Staff Top 10
Top Ten Songs That List Women’s Names

the list song has a rich and varied history, from Gilbert and Sullivan's "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” to Ludacris’s “Pimpin’ All Over the World,” and it’s a form I’ve long admired. In high school, when I used to teach myself piano from sheet-music collections of standards, I got a kick out of Cole Porter's "You're the Top"—perhaps the consummate list song—with the line "you're _______" repeatedly filled in with paragons of beauty or fame (the Mona Lisa, Mickey Mouse). Only some of the songs below, in this list of list songs, go to such extremes, but what they do have in common is their subject matter. They’re all about women, listed as conquests to brag about or regret, as idols to admire or critique, or as potential lovers to admire from afar.

The Waterboys, "And a Bang on the Ear"
The Nails, "88 Lines About 44 Women"

Nick Hornby's High Fidelity opens with an actual numbered list of the narrator's "desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups in chronological order," and the rest of the novel's prologue is then divided into the story of each relationship. I'm lukewarm on Hornby as a writer, but I'm an absolute sucker for structural gambits like this. So it’s no surprise that I like the Waterboys' "And a Bang on the Ear," where nearly every verse is devoted to a former girlfriend (the first is about a schoolboy crush, the last about a current lover) and all conclude with Mike Scott crooning, "I send her my love with a bang," or kiss, "on the ear." It's standard-issue Celtic folk-rock, complete with a lively fiddle, but the song carries a wistful air, and its lyrical formalism contributes to that: as Scott considers each woman, one senses (as with High Fidelity) that he's taking stock of his life.

The mere title "88 Lines About 44 Women" announces a structural affinity with "And a Bang on the Ear," although the two songs could not be more different in tone. After all, the Nails use new-wave synths and primitive drum machines (there's a certain resemblance to Trio's "Da Da Da"), and Marc Campbell's speaking voice is drily sardonic, without a hint of Scott's restless passion. Plus, it's hard to know what Campbell's relationship is to each of the women he glibly memorializes in rhyming couplets: some it's clear he's fucked, others just seem like oddball acquaintances. And yet both songs convey an element of nostalgia: these women deserve to be remembered.

Weezer, "Tired of Sex"
DMX ft. Sisqo, "What These Bitches Want"

In this pair, however, women are seen as a frustrating burden, and maybe even worth forgetting. "Tired of Sex" anticipates by several years Rivers Cuomo's vow of celibacy; in a personal essay written for a class at Harvard, he talks candidly about having empty sex with groupies in the band's early years, which seems to have embittered him to the act altogether. The song imagines Cuomo bedding (or, archaically, "making") a different woman each night of the week, when all he really wants is to fall in love. It's this kind of wounded sensitivity that endears Weezer to an emo crowd that's never felt comfortable with cock-rock tributes to sleazy debauchery, but masks the fact that, within the song, women still occupy the role of discarded playthings.

This makes for an uneasy alliance with DMX's "What These Bitches Want," in which the growling rapper is content to "fuck with these hoes from a distance" but can't abide "the instant they catch feelings." As with "Tired of Sex," there's a superficial virtuousness in the rejection of female fans, as DMX reps for his monogamous marriage ("Come on, you know I got a wife / And even though that pussy tight, I'm not gonna jeopardize my life"). But in the second verse, he rattles off the names of 46 admirers, and this sheer amount both depersonalizes them (they're interchangeable in their uselessness) and sounds suspiciously like bragging ("I don't fuck them, but I could"). For both DMX and Weezer, the list is used to underscore the banality of the sexual parade.

Lou Bega, "Mambo No. 5"
LL Cool J, "Around the Way Girl"

Thankfully, Lou Bega is not so jaded. In his update of Perez Prado's bouncy, horn-laden "Mambo No. 5," the one-hit wonder revels in the attention of a cadre of ladies whose first names end in "-a," and the resulting chorus is agreeably silly. By contrast, the list in LL Cool J's "Around the Way Girl" is by no means pivotal—it's half a line at the end of the third verse—but the whole song demonstrates a similar sort of female idealization: celebration mingled with desire. (Not to mention that they've got two women in common: "Pamela" and "Angela." Look out, Lou.)

If "Around the Way Girl" is the better song, it's partly because of its specificity. Whereas Bega joyously reveres women everywhere, LL envisions a posse of dream girls, extending his preferences right down to the apparel and accessories. The fact that some of the details are dated ("with your New Edition / Bobby Brown button on your sleeve") only adds to the charm. Of course, the sped-up Mary Jane Girls sample (can we call this proto-Kanye?) doesn't hurt, either, especially when it answers those sumptuous vocals in the chorus.

Le Tigre, "Hot Topic"
The B-52s, "52 Girls"

Whether respectful or cynical, all of the songs so far have been characterized by masculine perspectives. As an all-woman band, Le Tigre does away with the male gaze, and on indie-dance anthem "Hot Topic" they pay tribute to those who've inspired them through a series of spirited shout-outs. With its focus on little-known authors, artists, and academics (finally, a song that mentions Gayatri Charavorty Spivak!), the list is also unmistakably didactic; the attention to queer women and women of color maybe even makes it an ideal liberal-arts syllabus. (Of the small handful of men named, none are straight and white, and a couple, like James Baldwin, are neither.) But with its girl-group sing-song and loping Motown-meets-"Devil's Haircut" beat, it's also a lot more fun than songs with similar premises, such as Daft Punk's "Teachers."

It seems like the B-52s’s "52 Girls" should also fit into this camp, as it seeks to name "the principal girls of the U.S.A." But only four are recognizably famous: first, Tina Louise (Ginger on Gilligan's Island) and Jackie O.—both in keeping with the band's fascination for the Hairspray era—and then, cheekily, Kate (Pierson) and Cindy (Wilson) themselves. I like what this suggests, though, which is that they've created their own private pantheon of heroes: could be celebrities, could be hip old ladies at the bingo hall. And naturally I love those kooky twinned voices, navigating the maze of a melody above Ricky's twitchily rhythmic guitar. They could learn to count, though: they only make it through 23 of the girls.

RuPaul, "Supermodel (You Better Work)"
Sonic Youth, "Swimsuit Issue"

Of course, feminism critiques as often as it celebrates, and within the feminist community, perhaps no media image is scrutinized more than the airbrushed fashion model. In RuPaul's dance-club smash "Supermodel (You Better Work)," the strikingly tall black drag queen breathlessly exhorts a queue of notable cover stars to strut their stuff. Though the song is obviously campy and tongue in cheek, it's also telling that RuPaul isn't name-checked in "Hot Topic," despite meeting the apparent eligibility requirements: he still believes in the models' basic fabulousness.

Sonic Youth's "Swimsuit Issue," on the other hand, takes a more pointed approach. The first half of the song finds Kim Gordon grunting mostly nonsense rhymes (some seem to deal with sexual harassment) over jagged, discordant guitar—but then the bottom falls out and she begins softly chanting the first names of Sports Illustrated swimsuit models. (Sadly, most are all too familiar to me, since I was, ahem, 12 years old at the time; if you’re curious, it’s the 1991 issue.) Gordon takes on a mock-erotic intonation as the band starts to chug along, her breathy voice suggesting the absurdity of the models' objectification. And then a neat trick: as everything comes to a climax, she drawls the words "us women" in such a way that it could be mistaken for "I'm swimmin'." Even better, both interpretations convey a sense of solidarity.

(Thanks to Dan Martin and Eric Ziegenhagen.)

By: John M. Cunningham
Published on: 2006-08-11
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