11 October 2006

heiress to the throne: dancing in the royal suite

as of now, i'm pretty sure that paris, the debut full-length release by paris hilton, is my favorite album from 2006. it only came out in late august, so i've spent less than two months with it so far, and things could certainly change. (i bought a used, promo-stamped copy the week of its release for $8.99 - which is the most i've spent on a [tangentially] teen-pop album except for maybe a couple of europe-only releases.) i can't say my feelings about it are comparable to (or as confident as) those i had for earlier no-brainer favorites like oh! inverted world ('01), think tank ('03) and the sunset tree ('05), all of which connected with me on a uniquely personal level. (and which i'd like to think would still be strong favorites if they came along now for the first time.) it's definitely not [yet] one of my favorite albums... (are there other dance-pop albums that are? i feel like robyn should be; it's new to me still but i trust its staying power. feels funny to say it about come and get it or fever. maybe some of this hesitancy is that the kinds of albums the genre produces - of which robyn is strongly atypical - [still] don't seem like "favorite" material, regardless of how much i enjoy the music. contemplating them explodes the notion of "album" sufficiently to make equilateral comparisons feel inappropriate.)

i digress though. maybe paris ain't here to stay, but she's here today, so let's have a look at 'er. why is this album impressing itself on me so? and how? in my last post, i ran down the discs that have been my touchstones as far as album-based pop goes, which will serve as points of comparison here. paris stands apart from these since it's not electro-pop, or at least not entirely. actually, one of its greatest assets is its stylistic diversity, which encompasses hip-hop/r&b, "rock", disco, reggae, and (for lack of a better term) straight-up dance-pop. none of these appear in their "pure" forms (well, except the last) - which is to the record's credit, since it retains a fairly cohesive sonic identity - but even so, it's an impressive range.

i've been challenging folks (and myself) to come up with any recent pop album that spans so widely. ashlee and kelly come close, but neither really has anything "urban" (hip-hop/r&b) (oh, the missy "L.O.V.E." remix, but that's not on an album) - the only contender might be love angel music baby, which i haven't given enough attention, mostly because it seems like a lot of filler. robyn is also extremely diverse, and includes hip-hop and (could it be?) soul - nothing rock per se, but the experimentation within what's technically pop is practically radiohead-worthy - and it has ballads (good ones too!), which paris/paris (wisely) doesn't really attempt.

point being, its eclecticism within the basic dance-pop template is one thing that makes paris relatively unique, even if it has a couple of fellows. i've heard a lot of complaints about her music being derivative, and that might be valid (not that i really care), but it certainly works hard trying to be derivative of as many things as possible. besides, it's kind of a laugh saying that she sounds just like/is trying to be like gwen stefani, who's sort of the queen of derivativeness (you say that like it's a bad thing.)

the albums that i discussed in my last post succeed primarily on the strength of their songs and production (little more of the latter on fever maybe; the former on anniemal; both - in spades - on come and get it.) as more than just (reasonably cohesive) collections of songs, anniemal goes some distance towards creating an identifiable and engaging persona; robyn accomplishes this masterfully (as i've raved about enough for now.) come to think of it, fever does present a fairly strong persona, it's just not a very relatable or human one (and the album art doesn't help.) i feel like the rachel stevens album could be compelling on this sort of level - the situations in the lyrics, when i stop and think about them, are intriguing and well-developed - but something prevents me from recognizing anything in it that seems to relate to her in any way.

