23
Feb 20

THE BLACK EYED PEAS ft JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE – “Where Is The Love?”

Popular19 comments • 2,202 views

#960, 13th September 2003

The album the Black Eyed Peas put out before Elephunk featured DJ Premier beats and Mos Def and De La Soul guest spots. The album after it featured “My Humps”. Perhaps there are more dramatic transformations in music, more shameless grabs at pop’s brass ring, than this shift from mid-ranking respectability to world-straddling infamy – but not many.

We’ll get our chance to weigh up the Peas’ platinum-coated Imperial Phase eventually. First, though, the song which broke them – the only record you could credibly claim as a pivot between the head-nodding backpacker Peas and their incarnation as cyborg hit delivery systems.

It’s also – and with hindsight this seems even odder – the only No.1 single explicity about the Iraq War and the wider War On Terror.  There are bands who would have given their granny’s liver to get lines like “Overseas we’re tryin’ to stop terrorism / But right here we got terrorists living / In the USA, the big CIA” to the top of the charts. And “A war’s going on but the reason’s undercover / The truth is kept secret, it’s swept under the rug” is more forthright and plain-spoken than anything the Manics got to the top. Where are the protest songs? Right here. And nobody gave a shit.

To be honest, I’m making this case and I don’t give much of one. One thing “Where Is The Love?” does, as it wraps its occasional truth-bombs in a swaddling of Timberlake-crooned positivity, is demolish the remaining flimsy case for entryism in pop and the value of ‘subversion’. Unless the supposed subversion was so plainly telegraphed and self-congratulatory as to fool nobody, it would slip down pop’s throat with barely a hiccup.

And so the Iraq War’s “Ghost Town” moment – a song plainly against the conflict, at number one for six weeks while the post-war situation tilted from optimism into insurgency and the rationale for the war dissolved in plain sight – was barely noticed. And as such “Where Is The Love?” is the perfect Iraq War protest song: an echo of the February mass protests, where an unprecedented show of peaceful dissent was similarly simply… absorbed. It happened, and it stopped happening, and nothing changed. (Unlike the grotesque chaos unleashed by the war itself, of course.)

So as a song of protest, “Where Is The Love?” despairs – it sees the chasm opening and the only response it can find is shopworn, the early 90s mantra of positivity, which fades even as it’s evoked. Where’s the love, y’all? I don’t know. But aesthetically it’s a different matter – those moments where Will.I.Am and Taboo shake the listener’s collar and try to get their point across are the song’s most desperate and propulsive. The “war’s going on” lyrics in particularly are rapped with mounting and hopeless urgency before Justin Timberlake ushers the song into its beatific chorus.

It’s a swoonsomely pretty song too, in places. The sprightly string lines, and Timberlake’s hooksome coos and harmonies, speak to a group alive to the possibilities pop offers for big feelings and big earworms. On Bridging The Gap, that prior LP, the Peas’ rapping is strictly wholemeal but their fascination with hooks – reusing them, referencing them, translating them – is obvious, and a pointer to where Will.I.Am’s leadership would start to take the group. “Where Is The Love?” is simply the point where he, and his band, admit to themselves that they are just not good enough MCs to contribute much to songs which are selling themselves mainly on those hooks.

So we have an answer for how you get from Mos Def to “My Humps”. “Where Is The Love?”, in form and in content, is an approach hitting its limit. A humane, likeable approach – peace, love, rapping and brotherhood – but one crumbling in the face of the marketplace and the world. New days are strange, is the world insane? The answer was yes, and we were impotent against it. The Black Eyed Peas weren’t the only ones to find their way through the decade by closing their eyes and dancing into that madness.

(One personal point: this is where Popular catches up with itself – the song at Number 1 when I started this project. I was expecting to get here sooner. I was also expecting – well, hoping, I suppose – the topics to feel less relevant. Thanks for joining me on this pothole-strewn road.)

7

Comments

  1. 1
    Mr Tom May on 23 Feb 2020 #

    Spot on analysis. I liked this a lot, as it stood out from most pop at that time as a rare engagement with the Iraq War. As you say, rueful rather than confident in its tone.

