Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Like a Virgin" Madonna

The eighties were a strange time. It seemed that all of the cultural and sexual progress being made consistently since the fifties came to a grinding halt. Feminists and the religious right became unlikely bedfellows combating pornography and other forms of sexuality together while the AIDS crisis left everyone, not just the gays, feeling paranoid about sexuality. Enter Madonna, a comely young lady named after the Virgin Mary who dressed like an East Village whore. These contradictions would make her, along with Michael Jackson, the perfect pop superstar for the 1980’s, a decade with plenty of strange contradictions of its own. “Like a Virgin” was the perfect pop vehicle for such a superstar. It is her signature song and remains her biggest selling single.

“I made it through the wilderness,” sings Madonna, referring to a time when she was sexually promiscuous and less discriminating. Or is she referring to the seventies in general? “Somehow I made it through,” she adds, probably expressing her surprise that she never contracted AIDS. She then describes a man who makes her feel so loved and cherished that she now feels “like a virgin/touched for the very first time.” The production arrangement is also a tribute to more innocent times. The instrumentation, helmed by Nile Rodgers, is performed, for the most part, by real musicians. There is a tiny punctuated accent performed by a synthesizer to give it a modern touch but that’s it.

After all the excess of the sixties and seventies, it was impossible to return to a state of innocence. The seal had long been broken on our collective hymen so the eighties were about using whatever modern technology available to achieve the same benefits. The sixties and seventies were the “wilderness”. The eighties was the taming of this wilderness. Body hair disappeared from male porn stars’ bodies. Hair gel and mousse became ubiquitous grooming products. If you were no longer a virgin, you could practice monogamy or safe sex. If you weren’t born a blonde, you could die your hair and let the roots grow out and then dye it a different color the next week. If you weren’t born rich, you could get an MBA and make a fortune on Wall Street. If you didn’t have an ideal body, you could go to the gym and reshape yourself or envelope yourself in gauzy loose-fitting flea-market clothing. If you weren’t pretty you could get plastic surgery, distract attention away from your face with gaudy jewelry or hide behind your bangs and your make up. Madonna wasn’t a virgin. She was “like” a virgin.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"Billie Jean" Michael Jackson

When you know certain biographical details about a pop star’s life, it can be easy to snicker over the contradictions between said singer’s life and what he or she claims to experience in the songs they sing. In 1985, for example, then-closeted pop stars Elton John and George Michael both collaborated on a duet called “Wrap Her Up” in which they both took turns fawning over women they considered really attractive.

“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson (1983) could easily be one of these songs. The song is about a seductive young woman who seduces Michael Jackson and then entraps him by claiming that she has had his son. Considering that Michael Jackson has never convincingly demonstrated any such sexual interest in adult women and considering that Jackson doesn’t seem to be the biological father of his own children, it would seem that “Billie Jean” would inevitably turn into a giant punch line. But it hasn’t. It is considered one of Jackson’s signature songs and brims with authenticity. Even though the song is about an experience that probably would have more likely to have happened to one of his groupie-besieged older brothers, Jackson’s performance is illuminated by a genuine sense of tortured sexuality. Years after the song was recorded, it seems that we are getting a sense of just how tortured Jackson’s sexuality may in fact be.

The song is not a disco song in terms of structure and content; it’s a Motown-flavored rock/pop song with disco elements such as the introductory beat and bass line (the same one used for Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”, another pop song rife with sexual contradictions). It’s as if the story the song was telling takes place in a disco. When Jackson meets Billie Jean, there is no indication of anything Jackson really likes about her. We know she must be attractive because she has captured the attention of everyone else at this nightclub, but the male protagonist never really comes out and says that he desires her. “She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene,” says Jackson, perceiving her as more of a generic icon than object of desire. When she approaches him, his response is surprise. “I said don’t mind but what do you mean I am the one?” It is an honor to be chosen by this popular lady, but she herself isn’t something he seems to want all that badly. Nor does she give any reason as to why he’d be “the one.” He just is. And from the get go, we are immediately suspicious of this woman. Our suspicions deepen further as Jackson recalls various warnings people have given him about women (suspicions that Jackson probably did actually grow up hearing). The most interesting warning, though, comes from his mother who tells him to “be careful of what you do because the lie becomes the truth.”

