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Diss tracks

Eminem and Dr. Dre advise that you don’t write a diss track if you can’t back it up. Photo credit: Interscope Records

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In Three Easy Pieces, I break down a specific type of pop culture in three steps -- starting at its birth, and arriving at today. This month: diss tracks, those songs where one artist takes aim at another, in the process airing pungently dirty laundry and giving the listener a visceral thrill. While hip-hop dominates the diss track game, the form has been present in most styles of pop music.

BIRTH: "Pop Hates the Beatles," by Allan Sherman
Honorable mention: "Too Many People," by Paul McCartney; "How Do You Sleep?" by John Lennon; "Sweet Home Alabama," by Lynyrd Skynyrd

Look, if another artist has personally wronged you, and you feel the need to respond in song, no one will deprive you of your right to do so. But, what if you've not only never met the target in question, but your whole take on them will be demonstrably wrong by the time your dumb song hits the airwaves? "Pop Hates the Beatles," by Allan Sherman, is a song smug enough to label the Beatles as a tuneless band of talentless hacks in 1964, essentially seconds before they'd prove themselves to be the Greatest Of All Time.

Now, one might argue that Sherman's song is satirical -- a parody of stuffy parents annoyed by what would become the most influential group in modern music - but I would argue that seeing Sherman and Dean Martin grinningly perform the song on the latter's show smacks much more of dinosaurs unaware of their imminent extinction. Sung to the tune of "Pop Goes the Weasel," lines like, "What is all the screaming about? / Fainting and swooning / Sounds to me like their guitars / Could use a little tuning," ring like death knells of the old guard in the face of the new paradigm.

DEVELOPMENT: "Without Me," by Eminem
Honorable mention: "Don Henley Must Die," by Mojo Nixon; "Not if You Were the Last Dandy on Earth," by the Brian Jonestown Massacre

By the time we arrive at "Without Me," by Eminem, hip-hop has effectively taken the diss track subgenre as its own. In fact, it'd be no problem to come up with a list of exclusively Eminem diss tracks. For its sheer breadth of targets, and for its incredibly catchy melody and whip-smart verbiage, I'll have to give this spot to "Without Me." Before he even attacks anyone famous, he singles out his audience for preferring the manic id of Slim Shady to Eminem's more personal songs.

From then on, it's a free-for-all: MTV, the FCC, Dick Cheney, Moby, Limp Bizkit, and NSYNC (the line, "Chris Kirkpatrick, you can get your ass kicked," is as memorable as it is inexplicable) all get their moments of abuse. Along the way, regardless of how legitimate his disses, Eminem's greater point is that his ability to offend while making art is a shot of adrenaline that's necessary in our culture, comparing himself to Prince, Elvis Presley, and professional wrestling -- for better or for worse, in any case. It's a buckshot blast of a diss track that somehow also makes a damn good point along the way.

TODAY: "Look What You Made Me Do," by Taylor Swift
Honorable mention: "Swish Swish," by Katy Perry; "Back to Back," by Drake

In 2017, two of the most high profile pop songs were diss tracks and, to a note, they're both awful: "Swish Swish," by Katy Perry, and "Look What You Made Me Do," by Taylor Swift. If there were ever an indication that inclusion in this column is not a sign of quality, it's my decision to highlight Swift's limply plodding swipe at Perry, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. Lyrical aim, no matter how overblown, petty, or tone-deaf, can typically be saved by a good tune, and it's here where Swift fails: I don't care enough about her vapid celebrity beefs to put up with this stilted, airless, repetitive trudge that somehow captured an enormous audience. The best thing about the song is that it's borrowing the melody of "I'm Too Sexy" means that Right Said Fred got a good payday.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Coming-Of-Age Movies. 

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