(10) haddaway, "what is love?"
(15) eMF, "Unbelievable"
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 15th.
HENRY BREAN ON "WHAT IS LOVE"
Before it became a U.S. club hit, then a cliché, then, finally, the punchline to a one-note joke on Saturday Night Live, Haddaway’s breakout single “What Is Love” briefly belonged to the boys on Wheaton Court.
Make no mistake. This was nothing to be proud of—for us or for poor Haddaway.
My best friend and college roommate, Chad, bought an import version of the single on CD during an awkward, early stage in his transition from mainstream synth pop fan to guy who orders obscure EDM through the mail.
I was headed in the other direction, deeper into the backwoods of jangly, guitar-driven indie rock, just across the border from alt-country. But even in my flannel-addled state, I instantly recognized two things about “What Is Love”: The song is incredibly catchy, and it is also pretty dumb.
I’m not sure which quality appealed most to our other roommate at the time.
We’ll call him Banks.
Today he’s a successful sportswriter and columnist at a major newspaper, married with two children. But in the early fall of 1993, Banks was a bully and a drunk, prone to wild emotional displays—fists through walls, screaming arguments on the phone with his family, loud sobs after a breakup.
He even drove around our college town of Columbia, Missouri, with a certain level of aggression. He would lower the windows on his worn-down Volkswagen Jetta and blast whatever loud song he currently had in rotation from aftermarket speakers that thumped static.
Banks only seemed to like music one song at a time. Whole albums were wasted on him. He would narrow in on one track and play it until everyone around him wanted to scream.
Once during our freshman year, his girl back home dumped him over the phone, so he spent the better part of a day locked in his dorm room blasting “Something I Can Never Have” by Nine Inch Nails. He even left it going on repeat when he went to class, eventually causing his boom box, over the course of at least an hour, to emit a piercing death rattle as it melted under Trent Reznor’s ceaseless growl.
For reasons unknown, Banks took an instant liking to “What Is Love.”
For what seemed like months during my senior year of college, I would hear the song through the paper-thin walls of our shitty duplex on Wheaton Court any time the Jetta pulled up or drove away.
Maybe Banks genuinely enjoyed the song. Maybe he just liked how loud and pulsing it sounded coming out of his car. Maybe he only played it like that so people would notice him and so someone, inevitably, would tell him to turn it down.Maybe then he’d get to tell some random stranger to fuck off.
Here’s the funny thing about Banks, though. For all the growing up he still needed to do by the time we finished college—and for all the ways he tried to pick fights with the world around him—he already somehow knew exactly where he was headed and how to get there.
I was toiling away at the University of Missouri’s vaunted school of journalism with no real plan or prospects after graduation. Banks was already getting paid for his work by real newspapers and wire services, despite his bad grades and the basic bachelor’s degree he was about to earn.
I was secretly terrified of what came next. Banks didn’t seem scared of anything.
Our college years ended at roughly the same time as Haddaway’s brief popularity.
By the late spring of 1994, “What Is Love” had become that song the DJ played every night just before they turned the lights up and kicked everyone out at Deja Vu, a generic dance/comedy club a short stumble from campus. You could set your watch by it. Instead of last call, Deja Vu had Haddaway.
Two years later, the song most of us had already forgotten cropped back up on SNL, where it was typecast as generic dance music in a recurring sketch starring Chris Kattan, Will Ferrell and whoever the male host was that week. Dressed in shiny silk suits over black T-shirts, the three of them would bounce from club to club, listening to Haddaway and grinding themselves against unwilling women. The gag proved popular enough to be turned into a terrible, feature-length movie that no one saw. “What Is Love” was pulled right down with it.
The last time I recall hearing anyone play the song unironically—and let’s face it: Haddaway’s schtick was borderline self-parody to begin with—was in the early summer of 1994.
We had just graduated, Banks and I, and he immediately found a paying newspaper job, the first in a progression that would eventually lead him to a high-profile gig covering an NFL team for one of the nation’s largest papers.
I was still sending out resumes and wondering what the hell I was going to do when my lease ran out in a few months.
The day Banks left for good, his Jetta was so packed with stuff that the back bumper sagged almost to the ground.
