Sunday, October 2, 2011

Fresh Air - Dev, Alexandra Stan and Selena Gomez Hit Mainstream Radio

Along with a lovable band of fellow chart junkies, I have been following the daily mainstream radio airplay updates for some time through the new forums at, and though there's plenty about the data that aggravates me to pieces, it sure is a lot less infuriating than actually listening to the radio, and at least this way I'm still informed. I've learned a few things in the relatively short period I've been receiving these daily numbers, some of them rather fascinating. For one thing, even I was taken aback at first by how short the list is of tracks receiving enough airplay to earn a significant number of audience impressions: it's rarely as long as forty, and the artists are either predictable A-listers or newcomers with a huge digital hit (usually the former). Another disturbing factoid is that the songs at the very top of the list tend to have nearly if not over twice the impressions as the tenth highest track, nearly three times as many as the twentieth, and so forth. And because unlike digital charts the airplay numbers move like molasses (+/- .500 is an average daily movement; a big movement up or down is anything over 1.0 and nothing moves more than 3.0 in a day) it can take forever for a track at the peak to fall. A final interesting note is that since I've been watching there have usually been more tracks falling than rising of those in the top 20; currently four of the top ten and eight of the top 22 are on the way down.

Dev Alexandra Stan Selena Gomez
Newcomers (l-r) Dev, Alexandra Stan and Selena Gomez are breaking into mainstream radio.
It's enormous fun when a newcomer appears on the board, especially one that isn't a gimme, and watching the little saplings fighting their way up amongst the giant redwoods is incredibly rewarding (we even have a cheerleading emoticon that gets a good deal of use). There are a few chart junkie favorites too, namely Britney Spears, Lady Gaga (this is the only place that fans of the two don't bicker, actually), Kelly Clarkson, and Nicki Minaj, while we all tend to just kind of look on at Adele with dazed amazement and treat Katy Perry and Rihanna (if at all) as sort of necessary evils. Nobody ever badmouths anyone - it's like a modeling agency, really, where everyone is nice and every statement is a positive one. It's incredibly refreshing, really.

Right now there are three such underdogs my forum friends and I cheer on from the sidelines, and each represents a different kind of coup, each one as exciting as the last. These three songs have a few things in common: they are all by solo(ish) female artists; these artists are (relatively) new; all three are dance-infused and could easily span into dance airplay and club play (and, in most cases, have already); finally, all three of them are excellent records, and immensely deserving of airplay and the associated renown and popularity, both for the track and especially for the artists. These common traits are actually among the things that separate them from the rest of the tracks getting airplay alongside them at present, which I find fascinating and, if I may be bold, promising. So what's so great about Dev, Alexandra Stan and Selena Gomez or their respective singles that have allowed them to break through the imposing barrier to mainstream radio rotations?
Dev - "In The Dark" (iTunes

Let's start with Dev, whose breakout single "In the Dark" currently leads the pack at just under 65 million impressions as of yesterday, putting her in the 15th slot although she is on track to jump up a rung past Adele's falling behemoth "Rolling in the Deep" today or at the latest tomorrow, and should also soon surpass Britney Spears' "I Wanna Go" to end the week in 13th. Not bad for an unknown whose debut album, The Night the Sun Came Up, isn't out in the US until November 1 (fans who simply can't wait can try to get a copy from the UK or Australia, where the album dropped in early September). Devin Tailes rose to...well, infamy at least when Far*East Movement took a sample from her song "Booty Bounce" and immortalized it as the chorus on the number one hit "Like a G6," and of course they were gentlemen enough to bring her along for the ride with a feature credit. Producers The Cataracs took her on and thus cameth "Bass Down Low," a fun club track featuring Dev announcing "I like my beats fast and my bass down low" despite the fact that the song's beat is not particularly fast nor is there any special preponderance of bass to speak of.

Never mind, Dev is not one to give up, especially after tasting a bite of whirlwind success, and thank goodness she didn't, because her follow-up single "In the Dark" is absolutely divine. Starting with a seductively detached Dev singing "On my waist, through my hair/ Think about it when you touch me there/ Close my eyes, here you are/ All alone, dancing in the dark" as bits of electronic backing trickle up like air bubbles in water, growing slowly until disappearing as a slow whoosh frames the harmonies of a second "dancing in the dark," which are chopped up and repeated until suddenly a saxophone lets out four bleats of the same note, a 7th in the chord and therefore announcing an upcoming resolution, which metrically should come after the second note but doesn't arrive for two more beats. The extra bit does a number on the listener's already high anticipation, and when the resolution does come, and with it the basic melodic theme of the saxophone that punctuates the remainder of the midtempo stunner and the introduction of Dev's "ooh la las" that go with it, the receding rustlings of an inverse electronic whoosh (technical term) echo the figurative (or, in my case, literal) exhalations of bated breath.

The whole piece is deliciously understated, coolly sexy (sometimes despite Dev's uneven lyrics - "Open my body up and do some surgery" only works because everything else is working so well) and gorgeously performed and produced. It seems Dev and the Cataracs learned some lessons from "Bass Down Low," avoiding the excesses and insufficiencies that drag what in many ways is a good pop song down. But more than anything, everyone involved just seems to be in this zone, almost like you expect Dev to wake from a trance not remembering a thing she's just done. I've not yet heard The Night the Sun Came Up, so I can't yet say whether "In the Dark" is a fluke or a fantastic example of the merits of "try, try again," but either way, "In the Dark" is one of the year's best records and that it's found a radio audience is almost enough to make up for "Cheers (Drink to That)."

