In times of chaos, omnipresent pop tunes, like mashed potatoes, provide us with great comfort. And in a year marked by bloodshed in Iraq, SARS in Hong Kong and Canada, the worst blackout in U.S.history, and marauding tigers in Vegas, it seems almost churlish to turn a critical eye on 2003’s inescapable hits. But we’re going to do it anyway. Because this is America, and we still can. Joining us in asserting our right to free and frequently bitchy speech are singer/songwriter John Mayer (whose sophomore major-label disc, Heavier Things, debuted at No. 1 inSeptember) and comedian/indie-rock aficionado David Cross (who toured the States throughout 2003 in support of his Sub Pop comedy album, Shut Up You Fucking Baby!).
SEAN PAUL, “GET BUSY”
(Inescapable dancehall smash; in other words, this year’s “Informer,” “Here Comes the Hotstepper,” or “It Wasn’t Me”)
DAVID CROSS: This song has tormented me! It’s not that good,and yet it was everywhere! I feel like I was 11 or 12 when I first heard this — that’s how many times I’ve heard it. But it does make me think of big, sweaty asses jiggling in my head. Rapidly. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se.
JOHN MAYER: When do you actually hear Sean Paul unless you listen to the one radio station in every major city that plays SeanPaul? But once you turn the radio off, there’s no Sean Paul. He doesn’t exist in actual culture. Usually, by the time an artist gets to a couple-times platinum, you have some kind of cultural stamp. You’re embedded. I remember hearing this and thinking, “This Sean Paul guy’s just as famous as can be.” But he’s actually not. And that’s the trick.
(Folkie poetess’ bid for club hit, huge gay following)
CROSS: First of all, it’s a bad song. Second of all, it’s such a blatant attempt to redefine herself. It’s so obvious.
MAYER: The beat is lumbering and plodding, and it’s got the most unsingable chorus of the year. It almost has a “Puttin’ on the Ritz” [Taco’s 1982 hit] quality. It’s the song you least wanna hear when you have a high fever and are on the verge of throwing up. Because it’s got that carnival-like, spinning-room vibe. It really is the sound of being sick.
JUNIOR SENIOR, “MOVE YOUR FEET”
(Dance-floor alterna-pop from Denmark)
CROSS: They’re Danish? Well, I’m all for free trade and open markets. This seems pretty disposable. I like it. It’s fun summer music, but I won’t be looking for it in a year, going, “Oh, shit,where’s that Junior Senior tape?”
MAYER: This may be the future of music.
SPIN: How so?
MAYER: It’s a song that you can learn before it’s over. It’s part of the continual blurbing of American culture — this skip-forward generation. “I don’t wanna learn lyrics. Don’t give me a verse; just give me a chorus. And just chant some shit over the verse.” But nobody’s left out. The person who’s heard this song 20 times is no closer to understanding it than the person who listens to it for the first time.
LIAM LYNCH, “UNITED STATES OF WHATEVER”
(Weird Al on a skateboard)
CROSS: [Hits stop button six seconds in] Yeah, I get it.
THE BLACK EYED PEAS, “WHERE IS THE LOVE?”
(Protest-rap pop breakthrough)
MAYER: Now, this song I really like, but when I hear it, I hear “No Woman No Cry” in the key of F. I understand why it’s a hit,and it’s great for them. Unfortunately, to get on the radio they have to slide that medicine in the dog food of pop music, which is a shame.Black Eyed Peas have been around for six years — they’ve put out three records. This is something you do when you decide that it’s not working, that you’re not hitting as many people as you wish you could.
THE DONNAS, “TAKE IT OFF”
(Bubblegum garage-metal hit, not unlike their previous bubblegum garage-metal non-hits)
MAYER: It’s like the Saved by the Bell theme. [Sings] “When I wake up in the morning / And the clock lets out a warning/ It’s all right, ’cause I’m saved by the bell.”
CROSS: Out of all the stuff so far, this is way up my alley.?I don’t know if you’ve seen my alley: It’s up around Tenth, betweenSecond and Third.
THE ATARIS, “THE BOYS OF SUMMER”
(Cover of Don Henley’s elegiac 1984 boomer-noir chestnut)
CROSS: I congratulate them on being officially the one-millionth kitschy, we-cover-this-old-’80s-song-in-a-pop-punk-styleband. And they don’t do much with it except speed it up. Also, the idea behind the original song is completely gone. I loathe Don Henley, but I get the sentiment. The words might as well be Greek to these guys.
CHINGY, “RIGHT THURR”
(The latest Southern hip-hop slang primer)
MAYER: It’s vocab rock. It provides new words and phrases for the language. Like “bootylicious,” “gettin’ jiggy wit it,” “back that azz up,” “hot in herre.” You can keep going.
SPIN: Snoop talk.
