This song is ancient by pop music standards. But it’s still one of the best illustrations of the club singles scene I’ve ever seen.
Let’s start with the title of the song. “Promiscuous.” That’s a big word. It’s repeated several times throughout the chorus and keeps reminding you; these aren’t normal people we’re dealing with. These are promiscuous people. At this point in their lives, their entire identities are wrapped around sex, getting it and giving it. The dancing in the video isn’t typical music video dancing. It’s club dancing, they’re simulating sex, moving their hips suggestively. There’s a Justin Timberlake look-a-like doing something that resembles the normal stuff, but it’s not the same. He’s dancing at the girls. Trying to get with them. He doesn’t get it. (The real JT later makes an appearance.)
The song follows the typical dance of these people. The first verse has them going back and forth, feeling each other out. The video cuts back and forth between Nelly, others dancing in the club, and more intimate settings where they’re showing off by themselves. Nelly: “You lookin’ for a girl that will treat you right.” Timb: “I might be the type if I play my cards right, I’ma find out by the end of the night.”
Nelly knows what Timbaland wants, a girl that will “treat him right.” She’d sized him up as a guy who likes a “well-behaved” girl, who knows how to play that role. It’s not just the slammin’ body. And she likes what she sees. Notice the difference between Timbaland and that white dude who keeps trying with her. He’s playing it cool, he’s not even dancing. Maybe they tried putting him in but they could never get his fat ass to look good.
I’ve been that white dude way too many times. When you don’t know what to do, it’s natural to just fall back into “training.” I’ve spent a lot of time working on my dancing; it’s flashy and attracts attention. But if I do it too much it doesn’t look good. And that’s exactly what I would do if Nelly Furtado showed up at the club I was in. I can’t help it, I can’t handle her.
The girl Nelly’s portraying trades in sex. She knows how to project it, she knows how to use it to get what she wants. She’s got guys like the white dude doing stuff like that all the time. She likes the attention, but what she really wants is another guy who’s just as comfortable with sex, the game of giving and receiving pleasure, of the back and forth as she is. She wants someone to play with. The white guy might get in her pants one night when she’s really bored, but tonight he’s getting nowhere. He’ll have to settle for the black chick. Timbaland’s got her eye.
And he knows it. Most guys are completely clueless, but he isn’t. He can spot another promiscuous player from a mile away. Because, as is said later, they’re “one in the same.” He knows what she needs, he knows how to give it to her. The line I quoted is a perfect illustration. “I might be the type if I play my cards right.” He’s getting her excited by dangling her the opportunity of control. He believes he needs to “play his cards right.” Just as quickly, though, he snatches it back. “I’ma find out ‘fore the end of the night.” He knows it’s a game and he’s ready to play. With two sentences, he has her hooked. It’s on.
That’s how it works in a club. You’ve got nine, ten seconds to make an impression on people like that. Because that’s all that’s needed to signal that, yes, you’re a part of that tribe too. Anything more and you’re trying too hard.
Then they move onto the next stage, the next verse in this “love” song. This is shown with the phones. The setting’s ostensibly the same as in the first verse. But now they’re not interacting directly with each other, they’re talking on the phone. That first, incredible high is over, now they’re junkies, chasing that feeling again. Playing games.
They didn’t have sex that first night, but really, it doesn’t matter. It’s not really about sex. Not yet. It’s about the mind, it’s about the roles, it’s about ego. They’re objectifying each other. The seduction, the control you have over the other. Is it possible they find love in each other? Maybe, but that’s the storyline of a movie. In real life, promiscuous people just run into each other over and over again, satisfying their base urge, and never getting past that. And it’s a two way street.
Because we’re not comfortable with our sexual sides, the people that are make ridiculous amounts of money explaining it. Only they’re not writing books. Their manuals come in video form.
Notice the frustration on Timbaland’s face as he’s trying to get Nelly to see him again. “You know what I want, and I got what you need.” Nelly *needs* a man like him. And Timbaland *wants* Nelly to play that role. What Nelly wants is for Timbaland to play his role, a guy who “repects” her. “You expect me to just let you hit it? But will you still respect me if you did it?” This is every bit as much of a role as the one Timbaland wants her to fill.
The respect isn’t a real respect, it’s an act. His actions tell her whether he respects her or not. She has to go by his actions, because she cannot know him. They could talk, and banter, and entice forever, but because neither of them are in touch with any of their real needs, they can’t communicate those needs to the other, so they have to play these games to make sure they’re not being taken advantage of.
All they have is sex. They’re young, they don’t know who they are yet. Whether they need somebody talkative or quiet, practical or imaginative. These things take time to figure out, and they’re not aware of the need to. So they substitute other criteria. “Does he freak out when I shake my butt at him?” It’s a test borne out of the need to rapidly figure out what a person’s all about. Pretty much every enticing thing Nelly says to him is a test that he has to pass. He can’t turn into a quivering lump of putty like you or I would.
Until the third act. It starts with the climax, “Don’t get mad, don’t be mean.” That’s a very mean thing to say. You’re saying, “Yep, I’m screwing with you, on purpose, just for the hell of it. I don’t really care about you.” Look at how she flaunts it to the white kid, and the demoralized look on his face. Timb, though, has the right move, he strategically caves, and simultaneously turns it up. This is where things finally get sexual. “I don’t mean no harm. I can see you with my t-shirt on.”
What, what? “Finally? It’s been sexual since the beginning!” Wrong. They’ve just been getting to know each other. When sex is your identity, sex is your lifestyle, then what’s sexual to you is not the same as what’s sexual to others. When that hot chick shoots you down after you hit on her all night, thinking you were going to get a piece, you probably made the mistake of getting sexual too soon. She doesn’t even know you, she doesn’t want you putting sex on the table so soon. Nelly says, “You wanna get in my world, get lost in it? I’m tired of running, let’s walk for a minute.”
Even though “walking” in her world goes on for a few hours or days before it gets sexual, it’s still very important, and you can’t skip it. But it’s a game, and anyone can win, even with a super-hottie like Nelly. Because at the heart of the promiscuous personality is the void that has to be filled.
So now it’s sexual. Notice how less flashier the lines are, how much more intimate. The phones all but disappear. They’re whispering in each other’s ears. The dancing gets even more subdued. Nelly manages to squeeze a sex scene into the video, and it goes on right under your nose.
There’s a subtext. Anybody who leads a promiscuous lifestyle sees the subtext and understands the video. Those who don’t just see what’s on the surface. Fine women, dancing, moving bass. This is why I love pop music so much. The things they pull, right under the noses of the rest of us. And how effective it is at communicating to its target audience.
Most think of Eminem as just a thug, just spitting shit and making tons of money. They can’t understand the subtext. The conversation going on between Em and America’s youth is far more substantial than the conversations between those same youth and their parents. Eminem raised a whole generation of kids. He spoke to them, understood them, when their parents could only speak at them. This is the power of subtext. They grow up as part of a tribe, they can recognize each other by the shared connection. They speak a common language. And they’ll use that language to have a conversation right under the nose of their parents that they never thought could be happening, they think they know their kids.