Youth Culture Window

The #1 Hits of 2013

Dynamic ImageA visit to the thrift shop, some (very) blurred lines… and coping with your “monster.”

Those were just a few of the subjects addressed by the most popular music in 2013. This year’s music had a lot to say to teenagers, some good…and some not so good (at all). Here’s what you need to know.

The Top of the Charts
Unlike previous years, the most popular music in 2013 didn’t have a noticeably uniform message (like last year’s, for example). But that doesn’t mean that this year’s music didn’t have something to communicate. There were some great tunes that conveyed positive messages…and there were some songs that pushed the envelope in ways we’ve yet seen. The diversity of 2013’s most popular music even included its genre; hip hop songs, pop tunes, ballads, and even viral videos clawed their way to the top of the charts.

In this year’s recap of the hottest music in the land, we’ll discuss each song that held the #1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 (in the order in which it peaked), examine its message and meaning, and then offer a few quick tools to help you stay informed on music in the coming year.

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started.

Locked Out of Heaven (Bruno Mars)
Bruno Mars isn’t a stranger to the top of the charts in the past few years. In 2010, he captured us with his smooth melodic voice in the romantic and refreshingly affirming song, Just the Way You Are. The next year, in 2011, he kicked off the year grasping the #1 spot with his song and controversial music video Grenade, from an album collecting six 2012 Grammy nominations, including album of the year. On December 16, 2012, Bruno was back in the number one spot with Locked Out of Heaven, riding the top of the charts for six weeks through the beginning of February, making it the first No 1 song of 2013.

We’d probably appreciate this love anthem more if he was singing about his wife (a la Song of Solomon), but judging by the “each time you spend the night” lyrics, my guess is this is to a lover:

Never had much faith in love or miracles
Never wanna put my heart on the line.
But swimming in your world is something spiritual
I’m born again every time you spend the night
Cause your sex takes me to paradise
Yeah your sex takes me to paradise
And it shows, yeah, yeah, yeah
Cause you make feel like, I’ve been locked out of heaven
For too long, for too long
Yeah you make feel like, I’ve been locked out of heaven
For too long, for too long

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with romantic ballads, but sadly, today’s “love songs” are often only about the pleasure of sex and the thrill of the moment. Sex is communicated as paradise tonight, but what about the pain so many young men and women feel tomorrow or next week when sex is robbed of its intended context? Perhaps that is why so many of the top songs have been about “the pain of lost love.”

But February brought a number one moving us from sex… to humor…

Thrift Shop (Macklemore and Ryan Lewis ft. Wanz)
In January a funny music video went viral on YouTube propelling two—at that time— “unknowns” into popularity so great that even fellow hipsters sneered, “They were cool until they went mainstream.” I’m referring to Thrift Shop, the song by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, a hip hop duo who frequently bring humor and insight to their music, although often raw and crass.

If you were a parent of a teen in early 2013, you couldn’t avoid this song. Everyone was singing it, downloading it, YouTubing it, whistling it, imitating it… it was ubiquitous in U.S. pop youth culture.

I, Jonathan, first told my readers about it in January when my own daughter brought it to my attention. “Dad, you’ve seen the video for that hilarious song Thrift Shop, haven’t you? Everyone’s talking about it at school.”

Christian parents struggled with whether to let their kids download the “clean version” of a song that has the f-word in the chorus. The theme of the song was positive- basically, I’m not going to buy into the pressure to wear designer clothes when I can save money and wear whatever I like. But the delivery was a little crude. (I even took a little heat in my blog and Twitter for opening discussion about the song—it wasn’t the first time.)

The song rode in the number one spot all of February, and then returned to number one for two weeks in April.

But Thrift Shop wasn’t the only video going viral in 2013…

The Harlem Shake (Baauer)
In early 2013 you might have seen a version of it on the Today Show, or Dr. Oz… or if you are a parent of a teenager, you might have caught them watching it on YouTube. It’s not one video, it was a viral craze that everyone wanted a piece of. You can find literally thousands upon thousands of versions of this on the web.

We’re talking about The Harlem Shake.

The song was released in 2012, but never gained any attention until the videos began going viral. Maybe Gangnam Style got old and people wanted a new song to dance to. Whatever the reason, the videos are all the same: one lone person will be on the screen, usually wearing a mask or helmet of some kind, with everyone else going about their business as if nothing is happening. Then when the beat drops… everyone goes crazy.

Sadly, “crazy” very often meant PG-13 or worse. Sometimes the dancing was just “body quaking.” But often… it was a little more. Here’s a version the kids at the high school down the street from me (Jonathan) made (I saw them watching this when I was on campus that week).

