2010 In The Rearview, Part VIII: One For Your Dad
Gathered around the family dinner table for a late-night poker game the night before Thanksgiving, after the kids and parents had been put to bed, the middle generation watched with our usual collective amused exasperation as my brother fiddled with his Pandora settings on his new Android; for some reason he wasn’t getting a signal. Finally he gave up, and my brother-in-law pulled out his iPhone. He hit play, and at the first few notes, everyone around the room chuckled. It’s possibly the only song that could have united my nineteen-year-old art-student sister, my freshly-returned-from-Iraq brother, my ex-pothead brother, my mother-of-five sister, her Catholic-lay-minister husband, and myself, at least in that moment, that night. We all sang cheerfully along, not too loudly because the kids were only in the other room, censoring ourselves only on the niggas. Fun’s fun, but I mean.
No other song in this rundown could possibly have had such a reception; not (necessarily) because everyone despises the other songs, but because they just wouldn’t know them. My nineteen-year-old sister and I are the only people in the family who regularly listen to Top 40 radio, but everyone watches the Youtube clips embedded in their friends’ Facebook walls. (Yes, we’re pretty damn middle-class.)
The next song in my brother-in-law’s playlist was “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley, and most of us knew that one too, but by then we had started the game. And it’s important to realize that “Fuck You” wouldn’t have had the cross-platform appeal it did if it hadn’t been for “Crazy.” That is, if Cee-Lo were still primarily known as an ex-Goodie Mob rapper, without having had the left-field indie-favorite success of Gnarls Barkley; or if “Fuck You” had been sung by Bruno Mars (why not, he co-wrote it), or even John Legend or Aloe Blacc; or even if the song had had a modern, boom-bap (or syn-squelch) production instead of the throwback Motown/Stax sound, it wouldn’t have popped quite as much. But as it was, hipsters united with pop fans, indie nerds with supercilious ideas about “authentic” black music loved it just as much as neo-soul fanboys, and even old people could dig its happening groove.
But of course it was the song’s sentiment that struck the deepest chord. After a disgusting summer of ratcheting political tension and spiraling economic, humanitarian and ecological disaster, everyone had someone they were willing to scream “fuck you” at. Cee-Lo’s impossibly generous gift to us was to make the obscenity not enraged or spiteful, but joyous. Rather than stewing in our worst impulses, we can sing along and blow of steam. Try to hit the high notes and we can’t help but smile. And then in the middle eight (“whyyyy?”), acknowledge along with Cee-Lo that we’re just being brats throwing a tantrum, and get over ourselves.
Of course, this reading of the song depends on us having a sense of proportion, even a sense of humor, and people who only want to rage, or insist on hearing only rage, can’t sing along. But fuck ’em (in the dismissive, not the abusive, sense of this most multivalent of words); if you don’t want to party, you don’t have to. Your loss.
Next: City Lights
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