Cheap Thrills

A No. 1 Review: “Rockabye” by Clean Bandit feat. Sean Paul & Anne-Marie (plus a lot of other things Sean Paul featured in last year)

I haven’t updated this blog in a while: in between moving house, starting a PhD, working a job, dealing with Brexit and staring dumbfoundedly at Donald “Racist Paedo-Rapist” Trump, the blog has ended up taking a backseat. I’ve been determined to finish my No. 1 reviews though so here we are, a whole bunch of posts giving quick reviews of every 2016 UK No. 1 that I missed while they were in the charts:

So… Sean Paul is back. Indeed, 2016 was awash with Sean Paul. You couldn’t move for Sean Paul. Signal 1 played nothing but him for five months straight, intermixed with the occasional Can’t Stop the FeelingYet Mr. Paul didn’t release a single song of his own that year; he just appeared on everyone else’s tracks. The thing is: no-one really seemed to want him to be there. For example…

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“Cheap Thrills” – Sia feat. Sean Paul

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Cheap Thrills is a mindless party jam about how great it is to go the club and dance. This type of song doesn’t really get made anymore, critiques of club music being much more common. That said, this is a song written by Sia, someone who is an incredibly slippery character. More than that, it seems to say something quite fundamental about her character: namely that she’s becoming increasingly bored with having to make pop music.

A lot of this comes from the album that Cheap Thrills is a part of. Cheap Thrills is from This is Acting, an album comprised entirely of songs that she wrote for other people and had rejected. As Todd in the Shadows points out, the reason why most singers would write a song and give it to someone else is that the song isn’t actually very good, otherwise the first singer would have sung it themselves. So the album is made out of songs that Sia didn’t think were good enough, all of which were then rejected by the people she fobbed them to, resulting in Sia going “Fuck it” and releasing the songs anyway. Built into every single level of this album is the idea that everything in it is, on some level, crap. It’s an album of songs that no-one much likes. As such, the idea of it also being one of Sia’s more mainstream and poppy albums comes with the implication that most mainstream, poppy albums are full of crap. The fact that this album has been successful forms part of it’s critique: we live in such a flagging music industry that you can literally release an album of rejected off-cuts and still have it be one of the best received albums of the year. Now that Sia’s a mainstream success, she doesn’t need to care anymore, and This is Acting basically exists to point this out.

In this context, the title Cheap Thrills can only be read as a critique of the song itself. This song is not good or pristine or well crafted, it’s cheap. It wants nothing more than to be a thrill: something ephemeral, quick paced, gone before you know it. In short, the song’s a mess that’ll be here one minute and gone the next: that’s literally how it defines itself.

As such, the inclusion of Sean Paul comes off as something Sia did for the sake of it: “Let’s get some has-been rapper from a decade ago to do some guest verses because why not; everyone else does it and it’s not like I’m going to put any effort into this”. Sean Paul’s presence is thus little more than a cynical parody of songs that pull stupid shit like getting someone as irrelevant as Sean Paul in to do a guest verse. His very appearance is a critique of itself.

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“Hair” – Little Mix feat. Sean Paul

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The Little Mix song Hair goes even further in this regard. In it, Little Mix equate breaking up from a relationship with getting a haircut: “Okay, gonna bleach him out, peroxide on him / Here on the floor like a memory of him / Now I feel brand new.” The thing about this lyrical conceit is that, underneath it’s bubblegum exterior, it’s almost impenetrably dark. Little Mix’s relationship with this man was so bad that, now he’s gone, they have to completely change their appearance in order to feel themselves again. This man got under their skin, got in their head, completely destroyed their personalities and wrecked them from the inside out. Little Mix’s last boyfriend wasn’t just a prick, he was psychologically abusive.

The forced cutting of hair is a traditional punishment aimed at women too, performed by men to make them less feminine and thus shame them into living however the men wished. Plus, what type of people have to completely change their appearance in order to get rid of other undesirables: those in witness protection and people who are running from violent people for their lives. I could even quote fitting sections of The Rape of the Lock here if The Rape of the Lock wasn’t sexist bullshit pretending to be satire. My point is that enforced hair cutting and male violence against women (in particular, rape) have been frequently equated to each other. As such, the boyfriend in Hair is an abusive criminal and the song itself is about the recovery methods of a rape survivor.

