Four That Want to Own Me
2003 YEAR-END BALLOT1. "Rock Your Body," Justin Timberlake: Coinciding with Sam Phillips' death in July, a variation on his story played itself out on the pop charts: a visionary black producer experiences a moment of clarity and declares, "If I could only find a Caucasian singer with the George Michael sound and the George Michael feel, I could buy a million trucker hats." "Rock Your Body"'s a really good record for the first couple of minutes--those car horns had me checking my blind spot all summer while driving--which then becomes a really great record when the female singer begins cooing "talk to me, boy..." (bringing to mind Alice Deejay from a few years ago). Timberlake's breezy swagger about nekkid- ness and orgiastic group dancing aside--all of which is absolutely expert and highly enjoyable--that female voice takes charge of the song immediately, leaving little doubt as to who's beckoning whom to come-hither and who's the puppy dog. (You can take the boy out of the boy-band...) Add 15 seconds of "Good Times" for good measure, and, unless you were one of those rabble-rousing prairie dogs impatiently awaiting "Rain Dance" at Toronto's SARS concert, you've got the richest, most pleasurable, and--speaking as someone who's never had any use whatsoever for a single 'N Sync or Backstreet Boys song--most surprising record of the summer and of the year. 2. "Flamboyant," Pet Shop Boys, 7. "Bad Day," R.E.M., and 8. "Maria Bartiromo," Joey Ramone: I was not expecting to be voting for any of these. I didn't have more than a passing interest in the Joey Ramone album when it came out last year, and when it comes to the Pet Shop Boys and R.E.M., I'm Michael Corleone at this point: every time I think I'm out, they pull me back in. "Flamboyant" and "Bad Day" haul out tried-and-true straw men as targets--a shallow night- lifer for the Pet Shop Boys, a Republican president for R.E.M. ("Bad Day"'s typically oblique, but I assume the creepy auctioneer is Bush)--while Joey goes out on a brilliant joke-that's-not-really-a-joke: I know he wasn't rich-rich, but after 25 years of steady if unspectacular earnings as a Ramone, I'm guess- ing he was in a position to be keeping tabs on Yahoo and Amazon stock. (That's how he would have stumbled over Maria Bartiromo in the first place, right?) The object of his affection should be floating on air for the rest of her life: the idea of a dying punk rock icon recording a love letter to a glam- orous courtier of Wall Street is worthy of a fairy tale. (I think I always wanted to write the same song myself: to Ona Fletcher, to Gail Smith, to Thalia Assuras...) In the end, though, the subject matter of all three of these songs is almost incidental. What they're really about, and what makes them so removed from everything else that dominates popular music right now, is how each repre- sents a very singular evocation of capital-B Beauty for the three artists in question. I don't have the words to adequately describe how they convey this beauty, but I can point to the specific moments where I hear it, and they're all embedded in the "grain of the voice" and all that ephemeral stuff: the rise and fall in Neil Tennant's voice on "you're so flamboyant," Joey when he sings "those eyes make everything OK," and the background swooning underneath "please don't take a picture" in "Bad Day" (Mike Mills always sings those parts, I think). So even though there's a part of me that realizes "Flamboyant" is a very minor song that the Pet Shop Boys have probably done a dozen times already--I feel like I'm Andrew Sarris in the mid-60s, grasping onto ghosts in SEVEN WOMEN or EL DORADO--I also know they're refining and deepening that song in ways that, even at their most withering, achieve a kind of majesty and serenity that continues to speak to me: "It all takes courage, you know, when just crossing the street/Well, it's almost heroic." 3. "Indian Flute," Timbaland & Magoo, and 5. "Beware of the Boys," Panjabi MC & Jay-Z: There was a point during the summer when Jay-Z must have had four or five songs on the radio. You couldn't avoid him--if I'm not mistaken, he was duetting with my mom on her answering machine through the first two weeks of August. I like his mailed-in cameo on "Beware of the Boys" best. Like Timbaland's "Indian Flute," it's a little casual about race--Jay-Z talks about "snake charmers," while Timbaland's fractured call-and-response is basically a set-up for his great "But I can't understand a word you're saying" punchline (a good match for Bill Murray's deadpan in LOST IN TRANSLATION)--so I'm guessing both records exemplify the "cross-cultural misappropriation" (or however