Friday, September 18, 2009
#104. 'So for you this is just a good time'
City High "What Would You Do?"
You know, for a genre that tends to mention prostitution a lot I can't think of many hip hop tracks that do much to delve into the issues behind it that actually get some level of mainstream success. If anyone does it it's usually those on the conscious end of the hip hop spectrum and those guys haven't had much crossover success since the early 90s, but otherwise if a popular hip hop track mentions hookers its usually in the sense of picking them up, fucking them and leaving money on the night stand. It's a bit one-sided, especially since the plight of a working girl could on its own make for a readily compelling track (think about Ursula Rucker and The Roots' "Adventures in Wonderland" for example), but it probably ties into that old saying about how we look to the media for escapism as opposed to realism. Then again, if realism is catchy enough there's no reason it can't spawn a relatively massive hit.
That's probably the secret to "What Would You Do?"'s success: it doesn't sacrifice a damn good hook for moralizing or a deep analysis of the issue at hand. Sure the song is about the reasons behind one particular woman's decision to turn to prostitution in a dire time, but it's presented in the context of a relentlessly catchy bit of urban pop. It strikes an uncanny balance between the two sides if you want to think about it, never letting the hooks cloud the message and never letting the message get in the way of the hooks. And for a fairly simple pop song it's kind of amazing just how many different points of view it manages to give time to without sinking under the weight of its own importance. It also doesn't take a side in the debate so much as round out the views of all the involved parties, which makes for an interesting listen regardless of it's hookiness.
It starts out like any number of other R 'n' B singles with the scene taking place at a party, but then the song gets flipped from the superficiality of that event to a much more personal story. From the halfway point of the first verse we're introduced to half of our viewpoints on the issue; one is the man who sees his old schoolfriend having made what he sees as a bad decision to enter the world of prostitution, the other is the girl who understands that it's not an ideal situation but sees no other solutions to her problems. It's not an argument though, which is the smart way to go here, but more an attempt to get both parties to look at the bigger picture that informs what they're focused on. Sure having the prostitute have a tragic past and shutting down the debate with an appropriately earned 'I've been through more shit you can't even relate to' tips the song into the realms of melodrama, but the overall effect is simple: neither party is willing to see beyond their own notions of what can and should be done to realize that fact. It's not a song about prostitution, but about the narrow views that everyone on every side of the issue adopts without considering how many factors beyond that there are.
It's rare enough that a massive hip hop hit gets you thinking, period, so to go back and see that "What Would You Do?" was a top10 single makes for a bit of a retroactive chart-based 'hell yeah!' moment. It showed that you could get borderline deep social commentary into the public consciousness in an age where pop hits were getting more and more shallow by the month and urban pop was heading towards a much more sexualized ideal. It seems slightly anachronistic that it was a hit at any point after 1993, but the fact that it managed to be as big as it was at any point is enough to make me hate pop music less.