s a 7. Mumford & Sons’ highest-charting single, 2012’s “I Will Wait,” peaked at #12.)

Pitbull heard what was happening with “Wake Me Up,” and he wanted in. Early in his career, Pitbull called himself Mr. 305, in honor of his Miami area code. But when he stopped making Southern rap music and embraced the global reach of cheesy dance-pop, Pitbull gave himself a new nickname: Mr. Worldwide. In the early ’10s, Pitbull became a constant presence on American pop radio, and he took “Give Me Everything” all the way to #1 in 2011. But Pitbull was arguably even bigger in Europe, which meant that he spent a lot of time in the kinds of rooms where “Wake Me Up” was filling floors. When he heard the “Timber” beat, Pitbull knew that the song had the potential to be even bigger than “Wake Me Up.”

Avicii did not make the “Timber” beat. Instead, the track came from a gigantic crew of industry professionals, including Dr. Luke, possibly the preeminent hitmaker of his time. The song, which is exceedingly simple, has no fewer than 13 credited songwriters. (Some websites list even more, including Kesha’s mother Pebe Sebert, but I’m going with what’s on Spotify.) So how does it take 13 people to write a song like “Timber”? Well, Pitbull and Kesha both have songwriting credits, so that’s two. Dr. Luke co-produced the track with his regular collaborator Cirkut and with Jamie “Sermstyle” Sanderson, a British beatmaker whose resume is full of insubstantial dance-rap tracks from people like Flo Rida. (Nick Seeley, an LA-based producer whose work will eventually appear in this column, is credited with additional production, but he doesn’t get a songwriting credit.) So that’s three more songwriters, for a total of five. Then we get to the sample.

Lee Oskar, a Danish-born harmonica player, got really into the blues as a young man, and he eventually moved to the US, where, through a truly random set of circumstances, he became a founding member of the great Latin funk band War. (War’s highest-charting single, 1973’s “The Cisco Kid,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.) Oskar also released a few solo albums, and he included the ruminative track “San Francisco Bay” on 1978’s Before The Rain. “Timber” is clearly going for a honking hoedown kind of thing, but its groove is just a sped-up version of “San Francisco Bay.” When the session player Paul Harrington played on the “Timber” beat, the producers instructed him to play just like Lee Oskar.

Pitbull and his collaborators cleared the “San Francisco Bay” sample when they recorded “Timber,” but the song’s three writers eventually sued, claiming that they hadn’t given their permission. Maybe that’s why the three writers of “San Francisco Bay” are now credited for “Timber,” or maybe they already had that credit; I don’t know. In any case, Lee Oskar has a credit, and so does Keri Oskar, who I think was his wife. Greg Errico, who’s already been in this column a few times as the drummer for Sly & The Family Stone, produced “San Francisco Bay” and got a co-writer credit, which means he’s got a co-writer credit on “Timber,” too. So that’s eight!

There are still three more songwriters credited on “Timber,” and I must confess that I don’t know who did what. One of those three is Breyan Isaac, who’s already been in this column for working on Flo Rida’s “Whistle.” The credits also list Steve Arrington, and I have to assume that it’s the same Steve Arrington who sang for oft-sampled Ohio funk greats Slave. (Slave’s highest-charting single, 1977’s “Slide,” peaked at #32, and it came out the year before Arrington joined the group.) “Timber” doesn’t sample any of his older tracks, so I guess he just participated in the songwriting session? Arrington is still making music now, working with people like Thundercat, so it’s possible, but it’s definitely weird.

And then there’s Priscilla Hamilton, a Florida-born singer and songwriter who was then known as Priscilla Renea. (Renea is her middle name.) Hamilton first found traction on YouTube and signed to Capitol when she was barely out of her teens, but her 2009 debut album didn’t go anywhere. She became a behind-the-scenes figure, co-writing some big hits for people like Rihanna, Fifth Harmony, and Ariana Grande. In 2020, she started recording R&B under the name Muni Long, and she’s since signed to Def Jam and made a couple of pretty big hits of her own. Muni Long’s highest-charting single, 2021’s “Hrs And Hrs,” peaked at #16. She was up for the Best New Artist Grammy in 2023, a decade after she co-wrote “Timber.”

