Yes, this is the line that Anna Kendrick says in Pitch Perfect after she looks at the Barden Bellas’ set list. I never thought I’d agree with that assessment, but I’m coming around to the idea.
The twentieth century brought us Frank Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, the Supremes, and basically most of what we consider pop music today. As a child of the twentieth century who is growing increasingly scared of some of the strange music of the past 13 years, I’m tempted to just shake my cane at the whole industry. As I’ve started going to this ballroom dance class, I can’t help but imagine some contemporary pop songs as background music. “Somebody I Used to Know” would be a lovely contemporary accompaniment for the quickstep, and you could do a fantastic jive to “Cowboy Casanova.”
So, here’s a quick countdown of 10 songs from the 21st century that capture the essence of “contemporary,” “pop,” and “music,” and what makes them so great.
2003: Eminem, “Lose Yourself”
I wasn’t really aware of this song when it came out, but what I also wasn’t aware of was that this was the dawning of 2000s Eminem, vs. 1990s Eminem. 1990s Eminem was an angry, sadistic man, but in the 2000s, he started manning up, coming into his own as an artist and as a person. “Lose Yourself” was the first step, written and released for the movie 8 Mile in late 2002 but skyrocketed to popularity in 2003, coasting all the way to the 2004 Oscars and winning, the first rap song to achieve this feat. Before “Lose Yourself,” I was one of those “anything but country and rap” people but this song exemplifies R-A-P (rhythm and poetry) in its cascading verses and positive message.
What dance it would accompany: Solo – club jam or jazz. For a couple – not many, maybe a Viennese waltz or a reaaaaally energetic foxtrot? If I were to ever go into boxing, martial arts, bungee jumping, or gain superpowers, this would be my theme.
2004: Dido, “White Flag”
Dido’s been around for awhile, but “White Flag,” I feel, gained her a lot of mainstream fans up against the likes of Christina Aguilera (whom she lost out on the Grammy Awards to for “Beautiful,” another heartfelt slow song but a bit hackneyed and obvious) and Avril Lavigne (whose “I’m With You” was also nominated that year, but sounds better when anyone but Avril Lavigne sings it…there’s a Josh Groban version out there which is spellbinding). It has echoes of Sinead O’Connor’s classic angst anthem “Nothing Compares 2 U” but with less of a fatalistic outlook; its message is one of strength and resilience. The haunting cello makes an excellent counterpoint to the higher notes, and Dido’s voice is just angelic.
What dance it would accompany: Solo – ballet, modern. For a couple – perfect for a rumba or a waltz, but a tango would be intriguing. When I hear this song, for some reason, I think of a commercial for a jewelry line or a perfume or something with a lot of white and possibly fur.
2005: Shakira, “La Tortura”
At this point in her career, Shakira’s had some major English-language hits like “Whenever, Wherever” (which would make for a hot samba number) and “Underneath Your Clothes” (…yeah, I’ve got nothing) but “La Tortura,” a collab. with Alejandro Sanz, is the epitome of sexy and provocative Latino music but not quite Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights provocative. I’ve heard both the English and Spanish versions, and though the English version received more buzz, I’m more partial to Shakira singing in her native language. (Speaking of Spanish, bienvenidos to my first visitors from Peru, Chile, and El Salvador!) With “La Tortura,” Shakira provided a stepping stone for other Latino/a artists to break into mainstream American music, adding some much needed flavor, as most bubble-gum brands lose over time. Good job building bridges Shakira!
What dance it could accompany: Solo – jazz, belly dancing, flamenco. For a couple – what couldn’t it accompany? Salsa, cha-cha, samba, quickstep, an energetic waltz even. Definitely one of the sexier songs of the decade.
2006: Natasha Bedingfield, “Unwritten”
Ah, “Unwritten.” The song that I loved so much I made it part of my screen name. Both the American and UK music videos are amazing, and this song is just the most uplifting, stereo-over-the-head, positive songs I’ve ever heard. It’s not too difficiult to sing and makes a rather banal karaoke choice, but it just fills me with sunshine. I used to have a rule that if the song comes on the radio while I’m driving, I couldn’t change the station, and if it comes on my iPod, I couldn’t skip it. Those days are gone now, but it’s a replica of a simpler time, a better time. Wait – that was freshman year of college for me, so maybe I’m better in the present.