The chorus fills us in on the result of the dance between Jackson and Billie Jean. “Billie Jean is not my lover/she’s just a girl who claims that I am the one/but the kid is not my son.” She is then described as having “schemes and plans.” But just when you start feeling sympathy for Jackson, Billie Jean shows Jackson’s girlfriend a photo of a baby “his eyes looked like mine.” The lie has become the truth.

Friday, February 22, 2008

"One Less Bell to Answer" The Fifth Dimension (Bacharach/David) and "I Will Survive" Gloria Gaynor

These two songs were released ten years (or so) apart and they are also mirror images of each other. The first, “One Less Bell” from 1970 (or 1967, if you count the less-heard Keely Smith version) is about a woman’s initial defiance over a breakup giving way to despair and heartache. It is a torch song. “I Will Survive” from 1978 is about a woman learning to be defiant over a breakup that once left her desperate and heartbroken. It is an anthem. Both songs are considered iconic, often parodied and very popular in karaoke bars.

“One Less Bell” is a spooky song. It is said to have been inspired by a remark made by Angie Dickinson (who was then married to Burt Bacharach) at a dinner party she was hosting. She asked one of the guests who’d arrived early to answer the door for the remaining guests so there’d be “one less bell to answer.” The line inspired Bacharach to write the song to a six-note bell-like motif. Our female protagonist is trying to convince herself of the positive outcome of her breakup. She has, for instance, one less bell to answer. She also doesn’t have to make him breakfast or pick up after him. (“One less egg to fry/One less man to pick up after…”) What was the nature of this couple’s relationship? Clearly he lived with her or spent evenings at her apartment (since she used to make him breakfast and pick up after him). So why doesn’t he have a key to her apartment? Why does he have to ring her doorbell every time he comes over? It’s possible that the relationship simply hadn’t gotten to that domestic level yet. But if the couple weren’t that committed to each other, why was he coming over to see her, as opposed to coming inside with her after a date? And why was she making him breakfast? Shouldn’t he have been taking her out for meals? Was he married to someone else and simply dropping by occasionally to have sex with her and spending the night? There isn’t any suggestion in the song that the couple had a life outside of the woman’s apartment. And it seems that the woman (a sixties “career gal”?) owned or rented the apartment herself because at no point in the song does she contemplate having to move now that the affair is over. However, her initial defiance gives way to her depression as she admits that “All I do is cry.”

At first “I Will Survive” seems like the seventies sequel to the sixties “One Less Bell…” “At first I was afraid, I was petrified,” admits Gloria in the prelude, almost picking up the story where Marilyn McCoo left off. But now that the man is gone, Gloria has “spent so many nights” contemplating what a jerk this man has been to her and “grew strong.”

What makes this song distinctly a statement of the seventies, is that it is about a happy ending to a breakup…but there is no second man picking up the pieces. Gloria hasn’t found “somebody new”, she is “somebody new.” She is the woman that post-breakup Marilyn McCoo could have been if she’d had access to Ms. Magazine, consciousness raising, therapy and disco. (And maybe she’s the “woman” Marilyn McCoo could have been if she’d been a post-Stonewall gay man!)

The man is different too. Unlike Marilyn’s beau, Gloria’s man had a key to her apartment. (“I should have changed that stupid lock; I should have made you leave your key…”) Unlike Marilyn, who waits for the doorbell to ring, Gloria has come home to find him there “with that sad look upon [his] face.” It doesn’t really sound like he’s a lover who has returned to a woman he misses. He sounds like he’s back because he needs a roof over his head. He’s been castrated and now Gloria is the one with the power.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"Do You Know the Way to San Jose" Dionne Warwick (Bacharach/David)

In a way, “Do you know…” is your basic bittersweet meditation on the importance of home and one’s roots. This isn’t a new theme for poetry or popular music by any means. What makes this song truly modern, or at least an artifact of it’s time – the late sixties – it’s the role that transportation and travel plays as a subtext.

