(8) chris isaak, "wicked game" defeats
(9) biz markie, "just a friend" 110-72

Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchfadness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/5.

Which song is the best?
(8) Chris Isaak, "Wicked Game"
(9) Biz Markie, "Just a Friend"

mo daviau on "wicked game"

Several years ago, when I was a performer with a sex-positive storytelling show in Austin, I was gifted a DVD of pornography. This DVD of pornography promised to leave me with the stickiest of fingers, I was told, because the actors were lovers and partners in real life, and the realness of their attraction, and the purity of the love they shared promised to make their copulatory performance all the more honest and therefore exciting. The couple’s deep personal connection shone through as the viewer watched them make sweet, sweet love, or so the back copy of the DVD touted.
     My fingers remained dry throughout the five or so minutes I managed to view this pornographic video. I wasn’t turned on at all. Or entertained. Or into it in any palpable, erotic way. It wasn’t just that the couple was, to me at least, unattractive. Not being part the onscreen couple meant that I remained unaware of the bits and bobbles of their personalities that made them lovable. Both members of the couple had brown teeth. The entire film felt like what it must be like when housekeeping walks in on an old married couple going at it at a cheap, roadside motel.
     Even though I hadn’t seen it in at least twenty years, my immediate mental recall of the video of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” remained fresh: objectively attractive singer and, later, actor Chris Isaak frolicking upon a sandy beach with supermodel Helena Christiansen as Isaak croons his doomy love song in her sand-coated ear. And the song is doomy: “I don’t want to fall in love (this world is only gonna break your heart) with you.” And yet, throughout the 90s, this song was unavoidable, and even, in my estimation, ascended to the heights of #1 sex anthem of the entire decade.
     Because I’m prone to getting into fights with people over 90s music, I will argue that the finest sex anthem of the ‘90s is “Laid” by the band James, but this is a minority opinion. Not everyone shares my taste for men in black eyeliner, and I get that, and so my attachment to the one song that features a male vocalist singing the lyrics “line my eyes and call me pretty,” stems from the rarity of the thing I’m into occurring in popular song, as well as the audacious lyric “she only comes when she’s on top,” which was edited to “she only sings” when the song was played on commercial radio stations.
     While “Laid” remained niche and relegated to the alternative ghetto of MTV’s 120 Minutes, Chris Isaak, with all of his objective attractiveness tempered with David Lynchian eeriness, was ubiquitous. And when I went to rewatch that video in order to write this essay, Isaak and Christiansen’s lack of connection, their glassy-eyed, glossy magazine looks and occasional smile betraying the knowledge that this sexy frolic isn’t going to lead to anything good, made me think of the brown-toothed lovers of the aforementioned pornographic DVD who couldn’t sustain my attention for more than five minutes: they loved each other and knew what got the other off, but had nothing to offer the viewer. Chris and Helena, on the other hand, performed their soft-core ritual to a song that ruled an entire decade. They may have hated each other and spent the moments off-camera rinsing their mouths out with Scope. It didn’t matter. Doom is doom.
     This video is pure fantasy: sexual without the sex, not-rooted-in-reality, clouds-all-over-their-bodies, terribly photogenic people having proto-breakup foreplay. The video is tasteful, the song is four minutes of deep longing, and Chris Isaak, who went on to have a successful career in acting, looks hot in his tank-top style white cotton undershirt.
