He Said–She Said: Ten Relationship Dialogue Songs
onsidering that romantic relationships are the defining and default subject matter of popular music, and, well, they take two people, it’s a little curious that in the overwhelming majority of love-type pop songs, we pretty much just get one side of the story. After all, we all know that open communication is the foundation of a healthy relationship. (I suppose you might counter that healthy relationships don’t make for very interesting lyric fodder, but still…)
There are genres wherein he-she duets are relatively common: Broadway show tunes for instance (for obvious reasons), soul and r’n’b, French pop (I’m thinking of Gainsbourg’s classic duets with Birkin and Bardot, but also the recent Le pop en duo compilation.) Here are a handful of dialogue songs from slightly less expected sources—I’ve tried to limit myself to lyrics that specifically that take the form of conversations. (And, as much as possible, to songs that I enjoy for musical reasons as well.)
01. Postal Service feat. Jenny Lewis – Nothing Better
Let’s start with an easy one. Like many good lyrical dialogues, this one takes on that time-honored staple of modern human relationships: the break-up talk. It may not be the most realistic representation, what with all those over-strained metaphors about medicine and soccer (presumably?—I once overheard someone at a show exclaiming “but there are no quarters in hockey!”), but the characterization is pretty vivid. It’s fairly clear that these two have, shall we say, irreconcilable differences—he’s got his head in the clouds so far that he’s using a marriage proposal as a stalling tactic, while she, amusingly if a little heartlessly, reckons that it might take a lecture with charts and graphs to “finally make it clear.” Incidentally, in including this song I also acknowledge, by implication, the dialogue-duet classic “Don’t You Want Me,” to which it pays deliberate homage.
02. Jazz Passengers feat.Elvis Costello and Deborah Harry - Doncha Go ‘Way Mad
This time things end more happily. A fairly faithful rendition of an old Illinois Jacquet tune (also rended by the likes of Ella and Frankie, though not together), this is a lovely chance to hear two of new wave’s foremost attitudes coo so coolly they almost seem to be mocking their tougher younger personas. It’s also got to be the most amiable lover’s tiff imaginable, with lines like “well you understand that I feel upset”/“what do you say that we forgive and forget?” But really, who could hold a grudge with that deliciously slinky vibraphone softshoe in the background. It shouldn’t be much more than a novelty, but playfully inflected, winking performances from both all involved make it nearly irresistible. Dig, for instance how El blandishes “Deborah darling” in his final round of peace entreaties over the fade-out.
03. Ute Lemper with Neil Hannon - Split
It shouldn’t surprise many to hear the Divine Comedy frontman and the latter-day cabaret diva turn in a three-minute pocket-opera, replete with delectably caustic and pithy repartee worthy of Woody Allen at his most sarcastic: “I was there for you”/”You were there for me…and him…and half of the western world it seems.” It gets a little hard to follow the convoluted shared past they so vindictively thrust in each other’s faces here, especially when they launch into the unison chorus that suggests the betrayals and forgivenesses took place (repeatedly) on both sides. Essentially, this is another elegy to a dead-on-its-feet relationship, whose dissolution is imminent, apparently, because on reflection there isn’t much holding it together after all. That notwithstanding, they both still sound plenty damn passionate about it.
04. Tom Waits with Bette Midler - I Never Talk to Strangers
The lyrics aren’t much more than a string of clichés, and the meandering melody almost sounds like they’re making it up as they go along, so the song is pretty much carried on personality alone. But in this case that’s plenty. These two fit the parts so well they probably could have ad-libbed it, from Tom’s opening gambit (“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…”) to the sweet if logic-defying conclusion, in overlapping semi-unison, that “we’re all just perfect strangers as long as we ignore that we all begin as strangers just before we find we really aren’t strangers anymore.” (Got that?) The situation plays itself out like a scene from a sudsy B-list flick, and our protagonists play along with self-aware references to dime-store novels and sad repartee. It’s nothing less than you’d expect: another couple of old hams, winking it up.
05. The Magnetic Fields - Yeah! Oh, Yeah!
Easily one of the greatest lyrical coups on 69 Love Songs, despite being hidden in the middle of disc three. The giddy pop-song throwaway cliché of the title becomes the blunt, sardonic affirmation of a paranoid wife’s worst fears (“Do I drive you up the wall? Can you not stand me at all?”) Her sadistic hubby takes the bridges to expound a bit more on his complaints: “I can’t take your perpetual whining/and you can’t sing,” he says (and then, brilliantly, she joins him in a demonstration of her annoying singing voice!) Okay, that’s the set-up, and the first half of the song. You know what comes next: it’s just a few easy steps from domestic dispute to murder ballad. The closing lines include maybe the funniest, er, deadpan couplet on the whole album: “Oh I die I die I die / So it’s over you and I?”
