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An Extremely Close Reading of Pop Song Duets

The message of a duet is often complicated by the actual lyrics.

MOST SONGS give you only one perspective: She will always love you. Billie Jean was not his lover. You can check out of “Hotel California” but you can never leave.

But popular music history is studded with the occasional duet that serves more of a purpose than simply an excuse for the existence of cool harmonies, or to provide an opportunity for Paula Abdul to dance around with an anthropomorphized rapping cartoon cat—no offense, MC Skat Kat (and Posse). These duets actually use the form to explore two different, often dueling, perspectives on the same relationship…often, relationships in which men are getting called out on their bullshit.

Let's assess!

1. “DON'T YOU WANT ME,” The Human League, 1981

This beloved 1980s song became the “Christmas number one” in the UK the year after its release and is among the most enduring British pop songs of all time, according to popular votes. It's also about a guy threatening murder-suicide if a woman doesn't stay with him forever because she owes him for making her famous. Charmingness level: Approximately the same as The Police’s "Every Breath You Take" after you think about the lyrics for more than 60 seconds.

The song begins, and is mostly from, the man's perspective. Cue synth and the Human League’s lead singer, Philip Oakey:

       You were workin' as a waitress        in a cocktail bar        When I met you        I picked you out, I shook you up        and turned you around        Turned you into someone new        Now five years later on you've got        the world at your feet        Success has been so easy for you        But don't forget, it's me who put you        where you are now        And I can put you back down too

He goes on in the chorus:

       It's much too late to find        You think you've changed your mind        You'd better change it back or we        will both be sorry

His ingénue, Susan Ann Sulley in an iconic white trench coat, gets two verses to present her perspective. It can be summed up as Actually, you aren’t responsible for shit.

       I was working as a waitress        in a cocktail bar        That much is true        But even then I knew I'd find        a much better place        Either with or without you

In her second verse, she goes on to be far more kind to him than he really deserves:

       The five years we have had        have been such good times        I still love you        But now I think it's time I live        my life on my own        I guess it's just what I must do

Real life actually mirrored the song lyrics, thankfully without the creepiness: Oakey met Sulley at the Crazy Daisy Nightclub in Sheffield in 1980. He asked her to join the band’s line-up to be a dancer, lend “glamour,” and sing on the occasional track. She was 17. She remains with the band to this day.


2. “NOTHING BETTER,” The Postal Service, 2003

"Ladies and gentlemen, this song is for anyone in the audience who had their heart ripped out of their chest, thrown on the ground, and stomped on” is how Ben Gibbard once introduced “Nothing Better” at a concert during a reunion tour. The song, which Rolling Stone once suggested “may be the most touching electronica love song since Daft Punk's ‘Digital Love’,” is actually about an incredibly reasonable woman talking down a histrionic man who refuses to accept that she wants to leave him.

Ben Gibbard starts off the song with some shoe-gazing:

       Will someone please call a surgeon        Who can crack my ribs and repair        this broken heart that you're deserting        For better company        I can't accept that it's over

He goes on to make a controversial sports metaphor before going into the chorus, which invokes the song title:

       Tell me am I right to think that there        could be nothing better        Than making you my bride and        slowly growing old together?

His duet partner, Jen Wood, chooses this moment to cut in:

       I feel I must interject here        You're getting carried away        feeling sorry for yourself        With these revisions and        gaps in history        So let me help you remember        I've made charts and graphs        that should finally make it clear        Prepared a lecture        On why I have to leave

One wonders what this PowerPoint deck looked like.

Anyways, they go on, singing together:

       (Tell me am I right?)        Don't you feed me lies about        some idealistic future        (Tell me am I right?)        Your heart won't heal right if you        keep tearing out the sutures

He’s the part in parentheses, obviously, and not right at all. The song feels like an update of “Don’t You Want Me,” 30 years on. Though male cluelessness remains a defining element within the work, the passing of three decades has led to improvements in the he-said/she-said ratio, as well as the homicide threats. Progress!


3. “SOMEBODY THAT I USED TO KNOW,” Gotye ft. Kimbra, 2011

Apologies if the BOOP-boop / BOOP-boop xylophone part of this song is in your head now. “Somebody That I Used to Know” was difficult to escape from throughout 2011 and 2012, on radios everywhere and accompanied by an exhausting-just-to-look-at video in which the bodies of singers Gotye and Kimbra are slowly overtaken by meticulously-applied paint. The color, which creeps up Gotye’s body while he tells his side of the story, then Kimbra’s, and later recedes when she refutes his account of their relationship, makes it clear: Gotye’s a fuckboi. (The Urban Dictionary defines a fuckboi, rather genteelly, as “a guy who tries to get with everyone.”) G starts out the song playing it cool, his gently floppy hair complementing his low-key lyrics:

       So when we found that        we could not make sense        Well you said that we        would still be friends        But I'll admit that I was        glad it was over

He’s not mad; in fact he is glad. By the time we get to the chorus, however, he loses it a little:

       But you didn't have to cut me off        Make out like it never happened        and that we were nothing        And I don't even need your love        But you treat me like a stranger        and that feels so rough

It’s basically the beginning of a typical country song: He’s a good guy who’s been done wrong by a bad woman. But then in comes Kimbra with some minor-key perspective:

       Now and then I think of all        the times you screwed me over        But had me believing it was        always something that I'd done        But I don't wanna live that way        Reading into every word you say

She did, apparently, have to cut him off... because he played endless mind games with her and, from her perspective, ruined their chances of making it as a couple. She also calls him out:

       You said that you could let it go        And I wouldn't catch you hung up on        somebody that you used to know

As with some of the other duets, she only has a verse worth of real estate to refute his version of events. But the lasting impression is that this is not your typical country-song narrative after all. BOOP-boop.

