Billboard Banter, Week 2

Every few weeks, Jake Kring-Schreifels and Eric Mollo will exchange emails and examine a current Top 40 song in depth. At its best, the conversation will scrupulously examine the dearth of good lyrics over the radio that people so casually sing and memorize. At its worst, our analysis will needlessly scrutinize songs people will likely forget in a few months. 

Song 2: “Am I Wrong” by Nico and Vinz

Jake Kring-Schreifels: Song release dates are weird.

“Am I Wrong” came out in April 2013 and finally peaked in America in July 2014, hitting #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Over those 14 months, the song acclaimed international success, Warner Brothers found out about it, and the band changed its name from “Envy” to “Nico and Vinz,” after its singers Nico Sereba and Vincent Dery. The duo is from Oslo, Norway but originated from Ivory Coast and Ghana. Their song has African-Reggae vibes and the music video was filmed in Botswana and Victoria Falls between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Got it?

I felt I needed to give that abbreviated, bullet pointed summary before we began dissecting some of these lyrics, Eric. This song hasn’t gotten the media coverage like other breakouts this summer and it’s largely because of the duo’s anonymity to American audiences. Still, we’ve come to expect things like this. As much as we get standard, ultimately forgettable pop songs from Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Demi Lovato, we receive some minor breakouts that cut through the four-chord fog that is contemporary pop music. Nico and Vinz has one of those songs and I’m not hesitant to say that when this track comes on my Pandora randomly in six months, I’ll think of this summer.

Is it because Yankees reliever David Huff is usually a culprit to play this song in the locker room too much? Is it because my housemates from Turkey enjoy listening to it? Is it because you can insert the title into daily conversation? Yes. Yes to all. But that’s not an excuse to dismiss the catchiness of its rhythm or to mistake its uninspired phrases for its positive message.

Opening stanza:

Am I wrong for thinking out the box from where I stay?

Am I wrong for saying that I choose another way?

Clearly not and I’d like to ask who they are telling this to? A fascist? A strict teacher? The music industry? Now we’re getting somewhere. But if you consider that they’re fame is mostly predicated on Warner Brothers giving them a contract and establishing them in the United States, then have they really chosen another way? Again, so far, we don’t have an indication on who they’re telling this to.

I ain’t tryna do what everybody else doing

Just cause everybody doing what they all do

We then follow with this intellectually stimulating thought. Let’s take away the broken English for a minute—because they’re from Norway or Africa or somewhere in between—and let’s just consider the verbs. Lots of “do’s.” This is on par with Selena Gomez’s “Love Song” when she states, “You just do to me what you do.” Just tell us! So far through this song we know nothing. What is everybody else doing? Isn’t it always the case that people do what they all do? Eric, do you have any idea what we’re doing?

bon_iver_press

Eric Mollo: Good context, Jake. I didn’t realize it took so long for the song to get this popular. It kind of reminds me of how Bon Iver won Best New Artist in 2012 to the chagrin of hipsters worldwide despite For Emma Forever Ago being released in 2007. Now, I didn’t know who Bon Iver were until 2012, so I guess I just follow the herd, but that’s another story for another day…

And you have an interesting take on “Am I Wrong.” I heard this song pretty much every 30 minutes throughout the summer, and I immediately assumed these guys wrote this song about a relationship. I thought it was about taking chances and being yourself in love when your partner is unsure or everyone else is telling you to do something different. You know, the classic “Babe, our love is real. I don’t care what the others say, I just want it to be you and I together forever,” when a partner is having his/her doubts. Bold proposition, and I thought that’s what this song was getting at, but now I’m not so sure…

After reading through the lyrics, I think Nico & Vinz are actually writing about the path to fame and making a hit song. The classic reaching for the stars mentality (“Trying to reach the things that I can’t see”) and following your intuition even when people are telling you you’re “wrong” (punny/“but that’s just how I feel”) embodies that mindset for chasing a dream. “Am I Wrong” seems to be about the doubts people have as they’re chasing a dream.

So taking a deeper look at it, I think it kind of aligns with what you’re talking about with all this doing. You see, Nico & Vinz want to write music and become famous. So, what Nico & Vinz are actually “doing” is writing about a song they’re trying to write (which is what they’re currently doing) and about trying to “do” something  with that song (that something is being famous) and they’re actually doing it (they actually did write a song and became famous for it). See what I did there (“did” – to do in past tense)? It’s this never-ending cycle of doing. I mean, at least they’re taking action and not overthinking anything.

But, now I’m confused. Can you help me out Jake and make sense of what I’m talking about?

JKS: I don’t blame your confusion and I’m sure we’ve only made this more confusing. Part of that stems from the fact that the song’s title doesn’t even have a question mark at the end. Not even an ellipses. If you’re going to pose a question, don’t also make it a command.

Now, I don’t mean to discount your relationship theory. It’s perfectly valid and the song is purposefully vague about its subject matter. You’re not wrong to “think outside of the box from where you stay,” as our fine lyricists would say. Still, as this song progresses, it’s clear why “Am I Wrong” debuted overseas a while before jumping over here.

Am I tripping for having a vision?