A female protagonist is asking for directions. She is leaving Los Angeles and moving back to her hometown, San Jose, California. “Do you know the way to San Jose? / I’ve been away so long, I may go wrong and lose my way.” It’s a terribly catchy couplet, especially the rhyming of “long” and “wrong”, but it conveys great sadness. How long does one have to be away from some place in order to lose their way back to it? It’s a five hour drive between the two cities, not an epic journey by any means. But apparently there have been no visits back home for quite an amount of time. What made our protagonist leave and completely separate herself from her hometown? What happened in LA that made her reverse course and go back “to find some peace of mind” in this once dreaded San Jose?

“LA is a great big freeway / Put a hundred down and buy a car,” sings Dionne in the bridge. Apparently LA once beckoned her. And it was easy enough to move there. It was easy to get a car loan and there was plenty of places to go on that “freeway”. LA was freedom and owning one’s own car was an integral part of that freedom. It’s been said that the invention of the automobile was a catalyst to the women’s movement. All of a sudden, a woman could get herself places in a room of her own. She could drive to a job, socialize and even have sexual liaisons out from under the watchful eyes of a family or husband. In an America that no longer had the wild west to conquer, cities like LA became the new frontier – a place to escape civilization and carve out one’s own place in the new world.

But there was more than mere freedom on Dionne’s agenda: “In a week, maybe too, they’ll make you star.” Apparently she came to LA seeking power and glamour in addition to freedom. However, as fast and easy as her arrival in LA may have been, it never really got past the initial promise that that new car brought. “And all the stars that never were, are parking cars and pumping gas.” Ironically, our female protagonist is now a cog in the wheel (so to speak) of an industry she once looked to for salvation.

After a trumpet solo that sounds as mobile and smooth as the ride on a California highway, Dionne admits that she has packed her car and left LA. Again the car is the agent of change. Once it took her away from her home. Now it brings her back. “Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa” is the refrain.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Time of the Season" The Zombies

There’s not a lot written or known about what inspired “Time of the Season” but almost immediately upon its release in 1969, the song has become a signifier of “the sixties.” There are many television shows and films that use “Time of the Season” as background during a “sixties” or “Vietnam” flashback. Before the placard announcing “1969” appears on the screen, we already know from the bass riff that we are going back in time almost forty years. This song also seems to be the earliest use of the now popular phrase “who’s your daddy?” a phrased used to punctuate dominance or victory.

“What’s your name/Who’s your daddy?” is a wonderfully menacing opening line. It instantly produces the image of an unsupervised minor who is lost and seeking the help of an unscrupulous adult. It is, perhaps, an enormously vivid example of why we are told “don’t talk to strangers” as we are growing up. (See also “Hey little girl is your daddy home?” from “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen.) There is something very sexy about the use of the word “daddy” here as opposed to “father” or “parent.” It’s as if we are witnessing the passing of a girl’s custody from her own father to that of her first boyfriend/husband. And then there’s the fact that “daddy” has long been a slang expression for either “pimp” or “john.”

“Is he rich like me?” is another provocative line. The narrator of the song is establishing his power. Whoever he is speaking to is becoming a pawn in his hand. She is not simply being “asked out” or “hit on”, she is being asked for her owner’s name so that a business transaction can be brokered. Plus there is something plutonian about the narrator’s admitted wealth. Is he Satan, himself? Or just a big spending john? The listener is then asked if said daddy has “taken any time to show you what you need to live.” What does the narrator mean by “live”? Is the narrator talking about the way sexuality opens the senses and makes one feel truly “alive” or is he talking about making a “living” by selling one’s sexual favors.

The bass riff is also seductively disturbing. It is the same riff as “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King but with a twist. At the end of the fourth and final note, a female can be heard exhaling as if in a state of postponed ecstasy. Or is she opening her mouth to say “ah” at the order of her doctor?

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this song is what’s not there. One doesn’t really get the sense from these lyrics what is so attractive about this girl who is being seduced and, therefore, why she is even being seduced. And the seducer isn’t giving the young lady any reason to give into his seduction. There are no promises of love, a relationship or even momentary pleasure. It’s just that “time of the season”. It’s that simple. This girl has ripened and now she must take a lover whether she wants one or not.

Monday, February 18, 2008

"Gold Digger" Kanye West

This song is a great example of a hip-hop composition that does two things that upset mainstream critics: it is has lyrics that many assume are misogynistic and it uses the word “nigger.” However, on closer inspection, it’s really more of a social comedy than anything meant to scare, polarize or offend.

