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British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
The Dixie Chicks and Eve are the only female artists to debut at No. 1 on Billboard in
1999, and they both did it with albums featuring anti-spousal abuse songs in
which the abuser ends up pushing up daisies. Is it time
to dust off the grrrl-theories we haven’t had a
chance to use since the heyday of Sporty Spice? Nope,
more like a lucky fluke: What we have here are two
hits that usher new sensibilities into restrictive genres
the artists in question nevertheless love to death.
You may know Philadelphia-bred Eve as Eve of Destruction from the Roots’ “Things Fall Apart.” She also sang “What You Want,” where she played the stand-out chick at the Ruff Ryders’ sausage party, “Ride or Die, Vol. 1,” and provided the only remotely musical moments on the back-to-school locker room jam of the year. Here she changes up a bit. Hard as hell but head over heels in love, she offers the toughest admission of vulnerability you’ll hear on the radio all year. A stunningly naive pursuit of old-fashioned pop bliss that feels innovative without crossing over into Mary J. country, it’s simultaneously wistful and hardcore — the thug-hop “Be My Baby.”
“I open wide/I don’t give a fuck/I’m swallowing my pride,” is her way of saying, “For every kiss you give me/I’ll give you three.” But it’s an emotional metaphor, not a coochie reference. Set against flighty backing harmonies and post-Wyclef acoustic-guitar triplets, it’s also a hymn to the pleasure principle — something rare in dickcentric hip-hop, which still regularly denies women much pleasure at all.
Kind of revolutionary, and lovable too. Eve’s Swizz Beatz-produced “Ruff Ryder’s First Lady” would seem even more radical if it weren’t sitting atop the charts right next to a girly country group using the exact same kind of sensibility. The song “Ready to Run,” the Dixie Chicks’ mad dash out of the chapel of love, starts picking up steam right where Eve’s fantasies usually go south. “When my Mom says I look good in white/I’m gonna be ready this time,” Natalie Maines sings, savoring not just the fun of fucking over her obliviously doting parents and dough-eyed groom, but the pleasure of usurping a moral code that’s given her nothing but grief since puberty. And when backing Dixies Emily Erwin and Martie Seidel fly in with their floaty harmonies, the insistence on immediate, physical fun flies in the face of a genre where songwriters’ moral compasses often seem twisted by Pat Buchanan.
With their bluegrass chops and Carter sisters-cum-Spice Girls positioning, these “Young Country” flag wavers are certainly traditionalists. (Check out the “Yankee Doodle”-esque fiddles and flutes that open to “Ready to Run.”) Yet they tweak their traditionalism to upend country convention. Excepting a couple of speedy hoedowns (“Sin Wagon”), the fiddles etc. are always aimed at leavening the album’s strident pop and Maines’ rockwise singing. For example, the Buddy Holly homage “If I Fall” is a flatter, dustier version of Holly’s West Texas hiccup that, in context, has more to do with the playfulness of a Sheryl Crow than with the standards of Music Row. And while the Chicks’ sister act might serve as an implicit endorsement of the fambly way, its gal-pal vibe is feminist-communitarian in a way Shania Twain’s Madonna-esque individualism refuses to be. Even if “Sin Wagon,” “Hello Mr. Heartache” and “Ready to Run” all might imply that there’s hell to pay when the hayride is over, there’s “Goodbye Earl” to proudly piss on the fantasy of marital joy. “Those black-eyed peas/They tasted all right to me!” Wanda gloats as they mutilate him. They even stuff him in the trunk as they head off to L.A., making the song karmic payback for Eminem’s “Bonnie and Clyde ’97.”
Eve’s anti-abuse song, “Love Is Blind,” has the same kind of gentle acoustic guitar bit as her wispy, oneiric “Gotta Man” single, starkly implying the absolute flip side of its bliss, and she too ends the song standing above the motherfucker, Glock cocked, as she catalogs all the shitty things he did en route to killing her girlfriend. But for every moment like the punkily short, compu-poppin’ riot-rap “My Bitches,” there’s a cut like “Dog Match,” where the “Rufffff Rydddderrzzzzz” (DMX, the Lox, et al.) swarm in like a plague of locusts to overshadow their baby’s attempts at self-assertion. It underscores the fact that if the boys and Swizz hadn’t come along, Eve wouldn’t have the marquee value that turns a debut by a moderately famous rapper into a blockbuster.
Ultimately, just as the Dixies’ ballads are only a smidge less drecky than your average Faith Hill/Tim McGraw/Trisha Yearwood hit, Swizz Beatz’s admirably weird sense of rhythm and stark samples get strained the deeper you go. But surveying the charts, I’ll take either of ‘em over Britney Spears or Korn any day.
Jon Dolan lives in Minneapolis and writes for several publications, including Spin, City Pages and barnes&noble.com. His reviews of the top albums on the Billboard 200 appear in Salon every week. More Jon Dolan.
British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
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