03 April 2006
PUTTING RIFF MARKET ON SUICIDE WATCH
Notes on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Phenomena"
So much to dig here--not the least of which is that "Phenomena" is more "Bang" and less Fever to Tell, more rhythmically libidinous, less Burger King commercial. Way back when, before "Maps" played in Crate & Barrel and Angus Andrew was a punchline, Nick Zinner's guitar lumbered, juggernaut riffs, none of this "texture" shit. He didn't cede "Bang" to Karen O's celebrity trill; if anything, he spoofed her bravado, proved her foil, antagonized her little brother-style. Same now with "Phenomena." Perhaps you know my childhood friend Pat Blankus, who once stole his sister Shelly's training bra, drenched it in orange juice, then hung it off his family basketball net--Shelly was really upset about this (she was still in training). Both songs are exactly like that.
I have one problem with "Phenomena." Let me give you a hint--a lyrical hint. Sing this to yourself: "Something like a phenomena, baby/ something like a phenomena." (!!!!!!!) If you're not ripping at your skin uncontrollably, as if your entire body is swathed in bedbugs or mini-spiders or really expensive aftershave balm, I suggest you place an order at mini-spiders.com and tell them to rush it.
What's my problem? As a typist, and an athlete, I don't get worked up about grammar too often. Simeon crizzed Reefer's podo pants--hoey. You see, I really don't give a shit. Spuscriptions? Yes, five spuscriptions.
But say you're the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. You're on the cover of SPIN, a magazine about rock music. Whenever you are on stage, at least two of your six hands total are pouring beer on Karen O. Is it too much to ask that you know how to correctly conjugate the Greek verb phainomai--meaning "I seem," or "I appear," or "I am able to be sensed"--the singular middle-passive participle of which gives us the word "phenomenon," a word you meant to use in the song "Phenomena" but instead you mistakenly used the plural form, i.e. "phenomena"?
Brass tack #1: Phenomena is the plural of phenomenon. "A" phenomena is not even nonsense, it's just incorrect. Maybe Karen O figured she could genderize "phenomenon" by inflecting its ending--"a" is a solid choice if you want to feminize a word, such as the female version of the name Brian ("Briana") or Big La, the name of my hypothetical all-woman Big L tribute band. Anyway, this might be what happened, given some of the other personifying liberties O affords herself, e.g. "Don't fall asleep with the motor on/ She'll make you sweat in the water." Sure she will.
Brass tack #2: What does it mean to be "something like a phenomenon" anyway? If a phenomenon is, generally speaking, "something that is/can be sensed (by, say, the five senses)," as opposed to something that definitively "is", then what in hell does it mean to be "something like something that is/can be sensed"? It's not like I haven't seen The Matrix either.
Download: Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines"
"Something like a phenomenon." Did Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel, who tucked this gordian knot of a lyric into their early-80s don't do coke rap "White Lines," know the trouble it would cause? Aside from what exactly made Notorious "B.I.G." and "Who shot J.R. (Writer)?", the meaning of this lyric might be the biggest question in hip-hop today.
A phenomenon--not just any phenomenon, but something like one. Karen O--she blew it. She took the meta-phenomenal mystery, the "vision, dreams of passion, nothing to gain except etc. etc. etc.", the rock-yer-bodyisms, and merely made them sound cool. Duran Duran covered "White Lines" with rock guitars, and simply flipped the song into a cocaine anthem not unlike what the Clipse did to Common's "The Corner" or when anybody who does karaoke at Sing Sing. Even as recently as 2003, Limp Bizkit took a shot at cracking the code; according to them, the meaning sounds something like a gorilla taking a shit into a studio microphone.
So let me take you on a journey--to the year 1997: "Candle in the Wind 1997," "Wannabe," "MMMbop," "I Believe I Can Fly," "Hypnotize," "Mo Money Mo Problems," "I'll Be Missing You." The writing's on the wall now, isn't it: Puff Daddy murdered Princess Diana.
Recall also: LL Cool J's comeback un-hit "Phenomenon." It peaked at #14 on Billboard's hip-hop charts and #55 on the Hot 100, then disappeared relatively quickly even for LL, who would have the "Starsky & Hutch" paper stacking soon enough and probably forgot he even made the song thereafter. Look, I'm not saying LL was Puffy's accomplice or anything, but I wonder what he knew.
Download: LL Cool J's "Phenomenon"
In the beginning of the song, he approaches a woman "draped in Chanel," who tells him "she love Tupac but hates some LL." How LL presents the scenario, the woman has no idea she's talking to LL--self-deprecation we're surprised the careering rapper allows himself. What's unclear, the woman may well be playing LL after all, willfully ignoring his celebrity to tip the convo's power dynamic in her favor. With his identity unaccounted for, LL's merely a phenomenon to her--and to himself. So who's taking whose piss?
"She can take a prince, turn him into a king," LL asides same verse. It's proleptic--LL will have fully seen that transformation by the end of verse three, when he's "in the brand new mansion with the lake in back" and "sick and tired of freakin' to morn'" and "got it all figured out, mami, I like that." He just wants to be he. Except once again point of view is crucial. Can she actually shape him, or does LL just think she can?
"Say what you want, but keep your lips sealed," LL says at the end--turns out he's been playing her the whole time, letting her think she's master when really she's the "playgirl." Has your mind fucked itself yet? LL is the something that's like a phenomenon.
"No joke," he said verse one, "No joke, all this love." There's something both behind and beyond the phenomena for LL: real agency and real results. As for the agency, LL tacitly acknowledges his and her own by calling for an end to their masquerades ("Let bygones be bygones, no more games"). Why else would he do that though, but because something has become of the deception: love. "It's real in the feel," LL confides a line before the last. Chemically predisposed, psychologically, biologically, fated or for whatever reason said feel is real--can't knock that.