So Stylistic

(Tommy Boy)

Fannypack’s debut, So Stylistic, is a seriously confusing album. No doubt you’ve heard the single “Cameltoe,” a hip-hop novelty record in which a couple of teenage girls razz a “middle-aged lady” whose pants are too tight. It’s no substitute for the Neptunes, but this summer you just couldn’t avoid that refrain: “Uh huh, that’s right, oh yeah, oh no / Fix yourself, girl–you got a cameltoe.”

“Cameltoe” is not just a novelty record because it’s a joke. It’s one of those records, like “Loser” or “My Name Is,” that’s unmistakably new, that makes you stop whatever you’re doing when you first hear it. That’s because Fannypack MCs Jessibel Suthiwong and Belinda Lovell are the rawest you’ve ever heard on commercial radio. They have zero showbiz affect; they’re American anti-idols, unmitigated Brooklyn, from a block like Jenny hasn’t seen in years. Listen to the liquid way they say “girl,” or try to find the second t in that’s: these kids have not been to any Orlando pop-star finishing school. They’re not the Shaggs–they’re obviously quite comfortable in the idiom–but their mix of unashamed amateurishness and confidence beyond all reasonable expectation is probably unprecedented in a hit single. They’re the musical counterparts to the cast of Peter Sollett’s film Raising Victor Vargas, the year’s other notable collaboration between the culture industry and New York City teens.

But while the kids in Victor Vargas were clearly in full effect with Bertolt Brecht, the relationship between the Fannypackers and the means of their production is less clear. How did this sound get on the radio? Are these kids fronting, or are we actually lurking in a jailbait chat room? How much of this stuff did they write? And who’s really getting paid here? By the second listen, these questions overwhelm the experience of hearing the song.

Like any contemporary media creation, Fannypack have a backstory. New York DJs and producers (isn’t everyone?) Matt Goias and Fancy have told interviewers they were auditioning singers for the project when they stumbled across high school hottie Suthiwong on the Fulton Mall, a shopping strip in downtown Brooklyn where 99-cent stores surround a Toys “R” Us and the world’s most decrepit Macy’s. The Lana Turner scenario here is that the future radio sweetheart was freestyling to a beat created by a street vendor snapping a belt from his table. The Fannypack moguls asked her to audition, and she brought her friend Belinda along.

“I was at the water fountain [at school] getting a drink of water when Jessibel comes up to me and says, ‘Yo, Belinda, are you black or Indian or what?'” Lovell told the New York Daily News. “I was like, ‘I’m both. Why you asking?’ And she said, ‘Come be in my group!'” (Suthiwong claims Thai and Puerto Rican ancestry.) Add some backing tracks–which range from club to old school to jock jams–and the rest, Goias and Fancy hope, is PR history.

The legend of Fannypack has one obvious wrinkle, staring at you from the cover of the album: there’s also this third rapper. Cat Hartwell, a 22-year-old Boston University grad, had already signed on to the project when Suthiwong and Lovell came aboard, and she’s still around. Hartwell is not exactly a media outsider; she edits YRB, the in-house glossy published by the Soho clothing shop Yellow Rat Bastard. If she had recruited two of her college buds to fill out the lineup, would you even be reading this? On the basis of “Things,” her weak solo turn (it sounds like the Moldy Peaches covering the von Trapps on Sesame Street), I doubt it.

The record tries to address the Cat Problem–and other questions about the nature of the project–by including purported outtakes from the creative process in place of skits. One captures a postrehearsal discussion among the three front women in which it seems they are maintaining an uneasy peace: Hartwell sounds like she’s imitating her younger colleagues’ trash-talking, and they retaliate by blaming staging problems on her “hippopotamus ass.” Is this an ill-advised attempt to suggest camaraderie, or are Fannypack shopping their Behind the Music script halfway through their first record? In another snippet, Suthiwong and Lovell are made to sound like ten-year-olds as they discuss possible cover art, which they can’t have liked. Elsewhere, after freestyling through a round of “How Funky Is Your Chicken?” Lovell winks at the guys in the control room: “I know you’re recording me / ‘Cause I can tell when you’re recording me.” Alan Lomax, call your lawyer.

So who’s the auteur? Goias and Fancy give themselves a production credit, but they also list themselves as “members” on the sleeve, as if they can’t decide how they’d like their role to be perceived. Do they want to be rock stars too, or are they trying to pass as kids so as not to compromise the youthful authenticity of their product? They told the New York Times they write the music, dance in the videos, and “collaborate” with their talent on the lyrics, but they’ve only shared writing credits on two tracks. The rhymes, which deal mostly with boys, clothes, and Brooklyn, could be by anyone; “The Theme From Fannypack” rhymes “city” and “pretty” more than once, but also invokes “Manhattan rents,” not your average teen’s biggest beef. (Maybe Hartwell cares, but it’s not her line.)

The Fannypackers are almost certainly more than just hired hands, but how much more? Are they a couple of talented kids supplying raw hip-hop ma-terial for a pair of connected coolhunters? Or members of a real partner-ship between haves and have-nots? The ambiguity of authorship is what makes Fannypack so maddening–unlike, say, T.A.T.U. For those living in a cave undis-turbed by Russian teen pop, T.A.T.U. are the prurient Eurodisco crossover sen-sation fronted by two Moscow girls posing as high school lesbianskas; their shtick is that they’re fighting to keep their alleged love alive in a supposedly hostile world that, of course, can’t get enough of it or them (their triumphantly petulant cover of the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” is the undisputed record of the year to date). Like the Fannypackers, Yulia Volkova and Lena Katina auditioned for roles that had already been conceived, although in this case the Svengali is onetime child psychologist Ivan Shapovalov, who refers to the act as his “underage sex project.” In the spectrum of creepiness, that places Fannypack well to T.A.T.U.’s right.

With T.A.T.U., you know what you’re getting, and the fun is in seeing it unfold. Fannypack seem more likely to break your heart, because you can’t help wanting to believe what you hear is what you get. That’s what makes the guessing game so compelling. Is the term “camel toe,” popularized by Sassy magazine in the 80s, still in use by schoolkids? How much of “Hey Mami” catalogs the spiels of actual creeps who have harassed these girls on the street? You can probably narrow down the choices in guessing who was into the Yeah Yeah Yeahs sample on “Things,” but whose eyes lit up in recognition of Mark the 45 King’s ubiquitous honking loop (you know, the one from DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat”) in “The Theme From Fannypack”?

I so don’t want to know.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Danielle Levitt.