Have a look at this week’s charts, or the nominations in the Best Single category at the Brit Awards, and you’ll see that “feat” remains the most widely used word in pop. The featuring guest spot is an easy way for a boring dance producer to inject their song with some personality, or for a rapper to add street cred and earn thousands by doing very little. But, as the biggest new release of the year so far shows, the trend is shifting up a gear — now it’s two musicians of similar stature duetting on an equal footing. And if it’s two glamorous women, their song is likely to get even more attention.
Can’t Remember to Forget You, released this week by Shakira and Rihanna, is pop’s equivalent of a movie blockbuster, with two top billings for twice the appeal. Meanwhile, Lady Gaga is creeping back towards the top 10 with a new version of her R Kelly duet Do What U Want, recorded on the US version of The Voice with Christina Aguilera.
Next month, Katy B will be joined by fellow Mercury-nominated dancefloor filler Jessie Ware on Aaliyah, a sparky clubland take on the don’t-steal-my-man theme. The hope is clearly that double the diva will mean double the sales figures.
So confident are Shakira and Rihanna in the potential of their new song that there’s no video yet, no build-up of radio airplay before it goes on sale — just one photo of the two women draped over each other in extravagant jewellery and minimal clothing.
That’s enough for internet news organisations, with click counts proven to rise exponentially at the possibility of cleavage — they were all over the announcement at the start of the week.
But this is not an instance of sexy teasing or sisters doing it for themselves — they’ve got man trouble, with a verse each to complain about some generically useless lover while Shakira gets to do her famous yodelling trick. The audio clip scored YouTube streams in the millions from the off, despite the lack of moving images, as it was the only place to hear the song in full, on demand.
It’s certainly worth a listen. Here’s a tune that doesn’t hang about. It’s a pacy reggae-rocker reminiscent of the hits of No Doubt and, less obviously, Latin veteran Manu Chao. It’s some way better than last week’s number one duet, Pitbull and Ke$ha’s brain-dead Timber, though there’s nothing really to suggest that these particular women needed to sing this particular song right now. They’re not even on the same record label, which is often the reason two strangers become collaborators. It could just as easily have been a union of Gwen Stefani and Britney Spears, Madonna and Cher or any other currently active female stars. What’s important is that there’s two of them — that’s the real talking and selling point.
Both Shakira and Rihanna take something of value from their coupling. Rihanna, who released an exhausting four albums between 2009 and 2012 but hasn’t done anything new for herself lately, gets to remain in the public eye with minimal effort. She had another No 1 two months ago with a similar pop piggyback, on Eminem’s single Monster. In fact, over a long career Rihanna has acquired a reputation as the woman who will duet with absolutely anyone, even her abusive ex, Chris Brown. If she isn’t in our field of vision at all times she could lose her top diva spot to Beyoncé, Gaga, Katy Perry or indeed Shakira.
Shakira, who tends to alternate between English and Spanish-speaking albums, hasn’t released anything in English since her She Wolf album in 2009. That’s centuries ago in pop terms, so she needs to come back with a bang. Rihanna gives her that extra firepower, even though in reality they have very little in common. “At the end of the day, we’re both just basically Caribbean girls,” the Colombian said recently of the Barbadian. “The chemistry was so good and so real.”
That’s a nice soundbite that may or may not be true but the commercial value of a stellar pairing outweighs any genuine spark. It’s the safest way to re-emerge from the recording studio at a time when sales are down everywhere and there’s always someone new snapping at your heels.
It doesn’t do any harm if there’s a hint of romance in the air, though, and even if there isn’t, we all love to speculate. Look at Melanie C’s smoochy recent video with X Factor winner Matt Cardle for their hit, Loving You. Even rock hobbit Ed Sheeran was accused of dating professional man-eater Taylor Swift after he duetted on her last album. “I did go to her hotel, I did stay there ’til four and I did leave in the same clothes. But I was playing her my new record. It was strictly that kind of thing,” he said.
That’s the kind of guy Sheeran is, the affable fulcrum of this current culture of collaboration. He’s sung with everyone from Elton John to Wretch 32, and will next be heard on the March album by American balladeer Christina Perri.
Then there’s Just Give Me a Reason by Pink and Nate Ruess of Fun, a No 1 single across the world and one of the biggest sellers of 2013. It’s an old-school duet, the male and female singers taking turns to lament a relationship in crisis over wistful piano chords. It’s music as a conversation, with us as the curious eavesdroppers.
And a bromance is almost as good as a romance. While Jay-Z was an obvious candidate for an appearance on his wife Beyoncé’s new album, not long after she was on his, it’s his musical relationship with Justin Timberlake that has made the biggest splash recently. Timberlake launched his comeback with a single featuring Jay-Z — Suit & Tie — then toured the US and played London’s Wireless festival last summer with the great rapper, alternating between each other’s hits, singing and rapping together, every bit the equal partnership.
Singers need to be talked about, too, which is why they’re so keen to pair up at awards ceremonies and secure that longed-for front page.
This year’s Brit Awards don’t have a duet on the schedule yet but there’s usually some chalk-and-cheese pairing to grab our attention. Who could forget Timberlake grabbing Kylie’s bum some years back?
That memorable moment’s seedier descendant was Miley Cyrusgrinding up against Robin Thicke at the VMAs in August, pop’s gruesome defining image of the past 12 months. At the Grammys at the end of this month there’ll be all manner of surprising collaborations, including Metallica and Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang, Daft Punk and Stevie Wonder, Imagine Dragons and Kendrick Lamar, and Robin Thicke with soft rock old-timers Chicago, hopefully not quite so sexually charged in this company.
And on it goes, everyone helping everyone else. Bruce Springsteen duets with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello on his new album. Nina Nesbitt will feature big Irish band Kodaline on hers next month. Newcomers become big stars off the back of their guest spots, like John Newman, Sam Smith, Ella Eyre and London Grammar after their work with Rudimental and Disclosure. Who knew the music industry was such a generous, giving place?
Genuine rivalries seem few and far between today. Singers will share a microphone and a photogenic hug with their worst enemy if it keeps their career on an upward trajectory. And as long as they keep finding new ways to work together, we’ll keep listening.
Can’t Remember to Forget You by Shakira and Rihanna is in download stores now. Shakira’s still untitled new album will be released on March 24