* * *

paris, meanwhile, may not be quite as consistent on the songwriting front, and production/arrangement-wise it's in a whole different ballpark; but - as i hear it, anyway - it does develop an extremely vivid and fascinating sense of identity and personality. and - great songs notwithstanding - i think that's really what sets this album apart for me. here's what i take from it:

there is a very particular setting involved here, and it is the dancefloor. tons of dance songs are about dancing, obviously, but for me even the songs on paris that don't explicitly reference it seem to draw their sensibilities from a quintessentially "dancefloor" state of mind. this album is all about the complex interpersonal, emotional politics of a night out at the club. the narrator(s) in these songs - let's think of them as all the same girl, and let's call her paris - encounters strangers (or, if not exactly strangers, men she's met before only here in this superficial setting), decides she wants them, fantasizes abouts them, teases them, tries to seduce them. or else: she knows they want her, and she'll play along and flirt, dance, tease - but that's as far as it's gonna go ("ooh, sorry, did i do that?") 'course, how are they to know, really, which one it is, what's she playing at this time, do you like me or are you ignoring me? is this love or just desire? paris holds all the cards, and that's the way she likes it. she's the queen of the scene, and when she holds court on the floor, who can say what machinations are going on in her pretty little head?

the politics of dancing are all about codes, sublimated language, the chance to express with our bodies what we never could or would verbally (our inner, yearning emotions about these people we're just meeting for the first time, may never meet again.) it could be a code for sex - isn't that what this is really all about after all? - or maybe not, maybe that's just what everybody is thinking but that in itself is another layer of encryption, an intermediary, decoy code; dancing masquerading for sex standing in for intimacy giving way to deep, human, connection - could it be? - the whole goddamn meaning of life hidden right there in front of you while you're moving on the dancefloor, and all you need is the courage to go out and grab ahold, no need for words to get in the way.

of course, the singer is using words - most of the time, when she's not reduced to (liberated by?) breathy dahs and las and oohs and yeahs - she's expressing the only way she can, in crude, code-bound language, what you are thinking and feeling, and as you map your movements to her beats your thoughts meld to her meanings...and everything can be understood. except, the singer's just letting you in on a little secret, because, remember, they don't know what paris - remember paris? - has got on her mind, up her sleeve, close to her chest, she is in control (she's sexy and she knows it: clap your hands) and she's teasing the bejesus out of em...or else they're too blind, or scared, or dumb (or could it be they don't want her? unthinkable...most guys would die!) to see that she's not playing a game, this moment is critical, they're starting to win, that they're the one that she likes!

except when i say "they," i really mean do "you," because every one of these songs is about and addressed to, not just a generalized, impersonal, queen-of-the-club address to her subjects, but a very specific and unmistakable singular subject you. yes, you, baby, i see you. the oldest trick in the book, sure, simple and effective, and you are - forcibly, but who's complaining - involved; doubly so -and that's the real trick - if you were already physically involved (as storch and co. try their darnedest to ensure), freeing your ass so your subjectivity will follow. r. kelly famously spelled out his layers upon layers in his teleology of hedonism (per mike powell) - but i wonder if there's not just as much meta-flexivity going on here in these grooves, and in real-time to boot.

* * *

let's get this party started. a single siren blast - make way! queen paris comin' thru! - cue utilitarian/utopian late-period-missy beat ("yeah") bring on those wooshy string flutters ("that's hot") and in bursts "turn it up," offering just yr garden-variety dancing/sex conflation/ambiguity. seems like a sex jam ("gonna make me scream"), but with enough "move yr body/time to party" talk that she might just be hyping up the club heads, getting 'em excited, and giving 'em some practical advice - or just laying down the law: "you gotta know what to do/if you wanna get down/so don't blow the first move." pay attention, she's talking to you. the titular instruction is for you too (though the dj might take heed as well) - even if the "you" at this point is a little imprecise and general (well, it is only the first track - a little early for intimate dirty-talkin' one-on-one, no?) don't worry, you'll get your turn.

only not quite yet. "fighting over me" is the one song on the album not in second person. (the boyz - whom you will soon become - are there, but for now they're simply, generally, they. those silly boyz.) it's also the worst track on the album. potentially inoffensive (or even worthwhile for the chuckleable jadakiss verse and fat joe's "straight swoosh" line) but sunk by a lackluster beet (plinky piano, thin rudimental boom-bap; both way lame) and truly insipid chorus delivery. [paris gets points for the effort, but her hip-hop's got nothing on robyn - "konichiwa bitches" sure, but "handle me" even more so, uncannily street in both diction and cadence for a weepy-hearted swede.] presumably slotted second to spotlight the guests, it does couple decently with the (much more satisfyingly) hip-hop-inflected opener, and i'm happy to have it over with so early in the album. really, i don't mind this track that much, it's just rather dumb. [and i do have a special fondness for it ever since i noticed it playing in a very strait-laced looking forty-something's SUV in west philly rush hour traffic. brings to mind "c'mon, he's just going home from work, he's got his backpack on!"]

