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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Earworm Weekly: A Closer Look at Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)"

Posted By on Tue, Dec 15, 2015 at 7:00 AM

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In 1998, Lauryn Hill released her first solo album, one that would become a landmark in both the hip-hop and neo-soul genres. She also unleashed a gigantic earworm that reverberates to this day. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” was the first single off The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and was soon sitting on top of the charts; both the album and the single would go on to garner armfuls of awards. The song is not quite old enough to be officially old-school yet, but its retro harmonies give it a classic sheen, while its more pointed lyrics still feel contemporary and fresh.

The meat of the song consists of two long verses. The first verse addresses a young woman in distress — a guy she slept with won't call her back. Hill lectures her from a “lived and learned” perspective about how she should have more self-respect – and also how to recognize the warning signs. If he says he's all about the Benjamins, pay attention. It means he's not all about you. “Baby girl, respect is just a minimum,” Hill's husky alto intones. “Don't be a hard rock when you really are a gem.”

For the short but punchy chorus, she turns her attention to men, warning them that “some girls are only about that thing.” Then, in the second verse, Hill continues to address men “more concerned about their rims and their Timbs than their women,” telling them that their childish, irresponsible antics – walking into the club with a gun in their waistband, throwing money around on expensive champagne while living with their parents, skimping on child support – might account for why women sometimes seem to hate them as a group. The chorus returns to warn girls away from this type of no-account man.

The double-verse structure makes the song seem egalitarian. Hill is admonishing both men and women, after all, and dispensing advice to both. But the balance of power in male/female relationships isn't even. Upon closer examination, both verses are about the same subject. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” is dedicated to slut-shaming.

The song is an exercise in respectability politics. In Internet parlance, this song is one long concern troll. The tell is in the language with which Hill talks about “that thing.” The girl in the first verse let a man “hit it.” She “gave him a little trim.” In other words, sex isn't something two (or more) people mutually engage in: It's something girls give guys or let them “hit.” There's no space for sexual encounters without commitment; all such liaisons are inherently degrading to women. According to Hill, the war between the sexes boils down to men who expect nothing more than “a little trim” from women and women who are willing to cater to that expectation. If you give it away too easily, you're a skank and bringing everyone down. Men, you should be ashamed of yourselves too – probably.

“Conscious rap” often shades into this territory. Unlike more traditional black conservatism, conscious rap allows more space for personal expression that does not align with white norms, but its sexual politics still tend to be regressive even when cloaked in the language of “dignity” and “uplift.” Neo-soul, too, can tend to the kind of nostalgia that embraces a mythical time before music became vulgar and coarse, ignoring, of course, the grand tradition of bawdy and innuendo-laden black popular music from Ma Rainey to Little Richard and the Coasters to Salt'n'Pepa. Which is why at this point in time, Hill comes off like your dotty, but beloved aunt. She's sincerely trying to give you good advice, but she's woefully out of touch. Still, your dotty auntie probably can't hold a candle to Hill's verbal and musical gifts. It's easy to just smile at the verbal playfulness and shimmy to the joyful bursts of horn and piano. It's no accident that the video is staged as a block party as opposed to, say, the interior of a club. Hill's message is open to everyone, even those who disagree with her fundamental premise.
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Lori Selke

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