Double entendres are the lingua franca of pop music. From Cole Porter (“Kick her right in the Coriolanus!”) through the Beatles (“Baby, you can drive my car!”) through Lil’ Wayne (“She lick me like a lollipop”), double entendres indicate not only the hinted-at taboo act, but also the character of the songwriters and artists. Porter makes a Shakespeare pun to mix with earthy humor, while Lil Wayne prefers a more direct and juvenile approach.
Recently, however, the “single entendre” has begun to dominate pop music.
Here’s Enrique Iglesias’ new single (currently in the Top 10) “Tonight I’m Fucking You.” (video NSFW for language)
So much for subtlety. This is cleaned up for radio, of course, but the song doesn’t make any sense otherwise. But let’s compare Iglesias to the raunchy jump blues double entendres that long predated modern dance-pop.
(various artists, most notably Elvis) – “Good Rockin’ Tonight”:
I say, well, meet me in a hurry
behind the barn,
Don’t you be afraid, darling,
I’ll do you no harm
I want you to bring
along my rockin’ shoes,
‘Cause tonight I’m gonna rock away
all my blues.
I heard the news,
there’s good rockin’ tonight.
All that sexual Elvis energy is restrained by the innuendo of the song. There’s no question what he is really talking about (1950’s fearmongering parents, you were right!), but sex retains some sense of mystery or danger. In the modern single entendre iteration, all of that is removed:
Here’s the situation
Been to every nation
Nobody’s ever made me feel the way that you do
You know my motivation
Given my reputation
Please excuse I don’t mean to be rude
But tonight I’m fucking you
Any pretense is gone; the jump between “I like you” to “Let’s have sex” now takes place in a half second. That’s not to say that the false modesty of the double entendre isn’t still around, but everything about it is insincere. (“I don’t mean to be rude”? Why would that ever be considered rude?)
This particular brand of bravado is new to straight pop music, although it has been relatively common in gangsta rap (Biggie and R. Kelly made this slow jam precursor to “Tonight” in 1997), where all emotions are exaggerated and distilled to their essence. It’s notable, though, that hip-hop’s biggest crossover songs don’t tend to be in this vein.
I wonder more where pop music will go from here. Once you’ve done “Fuck You,” can there be any other kiss-off songs? So much of pop music’s double entendre game depended on toeing a line that created linguistic and musical tension. Surely double entendres will not simply die (see Britney Spears’ latest single), but something in the danger and teasing of those old blues standards cannot quite work with the openness in modern pop. With that line now completely breached, what exactly is left?
The answer, unfortunately, seems to be parody, which seems an unfitting end to a time-honored tradition. Parody and satire have their own richness, to be sure, but pop music’s path towards directness seems to have come to a conclusion. Stanley Cavell famously asked “Must we mean what we say?” Modern pop not only means what it says; it cannot even resist saying it.
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