Pop Music

Summer has officially begun and with the toastin’ and roastin’ temps and it’s time we crown a new Summer of 2010 pop song champion. It’s the 3rd annual SMASHgods competition, and I have to tell you, with pop radio stations blaring everywhere across this country, everyone is in the mood of enjoy a totally energetic song right now, whether it be cruising down Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood (KISS-FM, 102.7 with Ryan Seacrest), or the Upper East Side (Z-100 in Manhattan) or up north in SF, where I have managed to find no discernible difference between Wild 94.9, Energy 92.7 and Movin’ 99.7.

So what do all these stations have? They absolutely play the very same songs 24/7! You can literally get in your car, flip the radio on, avert your ears as Ke$ha wails, “Your love, your love, is my drug!”, run your errand and an hour or so later, as you park your car, the talent-challenged, buffalo-hat-wearing singer is back on the radio. Welcome to summer 2010, where getting in your car will feel like it’s Groundhog Day on your pop radio dials.Pop Star Icon

But no need to be too hard on the state of American pop music nowadays. In fact, there has been a resurgence of the pop single in the last several months. This has been a direct function of media companies furiously pushing artists such as Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, the Black Eyed Peas and really making them mega-artists. Lesser known artists like Iyaz, Jay Sean and Jason Derulo have broken through in a big way, not just because they had superb singles but they also managed to incorporate collaborations with well-known artists or rappers.

There has to be a world record for the number of times that Akon has cashed a paycheck for being on someone else’s songs, but let’s hope “Sexy Bitch”, the rousing club hit by French DJ David Guetta is his last, if only for the hypocritical lyrics: “I’m tryin’ to find the words to describe this girl/Without being disrespectful” when a moment ago he compared her to a “neighborhood ho’”. Again, don’t be sad if Akon starts turning down these collaboration requests soon. He’s too busy counting all the cash he’s making as owner of the Lady Gaga brand. The new king of the collaborations seems to be Ludacris. Luda can be heard on the wildly successful “Baby”, giving us a creative way to incorporate the word “Starbucks” into a rap about his “first love” on the song that really propelled Bieber to stardom; he is also on the wildly successful “Break Your Heart” single by newcomer Taio Cruz. Others who collect checks for a minute or two of rapping include the ubiquitous will.i.am and Lil’ Wayne, and both have virtually changed the format or feel of a record just with their presence.

Roland System 100m

Picking a summer song 2010 champion will require that it too be a huge singer, and hopefully by a well-known singer. It has to be a single that’s instantly recognizable, eminently hummable/singable (OK, those may not be real words), and really reflect our times right now. We’re not looking for any social commentary right now. This has to be disposable, but in a good way: a well-crafted song that also doesn’t necessarily have to be about summer. Let’s take a ride through our six finalists this year. Though the season has just started, we feel pretty confident that these songs will be around like the sticky summer heat for the next few months, if not the rest of the year. You can decide if this ear candy is a good thing or not.

“OMG”
Usher, featuring will.i.am

“OMG” is the kind of song that comes around every so often that by sheer force of its production value really challenges whatever pop status quo is out there. It’s an enormous blast, perfectly arranged, with a furious bass guitar to boot. As a matter of fact, it’s a lot like “Yeah!” (keeping it simple!), Usher’s opening single from 2004’s Confessions”: a song that went against all conventions that lifted that album into the DJstratosphere. “OMG” is on its way to becoming probably Usher’s biggest single now, but it almost didn’t turn out that way. For one thing, this wasn’t the first single off his uneven “Raymond v. Raymond” disc. That choice went to “Daddy’s Home”, a pleasing, not-terribly original tune that seemed to suggest, perhaps awkwardly, that the “Daddy” he was talking to his girl about could also refer to the fact that Mr. Usher Raymond III, has a son, 4-year-old Usher Raymond IV. And joint custody, too, thanks to a very messy divorce from Tameka Foster. It’s what inspired the current disc in the first place. While some critics have found it uncomfortable to have early-30s and father Usher croon about sexing girls in the clubs (like “In the Club”, from 2008), it’s clear that he has managed to bring in the biggest talent to put together this record. We can forgive the lyrics “Honey got a booty like pow pow pow” and “boobies like wow oh wow” if only for the fact that we’re too busy following the seamless production and the vocal gymnastics that only he can bring.

