Music Messiahs

07.30.14

Can Jessie J’s ‘Bang Bang’ Save Us From This Awful Musical Summer?

The wailing horns, the ‘Mickey’-like clapping beat, Jessie J’s torching vocals next to Ariana and Nicki: It was like a chorus of angels singing their hallelujahs.

After “Bang Bang” leaked Monday afternoon—a blaring, loud, flamboyant anthem by the B-list Holy Trinity of pop divas Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj—I’m only mildly ashamed to admit that I listened to it 17 times in a row. (And by 17, I mean 23. Don’t judge.)

And it wasn’t just me! Twitter was set fire by this glorious “Lady Marmalade”-lite, with 140-character odes to Jessie J’s torching vocals, Ariana Grande’s passionless vocal perfection, and Nicki Minaj’s phoned-in sass kindling some sort of blazing Internet dance party—all in celebration of the cheesy-yet-fantastic summer jam, which already debuted at No. 1 on the iTunes charts.

Video screenshot

Was it because the song is so good to render meaningless any activity that doesn’t include dancing in your office chair and emphatically mouthing its lyrics to anyone foolish enough to make eye contact with you? The song is solid, fun, and—sorry—not that good. Was it because the collaboration of a British pop star you’ve only vaguely heard of, Nickelodeon’s reincarnation of Mariah Carey, and America’s foremost purveyor of the butt selfie is a musical event on par with 2001’s “Lady Marmalade?” Gurl, please.

It’s around the 13th or 14th listen that it hit me, that I finally understood why we’re treating “Bang Bang” like some sort of musical Messiah. It’s because music has really just sucked this summer.

For the love of Rihanna, has music sucked this summer. (Where art thou, RiRi?) Each year pop culture obsessives, well, obsess over the phenomenon that is the “Song of the Summer,” a title given to the mainstream track that becomes ubiquitous, inescapable as it plays in drug stores, theme parks, bars, radio stations, and, most importantly, your head ad nauseam until you find yourself quietly muttering “I gotta feeling / that tonight’s gonna be a good night” over and over again in your sleep.

Every summer has such a song, stretching back to The Beach Boys’ “California Girls” in 1965 to Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” in 2010, and it’s only recently that we’ve turned the race into some sort of pop Battle Royale. It’s all silly and fun and a fascinating exercise…when the songs are good.

But this has been one sad summer for music.

This year’s Battle Royale ended in a TKO very early on, when it became a foregone conclusion that Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” was going to dominate the summer. Azalea’s Gwen Stefani-by-way-of-Fergie brag rap hit No. 1 in June, eventually spending seven weeks on top of the Billboard charts, cementing its status as Song of the Summer.

How depressing.

It’s not depressing because the song is bad. Plenty of bad songs become Song of the Summer. It’s that the song is merely fine, at best, and unmemorable at worst. The Wire’s entertainment writer Kevin O’Keefe’s feelings on “Fancy” echo the general sentiment there seems to be it about it: it’s “a song that I enjoy listening, bud don’t like representing this summer…When we think back on this summer, I don’t think we’ll think about ‘Fancy.’ In fact, I don’t think we’ll think of it at all.”

Let’s leave the obnoxious capitalization and punctuation in that name out of it and just talk about the music, which sounds like a high school garage band doing a cover of Sublime—in every godforsaken way that comparison implies.

Such is the problem with “Fancy.” Songs of the Summer can be corny (“Call Me Maybe”), silly (“Party Rock Anthem”), campy (“I Kissed a Girl”), or even bad (“I Gotta Feeling”). They can be songs that are trashy and sometimes derivative, but are so catchy that you’re not even embarrassed to raise your red Solo cup in the air and shout along to them for the 400th time at a party come end of August. But what they shouldn’t be is indifferent.

There’s something woefully listless about the hook for “Fancy,” as if Charlie XCX is sleep-singing it during the 22nd hour of a 24-hour dance marathon. (Maybe she still hasn’t stopped raving to “I Love It”?)

Whether it’s a slight pop song (“Buttons”) or a searing ballad (“Bleeding Love”), the hallmark of a Song of the Summer is that you can—nay, you must—belt your heart out to it when it comes on the radio. Though “Fancy” is at its core a self-empowerment track, its ho-hum energy reads like it’s being delivered by Azalea and Charlie XCX with shrugged shoulders. If they’re shrugging their shoulders, what impetus is there for us to dance along? (Spoiler: There isn’t one.)

