The Rules of the Game No. 20: Fleshy women, slimy men, smart teens

A short list (with notes) of songs I’m listening to right now

Frank Kogan

Taking a week off from sociology to cheer for some records I love. These are from 2007 except for “Handle Me,” which is two years old in Sweden but is just getting pushed now in Britain, where Robyn is finally hitting. I want the U.S. to be next.

Yung Berg featuring Junior, “Sexy Lady”: My friend Elizabeth fell in love early with the male black balladeers: The Miracles, The Impressions, the Gayes, the Cookes, a high pitch of male feeling, devotional emotion, a man in love, a man begging, a man broken. A man with strong sweet feelings toward a woman. But life experience taught her that IT’S A LIE! Men don’t feel these things! The whole story, from Curtis Mayfield to Seal, from The Temptations to Ralph Tresvant. All a shuck. Well, modern R&B has brought some realism to the style, the sound being great pleading emotion, while in the lyrics the men reveal themselves as slimy shits. Pretty singing from Brit veteran Junior on this one, delivering the wisdom of the ages: “Sexy lady, it was nice to know you, but I gotta move on.” Rapper Yung Berg boasts, “She love it when I throw it deep like Michael Vick.” All embedded in a track of floating, exquisite beauty.

Robyn, “Handle Me”: Blond spitfire drenches her voice in super-feminine sexuality and proceeds to tell some big-shot club owner in minute detail just why she despises him. Cute. Angry.

Paula DeAnda featuring Lil Wayne, “Easy”: Another song where the words and the style set themselves in tension. “When I’m out shopping it’s like having a gun.” Delivered with slow, dreamy sensuality (as Paula prepares to max out a thousand guys’ credit cards), the voice half innocent and half even more innocent. Something of a come-on where she’s telling a guy (one guy, many guys, there are so many guys) to back off and not be so damn easy, says that playing a little hard to get might be what gets her. Lil Wayne shows up as guest, which he’s done on approximately 50 singles this year, and as always his amusing chipmunk presence fits the mood, no matter what the particular mood is. “I go by the name of Carter/I got more plaques than tartar.” This is what Wayne’s always like: He ambles in and says stuff (“Baby, I can take you to and from/Ice up your little wrist until your blue hair numb, um”), nabs a metaphor here, snares an idea there, flips them toward the ceiling, casually walks off, sounding brilliant.

Enrique Iglesias featuring Lil Wayne, “Push”: Latin lover sings R&B. That’s two beautiful lies in one, sung beautifully. Lil Wayne reappears. “Baby I can bless you, and you ain’t even sneezy.”

Beyoncé and Shakira, “Beautiful Liar (Freemasons Radio Remix)”: A couple of international superstars agree not to fight over something as insignificant as a lying, no-good man. The original version caused critics on four continents to shrug their shoulders. This remix revs the beats up slightly and eliminates a nonchorus or two, and unexpectedly this becomes pure dance emotion, peaks rising from peaks, the universe channeled into a couple of minutes on the dance floor.

Heidi Montag, “Body Language”: Nine years ago I realized that I had either time to watch TV or time to write, but not both. Hence, no TV, and I hadn’t heard of this woman until one minute before hearing this song. Apparently, as “the woman you love to hate on The Hills,” she’s so hated that to like a single thing about her—such as this song—is to jeopardize long-standing friendships, one’s prominence in the community, one’s right to habeas corpus, etc. And it’s so unfair that people like her get their music heard when not-so-young-or-good-looking people without TV shows don’t. (This may be true, actually: not that it’s unfair that she gets heard, but that others don’t.) What’s even more unfair is that she gets to make good music. She doesn’t yet have much character in her voice. What she’s got is a sense of rhythm, the light flow of a running brook, with riffs and beats to match, splashing around her in bright variety. If you think you can do better, let’s hear you.

Mira Craig, “Leo”: She sings, “I’ll rip your head off if I get mad—I’m obese.” I swear that’s what I heard the first time I played this, though later listens reveal that she’s merely a beast—you know, a lioness, full-blooded Leo, a dangerous pussycat, works the catwalk, talks the cat talk, will eat you up if she wants to. Deep reggaeton beats, Afro-Caribbean hand-claps, her voice mincing high and growling low. (And she’s not remotely obese; big women usually don’t get big record contracts.)

