(10) semisonic, "closing time" defeats (7) eagle-eye cherry, "save tonight" 202-74
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 March 7.
ali rachel pearl on "save tonight"
I am not someone who believes in “shuffle” as a mode of listening to music. That is probably the most music pretentious sentence I will ever write, but I was raised by friends who believed only in whole albums and the art of the mixtape. I spent nights in high school lying in the beds of friends debating the exact right transitions between songs on a mix, whether or not it was more important to match them by melody, rhythm, mood, or lyrics.
I came to know individual songs in their larger context on albums. The end of David Bowie’s “Five Years” will always preemptively trigger in my mind the tinny sounding cymbals that begin “Soul Love” on Ziggy Stardust. The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Perfect” slow fades into “Daphne Descends” on Adore in a way that still tugs at my musical heart. All of this just means that there was never really much room in my world for a one hit wonder, with its lack of context, just floating around out there on the radio waves like some lost dog escaped from the pound. Sometimes I’d hear a song on the radio I liked and I’d try my best to delve into the album from which it came, only to find a sea of un-enjoyable sound.
But some one hit wonders were different. Some one hit wonders fell into the context of my life and became vessels for whatever it was that was happening around and inside me when I heard them. When I think of the one hit wonders that defined my life, I always recall that moment in High Fidelity when John Cusack’s character reveals that he organizes his music autobiographically.
Eagle Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight,” released in the U.S. in 1998, filled the interior of my grandmother’s rusted brown Oldsmobile the entire summer that I was 11 years old while she drove my brother, my cousin, and me around town looking to while away the time until she could send us back to school. The song was technically released the previous fall, but our local radio station, ALICE 105.9, played it endlessly for months, marrying fall to winter to spring to summer in a single song. Of course there were other hits at the time, but “Save Tonight” held a special place in the hearts and mouths of my cousin and I who would sing it while skateboarding the landscape of our suburban Colorado neighborhood.
In retrospect, two eleven year olds had no emotional understanding of a song about seizing the moment with a soon-to-be-lost lover. Our tomorrows never held unwanted goodbyes. They held the same redundant sidewalks, routines, malls, and tract housing. We didn’t burn for anything. We were no such logs on a fire. We were between 5th and 6th grade, but we sang to our future selves with the sweetness and subtle mockery Eagle-Eye himself ekes out in his simple verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure.
I always think of the late 90’s and early 2000’s as the era of simple guitar chords strummed in repetition, and the intro chords to “Save Tonight” nailed the white-dude-sitting-under-a-tree-playing-Dave-Matthews-on-guitar genre of music. This was the period of my life when I was attending Jewish summer camp, in which the guitar and song circles featured heavily. It wasn’t until my time at Jewish summer camp came to an end that I began to understand the kind of pain Eagle-Eye would have more effectively communicated in “Save Tonight” if it hadn’t been so damn catchy and therefore a bit too hard to take seriously as a song about the sadness of departure. Each departing group of campers got to choose a group song that would be played during their final Havdalah service the Saturday before leaving camp for good, and I always resented the departing group of ’02 for stealing “Save Tonight,” leaving my group of ’04 with that awful emo Ataris cover of “Boys of Summer.”
I reached out to Eagle-Eye recently in the hopes that, just maybe, his fame had diminished enough to make him easily accessible in this age of social media. I messaged his verified Facebook page, which felt weird given that the internet was still barely a thing back when “Save Tonight” went viral and when going viral meant something entirely unrelated to the rapid circulation of cultural phenomena. I reached out because I wanted to apologize for not realizing Eagle-Eye Cherry was the name of a person and not just a non sequitur of a band name. I wanted to ask him how it felt to compete with his highly talented family: his jazz trumpeter father Don Cherry, his singer/rapper half-sister Neneh Cherry, and his singer/songwriter stepsister Titiyo. He never responded.
While awaiting his unlikely response, I watched, for the first time, the music video for “Save Tonight.” I was looking looking for some insight into this song that is vague enough to be applicable to anyone in a space of desire, poppy enough to be accessible to the masses, merging just the right amount of sadness with just the right amount of joy. I wanted to know if Eagle-Eye really did want to communicate a particular kind of sorrow, or if he was sleaze-balling it up trying to get some lover to stop talking about her feelings and just sleep with him already.
