Pop Off: He Raps, She Sings. Does It Still Count As A Duet?
MAURA JOHNSTON: So, Jay, the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 right now is a duet between Eminem and Rihanna, "Love The Way You Lie," replacing another he raps/she sings duet, "California Gurls" by Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg. But unlike that song, "Love The Way You Lie" is pretty intense, with lyrics that seem to directly reference the more fraught parts of both parties' personal lives:
Here we go again
It's so insane
Cause when it's going good
It's going great
With the wind at his back
She's Lois Lane
But when it's bad
I feel so ashamed
"Who's that dude?"
I don't even know his name
I laid hands on her
I'll never stoop so low again
I guess I don't know my own strength
Those lyrics are rapped by Eminem; Rihanna's contribution is a leaping chorus that sounds like wails, in which she sings about her lover "stand[ing] there and watch[ing her] burn / but that's all right because [she likes] the way it hurts." It recalls The Burning Bed (although that Farrah Fawcett movie about domestic violence came out four years before Rihanna was born, so that connection might be the result of too much childhood TV Guide reading than anything).
This is why there's something odd about the duet to me, and it reminds me of a similar dynamic in "California Gurls" -- namely, the modular aspects of the song, which seem even more striking given "Love the Way You Lie"'s intense subject matter. Rihanna talked about the song being an emotional one for her, saying to Access Hollywood:
"I knew if he sent me a record there must be something to it," Rihanna explained of how she was brought on board. "It couldn't just be, 'Oh, Duh! She was in that relationship so we have to get her.'
"The lyrics were so deep, so beautiful and intense. It's something that I understood, something I connected with," Rihanna added.
But what interests me about this song is that her lyrics are mostly abstract -- she's mainly talking about being the object of Eminem's violence. I guess what I'm wondering is if there's a "Love The Way You Lie Pt. 2" coming out, one where we get to hear more of Rihanna's side of the story. Or if Rihanna is keeping quiet deliberately, because she doesn't want to have to deal with her pain again. But does being that sort of chorus-only presence in the song undermine her strength? Jay, what do you think?
JAY SMOOTH: I agree; what struck me first about the song is how little Rihanna gets to reveal of herself, compared to Eminem.
It's such a personal song for both of them, as they act out both sides of an abusive relationship. But while Eminem explores the psyche of the abuser with an almost disturbing amount of depth and detail, Rihanna gets far less space to share the survivor's side of the story. She's only given enough space to utter pop lyric platitudes, and I'm left yearning to hear more about who she is, how she survived this, and how (or if) she escaped it.
Now in fairness, she may just be more reluctant to bare her soul, as you said, and few people can ever be expected to match Eminem's appetite for over-sharing. But as so many of today's pop duets relegate women to the chorus, I wonder if the system has become rigged against female voices.
When you heard a duet from Ray Charles and Betty Carter, or Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, they each shared center stage in the verses and harmonized in the chorus. But in "Love The Way You Lie," Eminem's sole custody of the verse gives him literally ten times as much time to speak as Rihanna (by my count she repeats the same 42 words, while he delivers over 500). Do you think it's possible these days for women to have an equal say in pop duets?
MJ: Well, if you did the word-count experiment on "California Gurls," you'd find the ratio reversed. Yet it's clearly Snoop who's driving the song -- the video ends with Katy reduced to being one of four women surrounding him, and the primping she's singing of is clearly done for the benefit of men. So the answer might be "No, except in special cases"? I would love for women and men to have more equal time in these collaborations, even if it's just on a bridge where the two players back-and-forth each other a bit.
What this all adds up to is the idea that the one-to-one duet in pop music has really gone by the wayside -- even in "Telephone," which features two women, Lady Gaga is clearly the star above Beyonce. (It's also notable that "Video Phone," the other collaboration between the two, added Gaga after the fact -- the track was originally on I Am... Sasha Fierce and then retooled.) Instead, these songs have been transformed into collaborative marketing efforts -- "Hey, if you like this artist, you may like this artist." I think that has led to celebrity personae overtaking songs' narratives, which in turn leads to persona -- even if it's completely extraneous to what the song is about -- taking over the entire song itself.
