Very few songs exemplified the Eighties’ shift of focus onto the Almighty dollar more than Gwen Guthrie’s 1986 smash “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But the Rent.” Not only did the song drop a new phrase into the American lexicon (people of a certain vintage still use that phrase to respond when they’re asked “what’s going on?”) but it lit clubs on fire that summer, thrusting a successful background singer into the spotlight as a lead artist.
Born in Oklahoma but raised in New Jersey, Guthrie gained her first major professional credit by singing background vocals on Aretha Franklin’s 1974 hit “I’m In Love” and went on from there to composing hits like “Supernatural Thing” by Ben E. King. She also racked up vocal credits on commercial jingles (like fellow R&B stars Patti Austin and one-time duet partner Luther Vandross) and sang background vocals for a laundry list of artists, including Roberta Flack, Billy Joel, Stephanie Mills, Madonna, Peter Tosh and Maxi Priest.
Her solo career had been going on for quite some time at the point that “Rent” exploded, but she hadn’t had a major hit up to that point. She had, however, made significant waves on the dance charts, partially in thanks to some innovative production work by reggae legends Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare (who I was surprised to learn did NOT produce the slightly reggae-ish “Rent”.) Nevertheless, “Rent” became by far her biggest hit, making it up to #42 on Billboard’s pop chart, and topped both the R&B and dance charts.
The song’s got quite a few one liners (“no romance without finance” was also a catchphrase-type thing for a minute), quotes a pretty awesome Billy Preston song in the pre-chorus, and features a suitably cool vocal from Gwen, who doesn’t let loose vocally until the very end.
Guthrie took some flack for the song’s lyrics, which were perceived to be quite materialistic. I’ll let you guys have the political discussions, but lines like “no romance without finance” and “a fly girl like me needs security” sort of lend credence to that particular argument. Now, I ain’t sayin’ she’s a gold digger…
The video itself has some cool arty bits, but like many soul singers from that era, Guthrie wasn’t exactly a natural for the video age, something that probably hurt her career as pop music became more of a visual medium for the masses.
After “Rent” hit, Guthrie’s pop touch vanished, but she remained a presence on the R&B and dance charts for a while, then gradually faded from view until her 1999 death from cancer. She might be gone, but this song remains relevant a quarter century later.