"fighting over me" is the first song that's explicitly set in a club, and it also sets up paris' so-so-so-sexy self-image rather nicely (with corroboration, even, though i'm not sure those hired thugs are trustworthy.) this is important because we actually won't be reminded of it again until "turn you on" (also a partial return to hip-hop) nine tracks later: for the bulk of the album, paris isn't a sex goddess, or at least she doesn't feel like one; she's just that girl, out there on the floor, hoping. see her? she's waiting for you, you can have her, she's relinquished her power - her heart's wide open! or maybe that's a put-on to; that's just what she wants you to think, and this time she's pulling one over on you as well as them. (she still sounds pretty darn confident.) the locus of power in these songs is constantly shifting, the tension of wanting/being wanted - the word "want" appears in 8 out of 11 songs - constitutes a slippery dynamic that propels the action forward, anxious and hopeful, in the quest for that elusive, crucial knowing. (because knowledge is power.) does the wantee want the wanter too? are you thinking what i'm thinking? what you waiting for? what do i gotta do? (and: why shouldn't we be with the one we really love?)

couple more exceptions, which i might as well get over with. two songs don't fit with the dancefloor framework (which is to say they occupy a different narrative space from the rest of the album, not that they're incongruous.) as it happens, they're also the two you can't really dance to. "jealousy" is a curious one, a moody mid-tempo angst-pop misfit (wall-of-guitar choruses don't quite constitute "rock"), and the only song that seems to reference the "real life" paris beyond the persona. we're not invited to identify with the "you" here, since it's an actually specific (and, almost uniquely, female) one: nicole ritchie. the nature of nicole's crime is a little unclear, despite the fascinating second verse: "now i'm like the devil/well if i am then what does that make you/you sold yourself for your fame/you'll still never walk a day in my shoes" - so nicole sold her soul to the devil i.e. paris herself, and is jealous because she can never be as diabolical? (and paris is upset by nicole's change even though she now owns her soul?)

anyway. "heartbeat" follows and doesn't quite return us to the dancefloor milieu so aptly established in the preceding "i want you." the "you" is yet again unattributable, although identifying with it takes a little more work since paris clearly knows this person somewhat well. in fact, this is the closest paris gets to a love song - notwithstanding the references to "kissing" and "lying here" and the throwaway double-entawdre on "come," there does seem to be more going on here than sex and superficiality. indeed, paradoxically, the sincerity and sweetness of its emotional landscape threatens its credibility, when set against the gloriously vapid, fantasy-driven realm of the rest of the album - but regardless of whether we want to allow paris the capacity for "real love," it's easily the album's sweetest moment. musically too, as it goes "be mine!" and "heartbeat" and "heartbeats" one better by actually sampling "time after time" (has that song become the inspiration for a whole subgenre?), and overlaying it with a gorgeous new melody that rivals "s.o.s." as '80s pastiche/mashup-pop track of the year.

the spectre of love raises its head elsewhere on the album of course - its possibility is insinuated all over the place, in fact, with the determinist-fantasy logic of dancing>sex>love posited just as inexorably as the old love>marriage>baby-in-the-baby-carriage schtick. one could choose to read "heartbeat" as a particularly well-developed dancefloor crush-fantasy (it's lyric is certainly generic enough) - and you could probably dance to it after all, or slow-dance at least. it does feel like a reverie, and as i suggested its reality is already somewhat suspect. (but no need to force an interpretation - i'm happy to leave it open.)

