The world of pop music is filled with confrontation, sass and buckets of attitude. The perfect place, then, to mine for putdowns that you can use in your real life. If you need an exceptional insult to cut someone to ribbons, you have categorically come to the right place.
Now, many putdowns in pop are specific to a certain person – see John Lennon taking aim at Paul McCartney on 1971’s ‘How Do You Sleep?’ (“Those freaks was right when they said you was dead…”). Or even Kanye West making an outrageous and provably incorrect claim about Taylor Swift, who had sold millions of records by the time he infamously upstaged her at the 2009 VMAs, of which he rapped, on 2016’s ‘Famous’, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch faaaamous”.
Yet we’re here to look at vaguer, most useable putdowns that you can borrow, divorced of context, to sear someone who needs putting in their place. Friends, prepare to breathe fire, for your enemies will never be the same once you’ve inhaled these – the greatest putdowns in pop music.
The Streets, ‘Fit But You Know It’
“See, I reckon you’re about an eight or a nine”, Mike Skinner muses on this 2004 suntan and sangria indie-rap banger, “Maybe even nine and a half in four beers’ time” – what a charmer! – before he delivers his killer blow: “You’re fit – but my gosh, don’t you just know it?” If you want to watch the sun go down on someone’s vanity, this is the track to do it with.
Kate Nash, ‘Foundations’
She returned this year with the uneven but occasionally excellent fourth album ‘Yesterday Was Forever’, though for many the musician/actor (catch her in the upcoming second season of awesome Netflix wrestling drama Glow) achieved her crowing glory to date with the lyrics to this 2007 sass-fest. You can almost see her rolling her eyes when she sings, “You said I must eat so many lemons / Cause I am so bitter.” Yet her retort is one for the ages: “I said, ‘I’d rather be with your friends, mate / Cause they are much fitter.'” Round two! Ding-ding!
Taylor Swift, ‘Mean’
Even pre-1989 mega-fame, Tay had a knack for playing the part of the everywoman, the person who beams your own hopes and fears back at you. “It’s like you’re reading my mind, man!” you think. Her powers of relatability were riding high with this 2010 country-pop belter, on which she speaks out for all those local yokels who feel out of step with small-town life, and dream of making it in the metropolis. “Someday I’ll be living in a big old city,” she promises the bullies, “And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.” Take that, you bloody hillbilly!
Carly Simon, ‘You’re So Vain’
Well, it’s the ultimate pop putdown, isn’t it? Altogether now: “You’re so vain / You probably think this song is about you.” This 1972 classic caught music fans’ imaginations to such that an extend that speculation over the subject’s identity raged for more than three decades – some said it was about Mick Jagger, others that it flamed James Taylor. Yet in 2015 the singer admitted thats it caught Warren Beatty in its crosshairs, choosing a deliciously pointed turn-of-phrase: “I have confirmed that the second verse is Warren. Warren thinks the whole thing is about him.”
Nicki Minaj, ‘Stupid Hoe’
The lyrics, in full, to the chorus of Nicki Minaj’s 2012 motor-mouthed battering-ram ‘Stupid Hoe’: “You a stupid hoe, you a you a stupid hoe / You a stupid hoe, you a you a stupid hoe / You a stupid hoe / You a you a stupid hoe / You a stupid hoe, yeah you a you a stupid hoe / You a stupid hoe, you a you a stupid hoe / You a stupid hoe, you a you a stupid hoe / You a stupid hoe, you a you a stupid hoe / You a stupid hoe, yeah you a you a stupid hoe”. NME has nothing to add at this stage.
Kanye West, ’30 Hours’
Kanye’s scattershot 2016 masterpiece ‘The Life of Pablo’ was stuffed with jaw-dropping lyrics and outrageous statements (see the aforementioned ‘Famous’) and, admittedly, this recollection of a pre-fame, pre-mega-fortune relationship is no more searing than the rest of the album. Yet it contains an absolutely timeless sass: “My ex says she gave me the best years of her life / I saw a recent picture of her… I guess she was right.” Kanye, you old dog.
Daphne & Celeste, ‘U.G.L.Y’
Actually, we thought that ‘You’re So Vain’ contains the ultimate pop putdown, but, come to think of it, maybe that honour falls to the nagging refrain of this 2000 playground taunt from Daphne & Celeste. You know the words: “U.G.L.Y – you ain’t no alibi / You ugly!” At the time, the track divided opinion from music fans, but the warm glow of nostalgia has been kind to the duo’s brand of bubblegum pop – and, come on, as pop putdowns go, this is an absolute killer.
Lil Kim, ‘Big Momma Thang’
Kim’s 1996 debut album ‘Hardcore’ is an opus of filthy genius that immediately ushered her into the pantheon of all-time greats. It was as if she’d heard male rappers drooling over women in their sexualised lyrics and opted to outdo them at every turn. ‘Hardcore’ contains some of the most deliriously rude lines ever committed to tape, and also some of the most brilliantly self-aggrandising. When she snaps, on opening track ‘Big Momma Thang’, “You wanna be this Queen B / But you can’t be / And that’s why you’re mad at me“, it’s a brush-off from which there is no recovering.
From one Queen B to another. This track’s brilliance lies in its subtext. For the purpose of this sass-fest article, let’s take the chorus’ apathetic lyrics – which document a break-up – at face value: “I could have another you in a minute / In fact, he’ll be here any minute,” Bey warns. But does she mean it? The fact that the song is called ‘Irreplaceable’, and that her her voice trembles as she delivers the line, suggests that perhaps she’s not as sure as she would have us believe.
The Stone Roses, ‘She Bangs The Drums’
Move over, you sad old bugger, Ian Brown and co. sigh on this 1989 indie classic: “The past was yours, but the future’s mine / You’re all out of time.” People like to say things were better in the past, don’t they, when they were young and felt connected with and excited about culture. But they’ve had their time and now it’s our go, you know what I mean?