The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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August 9, 2013

Jeremiah Tucker: Haim's 'Wire' the perfect radio pop song

JOPLIN, Mo. — If I were allowed to choose, this would be the song of the summer.

I hadn't paid attention to the previous singles from this up-and-coming band comprising three sisters from California who make pop music. (This generation's Hanson?) But last week, when Haim released "The Wire," a single from its debut album due out next month, the response online was so overwhelming I couldn't not pay attention.

When describing the song, one blog I follow invoked Shania Twain, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Lindsey Buckingham. Surely this was hyperbole; such a potent combination of pop would threaten to dissolve the very fabric of reality.

Maybe, but "The Wire" is as close to a perfect representation of a radio-ready pop single as you're likely to hear in 2013. If God were the head of a label and shouted, "Get me a hit!" it might sound like this.

There's neither artifice nor a savvy deployment of current trends, just the three Haim sisters playing a seamlessly-crafted song. From the back-up vocals, to the way the guitar drops in and out and the handclap-and-kick-drum percussion, the overall impression is one of effortlessness. Even if it doesn't top the charts, "The Wire" is an instant classic.

Billboard's Hot 100

Speaking of the charts, I've mentioned before that I'm an enthusiastic follower of Billboard magazine's Hot 100 chart, the final word on America's hit songs since 1958. I've followed the chart for years -- most recently by subscribing to the official Hot 100 playlist on Spotify -- but I didn't realize how little I knew about it until I read NPR's recent story "How the Hot 100 Became America's Hit Barometer."

For instance, I always assumed "number one with a bullet" meant a song sped to No. 1 as if on the back of a bullet. In fact, it's a reference to the Hot 100's practice of indicating whether a song has momentum -- i.e. is climbing the charts -- by putting a bullet point next to it. So "number one with a bullet" means a song is both the most popular song in the country and still has momentum.

I also didn't realize that the venerable American Top 40 radio show, hosted for years by Casey Kasem, has been a complete sham since 1991 when it stopped using the Hot 100. The pure meritocracy of the Hot 100 meant too many songs that mainstream radio stations found distasteful were cracking the Top 40. To appease them, American Top 40 began using more conservative, radio-friendly metrics.

That this shift occurred at the same time rap became a commercial force is likely no accident. This also underscores my theory that Ryan Seacrest, the current host of American Top 40, is truly the representation of all that is middling and awful in music.

By contrast, the Hot 100 has updated its evaluative formula multiple times over the years to better capture how people are listening to music. Most recently it began including digital downloads and streaming in addition to radio plays and sales. Any given week the Hot 100 includes country, balladeers, "American Idol" winners, teen pop, indie rock, R&B, hip-hop and novelty acts.

Unlike the staid tastes of radio programmers who want to project a more respectable version of American tastes, the Hot 100 gives as true -- and weird, trashy and transcendent -- a reflection of American tastes as possible. And that's why I love it.

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