Number Ones - Guy Sebastian 'Who's That Girl'
Who's saying what
'Who's That Girl'
The new number one this week, 'Who's That Girl', is Guy Sebastian's fifth number one single, after 'Angels Brought Me Here', 'All I Need Is You', 'Out With My Baby', and 'Like It Like That'. It is Eve's first Australian number one too, though she has had a number of top ten singles since 'Let Me Blow Ya Mind' in 2001. It was co-produced by Sebastian and Andre Harris, an American producer who has had hits with Chris Brown ('Yo! Excuse Me Miss') and Ciara ('Oh'). It replaces Bruno Mars' 'Grenade' on the top of the charts after two weeks.
Sony have helpfully disabled embedding on the official video for the song. So here's what you get.
Guy Sebastian - 'Who's That Girl?' live on X Factor Final
'Who's That Girl' is also definitely the most confusing single of 2010. Firstly, there is also a song called 'Who's That Chick?' by David Guetta featuring Rihanna sitting at #8 in the charts right now. The songs have similar titles, sounds, and lyrics. Both songs have similar narratives, along the lines of “Hey, I'm just at the club – HOLY CRAP WHO IS THAT WOMAN INTERROBANG!”. Guy Sebastian even cited David Guetta as an influence on 'Who's That Girl' in an interview with the New Zealand Herald. Because both songs also entered the charts the same week, all this similarity is most likely coincidence, but there must be a lot of confused people who have bought 'Who's That Girl' thinking it was 'Who's That Chick', and vice versa. Secondly, 'Who's That Girl' features a guest rap by the American rapper Eve, who had a #6 single in the UK in 2001 with an entirely different song, also titled 'Who's That Girl'. And finally, neither Eve's 'Who's That Girl', Guy Sebastian's featuring Eve's 'Who's That Girl' or David Guetta's 'Who's That Chick' appears to have anything to do with Madonna's 1987 single 'Who's That Girl' or the Eurythmics' 1983 single 'Who's That Girl'. Got all that? I hope that, one day, somebody will perhaps conclusively establish this woman's identity.
'Who's That Girl' is the first #1 single I've written about which is sung by a former reality TV contestant (for those recently emerged from under rocks, Sebastian won Australian Idol in 2003). Music nerds/snobs with obscure taste in music (like me) have a habit of criticising shows like Australian Idol or The X Factor as not really being about the music: the winner is often not the best singer, but might be the one with the saddest sob-story or the one with the least annoying personality. And when the inevitable single and album comes out, a lot of people buy it because they have fond memories of liking the TV show and liking (how) the singer (was edited to appear a certain way by the producers of the show), rather than because they like the music on the CD. Because of all this, songs like Guy Sebastian's first #1, 'Angels Brought Me Here', are heavily associated with the climax of the show, and thus have pre-packaged meanings and associations that other songs will not . It's all very manufactured and obvious, say the music snobs, and something of the joy of music, of its eternal mystery, gets leached out in the process. People in the Australian music industry get angsty about all this, and there has been a fair bit of controversy over whether to give ARIA awards to people like Guy Sebastian or Lisa Mitchell, because some are worried that the "lofty credibility" of that awards ceremony will be tarnished by association.
But it's hard to argue that Guy Sebastian's continued success, seven years later, has much to do with Australian Idol. 'Who's That Girl' isn't an easy cover song that everyone knows. It didn't have a television station's full promotional muscle behind it, and even his 'brand recognition' will have faded by now. Sebastian co-produced and co-wrote the song, which suggests that he has a fair whack of creative control over what he's doing. If he is still successful, it's more and more because of his musical talent. And I thought Sebastian's big single of 2009, 'Like It Like That', was an excellent fluffy pop song, with a melody that suited his voice, and surprisingly interesting sounds and musical ideas in the verses and coda.
That said, I'm not convinced by 'Who's That Girl?' – Sebastian's aiming for a dancefloor smash but is too polite to quite get there. Sebastian claimed in the NZ Herald interview that the song was influenced by David Guetta and the Black Eyed Peas, that he wanted to try his hand at a modern dance-pop song. And there's a bit of that, but 'Who's That Girl' isn't quite as aggressively beat-oriented and noisy as either Guetta or the Black Eyed Peas. The synths and beats on Guetta's 'Who's That Chick', for example, are louder and fatter, so much so that they almost drown out Rihanna's vocals - and Rihanna's vocals are hard to drown out, as you'd know if you've had 'Only Girl In The World' follow you around in crowded shopping centres. This loudness makes sense on the David Guetta song, because that's what music sounds like in clubs - drum and bass heavy. In contrast, 'Who's That Girl' has a politer sound – Sebastian's vocal is centre-stage, and the music behind it is well-balanced and measured. So, it's not a song that sounds like an uninhibited, trashy, good time in a club – uninhibited good times at the club are typically not polite and measured.