What dance it could accompany: This is the only song on the list that isn’t really a song to dance to, other than maybe the gospel side-to-side clap.
2007: Justin Timberlake, “LoveStoned”
“The One That Got Away” is a Katy Perry song, but it could probably be about Justin Timberlake. He is indeed the one that got away…from the 1990s boy band scene. Pretty much every mainstream 1990s group was yesterday’s news when the 21st century hit; N*SYNC, 98 Degrees, O-Town, Backstreet Boys, Hanson, and the Spice Girls just missed the boat, among many other smaller, forgotten groups, but other than Posh Spice (who only retained her fame by marrying David Beckham and just being generally gorgeous 24/7), only Justin Timberlake seems to have emerged unscathed. In fact, his career is getting better and better. No longer is he Britney’s ex with the awful hair; he’s a sex symbol, viral video star, and is a better actor/comedian than half the current SNL cast. Seriously, Lorne Michaels, just put him on the payroll. “LoveStoned” is not his biggest hit, and maybe not even his best hit, but it took him off the Bar Mitzvah circuit and onto the 21-and-over nightclub floor. The instrumentals plus Justin’s massive octave range blurs the line between teen heartthrob and dashing gentleman, two qualities that have made Justin Timberlake the star he is today.
What dance it could accompany: Solo – club jam, hip hop, breaking, something a la Fosse jazz. For a couple – salsa and cha-cha, most def., but could work for a quickstep, a foxtrot, or a tango.
2008: Leona Lewis, “Better in Time”
While we were suffering through country boys on American Idol, Simon Cowell was churning out stars across the pond, and Leona Lewis was one of them. Most people thought she’d be a flash in the pan, and in truth…she kinda was, and sounding very similar to Jordin Sparks didn’t help her case, but she had several hits, most of them severely overplayed (yes, I’m talking to you, “Bleeding Love”). “Better in Time” was an after-thought and underrated, a subtle response to “Bleeding Love,” in fact, I wasn’t even aware of it until much later. But it’s living proof that the torch song still reigns, and every time I hear it, I think the same thing: it does get better in time.
What dance it could accompany: Solo – nothing really, maybe some Martha Graham-esque modern. For a couple – anything slow, like waltz, rumba, or even quickstep. Apropos, Ms. Lewis has amazing hair.
2009: Jay-Z & Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind”
This unlikely but fantastic pairing set 2009 (and 2010) on fire with “Empire State of Mind (Part 1)” which some said was a response to Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” – or maybe the other way around. If this song had been around seven years earlier, I think it might’ve replaced the national anthem. This late-night tune celebrates the Big Apple, Jay-Z’s sometimes nonsensical rapping notwithstanding, but Alicia Keys provides killer vocals and the music video is stunning. Let’s hear it for New York!
What dance it could accompany: Solo – modern, or a slow club jam. For a couple – much like the previous entry, anything slow (waltz, rumba, quickstep). This song will always remind me of getting off the Chinatown bus on a solo trip to Manhattan (it was randomly playing on the bus’ radio at the time), and even more of the end of that trip, where my aunt got stuck in Midtown traffic and in order to make my bus back, I had to jump out of her car with my backpack and rolling suitcase, and run several blocks, including through Times Square, at sunset, and seeing the lights of Broadway brighten as I ran. I was out of breath, but managed to watch the remainder of the sunset from the bus window.
2010: Lena Meyer-Landrut, “Satellite”
2010’s hit is another trip over the Atlantic, but this time to Germany. Well, actually Oslo, Norway, aka the location of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2010. Long-described as a “musical trainwreck,” not many have made it out of Eurovision and enjoyed a lively career, with the obvious exceptions of ABBA, Katrina and the Waves, and Celine Dion. But 2010’s winner, German teenager Lena Meyer-Landrut (now known as just Lena) provided a refreshing pop treat with her rendition of “Satellite.” At first, I was disappointed, due to her winning over some of my personal favorites, Albania (Juliana Pasha, “It’s All About You”), Armenia (Eva Rivas, “Apricot Stone”), and of course Israel (Harel Skaat, “Milim”), but once I actually listened to the song, I was like…this is just precious. It straddles the line between adorable and obsessive, and is one of my favorites to do karaoke. It’s fun and bouncy and just so lovable. Surprisingly, even with her follow-up hit “Taken By A Stranger” (which got her close to winning Eurovision again the next year) and her cover of En Vogue’s “What A Man,” Lena hasn’t taken off here in America, and not even that much outside of Germany and its neighbors. Guess it takes a lot to overcome the Eurovision Curse.
