Today’s Top 40: September 1, 2022.

The stories behind the hits of today.

Editor’s note:

This edition of Today’s Top 40 is filled with absolute bangers. In my opinion, each artist/band presented below is worthy of their own full post based upon the varied and interesting things they are all up to. I wanted to publicly say that I am thoroughly enjoying creating the Today’s Top 40 posts series because it is allowing me…a card-carrying Boomer…to stay in touch with the world of modern music today. There are so many talented performers out there and so many innovative ways that they are connecting with their fans. I am excited for this edition to begin so, without further delay, let me remind you that I used the following official music websites/charts to select the artists I am featuring this week: BBC Radio 1, Billboard Magazine, CHUM-FM and Indie88-FM (from Toronto), Spotify and KEXP-FM (from Seattle). For this week’s post, all artists chosen find themselves somewhere in chart positions in the 20s on their respective music charts. Enough said. Here we go!!!!!

There Better Be A Mirrorball by The Arctic Monkeys (Indie88-FM).

The Arctic Monkeys.

The Arctic Monkeys have been one of the most interesting bands out of the UK for well over a decade now. They have always played a form of Alternative/Rock with a roguish charm, intelligent lyrics and lots of confidence and style. They burst out of the gates with a huge #1 hit in the UK called “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor”. In order to appreciate the magnitude of difference from how The Arctic Monkeys began their career and where they are now with their latest hit, I think it is instructive for you to take a moment and listen to their debut single here. They were a fast and furious bunch. They took the UK by storm and were always very popular there over the course of their first three or four albums. But then, The Arctic Monkeys reached a creative crossroads. Like all successful artists they started questioning their musical direction. Specifically, they started asking themselves if they wanted to continue along the musical path that had brought them so much success and would, in all likelihood continue to do so or should they follow their creative muse and head out in another direction, damn the impact on their careers.

So, a few years ago, The Arctic Monkeys left England and moved to America. Like The Beatles, David Bowie and, even U2 before them, there is something about leaving home and immersing yourself in the great myth that is America that changes you. The Arctic Monkeys began this transformation by releasing an album under the direction of a man named Josh Homme. Josh Homme is the lead singer of a loud and heavy sounding band called Queens of the Stone Age. Under Homme’s direction, The Arctic Monkeys released an album that contained fuzzy guitars and a slower, more deliberate sound. From that album came the song, “Do I Want To Know?” which was the song that caused The Arctic Monkeys to finally gain some notice in America. They played all of the late night talk shows and made a sincere effort to become more media savvy and friendly and, as a result they became a bigger draw in the US. But then, the metamorphosis continued in the form of a new album that was completely different from anything the band had done before. Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino was a concept album about colonizing the moon. Lead singer Alex Turner adopted the persona of a Vegas lounge lizard. The music was Jazzy and Bluesy; nothing like the straight-ahead rock of their entire musical catalogue up until that point. The album had a polarizing effect on their fanbase in much the same way that Radiohead’s album, Kid A did a couple of decades ago for them. *(You can read about Kid A here).

This brings us to today’s latest single, “There Better Be A Mirrorball”. Fans of The Arctic Monkeys waited with bated breath to see if their favourite band would return to their classic sound or continue on meandering down their newly chosen path. “There Better Be A Mirrorball” is a slow, ballad-like song that, on the surface, plays like a break-up lament. However, it is not a break-up lament for a girlfriend who no longer loves the singer. Instead, it is more of a lament for having to let go of something that no longer seems to be working on an emotional level. That something is the band’s old sound. As you know, a mirrorball is constructed in such a way that it reflects light in a multitude of directions all at once. In this song, the mirrorball is meant to reflect the band’s emotions being sent into a thousand different directions as they move forward as they feel they must, hopeful that love and companionship will continue to be theirs. As with all things, time will tell as to whether or not this is the right move for the band in the longer term. But, there is a legacy of great bands making bold mid-career changes in direction (The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Radiohead, etc.) so, I will trust that the boys in the band know what they are doing and wish them the best in their musical journey.

***The link to the lyrics version of this song can be found here.

Buffalo Stance by Neneh Cherry (KEXP-FM).

If you followed popular music at all thirty years ago then you may be aware that the song “Buffalo Stance” was a big hit for Neneh Cherry way back then. So, what in the world is the same song doing back on the charts three decades later? Well, here is the story.

In a world where Cardi B., Nicki Minaj and Megan Thee Stallion…strong, talented successful female rappers sit atop the musical mountain…Neneh Cherry is actually someone who is viewed by many as being one of the originators of the entire female rap genre. So, as the 30th anniversary of her one big hit approached, Cherry was asked to revisit her music catalogue and re-release new versions of her hits. The result is a new album called Versions. The idea behind Versions is to teach some history to today’s music fans and introduce them to a true musical innovator in the form of Cherry. Neneh Cherry is supported in this project by musical heavyweights such as Sia and Robyn *(Both artists were profiled in earlier posts that you can read here and here).

Neneh Cherry.

