Like just about everyone with an Internet connection, I’ve spent the last 10 days obsessed with Cee-Lo Green’s new single.
It’s called “Fuck You,” it’s nowhere near safe for work, and it’s the first genuine phenomenon I’ve heard in quite some time. (If you haven’t heard it, do so now at ceelogreen.com. I’ll wait.) Cee-Lo Green, you may recall, is the singing half of Gnarls Barkley – along with his partner Danger Mouse, he hit it huge in 2006 with “Crazy.” Most people never get a megahit like that in their lives. To wish for two of them is just greedy.
But Cee-Lo’s got his second now, and as I watched the wildfire spread over the past week and a half, it struck me that “Fuck You” is an interesting test case for this new paradigm we find ourselves in. Just 10 or so years ago, a song like “Fuck You” wouldn’t have had a chance to catch on. It would need radio airplay just to be heard, and its delightfully profane nature would have prevented that from happening. A record company would have needed to put marketing resources behind it, and without radio play, those resources would have been all but stymied. Perhaps it could have been included on a soundtrack or something, but even then, the probability of turning such a gleefully filthy tune into a smash hit would have been slim.
But not these days. Here’s what happened: Cee-Lo uploaded “Fuck You,” along with a simple and cheap scrolling-words video, onto YouTube on August 19. (I’d like to mention here that YouTube didn’t even exist six years ago.) Within a week, nearly three million people watched that video, and bloggers from every corner of the nation talked it up. I heard it thanks to my friend Jeff Elbel, and I know I personally recommended it to about 25 others. “Fuck You” spread the way songs used to spread, before ClearChannel – people heard it from other people, and told their friends about it.
The only difference is, while music fans in the olden days had to tape songs off the radio and make copies for their friends, now all they have to do is email a link. The music spreads much faster that way, as Cee-Lo Green found out.
This system has been in place for a while, but this is the first time I’ve seen its true potential unleashed. I think it was just waiting for the right song. “Fuck You” is a really good song – easily the best pop single of the year so far, and probably of the last several. (The aforementioned Jeff Elbel, an authoritative connoisseur of pop music, has gone so far as to call it his second-favorite single of all time, right behind the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”) It’s almost a new genre, combining hilarious gut-level lyrics with old Motown sweetness. There’s a hook every 10 seconds in this thing, and even the backing vocal lines are insanely catchy. (“Oh shit, she’s a gold digger!”)
I think there’s something elemental about this song, about the way it combines feel-good funk with profane anger. The story is a simple one: boy meets girl, girl wants money, boy is broke, girl dumps boy, boy sees girl tooling around town with her new sugar daddy, boy shouts title phrase. She’s no good, he still loves her. We’ve all been there. The song is a non-threatening license to swear at a bad ex, and the juxtaposition is simply wonderful.
I’m not sure Cee-Lo knew what he had here. I can’t imagine listening to “Fuck You” and not expecting it to be a massive word-of-mouth hit, but I guess the Green team didn’t. The song was uploaded to YouTube as a teaser for Green’s new album The Lady Killer, which has no release date as of this writing. The “Fuck You” single was slated for October. That means, as the song was careening all over the web last week, people who heard it had no option to legally acquire it. I know I looked around for a way to buy it, searching iTunes and Cee-Lo’s site to no avail.
They finally got it together late Wednesday night, August 25 – there’s a “buy now” link at www.ceelogreen.com, and a t-shirt to boot. But those seven days probably cost Cee-Lo a million bucks, at least. In the days before YouTube, it would sometimes take months for a song to really catch hold, and drive people to the stores to buy it. These days, it’s instantaneous. People hear it, they want it, they click over to buy it, and you have to be ready.
Likewise, this song has already left the old system in the dust. Part of the thrill of “Fuck You” is that it’s such a radio-ready song, but it could never be played on the radio. Still, Team Green is plugging away – they’ve created a “clean version,” which substitutes “forget” for “fuck,” and thereby sucks all the life out of the song. This thing is already a bigger hit than most radio tracks ever become, and I would have liked to see Cee-Lo just shut radio out entirely. But I’m not sure I would have done anything different, in his shoes.
It’ll be interesting to see what all this means for The Lady Killer, once it finally comes out. Much as I think “Fuck You” is a timeless piece of work (really!), the excitement over this track is here, now. The earliest potential release date I’ve heard for the album is December, which may as well be 10 years from now, as far as the Internet is concerned. I think this is a classic case of not knowing how good one’s song truly is. Green probably should have kept “Fuck You” under wraps until the album’s release, but now he should bring that release date forward. If he could put out The Lady Killer next week, he’d clean up.
Most of these lessons are moot anyway, because “Fuck You” is a song that comes along only once in a great long while. It’s easy to say Green should have foreseen its universal appeal, but I’m not sure anyone could have expected it to take off like it has. This song absolutely proves that the new model works, however. Give the people something they want, and it’ll be everywhere before you know it. I’ll be interested to see how many of the song’s fans ponied up for the download.
