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Friday, September 12, 2003
Outkast - "Hey Ya"

Matthew says that the Andre 3000 side of the new Outkast album ain't so hot on first listen, but all I know is that I really, really like this song. (So does Pitchfork, FWIW.) And I like it specifically because it's not retro. Oh, sure, there are elements of older music in there; for instance, when's the last time you heard an acoustic guitar used as the basis of a cheery mainstream pop song? It's become such an indicator of "sad," of Staind etc. (JT's "Like I Love You" has an ac. guit as a hook, but it's not the chordal focus of the song) and then you listen to early Beatles songs and you're like, damn, where did that go?

So yeah, there are old things, but it's not retro. What's retro is not only using old musical elements, but using so many of them (a certain critical mass is reached) and surrounding them with certain signifiers of the style that surrounded that music. So The Strokes are retro, because they not only want to play late-70's NYC punk rock, they dress like it, sort of, and they have a The in front of their name, and the production sounds kind of flat like the old punkers did, and their songs are about boredom and girls. Erykah Badu is retro because she not only wants to play 70's soul, but she wears hats that 70's soul singers wore and she misspells her words in a particular way and uses outdated production and instrumentation and arrangements. Which is not to say that being retro is bad, since I like both of these artists, or that there aren't highly original songs and elements lurking beneath the certain percentage of vintage signifiers (like 30-40% or so--if there's anything that electroclash has taught us, it's that an act can sound retro without actually sounding much like the era they're supposedly emulating, since a lot of EC acts sound way too modern to be early-80's and way too amelodic to be synthpop), it's just that the artists, or the marketing people at their labels, have chosen to frame the music in this very particular well-establishing interpretive context, whereas acts that use elements of older music could be just as derivative (Interpol, for instance, have drawn lots of retro comparisons without actually being retro, since everything from the drumming to the decidedly digital delay/reverb to the look is ostensibly modern) without actually framing themselves in the context of their influences. So although they all are basically building on late 50's/early 60's rock, the Ramones and Damned are retro while the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks are not, although I think in this case it's mostly a result of draping the old in the appearance of the new, mainly in the form of transgression. This may, indeed, be one of the few times when transgression is a useful thing to value, critically.

What Andre's doing here is exactly the opposite: he's taking the new and draping it in the appearance of the old (which is in itself a sort of transgression, although it's unclear if that made up any of his motivation to release this), so at first blush it seems to be an almost classicist mid-60's (white) pop tune, but upon a little bit more of a listen, that all drops away and what you're left with is a new thing, a new thing which is a combination of old things, no doubt, but such is music. Its clearest modern cousins are the Pet Sounds-humping pop of indie acts, but so much of that just isn't present here: there's a melody, but Dre's singing is definitely the kind of hey-look-I'm-singing-the-hook warbling that comes out of the mouths of male hip-hop MCs all the time, and there's not a bit of the glowing harmonies you'd expect, except to a certain small degree in the chorus and the backing vox of the breakdown. There's definitely no wall of sound. The drums match the rhythm of the melody instead of simply providing a beat. The acoustic doesn't seem to be miked right, and it's played pretty haphazardly. Sure, there's a pretty popish synth line that could be easily translated into a mid-60's glock part, and there're handclaps, but the damn verse is one bar of four, one bar of three, one bar of four and repeat.

Where this all becomes crystal clear, of course, is in the breakdown. It starts in the pre-breakdown, around 2:14 or so, where Andre exhorts first the fellas and then the ladies in the audience direct-like, and at first this seems to be a classic reference to gospel or soul stuff, the call-and-response you hear in "Shout," for instance (background-singers-as-audience), but then at the same time it's also a reference to a later point in that tradition, the MC of early hip-hop, which is, of course, a reversion for Andre, an actual MC of mid-period hip-hop. But it's very much a resumption of the role of the MC as something other than a storyteller or a performer, just an accessory to the DJ and the music, someone there to get the crowd going. It's a lovely little moment.

Then, though, there is the actual breakdown, the awesome breakdown, and what happens here is it takes your perceptions of the rest of the song as a retro artifact and completely reverses them, forces you to backtrack and reappraise and relisten, because it sounds like nothing so much as the perfect booty-jiggling anthems of recent years, like "Baby I Got Your Money," for instance, and that fits into 60's pop in no way shape or form. And it's the drums that do it, banging away as great samples and great production and great rhythm, except--and here's the key--they've been there all along. The guitar and synths drop away and you're left with only an ass-shaking beat. That's the idea of a breakdown, of course, but that kind of breakdown is not something you'd see in the genre Andre's ostensibly working in. And it's fucking great.

So "Hey Ya" is not just a great song for me, but a great (yes) model. Because it does so many things right--it melds hip-hop and pop-rock, it gets people dancing while maintaining a great tune, it fucks with the rhythm while maintaining a smooth groove--and it does them in a way that will actually get played on the radio and listened to and bought by many people, and yes, this matters. Because it is a model, and something other people can easily and happily do. It shows that if you like elements of older music, and you should, there's no reason you can't pluck those out and combine them with good parts of modern music. This is something indie bands can and should do, something the great songwriters of our ranks should attempt; throw out the tinny beatboxes for a second and throw a fat Dr. Dre AKAI beat behind your newest opus. And sure, have harmonies and stuff in there, but remember the lesson of "Tainted Love": you can always replace traditional instrumentation with a synth sound and make it modern without losing any of the music complexity. You can do this. We can do this! And goddamn, good for Andrew for trying it.