that goes) that eye's Errol Nazareth's always whining about. What should be obvious to anyone, though, is that when a Top-40 pop record introduces a wide audience to sounds and genres that they might never otherwise hear--because we're lazy, we're evil, and we're just too stupid to know any better--then that can only be a good thing, whether it's Jay-Z, the Beatles, Snow, Bobby Bloom, or anybody else. So let's all be thankful that THE BLACK ALBUM is Jay-Z's last one ever only until the next one. I can't think of too many people at the top of their game who voluntarily walked away from piles of money. Sandy Koufax comes to mind, but his left arm was ready to fall off, so he had good reason. How's Jay-Z's rotator cuff? As long as his rotator cuff is OK, I believe he'll be back. 4. "Hey Ya!" Outkast: My dad had one of the earliest Polaroid cameras put on the market--when he finally got rid of it sometime in the '90s, a camera store in Oakville passed it on to Kodak for their archival collection. He took hundreds upon hundreds of pictures with it through the '60s, before switching over to slides. I was in many of them, and I have no recollection at all of anybody at any point in the whole process shaking anything--not when the photos were snapped, not while we waited for the image to develop, not when I look at them now. So "Hey Ya!"'s invitation to "shake it like a Polaroid picture" is my head-scratcher of the year. On the subject of Lucy Lius, Andre 3000 and I are perfectly in sync. 6. "Gossip Folks," Missy Elliott & Ludacris: Would it be in bad taste to say that Missy Elliott has cast a very large shadow over commercial hip-hop the past few years? Her singles get weirder all the time, and I can't imagine Kelis's "Milkshake" or Ludacris's own "Stand Up" (or at least the excellent video, with its long overdue tribute to the greatest O.G. of them all, Oscar Gamble) without her having cleared the way. As Kramer once said about Frank's Festivus holiday on "Seinfeld," Missy's "a little [whirling helicopter noise] out there." Maybe too much so at this point: "Pass the Dutch" is bizarre and compelling and half- great, but it's the first time during her recent run where the weirdness feels like schtick, like it's what's expected of her now. It's also a little short on melody, the same reason I'm passing on the equally compelling "Milkshake" and "Stand Up"--I especially dislike that flat, WIZARD OF OZ-like background chanting on "Pass the Dutch." "Gossip Folks"' honky-skronky jitteriness is more playful, making it the best hit song about rumours since, um, "Rumors."* Seeing as the Timex Social Club's rumor song was almost 20 years ago, it's amazing that Michael Jackson has maintained enough of a hold on the public imagination to be name-dropped on both (so coyly on "Rumors" it's quaint: "some" say "Michael" might be gay?!). Meanwhile, the poorly chosen "Jackson/rectum" near-rhyme on "Pass the Dutch" is not up for discussion at present. 9. "Got Some Teeth," Obie Trice, and 10. "21 Questions," 50 Cent: Obie once, Obie Trice, Obie three times a Shady. As Eminem's own singles get more and more weighted down by important-artist-with-something-to-say dreariness, his side projects and proteges (I include "Purple Hills" also) are where he seems to channel his early spark. He's great in the "Got Some Teeth" video as a bar- tender, and Obie's misadventures are pure Tone-Loc. 50 Cent's a narcoleptic mushmouth who for most of the year was one of my biggest radio irritants ("P.I.M.P." especially), but the anomalous "21 Questions" is sweet and vulner- able, a hip-hop "Ten Commandments of Love" for math-minded teenagers, high- lighted by one of the great love lyrics of our time: "In the bed, if I used my tongue, would you like that?" Really, is there a shorty or a bitch alive whose heart wouldn't melt? (Grade 6 kids take their musical heroes at face value, oblivious to what is, if not absurd, at least a little bit funny about a 50 Cent ballad. Me: "Does he actually ask 21 questions? Has anyone bothered to count? I'm pretty sure he only asks 18." Class: general befuddlement. That's why the music you love when you're 11 stays with you the rest of your life, why "Let's Stay Together" and "Rainy Days and Mondays" are still of a piece for me, pure and mysterious and unmediated by anything: they are what they are.) *Oops--forgot about "Nothing Has Been Proved" from 1989, the rumour genre's towering masterpiece whether the Dusty Springfield, the Pet Shop Boys, or even the Strings of Love version (especially the Strings of Love version, actually). Dusty's made it to #16 in the U.K., so it was a minor hit; I don't recall that it did much over here.