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

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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