Radio Hits One: How The Whistle Became Pop's Secret Weapon Of 2011

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After Billboard released its 2011 year-end charts on Friday I pored over them, looking for patterns and trends with which I could make sense of the year in pop. If someone asked you to pinpoint "the sound of popular music in 2011," there are countless fads and running themes that you could point to. The insistent thump of European dance music from producers like David Guetta and Afrojack ruled pop radio, while Lex Luger's frenzied hi-hats dominated mainstream hip-hop. Questionably talented singers continued to abuse AutoTune, while rap superstars both on and off the Young Money roster jettisoned "like a" from their wordplay in favor of the ever-popular "hashtag" (or, as I like to call it, "grocery bag") punchline.

Looking over the year-end Hot 100, however, I noticed a much more mundane musical accessory that had been quietly dominating the airwaves all year: Whistling. One of humankind's oldest forms of melodic expression, the whistle has long been a tool mostly relied on by those who might not be able to sing or play an instrument. Recorded music has relegated whistling to more of a novelty, something that might pop up memorably in the occasional classic like Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay"—more of a whimsical finishing touch than a central hook.

2011 changed all of that.

Whistling melodies, whether actually whistled by a human being or merely simulated with a sampler or synthesizer, feature prominently in no fewer than five of the year's biggest Hot 100 hits: "Moves Like Jagger" by Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera (ranked at No. 9 on the year-end list); "Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster The People (No. 13); "Good Life" by OneRepublic (No. 25); "The Lazy Song" by Bruno Mars (No. 26); and "I Wanna Go" by Britney Spears (No. 46). A sixth whistling top 40 hit, Jason Derulo's "It Girl," peaked at No. 17 and was too recent a release to hit the year-end charts. If whistling was an artist, it'd be more ubiquitous than Lil Wayne (who only has four songs in the top 50). If whistling was a producer/songwriter, it'd be tied with Stargate and nipping at the heels of Max Martin (who has a dizzying seven songs in the top 50) and his frequent collaborator Dr. Luke (who has six).

In the spring Katy Perry and Lady Gaga both released singles with prominent saxophone solos, and a flurry of trendpieces predicted the comeback of an instrument that had been unfashionable on the pop charts since the '80s. While "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" and "The Edge of Glory" performed admirably on the year-end chart (at No. 14 and No. 29, respectively), the sax was simply no match for the whistle this year.

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5 comments
gelli
gelli

Smashmouth, "All Star." circa early 2000s. A whistle solo smack in the middle of the song. Oh... but 2011 "changed it all." That's right, I forgot. 

Al Shipley
Al Shipley

Oh god, I just caught the new Foster The People video and they're whistling in this song too. How many damn songs on their album feature whistling? 

maura
maura

The whistling in "I Wanna Go" is ripped off from Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers," right?

Al Shipley
Al Shipley

haha I knew as soon as this was published everyone would remind of every whistle hit I didn't mention.

I don't hear the Gabriel/Spears thing, like not even a little bit! 

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

Is it possible the songs from 2006 you namecheck (nice job), which weren't big Hot 100 hits, were nonetheless influential? Bob Sinclair's global smash—a No. 1 Dance hit here but no Hot 100 appearance despite some modest Top 40 radio play in '07—makes sense as a sonic inspiration for the current generation of four-on-the-floor smashes; both "Jagger" and "I Wanna Go" sound direct descendants of the whistle hook on "World." And I have always regarded "Pumped Up Kicks" as "son of 'Young Folks.'"

Re: the '80s, don't forget about the prominent whistle solo in the 1986 smash./No. 1 Billboard hit of 1987, the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian"!

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