In case you don’t know Neneh Cherry’s background, here it is. She is a black singer from Sweden. As a teenager, she came to England and began a career in music and modeling. Cherry arrived just as Punk and New Wave music was starting to explode. She fell in with a hip crowd that included singer Poly Styrene and ended up touring with the highly influential female punk band, The Slits. In addition to being with The Slits, Neneh Cherry became part of an artistic collective that Malcolm McLaren dubbed, “Buffalo Girls”. Her experience being in the cool and hip “Buffalo Girls” movement led to the creation of a song called, “Buffalo Stance”, which became a Top Ten hit around the world in the 1990s. While that was going on, Neneh Cherry stepped back from the spotlight and became an ardent supporter of a new musical subgenre that was emerging called Trip Hop. Trip Hop was a jazzy, more ethereal form of Hip Hop. It was made most popular by groups such as Portishead and Massive Attack (of which guerrilla artist, Banksy is rumoured to be a member and which Cherry bankrolled their first album, Blue Lines). *(You can read about Portishead and Massive Attack here and here). In any case, very quietly (or so it seems), Neneh Cherry has lived a most interesting and impactful life. Therefore, it is not surprising that fellow female singers such as Robyn and Sia would lead the push to rehabilitate Cherry’s career and legacy in the eyes of a new generation. As a result of their efforts, we have the Robyn-assisted remix of Neneh Cherry’s hit, “Buffalo Stance” climbing the charts anew. To my ears, it still sounds as fresh and relevant as it ever did. Enjoy.

***The link to the lyrics version of this song can be found here.

A Rock and a Hard Place by Bailey Zimmerman (Spotify and Billboard Magazine).

Billboard Magazines’ “Rookie of the Month”…Bailey Zimmerman.

Bailey Zimmerman is Country music’s hottest rising star. Two years ago, Zimmerman was being given his union card and was living his life as a pipefitter. As a young man, Zimmerman enjoyed the same sort of things that many young men do….girls and trucks. However, Zimmerman’s rise to the top of the charts is a very telling tale because of how he was “discovered”, as it were.

Like many young people today, Bailey Zimmerman had an interest in social media. In particular, he liked the app Tik Tok. For those who are unaware, Tik Tok encourages users to create short videos about whatever their little hearts desire. These videos often inspire viral, copy-cat style contests and, as a result, it is not uncommon for relatively unknown people to become “internet famous” based upon a Tik Tok video that they have produced and that has caught on. Most musicians today use Tik Tok as a way to market new material by releasing short teasers of upcoming songs. Anyway, for Zimmerman, he used Tik Tok to make videos about trucks that he and his family owned. Zimmerman hails from a blue collar family that has made great inroads in the trucking world. Because Zimmerman is a handsome lad, his truck videos began to gain some attention from female viewers. Because Zimmerman has a deep speaking voice, viewers began suggesting to him that he should try singing. So, Bailey Zimmerman learned to play the guitar and began posting snippets of himself singing original songs. Then, just like what happened to Justin Biber and Shawn Mendes, Bailey Zimmerman became “internet famous” as a singer. In no time at all, he was contacted by record labels and offered recording contracts. Everything happened so quickly for him that he didn’t even have an agent when all this went down. In two short years, Bailey Zimmerman has gone from a card carrying union pipefitter to playing on some of the biggest stages in America. It is all pretty heady stuff. The song “A Rock and a Hard Place” is a pretty good song that mines the usual Country subject matter of cheating hearts and broken dreams but, having said that, Zimmerman is quite photogenic and has a great singing voice. I imagine that this is just the first in a long line of hit songs to come. Enjoy.

***The link to the lyrics version of this song can be found here.

Pink Venom by BlackPink (BBC Radio 1).

BTS: seven of the most well known young men in the world that you have never heard of.

One of the most viral music trends in the past few years has been K-pop. K-pop is short for Korean Pop music. While “Gangnam Style” by Psy was the introduction many North American listeners had to Korean music, it was not true K-pop. That trend really started a few years ago with the boy band BTS. This boy band seemingly came out of nowhere and then, all of a sudden, their music was everywhere and their popularity soared to stratospheric levels. While BTS was exploding on to the world music scene, South Korean record executives were busy assembling a female equivalent. That all-girl K-pop band consists of four girls and is known as BlackPink.

The K-pop phenomenon is really quite something. While western audiences are familiar with the concept of manufactured boy and girl bands (such as New Kids on the Block, N’Sync, Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls), the K-pop process is at another level entirely. In South Korea, the process to become involved in a K-pop group involves years of training and a selection process that involves the entire nation of South Korea. In the specific case of BlackPink, each girl in the group was selected, one at a time, over the course of a calendar year. As each girl was selected, her selection was announced on national TV and she became an instant celebrity at the tender age of 12 or 13. One by one, the group was assembled. Each chosen girl was sequestered in a dormitory in order for her to begin rigorous training in singing, dancing and fashion. Once all four girls were chosen, their life in the dormitory became the focus of a reality-based tv show in which their lives were on display 24-7. As a result of this exposure and scrutiny, many fan sites were created which meant that these four girls were viral celebrities before having released a single record.

