Not Exactly Nostalgia 2: Reader Mail
A fellow going by the hopefully false name of Shitcan McGee wrote me a long letter about some minor New Jack Swing hits. He really seemed to know his stuff, but in the interest of conserving space, I’ll only print the most controversial segment:
No discussion on this era of music would be complete without Milli Vanilli. They were simply the best. I wish the people who actually sang the songs would have kept making records. Who knows what the world would be like now?!! The people who liked their music and then sold out -- just because the male lingerie wearing front men were charlatans – were and are still a bunch of miserable pussies. It would be really cool if sometime soon they discovered some "lost" Milli Vanilli tapes in a vault or safe somewhere in Germany, and released a bunch of new albums with fresh beats for the masses. In the meantime, let’s at least try to remove the stigma from their reputation.
Quite an interesting opinion, Shitcan. Why should we care about whether or not the two longhairs in bicycle shorts and orange blazers were actually doing the singing? If the music was catchy, what difference does it make? Well, I think the answer is that pop music is largely an image game, and just because the intellectual elite love Milli Vanilli for their bangin’ beats doesn’t mean the rest of the world will accept them despite their fraud.
Danielle confirms my suspicion that time heals all pop wounds, even wounds inflicted by the dastardly New Kids:
Ah. Crappy pop songs. How many I love that I hated at the time, but I hated no band more than I hated New Kids On the Block. I was New Edition, BBD, The Boys all the way. I thought NKOTB was lame. But they played their videos on MTV and BET. I had no reprieve. But I've found that I've made peace with "Tonight," which at the time when it came out I thought was the worst song created in mankind. It's still incredibly dumb, but after my sister slid me a copy of NKOTB's "Greatest Hits" I found that it was the first song I wanted to hear. Not "Right Stuff." Not their white bread remake of "Didn't I Blow Your Mind this Time." I wanted the song I hated the most. La-la-la-la-la-Tonight! A song about them being famous and touring, the emptiest of all pop songs.
A guy who really gave me no indication of his name sent me this touching letter about coming to terms with shameful pop songs of the past. Your Band Sucks is all about healing, and admitting that you like crappy music is the first step:
It was back in 1993, and I had recently begun college. A friend of mine, Mike, decided it was his God-given duty to tutor me in the ways of rock and pop, and he started to make mix tapes for me. Surreptitiously he slipped in "I Think I Love You" by the Partridge Family. Oh, how I giggled at that song. The rest of the album was a lot more serious, but that song had me laughing hysterically every time I heard it. At first I thought it was ironic laughter, but later I came to the realization it was a laughter of joy, the joy of truly enjoying bubble-gum pop. It was empty, it was meaningless, it was catchy, it was... fun. Before I knew what I was doing, I was holding a copy of "The Partridge Family Album" in my hands, wondering how I could have sunk this low. I liked Pearl Jam and Nirvana! I cut my teeth on Black Sabbath and Kiss (OK, OK, Kiss is bubble-gum rock I know). The last album I had bought was the Beetles Revolver! How could I seriously be contemplating listening to "The Partridge Family Album"? But I did. Many times. And to this day I can sing along to every song on that album, and many other P-Fam (as us in the know refer to them) songs as well. I long for "Summer Days". I want someone to "Point Me In The Direction Of Albuquerque". And sometimes I pick up the phone, dial "0", and say to the operator "Hello, Operator? Get me Echo Valley 26809". And you know what? I'm damn proud, and you're high-falutin' fancy talk will never make me feel ashamed again.
Good for you, guy. Don’t let the haters get you down with their anti-Partridge propaganda. Speaking of happy stories, a hep dude calling himself “The Bobdizzle” relates this tale of overcoming employment woe through the magic of EMF:
When I was a younger lad, I worked at the wondrous slave-labor intensive Anheuser-Busch theme park we all know as 'Sea World of San Antonio". Working in my small, non-air conditioned cart right across the big lake from the Ski Show. The soundtrack contained all too many of the hits of the early nineties (and earlier) I'd care never to remember again. However, working in such close proximity made this quite the impossibility, so I did what everyone else at the park did: I memorized it.
