Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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10 Years, 100 Songs: #77. “And in the Back of Your Mind, You Know…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 14, 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.

Did you know that “Don’t Cha” was a cover? Not too many people got to hear Tori Alamaze’s original, outside of devoted R&B listeners and internet pop nerds, before it got positively dwarfed by the PCD version, but it was actually pretty damn cool. I remember hearing it on the radio really late one night and being struck by how different it sounded–it was so down and dirty, but in a way that felt very old school, like an early Donna Summer single. Especially the bridge section, where most of the music dropped out and it was just Alamaze and the drum track: “I know I’m on your mind / I know we’d have a good time / I’m your friend, I’m fun and fine.” It was seductive, sure, but it was also creepy in its single-minded determinism–a rawness that seemed virtually impossible in the post-Beyonce era. I loved it, but I could tell that it would need a little something extra to push it onto the pop charts. Specifically, it needed five hot chicks jumping on trampolines.

Not that I really realized that at the time, of course. But a month or two after Alamaze’s version fizzled out without making much of an impression, I saw the Pussycat Dolls’ video on VH1 and it was clear that the thing was going to be huge. The Dolls’ version wasn’t all that different from Alamaze’s–the main differences were having Busta Rhymes to rap over the intro and the section where the “friend, fun, fine” bridge used to be, and laying an unextraordinary horn part over the chorus–and in fact Alamaze’s version might’ve been the more interesting, singular song. But whereas under Alamaze’s direction, the song sounded like a late-night booty call (or booty demand, I suppose, to be accurate), in the hands of the Pussycat Dolls, it sounded borderline anthemic, a call to arms for ladies around the world to get in touch with their inner burlseque girl. America was utterly powerless to resist them.

Busta helped out a little, too. You see it all the time with new R&B acts, especially those who have incredibly extroverted and cocky acts that, to paraphrase Russell Brand, only work if they’re already famous. To make America feel like they’ve been around the pop scene forever, they get an established rapper to contribute a verse or two, pal around with the group in the video, and generally give them his stamp of approval that, yes, these guys/girls actually do walk among us. Busta wasn’t called on to do all that much here, and he didn’t–made a couple dick puns, threw in some single-and-a-half entendres, and generally injected a bit of his horny, overly-aggressive energy before getting the hell back out of the way. He also gave the Dolls someone to sort of drape themselves over in the video, allowing them to look cute, approachable and probably sort of easy (if they’re hanging out with Busta, after all…) while doing so. Not a bad call, all considered.

Mostly though, it was just the Dolls. The common complaint about them, and justifiably so, is that the only one that really seems to be bringing anything to the table musically or artistically is leader Nicole Scherzinger, while the rest barely even qualify as back-up singers, functioning more as supportive femme-bots than anything else. It’s true, to the point that when you actually ever do hear or see any of the other Dolls doing anything of note, it’s kind of jarring and uncomfortable, and you wish they’d just fade to the background once more and let Nicole do her thing. Nevertheless, I do believe the back-up Dolls are critical to the group’s success–it’s basic power in numbers, the fact that when it’s just Scherzinger singing on her own, it’s fair enough, but when it’s five of these creatures singing/dancing/menacing at you, it’s totally undeniable. And with a song as purposeful and domineering as this, you can’t over-stress how key that is.

And yeah, it’s still a fantastic song. The thing that really sells it is the untouchable arrogance of it–the way it almost browbeats you into wanting to screw the singer, to the point that even if the thought had never crossed your mind beforehand, you gotta kind of throw up your hands when it’s over and say “well, I suppose…” The chorus is totally unfuckwithable, a brilliant lyrical conceit that punches home all the right buzzwords (hot, freaky, raw, fun), with Nicole echoing them seductively in the background just in case you missed the point (and the fact of her indeed being one of the most stunning women alive, as previously covered on the list, helping the cause just a little). But the song doesn’t become nearly as huge at it did without the chorus’s key musical touch–the four consecutive scratching noises that come after each “don’t cha” line, which are totally unexpected and almost anachronistic-sounding, but for some reason (hell, maybe that reason) still make the chorus sound that much cooler and sexier.

“Don’t Cha” indeed did become as gigantic as expecting, peaking at #2 in the summer of 2005 (nothing was unseating “We Belong Together” that summer), the first of five hits off of eventual debut album PCD, which ranged from not that bad (“Stickwitu”) to would’ve been unlistenable if it didn’t sample ELO (“Beep”). The tempting thing to do would be to say that they were the Spice Girls of the 90s–some of the members even seemed selected based on being the Girls’ visual analogues–but as members cycled out and publicly auditioned in, it became clear that if anything, they were closer to a group like Menudo, where the brand name was always more important than its individual members (albeit at least with a strong central government in the form of Scherzinger). Ultimately, they never really had another song that was even half as great as “Don’t Cha,” and despite occasional nice moments (“I Hate This Part” was another surprisingly decent one), I’d be surprised if we saw them much more in the 00s. Outside of Las Vegas, anyway.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to hold it against the group, since “Don’t Cha” represented an early peak that the Dolls never had a chance to repeat, being one of just a handful of songs written this decade (by Cee-Lo, by the way, of all people) that was big enough, hott enough and swaggery enough to match their larger-than-life stage persona–a pairing with unnervingly effective results. Sucks for Tori Alamaze, awesome for the rest of us.

The List So Far:

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia”
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)”
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly”
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar”
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)”
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious”
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space”
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below”
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
90. Cassie – “Me & U”
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater”
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’”
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood”
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over”
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent”
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It”
81. 311 – “Amber”
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite”
79. Nas – “Made You Look”
78. Royksopp – “Eple”
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha”

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