When earlier this fall, Beyoncé released the monster Single Ladies, the dark matter of the universe bent a little under its gravitational pull.
The tune builds rapidly from its bass and bouncy synth foundation. Enter the sugary alto of the main vocal line. All the single ladies, all the single ladies: put your hands up. Beyoncé follows with four recurring vocal lines in a way that’s perhaps more college cheer than folksy chorus, but it’s all held together with — could it be? — optimism and defiance.
I got gloss on my lips, a man on my hips,
got me tighter than my Dereon jeans.
Acting up, drink in my cup
I could care less what you think.
I need no permission, did I mention?
Don’t pay him any attention,
cuz you had your turn
but now you gonna learn
what it really feels like to miss me.
We are a people marked by music, especially popular music. Music nestles into our ears on the bus, and hugs and fondles us at the clubs. We find attitude, swagger, comfort and excitement in music. We understand the passage of time by the phases of Cher, the modes of Madonna.
An Ani Difranco song stands in for a year, for a relationship. Listening to the early, weird albums of Tori Amos reminds me of all the love and loneliness of my chubby high school years.
Single Ladies will likely define another time in my life. But for all the love I feel for the song, my most pedantic self cringes at the repeating, descending lyric of the chorus. If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it. How does this play in Quebec? It’s a bit of a mixed message, isn’t it? The opening invocation and most of the verses pretty much glorify single life. I mean, Beyoncé literally sings its praises. And then, somehow, inexplicably the wedding bells intrude.
Still, we’re swept away.
We’ve never turned to Beyoncé for lyric inspiration, considering the range of topics she covers scarcely nudges past camera phones, the radio and Jay-Z’s ego. Still, if you’re looking for a slightly more unfettered version of a night at the clubs, try Get Me Bodied from 2006’s B’Day.
The year’s hits were marked by a furiously ambiguous attitude toward sexual liberation. Take Britney’s latest masterpiece, Womanizer, half homage, half admonishment of the instincts of a player. One second she’s singing “Daddy-O, you’ve got the swagger of a champion,” and the next she’s saying “Too bad for you, you just can’t find the right companion.”
Neither of these are, to my mind, the defining song of 2008 — that distinction belongs to Kanye West’s American Boy, summing up all of the fractured optimism Barack Obama represented to the world.
But it’s the divas we love, and the personal and sexual politics we most closely monitor. For some, that means the binge-drinking Lady Gaga single Just Dance tops their list (“I love this record but I just can’t see straight anymore,” she sings.)
My money’s always been on the Pussycat Dolls, whose swagger and bravado seem to be both a confirmation and refutation of Wendy Steiner: these are talking Dolls, and they know what they want. Bonus points for being ex-burlesque dancers and for a string of sexy singles — Don’t You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me, Buttons, I Don’t Need a Man.
Their main contribution to 2008 was When I Grow Up, a response song to Britney’s 2007 single Piece of Me. It’s not wanting for beats, but my lyric disappointment of the year was discovering “I want to have boobies” was actually “I want to have groupies.”
I guess we read into things what we want to hear. I choose to hear tones of joyful hedonism in both Single Ladies and Womanizer. And I’ll continue to take solace in the cooing, diminutive words Britney slips into the second verse of Womanizer: It could be easy. Who you are, that’s just who you are, baby.