Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya!’ is the greatest pop song of this generation

With Outkast confirming their first ever Australian visit to headline Splendour in the Grass, LACHLAN KANONIUK reflects on how the band’s most unlikely song became their biggest ever single – and a modern pop masterpiece.

“Not clashing/Not at all”

‘Hey Ya!’ arrived at an uncertain time for Outkast, and at the beginning of uncertain times for the record industry as a whole. Over the course of a decade and four LPs, Andre 3000 and Big Boi overcame the stigma of being southern rappers in an East-West Coast dominated genre. Released in 2000, Stankonia saw Outkast break through worldwide, thanks to singles ‘Ms Jackson’ and ‘So Fresh, So Clean’. The commercial success capped off years of boundary-pushing experimentalism. The sprawling LP was followed by a then career spanning greatest hits, featuring the moderately successful new track ‘The Whole World’ (somewhat strangely featured on the Scooby Doo soundtrack). It really felt like they could do no wrong. Despite the group reaching uncharted heights, rumours began circulating in regards to Outkast’s future.

But if there was any creative tension within Outkast, it was masterfully parlayed into the double LP opus Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Officially an Outkast release, the album combined respective solo albums from Dre and Big Boi – the latter dispelling the notion of a rift on ‘The Way You Move’, explaining his counterpart’s acting aspirations. The solo experiment paid off, massively so, becoming Outkast’s biggest album to date – the fifth biggest selling album in the US in 2003, even reaching Platinum status on the ARIA charts. The wild out, P-Funk-invoking conceptual scope manifested into bankable hits. The White Album and Sign O’ The Times comparisons stuck.

“1, 2, 3 … go!”

It’s a deceptively simple opening to a deceptively simple song. Anyone with a basic grasp of acoustic guitar can strum along to the four simple major chords, G-C-D-E (a I-IV-V-vi progression). Andre 3000’s voice doesn’t seem to do any heavy lifting. Still, every little aspect of ‘Hey Ya!’ combines to create a modern pop masterpiece, an elusive, infallible genius that dominates radio waves and attracts critical acclaim.

After that iconic count in, the track launches at full speed – Andre racing each line to the finish, punctuated by three handclaps echoing the introductory “1, 2, 3”. The snare is tuned ridiculously tight, striking like a doctor’s reflexive hammer on the hips. Pound for pound, the lyrical resonance is unmatched. The way “then what makes” is stuttered before the falsetto release of “love the exception?” (preceded by a punchy grunt). Few could resist the Pavlovian response to “What’s cooler than being cool?”. That classic cool of “Shake it like a Polaroid picture”, and of course, “Lend me some sugar/I am your neighbour!” All while a funky little space synth fills out the bottom end.

“Now what’s cooler than being cool?”

The album’s initial success was due to the dizzying one-two punch of its lead singles – Andre’s ‘Hey Ya!’ and Big Boi’s ‘The Way You Move’. Big Boi’s cut was more in line with what we’d expect from Outkast, with its rapid fire, down and dirty (yet still sensual) flow, replete with a killer Sleepy Brown hook. ‘Hey Ya!’, however, was something of a curveball. Andre 3000 was, and still is to this day, regarded as one of the greatest MCs of all-time. And there he was, strumming and crooning along on a softly sweet, Beatles-esque ditty. It couldn’t have happened without the creative freedom of newfound solo status – and it paid off big time.

The track was available as a CD single, when CD singles could still be picked up from record stores, but it still achieved the honour of becoming the first iTunes (then only available in the US) release to clock up one million paid downloads. It sat at number one on the ARIA charts for two weeks. Despite its mainstream ubiquity, it came in at number two on the 2003 triple j Hottest 100 (Jet’s ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl? came in at number one), and charted at number 18 on the 2013 triple j countdown of the Hottest 100 Of The Past 20 Years.

“When we know we’re not happy here”

It’s a tried and true dynamic: an uplifting, major key pop song concealing decidedly bleak themes. Pharrell’s ‘Happy’, the most prominent contemporary stylistic and popular equivalent to ‘Hey Ya!’, is a decent pop tune, but everything is right there on its saccharine surface. In ‘Hey Ya!’, the protagonist and their partner have hit a juncture in their relationship. The risqué (not nearly as risqué as Andre 3000 often is) quip of “Don’t want to meet your mama/Just want to make you cum-ah” eventually finds closure. The song, much like the relationship it depicts, is both simplified and complex whichever way you wish to look at it. You could play it at a wedding and grandma might get down on the dancefloor, yet it also works as a heart-wrenching inclusion on a break-up mixtape.

“Like a Polaroid picture”

The film clip wasn’t exactly original, but much like the song itself, it featured simple ideas executed perfectly. Presenting a modern day, country-flipped, approximation of The Beatles’ US-invading Ed Sullivan appearance, a band of Andre 3000 clones (a roster of self-mythologising alter-egos) decked out in emerald stoke in-studio hysteria. It captures the runaway success of the track, while alluding to the fact Dre performed every instrument, except bass, on the recording. It was directed by Bryan Barber, who later went on to direct Outkast’s not-exactly-successful full-length feature Idlewild.

“Y’all don’t wanna hear me, you just wanna dance”

Outkast’s rocky comeback set at Coachella was at its most rocky during ‘Hey Ya!’. Dre dished out the iconic count in with a sense of disdain. Like Prince’s ‘Kiss’, it’s tricky to recapture the nuanced magic live. It’s almost as if it requires the clones of 3000 featured in the video.

The hook is more a whisper-along rather than stadium-sized shout-along. Even so, it’s a nice invocation of a moment in time – when the Polaroid revival preceded Instagram filters, when the Beyonces and Lucy Lius dominated charts and the box office (hey, that’s still the case! Except swap big screen for small screen). I remember strolling around a caravan park in rural Victoria in the 2003/2004 summer period, hearing ‘Hey Ya!’ blasting from car stereos and CD-Rs virtually nonstop all summer. As with all omnipotent pop culture, the potency tends to diminish in cycles over the years.

Now, a decade on, with a reunited Outkast heading to Australia this July, the importance of ‘Hey Ya!’ is once again vitalised. It’s starting to creep back into the collective musical conscious, perhaps in strange ways, but hey, it’s a strange, beautiful song.

Outkast will headline Splendour in The Grass on Friday, July 25. Head here for the full lineup and ticketing details.