    Lots of people put their heads in the sand and hoped it would go away… Many of us were on that march and while it failed, it was important to have demonstrated opposition. Polls in Feb/Mar showed well over 50% in favour initially, but as you imply, this was much reduced by the autumn…

  2. 2
    lonepilgrim on 23 Feb 2020 #

    Poptimism will eat itself.
    Thanks for the ride Tom.

    As for this song I can recall hearing the chorus well enough but the verses sound slightly peeved rather than righteously angry so it comes as a surprise to actually follow the lyrics. They’ve sugared the pill so much there’s little if anything left of the message

  3. 3
    Shiny Dave on 23 Feb 2020 #

    It’s worth noting that the transition was already arguably complete during Elephunk – an album that actually ends on this song, and which also included two separate singles that needed lyrical changes for radio beyond expletive deletion. One of them was a title change, even (“Let’s Get Retarded” into “Let’s Get It Started” – a change that recontextualised its let’s-get-it-on call from sex to sport, although its stadium-rocking use was utterly eclipsed by their second 2009 bunny). The other (“Hey Mama”) had the line “and then we drop bombs like we in the Middle East,” and when it became a single – which was after this – the radio edit completely reworked that line. Between that and a song called “Crash and Burn” reaching the top of the charts as “You Said No” on the other side of a space shuttle disaster, 2003 really was a vintage year for changing songs for brand management reasons.

    It’s interesting to talk about how Iraq’s peaceful protest got utterly absorbed, turned out to be utterly meaningless; obviously not the last time that’s happened. Iraq was my own jumping-off point from teenage Toryism, but I’m pretty sure it had little to do with this song and a lot to do with the sixth form Marxists who bought the Morning Star into the common room at the exact time when it felt like they made the big calls absolutely right when everyone else didn’t. The final domino topple was probably one LiveJournal blogger I followed absolutely destroying the idea I had that Dubya’s re-election happened for “the right reasons” of “family values” by showing how much those “family values” were rooted in homophobia. (This, I should note, was before I recognised my own queerness; even mid-00s LiveJournal never pointed me towards discussion of asexuality, although if it had it’d almost certainly have taken me towards someone I’d meet in person and befriend anyway.) By 2005, in my appendix year of schooling for awkward reasons of subject changes and delaying tactics on university entrance, I’d run in a school mock election as the Green candidate (and win!); four years earlier at a different school with a different mock election approach, I’d led a proto-UKIP “Meridian Party” and I’d recently disowned S Club 7 because one of their members got busted for cannabis.

    The teenagers who saw the Iraq war protests fail were the young adults who’ve led the charges for Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. A great deal of it seems to have involved absorbing the hard-headed, take-no-prisoners, insult-your-enemies approach of the right-wingers who created the environment that generation resented. And I don’t think it’s unfair to say the way that was a product of the more peaceful approach not getting results. It’s impossible to read the new radicalisation of centrist Europhiles post-2016 as anything else. The febrile political environment of 2020 is the product not just of right-wing nationalism winning controversial votes, but many of those on the wrong end of those votes deciding – rightly or wrongly – that they needed beating at their own game.

    All of this background makes “Where Is The Love?” seem weirdly quaint now, even as its voices are still familiar through broader 21st-century inescapability. The reliance on adorable strings and vocal hooks to sell a political narrative is arguably Stevie Wonder territory, for a start, and it’s already been seven-plus years at this point since “Pastime Paradise” got completely (and excellently) recontextualised in thumping, high-impact fashion. But while this has some thumping rap jabs, it’s definitely rooted in an older style of protest song, and swaddled in enough likable non-aggression that it might work better as song than protest.

  4. 4
    ThePensmith on 23 Feb 2020 #

    We’re still six Popular years away from discussing the Black Eyed Peas’ imperial phase, of which I will have plenty to say. And yet this, where it all really started commercially for them, I would argue seems to be one of the least remembered multi-week chart toppers (the first to spend over a month at number one since Cher’s ‘Believe’) with hindsight. Largely because it sits so at odds with the sort of record they became more readily associated with/for.

