David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 252: Missy Elliott (Get Ur Freak On)

May 18, 2023

Since Warren Zevon failed to make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (See Day 227), I decided to force myself to use this series to hear and respond to one song by one of the artists who got fewer votes than Zevon, but still got into the Hall of Fame. It's a completely unscientific experiment that relies on me to be open-minded, to not make direct comparisons between Zevon and the artist chosen, and to try to hear that one song as a reasonable sample of something recognized by fans and music critics (not that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame uses either of those groups for final choices).

Forewarning, I am a Meat Loaf song as two out of three ain't bad.

I knew picking the "one" song was where my experiment was most fraught; after all, I think the problem is that most people only know Warren Zevon because of that one song.

Five artists made the R&R HoF with fewer votes than Zevon, and since I know Kate Bush, Sheryl Crow, Rage Against The Machine, and Willie Nelson, by default I had to go with Missy Elliott. Thus, I tread cautiously into the world of hip-hop. I have heard of Elliott (I don't live entirely in a cave) but I have no recollection of a single second of one of her songs.

She has had a significant number of Top 40 hits, so I decided to not choose her most popular single, which seemed akin to choosing "Werewolves of London" for Zevon. She also has had a number of hits that "feature" another artist, and I decided to exclude any of those from my experiment. I would never know how that featured second artist might have impacted the song I was hearing.

I decided I also needed to listen to the song at least 5 times, a decision I made before listening to it once. I had to commit thoroughly to this experiment, and to think I could say much about a song in fewer than 5 listens seemed preposterous. Also, if I couldn't even want to listen to the song 5 times, then I was hardly going to be able to give it a real shot for a sincere blog.

I also would not search out the lyrics for at least the first two listens. This seemed necessary to truly hear the whole song without bias.

I ended up choosing "Get Ur Freak On," which should have set off red flags everywhere. Mr. three-degrees-in-English is not a big fan of these alternate spellings of "U," "Ur" and so forth, and even less of a fan of modern slang like "freak" as used in this scenario.  However, since it got to #7 in the United States, it was clearly popular but not her biggest hit.

Almost immediately upon playing "Get Ur Freak On" the first time, I realized I had heard it before. That quirky-sounding opening, which I am learning is Punjab-based music played on tumbis and tablas, did strike some distant parts of my memory. Given this was 2001, I can say with confidence that I probably heard this song quite a bit from my students, and the broader community, at Detroit College of Business. And from the get-go, that unrelenting 6-note melody proves addicting.

While the rapping/singing also added to the unrelenting nature of the song even upon my first listen, there were enough other interesting elements in the song that broke it up. Yet, here is where I couldn't help but want to bring in my Zevon comparisons. Elliott inserts random screams into the song, screams that sound straight out of a cat fight. But, R&R HoF, Zevon perfected the punctuated scream in songs; please see "Wild Age" for one example. The opening features somebody saying something Japanese; later in the song something is said in German. Warren worked in the other languages bit: See "Veracruz" for one example. When I did go looking up more about the song after the first two listens, I found that some of the Japanese is merely counting ("one, two, three, four"), and I can't help but note the mundaneness of that translation as compared to Zevon's Hawaiian chorus in "The Hula-Hula Boys," a phrase that translated to "sing the chorus."

I definitely needed the lyrics when I proceeded to listening session #3. I was having a lot of trouble picking out much specific language in Elliott's rapping (I wasn't even sure I was hearing the title phrase, as the chorus, until middle of listening #2). And, whoah, boy, the lyrics do shock (at least shock her never-intended audience). I recognize a kind of female empowerment that Elliott and Queen Latifah established in the midst of a misogynistic hip-hop society. For that alone, I could see why millions of young women especially might have been attracted to Elliott's music, even if those aren't my people.

But it makes me wonder what conscious decision from Elliott (or maybe Timbaland, because I found out halfway through the experiment that the song does in some ways "feature" another artist) led to choosing this obscure world music genre of Bhangra (see what I am learning through this experiment!) to provide the framework for this song of female empowerment. If I go by one of the few reviews I have found of the song, from Pitchfork, the praise goes to Timbaland as his "flair for the accessibly exotic reached its peak here with his bhangra-meets-jungle beat and 50s B-movie sci-fi synths."1 

If true at all, this almost seems sadder, that Elliott's version of Aretha's "Respect" required the machinations, literal and figurative, of a man. I suppose if Elliott has made the R&R HoF, and not Timbaland, that is some small reward. I may not be convinced Elliott deserved to get in and not Zevon, but I won't begrudge her impact on the music industry, And she obviously never pissed off Jann Wenner.2

1Pitchfork. "Top 500 Tracks Of The 2000s." August 21, 2009. Retrieved from: https://pitchfork.com/features/lists-and-guides/7693-the-top-500-tracks-of-the-2000s-20-1/?page=11

2Wenner, co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine and the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame is said to have a personal axe to grind with Zevon, who was apparently very obnoxious to Wenner one time. Gee, if obnoxiousness keeps people out of the R&R HoF, no one can get in.

Elliott, Missy. "Get Ur Freak On." Miss E . . . So Addictive.  Elektra, 2001.  Link here.

Day 251: Jilted John "Jilted John"

Day 253: Talking Heads "The Great Curve"

See complete list here.