MAYER: Yeah. Every three or four years, hip-hop unknowingly gives white America 12 more references to use in movies about white people from Beverly Hills trying to act black.
(Antimaterialist electro sermon becomes a Gap jingle.)
CROSS: [Sings] “I lost my memory in Hollywood.” I don’t think that’s all she’s lost. Virginity, dignity….
MAYER: You mean to tell me that one of the most successful,cutting-edge, avant-garde icons has gone far into her artistic cache and come up with a song about how Hollywood is weird. Oh, my God! Now we are cutting through to the truth with laser-light precision.
LINKIN PARK, “SOMEWHERE I BELONG”
(Rap-metalists prove that teen angst still pays off.)
MAYER: More anxiety rock. It’s stuff you write when you’re having a panic attack. But I believe it. What it comes down to with these bands is “Do you believe them?” Because anybody can write: “I just wanna tear my skin off / And show it to you / And say, ‘Here’s whoI am’ / And bleed all over your hands.” The integrity of this band is really, really cool.
CROSS: Whine, whine, whine, whine, whine, whine, whine,whine, whine. “I’m a ten-year-old white suburban girl — this is what I think.” I swear, are these guys hanging outside junior-high girls’ gym lockers and writing down what they overhear and then turning it into music? Are they 16?
BLUR, “CRAZY BEAT”
(Punky post-Britpop with Fatboy Slim-assisted chorus seemingly sung by a mallard in a Regent’s Park pond)
CROSS: I’m psyched that they were able to get Rick Dees to do the “Disco Duck” thing to celebrate that song’s 25th anniversary.
MAYER: When I hear this first part, I hear Princess Leia saving Han Solo from carbonite at the beginning of Return of the Jedi,when she says, “Your eyesight will return in time.” He says, “Who are you?” She says, “Someone who loves you.”
THE ALL-AMERICAN REJECTS, “SWING, SWING”
(Five or six Weezer-lite hooks + nasal rock-boy vocals = prom-night forever)
CROSS: [Sings] “Emotions, they stir / Emotions, they stir.” ?I like it so far. Yeah! “Need a hit” written all over it! [Sings] “On the phewne!” Phewne? Where’s he from? New Zealand? It’s phone! Fuck you guys! You had me, you had me.
METALLICA, “ST. ANGER”
(Jackhammering return to former hardness)MAYER: First of all, it doesn’t sound very good. [Drums kick in] Woooo!That is trashy-sounding! I remember reading that [producer] Bob Rock said he just wanted to make a trashy-sounding record, which I believe. [Verse begins] Ooh! This is terrible — I can’t listen to it anymore. This is the Metallica tribute band.
T.A.T.U., “NOT GONNA GET US”
(Ultraproduced, Russian lesbian teen-pop anthem)
MAYER: What are they, German?
CROSS: I don’t know anything about this group, but they sound kind of dykey. Perhaps I’d like it better if they made out. What does T.A.T.U. stand for: “Tongue and Tits United”?
LIMP BIZKIT, “EAT YOU ALIVE”
(Stalker anthem a la Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sex Type Thing,” apparently without the irony)
MAYER: It’s Skid Row’s “Monkey Business.” I can’t tell you why, but it just feels like “Monkey Business.” And the video’s kind of like “Monkey Business.” If you think of it chronologically, on a career track, it also might be “Monkey Business.”
SPIN: What do you mean?
MAYER: Well, what happened to Skid Row after “Monkey Business”?
SPIN: They sort of disappeared.
MAYER: [Nods head]
CROSS: [Holds Limp Bizkit CD] Hmm.
SPIN: Track 2.
CROSS: [Places CD on floor, smashes it with bare foot, picks up broken disc, tries to load it into player] I’m sorry. I’m trying to play it. I think this CD you gave me is fucked up. The machine, it’s not taking it….
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE, “ROCK YOUR BODY”
(Neptunes-produced, Jacko-inspired, couples-only jam)
MAYER: Justin’s attention to what sounds good is all that guides him, and that’s why he will always and forever write hits. He knows what sounds good, not what’s right or wrong musically. Same thing with Pharrell [Williams, who produced]. [Sings] “Got time, but I don’t mind.” That’s the best melody of the year right there. It’s just acrobatic.
CROSS: I can’t stand this fraudulent piece of shit. He’s nota real person. Everything is affected — “What’s up, dawg?” It’s completely dishonest. Every vestige of him, every fiber of this fuckin’ Mickey Mouse Club thing — it’s just crap. The music is completely unoriginal. It’s not even an homage to Michael jackson. He should be ashamed of himself. [Picks up ringing telephone] Hello? Oh, my God, hang on a second. [To Spin] It’s Justin Timberlake. Yes! [To phone] Justin, I’m sorry. What’s happenin’, dawg?