Friday, January 24, 2014


"Debra" / Beck

Now this one's a hoot.

I can't claim to be any sort of Beck expert. (I'm sure there are such people around.) Beck's such a chameleon, you never know what you're going to get, and I've given up trying to sort the listenable stuff from the weird. But this track from 1999's very uneven Midnite Vultures hits a home run. Intentionally an homage to -- even a parody of -- those sex-dripping R&B come-on songs of the 70s and 80s, "Debra" somehow proves why that genre was so durable. Of course you don't take it seriously, but did anyone ever really take Barry White seriously?

Beck totally nails the slick, glossy, pelvis-shifting arrangement -- you got your loungy horns, you got your loose-stringed bass line, your got your dazzly synth riffs. And his vocals are a pitch-perfect impression, full of the requisite ooh-oohs, husky sighs, whispered come-ons, and shivery wails. At the same time, the song's setting is completely alien to let's-get-it-on R&B -- suburban Glendale, California. We start out at the mall, naturally -- "I met you at JC Penney," Beck croons in his falsetto. His love object is probably on break, from the kind of job that comes with a plastic nametag; I imagine her with a super-sized Orange Julius cup, pursing her lips fetchingly as she sucks on the straw.

He's a smooth operator indeed, his tools of seduction "a fresh pack of gum," a ride in his Hyundai, and a "feel-good meal" (for a good feel, heh heh heh) at the Armenian restaurant chain Zankou Chicken. (Appleby's must have been full.) Yeah, he's a predator, circling around this girl "like a fruit ripe for the pickin'."  But I also see him as a victim of his own culture, his adolescent urges force-fed into the only romantic idiom he knows, the ridiculous beyond-innuendo lingo of "you've got that thing / That I've just got to get with."  Yes, even a white boy now thinks this way.

There is a switcheroo involved, too. Technically Beck isn't singing this song to Debra at all -- the girl he's coming onto is (according to her nametag) Jenny, who just happens to have a sister named Debra.  But Debra is involved in the deal, as the chorus slyly mentions: "I just got to get with you / And you know what we're gonna do / I wanna get with you / And your sister / I think her name is Debra." Love the studied casualness of that "I think her name is Debra." He knows perfectly well what her name is.

Well, he's not just talking about hanging out and watching TV with these sisters. I don't know whether Debra is the real object of his interest, and he's only going through Jenny to get to Debra, or whether it's the sister-on-sister three-way that has him most excited, but Jenny by herself is clearly not sufficient. Why else does he name the song after the other girl?

But don't tell Jenny and she just might not notice. Or care. Whatever. . . .


14 DOWN, 38 TO GO


NickS said...

One of the first songs that I thought of, when you mentioned "52 girls" was the Pulp song which, unfortunately isn't called "Deborah" ("Disco 2000"). Now I'm curious if this Beck song may have inspired the name.

On the other hand, Dave Edmonds also had a song "Deborah." I wonder if the 3-sylable works well for expressing a certain sort of longing. In that case, the fact that the Beck song uses the shorter "Debra" may be another way in which it isn't serious -- he doesn't care enough to stretch out the name.

NickS said...

One other video that you might appreciate, a live performance with Nick Lowe and Dave Edmonds (that was in the sidebar).

Nick Lower is such a rock star in that video -- effortlessly charismatic. I listen to later Nick Lowe more than his early stuff so I sometime forget that side of him.

Holly A Hughes said...

I did consider including the Rockpile "Deborah" -- might still do so -- although it's not one of my favorite Nick Lowe compositions. Not that I don't love rockabilly, but the character in the song just doesn't jell for me.

NickS said...

It's a fun song, but it also feels mean, and like a bit of a cliche. It never feels like it's about a specific person, "Deborah" is just an archetype (of, to put it bluntly, the woman who is insulted because she isn't interested in the singer). That's overstated, it isn't actively bitter, but it feels catty to me.

(If it matters the live Nick Lowe video is of "Heart Of The City")