The song begins with an acapella prelude from Jamie Foxx (who had just portrayed Ray Charles in a biopic): “She take my money, well I'm in need/Yeah she's a triflin' friend indeed”. This is a negative or reverse version of the Ray Charles classic “I Got A Woman” which goes, “She give me money when I’m in need/Yeah she's a kind of friend indeed” The Ray Charles song, sampled throughout here, is praise to a supportive, generous, available and faithful woman. The Kanye West song itself is about a deceptive and greedy woman. Perhaps the disparity between the “good woman” of the Ray Charles song and the “bad woman” of the Kanye West is meant as humor. But it also could be a wistful acknowledgement of the charms of this “bad woman”. When singing “I’m in need” is Kanye/Jamie needing his money back…or her?

“I aint’ saying she’s a gold digger/But she ain’t messin’ with no broke nigger” is one of the most catchy couplets in pop music I can think of. Unfortunately, when Kanye West has performed this song in more public venues: television appearances, award shows etc. he has had to change the lyric “broke nigger” to “broke broke.” Less offensive to sensitive ears but totally throws off the meter. Even “Let’s spend some time together” sung by The Rolling Stones instead of “Let’s spend the night together” was less awkward than “she ain’t messin’ with no broke broke” Maybe West purposely made the censored lyric awkward intentionally in order to remind the listener that something fundamental to the song is missing. Although the word “nigger” is often shocking to hear, it has varying degrees of meaning and intended harm infliction. In this case, the term is supposed to be mild. The “nigger” West is referring to is just “some guy”; a “nigger” instead of a rich superstar. He’s nothing special, he’s a nigger, he’s one of us, etc.

West then goes on to describe meeting a woman at a beauty salon. (What is the protagonist doing at a beauty salon? Or did he just need a location that rhymed with “Vuitton”?) Judging by the “Louis Vuitton Under her under arm” he suspects that she is a gold digger but is attracted to her nonetheless. His suspicions are confirmed when he finds himself having to help out her children and her friends (pay for their dinners and get them into show business). He also learns that she has been linked to other high profile hip hop superstars such as Usher and Busta Rhymes, but “I don't care what none of y'all say, I still love her." Maybe he likes her in spite of her being used goods. Yet maybe he likes her because his involvement with her puts in league with men he considers his peers and her arrival in his life is another sign of his success and fame. He falls under her spell but not without fair warning.

The next passage is a bleak look at what happens to these types of relationships. “18 years, 18 years/She got one of yo' kids, got you for 18 years” rants West, describing what happened to a professional football player friend of his. “His baby mamma’s car crib is bigger than his.” Ultimately, though, this fooball player’s financial responsibility for his child is rewarded when, on his daughter’s 18th birthday “he found out it wasn't his.”

There’s a great reversal in the last verse. West now addresses a woman who apparently isn’t that kind of a woman. “I ain't sayin' you a gold digger, you got needs.” He encourages her to stick by her man if he has ambition, rather than dump him for a richer man. This man, West claims whill “make it to a Benz out of the Datsun” and when he does he’ll “leave yo’ ass for a white girl.”

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"Piece of Me" Britney Spears

“Piece of Me” is a classic example of the sort of song that is an attempt by a superstar pop artist to address “the haters” out there who criticize them. “Leave Me Alone” by Michael Jackson is another one of these songs. While I’m sure that fame can be an overwhelming responsibility – life under a bell jar and all that – these songs often sound whiney and insincere. While I imagine that any celebrity would have many justifiable reasons to complain about the nature of their lifestyle, these songs violate one of the many tacit deals a pop artist makes with his fanbase: either perform a song that makes me relate to you like I know you or perform a song that makes me delighted and stimulated by your rarified lifestyle that I’ll never know, but don’t tell me what a pain it is to take out the trash when the paparazzi are lurking because I just don’t care. “Piece of Me” is, unfortunately, one of these songs. However, it is excellently produced and the first stanza is a stunning bit of truthtelling by one of America’s most discussed women today.

