So here’s what we know: Taylor Swift interpolated (or lifted) the cadence from Right Said Fred’s 1991 pop-house hit “I’m Too Sexy” for the hook to her single “Look What You Made Me Do.” Here’s what we don’t know: Why?
Yes, it was a song a lot of people sincerely and/or winkingly enjoyed when it came out, usually as a campy novelty joke people were happy to laugh with. But that pop-culture role somehow wound up overextending its welcome, splitting the difference between Hey, Remember The ’90s guilty-laughing wince-kitsch and fodder for articles like “The 50 Worst Songs Ever! Watch, Listen, And Cringe!” (RIP Blender). In the context of Taylor’s big rollout as a Saul Bass/Night In The Woods-biting swag vampire, lifting a piece of Right Said Fred’s most iconic hit seems like a bizarre move, too silly for the context of Swift’s blank-faced vindictiveness or her career arc in general. And it’s not just because the vengeful interpolation is a serious style clash with the ego-mocking original material — it’s the route that original material took to get to that point. Here’s a timeline of “I’m Too Sexy” and its journey through decaying legitimacy.
July 15, 1991: “I’m Too Sexy” is released as a single in the UK
Let’s run the numbers: Initially a major Song Of The Summer candidate for ’91, “I’m Too Sexy” had a serious run on the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, though it took until February ’92 to peak at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the States. In the UK, it was certified gold with 500,000 sales on September 1 of ’91, though it lagged behind one of many 1990s pop hits that were somehow even worse — Bryan Adams’ blood sugar-imbalancing ballad “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You,” “I’m Too Sexy”‘s thematic, aesthetic, and philosophical complete opposite. There will be other singles, of course — “Don’t Talk, Just Kiss” and “Deeply Dippy” were big UK hits, too, at #3 and #1 respectively — but “I’m Too Sexy” is what winds up with the long-term cultural momentum, and for questionable reasons. As a half-deadpan joke at the expense of fashionista solipsism (“I’m too sexy for my cat/ Too sexy for my cat/ Poor pussy/ Poor pussy cat”), there’s a sort of novel comedy to the whole thing. Said comedy will, within a few years, become horribly miscast.
May 22, 1992: Encino Man opens in theaters
The first recorded usage of “I’m Too Sexy” in a motion picture was the 1991 German film Manta – Der Film — not to be confused with another 1991 German film Manta, Manta, both of which cashed in on the country’s tendency to joke about Mantafahrers (dirtbags who drove Opel Manta sports coupes) in the same way Americans goof on New Jersey guidos and the UK goes after chavs. If that seems a little too Teutonically inscrutable a cultural touchstone, there’s always Encino Man. The not-actually-that-good comedy featuring the quality-stamp three-fer of Brendan Fraser (as an unfrozen caveman), Sean Astin (as the career and personality midpoint between Goonie and Hobbit), and Pauly Shore (as a sentient hangnail) featured “I’m Too Sexy” during a montage where Astin and Shore clean up the caveman they found in their backyard while attempting to dig a pool, and singlehandedly ushered in a new epoch for cinema. Finally, for a mass-market international audience, the makeover sequence found its ideal soundtrack, and we as a society had to reinforce our future irony reserves just to deal with the fallout. When the best film a song’s appeared in is a lesser Altman (1994’s fashion-industry goof Pret-A-Porter, aka Ready To Wear, where it was overshadowed by Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes The Hotstepper”), you’re in trouble; other appearances include the ’90s That Darn Cat reboot, Tommy Lee Jones farce-style product Man Of The House, National Lampoon Presents Dorm Daze, and the Sandler/Spade Netflix vacation excuse The Do-Over — as well as both Beverly Hills Ninja and Beverly Hills Chihuahua. It’s the “Gimme Shelter” of lousy comedies.
October 26, 1992: Heavenly Recordings releases The Fred EP, featuring a Saint Etienne cover of “I’m Too Sexy”
Right Said Fred’s three earliest hits were paid a bizarre tribute in the fall of ’92 by indie label Heavenly Recordings, which had just been nominated for a Mercury Prize that year for putting out Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha. And while “Don’t Talk Just Kiss” and “Deeply Dippy” were given to the mostly forgotten Flowered Up and the Rockingbirds respectively, “I’m Too Sexy” was given to Saint Etienne, who goofed on it pretty spectacularly even as they rearranged it into an acid house/EBM mutation that was a bit more intense than the original. Actually leading off with the “too sexy for my cat” verse is the least of it — “do my little turn on the catwalk” becomes “I shake my little tush on the catwalk,” there’s a reference to being “too shaky for my Stevens,” and they introduce a new hook: a glazed-eyed-sounding, muttered “I’m a stripper in a go-go bar.” So it turns out Neil Young’s only their second-most unusual transformation.
October 8, 1996: The Chipmunks release Club Chipmunk: The Dance Mixes, including a cover of “I’m Too Sexy”
Can… can we just go back and listen to the Saint Etienne version again instead? I don’t want to listen to or think about or write something deconstructing the concept of Alvin — a cartoon rodent depicted, at least in the old ’80s cartoon, as equivalent to a grade-school child — singing like he’s horny.
December 24, 2007: The Cheeky Girls release In My Mind – Is A Different World… (A Cheeky One) to iTunes, opening with a cover of “I’m Too Sexy”
Merry Christmas, you poor dopes! Have a digital-only sophomore album from the Romanian twin-sister Eurodance act that gave us the 2002 #2 UK pop hit “Cheeky Song (Touch My Bum)”! What does the video’s uploader have to say about this version of Right Said Fred’s by-this-point-exhausted hit?
August 30, 2009: The Sugababes release “Get Sexy,” a single which interpolates “I’m Too Sexy” for the chorus
If you’re an aficionado of the poptimist-friendly UK pop/R&B group Sugababes, you may know this as the last released recording featuring original member Keisha Buchanan, precipitating the revamped lineup that made their final 2010 album Sweet 7 such a massive critical flop. If you’re a chart-watcher, you might know this as history repeating itself, as it peaked at #2 on the UK charts just like “I’m Too Sexy” did. If you’re into digging into the pre-fame pasts of now omnipresent pop stars, you’ll know this as one of the last songs co-written and produced by Bruno Mars before he finally emerged as a performer the following year. And if you’re me, you think it’s a pretty dece electro-pop jam but preferred it when they sampled Tubeway Army instead.
January 28, 2013: 8 Bit Arcade releases a chiptune-style version of “I’m Too Sexy”
This was later rereleased as part of a compilation called The 8Bit 80s. “I’m Too Sexy” was released in 1991.
Friday, August 26, 2017: Fred and Richard Fairbrass confirm songwriting credits on “Look What You Made Me Do”
So yeah: after talking to Rolling Stone, Right Said Fred’s primary songwriter and singer confirmed that they cleared Taylor’s interpolation of “I’m Too Sexy” sound unheard a week before it came out, and were fairly pleased at the results. Fred in particular claims that Swift took the spitefully wise-assed spirit of “I’m Too Sexy” — “the Eighties were very hedonistic, so it was a cynical look at the end of the Eighties” — and “channeled that quite well.” It’s usually fine to take the artist’s word for it where reinterpretations of their material is concerned, but as cornball as that Right Said Fred song is, its tongue-in-cheek goofy cynicism beats the prickly defensiveness of an imperial pop 1%er’s cynicism any day.