October 18, 2010


Better Than You

There's a message every great pop song conveys, on some level or other: "I am here! Notice me! I am a pop star!" Most of the time, that's subtext— a matter of a singer implying that her love is exceptionally genuine or his sadness is extraordinarily painful. But sometimes it's specifically what a song is about.

Bernie Taupin's lyrics for Elton John's "The Bitch Is Back" don't make a lot of literal sense, on their face ("I was justified when I was five": about what?), but they spray attitude all over the room. A woman calling herself a bitch, as Tina Turner did when she covered John's song, is a pop strategy that's got a solid pedigree, up through Meredith Brooks and beyond. A man calling himself a bitch, as John does, is arguably a much riskier move. (There was David Bowie with 1971's "Queen Bitch" — but that was clearly Bowie playing a one-off character. John is playing "Elton John.") So John shields himself by making it one of the toughest rock songs of his entire career, and turning snark into self-aggrandizement: "I can bitch 'cause I'm better than you," he sings with what's audibly a wicked grin.

Flo Rida is "arrogant like yeah" too, but there's no element of self-criticism or vulnerability, or put-downs of anything but the club as an abstract entity, in "Club Can't Handle Me": it announces that he's the best thing that's ever happened to anyone in his vicinity. (Naturally, there is some alcohol involved, from the bottles in his first verse to the "more shots" and "ten more rounds" in the second. John, meanwhile, is "stone cold sober as a matter of fact.") Flo Rida's arrogance is meant to be catching. "Watching you watching me I go all out," he sings — or, rather, he doesn't sing on that part. He's so big that his personal greatness extends beyond himself to his backup crew.

But there's something neither Flo Rida nor John can admit about their claims to supremacy. The bitch can't come back until he's been away (and maybe the bitch used to be somebody else); it doesn't matter that the club can't handle Flo Rida right now unless at some point in the past it could handle him (and couldn't handle someone else). The way both artists establish their authority is by calling on an earlier authority through sonic allusion, rather than explicitly naming the kings they've come to replace.

"Club Can't Handle Me," as anyone who's been near a radio in the past couple of years may have noticed, is essentially Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" with a new coat of paint. They're in the same key and basically the same tempo. They've got the same sounds and structure: the staccato synthesizers of their opening, the way their bass parts choose a note and hang out pulsing on it for a while, the lyrical celebration of celebration. "I know it, you know it," Flo Rida insists, and what everyone knows is that almost every lyrical and musical element from the Peas' song turns up in some form in his own. (That probably has a lot to do with their mutual producer David Guetta, who's billed as the featured guest on "Club Can't Handle Me.")

As for Elton John — when he recorded "The Bitch Is Back" in 1974, to whose bitchdom might he have been setting himself up as the successor? Just listen to the arrangement of the song, especially the way Davey Johnstone's guitar riff keeps popping up, a little too loudly, until the horn section picks up on its cues. That's straight out of the Rolling Stones' playbook circa 1971, especially "Brown Sugar" and, for that matter, "Bitch."

Even at that stage of his career, John had learned a lot from Mick Jagger about how to command attention in a song — how to be noticed as an arrogant, larger-than-life entity, how to turn any lyric into a demand to be watched. Pop stars hadn't yet figured out then how to don the frictionless, glittering armor of Flo Rida and the Black Eyed Peas. The most they could do was be mean and loud and bitchy enough to make 'em stop and stare.