    Most people – myself included – weren’t aware that they existed prior to ‘Where Is The Love’, so were just taking what they saw on face value, which was kind of The Fugees for the 00s, but without an apparent Lauryn Hill in their number (does then newly joined Fergie even really sing on this?) and Justin Timberlake on a not-really-credited guest vocal (although I’ve since read this was deliberately done by his record company, who were concerned they were leaving him open to overexposure/backlash at the time this became a hit. His own fourth single ‘Senõrita’ stalled outside the top 10 on the third week at the top for this).

    Lyrically, it’s a peace/protest anthem that arrived, as you say Tom, almost six months too late, but sadly much of which still rings true today. Apl.de.Ap’s middle 8 about his own anxieties bought on by certain world issues – “That’s the reason why sometimes I’m feeling under / That’s the reason why sometimes I’m feeling down” – is certainly one that I’ve only come to understand the feeling of a bit more in recent years (I turned 30 last year for reference).

    At the time, I was frustrated this stayed at number one so long when there was a series of records I enjoyed far more being held off, but I actually view this better now sixteen years later. It also carried poignancy for a while, being as this was the song played four months later at the funeral of a girl at my high school – three years below mine – who collapsed mid-lesson and never regained consciousness. She was only twelve years old, and it was a big shock to all of us at the time. My reevaluation means I settle on a 6, possibly a 7 for this one.

    So to the four records that came so close but yet so far. First and second week runner up was Dido, launching her monolith second album ‘Life for Rent’ with the torch ballad ‘White Flag’. It’s still a song I like to this day it has to be said, I watched her Radio 2 in Concert show on iPlayer over Christmas and it reminded me what a lovely song it was.

    Third and fifth week was Rachel Stevens, launching her solo career with the Britney rejected, Cathy Dennis penned percussive banger ‘Sweet Dreams My L.A Ex’ (which actually was in a two way tussle with ‘Where Is The Love’ the week it came out, leading sales until the Saturday). One of the best pop records of that year, it was just annoying that the momentum of it was derailed by the rush released December flop of its follow up, the David Bowie sampling ‘Funky Dory’, causing her label to go away for an immediate rethink – the answer of which we’ll meet in a #2 watch next Popular year.

    Week four: The Darkness’ first of two runners up with ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’. Again it led midweek number one when it was released, coming so soon off the back of them supporting Robbie Williams at his big Knebworth gig that summer, but it did send their ‘Permission to Land’ album to the top of the chart in the process. I think it was evident even then that a lot of their calling card was on their humour, which was only going to carry them so far, but I put this on a party playlist on my Spotify last year and it still seems to generate the same enthusiasm it held.

    Week six: ‘Baby Boy’, the barely remembered follow-up to ‘Crazy In Love’ from Beyoncé with a guest appearance from Sean Paul. As discussed on ‘Breathe’, does the trick of making her a visitor on her own record and also sounding terminally bored/in need of a nap rather than the intended effect of being erotically on heat.

  5. 5
    Shiny Dave on 23 Feb 2020 #

    In fact, this song has as many weeks at number one than all of their imperial-phase number ones combined, and was the only one with consecutive weeks on top. Their three 2009 bunnies were two non-consecutive two-weekers plus a third one-weeker, and they have a 2010 one-weeker as well.

    Yet if they’re going to be remembered for one song it’s the second of their 2009 bunnies and it’s not even close.

    For what it’s worth my memories of Elephunk will forever be my brother copying it onto his first-gen Xbox and it playing as a result as we drove around San Francisco playing Midtown Madness 2. Driving chaotically around the city most stereotypically synonymous with “peace and love” and anti-conservatism somehow seems an appropriate memory to tie to that album.

  6. 6
    colincidence on 23 Feb 2020 #

    This is the comment that acknowledges the chorus’ similarity to that of ‘Torn’

  7. 7
    Lee Saunders on 23 Feb 2020 #

    This is also something of a (smaller) milestone no. 1 for me, in that it is CD1 Track 1 on the first proper Now album I ever owned. I’d already had the triple-disc Now Decades anniversary compilation in the summer, one of many defining retrospective comps in my early years, so when Now 56 came along (I still remember seeing the ad in November-time and asking for it for Christmas) I was ready to make dedication for the series proper. And so I did, and within five years I turned into one of those dang Now geeks with every edition ever in at least one format.

