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Personal Essays

My First Time With Toots and the Maytals

When you’re young and in love, it’s not so easy to tell the difference between songs of love and songs of protest. A tale of passion and seriously critical misreadings.

When Toots Hibbert sings “It is you, you, you, you, you,” it is the litany of a fiery angel brandishing the sword of righteousness. You, Toots declares, are a sinner. You, says Toots, are the one upon whom the pressure is going to drop. Toots is a harbinger of doom, a vision in white and gold and ebony who has come in anticipation of the soon-to-materialize wrath of one very angry God. “I say when it drops,” Toots admonishes, “oh you gonna feel it! Know that you were doing wrong.” Yeah, and it’s not “if” it drops, it’s “when” it drops. In the meantime, you can listen to this really bitchin’ reggae tune, but rest assured, sinner, that you will burn in the fires of hell as soon as the music ends. No one will be spared. Not you, not the structures of power and privilege keeping Toots down, not a corrupt Jamaican judicial system wrongfully convicting him of marijuana possession. No one. Plebes and oppressors alike tremble in the face of Toots and his mighty Maytals. It is you, you, you, you, you. YOU!

Unfortunately, to my 18-year-old self none of this registered. Though Toots and the Maytals’ 1960s reggae standard “Pressure Drop” is perhaps one of the most popular songs of protest and discontent in existence, a song in which Toots appropriates Old Testament-style vengeance in order to stick it to the man, I thought he was singing a love song. To my ears, Toots’s voice was plaintive, sick with wanting. It was burning not with the fires of hell but with the flames of passion.

The first time I heard “Pressure Drop,” it was the late ‘90s, and my first boyfriend was playing the song for me on a mix tape. Sandwiched between Sham 69 and the Sex Pistols, Toots’s voice was a beacon of light in an otherwise tempestuous sea of snarling guitars and angry guttersnipes. From the hymn-like intro to the confessional wail of the chorus, “Pressure Drop” was a song that captured the dizzying weightlessness of falling in love. And what’s more, the lyrics spoke to my particular predicament. The way I saw it, beneath the soulful melody was a subtext about the sheer terror of sexual experimentation. Got the feeling all that you’re doing is wrong? Well yes, Toots, I do feel like everything I’m doing is wrong. Where does my tongue go? Why can’t he get my bra off? And what is that thing in his pants? What IS it, Toots? What?

We actually went as far as to declare “Pressure Drop” our song, blasting it from car stereos, waving it around like the flag of a newly founded punk-rock republic of love. I realize now that I was off-base. Anecdotally it’s amusing, but to me a critical misreading of this magnitude smarts just a little bit. Because although I realize that losing my innocence to a song about the biblical smack God was going to put down on us sinners on the eve of the apocalypse is kind of intense, it is the sheer magnitude of my misinterpretation that is something of a personal miff, given that analyzing music and other cultural debris is something to which I devote a great deal of my time. (My friends can vouch for this—they have put up with my mildly insane emails about homosocial relationships in The Lord of the Rings and have sat through my drunken argument about why Samuel Richardson’s 18th-century epistolary novel Pamela is way more like Batman than Superman.) So, that I not only misconstrued this song, but chose to misconstrue a song that is perhaps the most ill-suited song in the world to try to pass off as a song about young love means that I didn’t just get it wrong. I got it so wrong.

I will say in my defense that I wasn’t completely alone in my off-kilter assessment. I’m almost positive the boy I was dating shared some similar interpretation of the song’s lyrical content. How could he not? We actually went as far as to declare “Pressure Drop” our song, blasting it from car stereos, waving it around like the flag of a newly founded punk-rock republic of love. Why didn’t someone recognize our stupidity? Why did I persist in my obliviousness until only recently, when my partner brought a Toots Definitive Collection home, and I stumbled upon its extensive liner notes? It took me three times through the commentator’s paragraph before the phrase “biblical promise of retribution” sank in. I winced. I furrowed my brow. I did Google and Wikipedia searches. I even went to the Toots and the Maytals’ MySpace page, where, as the fates would have it, “Pressure Drop” came blaring out of my computer speakers, just to taunt me. I shrugged—even from my laptop it still sounded like a love song.

That is, of course, the linchpin in this whole thing. Despite convincing empirical evidence suggesting otherwise, Toots really does sound heartsick. I’ll take the Pepsi challenge on that one. And I guess it makes sense in that typically ironic way. As anyone with battle scars from the torrid dating scene of any major metropolitan area can attest, there is more than just a tenuous link between love and eternal damnation. You know, each one creates a world in which hapless souls are shackled to an existence of inevitable pain and suffering, complete with weeping and gnashing of teeth? Yes, I admit, that’s a worst-case scenario generally reserved for the direst of Morrissey fans, but maybe it isn’t completely off base. Maybe it is all about love, love, love, love, love. ‘Cause, really. What’s scarier than that?