The process of writing “Timber” is a little mysterious. There are no interviews where any of the people involved rhapsodize about the magic that was in the studio that day or the big feelings that they managed to express. It’s not that kind of song. Everyone involved was working for a paycheck, participating in the kind of laborious collaborative process that might, when everything lines up right, lead to a very silly but very popular piece of music. When “Timber” was still rising up the Hot 100, Pitbull said that he really wanted Rihanna to sing on the hook, which would’ve made her the hook-singer on two very different back-to-back chart-toppers. Instead, Rihanna guested on former Number Ones artist Shakira’s single “Can’t Remember To Forget You,” which peaked at #15, and Pitbull got Kesha to sing on “Timber.”

Rihanna wouldn’t have been able to sing the “Timber” hook the way that Kesha did. Kesha was an obvious choice for the hook. “Timber” was a Dr. Luke track, and she was his label’s flagship artist. She made party music, and she’d just been touring with Pitbull. But Kesha is also a Nashville native, and her mother was a country songwriter. Kesha’s been singing a lot more country-adjacent stuff in the past few years, but at the time, “Timber” was maybe the most country single she’d ever released. The track’s roots-music nods — the harmonica, the handclaps, the acoustic guitars — are pure novelty-bait, like a 20-years-later update of the Rednex track “Cotton Eye Joe.” (That one peaked at #25.) But there’s a slight high-lonesome yip in Kesha’s delivery that makes the silliness go down a little easier.

It’s still silliness. “Timber” is a ridiculous song. That Kesha hook is a joyously meaningless earworm, and it’s the clear reason that the song did as well as it did: “It’s goin’ down! I’m yellin’ ‘Timber!’ You better move! You better dance!” Despite the little affectations in its production, “Timber” is way more of a dance-pop cheese-fest than anything like a country or folk song. Part of me likes how happily “Timber” degrades all the signifiers of supposed authenticity that the Mumford-style bands brought back to the charts. It’s like Cher covering Bob Dylan in 1965 — a welcome reminder that this is all music for babies, or at least for our inner babies, regardless of whatever ideals it seems to espouse.

Kesha is on the song more than Pitbull. That’s a literal thing; her voice fills up more airtime than his does. She’s also the one part of the song that people remember. I’m sure there are people out there in the world who can recite every Pitbull lyric from “Timber,” but I don’t know if I’ve ever met one of them. Pitbull is fine, but he’s mostly there to fill up the space between hooks. He says he’ll have girls acting like Miley Cyrus at the VMAs, references Jay-Z and 2 Live Crew lyrics, gets his catchphrases off, and shoehorns in a presumably-paid endorsement for a vodka brand that I don’t recognize. He says, “This biggity boy’s a diggity dog,” and I don’t know why that’s funny, but it is.

“Timber” sounds like a stapled-together song, and its video only reinforces that impression. Pitbull and Kesha never appear onscreen together, and the two of them seem to occupy the visuals for entirely different songs. Pitbull filmed his bits on a beach, hanging out with some sharks and Italian model Raffaella Modugno. Kesha’s parts were filmed in an Orlando honky-tonk, and she’s got a real jug band in there with her. The whole thing feels like an afterthought, but Kesha at least nailed the backwoods-gone-Euro-club vibe.

If anyone remembers what Pitbull does on his own song, it’s the moment where he reels off square-dance instructions. That’s catchy enough, and it’s one more signal that nobody should ever take this song seriously. Do square dances still happen in barns? They probably happen somewhere, but only as nods to unremembered nostalgia. Most of us probably only experienced square dancing as a slow-day gym-class activity, so that bit probably helped “Timber” appeal to actual children, who probably were the single’s demographic. “Timber” rose to #1 largely on the strength of post-Christmas downloads, which led my colleague Chris Molanphy to theorize that kids were using holiday money and gift cards to buy the iTunes download. It took eight years, but the single eventually went diamond.