    But to stop that tangent short I don’t have a whole lot to say about Where Is the Love. A damn fine song from a patchy group for me – killer lead singles from albums whose single campaigns then faltered thereafter became their thing where I was concerned, but Shut Up and Lets Get It Started are some of the sounds of 2004’s communal Easter and youth club, respectively, just as Where Is the Love makes me think of Christmas presents in 2003 wrapped impossibly tight in the worst, most resilient paper ever.

    The last time I heard this was only a few days ago when I walked into the toilets at uni and immediately heard “and the KKK” on the radio that plays for no apparent reason besides a complex-sharing agreement. They turned an angry song into background music for taking a slash

  8. 8
    Matthew K on 24 Feb 2020 #

    Tremendously excited that you’ve reached the time-of-origin milestone – 17.5 years is a LONG time to have been at it, but it’s worth pointing out that you’ve now reviewed about 51 years’ worth, so give or take you’re 3/4 of the way there! Of course the finish line recedes a la Zeno but this is a good spot to be in. Many times I’ve wanted to make a graph of the cumulative number of #1s since 1952 and the cumulative number of Popular reviews since 2003. If both had been increasing at a steady rate, the Popular line would be increasing 3x faster than the chart line, meaning maybe 6 years to go. But the Patreon fuelled resurgence suggests a sprint to the finish line instead! Would still love to make the graph if those data were available.

  9. 9
    Phil on 24 Feb 2020 #

    And so the Iraq War’s “Ghost Town” moment – a song plainly against the conflict, at number one for six weeks while the post-war situation tilted from optimism into insurgency and the rationale for the war dissolved in plain sight – was barely noticed.

    Quoting this at length because it strikes me as such a weird judgment. In what sense was it “barely noticed”? If I was making the case for the significance of this song, I might say that a song plainly against the conflict was at number one for six weeks just as the post-war situation tilted from optimism into insurgency and the rationale for the war dissolved in plain sight. It wasn’t a protest against a possible war but against one that was already happening – as such it couldn’t have been more timely. It didn’t stop anything happening, admittedly, but – Band Aid apart – what number one single does? (Did “Killing in the name” lead to a rise in levels of conscientious objection? Was it meant to?)

    (My own position on this single before I go on: I was 40-something, generally depoliticised by New Labour and parenthood but had demonstrated against the war, liked this song a lot, loved seeing an anti-war song on TOTP week after week, had no idea Justin Timberlake was on it, heartily dislike literally everything BEP have done since & vaguely resent them for stealing a living from the anti-war movement of 2003.)

    There’s a scene in Britannia Hospital where peaceful demonstrators are confronted by tooled-up riot police, clearly meaning business. One of the demonstrators, a hippyish teenage girl, goes up to the line of police, looks one in the eye and offers him a flower. He clubs her to the ground. Lindsay Anderson clearly thought this was hilarious as well as grim – what else was going to happen? – and there’s no denying that “peaceful protest achieves nothing, gets stomped” is a story that repeats again and again, and it’s a learning experience every time. But it is a learning experience – it teaches the people involved what they’re up against and how seriously the state takes protest; even the obvious negative lesson of “don’t do that again” can be reinterpreted as “do something different next time”. And, as Shiny Dave @3 says, these things – even these failures or defeats – can have long-lasting effects. Jeff Nuttall, quoted in Jonathon Green’s Days in the Life:

    There was the sense that the Aldermaston march had failed. One would have thought that if thousands and thousands of people get up and demand an answer of Parliament they would be forced to come out and give them an answer – but of course it wasn’t fucking well true. So one had what was later called “creative alienation”: you didn’t want to have any truck with established society. So what one did was to enter into a whole new philosophy of subverting the culture: “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.”

