Tag Archives: complaints

Busby Madoff Dreams: “Fuck You” and the Gold Diggers of 2010

by Carl Wilson

When I was in grade school, my parents were involved in a variety show at some grownup social club, group-singing the 1940s cocktail-party number “Shaving Cream”, which had recently been given a popular revival via the Dr. Demento novelty-song radio show. It must have taken a week’s worth of overhearing rehearsals before it came to me with a scandalized jolt what swear-word the song was hiding. Chuck Berry’s late-career novelty “My Ding-a-Ling” soon mounted another tuneful assault on my naivete.

The side-stepping of the content is the whole pleasure of these songs: With a childish lilt, they pretend to talk about “being nice and clean” or a kid’s toy, with a wink as loud as a rimshot to a Sammie Davis joke on stage at that grownup playground, the Sands. The late-arriving Single of the Summer, Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You,” is exactly the opposite: naughty on the surface but all kid-joy at heart.

There’s still a sidestep going on — not because it’s got a hidden meaning to convey, but because to an unusually transparent extent, there’s nothing literal in it, each element just a cog in a pleasure machine. The song is mainly about how much fun this song is. That’s what makes it so reminiscent of “Hey Ya.” It’s why it works so well to make a video that’s just the lyrics of the song dancing around.

Everything else is self-canceling: Ostensibly a middle finger to the guy who stole his girl, and a kiss-off to the girl, it’s also amicable advice to that guy (“just thought you should know”) and a shiny proclamation of love to that girl. Cee-Lo seems lucky to be caught in a love triangle because that’s a kind of community, or at least an enabling structure for desire. (Desire for the girl, for the guy, for his Ferrari and his X-Box, for OOO OOO OOO.)

The aggression of “fuck you” is completely undermined by the temper tantrum in the bridge, the hilarious bawling “whyyyy?” (wait, I thought it was because she was a shallow, gold-digging bitch? oh, so you were just making that up). By the last chorus (you know, the blue part), even “I saw you driving ’round town with the girl I love” makes me think more about the fun of cruising cars than the pain of rejection.

You could extend this switcheroo model to the “clean” radio edit’s title, “Forget You,” which seems like hypnotic autosuggestion: “Forget what you’re hearing on the radio and remember what you heard on YouTube. In fact, shout the real title over the fake title every time it comes on.”

At first the paradoxes of “Fuck You” seem to come down from its Motown ancestry, where songs of heartache were often cached in snappy, catchy arrangements. But “Heard It Through the Grapevine” (to use a close cousin) gets sadder the closer you listen to it; “Fuck You” just gets funnier.

So what does it all amount to? First and foremost, the way “Shaving Cream” nudged you with “we’re all adults, you know what the word is,” I think it’s an argument that the words “fuck you” are simply no big deal any more. It’s not a punk-rock “fuck,” a countercultural sex-revolution Fugs or Jim Morrison “fuck,” or a “Fuck the Police.” Yeah, the song says, can’t play this on the radio, I guess (so fuck the radio), but is anybody really shocked? Nah. We’ve got the web. We watch cable.

Mumbling, “like, fuck you,” at the departing back wheels of your girlfriend’s new beau’s car is no serious threat. It is not saying, as another hip-hop song might, that you are going to get a gun, blow the wheels off that car and assault the couple in it. As a hip-hop artist, Cee-Lo is using this supposedly forbidden word to say how much of a rebel he isn’t, and what a relief. It’s a regular-guy, proletarian “fuck you.” A humble “fuck you,” a “fuck you” we all use every day, a “fuck you” that can bring people together.

The drawback, of course, is the “gold digger” stereotype the song directs at the woman who’s left him. But even there it’s being used as a standup-comedy trope – the borrowing of Kanye’s “digga/nigga” rhyme is the acknowledgment of conventionality. And for Cee-Lo, the voice of superstars Gnarls Barkley, playing a poor shlub feels like a neat, antic rejection of hip-hop glitter.

One of the reasons “he’s an X-Box, and I’m more Atari” is such a great line is the silliness of using “X-Box” as an example of a luxury item, contrasted wth a format that’s so out-of-date it’s collectible. Cee-Lo’s playing a super-nerd — which matches the format of retro-soul, and the act of singing superbly (rather than barely at all, which Drake, Kanye and others have made the cool standard).

The gold-digger narrative is too easy a stand-in for misunderstanding and misvaluation between the genders, but it’s an obvious stand-in (even Cee-Lo’s mama doesn’t want to clear it up for him). I persistently hear “I guess the change in my pocket just wasn’t enough” as referring not to money but to personal change – that what he couldn’t provide the girl was a relationship worth living in, not a fancy ride.

Even more deviantly I’ve started hearing “change” as that word from Barack Obama’s campaign. Then the song starts to get crazy allegorical – “gold digger” as fickle American public (cheering for Obama’s historical win one minute and then sneaking around and Tea Partying all over his agenda), the wealthy girl-stealer as corporate Republicanism, and “fuck you” is a pox on all their houses. (Gives a whole new ring to that wild “Why????”)

