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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

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Paula Abdul vs. MC Skat Kat: A Comparative Analysis of "Opposites Attract"

“Opposites Attract,” the sixth single off of Paula Abdul's best-selling album Forever Your Girl, achieved massive popularity in the United States and became one of top dance hits of the ‘90s. The song, which is catchier than it has any right to be, has a memorable video featuring cartoon stalwart Jerry Mouse, and it remains a dance radio and karaoke favorite more than 20 years after its release.

Yet, despite the song's long tenure in the public eye (and ear), no music critic or literary scholar has thought to address an important question raised by the song's lyrics: in the tempestuous relationship between Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat, is there an approximate parity in the kinds of compromises the two lovers make for one another, or do the “differences” between them result in a disproportionate amount of sacrifice by one of the participants? In other words, is someone in this relationship “dating down”? This study corrects this gap in the criticism by analyzing each of the song's oppositional dichotomies in turn.

In the following sections, the “winner” is the person who is objectively making the better choice.

Paula: Likes TV

MC Skat Kat: Likes Movies

In making this call, we have to consider the time period in which the song was released. Today, in the wake of a “golden age” of television that brought us HBO’s The Sopranos and AMC critical darlings Mad Men and Breaking Bad, it would be easy to make the case that television's offerings are, if not superior to, at least equal to those available on film—and, often, cheaper and more convenient besides. That said, “Opposites Attract” was released in November of 1989, when the cultural waters were much murkier. In fact, two of the top shows on television that year, The Cosby Show, and Roseanne, have stood the test of time quite well; in addition, 1989 also saw the debut of the critically acclaimed sitcom Seinfeld. However, movie showings were also strong in 1989: we had Tim Burton's Batman, Disney's A Little Mermaid, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (a personal favorite). Ultimately, this is a close call, but a holistic reading of the period suggests that, in 1989's cultural climate, someone who “likes TV” could be understood to be a less thoughtful consumer of culture than someone who prefers the movies. 

Winner: MC Skat Kat

Paula: Takes things light

MC Skat Kat: Takes things serious

In some contexts, a cheerful, “light” approach to life may help raise the mood of a gathering, or help ease a couple through the inevitable difficulties they will face together. At the same time, someone who “takes things serious” is, presumably, a person who will be committed to the relationship and who will work hard at accomplishing his or her personal and professional goals. If we consider this line in conjunction with the previous section, we might begin to imagine Paula as a shallow person whose frivolousness contrasts unfavorably with MC Skat Kat's deeper and more thoughtful demeanor. However, as further analysis will show, such a conclusion would be premature. Treated in isolation, then, there is no reason to weight one of these approaches to life above the other; indeed, the tendency for such personality types to balance each other out is almost certainly the origin of the (admittedly questionable) folk wisdom that gives the song its title. 

Winner: A draw

Paula: Goes to bed early

MC Skat Kat: Parties all night

While there are certainly some arguments to be made for the “cool” factor that accompanies partying all night, particularly if one is pursuing a career as a singer or MC, we cannot, in good faith, ignore the tremendous health benefits of a good night's sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, lowered brain function, and a higher susceptibility to cold and flu. Even if MC Skat Kat were to attempt to make up the sleep he missed while partying by sleeping during the daytime hours, research shows that a day-shifted sleeping schedule leads to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol – a biological fact that may explain some of the other potentially stress-related personality traits MC Skat Kat also exhibits (see below).

Winner: Paula 

Paula: Moves slowly

MC Skat Kat: Is fast 

This line can be read as a coded reference to sexual behavior – i.e., Paula “moves slow” and delays initiating sexual contact until a relationship has been established, while MC Skat Kat is “fast,” i.e.,  sexually promiscuous. Given the puritanical climate of the post-AIDS 1980s, this line is undoubtedly meant to cast aspersion on MC Skat Kat's behavior. The song therefore engages in a kind of problematic slut-shaming that a thoughtful critic cannot endorse. However, the line can also be understood as a reference to a general attitude of “taking it slow” as presented in the fable of the tortoise and the hare – in which, of course, “slow and steady wins the race.” This more innocent reading, which is bolstered by the family-friendly aura of the song’s cartoon-filled music video, allows us to accord the win to Paula without reifying the reactionary sexual politics of a less-enlightened era. 

