We generally try to avoid rejoicing in others’ misfortune, but as music lovers, we couldn’t help but cry tears of joy this morning when we saw the news that the Black Eyed Peas are going on an indefinite hiatus. But even so, there was a tinge of sadness behind the unconstrained delight that we won’t have to suffer through any more dreadful half time shows or Slash collaborations again any time soon, because before the Black Eyed Peas were the band responsible for a constant stream of songs that make you want to claw your own face off, they were a perfectly acceptable middle-ranking hip hop trio who made a couple of decent albums in the early 2000s. Where did it all go wrong? Join us as we chart the key points on the Black Eyed Peas’ journey from respected alt-hip hop crew to critically reviled commercial behemoth.
The arrival of Fergie (2002)
It all starts with Fergie. It’s probably unfair to lay all the blame for the Black Eyed Peas’ dramatic left turn at the feet of the woman who can’t spell “duchess” — clearly, whatever music the band makes has to be a collective decision, and in any case, it’s always looked like will.i.am rules the BEP roost. But equally, there’s no avoiding the fact that in the years Before Fergie, the Black Eyed Peas made pleasantly Native Tongues-influenced socially conscious hip hop. In the years After Fergie, they’ve made music that’s not Native Tongues-influenced, not hip hop, and not pleasant. Two thousand two was Year Zero for the new-model Black Eyed Peas, the year that they prepared to unleash their new direction on an unsuspecting world.
“Where Is the Love?” (2003)
The first hint of said new direction came with chart-conquering power ballad “Where Is the Love?,” the first single from the Black Eyed Peas’ third album, Elephunk. The last the world had heard of them was their 2000 single “Request + Line,” a pleasantly upbeat party track featuring guest vocals from Macy Gray. “Where Is the Love?” couldn’t have been more different — if the sentiment (“Can’t we just all get along?”) was laudable enough, the execution was sappy in the extreme, all mawkish sentimentality and hand-wringing about how awful the world is. But, shit, everyone’s allowed a big power ballad at some point in their career, right? Ah, but if only we’d known what was to come…
“Shut Up” (2003)
Elephunk‘s second single was the confirmation that all was not well in BEP land. Beside being a dreadful piece of work in its own right, this song also commands a special place in the ninth circle of musical hell for being the tune that catalyzed the whole Fergie experiment in the first place — apparently will.i.am needed a female singer to provide the (maddeningly irritating) chorus hook, and offered Fergie a chance to audition. The rest, as they say, was history.
“My Humps” (2005)
Fergie’s showcase track from Monkey Business, and a song that was so jaw-droppingly appalling that even Alanis Morissette felt justified in parodying it (although Peaches’s pisstake was even better). The lyric manages to combine crass materialism (check out all the product placement in the first verse), the least appealing description of breasts ever penned (“lady lumps”), a couplet that rhymes “sexy” with “sex me,” and the lines “Mix your milk with my cocoa puff/ Milky, milky right.” This won a Grammy for “Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal,” doing more damage to whatever’s left of the Grammys’ credibility than a million awards to The Suburbs could ever repair.
Fergie pisses herself (2005)
So it’s not just her band’s musical legacy she pisses all over, eh?
“Pump It” (2006)
We’ve held forth at length before about the uninventiveness of the sampling techniques used by today’s producers, but this was a new low, and also conclusive proof that the Black Eyed Peas had long abandoned any semblance of restraint or, y’know, shame, by the release of Monkey Business. Apparently will.i.am heard Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” on a compilation he bought in Brazil (he obviously doesn’t own the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, then) and said, “We should do a song like this.” Or, more accurately, “Let’s just lift the entire song, stick a beat under it and ramble over the top.” Press material at the time quoted will.i.am’s account of the recording: “I jump-started the computer and made some beats on the train. Then we had to fly to Tokyo and I tightened up the beat on the plane. Then I recorded vocals in this park in Tokyo. And that’s how we recorded the song, ‘Pump It.’” Yeah, and it shows.