That’s going too far, but the last time the phrase “gold digger” got so much pop-cultural traction was the last time the American economy was this fucked: In the series of hit Busby Berkeley Broadway fantasies, Gold Diggers of 1933, Gold Diggers of 1935, etc., escapes that gave us songs like “We’re In the Money” and “Lullaby of Broadway,” not to mention gilded-surrealist montages of shapely kicking legs as mystic mandalas. The interesting bit is that in those films, the “gold digger” was actually the heroine – she was a lowly chorus girl wrapped up in some caper meant to separate a fool and his money. And who wouldn’t? It’s the Depression.

“Fuck You” doesn’t allow for that degree of sympathy for the gold digger – its chorus still says “fuck you” after all – but beneath its knee-jerk sexism is its broke-ass bonhomie. When Cee-Lo says “I really hate you right now” in his chick-flick-pouty tone, it doesn’t mean he hates her forever. He just hopes she’ll come around.

If the song had been written four years ago, it might have been from the shallow jerk’s point of view – he would have had the money, but disliked his girl’s interest in it. Witness 50 Cent (desperate to get in on any action that isn’t, as B2TW’s Chris has documented, in a video game) with his playback version, with a weaker but amusing prelude in the voice of the girl-stealing dude:

It’s clever of 50 Cent (a man nominally made of money, while Cee is low on green) to give himself the first word here, to pre-empt everything the song’s about to say. But it’s really the ghost of hip-hop past, stepping in to protest too much: In 2010, the argument that if you’re not rich you’re not trying doesn’t fly. And he misses Cee-Lo’s whole thrust anyway – this guy likes being an Atari, and he can “take you there” without a Ferrari. It’s just “some shit” if he needs to be richer to be with ya. All he really wants is the girl to get where he’s coming from.

And if you can’t feel that, you must be playing with your own ding-a-ling.

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Filed under carl wilson, movies, music

Little Boxes #10

(from Ghost World, by Daniel Clowes, 1997)

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Filed under chris randle, comics

Greenberg (2010) – story by Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh, written and directed by Noah Baumbach

By Margaux Williamson  (mostly spoilers)


(I was thinking about “Greenberg” a few days ago while sitting on a dock watching a lot of jet skis go by. Most of the jet skis towed large children behind them on inner tubes. It really gave this sense of momentous movement while really, no one was actually moving. It made me feel like everything was a little bit wrong. I was also trying to remember if jet ski accidents involve mostly people on jet skis – or people under them who happen to be swimming in the water. This is when I thought of the movie “Greenberg” because “Greenberg” is about a man who complains a lot. I then jumped into the water. I had watched “Greenberg” a few months ago with my friends Sholem Krishtalka and Jon Davies and my boyfriend Misha Glouberman. I remember that we all took a cab home because it was raining – and how warm it felt in the cab as compared to the cinema.)


The main character in “Greenberg” is named Greenberg. Greenberg is a lonely man who complains a lot and doesn’t offer very much. We know that he had an early life as an almost-famous rock star. That was followed by a long period of wandering capped by a short stay in a mental health centre. His main creative output now consists of writing letters of complaint to the government, media agencies and corporations. The movie begins with his return to Los Angeles to stay at his brother’s house while his brother and family are out of town. He takes care of the dog, tries to build a dog house, begins to date the woman who is employed as a kind of servant to his brother’s family, sees old friends and meets the younger generation. The whole process is totally unpleasant. One feels quite a lot for the people who have to talk to him, one worries for the woman who is starting to date him, and one is charmed by the younger generation’s sympathetic/ bemused expressions while Greenberg deconstructs them after taking some drugs.

I always feel a little bit hesitant about giving the characters in Noah Baumbach’s movies so much of my attention. They are often culturally rich, unquestioning of their entitlement and hoard the scraps of love, attention and kindness that come their way like intensely hungry but confusingly plump children. The “Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding” had pleasure, intelligence and humour but the rapt attention on such ungenerous characters makes me a little baffled and I’m never quite sure what it is that we are hunting for in there. “Greenberg”, however, I could totally understand.

We see versions of Greenberg all the time in movies. Intelligently critical people who know things are all wrong and crappy – who feel compelled to complain because they have a clear perspective on the people who are making the world a worse place. Though often filled with insecurity and discomfort, these figures are often remarkably unselfconscious about their own negative contributions. Pleasure in their characters or empathy for their positions come when we see them effectively change their environments, or listen to their moving songs, or laugh at their good jokes.

The very interesting and unusual thing about “Greenberg” is that Baumbach takes away this complainer’s status and his poetry. Greenberg is still an artist, but his only output are the often petty letters of complaint to Starbucks, the state of California and The New York Times. Baumbach has taken the sexy out of the asshole – he has taken the moral weight away from the complainer. It makes this kind of character easier to deconstruct. It makes Greenberg’s journey so unpleasant to witness that the movie begs for a narrative change.

The sliver of narrative change, and the best part of the movie, comes near the end when Greenberg finally asks one of his few remaining friends to give him an outsider opinion on his person. The question seems to slow time, lower the volume on the music – it makes us lean in. It is night, on the edges of a pool party. His tall, patient friend hesitates but then offers some constructive criticism of Greenberg-the-person. This question and the answer felt as though a giant crack had opened up on the screen letting a vertical flood of light in. The moment, realistically, only lasts for a half second before Greenberg’s unfruitful defense-mechanisms take over, flip out and shut out any of the information – but the great question has been asked and life has been stirred. And we are reminded that self-consciousness is a necessary virtue.

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Filed under margaux williamson, movies