The Ones Of The ’10s: Pitbull’s “Timber” (Feat. Kesha)

In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s.

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Pitbull- “Timber” (feat. Kesha)

HIT #1: January 18, 2014

STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks

In the video for “Timber,” everyone is hot! Director David Rousseau shoots part of the video at a country bar where Kesha and a bunch of women are all donning mini shirts and ridiculously short Daisy Dukes like the one on the single cover. Pitbull though is not in the bar but instead on a tropical island all alone except for the presence of a beautiful model. Pitbull and Kesha filmed their parts for the video separately so they don’t appear together but their appearances perfectly encapsulate each artist’s role in the song. Kesha is the one leading the party while Pitbull is the one keeping the party moving along not trying to take up much attention before we get back to the main star. 

Listening to “Timber,” it’s easy to hear it now as a pure trend-chasing song of its moment. It’s a thumping EDM song with eight original songwriters that pulls lyrical and musical influences from folk and country in a nod to the trend-setting styles of Avicii all with a catchy female sung hook that guaranteed its popularity. It’s a song so of its moment that it even mentions girls who can twerk like Miley Cyrus just a few months after her VMA performance. And yet it all makes sense when you consider Pitbull has always been an artist who knows how to make music that slots right in with what’s popular on the radio culminating in a fun jam that became the final chart-topper for both him and the guest singer Kesha.

After starting out with minor success riding the ‘00s crunk and reggaeton waves, Pitbull broke out in 2009 when he adapted to the club-centric electropop dominating the charts then by infusing it with his goofy style rapping with hints of his native Spanish language. And his image reflected the change turning into a flashy club partier who was never afraid of rapping about how much fun he was having. After a couple of years with this image, Pitbull finally scored a #1 in the summer of 2011 with the fun yet disconnected sounding apocalypse dance song “Give Me Everything” with singers Ne-Yo and Nayer as well as the producer Afrojack. 

Despite being a constant presence in pop music during my middle school years, Pitbull only managed one other Top 10 hit in the next two and a half years between #1s. That song was the 2013 Christina Aguilera collab “Feel This Moment,” an EDM song that interpolates the famous synth riff from a-ha’s 1985 #1 “Take On Me” and doesn’t do much with it. (“Feel This Moment” peaked at #8. It’s a 2.) With its format of a big-voiced female hook singer, recognizable riff, and Pitbull rapping bragging nonsense on the verses, Pitbull followed up “Feel This Moment” with another major hit that repeated the formula that made “Feel This Moment” successful.

For Kesha, she was arguably much more in need of a hit than Pitbull was at the turn of 2014. After having the first #1 hit of the ‘10s with the enjoyably dumb and catchy party jam “TiK ToK,” Kesha was consistently making hits with her trashy wild party girl image and electropop music fitting well into that early ‘10s zeitgeist. She got back to #1 at the end of 2010 with the pseudo-empowering party jam “We R Who We R” and continued pumping out hits though noticeably slowed down. Her follow-up to “We R Who We R,” the tense and fun party song “Blow,” peaked at #7 though is forever seared into my mind through Kesha’s performance of the song on Nickelodeon’s Victorious. (“Blow” is a 6.)

In late 2012, Kesha released her second album Warrior which retooled her party-girl image to the period when EDM was ascendant. The album’s lead single “Die Young” managed to peak at #2 in early December behind Rihanna’s “Diamonds” before falling victim to horrifically bad timing. The Sandy Hook school shooting occurred a week after the chart peak of “Die Young” leading many radio stations to drop the song feeling it being inappropriate to play at a moment when Americans were reeling from the murders of school kids with Kesha at the time tweeting in support. Despite all that, “Die Young” still holds up as a fun apocalyptic dance banger. (“Die Young” is an 8.)

But the subsequent singles from Warrior, “C’Mon” and “Crazy Kids” with will.i.am, underperformed peaking at #27 and #40 respectively. The Warrior album only managed to reach #6 and go gold. All of this was a far cry from the surefire hit-making status Kesha had enjoyed just a few years earlier. For Kesha, “Timber” was a much-needed shot in the arm after the underperformance of Warrior even though she wasn’t originally supposed to sing on the song. Pitbull has said that Rihanna was meant to be the hook singer on “Timber” but at the time was busy recording with Shakira on her song “Can’t Remember To Forget You” so she said no. This means that Rihanna missed out on replacing herself at #1 after her and Eminem’s “The Monster.” (“Can’t Remember To Forget You” peaked at #15. Don’t feel too bad for Rihanna though. She’ll eventually be back in this column.)

Much like Rihanna on “The Monster,” Kesha is easily the best part of “Timber.” Rihanna would have sung the hook just fine but Kesha elevates it more with the song allowing her to show off more power and intensity than she had before. Despite her being credited as the featured artist, it’s Kesha that dominates most of “Timber” singing the chorus three times with a vocal break occurring after each time when she goes “woah.” For someone who came up in Nashville, Kesha is well equipped to handle the faux country vibe of the song while still comfortably in the dance-pop zone she was known for up to that point. (Kesha and her mother, country songwriter Pebe Sebert, are among the songwriters on “Timber.”) When she sings about how it’s going down and she’s yelling Timber, she sounds like she’s having fun and wants you to join in on the fun. When Kesha sings that you better move and dance, it’s a command and with the fun beat, you can’t help but respond to her commands.

