If she ever tries to f------ leave again, I'm-a tie her to the bed
And set this house on fire.
Love the Way You Lie, Eminem & Rihanna
It was the night before Valentine's Day, and appropriately enough, the 2011 Grammy Awards were rife with duets.
Rap prince Eminem made eyes (or at least bulging forehead veins) at Barbadian hip-hopper Rihanna, who later traded vocals with (and flashed her undies at) new kid on the block Drake.
The pretty leads in megaselling country band Lady Antebellum — Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott — swapped forlorn booty calls, their lachrymose tete-a-tete splashed with guilt and Jack Daniels.
Robust soul man Cee Lo Green, dressed like Elton John's id, and Gwyneth Paltrow, dressed like Olivia Newton-John at the devirginizing end of Grease, told each other to get lost — or something like that.
And the husband-wife leaders of Canadian concept rockers Arcade Fire, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, churned up a furious scrum dedicated to married people lost in the 'burbs.
Yep, love was in the air.
It's a quarter after one, I'm a little drunk and I need you now.
Said I wouldn't call but I've lost all control and I need you now.
Need You Now, Lady Antebellum
The bestselling songs of the past year have been duets. But we're not talking backseat specials like goo-goo-eyed oldies Islands in the Stream or Tonight, I Celebrate My Love. Modern duets aren't made for roller rinks and couples' skates; they're made for roller derby and couples' therapy. Yes, Love the Way You Lie is potentially murderous and, considering Rihanna's very real domestic abuse at the hands of R&B star Chris Brown, more than a little unsettling. But the duet is also shockingly honest.
You can blame a national divorce rate of just under 50 percent. You can credit an era of pugilism — left vs. right, nation vs. nation — as putting us in a sparring mood. Whatever the case, love stinks; strife sells.
"I don't know if we'll ever get back to the days of You Don't Bring Me Flowers," says Silvio Pietroluongo, director of charts at Billboard magazine, referencing the 1978 schmaltzfest between Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand. "It's hard to find a true love song these days, and definitely not one in duet form."
Complex, hostile, raunchy dialogues rule the radio dial, from hip-hop stations to all-country formats. Love the Way You Lie has sold close to 10 million copies worldwide. Rihanna and Drake's carnal tangle What's My Name? has sold more than 3 million. Lady Antebellum's Need You Now, a give-and-take between exes that crossed over from the honky-tonk to the globe, won record of the year and song of the year at the Grammys. As a result of this discord, Lady Antebellum will arrive at the Florida Strawberry Festival on March 13 as one of the biggest bands in the world.
But downer duets aren't just hot on iTunes. The indie market has also seen an influx of heartburn. Arcade Fire, often an intricate tapestry of male-female perspective, wound up winning album of the year for The Suburbs. And rookie act the Civil Wars, a dark, Gothic guy-girl duo from Nashville, Tenn., debuted at No. 1 thanks to an appearance on Grey's Anatomy and an endorsement from that heartache specialist herself, Taylor Swift.
"When you look at today's contemporary artists, who out there really exudes a positive romantic aura?" asks Pietroluongo.
In other words, what the world needs now is Peabo Bryson.
No more will you cry.
Baby, I will hurt you never.
We start and end as one, in love forever.
Islands in the Stream, Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton
Stevie Nicks is "speechless." The witchy woman, who's coming to the St. Pete Times Forum on March 23 with Rod Stewart, is trying to explain the success of Love the Way You Lie. "It's a pretty, uh — I'm just speechless trying to explain that song," says the 62-year-old.
The Fleetwood Mac singer is not a fan of the modern duet, and if Nicks and Stewart croon together during their Tampa gig — perhaps on her Leather and Lace (originally performed with Don Henley) — it won't be anything from current pop radio: "I feel bad for kids today."
Nicks represents the old-school duet; she's shared sonic embraces with Lindsey Buckingham (Go Your Own Way) and Kenny Loggins (Whenever I Call You Friend). The day after the Grammys, Billboard celebrated Valentine's Day by releasing a much-hyped list of the 40 biggest duets of all time, with Nicks' classic with Tom Petty, Stop Draggin' My Heart Around, pulling in at No. 28. The list was topped by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross' Endless Love.