The Gossip, “Careless Whisper”: Heavy and sexy, lead singer Beth Ditto could temporarily blow away the prohibition against folds of flesh, at least for the length of a song. The band is hitting in Britain but not yet here in their native USA. Punky soul, which means the beats are simpler and dumber than real R&B, but not played for minimalist effect, either, which real R&B also knows how to do. So everything rides on Beth’s singing. There’s an understandable tendency among critics to overrate her, and her strong gusts aren’t aimed well enough to push open my emotional doorways with any consistency, but she’s got something: force, insistence, charisma. My fingers are crossed for the future, but this is a nice job on a George Michael cover.

Aly & AJ, “Blush”: A couple of people had told me in advance what the lyrics were about: Aly saying to her guy that even though she likes his honesty it won’t lead him to her bed. So she’s setting rules and limits, he can go ahead and say it, make his play, and he can go further, even (“please take me under with you”), but she’ll only let him go so far; yet she wants him to try, likes him brazen, wants to be wanted. So when I’m actually listening to this I’m fully prepared. Nonetheless, suddenly I’m up and pacing back and forth, with tears in my eyes. Aly’s been ending each verse with, “If you must, make me blush.” On the last one she pauses, goes soft, quietly inserts the word “please”: “if you must—please—make me blush.” And this quiet word seems to contain all her own desire, welling up within her (which is what this song is really about, finally).

Most other Aly & AJ songs tumble around with sounds and wordplay and ease of expression. This one is laborious, almost maddening, the restrictions she’s putting on her guy actually being the restrictions she puts on herself, the conditions under which she allows herself to feel. (The song doesn’t specify why the narrator wants to hold her sex life at bay, doesn’t say whether she’s simply not ready, is just not ready for him, or feels there’s a moral principle involved. Aly herself is an evangelical Christian, but that label covers a lot of territory, and I don’t want to project stereotypes onto it or her; possibly she feels a prohibition.) But in a pop-music world that’s inundated with sex, the most passionate moment of the year comes from a careful, analytic teenager tortuously asking a guy to make out with her.

Aly & AJ, “Potential Breakup Song”: In contrast, threatening to break up with a guy is an opportunity for total joy and funny wordplay and intricate rhyme schemes and wild self-celebration (“You’re not livin’ till you’re livin’, livin’ for me”), words and melodies in a happy dance. This romped up the Radio Disney playlist and has been firmly ensconced in the AOL and Launch Yahoo video top 10s for months, but only managed to break Top 40 in scattered minor markets (Charleston, Milwaukee, Providence)—which just shows there’s something wrong in the world. Not that there aren’t scads of other worthwhile acts who also can’t break into the Top 40. But it’s not just flash and joy that’s being rejected along with this bright pop, it’s brains as well. Music from an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old acting their ages seems a lot more mature than the strutting R&B and dour rock that’s the standard grown-up fare. (Not that I don’t like strutting R&B and—some—dour rock, mind you.)

Ashley Tisdale, “Not Like That”: A great case of having your cake and eating it too. It’s a club track, created for posing and bumping and showing off, especially those gorgeous bouncing chorus beats: “All the girls in the club got their eyes on me/I can tell by their look that they want to be/Be HOT HOT HOT like that/But it’s NOT NOT no it’s NOT like that.” But it is like that, of course, ’cause she is hot like that, even if she then claims that she’s not that girl and it’s not her world, that she’s really just the girl next door. Wonder why she thinks there’s a conflict between being the same blood and bone as everyone else and being hot and special. She tries to have it both ways, wants her glamour and wants to shun it, too, and she pulls this off, making a case for both sides of her conflict.

Tisdale’s singing doesn’t have a lot of personality—falls short even of Hilary Duff, much less Britney or Kelly C. or Ashlee. But she finds her way right into the pulse of the music, and she’s made maybe the track of the year.

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