“In My Head”

Jason Derulo

The former Jason Desrouleaux (the French just doesn’t roll off the tongue) hit it big last year with a brazen appropriation (some would call it a “sample”) of indie pop queen Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” in his worldwide smash, “Whatcha Say”. People who didn’t know who Imogen Heap was were nonetheless entranced by the vocal, thinking that there was a female singer on the track. Instead, people had to look up where the heck this bit of earworm came from. I happen to think that she very much made this song successful, though she was not ever “there”. Let’s credit the technical wizards who managed to thread this all together amid a decent beat and a vocal by Derulo that, even if it sounded a little strained at the end, still had some massive Auto-Tune to back him up. “In My Head” is the follow-up single to “Whatcha’ Say”, and it improves on it only because Derulo’s vocal is more confident and because it sounds like a more solid R&B song that could kill at any club anywhere in the world. Tight beats and outstanding hooks will make your song memorable, and the young Derulo, who is all of 21 and is finally emerging from the other pack of male singers who came out at exactly the same time, Jay Sean and Iyaz. He has the substance to carry him forward. And his people are also busy rushing out a new single, ‘Solo”, just so you won’t forget this guy for the next months to come.

“I Want to be a Billionaire”

Travie McCoy, featuring Bruno Mars

Travie McCoy, lanky and wacky lead singer of Gym Class Heroes and ex of Katy Perry, has got a massive single in “Billionaire”, but it almost seems like an unlikely genre for him. He is a gifted rapper, good natured and humorous, as opposed to something angrier and rougher, but then that is perfectly appropriate for what is essentially a beautifully sung reggae hit lifted by a lilting guitar. It’s almost an acoustic performance that is set off by raps from McCoy that almost recall the soaring and sunnier Will Smith, back in the days of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Despite what sounds like a song that extols material wealth, it’s a fairly optimistic song about what one would do with all that cash. Far from buying the jewels and cars that you’d find in some hardcore rap lyrics, Travie wants to go to where Katrina hit and do a better joh “than FEMA did” and perhaps bring serve a little good to the world. The video is similarly happy and he seems to be having a good time riding not in a Maybach like Diddy or a Gallardo like Akon, but he’s zipping around the beaches of Cal in a Mini Cooper roadster! That’s what wealth buys you. And he still gives the keys to the surfer/hitchhiker!

Mini Cooper

I mean, what song this summer has the soaring lines, “A different city every night/I swear/The world better prepare/For when I’m a billionaire” that doesn’t also make you sing at the top of your lungs? The song owes a lot of its allure to the scintillating voice of Bruno Mars, aka Peter Hernandez, hip-hop’s own Boricua/Pinoy budding superstar who hails from Hawaii. With a strong yet soothing voice, he easily lifts the tune to a yearning and soulfulness that runs circles around the folkie-gringo-granola-at-Café Gratitude warblings of Jason Mraz. It’s funny that this song, perhaps because of its reggae inflection is even being compared to Mraz’s recent hit, “I’m Yours”; the two singers couldn’t be more different. Finally, this being Mars’s second huge vocal this year –the first being B.O.B’s extraordinary “Nothin’ On You”—his huge promise has forced his own budding label to release his first EP, “It’s Better if You Don’t Understand”. Those sounds you hear now are: one, everyone scrambling to get Mars into a big studio for more of his vocals; and two, everyone stepping over each other to let Mars outshine them on their own collaborations and still look good in the process. Thank you B.O.B. and Travie for sending this brotha out into the world.

“California Gurls”

Katy Perry, featuring Snoop Dogg

I mean, come on: isn’t this literally “song of summer” bait? This was all for the world to see recently at the MTV Movie Awards. Katy Perry, in shocking blue hair and bikini, dancing on stage with a slew of bouncy dancers, shimmying to all that California girls have to offer, just as some of the dancers simulate something with their hands when they sing that the girls are “melting popsicles”, just as Snoop Dogg appears on a throne with a “Dogg” t-shirt and cut off shorts” talking about the fine “ladies”. The song is a scream, and every bit of it is so consciously cute and, yes, contrived, that it simply has to qualify as something both catchy and disposable.

