- “Love The Way You Lie,” Eminem featuring Rihanna
- “Just The Way You Are,” Bruno Mars
- “Firework,” Katy Perry
- “Raise Your Glass,” Pink
- “We R Who We R,” Ke$ha
- “Only Girl In The World,” Rihanna
- “Like A G6,” Far East Movement featuring The Cataracs & Dev
- “Hey Baby (Drop It To The Floor),” Pitbull featuring T-Pain
- “Yeah 3X,” Chris Brown
- “Stereo Love,” Edward Maya & Vika Jigulina
- “Whip My Hair,” Willow Smith
- “No Hands,” Waka Flocka Flame featuring Roscoe Dash & Wale
- “Bottoms Up,” Trey Songz featuring Nicki Minaj
- “Please Don’t Go,” Mike Posner
- “Love Like Woe,” The Ready Set
- “Mine,” Taylor Swift
- “Waiting Outside The Lines,” Greyson Chance
- “Loving You Tonight,” Andrew Allen
- “My Girl,” Mindless Behavior
- “This Or That,” Jacob Latimore
While listening to “We R Who We R,” Ke$ha’s latest contribution to the NOW series, I came to a shocking realization. On previous NOW tracks like “Tik Tok” and “Take It Off,” Ke$ha romanticizes the threadbare existences of hedonistic party girls with nothing to lose and a world of pleasure to gain. Her songs are filled with the tawdry cheap thrills of being young, horny, broke, and game for just about anything. While listening to Ke$ha sing-sneer about “sleeping in cars” and selling her clothes on “We R Who We R,” however, I came to understand the secret subtext of Ke$ha’s entire oeuvre: She is a sexy, sexy homeless woman who sleeps on the street in a garbage bag full of glitter.
This adds an intriguing new angle to her lyrics. In previous columns, I delineated “I’m drunk and want to fuck you” as the core message behind Ke$ha’s music. In light of this new revelation, there now appears to be a cynical element of calculation to Ke$ha’s come-ons. Oh sure, she professes to be interested in you, the listener, as a sex object and one-night-stand, but is she really after you and your body, or does she just want to sleep inside for a change? Is she into your body, or the fact that, unlike her, you regularly sleep in what is known as a “bed”?
Let’s explore the evidence: On “We R Who We R,” she sings, “I’m just talkin’ truth / I’m telling you ’bout the shit we do / We’re selling our clothes, sleepin’ in cars / Dressin’ it down / hittin’ on dudes (Hard!)” First, Ke$ha informs us that she’s so destitute that she’s reduced to selling her clothes. Then she pretends that she’s wealthy and successful enough to sleep in a real car instead of in a glitter-encrusted trash bag. She even pretends that she and her friends are deliberately “dressing down” instead of stealing their entire wardrobe from the Dumpster by the Salvation Army.
It doesn’t take much intuition to discern a cause-and-effect relationship between Ke$ha admitting she sells her clothing and sleeps in her car and her curious boast that she’s relentless in her attempts to score a warm meal and bed for the evening—I mean, sexual partner for an explosive, no-holds-barred fuckfest.
Like “Tik Tok,” “We R Who We R” is an irritatingly catchy electro-pop song that finds Ke$ha delivering lyrics of mind-boggling, almost inconceivably stupidity in an ostensibly ironic white-girl whine. Ke$ha’s insufferable delivery amplifies the obnoxiousness of the lyrics; a couplet like, “We make the hipsters fall in love / when we’ve got our hot pants on and up” is never going to sound anything other than cringe-inducing, but Ke$ha’s bratty delivery makes it even worse. That’s the essence of the Ke$ha brand: Take something that’s already obnoxious and find a way to make it more so.
Remarkably, it gets worse. In a clear bid to win over the churchy types that run the homeless shelter where Ke$ha and her fellow party girls/outdoor-living enthusiasts are regularly turned away from for being drunk and sexually propositioning the staff, Ke$ha “brags” “You don’t want to mess with us / Got Jesus on my neck-a-lass.” Sure you do, sweetie. I’m sure he gives you comfort and inspiration during those long nights spent scavenging for food and leftover whiskey.
Ke$ha is the quintessential dirty girl, in the sense that during her ascent to superstardom, she only had intermittent access to baths and generally had to make do with what is colloquially known as a “hobo’s shower.”
If Ke$ha is the ultimate dirty girl, squeaky-clean Willow Smith is the ultimate good girl. Hell, she’s a second-generation icon of wholesome, well-scrubbed, All-American goodness. Honestly, it’s a little disgusting how beautiful, talented, and young the entire Will Smith clan is. I hope they at least have some hunchbacked, one-eyed, idiot man-child half-brother somewhere to drag down the curve a little.
