The month in popular music (August 2007)

another month, another radio graphic

Well it’s August and we’ve officially reached the dog days of summer, when people finally start to tire of the ubiquitous pop hits (looking in your direction, Maroon 5 and Rihanna) and look to throw something a little different up on the charts. Hence, it’s time to revisit “The Month in Popular Music.”

A quick note before we begin: more than one of the “official” YouTube videos for the songs below had their embedding disabled by the record label who posted them. It was easy enough to find alternate copies, but it irked me none the less. Do these people not get that the whole beauty of YouTube is in letting the material go viral? Why on earth should a record company care how someone sees their artist’s video as long as they see it? Some people just don’t get social media.

Plain White T’s – “Hey There Delilah”

An acoustic ballad from a pop-punk band whose entire album sounds completely different? An older song in the band’s catalogue tacked onto the end of their major label debut? God, this has one-hit-wonder written all over it, doesn’t it? Back in ancient times, this would lead to millions of disappointed record sales. Today, people can just download the track and take or leave the rest accordingly. Enjoy the ride while it lasts, boys.

Anyways, as far as one-hit-wonders go, it’s pretty great. The song sounds absolutely timeless, to the point where I was completely sure that it was a cover the first time I heard it. It’s a simple lyric but not atrocious, and it’s a nice change of pace to hear an acoustic ballad on the radio. The video’s pretty annoying, though. I don’t need some sad little emo boy’s pretty puppy dog eyes staring into the depths my soul, thank you very much.

Sean Kingston – “Beautiful Girls”

Out of context, “Beautiful Girls” sounds like a ridiculously bizarre single. But it makes perfect sense when you think about it. This sort of sultry faux-reggae is a popular sound lately (see “Don’t Matter”), and thanks to Hairspray, Motown and doo-wop are totally back in style. Fuse the two together into some unholy union and what do you get? “Beautiful Girls” on top of the pop charts.

It’s a charmingly minimalist track, with nothing more going than the melody and the vocals, the former of which is pretty sublime. The vocals, on the other hand, bug the hell out of me. What’s with every R&B singer sounding like an android these days? Akon, Rihanna, Sean Kingston…there’s nothing natural to their vocal performances, nothing spontaneous. They’re mastered, overdubbed, autotuned to the point that they’re barely human. That’s right – the machines have already won.

Fergie – “Big Girls Don’t Cry”

Few pop stars perplex me more than Fergie. Like, I can understand why this song is a hit. It’s catchy and unoffensive enough that it can garner a ridiculous amount of Top 40 airplay, and though it contains the worst line of the year (that would be “I’m gonna miss you like a child misses their blanket”), most people don’t listen to the lyrics anyways.

But it takes more than songs to make a pop star; the public has to buy into your entire image. So what do people see in Fergie? What part of her popular story has captured the public imagination? I’m tempted to blame payola for her solo success, but there must be something about her that strikes a chord with the non-Ryan music-listening public that I simply don’t understand at all.

Timbaland featuring Keri Hilson – “The Way I Are”

While the rest of us were paying attention when our English teacher was explaining verb tenses, Timbaland was clearly skipping class to work on some killer beats. Everyone I know seems to love “The Way I Are,” and there’s no question that it’s a great hook, but is it a great song?

I kind of feel like Tim is coasting a bit here, like he came up with this synth riff and just decided to quit right there. The lyric isn’t anything to write home about, and while it’s kind of cute that he’s sampling his own “Sexy Back,” its novelty wears off rather quickly. But let’s face it: nobody can hear anything but the hook when you’re on the dance floor. No wonder this one rips it up night after night.

Kanye West – “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” & “Stronger”

With each of his three albums, Kanye has put out two pre-release singles, one acting as something of a warm-up for the other. The first one is personal, a first-person preview of the self-conscious neuroses that he’ll be struggling with this record. The second one is the banger, the one designed to charge up the charts.

“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is the first single from September’s Graduation, and compared to past first Kanye singles, it’s a pretty big disappointment. It’s not a bad song, but it’s an album track through-and-through, with very little going on to make it single-worthy. Very little, that is, until Kanye got comedian Zach Galifianakis to put together an alternate video. Throwing in hay bales, chainsaws, singer-songwriter Will Oldham and yelling at cows? That’s one way to render the original version entirely pointless.

But the second single more than makes up for the shortcomings of the first. With a killer Daft Punk sample in his pocket, Kanye puts aside the soul-influenced jams that are his bread and butter and embraces a techno side we never knew he had. Then he pairs it with a video based on the classic anime film Akira and gives Daft Punk a starring role. And then, to top it off, he single-handed brings Macho Man Randy Savage sunglasses back into fashion. Need any more proof that Mr. West ranks among the most fascinating pop stars of the decade?

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