At my niece’s 17th birthday party last weekend we brought the laptop and played a familiar game. We either went on to iTunes or Youtube and did a little “Name That Tune”: play a few seconds of a pop song and we’d all try to guess the title. Another nephew has some kind of app on his Verizon phone that allows him to access songs and lyrics.
To their parents and older folks at the party, you’d think this was torture. But part of what makes this game so fun is that we can actually laugh at how mindless (or compelling) pop music is nowadays. We are consumed by all-pop radio stations nowadays and getting around in the heat of Sacramento in the summer without listening to Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” several times is pretty hard to do.
My nieces and nephews, and their friends, talked about songs that drive them up the wall. While they declare themselves sick of “Billionaire” by Travie McCoy, they agree the video is cool and I even remind them that singer Bruno Mars has a lovely new solo effort called “Just The Way You Are” and that there is a wonderful song called “Need You” on McCoy’s otherwise uneven CD, “Lazarus”, which mostly sounds like a perfunctory Sugar Ray album.
I can’t agree on “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz -sure it’s incredibly catchy, but what singer nowadays repeats words four times (”I hit the floor because that’s my plans plans plans”)? I think Eminem sounds too angry during the “Love The Way You Lie” duet he does with Rihanna. I’m happily surprised, as the grown-up, that the girls especially find the video, featuring Megan Fox and Dominic Monaghan of “Lost” a little troubling because of the vague way it seems to glamorize domestic violence. I like the new Usher, though I think the addition of Pitbull, and his Spanish double-entendres, cheapens the Usher brand. Ditto Enrique Iglesias, whom we mock when we try singing that high note chorus (”Don’t stop baby/Don’t stop baby/Come on and give me some more”) that instantly kills his current hit, “I Like It”. Oh yeah, I think Ke$ha is still trashy, although my 12-year-old Catholic-school-attending niece finds her fascinating.
But there is a song that we didn’t play. For one thing I didn’t want to cause a stir among the grown-ups -i.e., the parents-uh like I’m not a grown-up myself! And as the grown-up uncle I had to maintain some kind of decorum and example to the kids. But I also wondered whether they had heard this other song, even if it had not been on the airwaves on Sacramento radio, and that it never would be either. That is, I half-expected that they had accessed this song on the Internet, where it has been an instant sensation, scoring upwards of 4 million-plus hits on Youtube. It’s a song that, for reasons that will be revealed in a second, has developed a notoriety in cyberspace for one obvious bad word. But as a recent New York Times piece pointed out, it’s also one of the boldest and instantly glorious songs not now (nor ever) being played on American radio -thank you FCC. OK, maybe you have heard of it. And maybe you should.
The song is called ….drumroll….and sorry, but we have to take the plunge here and possibly offend….”Fuck You” by Cee Lo Green.
Green is part of the duo (along with DJ Danger Mouse) known as Gnarls Barkley, who in 2005 released the wondrous song about mental anguish (a constant theme in some of his songs) “Crazy” that also earned them initial fame on the Internet as a viral phenomenon and a year or so later eventually sailed them to Song of the Year and Record of the Year nominations at the august Grammy Awards. Cee-lo is an accomplished soul and hip-hop singer, who has appeared with or produced artists such as Outkast, NAS and has worked with Timbaland; he also appears on the lead standout track “Dr. Feelgood” on Travie McCoy’s new CD, mentioned above.
So what’s the big deal? The conceit is obvious: it’s the word, stupid. But what a word and what force, delivered not just with aggression and drama but its perfect enunciation strikes an unusually sardonic tone to the song. For this isn’t simply a song where the lover is spurned and is getting back at his former love who turned on him. No -this one’s directed at the guy she is now with. It’s a challenge of sorts: the man loses the girl, who turns out was a golddigger anyways, and now this new richer sucka is stuck with her and Cee Lo is calling him out in the boldest, though not entirely vicious of ways. “If I’d been richer, I’d still be with ya”, he intones. Call it a macho call-out, but this burst of pop perfection, with its extraordinarily simple production, is just about the most brilliant song this year. It chugs along quick like a soul-soaked locomotive because there is really nothing like this out there. And surprise -it’s written and produced by Bruno Mars and his outfit The Smeezingtons, who also, by the way, brought us B.O.B’s “Nothin’ On You” and are behind Mike Posner’s fine “Bow Chicka Wow Wow”.
As for the song “Fuck You”, well, there’s this federal agency called the FCC that would like you to never hear this song on its airwaves or on your TV. Radio stations wouldn’t dream of playing “Fuck You” because the fine-happy agency is only too happy to slap six-figure fines nowadays in the wake of Justin Timberlake unsheathing Janet Jackson’s middle-age breast during the Super Bowl in 2004. Would you believe that Cee Lo released a cleaned-up version of “Fuck You”, called “Forget You” for release in England? That must have been a plea for an eventual mainstream release, but the truth of the matter is that the sanitized version pales absolutely to the original; the truncated version sounds as if, well, its nuts have been chopped off, totally bereft of any feeling.
So what to do? Well, surf the Internet, of course, where the FCC can’t regulate its content and where viral phenomena takes off anyways.
Caught by surprise by the sudden success of “Fuck You”, a video was rapidly put together to be a “place holder” of sorts, until Cee Lo released his album in December and until there was an “official” video release. For the past couple of weeks, this video, which consists of printed lyrics skipping along to the song, is all we had on YouTube, apart from Cee Lo’s own website, his Facebook or MySpace page. The New York Times reported that the song’s success had been so fast and unprecedented that for a while, the song wasn’t even for sale —until last Thursday, when it went on iTunes, where it can be snapped up for $1.29. Curious listeners can also access Cee-lo’s other personal sites, of course.
Thus we have an instructive example of on the one hand, the anything-goes-world of the Internet, and the fact that media can pretty much take on a life of its own and get ahead of itself. We seem to be approaching the day in which media is obsessively and carefully packaged by corporate boardrooms -actually, a good thing-where image and maximum exposure is the only domain of an artist’s public relations team. But we’re living in a rapidly changing world nowadays, whereour access to media has multiplied and transformed how we become aware of new music and other forms of entertainment.
Artists are still in danger of overexposure, even in a genre as appropriate as pop music. Play a song enough times and you can almost hear Cee Lo sing “Does that make you crazy?”, from his eponymously-named stellar single. One could argue that Katy Perry’s 192,000 copies of her latest album, “Teenage Dream” is a certifiable dud, even it is #1 in its opening week, because it fell below expectations. Wonder if it had anything to do with her tireless juggernaut all summer, appearing at events in Times Square, from standing atop the new sixth-generation Jetta (looking like a Corolla more and more) to passing out pillows and pink blankets to the throngs ready to see her sing on the “Today” show last Friday: she and her big mouth are everywhere.
Let’s see if we can start a trend with “Fuck You” and perhaps see if it’s really worth telling people that they cannot listen to something that someone else believes would offend their sensibilities. If Britney Spears can put out something un-clever like “If U Seek Amy” until we do a double-take or if so many stations nowadays blurt out the bad words awkwardly in their song airplays, can’t we also accept that these bleeps are becoming increasingly silly?
Today Cee Lo released an official music video for “Fuck You” on his websites and they have just been posted on Youtube. Let’s put it to the test: yes, it’s very shocking and jarring to watch this young boy utter this harshest of expletives; yes, it’s charming and humorous; but yes, the boy who plays Cee Lo also gets smacked by his Mom when he says this word too many times. Besides being a tremendous blast to listen and now watch, it’s easily the most subversive video of the year that many people will never see, at least the traditional way.