     The level of eroticism of the “Wicked Game” video matched the erotic intensity of a 1990s-era network daytime soap opera, which is to say that it was entirely appropriate for network television. In the early 1990s, when “Wicked Game” crawled its way up the Top 40 charts, reality television had not yet destroyed the classic soap opera. Romance was not dead on TV between the hours of noon and whenever Oprah came on, and the networks wasted little time grabbing “Wicked Game” and using it as non-diagetic music for televised soap opera promotions.
     “Wicked Game” was reserved for a specific type of soap opera couple: not long-standing institutions like Luke and Laura from General Hospital, or romantic leads that coded as inching close to middle-age, like All My Children’s Susan Lucci. “Wicked Game” was for couples who led lives of danger, whose romances were soon to be torn asunder by various external forces, such as the Mafia, a wealthy former lover seeking revenge, or of a fatal cancer diagnosis that would be taking the life of a too-sweet young romantic lead way too soon.
     “Wicked Game” became the music that illustrated the doomed romance of Sonny and Brenda, a mid-‘90s General Hospital supercouple. Sonny and Brenda were wildly popular with viewers, Sonny a depressed, brooding young man at constant war with his sense of ethics and his devotion to the crime family he worked for. Brenda initially wore a wire to catch Sonny in a sting operation, and this betrayal painted a dark cloud over their romance for years afterward. Sonny and Brenda being soap opera characters, they fell in and out of love, broke up and reunited, and of course, got up to some playful sexy beach romping, a scenic push-pull of desire and loss, only directed by an ABC soap opera director and not someone who had seen and been inspired by David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, the film where “Wicked Game” was first put to work as the go-to song for foreboding eroticism.
     It was indeed this dark cloud that made Sonny and Brenda the most popular General Hospital supercouple in the mid-90s, after the aforementioned Luke and Laura. Chris Isaak’s radio hit made relationship dark clouds sexy. It was, after all, the era of the sad young man with a guitar. What came after Isaak: Nirvana, Eddie Vedder, and a hundred white guys who sounded like Eddie Vedder. Isaak’s haunting ballad owes at least a little bit to Lynch’s vision of the Pacific Northwest: the quirkiness of Twin Peaks was paired with the piney backdrop of Washington State, and Twin Peaks later helped to create Seattle-as-popular regional fascination, what with those bearded, flannel-sporting sad guitar boys who lived there and made sad music there garnering so much attention for much of the decade.
     “Wicked Game,” like so much that was called “grunge” alongside Nirvana and Pearl Jam, skated by on the specificity of its aesthetic.
     ABC continued to use “Wicked Game” to promote its daytime programming for years after the song descended from the charts, but in the ‘90s, this song never quite stayed in its lane. It’s aesthetic creeped into other art forms, other arenas, and the song itself likely made it onto thousands of break-up themed mixtapes. It was a constant presence in the car of my high school friend Warren, who owned one and only one music cassette in 1994 and it was Chris Isaak’s album, Wicked Game. By 1996, he still had not acquired another music cassette for his car, which perplexed me and our other friends, because at the time, "Wicked Game" was entirely played out, but Warren assured us that the other album tracks were pretty good.
     “Wicked Game” became the socially-acceptable sonic backdrop to gloomy sex, David Lynchian sex, doomed sex, disconnected beach sex, ‘90s sex. I mean, the song isn’t really about sex. “I don’t want to fall in love…with you.” A wicked game is, at least in my mind, something you don’t do to someone you love, but the song is meant to make you feel like you’re falling into some sort of sex quicksand, some impossible-to-free-yourself from disaster of getting sucked into bad shit. Which, in a certain light, is sexy as hell. Or at least it was in the 90s.