K-pop’s newest sensation: Blackpink.

The song “Pink Venom” is their latest hit from their first album. The song is meant to introduce the girls as being darker and more mature than their teenybopper image might suggest. The video for this song is very slick and well-produced. It actually sounds kind of interesting because of the mix of genres at play (Jazz, Hip Hop, Pop), the mix of languages used (English and Korean), as well as the instruments used (traditional Korean instruments and modern instruments from around the world, too). The music is catchy but it is always evident that it is also highly calculated and packaged. Every close-up shot is carefully lit and perfectly staged. Every seductive bat of an eyelash is choreographed. But, just the same, the song does sound good and I am sure it will not be the last song we hear from this K-pop group called BlackPink.

***The link to the lyrics version of this song can be found here.

That’s What I Want by Lil Nas X (CHUM-FM).

You may recall that Lil Nas X burst onto the music scene a couple of years ago with the mega hit, “Old Town Road” which he shared with Billy Ray Cyrus. I feel as though I could write an entire book about this young man because almost everything about who he is and how he came to be the man we know of today is extremely interesting to me. Let’s begin before the beginning.

Montero Lamar Hill aka Lil Nas X (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP).

Lil Nas X is a stage name. His real name is Montero Lamar Hill. He is a black man who is openly gay and yet, his foray into the world of music was into a genre known for its conservative values that can, at times, manifest themselves in the form of racism and homophobia. The Deep South is not a part of the world where gay black men tend to go to seek fame and fortune but that is what Lil Nas X did. What is instructive here is how he went about doing it. The intelligence and creativity that he showed prior to becoming a viral sensation says a lot about who Montero Lamar Hill really is and why he is becoming the public force that he is.

Like Bailey Zimmerman and like BlackPink, too, Lil Nas X harnessed the power of social media in a way that it had never been used before. In his specific case, Lil Nas X pioneered a social media technique on Twitter known as Tweetdecking. Tweetdecking is a process in which a person manages multiple accounts at the same time. In this scenario, a tweet is created by one account. That tweet is then amplified by having all of the other accounts that you control commenting and retweeting the original tweet. Thus, the original account can achieve the appearance of having gone viral without actually having attracted that much in the way of real support from real people. As you know, viral accounts shape the algorithms of what we see on our social media sites thus, tweetdecking enabled Lil Nas X to manipulate the causes that he was supporting. In his most famous case, it was in support of rapper Nicki Minaj. If this all sounds fishy to you then, your instincts are correct. Lil Nas X was punished by Twitter for using their service in that manner. However, his use of social media shows how forward thinking he was when it came to launching his own career and managing his image (which included details about his sexual orientation).

Long before Lil Nas X officially launched “Old Town Road” he was using social media to create interest in the song and in his persona. So, in the same calculating, marketed way K-pop worked, by the time “Old Town Road” hit the airwaves for real, it was already a well known song in the online world. Thus, the fact that a black, gay man was singing, what amounted to a classic country song, resembled a Pearl Harbour-esque sneak attack on those who act as gatekeepers of the genre. Lil Nas X manouvered around the traditional routes that country singers take to garner attention and crafted his own journey via social media. His fans online supported him in numbers that overwhelmed any initial opposition he may have faced. “Old Town Road” was already a hit before the folks at The Grand Ole Opry knew what hit them.

In the time since “Old Town Road” became a #1 hit that held the position for over 19 consecutive weeks, Lil Nas X has used his platform to announce publicly that he is Gay and that, to him, this is a normal thing. He believes that he and other people who identify as having a different sexual orientation than hetrosexuality, are entitled to everything in life that everyone else has…happiness, freedom of expression, legal rights, personal protection and so on. In the song, “That’s What I Want”, Lil Nas X sings openly about wanting the sexual companionship of another man. The video that accompanies this song contains explicit sexual scenes between Lil Nas X and another man than many claim to be inappropriate but, in truth, are no different from dozens of others videos that show heterosexual couples in sexual situations. To each his own, I say.

Lil Nas X is a smart young man who realizes that his path to the top will not be a traditional one. He is creative and intelligent and proud of who he is. As such, he has made more headway in his career than many would have predicted for him. These are not the easiest of times to a black man in America nor to be a gay man in America and yet, here he is…one of the most influential celebrities of his time! One thing that I respect about him is how seriously he takes his responsibilities as a role model for other black men and gay men. He was once struggling to live as he believed he should and found courage in the stories told by others such as Frank Ocean, Billy Porter and Tyler, the Creator…all three being black, gay men who became respected for their skills in Hip Hop, Soul music, comedy and theatre in ways that transcended their sexuality. Lil Nas X knows that there are other young people who feel alone and frightened and angry at how life is treating them. If he can light the path forward for anyone else then he knows he will have truly made a difference. You can’t ask for much more from life than that.

***The link to the lyrics version of this song can be found here.

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