In Search of Disasterpieces: Rihanna vs. Janet Jackson
"I Totally Hear That" is a blog of the people, you guys! Last night, my friend Travis called and asked me to address a particular pop-music issue that concerns him, and I am happy to honor his request.
Let me paraphrase what he said:
"Mark, I hate the song 'Unfaithful' by Rihanna so much that it's almost destroying me. Could you please help me sort through my rage by writing a post titled 'Unfaithful: Bad Song or Worst Song?" Also, remember that summer before senior year when we were roommates in the sororoity lodge, and I acted like I was asleep when the university maintenance men came in to remove that desk, meaning you alone had to get up at 7:30 in the morning to deal with it? Remember how I was clearly awake because I asked you, from my bed and at the last minute, to take my floppy disks out of the drawer before the desk was whisked away for ever? Well, I apologize, and I plan to do so formally by sending you a funny greeting card."
Travis is a stand-up guy. I hope the card is Shoebox!
Anyway, far be it from me to deny Travis' anger. Having listened to "Unfaithful" (which you can do here), I certainly agree that it's no gem.
However, is it the worst song? Is it so bad that it deserves, as the title of this post suggests, to be called a "disasterpiece?" (Trademark on that word, y'all. Trademark.)
I would suggest that another track may very well be worse than "Unfaithful": "Call On Me" by Janet Jackson featuring Nelly (listen here).
You are the jury, dear readers. Below, I will present both cases for utlimate in suckiness, and then I will ask you to decide. (My arguments against Rihanna will be largely cribbed from Travis.)
Court is in session!
DEFENDANT #1 : Rihanna's "Unfaithful"
FOR: The first strike against this song is that it has the audacity to follow "S.O.S," which is one of the greatest singles of recent memory. Where that song was fresh and exciting, this one is boring and forgettable. Rihanna's reed-thin voice is well-suited to dance pop, but sounds laughably bad in this ballad.
And let's discuss the word "ballad." It should only apply to songs with melodies, right? Not songs that are simply slow? If so, this ditty doesn't count. The music is bombastic but tuneless.
That sonic crisis pales, however, compared to the atrocity of the lyrics, in which teenaged Rihanna likens her cheating on her boyfriend to murdering him. ("I don't want to hurt him anymore. I don't want to take away his life. I don't want to be [dramatic pause] a murderer.") How arrogant! What kind of ludicrous crap is that?
As supplementary support for the claim that this song is a disasterpiece, please read the following review of the track from "Entertainment Weekly" (while noting that EW agrees with Mark about the awesomeness of Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man.")
Against: Yes, the song is bad, but it's mostly Rihanna's vocal that's the problem. The music is at least interesting if not revolutionary. Plus, it's rare to hear a love song in which a woman sings about the pain she's inflicting on a man instead of the pain she's enduring because of him. That change in perspective give us the refreshing chance to hear about a man who is vulnerable and emotional and a woman who has some degree of power--a regular scenario in real life, but not so much on the radio. That alone keeps the song from being a disasterpiece.
Defendant #2: Janet Jackson and Nelly's "Call on Me"
For: Ever since she flashed her nipple at the Super Bowl, Janet Jackson has been spiralling out of control. From the obvious plastic surgery (do you see that picture over there?) to the fluctuating weight, her public image is taking a beating.
Worse, her music is, too. Albums like "Control," "Rhythm Nation," and "janet." were towering achievements of dance-pop that still sound great today. Even lesser efforts like "All for You" and "The Velvet Rope" had undeniable moments of booty-shaking brilliance.
Post-Nipplegate, however, Janet had her first flop album, "Damita Jo." How many top 40 singles? Zero. Ouch.
And so like Nelly Furtado, Janet is aiming for a boost in sales by heading straight for the least common denominator of current R&B. Unlike Nelly Furtado, however, she's not maintaining any of the personality she brought to her more idiosyncratic records. Instead, she's releasing "Call on Me," a song so generic that it could be sung by anyone.
Oh, wait! It has been sung by anyone! Twice before! That's right: Janet's duet partner Nelly (the rapper, not Furtado) has already released two sound-alike singles in which he sing-raps over a repetitive sample while an established singer croons a hook. The first was "Dilemma" featuring Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child, and the second was "Over and Over" featuring Tim McGraw. Both those tracks were big hits, so Janet and her people clearly thought the formula would strike gold a third time and rescue her from an obscurity darker than Vanessa Williams'.
That decision is a major step toward making the song a disasterpiece. A star as established as Janet Jackson should not be releasing material this faceless. I mean, it may as well be Rihanna or Tweet or Monica or Jessica damn Simpson on this song. When Mariah Carey struggled back from the brink, she returned with the distinctive-sounding "We Belong Together," and Madonna has crafted catchy comebacks about thirty times. Janet in certainly in the same league as those women, and she and her producer/husband Jermaine Dupri owe it to her legacy to do better than this.
Nor does it help that Janet is a weak singer. (It's true.) Listening to "Dilemma, part 2" only reminds us that Kelly Rowland sounded better.
Finally, "Call on Me" just sounds like a third-generation idea. That's not surprising, since Jermaine Dupri hasn't been connected to an original-sounding song since Kriss Kross' "Jump." He's always been a knock-off of P. Diddy, who in turn is a knock-off of everyone and everything available. For "Call on Me," though, Dupri's choice of sample is particularly bland. And you think "Unfaithful's" lyrics are ass? Try these: "Call on me when you need someone who cares / Say the words and I'll be there / I can meet you anywhere."
Against: A true disasterpiece should be spectacularly, ingeniously bad. So bad that the mind can barely fathom it. (See: "Mambo No. 5"). "Call on Me" is just bad in a familiar way. It may sound the death knell for Ms. Jackson-if-You're-Nasty, but it won't make us want to gouge out our eardrums as we topple before its sublime hideousness.
DECISION: You decide! Which is the true disasterpiece?