My prediction: I’mma be on the top of the world

Walk your walk and don’t look back, always do what you decide

Don’t let them control your life, that’s just how I feel

Fight for yours and don’t let go, don’t let them compare you, no

Initially, most of this sounds arrogant, but somewhat typical for an American song. “I’mma be on top of the world.” It’s a rock-pop song cliché (even my beloved Imagine Dragons have a song about that) and it’s made its way into many a rapper’s subconscious. But this has a Public Enemy “Fight the Power” undertone to it, without necessarily all of the pent up racial stigma as pronounced in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”

If this song is being sung to African villages or more impoverished areas, inspiring them to break free from gender roles and dominant class structures, this becomes an uplifting anthem. Yet, how am I supposed to interpret this song? I’d say it’s somebody on an ego trip who got exposed to some individualistic kool-aid and then tries to plant subversive commands by hedging them with “That’s just how I feel.”

That’s like giving an insult to somebody and saying, “no offense.” Nico and Vinz, we know that’s just how you feel. If you’re going to give us this empowering message, have the audacity to commit. Sorry, Eric, that’s just how I feel.

EM: Very deep, Jake. Very deep. I do agree that the song is empowering, though I guess I’m with you because I question exactly who this song is meant to inspire.

I think they’re use of pronouns is telling (I feel like I’m starting to write an English paper here, so if this starts to get boring, bear with me), as they transition between first person “I” and “We” a lot. “I ain’t tryna do what everybody else doing” and “If one thing I know, I’ll fall and I’ll grow”: two lines that seem to tell the listener, ‘Society can’t tell me what to do. I’m going to do what feels right.’ Very empowering for an individual. Just gives off that headstrong, no excuses vibe.

But then who is this ‘we?’ Who are Nico & Vinz including in the conversation when they say “Am I wrong For thinking that we can be something for real?” Are they collaborating with someone to achieve a lifelong goal/dream? That’s why I initially thought it was a song about a relationship: they’re working together to take a chance and achieve love. They’re trying to empower not only themselves as individuals, but are inviting other people to achieve this vague goal or this bland idea of success.

I guess, Jake, I’m just a little stuck. Is this song too vague to allow us to interpret exactly who Nico & Vinz are trying to empower? Or am I just not looking deep enough into this? Help me get past these pronouns.

JKS: I’ve been doing a little extra-curricular research on these guys, Eric, and it seems like we’re making too much of this. The nuts and bolts are boring. Nico and Vinz want to be famous and this song is essentially a catharsis, a way to directly confront their worries about trying to make it big in the music industry. So, as I sort of predicted. But I don’t like being so literal, and I don’t think that’s our goal here.

I will say that what turned me on to this song was the African-chanting “oh yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah” female vibrato that jumps into some of the last melodies. The words “Am I Wrong” precede it, and while these fill-in vocals are supposed to be nothing more than musical grace notes, they actually end up answering this existential question. Of course, that implies that Nico and Vinz are wrong, wrong about it all. But this song is too upbeat to suggest any negative connotations like that.

As for the pronouns, I’m chalking that up to this duo’s broken English again. In songs like this, grammar is usually a last resort unfortunately. What they’re banking on is people latching onto this widespread message, one that has apparently been fulfilled merely by the fact that we’re analyzing it on this forum. In essence, proper diction is not a concern. It’s sort of like watching HBO’s Hard Knocks. If you expect anything more than a third grade reading level from a football special teams coach then you are sorely mistaken. “Don’t do none of that S@#*!” is just a typical phrase when someone gets angry with a player for missing an assignment or tackle. These men don’t get their jobs based on their speech. They get jobs based on expertise and emotion.

So, what we have here Eric is a catchy, quickly tiresome seminar on being yourself and not letting others decide your fate. Of course this message won’t last too much longer once the duo sees their paycheck for all of this radio play. By the 14th time “Am I Wrong” is politely yelled, you’re ready for a new song, bored of Nico and Vinz being didacts and ready for their next likely hit, “We Conformed.” Am I right?

5731915751_3561142c23_z

EM: I think we probably have a tendency to overthink a lot of this stuff. Maybe we should just do our research from the beginning. Or maybe I can continue to state interpretations/opinions with little to no researched factual information supporting them. But that’s kind of the purpose of our banter… no?

I do think it is interesting to think of this song as a cathartic experience for Nico & Vinz. It kind of makes this a big roundabout. They’re writing a song about writing songs to get famous in the face of doubters. Writing a song about writing a song can be a cathartic experience for song writers. It’s sounds redundant, but not really when you think about it.

But I think the pronouns are still important because, whether they’re doing it intentionally or unintentionally, using the word “we” seems to inspire individuals who are pursuing other goals in life. For example, maybe, I don’t know, an aspiring sports broadcaster can find some solace in this song knowing they’ll have to combat a lot of negativity and doubt along their journey to being famous. And saying that “we can be something for real” seems very inclusive. It can inspire anyone pursuing individual goals regardless of what path they’re traveling in life.

It’s a very optimistic way of looking at this song, but better off being positive than a big negative cranky dude that tells everyone they’re wrong.

Follow Jake Kring-Schreifels (@jakeks19) and Eric Mollo (@followmollo) on Twitter

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s