Will Smith was a star when he was 16 years old. He wasn’t about to keep his children out of the business until they were geriatric enough to go to middle school or get a driver’s permit. Smith was too humble to name his daughter “Will Smith, Only A Girl,” but he did the next best thing by simply adding two letters to his own name. As if that weren’t arrogant enough (and why would a guy with so little going for him possibly be arrogant?), he gave her the middle name “Reign.” Why didn’t he just pay homage to an earlier, less accomplished narcissist and just name her “Jermajesty” or “Georgette V?
At the ripe old age of 10, Smith was clearly ready to enter the family business. The vehicle for her bold introduction was an obnoxiously catchy electro-pop number called “Whip My Hair” whose simultaneously infectious and maddening chorus repeats the mantra “I whip my hair back and forth I whip my hair back and forth I whip my hair back and forth I whip my hair back and forth” with sadistic glee. It’s an almost Dadaistic work of braggadocio. Who brags about their ability to whip their hair around? For that matter, what is so inherently wonderful about liking the colors black and yellow? Yet that hasn’t kept “Whip My Hair” and “Black And Yellow” from becoming giant hit anthems and deluding people into thinking there’s something inherently awesome about hair-whipping and color-liking.
In that respect, “Whip My Hair” reminds me a little of the title track of The Lonely Island’s Turtleneck & Chain. In keeping with the trio’s subversive deconstruction of pop music in general and hip-hop in particular, “Turtleneck & Chain” delights in the absurdist idiocy of so much hip-hop swagger by bragging about the most ridiculous thing imaginable: sporting just the right combination of thick-ass turtleneck and thin-ass chain while sipping daintily on a light beer.
Unless you listen to the lyrics, “Turtleneck & Chain” could easily pass for what it’s parodying. Then Snoop Dogg comes along with a guest verse that actually makes you wonder if there genuinely is something bad-ass and subversive about wearing a turtleneck “thicker than Delta Burke sipping on a Guinness” while rocking a tiny chain and sipping on a light beer.
That’s the true test of a pop star: Figures as charismatic as Willow Smith and Snoop Dogg are able to convince us through sheer magnetism and confidence that random and pointless gestures are the height of cool. In “Whip My Hair,” the woman born with all the advantages in the world attempts to transform the act of whipping your hair back and forth into an empowering gesture of self-expression and a rebuke to haters, but like pretty much everything on NOW, it’s really just about being young, beautiful, rich, and hogging the spotlight.
There’s a fascist quality to the song’s unrelenting hook. It doesn’t matter if you like “Whip My Hair” or hate it; it’s going to get under your skin and be part of your life no matter what. The same holds true of the Smith dynasty. (It’s not too early to call it a dynasty, is it?) Whether you like them or not, Will Smith, his wife, and his children will be huge stars for decades to come. To make extra-sure that happens, Willow Smith signed with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation several years before she reaches what I’m sure will be her disturbingly un-traumatic teen years. There’s no stopping them.
Now, I like the Smith family. He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper was the first hip-hop album I ever owned. I think Smith is a talented and charming actor who has tackled some challenging roles in offbeat fare like Hancock and Ali. But the Smith family creeps me out. They’re all too goddamn perfect, with their blinding smiles and perfectly symmetrical faces. Would it kill Smith to let someone outside his family experience success for once?
One of the themes I’ve beaten into the ground over the course of this project is the notion that pop music belongs to all of us. It’s a common cultural currency that we can reshape and appropriate any way we see fit, whether we’re Orthodox Jews re-shaping Taio Cruz and Lady Gaga hits as Jewish anthems, or a boyishly charming talk-show host with an uncanny gift for impressions, unbeatable connections, and a deep love for musical history that comfortably co-exists with a prankish sense of humor.
Accordingly, Jimmy Fallon shocked and delighted his audience with a performance by “Neil Young,” which turned out to be Fallon decked out as Young performing a hilariously earnest, sincere, and emotional version of, yes, “Whip My Hair.” Pretty awesome, eh? Then, of course, Bruce Springsteen—the Bruce Springsteen—came out to turn the unlikely cover into a duet between musical legends, one real, one ersatz. It was a gloriously 2011 kind of moment, and in its own way, a Lonely Island-like answer to the aggressive idiocy of the current moment in pop music.
If Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” sounds familiar, that might be because it’s essentially the same song as “We R Who We R,” a snotty, drunken blast of unearned self-regard chockablock in deliberately terrible wordplay and cringe-inducing turns of phrase. Ke$ha sets the bar pretty damn low with lines about hipsters and hot pants and your not wanting to mess with her on account of her having Jesus on her neck-a-lace, but Pink isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. She immediately throws down the gauntlet by answering the timeless question, “What’s the deal-io?” It only gets uglier from there. Pink dubs herself a “party-crasher, panty-snatcher” before advising “Call me up if you a gangsta.”
I’m going to give Pink the benefit of the doubt and assume her appropriation of hip-hop slang and attitude is at least partially, if not entirely ironic. That doesn’t make it any less insufferable; at this point, ironic appropriation of hip-hop slang and attitude by sneering white party girls is at least as tiresome as the non-ironic variety, if not infinitely more so.
