Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Request Line: “Turn My Swag On,” “Summer Babe,” “1979,” “Creep”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 1, 2010

Reader David writes:

I thoroughly enjoyed your previous Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em analysis, so here goes:

Turn My Swag On – Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em
Summer Babe (Winter Version) – Pavement
1979 – Smashing Pumpkins
Creep – TLC

I thoroughly enjoyed writing my previous Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em analysis, so good call.

I got a question why they hatin’ on me?” asks Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em in one of the crucial lyrics to “Turn My Swag On.” To be fair, DeAndre, we had pretty good reason. My love for breakout hit “Crank Dat Soulja Boy” is very well-documented, but as I mentioned, it was the last I wanted to hear from Soulja for at least another decade–a second hit made about as much sense to me as hearing how Los Del Rio were going to follow up “Maccarena.” And when second and third singles “Soulja Girl” and “Yahhh!” graphed a decidedly downward slope for Soulja’s career trajectory, I figured we were pretty much out of the woods. Then the new album’s “Kiss Me Thru the Phone”–a somewhat cute but largely deplorable puppy-love tune, featuring former kid R&B star Sammie in some weird display of young’n solidarity–began its slow trek to the top five. Much to my horror, it looked like the public was no longer ticking down the seconds until they could forget about SBTE, but getting ready to accept him as a legitimate pop star.

So how to his explain his absence from recent works disparaging pop successes who failed to heed the call to GTFO? Well, simple: Because “Turn My Swag On,” his very next hit, was about 100 times better than it had any right to be.

The arrogance of youth. That’s usually what it comes down to with Soulja Boy–he projects that confidence and invincibility that can only come from being a snot-nosed teenager who hasn’t lived long enough to know any better, and wouldn’t much care to learn anyway. “Turn My Swag On” is the ultimate statement of intent for such a cocky little shit, a bombastic, self-indulgent victory lap of a single that always teeters on the edge of total insufferability. And if the song was just a little bit less–a little less catchy, a little less panoramic, a little less inscrutably compelling–it probably would have been a disaster. But instead, it ends up being one of the great egomaniacal songs of recent years, the kind of song a modern-day Tony Manero might walk down the street to. (In fact, if Carlos Ruiz didn’t already use it as his walk-up music it might even have wormed its way into my personal Top Ten Closer Songs of All-Time list–sorry, Billy Joel.)

As with “Crank Dat,” the appeal of “Swag” is so singular and unlikely that trying to explain it to someone not already familiar with the Soulja Boy ouevre would be a frustrating and futile experience. Though “Crank Dat” was one of the oddest #1s in history, it still at least followed a fairly standard chorus/verse/chorus/verse format, with the choruses and verses both relatively traditional in structure. No such logic governs “Turn My Swag On,” which technically contains both verse and chorus, but the verses are so free-form and only vaguely distinct from the choruses that the whole thing almost sounds like one long freestyle. Except there’s no real rap in it, either–what Soulja Boy does with his vocals in this song could be described as many things, many of them uncomplimentary, but rapping is not really one of those applicable descriptors. Really, it’s more of just a full-on brey: “Turrn my swaaaaag OWWWWNNNNNNN… It’smahtimetahturnitup…. YEEEEAAHHHHHHHHHHHH….. YEAAAAAHHHHHHHHH……”

Sounds annoying, right? Well, it is. It’s very annoying. But this is the way in which Soulja Boy is like no other: The more annoying his songs are, the more fun they are to listen to. I don’t know if I fully realized this until I was spending the weekend with a friend of mine about a year ago, and throughout the entire few days, we would (generally without provocation) start shouting at each other “HOPPEDUPOUTHABEEEEDDDDDDDDD…. turnmyswagggONNNNNNN…” It probably has to do with that whole “alien transmission” effect that I’ve talked about so much with regards to “Crank Dat”–Soulja mashes his words together so indistinguishably here that it also starts to sound like some hidden, unspoken language. And he spews it out with such brashness, such unguarded enthusiasm that it becomes somewhat intoxicating to listen to, and positively gleeful to immitate. (Unsurprisingly, this is equally true with the hook to SBTE protege and/or label mate’s “All the Way Turnt Up”–or, as you likely know it, “ALLLLLLLLLL THA WAYYYYYYYYYYY TURRRRRRRRRNED UPPPPPPPPP“)

But it’s not just the speaker-bleeding of the chorus to “Turn My Swag On” that gives the song its unique power. It’s also the fact that, believe it or not, the lyrics are kind of a powerful testament to one artist’s sheer will to succeed. Usually most rappers who claim to be besot at every corner by leagues of haters as SBTE dose here either have an over-inflated sense of their own importance or are actually understating their legitimate fear for their lives, but in Soulja’s case, his concern was a very real one–I certainly wasn’t the only critic crying One-Hit Wonder at him after the success of “Crank Dat,” and with his subsequent flops, I wasn’t the only one who concluded game over either. But Soulja was so confident in his non-ephemerance that he pre-emptively declared victory over said doubters: “IknowalotofyallthoughtIwuncominback…. IhadtaprovemWROOOOONGGGGG… Gotbackinthastudioncomeupwithanotherhit…. YEEAAAAHHHH….Like Maino and Michael Jordan, Soulja Boy smiles at his haters, feeding off their negative energy, and wiping his success in their faces. And given the results–two smash hits after smart-asses like me had completely written him off–it’s downright impossible to argue with.