A rhythmic track plays evoking the jingle-jangle of a tethered horse combined with female vocal backing gasp, Britney intones “I’m Miss American Dream / Since I was seventeen.” A lot of pop songs, especially those who are influenced heavily by hip-hop artists, rely on hyperbole. It’s amazing how many times have I heard a previously unknown artist sing a pop song about a-list clubs, photoshoots, “bling” and other perks of superstardom that simply couldn’t have been happening to this artist before the song was written and recorded. But Britney has been “Miss American Dream” since she was seventeen. In fact, if you count her tenure on the Mickey Mouse Club, it’s been longer than that. This is not some sort of aspirational pop star fantasy, it’s simply the truth. “Don’t matter if I step on the scene or sneak away to the Philippines, they still gon put pictures of my derrière in the magazine” she says. More truth. And she sounds weary.

Unfortunately the song dissolves into a tirade of self-pity after that. Apparently Britney thinks that the media hates her because it can’t abide by her “working and being a mom.” Meanwhile Britney, up until the time of the grudging release of this album she did no promotion for, appears neither to “work” nor “be a mom” choosing instead to party around the clock. Britney’s relationship to her own fame is complicated. She complains about the over-zealous attention of the paparazzi, but then she courts their attention shamelessly: changing outfits and hairstyles several times a day in order to get them to take more photos of her. Just as a person who was sexually molested as a child can be pathologically sexually promiscuous as an adult, Britney is now joylessly and pathologically seeking moments of fame as the inevitable result of being introduced to worldwide fame too young. And that’s the song I wish she performed on this album. Unfotunately those first two lines never delivered despite their initial promise.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

"Under My Thumb" The Rolling Stones

It has been said that Bianca Jagger got Mick to marry her using “Rules Girl” tactics such as canceling on him at the last minute in order to get her hair done…when he had shown up in Paris just to see her. Maybe Bianca was trying to set herself up as a more formidable presence than the girl who is the object of “Under My Thumb.” Or maybe the girl who is the subject of “Under My Thumb” was once just as infuriating as Bianca.

The song is said to have been written about Mick’s then-girlfriend Chrissie Shrimpton, a model. Marianne Faithfull, who replaced Chrissie as Mick’s next girlfriend had this to say about her, “Chrissie was from the old scene, the Swinging London of dollies and pop stars. It was a very put together look. The wig, false eyelashes and thick make-up. It took her simply ages to get ready. She could never spend the night anywhere because she’d just fall apart; the times were changing and Chrissie wasn’t.” “19th Nervous Breakdown” was written about Chrissie as well. Eventually Marianne would be passed on similarly for Bianca. It seemed that Mick went from woman to woman as per the era dictated. Chrissie was the mod sixties, Marianne was the nihistic flower child of the late sixties, and Bianca, the queen of Studio 54, was the seventies. It’s not so much that he gets bored with these women so much as he outgrows them.

The marimba begins its riff alongside a buzz base, as Mick marvels at the girl he has “under his thumb” who once had him “down” and pushed him “around.” She is now dressing differently for him, hanging on his every word and otherwise acting like a luxurious well-tamed pet. I guess now that Mick is the victor; he’s grown bored because he mentions looking at “someone else.” By the time’s he through listing all the ways she’s become his possession, he’s sounding a little aggravated. He hasn't just won, he's annihilated her. She's so insignificant she resides under his thumb. She's nothing.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

"Milkshake" Kelis

The thing I feel made this song an immediate and inescapable hit was the pure sound emanating from the annunciation of the lyrics. Lines like “I can teach you, but I have to charge” roll off your tongue no matter what they mean or even evoke. The synthesized bassline is also compelling. Ba niliana…da NA na…. The ringing of a bell every so often calls to mind an opium den.

A woman is seductively offering mentorship to another. She claims that her “milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.” Obviously a “milkshake” is either a pair of breasts or the movement itself of a pair of breasts when their owner is walking down the street in a pair of high heels. What yard is our protagonist talking about? A prison yard? A playground? Or is "boys to the yard" a euphemism for a man's penis becoming erect. The sound certainly sounds like a schoolyard taunt. “I could teach you, but I have to charge” she adds.

I wonder what Kelis is demanding in payment. Or does the phrase “but I have to charge” bring so much rhythmical pleasure to “I could teach you” that it just had to have been added. It’s not even like “charge” rhymes with “yard” but the lines go so well together, you don’t care.