Here’s how things work in Black Eyed Peas World these days. In 2007, the band embark on the mammoth Black, Blue and You world tour, which — as every piece of marketing material that accompanies the tour is quick to remind attendees — is presented by Pepsi. In 2008, the band reconvene to write a new album. In 2009, the album (The E.N.D.) is released, and includes a track called “One Tribe,” a bit of pseudo-political waffle about how all the world is “one tribe, one planet, one race.” In 2010, a new advertising campaign is launched to sell gallons of America’s second-favorite sugar water to a public who clearly don’t drink enough calorie-laden bilge. And, in a remarkable cosmic coincidence, the campaign is based around a nebulous new-age concept of caring about one another and the frankly hilarious concept that “every Pepsi refreshes the world.” And shit, doesn’t it just happen that “One Tribe” is just the perfect accompaniment for the campaign? Wow! Didn’t that just work out perfectly?!
“Boom Boom Pow” (2009)
In which will.i.am, apparently inspired by a festival set by Australian duo The Presets (who, it should be added, would probably be mortified at this), lays out his vision of cutting-edge musical futurism. It’s a vision that involves beats that sound suspiciously like Afrika Bambaata’s “Planet Rock” (released in 1982, lest we forget), copious use of Auto-Tune, and a refrain that sounds awfully like “I got a Kit Kat.” The future is now, eh?
“The Time (Dirty Bit)” (2010)
In the same way that it’d be kind of perversely interesting to spend a day with Charles Manson, we sometimes wish we could see into will.i.am’s brain. It must take a special kind of musical sociopath to just keep coming up with the ideas that underpin Black Eyed Peas singles. Normal people just don’t get ideas like “Hey, what if we take an Auto-Tuned rendition of the chorus from the Dirty Dancing song and then mix it with some ’90s trance clichés and a synth tone that sounds like a mosquito? It’ll sound like someone taking a shit in your ear, but it’ll sell gazillions of copies!”
Closing thoughts (2011)
The public often has unfairly romantic expectations of artists. We expect them to create for the sake of creating, to make art for art’s sake. We like them to live out clichés we would never essay ourselves, and if any of them dare to make money in the process, we turn around and accuse them of “selling out.” No one’s denying that such notions are largely juvenile, and ignore a) the fact that everyone has to pay the rent, and b) the fact that art doesn’t exist in a commercial vacuum.
But. But. Even so, there’s something thoroughly depressing about the Black Eyed Peas’ career arc. Arguably, there’s never been a band who have started out (apparently) making music for their own artistic reasons, and then gone on to court the mainstream so deliberately and cynically.
Since about 2003, every move they’ve made has come across as cold, calculated commercialism. Hearing a new album is like listening to a bunch of ghastly marketing executives plot out strategies for appealing to new demographics (“Hey, if we get Slash, we might be able to hit the old rock dude market!”). In 2011, their output has nothing to do with art — it’s a product, the dark side of the Warholian notion of art-as-commodity, the musical equivalent of KFC’s Double Down sandwich. Theirs is a world where videos exist for product placement (we wonder how much HP TouchSmart paid for those first five seconds of the “Boom Boom Pow” video, for instance, or the watch company that’s constantly and shamelessly shown off in “The Time (Dirty Bit)”), where collaborations are strategic alliances to sell more records, where songs are written to cement corporate partnerships.
And the worst thing about Black Eyed Peas is that they know it. They’re not naïve 14-year-olds or a manufactured boy band put together by some godawful cynical svengali. Obviously we’ll never know for sure, but it looks for all the world that somewhere in the early 2000s, they made a decision to make a play for megastardom and untold riches, and in doing so, to make music in a way that looks at nothing beyond its commercial value. It’s worked a treat, obviously, so we hope they enjoy their riches, and trouble our radios no more. Goodbye and good riddance, Black Eyed Peas. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.