at first blush, "stars are blind" also seems to be specifically personal and about "love" and all that - but closer examination reveals it's pretty much all in the conditional. the love that's discussed is a potential, not a present, reality, despite paris' confidence that she's "perfect for you" and that "you can see the real me inside." she seems to know you at least somewhat, though she mostly just sees you as a contrast to "those other guys" (joe, jada, et. al.) who just wanna take her for a ride. key moment here is the bridge (a friend of mine claimed it's the song's biggest flaw - peter, are you reading this? - but i beg to differ), which lays out what's at stake: "excuse me for feeling/this moment is critical/it might be revealing/it could get physical." the song suggests a promise of love (though it's never straightorward - consider the ambiguous referent of "i'll show you mine") but the critical moment - the present moment - is all about a revealing physicality: sex - or dancing - that might just be the confirmation of love.

there's enough ambiguity to confound clear interpretation, but it's no stretch to imagine this exchange taking place in a club, (although i tend to imagine it on some perfectly airbrushed sunny beach - that's thanks to the music, natch, a reggae-pop confection that i'm always tempted to describe as a "slice" of something. doesn't need to be discussed more, but it was an excellent and creative single choice.) things are clearer in "i want you", wherein paris is "the kind of girl who likes to tell you what [she] want[s] in life." (even though she doesn't, exactly, beyond "you.") i initially thought this was sort of annoying for its valli/gibb sample, but is now one of my favorite tracks (the melodic overlay is quite nicely done) and also contains the excellent line "you'd be living in a dream if you were waking up next to me." this song is basically the thematic template for the whole album, and the opening stanza in particular sets out the modus operandi of dance-club "relationships":
excuse me, i think i've seen you on the dance floor
excuse me, i think they're playin' one of our songs
i see you, you've been here a lot of times
and you've been on my mind 'cause baby you're just so damn fine
viz: i've seen you, you're hot, i want you. (i love how - and this is totally plausible and psychologically accurate - she identifies the song as "one of ours" even though she hasn't spoken to the guy before.) this basic model holds, though the situation becomes more complicated, in the songs that i see as the core of the album - this one and tracks 7-9. these can be read as a sort of narrative sequence revolving around the same guy (in which case "not leaving without you" comes before the others) or they can be - as i sort of prefer - parallel but separate instances of the same kind of thing happening, much as, in the dancefloor-centric utopian vision of the world this album conjures, it must happen all the time, every night, in every club, all over the world. even though the songs are all addressed to a clear subject, it's an open question whether paris is actually literally speaking to "you" or whether these are simply her unexpressed thoughts, her inner emotional monologue that you as the listener are privy to but "you" the addressee are not. (one could also, of course read the songs as having different narrators - but that's definitely against the grain of my reading.)

in "nothing in this world" (yeah, probably her best song), "you" came to the club with somebody else, but she's not going to let that stop her: you and she "can do this thing tonight." "screwed" (my initial favorite and still way up there - i love the remix too) feels most like a continuation of this strand, wherein she's been initially shut down in favor of the other woman (and isn't it "so cliché" that you're "under the spell of a woman from hell"?), but is still holding out hope that you'll "turn down the lights" tonight (more on this later) - or failing that that you'll take her number for when you realize your mistake. things get twisty in the name of lyrical scansion, but it seems like she has resigned herself to being "screwed" for tonight - hence the unwieldy "tonight you could have found out [she] might have been the girl of your dreams" - however she could still, in may or mid-december, say, be the "perfect girl for you to..." what? root? run? love? (definitely not what she's saying, though it's on a lot of 'net lyric engines) i had myself convinced it was "ring," which at least makes sense in the context ("tell me that you want to take my number"), although it doesn't really sound like that either. by the way, the repeated phrase "please don't let it begin" is a bit confusing as well, anyway...

