Top 40 In A Summer Of Discontent

Aug 19, 2014
Originally published on September 5, 2014 12:54 pm

To hear Ann Powers talk with NPR's Audie Cornish about some of the songs that might define the troubling summer of 2014, click the audio link on this page.

Those of us who are lucky enough to be technologically interconnected are currently enduring an overwhelming summer of discontent. To say so is to wring the obvious from a cliché. The information so easily available now, jumping onto mobile screens in pulsing letters, makes age-old problems immediate. Racism. Conflicts over land and human rights. Spreading disease. Environmental perils. Famous lives lost; obscure lives made famous through grotesque endings. All of it has happened countless times before. What might be new in our own time is the disconcerting mix of urgency and helplessness that overcomes everyone as we recline in our separate rooms, scrolling through the horrors on machines that only virtually connect us, thinking, this is happening right in front of me. I have to do something. Yet I'm so far away.

Many people I know reached some kind of breaking point last week, during the unfolding conflict between police and citizens in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting death of Mike Brown. Twitter and live-streaming independent media sources brought this violence close — as other demonstrators said in a different era, the whole world was watching. The lack of an interpretive context around what social media exposed made events seem both more palpable and more shocking. How to respond? Music-minded person that I am, I sought songs to share, not as any kind of solution, but simply as a way of witnessing. I chose Marvin Gaye and the gospel exhortations of Dorothy Love Coates. These were old, reliable semaphores. Would there be new ones soon, I wondered, to suit today's particular mood of time-lapsed urgency?

During times of social crisis, music is a motivator and a comfort. Sometimes, artists address issues head-on, in protest or to cultivate compassion. More often, though, songs take on new meanings because of the times. Well-worn examples: "Respect," owned by Aretha Franklin, transformed from a lover's backtalk to an anthem of both feminist and racial pride. Stephen Stills wrote "For What It's Worth" about the trouble that arose upon the closing of a Sunset Strip nightclub, but it resonated differently in light of protests against the war in Vietnam. Alan Jackson found an audience directly addressing the 9/11 attacks in "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," but so did Bruce Springsteen with "My City of Ruins" — actually written about Asbury Park, not New York, two years before the towers fell.

Perusal of today's Top 40, however, seems to offer little that could be repurposed to express the summer's anxiety, fear and rage. The one song that resonated on social media during last week's Ferguson protests was "Turn Down For What?" the frantically commanding song by DJ Snake with the rapper Lil Jon. Its brief lyric about drinking in a club — fire up that loud, another round of shots — takes on ominous power in light of the role bullets (lead and rubber) have played in current events.

People on Twitter were more attracted to the song's title — reinterpreted as a refusal to step down rather than a party cry to ramp up, it became a 21st-century equivalent of "we shall not be moved." In the moment, it proved effective, but there are limits of "Turn Down for What?" as a protest song, or even one that captures this summer's uneasiness. It's glib — best as a hashtag. And though the song's energy feels cathartic, it's actually contained within the ordered pulse of EDM.

A genuine protest song soon surfaced, but it was not built to be a radio hit. J. Cole's "Be Free," posted to the North Carolina rapper's blog on Friday, quickly reached the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Trending 140 chart, which notes the fastest-moving songs on Twitter. The track is minimalist, based around a keyboard loop that recalls the dystopian trip-hop of Massive Attack and Tricky; that musical bed embodies a feeling of futility. Over it, Cole sings instead of raps. He might be crying. He sounds like he's thinking of Nina Simone singing "Mississippi Goddam," but he can't seem to muster her freeing rage; instead, he sounds exhausted. "Don't just stand around," he sings, exhorting protesters but also, perhaps, warning others who could face Brown's fate. Eventually Cole's voice gives way to a recording of Dorian Johnson, Brown's friend, who was with him when he died. Cole's beloved hip-hop, able to incorporate the sounds of real life, uneasily suggests that such sounds, now, are more powerful than what an artist can create on his own. Cole can only do so much to frame the sorrow audible in Johnson's voice. This makes the song almost unbearably painful for listeners, too.