The music video for “Save Tonight” actually does an excellent job of uniting the saccharine with the snarky. Most of my life, when I heard “Save Tonight,” I thought of two lovers by a fireplace, curtains closed, wine glasses on the table. Basically the makings of some soft-core erotica. This isn’t my fault. It’s the fault of the lyrics Go on and close the curtains/cause all we need is candle light/you and me and a bottle of wine/to hold you tonight. But the video is actually a strange story of different unfortunate characters, all played by Eagle-Eye, most of whom are down on their luck. It starts with Eagle-Eye as window shopper who goes to say hi to Eagle-Eye as a butcher. Eagle-Eye the butcher is then robbed by Eagle-Eye the robber, and the robber is then hit by a car driven by Eagle-Eye the driver. Eagle-Eye then appears as a busker, and eventually a homeless person. Only in the end does he become a man holding flowers and a bottle of wine, presumably heading toward whatever lover’s house has curtains that need to be closed.
Maybe Eagle-Eye didn’t want his one hit to get trapped under the wet blanket of sentimentality. Maybe he wanted to tell a story about the possibility of every regular moment becoming something else, something harder. Maybe “Save Tonight” is a song about making peace with life turning all kinds of unexpected corners. I find myself wondering if its simplicity could have found a place in today’s chaotic landscape, or if it will forever be without context, floating on the airwaves of nostalgia.
I think I have always held “Save Tonight” in my heart as the pinnacle of one hit wonders ironically because it has some staying power. The vagueness of its lyrics allows anyone to fill the song with imaginings of their own lost lovers and soon-departing companions. It is not culturally specific in that it doesn’t name or identify any places or times that would disallow any number of people around the world from resonating with the feelings Eagle-Eye conveys. After all, I projected my teenage sadness about leaving summer camp forever into this song whose specific scenario I wouldn’t experience until much later in life.
CNN (weirdly) did a write up of Eagle-Eye after the song’s success in 1999 and aptly pointed out that his song about a one night stand might itself function as a cultural one night stand.  And even though they were right and nothing Eagle-Eye has done since has come close to the success “Save Tonight,” the song still serves as a simple vessel for holding the memories of any of us who lived through peak Eagle-Eye glory.
 “The fans of Eagle-Eye Cherry are hoping success, for him, is more than just a one-night stand.” <http://www.cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/Music/9902/11/eagle.eye/>
Ali Rachel Pearl lives and teaches in Los Angeles. Her work can be found in Hobart, Redivider, DIAGRAM, The New York Times, and elsewhere.
will slattery on "closing time"
I can first recall listening to “Closing Time” sometime around 2005, though I had probably heard the song somewhere before then. The first track from Semisonic’s 1998 album Feeling Strangely Fine, it hit #8 on the Top 40 and #1 on the Modern Rock charts, and by the time I was old enough to care about music very much, “Closing Time” had already cemented its perennial spot in radio rotation.
At that time I would have been 16 or so, a deeply gay, deeply closeted, deeply bored teenager stuck in rural Texas, on account of having been born into a ranch family. 16-year-old Will Slattery was both miserable and miserable to be around. I did not like my environment—for its smallness, its straightness, its conservativism—and I felt like I was suffocating. Every teenager is, in one way or another, kind of a dick, but this feeling of suffocation skewed the particular ways in which I was kind of a dick: I became spiteful, condescending, destructive, self-destructive, prone to picking fights verbal and physical, and needlessly sarcastic.
Brenham, the town closest to the ranch I grew up on, was in many ways small and unremarkable. It had little in the way of industry or development (save for a very old ice cream factory, which has since become famous for a lethal listeria outbreak), and when I describe it to friends and acquaintances who grew up in the city it confirms many of their suspicions about rural people and rural life: dozens and dozens of churches (mostly Baptist, some Lutheran, a few Catholic); abstinence education; a hard-on for Confederate paraphernalia (when I was feeling especially punk rock as a teenager I would sometimes drive through the historic cemeteries, remove all the Confederate mini-flags, and dispose of them in a dumpster behind the town’s fried chicken buffet); trenchant porch gossip; a surprisingly large number of doughnut shops per capita; and a general sense of isolation, as if the county line was the edge of a map beyond which lay the unknown and the unknowable. Sometimes I struggle to convey the significance of the last of these, e.g., it is difficult for me to describe the sense of communal jubilation that descended upon our town when I was a small child and we got a Wal-Mart—this was new and exciting, this meant things for us—without sounding like a piece of satire. But I am utterly sincere when I say that I am from a place where the gradual acquisition of what many would call the elements of a capitalist wasteland (the Wal-Mart, the Applebee’s, and miraculously, when I was a junior in high school, the Starbucks) was seen as an occasion for joy.
