Saturday, June 10, 2006

Not a Kiwi Pop Tart

And while I'm on the subject of ear candy, I'm going to do something that may surprise people who know me. I'm going give my hearty approval for pop singer Rhianna's inescapable club hit, "S.O.S."

I know.

I know. Stop it. Just hear me out here.

Rhianna and those in her crowd aren't the kind of musicmakers I usually recommend to anybody. By and large, I feel like that kind of music these people make serves only to be blasted at clubs, whereby the sound waves agitate the human brain and endumben it, thus pushing the owner of the brain to buy tube tops, eat Del Taco and buy more crappy music. But this song is an exception.

Initially, I hated it. I can specifically remember hearing "S.O.S." for the first time. KrisDina and I were driving through New Zealand in our first rental: the yellow Volkswagen Polo. We had just gotten the radio to work and stumbled upon we initially thought was some backwoods Kiwi pop tart's attempt to cover "Tainted Love" and trip over her own clunky shoes in the process. Really, who was this dumb girl? Never mind my own personal associations with the original song, who did she think she was that she could take the beat to "Tainted Love" — one of the most easily recognized beats in one of the best-known songs of the 80s — and put her own spin on it? Fuck her.

We rolled the dial to something else.

Then I got home and went to a bar. Doesn't matter which bar. Wander into any bar on State Street and you can hear Rhianna and her little ditty bop. But somehow, after hearing this again and again, something clicked and I started to like it. And I'm not sure it's just a matter of this being catchy as hell. I honestly feel like Rhianna and whoever write this song have done something culturally interesting.

in 1981, Soft Cell's Marc Almond juiced up Gloria Jones' 1964 soul single, "Tainted Love," and gave it the beat we all know and love. And get stuck in our heads. And occasionally drummed on our desks with our pencils when we were bored in class. I'm not clear whether Soft Cell's version was a crossover hit or a niche favorite, but regardless the song became tattooed in the collective memory of my entire generation. Thank you, Napster. Thank you, theme parties. Thank you, Time-Life Awesome Eighties compilations. And thank you, Spike Jonze-directed Levis ad with the EKG machine that beeped in synch with the song. I doubt I could throw a rock on the UCSB campus without hitting someone who couldn't at least sing the refrain. Nonetheless, the same group of kids have taken to this liberal sampling of the original hit. And when I get past the popularity of "S.O.S." and really listen to it, it's honestly not that bad of a song. It makes that famous "Tainted Love" beat a little more danceable — and additionally referencing "Tiny Dancer" in the process.

During one of my last quarters in college, I took a class on Italian film and literature that featured an adaptation of "The Decameron" by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Dr. Amberson explained that the film was a particularly good one because Pasolini had taken a fundamental text that most Italians would be familiar with — somewhat in the manner than English speakers should have some idea what "The Canterbury Tales" was, though even more so — and dispatched huge chunks of it. He removed two of the work's narrative frames and chopped up the various vignettes. But despite the egotistical re-working, the film worked.

I know it sounds ridiculous to compare ol' P.P. Pasolini to the same girl I had just moments ago referred to as a Kiwi pop tart, but the feat is similar. Rhianna had done what I would have bet no entertainer could do — an upstart especially — and blatantly repackaged a well-known song only to receive praise and popularity for it. She's won me over, at least. More than anything, I wonder if Gloria Jones has heard the song. Maybe she hates being covered then sampled, maybe she's okay with it. Either way, I'm sure she can't think about Rhianna — a young, pretty singer with a throaty voice making the first smash hit of her musical career — and see herself, just over forty years ago.

There's something interesting here, I swear.

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