Cee-Lo Green and the classical style

One of the side benefits of having a seven-year-old daughter is that you can rely on Wii Just Dance to keep you up to date on the pop hits of four years ago. One of these hits, which actually crossed my never very alert pop radar at the time, is Cee-Lo Green’s ‘Forget You’, which is of course the smash hit radio-friendly version of ‘Fuck You’. Since Cee-Lo released no less than three official versions of this song, all sorts of interesting-ish questions are raised about canonicity and which is the ‘real’, ‘authentic’ version, but I’m going to pass them up for another time by confining myself to ‘Fuck You’, because it’s just the most fun.

I’ve been trying to figure out why it’s such fun, and in doing so I keep coming back to the late Charles Rosen‘s discussion of classical style in his oh-so-appropriately-titled book The Classical Style.

‘Fuck You’ is constructed and produced like a classic Motown song, with an arrangement of what at least sounds like classic Motown instrumentation: multiple guitars, piano, bass, drums. Even if it’s all been done in Pro Tools or Logic, which may very well be the case (the piano, for example, is exactly tracked in the lower register by a distorted version of the same part, as if someone had fitted a piano with a vintage fuzzbox), Cee-Lo clearly meant this to say something about ‘classic pop’ in general and Motown in particular. The song sets up its stall with a title drop in the very first line: ‘I see you drivin’ round town with the girl I love, and I’m like, fuck yooo-oo-ou.’

So this is not going to be a song which is uncomplicatedly about being abandoned. Cee-Lo is not going to gnaw on his exclusion and wonder if it’s his fault. The second line appears to build on the first, but it also complicates the matter of who the ‘you’ in this song really is: ‘I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough, and I’m like, fuck you and / fuck her too-oo-oo.’

So the song is sung both to the girl who has rejected the singer for a guy with a better car and more money, and also to the guy with same, but it’s the girl who’s going to get the worst kicking. As the song builds, we find out that it’s not at all a song about being lonely at all. Cee-Lo sings ‘I said “If I was richer, I’d still be wid ya” — ain’t that some shit?’, to which the sassy backing singers agree ‘Ain’t that some shit!’, an effect beautifully amplified in the video by having the singers pop up every so often to throw in their wide-eyed disapproval of the hero’s hopeless pursuit of this girl. In fact, everyone the singer knows is aware that there’s just no point in him going after her: ‘Oh she’s such a gold-digger / Just thought you should know, nigga’, they chorus.

Rosen’s discussion of the classical style in his book is technical and involved, dependent on showing how composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven forged a new style from the musical language of their predecessors that was capable of expressing much more complex emotions than music had been able to show before. It’d be wrong to suggest that Rosen’s classical style can be uncomplicatedly mapped onto Cee-Lo’s deployment of the musical language of Motown, but two elements in Rosen’s argument do chime with Cee-Lo’s recording: the emphases on balance and on wit. ‘Fuck You’ is, at the same time, a bitter rejoinder to the person the singer is singing to, and a joyful dismissal of the same person. It doesn’t wallow. It seeks to make the listener aware of the singer’s pain, but it doesn’t try to pretend that the listener can share it, which would be sentimental. But neither does it try to pull off that cynical Beautiful South trick of cloaking a bitter song in a charming, radio-friendly arrangement. The ‘fuck you!’s are right up front. It makes saying goodbye to someone sound like some of the most fun a person can have. This, too, is in keeping with Rosen’s argument that the classical style is fundamentally, you know, comic. ‘Fuck You’, unlike its radio-censored offspring, is a great recording because its joy and defiance are in exact proportion to its level of abjection; it recognises painful human emotion and makes space for it, while at the same time refusing to give in to it.

Cee-Lo Green and the classical style

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