    What’s more – and this (finally!) is the key point – you have to have the initial well-intentioned attempt to change things peacefully, even if the naivety is maintained with gritted teeth. “Peace and love” will (still) mobilise a lot more people than “overthrow the system”, even if the latter is actually the only way to achieve the former. It’s not so much putting the work in as putting the good intentions in – reminding the world (and yourself) that it’s the scruffy rebels who want to stop the killing and the forces of order who want to keep it going. Even if only virtually (never heard it on a demo), this song did a lot to put the good intentions in, and I still love it for that. It’s a 9 from me.

    OTOH, this does mean that I look on BEP’s subsequent career pretty much as if Zack de la Rocha had become the face of L’Oreal. Swings and roundabouts.

  10. 10
    James BC on 24 Feb 2020 #

    I was disappointed a year or two ago to see Will.I.Am performing the song and no longer accusing the CIA of being terrorists. He changed the line to “We’ve still got terrorists here living in the USA… HEY!… the bloods and crips and the KKK.” Coward.

    Apl.de.ap’s verse is the best, which in 2020 is a startling thing to say about any BEP song. I still get “Wrong information always shown by the media” going through my head whenever I see a report I don’t agree with.

    Classic song overall and it must be at least an 8. It was quite a moment, the way it seemed to come out of nowhere (especially if, like me, you didn’t realise it was JT on the chorus), capture a mood and hit number 1. It might have paled a bit in retrospect thanks to the group’s later antics but I can’t imagine anyone disliking it at the time, at least.

  11. 11
    pink champale on 24 Feb 2020 #

    #9 I think the point about the supposed Ghost Town moment barely being noticed is as Tom says, the idea of smuggling ‘subversive’ ideas into catch pop songs, is a bit of a dead end. Either people don’t notice, or do notice and either don’t care or agree/disagree according to choice – no one had their minds changed by this record and no government trembled. (That’s not at all to say that pop doesn’t change wider social attitudes or create individual epiphanies, but the ways in which it works are much more complex and very much subject to the laws of unintended consequences – cue the cliché about the sound of Dylan’s voice being a far more radical force than any words he sang, or Iain McDonald on the line between sixties individualism and Thatcherites).

    Similarly, the difference between this and Ghost Town is that Ghost Town wasn’t a protest song about the Brixton riots, or even directly about Thatcher. It was just some people who had noticed that things in their home town had got really shit and expressed how it made them feel – the Ghost Town moment was that lots of the public realised that, actually, they felt the exactly same way. (At least, that’s genuinely my memory of how it felt as a cultural moment for a seven year old in the Midlands – how much of that memory has been implanted in my mind by the forty subsequent years of myth-spinning about the moment is an open question).

    In any case, “the CIA are a bit dodgy and the people promoting this war have ulterior motives” is hardly a radical sentiment – it was the simply the boilerplate no-further-thinking-required view to have about the situation for any young person in the West wasn’t it? (Accepting that the news didn’t reach as far as Jameela Jamil’s school in Highgate).

    Anyway, I do quite like WITL – Justin’s singing is nice and I’m certainly prepared to give a song aesthetic points for being a bit political, even if I don’t think the points can generally be cashed in the real world.

    And a political song that achieved anything? Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday did! But it had a single defined that actually could be achieved and from a pop point of view, when you could be making windy universalist statements instead, where’s the fun in that?

  12. 12
    will on 25 Feb 2020 #

    And talking of Jerry Dammers, so did ‘Nelson Mandela’.

    As for WITL, I was very pleased it reach Number One. Anti-war sentiment from a left-of-centre backpack hip hop outfit? Yes, please. None of us could have forseen the sort of band they’d turn into. It’s pretty much the only track of theirs I like.

  13. 13
    AMZ1981 on 25 Feb 2020 #

    For a record that spent so long at number one I’m strangely neutral on it, neither particularly liking or disliking it. I did prefer White Flag which I see as a truly great song by an otherwise dull and overrated artist.