Duets are historically “rarely huge hits”—Stevie Nicks and Don Henley’s “Leather and Lace” and a couple of the other songs on this list presenting modest exceptions—but “Somebody That I Used to Know” was a monster, spending eight weeks at no. 1 on Billboard’s Top 100 and selling 13 million copies to become one of the best-selling digital singles in history, back when people still bought music lo five years ago. Kimbra explained the song’s unexpected appeal this way: “Everyone knows how it feels to want to have their side of the story told.”


4. “PARADISE BY THE DASHBOARD LIGHT,” Meatloaf, 1977

Should we call this Meatloaf’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”? It runs over eight minutes long as a dialogue between a man and a woman recounting a fateful night when they were 17, in the backseat of a car, trying to decide whether or not to “go all the way.” The song reads as a parody of 1950’s social mores: the prudish, demanding woman; the hard-to-pin-down, horny man; the bickering married couple who don’t seem to understand that divorcing each other is an option that might be preferable to rooting for the end of time as a way to escape their loveless relationship. A key difference from many of the other duets we’ve discussed here: the man and woman seem to largely agree on the particulars of the events they’re recounting. Things are getting heated in that teenage backseat, but the woman puts on the brakes with an ultimatum:

       Stop right there!        I gotta know right now!        Before we go any further!        Do you love me?        Will you love me forever?        Do you need me?        Will you never leave me?        Will you make me so happy        for the rest of my life?        Will you take me away and        will you make me your wife?

The official video for the song is a live performance Meatloaf did with Ellen Foley, an actress and singer wearing Liza-Minnelli-in-Cabaret eye makeup who may be familiar to you from her role as a public defender on the Reagan-era sitcom Night Court. At the moment Ellen asks, “Will you make me your wife?” Meatloaf’s look of wide-eyed horror perfectly channels a 17-year-old boy who is facing the terrible choice between finally losing his virginity and having to swear eternal devotion. He covers his lack of a poker face with a diplomatic, if unromantic, answer:

       Let me sleep on it        Baby, baby let me sleep on it        Let me sleep on it        And I'll give you an answer        in the morning

She’s not having it; he apparently goes insane with lust, swears he’ll marry her, and “goes all the way” that night. Recounting these events years later, he regrets his decision pretty flamboyantly:

       I swore that I would love you to        the end of time!        So now I'm praying for the end of time        To hurry up and arrive        Cause if I gotta spend another        minute with you        I don't think that I can really survive The two sing the last chorus with one another—the one where they’re praying for the end of time—meaning that: at least they’re in it together.


5. "PICTURE," Kid Rock ft. Sheryl Crow, 2002

The future Michigan senator and Sheryl Crow’s 2002 country duet, “Picture,” is arguably both artists’ biggest hit of the century. It represented Sheryl’s first major foray into country radio, where she went on to set up shop, and represents Kid Rock’s highest-charting song to date. It’s also a rare example of a duet in which both sides of a couple a) agree on a united version of events and b) agree that the man is a fuckboi. But there’s a plot twist: The woman is a fuckboi too. (Is fuckgirl a technical equivalent?) The scenario: Kid Rock’s character is a musician on tour. Sheryl Crow is the girlfriend he can’t stay loyal to. In one pivotal moment of the song, she goes to church while he goes to a bar. On the face of it, it’s country-song archetypes again: bad boy and the good, God-fearing girl he doesn’t quite deserve. One thing in Kid Rock’s favor is that he hates himself:

       Living my life in a slow hell        Different girl every night at the hotel        I ain't seen the sunshine in        three damn days        Been fueling up on cocaine        and whiskey        Wish I had a good girl to miss me        Oh I wonder if I'll ever change        my ways

Sheryl’s character knows what he’s up to:

       I called you last night in the hotel        Everyone knows but they won't tell        But their half-hearted smiles tell        me something just ain't right        I've been waiting on you for        a long time        Fuelin' up on heartaches        and cheap wine        I ain't heard from you in        three damn nights

But here is the kicker: Sheryl Crow is cheating on him too.

       I put your picture away        I wonder where you've been        I can't look at you while        I'm lying next to him        I put your picture away        I wonder where you've been        I can't look at you while        I'm lying next to him

A lyrics-interpretation forum commenter theorizes that the “him” referred to in this verse is actually a higher power: Sheryl is in fact cheating on Kid Rock with God and/or Jesus, not simply some random guy. This would certainly challenge the notion that the song is a modern subversion of country archetypes, and might also change how we interpret this exchange:

       [Sheryl]        I hoped you were coming home to stay        I was headed to church        [Kid Rock]        I was off to drink you away

Sure, Sheryl, you’re “headed to church.” In the end, Sheryl and Kid swear to each other that they’ll renounce their respective addictions to booze, women and church if the other will forgive and forget.        I found your picture today        I swear I'll change my ways        I just called to say I want you        to come back home        I found your picture today        I swear I'll change my ways        I just called to say I want you        To come back home        I just called to say I love you        Come back home Maybe there’s just one perspective: Sometimes fuckbois and fuckgirls deserve happy endings too.

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