The sparseness and bald intensity of "Be Free" markedly contrasts with what dominates radio, in any decade, and particularly this year. It's not a song of the summer, though it will be an enduring artifact of this summer. And for some reason, in recent months the Top 40 has given anyone seeking succor or inspiration of a deeper kind little to work with.

It's striking how little current hits reflect the angst that has become the dominant mood on social media, if not everywhere. Instead, summer 2014's songs are breezily confident, brushing away conflict with cheery melodies and slap-happy rhythms. It's not that these hits don't address problems; one of Ariana Grande's hits is even called "Problem." But no threat is so consequential that these overconfident millennials can't quickly dismiss it. Their queen is Iggy Azalea, whose sneer seeks to be as winning as her smile; their king is Nasri, singer for the reggae revivalists Magic!, who defangs that music of resistance with a tale about so-called forbidden love that's really both instantly accessible and totally conventional: His girl will follow him anywhere, and, "I'm gonna marry her anyway."

This may feel both depressing and typical to those who find Top 40 pop vapid compared to "real" music emerging from the street or the underground (or the boutique industry of indie rock). It's arguable that pop's party mood has even been intensified by the uncertainties of everyday life: It's a heating pad, a palliative treatment for our spasms of fear and despair. Yet some musicians in the mainstream are expressing those less acceptable emotions, within songs that might seem to fit in with the escapist mood on the charts, but subtly move against it.

Sam Smith's is the most obvious young voice with the potential to move people in emotionally necessary ways. He's had a pair of Top 10 hits in the last few weeks, under his own name and as a featured singer on a dance track. People want to hear this 23-year-old Londoner's lush, androgynous voice: It pours out of radios, restaurants, gyms, nail salons. In part Smith's rise is a coincidence, but there's relevance in the way his singing travels between signifiers of identity: male and female, youthful and worn and, yes, black and white.

Perhaps it seems unfair to note that, at a time when this nation's fundamental racial inequalities have once again become centrally visible, mainstream radio has latched on to a voice that often sounds African-American, but isn't. Smith is who he is, and unlike Azalea, who utterly buries her Australian accent, he communicates his Englishness in frequently genteel phrasing. Still, uplift is something Smith does very well, and uplift — that healing feeling, made more resonant through a tinge of sorrow, but rarely tipping into rage — is often what the mainstream provides in times of social unrest. The 1960s civil rights movement had its furies, like Simone, but Franklin became its musical voice not only because of her greatness, but because her gospel-based music always aimed for uplift's temporary resolutions. Something similar comes through in hits by Smith, like the pointedly gospel-inflected "Stay With Me."

The scarcity of artists of color on this summer's Top 40 is part of a disturbingly tenacious music-industry trend, despite the dominance of Jay-Z and Beyonce as a touring venture and celebrity couple. Magic! has a non-white, Canadian lead singer, but though Nasri's Palestinian heritage is interesting to note, he hasn't yet shown how it might be relevant to his music. (No tweets on Gaza that I've seen, for example.) Yet amidst all the sounds being polished and put forth by the party girls of Hollywood, one song of this summer does feature voices that are not only non-white, but also distinctly African. It sounds like a trifle, it's so buoyant and accessible. Yet "Am I Wrong" is that special kind of singalong, floating through the air on dance floors or in beach parking lots, that could hit listeners in a deeper way and become an accidental anthem.

"Am I Wrong" is a song of uplift by two singers and songwriters, Nico Sereba and Vincent Dery, who record as Nico & Vinz. Sereba and Dery grew up the children of African immigrants in Oslo. The duo smartly recasts the sounds of their native Ivory Coast and Ghana within the radio-friendly structure of Scandinavian pop. Its staying power in America, however, probably has to do with its soulfulness. The song may not reach the levels of genius attained by Marvin Gaye or Sam Cooke, but in its singers' plaintive voices, and in the way it swells and ebbs, accommodating both hope and hesitation, it connects with the spirit of those great crowd-movers.

