Number Ones: The Highest Selling Singles in Oz for 2012, 20 - 11
I write TheVine's Number Ones column, and part of the reason I do so is that I think a song selling more than any other over the period of a week is interesting. The song itself might not be interesting, but it's usually interesting (to me, at least) to try and understand what people see in it. Of course, plenty of songs sell a lot of records without quite making it to number one, and so I'm always fascinated by the end of year chart. What songs could have been number ones except for that pesky other song?
Last month, ARIA released their annual Top 100 Singles Chart of 2012. This year, of the top 20, there were six songs that were some variation of teen pop (Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, etc), five songs that were some variation on rock or indie (fun., Maroon 5, The Script), three songs of singer-songwriter ilk (Ed Sheeran, Matt Corby, etc), five songs based around rap vocals (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Flo Rida) and one song that's apparently progressive trance (Swedish House Mafia). In comparison to last year, this is a lot more white people being angsty and a bunch less R&B mythologising The Club. Anyway, without further ado: here's the Top 20.
20. The Script (feat. will.i.am) - 'Hall of Fame'
This song is cliché after cliché after cliché. Many of the musical clichés are of the anthemic Coldplay variety - there's the regulation arpeggiated piano figure (you know, like the piano in 'Clocks') that is meant to signal seriousness to pop fans, for whom Coldplay is the extent of seriousness. There's the po-facedness, there's the general lilt of the melody. You can sing the chorus of 'Battle Scars' by Guy Sebastian & Lupe Fiasco over the chorus of this, because they have the same chords, pretty much. The '(feat. will.i.am)' credit is a genre of cliche unto itself (and one that usually means 'we desperately want this to be a hit'). But the biggest cliches are in the aspirational lyrics so vague and free of content. I mean, the song starts with the lines 'you could be the greatest, you can be the best', and the chorus goes something like 'dedicate yourself and you can find yourself standing in the hall of fame/ and the world's gonna know your name'.
Mind you, as David Foster Wallace points out in his gargantuan epic novel Infinite Jest, cliches can contain deep truths, and believing in cliches isn't necessarily a bad thing. DFW fictionalised his experiences at Alcoholics Anonymous in a thinly veiled way, and wrote at length of his troubles with the cliches that AA members were meant to live their lives by ("one day at a time", "keep it simple"). But, he realised, the cliches weren't meant to be taken as intellectual exercises or words containing straightforwardly true concepts. Instead, they function as mantras. True or not, the cliches help you get through the night. Perhaps this is also the case for the likes of 'Hall of Fame'; certainly, many athletes and musicians (and the like) talk as if they believe every aspirational cliche in the book, and that it helped them struggle through the hard times in the belief that it would one day be worth it. You *could* be the greatest. Maybe the world will know your name. You *can* triumph over almost unbelievable adversity.
Though, after the world figures out that you've cheated and taken performance enhancing drugs in order to be the best? They'll want your blood.
19. Taylor Swift - 'We Are Never Ever (Ever) Getting Back Together (Like Ever)'
It's nice to see so obviously perfect a pop song actually do what perfect pop songs should do: that is, end up one of the biggest selling songs of the year, end up becoming part of a lot of people's lives. It'd be the obvious pop song of the year if not for, you know, the one about using a telephone, perhaps.
The biggest achievement of 'We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together', from a technical songwriting perspective, is that the listener focuses on the words. In lots of pop songs - most of the rest of the songs in this list, in fact - lyrics are secondary. But here, you listen to the story she's telling, listen to her put-downs and good lines. The on-again off-again relationship the song is about (with Jake Gyllenhaal, if the internet is to be believed), is standard pop song lyric material - all those mixed emotions and frustrations motivate many a lyric. But Swift's writing the lyrics from the perspective of realising that "it's not worth it" is very clever; it allows her to make the song joyous, to give herself a sense of freedom.
Swift is well-aware of her reputation as 'bitchy ex to the stars', she knows this is the kind of song people expect from Taylor Swift. and she opts to play it for laughs, what with the lines about indie records much cooler than hers and the post-chorus aside 'like ever'. And you know why the biggest achievement of the song, from the technical songwriting perspective, is that you've paid attention to the lyrics? It's because it means you're not paying quite as much attention to the massive hooks. Like ads on TV, hooks work best when people aren't paying attention to them.
