What's the last thing you want to hear coming through your neighbor's wall? Probably the sound of a couple getting really intense. If they're arguing, the noise conveys ugliness; you might even have to call 911. If love is their drug, it's just embarrassing. Romance (and friendship, in fact) doesn't exist without intimate interaction, but we all tend to feel more comfortable when partners keep this active realm to themselves.
Art makes an exception to this rule. We turn to it, in part, to become immersed in other people's variations on our own most private activities. The movies offer steamy love scenes, novels thrive on subtext-heavy dialogue, and music gives us duets.
A fundamental part of popular song, whether La Bohème or I Got You Babe, duets make a circle of the yearning often expressed in solo performance. There's a calm in many duets, even the sad ones, as singing pairs trace the development of a crush, celebrate the fruits of faithfulness or mourn the loss of each other, together.
This summer, people seem to be craving such interplay. Carole King and James Taylor are the surprise smash of the touring circuit, romanticizing their lifelong platonic bond in shows that stress the siblinglike blend of their harmonies. The pop charts buzz with real and imagined conversations, including Eminem's first all-out (although still damaged) love song, Love the Way You Lie, which features Rihanna; Snoop Dogg getting Katy Perry's back on California Gurlz; and B.o.B and Hayley Williams' Airplanes, which brings to mind a heart-to-heart by two hand- holding slackers under the stars.
Lady Antebellum, fronted by just-friends Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott, is ruling country music by reviving the stage-marriage tradition that did so well for Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, and Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. And in indie pop, the duo has nearly replaced the band as the unit of choice — partly because it's more practical to make a big sound with synthesizers and just one other partner than to have to deal with more personalities dictating the vision and dipping into any profits.
A perhaps unwitting result of that development has been a rising number of male-female partnerships, from fuzz darlings Sleigh Bells and Beach House to more polished collaborations like the Bird and the Bee, She and Him, and the Swell Season. From the Beatles onward, the liberating joy of rock has been most commonly expressed by a bunch of lads getting wild together. Now a woman is just as likely to be an equal partner in the mix.
This stress on the energy exchange between a man and a woman suggests a new phase in pop songwriting. As Jody Rosen wrote in his 2006 examination of duets in Slate, hip-hop's collage effect allowed for producers to channel masculine aggressiveness and feminine vulnerability without necessarily making clear how they connect. One exception was what Kelefa Sanneh called the "thug love duet": songs that express the conventional alpha male/soft mama duality in ways that can be tender but also are somewhat cartoonish.
The current crop of hip-hop pairings deviates from this formula. The closest is Eminem and Rihanna's emotional pairing; in it, Em reflects on an abusive relationship (probably his own, with ex-wife Kim), while Rihanna provides the delicate and ultimately submissive counterpoint to his rage-filled confusion. Yet by tapping into the extreme emotion that is Em's hallmark, and connecting to Rihanna's own complex history as a recovering abuse victim, Love the Way You Lie throws into question the stereotypes it evokes.
Airplanes and California Gurlz go in another direction. So does My First Kiss, which is about sex but doesn't imagine a sexual connection between Ke$ha and the dudes in 3OH!3. You can imagine those three on the prowl together on a Saturday night, just as you'd think of Perry and Snoop exchanging boasts on the beach, or Williams and B.o.B. editing each others' term papers. These are buddy songs. Romance isn't barred from these relationships, but it's not necessary.