TO PARAPHRASE FAT Albert's friend Russell, contemporary American cultural debate is like a teacher during the summertime--"No class." And I'm not bemoaning any supposed lack of discursive civility; I'm talking about filling in the rhetorical blank that follows "race, gender, and..."
Fortunately, we have the radio to smooth over, if not entirely fill, such gaps in the official record. Here young upstarts suddenly come into more money than they expected, then watch sexy folks on the other side of the gender and color line eye them with anticipation. (And, as we shall see, vice versa.) Nowhere more than in some of the juiciest radio hits of 1999 did the intersection of lust and economics--the spot left politely uncharted elsewhere--get blurted about and crisscrossed with such enthusiasm. And so let's count 'em down--a fantasy jukebox of what we used to call 45s, complete with mated A-sides and B-sides.
10. "Back That Thang Up," Juvenile Featuring Mannie Fresh & Lil' Wayne (Cash Money/Universal) b/w "Watch For the Hook," Cool Breeze Featuring Outkast, Goodie Mob & Witchdoctor (Organized Noize/A&M/Interscope)
Dirty South beatsmanship at its most rudimentary (Cash Money's accountants watch out for the, er, bottom line) and complex (Atlanta's most notorious connoisseurs polish their wares). Both titles are self-explanatory, and reversible: Cool Breeze provides plenty of bounce for that azz (sorry, thang), and Juvenile has got a hook to watch out for. Could it all be so simple?
A: An irritatingly self-possessed smirk.
Q: What do these concessions to the two trends I ducked most deliberately in 1999 (corporate-approved Latin pop and Austin Powers, respectively) have in common?
A: Both understand how much craft goes into the most deceptively expedient pop.
P.S.: Madonna's sexier than Ricky; Louie's funnier than Mike.
The first is a snazzier double-entendre than Backstreet's "I Want It That Way," if equally misleading--that's "hardest" as in difficult, you nasty boy. It's also sweeter, as sentiment, as tune, as harmony. In Knight's case, the title means what it says--in case you couldn't tell from his breathy gulp, he's got the hardest thing that'll ever do you in his pocket and, yes, he's happy to see you. For this grope in the dark, Jam & Lewis not only one-up the standard issue Max Martin teenybop, but ace Timbaland, too.
If hip hop is in fact the new rock 'n' roll (and has Time magazine ever been wrong before?), Marshall Mathers and Elvis Presley differ in far more than simply their pharmaceutical preferences. (Though Em's radio edit, which forces him to sing about Primus rather than violence, is as sloppy a bowdlerization as filming El from the waist up.)
Rock, meanwhile, shouts what his name is, then adds, "You could look for answers/But that ain't fun." That's no call to know-nothingism: It's a suggestion that questions matter more than conclusions. Yipes--he may follow the Beasties into Buddhism yet.
Poor Britney makes the mistake of begging her sweetie for a hit on the one year when guys were more likely to slug her than hump her. Her reward: the eternal debate about artistic "authenticity"--an ingrained conundrum of American discourse e'er since Stephen Foster's parlor balladry "emasculated" minstrelsy--gets displaced onto her breasts. Hill fleshes out Brit's ellipses with a violent romance of her own and lets you know why every time you walk away Britney hurts herself to make you stay. This, both agree, is crazy.
The No. 1 single of 1999 (according to Billboard itself) features not a single Latino or teenybopper or Will Smith--just a voice so anonymous and huge and plastic and inhuman it could belong to anyone and, paradoxically, could only belong to Cher. It's the best thing to happen in 1999 to gay men who have considered Ricky Martin when the Pet Shop Boys are enuf. In other words, disco. Meanwhile, from the U.K., in a year house music returned to glory apropos of nothing at all, we heard the sound of "nothin' going on but history" to an insistent 4/4 thump. In other words, disco.
A dialogue, I suppose, and a dialectic if you say so--this track proves that pimps of all colors and hos of all hues can bounce to the same beat even if they wanna slit each other's throat, huh? Not quite "Dancing in the Street." And Jigga's clipped "bitch" is all the more chilling for being so casually tossed off. Money voices ("parodies," I'll add wishfully) the paranoia that pervades hip hop, the paranoia that would later lead Jay-Z to purportedly knife an associate who purportedly "betrayed" him.
3. "All Star," Smash Mouth (Interscope) b/w "Spit on a Stranger," Pavement (Matador)
If 1999 was the Year of the Clod, it makes sense that the ultimate anthem of striving should be bestowed on the uncoolest of the uncool--I bet even Jakob Dylan could clock SM frontman Steve Harwell. Blessed from birth with oodles of cool and cash, Steve Malkmus lands a gooey loogey on us unwashed masses to prove to his sweetie the depths of his emotion. Is that the indie equivalent of shoving a cookie up your yeah?
2. "No Scrubs," TLC (LaFace/Arista) b/w "No Pigeons," Sporty Thievz Featuring Mr. Woods (Rok-a-Blok/Ruffhouse/Columbia)
Speaking of classism...and yes, black women can so be classist, just as sure as black men can be sexist. Especially when they're zillionaires. So give TLC credit for calling knuckleheads on their crap, and remember that the best cure for an excess of free speech remains more free speech. With more bounce in their checkbooks than their basslines, da boyz respond with better jokes and esprit. But something's changed since "Roxanne's Revenge"--not only are men cutting the answer records, they sound like they're at a financial and cultural disadvantage. Susan Faludi, please advise.
Eve's double-dutch rhyme skitters across swish beats more Pan-African than Santana's. Mary's "do do do do do do" does indeed say it all--a better Sting cop than either Puffy or Clef have managed, and so subtle it may even be unconscious. Both sing about, you know, boys. And suggest that there may just be a reason to believe in life after love after all. And, more important, vice versa.