What dance it could accompany: Solo – club jam, dance-around-in-your-underwear. For a couple – an energetic cha-cha, or a fun jive. I love you Lena, but you really need better PR people. If Ylvis, PSY, and One Direction could cross over, surely you can?
2011: Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”
Another song that kind of annoyed me when it first came out but then grew on me to the point where I will sing it in the shower at the gym (the acoustics of the tiles make it fill the space very nicely) and will not give you the pleasure of judging me. I’m too old for that, screw you, I do what I want when I want and it’s not hurting nobody. The previous year, Adele had begun her world takeover with “Chasing Pavements,” another song that kind of annoyed me, but like “Rolling in the Deep,” it grew on me. Even though she hasn’t released much new material other than “Rumor Has It,” “Someone Like You,” and “Skyfall,” what makes her fresh in my mind is her versatility. Her young voice has so much old-school soul, yet “Rolling in the Deep,” “Skyfall,” and “Rumor Has It” are so different that it could very well be three different but equally talented singers. (sidenote – when I heard “Rumor Has It” for the first time, I did not know who sang it, but said “Adele would make an awesome cover of that one”…and then I found out that it was Adele. Whoops.) Adele is, as Christina Bianco correctly puts it, “the reigning British queen,” and many, like me, are anxiously awaiting her forthcoming album. Take that, Kate Middleton!
What dance it could accompany: Solo – not sure, I’ll go with modern. For a couple – something standard, like a quickstep or a Viennese waltz. Yeah, not much of a dance track, but there is never not a good time for this song.
2012: Kelly Clarkson, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”
The waitress from small-town Texas turned American Idol has arguably had the most successful career among her fellow alumni, along with Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson. She suffered some career hiccups with the epic disaster of From Justin to Kelly and the poorly-chosen (but still popular) lineup for My December but came back to her sometimes lovable, sometimes frightening self with hits like “All I Ever Wanted” and “My Life Would Suck Without You.” “Stronger” has a rough,tough rock-n-roll appeal but also could be the soundtrack to an exercise class for moms. It defines “power anthem” without being too “girl power!” and that’s what makes it all the stronger. Good on you, Kelly.
What dance it could accompany: Solo – um, club jam, hip hop. For a couple – a fun salsa or cha-cha. Plus, the music video’s pretty neat and it’s just such an empowering song.
2013: Ariana Grande, “The Way”
Ariana Grande has been on my radar screen since 2010, when I was working on 13 The Musical in Israel, and had the soundtrack imprinted into my brain, a soundtrack that included vocals from a young and practically unknown Ariana Grande. After spending her teens with the gang at Hollywood Arts on Nickelodeon’s Victorious, Ariana spread her wings to fly solo. Not every baby bird can fly right off the bat, and she fell flat with the jokingly lame “Put Your Hearts Up,” which even she herself admitted should have never happened. But she got right back up with “The Way,” and with comparisons to Mariah Carey, took to the sky as more than a pop star wannabe but a vocalist with style and gymnastic ability not heard since the days of…well, Mariah Carey. The video ruffled some feathers for its not-so-squeaky-clean content, including a kiss, but in the grand scheme of music these days, it was relatively tame. I predict a long and successful career for Ariana Grande even if she is kind of annoying on Sam & Cat, her new Nick series which lacks the fun of Victorious and the maturity of iCarly.
What dance it could accompany: Solo – hip hop club jam, any day of the week. As a couple – seriously, just about anything fun and fast: salsa, cha-cha, rumba, samba, even a lively waltz.
I just spent about two and a half hours writing this. I clearly have my priorities in the right place.