"not leaving without you" (another very catchy tune, with a really cool funky groove) inhabits similar thematic territory to "i want you," with some more of the nuances i was teasing out earlier. it has another excellent opening line - "i got my eye on you boy/and when i get my eye on something it's like search and destroy" - and it emphatically re-establishes the dance floor setting. i love how it intersperses oddly specific inner stream-of-consciousness romantic speculation ("i need someone who's sweet/someone who wants me for me/and when i'm not around he's not gonna cheat") with matter-of-fact addressing of the present moment ("we can dance, we can dance, we can dance.") she wants to "know things about you," but unlike in "screwed" (which she's clearly not, or doesn't think she is anyway), she doesn't want you to ask her for her number ('cuz it's "undercover," obviously) - she's confident that you'll be hers, and it's not just that she wants to let you know before you go home alone (like in "i want you"): her mind's made up and she's not leaving without you.

after this unstoppable, exquisite suite (easily the album's pinnacle, if you ask me), it's time for a change of pace, and a recapitulation. "turn you on" - musically a pale reflection of "turn it up" and the closest thing to filler ("fighting over me" is at least unique enough not to quite qualify) - is also a lyrical return to the thematic material of the first couple of tracks. in a sense, it works as a concluding summation of what has gone before, pulling the camera back to take in the whole club after a series of close-framed one-on-one scenes. the third-person "boys" are back (with girls too, this time), still after her 'cause she's sexy (and she can't blame them.) they even get to speak, by way of paris' snide impersonation ("i'm hot and i can't take it/i need a drink/she's cooler than i ever thought she'd be.") "you" - her dance partner - is still here too, though her attitude toward you has changed enough - "don't dance too close/i might turn you on" - to suggest this is a different you (though one that you the listener is still encouraged to identify with.) (of course, maybe it was all in your pathetic little head the whole time, loser.) for the first time, paris directly addresses a female (plural) "you" as well, even if it's just to briefly and abruptly chide the women in the club, among them, presumably, those hellish interlopers from "nothing in this world" and "screwed": "don't be mad at me go check your man". it's a harsh shattering of the utopian vision presented earlier, of the dancefloor as a land of opportunity and unspoken romantic potential, a reassertion of paris' power and everyone else's lack of it (including yours), and an affirmation of the crass and blatant superficiality of the entire situation.

how's that for rereading what i initially took as derivative late-album filler into a cynical, overarching statement-of-purpose? just goes to show you can interpret anything however you want. maybe. of course, the album doesn't end on that bleak if intriguingly unidealized note. there's still the closing "throwaway cover." which i would offer instead as a kind of alternate ending - a return to the possibilities suggested in the mid-section of the album, that a connection on a dance floor can deepen into something "real" - that there even exists something real beyond the dance club demimonde, or the empty, artificial, power-obsessed mode of life it might easily be taken to represent.

"do ya think i'm sexy" is the only moment on the album in which the action clearly progresses from the club into the outside world - past the night to the next morning, when "they wake at dawn" and contemplate going to a movie. notice the crucial shift though: this story is told in third person, and it isn't our paris who "at last" has been taken home, but "two total strangers" - to her and to us as well as each other. the chorus shifts to direct address, saying the same thing paris has essentially been saying for the entire album - "if you want my body and you think i'm sexy/come on sugar, let me know" - but it's presented as dialogue in the story, at least until the final chorus, when it's no longer relevant to the story at hand, no longer necessary to help these characters find their happiness, and instead, perhaps, enacts a shift back into paris' own familiar voice, with her still stuck in the club, wanting you, waiting for you to take her home, and why hasn't it happened yet, don't you, doesn't everyone think she's sexy???)