Pop Off is a conversation between music writer Maura Johnston and Jay Smooth (of Illdoctrine.com) about pop music that occasionally airs on Morning Edition. If you're just joining us, you can hear and read more from Pop Off, including pieces about Kanye West, and subscribe to the Culturetopia podcast for extended conversations.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And now let's take a look at the rankings on the pop charts. Get this: Three of the top five songs on the pop charts are duets right now.
So let's have a commentary duet. Here's Maura Johnston and Jay Smooth of our Pop Off team.
MAURA JOHNSTON: Remember back in the day when you'd hear a duet sung by a man and a woman on the radio, and you would feel like the two people who were singing at each were really in love?
JAY SMOOTH: I have a vague memory of that, but I don't recall it happening on the radio too often nowadays.
JOHNSTON: No. They're definitely missing the sort of interplay of, say, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's "Islands in the Stream" or Lionel Richie and Diana Ross's "Endless Love."
(Soundbite of song "Endless Love")
Ms. DIANA ROSS and Mr. LIONEL RICHIE (Singers): (Singing) Oh, I know I've found in you, my...
SMOOTH: Most of the songs I think of as classic duets, let's say Barry Gibb and Barbara Streisand, "Guilty," or Rick James and Teena Marie, "Fire and Desire," you're hearing two partners in a relationship interacting with each other in an intimate way.
(Soundbite of song "Fire and Desire")
Mr. RICK JAMES (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Baby, baby.
Ms. TEENA MARIE (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) I wasn't, I wasn't very nice, I know.
Mr. JAMES: (Singing) Sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar...
SMOOTH: The song that's been at the top for the last five weeks or so is Katy Perry featuring Snoop Dogg, "California Gurls."
(Soundbite of song "California Gurls")
SNOOP DOGG: (Rapping) Greetings, loved ones. Let's take a chance.
Ms. KATY PERRY (Singer): (Singing) I know a place where the grass is really greener...
JOHNSTON: With "California Gurls," even though the song is credited to Katy Perry, the whole idea of what the California girl is and should be seems to rest in the mind of Snoop Dogg, who is the guy who's leering at all of the women who are putting themselves in Daisy Dukes and bikini tops for the purposes of garnering more male attention.
SMOOTH: Yeah, it's - I feel like the makeup of a duet has changed over the years, because it'll usually be a male rapper and a female singer. Then that almost always plays out as if the singer is just echoing the rapper's thoughts, like the woman's place is to just sort of repeat or mirror what the man is thinking.
Even with the Snoop Dogg-Katy Perry, where Katy Perry nominally is the star of song and Snoop is just in the guest spot, it still seems to be centered around his male gaze, as it were, and his perspective.
(Soundbite of song "California Gurls")
SNOOP DOGG: (Rapping) Katy, my lady.
Ms. PERRY: Yeah?
SNOOP DOGG: (Rapping) A looka here, baby.
Ms. PERRY: Uh-huh.
SNOOP DOGG: (Rapping) I'm all up on you, 'cause you're representing California.
Ms. PERRY: (Singing) Oh-oh-oh, yeah. California girls, we're unforgettable. Daisy Dukes, bikinis on top.
JOHNSTON: This is a woman singing: Hey, I'm hot. Please let me know that you think I'm hot, Snoop Dogg. And he obliges.
SMOOTH: Well, hey. I'm here to ogle you, and it's going to be even creepier than you thought it was.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JOHNSTON: Do you think people think of it as creepy, though?
SMOOTH: Apparently not. Which is surprising to me, because historically, in American culture, having a black man be sexually suggestive and aggressive towards a white woman could be contentious or raise people's hackles in parts of the country. But this, maybe it's a sign of generational shifts that no one really seems to bat an eye at Snoop Dogg being lascivious towards Katy.
INSKEEP: That's Jay Smooth, who blogs at IllDoctrine.com, and music writer Maura Johnston. The Pop Off team talks more about duets at our website, npr.org.
(Soundbite of song "Nothing Like the Real Thing")
Mr. MARVIN GAYE and Ms. TAMMI TERRELL (Singers): (Singing) Ooh, baby. Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby. Ain't nothing like the real thing.
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.