Whenever EMF came on, and I felt in the mood, I'd grab my trusty broom and put on a modest pole dancing show for all the guests that couldn't make it to the show on time. I'd have to say it was pretty good for my budget. I lip-sync'd the song immaculately, making up what in my mind looked like Fred Astaire twirling, bumping, and grinding with a wooden broom in my ugly-ass Sea World uniform. Once the performance was done, I'd walk back over to the register, put away the broom, and say "Thanks for watching, if you really liked the show, tell us over at guest relations..."
That job was awful indeed.
Unfortunately, he neglected to mention whether or not he earned any promotions from his hard work, or whether his purple prose just gave him away. I’d like to imagine that “The Bobdizzle” is currently a high-powered neurosurgeon, but he still has to stop what he’s doing and lip-sync into a slippery handful of brain whenever “Unbelievable” comes over the hospital PA.
Brian, bless his soul, has reminded me of a song I’d forgotten entirely about: Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World.”
Recently I saw what is apparently the new Duran Duran video. God help me, I must have been watching VH1. I don't remember the song that much but I can report that Duran Duran has, predictably, updated their sound to imitate the sound of every other 00's pop-rock band, which is kind of funny because if they went back to their old bass-heavy, synth-y 80's sound they'd easily win over all the geeks who listen to The Rapture.
Anyway, this got me thinking about the OTHER Duran Duran comeback, the one from back in the early 90's. I think they'd only been gone for a year or two, but I seem to remember their "Wedding Album" being called a comeback. The single "Ordinary World" certainly was inescapable back when I was in 7th grade; it was the sort of MOR early 90's crap that was perfectly designed to be played at the mall. Somewhere out there, some Banana Republic outlet is playing "Ordinary World" on their PA system this very second.
Anyway, after I started thinking about the song I couldn't get it out of my head, so I figured I might as well download it. As soon as that ultra-processed acoustic guitar intro hit my ears I was instantly transported back to the Paramus Park shopping mall. Not exactly the best nostalgia trip, but a nostalgia trip all the same. Some songs bring back your fist kiss or your first dry-hump on the dance floor or something, this one conjures up first time my Mom dropped me off to hang out at the mall without adult supervision! Fuck yeah!
I will say that this song is a good bit more intricately written than most pop crap you'll hear nowadays. Back in the early 90's people really took their vapid lite-pop seriously!
I think I’ll download that now too. Actually, I’m pretty sure I still have the cassette of the wedding album, so maybe I’ll just pop that in instead. The early nineties truly were a great time for vapid MOR rock: remember “Back for Good” by Take That? Fuck yeah! Okay, now here’s a letter from John “Clitch” Macbean:
You know how you can ruin somebody's day in 4 words?
"dip trip, flip fantasia"
Now get it out of your head if you can.
On behalf of me and all of the readers who remember that song: fuck you, John. For those of you who don’t remember, that’s from US3’s “Cantaloop,” which was played on the radio approximately seventy-five billion times a day when it came out. Since then, it disappeared entirely into the ether; I don’t think I’ve heard it a single time in about ten years. Maybe I’m just not listening to the right station. Needless to say I’m downloading it right now. Funky, funky! Here’s a charming letter from Alex Rodriguez:
You suck you loser, you're no doctor, you're a 300 pound man without a wife sitting around with nothing better to do. You probably like stuff like Nsync and got mad when kids started making fun of you so you posted this crap. LOSER. And I also hope you know if you e-mail me back, I'm not reading it and wasting my time writing some one like you another e-mail.
Thanks, Alex, you make “reader mail” updates twice as much fun! While we’re on this topic, here’s one from Drew Martin:
I know it's your plan to try and piss people off by writing these reviews, but it doesn't make sense. You criticize all music. What do you listen to that is so good. Give me some bands and im sure i could write as much bullshit about them as you do. Thanks for amuzing me with your stupidity.
