When I think of what defines postmodern popular music, I place my criteria into two groups: sounds and subject matter. Sonically I think of music that draws on the forms and sounds of the two last great traditions in popular music: rock and hip hop. Topically, I think of the sometimes kitschy, always ironic critique, or maybe just deconstruction, of late capitalism that’s often associated with authors like David Foster Wallace.
The act that has best satisfied me in this way, sonically and topically, would be N*E*R*D. Their very embodiment of postmodernity can best be seen in the fact that I don’t even know how to classify them: are they a rock group or a hip-hop group? In their music it’s easy to see elements of The Beatles, The Police, Jay-Z, and A Tribe Called Quest, and if I’d lean toward rock being a bigger influence on the records they put out, I’m not so sure that they’re most interested in making music most suited to a rock’n'roll audience.
What they have definitely always been interested in is the mediated relationship between the people who make the music and the people who listen to it. Take, for instance, the chorus from one of their first songs, "Lapdance," off the album In Search Of . . .
I’m just straight ill! Ridin my motorcycle down the streets
While politicians–is soundin like strippers to me
They sayin, but I don’t wanna hear it…
Oooh baby you want me?
Well you can get this lap dance here for free
This heavily ironic passage comes at the end of a series of rap-style taunts ("I got somethin chrome /
And I got it from home"), and it throws all of these gangsta rap brags into uncertainty. Does Pharrell, N*E*R*D’s lead vocalist, really mean it when he swaggers all over this track, talking about guns and baseball bats? I doubt it, not only because the chorus undermines all the harsh language–and perhaps even places Pharrell alongside pandering politicians who will say whatever’s necessary to win fans–but also because of the rest of In Search Of . . ., which so clearly questions and pokes fun at the cliches of rock and rap music. The song’s title throws all the posturing into further doubt, as if the whole thing is really just one big tease. To top it all off, once you’ve seen the album’s cover with a young Pharrell immersed in what looks to be a Super NES, you can’t possibly take his tough talk seriously.
It might seem strange that N*E*R*D would create a song that is ostensibly sung in all sincerity, and then undercut it with only the slightest hint that the song is really pure irony, but this is far from the only time I’ve been convinced that, despite almost all outward appearances, N*E*R*D’s just having a big joke. Hip-hop is heavily ironized territory (I often think of the music as a minefield of irony), but the music of N*E*R*D seems to go even further than anyone could reasonably expect any pop music act to pursue irony; the members of this group positively revel in it, as though irony were the very atmosphere that is suitable to sustaining life on their planet. And as that figure implies, they need irony, they can’t compose music without it. Listening to their CDs, I’m always on guard, always second-guessing everything I think they’re trying to tell me.
It’s only natural that N*E*R*D would relish in creating so much uncertainty in its music, as throughout its career, N*E*R*D has undertaken the heavily ironic, tricky job of deflating pop culture from the inside out. To see this, look no further than the title of the lead single from Seeing Sounds, "Everyone Nose (All the Girls in the Bathroom)," (video above) which puns atrociously–or rather, so atrociously that it ends up being funny–on the poorly kept secret of female club-goers doing drugs in the bathroom. This isn’t the song’s only pun; the chorus is equally kitschy with:
A hundred dollar bills–look achoo! achoo!
A hundred dollar bills–look achoo! achoo!
That is to say, "look at you"–which is, of course, what all the ladies in the club want to have happen–becomes "achoo," the sound made when a little coke gets stuck on the way up one’s nose. N*E*R*D trades heavily in this kind of kitschy, pun-ridden humor, and in many contexts these lyrics would sound awful; in the hyper, ridiculous, heavily self-mocking, self-defeating context that N*E*R*D purveys like no other, it actually works quite well. Most pop acts simply can’t discuss cocaine in the bathroom so frankly, and the bad puns are a big part of how N*E*R*D can not only bring the topic up but critique it without losing any bit of their cool. Cocaine in the bathroom, by the way, is far from the only touchy subject willfully and joyfully leapt into on this album; my count thus far (and I’m sure I’ve missed some) includes voyeuristic window-watching, club violence, attention deficit disorder ("Motherfucker are you ADHD? ADHD? ADHD?"), government propaganda, and the war on terror.
Just as the group has been adventuresome in crossing boundaries of good taste and good sense, it hasn’t flinched from trying out new sounds. "Everyone Nose" combines a staccato-strummed bass with DJ scratching, punctuated by a piercing horn at the end of each short bar. When the song switches over to the bridge at about the halfway mark, it suddenly becomes a laid-back piano ballad with Pharrell crooning about how he understands and sympathizes with the trials of young women forced to club all night long (mocking "achoos" being harmonized as accompaniment in the background), and then, once that’s all done with, the soft bridge-piano and the earlier chaotic, savage beat combine seamlessly into what is a most beautiful cacophony.
"Everyone Nose" is N*E*R*D at their least subtle (well maybe second-least-subtle, as the song that follows "Everyone Nose" is a rather blatant, bouncy ditty about obsessively watching a woman undress in front of her window every night), but Pharrell can often be sneaky with his lyrics. "Yeah You" is a song about an obsessive fan, but, except for a few words here and there, you might think it’s some song about teenage love. Have a look at the chorus:
Textin me a hundred times, callin me a hundred times
Hope it is not you this time, damn I gotta change my line
Textin me you’re gonna die, call the psychiatric line
Friends and family should know I’m, reporting this as a crime
If you listen to it sung, that "reporting this as a crime" feels tucked in, an afterthought that could easily be missed, yet it changes the whole frame of the song from simple infatuation to criminal obsession. In fact, it’s striking how much of "Yeah You" sounds like just another teen angst song, albeit one done in the age of texting and reality TV. It could be just another sweet, somewhat dull ode to high school love, except for a few words here and there that place the song within an entirely different frame of reference. What’s interesting here is how the suburban conventions of young love are brought into the sinister territory of obsessive fandom, and how the song implicates, well, everyone listening to it. Here’s the rest of the chorus:
I bet you heard this song wanna know who I’m talkin ’bout
I said I bet you heard this song wanna know who I’m talkin ’bout
I bet you heard this song wanna know who I’m talkin ’bout
I bet you heard this song wanna know who I’m talkin ’bout–YOU!
Here again, N*E*R*D is probing the line between them and us, playing with the layers of mediation that stand between a pop music group and its fans. N*E*R*D has never been a group to avoid the second-person, but the word you seems even more all over Seeing Sounds than would be usual for them. This isn’t the traditional rock/hip-hop you, the one that almost by default stands in for an ex-girlfriend or a lyrical opponent; this is you as in you–the one listening to the music–and coming from N*E*R*D it sounds plastic, in the tradition of a ’60s pop art novel. In the era of blogs and YouTube, the distance between you and them feels smaller than ever, but, listening to Seeing Sounds, one wonders if N*E*R*D is reveling in that fact or trying to establish some distance.
In terms of the sounds, each track on Seeing Sounds is fresh and interesting; lyrically there are some lapses from time to time, definitely more so than in previous albums, though there’s much more good than bad here. And the fact remains that, even when they’re pulling that C+ from sheer lack of enthusiasm, the members of N*E*R*D feel far ahead of most hip-hop acts dripping with earnestness. If you’re new to their music, start with In Search Of . . . and work your way up. If you know them and like them, the new album will certainly give you a lot to listen to.
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