Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Kid Grows Up (Ten at Fifty)

"Let me hear you say 'Yeah!'"
- "Fingertips, Part II", Little Stevie Wonder

The #8 position juxtaposes the two longest songs of their respective top ten lists this week. "Fingertips" at over three minutes, is one of a very short list of songs of its era to be essentially ad libbed, "What'd I Say" representing one of the most famous. As a result, its lexicon is more limited than the other nine of its list, with only 56 distinct words employed, with the most frequent, "yeah", being used almost as many times as the three title words of "It's All Right". And each word appears to have motive force, with the virtuosic chromatic harmonica serving as dressing as much as musical core, and the orchestra can be kind of an afterthought:

It would be difficult to imagine another 13-year-old in such control.

(But it is impressive, nonetheless, that "Could've Been" launched a 17-year-old Tiffany to this position twenty-five years later. Even if there is nothing particularly exciting about the song.)

"But the album’s first single, 'Suit & Tie,' is widely acknowledged to be a misstep. At more than five minutes, it’s a single knocked slowly past first base at best. In the video (and it is uncharacteristically helpful to the song), we learn that Timberlake is friends with Jay-Z, knows attractive women, and has an iPad. After almost a minute, the track brings in a clipped horn section and a fleet, rapid beat, a bit like Chicago Steppers music blended with Earth, Wind and Fire. The vocal harmonies, like those on many of Timberlake’s recordings, are creamy and dense enough to distract you from what’s little more than a plea to put on a suit."

 - Sasha Frere-Jones, The New Yorker

"Suit and Tie", with a running time of about 5:30, is in no hurry to cover what the producers might have viewed as two bases, the first being hip-hop, the second being more or less 80's pop. Born thirty years after Wonder, and ten years after Tiffany, Timberlake hit it big with 'N Sync in teen pop at the same age as Stevie was in that Ed Sullivan appearance. Their early hit "I Want You Back" is more or less in the musical mode of an icon near his birth, Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean". His more recent bid to enter the mainstream is ubiquitous enough to spawn some spoofs, and the spirited Jazz adaptation among others:


 "Suit and Tie" has the highest word count of any song of the two top ten sets, partly because it's the only song employing anything like a rap motif - perhaps a clear indication that the door is closing on that era, given the fact that several songs each quarter or so made the top ten a decade ago.

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