But what role does Sean Paul play in this? Well, he plays the rapist. More than that, he plays him completely unrepentantly:

“Inseparable at the beginning when we started,
Good chemistry between me and you girl we got it,
I spit you game and just to tame you was my target
That was my aim just to be playing with your body
Thought that forever we could continue this party
And now you telling me that your love is departed
Right I’m just saying you gon’ miss your sugar-daddy.
How you gon’ get me out ya hair girl when I bought it?”

So Sean Paul is a prick. But listen to that language: “I spit you game and just to tame you was my target.” Doesn’t that remind you of the Blurred Lines lyric “Tried to domesticate you / But you’re an animal”? He’s also got the “game”; he wants to “be playing with your body”: he talks just like any club singer of the past decade, using their turns of phrase and their type of language. Hell, he even refers to his prolonged abuse of Hair’s narrator as a “party”. Sean Paul is fully representative of 00’s era club music in this song. If you felt that many of the songs from this era and genre were overly rapey, here’s a song that purposely presents a 00’s club singer as an actual rapist.

Of course, because this is a Little Mix song, what is the correct way of fighting against your male abuser? Well, go out and have a make-over. Or, put another way, go out and be as confidently girly as possible. Sexism is imposing a certain set of values onto the genders so as to keep the balance of power firmly in one gender’s court: just refuse to believe that your gender naturally diminishes you as a person and carry on regardless. There’s nothing more powerful and disruptive as doing whatever you want even after being told not too. Get your hair done and stick two fingers up to Sean Paul: it’s the Little Mix way.

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“Rockabye” by Clean Bandit feat. Sean Paul & Anne-Marie

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There is potential salvation for Sean Paul though, that being Rockabye which he did for Clean Bandit alongside Anne-Marie. Rockabye is about the trails and tribulations of single motherhood, talking to a baby about her hardworking single mother in order to confirm to it that ‘somebody’s got you’ and that it never needs to feel sad. As such, the obvious question to ask is what’s Sean Paul doing here? Where does the aggressive club dancer fit into this small-scale story of motherhood and intimate spaces?

Surprisingly, he fits into a support role. Mr. Paul appears to introduce the song ‘for all the single moms out there / going through frustration’ before immediately taking back-up vocal duties behind Anne-Marie, allowing her to tell the tale of a struggling single-mother while providing little utterances to emphasize various parts of her story. In certain verses, it almost sounds like he’s listening to Anne-Marie speak, his noises being little filler sounds to show that he’s still listening:

“Facing the hard life, without no fear (Yeah) […]
‘Cause any obstacle come you’re well prepared (Oh no) […]
And you give the youth love beyond compare (Yeah)
You find his school fee and the bus fare (Yeah)

This gives Mr. Paul an interestingly liminal position within the song itself. The only other man mentioned in the song is the single mother’s daughter’s father, a man who is defined by his absence from the mother’s life and from the song in general. Similarly, Mr. Paul’s appearance in this song is defined by it’s lack: by the way that it falls into the background and doesn’t impose itself upon the main narrative thread; by the way that it’s easily missed and not strictly neccessary. Built into this is the song’s opinion on absent male figures: their disappearance is sad and deeply felt, but ultimately they’re not needed and women can go on regardless. More than this, the situation is presented as one where the opinions of men do not matter at all: men can help but they can do so by listening, emphasizing and supporting women, not by imposing their ideologies onto them.

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In conclusion, Mr. Paul is a surprisingly liminal character in the pop world as a whole at the moment: a marginal figure infecting mainstream hits, a club musician haunting a post-club world. Built into his persona are both warnings from the past and potential ways into the future. In short, he is a symptom of a music scene which has rejected its past forms but still doesn’t have a new one. For better and for worse, Sean Paul was the artist of 2016.