Is it 1981 all over again? Did I miss a meeting where it was decided that white women in pop music should put out singles featuring some of the most lackluster rapping ever heard? I'd like to think it's mere coincidence that Gwen Stefani's loathsome "Wind It Up" is on the air during Fergie's mortifying "Fergalicious" era, but I worry that there's some deliberate strategy at play.
Mind you, I can't imagine what that strategy would be, since both songs only make me long for the tough coolness of one Deborah Harry, chanting that Fab Five Freddy had told her everybody was high and using the word "comatose" correctly in a gorgeous sigh that leapfrogged over an octave.
You might not have heard both the songs I'm griping about. If not, you might want to quit reading now while you're ahead. They're both quite bad, although I think Stefani's is considerably worse.
Here's the lesser of the two evils, performed on Tyra Banks' talk show:
It's pointless and cheesy; I saw way more of Fergie's bathing suit area than I ever wanted or needed to; and I felt embarrassed for will.i.am to have the Ed McMahon role on the sidelines there. But the good thing -- the only good thing -- about "Fergalicious" is that it essentially evaporates from your mind once you hear it. There's no real hook, no lick that sticks in your head for days. I've listened to this song three times now, and I still can't tell you how it goes. And I'm very grateful for that.
Now to the main offender, "Wind It Up" by Gwen Stefani, performed on the American Music Awards last night:
I tried to draw up an outline for the problems with this song, but I got stuck when I couldn't decide what came after that beginning yodel. Did I cite the sample from "The Lonely Goatherd" or the way Stefani yells "wind it up"?
The sample is, of course, ridiculous. It's as if Pharrell Williams was dared to shape a crappy song around the most bizarre piece of music he could find. On the other hand, Stefani's call of "wind it up!" puts me in mind of Pootie Tang's bon mot "wah da tah." And I can't help thinking that the only thing that might redeem this song would be for Pootie Tang to put his distinctive indistinct stamp on it.
I've griped about Stefani before: about her insistence on pimping her L.A.M.B. clothing line in her songs; about her klatch of four Asian women who seem to be a cross between back-up dancers, posse and pets; about her weird lyrics. "Wind It Up" has all those problems, but the lyrics seem to be the worst. This song is all about girls being wanted by the boys, but not actually doing anything with the boys. It's the opposite of empowerment, the gleeful reduction of girls to pretty objects to be wanted.
What makes it extra disturbing is that Stefani spent the mid-to-late 90s jump-kicking all over the stage, wearing tightie-whities as a bra top, rocking out with the guys, generally behaving as if she had a spine and a bit of fire in her. Now the woman who lamented being treated as "Just a Girl" is making songs that say, "Oh, no, be just a girl -- but be a hot girl." Great.
"Fergalicious" shares the same subject matter: being wanted by "boys." And here's where I just shake my head in wonder: these women are in my age bracket. Stefani's a little older, Fergie's a little younger (although I think each year spent on meth might count as three or four years on the clock). The three of us are in our mid-thirties, and I can vouch that this is a pretty interesting decade, that could produce a lot of great music. So it disappoints and even embarrasses me a little bit to see Fergie and Stefani desperately trying to regress to high school.
Yes, I know pop music is aimed at young people. But I don't believe it has to shoot for the actual mentality of an eighth-grader. Most young folks want more than anything else to be a little older, to be treated like grown-ups, and music that speaks to a level or two beyond theirs would probably appeal to them for that reason.
Besides, pop music is all about the hook and the bassline, and once you've got something memorable going on there, the lyrics could be about almost anything. Would you want to hear Fergie sing about her years on meth? I know I would. I could do without another song by Stefani about her thing with Tony Kanal, but I loved that "What You Waiting For" was about her anxiety over her career. What I'm saying is that these women have options, but they're choosing to go the lamest route possible.
And in their journey down that lame route, they're rapping, which just makes everything worse. So Debbie Harry, if you're reading this, what I (and perhaps a few other listeners) would love for Christmas is for you to release a single that shows these clueless heiffers how it's done -- or for you to stalk them and kick their asses. I know you could do both without even mussing your hair.