'Who's That Girl' instead comes across more as polite teen pop. For example, the way that 'Who's That Girl' starts off, with an uncertain verse melody over repeated straight eighth-notes on a keyboard, more closely resembles Katy Perry's 'Teenage Dream' that anything by the Black Eyed Peas. Still, I think what Sebastian meant when he said “influenced by David Guetta and the Black Eyed Peas” was this: “I have slathered so much autotune on my voice that it's almost unrecognisable!” To me, it seems particularly pointless to slather it on the voice of Guy Sebastian, considering his voice is his trademark. But it does appear that a large proportion of singles buyers in Australia disagree with me about this - or find the song so catchy that they can put up with it.
Because the song is catchy. Totally shocking for a #1 single, I know! Part of what makes it so catchy is that the same chord progression repeats through the whole song, and the verse melody is similar enough to the chorus melody that the chorus already sounds familiar the first time you hear it. And that chorus slavishly follows the same formula for catchiness that, say, Taio Cruz's 'Dynamite' does. 1) Have melody – "tell me who's that girl wa-wa-walking in the club"; 2) Repeat it again; 3) Repeat it slightly differently the third time (Sebastian changes the note at which he sings "girl"); 4) Repeat the catchiest bit of the song (the mechanical repeats of "wa-wa-wa") a few times to drum it in. Overall, throughout the song, you hear the "wa-wa-wa" thirty times (and another four times hidden in the background of the 'whoa-oh-oh' section). I suspect that if you hear more or less anything thirty times in under four minutes, it should get stuck in your head.
In the mythology of pop music, The Club is a magical place where all your dreams come true. The Club is always full of people having a good time, and your gender of choice is not only incredibly attractive but very much interested in you in a sexual way. Pop music has long been obsessed with The Club, and a sizeable proportion of #1 singles are basically about being at a club (e.g., Taio Cruz's 'Dynamite'). So, considering that 'Who's That Girl' is a pastiche of the style, Sebastian sings the requisite lines about how “everybody was bumpin', the club was jumpin'” and how he “never thought [he]'d fall in love in a club”. But Sebastian is too polite and has too wholesome an image to embrace the inhibition of The Club mythology. Compare and contrast 'Who's That Girl' with Enrique Iglesias's 'Tonight (I'm Fuckin' You)'. Where Iglesias sings “Please excuse, I don't mean to be rude / But tonight I'm fuckin' you”, Sebastian is much more circumspect: “Before the night is through / Imma tell ya how I feel about you / And I know I got some work to do".
Nightclubs, of course, are deliberately set up to maximise uninhibited behaviour – dimly lit rooms make people subconsciously feel that no-one can really see them and, particularly when combined with the effects of alcohol, make them feel they can act more freely. The loudness of the music means that, in order to hear what anyone is saying, you have to get up close and personal and talk more loudly than you normally would, and this getting close and talking loud also helps loosen inhibitions. It's actually a proven fact that 63% of all things said in nightclubs are variations of “What did you just say?” Drinking alcohol turns down or turns off the voice in your head saying “Are you sure you want to do that?” Nightclub owners also deliberately make sure that the club is physically hotter than is normally comfortable, and studies seem to show that hotter environments makes people act more emotionally. In combination with sexually provocative music – say, Ke$ha's 'Take It Off', or Rihanna's 'Rude Boy' - all of this inhibition, the rush of excitement and adrenaline, means that people in nightclubs do things they wouldn't normally do. This may be simply having the courage to dance, or may be sexual displays like provocative dancing and removing items of clothing. Or, in the end, going home with someone at the end of the night.
All of these facts about nightclubs make them basically unpleasant places to be if you're not a particularly confident, attractive person who is looking for a one-night-stand. English critic Charlie Brooker, for example, recently wrote an enjoyably misanthropic column in the Guardian entitled “Nightclubs are hell. What's cool or fun about a thumping, sweaty dungeon full of posing idiots?”. Which only got more offensive to clubbers as the article went on - “If that's the only way you can find a partner - preening and jigging about like a desperate animal - you shouldn't be attempting to breed in the first place. What's your next trick? Inventing fire?”
Brooker has a vitriolic though not unfounded point: a considerable proportion of teenagers who grow up with this mythology of The Club are likely to find them underwhelming once actually there. And for all his bluster in 'Who's That Girl', it's hard to escape the thought that Guy Sebastian doesn't actually really like nightclubs. He specifies at the start of the song that he was only in the club because he was singing there. He also sings that he never expected to fall in love in a club, and he certainly doesn't have the confident macho strut of an Enrique Iglesias. Even in the video clip, he's mostly sitting on an antique couch singing, rather than dancing around at a club. He's too polite, family-friendly and wholesome for clubs. Ke$ha would eat him alive.
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