The academic journal Social Text just published a revised version of my 2010 Pop Conference paper, “Curtis Jackson and the Jeweled Skull.” It’s about 50 Cent’s last shoot-em-up, the history of music video games, war, money, and rap right now. I’m proud of it: this essay is the longest thing I’ve ever written that wasn’t intended for a professor, and the journal’s multiple peer reviewers put it through a critique boot camp. The editing helped. Sometimes you need to grind before leveling up.
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.