I just got back from spending a week doing wedding-planning stuff in Northern Virginia, and writing about music in Northern Virginia is a profoundly different experience from doing it in New York even if it still necessarily involves spending hours every day staring blankly at a computer screen with headphones strapped to your ears. The biggest difference, for me at least, was the reliance on radio. This past week, I’ve been commuting all over DC’s suburbs to meet with florists and photographers and caterers, and the DC beltway is an absolute bitch at every hour of the day, so that means a whole lot of time in cars. And since I’m a fucking idiot and I didn’t hardly pack any CDs, this meant I was at the mercy of the radio most of the time. Now, Spider-Man 3 just came out, so this is officially summer, at least as far as the pop-cult timeline is concerned. And so every song that’s just beginning to achieve radio dominance is a summer-jam candidate. Something like Akon’s “Don’t Matter” or Fergie’s “Glamorous” doesn’t count; I heard both of them about a bajillion times this week, but they’ve been obnoxiously omnipresent for months. (Seriously, the next time I hear “Don’t Matter,” someone’s getting karate-chopped in the neck, and I used to like that song.) But hearing a song in the process of becoming a hit is always interesting, especially when you’ve already become accustomed to hearing it as an internet curio. In the world of large-market radio, the internet doesn’t mean a damn thing, even if I did once hear the Arcade Fire on a classic-rock station. These four songs were on the radio a whole lot this past weekend, and I think we’re going to have to resign ourselves to the prospect of hearing them a ton of times during the part of the year where pop music seems to matter the most.
Maroon 5: “Makes Me Wonder.” I’m almost annoyed at the prospect of suddenly having to take these formerly ignorable soft-rock hacks seriously, but this really is a pretty great song. When these guys could’ve kept making James Blunt money by churning out another record of overblown Starbucks-mush, it was actually a pretty brave choice for them to chase Justin Timberlake into full-blown cocaine-disco territory. It’s less jagged playful, and I’ll always prefer Luke Jenner’s strangulated whiteboy yelp to Adam Levine’s strangulated whiteboy yelp, but “Makes Me Wonder” absolutely inhabits the same universe as the last Rapture album. It’s not “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” or anything, but the return of itchy bongos and chicken-scratch guitar to drive-time pop radio is a reason to celebrate. The one thing I don’t really like about “Makes Me Wonder” is its general sense of distance. Whereas Timblerlake, in his FutureSex/LoveSounds incarnation, sounded dazzled and moved by his beats, Levine gives off a smarmy and entitled vibe, like he could really give less of a shit about the track he rides. That sort of disconnect threatens to lead Levine into Jamiroquai territory; the wounded vulnerability he implied on Kanye West’s “Heard Em Say” would’ve served him better here. Still, this is some top-notch soccer-mom music.
T-Pain: “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’).” The other day, I heard this one back-to-back with Lloyd’s “Get It Shawty (Remix),” another icy electro-R&B track with a guest verse from Yung Joc and the word Shawty in the title. The Lloyd song is better in pretty much every respect: better airy production, better emptily melancholic hook, better filtered falsetto vocal, better Joc verse (“Shimmy shimmy coco-pop / You should get to know Joc / I pull up in that hard-top, I bet I make your heart stop”). And yet I only heard “Get It Shawty (Remix)” once over the entire week, and I couldn’t get into the car without hearing “Buy U a Drank.” Why? Is it because T-Pain names a whole bunch of dances? Seriously, I don’t understand it. There’s something inherently likable about the way T-Pain always histrionically emotes totally meaningless lyrics through fifteen different filters, like he really, really wants to tell you something but he’s not exactly sure what that is. But “Buy U a Drank” gains absolutely nothing through constant repetition, and I really wish this song would disappear right now.
Rihanna feat. Jay-Z: “Umbrella.” I like Rihanna just fine when her producers give her the Cassie treatment, forcing her to breathily coo over fast and busy tracks that don’t give her any room to show off her nonexistent vocal range. That sort of vocal camouflage was a big part of why “Pon Di Replay” and “SOS” worked as well as they did. For some reason, though, she’s now being groomed as a Beyonce-level star, and she’s releasing tracks that force her to actually sing, which is not what I’d call a good look for her. The twinkling synths and vrooming distorto-guitars on “Umbrella” sound like money being spent, and the drawn out “ella-ella-eh-eh” hook is sort of fun, but I can’t escape the impression that she sounds too much like Alanis Morissette. Also, Jay-Z’s bored guest-verse here is exhibit A for anyone who still wonders why I didn’t like Kingdom Come. Virtually every time he steps in the booth these day, he sounds like he’d much rather be shopping for pocket squares or something.
Shop Boyz: “Party Like a Rockstar.” You know the Pack is mad they didn’t think of this shit first. Kiddie-rap novelty-hits don’t get a whole lot better than this, and the song and video make big-money rock sound and look more fun and interesting than it’s been in years, but I’m still somehow surprised that this song has graduated from funny-blog-post level and started creeping into ESPN montages. “Party Like a Rockstar” is the millionth example of why teenage enthusiasm yield exponentially greater rewards than actual rapping ability. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a great song, but I was overjoyed every time it came on the radio, and that’s by far the most important criteria for judging a would-be summer jam. The charmingly clueless “on the golf course, trippin’ with the Osbornes” lines get funnier every time.
Related news: I only heard “Big Shit Poppin'” on the radio once this week, and I never heard any 50 Cent. These are tough times for big rap stars! I heard Frankie J’s “More Than Words” cover a whole lot of times, but I’m not quite ready to start thinking about what that might mean.