After Billboard released its 2011 year-end charts on Friday I pored over them, looking for patterns and trends with which I could make sense of the year in pop. If someone asked you to pinpoint “the sound of popular music in 2011,” there are countless fads and running themes that you could point to. The insistent thump of European dance music from producers like David Guetta and Afrojack ruled pop radio, while Lex Luger’s frenzied hi-hats dominated mainstream hip-hop. Questionably talented singers continued to abuse AutoTune, while rap superstars both on and off the Young Money roster jettisoned “like a” from their wordplay in favor of the ever-popular “hashtag” (or, as I like to call it, “grocery bag”) punchline.
Looking over the year-end Hot 100, however, I noticed a much more mundane musical accessory that had been quietly dominating the airwaves all year: Whistling. One of humankind’s oldest forms of melodic expression, the whistle has long been a tool mostly relied on by those who might not be able to sing or play an instrument. Recorded music has relegated whistling to more of a novelty, something that might pop up memorably in the occasional classic like Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”—more of a whimsical finishing touch than a central hook.
2011 changed all of that.
Whistling melodies, whether actually whistled by a human being or merely simulated with a sampler or synthesizer, feature prominently in no fewer than five of the year’s biggest Hot 100 hits: “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera (ranked at No. 9 on the year-end list); “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster The People (No. 13); “Good Life” by OneRepublic (No. 25); “The Lazy Song” by Bruno Mars (No. 26); and “I Wanna Go” by Britney Spears (No. 46). A sixth whistling top 40 hit, Jason Derulo’s “It Girl,” peaked at No. 17 and was too recent a release to hit the year-end charts. If whistling was an artist, it’d be more ubiquitous than Lil Wayne (who only has four songs in the top 50). If whistling was a producer/songwriter, it’d be tied with Stargate and nipping at the heels of Max Martin (who has a dizzying seven songs in the top 50) and his frequent collaborator Dr. Luke (who has six).
In the spring Katy Perry and Lady Gaga both released singles with prominent saxophone solos, and a flurry of trendpieces predicted the comeback of an instrument that had been unfashionable on the pop charts since the ’80s. While “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” and “The Edge of Glory” performed admirably on the year-end chart (at No. 14 and No. 29, respectively), the sax was simply no match for the whistle this year.
Like the sax, the whistle last had this kind of presence in pop music back in the ’80s. It was a happy-go-lucky signifier in Bobby McFerrin’s deathless novelty hit “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” and key to J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold.” In the late ’80s and early ’90s, as the age of the hard rock power ballad came to a close, both “Patience” by Guns N’ Roses and “Winds of Change” by the Scorpions whistled their way into the top 10. For the next 20 years, the Hot 100 was relatively whistle-free.
Not long ago, one might have called 2006 the year of the whistle. Rappers Juelz Santana and Too $hort scored urban radio hits with “There It Go (The Whistle Song)” and “Blow The Whistle,” respectively (although the latter samples the blowing of a referee’s metal whistle, as opposed to the act of whistling through one’s lips like most of these other songs). Bob Sinclair’s “World, Hold On” was an international dance hit the same year. And the Swedish indie trio Peter Bjorn & John released the blog-rock smash “Young Folks,” widely considered an inspiration for Foster The People’s hit. But aside from the wolf whistle of the Juelz Santana hit, which reached No. 6, those songs had nowhere near the Hot 100 impact that 2011’s whistling anthems had.
While wring this I overheard an ad for VH1’s end-of-year video countdown in which one of the network’s talking-head commentators remarked, “I guess I don’t know what the lyrics are, I get caught up in the whistling.” I’m pretty sure he was referring to “Pumped Up Kicks,” which was playing in the background, but he could just as easily have been referring to “Moves Like Jagger,” “The Lazy Song,” “Good Life” or “I Wanna Go,” most or all of which will inevitably make the channel’s year-end chart. I shudder to think of a 2012 in which pop producers latch onto this accidental trend and start deliberately filling singles with more high, piercing whistle. Perhaps by this time next year we’ll be talking about a sudden flurry of chart hits driven by humming or animal sounds.