Nelly Furtado - Do It
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Amidst all the controversy surrounding “Do It,” what surprises me most is that no one has mentioned Nelly Furtado. Following a string of faceless singles, which themselves followed a career strewn with insecurities and a massive identity crisis, we are finally presented with a Furtado that feels, who can properly articulate a romantic crisis through concrete sentiments and establish a personality that is unequivocally her own. Ironically, this is done through lyrics as hazy and unsure as those of her previous blockbuster singles.
Despite strong choruses and stronger production, the Furtado of “Promiscuous Girl” and “Maneater” presented a character that contradicted the precocious, cooing coffeehouse chick of Whoa, Nelly! and the brooding, soul-searching coffeehouse chick of Folklore so egregiously that it came across as a lame marketing sham. This all boils down to Furtado’s most glaring blemish: that her emotions are crafted for her, not by her. She tried to play the VH1-friendly hippie earthiness with “I’m Like a Bird,” but her physical appearance is more exotic sensually than playfully, so she was the Penélope Cruz of Blow trying to play the Penélope Cruz of Vanilla Sky, even though both roles were terrible. Folklore, on the other hand, found her trying to be more confident, more womanly; but Furtado’s voice can’t support the weight of her self-imposed seriousness.
If Furtado hadn’t been fortunate in acquiring Timbaland for Loose, her image makeover would have been a colossal disaster. Luckily, Timbo had entered a new phase in pop production, so she benefited greatly from some crushing beats, rainbow synths, and fetching hooks, so much that it distracted from the forced sexuality of her first two singles and the emotional emptiness of her third, the haunting jock jam “Say It Right.” In his review of Loose allmusic.com’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine accurately pointed out, “…the only weak link is Furtado; no matter how she growls on "Maneater" or murmurs on "Promiscuous"—no matter how much she sings about sex, period—she just doesn't sound sexy. She sounds as if she's striving to be sexy, which doesn't generate much carnal heat…” Since Furtado’s appearances have felt crafted since day one, she feels less like an empowered voice and more like a ready-made product. Just check the cover for “Do It”: lips botoxed and puckered, lunky gold jewelry, skin bronzed like a rotten orange; this isn’t the stuff of celebrities and pop stars, it’s the stuff of exotic trophy wives, empty and worn molls of oil tycoons, jewelers, and mobsters.
But “Do It,” is different from those songs, specifically because it abandons the sleazy Maxim gloss that its cover displays. Timbaland’s beat, with its bubbly 8-bit synth and punchy drums, and which will reveal its true purpose in a minute, frames Furtado squarely in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, before the age of belting divas but just after the girly spunk of Cyndi Lauper and pre-True Blue Madonna. Though the production does recall Lauper’s sprightliness, vocally, Furtado doesn’t have her chipmunk pipes, the carefree spirit of early Madonna, nor the husky brattiness of Stevie Nicks. She’s a mid-range singer, crippling her ability to establish a distinct vocal persona. Trying to do M.I.A. on “Maneater,” she begs but fails to sound risqué through bold womanly sexuality, ending up as metallic as the former’s “Hombre” minus its exoticism.
If anything, “Do It” most directly channels Tiffany’s 1987 mall-pop classic “I Think We’re Alone Now,” sonically but more directly in sentiment. When Tiffany sang the lines “There doesn’t seem to be anyone around” and “The beating of our hearts is the only sound,” she’s anticipating the moment, but more importantly, she’s frightened of the prospective loss of her innocence. Furtado’s a different case: although she’s already lost her innocence, she’s no whore. Likewise, the persona she’s crafted seems incapable of a meaningful relationship; it would appear so when you have no fixed identity.
Listeners seem to fixate on the chorus’ repeating of “Do it like you do it to me (I’m burning up) / Do it like you do it to me (it’s not enough),” but it’s only that last distant chant that echoes the true sentiment of the song. The real giveaway is the bridge before the chorus, with the rapidly tossed lines, “Just a little look has got me feeling things / Just a little touch has got me seeing things / Just a little taste has got me off the chains / Doing things that I don't want to.” That last part is sung passionately because it’s the most important line. It’s there for her to have, and something inside of her wants it, but the fact of the matter is that she doesn’t.
In a hookup, the most painful scenario is the kind where one person wants it and the other doesn’t. It’s also the most difficult to consummate: the chances are that both people are so anxious that they can barely bring themselves to do it. The pursuer is too nervous to make that first move and act on those emotions, but the pursued carries the heavier burden, because they know that what they’re doing is insincere, self-fulfilling, and deceitful. Furtado can say whatever she wants, and pop music allows me to create my own scenarios if I want to, but I also don’t believe for a second that she is anyone but the second subject. She makes it apparent simply by the way she delivers the words for “Do It” with a strain and an ache that feels personal. And judging from her work schedule, where she’s likely constantly surrounded by the same people—producers, security, entourage—there’s a strong chance that this is about somebody she knows (Furtado just recently announced her engagement to a Cuban sound engineer who worked on Loose).
I’m against cheaters. Baseball players who take steroids should have their records stripped, murderers with expensive legal counsels are advantageous sociopaths, and NBA referees who call games based on their gambling are deplorable. But hip-hop is different, because people sample and borrow all the time with the shared spirit of creating art. Due to legal complications, it is unknown as to the true nature of Timbaland’s beat, but his use of the sample is incredibly deft. By making that Bubble Bobble-esque purl just miss the 4/4, so that it offsets the rhythm completely while magically strengthening it, he gives the insistent rhythm a nerve-racking intensity that adeptly scores the situation Furtado describes. Even more impressive is the ten-second breakdown before the outro, where the beat drops out, only to reveal a frail keyboard melody. That little snippet is that twisted, bottomless moment just before lips locking. My hands get clammy typing it.
Frankly, I can’t understand why this guy has a problem with his demo getting cribbed. If Timbaland used a sample that I made, I’d be thrilled. After all, isn’t this a “hacker,” someone who is supposed to support piracy and the free exchange of information? Might this even be able to pull him away from the computer screen and, being the proud inspiration of a pop genius’ creation, lead him to, y’know, getting laid? Should that be the case, it wouldn’t be too difficult to guess which person wants it more than the other. Our girl Nelly might even be able to help him figure it out.
By: Tal Rosenberg
Published on: 2007-09-20