“Timber” was the end of an era for Kesha. She’d been semi-publicly clashing with Dr. Luke for a while, and her 2012 sophomore album Warrior didn’t do anywhere as well as her debut. (Lead single “Die Young” peaked at #2, and Kesha quickly disavowed it. It’s an 8.) The same month that “Timber” reached #1, Kesha checked into a rehab clinic for an eating disorder. Later that year, she sued Dr. Luke, accusing him of all kinds of abuse. Tons of other pop stars denounced Luke, and his reputation’s been in the toilet ever since, though he’s still making hits. The resulting legal battle forced Kesha to stop making music for years, and it only just wrapped up recently. Younger folks have a ton of affection for Kesha, and she could mount a real comeback sometime soon, but she hasn’t been anywhere near the pop charts in a while.

For his part, Pitbull didn’t have any dramatic career twists or turns. He was already on the downslope of his arc when he made “Timber.” He’s simply not the kind of artist who people take seriously. He’s the type who endorses products. In 2012, Walmart ran a campaign: Pitbull would visit whichever location got the most Facebook likes. Some bloggers picked up on that promotion and hatched the idea that Pitbull should be exiled, so the winning Walmart was the one in the remote town of Kodiak, Alaska. Pitbull was a good enough sport to head up to Kodiak, perform, and accept the key to the city. I remembered that saga, but I remembered it happening when Pitbull wasn’t a relevant pop star anymore. Nope. That was two years before “Timber.” The real takeaway is that Pitbull has never been especially relevant, but he hasn’t let that stop him from making hits.

Pitbull followed “Timber” with “Wild Wild Love,” another vaguely folk-adjacent Dr. Luke track, but that one didn’t do anywhere near as well. (It peaked at #30.) Pitbull’s 2014 album Globalization gave him one last top-10 hit. On “Time Of Our Lives,” yet another Dr. Luke production, Pitbull reunited with his “Give Me Everything” collaborator Ne-Yo, and the track went quintuple platinum and peaked at #9. (It’s a 5.) That album also has “Fireball” and “El Taxi,” two incredibly stupid but also very fun sample-based dancefloor bangers. Those tracks did OK in the US, and they did much better elsewhere in the world.

Pitbull hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since 2016, when his Flo Rida/LunchMoney Lewis collab “Greenlight” peaked at #95. Pitbull’s flirtations with reggaeton have only intermittently been successful, since his flow doesn’t really fit that kind of slower and more sensuous track. Ever since the crunk era, he’s only really made sense barking over four-four club-hammer beats. But Pitbull is still out there. As you read this, he’s probably getting paid to party on a yacht in Moldova or something. Earlier this month, Pitbull popped up onstage at an all-star Hollywood Bowl tribute to the late Jimmy Buffett, his appearance almost working as a jump-scare. He still has two #1 hits, which is two more than Nas.

In a way, “Timber” worked as the last real pop-chart triumph for its kind of joyously dumb oontz-oontz EDM. That stuff dominated the center of mainstream pop for something like five years, but that center did not hold. Big pop hits did not get any smarter after “Timber,” but they had to slow down and adjust. As streaming services replaced radio and iTunes downloads as the main vehicle for pop-music consumption, tempos and vibes changed. Still, once a song like “Timber” became a part of the cultural fabric, it never totally goes away. Today, some little kids are probably dancing inappropriately to “Timber” somewhere. It could be happening in your own backyard.

GRADE: 6/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Band Perry, post-Taylor Swift pop-country hopes, covering “Timber,” rap verses and all, at a 2014 show in Las Vegas:

(The Band Perry’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, 2010’s “If I Die Young,” peaked at #14.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Please buy a book you won’t remember. I’ll be the one you won’t forget.

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