Congrats, Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em–your prolonged success, unlikely though it may be, is deserved. I no longer begrudge you your diamond-flaked cereal or personalized scooter.

Once upon a time, I kicked off every summer with Pavement. When I was in high school, the season’s starting date was not nearly as relevant as when it was I finally brought Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain back out of hibernation. Something about the thin, rough crackle of those guitar lines, the playful loopiness of the bass, the lazed-out drawl of the vocals…it just screamed summer to me, or at least the enviable sun-drenched, aimless summer lifestyle I pictured the guys in Pavement to have been leading. Once I got to New York, though, I quickly fell out of the tradition. As a lifelong East Coaster, my seasonal fixation with Pavement probably had a good deal to do with my long-simmering West Coast Envy, and in the Big Apple, there was no room left for the fantasy–it’s hard to pretend you’re living some idealized version of a Southern L.A. skater lifestyle when you see more shoe boutiques than trees on a daily basis.

I don’t know if “Summer Babe” is to blame for all of this, but as the first track on S&E, it was the first Pavement song I ever heard, and though by no means my favorite song of theirs, is probably still the song I most define them by. There’s not much you need to know about Pavement that can’t be gleaned from “Summer Babe”–it’s pretty much all there, from the warped mixture of post-punk and classic rock musical tropes, to the shambolic but still oddly shimmering production, and of course, some of the finest non sequitorial lyrics known to man. If you wanted to explain nineties alternative rock to someone with one CD-R, you’d probably have to put “Summer Babe” somewhere in the first four or five tracks. And more than how it reflects all the components that defined Pavement, it also just has that feel to it–that allure of eternal unimpressed slackerdom that Pavement, whether they meant to or not, came to represent for me and probably a few others as well.

I’m not gonna get into too many of the particulars here, because more than any other of my favorite bands, Pavement lyrics defy analysis–or, more specifically, they defy analysis by me in particular. Unlike most bands who tend to the obscure, where I often wish they’d every once in a while at least toy around with the idea of writing more direct rock/pop songs, with Pavement I find myself more uncomfortable the closer their songs come to any sort of simple reading. (With the exception of their stellar Schoolhouse Rock contribution “No More Kings,” anyway.) I much prefer Malkmus and friends feeding me their little lyrical puzzles about girlfriends eating their fingers like they’re just another meal and mixing cocktails with plastic-tipped cigars. They sound fantastic, and they sound right–especially with that glorious Stockton guitar sound buzzing underneath them.

I dunno, this is a really hard one for me to do justice. Ask me about “Range Life” sometime.

The best compliment I can give “1979” is that it’s a song that I absolutely refuse–both consciously and sub-consciously–to think rationally about. As much as I revisit older opinions of mine and pick them apart for whether or not they hold up today, “1979” is something of a sacred cow–a song I’ve loved unconditionally for about a decade and a half now, and don’t much care to re-evaluate any time soon. A good friend of mine whose taste in music is about as close to mine as almost anyone else I know’s once told me that she didn’t like the song, and it shook my understanding of the relationship I had with this person to its very core. (For like a minute, anyway.) Certain songs are such a part of your musical consciousness that to attempt re-appraisal of them threatens to undercut everything you know and believe to be true about music itself, and if you want to go a little bit deeper, probably about who you are as a person as well. (Really.) And if “1979”–one of the most popular songs when I first started listening to popular music, and one of the first songs that I really came to accept as my own–isn’t one of those, I don’t know what is.

As is the case with the majority of Smashing Pumpkins songs, you can basically throw out the lyrics. Some of them I like (“On a live wire right up off the street / You and I should Meet”), some of them I don’t (“We feel the pull / In the land of a thousand guilts and poured cement”), but in any event, they don’t really add up to anything coherent taken in lump. All you really need from this song are the opening lines (“Shakedown, 1979 / Cool kids never have the time”) and the main chorus sentiment (“Weeeeeee don’t eeeeeven caaare…..“) If hearing those doesn’t instantly remind you of everything that was ever good about being a teenager–the aimlessness, the lawlessness, and yes, once again, the invincibility–then congratulations for being born at the age of 20. (Or, I suppose, for possibly not being a white suburban American male that grew up during the 1990s. One of the two.) With the New Order-ish guitar line and Billy’s ever-present, ever-dreamy sighs providing the necessary punctuation, the entire thing carries the wash of a cool wave of nostalgia–that perfect sort of nostalgia that makes your entire body smile. No song ever nailed that feeling quite like “1979.”

