Grading the iTunes Hits: David Cook, Rihanna, Coldplay


“Now I’m at a loss for words”

There’s been a decent amount of movement in the iTunes charts over the past few weeks, but nothing like what happened this morning, when all the post-finale American Idol tracks went up on sale and the top ten pretty much exploded. As I write this, we’ve got three David Cook songs and two David Archuleta one in the top ten, and poor Duffy, who only skimmed the top ten earlier this week, is already plummeting out of the top twenty. I’m never going to get to stop writing about these tools, am I?

David Cook: “Time of My Life.” This is the song that won the annual American Idol songwriters’ contest, and it’s exactly the sort of overblown treacly silliness that always wins that thing. None of these songs are ever any good, and “Time of My Life” abuses nonsensical Hallmark-card cliches particularly vigorously. Cook actually has to sell a line about “looking for that magic rainbow on the horizon.” Seriously, who, in 2008, sits down with a piece of paper and a pen and comes up with “magic rainbow”? And how does that song then go on to win a contest of any kind? The assembly line exists for a reason. The song is concerns the nebulous concept of living life to the fullest or whatever, just like all the rest of them, and so Cook gets to promise us that he’ll “taste every moment and live it out loud,” which is, at best, a mixed metaphor. The good news is that Cook’s elegantly grizzled growl is uniquely suited toward making a mess like this work. He’s shameless enough to treat a nothing like this like it was “Everybody Hurts,” and the way he builds from the gurgley snarls on the intro to a big drawn-out lung-busting note at the end shows that he’s already a pro. And the song’s construction is time-tested big-payoff power-ballad; I especially like the backing-vocal ahh-ahhs on the chorus. That Cook can make anything of this song is a minor miracle, and it bodes well for what might happen if Clive Davis starts throwing actual good songs his way. This mess immediately shot to #1 on iTunes pretty much the minute it was released, but it’s not for sale there anymore, which doesn’t make any sense at all. 5.7

Rihanna: “Take a Bow.” Another instant #1 and a song that completely dominated the iTunes singles chart up until that American Idol finale. This is one of those awful tacked-on ripoff tracks on a forthcoming special edition of Rihanna’s album, but unlike most of those shady bonus-tracks, this one can hang with just about anything on the rest of the album. I’ve never much liked Rihanna’s ballads because her voice is too icy and hard-edged to tackle anything resembling actual human emotion; she’s generally a whole lot better off with robotic dance-pop. “Take a Bow” works, though, because it the wronged-woman sentiment at its hard couldn’t be more cruelly expressed. “You’re so ugly when you cry,” she sniffs on the first verse, before sarcastically applauding whatever big speech the guy is giving her. She lets a few vague glints of humanity creep through (“Don’t tell me you’re sorry when you’re not / Baby, when I know you’re only sorry you got caught”), and there’s a subtly regretful undercurrent running through the thing, but this whole thing is basically what you don’t want to ever hear from a girlfriend. The track is one of these gleamingly professional and satisfying Ne-Yo/Stargate things, but the stately piano-and-strings construction doesn’t even has that vaguely comforting acoustic guitar running through it the way “Irreplaceable” did. Rihanna, meanwhile, sounds more confident every day; it’s fun watching her turn into an honest-to-God star. 7.6

Coldplay: “Viva la Vida.” This whole Brian Eno thing might work out after all! The Eno who shows up behind the boards here is the Unforgettable Fire Eno, not, like, the Cluster Eno, thank God. And suddenly Coldplay feel ready to make something other than another sweetly trancey pop tinkler about feeling good or something (not that I was complaining about that stuff) and go for the whole ridiculously proggy fallen-king concept-song thing instead. It’s fun to hear Chris Martin, still all mild-mannered falsetto, cooing about seeing the fear in his enemies’ eyes, and it’s even more better when all the delicately layered string-rondos explode into a bells-clanging, kettle-drums-baronging monster of a chorus. Maybe this gigantic splurge of a song says something about the self-defeating nature of absolute power, or maybe these goofballs are just thinking about how their titanically huge sound just isn’t titanically huge enough and how they should make adjustments accordingly. Either way, I’m sold. 8.2

Katy Perry: “I Kissed a Girl.” If nothing else, you have to respect the blatant mercenary hit-mongering going on here; any song willing to marry stomping glam synths to wound-up MySpace emo howls and sticky-gross Last Night’s Party sexiness wants to be a hit so badly that we can all taste it. And when we compare this track to the last song to hit with this title, we’ve got a full-blown Harbinger Of Changing Times on our hands. The 1995 Jill Sobule song wasn’t exactly unsexy, but it was more about genuine exploration, about a girl figuring stuff out for herself, delivered in the form of soft focus Lillith Fair folk-pop. It wasn’t a great song or anything, but it didn’t exploit the hell out of itself either. It was innocent. “Ain’t no big deal, it’s innocent,” yowls Katy Perry on the new one, but it’s so totally not. Coked-up club-pop is never innocent, and this song, I’m pretty sure, exists mostly to inspire boners on 14-year-olds everywhere: “I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it.” (Um, yeah, I’m sure he’s gonna be pissed.) It’s a fucking terrible song, but I can’t knock the hustle. 2.8

Duffy: “Mercy.” So British white-girl retro soul really is its own movement these days, huh? How does this stuff even happen? After the whole Winehouse apocalypse, it’s nice to hear someone as buoyant and drama-free as Duffy. She’s got an adorable little squeak of a voice and a pretty great clippity-clop polished-up Northern Soul dance-track working for her. It’s hard to complain about pastiche as lively and bouncy and competent as this; I just can’t quite understand why it exists. 7.4

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 23, 2008

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