When they spin the Beatles during my occasional confinement in Classic Rockville (actual songs during drivetime, dude), I think two things at the exact same time: “Jesus, I never need to hear this song again,” and “Holy fuck, this is so much better than everything else on this station” (except “Gimme Shelter” and “Every Picture”). That’s how I feel about the “new” Nirvana single, “You Know You’re Right” (DGC), finally freed from penitentiary steel after protracted legal hustling. It’s filled with ugly, compelling echoes: Kurt appears as fear itself, and when he promises “I will move away from here,” you know he’s headed somewhere south of life. From Mr. Death’s neighborhood, he screams in key just like always—spooky-catchy, unwilling to mean any one thing, certain he must mean everything. It’s a great song, and when the Last Modrock Station lets it bleed, everything on the current playlist—Strokes, Foos, Good Fucking Charlotte—sounds like cereal-box toys (PS: Wasn’t Modrock gonna have women up in there?). This was the sound that attached me to the world in 1991 (if you’re using the new calendar, that’s five bombings of Iraq ago), but now it’s a memory even on first hearing. Committing to it is like committing to the Eagles’ Greatest Hits; it requires letting music escape from the everyday into mnemonic arcades, abandoning the idea that pop is inextricably alloyed with your moment, not its.
The song of the moment is Missy Elliott’s “Work It” (The Gold Mind/Elektra). “Oh my God, I wanna have sex with that song!” says my friend Judith. Who doesn’t? It won’t be the philosopher’s stone of “Get Ur Freak On”: It lacks the formal purity, the exotic minimalism, and its catchphrase is unintelligible like Benicio del Toro. So you keep coming back to figure if Missy said something, or nothing, or something you’ll never know. Meanwhile, the rest of the song hooks you like 23 positions in a one-night stand, omnivorously fun and implausibly inventive like my old boyfriend Paul’s Boutique, which it quotes except that cowbell is originally Run-D.M.C. just like the nonsense-rhyme strategy is rilly Juvenile’s; the cartoon voices are all Missy and who else would onomatopoeticize her jiggling ass, all over the Jigga Blondie “Can I Get a Heart of Glass?” beat? It makes the current playlist—Ludacris, Eve, Eminem—sound like two-dimensional churls. Not because it has “flow” (still pointlessly vague after all these years) but because Missy talks about bodies and fucking, boys and girls, music and race not just as if you could say anything you wanted, but as if they’re what daily life is made of. But no as if; the song offers these items as the is. Missy’s carnality, the song’s main vein, is a fact, and messy like facts be. But she’ll advise you on cosmetics, too. It’s hip-hop coffee talk, not a “constructed subject position” or any of that other shit people talk to explain why cardboard sounds stiff and tastes nasty. I don’t want to accuse the song of, like, ethnographic realism or something: None of my neighbors talk backwards (my tech guy Arturo says she’s saying “My sweet Satan”) or refer to “Request Line” and Kunta Kinte regularly. But still, it makes the posed excess of gangsta bling and the posed rectitude of the underground fold up before the sudden genius of everyday life, where the song found us. We were driving to the beach. We were about to bomb Iraq again. We were wondering if pop could be populism for once. We were talking about folks-rock, it was the last warm weekend . . .