July 4th, a day for (romantic) fireworks. Ooh!
Titillated by the title? Heated by the heading? Well, don't be filthy, you guys. Okay, do be filthy, but be aware that the title of this post is not meant to encourage said (and supported) filth. Instead, it's meant to reference a logical leap about how today's topic is in league with the 4th of July.
See, I noticed that the number one song this week on Billboard's Hot 100 is "Promiscuous" by Nelly Furtado featuring Timbaland. And while I've already discussed the credits and debits of that track, it occurs to me that it is also part of a long lineage of singles: namely, it is a "fighting song." By that I mean it's a song in which a romantic couple has an argument set to a beat.
And as it happens, "Promiscuous" isn't the only fighting song to top the chart over the 4th of July. On this very day back in 1982, The Human League was at #1 with "Don't You Want Me," which is one of the best examples of this genre ever produced.
With fighting songs celebrating our independence on two separate occasions--each one a reminder of our noble forefathers' fight for freedom, despite The Human League being British and Furtado being Canadian--I thought it was apropos to suss out what makes this type of tune succeed or fail.
The most important factors are the characters in the story. A fighting song is not just a pairing of voices. The generic narrators of a happy love duet (a la "Endless Love") won't do. Nor will this type of ditty be engaging if it seems like both people have similar perspectives. For example, while it's only right for Annie Lennox and Aretha Frankling to be on the same side in "Sisters are Doin' It For Themselves," a state of agreement lessens the drama of a fighting song.
And I hate to say this, but a case in point is "Promiscuous." Both Nelly Furtado and Timbaland are making the same observation: they're each shocked (shocked!) that the other would be so horny. That's kind of funny, but it's not very dramatic. Listeners need to be able to take sides in a song like this, to hear two different people and decide which one to sing along with as the argument unfolds.
(Sidebar: Have you noticed how my feelings about "Promiscuous" are changing over time? That's the reward for long-term readership, you guys! Evolution of critical thought signals a nimble mind! No, not fickle. Nimble!)
Anyway, this same need for difference applies to romantic comedies. Even the crappiest Tom-n-Meg movie--which would be "You've Got Mail"--hinges on the opposites attract theory. (Ooh! He's a big businessman, and she runs a little book shop! He's got bags under his eyes, and her lips have been collagen-inflated to look like bags of flesh!) You need that tension to keep your story engaging.
And The Human League's "Don't You Want Me" (here's a sample) has tension all over the place. With storytelling straight out of Rashomon, we get one event from two perspectives. Both male and female singer agree that she was "working as a waitress in a cocktail bar." The man, however, believes that he saved his ladyfriend from a dumpy life and gave her five years of bliss. "Don't you want me?" he asks. And how could she not? She'd be nothing without him.
Or so he thinks. Until she chimes in to say, "I knew I'd find a much better place, either with or without you." SNAP! Drama! And it doesn't hurt that the synth rhythms of the track are so catchy.
Flash forward a few years to "I Got a Man," a 1993 song credited only to rapper Positive K, though it includes a crucial female vocal (from a woman whose name I cannot find). This song rules because the woman keeps shooting down K's attempts to seduce her (the anti-"Promiscuous," if you will).
"I got a man," she says. "What's your man got to do with me?" he retorts. Ah, the innocent days of the early nineties. Remember how they made this song into a Coke commercial? With animated stick figures?
I still love this track because of its sense of humor. "And when your man don't treat you like he use-ta/I kick in like a turbo boosta." Indeed.
K doesn't take himself seriously. This is an argument, but everybody's having fun at the club tonight. Whether or not these two get together, they'll have a chuckle.
Again, it's all about the dynamic of opposites, and the success of "I Got a Man" is clarified by "All I Have," a cheap copy performed in 2003 by Jennifer Lopez and LL Cool J. Though J. Lo may resist his advances ("All my pride is all I have"), LL is clearly the winner from the beginning ("Pride is what you had, baby girl I'm what you have.) Ms. Almost-Affleck puts up such a weak fight that you can't believe her at all. Plus, she can't sing. Cannot sing. Can't.
But let's not think argument songs are all about anger or sass. Once in a while, the rare example comes along that manages to reveal something remarkably honest about the way relationships work. Take "Nothing Better" by The Postal Service, a side project of Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel) that could be one of the greatest bands of all time if they'd just keep recording together.
The reasons for the The Postal Service's greatness are legion, but one is the perceptiveness of Gibbard's lyrics (also on display in Death Cab). For "Nothing Better," he brings singer Jen Wood along to evince a devastating break-up set to a bouncy rhythm. (Buy it here, or hear a sample.)
See, the woman has said she's leaving, but the man just can't face that, so he's willing to do anything to make her stay. Pride be damned. He tells her:
Will someone please call a surgeon
who can crack my ribs and repair this broken heart
that you're deserting for better company?
I can't accept that it's over.
I will block the door like a goalie tending the net
in the third quarter of a tied-game rivalry.
So just say how to make it right,
and I swear I'll do my best to comply.
See how it's different, LL, for someone to say for themselves that they have no pride, rather than be told that they don't? Gibbard's deft imagery let's us know the depth of this man's desperation to keep his relationship in tact.
And his girlfriend doesn't just kiss him off. She asserts herself with intelligence and a sense of humor, indicating why he loved her to begin with...
I feel I must interject here.
You're getting carried away feeling sorry for yourself
with these revisions and gaps in history.
So let me help you remember:
I've made charts and graphs that should finally make it clear.
I've prepared a lecture on why I have to leave.
And just like that, you've got two fully-formed characters that are better drawn than anyone in a season of "Doogie Howser." These are people whose complicated language and subtle sarcasm suggest the intimate knowledge all couples share, even when they're dissolving. At the end, the woman even admits to the man that "[he's] got a lure [she] can't deny," but that closeness isn't enough. So much to consider in three minutes.
Just for fun, try singing along to "Nothing Better" as one character, then do it again in the other role. Talk about range. Watch out, Meryl!
(Oh, and speaking of Meryl, go see "The Devil Wears Prada." She rocks in it.)
That's pretty much where I stand on argument songs, though I do have one question. Are there any examples that feature same-sex couples? If so, please let me know. I'd love to listen in on that hollering.