I know that I missed the time when it was socially relevant to talk about Crank Dat by about three months, but whatever. It’s the internet. And I think that the song deserves some digging-into. First, a little refresher course: Crank That (Soulja Boy) is a song by the Mississippi based rapper Soulja Boy Tell’em. Mind you, both the rapper (usually) and the song (occasionally) are reffered to simply as “Soulja Boy,” which kind of gets into the main thrust of my argument. Anyway, if you haven’t heard the song or seen the video, watch it, and prepare to be amazed.
If you look up Soulja Boy on wikipedia or whatever, you’ll find him listed as a rapper. And this is technically true. But I think the old-school term “MC” is far more appropriate. He’s catchy as all get-out, but you sort of want there to be a different word for what he does as opposed to what, say, Twista does. And lyrically, when you compare Soulja Boy to noted story-rapper Ghostface Killah…
Representative Couplet from Ghostface’s Shakey Dog
“Straight ahead is the doorway, see that lady with the shopping cart/
she keep a shottie cocked in the hallway. “Damn she/
look pretty old Ghost!” She work for Kevin, she ’bout/
seventy seven, she paid her dues when she smoked his/
brother in law at his bosses’ wedding.”
Representative Couplet from Crank Dat (Soulja Boy)
“Soulja Boy Up In This Ho
Watch me lean and watch me rock
Superman that Ho!
And then watch me crank that Robocop.
Superfriend*, now watch me jock
Jockin on them haters, man
When I do that Soulja Boy I
Lean to the left and crank that thang.”
When you look at them side by side, doesn’t Crank Dat lack a certain… complexity? A certain linguistic vigor? If, as Mike Skinner said, rap consists of “content and deliverance,” Soulja Boy doesn’t really excel at either. Because he’s not concerned with either. Not a rapper, an MC: a master of ceremonies. He’s there “at your local party,” leading the show, directing the dance, making sure that you have a good time.
And he’s not alone in this. There’s a whole genre of southern rap called “Snap Music” – Dem Franchize Boyz, D4L, etc – which makes a point of putting austerely simple, chantable lyrics, over an austerely simple, danceable beat. Very often these songs will feature exhortations to dance. (D4L’s biggest hit is Shake that Laffy Taffy, one of Dem Franchize Boyz’ singles is Lean With It/Rock With It, and Crank Dat is no exception to this rule). Soulja Boy is just the one of the most successful, and extreme, examples of the genre. So this post isn’t really about “Oh my god, how weird is this song.” It’s more about “why is this weird regional musical style suddenly so popular?”
I have a theory. I don’t have much to back it up, but I have a theory, which is that Crank Dat is popular because America is kind of going to shit. I’m not saying that the song is a symptom of our cultural collapse – actually, I think it’s kind of awesome. I’m saying it’s an attempt at self medication.
Look, we live in times of great uncertainty. Our political leaders lie to us. The news media lie to us. Every damn thing causes cancer. A number of volatile nations have access to potentially world-ending nuclear weapons. And for much of the population, traditional stabilizing forces such as religion, community, and family have lost their luster. In this collapsing world, isn’t there something very comforting about Crank Dat? When Soulja Boy says “Soulja Boy up in this ho, watch me crank it watch me roll,” sure enough, Soulja Boy is right there! And we do watch him as he cranks it and rolls. When he gets to the part of the song about Robocop, he does the robot for a second or two. And so on. These days, America’s fractured psyche is about as frazzled as Dustin Hoffman’s in Rain Man. But we don’t need to tell ourselves “That’s my pen. That’s definitely my book,” because Soulja Boy Tell’em is there to tell us that he is definitely, definitely, up in that ho. Even the fact that the rapper, the song, and the dance can all be referred to as “Soulja Boy” plays into this. Repetition is just more reinforcement. (This is really driven home by his debut album, which is called, I shit you not, “www.souljaboytellem.com”) And there’s more than just passive reassurance! During the chorus, the line “Now watch me YOOOOUUU crank that Soulja Boy” is repeated over and over. Semantically, it’s a little ambiguous, but because of the way it’s delivered, this comes out sounding a lot like a command for YOOOUUU (the listener) to start crankin’ dat. And indeed, there’s a whole cottage industry on youtube devoted to people dancing the Soulja Boy Tell’em dance. And although a lot of them look like idiots, they also seem to be validating their status as members of the mass culture. It’s very nearly a sacrament.
