9. “Everyone Nose” (N.E.R.D.) vs. “Dancing in the Dark” (Bruce Springsteen) (54:44)
I loved Seeing Sounds, N.E.R.D.’s 2008 album. But it’s always sounded over-produced to me. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given the direction that Kanye West and Timbaland have been moving hip hop in for the last fifteen years. It also shouldn’t shock us given the group’s pedigree: superstar producers Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. You put a lot of chefs behind the counter, you’re going to get a sauce with a lot of different flavors.
And there’s a lot going on in a N.E.R.D. song. “Everyone Nose” (better known by its chorus, “All The Girls Standing In The Line For The Bathroom”) is a great example.
In the first 30 seconds, we have:
(1) The chorus reverbed down about four octaves;
(2) Heavy synth bass beats looped in with high hats;
(3) A jazz bass, stuttered up and re-cut;
(4) Whispered vocals;
(5) A high, brassy drum break;
(6) Synthesized clarinets;
(7) A bongo drum loop in the background;
(8) Pharrell rapping.
And that’s just the song! That doesn’t even account for the video: girls entering and exiting bathroom stalls; people dancing in a club; artists on stage; lights; brick walls; camera angles; syncopated cuts; etc, etc.
The song is overstimulating. This is deliberate. This is what makes it pop music – the assault on the senses from several different angles. If you have a moment to contemplate and catch your breath, they’re doing it wrong.
Bruce Springsteen’s rock music has always had an epic sound to it. His rock anthems with the E Street Band, like “Born to Run” and “Hungry Heart,” were full of wide-ranging bombast. But Born in the U.S.A. really took Springsteen into the era of pop. He was a renowned rock and roller before that point. Afterward, he was a global pop superstar.
“Dancing in the Dark,” with its catchy keyboard riff, is the most accessible song off of Born in the U.S.A.. “Born in the U.S.A.” is certainly bold, but it’s been so frequently misinterpreted that Springsteen now prefers to play it acoustic. “I’m On Fire,” “Cover Me” and “My Hometown” are all dark and intensely private. And “Glory Days” isn’t anything new for Springsteen – it’s a honky-tonk staple with the poetic lyrics we expect from The Boss.
But “Dancing in the Dark” is pure mainstream pop.
The video alone should tell you. The focus of the video is Springsteen’s charisma: his package (which gets central focus for the first ten seconds, from both front and rear, ladies), his clean-shaven face, the way he rips the mic off the stand. The video takes place at a packed concert, an acknowledgment of Springsteen’s global success. And it ends with him pulling a lucky fan from the front row up on stage with him. Forget the cynicism of America’s decaying industrial base and the ennui of New Jersey – and dance! Dance, Courtney Cox, dance!
That’s one connection – between Springsteen’s first pop song and N.E.R.D.’s unapologetic pop production. While Springsteen’s songs have always had an epic sound with a lot of layers, all those layers coalesced into one stream of sound. “Dancing in the Dark,” while not as spastic as “Everyone Nose,” flies in a lot of different directions. You’ve got the synth keyboard, the punctuating drum beat, the odd touch of saxophone at the end (“Hey, baby!”). You’ve got the video with its sudden cuts. It’s Springsteen’s first foray into pop and into the new era of music television. Marrying it to N.E.R.D.’s schizophrenic pop gem makes sense.
As I said, that’s one connection. What’s the second? Everyone knows (or nose, get it? Get it?).
Okay, in case you didn’t get it: “Everyone Nose” is about cocaine. It’s about cocaine usage in clubs. Girls use the restrooms at clubs to snort cocaine, thus giving them the energy to party all night. You see “all the girls standing in the line for the bathroom” and you know what they’re doing.
(This isn’t a deep reading; everyone involved with the album’s production has said as much)
While cocaine has been present in America and Europe for centuries, it rose to prominence in popular culture in the 80s. Cocaine has typically been a drug of affluence, unlike the bohemian heroin or the crack rock found in the ghettos. The rise of young finance professionals in the 80s helped prolong the demand for cocaine – a sign of wealth, a stimulant that kept business going round the clock. And with the glamor of cocaine came the grime of the War on Drugs, as popularized by Scarface, Miami Vice and Licence to Kill.
If N.E.R.D. had been rapping about cocaine in the 80s, in its heyday, “Dancing in the Dark” might have been the song they produced.
10. “Bust a Move” (Young MC) vs. “Can’t Get You Outta My Head” (Kylie Minogue) (45:25)
(Yes, I know I’m going out of order here. Bear with me – this is a better note to end on)
I wrote about the pop artifacts that we call “one hit wonders” in part one of this mash-analysis (q.v. Skee-Lo). The fact that there’s a phenomenon we call a “one hit wonder” speaks volumes about the way we appreciate art. We still evaluate art in its relationship to the artist who created it. Who are they as a person? What do they value, such that this is the art they made? That’s why the term “one hit wonder” holds meaning for us. This is an artist who could only (!) manage to produce one song that millions upon millions of people found memorable.
Young MC is a perfect example of a one hit wonder. Though he’s been recording tracks steadily from 1988 through today, no song of his has achieved the breakout success of “Bust a Move.” It’s an almost perfect pop staple, featuring addictive beats, a funky bassline (recorded by RHCP’s own Flea) and an entertaining flow of lyrics. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that it was successful. And it might not surprise anyone else that Young MC never duplicated that success.
I should note that this isn’t the only way to judge art. Rather than evaluating art in relation to the artist – oh, Young MC never followed up his chart-topping hit; he’s only a one hit wonder – we might consider a work of art as an entity in its own right. In this dialectic, the artist is not the creator of the art so much as he is a vessel for inspiration. The art flows through him. A lot of driven artists have talked about this feeling – when creativity moves them at such speed that they lose their ability to evaluate.
We used to call it being “inspired by the muse.” Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, talks about what “the muse” and “genius” mean in this TED talk:
While your correspondent can’t say whether true art is supernatural in origin, it’s worth noting that this used to be a much more common view of how art was produced. The artist did not focus their craft; they were moved by something beyond the rational. Art was a living thing, distinct from the mind that created it or interpreted it. It had a life of its own.
Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” is about the power of an idea to take on a life of its own. Notionally, the lyrics, and Kylie’s body language, and her slit-to-the-navel-in-both-directions costume, are about a guy. But the guy himself is almost incidental to the song. She doesn’t go on about what attracts her to him: his eyes, his butt, his attitude, etc. The song is all about the feeling that she suffers from as a result of this infatuation. She is trapped (“set me freeeee …”), she is obsessed (“boy, your loving is all I think about”). The only way she can communicate this boy being stuck in her head is by writing a song that’ll get stuck in your head.
“Na na na, na na na-na naa …”
Young MC is not diminished as an artist for having produced only one hit. He produced something lasting – something that resonated with an audience of millions and which will endure for generations. As we have remarked many times on the podcast, it’s not easy to write a pop song that will captivate the world. Those sorts of musical ideas have a life of their own. When they’re firing properly, you can’t get them out of your head.
And that’s what Girl Talk’s mega-mashups are all about. They’re a celebration of pop music as a language. Everyone knows “Bust a Move.” Everyone knows “I Wish” and “War Pigs” and “Creep.” Everyone knows Lady Gaga and Jay-Z. Mashing different songs together into a new product that can stand on its own merits translates the language of pop into something original. You hear two songs you recognize – or, even better, one that you recognize and one you don’t – and start thinking of them in a new way.
Girl Talk’s albums, when they’re at their best, are like Rosetta Stones for the 21st century. Here’s hoping they’ll last.