18. Maroon 5 - 'One More Night'
There was a point in the 1990s when the odd microgenre of Swedish reggae was unaccountably popular; Swedes Ace Of Base had #1 singles and albums in Australia (think 'All That She Wants' or 'The Sign'). This is what 'One More Night' reminds me of; it has the typically reggae guitars-on-the-off-beat, and Eurotrash's sense of general cheesiness. Otherwise, this is Maroon 5 by the numbers in 2013; Adam Levine has clearly decided one main lesson of the success of 'Moves Like Jagger' was that singing falsetto ooh-oohs in the middle of normally-sung choruses and verses is a shortcut to catchy.
The song sounds like it was put together by experienced lab scientists attempting to make a song that's simultaneously a) so inoffensive and bland that you don't notice it until it's stuck in your head, but b) sounds just edgy enough to get played on radio in the first place. Because this song really did get punished on radio in Australia in 2012; it was the 8th most played song on commercial radio, according to AirCheck, getting played over 12717 times. If radio play directly drives singles downloads, it'd mean that this song got purchased about 25 times every time it got played on radio.
17. One Direction - 'What Makes You Beautiful'
Boy bands were a dime a dozen in the 1990s. Teens in the mood to scream hysterically at concerts really had their pick between the Backstreet Boys, Hanson, 5ive, Boyzone, Take That, NSync, etc. While the boy band seemingly went out of fashion in the 2000s, I suspect that the Platonic form of the boy band - whether the Beatles or One Direction - will keep coming back into fashion at regular intervals. But because One Direction are the first in a while, they have really provided a focus for all that desire; a focus that had been missing for a long time.
'What Makes You Beautiful" is, of course, sexism disguised as shameless pandering - feminists have rightly pointed out that teen girls being taught that lack of confidence is sexy is a problem. But as Maura Johnston pointed out at the New York Times, part of the appeal of boy bands is that they're a safe space for teen girls to explore ideas of love and sexuality. And the reality is that the teen girls listening to One Direction are already dealing with society's sexism, one way or the other (something The Onion recently nailed), and can choose to interpret the song how they want.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the song is that its chorus is a genuine philosophical dilemma, like the sentence "This sentence is false." To quote Stephen Colbert, "You see, the boys are singing 'You don't know you're beautiful. That's what makes you beautiful." But they've just told the girls she's beautiful. So since she now knows it, she's no longer beautiful. But it goes deeper. She's listening to the song too, so she knows she's not beautiful. Therefore, following the syllogism of the song, she's instantly beautiful again. It's like an infinite fractal recursion. A flickering quantum state of both 'hot' and 'not'. This lyrics as iterated algorithm could lead to a whole new musical genre. I call it Mobius pop".
16. Owl City & Carly Rae Jepsen - 'Good Time'
Some songs aren't the one-hit-wonders you think they are. Radio still plays 'My Sharona' by the Knack, but once upon a time, they played 'Good Girls Don't' too, and it did pretty respectably in the charts (it was even a #1 in Canada). You'd probably struggle to remember any other Coolio song apart from 'Gangsta's Paradise', but '1, 2, 3, 4 (Sumpin' New)' and 'C U When U Get There' were reasonable-sized hits. Owl City, for all my money, were a one-hit wonder with 'Fireflies', a Postal Service-aping #1 single in early 2010. And unless you pay lots of attention to pop music, you probably already think Carly Rae Jepsen is a one-hit wonder. Yet, here they are - Owl City and Carly Rae - with the #16th biggest song of the year. Which is neither 'Fireflies' or 'Call Me Maybe'.
Part of the reason why you never noticed 'Good Time' if you even heard it is that it isn't even a third as memorable as 'Call Me Maybe'. The lyrics are totally unconvincing. You just don't believe Carly Rae and Owl City's Adam Young are actually having a good time. The song doesn't have the pep. The beats don't hit hard enough. The lyrics are contradictory; in the very first line, the Owl City dude sings "woke up on the right side of the bed" like it's not the usual thing - and he certainly sounds like the kind who usually overthinks things. Carly Rae Jepsen comes across as a shy kinda girl. And then in the chorus they're singing "we don't even have to try, it's always a good time" - huh? They sound like they're mostly trying to convince *themselves*. But, convincing or not, the song strikes that Maroon 5 blend of inoffensive, catchy and radio-ready, and, according to AirCheck, got played 10416 times on Australian commercial radio as a result.
(Continued next page)