Of course, there being no new thing under the sun, there are plenty of older songs that describe/prescribe specific dances. Probably more than I can count. If my explanation of Crank Dat’s popularity is sound, it ought to apply to these, right? Well, I spent some time clicking around, and sure enough, it does. Sort of. Well, you’ll see. For (Ha!) brevity’s sake, I decided to focus on #1 hits only.
The first song based on the description of dances – or at least dancing – that I could find is 1957’s At The Hop. This is followed pretty quickly by The Twist in 1960, Pony Time in 1961, and The Peppermint Twist, The Loco-Motion, and The Twist (the same song charting #1 again) in 1962. All these line up nicely with the heart of the cold war, the Cuban Missile Crisis falling in the banner year of 1962.
Then we have a gap, (unless you feel like choreographing a monumentally stupid dance to the Byrds’ already kind of stupid 1965 hit, Turn, Turn, Turn) until 1968, with Archie Bell and the Drell’s Tighten Up. 1968, mind you, was the year of the Tet Offensive.
Things get moving in earnest again in the mid 70s. Perhaps fittingly, the second boom of the aggressively tautological pop single is kicked off with a crappy/awesome cover of The Locomotion by Grand Funk Railroad in 1974. (You could also make a case for Kung-Fu Fighting, also in ’74, although I’m not sure if busting out your best Bruce Lee to that song is something people actually did at the time, or just something drunk college kids do thirty years later). In any case, Do The Hustle followed in 1975, and Shake Your Booty in 1976. This all lines up pretty well, although not exactly, with the Watergate scandal. Nixon resigned in ’74, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that confidence in the government was still low in ‘75 and ‘76.
Next up is another isolate, Walk Like An Egyptian, which sat at the number one slot from late 1986 to early ‘87. This coincides almost eerily with the Iran-Contra scandal.
And then in the early 90s, the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the cold war. This is a good thing, of course, but it was still a very confusing time to be alive, and what’s more, there was the first Gulf War to worry about. Sure enough, people reached out for validation through pop music. 1990: Vogue, 1991: Everybody Dance Now, 1992: Jump (that’s the Kris Kross version, not the Van Halen).
Having had a little clump all together, we were due for one all on its own again. We got it in 1996 with the Macarena. Unfortunately, the theory begins to fall apart here, because 1996 was actually a pretty good year. I mean… there was a big snowstorm, I guess? Kasparov lost at chess to a robot? The Whitewater scandal was going down, I suppose, but I don’t remember anyone getting all exercised about it. Honestly, the most disturbing thing I can remember about 1996 was the Macarena.
But we get back on track in 2004, when Gulf War II started falling apart. Specifically, the Abu Ghraib photos came out, and if that didn’t shake the confidence of the populace, I don’t know what would. And sure enough, we get 2004’s Lean Back, Laffy Taffy in 2006, and in 2007, of course, Crank Dat.
So where does this leave us? It’s pretty weird how well they line up, especially the Cuban Missile Crisis hitting right there in 1962. On the other hand, the Macarena’s unexplained success is pretty damning. (When you only have about seven data points, having all but one support your hypothesis isn’t really good enough.) Worse are the various catastrophic events that didn’t provoke an aggressively tautological pop single. If the Tet Offensive inspired Tighten Up, where are the songs for the outbreak of the Vietnam War in 1965? Where are the songs for the Kennedy assassination, and the Challenger disaster? If there is a connection, it must be more complex than I originally thought. Or then again, maybe not. After all, I’m not saying these songs are caused by times of national crisis, just that crisis makes it much more likely that they’ll become monster hits.
Note: During my research, I learned that a song called Soldier Boy had already been a number one in 1962. Anyone who wants to remix it with Crank Dat will become my new favorite person).
* I’m about %99.9 certain that this lyric is actually “Super fresh, now watch me jock,” but I choose to cling to the hope that Soulja Boy referenced Superman, Robocop, and the Super Friends in the space of eleven words.