Monday, December 21, 2009

Why "Hey Ya" is the best song of the decade

So I found this old article I wrote back when Speakerboxxx/The Love Below dropped (2003). I did a close reading of Andre's "Hey Ya" and broke it down. Side-note: being a writer can be scary because anyone can google you and find OLD shit you wrote that's awful. I have my share of awful writing, but also some stuff I still like. Like this piece.

As long as we're all doing end-of-the-decade lists and stuff, figured I'd share some of my conspiracy-theorist rantings concerning why this song is the most insanely brilliant track of the '00s:

Double meanings have always been important in American music, from the slave spirituals that contained secret messages about escape, to some of the seemingly innocuous “love songs” of the Civil Rights Era that, whether intentionally or not, provided inspiration and rallying cries for the marchers in the streets. Inserting potentially subversive comments into popular forms of art is a way to reach the masses and avoid the troubles that go along with actively, conspicuously supporting or commenting on controversial material. It can also be a lot of fun—watching those who “don’t get it” go about their business, not getting it.

A contemporary example of this could be Outkast’s (or more specifically, Andre’s) monster hit “Hey Ya.” A bouncy, euphoric pop song, “Hey Ya” can be heard everywhere, from shopping malls to top 40 radio to your mom’s stereo to every damn house party in the city. It’s simply an infectious track—a catchy melody, a driving beat, and inoffensive, easy-to-remember lyrics. It’s the perfect pop song. Perhaps too perfect.

Listen closely to the song. I generally hate over-analyzing things, but I am thoroughly convinced that “Hey Ya” is a very deep artistic statement, and that Andre is, through the medium of pop music, commenting on pop music and popular culture in general. The song is taking shots at the music industry, at the artists, and perhaps most of all at the fans.

The evidence is mostly in the lyrics, lyrics that to the casual listener deal with the slow death of a romantic relationship. But read the lyrics—on a literal level, the song isn’t really dealing with those issues in any concrete way. Most of the words are just catchy phrases that can be repeated—incidentally, the absolute most important thing for the modern pop song. The chorus, perhaps the most obvious example, is just a nonsense phrase repeated eight times. Here, I think that Andre is commenting on the lack of content in most pop music hooks: does “hey ya” really say any less than the typical Nelly or Ja Rule chorus? (remember, I wrote this back in 2003)

There are more clues: “Shake it like a Polaroid picture” is probably the most popular line of the entire decade, let alone the song. Everyone sings along during that part of the track. A Polaroid picture is a copy. There is no originality left in music, and the fans don’t even care—they’re singing along.

Related to this are the lines: “you think you got it/ ooh you think you got it/ but got it just don’t get it until there’s nothing at all/.” Few people seem to be noticing the what the music industry has done and is doing to popular music. Media conglomerates promote products, not art, and the result is “sure-thing” pop music, music that will be immediately devoured by the public and then left on the roadside to rot.

Another point: “Don’t want to meet your Daddy/ just want you in my Caddy.” This is about lust—not just sexual lust, but artistic lust. It’s about enjoyment without commitment. In a market driven by singles rather than albums, music becomes a quickie rather than a romance. Most pop albums, rushed to release in order to maximize profit, contain one or two sure-fire singles and ten tracks of filler. A song may stay with you for a long time—much like an incredible night of passion—but in the end, if the artist can’t deliver again, you will forget him or her and move on to the next fool with a hit single.

The key, however, is the point in the song where the instruments drop out and Andre sings, “when we know we’re not happy here.” Immediately after that, as the chorus comes in, the careful listener will hear Andre say quietly, “but y’all don’t wanna hear me you just want to dance.” This is not printed in the album’s liner note lyrics, and is buried in the track—I didn’t notice it until just recently. This is explicit: people don’t care about art; they care about a good beat and a catchy hook. Now those two things are fine and there is certainly nothing wrong with enjoying them, but without some substance, without some meaning, even the catchiest pop record is just a product— a vacuum cleaner or a used car.

On top of all this, the sonic qualities of the song hint to a deeper meaning as well. Dre has something cold in his voice—whether it’s desperation, resentment or disillusionment—it’s subtle, but it’s definitely there. The edges of his voice are much sharper and harder than a simple love song warrants. Though jubilant and up-tempo, “Hey Ya” isn’t exactly happy; it’s more of a cocaine high than a genuine feeling of joy. This is particularly evident in the “alright alright alright alright alright” part.

Finally, the video contains a number of clues, the most intriguing being the big green casket in the center of the stage. In an interview, the director said that the casket was actually there for some other idea that they had originally had for the video, but after changing ideas they had simply decided to keep it in. I’m not so sure that I buy this. A casket is not just some random prop—it has very specific connotations. Perhaps Andre is commenting on the death of innovative music.

And “perhaps” is always an important word. All in all, “Hey Ya” can be read in two (or more) ways, and it’s probably true that no single reading is entirely correct. None of this can take away from the fact that “Hey Ya” is a great pop song. All I am saying, however, is that it can be a great pop song and much, much more simultaneously, and that we should be paying closer attention to our music, or at the very least believing that an artist can be capable of creating something beyond a catchy sugar buzz.


That's the piece I wrote six years ago, with a few very minor adjustments. I still believe a lot of it, and "Hey Ya" is still one of my favorite songs. Maybe it's crazy to dig that deep into the lyrics of a pop song, but I wish we lived in a world where all music is actively listened to. Who knows what we're missing.

And this is my pick for "song of the decade" because of my two great loves: good pop music and subversive, thought-provoking lyrics, two things that, incidentally, very rarely go together. Maybe my analysis is off-base, but I'll give Andre the benefit of the doubt.


Anonymous said...

It almost seems like Andre 3000 is taking notes from Kierkegaard's thoughts on the reductionist nature of hedonism.

deannaljohnson said...

Long before reading this or any other definitions, I took the verse "oh you think you got it..." to mean as an artist or individual you suddenly think you have something important but its true value is revealed once its gone personally, in turn the industry has made it their property to profit from. The shake it like a polaroid picture line a double reference meaning to speed up a process and or shake "it"until it gets you the desired result you want to see. The known reality in the film industry was & is that you don't shake polaroids to develop them, you hold them still and or in a warm place. Hence, thinking an image (picture or film) can be made quickly but the reality is not so. Which has been stated in actuality of what happened for a filming project they had in mind at the time. The lightness and your tonal quality observation a true contradiction as many serious pop songs are often delivered. Ironically another similarity to a polaroid image, at first it's a cloudy off white nondescript image before developing into a pertinent detailed image to test light on sets.