Notes on "Humps"
A song so awful it hurts the mind.
"Taste has no system and no proofs"—this much we know. But some 40 years after the critic Susan Sontag made this and other observations on the good, the bad, and the in-between, the times have a-changed: Irony and camp have recast taste as an ethical shell game and we feel no guilt celebrating things that are, in the parlance of VH1, Awesomely Bad. But are there still songs that qualify as "bad"? Consider the Los Angeles hip-hop quartet the Black Eyed Peas. Their current single, "My Humps," is one of the most popular hit singles in history. It is also proof that a song can be so bad as to veer toward evil.
The Black Eyed Peas story begins in the early 1990s, when the rappers Will.I.am and Apl.de.ap met as members of a Los Angeles break-dancing crew called Tribal Nation. After a contract with Ruthless Records went nowhere, the duo regrouped with a third member, Taboo, and renamed themselves the Black Eyed Peas. The trio's earthy, post-Benetton aesthetic resulted in two moderately successful but unspectacular albums: 1998's Bridging the Gap and 2000's Behind the Front. In 2003 they added a fourth member, the singer Fergie. Propelled by a more upbeat frat-party vibe, their songs went platinum.
For all the brow-furrowing about the precise, Pavlovian engineering of hit singles, pop music is a wholly unpredictable, unstable enterprise. Lazy artists catch lightning in a bottle, bizarre throwaway jingles are greeted as bursts of quirky ingenuity, and puffy bits of melodrama accidentally become the catchiest thing ever. This is the weird appeal of the radio (or however you get your populist fix): Anything—good, bad, or otherwise—can sound genuinely perfect for a summer. If an Awesomely Bad pop song survives a few years and enlivens a party sometime down the line, so much the better.
This is what makes "My Humps"such an inscrutable pop moment. It's not Awesomely Bad; it's Horrifically Bad. The Peas receive no bonus points for a noble missing-of-the-mark or misguided ambition (some of the offended have responded with parody videos and snickering anecdotes about how the group uses Hitler-approved microphones). "My Humps" is a moment that reminds us that categories such as "good" and "bad" still matter. Relativism be damned! There are bad songs that offend our sensibilities but can still be enjoyed, and then there are the songs that are just really bad—transcendentally bad, objectively bad.
As a piece of music, "My Humps" is a stunning assemblage of awful ideas. The song's playful pogo and coke-thin, ring-tone synth line interpolate Sexual Harassment's 1982 left-field electro hit, "I Need A Freak". But where the original trafficked in something icky, sinister, and darkly sexual, the Peas' call-and-response courtship fails to titillate—in fact, it's enough to convince one to never, ever ogle again. The "humps" in question belong to Fergie, who brandishes her "lovely lady lumps" for the purpose of procuring various gifts from men who, one would assume, find the prospect of "lumps" very exciting—one lump begetting another lump, if you will.
"What you gon' do with all that ass/ All that ass inside them jeans? … What you gon' do wit all that breast?/ All that breast inside that shirt?" rapper Will.I.Am teases in response, rendering literal what had heretofore been pretty much literal. It's a song that tries to evoke a coquettish nudge and wink, but head-butts and bloodies the target instead. It isolates sectors of the female anatomy that obsessive young men have been inventing language for since their skulls fused, and yet it emerges only with "humps" and "lumps"—at least "Milkshake" sounded delicious.
The most fascinating aspect of "My Humps" is that it is widely believed to be the most successful unsolicited single in history, and, as of this writing, it is the most-downloaded song in the country. The Peas achieved all this without releasing a single. Instead, file sharers and intrepid radio programmers were the ones who more or less discovered the song and pushed it toward hit status, eventually forcing the label to respond with a proper single release. (Shaggy's "It Wasn't Me" is another recent example of a song that hit because of radio programmers rather than label strategy.) For now, "My Humps," has become the standard-bearer for the direct-democracy cultural possibilities of the Internet. It will certainly be supplanted. Soon, hopefully.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.
Audio excerpts from Monkey Business © 2005 Interscopeand I Need a Freak © 1995 JDC. All rights reserved.