America’s No. 1 Song Is Basically This Generation’s “Cotton Eye Joe”

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 20 2014 1:54 PM

Why Is Pitbull and Ke$ha’s “Timber” No. 1?

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Ke$ha and Pitbull have basically recorded this generation's "Cotton Eye Joe."

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Timber,” the single currently topping Billboard’s authoritative Hot 100 chart, is America’s second consecutive No. 1 hit to mine the male-rapper-plus-female-hook-singer shtick, coming right on the heels of the Eminem–Rihanna pairing “The Monster.” It’s by Pitbull, the Cuban-American club-pop action figure, and features the gleefully trashy pop star Ke$ha.

It’s also a quintessential wintertime hit, in that it’s both of the club and about the club—sporting not just a thumping beat but also lyrics about what the lead male wants to see that pretty thing do on the dance floor. (Judging by the single artwork, the titular wood falling to the floor in “Timber” is a callipygian beauty’s midsection.) There must be something about cold months and pop songs trying to confect excitement indoors: Winters over the last decade have given us such chart-toppers as 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” Usher’s “Yeah!” and “Love in This Club,” Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” Flo Rida’s “Low,” Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” and, just last February, Baauer’s “Harlem Shake.” This trend even dates back to the disco era and such winter dominators as the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever” and Chic’s “Le Freak”—although the latter’s lyrics were actually inspired by not being allowed in the club.

More than anything, though, answering how we wound up with “Timber” at No. 1 in early 2014 means tracing how pop swallows its own tail. And it starts with Mumford & Sons, the wildly popular, exceedingly over-rewarded English folk-rockers. Rarely has a popular act so changed the sound of radio while not scoring a major hit single themselves.

Go back with me to early 2011, when the Mumfords had their American breakthrough, thanks to a showcase Grammy performance that spurred their album up the charts. That fluke development got the Mumfords a bunch of new fans and a rock radio hit or two, but it didn’t get them on the Z100s of the world. Back then Top 40 radio was at the peak of “turbo-pop”; the Hot 100 was awash in club beats, from the likes of Far East Movement, LMFAO, Britney Spears, Rihanna, and … Pitbull.

That all began to change in 2012, when the Mumfords’ album-sales success began to have a radio trickle-down effect on other campfire-hootenanny-style acts. Top 40 programmers started rotating twinkly, strummy tracks by the likes of Imagine Dragons (“It’s Time”) and Of Monsters and Men (“Little Talks”). By the start of 2013, one-trick-pony act the Lumineers rode the stomping, positively Mumfordesque “Ho Hey” to No. 3 on the Hot 100. The timing was especially surreal for the Mumfords, who were then dominating the Billboard chart with their sophomore disc, the future Album of the Year Grammy-winner Babel, but whose single “I Will Wait” couldn’t get any higher than No. 12.

What happened next was even more bizarre: Having coexisted alongside club-pop on the radio, folk-pop then went to the club, thanks to Avicii, the Scandinavian EDM deejay and hit record producer. His “Wake Me Up!”—a collaboration with soul vocalist Aloe Blacc—merged folk-and-country-flavored acoustic guitar with electro-club beats, to produce a crossover smash that spread from triple-A to rock to dance to Top 40 formats. The song eventually peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100 last fall and, by Christmas, became the most-played song at U.S. radio.

Which finally brings us to Pitbull’s “Timber,” a club-hoedown hybrid so hokey—it’s even got faux squaredance calls in it—it makes the Avicii track sound utterly organic. With its prominent harmonica and bro-country-savvy lyrics, “Timber” can best be understood as the unasked-for sequel to the mid-’90s Jock Jam staple “Cotton Eye Joe” by Rednex. It’s several steps down the Americana-manqué food chain from the Mumfords, and it owes its existence to Top 40’s shift since 2012 toward vaguely rootsy pastiche—you can tell that its creators, including hit-music mastermind Dr. Luke, have been paying attention.

Pitbull is, if nothing else, a quick study in pop trends. The man born Armando Christian Pérez emerged a decade ago on the heels of two early-aughts hip-hop trends—the bassy southern-rap style known as crunk, and the Latin-dancehall hybrid reggaetón. Pit’s first crossover hit, in 2004, was “Culo,” a thumping reggaetón ode to asses backed by crunk king Lil Jon.

After several Latin-rap albums generated diminishing returns, Pitbull saw the Eurodance movement gathering steam, post-Gaga, and he shifted to crossover club music. In 2009 he reached No. 2 on the Hot 100 with “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho),” a hit that transitioned Pitbull from his former Latin-rap persona to dancefloor denizen. In summer 2011, his Ne-Yo and Afrojack–supported “Give Me Everything,” with nary a Spanish lyric (“My family's from Cuba/ But I’m an American idol”), topped the Hot 100. Although he still periodically scores Latin-radio hits, Señor Pérez knows where his medianoche is buttered.

If “Timber” is the completion of a career evolution for Pitbull, for singer and sometime-rapper Ke$ha it’s a round trip—and a bit of a comedown. Kesha Rose Sebert, daughter of veteran Nashville songwriter Patricia Rose “Pebe” Sebert, first broke as an uncredited hook-singer, on Flo Rida’s 2009 hit “Right Round.” Dr. Luke wrote and produced that song, and he signed Sebert, now self-styled as Ke$ha, to his label later that year, producing her debut album and its mega-smash single “TiK ToK,” Billboard’s No. 1 song of 2010. Ke$ha enjoyed a three-year run as a fairly regular radio presence, but her late-2012 album Warrior generated only one major hit, the unfortunate-sounding-after-Newtown “Die Young,” and in her current slump Ke$ha is taking on hook-girl duties once again—though at least this time, on Pitbull’s hit, she’s fully credited. (She was lucky to get the gig, after Pitbull’s original choice, Rihanna, passed; if Ri had taken it, she would have been the hook singer on back-to-back No. 1’s.)

Ironically, given her Nashville background, “Timber” is the most country-sounding hit Ke$ha’s ever had. Whatever you think of the chorus’s dim-witted melody and lyric, she—like Rihanna on Eminem’s “Monster”—is the best thing about the track, playing up her native accent and clearly embracing the cornpone. But it’s still not a patch on the best K-dollar hits like “Your Love Is My Drug” or “We R Who We R.” And even Pitbull’s been better before—certainly on “Culo,” arguably on “Calle Ocho.”

“Timber” is, in the end, total Kid Season piffle, the sound of Americana being sold back to Americans first by a bunch of bearded Englishmen, then a Swedish DJ, then a Latin rapper. Its legacy is hard to guess. I still hear Flo Rida’s ass-celebrating “Low” at parties and “Cotton Eye Joe” at baseball games, so “Timber” could well have the uncanny resilience of many monster club jams before it. And it’s impossible to know whether folktronica frippery like this will finally break Top 40 of its roots-pop fever or inspire yet another trend-hopping act—will.i.am, perhaps?—to take us even further down this rabbit hole.

Chris Molanphy is a feature writer and critic who writes widely about music and the pop charts.