Guilty pop pleasures 2012

CAITLIN WELSH risks her membership in the Kool Music Kritics’ Klub to tell us her guilty pleasures of 2012 – from Tay Tay to Usher and the Biebs.

As A Serious Indie Music Lover I try to limit my exposure to commercial radio, but I also shop for black skinny jeans in chain stores and catch cabs home from seeing bands you haven’t heard of and have you ever tried to exercise to Ariel Pink? So yeah, occasionally I hear some Top 40 stuff. Most of the brostep/EDM/festivalcore dreck favoured by the hoi polloi makes me want to vomit up the BBQ duck sliders and jam jar cocktails I had for breakfast, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day and yeah, I guess the big commercial pop machine churns out something listenable occasionally.

The idea that it’s not cool to like Top 40 music has gone the way of rap-metal (I hope) and to actively hate all commercial pop ever now requires a certain cantankerous disposition and dogged determination. Anyone who claims to love music but is too wedded to the idea that music’s popularity is inversely proportionate to its artistic merit to explore the charts is missing out big time on the shared joy of a massive pop smash or a hidden gem. You’re not going to be dancing to Alt-J at your kids’ wedding, you’ll be trying to remember whether the Gangnam Style dance goes horsey-horsey lasso-lasso or the other way around. With that in mind, I present a non-exhaustive and highly subjective list of pop songs that transcended my usual limitless disdain in 2012. If they kick me out of the Kool Music Kritics’ Klub because my favourite song of the year was by Usher “Shorty Got Some Boobies Like Wow Oh Wow” Raymond, I’ll be in the other Club – that one where all the sexy shorties hang out.

Legitimately good

Usher – Climax

In a time where the drop is everything (check out Skrillex’s Facebook fans’ reactions to his posting a drop-free Aphex Twin track), Usher releases a song called ‘Climax’ that never gets there. Producer Diplo described it as “Radiohead quietstorm” and if that could become a thing we’d all be better off.

The achingly slow build and Usher’s choirboy croon would create the perfect sexytime soundtrack if this wasn’t so desperately sad. He sounds bruised and desperate, pining for a future that can’t happen, turning the story over in his mind in each verse as glass-smooth strings (arranged by Nico Muhly) build almost imperceptibly in the background. Diplo’s deft use of the dubstep wub-wub creates anticipation in an audience conditioned to expect release, but each verse and chorus crests like a wave before dropping off the precise second before release would occur. It’s satisfyingly unsatisfying in the same way ambiguous movie endings can be – sometimes it’s just the right choice for the story, and rings truer than neat Hollywood endings. Usher repeats over and over again that the relationship has reached its climax – which, yes, hints both at sexual transcendence and a zenith that will never be reached again – but the music and lyrics both loop in on themselves in a way that echoes the anguished cycle outlined in the final verse: “You say it’s better if we/Love each other separately/I just need you one more time/I can’t get what we had out my mind.” It’s far more raw and real than some guy whose ex got a new phone number, and the saddest breakup song of the year.

Justin Bieber – Thought Of You

This track from Believe – also produced by Diplo (who obviously needs to start producing all Top 40 songs ever) and Ariel Rechtshaid (who’s about halfway there) – is a genius blend of bubblegum and baile breaks, a club banger about a schoolyard crush. It builds anticipation with quivering gossamer synths and handclaps, before bursting into a gloriously overloaded, pyrotechnic chorus. Like most people whose fame springs primarily from hair and hormones, Bieber is not exactly renowned as an interpreter, but he’s on form here, cheeky and earnest, questioning himself one minute and throwing caution to the wind the next. And his falsetto has never had a better showcase. It’s ‘Call Me Maybe’, but with a dirty, sweaty heart.

Taylor Swift – We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together

There’s not too much that’s special about the verses of this song. They tell a story, they are straightforward, and they exist solely to set up and justify the chorus. This dude has to come off as a thorn in her side, a problem that just won’t go away, so that Tay Tay can hurl that chorus at him. She hurls it with the sense of finality and freedom that comes with tossing your mortarboard up in the air on graduation day, walking out of a job you hate yelling “LATER, BITCHES!”, or getting a poppyseed out of your teeth a full four hours after you finished lunch. She is DONE. It is simply, joyfully dismissive, and by the time you get to the snippet of the deeply relatable venting-to-friends conversation (“This is exhausting”) you’re all, “Oh, I know exactly how you feel, babes.”

Guilty pleasure (no seriously, I actually feel guilty about this)

Flo Rida – Whistle

I have no excuse for this. I’ve tried to make myself not like it and I can’t. I have no time for Mr Rida whatsoever (“Low” aside, obviously) and struggle to explain why I find its puerile, unmitigated stupidity so entertaining. It’s so far past unsubtle, from the “metaphor” at the centre of it (a totally graceless bastardisation of Lauren Bacall’s classic line from To Have And Have Not) to the disturbingly phallic hang of the titular noisemaker on the single artwork.

But the breezy guitars (sleek and hollow in the Max Martin style to which I came of age, and strummed to something like the ‘More Than A Feeling’ pattern) and the looping, eponymous hook have an incongruous sweetness to them. So when it comes on in Priceline it sounds like it’s not about blowjobs (or rather, about getting blowjobs from girls who apparently are quite young, because they have zero experience with fellatio and so must be shown how, under the no doubt gentle and patient tutelage of Mr Rida) and is instead a sweet summer jam, as innocent and whimsical as hopscotch. I realise this makes it the musical equivalent of a pedo in an ice cream van, and yet I can’t stop whistling.

Skrillex – Bangarang *

I was as dismissive of Skrillex at the beginning as anyone, and this still mostly sounds to me like a dial-up modem experimenting with autoerotic asphyxiation. But that Dutch a cappella cover convinced me that it could actually be classified as music, and the appeal of brostep is of a more physical, visceral persuasion anyway – it is fun as hell to yell shit and then thrash around in a festival crowd, so whatever, get off my lawn.

*This was released on December 23 2011 but come on, it’s pretty much this year.

Unassailable instant classics/memes

Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe

Watch the “Chatroulette version” of this song. Watch how many different people can’t resist it and how happy it makes them. And if the joyful, relatable sweetness of this ode to putting yourself out there still has no effect on you whatsoever, you might be a bit of a cranky bastard and pop music is wasted on you forever.

PSY – Gangnam Style

Nothing summed up its nonsensical novelty appeal like the ‘Lids’ sketch from the first SNL of this season. “Did he just scream at her butt?” “You’re dead right he did, brah! We’re gonna live for ever!”