(one final aside: i'm curious about the way three consecutive songs - the exquisite tracks 7-9 - make reference to "turning down the lights." the most straightforward is in "not leaving without you": "when the lights go down" = when she finally gets you home and in bed and will, cleverly, "see what it's all about." "nothing in this world" substitutes "turn out the light" for "stop us tonight" after the second iteration of the title phrase in the chorus, which kind of seems like a throwaway, but suggests, i suppose "the light" that exists between you and her can't be extinguished. which is sort of a nice image. finally, "screwed" - probably the most interesting song on the album lyrically - finds her hoping that "tonight you're gonna turn down the lights and give me a little more room just to prove it to you." my sense is that this turning down of the lights will happen when he's (you're) at home and going to bed, and since - according to my reading - she's not going to be there, the "making room" is metaphorical - she hope's he'll think about her as he falls asleep and that he'll reconsider her offer. that's definitely a more subtle and nuanced scenario than the lyric initially suggests. none of this is especially significant to the album, but i do like how the thematic repetition - which occurs in a few other places too - reveals itself to be so multivalent.)

* * *

now, i can't say for sure that this reading of mine has anything to do with what the album's creators intended. my understanding of this persona is after all based primarily on a handful of the songs and specifically-inflected readings of others, and doesn't entirely apply to all of them; nor do i necessarily think that the thematic resonances across the songs are the result of careful coordination among the various writers and producers involved. they're essentially unexceptional and probably even predictable - not so much coincidences as the unremarkable redundancy of stock clichés. indeed, there's nothing especially contrived about any it, which may be why it's so effective: nobody's trying to present paris as anything unexpected (least of all paris herself) - or when they are ("heartbeat," possibly?) it's so transparent as to be a harmless, even cute diversion - and so i have no problem accepting the persona i encounter in this album to be the "authentic" paris, or at least her earnestly presented public face.

(come and get it, by way of contrast, is full of sincere relationship songs - lusting and falling and loving and getting confused and breaking up - with nuanced, heartfelt lyrics, any number of which capture some essential truth about 'humanity,' and none of which believably, or even recognizably, capture anything about rachel stevens. she has one co-writing credit on the whole record, by the way.)

one could press further and examine the writing credits, and possible previous appearances of some of these songs, as well as looking more closely at paris' real life and publicly-expressed opinions (none of which i know much about) and consider how much intention we can ascribe to paris and/or her collaborators. but i'm more than happy to leave all that aside for the time being (always one of my favorite beings), because ultimately it's not very relevant to how i experience of the album. i don't pretend that my reading of the album in any way definitive, or any more true than any other response to it (of which there have been many.) but it is clear to me that it lends itself to speculation and exploration, and is substantial enough to sustain it. i've very much enjoyed the process of writing this as an opportunity to explore possible meanings in the songs and the album as a whole. hope you've found it worth reading. let me know if you have any thoughts. and if you think i'm sexy, well... come on, sugar.


Frank Kogan said...

Excellent stuff about the relationship to dancing. Didn't know that anyone was making the comparison to Gwen until, by coincidence, yesterday I read a review where someone was saying that "Stars Are Blind" would be the eighth-best track on a No Doubt album. Can't really hear that, unless the fact that "Stars Are Blind" is vaguely reggae and No Doubt are vaguely ska is a connection. But I've never actually explored No Doubt/Gwen albums, so maybe there's a comparison. But Paris's voice is drastically different from Gwen's, can't hear similarities at all, and Paris and crew arranged the music to put this voice at its best effect. Lex says that the Paris alb is one of the first to really meld contemporary teen-rock confessional and contemporary r&b, which is certainly a good description of "Jealousy," though P!nk's "What Is Love?" from her first album is a predecessor here. (Her second album may forgo the r&b too much to count, but maybe not. Dallas Austin and Scott Storch had some tracks on it.)

Dave said...

OMG musical analysis. This is out of my league.

One thing that got cut from my Paris blurb (because it was propping up an insane typo) was something I should have edited into a hyphenated phrase..."love-and-life-on-the-dancefloor." (Which I attributed to Kylie, but clearly it's not one influence.) I got the love part, but Paris is talking about everything else, too, like making an omelette on the dancefloor. Or maybe making an omelette becoming the dancefloor when Paris is around? This helps me because (1) I can't dance and (2) I'm often uncomfortable in places where I might be expected to (3) dance. (I think I have something more substantial to say about this post but haven't digested it all yet. I'm also hungry.)