Thursday, October 27, 2011


Rusted Wheel - The Belle Brigade (mp3)
At Least I Have You - Mates of State (mp3)
Chances Are - Bob Seger & Martina McBride (mp3)

My single most favorite trend of the past 20 years in music is the surge in male-female musical groups.

Boy-girl duets is nothing new, mind you. Helloooo, Sonny & Cher? Donny & Marie? The history of pop music is replete with duets, from Kiki joining Elton to Rihanna guesting with Eminem or Coldplay.

But the fact is this: You put a male and a female in a song, singing into one another, singing around one another, singing on top of one another, and I’ll give your song five times the chance of success.

The song doesn’t have to be overtly sexual, because the allure of male-female singing goes far deeper than mere genitalia. It follows a rule similar to Jules' explanation of foot massages in "Pulp Fiction." A male-female duet hits me in the same core as bagpipes or African drums; something primal in me is instantly drawn to it.

Trying to name all the current bands on my radar which exploit this weakness is virtually impossible. The Weepies, The Civil Wars, The Rescues, Mates of State, The Belle Brigade, The New Pornographers, Buddy & Julie Miller. Those are all bands who earn chronic rotation in my musical life.

Others include The Ting Tings, Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, Swell Season, Acid House Kings, Sleeper Agent, Black-Eyed Peas, COYOL. These are all without even looking at my iTunes collection. There’s no telling how many I’m missing.

Glee, the entire show, the cultural phenomenon, rocketed into instant success the minute they turned "Don't Stop Believin'" into a male-female duet.

As much as I adore ‘80s music and its place in my heart and history, its male-female combos kinda sucked unless they were one-shot deals. Roxette? Animotion? The Human League? Ace of Base? Just about the only one that comes to mind that earned much respect was Timbuk 3, and that’s a stretch.

The ‘70s and ‘80s seemed better about single-gender combinations, groups where multiple dudes shared singing duties or sang on top of one another. Hall & Oates, Tears for Fears, Wham, Alabama, The Eagles, Flock of Seagulls... the Beatles, even. Almost the only obvious exception that stands out is Fleetwood Mac.

But you sit me down and ask me to start rattling off all the songs from my life I’ve loved that harnessed the power of a male-female duet, and I might never find time to eat a meal again. Here’s what I came up with just on the way home from dinner tonight:
  • “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” - Elton John & Kiki Dee
  • “After All” - Peter Cetera & Cher
  • “The Next Time I Fall” - Peter Cetera & Amy Grant
  • “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” - Tom Petty & Stevie Nicks
  • “Endless Love” - Lionel Richie & Diana Ross
  • “Islands in the Stream” - Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton
  • “Kid Fears” - Indigo Girls & Michael Stipe
  • “I Knew You Were Waiting” - Aretha Franklin & George Michael
  • “It’s Only Love” - Bryan Adams & Tina Turner
  • “Up Where We Belong” - Joe Cocker & Jennifer Warnes
  • “Chances Are” - Bob Seger & Martina McBride
  • “U Got the Look” - Prince & Sheena Easton
  • “Summer Nights” (and most of GREASE) - Olivia Newton John & John Travolta
  • “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” - Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes
  • “Don’t Know Much” - Linda Ronstadt & Aaron Neville
  • “Almost Paradise” - Mike Reno & Ann Wilson
These all popped up in 15 minutes or less of driving. I’ve thought of at least several dozen more since then, and I haven’t even Googled “greatest duets ever” or anything yet.

I only made this connection, about my deep instinctive love for male-female songs, because I wrote about both Tina Turner and Bryan Adams. The truth is that I love their duet, “It’s Only Love” as much as if not better than anything the two of them created individually. Which is absurd, by the way. It’s not that great. Which means this is more about my own Kryptonite, my own Achilles’ Heel. But I wouldn’t trade it.

Rap and Hip hop men have always sensed the value of a well-placed woman. We would never know Rob Base or DJ EZ Rock if they didn’t enlist the assistance of a woman to tell us exactly What Took Two. C&C Music Factory never sells 10,000 CDs without a woman belting out that chorus. This continues today with B.O.B.’s “Airplanes” and Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” just as examples.

I love all these songs far more than they probably deserve.

I wonder how much longer this trend will last? Or if maybe it’s a longer-term shift in music? Would Oasis even form in 2011 if Noel & Liam didn’t have a cute siren of a sister? Could Hall & Oates have even been born in the 21st Century? Surely they would have had to at least give themselves a different name that dodged emphasizing them as a couple.

Is it coincidence that, as our country and culture gets increasingly comfortable with homosexuality, we increasingly insist that our music resemble Adam & Eve more than Adam & Steve?

What about you, dear readers? Do you have a favorite duet, or a favorite band where the singing duties are shared across gender lines? Give me some names to feed this hunger of mine.


John said...

Love this post. The Elton/Kiki duo and Indigo/Stipe were on my mind before I got to your list.

The Civil Wars were on Letterman last night. Unreal gorgeous. Here's the link:

troutking said...

The best ever male-female song, bar none, is Tramp by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. Check it out here:

You're All I Need to Get By from Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell is pretty damn good too.

troutking said...

I forgot to say, you must listen to Tramp LOUD to pick up all of Otis' lines and to let that beat and that horn line work its magic on you.

Bob said...

Billy, I couldn't agree more (except about your choice of favorites, of course). I've often contended in my own mind that the greatest mix CD I could ever hope to make would be simply to compile the duets that Steve Earle has included on every album since Copperhead Road. Each one is a gem, and he duets with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, his sister, his wife Allison Moorer and a number of others.

One point of clarification: by duet, you do mean the man and woman trading lines, don't you? A man and a woman harmonizing, however beautiful that might be, doesn't seem like the same thing.

Billy said...

@John - Thanks for that link. What a wrenching and killer song.

@Trout - I gave you my comments in person!

@Bob - Honestly, duets are the creme de la creme, but I don't mean to narrow it so much. Male and female voices running together in a song in any capacity automatically makes it, for me, a more appealing song 9 times out of 10.

Bob said...

Billy, that's probably why Desire has emerged as my favorite Dylan--Emmylou harmonizing on every song. Are you lukewarm to She and Him, as I am? I thought Scarjo and Pete Yorn were better.

Billy said...

Totally with you, Bob. Even though I got the Yorn/Scarjo album, I hardly ever listen to it or even think much about it. Something about both combinations that lacked punch. Both albums had that disaffected cool remove thing going on, at least for me.

If the dual (duel) gender thing doesn't add tension or passion, then it kinda kills the point and might as well be John Oates backing you up.

stowstepp said...

My fave is the interplay of John Doe & Exene Cervenka in X. "Los Angeles", "In the Time it Takes", "Hungry Wolf", and the haunting intensity of "See How We Are". Sends chills up my spine every single time.