clap clap blog: we have moved

Monday, January 12, 2004
Rachel Stevens' "Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex" is possibly the first pop song to ever be notable for who doesn't sing it.

As you might already know, it was originally pitched to--and, by the sound of it, written for--Britney Spears, and a quick listen will reveal why: addressed to an unnamed Los Angeles-residing ex-boyfriend who has been telling public tales about the end of their relationship, it chides him for being rude, assures us that he's wholly mistaken, and suggests that there are a few stories she could tell about him if he persists with this nonsense. The perfect response song, in other words, to Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River" ("All of these things people told me/Keep messing with my head/You should've picked honesty/Then you may not have blown it."), which was widely interpreted as a kiss-off to Britney after their failed relationship, her dalliance with Herr Durst, and all that tabloid jazz. And as such, it works amazingly well. It's a perfect repudiation of the idea that a pop star's songs aren't personal if they don't like the lyrics, because it totally makes sense for Britney, and sounds exactly like something she's say. And why not? The whole point of being a pop star is that you're a public figure, a character on a stage, and as such, other people can write for that character if they have a good grasp of the situation and the terms, which the writers of "Sweet Dreams My LA Ex" certainly do with Britney.

The only problem is that she and/or her "people" rejected it. And so instead of going to Britney, it goes to Rachel Stevens, a British popstar who I certainly hadn't heard of previous to this. Which makes it a pretty different song.

The thing about that is that our enjoyment of pop music is at least 25% contextual, whether it's the context of your social situation (your friends like it and you all listen to it together and quote the lyrics), the context of other music (references to songs you like/know, whether musically or lyrically), or the context of the singer's character and plot position in the public eye of pop narrative. A song that appeals to this last contextual category is the one most likely to gain a widespread audience if its main selling point is its contextual resonance, and there are any number of songs that have done this very well--about three-quarters of Eminem's singles, "Sweet Home Alabama," etc. And "Sweet Dreams My LA Ex" definitely shoots for that category, and does indeed at least partially hit the target. But while it is pretty pleasurable feeling the frisson of hearing a great Britney song covered by someone else without an actual original Britney song to corrupt our expectations, and while the Justin brush-off is more or less as convincing as it would have been in the hands of its intended speaker, the simple fact is that it would have been much more effective, especially in the U.S., if Britney had, in fact, sang it; there would have been much more of a media reaction, much more popular awareness, and that in turn would have created a collective listening context roughly equivalent to listening in on a warring couple's answering machine tapes. Of course, Rachel Stevens is a much more restrained, and arguably more talented, singer than Britney, and I think the song might hold up in the long term a lot better than it would if Britney had delivered it. But that doesn't change the fact that Britney's absence, while giving the song a greater value than it would have had if it had nothing whatsoever to do with her in the first place, nevertheless robs it of its full potential as a pop social artifact.

That said, it's a fantastic song. I love the guitars at the beginning that are actually very simple rhythmically--two dotted eighth-note hits per chord with the second swinging a good bit, one chord every two beats, four-bar loop--sounds so much different once the drums kick in, even though the drums aren't very difficult either--kick on the 1, 3, and pickup sixteenth to 4, snare on the 2 and 4, and that odd clattering on top mostly incidental. The fucker certainly grooves with not much. The nylon-string guitar and syncopated rhythm suggest a Latin feel, although I wouldn't really call it that blatant, since the melody isn't even vaguely Latin. Then, of course, there's the great squeaky octave synth part over the chorus, the hits that dominate the beginning of the bridge, and the fact that it's basically the same chordal loop through the whole song, with harmony to signal the chorus and a sweeter wash over the prechorus, with a great little underturn at the end of that phrase to lead into the chorus.

But the real grabber here--melody aside, which is very catchy--is that weird, non-intuitive chord progression, and the way it's carried out. The first and second bars are pretty clear, with a minor chord repeated twice shifting up a fourth to another minor chord repeated twice, but that third bar, for no good reason, seems like a trip-up that's been looped and made sense of by the melody: it carries over the second bar's chord, but then switches to a chord a half-step above the modal chord before falling back into that original minor chord. That half-step fall into the fourth measure is Latin, too, but it's also sort of illogical in its rhythm, like a sequencer that's been programmed to do a certain chord progression but is stuck in a very straight, constant, dotted eighth-dotted eighth-three eighths pattern that doesn't actually sound like you want it to sound but works nevertheless. Every time I listen to it, it doesn't do what I expect it to do, and that's a neat little trick.