I stood watching from the front step of the duplex as he drove away, the car’s back end throwing sparks with each bump he hit.
The windows were down and the Haddaway blasting as Banks flipped me the bird one last time.
Henry Brean is a newspaper reporter, desertphile and amateur social media wiseass. Each December, he makes himself a two-disc mix of his favorite new songs from the year, complete with cover art and a theme. This is his idea of fun.
dan gibson on "unbelievable"
The CD single for EMF’s “Unbelievable,” a song that topped the American pop charts for one week in July of 1991 (riding its time out on Billboard’s radar for 23 weeks in total), is available—as of this writing—for one cent. There are 61 copies available. The vinyl holds out for $4.25, probably because people are weird about vinyl these days. The audio cassette? 99 cents.
All the purchasers seem to believe the band is from Australia (they’re not), but they do offer solid praise:
“If you love the song Unbelievable you'll love it being sung 6 different ways on this CD”
“This is an incredible single. Five very different versions of the same song and they're all good.”
There’s no time here to get into the four (or five) versions of “Unbelievable” here, but in its most famous form, it’s the best one-hit wonder of the 90’s, essentially opening the decade on a high-note unmatched by the Primitive Radio Gods and Mark Morrisons of the world. At very least, we need to appreciate “Unbelievable” for knocking Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush” from five weeks of pop dominance, then holding off Bryan Adams’ seeming inexorable “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” from the top of the charts for a week.
1991 was not a particularly good year for pop music. Sure, there was a lot happening on the “college rock” front, but the radio was jammed up with Extreme’s “More Than Words,” Wilson Phillips songs, and the painful reality that Ted Nugent once had a top five hit (“High Enough,” which I regret even mentioning). EMF’s brief dance with crossover fame was—at very least—fun, something you couldn’t say about, say, Gloria Estefan’s “Coming Out of the Light.”
And fun should be the primary standard by which we judge one hit wonders. While there’s something deeply comical about the weird set of circumstances that allowed a song by a fictional band from a TV show to hit number one, “How Do You Talk to an Angel,” there’s no reason to ever listen to that particular track again. Tal Bachman might have had one hit for a reason, if listening to even the first few moments of “She’s So High” is evidence. “She's blood, flesh and bones/No tucks or silicone…” Please God, make it stop.
EMF figured it all out for one moment. The guy with the Vision Street Wear shirt on keyboards, dudes in shorts on guitar and bass, the shirtless drummer, the sideways Oakland Athletics painter cap guy on vocals, even DJ Milf (I know, that doesn’t help, but it seems to predate the “modern” use of that term). The opening is huge, immediately recognizable and not wasting time with an unnecessary build-up. The Andrew Dice Clay samples have probably outpaced his grade-school-filthiness nursery rhymes as the most memorable moment of his career.
Sure, it would have been nice if EMF would have had the good sense to permanently slink into the darkness after they had their moment. Let’s just pretend their 1995 cover of “I’m a Believer,” which might somehow be worse than Smash Mouth’s take on the Monkees song, didn’t happen. You’re right, there was precisely no reason for EMF to return in 2012 to perform Schubert Dip in its entirely. We’ve all made mistakes.
Sure, EMF were—at best—a less interesting version of the Happy Mondays or some other big UK indie act of the era (I see you, Inspiral Carpets), but it works. This isn’t a track that you’ll be unfortunately reminded by the canned soundtrack while perusing the paper towel choices at your local supermarket. There’s too much joy; it’s made for bad imitations of James Atkins’ Gloucester accent while taking the kids to school or as a jam on your Apple Music jogging playlist, remembering the wild flailing you did to this song once during a high school dance. Plus, it made a great soundtrack for the Richard Spencer getting punched video:
What more could you ask for?
Vote for those days when the British music you listened to in an effort to seem cool crossed over to the American mass consciousness. Vote for joy in musical form. Vote “Unbelievable.
Dan Gibson is the communications director for a tourism agency, but in previous lives, he was the editor of an alt-weekly, a playlist compiler for iTunes, a freelance music writer for Idolator and elsewhere, the manager of a bakery, call center employee, fake classified ad writer, a music label employee and a record store manager. He is also the co-founder of Beat on the Street, a multi-generational dance troupe.