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Five for Friday: Cat-Themed Songs

In the eternal war of dog versus cat, the kitties have won at least one round: Internet dominance. Whether it's Grumpy Cat or Lil Bub, the World Wide Web has made many a feline a household name. And that says nothing of the thousands of cat videos populating YouTube, and the ever-prevalent cat meme. So expect your social media feeds to light up October 29, a.k.a. National Cat Day. Falling just a few days before Halloween – a holiday symbiotic with black cats – National Cat Day has a legit motive, given it's meant to encourage the rescuing of stray cats. Expect the Internet to respond with cuteness. We suggest celebrating with one of these songs.

Johnny Cash, "Mean Eyed Cat"
On this 1960 cut, Johnny Cash becomes a disposable third wheel. That's because he makes the mistake of practically coming between a woman and her feline, which he coldly dubs a "mean eyed cat." The tale starts innocently enough, with Cash giving his girlfriend money for groceries. She spends it instead on a hat and some cat food, a move that doesn't sit well with the singer. As Cash essentially dares her to leave, she calls his bluff, and sends the guitar slinger down to Arkansas. He wins her back, but she still comes with what he considers baggage: A mean eyed cat. Lesson learned: Boyfriends can come and go, but the cat stays.

Janet Jackson, "Black Cat"
Nothing in Janet Jackson's catalog is as ferocious as this song, which begins with the roar of a panther and never lets up. Ground in R&B and dance, "Black Cat" branches out into hard rock, with screeching guitars that are borderline heavy metal. The topic of having nine lives figures heavily here, as Jackson sees her substance-abusing man running out of time. "Black cat, nine lives, short days, long nights," she sings, wielding her generally soft voice into something far more demanding. As the beat stomps and guitars wag their tails, Jackson comes to see her boy as bad luck. She's not about to be crossed-up by the black cat crossing her path. "Better watch your step," she sings at song's end, making it clear she's in full control.

The Kinks, "Phenomenal Cat"
While many artists like to play up the mysterious and devious nature of cats, the Kinks instead craft a song far more loving and weird. At times, "Phenomenal Cat" feels like a nursery rhyme, with Ray Davies singing gently about a cat lost in a world full of "idiot boys" who loved to "wallow all day." The 1968 tune also feels playful, as Dave Davies' voice gets accelerated to sound like a high-pitch meow. With a light and airy flute and child-like mellotron, the song may at first appear to be whimsical and light. Not so, for this "phenomenal" cat has discovered the meaning of life. After travelling the world, the stray cat decides to nest in a tree. There, he "gave up his diet" and "ate himself through eternity." Happiness at last. And here you thought those sunbathing kitties were just being lazy.

Peggy Lee, "The Siamese Cat Song"
Sure, this song from Disney's Lady and the Tramp doesn't work as well outside of the film, but it's hard to think of a cat-related tune that registered a greater impact in shaping pop-culture's perception of the house pets. Sung with seductive acidity by the great jazz singer Peggy Lee, the Sonny Burke-composed cut features a bit of an exotic feel. It saunters, with low-rumbling drums and chimes. It also borrows from Asian culture, with Lee's vocals punctuated with the sound of a gong. The two cats, each voiced by Lee, get portrayed as villains. Their goal is to entrance their audience, luring viewers in for the kill. Ever hear the cliché our cats are plotting against us? "The Siamese Cat Song" reinforced – and solidified – the myth.

Muddy Waters, "Crosseyed Cat"
Like Cash's "Mean Eyed Cat," blues great Muddy Waters views the feline pet of his girlfriend with suspicion. "Every time I start to see this woman, he's in the corner growlin' or layin' down," Waters laments, unable to stop obsessing over what the cat – one he believes is too fat to be a house cat but too small to be a lion – is thinking. When Waters tries to get close to his lady, the cat starts jumping from wall to wall, making sure to intervene. Cats, of course, are quite territorial, and can latch onto their owners and view most everyone else with fear or hatred. Such toughness works well with the blues. The guitar struts, Waters' playing coming on hard but slow, an attitude reflected in the song's imagery of the cat biding its time and licking its paws. When all is said and done, the cat has worked his way into Waters' head. The music legend concludes, "everything I do is wrong." The cat, meanwhile, judges.

October 27, 2017

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