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Not Fade Away 1998: Doo Wop (That Thing), by Lauryn Hill

"It's silly when girls sell their soul because it's in."

And where, you might ask, has America gone in all of this? We've not been there for almost a decade in this blog. Not since Madonna (who is back in the list of Other Contenders this year).

America will more or less own the 21st century, with only Scandinavia really giving it a run for its money, and you can see the 21st century shaping up in the list of other contenders, as hip hop (Beastie Boys) and R&B (Brandy and Monica) start to mate (listen to that Missy Elliott track again).

Frankly, they're heavy petting on this week's choice too. But as the title suggests, Lauryn Hill is also referencing an older model of R&B here. Doo Wop (That Thing) looks back to the sixties in its sound and, you might argue, its politics.

By the late nineties hip hop was getting ready to take over the mainstream of American pop thanks to cartoon sex and violence (Puff Daddy would soon come along to add cartoon bling to the mix). Some of this had a kick to it, but it's impossible to argue that its politics were anything but retrogressive. Nothing new there, of course. The history of pop is, too often, the history of misogyny (the Stones anyone?).

But we've now had 20 years of black hip hop culture - and white pop culture too; Mr Thicke is just the latest example - reducing women to bodies and, you know what? It's kinda dull. It shows a lack of imagination. It's adolescent.

I know I've argued often enough here that there is nothing wrong with pop's teenage-ness, but there's been a bludgeoning, damaging repetition of the same images and ideas - women objectified, women as sexual fast food, women as decoration, women as dolls. Women, in short, as less important and maybe even less than human.

On Doo Wop (That Thing) Lauryn Hill stood up and said that was wrong. She stood up and spoke to the girls and asked why were they standing for it? And she asked the men why they treated women the way they did?

Money taking, heart breaking now you wonder why women hate men

The sneaky silent men, the punk domestic violence men

The quick to shoot the semen stop acting like boys and be men

How you gon' win when you ain't right within

Hill's 1997 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a monster. It sold millions, won Grammys and proved that Hill was more than just the singer from Sister Act 2 and the Fugees. At its best it's a soul album. Break-up song Ex-Factor is as bruised and livid as anything Aretha ever sang (plus it gets marks for its use of the word reciprocity). But it's Doo Wop (That Thing) that always hit home for me. Maybe because, for all the hip hop dressing, it is a sixties pop song; angry, yes, but optimistic too. One that tells us that a change can come. And one that makes you dance while it's lecturing you.

Actually, that was one of the criticisms of Hill when the record took off. That she was too preachy. That there was a whiff of churchiness about her.

Maybe, though, pop culture could do with a little testifying now and again. And why is it okay for Marvin or Stevie or Curtis to preach but not a young black woman? The tragedy is that some 30 years after Aretha had asked for Respect, Hill felt it was necessary to repeat the message: "respect is just the minimum".

Starting with self-respect, of course. Because there's experience there too. As she sings: "Don't think I haven't been through the same predicament."

Hill's moment in the sun was to be a brief one. Money problems and rumoured mental health problems have left her mostly silent in the decade and a half since this was a hit. In 2012 she pleaded guilty to tax evasion charges and was jailed for three months last year. Another of pop's lost girls then. (And isn't that something of a subplot of this blog really - maybe someone should ask is pop bad for you?)

But this song is still a fine legacy. A mouthy, joyous slice of pop music that offers a more gritty notion of girl power than the Spice Girls could have. Tell it like it is, Lauryn.

Other Contenders

All I Need, Air

It's Like That, Run DMC Vs Jason Nevins

Intergalactic, Beastie Boys

God Give Me Strength, Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach

Outside, George Michael

Celebrity Skin, Hole

Teardrop, Massive Attack

My Favourite Game, The Cardigans

Feel It, The Tamperer Featuring Maya

Omerta, Afghan Whigs

Ray of Light, Madonna

The Boy is Mine, Brandy and Monica

Beep Me 911, Missy Elliott

Aquarius, Boards of Canada

Teardrop, Massive Attack

The NME Single of the Year: Intergalactic, Beastie Boys

John Peel's Festive 50 Winner: Pull The Wires From The Wall, The Delgados

And the best-selling single of 1998: Believe, Cher

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