Feeling On Our Collective Booty
One of the inherent themes of soul music has been the struggle of the performer to reconcile the apparent contradiction of spiritual and physical longings. The mingling of secular and religious musical forms and concerns is what in fact birthed the genre. Although pioneered by Sam Cooke, this struggle reached its apotheosis in the lives and bodies of work of Marvin Gaye and Al Green. In which physical longing is depicted with such fervor as to possess the possibility of spiritual enlightnment and the spiritual is rendered in terms evocative of, if not manifest in physical ecstasy.
But in the last twenty years modern soul music has arguably, along with our culture in general, moved away from this concern with the interplay of spiritual and physical longings towards a more explicitly materialistic focus. Witness the proliferation of R&B/Soul songs portraying sex in a fashion that is graphic, yet strangely detached, almost lifeless; as if the act, sadly, can be nothing more than an end in itself. The reasons for these changes; economic, social, cultural or some combination there of I will leave for someone else to examine. Instead I would like to detail one extreme manifestation of this change, the hit song 'Feeling on Your Booty' by R. Kelly. The irony here is that this song focuses to such an extent on the physical, indeed just one part of the human anatomy, the booty, that it actually transcends itself and becomes in its own way a strange new religious music.
The song begins with the chorus, which contains the line 'this is my song'. These words are repeated throughout the song with an increasing desperation, making clear just how important and personal the song is to Kelly. The scene is set in a club, where a D.J. is making a young man 'feel thugged out'. We get the sense that the protagonist in the song, who we can rightly assume is R., feels adrift and alone in a world which holds no absolute truths and consequently no lasting meaning. In the first verse R. explains to a 'pretty mama' that he is 'just in town for the weekend' and 'looking for some trouble to get in to'. Kelly, whether he recognizes it or not, is neck deep in an existential crisis, perhaps something worse than a crisis as the situation appears permanent and static. This is his song, indeed.
In the 2nd chorus R. attempts to further elucidate his mind state chanting 'players want to play, ballers want to ball, rollers want to roll'. He is reaching for something, something concrete. A sort of iron clad irrefutable, if not circular, logic. For what is it but ones very inclination to play, ball or roll that leads to being labelled a player, baller or roller? In this quest for some immediate affirmation of existence, a reason to continue in a meaningless world he is left only with what he can derive from his 5 senses. And what he finds to give life meaning is simply the most compelling thing available to him in his immediate surroundings; namely the large butt of a female in the club.
He has found a reason and consequently experiences a kind of regeneration evidenced by his desire to spend some cash; 'now your body's got me feeling like spending'. The next line 'with a back room I could come to live in' is a telling play on words. Is he referring to the back room of the club or using back room as slang for this female's Gluteus Maximus? On a deeper level his wanting to live there signifies a desire to maintain this feeling of salvation and consequently an a-priori knowledge of the fact that however satisfying it will not last. R. is desperate and longs to return to a womb like consciousness, even if it means sneaking in through a back door. The next section of the song contains the recitation of a veritable grocery list of reasons to continue to exist, to have fun, to 'put your hands up'. Birthdays, money, employment, and intoxication are all invoked. Yet still there is a feeling that all is ultimately futile.
The song fades with Kelly repeating and exploring the word booty with various intonations and pitches, it has become his meaning, his world and he repeats it's like a mantra. The song has become an existential hymn. Kelly finds a moments salvation (affirmation of his existence if you will) in our spiritually impoverished times in the only thing that he CAN be sure of, the formidable booty that he is able to see and feel (perhaps even smell) right in front of him. The use of 'your' develops an intimate and direct connection with the audience to such a degree that for the duration of the song, it is almost as if R. is feeling on all of our booties.
© 2003 William Crain