(For this blog, a special thanks goes out to terrific comedian and Beastie Boys expert Gary Gulman. Buy his CD “Conversations With Inanimate Objects” from his website or from iTunes. You will be pleased with yourself.)
The Beastie Boys’ debut LP License To Ill is not known for being a master class in subtlety. In fact, critics and fans alike cite its musical bluntness and lyrical ignorance as its chief drawbacks/pleasures. Simply put, it’s known for being an hour of smart New York kids acting stupid (and when I say stupid, I mean “stoopid fresh”).
There is, however, one moment on the album (or CD or digital release, depending on when you got it) that gives a clinic in understatement. The song, of course, is “She’s Crafty.” Though it seems at first, like a straight up story song with very little subtext, a closer reading of the text uncovers a masterful use of subtlety, even amidst the crudeness of the song’s semantic content.
The track kicks off with a guitar riff from Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean.” Zep were never hailed as experts in the field of the soft-sell, so the choice of the sample only serves to underscore the song’s overall irony. The narration involves King Adrock’s tale of meeting a young woman who was reputed to be somewhat promiscuous, and possibly a prostitute (“I think her name was Lucy, but they all call her ‘Loose’/I think I saw I seen her on eight and forty-deuce”). Even the local taxi drivers are cautioning him to her scandalous lifestyle. (“We got into the cab, the cab driver said/He recognized the girly from the back of her head.”) First of all, cab driver, be a gentleman. Second of all, this verse ends with the young woman reduced to tears in the taxi. So tales of her craftiness may be overrated, or perhaps she’s just sensitive. If, in fact, “crafty” were used as a synonym for sexually active, then it might be a dead-on analysis. The second verse, however, deepens the meaning of “crafty” in a more traditional yet distorted direction.
To wit…(I’ve always wanted to say that. Just typing it made the room smell like pipe smoke and brandy.)
When MCA (Adam Yauch) brings home a female fan after a show, the other two Beasties react with incredulity; they recognize the girl from elsewhere. In fact they are struck dumb by her presence (“they didn’t say a word/they just stared at [him]” (being MCA, not a transvestite. different song)). God, I’m nesting parentheses like an eleventh grade math teacher. Once shaken out of their stupor, Mike D and Adrock begin safeguarding their home against this intruder. Adrock “started hiding everything in sight,” and Mike D “pulled [MCA] over, said hide your gold/the girl is crafty like ice is cold.” Meaning, of course that craftiness is part of the very definition of this woman. Craftiness defines her as coldness defines ice. But, cab driver from the first verse, you’ll notice that Mike D pulls MCA aside rather than making a lewd comment right in front of the lady. That’s just courtesy.
Now, a word to the wise. We all know that it is not helpful do talk trash to your friend about a new romantic interest. It generally just drives a wedge between you and your buddy. But, guys. Or ladies. If you bring a new person home, and your roommates start battening down the hatches…that’s a problem. You should maybe reevaluate your relationship.
Here’s where things get interesting. In the song. My writing maintains about the same level of smugness/emptiness. The next day, MCA reveals: “When I woke up late in the afternoon/She had taken all the things from inside [my] room/I found myself naked in the middle of the floor/She had taken the bed, and the chest of drawers/The mirror, the TV, the new guitar cord/The remote control and my old skate board/She robbed us blind, she took all we owned/And the boys blamed me for bringing her home.”
Now, there’s a lot going on here. First of all, this woman clearly was bad news. Mike D and Adrock were correct. It is never made explicit how they initially came to the conclusion, but it was indeed valid. But what is really wild is that that the same chorus (“she’s crafty/she gets around”) is used to describe the women in both verses.
While the first woman may have fit some definition of the word “crafty” the second woman is literally a criminal mastermind. She could not have been working alone, first of all, considering she stole an entire chest of drawers. So she has a team consisting of at least one other thief. Plus, she heisted the bed out from under a sleeping Yauch, which means, most likely, she either drugged him or bludgeoned him over the head in order to incapacitate him. Not only that, to say that “the boys blamed me for bringing her home” implies once again that Adrock and Mike D knew that this woman was incapable of righteousness. She is crafty like ice is cold, or like a wolverine is wild. Perhaps a better description for this lady would be “she’s diabolical” or “she’s attractive and/or charismatic to the point where one loses all sense of reason and trust for one’s closest friends” or simply “she’s an actual dangerous criminal.”
So therein lies the understatement. The subtle labeling of this woman as “crafty” underscores her wildly unethical behavior. But! There’s one more point that this technique serves. By likening a woman’s promiscuity to another woman’s blatant criminality, the Beasties make a point about the vilifying of empowered female sexuality in American culture. To draw a direct linguistic parallel between a practiced and premeditated act of theft (and possibly violence), and the unpinpointable “harm” caused by a woman freely exploring her sexual identity casts a harsh revealing light on the male view of female sexuality. It suggests, of course, that men see a woman’s sexual openness and assertiveness as implicitly criminal.
Or, they were just twenty years old and kind of sexist.
Either way, one thing is for certain. I should probably apply for grad school and stop wasting everyone’s time.