Thanks for the “amuzing” letter, Drew! Okay, back to work. Charles Hollingsworth has just reminded me of another wonderful stupid old song:
Lucas-- Lucas With the Lid Off. A white rapper, a Jamaican high-speed dub artist, and a lounge jazz singer combine forces to make a song which doesn't even begin to make sense. If you locked Roky Erickson in a room with Syd Barrett and Wesley Willis and fed them brown acid through the sprinkler system, they'd never manage to come up with lyrics like "See everyone's a firecracker like a phone about to get hooked up and let look up and let look up and let whatever bubbles up out your head spread the vibes and illuminate the sky." Not to mention "Zem zem deZow skedaddle." One of the better "what the fuck?" moments in pop history.
Jesus, I had no idea that it was possible to have so many songs stuck in my head at once. Right now “Lucas with the Lid Off” is fighting “Cantaloop” and “Ordinary World” for domination of my helpless cranium. I’m glad I’m not writing a real column this week, because my brain has turned to mush. Speaking of mushy brains:
Dear David Thorpe,
What is my favorite cookie?
I’m not going to answer that, I just wanted to show people that I get all sorts of inane letters every day and that’s why I’m as crazy as I am. Here’s a letter from Justin about a song that I actually intended to write about in the last column but didn’t find the time:
How about Snow's "Informer"? Back in the day, I regarded that song with enough hate to sustain a 21st century resurgence of the Third Reich. On a whim, I snagged a copy out of a local bargain bin of orphaned CDs. Not only am I now seriously grooving on the song, I also somehow know the lyrics. If you recall, this is no minor feat.
In the immortal words of Bob Dylan, “INFORMER, MENOSAYDADDYMESNOWSAYIGOBLAM.” Wait, I guess that was Snow who said that. Or something that sounded like that. Now, a little slice of life from Bobby:
I like "I Saw the Sign" by Ace of Base. I know it's really crappy, but it always reminds me of that episode of Full House where Stephanie sang that song for her school talent show. Now, if that's not a slice of life, I don't know what is.
This next letter (from a man identifying himself as “e”) put a smile on my face, because I too have a soft spot for the catchy musical colonialism of Paul Simon’s faux-African “Graceland.”
After reading your article I went out and bought a $4 used copy of Paul Simon's Graceland album. I probably paid too much for this cheese, but it's like the catchiest, most delicious cheese ever produced. At this point in my life, scarred by a thousand awful radio singles, and decades of bad pop music, I can't help but be entranced by the hokey cheer of "Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes." It's flawless, absolutely flawless.
Needless to say, the idea that some future iteration of myself is listening to this syrupy Caribbean bullshit would probably have killed my younger self.
Still, I don’t think I can ever really forgive the title track, “Graceland.” It’s got some of Paul Simon’s best post-Garfunkel lyrics in the verses, but it destroys them with an absolutely insipid chorus. Check this out:
She comes back to tell me she's gone
As if I didn't know that
As if I didn't know my own bed
As if I'd never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow
See, those are great lyrics, by pop standards. But then what does Paul Simon do? He fucking throws it all away with that stupid chorus about going to Graceland. In fact, he even admitted in an interview that the whole Graceland thing was just a filler chorus, meant to be changed once he came up with real lyrics. But apparently he didn’t, because he came to like the Graceland chorus. And now we’re stuck with this eternal testament to his laziness and poor judgment. And speaking of poor judgment, this guy used to think MC Hammer was cool:
When I was in grade school, I truly believed in my heart that MC hammer was the pinnacle of coolness, and that no one could "touch this."
I remember vaguely a commercial for Taco Bell in which MC Hammer was being perused by bad men who wanted to steal his bag of tacos. This lead to a death-defying rooftop chase; how did MC hammer escape? By utilizing the awesome power of his aptly-titled parachute pants, by floating to safety by jumping off the rooftops, which baffled his pursuers, and he was left to eat his tacos in peace.