The chant morphs into to a siren song as our protagonist offers the secrets of her sex appeal to her friend. “I know you want it,” she teases. “I think it’s time.” After all, “the boys are waiting”. Again, our protagonist boasts about the effects her milkshake has on the prison population and offers to teach her “techniques that freaks these boys.” But the offer comes with a warning. “It can’t be bought, just know thieves get caught.” But still the boys “are waiting” and there are lessens to be learned: mainly that in order to freak the boys, one must have a “halo” in addition to one’s “charm.” In other words, one must act virginal in order to have sex appeal. Meanwhile one wonders what is keeping our protagonist so focused on the sex life of the female friend she’s addressing. Does she really just want her friend to be popular with the guys or does she want her all to herself? Or is the seductive rhythm of the composition simply making everything everyone says to it sound dirty?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

"Lovestoned" Justin Timberlake

Lovestoned is an ode to a sexually attractive woman who is both under the influence of an intoxicating substance and an intoxicating substance herself.

The setting is a crowded night club. The sputtering beatbox backing vocals indicate that there is a lot of activity and the ambient noise of sexually-charged patter filling the room. Our protagonist, Justin Timberlake, has set his sights on a particular woman who is dancing. The first thing he notices about her is the way she “grabs the yellow bottle*/she likes the way it hits her lips.” Then he notices that the substance has an affect on her. “It sends her on a trip so right/She might be going home with me tonight.” Only then does he describe the way she looks: “like a model/except she’s got a little more ass.” It seems that her intoxication is what has gotten his attention. Perhaps Justin is unsure of his own charms and is hoping that her state of intoxication will make her more agreeable to his sexual advances. Or maybe the “yellow bottle” is serving here as a phallus in her hands and in her mouth. Doubt creeps in as Justin admits to himself that he might not attain her unless he’s “got that thing she likes.” Money? Drugs? Proficient dance moves? A large penis? “I hope she’s going home with me tonight.” Justin is now “lovestoned.” “Flashing lights” are disorienting him and he is focused on this girl and only her. “I think that she knows” he tells us. He seems to know he is giving himself away by staring at her. He is also aware that other men are staring at her too. (At this point, one can’t help but appreciate the irony of Justin Timberlake, a very successful and sexually attractive pop star at the height of his powers having to compete for the attention of a drunk girl in a club. In real life, if Justin were to enter a nightclub, he’d be mobbed by sexually available fans.)

Justin’s confidence rises when realizes that the object of his desire only wants “to dance.” This means that once she sees his “moves” she is definitely “going home with [him] tonight.” An instumental interlude occurs that signifies that the dance, a mating ritual, has begun. The tenor of the song changes entirely much like the moment in “West Side Story” where Tony and Maria meet at the dance the world around them disappears. The sputtering beatbox vocals give way to a more lyrical, instrumental accompaniment. In the video for this song, the visuals change as well. The first part was a composition in blue distortion, the second part in high definition white. Maybe the lovers are having a moment. Maybe the drugs have kicked in. The chorus is sung again, but in a completely different tenor and now Justin is walking around “without a care.” Justin is lovestoned and “she knows.”

*I must confess that I do not know what a “yellow bottle” is. If anyone knows what this means, please email me. For now, I’m assuming it’s a bottle of Corona Beer.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

"My Humps" Black Eyed Peas

The song, a dialogue between Black Eyed Peas lead singer Fergie and frontman, begins auspiciously with a mariachi-themed instrumental that announces the beginning of a bullfight. Obviously, Fergie here is the toreador and is the angry bull. The red cape, used to excite and lure the bull, is our female protagonist’s body, or rather her “humps”. The “humps” that lead singer Fergie refer to are the parts of a woman’s body that protrude: namely the posterior and the breasts. Of course “hump” is also a slang term for an act of sexual intercourse (real or simulated) so its constant repetition within the composition sets a rather crude sexual tone throughout.

The song begins, a hypnotic backbeat that connotes a pair of hips leisurely swinging to and fro plays and asks “What you gon' do with all that junk? All that junk inside that trunk?” referring, of course, to our female protagonist’s posterior which, presumably has been displayed for him and has aroused him. The Answer? “I'ma get, get, get, get, you drunk/Get you love drunk off my hump.,” says Fergie. Unfortunately a man drunk on alcohol or lust is not a man who takes no for an answer gracefully. So the tension mounts.