Winner: Paula 

Paula: Likes it quiet

MC Skat Kat: Loves to shout

This is a situation in which it is difficult to make any kind of coherent argument on behalf of MC Skat Kat. While Paula and MC Skat Kat are both musicians and, therefore, one would expect a certain degree of noise in the shared living space that could run contrary to Paula's expressed preference for “quiet,” surely shouting is taking things to an unacceptable extreme. At approximately one foot of distance, a shouting voice can reach 88 decibels, a volume that, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Health and Safety Office, may be sufficient to induce noise-induced hearing loss. Unfortunately, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is already common among musicians (especially, perhaps, those musicians already inclined to party all night in loud bars or clubs) so the further introduction of unnecessarily high noise levels into the environment could prove devastating to both participants’ health and careers.

Winner: Paula

Paula: Makes the bed

MC Skat Kat: Steals the covers

Again, no contest. Making the bed is something that benefits both parties, while stealing the covers is a selfish act that indicates a blatant disregard for Paula's comfort.

Winner: Paula

Paula: Likes it neat

MC Skat Kat: Makes a mess

As someone who is myself quite disorganized, I hesitate to award this round to Paula without offering at least some consideration for MC Skat Kat's position on the issue of neat versus messy. However, the question of whether a neat environment has any inherent superiority over a messy one can be set aside if we consider the peculiar phrasing of the relevant line (which is inexplicably delivered in the third-person): “She likes it neat and he makes a mess.” The shift from “likes” to “makes” suggests a hidden causality, as though he makes a mess not only despite but because of the fact that Paula prefers it neat. In other words, MC Skat Kat is willfully baiting Paula in the hopes of luring her into a fight.

Winner: Paula

Paula: Takes it easy

MC Skat Kat: Gets obsessed

We return now to a subject raised at the beginning of the essay: the relative seriousness of both individuals. While Paula's attitude is described using a pair of synonyms (“easy” and “light”), suggesting that her behavior has not changed over the course of the song, here we see a marked escalation in the intensity of MC Skat Kat's attitude, from “serious” to “obsessed.” Unlike “serious,” the word “obsessed” has distinctly negative – and even violent – connotations.

Winner: Paula

Paula: Got the money

MC Skat Kat: Is always broke

While the cliché of dating the “starving artist” has a certain romantic appeal, it would be easier to make a convincing case for MC Skat Kat if he had any positive attributes other than a preference for film over television. At this point in the song, a disturbing picture of MC Skat Kat has emerged: an obsessive, humorless man (or, rather, cat) who is entirely without resources, and yet who stays out late every night, possibly with other women (“Baby, I'm fast”) and returns home only to shout at Paula, steal her blanket, and foul their living space. Despite the fact that he contributes nothing to their shared economy, he expects her to do the bulk of the household chores, surely an unacceptable division of labor even in the less-enlightened 1980s. MC Skat Kat is bringing nothing to the table.

Winner: Paula 

Paula: Doesn't like cigarettes

MC Skat Kat: Likes to smoke

Second hand smoke results in an estimated 46,000 deaths from heart disease and 3,400 deaths from lung cancer each year. Even setting aside Paula's clearly stated preference on the matter, MC Skat Kat’s smoking is objectively putting her life in danger. On the bright side, the increasingly popular use of matching algorithms in online dating (for which a disparity in smoking habits is often a basic deal-breaker) means that today, this mismatched pair would not even make it to a first date.

Winner: Paula

Paula: Takes two steps forward

MC Skat Kat: Takes two steps back

By now, it is obvious that Paula is the one who is “moving backward” by staying in a relationship with MC Skat Kat, who, by any objective measure, has absolutely nothing to offer. He is a messy, loud, mean, poor, stinky, selfish animated cat who is inexplicably in a relationship with one of the most beautiful and popular musicians of the era. Which, I guess, means he is the real winner here.