    It’s perhaps worth noting that Justin Timberlake wasn’t actually credited on the single, even though it might have been his involvement that drove it to the top; he’d begun his solo career with a trio of runners up and had also just fallen short as a member of NSYNC. Ironically he held off more than one other perennial chart runners up as a result; we’ll again very narrowly avoid meeting the Darkness at the end of this year and Rachel Stevens have another near miss having been involved in a number two hat trick (as well as a few chart toppers) during her S Club 7 days. And speaking of The Darkness; it’s been 17 years now since their commercial peak and I’m still not sure whether they were supposed to be a parody or not.

  14. 14
    Chelovek na lune on 26 Feb 2020 #

    I had no idea until I read this that Timberlake was on this track…. (that, and the sense I had at the time, earlier in the year, that I had not heard a dead cert nailed-on no 1 as “Rock Your Body” for years, gives some indication of how semi-retired I was from following pop or chart music by 2003)….

    What to say? This isn’t without charm, it is catchy, it’s engaging with current issues in a less facile way than “Imagine” (if not to damn with too faint praise), and it has an attraction and warmth about it. It’s a summer-autumn track. But it also certainly contained the seed of what the act later become (which I certainly don’t consider to be all bad…).

    7 seems about right.

  15. 15
    Nixon on 29 Feb 2020 #

    The most obvious comparison for the transition (from all-male* critically accepted genre act to mixed-gender million selling pop act), for me, would be the Human League. I like Travelogue and Bridging The Gap plenty (we named a club night in Cardiff after the latter!), but I think I like Dare and Elephunk rather a lot more. And I think this is excellent.

    *(I know this is an oversimplification of the first two BEP albums and what Kim and Sierra brought, but… yeah).

  16. 16
    ellboss on 29 Feb 2020 #

    As far as BEP goes, my favourite of theirs is from their preceding album ‘Request + Line’ with Macy Gray. Only hit 31 in the UK, but did much better in my native New Zealand, reaching #10. I think that’s what spurred me more than Where is the Love to buy Elephunk with Christmas vouchers at the end of 2003 (I remember also grabbing Outkast’s Speakerboxxxx/The Love Below on the back of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Bunnied – Hey Ya!)

    Where Is the Love kinda holds up well. There’s a certain naiveness and yet also a pointedness to the lyrics at the same time, but that probably played well with my 13 year old mind at the time. As I type this, I can recall the questionmark symbol used in the video being drawn in arts classes at high school that year too.

    The big 2009 bunny has actually dated better than I thought it would. Hated it at the time but have softened. More on that in six Popular years time though…

  17. 17
    Mark M on 1 Mar 2020 #

    I had found BEP utterly unremarkable and largely interesting in their backpacker incarnation. If I’d had to guess whether they or, to pick one of their contemporaries at random, People Under The Stairs were going to make a shock breakthrough, I would have been stumped. I’m sure the clues were there, but nothing about them made me pay enough attention.

    The Fugees – surprisingly only mentioned once in these comments so far, I think – were the forerunners here. I think there’s a retrospective tendency to go, ‘Oh, they had Lauryn Hill, the big time was bound to come’, but Blunted On Reality did zero business (I bought it in a second-hand shop not long after it had come out – it had been flogged by either a journalist or Sony employee). There was, that suggested, a path from chin-stroking hip hop to pop-r&b fame, if you could add the right kind of tunefulness.

    I quite liked Where Is The Love? when it came out, although I was way too cynical by that point in time to believe it would be of any use to the world, any more than I thought that marching against the war (which I did) would have any effect.

  18. 18
    enitharmon on 1 Mar 2020 #

    Congratulations Tom. You made it.

    A lot of life has happened for all of us since the journey started. We’re all different people from the ones we were when we first climbed on board (I for one, who used to run half-marathons at the start, am now creaky, arthritic and very much feeling time’s ravages). It’s been a great trip though and I’ve learned a lot, not least about the music of my own youth. Thank you for the ride, Tom.

    And it ends, oddly enough, with a track that’s actually in my collection. It’s been many entries now since I could say that.

  19. 19
    Stephen Emmett on 17 May 2020 #

    I do admit that this was pretty fantastic, even if the chord progression is just the same as everything else. Still you can’t keep a good record down. One of my favourite 2003 Number Ones here… just wait until Christmas ’03. A solid 10 out of 10, up there with Evanescence.

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