“Ms. Jackson” and the Pop Eternity

What is it that makes “Ms Jackson” such a splendid pop song? It’s the chorus, and the backwards-shuffle drums, yes, but it’s also the story the track tells. Or, more accurately, the situation it describes. Outkast’s song got to No.1 mostly because it was irresistible music but partly because there hadn’t been a pop song before about explaining to your ex’s mother why you broke up with her daughter. “Ms Jackson” starts off angry and defensive, as well it might, and ends up as it was always going to, fuck-you resentful. And all the while there’s that chorus letting you know that Andre did his best, or what he thought was his best, and it wasn’t enough, and these things happen. While the verses tell you that apologising for that is like apologising for being human.

“Ms Jackson” is realistic and wise, and most importantly it’s convincing. It makes sense for now, for 2001, when the media image of black fathers is of fly-by-night playas, and it makes sense for always, when people get together and break up. And this is one of the ways pop can be great. It offers listeners convincing situations, tiny vignettes of relationship build-up and crack-up which say more than magazine articles or chick-lit novels or flip-hip TV comedies can.

You don’t have to feel the track right then and there, either. A great pop song is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle – maybe it’ll fit now, maybe later. With pop, sometimes things never quite fit. I hope I don’t end up having a kid and splitting up. I hope I don’t end up begging a lover to say my name down the phone to prove she’s not with someone else (pop swaps genders, and easily). In fact I hope I don’t end up ducking out of saying a name on the phone, too. But if the song’s telling a truth, I can empathise.

Destiny’s Child are the mistresses of vignette-pop, which is why they’re the biggest and best R & B group in the world. They swap between big, blocky abstract anthems – they’re a survivah they’re gonna work hardah – and fine-line portraits of century’s end relationship-trauma. The best songs on The Writing’s On The Wall are like miniature agony-column letters, and like those letters the attraction is in the crisis not the resolution. Where Destiny’s Child stand out is in their attention to detail. “Jumpin Jumpin” puts calls-to-party into a context of Mutually Assured Mistrust; “Bugaboo” is stalker-brushoff pop, “Say My Name” is exquisitely cruel. “Bills Bills Bills”, meanwhile, has a marvellous neatness to it – singer dates moneyed man but finds him running up her bills.

Now, all of this is nothing new, you might say. Indeed it isn’t – the will-I-won’t-I dilemma of “Hey Ladies” is ageless; Shaggy’s cheater’s anthem “It Wasn’t Me” is different to cheater’s anthems of old only in its absurd degree. Pop has always done this kind of thing – check back to the first half of the 60s when doo-wop, Motown and girl-groups turned the charts into a tub of sudsy glory. Pop has always done it because pop does it best. With rock there’s all that biography in the way, but because pop stars are manufactured in the sense that they’re replacable, you don’t get much sense they’re singing about themselves. They turn, for three or four minutes, into everywoman or everyman – every man who can take the situation as real, anyhow.

An example: Madonna used to be untouchable and is now drab. This has something to do with the music and something to do with her media choices, and a lot to do with the song’s she’s singing. In 1986 she was catching moods and singing towering sobbing dramas like “Papa Don’t Preach” and “Live To Tell”, but those songs weren’t about her. She’d lived them maybe like you might live them every time you put them on, and of course it was fun to speculate, but compare that stuff to Ray Of Light and you can hear the difference. That latter album might as well have come with a big sticker saying A Personal Record About Spirituality And Motherhood and another one saying Do You Have Trouble Sleeping?.

It’s taken a little while for pop to start doing this again, though. At the start of the 90s there were creamy ballads and upbeat jigs aplenty but precious few specifics. Even when the current teenpop boom started – we can fix the start around the time of the Spice Girls’ and Backstreet Boys’ rise – the songs were more generic and hesitant. “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” is mould-busting music backing up nothing hotter than self-proclamation. And while “Wannabe” had a strong message, that didn’t translate into a compelling storyline: these hits made it into the charts on sound and attitude.

My hunch, in fact, is that the kind of pop I’m talking about, pop which snaps a modern moment and frames it with rhythms and hooks, can only come along when pop is already commercially dominant. You have to go through the brash self-affirmation before you get to the harder stuff – and some people prefer the brash music anyway. Some other people, who buy records two hundred people will hear, decry pop for not taking risks. Which is dumb anyway in as far as no music much like “Ms Jackson” or “Survivor” was being made five years ago, but it’s doubly dumb because pop doesn’t have to take risks. Not when it can spend its time taking our romantic risks and turning them into something you’ll recognise twenty or thirty years from now, like we recognise the Shangri Las’ self-destructive kisses and Levi Stubbs’ sleepless nights. “Even in my years to come I’m gonna be here”: posterity’s only important if everyone’s telling you you won’t make it.

A lot of the time in writing about pop I find myself shouting about the instant joys and perfect moments it provides. But a record like “Ms. Jackson” is as pop as pop gets and will live as long as pop does too, because it’s such a perfect psychological miniature. Just like “Say My Name” is. Just like “Baby One More Time” is. Sometimes people scratch their heads and ask me why I like pop and sometimes I feel like answering, not because it’s escapist or because it’s exciting or even because it sounds terrific, but because it’s great big beautiful capital-A Art and it’s going to last forever.

Forever? Forever ever? Forever ever.