Winner: MC Skat Kat 

Final Score: Paula 7, MC Skat Kat 2 (barely).

Kristen Roupenian is thinking about submitting this essay in lieu of her dissertation.



65 Comments / Post A Comment

katiemcgillicuddy

I know it's only Monday, but I'm fairly confident this will be my favorite thing I read all week.

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@katiemcgillicuddy
Your new favorite thing just may be the following: "It's Tuesday"

katiemcgillicuddy

@Tuna Surprise Goddammit, too much time in the sun/beer store this weekend.

katiemcgillicuddy

@Tuna Surprise (For what it's worth, despite this making me look like an idiot, it has been making me laugh all day)

jamsbond

The song, which is catchier than it has any right to be, has a memorable video featuring cartoon stalwart Jerry Mouse, and it remains a dance radio and karaoke favorite more than 20 years after its release.
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dale

I think I have a crush on the 'Paula you're dating a cat' tag.

(this piece was very funny, Kristen!)

Jill_Tata

Family guy brought me here@k

frigwiggin

I'm not convinced he's a cat at all. He looks more like some kind of weasel.

iceberg

lost it at "returns home only to shout at Paula, steal her blanket, and foul their living space."

what a juicebox.

zamboni

Get Rid of Your Rapping Cat Boyfriend, Seriously, He Is Revolting

iceberg

@zamboni he doesn't even rap in French and Spanish, this guy.

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@zamboni Now we know why Jolie hates cats!

Slutface

I would lose my sh*t if my cat started smoking. He's just a little baby!

tealily

I thought Paula was the one who liked the movies, and MC Skat Kat liked tv.

hunterthefool

Dear Ms. Roupenian,

Although I fully support your effort to address the current lack of critical analysis of the above mentioned pop hit, I must take exception to much of your analysis. Not only do I diverge from you in my analysis of a number of the "oppositional dichotomies," I also maintain that by limiting your analysis to isolated pairing questions, you miss the forest for the trees - and fail to understand the gestalt of Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat.

Your analysis of the "moves slow/is fast" dichotomy is flawed in a number of ways. First, the notion that this is anything but a sexual innuendo is absurd. The pantomiming of coitus that is displayed throughout video, along with the overall theme of compatibility in an intimate relationship, strongly indicates this is a reference to sexual styles. However, even in your understanding of this dichotomy in that context, your analysis is flawed. Given that they are already in a relationship (see "Baby ain't it somethin'/How we lasted this long/You and me/Provin' everyone wrong) it would be rather irrelevant if this difference was a reference to a behavior preferences that caused differences only at an earlier time in the relationship. Given the nature of the dichotomies, it is safe to assume that this song describes a present state of affairs and is not lamenting or reminiscing about some prior state. With this in mind, the meaning of this line is clearly referring to differing sexual styles while in flagrante delicto. While there are studies to show that there may be gender differences that lead to preferences in tempo, a preference for a slower tempo (specifically and in general) would supersede any other preference for both emotional and physiological reasons. While this leads me to the same conclusion as you, I find that your analysis is confused and filled with incorrect assumptions. You also fail to attempt to understand this dichotomy in the context of the overall song's meaning.

Next, your understanding of the "likes it neat/makes a mess" line is flawed in both your analysis and in your conclusions. A shift from "likes" to "makes" suggests no hidden causality. Taken on its face it describes two different stipulations, which I circumlocute here for your benefit: 1. Paula has a preference for her physical surroundings to exist in a state that may be characterized as orderly, organized, properly maintained, and generally existing without chaos. 2. Oftentimes MC Skat Kat, through his agency, causes his physical surroundings to exist in a state that may be characterized as disorderly, disorganized, improperly maintained, and generally existing in a state of chaos. This line may not be construed to offer either of these stipulations "Paula, through her agency, oftentimes causes her physical surroundings to be neat" nor "MC Skat Kat exhibits a preference for messiness.” Again, perhaps your conclusion that Paula is the winner still stands despite this more thorough understanding of the specific verbiage, however, the notion that this language implies willful fight baiting is completely unfounded.

