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In which the lead Pussycat Doll does her best Georgia O’Keefe impersonation, and nobody notices.
The career trajectory of Nicole Scherzinger could be used as some sort of cautionary tale about culture, and the music business, during the ’00s. Coming to relative prominence as a result of her presence on the US version of Popstars, she toured with teenpop titans like ‘NSync as a result of her membership in Eden’s Crush; when they broke up, she tooled around for a while, eventually gaining membership in Robin Antin’s burlesque-troupe-turned-singing-group the Pussycat Dolls.
The Dolls’ noxious blend of “sexiness,” boastfulness, and marketing savvy made them a perfect fit for the bubblicious economy of the mid-’00s. They were a pop group that was built for people who cared enough to spend money on the ancillary revenue streams of pop groups; Interscope Records, the group’s label, took a cut of all the Dolls’ merchandising, from TV shows to trashy lingerie. The radio dominance of their singles, like the bray-filled “Don’t Cha” and the whiny “Stickwitu,” turned the once-innocent act of flipping on music in the car into a minefield. And Scherzinger had an ace in the hole: tiny print on the agonizingly successful PCD noted that she was responsible for all lead and backing vocals on the record.
So it was probably inevitable that she would try and jump ship from the Dolls and go solo to prove to the world that she was really an artiste. In 2007 she started releasing tracks that would serve as an appetizer for Her Name Is Nicole, a solo album that was seemingly titled to fend off assumptions that her actual name was The Overly Made Up One In The Front. The first single was “Whatever U Like,” a cacophonous T.I. collaboration that enlisted someone to remind the audience that “her name is Nicole” while she trilled “I can do what-ever-you-like” in a seemingly helium-assisted coo. It stalled outside the Hot 100, as did the follow-up single, the whiny ballad “Baby Love.” The album was pushed back over and over again, despite having its promotional strategy running full-steam-ahead enough that she snagged a Blender cover story. What to do?
The powers that be at Universal Music Group decided to go for the Hail Mary move: a song about Scherzinger’s vagina, as seen through the prism of her Hawaiian heritage. “Puakenikeni”—named after a flower indigenous to the 50th state—starts off with La Scherz doing her best impersonation of a wind instrument over a sinewy beat; a chorus of anonymous women then goads her into talking about how she’s a constant object of the male gaze. But it’s OK, because doesn’t she look hot in her red bikini? (Which, it should be noted, she rhymes with the name of the flower.) The rest of the song follows this pattern, with Scherzinger overly enunciating the name of the flower in hopes of getting anyone who might go looking for the track at the iTunes Store to spell it correctly.
It probably goes without saying that this single also tanked. (Americans are only comfortable with flower-as-ladyflower metaphors when they’re visiting art museums.) After giving the whole solo-career thing one more go with a last-ditch Duran Duran cover, Scherzinger slunk back to the Pussycat Dolls with a couple of songs from Her Name Is Nicole in tow and worked on the group’s second album Doll Domination—which, despite the success promised by its title, barely sold enough to pay for the expensive motorbikes on its cover. And where is she now, as the decade comes to a close? Why, she’s dodging Pussycat Dolls breakup rumors and judging reality-TV hopefuls alongside Ben Folds on NBC’s desperate response to American Idol and Glee, The Sing-Off. The circle of life!