Pitbull is relegated to a guest status on his own song considering he takes up less time than Kesha does but even then he does his job. He does the same schtick he always does with his arrogant party rapping that are essentially gibberish but as with his other songs, he comes off like he’s enjoying himself and wants you to join in the fun. He also gets in on the country style with his “Swing your partner round and round” bit that you’d hear more at a square dance, not an EDM rave. 

Probably the most notable thing that stands out about “Timber” is its harmonica riff that introduces and essentially anchors the song. Pitbull said he was inspired to include a harmonica by Avicii’s recent folk-EDM hybrid smash “Wake Me Up.” (“Wake Me Up” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.) In true Pitbull fashion, he blatantly capitalized on what was popular at the moment. But that harmonica playing would soon get Pitbull and team in legal trouble. Soon after the song’s success, Lee Oskar, the former harmonica player for War, along with Keri Oskar and Sly and the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico filed a copyright infringement lawsuit claiming that the harmonica riff in “Timber” was ripped straight from’s Lee Oskar’s 1978 track “San Francisco Bay.” 

Listening to “San Francisco Bay,” it’s clear that “Timber” bears more than a passing resemblance with not just the harmonica riff but the main melody and guitar playing. “Timber” basically speeds up the beat from “San Francisco Bay” and sets it in a different key. I can’t find any recent updates regarding the lawsuit but Lee and Keri Oskar and Greg Errico are listed as songwriters on “Timber” so obviously some settlement was reached. And while I’m normally dismissive toward these musical plagiarism lawsuits, they deserved the credit here considering it’s a straight-up sample rather than melodies that happen to sound similar.

But even if the beat on “Timber” wasn’t original, it’s still a fun beat regardless. The harmonica riff immediately sets the fun danceable tone for the song. The song is basically structured around the riff with Kesha’s chorus melody following the harmonica. Chris Molanphy points out in his Slate column Why Is This Song No. 1? how “Timber” acts as a sequel to Rednex’s similarly country-style dance-pop classic “Cotton Eyed Joe” from 1994. (“Cotton Eyed Joe” peaked at #25.) But where “Cotten Eyed Joe” is all novelty, “Timber” is another case of the early ‘10s pop music machine at work. Considering it’s a Dr. Luke production, you can’t expect anything less. It’s a shallow song but one that’s fun to put on and get people dancing.

Like after “Give Me Everything,” Pitbull would land only one Top 10 hit after “Timber.” His most recent Top 10 was 2014’s enjoyable Ne-Yo collab “Time Of Our Lives” and it peaked at #9. (It’s a 7.) After that, Pitbull’s songs have hit less and less on the charts to the point where he hasn’t charted on the Hot 100 since 2018 though Pitbull still performs well on the Latin charts with a dedicated fanbase there. He’s still putting out music and is planning to go out on tour soon with Iggy Azalea, an artist who will soon appear in this column. In the years since his pop chart imperial phase, Pitbull has become one of those guys that’s been fun to have around serving as a reminder of pop music’s recent past at least until he turned into one of those idiots spreading COVID-19 pandemic conspiracy theories.

As for Kesha, as you probably know, things haven’t exactly been easy for her in the seven years since “Timber.” The same month “Timber” went to #1, Kesha had entered rehab for her bulimia. After getting out, Kesha would drop the $ from the S in her name. Later on in 2014, she would make more news by filing a lawsuit against Dr. Luke for various abuses and harassment in their time working together. Considering Dr. Luke’s hold over pop music at the time, this was a big bombshell within the industry. 

The lawsuit is still ongoing but Kesha was able to garner lots of support and sympathy from fans and artists alike but for a few years wasn’t able to record much new music due to the court not allowing her to break free from working with Dr. Luke. But her label Sony Music eventually allowed Kesha to work with other people and she recorded what would be her third album Rainbow released in August 2017. Rainbow marked a stark departure going toward her more rock and country influences. Critics loved the album and it became the well-deserved comeback that Kesha needed with Rainbow debuting at #1 and its lead-off single, the no-holds-bar Dr. Luke kiss-off power ballad “Praying,” peaking at #22.

After the success of Rainbow, Kesha has gone back to regularly recording music and touring with her latest album High Road coming out just last year. She was supposed to tour in support of High Road before COVID-19 disrupted those plans but like many artists now is planning to go back on the road soon. 

“Timber” stands today as one last party from two of the most visible pop stars of the early ‘10s. That’s a lot of weight for a fun mindless party song to carry but still not a bad #1 to go out on.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Timber” parody that The Key Of Awesome released during the song’s run at #1 in January 2014:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Pitbull rapping a lyrically adjusted version of “Timber” in an ad for the 2014 NBA Playoffs:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2020 episode of DC’s Stargirl where some hacker guy hums along to “Timber:”

THE NUMBER TWOS: One Republic’s gospel-infused pop-rock freak out “Counting Stars” peaked at #2 behind “Timber.” I feel something so right doing the wrong thing. It’s an 8.

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