10 Years, 100 Songs: #89. “Everybody Get Your Necks to Crack Around”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 23, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
It’s hard to overstate just how over Nelly Furtado’s career seemed in 2005. Successful as breakthrough Whoa Nelly! may have been at the beginning of the decade, it seemed more than a little bit fluky, making Furtado seem like the kind of spunky singer/songwriter that entrances pop audiences and the mainstream press just long enough to get nominated for (or God forbid, win) the Best New Artist grammy, and then disappear for all-time (See also: Neneh Cherry, Des’Ree, Shelby Lynne, Corrine Bailey Rae, and in all likelihood, Adele). Not that “I’m Like a Bird” and “Turn Off the Light” weren’t perfectly nice songs, but they sounded unbelievably dated about a month after they stopped being popular, and when follow-up album Folklore failed to produce even a near-hit single, I doubt anyone was terribly surprised. I even remember joking to my friends around then that Nelly Furtado was the first official casualty of the 00s, an assurance that our decade would eventually produce as many LOL-worthy relics as the 80s and 90s before them.
Then, “Maneater.” Now, I think “Promiscuous” was the first official single off the album, and obviously it would go on to become not only her biggest hit but the biggest hit of all 2006, but “Maneater” was the first song to leak (or leak prominently, anyway) from Loose, and it was the first taste I got of Nelly Furtado 2.0. I’m not sure that my jaw has ever literally dropped listening to a song before, and it probably didn’t then either, but it was likely as close as I’ll ever get. There’s career reinterventions, and then there’s career interventions, and then there’s Nelly Furtado’s “Maneater.” I instantly had to take back everything nasty and disparaging I had said about Nelly Furtado’s future prospects, and begrudgingly acknowledge that had decent (bordering on sure-thing) odds on reclaiming a place in the Top 40 spotlight. Except really, it wasn’t begrudging at all, because the song was so fucking good.
Not to say that Nelly herself had proven me wrong, necessarily, since nothing about “Maneater” really made me feel like I had underestimated her talent or just how enduring her songwriting really was. As with the #90 single on our list, the overwhelming majority of the success of “Maneater” must go to the producers and in this case co-writers–Danja and Timbaland. From the very first beat, they made it clear that something was obviously different–Furtado’s earlier hits were airy, wispy pieces of young-girl daydream, bearing absolutely no ideological resemblance to the stomping beat bringing in the song here, or the ominously minor “ohhhh-ohhhh”s in the background. Then the synths, growling and muscular, ensuring that no one was half-stepping with this one.
And then Nelly herself. Technically the voice was the same voice who swore that her love was rare, her love was true, and told you to follow her, follow her, follow her, down down down down till you saw all her dreams, but the person behind it was completely unrecognizable. Gone was the smart but vulnerable and confused girl who seemed to just be opening her eyes up to the world, and in her place, a jaded, unimpressed robo-sexpot who seemed like she’d spent the last five years learning about life and love the hardest way imaginable. She even looked completely different, less like a free-spirited coffee house denizen than a drugged-out supermodel waif. This wasn’t an artistic transformation or evolution, it was a complete recasting.
Except…well, it worked pretty damn well, thanks to Timbaland and Danja, who with “Maneater” started a Do No Wrong period of pop domination rivaled this decade only by the early-decade run of the Neptunes. Not that Timbo wasn’t a consistent pop presence throughout the decade, but here he was reinventing himself almost as much as Nelly, creating maybe the hardest-hitting, most incendiary beat of his career for her to vamp on top of. The drums pounded, the synths blazed, and the minor production flourishes inserted for texture–the simple repeated cry of “oh!” in the background, the occasional flipping and reversing of the beat in the middle of the verses–all gave the song the kind of flair that always made Tim’s hits really jump off, like the baby crying sounds on Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” or the japanese interjections in Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On.” (Four years later, the two would re-jump Justin Timberlake’s career in similar fashion with the lean, gritty “Sexy Back”).
All Nelly really had to do was show up. Ultimately, if it wasn’t for how great the songs came out, her involvement with Loose would be kind of a sad story, because you can’t say that she brought anywhere near the songwriting verve or force of personality that she used to have to this song. The verses are lousy, an awkward mix of boring party exhortations and sloppy narrative. The chorus is better, an above-average singalong (especially with the Hall & Oates touchstone already existing as an obvious reference point), but the whole thing really feels like Furtado came to the studio and either decided or was told that the old Nelly was played out, and that new robo-sexpot Nelly was now the way to go. Not being terribly attached to the Mk. 1 version, I felt little betrayal at this, but I couldn”t help but wonder what her real fans–assuming any remained at that point–felt about the new model.
Anyway, what her old fans thought didn’t really matter, since she was about to have hordes of new ones. “Promiscuous,” out first, was the real slam dunk single, though its chorus was still mildly cringeworthy (who would ever refer to anyone as “promiscuous girl” or “promiscuous boy”?) and Nelly and Timbo had about as much sexual chemistry together as Shannon and Sayid on LOST. But the hooks were undeniable and the song quickly became a juggernaut, eventually helping (along with “Maneater” and the also pretty good “Say it Right”) to sell two million copies of Loose, about the equivalent of six million around the time of Whoa Nelly!‘s release. The real question, now, is where Furtado will go from here–will the druggy seductress act manage to endure, or will it fizzle as quickly as her folk-hippie appeal did? And if so–does Nelly have a Mk. 3 still in her?