Mo Daviau is the author of the novel Every Anxious Wave, which takes its title from a lyric from a Sebadoh song. She is currently exiled in a remote New England village in the woods, but claims Portland, Oregon, as her home.

charles yu on "just a friend"

Have you ever watched Yo Gabba Gabba? [1] I have. I’ve watched a lot of it. I was watching it with my then 1-year-old daughter, back in 2008 when Biz Markie suddenly appeared on the screen. It probably says something about how deeply strange a show Yo Gabba Gabba! is that Biz Markie’s showing up didn’t actually increase the weirdness quotient of the show.
     It also says something about Biz Markie that up until that moment, I hadn’t thought of him in years and yet, the instant I saw him, I was hit with a powerful blast of nostalgia for a very specific time in my life. The first quarter of 9th grade—the beginning of high school. And girls. And being into girls. And girls not being into me.
     Maybe that’s a way to think about one-hit wonders, and their relative place in the hierarchy of these songs, an equation with two variables: how rarely do you think of the song, and when you do think of it, how violently does it wrench you out of ordinary time and thrust you back into puberty?

I’d heard the song a few times since 1990, of course. [2] But at that point, it’d been at least a few years, yet (and you know this feeling, probably) I couldn’t help but sing the chorus to my baby, who looked at me with what I can only assume was a mixture of pity, fear, and incipient anxiety that half of her gene pool might be carrying alleles for tone deafness.
     The song had come out in fall of ’89. My family had moved the year before, when I was in eighth grade. My friends in middle school threw me a going away party, at which I got at least a dozen hugs, and at least two kisses on the cheek from classmates of mine. This was a big deal to me, even if I knew it was mostly because I was leaving forever. And now, in this new school district, and being a freshman who took math with a bunch of seniors to boot, things were not exactly going well in the girls department. [3]
     All of which is to set the context into which this song arrived. To have a crush was debilitating. It was tragic. The world was juniors with Preludes and seniors with 325is, sunroofs open in the parking lot out of which wafted Babyface and Keith Sweat and pretty much every single member of what used to be New Edition [4] and in this world I was a freshman with a knock-off jean jacket and quads and calves that over the summer had decided to become men’s legs, but whose everything else remained firmly pre-adolescent. NOT FUN.
     Into this world comes Biz Markie with...what, exactly? A novelty song? But also, a legitimately good song, enjoyable to listen to, over and over again. The song that when it comes on, no matter where or when, in a frozen yogurt shop or waiting at a red light and definitely at a bar mitzvah but also after math team practice and wrestling practice and every other kind of practice, everyone immediately starts singing along, badly.
     It was...a comedy rap balm for a ninth-grader’s hot, sweaty, raw and rug-burned heart. What was this jokiness doing in my rap? What was this funny doing in my sad? It gave me (and wispy mustachioed boys everywhere, I imagine) emotional armor. Permission to laugh. A new way of looking at it all. It was a a shield and sword against all the girls, real and hypothetical, who had crushes on cuter boys, older boys, boys with driver’s licenses and non-velcro wallets. There was no way I could hear this song and not laugh at the cheeseballs with the good hair and stereo systems, and not laugh at myself, too. “Just A Friend” made me feel better, every time.
     But don’t just take my word for it—I can cite no less an authority than Video Hits One to corroborate my emotionally-tinged memory. However much weight you assign VH1 as an authority in this department (and, for the record, I unabashedly loved VH1), it seems worth noting that “Just A Friend” makes not one, but TWO of its all-time lists, ranking

#81 on VH1's 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders


#100 on VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of Hip Hop

Which seems exactly right. It was not just a blip. Or actually, it was just a blip, but it was an all- timer, too. A novelty that makes its way into the pantheon. It’s the Platonic ideal of a one-hit wonder: so singular that it doesn’t need to be replicated, the perfect version of what it is. The very thing that makes it special makes it unsustainable. In the jumbo emotional crayon box of 128 colors, you don’t want more than one “Just A Friend,” you don’t want more than one jokey story song with piano breaks and crooning. But you do need that one.
     For all these reasons, I must say, Biz’s seeding here seems low to me (no doubt because of the corrupt liberal media—Sad!). [Tournament seeding is based on highest Billboard US Top 40 chart position –Ed] But what do I know? In any case, the brackets will tell us soon enough. And in the long run, history will judge.
     But come on. The girl in the song is named “blah blah blah.”
     From all boys everywhere to Biz Markie: Thank you forever.

[1] To be clear, technically the name of the show is Yo Gabba Gabba! with an exclamation point at the end. But if I’d written it that way, the first sentence of this essay would have ended with both a “!” and a “?”—as in:

“Have you ever watched Yo Gabba Gabba!?”

which looks weird and is also both psychologically and punctuationally confusing, and could suggest that I’m not in a great emotional state at the time of this writing; although, come to think of it, given this footnote, and the current state of the republic, maybe I’m not.

[2] A house party, the occasional wedding. But this was 2008, post-iPod but pre-Spotify. It seems almost inconceivable now, but less than a decade ago, we didn’t have instantaneous access to pretty much every song ever recorded, any time we wanted, for free.

[3] This would turn out to be the normal state of affairs for the next fifteen years or so. But I didn’t know that then.

[4] Seriously, in 1989-1990 the charts were dominated by literally every member of New Edition. Bobby, Ronnie, Ricky and Mike. Ralph and Johnny, too.

Charles Yu is the author of three books. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in various publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Wired. He is currently writing for an upcoming HBO show created by Alan Ball, and is also at work on his next novel, The Book of Wishing. 

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