Truly a troubling and disturbing memory. What’s even more troubling is this letter by Andrew, which reminds us that the stuff we remember as great is often just total crap (warning: those baffled by UK music will probably not understand a single word of this letter, especially not the word “piffle”):
Dr Thorpe, sir,
For years I insisted that sure, early 90s UK music was generally piffle, specially during that strange post-Madchester-pre-shoegazing period that lasted about fifteen minutes in 1991, but that The Wonder Stuff were great. Oh, how great The Wonder Stuff were. Great great great. Songs like The Size Of A Cow, Golden Green, Unbearable et al were incredible slices of witty and memorable pop music and anyone who said nonsense like "Adorable were better" or "They weren't a patch on Ned's Atomic Dustbin" or "go fuck yourself" were just plain wrong.
Then I actually sat down and listened to 'The Eight Legged Groove Machine' for the first time since getting a sensible haircut and binning my hideous paisley waistcoat in around 1994.
It's something I've noticed with a lot of music that I've passionately defended over the years - The Cure being a particularly cringeworthy example - and I propose that the phenomenon by which something is remembered as being exponentially better than it actually is by a factor of the years since it was last listened to could usefully be christened "The Stone Roses First Album Effect".
On the other hand, the first Adorable album's still freakin' great...
I’m sure I have plenty of formerly beloved records a-moldering on my shelf that I’d hate if I heard again. It seems somehow shameful, but it’s a natural part of life, just like learning to love things that you once hated. In fact, The Stone Roses’ first album is a pretty good example. To be honest, most of it sounds pretty dumb nowadays. That doesn’t mean it didn’t used to be a lot of fun. Also, Andrew must be one of about ten people in this world who remembers Adorable. I’ve listened to their first record pretty recently, and bewilderingly enough it has aged better than lots of stuff. I’ve got a “Sunshine Smile” just thinking about it! Wow, look at that, a joke that ten people will get! Okay, let’s move on to slightly less esoteric material. Here’s a message from “Unholy Mackerel” detailing how his fight with the horror of Cyrus managed to help him defeat his fear of Tom Cochrane:
Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway”: I absolutely hated this song when it was on the radio. Later on in life I was required to learn it as a cover tune for a band I was in. (I play shitty bass).
The band later began to suggest horrible country songs "just to please the crowd" and I walked out at the mention of Achy Breaky Heart.
Yes, rock bottom. I don't see how any dumb fuck could enjoy playing Billy Ray and feel sad for those that do. Now when I hear Tom Cochran's "Life is a Highway" I sing along because it really is a great tune, and things could be worse.
Amen, Mackerel. No matter how bad your life seems, at least you’re not playing Billy Ray Cyrus covers. Thanks to some unnamed guy who we will call MetalloSoran because that’s his e-mail address for this hilarious bit of information:
In response to your review of the Tony Toni Toné song "If I Had No Loot" I feel pressed to point out that the voice yelling "New Jack Swing" in the background is sampled from an Ice Cube song (something you should have been aware of) and what he's actually saying is "and you can New Jack Swing on my nuts!". This was a playful rejection by the Tone's of being lumped into the so-called New Jack Swing movement, whereas they'd actually been around making records a while before that particular trend was given that particular name. So anyway, way to be an idiot. P. S.: I completely concur with your take on "Poison" and "Motown Philly"; truly awesome songs.
That’s awesome. Now I love that song even more. Okay, now for a little taste of the disturbing, here’s a letter from T:
Oh! No! Speaking of people who think they're cats, MC Skat Kat And The Stray Mob. Their entire album, which is structured around the (topical, given Roger Rabbit and the burgeoning market in crack cocaine) idea that the cat from Opposites Attract went on and got a record deal of his own, is a tour de force of gangsta braggadocio. The risqué, playfully misogynistic vignettes of No Dogs Allowed, exploring the thorny dichotomy between bodily attraction and facial imperfection ("She had a great figure/but her face triggered/a response: no dogs allowed!"); the ingeniously sample-laden Skat Strut (in which Kat claims his crown as the leader of a new guard of cartoon icons, declaring to a prerecorded Tweety Bird, "Shut up kid!/This is a new dance/so shake your butt!"); the crime epic Skat Stories, with its grim bare-knuckle depiction of life in the mean streets of the ghetto for an anthropomorphic cat(/kat). What an essential piece of musical history. And, of course, the fucking furries have gone and claimed it as their own... just because it's about a furry cat who likes to fuck other furry cats and possibly also upstanding white women. Stop the world, I want to get off!
