Thursday, January 18, 2007

Of Boxed-up Junk and Slow Jams

"Show me your wiener."
-N. Beck

I have neither a TV nor the internet in my apartment. My exposure to American culture is limited to the approximately 1 hour I spend browsing on the computer at work every day and to what my friends tell me. I was for sure one of the last chumps around to see this (please click on the "this").

So I have heard two criticisms of this video, namely that:

1.) It’s 10 years too late. Mr. Show did it first in the mid-90’s.
2.) It isn’t funny.

The first is valid, the second is codswallop. This video is hilarious, if not the first of its kind. I am so taken by it I’d venture to say that it’s even funnier than the Mr. Show original (though just by a hair), and you won’t find me shaking my aegis in favor of SNL over Mr. Show too often. Maybe it’s just the presence of a bona-fide R&B superstar in the SNL version that gives it the edge; I’m not above admitting that. Maybe it’s just the phrase “dick in a box”; I’ll admit that too. But what this video and its ancestor manage to be, beyond merely funny, and beyond jabs at silly white R&B artists, are brilliant critiques of a dark period in R&B music: the 1990’s. The 90’s were The Decade that the Sex Done Gone and Left R&B. Allow me to explain.

R&B has, historically, been uniquely equipped and willing to deal subtly (and not so subtly) with human eroticism. We have on the one hand the place of sex—even if simply suggested—in the bluesman’s laundry list of gripes (My car up and died, I got no money, my old woman don’t love me no more). We have sex as cleverly disguised metaphor (the singer, upon returning home from being a cad, exclaims “Wait a minute something’s wrong here / My key won’t unlock the door”). We have sex as thinly-veiled-and-sort-of-grotesque metaphor (“Squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg”… who has an erect penis that in any way resembles a lemon?). We have also beats, grooves, and arrangements that lend themselves to titillating rhythmical movements of the body, to what my friend Grape terms the sexydance.

So what happened? Well, Prince happened. I’ll admit right now that Prince is my single favorite recording artist of all time. But what he did was drop the tropes and really, really, make sex a lyrically explicit element of R&B. For the love of Pete, the man wrote a song called “Head”. And “Soft and Wet”. And “Cream”. And “Pussy Control”. Jesus. In a way, this is thrilling. In a way, it is kind of shitty, because it unwittingly paved the way for R. Kelly. But Prince’s music, though straight-up regarding the scrumpin’, proudly retained the sweaty grooves and licentious funk of its R&B influences—in a word, his music was sexy, and his lyrics could kill your grandmother, to boot.

Then R. Kelly happened (R. Kelly will stand metonymically for all shitty R&B artists of the 90’s, but I think he’s the real culprit anyways). Like Prince, R. Kelly too sang openly about the old in-‘n-out—in far less entertaining ways—but unlike Prince, he sucked the sex right out the music. He was at the forefront of the New Jack movement, a regrettable but ultimately influential sub-genre of R&B characterized by steady, plodding 4/4 beats, lots of synthesizers, and aimless, noodling male harmonies. In short, he’s the godfather of all the bloodless R&B slowjams my generation danced, groped, and hoped to at school dances in the 90’s. Think R. Kelly’s “Feelin’ on Yo Booty”. Or “Sex Me” (both Part 1 and Part 2). Or “Honey Love”. It’s ostensibly about sex, indeed it screams the name of the rose right in your face, but it’s accompanied by music that sounds like it could have been randomly generated by a computer program with a few input parameters. It’s about as stale, unromantic, and not-sexy as it gets. You can’t just sing about sex and be sexy.

So when, in their respective music videos set to crappy music, David Cross from Mr. Show looks directly into the camera, puts on his best O-face, and croons “Ewww-ewww-eww” while his lover reams him, and Justin Timberlake proffers his hardened dick in a box over a romantic Christmas dinner with his date, what are we seeing? We’re seeing what are intended to be erotic performances spoiled by absurd over-sexing; we’re seeing foregrounded, cheap horniness with nothing to back it up. Little funny allegories for what happened to much of R&B in the 90’s.


Readers, if any of you has a penis that, when erect, resembles a lemon, please write in. I’m just curious if there’s anyone out there.


god said...

i have this vivid memory of me in 6th grade being bombarded with shitty r&b, and consequently turning "there ain't nothin' wrong with a lil' bump n' grind" (R Kelly) to "there ain't nothin' wrong with a lil' beans n' rice"... the fact that such a lyrical metamorphosis seemed evolutionary to me speaks to the lameness of the original lyrics, me thinks.

re: lemon-shaped dicks, fwd pix plz.

William said...

Good points all around. R Kelly is the worst. Except for when is the best: may I point you to his guest appearance in the Isley Brothers' laugh-riot of a late 90's comeback song, "Contagious." You may remember the narrative-type lyrics as the singer informs us that he has gotten home from the club, calls some people, turns on the tv, etc. Thrilling. But then! A taught and provoking conversation, while singing, with R. Kelly and some chick. Some of the lines: "hit the streets, your ass is grass"; "don't I know you from somewhere a long time ago? No, no, I don't think so." Check it out. Or, better yet, check out this version:
My dick is shaped like an okra.