Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Tune-Yards, Kelis, and Cheesy Snacks: A Puff Piece

When Merrill Garbus (tUnE-YaRdS) dropped “Water Fountain,” the first single from her new album “Nikki Nack,” I eagerly clicked its official Youtube video that had popped up on my news feed, courtesy of some friend who checks out music blogs more than I do or perhaps follows Garbus more closely anyway.

On a first listen, the song was certainly enjoyable—more danceable than I’d come to associate her sound with, though there’s no reason not to booty dance to “Whokill” or “Bird Brains.” But something else struck me: the song sounded like another song and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was. Was it just me being struck with familiarity after my only experience with her in the past year or so has been her commission for Roomful of Teeth? I couldn’t put my finger on any other Garbus-penned tunes either. It was something more surprising, more out-of-the-past.Then it hit me: “Water Fountain” is unmistakably similar to Kelis’s iconic hit “Milkshake” from 2003 (the best year for billboard hits in the 2000s, but that’s a story for another Spook piece). I’ll wait while you compare the two, and note that Kelis has also recently released a new album—“Food.”

So what similarities are worth talking about here? Structurally, each song follows a general chorus—verse—chorus—verse—bridge—chorus form, though “Water Fountain” expands harmonically during the final chorus while “Milkshake” sticks with repeating itself verbatim. Rhythm is another one. A quick sojourn to Wikipedia informs me  “Milkshake” uses a single darbuka drum. Eschewing a drum machine for a darbuka wasn't entirely unprecedented in pop music in 2003; however, comparable hits were few and far between. Despite the track’s eventual success, critics such as Tony Naylor of NME noted that the song was “probably the oddest track” off of Kelis’s Tasty album. 

Garbus, on the other hand, has made unexpected instrumentation a mainstay of her work since Bird Brains and, in the decade since “Milkshake,” more pop artists have had time to experiment with similarly minimal beats. The drums in “Water Fountain,” hypnotic and dry, might not raise as many eyebrows—particularly since the song likely won’t be gracing middle school dance floors and Garbus already has a reputation for unconventional percussion choices. This is about as far as my average ear can get in discerning the instrumental qualities the songs share, and even these similarities are limited in exactitude and seem to peel away upon each repeated listen.

It’s notable that the songs are both lyrically cryptic. I remember lunch table conversations with other preteens debating just what Kelis meant by “milkshake.” Our guesses ranged from sex acts to her butt, but no one's answer was ever quite satisfactory. Kelis later reported that “milkshake” meant “the thing that makes women special. It’s what gives us our confidence and what makes us exciting.” So: a milkshake wasn’t an act or concrete object, per se. (By the way: the question of authorship comes in here as well. The Neptunes wrote and produced “Milkshake” and I’ve chosen to interpret the song as sung and performed by Kelis, rather than through the lyrics that The Neptunes assigned that likely didn’t refer to this mysterious essential feminine quality Kelis references in the above interview.)

The lyrical meaning of “Water Fountain” is also ambiguous as the lyrics shift abruptly from campfire-style chant to the sultrier verses that—somewhat ominously—always come back to the phrase “I can’t seem to feel it.” The fact that someone made a Rap Genius page for “Water Fountain” shows audiences are already trying to decode it the way my middle school friends and I tried to decipher “Milkshake,” despite “Water Fountain” existing (for marketing purposes, anyway) far outside the boundaries of “Milkshake” in terms of genre.

More likeness rests in the vocals as they exist in the verses. In the verses—sadly, no one really remembers the verses in “Milkshake,” though they’re the key that elevate the song from potential jump-roping jingle to mysterious seduction piece—Kelis’s low voice scratches against the surface of the track, recorded to sound just the slightest bit muffly, a little distant. Garbus does the same with her own voice in the verses to “Water Fountain.” But there’s an essential quality the two singers share beyond simply singing at a similar range; a boredom, a bemusement. Their phrases end flatly, with a "so what" without the question mark. What do they know? Why the ennui with an upturned-corner mouth? What’s the secret? I think it’s here, in the attitude of both songs, that the true resemblance lies. Something is entertaining either Garbus or Kelis, but something is also missing.

Thematically, both songs deal with sustenance as metaphor: the “Milkshake” is the essential desirability of women, while the “water in the water fountain” is a source (of creativity? Excitement? Eroticism?) run dry. Kelis’s continuing sensory fascination with taste carries over onto her new album, where the title (“Food”) informs the song names despite no real references to concrete nourishment (or, uh, “food”) within their lyrics (“Jerk Ribs,” “Friday Fish Fry.”) Hyper-sexualized milkshakes (“Bringing All the Boys to the Yard: The Hyper-sexualitization of Milkshakes in a Lactose-Intolerant 21st Century Pop Culture”) show up all throughout the “Milkshake” video, while lusciously disgusting piles of spaghetti are thrown and tossed in “Water Fountain.” In each song, the woman singing finds herself in control of precariously depleting resource. Kelis's "Milkshake" is readily available to other women only if they pay to learn and depend upon its "betterness" than other women's milkshakes, and Garbus's "Water Fountain" is empty, leaving her to "get the water from your house."

The control present in both songs—the lack of control “the boys” have over whether or not they’re going to visit Kelis’s yard and the helplessness of their women in the process (in the video, one covers her boyfriend’s eyes when she catches him staring at Kelis) and the monopoly Kelis has on her milkshake making skills as well as the lack of a necessary component for life in “Water Fountain”—is, I think, the most salient shared quality between them and probably the source of each woman’s bemusement.

I’ve been eating a lot of snacks covered in cheese powder lately: Smart Puffs, Pirate’s Booty, Mike’s “Cheesealicious” Popcorn among them. I nearly abandoned this piece to make another "puff piece" ranking cheese snacks and relating them back to what studies have been done on the cultural capital of cheese. And from what I know about the anthropology of cheese—which isn’t a lot—the more labor-intensive and hands-on the cheese-making process, the more prized the cheese in the artisanal market. This seems an appropriate way to finally tie Garbus and Kelis together in these two songs where they both sing about sustenance bemusedly and wind up sounding pretty similar. I won’t attempt a cheap comparison trying to place “water fountains” and “milkshakes” in the hard-work-pays-off-artisanal-cheese-box, though: if anything, for Kelis and Garbus the work that goes into nourishment is null and their resulting bemusement is at its inadequacy. 

So what does it mean to be entirely in control of a resource, like Kelis, or responsible for its replenishment, like Garbus? I suppose the only meaning we can gather here is in the two women's shrugged-shoulder tones.