The lyrics of "Am I Wrong" add up to a string of inspirational non-sequiturs. "Am I wrong for thinking out the box from where I stay?" Dery wonders. "Am I trippin', for having a vision," Sereba counters in his own verse. The message is generic — believe in yourself — but built around the spiraling self-doubt of the title, it's right for unsettled times. A slow riptide of doubt keeps pulling the song somewhere deeper, and the singers, with their declarations, pull back. When Nico or Vinz — they share the vocal — intone, "That's just how I feel," it's reassuring, but also sad and a little unsteady. The volatile elements of "Am I Wrong" come together to form a whole that sustains, but also acknowledges instability; the song offers hope, but acknowledges how difficult perseverance can be.

"Am I Wrong" also recalls a soul classic from the dawn of the 1970s: "O-o-h Child" by the Five Stairsteps. That song is one long journey up the hill toward the sun, a lullaby leading to the morning, its mood of joy established through a swelling melodic build like few others in pop. Currently back in our ears as a fun feature on the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy, "O-o-h Child" was never a protest song. Yet it's found a fascinating place in the culture, as an exhortation to keep going even in times of unrest. Director John Singleton milked it for painful irony in a key scene in Boyz n the Hood, when the child Tre watches two of his friends carted off by police for shoplifting as the song plays on his father's car radio. Spike Lee used it too, in Crooklyn, during the funeral of the film's family matriarch. Tupac sampled it in "Keep Ya Head Up," his ode to inner-city survival. Janet Jackson tapped into it in "Truth," her ballad about living past a bad romance.

It's doubtful that "Am I Wrong" will have the deep afterlife of "O-o-h Child" — it doesn't have that song's captivating integrity. But like so many hits whose meanings seem to adapt to fit their moment, it's here now, for the many different listeners who might need it. Protest takes courage and focus. Pop is all about commodification: the soft center of what adapts. But sometimes, when history collides with it, a simple song gains dimension. To paraphrase Nico & Vinz, that's just how listeners feel.

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We know. The news has been bad these last few weeks - or is it months? Almost every day and, at times, it seems like in almost every region of the world, there's something - conflict, disease, struggle. Now during times of social crisis, music can be a comfort and even a motivator. Sometimes artists confront issues head on. Think Alan Jackson's "Where Were You?," written after the 9-11 attacks.


ALAN JACKSON: (Singing) Did you stand there in shock at the sight of that black smoke rising against that blue sky?

CORNISH: At other times, a song captures the imagination of the popular culture or social movements that reinterpret its themes. Aretha Franklin's 1967 hit "Respect" - the story of a lover's quarrel - became an anthem of feminist and racial pride.


ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) R-E-S-P-E-C-T - find out what it means to me. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Take care, TCB.

SINGERS: Sock it to me. Sock it to me. Sock it to me. Sock it to me.

CORNISH: But what about today? NPR music writer and culture critic Ann Powers has been looking over the summer's Top 40 charts for songs that address what's going on the summer - socially, politically, globally. And she's here to talk more about it. Welcome, Ann.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So help me understand the Top 40. I don't know if it really feels like a summer of bad news, given what we're hearing. What does this music seem to have in common?

POWERS: Well, Audie, you would think it's a summer of escapism and fun and frankly just a rampant egotism on the charts. I mean, we have songs about, you know, how great the star who's singing it is.


IGGY AZALEA: (Singing) I'm so fancy. You already know. I'm in the fast lane from L.A. to Tokyo.

POWERS: We have songs about partying. We have songs about little more than the beat. It can be discouraging for those of us who look to music for some kind of deeper meaning and social protest, even. It can feel a bit rough.

CORNISH: Now, in the world of hip-hop, though, it's another story, especially in light of the conflict between citizens and police in Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting death of Mike Brown. Now, in the last couple weeks, we've seen little songs kind of pop up here and there to address it. I want to talk about two - one from J. Cole and another from Lauryn Hill. And we we'll start with the J. Cole song. It's called "Be Free."


J. COLE: (Singing) I'm letting you know that it ain't no gun they make that can kill my soul. Oh, no. All we want to do is take the chains off. All we want to do is take the chains off. All we want to do is be free. All we want to do is be free.

CORNISH: And what's notable about his approach?

POWERS: Well, Audie, this song's notable for several reasons. One - it was really the first major response to what's happening in Ferguson from someone in the hip-hop community. And it's not mainstream. It will never be in the Top 40. And he recorded this extremely intense, mostly singing track - which for someone who's a rapper and sometimes a singer was a bit unusual - that also featured audio from one of the witnesses to Mike Brown's run death, whose name is Dorian Johnson.


