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The Sociology of Duets and Dating

Photo by @ccerruti (check out her Instagram page!)

Photo by @ccerruti (check out her Instagram page!)

Clearly duets are not a new trend in the music world. People have been duetting since before there were words to sing – when there were merely rocks to beat together or recorders to play in tandem. But I have noticed two emerging phenomenons in the male/female pop duet lately which have piqued my interest: the first is that duets nowadays seem to be conversations instead of mere harmonization – men and women are literally demonstrating the art of talking to one another (though if the singer is being listened to is another story); the second is what I’ll call, for lack of an actual term, female hysteria being constructively dealt with by men.


Okay, in order to appreciate the conversational art of duets, let’s first contextualize where duets have been. Back in ye olden days (aka, the 80s and 90s and early 00’s) there was a lot of talking at one another but not a lot of actual interaction. Listening to these duets makes me think of two people who are practicing talking to someone by yelling in the mirror.

There’s the Pogues Fairytale in New Yorkin which the couple bickers a tiny bit, but otherwise sings their own tale without the other person really responding. And there’s Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown, whose No Air follows the more modern trend of two voices no crossover. And then there’s Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow’s wildly famous PictureOnce again, we hear the two people telling two sides of a story, but never intersecting.

Kid Rock busts out:

Livin’ my life in a slow hell 
Different girl every night at the hotel 
I ain’t seen the sun shine in 3 damn days 
Been fuelin’ up on cocaine and whisky 
Wish I had a good girl to miss me 
Lord I wonder if I’ll ever change my ways 

While Sheryl Crow counters:

I called you last night in the hotel 
Everyone knows but they wont tell 
But their half hearted smiles tell me 
Somethin’ just ain’t right 
I been waitin’ on you for a long time 
Fuelin’ up on heartaches and cheap wine 
I ain’t heard from you in 3 damn nights 

Two almost soliloquies, no dialogue. Upon closer inspection, this song really reminds me of how soap operas are often written – where characters deal with quandaries out loud but solo.

What is different lately is the fact that duets now are looking at a back and forth that plays off of one another. Take for example, the Postal Service’s Nothing Better

Ben Gibbard sings:

So just say how to make it right
And I swear I’ll do my best to comply

Tell me am I right to think that there could be nothing better
Than making you my bride and slowly growing old together

While Jenny Lewis immediately counters:

I feel I must interject here you’re getting carried away feeling sorry for yourself
With these revisions and gaps in history
So let me help you remember.
I’ve made charts and graphs that should finally make it clear.
I’ve prepared a lecture on why I have to leave

Instead of telling the audience how they’re feeling, they’ve instead turned the conversation inward. And while yes, they’re detailing their break up (as you’ll see, breakups and heartbreak seem to rule in duet-land) they are simultaneously demonstrating to the listening audience that hey, it’s okay and absolutely normal to have a dialogue; a remarkable change of pace from inner monologuing.

Admittedly, Nothing Better is from 2002 or so. Still, we see this in a more recent song, Goyte’s Somebody That I Used to Know

Goyte starts:

But you didn’t have to cut me off
Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing
And I don’t even need your love
But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough
No you didn’t have to stoop so low
Have your friends collect your records and then change your number
I guess that I don’t need that though
Now you’re just somebody that I used to know

Now you’re just somebody that I used to know

Kimbra counters:

Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over
But had me believing it was always something that I’d done
But I don’t wanna live that way
Reading into every word you say
You said that you could let it go
And I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know

Again, we’re seeing a back and forth (of course, again we’re seeing a break-up) but still. I’m curious as to if the hipster movement (as admittedly these songs fall into the “hipster” pop category) have inspired real life people to open up and have real life conversations.

I think one of the greatest failings of pop media is continuing to demonstrate that conversations about relationships are easy. That everyone knows what to say. I remember my mom once telling me that her and my dad talk about their relationship, but it “never goes how it looks in the movies.” That thought stuck with me. My parents, for all intents and purposes, have a good relationship – and even they struggle to define it and talk about it. And much as I’d love my relationship conversation to resemble The Notebook or When Harry Met Sally, it is also comforting to know that most often no one’s does…and see that reflected in art.

Bring on the hysteria 

Perhaps even more fascinating and unexpected than vociferous parlance is where the duet genre has gone next: into conversing, but about the perceived misconceptions relating to a relationship from the women’s point of view, thus leading to the man questioning her sanity but talking her through it. I first thought about this while watching Of Monsters and Men perform Little Talks(Side note: see OMAM sometime live if you can. And fun. Dear me, see fun. if it’s the only show you go to this year. End musical interlude.)

Little Talks goes in a new direction in a few ways. Besides the hysteria, the male and female also take turns singing each line. It literally is a conversation between the two of them.

Nanna: There’s an old voice in my head that’s holding me back
Ragnar: Well tell her that I miss our little talks
Nanna: Soon it will be over and buried with our past
Ragnar: We used to play outside when we were young and full of life and full of love
Nanna: Some days I don’t know if I am wrong or right
Ragnar: Your mind is playing tricks on you, my dear

And while it’s a comforting talk, it’s also peculiar when put in the context of our last song, Pink and Nate Ruess’ Just Give Me a Reason

Pink begins:

Now you’ve been talking in your sleep, oh, oh
Things you never say to me, oh, oh
Tell me that you’ve had enough
Of our love, our love

And Nate responds:

I’m sorry I don’t understand
Where all of this is coming from
I thought that we were fine
Your head is running wild again
My dear we still have everythin’
And it’s all in your mind

And then, they pull out the Of Monster’s and Men technique of talking back and forth:

Pink: Our tear ducts can rust
Nate: I’ll fix it for us
Pink: We’re collecting dust but our love’s enough
Nate: You’re holding it in
Pink: You’re pouring a drink
Nate: No nothing is as bad as it seems
Pink: We’ll come clean

While we’re again seeing hysteria from women, it is again interesting to note that we’re seeing confabs about the hysteria while within it. In fact, Nate even points out to Pink that she’s holding something in – a subtle encouragement to say what is on her mind, to talk to him. Talk about breaking stereotypes in media: a man asking for conversation instead of just throwing money at the problem or ignoring it completely.

I’m curious to see if duet trends continue. Collaboration has become a pretty key element in musician’s careers, whereas once it seemed to be every guitar player for himself, it now ups your listens and popularity if you feature someone else (which rap artists discovered twenty years ago and mainstream pop seems to just be catching up on). And I’m even more interested to know if we’ll see the evolution of talking to rather than talking at – or if somehow, texting is going to magically start being involved in the male/female pop duet process.


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