The music available to my young self was similarly bound by cultural and material factors. I became a teenager well after the birth & death of Napster and the emergence of P2P sharing as a cultural force, but living in rural Texas (and even worse, outside of town in rural Texas) meant that I had, on good days, about 26k at best in terms of internet connection (a situation that would persist until I went to college). At that speed, downloading a song was a fucking commitment, y’all, and I rarely had the energy to spend all night managing downloads through a shitty dial-up connection in the hopes of having 3 or 4 tracks burned to a CD by morning. Given this state of affairs, I leaned heavily on the radio, which left me with few options: local pop-country & county news channels plus as a couple of Houston stations with enough signal strength to make it out to the boonies. Of these, the only one that appealed to my miserable, frustrated adolescent aesthetic was 94.5 “The Buzz”, a long-standing Houstonian purveyor of garden variety white boy alt-rock. Their playlist was generally mediocre, repetitive, and leaned far, far, far too heavily on Pearl Jam, but as long as it wasn’t raining too hard I could rely on them to deliver a handful of songs that I came to view as radio gems, little touchstones that spoke to my inchoate personage in some form, and if I was lucky I could hear these on the radio as often as 3 times a day.
I say all of this not to browbeat my community or my upbringing—my family and my town consist largely of good people simply trying their best at life—but to emphasize that I felt, in my youth, like I was perpetually drowning. “Closing Time” was one of the regular antidotes 94.5 “The Buzz” offered to this; the song stuck with me and worked as a release valve, something I could look forward to as I drove aimlessly around dusty backroads for hours at a time to kill adolescent boredom.
I eventually came to own a copy of the song on a CD mix a prom date named Minta burned as a gift for me during my junior year of high school, sometime early in 2006. I don’t know whether Minta already had a copy of the original Semisonic album, or was more willing to fight with slow internet than I was, or lived in a part of the county that got broadband sooner, or whatever, but I was deeply grateful. “Closing Time” is track 7 out of 12 on the CD. The rest of the tracks aren’t especially noteworthy—a handful of Nirvana songs, “Bloody Sunday” by U2, a bit of The Toadies, “Sex and Candy," some unmemorable alt-rock tracks I can’t really be bothered to Google. The CD has remained in my car since she gave it to me, usually resting somewhere in the backseat or the center console, gaining over time a handful of scratches and a sun-glazed yellowing patina on one side.
Our relationship was the sort of quasi-romantic pseudo-pairing closeted adolescent gayboys often find themselves in. I suspect Minta and I likely would have tried dating if I had shown any serious interest in that possibility. We sat near each other in French class (where we both found Mme. Metheny, our instructor, to be a uniquely tiresome bore, even though now looking back I see clearly that she was just one of many well-meaning overworked rural educators) and traded dumb, goofy notes about dumb, goofy, teenaged inside jokes. We went to the 3-screen movie theater together. We shared a fondness for French fries, pizza, and Tex-Mex. We both felt our hometown was claustrophobic, a little stifling. We both found Guillaume, the distant and quiet Strasbourgeois foreign exchange student who had the catastrophic misfortune to wind up assigned to a high school in rural Texas for his semester abroad, intimidatingly cool and tried to engineer subtle, secretive ways to get him to hang out with our friend group, though those never worked. I had assumed this was a function of Guillaume’s sheer disinterest, but we found out shortly before he went back to France that his aloofness was really just masked uncertainty—he admitted to us that he wanted to get to know the American students better, but was terrified they wouldn’t like him, and so he mostly kept to himself out of self-preservation.
But perhaps most memorably, Minta and I both really, really, really fucking loved “Closing Time”, and would jam out to it together in my parked car after school. I can recall the lyrics almost perfectly, which is not especially hard, given that it is a very simple song. Just look at this bit from the last verse:
So gather up your jackets, and move it to the exits
I hope you have found a friend.
