Really? Black Eyed Peas and Jazmine Sullivan revive the phrase, 'Me love you long time'
Popular music is like the Pacific tide, its volatile surf constantly throwing up flotsam and jetsam from the depths of our collective subconscious. Out of nowhere, a sound or an idea might return after years in the deep. Sometimes the toss-up makes sense: Banjos, for example, have made a comeback as a secondary instrument in both indie rock and country, and it's easy to pinpoint that trend along the arc of the recession, which has driven people back toward what feels rootsy and homespun.
Then there are those pieces of cultural junk that return for no apparent good reason.
"Me love you long time" is not a phrase I'd hope to hear blaring out of somebody's apartment window again. It first became a catchphrase in "Full Metal Jacket," Stanley Kubrick's caustic war film, in a scene involving two less-than-savvy soldiers and a Vietnamese prostitute with weak English and debatable bargaining skills. It became a part of pop history when Luther Campbell's controversial party band 2 Live Crew turned it into a hook in its controversy-stirring 1990 "Me So Horny." Since then, it's been parodied in comedies such as the film "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and the animated Fox hit "Family Guy" and musically repurposed by a host of artists -- Nelly Furtado and Mariah Carey as well as the Hawaiian reggae band Conscious Roots.
This week, the phrase pops up twice. Least surprisingly, the Black Eyed Peas use it as the basis for the VIP-room duet "Love You Long Time," on the new album "The Beginning," released Wednesday. The sentiment's not new to Fergie, who copped the 2 Live Crew hook in her own "London Bridge," and the inveterate recycler Will.i.am must have thought she'd only touched the tip of its iceberg, because here he Auto-Tunes her voice, squeezing it tight until it sounds more ... stereotypically Asian? The song describes a love match taking place in "the Velvet Lounge," a nominally classier version of the street where Kubrick's GIs meet the feisty Papillon Soo Soo.
Give the Peas credit, I guess, for at least hinting at the phrase's source -- or should we further disdain them for that? After all, what Will and Fergie cast as a love duet is a financial exchange in Kubrick's film, one that dehumanizes everyone involved. It's not possible to redeem it by putting it into the mouth of a man, no matter how tenderly Will tries to turn it.
Unintentionally, perhaps, the Peas' use of the phrase spans the distance between the streetwalker's blatant self-advertisement and the more subtle but equally mercenary exchange that happens between "bottle girls" and their "dates" in high-end clubs. This twist puts the song in the dubious category of the stripper ode, common ground for hip-hop-loving pop stars in this era of mercenary sex.
Jazmine Sullivan, on the other hand, milks "love you long time" for sentiment in her song of the same name from her second album, released Wednesday, "Love You Back." She's not the first. Mariah Carey took this route in 2007, on a song with virtually the same title. Carey described that song to MTV reporter Jennifer Vineyard in a 2008 interview as a party record, basically dismissing her own choice of words. Sullivan, whose voice is as earthbound and full of conviction as Carey's is butterfly-wild, creates something really powerful with that bothersome phrase, almost enough to free it from its legacy. Salaam Remi's drumline-based production pushes Sullivan nearly to breathlessness, and in the chorus the phrase becomes a tongue-twister expressing the rush of emotion in young romance.
Still. Did she have to go there? In 2007, when Carey and Fergie and Nelly Furtado all partook of it, Vineyard and Audrey Kim reported that the phrase had become a form of harassment against Asian American women. "It's instantly putting you in the position of being a foreigner, an outsider and a sexual stereotype," said actor and writer Margaret Cho. "It's an all-in-one combo."
Another subject of MTV's report, a male, noted that Asian Americans sometimes use the phrase themselves to needle each other, and in fact YouTube reveals a few clips of young women saying it, sometimes clearly teased into doing so by whoever's holding the camera. Nelly Furtado claimed that it could be rehabilitated, the way other loaded terms have been by minority groups. But this doesn't really seem to be happening. Instead, it's still powerful precisely because it feels a little dirty: the undertone, even in Sullivan's marvelously musical rendition, is still one of reckless sexual availability. And let's face it -- it's impossible to hear it, or to say or sing it, without that echo of an accent pushing it toward caricature. Some phrases, it seems, should be weighted down and thrown into the depths for good.
-- Ann Powers
Photo: The Black Eyed Peas. Credit: Getty Images