Still, it’s not entirely fair to bemoan the crowning of “Fancy” as Song of the Summer when the other contenders are just as pitiful.

This summer isn’t like the ones in the recent past, when a glut of earworms made the contest—and, accordingly, the summer—actually fun. Last year there was “Get Lucky,” “We Can’t Stop,” “Can’t Hold Us,” and—say it’s bad but at least it was dance-y and controversial—“Blurred Lines.” The year before had “Call Me Maybe,” “Payphone,” Somebody That I Used to Know,” and “Lights.” 2011’s contenders ranged from guilty-pleasure fluff (“Party Rock Anthem,” “Last Friday Night”) to legitimately great pop music offerings (“Rolling in the Deep,” “Super Bass”).

This summer? After seven weeks of “Fancy” at the top of the charts, Azalea’s song was finally dethroned by MAGIC!’s “Rude.” Guys. This song. Let’s leave the obnoxious capitalization and punctuation in that name out of it and just talk about the music, which sounds like a high school garage band doing a cover of Sublime—in every godforsaken way that comparison implies. “Blurred Lines” is Mozart in comparison.

But aside from this MAGIC! nonsense, all of the other Song of the Summers either burned fast and bright (like “Problem,” Ariana Grande’s catchy retro-pop hit featuring Azalea); never caught the steam they deserved (like Sam Smith’s gorgeous “Stay With Me”); or were too much of a schtick to be taken seriously (like Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What”).

Then there were those songs that were either too half-baked or half-hearted to even fool us into turning them into smash hits. “Maps,” for example, is practically phoned in by Maroon 5. And I am a proud founding member of Citizens Against “Wiggle,” a group united in its cause to keep such musical poo poo off the radio and in the toilet where it belongs.

As a group, though, these tracks are so underwhelming that “Fancy,” a song that is likable enough but is hardly transcendent or iconic, dominates them all in a seven-week run on top of the charts. Earlier this month Vulture’s Amanda Dobbins bemoaned this state of affairs, in a must-read screed titled, “We Deserve a Better Song of the Summer.”

Dismayed by the anointing of “Fancy” almost by default, Dobbins penned a call to arms: “We don’t have to settle. It’s not too late for a new Song of Summer. And we deserve it.” And it is with that sense of entitlement, determination, and, hell, desperation that music fans reacted to the release of “Bang Bang.”

The wailing horns, the “Mickey”-like clapping beat, Jessie J belting to the rafters: It was as if a chorus of angels appeared through the clouds singing their hallelujahs. We had weathered the treacherous storm that was this summer’s music landscape, and Ariana Grande singing “You need a bad girl to blow your mind” was our proverbial rescue boat.

The reaction was accordingly histrionic:

As for me? It was as if I was Debra Winger, lost and pining for a love to cling to, and Jessie J was dressed in Richard Gere’s Navy whites, sweeping me off my feet and carrying me into the sunset as Nicki Minaj rapped in the background. “Bang Bang” lifted me up where I belonged. It was the jolt needed to get through the last stretch of the summer. It’s a powerhouse anthem you can’t help but tap your feet to. Resistance is futile.

It’s not a perfect song. Admittedly, it’s a tad oversung and at times a little cacophonous. But it’s a song that makes me happy. It’s a song that I can make finger guns to every time they say “bang bang,” easily sing along with, and do a little dance in front of the mirror to where I pretend I’m in a Motown girl group. Isn’t that what Song of the Summer is all about?

It remains to be seen what kind of chart impact “Bang Bang” will have, and, in fact, there may not be enough time left in the summer to stop Iggy Azalea’s assault. “It’s too late,” says buzzkill/pragmatist O’Keefe. “It’s a little bit odd, but summer for pop culture is somewhere between early May and late July.”

That may be the case, but it’s still worth celebrating that, for the first time this summer, there is enthusiasm surrounding the release of a song. People are excited! Some people are dancing like no one’s watching and others (me) are dancing knowing full well that his coworkers can see them and not caring at all.

The summer of music may have started with a ho-hum and largely stayed there. But at least it’s ending with a “Bang Bang.”