Billboard's rundown — so jarring in the face of those coarse duets featured on the Grammys — was based on such music-biz data as sales and chart position. (The number of times a song was used for weddings — or honeymoons — was not included.)
Songs ranged from Kenny and Dolly's Islands in the Stream (No. 9) to Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes' Up Where We Belong (No. 29) to Sonny & Cher's I Got You Babe (No. 35). Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's Ebony and Ivory made the list, too, but the less said about that the better.
Most of the selections on Billboard's list are peaceful, loving, uniting. (And, if you're Peaches & Herb, reuniting.) But 10 of the 40 are from the 2000s; they're all hip-hop songs, and they're almost all romantically convoluted, with the highest charters being Nelly and Kelly Rowland's Dilemma, about an impending affair, coming in at No. 5 and Brandy and Monica's jealous-off The Boy Is Mine at No. 3.
If the current trend continues, Billboard's duets list will be a lot sweatier, bloodier, naughtier five years from now. "Forget about duets — it's hard to find a ballad these days," says Pietroluongo. "It's tough to get those kind of records to test well on the radio."
As Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway once asked:
Where is the love?
Stop it, stop it!
You've gone mad!
Mad, I tell you, mad!
You and this boy Slim Shady!
What's goin' on?
Roman's Revenge, Nicki Minaj & Eminem
In the past 15 years, hip-hop — the most dominant pop-culture force of the 21st century — has become as much about sexual politics and gender empowerment as it is about braggadocio. At the same time, the music industry has become singles driven, and the songs that sell are largely uptempo hip-hop tracks.
So it's not that people aren't falling for each other on the radio; they're just doing so, and dueting, in a contemporary way.
"Love is still alive! People don't stop falling in love! You just have make it sound modern," says award-winning songwriter Diane Warren, who gave us Cher's If I Could Turn Back Time, Aerosmith's I Don't Want to Miss a Thing and Celine Dion's Because You Loved Me, not to mention Starship duet Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now.
The 54-year-old Grammy and Golden Globe winner recently wrote a track for Senegalese hip-hopper Akon. "It's a straight ballad, but Akon put in hard drums and all this production. It's amazing. It's just what you do with it." Warren laughs: "Even the hardest gangsta out there isn't going to get the girl every time by saying I want to [bleep] you on the dance floor."
Warren just completed a project in which her hits were given a "very romantic" old-school duet treatment called Due Voci. But she also admits she's become "edgier" in her writing, mainly to keep up with a marketplace that has changed drastically.
In 1995, R&B belter Mary J. Blige teamed with Method Man for the altogether revolutionary I'll Be There for You/You're All I Need to Get By, a mesmerizing cover of the 1968 Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell staple. It was novel — rap was a notoriously misogynistic landscape, and this was a portrait of genuine love — and it was huge, winning a Grammy and going platinum.
That would lead to the "feat." movement, in which a female singer provides the "hook" (or chorus) on a song credited to a male artist. Ja Rule and Ashanti's Always on Time, a colossal hit in 2001, was instrumental in furthering the "feat." frenzy.
In 2002, Kid Rock, a Detroit rapper with country yearnings, recorded versions of the "cocaine and whisky" duet Picture with both Nashville singer Allison Moorer and roots-rocker Sheryl Crow; the song, which blended urban and rural, cross-pollinated on myriad radio formats and gave the country market license to like hip-hop.
And now, finally, female hip-hop stars Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, a Trinidadian eccentric with numerous alter egos, are dictating sales and using the boys for their own guesting purposes. The battle of the sexes: It has a good beat and you can dance — and then some — to it.
• • •
Billboard's Pietroluongo doesn't see the heartache duets stopping anytime soon — especially with the success of Love the Way You Lie and Need You Now.
But lo and behold, if you look at the country charts and the pop charts, you'll see that a curious li'l number called Don't You Wanna Stay is showing a crossover power not unlike Need You Now. It's performed by strange bedfellows Jason Aldean, a neo-honkytonker, and Kelly Clarkson, the pop princess and first American Idol champion.
It's a belter, and a throwback, and it's currently No. 33 on the iTunes charts. And although it's about another couple on the rocks, there's also a strange new element to be heard, too: hope.
Don't you wanna hold each other tight?
Don't you wanna fall asleep with me tonight?
Don't you wanna stay here a little while?
— Don't You Wanna Stay
Jason Aldean & Kelly Clarkson
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.