Fergie is now addressing the listener of the song. She announces that she “drives these brothers crazy” on a daily basis. Since the song has a decidedly “hip hop” tenor to it, one could assume that by “brothers”, Fergie is referring to some African American males who stereotypically prefer to look at women who are larger and more voluptuous. The term “brother” could also simply mean that these men that Fergie drives crazy are not necessarily sexual conquests but platonic friends from her neighborhood who flirt but are kept at a distance. Fergie then proudly itemizes the expensive gifts that her body inspires (“Dolce and Gabanna/Fendi and Donna/Karan”) although she explains that she has made it clear to the “brothers” that she doesn’t require these gifts as payment for her company. “We can keep on datin’/I keep on demonstratin’.”

Although we are supposed to be primarily in awe of the sight of our female protagonist’s form, one cannot help but admire even more the confidence with which Fergie dangles the bait in front of her generous male admirers and snatches it away. Don’t they expect payment for these gifts? "What you gon' do with all that ass/ All that ass inside them jeans? … What you gon' do wit all that breast?/ All that breast inside that shirt?" asks, Fergie’s suitor. Fergie answers that she is not going to provide her male admirers with the sexual favors her exhibitionism seems to promise, but rather that she is going to get her admirers “drunk” from the sight of her. “They say I'm really sexy,/The boys they wanna sex me./They always standing next to me,/Always dancing next to me,/Tryin' a feel my hump, hump./Lookin' at my lump, lump./You can look but you can't touch it,If you touch it I'ma start some drama,/You don't want no drama.”

One wonders what gives Fergie the confidence to fend off these advances and what sort of “drama” threatens them into behaving. Is Fergie physically strong enough to fight off a sexual assault? Are these “brothers” of hers loyal enough to protect her? Or is Fergie simply some sort of Wonder Woman, an idealized figure who only exists in pop songs: a woman in charge of her body?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

"Tattooed Love Boys" The Pretenders

Many years before Courtney Love sang about the boys who "get what they want and never want it again" there was Chrissie Hynde and "Tattooed Love Boys", a dark, violent, sexy fable which seems to have slipped under the radar.

Although Tattooed Love Boys addresses someone in the second person, it doesn't seem to be about a particular "boy". It's more of an ode to masculinity in all of its beauty and brutality. A gang rape fantasy. And then later it's a warning to another woman. The central image evoked is that of a tattoo, a shorthand term Ms. Hynde uses to describe these men she's obsessed with. Of course the sort of man who got and proudly displayed tattoos were (at least when Chrissy had recorded this song) up to no good "rough trade" (or the kind of rock and rollers that Chrissy Hynde had to deal with on a daily basis!). One could also imagine a tattoo as an indelible mark or brand that a man might leave on an impressionable young woman.

Against a backdrop of triumphant arpeggios played on an electric guitar paired with an insistent throbbing bass line, our protagonist announces that she has "torn her knees out" in order to be around men who she has read about in books and fantasized about. Perhaps she has gotten a job in an auto shop or joined a gang like Anybodys from "West Side Story". "But then the time came to explore" sings Ms. Hynde ominously as she realizes that they may have bitten off more than she can chew.

The second verse which functions like a bridge perfectly captures that inner conflict that occurs when your sickest fantasies become realities. Many of us have dreamed of being brutalized or overwhelmed sexually. It is the stuff of paperback romances and soap operas. But when you are actually "taken" it is a rude awakening. "Little tease/But I didn't mean it/But you mess with the goods, darlin', you gotta pay".

In the third verse, the triumphant arpeggios are back as Ms. Hynde seems to have fallen in quite comfortably with the "tattoos". She describes the men hanging out and "waiting/for their number to get called." Are they in a whorehouse waiting for an available hooker? Are they all participating in a gang bang? I suppose the "number" they are waiting for could be draft-related but I seriously doubt that the Vietnam war has anything to do with this song. Nevertheless, Ms. Hynde has "found out what the wait* was about". She is no longer innocent.