One surprise is that the song, written by Perry, is supposed to be a West Coast answer to the recent Jay Katy PerryZ/Alicia Keys anthem “New York State of Mind”. Which is a little odd because this song is much more playful and really all wants to tell you about how hot and fun the girls “in Daisy Dukes” are –which is probably just as well for Katy Perry, who isn’t known for too much social commentary. She just wants to have fun, and wants to get away with being far more than cheeky. Yes, that is her nude body spread out along the carpet of pink cotton candy. Hey, she’s winking at us! What’s wrong with a little fun this summer? (Wink, wink!) What is wrong with beaming rays of color –what are those, breasts that squirt white frosting? (Wink, wink!) In this age of 10-minute Jonas Akerlund-directed heavy handed clips for the latest Gaga epic whose premiere gets announced by Larry King on his show as if it’s breaking news, and all that Gaga’s rapidly insufferable, and increasingly batty tyranny of excess that is being unfurled on the world, I’m glad we have something peppy, sexy and ultimately buoyant. (And that’s not just because I like the girls in Cali too!)

“Airplanes”

B.O.B, featuring Hayley Williams

The smash follow-up to “Nothin’ On You” is a bit of a change of pace and a inspired collaboration between tight, “relevant” rap lyrics by Bobby Ray, but an emotionally charged vocal by Williams, the lead singer of Paramore. This is the kind of risk taking that pop music needs badly: taking two genres that don’t seem to fit together, but coupled with plaintive, honest lyrics about hopes and quelling your fears, and a forceful rap that speaks about a future that’s in the sky, this has the potential to break a lot of barriers this summer. It’s the song everyone instantly likes, and one of the standout tracks off the stellar “Adventures of Bobby Ray” disc. (Note: would you believe that there’s an even better song that’s already out, too? It’s the pulsating, Outkast-like “Magic” with Rivers Cuomo of Weezer.)

“Bulletproof’

La Roux

I’ll admit that at first listen, I wasn’t crazy about this song. It sounded a bit old school 90s, almost like a Cover Girls/Expose kind of arrangement until I managed to listen much closer to the synth arrangements that seemed to harken back to a much earlier period –one of Erasure, Heaven 17, or even Eurythmics back in the early 80s. La Roux is a duo that is led by Elly Jackson, an androgynous-like singer who seems to resemble a cross between Annie Lennox and Tilda Swinton by way of Gumby (must be the stiff, tall flip of red hair atop her head). But this is 2010, and this synth stuff isn’t supposed to be popular, what with all the hip hop. Maybe that’s why the single, out in Europe since early last year, is probably gaining so much attention. You really
can’t
escape Jackson’s
screaming, almost shrieking vocals
You really can’t escape Jackson’s screaming, almost shrieking vocals; they’re arguably the weakest part of the song. But very few songs out there have the rapid, complex synthetic beats that this one does. I defy anyone not to be obliterated by the disarmingly crushing fade that occurs at the end of the first chorus —fast forward to 01:11. Guess what? La Roux also hit it big this past spring at Coachella and has just launched a mini-tour around the US. This much is true: “Bulletproof” brilliantly captures an emotional mood that all relate to; it’s also a catchy, sing-a-long tune with a chorus about protecting yourself for your next heartbreak – a plea for girls (and boys) to be strong and true to themselves.

WINNER: Isn’t this one obvious? Score another one for Perry, who won this competition in 2008 with “I Kissed a Girl”. We could be hearing this song, on the radio, in video clips, or in person for many months, even years to come. This could be the happiest song of the year, and one day perhaps a state song for California, or one that Perry can sing at all big Golden State events, like next year’s Inauguration for a new governor, or the Rose Bowl, both of which will occur within days of each other in January 2011. It’s just an idea.

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