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Today's Top 40 Spectrum: "Giving 'Em What They Want"

This weekend, Lady Amy and I ran into a former co-worker from our days as student staff at Radio K who is now program director, music director, and DJ for a Top 40 station one state to our West. Needless to say, I was very interested in his job duties, which include "playing whatever [Minneapolis KISS-FM affiliate] KDWB plays" and "calling a consultant in Washington, D.C. to help decide the playlist." But what struck me most was when he kind of instinctively (without provocation, I swear) defended his actions as a Top 40 programmer, proclaiming, "you can't blame the artists or the stations; we're just giving 'em what they want." Now that's a whole can of worms that could easily be delved into all willy nilly, but to keep things more directed and focused, let's consider such a statement when discussing this month's spectrum below, ranked from best to worst (the first 4 of which I genuinely enjoy on some level)...

"Replay" by Iyaz: In my mind, there's a traditional/stereotypical sense of the phrase "what they want" and this song fits it perfectly. It's safe, it's warm, and it's basically harmless. It's easy to consume due to its slick production, but lacks an abundance of bells and whistles that would make another Top 40 contender overly flashy and headache-inducing. To some, this may also imply innocuousness, and yes, its gentle and forgettable beat in some ways overshadows what seems to me right now the most catchy melody (and it even uses the word "melody" in its lyrical refrain) on the radio in months. So, yes, it's "what they want," but it's not necessarily what they'll remember. Luckily, Top 40 has to and will always live completely in the present; it will only use nostalgia in subtle ways to recycle fashions and styles and it will never be groundbreaking. But I'm okay with that - that's why listening to other music in addition to Top 40 is obviously vital.

"Whatcha Say" by Jason Derulo: The funny thing with this single is that it uses nostalgia pretty obliquely for people like you and me, who have distinctly pleasant memories of the Garden State trailer (same singer, different song), The O.C., and "Dear Sister", the SNL Digital Short spoofing The O.C., but the sample of Imogen Heap probably largely falls on the deaf ears of today's youth. And yes, I'm including even the sincere high school viewers of The O.C. 4-5 years ago, who have most definitely now moved on to bigger and brighter things (hopefully). And even if they haven't, just like Flo Rida burning up the charts by sampling "Right Round" a few months ago or Kanye sampling Daft Punk, it's subtle enough to turn into something that one wants rather than what one "discovers" or even "grows to like." They're predisposed to the Heap riff, while newcomers are drawn in because it sounds a little different, but the (admittedly well sung, whether or not AutoTune is in the mix) R&B lead is familiar enough to make the Glee-inspired definition of a "mash-up" congeal into something desirable for the listener.

"Fireflies" by Owl City: Where to begin. First of all, I just spent a good five minutes scouring YouTube for an embeddable version of this video and all I found were literally HUNDREDS of self-uploaded videos of kids singing and/or playing acoustic guitar/piano covers of this song. I watched probably 40 seconds total of three different ones while debating whether or not to post one here and I feel creepy now for spending part of my Monday night doing so. Thanks Owl City. Okay - do the kids (until now referred to as "they") want this? Apparently. The answer why is probably obvious (it's saccharine, catchy, and just a teensy bit different from the rest of Top 40), but what I'm more interested in is why did people like my former co-worker give it to them? Mr. City from Owatonna, MN could have survived just fine on that gigantic plane of emo artists between indie and Top 40, still selling out copious gigs and somehow selling a respectful number of CDs without direct support from either Pitchfork or KISS-FM. Well, it's because someone finally realized how universally appealing The Postal Service would be if the lyrics weren't as poetic and the electronics turned into lite arena rock halfway through the song.

"Paparazzi" by Lady Gaga: Are her mediocre/catchy pop songs conduits for her truly awesome performance pieces or has she culled together random weirdness so her mediocre/catchy pop songs don't get lost in shuffle over the course of the next few months? There's no way to be sure until her curiously short new 8-song release comes and goes [did Drake really bring the EP form into the mainstream?], not much more than a year after her breakthrough album The Fame. Maybe it's all sleek and successful marketing by those just having fun with their fond memories of The Cell, The Fifth Element, Fischerspooner, and/or Zoolander. Or maybe we should be thankful that Gaga's finally giving the masses what they've been craving for since...well geez, I definitely can't remember the last time a pop artist went batcrap crazy in their videos/performances instead of real life; can you?

"Fallin' For You" by Colbie Caillat: This I need your help with, folks. Why do people want this? Do they want it or is it just that it's so bland that every white person who owns two or more pieces of khaki-colored clothing feels like they're required to like it? I mean, it's been a while since Vanessa Carlton, Michelle Branch, Sheryl Crow, Jewel, or Paula Cole were popular, so I guess Caillat is just part of the cycle of slight desire. No one wants it so bad that they feel like they need it, no one wants it because it's just a little bit different from what's already on the radio, and no one wants it because it's the continuation of something prevalent in today's trends. They want it because it's been a while since a soothing yet mildly passionate female voice over an acoustic open chord progression and layered "oohs" has dominated the airwaves. After Caillat's had her fun, we'll go back to our Auto-Tuned hip hop and nth-wave emo, and a year or so down the road, we'll meet another young mild-mannered young thing with a penchant for swaying her long hair back and forth while she giggles as Bobby Moynihan (I kid you not) courts her in a storytelling music video.

P.S. Starting this Wednesday, a pretty fun thing (for myself, anyway) is happening at my brand new Tumblr. For those that like countdowns, pretentious music and/or movies, check it out as I'll be updating it every twelve hours for at least a year or so.

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  1. Blogger qualler | 10:39 AM |  

    Man, that Lady Gaga vid is outta control. I say I'm appreciative that she uses modern art as an influence for her pop vidz -- not so many pop stars go that route, no matter how generic the music is (although I think this song is brilliant!)

    And I love how pleasant that Iyaz song is, and how it namedrops the iPod. It's good to know that angsty-emoness from The OC/Garden State can cross musical genres. Well done this month, Top 40.

  2. Blogger Brigitte | 3:03 PM |  

    Lady Gaga was on Gossip Girl last night. She's an alum of NYU, and since Blair is now for some reason trying to make friends with the Tisch kids, she, Dan, Vanessa, and HDuff wrote modern remake musical of Snow White using Lady Gaga songs. Then Lady Gaga gave a surprise performance at the end.

    I kind of love Lady Gaga.

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