Nelly Furtado struck the fuck out on Saturday Night Live last week. Things didn’t start out well, Kevin Spacey standing like a mannequin and pronouncing the nonexistent R in Timbaland. Furtado’s shrill, clumsy rapping sounded like Madonna on “American” Life,” and when she did deign to sing, it was in a ghastly, affected stage-coo. Mostly, she just ran around and struck vacant Barbie/model poses while the band behind her bashed out a thoroughly unconvincing version of Timbaland’s jittery, wobbly studio-funk. Tim himself stood off to the stage looked uncomfortable, barely able to move after someone Photoshopped his head onto a cartoon-weightlifter body, and his singing and rapping might have been worse than hers. The song’s lyrical conceit is a flirty back-and-forth; Nelly didn’t look at Tim when she delivered her parts, but Tim did look at Nelly during his, and that just made everything look wormier. Four bored-looking backup dancers twirled around in the background. The camera kept zooming in on the drummer’s inadvisable bald-ponytail thing. It was a mess.
Nelly Furtado has sort of fallen off the map since 2000, when her first album smashed through VH-1 and made her that year’s James Blunt. If you haven’t paid her any attention since then, her SNL appearance probably looked like a blatant and clueless sellout move, a desperate attempt to jump on the teenpop train even though that thing stopped moving like four years ago. She’s certainly not the first Lilith Fair MOR-folk chick to try the pop move. If you’re lucky, you’ve already forgotten about Jewel dipping it low and growling about your intui-shawwwn over Euro-cheese production. (Jewel hopes so, anyway; she’s since gone back to that folk-pop shit, which is nice, since I can now comfortably ignore her.) But it only looks that way if you don’t know anything about the last six years of activity in Furtado-world. She’s been making endearingly goofy attempts at rapping ever since she jumped on the “Get Ur Freak On” remix, and she opened up Moby’s Area: One tour, that ungainly traveling spectacle that was supposed to be the new Lollapalooza (remember that?). For a while, she was getting to be so ubiquitous on B-level rap records that I called for a lifetime ban after she effectively ended Ms. Jade’s career with her unbelievably obnoxious “Ching Ching” hook. In 2003, she released Folklore, a self-consciously eclectic folk-pop-rap-world-bluegrass album that absolutely tanked commercially. And she had a kid or something. She’s been busy, and she’s spent a few years absorbing and playing around with different genres. In that context, her Timbaland collabo works as another stage in the career of an artist who can’t/won’t stick with one genre or persona and whose volatile whims don’t have a whole lot to do with what might be selling right now. So the Jewel analogy doesn’t really work; she’s more like Gwen Stefani, whose leap into commercial R&B came after the Eve song and “Hella Good” and whose day-glo ska roots aren’t all that far from where she ended up anyway.
But then, Gwen Stefani is pretty much terrible too, so that’s not exactly distinguished company. Furtado isn’t terrible, and the non-SNL version of “Promiscuous” is a great pop single, a charged-up bit of swooshing synths and rattling drums and icy groove. Her rapping sounds more like narcotic muttering than forced posing, her “game MVP like Steve Nash” line reads clairvoyant rather than out-of-date after Nash’s indefensable second win, and the long instrumental fade-out is enough to bring up all kinds of happy memories of the days when Timbaland had a chokehold on pop radio. Furtado’s other new single, “Maneater,” is another Timbaland collabo, and this time there’s a burrowing-sandworm bassline and floating synth-plinks and a Hall & Oates jack on the chorus. Both have nice videos, especially “Maneater,” a well-done take on the oldest story in music videos (girl follows dog into underground tunnel which turns out to be threatening nightclub with suspicious dancers and computer-generated flames, girl then starts singing and grinding with dancers before going back to the surface and humping rusty pipes while sun rises, girl finds dog again and smiles all big). So Furtado’s only real mistake was making her biggest new-image unveiling a live performance on SNL, even though neither she nor Timbaland has a particularly great live-performer rep and a live band will always bludgeon a great little synth-groove into oblivion. Furtado’s new album drops next month, and I haven’t heard the rest of it, but there are a bunch of Timbaland tracks and a guest appearance from Coldplay’s Chris Martin that could maybe be OK. Over at Hardly Art, Sean has been seriously amped about this album for months. I’m not quite there, but I’m pulling for her; it’s been a minute since a good dance-pop album had a hope in hell of racking up decent sales in the US. If she ditches the band and finds herself a DJ for her next late-night TV appearance, it’ll be a step in the right direction.
Voice review: Amy Linden on Nelly Furtado’s Folklore