The Pop Shop
Similar to other art forms, some pop music is conceived organically. But most of the songs you hear on the radio were assembled in a cold, dark factory where robotic mad scientists manufacture sound for the masses.
In the third installment of The Pop Shop, The Oracle disassembles the top five Billboard Hot 100 singles to expose what makes these tunes stay lodged in our brains. They may be infectious, but so are diseases.
1. We Are Young
Fun feat. Janelle Monae
Through the first 45 seconds of this song, you might wonder how such a normal-sounding track with fast-paced tapping drums and periodic piano keys became the No. 1 pop song. But then the chorus hits and We Are Young becomes the song that your brain tells you youve heard before despite knowing none of the lyrics.
The first verse, which contains lyrics that portray a desperate apology, sounds nothing like the rest of the song. The beat drops, the piano continues and the vocals trail off to sell the buildup of the impending chorus.
The beat returns as booming, electronic hip-hop drums and the song transforms into a chant-worthy anthem that brings to mind a crowd of thousands swaying and holding up lighters: Tonight we are young, so lets set the world on fire, we can burn brighter than the sun.
This refrain repeats five more times with smaller verses in between. The bridge between the chorus and third verse features the guest vocalist Janelle Monae repeating, Carry me home tonight, just carry me home tonight, while background vocals chant, nananananana, reminiscent of the latter half of Hey Jude.
2. Stronger (What Doesnt Kill You) Kelly Clarkson
The instrumental intro for this song sounds like a new-age version of Eye of the Tiger, with steady drums and pulsing guitar. But then the original American Idol jumps in with some low raspy lyrics that sound like Pink: You know the bed feels warmer, sleeping here alone.
Clarkson becomes the second artist in the last decade to turn the sentiments of 19th century philosopher and poet Friedrich Nietzsche into a pop power song. Kanye Wests 2007 hit Stronger made it to No. 1 on the Hot 100, but offered a slightly less poetic N-n-now that that dont kill me.
The power ballad reiterates Clarksons 2004 hit Since U Been Gone, but completely contradicts her 2009 song My Life Would Suck Without You. Now Clarkson is Stronger, but dont be surprised when she comes out with a song in two years titled Jk, I Srsly Miss U. Her latest hit doesnt show off the pipes that spurred her stardom, but does offer some relatively clever lyrics: Doesnt mean Im lonely when Im alone.
3. Set Fire to the Rain
Theres probably no way British singing sensation Adele could have a better second album. Set Fire to the Rain is the third single from the album to reach No. 1 on Billboards Hot 100. This week its at No. 3, but that only highlights the timelessness of the songs from 21.
This third hit resides somewhere in between the power of Rolling in the Deep and the tenderness of Someone Like You. The emotional content of the song is complex, with Adele crooning through the verses, picking up steam in the bridge and growling through the chorus: But I set fire to the rain, watch it burn as I touch your face.
This complexity underscores the stylistic appeal of her songs. Her subject matter doesnt just stick to the happy or sad, but rather a dramatic mixture of both, which many love songs lack.
4. Glad You Came
A top five wouldnt be complete without at least one mindless electronic song. The melody of Glad You Came has a very international feel to it, similar to Stereo Love by Romanian musician Edward Maya and On the Floor by Jenifer Lopez.
The British boy-band behind the No. 4 song gets props for employing the use of the literary device anadiplosis, using the last word in the line as the first word in the next line. But after a few revolutions, one can see theyre doing it just to be cute: Turn the lights out now, now Ill take you by the hand. Hand you another drink, drink it if you can.
It goes on for a few more lines and the other lyrics are equally as uninspired. But these songs arent made for the words, but rather the sounds. The only distinguishable non-synthesized instrument is the piano at the beginning and end. The song also begins and ends with, The sun goes down, the stars come out. The words and the sound coming full circle offer the feeling of an all-night party that continued into the next day until sundown.
5. Somebody That I Used to Know
Gotye feat. Kimbra
When a musically subtle song appears in the top five, its usually the case of outstanding vocals and lyrics. The background music is faint and includes static guitar and xylophone. Gotye nearly whispers to start the songs but gets louder and higher as it goes.
The song describes a hard breakup and the aftermath, trying to still be friends and ultimately make it like it never happened and we were nothing. The lyrics are sung in a way that makes it clear the singer wrote them. Every line is emotionally charged. It even offers a slight rebuttal from the other side of the broken relationship in the small verse by Kimbra: You said that you could let it go, and I wouldnt catch you hung up on someone you used to know.
The coolest part of the song is the voice of the Belgian-Australian artist. It is high-pitched and accented, bringing to mind an emo Phil Collins. Other critics and fans have likened Gotyes voice to Sting and Peter Gabriel.