In your analysis of "Takes it easy/Gets obsessed" you reveal your prejudice against MC Skat Kat. There is no reason to believe that the use of the word obsessed in this song alludes to negative - and even violent - connotations. If that were the case, the author might have used a much less casual description of Paula. The use of such a colloquial phrase to describe Paula invites the description of MC Skat Kat to be understood with at least a comparable gravity. If you were willing to grant a draw in the rather similar "takes things light/takes things serious," I think you ought to stick to that conclusion here as well.

Regarding smoking, it is rather inconsistent that you find judgments on personal behavior preference that amounts to slut shaming to be "problematic" but in the matter of another personal behavior preference you are not willing to grant a similar categorization. Furthermore, the evidence that second hand smoke - and smoking in general - is linked to these sorts of causes of death are overwhelmingly correlational. I would expect a responsible literary analyst such as yourself, to stick to rigorous academic standards and not fall into popular science traps.

Now despite all of these criticisms I would also conclude (using your method) that Paula is the one who is dating down. However, that misses out on the most important line of the song:

When things go wrong we make corrections
To keep things moving in the right direction

When taken with this line:

But when we get together
We have nothin' but fun

Whereas the entire song is a description of the present (and in limited cases, the past), these lines hints at a method that is successful at present, as well as a proscription for future success. It implies that in each way that they diverge, they are able to make small changes to keep things right.

So we may imagine that they may find common grounds on their entertainment preferences, they are able to temper each other's seriousness and lackadaisicalness. Regarding sleeping preferences, Paula will drive MC Skat Kat to have a more health sleep schedule, and MC Skat Kat will be well equipped to stay awake when they have need for that. Perhaps we can imagine that MC Skat Kat will slow down just enough to meet Paula's needs, and Paula will be cognizant that MC Skat Kat is sometimes desirous of expedited sexual activities - which could certainly be accommodated if they made an effort. Obviously in the realm of noise we may hope that MC Skat Kat is considerate for Paula's preference for quite. Et cetera. The author informs us that this couple has a proven track record for making accommodations and we are given no evidence to doubt this.
While I support and appreciate your original research on this topic, I encourage you to revisit your analysis in the areas listed above.

Cheers,

hunterthefool

Kristen

@hunterthefool No player hating here! This is the kind of heated academic controversy that will move the subfield of "Opposites Attract" comparative analysis to the very forefront of Paula Abdul Studies, where it undoubtedly belongs.

(That said, I hate you and stop sabotaging my career. When I see you at next month's Tiffany conference in Vancouver, be prepared to throw down.)

Steven@twitter

To the casual pop listener, Abdul and Kat's work appears to be a superficial discussion of the nature of modern romance, but a close reading reveals it to also be an exploration of love as a Hegelian dialectic.

This Hegelian vision of love is most clearly revealed when, at the beginning of the second verse, Kat asks, "Who'd have thought we could be lovers?". As the chorus of the song repeatedly affirms, "[they] go together", and yet on its face this seems incredulous to even Kat himself. "She makes the bed, and he steals the covers," yet they love each other. Unable to reconcile their ostensibly incompatible natures with their very apparent love, Kat and Abdul must reject the popular vision of a love engendered in compatible traits and instead recognize that "[they] go together 'cause opposites attract."

In their proposed Hegelian love, it is impossible to make value judgements regarding either partner's preferences. Their kind of love requires the thesis of Abdul's preference for neatness to come together with its antithesis, Kat's mess-making, in an amatory synthesis. To ask which partner's traits are preferable is counterproductive. Both are essential.

HOWEVER, if I were to basely engage in such a comparative analysis, I would be remiss to not point out that Skat Kat likely parties all night because he is a member of the largely nocturnal Felidae family. Also, he doesn't have thumbs to facilitate bed-making. And maybe Skat wouldn't need to steal the covers if Paula wasn't so stingy with the climate control -- she's got the thumbs AND the money to bump the temperature up a notch or two.

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