I did, and I’m glad to have this song in my collection. Of course, it’s spent the last 10 days in my head anyway. I sing it to myself all the time, even in public, and I’ve gotten a few strange looks. But this is an incredibly catchy tune – as I said, easily the best pop single of 2010 so far. Enjoy your second worldwide hit, Cee-Lo. You’ve earned it.
“I see you drivin’ ‘round town with the girl I love, and I’m like…”
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A couple of news tidbits:
Sufjan Stevens’ dry spell looks to be officially over. Just a few days after releasing his surprise All Delighted People album, Stevens announced a new full-length, set for October 12. It’s called The Age of Adz, although “Adz” is apparently pronounced “Odds,” and has something to do with artist Royal Robertson, whose work adorns the cover. Asthmatic Kitty flaks describe the record as Enjoy Your Rabbit meets The BQE, meaning electronic noise slamming up against orchestral grandeur.
The first song leaked from the record certainly bears that out. I have no idea what I think of “I Walked,” with its crackling electronic drums, synth flickers and oceans of vocals. Like everything on All Delighted People, this is going to take a number of listens to click. The track list for The Age of Adz is fascinating – some of Sufjan’s shortest songs share disc space with his longest epic yet, the 25-minute “Impossible Soul.” I would put my excitement level at orange, with a definite chance of escalation to red soon.
Before that, I’m most excited about Ben Folds and Nick Hornby’s Lonely Avenue, out September 28. I’ve waxed eloquent about that before, but suffice it to say that when one of my favorite novelists writes lyrics for one of my favorite pop songsmiths, I’ll be there with money in hand. Elvis Costello has a new album called National Ransom out on October 5, and that one’s produced by T-Bone Burnett. Weezer returns that same day with Hurley, and I can’t help being excited for this one too. It features songs co-written by Dan Wilson, Ryan Adams and Mac Davis (who wrote “A Little Less Conversation” and “In the Ghetto” for Elvis Presley), and one tune called “Where’s My Sex?” Jaw-dropping, as always.
Beyond that, I’m anticipating new things from Belle and Sebastian, the Old 97s. Antony and the Johnsons, the Orb with David Gilmour (seriously, someone should have thought of this pairing earlier), Guster, Steven Page and Kid Cudi. But October’s most intriguing record might be the self-titled debut from Mt. Desolation, an alt-country project put together by Keane’s Tim Rice-Oxley and Jesse Quin. Can Britain’s best piano-pop band convincingly do country? We’ll find out.
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Just enough space and time left to tell you about my new favorite band.
They’re called Mumford & Sons, they’re a four-piece from London, and their first album, Sigh No More, is one of the best of the year. I’m a good six months behind on this one – I only heard it on the recommendation of my boss Mike Cetera, and the prodding of my friend Luke Beeley. I’m catching up quickly, though, because this stuff is marvelous.
I’m not entirely sure how to describe what they do. There’s an earthy folksiness to their sound – it’s based in acoustic guitars, but incorporates banjos, dobros, mandolins, and gorgeous down-home harmonies. But there’s a punk edge to it as well. Most of these songs blossom into huge, thumping, rousing refrains worthy of the Levellers, with banjos and strings flailing, and when they break into these bits, they rock. Not an electric guitar to be found, but man, they rock.
“The Cave” is the perfect Mumford & Sons song. It’s based on a simple acoustic guitar figure, has a superbly melodic chorus, and when it kicks in, it just knocks you flat. Marcus Mumford has a gritty, passionate voice, and he writes literate, yearning lyrics. (M&S is as spiritual as old U2, singing of their maker as often as they sing about the pain of life.) “I will hold on hope, and I won’t let you choke on the noose around your neck,” he sings as the pulsing number rises and rises. It’s simply awesome.
Here’s the point where I usually say “…and they never hit those heights again.” But it just isn’t true. Sigh No More is full of brilliant little numbers, each of them packed with explosive moments that grab you and won’t let go. “Roll Away Your Stone” is simple in the extreme, but the banjo-fueled chorus just works, Mumford’s bass drum barreling along at breakneck speed. “It seems that all my bridges have been burned,” he sings, “but you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works.” “Little Lion Man,” the first single, is a killer, its chorus (“But it was not your fault but mine…”) staying with you long after it’s over.
My favorite thing here, however, is “I Gave You All,” a mini-epic of betrayal and pain. It starts with a Dave Matthews-esque minor-key acoustic section, but after three minutes or so, it just rips open, Mumford wailing the title phrase over a wall of noise. The final section is staggering, Mumford sounding for all the world like Mark Chadwick as he screams “Well now you’ve won” over and over. It’s powerful stuff, and it ends where it began, quiet singing and gentle acoustics. Those heights, they never quite hit again, but they come close, and often.
There’s nothing about this record I don’t like. Even a song like “Dust Bowl Dance,” which essentially repeats its piano figure for five minutes, is captivating in these hands, and dark folk pieces like “Timshel” are mesmerizing. Every year, I seem to discover a new band that takes my breath away, and this year, it’s Mumford & Sons. I’ll be listening to this record for years to come, and greatly anticipating whatever they do next.
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Keeping it relatively short this week. Come back in seven days for reviews of new albums by Interpol, Phil Selway and John Mellencamp, along with whatever else strikes my fancy. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.