This update is getting ridiculously long. If you’re bored at this point, go ahead and take a break, but I have so many awesome letters to share that it’s hard to whittle the selection down to a reasonable number out of the hundreds I received. Look, if I stopped the article now, I wouldn’t get to print Rev. Bleech’s letter you wouldn’t get to take a look back at The Nuge kicking ass with his guitar!
Damn Yankees - 'High Enough' : Cornpone done right, and redeemed entirely by the video if nothing else. In case you've forgotten it, Ted Nugent plays his guitar solo in the doorway of a Unabomber-style shack. While the COPS FUCKING SHOOT AT HIM and he keeps playing because they CAN'T STOP THE ROCK. He may be a Patriot Act fanboy these days, but in 1990 not even a hail of bullets could stop The Nuge from rockin'.
Man, I hated that song at the time, but now I think I need to see that video again. For science. For ROCK science. And what better example of rock science is there than Soft Cell-based childcare? Shanny provides us with insight:
Ok, so I'm 23, and my mom, who is 20 years older, had my first sibling about a year ago. I have a few mp3s of my favorite cheesy 80's pop songs on my computer, which will pop up occasionally when I have my MP3 player on random. One day, my baby brother was fussy and I couldn't do anything to calm him down, so I just put my MP3s on random and "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell came on. So I got to singing and bouncing around with him, and it got him giggling, and now, wherever we go, if he gets fussy, I know I can sing that song to him and bounce him around and he'll calm down... but I do get odd looks for singing songs about tainted love to a baby. Oh well.
I’d better wrap this behemoth up before it single-handedly uses up all of Something Awful’s server space and makes the internet explode with its hideous girth. For my final letter, I’ll print this masterpiece by Jesse Ahlberg:
If I don't champion C & C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)" - Who will?
For starters, the title of the song calls to mind some sort of Dancefloor Fuhrer, commanding the plebeians to dance - NOW. C & C don't plan on inviting you to sweat. They will MAKE you. Furthermore, the very name of the group contains "factory" - and nothing implies cookie-cutter assembly line fodder like a factory, so they pretty much told you everything you ever needed to know about the music before you ever heard a single note.
Ah, but the first notes. You can name that tune in less time than it takes to decide if it's "Super Freak" or "Can't Touch This". The Velveeta Diva background vocals, spearheaded by the DYNAMITE "rapping" of frontman Freedom Williams. Allow me to quote:
"It's your world and I'm just a squirrel
Trying to get a nut - to move your butt."
Lyrics like this can melt not but the iciest of hearts, and shake any and all butts within auditory distance. Do we even need to mention the video, which has encapsulated the fashion mistakes of 1990 in one easy-to-swallow-pill? No, we don't need to mention it.
BONUS POINTS: "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)" was used in The Simpsons as the anthem for the gay steel mill. "We work hard, and we *play* hard."
Thanks a million to all the readers who made this gigantic and enlightening update possible. If you wrote ten thousand words on why you love Better Than Ezra and I didn’t manage to fit it into the update, I apologize. Even those letters that didn’t make it in were mostly great, and even if your letter didn’t reach a wide audience, at least it amused me. Bravo! See you in two weeks. Don’t listen to any Maroon 5 in the meantime, because I’ll hear about it, and I’ll personally revoke your “cool” badge. I probably won’t be running another update on goofy pop song reader mail, so keep in mind that all future letters you send me about pop nostalgia will be enjoyed solely by me. Even so, I invite you to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.