The “Harlem Shake” dance move has roots in break dancing, an old move called the body quake. Rapper P. Diddy explains it here back in 2002. So how did this craze explode a decade later? Many have theories as to why these videos are going viral. No one really knows, but everyone wanted to post one.

The Harlem Shake rocked the world in the No. 1 spot for the entire month of March, then Thrift Shoppopped back on the top for the first two weeks of April again, only to be toppled by Bruno Mars again with his song…

When I Was Your Man (Bruno Mars)
This song didn’t have the dominating reign at the top of the charts that other songs on this list have enjoyed in 2013. That said, for two weeks in April, When I Was Your Man was at the top, giving Bruno Mars his second #1 song of the year.

Unlike his first hit of 2013, this song doesn’t focus on sensuality; instead, it focuses on regret. (But, hey, as most of us know, relationships that are built on lust instead of love usually lead to regret.)

The official music video for When I Was Your Man is a throwback to the bygone era when artists actually let their musical ability take center stage. His video is refreshingly simple; it features him sitting at a piano on a studio set, belting out the lamentations of lost love. The powerful piano ballad highlights Mars’ amazing vocal talent and makes one thing crystal clear: this guy will be at the top of the charts again soon. When that happens, we hope it’s for a song as clean and honest as this one was.

When Mars’ ballad was removed from the top spot, it was replaced by another ballad…from an unlikely source.

Just Give Me a Reason (P!nk ft. Nate Ruess)

When people think of the edgy artist “P!nk” they probably don’t think “ballad.” Many probably remember her depressed, drunk and driving a riding lawnmower down the street singing So What. But don’t let the tats and spikey hair scare ya, this young lady can sing, and she often bares her heart in real and raw form, something this generation of young people really seems to resonate with. “Raw” would probably be a good description of her song titled F**kin’ Perfect, but again, don’t let the title fool you. This song and music video told a story of a young girl who felt like she could never measure up, crying out for help. Young people grasped on to that song and message.

Just Give Me a Reason is yet another cry for help. The love ballad is about her desire to hold on to someone even though she knows the relationship is tearing apart at the seams. Throughout the song, she asks for anything, just one single reason, for her to keep holding on:

Just give me a reason
Just a little bit’s enough
Just a second we’re not broken just bent
And we can learn to love again
It’s in the stars
It’s been written in the scars on our hearts
We’re not broken just bent
And we can learn to love again

The song clearly resonated with listeners; it was atop the charts for almost a month during April and May. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the tune featured the vocal talents of Nate Ruess (lead singer of the Indie band fun.). To date, the music video has been viewed over 235 million times on YouTube and the song was nominated for two Grammys, “Best Pop Duo” and even “Song of the Year”. Just Give Me a Reason also won P!nk the “Best Collaboration” award at this year’s MTV VMAs.

With Just Give Me a Reason, P!nk showed that her style and image need not be limited to shocking and bitter. Her proven musical abilities coupled with her engaging lyrics show that she’ll be an artist who’s repeatedly at the top of the charts.

Speaking of repeats….

Can’t Hold Us (Macklemore and Ryan Lewis ft. Ray Dalton and Susannah Wetzel)
Macklemore and Lewis strike again…this time, joined by fellow collaborators Ray Dalton and Susannah Wetzel. With their second hit of the year, it seems the star power of these guys from the humble thrift shop is beginning to sink in…if only in their own minds.

Arguably the first hit of the summer, Cant’ Hold Usstormed to the top of the charts in mid-May and set up camp until late June. But this song wasn’t just played on radios; it was found on movie soundtracks, TV commercials, and even attached to video games. In fact, mobile music provider, Spotify, announced that Can’t Hold Us was the “most-streamed” song in 2013Yeah, it was big.

The song is so readily identifiable in mainstream culture because it talks about the hard road to the top. But now, they’re enjoying their “moment”.

Can we go back, this is the moment
Tonight is the night, we’ll fight ’til it’s over
So we put our hands up like the ceiling can’t hold us
Like the ceiling can’t hold us
Can we go back, this is the moment
Tonight is the night, we’ll fight ’til it’s over
So we put our hands up like the ceiling can’t hold us
Like the ceiling can’t hold us

As fast as Macklemore is spitting the lyrics of this song, it’s little wonder that just about everybody in the world had a few questions about what the lyrics actually were.

But there’s NO question about these guys’ relevance. Between their two #1 hits this year, live performances at various award shows, and a tune that further ignited the discussion on homosexuality’s acceptableness, these new guys will be an oft-heard voice in the near future.

And when these new guys were finally dethroned from the top, it was by yet another new guy.

