What is it with duets these days? It’s becoming a frequent trend for the two parties to speak completely past each other in their co-sung songs. Gone are the days of duets between two voices in complementarity or at least in conversation.
Two songs on today’s Top 40 come to mind specifically, revealing a trend in mismatched and mixed messages.
LOVE ME HARDER // Ariana Grande
Ariana Grande’s latest ballad is topping the charts. “If you want to keep me,” the pop star croons in its catchy refrain, “and if you really need me, you gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, got to love me harder.”
The perfect double-entendre lyrics, right? Considering Grande’s eagerness to shed her innocent image for a sexualized one (which even caught the attention of Bette Midler last month), this is naturally what first comes to mind. But then when you actually listen to the singer’s other lyrics, it would appear she’s actually saying something more substantial, along the lines of loving someone better or more fully.
As the lyrics go:
“Tell me something I need to know / Then take my breath and never let it go / If you just let me invade your space / I'll take the pleasure, take it with the pain / And if in the moment I bite my lip / Baby, in that moment you'll know this is / Something bigger than us and beyond bliss / Give me a reason to believe it.”
The thing is, Grande’s lyrics are in stark contrast with her co-singer The Weeknd’s lyrics.
“I know your motives and you know mine / The ones that love me, I tend to leave behind / If you know about me and choose to stay / Then take this pleasure and take it with the pain / And if in the moment you bite your lip / When I get you moaning you know it's real / Can you feel the pressure between your hips? / I'll make it feel like the first time.”
Really? One second “this is something bigger than us and beyond bliss,” and the next it’s reduced to what sounds like a temporary tryst before he “leaves you behind”?
Further, the call-and-response lyrics sound unbalanced. Grande sings, “I’ll take the pleasure… with the pain” and The Weeknd’s response, instead of saying he’ll do the same for her, simply echoes back how, yes, woman, you can “take this pleasure… with the pain.” Would he? No ma’am; he’s clearly here just for the pleasure.
The song reminds me of Lady Gaga and R. Kelly’s duet, “Do What U Want,” where we hear the same female-gives/male-takes theme. Gaga sings, “Do what you want, what you want with my body,” which R. Kelly later mimics later. But does he reciprocate and say she can do what she wants with his body? Nope, R. Kelly is simply on board to, and I quote, “do what I want, what I want with your body.” (Troubling words, if you ask me, to hear coming from an alleged sex offender.)
I’M NOT THE ONLY ONE // Sam Smith
Then we have Sam Smith’s heart-wrenching chart-topper. His lyrics tell a raw story of heartbreak, but in the version where he shares with A$AP Rocky, the sincerity of Smith’s lyrics clash with the flippancy of his collaborator’s.
First, Smith softens your heart:
“You and me, we made a vow / For better or for worse / I can't believe you let me down / But the proof is in the way it hurts… / You say I'm crazy / Cause you don't think I know what you've done / But when you call me baby / I know I'm not the only one.”
Then A$AP Rocky eats it for breakfast:
“I might've had a couple women at the same time / But you handle the pressure, Jack Daniels for breakfast / A cap of valium mixed with antidepressants, precious / My momma said that we need love / Till I found out life's a bitch with no prenup, you're on your own / Divorces or court splits, decisions and choices / The Porsche or the fortress? Ignore it or forfeit.”
Some agent somewhere thought this was a good idea. To be fair, they probably didn't mean to create a disconnect with the duets; they probably intended the musical bridges to be just that—bridges—linked in at least some harmonious way with the rest of the song. If the duets were seen as equally matched—the heartfelt "love me harder" on equal footing with the flippant "the girls that love me I tend to leave behind," or the solemn "we took a vow" with the nonchalant "divorces and court splits"—then it's a troubling indicator of what we as a culture view as healthy relationships for both parties, consensual or not.
What's more likely is that they were probably looking more at dollar signs than toward meaningful art. Artist collaborations can be great for reaching new audiences and creating new sounds, for sure. But at least in these cases, when the two parts are at direct odds with each other, one part risks dulling the luster of the other, causing both to suffer. As for me, I’m not buying it. I’ll be listening to the solo versions, because when I listen to music, I’m looking for harmony, not discord.