Like “We R Who We R,” “Raise Your Glass” is a self-congratulatory outsider anthem, a tribute to “loud and nitty gritty, dirty little freaks.” As with Ke$ha, an air of cynical calculation keeps the song from being truly liberating; it’s defiance and rebellion as a commercial pose and marketing strategy. Rest assured that no actual authority is ever threatened at any point in “Raise Your Glass” or any of the other flashy tributes to symbolic rebellion found in these volumes. The video is mildly subversive in its overt nods to feminist icons past, however. It’s a lot ballsier than the song it accompanies.
Far East Movement’s “Like A G6” doesn’t have any more substance than “Raise Your Glass.” It doesn’t have any substance at all. That’s its sneering, bratty charm; “Like A G6” has nothing but snotty attitude, a hypnotic bassline, and a monotone hook about getting “slizzard” and “popping bottles in the club / Like we’re Three Six.”
Pop songs like “Like A G6” serve two valuable purposes: hooking in young people with intriguingly enigmatic slang, and confusing old people with lyrics that make no fucking sense. I have only a fuzzy conception of the song’s meaning, though when dealing with electro-pop songs on these compilations, it’s always safe to assume that the underlying message is the artist’s eagerness to get drunk and have sex, though The Cataracs confuse matters by bragging that sober girls act drunk in their presence. It ultimately doesn’t matter what it means. All that matters is that monster fucking hook that makes everyone its bitch. Here’s the wicked part: It borrows that chorus wholesale from Dev’s “Booty Bounce.” That is some Will.i.am-level musical evil genius going on right there.
Trey Songz shares Far East Movement, Pink, and Ke$ha’s commitment to getting really fucking drunk as a prelude to sex. The song finds the R&B artist who is not R. Kelly but rather a startlingly exact imitation agitating for a lovely young woman to imbibe with him en route to an exciting night of fun and frivolity. “If I done get these bottles we going alcohol insane!” Songz sings in a startlingly derivative appropriation of R. Kelly’s bottle-popping bonhomie.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Kelly should be flattered by Songz’s work here, though Nicki Minaj’s guest turn is so ferocious that it’s hard to pay attention to anything else. As her “Roman Zolanski” persona, Minaj rattles off a free-associative verse that recreates the frantic, spastic interior monologue of a crazy person more through her breathless, teasing, taunting delivery than the content of her lyrics. “Bottoms Up” may be cookie-cutter R&B, but Minaj’s purposeful insanity elevates it into something more.
The free-floating air of craziness that pervades Eminem’s music similarly comes as much from his often-unhinged delivery as the actual content of his lyrics. “Love The Way You Lie” finds Eminem once again exploring the dark recesses of a profoundly flawed relationship opposite Rihanna’s ice-queen vocals. I feel like I’ve heard it from Eminem at least a few times before, but he explores this territory with such unblinking candor that I don’t particularly mind. I’m not inclined to listen to “Love The Way You Lie” very often, but I respect it.
Any pop song that begins with the helium-voiced spoken-word admonition “Dang, we text each other A LOT” seemingly leaves nowhere to go but up, especially where hilariously dated references to technological fads are concerned. Astonishingly, boy band Mindless Behavior’s “My Girl” somehow manages to burrow itself deeper and deeper into a black hole of tacky pop-culture references and detailed recounts of emoticon-laden conversations between 12-year-olds until it’s borderline incoherent. Here are two sample couplets from the technology-crazed boy band:
“I got a clue how you feel for me / 1-4-3 a smiley with a wink / That’s how you feel baby that’s what’s up / 140 characters is more than enough.”
“When you say ‘Yo,’ then I’ll say ‘hey love’ / You hit me with a sad face, what I do? / I hit you with a question mark / You send me back a J slash K, said, ‘I’m just playing with you.’”
Just think, if it weren’t for Mindless Behavior’s incorrigible love of emoticons, exchanges like the last one—important exchanges—would be lost for eternity. There is no emoticon powerful enough to convey what a tragedy that would be.
We don’t expect long cultural shelf lives for the songs on NOW; they’re all about the exhilarating buzz of the present. But the microscopic cultural shelf life of “My Girl” expires before the first note is even played. That is a very NOW quasi-accomplishment. Even in a world of disposable thrills, “My Girl” shouts its plastic pointlessness from the mountains.
Up Next on THEN: Lady Gaga delivers an anthem of empowerment, Enrique Iglesias is fucking you tonight (whether you like it or not), and the Black Eyed Peas are having the time of their life (dirty bits) in the final installment of THEN.
Outside the bubble: What else was happening in the music world in Winter 2011
• LCD Soundsystem plays a final gig at Madison Square Garden
• Broadway songketeers Green Day adorably release a live album called Awesome As Fuck
• Human League briefly reminds the universe it exists with Credo