Blurred Lines (Robin Thicke ft. T.I. and Pharrell)
This song is probably one of the more memorable No. 1’s from 2013, for numerous reasons, mostly having to do with our society’s obsession with perverted sexuality.

First, the song was one of the first music videos to land in the top 10 of iTunes with actual nudity, not only in the music video, but also in the free 30-second preview of the video (it didn’t take every junior high boy with a smartphone in their pocket but a few days to figure that one out).

Second, this is the song Robin Thicke performed with Miley in that highly scrutinized VMA moment, after Miley stripped down to a skin colored bikini, making crude gestures with a foam finger while Robin “grinded” her from behind. The MTV VMAs hadn’t received this much hype since the Madonna/Britney kiss in 2003 ten years prior (I can’t help but hope the next moment won’t come until 2023).

Third, the song is memorable simply because it reigned in the number one spot longer than any song this year, arriving at No. 1 on June 22nd, and maintaining it’s stay the entire summer, until September 13th.

It’s sad that the most popular song of the year is probably also one of the most demeaning songs of 2013. The lyrics alone are enough to make you wonder what our society values in music and entertainment. Here’s just a snippet:

I know you want it
I hate them lines
I know you want it
But you’re a good girl
The way you grab me
Must wanna get nasty
Go ahead, get at me
One thing I ask of you
Let me be the one you back that ass to
Go, from Malibu, to Paris, boo
Yeah, I had a bitch, but she ain’t bad as you
So hit me up when you pass through
I’ll give you something big enough to tear you’re a** in two
What do you think young people are gleaning from these lyrics?

The song objectifies women, refers to them as bitches, and clearly reveals the singer’s intent to just use women as simple sex toys. Is this the way we want young men to treat our daughters? Where has chivalry gone? Our society is quickly shifting from “ma’am” to “bitch” and from “let me get that door for you” to (and I quote the lyrics above) let me “tear you’re a** in two.”

I’m glad to see some people noticing Robin Thicke isn’t the role model we want our boys to emulate any more than Miley Cyrus’ terrible example to our girls.

On September 14th I’ve never been so happy to see Katy Perry go No. 1… because it finally knocked Thicke out of the No. 1 spot.

Roar (Katy Perry)
I gotta be honest. I’m really starting to like the “new” Katy Perry. Let me explain.

When she burst onto the scene in 2008, she was “kissing a girl.” Later, her music talked about “melting popsicles” (California Gurls) and going “all the way tonight” (Teenage Dream). Her version of a consequence-free life continued when she sang about the “stranger in her bed” (Last Friday Night). Without a doubt, she was one of the most toxic influences in pop culture.

Then something changed.

After her marriage to Russell Brand – and subsequent divorce – her music took on a more responsible tone. She began to encourage her listeners to “show ‘em what you’re worth” (Firework) and even talked about being “born again, out of the lion’s den” (Wide Awake). Still later, she warned her naysayers that they’re “not gonna break my soul” (Part of Me).

And finally, in Roar, her single that was #1 for two weeks in September, she talks about overcoming heartache and setbacks in life:

I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire
‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar
Louder, louder than a lion
‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
You’re gonna hear me roar

The popularity of the song has been huge. The music video has been seen more than 250 million times on YouTube, and the song has been nominated for two Grammys, “Best Pop Solo” and “Song of the Year.”

I (David) am glad that Katy is finally at the top for producing some music that has a positive message. (Perhaps Katy read the letter Jonathan wrote to her….) Katy’s whole album isn’t perfect, but I’m glad to see her grow out of some of the old raunchy and overtly sexual messages.

I can’t say the same about the next artist on our list.

Wrecking Ball (Miley Cyrus)
2013 propelled several songs to No. 1 because of their strong “viral video” influence. But in September a video emerged that blew everything else away. Miley’s Wrecking Ball music video has over 400 million views as of the writing of this article. Nothing holds a candle to it.

What draws young people to click on a video? Because whatever it is… this video has it. I see three elements:


  1. Buzz. This video released right after Miley went ballistic on the VMA stage with her foam finger. Some actually call her a strategic genius for this “marketing” move. Others called her something else. Regardless where you fall in this spectrum, most people were “buzzing” about her. And when she launched a music video where she sat on a wrecking ball wearing nothing but boots… the buzz continued. (I found it intriguing what many of her fans had to say about it.)
  2. SexualitySex sells. It always has.
  3. Pain. The song echoes a familiar sentiment—the pain of lost love. This was the theme of Adele’s album of the year the last two years in a row, it’s the theme of most of the No. 1’s of 2012 and it will continue to be a theme in American art as long as people are looking for love in the wrong place.