Alexandra Stan - "Mr. Saxobeat"  (iTunes)
Alexandra Stan
Alexandra Stan is a name you won't have heard; in fact, it's a name I wasn't sure was real when first I encountered it. Sure, that's probably because my first attempt to locate this song "Mr. Saxobeat" I'd seen on the Billboard Dance Airplay chart led me to some horrid knockoff by someone named "Mr. Saxobeat & Alejandra" or something similarly "Oak-a-ley Oak-a-ley Oak-a-ley." No good, but fortunately I did find the real Saxobeat in the fictional title character of Romanian singer Alexandra Stan's incredibly catchy dance smash that is so good it's now inching up mainstream airplay charts, much (I imagine) to Ms. Stan's utter shock, and most other people's for that matter. It was a smash in Romania upon its January release, the second off her debut album, which finally dropped at the end of August in her home country. That's nothing unusual; what is unusual is how it crept out of the diminutive Eastern European country and swept across Europe like the plague, and unlike the plague, it eventually hopped over to America...and outplayed the dance stations and clubs within which such a song usually lives out its US lifespan, eventually making its way onto the Radio and Digital songs charts and peaking (so far) within the top 30 on the Hot 100. What. The. Hell?

Well, one need only listen to the song to get an idea as to its popularity: it is really a remarkably effective track from start to finish, with what seems like the perfect beat, the perfect modest production, the perfect unimportant lyrics delivered in the perfect way in the perfect accent (we Americans love exotic blondes, especially when they say things like "make me move like a fdeek"), with the perfect running time, sung by a perfectly blonde anonymous European beauty, and through some fortuitous circumstance featuring a perfect saxophone solo that happens to fit in perfectly to what some in the US have called "the Summer of Sax." Sure, the music video is exactly what you'd expect from an unknown in Romania who has never made a music video before (no, no, Ms. Stan...real female dance singers don't actually dance. You're above that. Nice taste in hot cops though) and it's unlikely we'll be hearing anything more from Alexandra Stan on these shores, but I'll take it. She may be a one-hit wonder, but my heavens what a hit!

Selena Gomez and the Scene - "Love You Like a Love Song" (iTunes)

Selena Gomez
Selena Gomez is the one dating Justin Bieber. Now that we have that bit of nonsense cleared up, I have some possibly shocking news: Selena Gomez's recent album When the Sun Goes Down, her big "look at me, I'm not on the Disney Channel anymore!" coming out project (amazingly, her third full-length album) with band The Scene, is good. Actually, it's really, really good. I'm tempted to call it something stronger but I'll resist, but know that the thought is there. I was as surprised as anyone when Gomez, who had released an okay but predictable motivational single "Who Says" as the album's first single in conjunction with some movie she and it were in, let fly a pair of back-to-back eyebrow raisers in the weeks leading up to the album's release. The first, "Bang Bang Bang," is a catchy and fun revenge-based bouncer that sounds an awful lot like La Roux's "Bulletproof" but never you mind, and it was enough to prime my ears for what was soon to come.

It's a good thing, because otherwise I fear I might have been sent clear over the edge by the sheer greatness of "Love You Like a Love Song," and even as it was I was nearly knocked from my seat - and that is not hyperbole. I know it seems odd to describe such melodramatic reactions to such subtly executed masterworks as the songs I've discussed here, but in a world where the norm is someone shouting in your face and shoving the theme, sound and character down your throat with a stiletto heel and technicolor wig, understated brilliance can come as a real shock. I mean, even its title is great (and VERY postmodern, don't you think?)! Producers Rock Mafia, who deftly handled fellow Disney grad Miley Cyrus' underrated but still a bit overstuffed single "Can't Be Tamed" a few months back, dial back the dubstep influence that was just beginning to explode when "Love You Like a Love Song" was released, using the basic elements of the newly en vogue dance and electronica technique as framework and not as a showpiece or a statement; in a way, they use dubstep with less showboating than the guys who invented it, and certainly the genre headliners who claim the most ownership over the wobbling bass and chopped beats.

Gomez, who has enchanted me as a dance music vocalist since the disarmingly mature "A Year Without Rain," delivers the winking, self-aware, half-ironic/half-sincere lyrics with the sultry, knowing purr of someone two or three times her age. I would not in a thousand years have expected an eighteen year old fresh off the Disney block to exhibit such a deftness in her delivery; she sounds at once sly, playful, wise, and slightly bored - Marilyn Monroe meets Kathleen Turner. The song immediately intoxicated me and it's high atop my most often played list for the year, and I was especially thrilled to see that after a considerable time floating just outside the top ten lists but never quite dropping off in terms of digital sales, this remarkable gem has finally been added to low- and medium-rotation on mainstream airwaves after topping the Dance Club Songs chart several weeks back for good measure. The album on which it appears as a seductive opening number is also astonishingly good, and though no moment quite lives up to the high point on which it starts, it's a thoroughly enjoyable listen from start to finish and well worth the purchase. Gomez's is a career I will be watching intently and enthusiastically.

Selena Gomez and the Scene - "Love You Like a Love Song"

So while they may only have three songs whose combined airplay still doesn't quite match that of Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera's "Moves Like Jagger" or Adele's "Someone Like You," that these three young women and their three exquisite singles have been welcomed into the exclusive club of mainstream radio airplay is a thrilling coup against bland taste and safe calls on the part of the radio monopoly. They also have made me feel me something I haven't felt in a very long time when it comes to pop radio: hope.

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