What the Top 10 Songs of 2012 Say About Our Love of Pop
Most-streamed songs are light and airy, not soulful ballads
You'd have been hard-pressed to find anyone this year who couldn't recite the meet-cute details of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" chorus, or who couldn't immediately identify a few percussion pings as the opening of Gotye's "Somebody I Used to Know," or who didn't at least thoroughly enjoy that Chevy Sonic commercial solely for its rousing refrain, before knowing it came courtesy of fun.'s "We Are Young" (featuring Janelle Monae).
But those songs didn't become ubiquitous on their own; in fact, according to Spotify, we music lovers and listeners played them over and over by choice -- pure, unashamed (ok, maybe a little shamed) choice.
The popular digital music service recently released its list of the top 10 most-streamed songs of 2012 (based on its users' selections) and on it are the aforementioned omnipresent hits, as well as Nicki Minaj's "Starships" (see below).
What is missing from the list, however, are the emotionally charged croons of Adele's "Someone Like You" and Usher's "Climax," the experimental artistry of Miguel's "Adorn" and Frank Ocean's "Thinkin' About You," and the nod to nostalgic sounds, as heard on Beyonce's "Love on Top" and Robin Thicke's "Love After War" -- songs that, while good, apparently didn't resonate with listeners long enough for them to hit "repeat."
So why are so many people opting for saccharine instead of soul?
Jermaine Hall, editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine, says it all simply boils down to the jingles' 'joie de vivre.'
"People are into having fun with music right now," said Hall. "They want to dance aimlessly. 'Call Me Maybe' feels great in the car, on a boat, by the pool, at a club. You can learn that record in five minutes; the hook resonates. It's a great pop record with production that says, 'Let your hair down, put your worries to rest, and party for this moment.'"
Dr. Ebony Utley, pop culture expert and professor of communication studies at California State University Long Beach, agrees. "We've got the relationship songs and the fantasy-escape songs [on this list]," she said. "We want to stay 'young' and fly away on 'starships.' That's what everybody—the young and not-so-young alike—wants: to 'YOLO' and live it up. That's classic."
Sure enough, the lyrics of the list-worthy songs mention hands touching the sky, setting the world on fire, shutting down the club and, of course, "here and now" being what counts. And all that 'enjoy life' encouragement seems to have worked as it led to both Gotye and Jepsen selling at least 10 million copies of their respective singles worldwide, making theirs some of the best-selling singles ever — a historic achievement doubled by the fact that neither artist had ever charted before. In fact, in June, Billboard reported that its Hot 100 list was enjoying its longest streak of No. 1's by artists making their first list appearances.
"If you look at our playlist, there's a ton of people on here you hadn't heard of six months ago," Sharon Dastur, program director of New York's Z100, told Billboard. "It's not that [people are] sick of [veteran] artists - this music is just so unique and fresh."
But Kinelam Bolgaire, a New York-based social media expert and publicist, suggests it's not the age of the artists, but of the audience, that's influencing certain songs' popularity.
"The 13- to 24-year-old group spends the most time listening to the radio, attending concerts, buying music, following artists on social media, etc.," said Bolgaire. "So popular music can be summed up as what they prefer. And music artists invent (or reinvent) themselves around what's currently popular because a substantial measure of their success depends on the size of their audience, so the direction of music will continue to lean towards pop, dance, and electro until a new style is disruptive and alluring enough to capture the attention of that group."
Utley, too, believes older audiences aren't adapting as quickly—"If you're 35 and older, it's like 'What's Spotify?,'" she said—but she also notes that the visual appeal of R&B artists may not be as inclusive, or as eye-catching, as their pop counterparts.
"We always have to account for the visual appeal of sound," said Utley. "One Direction looks very all-American, like people you'd want to hang out with. Janelle Monae—even if you're not into her—most people recognize her uniform; it's universal. Carly Rae [Jepsen] is just the girl-next-door. And Nicki [Minaj] made the list because she's interesting to look at. Some R&B artists don't have that. Do people really look at Brandy and then think, 'Oh, I wanna listen to her?' I don't know."
Aside from Minaj, when rap does appear on the list—instances that are few and far between—it's often paired with an otherwise unusual guest: Flo-Rida's "Wild Ones" features alternative Australian singer Sia, and Wiz Khalifa is a guest on pop-rock band Maroon 5's "Payphone." They're collaborations that don't surprise Manny Faces, founder and editor-in-chief of hip-hop magazine "Birthplace".
"The lines separating popular musical styles have become increasingly blurry over the years," Faces said. "And by doing so, a new 'middle-class' of pop music has been created. R&B and hip-hop have significantly influenced the trajectory of pop and dance music over the years, and as a result, the genre of 'Top 40'—which might have been less appealing to fans of hip-hop and R&B in the past—now contains enough familiar DNA. So while I don’t think traditional hip-hop and R&B will be much more prevalent in these kinds of general public surveys anytime soon, I think popular music, in general, has evolved to include characteristics of those genres."
Still, Hall—who notes that Ne-Yo's new electro-pop hit "Let Me Love You" was promoted internationally before it was brought to the States—keeps faith that music lovers will find a happy medium.
"It's a sign of the times that music's genre walls have come down," he said. "People are now into several types of music -- much like it was in the '80s when you could be a Big Daddy Kane, Madonna, Phil Collins, and U2 fan. And also go lose your mind on the dance floor to [Raze's] 'Break 4 Love.'"