Sunday, May 26, 2013

Regnant Couples (Ten at Fifty)

I've waited so long for school to be through
Paula, I can't wait no more for you

- "Hey Paula", by Paul and Paula

Number 7 in 1963 was sappy even by the era's standards, even including a sentimental, watery organ. In addition, "Hey Paula" had the fewest lyrics of its top ten, partly because of its relaxed pace, partly because it was on the short side with a longish intro. It explicitly promoted the post-high-school wedding and the glories and isolation of young love. And it was typical of the kind of song, like those of the Chordettes or Dickie Lee, or this:

which would not survive the transition to the Beatles/Beach Boys era.

Paul and Paula didn't have those first names, but were "packaged" as a couple in an era that saw great success for singing couples like April Stevens and Nino Tempo, who had a smash with a more pop cover of "Deep Purple" that year, and culminated with couples like Ian and Sylvia, Richard and Mimi Farina, and Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood.

(Former Go-Go Belinda Carlisle managed to score an eighties comeback with the upbeat "Heaven is a Place on Earth", which channeled the "Imagine" sensibility of abandoning the promise of the afterlife in the name of strengthening the couple's love.)

See the girls in the club
They looking at us

- "Scream and Shout", and Britney Spears

There is a rap element to this song, but its agenda and tempo are all dance, the lyrics insubstantial and vain. I have to align myself with some negative reviewers:

"... it lacks the extra "oomph" and originality that would make "Scream and Shout" a truly memorable single. It's the kind of club track that's serviceable enough in the moment, but it's not likely to stick in your head on the cab ride home at 2 a.m.".[37] Emily Exton of PopDust contributor wrote that Spears' contribution is an improvement from "will's monotonous requests to 'lose control', 'let it go' and 'hit the floor'..."

Perhaps they were contrasting with

or Swedish H.M. at #10. Could you say that this is kind of a "It's All Right" for the millenials? I sort of think not, but I can't, of course, inhabit the context, my tastes diverge too much from this. I think of the blues context of the earlier song, sounding in its context a bit pagan perhaps to a white audience, and some of the Black America context persists in this song, but it seems self-consciously self-indulgent, arrogant, "oh, yeah, we're bringing it." But maybe we'll have to defer judgment until we've seen a little more of what the dance realm offers in these most popular songs.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Kid Grows Up (Ten at Fifty)

"Let me hear you say 'Yeah!'"
- "Fingertips, Part II", Little Stevie Wonder

The #8 position juxtaposes the two longest songs of their respective top ten lists this week. "Fingertips" at over three minutes, is one of a very short list of songs of its era to be essentially ad libbed, "What'd I Say" representing one of the most famous. As a result, its lexicon is more limited than the other nine of its list, with only 56 distinct words employed, with the most frequent, "yeah", being used almost as many times as the three title words of "It's All Right". And each word appears to have motive force, with the virtuosic chromatic harmonica serving as dressing as much as musical core, and the orchestra can be kind of an afterthought:

It would be difficult to imagine another 13-year-old in such control.

(But it is impressive, nonetheless, that "Could've Been" launched a 17-year-old Tiffany to this position twenty-five years later. Even if there is nothing particularly exciting about the song.)

"But the album’s first single, 'Suit & Tie,' is widely acknowledged to be a misstep. At more than five minutes, it’s a single knocked slowly past first base at best. In the video (and it is uncharacteristically helpful to the song), we learn that Timberlake is friends with Jay-Z, knows attractive women, and has an iPad. After almost a minute, the track brings in a clipped horn section and a fleet, rapid beat, a bit like Chicago Steppers music blended with Earth, Wind and Fire. The vocal harmonies, like those on many of Timberlake’s recordings, are creamy and dense enough to distract you from what’s little more than a plea to put on a suit."

 - Sasha Frere-Jones, The New Yorker

"Suit and Tie", with a running time of about 5:30, is in no hurry to cover what the producers might have viewed as two bases, the first being hip-hop, the second being more or less 80's pop. Born thirty years after Wonder, and ten years after Tiffany, Timberlake hit it big with 'N Sync in teen pop at the same age as Stevie was in that Ed Sullivan appearance. Their early hit "I Want You Back" is more or less in the musical mode of an icon near his birth, Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean". His more recent bid to enter the mainstream is ubiquitous enough to spawn some spoofs, and the spirited Jazz adaptation among others:


 "Suit and Tie" has the highest word count of any song of the two top ten sets, partly because it's the only song employing anything like a rap motif - perhaps a clear indication that the door is closing on that era, given the fact that several songs each quarter or so made the top ten a decade ago.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Heaven and Squares (Ten at Fifty)

#9 - "Washington Square", The Village Stompers

The Washington Square scene was folk central for the U.S., Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Jesse Colin Young, Dave van Ronk and company becoming entranced with Americana and other influences, and feeding the popular end of a scene in the form of the Kingston Trio and the Village Stompers, who had the sole instrumental in the two top ten lists I've elected to cover. The instrumental was not unusual, however; the Peter Gunn theme did very well, Lawrence Welk managed several top ten entries through the early sixties, as did the Ventures and others. But a banjo lead was, and continues to be, only found in this song near the top of the charts. reminds us that the Stompers were a Dixieland outfit first and foremost, and much of their material started with a more emphatic Dixieland orientation than either their lone hit or, for instance, Pete Seeger's reading of "If I Had a Hammer",

which they also covered in their brief frenzy of releases (above they rethink what was more of a country hit of a few years before.)

(The mega-pop band Breathe introduced the "heaven" theme we would see in 25 years at this position with their greatest hit "Hands to Heaven", a song of unhappy departure like "Louie Louie" or its source song "Havana Moon". Although a Peabo Bryson or an Air Supply could spin out a decade's success on their kind of smooth, they weren't able to capitalize to that extent, and ended up as a short-lived if strong success.)

"You make me feel like I've been locked out of heaven for too long"

- Bruno Mars, "Locked Out of Heaven"

In something that sounds quite a bit like The Police in the late Seventies, Bruno Mars cuts a swath on the pop scene with this tune, partly because he elects to talk about sex. Hawaiian-born, steeped in Elvis and Prince, he relies on bluesy singing skills to deliver this song, which is simultaneously pop, rock, and blues, with the Police-like ska feel with the Sting-like high tenor, and not a little Michael Jackson.

Mars is ready for smooth as well, here in what might be a more customary "hatted" mode:

He is enough of a powerhouse this year that we will see him again on our march to #1.