November 22, 2010


Fancy That

It's just made to make women feel special," Drake said of the video for "Fancy" that he shot back in July with director Anthony Mandler and choreographer Fatima Robinson. Apparently, that wasn't his top priority: in September, he announced that he'd watched it and "just had a way better idea," so the video was tabled while he figured out what to do next. It's a tricky song, going back and forth about what makes women feel special, what makes men feel gratified, how hard it is to be beautiful, and what other sorts of life priorities might be worth considering.

It's worth digging up the early version of "Fancy" that was recorded by Mary J. Blige, who joined Drake for a performance at this year's MTV Video Music Awards where she added her own verse. As it stands on Drake's record, it's a song about men looking at women. Swizz Beatz is half-kidding the subject of the song — "oh, you fancy, huh!" And Drake is half-kidding himself, or her: he says of her beauty regimen that "you don't do it for the men, men never notice." Of course they do — although they may not entirely understand what they're looking at.

Beauty is never quite that simple. Back in 1970, Bobbie Gentry released her own song called "Fancy"— here's some amazing footage of her singing it on the Johnny Cash Show.

It's a song about a young woman for whom beauty is a desperation move: her mother buys her a dress with "a split on the side clean up to my hip," and turns her out to sell herself, explicitly or implicitly: "just be nice to the gentlemen, and they'll be nice to you... here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down."

Gentry's voice doesn't quite bump and grind, but it flirts like an expert. Her character presents herself as someone who was more or less forced into making painful choices that she's had to face with a big, sly smile and immaculately painted eyes and lips. Reba McEntire's hit cover of "Fancy" from 1991 overstates the song's pathos considerably — her version is the story of a disaster, rather than a victory that came at a substantial cost. Points to her, though, for having the video suggest that the protagonist's name is Fancy Rae Baker. (Any relation to the "girl Tammy with a purple Bentley" in Drake's song?) Drake's everything-did woman would never have a roach scuttling across her high-heeled shoes — at least, he'd never picture that— but maybe that's a sign of how well she's presenting herself. Like he says, time heals all, and heels hurt to walk in.

Is Fancy really anybody's name? It was the name of a band, anyway — an ad-hoc glam group that had a Top Ten pop hit with their cover of "Wild Thing" in 1974. "I didn't even want it to be sung, I wanted it to be 'massaged,'" producer/bandleader Mike Hurst later said. The heavy-breathing woman who massaged it on their single was a former Penthouse Pet with the slightly improbable name of Helen Caunt. By the time they made their subsequent record, "Touch Me," she was gone, replaced by another heavy-breather, Annie Kavanagh. Cinderella always loses the glass off her foot.

Last year, The-Dream recorded his own "Fancy"— an entirely different song, but hinting at the setups of both Drake's and Gentry's. "She made her way from nothing," The-Dream purrs, and now she's got "designer names from head to toe." (Shoes again.) He goes on to cite the specific designers, although not quite as many as T.I. namechecks on Drake's song. There's no sense that she's got any characteristics other than being B.E.A.U.T.I.F.U.L. around men who can pay her way—even Drake likes his subject for being "book- and street-smart."

The-Dream's "dream of a billion men" is "only 23," five years older than Gentry's Fancy was when she headed uptown, and maybe five years into the 15 that Gentry's character has spent not having to worry about anything. You make everything groovy, you can imagine a '70s version of her murmuring as she climbs up to a bed, singing somebody's melodies. (It's her one chance. She's not going to let anyone down.) So maybe her fancy man made a song to make her feel special. Well, not "her" specifically: to make anyone he can afford feel special.