Why We Need "Hey Ya!"
by Rusty W. Spell

OutKast’s single "Hey Ya!" came out four months ago. Since then it’s been overplayed by the radio, MTV has chosen it as one of the lucky few videos to get airtime, commercials are now using it, and basically it’s become one of those songs that you can’t help but hear even if you avoid radio, MTV, and commercials like I do. So why am I not sick of it yet? And more, why do I actually crave it?

It’s not just me, first of all. I haven’t talked to many people who don’t like it. I tell my friends things like, "If I were a music critic, I would say that this song is ‘infectious.’ I would say it’s ‘irresistible.’"

Occasionally, popularity (even craze) and quality cross paths—you know, like The Beatles. It’s only appropriate, then, that the video for "Hey Ya!" is a take on the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan appearance. Except that The Beatles weren’t wearing green jockey uniforms and didn’t have a drummer named "Dookie." (Oh yes, the video is great too. There’s some dancing kids that are completely precious. But I digress.)

I’m not sure how calculatedly perfect the song is. It may have sprang magically from Andre 3000 one day (though probably not, since he and his partner Big Boi seem to have been doing lots of nice stuff since 1994), but it has some of the same electricity and energy as a Phil Spector track or a Ramones song. It’s as if Dre said, "Look, we’ve got about four minutes here. Let’s not waste any time like most people who write songs do." This song is anything but lazy. It gives us what we want in moments and stays with us all day.

1, 2, 3, and we’re into the song: no dicking around. No dud verses where we have to say "What’s this boring crap?" or "You gotta wait for the chorus for it to get good." We’ve got bounce, we’ve got drums, we’ve got handclaps, we’ve got poppy acoustic guitars strumming on what everyone supposed might be a rap or at least R&B recording but were wrong.

But when we do get to the chorus, the candy is squeezed even brighter. Just in case you weren’t giddy with delight yet, there’s that little run-up on the plinky keyboard. The words to the chorus? Simply "Hey ya." There was that dork once who tried to show how trite Phil Spector records were by reading the lyrics aloud without the music and I suppose some old farts might try that for this song: "Oh wow. A song that says ‘Hey ya.’ How profound." But besides the fact that poetry and music (especially pop music) are completely different things (no matter how much your hipster English teacher who lets you read Springsteen in poetry class might argue otherwise), these lyrics actually are good. "Thank God for Mom and Dad for sticking together, cause we don’t know how" (italics mine, to demonstrate absolute sadness, hopelessness, respect, admiration, disappointment, wonder, and other feelings I could list for days about that line). "We get together, but separate’s always better. If what they say is ‘Nothing is forever,’ then what makes love the exception?"

Bleak, but now we’ve earned our party. It’s very Prince, actually. Andre says, "Y’all don’t want to hear me. You just want to dance." He knows, so he sings "hey ya" and lets us know he doesn’t want to meet our daddy ("just want you in my Caddy") and doesn’t want to meet our momma ("just want to make you come-a"), then let’s us know he’s "just being honest." Yes, we need this kind of honesty.

All of this would have been enough for a song. We could have hey ya’d all the way to a fade-out and been perfectly happy, but OutKast keeps throwing in quirky little sounds, stopping and starting the song for effect, and at this point talks to the fellas, asking what’s cooler than cool ("ice cold"), creating even more lyrical hooks for us, more things to cling to. He says "all right" fifteen times as part of some sort of superfreaky fit he's having. Take that! "Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to say ‘all right’ fifteen times in a row and it’s going to drive people deliciously insane. Okay?"

But now we’re ready for Dre to talk to the ladies, and he warns them that we’re about to hear a good old-fashioned break down: just drums and a little funk bass. Perhaps you’ll be forced to dance at this point if you haven’t been already. At any rate, this is what he wants you to do (fellas will probably join in too, though they aren’t specifically invited). Oh, and before we hear the line of lines, Andre throws in – just for good measure – the wonderful "I wanna see y’all on your baddest behavior. Lend me some sugar—I am your neighbor!"

The line of lines? "Shake it like a Polaroid picture." It doesn’t matter that shaking Polaroids doesn’t actually make them develop any faster. One day there will be a "Shake it like an 8 Ball" (another thing you don’t actually have to shake—just turn over) rip-off, and that will be fine, but everyone needs to remember the day you first heard this piece of genius.

Have we forgotten that the song was originally about the hopelessness of relationships and love? Yes we have… or we haven’t, and that’s why the song is now so heartbreakingly good, against that backdrop, even though it might appear to be just another dance-around-why-don’t-ya song if heard from outside a club (though even then I suspect it would make people hearing it for the first time run inside to see what it’s all about).

The multiple Andres in the music video illustrate the ways this song can make us feel: from the almost-sad persistence of the drummer to the smartness and deliberateness of the keyboardist to the contented lip-bite smile of the guitarist to the all-out finger-wigglin’ happiness of the backup singers. Ultimately this song is about joy. No matter what happens there is the possibility of joy, and this song demonstrates it.

I just asked myself if I’m being too serious about this. I don’t think I am. I think pop and joy and happiness are important for us to have, and I am very glad someone is doing something about it.

Copyright 26 Jan 2004 We Like Media.
You may email Rusty W. Spell.

Watch the video at MTV.com.