Of course, in my case, the aimed nostalgia of “1979” ended up working backwards, almost like an Arrested Development call forward. I fell in love with the video for “1979”–the Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris masterpiece that I still cite as my favorite music video of all-time–before I was old enough to really live like a teenager, so I assumed that once I did, it’d look exactly like this video. Or maybe I didn’t, but I really, really wanted it to. It just made being sixteen look like so much fun–romantic, adventurous, rebellious, exciting, and utterly devoid of consequences. (Perhaps a never-flmed sequel video showed various cast members doing community service for trespassing and/or destroying public property.)  In any event, the images were unforgettable–the opening rolling tire, the “Proud Parents of a ‘D’ Student” bumper sticker, the couple making out in the pool, the beer-bottle bowling in the convenience store, and of course, a supremely bald Billy Corgan riding in the back seat, taking it all in. Originally, “1979” might not have really been about being a teenager, for all I know, but after that video, there wasn’t anything else that it could have possibly been about. And I’m still waiting for half that cool shit to happen to me, dammit.

Unfortunately, it’s also one of those songs I’m probably best off only listening to once a year or so now. Otherwise I’ll invariably get bummed about just how long ago 1996 was, and how much older I’ve let myself get since I was a ten-year-old that was suddenly relatively excited for his life to get started.

This is just one of the good songs. (What can I say, I’m a puddle of love in these last few Request Lines–I can only work with what you guys give me.) Unlike “1979,” where if someone told me they didn’t like it I would tend to think we just probably didn’t have that much in common, if someone told me they didn’t like “Creep,” I would have no choice but to assume some sort of personality defect on their prat. I mean honestly, who could possibly not like “Creep?” That little trumpet line? Those off-beat guitar chords? That brilliant pause in between the first two lines of the chorus (“So I creep….Yeahhh-ahhhh, just keep it on the down low…“)? Those seductive, insiduously cascading “Ohhh I, ohh I…” moans? The section where the music breaks and T-Boz and Chili hit that perfect harmony on the “I keep giving loving ’til the day he pushes me away” line? Those open, wind-blown oversized t-shirts the girls wear in the seriously underrated Matthew Rolston video? The totally awesome cover that The Afghan Whigs did of it once? Yeah, if you’re not on board with this one, you’re on your own, my friend.

With all the little things about this song that are great, it’s also easy to forget that the song’s big picture is pretty special too. I’ve often testified about the credit due to songs that put a new spin on the love song–easily the hardest subject in all Western literature to attempt to see from a unique perspective–and “Creep” is due as much as any. Of the 5,000,000 or so pop hits on the subject of stepping out, none of them approached it as T-Boz did here–deciding that rather then get mad about the situation, or even attempt to get even, to just get some on the side herself, and figure that’ll just about balance things out in the end. It’s a fantastic perspective, one that’s alternately touching (T-Boz seems genuinely hurt that her guy is doing her like this, but still cares too much to leave entirely), fairly hott (all the intrigue and duplicity of cheating, but without the requisite guilt–sounds like a good deal to me) and even kind of funny (“You’re gonna cheat on me? Well, Nyah, I’m gonna cheat right back!!”) Maybe it wouldn’t have worked without such an emotive, alluring voice to tell the story, but with T-Boz behind the microphone, that’s never gonna be a problem.

Easily one of the top three songs named “Creep” to be a hit in the early-mid 90s, and very possibly the #1. If you don’t like it, probably best not to mention it in the comments section or anything.

4 Responses to “Request Line: “Turn My Swag On,” “Summer Babe,” “1979,” “Creep””

  1. MBI said

    The greatest thing about “Creep,” a song with all too many great qualities, is how thoroughly amoral it is. Yeah, she’s cheating — she’s doing what she can to preserve her relationship. It’s only ’cause she’s needs some affection — she loves her man so much she’ll cheat on him so that she can cope with the pain of his neglect. And yeah, she’s lying — same justification. “So I choose to keep him pro-tecteeed.”

    Also it’s sexy as hell. That’s my main beef with Beyonce and with Destiny’s Child — they never once sounded particularly like sexual beings, even on stuff like “Crazy in Love” or “Lose My Breath,” both of which are fine songs. They’ve made attempts, but Beyonce both in her group and solo never approached anything like “Creep.”

  2. Brent said

    Thank you for bringing up the Whigs’ cover of “Creep” so I didn’t have to. One of the finest moments from the best band of the 90s that never gets enough love for my liking.

  3. David said

    Excellent work, thanks so much!

    That Afghan Whigs cover is indeed pretty great, hadn’t heard it before.

  4. MBI said

    For the record, I love the Afghan Whigs’ “Creep” but their covers of “Come See About Me” and “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe” are even better, is what I say.

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