Sadly, this song is another example of very risqué images just a click away for young people today. In a world that is slowly becoming addicted to porn, even these videos deemed “clean” by most are proving to be gateways to racier images so readily available.

This song stayed number one until October 12th, but then launched back into the number one spot in December again. People can’t seem to get enough Miley.

Royals (Lorde)
If you have no idea who Ella Yelich-O’Connor is, this article might help. The beautiful and talented teenager from New Zealand, who goes by the stage name Lorde, tore up the charts across the last quarter of 2013, sitting in the #1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 for more than two months for her song Royals.

Royals doesn’t have a sound like any of the other songs on this list (which isn’t that surprising given its provenance). But the different sound was clearly appreciated by millions of music lovers around the world. Royals also has a fairly unique message; in her song, Lorde talks about pursuing influence over another person instead of fame and money.

And we’ll never be royals (royals).
It don’t run in our blood,
That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.
We crave a different kind of buzz.
Let me be your ruler (ruler),
You can call me queen Bee
And baby I’ll rule, I’ll rule, I’ll rule, I’ll rule.
Let me live that fantasy.

The song’s message – and matching popularity – has left a few folks wondering “Will Becoming ‘Royal’ Come Back to Haunt Her?” Only time will tell.

But if she were to ask the last artist on our list, he’d say fame has a way of changing a person.

The Monster (Eminem ft. Rihanna)
This song was released toward the end of 2013, and many wondered if it would make it to the top spot before the close of the year. The answer was yes…for lots of reasons.

For starters, it’s Eminem…and Rihanna, two of the biggest names in today’s music. Moreover, the song’s about an ever-present question that rules the thoughts of many teenagers: How do I handle conflict in life? Oh yeah, it doesn’t hurt that this song combines the signature elements of both rock and hip hop.

In The Monster, Eminem addresses his pursuit of fame…and its accompanying pain. For instance, he laments losing privacy in the public eye and talks about needing a shrink. Meanwhile, Rihanna admits facing the same problems, but in a different way. She just “befriends” the negativity:

I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed
Get along with the voices inside of my head
You’re trying to save me, stop holding your breath
And you think I’m crazy, yeah, you think I’m crazy

In Jonathan’s blog post last week, Friends with the Monster, he shares a little more insight into this song, including the writer’s intent, and finally raises the question, “Is there more to life?” or do we just have to live with the monster? Nobody will argue this point: fame comes with negative attachments. And Eminem has been completely transparent about those add-ons in his life. But in many of Jesus’ teachings, He addresses the ultimate victory and peace He came to bring us. In fact, we wrote up a music discussion on this song so you can talk about this ultimate victory and peace with your students.

I like Christ’s version of life better than Eminem’s…which is just one more reason why parents and youth workers need to be aware of today’s music and its influence on teenagers.

Checking the Charts
We can’t emphasize it enough: pay attention to music; your kids do.

Music is so influential. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, it’s one of the most-consumed forms of entertainment media. Though we at The Source for Youth Ministry always release our annual recap of the hottest music each year, we’d never suggest waiting until December to tune in. By that time, the negative elements – and there are always a few negative elements – will have run their course.

Fortunately, staying informed on today’s music is an easy task today with helpful resources like Jonathan’s Blog and these Youth Culture Window articles, both which keep a pulse on youth culture and offer perspective for parents and youth workers. We also encourage you to do quick Internet searches when you’re curious about a song or an artist. If your teenagers want to download Pitbull’s song Timber, just google “Pitbull Timber lyrics” and you’ll see exactly what this pervert… er… artist is providing for young people’s listening pleasure. I think you’ll find that between the lyrics and the music video, you’ll be able to make confident decisions about a song’s message and meaning, and whether or not it’s appropriate.

And parents, don’t do this for your kids… do this with your kids, teaching them how to make these decisions for themselves when they’re out on their own. (Jonathan gives some tips how to have these conversations in this recent blog post, Dad, Can I Download Katy Perry’s New Album?)

But don’t just limit your research to the #1 songs on the charts. Plenty of songs capture the attention of teenagers without actually making it to the very top spot. For instance, in 2013, a few honorable (or dishonorable) mentions would include Suit and Tie (Justin Timberlake), Come & Get It (Selena Gomez), Get Lucky (Daft Punk ft Pharrell Williams), Scream & Shout ( & Britney Spears) and Timber, a song that currently sits at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and was No. 1 on iTunes just last week. Each of these songs also exerted their influence on young minds and hearts this year.

Whatever you do, keep aware… and keep the doors of dialogue open.

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Jonathan McKee

Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Guy's Guide to FOUR BATTLES Every Young Man Must Face; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for parents on his website Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.

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