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.
A common critique of “Closing Time” is that it relies on vague, poppy clichés—every beginning is an end, end a beginning, yadda yadda. But the generality of the song’s lyrics is precisely the source of its excellence and its value as an outlet for pissy teenagers. Neither Minta nor I had ever experienced a last call—we were 16ish and in a small rural town; how the fuck would we know what a bar was like?—nor was either of us anywhere near sexually experienced enough to empathize with lyrics about late-night hookups. But that’s entirely the point: the emotional center of the song is an expansively relatable Romantic I, a sentimental first-person designed to be all things to all people. It doesn’t matter if you’re actually an unhappy virginal closeted gayboy, because the song’s real subject is human connection in whatever form you might want it to be—it’s about that combination of wistfulness, longing, sentimentality, and melancholy that comes with any relationship, romantic or not, real or hypothetical. Every gayboy at some point needs a really good Romantic I, a first-person broad enough that they can sink into its emotional resonance, honestly, and without feeling any sense of performance. And that’s exactly what “Closing Time” gave to me, a maladjusted teenager lip syncing alongside a girl who didn’t know he was gay in the parking lot of a small Texan high school.
When I first told my non-writer friends that I was writing a song about Semisonic’s “Closing Time” for a tournament of ‘90s 1-hit wonders they mostly laughed, assuming that this whole March Fadness endeavor would be a carnivalesque procession through an enfilade of failed ambition, retrospective wincing, and puzzled head-shaking. The assumption they made was that, well, the story of a 1-hit wonder must constitute either an artistic or a biographical wreckage: that the artist must have leveraged some pseudo-zeitgeisty moment to attain success and then lacked the talent for a second round, or that they must have destroyed themselves or their career in some kind of personal disaster and so became the sort of burn-out who would be lucky to wind up at an Oklahoma casino. These assumptions categorically do not apply to the members of Semisonic, all of whom have had lengthy, contented careers. Bassist John Munson works on a number of different musical projects and also sometimes provides commentary for programs on Minnesota Public Radio. Drummer Jacob Slichter wrote a book and now teaches creative nonfiction in the undergraduate and MFA programs at Sarah Lawrence College. And front man Dan Wilson has had a successful solo career in addition to becoming a prolific co-writer, working with everybody from Weezer to Taylor Swift and scooping up Grammys for his work on The Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” and for Adele’s album 21, where he co-wrote “Someone Like You.”
Dan is the author of the song that came floating from Houston to Brenham like a saving grace to me, and when I began to research him for this piece I was struck by just how goddamned nice he is (this shows especially in his interviews with The AV Club and American Songwriter). He thought that SNL parodying the tear-jerking popularity of “Someone Like You” was a “cool tribute”. His Instagram account consists mostly of him posting uplifting advice to young artists, whether it be on the creative value of deadlines or collaboration strategies or the importance of artistic community. He loved “Closing Time” (which took him only 25 minutes to write) and he still loves it, especially when people email him to mention that they used to work at a bar or a store which played it near closing time. He considers these notes to be gifts, and is thankful for the chance to have been a part of their writers’ lives. He makes it a point to play “Closing Time” at gigs, because he thinks it is bullshit when artists won’t play their big, famous hits live. The man is endlessly, relentlessly positive and humble.
Given all this, I find myself moved to do a thing far removed from my normal métier: to mount an unashamed, full-throated defense of sincerity and sentiment. I am, in a certain way, indebted to Minta and to all the girls who ever had even the smallest inkling of possible interest in me as a teenager, in that my unbalanced, moody, resentfully closeted self needed about as much sincerity of affection as it could get, despite being so rarely deserving of it. And I am, in a certain way, indebted to this song, in that it gave me a chance to vicariously feel a whole range of otherwise inaccessible emotions. Yes, it might be a little corny. Yes, it might be too sentimental. Yes, it might be over-played. Yes, it might be too earnest.
But goddamnit, y’all, there are times when 16-year-old gayboys in rural Texas really need that shit.
Will Slattery is an editor, essayist, and reformed cheesemonger who lives in Tucson, Arizona. He serves as Managing Editor for Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.