Having now been initiated, out protagonist announces gleefully that she's gotten "pretty good" at something she euphemistically refers to as "changing tires." "I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for" she admits proudly introducing a virtuosic guitar solo that reminds one of a rough bumpy orgasm before it winds down sadly and introduces the last chapter of the story.

Next, Ms. Hynde is addressing a new character, a female who has perhaps usurped her position as the fille de regiment. Maybe it's disillusioned, experienced herself. This woman is before Ms. Hynde "all impressed and half undressed" weaing make up over scars she has gotten from the "tattoos" who have also gotten her where the protagonist "used to lay". She cruelly admonishes her weaker friend ("Well ha ha, too bad") and tells her to "stop sniveling" before she becomes a "human interest story" in need of plastic surgery. "You are that," she pronounces and the song ends abruptly.

* this lyric is often (tellingly!) misheard as "found out what rape was about"

Monday, February 4, 2008

"I Feel Love" Donna Summer

“I Feel Love” is the ultimate disco statement. So much is going on here. First off, it’s entirely synthesized. There are no acoustic instruments. While most disco songs released during that period incorporate orchestral arrangements (piano glissandos, lush strings etc.), “I feel Love” is entirely inorganic. It is cold, mathematical and as efficient as a German automobile factory assembly line. If Bach were alive in the seventies he would have composed “I Feel Love.” How appropriate is it that Giorgio Moroder would later provide a modern soundtrack for the 1984 re-release of Metropolis?

Providing a vivid counterpoint to Moroder’s robotic, insistent production is, of course, Donna Summer’s ethereal vocals. She is the ghost in the machine. Referring again to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, her vocals are like the presence of beautiful and angelic Maria in the otherwise cold dystopic urban environment she seeks to redeem.

The lyrics are also a strange addition to this composition. No narrative really. Three words: I feel love. Repeated several times. (There are other lyrics but they’re equally minimal and forgettable.) Where would “love” exist in such a cold, mechanical universe? And these “feelings”? Who is having them and why? Is this love in and of itself, or is it a more transient “feeling” of love that comes to people momentarily in the state of orgasm or drug use? This “love” Ms. Summers sings about is certainly not the stuff of chaste dates and wedding anniversaries. One imagines a dark disco full of dazzling lights and beautiful strangers with perfect physiques. You are there alone feeling intimidated. An attractive person introduces him or herself to you and offers you drugs. You take them and go out on the dance floor. Feelings of isolation and alienation disappear as the drugs kick in, your libido rises and you are rubbing up against people’s sweaty bodies. You feel love. But it is not really love. It is a feeling that is as skillfully and artificially produced as Moroder’s synthesized bass line. One can almost forgive Ms. Summers for subsequently becoming a Christian!

"Dancing Queen" Abba

Dancing Queen is an ode to a young girl on the brink of womanhood. It is not a love story but rather a poetic invocation of a certain moment in time. She’s come “to look for a king” and yet, the very next line states that “anybody could be that guy.” In this song, she is frozen in time, poised on the brink of womanhood, like the two lovers that Keats writes about who are about to embrace on that Grecian urn.

The song opens with a majestic piano glissando and hummed vocals. Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, sharing lead vocals and therefore giving the narrative an omniscient point of view, tell us that it’s “Friday night and the lights are low.” If someone’s life were a weekend, then our Dancing Queen is Friday Night. Just as Friday is still part of the week, DQ is still a girl. “Only seventeen”. She is still in school. She still lives at home. (Her parents are probably up late waiting for her to return home or maybe they think she’s sleeping over a friend’s house?) She is going out to dance. In the real world, a girl of seventeen is low on the totem pole. She has little money of her own and inhabits a world where adults call the shots. But on the dance floor, our heroine is the Queen. Her newly found beauty makes her the center of attention. She literally rules. She is not looking for love. “Anyone will do”. She is looking for subjects.

What makes this a classic disco song is that our protagonist isn’t at a particular dance or party. She is “where they play the right music.” It’s as if she is in a large city, going from bar to bar, club to club in search of action. She’s not at a sock hop hoping to run into that cute guy from her biology class. She is looking for something a little more dangerous with strangers. And just as those lovers in the Keats poem never actually embrace, our heroine never meets a guy.