COLE: And at no time the officer said that he was go to do anything until he pulled out his weapon. His weapon was drawn. And he said, I'll shoot you. I'm going to shoot.

POWERS: It all adds up to a song of social protest and, really, a lament that reminded me of Nina Simone. And that's high praise from me.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, Lauryn Hill basically takes a sort of familiar tune and gives it a very, very dark twist. This song is called "Black Rage."


LAURYN HILL: Black rage is founded on two thirds a person. Rapings and beatings and suffering that worsens. Black human packages tied up in strings. Black rage can come from all of these kinds of things.

CORNISH: And you mentioned Nina Simone, and that name comes to mind here, as well.

POWERS: Absolutely. This song is one she wrote a while back that she's brought forward as a statement about Ferguson. And it takes off on the classic song "My Favorite Things" from "The Sound Of Music" - a song we all grew up with - a song that's about kittens and, you know, roses and raindrops, right? But here, Lauryn Hill takes that song - that familiar, soothing melody - and matches it up with lyrics about both the sources of rage for herself and other African-American and also the usefulness of rage and how rage - I wouldn't say, it's one of her favorite things, but I do think she's expressing the need for rage in certain political moments.


HILL: When that dog bites, when the beatings, when I'm feeling sad, I simply remember all of these kinds of thing and then I don't fear so bad.

CORNISH: Now for a minute there, it wasn't clear if we're going to see many more songs coming out of hip-hop, and then there was a drop from The Game, along with Diddy, Rick Ross, Two Chainz, Fabulous, Wale. I mean, the list goes on. There's like 10 rappers on this, four singers, and it's called "Don't Shoot."


SINGERS: God ain't put on this Earth to get murdered. It's murder. Don't point your weapons at me.

THE GAME: Seen the pictures - feel the pain. Scandalous how the murder son. Tired of them killing us. I'm on my way to Ferguson. Talked to TIP. I talked to Diddy - them my brothers, walking with me. Mothers crying. Stop the riots. We ain't got to chalk the city.

POWERS: The thing about the song, Audie, that impresses me is that it is so direct. And it actually also connects so powerfully to the history of rap and how rap has talked about African American encounters with the police in the past, African American civil rights struggles for decades.


TGT: Time to take a stand and save our future.

SINGERS: Like we all got shot - like we all got shot.

TGT: Throwing up our hands. Don't let them shoot us.

SINGERS: 'Cause we all we got. We all we got.

CORNISH: You know, as you mention, this isn't all that surprising, right? I remember Public Enemy frontman Chuck D once saying, rap is CNN for black people. But where are the pop and mainstream artists talking about any current issue news of the day? I mean, whatever happened to that kind of pop protest song?

POWERS: It is true, I think, that pop has become more conservative, basically since 9-11. It seems that pop stars are more hesitant to address social issues head on. Now why is this? Possibly because all Americans are nervous about addressing social issues head on. Possibly because the music industry has been falling apart, and people are worried about their careers. I don't really know.

I do wonder if maybe in coming months and as we enter the fall season, when quote-unquote serious artists make their serious efforts, if we will see a new emergence of political voice in pop music. At least, I can hope for that.

CORNISH: So, Ann, before I let you go - any song that hit the mark for you that did chart the summer - something a feels, at least, uplifting?

POWERS: Well, Audie, for me it's a song by the Norwegian duo Nico and Vinz - both of African descent. And the song is called "Am I Wrong?"


NICO AND VINZ: Fight for yours, and don't let go. Don't let them compare you, no. Don't worry. You're not alone. That's just how we feel. Am I wrong...

CORNISH: Don't worry. You're not alone. Doesn't get better than that, right, Ann?

POWERS: Right. But at the same time, there is that kind of undercurrent of doubt in it, right? It feels so human to me. It feels like what people are feeling now.


NICO AND VINZ: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh.

CORNISH: That's NPR music writer Ann Powers. Ann, thanks so much.

POWERS: Thank you, Audie.


NICO AND VINZ: That's just how I feel. That's just how I feel, trying to reach the things that I can't see, see, see. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.