06. Viktor Vaughn feat. Apani B. as Nikki - Let Me Watch
A wonderfully realized and fascinating piece on a number of levels, worth some serious formal analysis. Within the basic back-and-forth verse-trading structure, there’s a constant flux between straight-up storytelling, personal confessions and nested dialogue. It’s sort of like listening a couple tell the story of their relationship, taking turns, interrupting and overlapping each other, sometimes reenacting chunks of exchanges from different points in the history. Except that we also get additional perspectives each wouldn’t be likely to share in the other’s presence. Especially since, by the end of the story, they’re probably not likely to speak to each other at all. Notice how Vik and Nikki address each other directly more and more as the plot progresses and emotions get more entangled, leading up to the improbable conclusion: her vocoded outburst of emancipation (“I’d rather masturbate than fuck with Vik Vaughn”) and his perfectly twisted titular punchline.
07. Missy Elliott feat. Ludacris - Is This Our Last Time?
Missy has done more than her share in the interest of promoting dialogue of all kinds. I’m particularly fond of this one, a poignant portrayal of the confusion that can arise when “the sex don’t feel the same.” Along the same lines as “Let Me Watch,” it’s less a real-time dialogue than a pair of alternating testimonies delivered in direct second-person address, but in the absence of the addressee. In the aftermath of a first encounter perhaps akin to the one they described in “One Minute Man” a few years prior, Missy seems to think he’s had a change of heart. But I must say Luda has me convinced with his assertions to the contrary in his affecting guest spot, even if his metaphors are a little oblique: “I ain’t usually a chaser, ‘cause I write with my pencil, but also know how to use my eraser.” Hmmm.
08. Positive K - I Gotta Man
Here’s a throwback—an obvious classic in at least a few canons, definitely including the one I’m constructing here. I’m surprised I never hear this out in clubs. Maybe I don’t go to the right clubs. I should point out that, although it’s undeniably a dialogue, this song isn’t really a duet, since Positive K is rapping both parts (yes, the woman’s voice is actually him, heavily manipulated.) So I guess it’s a self-duet (a tradition that Annie’s “Chewing Gum” proudly resurrects, not to mention Jonathan Richman’s “Monologue about Bermuda.”) Also—as my mom once pointed out—this isn’t so much a ‘relationship dialogue’ as an extended bout of sexual harassment. Fair point, but enough splitting hairs. Anyway, the situation is pretty straightforward. The object of Pos’ ‘affections’ establishes her position (“pssssht, whateva!”) right off the bat and isn’t interested in budging, though she seems happy enough to stick around and spar. So it’s basically a set-up for some snappy verbal jousting. “I gotta man”/“How long you had that problem?” is certainly memorable, but for my money the choicest is the immortal: “I’ll tell you that I want you, I’ll tell you that I care”/“My man says the same except he’s sincere!”
09. Laptop - Let Yourself Go
Probably the most over-the-top entry on this list, and that is saying something. This isn’t strictly a duet either, since only one of the involved parties actually sings, but the spoken interplay that comes before each verse is so pitch-perfect and hilarious that I had to include it. “I just wanted to tell you how I feel about some stuff,” Jesse mutters just before he starts over-emoting like a syrupy ‘80s heartthrob, about giving in to passion and all that. Jenny, meanwhile, remains resolutely dispassionate, like she’s unaware or uninterested that she happens to be in a pop song; she’s just trying to have a normal conversation (albeit a relationship-ending one) and he’s trying her patience with all this oblivious singing. It’s the “Nothing Better” melodrama writ even larger, and more self-aware. Numerous brilliant ironic and meta-referential touches—like when Jenny’s voice becomes literally robotic in her emotionless exasperation: “You’re really not taking this in.” Cracks me up.
10. Blanket Music – Tap the Beat
You might have noticed none of the songs above address the happy, contented parts of relationships—like when they’re not just beginning or ending or being shaken up. That’s because those parts don’t really make worthwhile conversation topics; they’re generally just not all that interesting from the outside. This song is a good demonstration of that—it’s sweet enough in its way, but on balance it’s a bit bland. The unison musings of the verses give way to a back-and-forth refrain in which the lovers promise to help each other out in case one of them loses use of their arms, legs, ears, or eyes. Just for reference, the liner notes explain that the idea came from a conversation frontman Chad Crouch had with his girlfriend. So you know, this is what couples actually talk about. No wonder there aren’t more songs about it.
By: Ross Hoffman
Published on: 2005-05-06