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Critics' notebook: Eminem and Rihanna and a host of others update the duet

July 16, 2010 |  7:00 am

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What's the last thing you want to hear coming through your neighbor's wall? Probably the sound of a couple getting really intense. If they're arguing, the noise conveys ugliness; you might even have to call 911. If love is their drug, it's just embarrassing. Romance (and friendship, in fact) doesn't exist without intimate interaction, but we all tend to feel more comfortable when partners keep this very active realm to themselves.

Art makes an exception of this rule. We turn to it, in part, to become immersed in other people's variations on our own most private activities. The movies offer steamy love scenes, novels thrive on subtext-heavy dialogue, and music gives us duets. A fundamental part of popular song from La Boheme to "I Got You Babe," duets make a circle of the yearning often expressed in solo performance. There's a calm in many duets, even the sad ones, as singing pairs trace the development of a crush, or celebrate the fruits of faithfulness, or mourn the loss of each other, together.

This summer, people seem to be craving such interplay. Carole King and James Taylor are the surprise smash of the summer touring circuit, romanticizing their lifelong platonic bond in shows that stress the  sibling-like blend of their harmonies. The pop charts buzz with real and imagined conversations, from Eminem's first all-out (though still damaged) love song "Love the Way You Lie," which features Rihanna, to Snoop Dogg getting Katy Perry's back on "California Gurlz," to B.o.B and Hayley Williams' "Airplanes," which brings to mind a heart-to-heart by two hand-holding slackers under the stars.

Lady Antebellum, fronted by just-friends Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott, is ruling country music by reviving the stage-marriage tradition that did so well for Dolly and Porter and Loretta and Conway before them. And in indie pop, the duo has nearly replaced the band as the unit of choice -- partly because it's more practical to make a big sound with synthesizers and just one other partner than to have to deal with more personalities dictating the vision and dipping into any profits.

A perhaps unwitting result of that development has been a rising number of male-female partnerships, from fuzz darlings Sleigh Bells and Beach House to more polished collaborations like the troika that plays KCRW's World Festival at the Hollywood Bowl this Sunday: the Bird and the Bee, She & Him and the Swell Season. From the Beatles onward, the liberating joy of rock has been most commonly expressed by a bunch of lads getting wild together. Now, a woman is just as likely to be an equal partner in the mix.

This stress on the energy exchange between a man and a woman suggests a new phase in pop songwriting. As Jody Rosen pointed out in his 2006 examination of duets in Slate, hip hop's collage effect allowed for producers to channel both masculine aggressiveness and feminine vulnerability without necessarily making clear how they connect. One exception was what Kelefa Sanneh called the "thug love duet" -- songs that express the conventional alpha male/soft mama duality in ways that can be tender, but are also somewhat cartoonish.

The current crop of hip hop pairings deviate from this formula. The closest is Eminem and Rihanna's emotional pairing -- in it, Em reflects upon an abusive relationship (likely his own, with ex-wife Kim), while Rihanna provides the delicate and ultimately submissive counterpoint to his rage-filled confusion. Yet by tapping into the extreme emotion that is Em's hallmark, and connecting to Rihanna's own complex history as a recovering abuse victim, "Love the Way You Lie" throws into question the very stereotypes it evokes.

"Airplanes" and "California Gurlz" go in another direction. So does "My First Kiss," which is about sex, but doesn't imagine a sexual connection between Kesha and the dudes in 30H!3. You can imagine those three on the prowl together on a given Saturday night, just as you'd think of Perry and Snoop playing the dozens on the beach, or Williams and B.o.B. editing each others' term papers. These are buddy songs. Romance isn't barred from these relationships, but it's not necessary. There are other reasons for men and women to enjoy each other.

Duets and duos don't always flow in hetero directions, of course. Plenty of indie rock duos (think No Age) are like old-fashioned guy bands, just with fewer members, and in rap, collaborations are still often testosterone displays. But the rise in popularity of casual sex equality within pop is meaningful. It gives me hope for kids today, so often condemned for their hookups and their OMFG LOL communication skills. They're getting right something simple, which often eluded previous generations: how to be together, no big deal.

Precedents do exist, of course. King and Taylor have found great success in presenting one: These baby boomer icons never had a romance, except for the serious artistic kind. Another lifelong duet that's still on target is the one between John Doe and Exene Cervenka, once the royal couple of punk as leaders of the band X, now longtime exes, reconciled musical allies and role models for an age in which words like "family" and "partnership" have multiple meanings. Doe and Cervenka bring their music to the Autry Museum on Friday night. There's still romance in their voices, when they join them in harmony. But like every human relationship -- and like art -- it's never simple.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Carole King and James Taylor at the Hollywood Bowl on May 13. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times.


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