(3) jane child, "don't wanna fall in love"
DEFEATS, IN DRAMATIC LAST-MINUTE FASHION
(14) monie love, "it's a shame (my sister)"
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 3/9.
manuel muñoz on "don't wanna fall in love"
Am I the only one who needs to be forgiven for confusing Jane Child for Taylor Dayne? “Don’t Wanna Fall in Love,” at least to my young ears at the time, was cut from the same dance/pop-with-heavy-synth formula as “Tell It to My Heart.” When I first heard the song on the radio, I thought Taylor had made a welcome return from the adult-contemporary side of the dial, where she was learning a thing or two from Anita Baker about the money to be raked in from the kind of music played over white wine and maybe a bear-skin rug if you played your cards right.
Back then, I also listened to music through constant flipping among the MTV-VH1-BET axis and it caught me by genuine surprise when I finally ran across the Jane Child video. To paraphrase Blanche Devereaux, I knew it couldn’t be a Taylor Dayne video because there were no boy dancers. If Taylor Dayne knew the value of a well-staged and well-packaged (as it were) dance number, Jane Child went the other way with a largely gritty, sometimes black-and-white, sometimes color depiction of her walk to a New York studio to lay down this track. Whether strolling along in some cool-ass boots or hailing a cab or taking the N train to (or from?) Queens, she’s always alone, and as exuberantly fine with that as the song suggests she would be. “Ain’t no personal thing, boy,” she warns in the opening line, “but you have got to stay away.” The chaos of the video’s editing makes the most it can out of a formidable persona being brutally honest about what love with her might mean. Like any opening of Saturday Night Live, just about every variation on the possibilities of city nightlife gets trotted out, only to overshadow the performer it is meant to highlight.
I’m really torn about this song for all sorts of reasons. I’ll be honest here and admit that I cringed when I saw that this song was up against Monie Love, a performer who I think is going to benefit most from (re)discovery in these brackets, and who brings back fond memories of one of my high-school friends endlessly playing her cassette single (her cassette single!) on our drives around town. I’m secretly (or not so secretly) rooting for Monie, even as I acknowledge that the great bluster in Jane Child’s lyrics were part of the draw. I appreciate how the song posits that her kind of love won’t be for wimps and the relish she takes in that. But that can get lost amid its dance appeal and, to be fair, Jane Child’s delivery. The acidic possibilities of those lyrics get a bit muddled and the 90’s-synth comes on thicker (and more dated) in this song than in others within the bracket.
Ultimately, I wonder what “Don’t Wanna Fall in Love” means in defining the one-hit wonder for this era, and am left pondering Jane Child’s presence: her ankle-length braids and the nose chain and the long black coat remind me of just how inimitable she was. By that, I mean that emulating the look and the posture (as was our wont when I was growing up) took a hell of a lot more effort than copying Taylor Dayne’s bangs from her “Tell It to My Heart” video. There’s a lot to be said for creating a formula that allows for just enough emulation but not complete derivation, uniqueness but not idiosyncrasy. Taylor Dayne herself knew exactly how to package her power ballads—as neat, elegant, well-lensed studio performances, going black-and-white where Anita Baker had gone sepia. Jane Child struck all the right notes in blending a flashy dance track with a satisfyingly dark undercurrent in her lyrics, but it might be the kind of strike a performer can make just once. You’ll have to forgive me if I remember “Don’t Wanna Fall in Love” as two hot guys dancing against a white backdrop, jean jackets and no shirts, and a final, infuriatingly sexy turnaway from the camera. The one in the yellow socks, especially, with the deliberate hitch in his step: every time, it calls my name.
Manuel Muñoz is the author of a novel, What You See in the Dark, and two short-story collections. He’s midway through a third, with recent work in American Short Fiction and forthcoming from Southwest Review.
jamison crabtree on "it's a shame (my sister)"
I don’t understand success.
Does it belong to an artist or a work of art? How much of it is a product of time? Who is it successful for and in what way?
Talking about success in music reminds me of the way my dad watched football. He’d cheer for whatever team was losing and if they pulled ahead, he’d switch sides. It didn’t matter if a player or a team did well if the game was boring. As best I can figure, he just liked watching football happen. The interplay was more important than the outcome.
Given the interconnected nature of music, it’s hard for me to think of success as something connected to an individual. Music is successful when it grows; when one song inspires new approaches in other songs. In a poem circling the legacy of Blind Tom Wiggins, a 19th century pianist Tyrone Williams writes “Gone/ but for ‘language, music, / imitation, and perhaps memory.’” And this is what music feels like to me. It’s a type of propulsion that moves like a conversation, encompassing more and more with each new song, with each new approach. In the same way it’d sound strange to hear someone say “he used some really successful words in that conversation,” it seems strange to think of a moment in music as either a success or a failure. As long as the conversation’s moving forward, it’s a good one.
In a field where there’s a strong tendency to consider artists in a vacuum of originality, Williams’ lines highlights how music actually manages to move forward. What’s come before is imitated and varied; what’s here now will go through the same process. In an essay about “It’s a Shame (My Sister)” Tyrone Williams (possibly the same poet mentioned above, possibly not) frames rap as something that elevates the conversation above the individual speaker, saying that “…in any rap song, a dialogue…between the artist and the ‘other’ voices, musics, sounds, viewpoints, versions, etc. calls into question the authority of the singular person espousing his or her views. By giving their recordings a "history," indebted to the musics and voices that preceded them, these rappers, intentionally or not, undermine their own authority.”
I find the idea of undermining personal authority to help elevate community to be gorgeous, and it’s one of the things that makes Monie Love’s “It’s a Shame (My Sister)” such a powerful song. Besides the positivity and social maturity of her lyrics, she embraces the idea of music as dialogue. Instead of trying to hide her influences, she works in open conversation with the past.
“It’s a Shame (My Sister)” directly references a sample of The Spinners’ 1970 hit “It’s A Shame” which appears throughout her entire song. It also suggests a connection to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s own response to The Spinners’ song, “It’s a Shame (Mt. Airy Groove).”
The lyrics between these three songs mark a shift in how each singer approaches the world. The Spinners’ “It’s a Shame” is a song of heartbreak. As such, it strips any sense of agency away from its speaker.
He asks “Why don’t you free me from this prison where I serve my time as your fool?” He complains that he’s waiting by the telephone for a woman who never calls. He talks around his pain, alternating between the personal and the distance as he repeats “it’s a shame the way you mess around with your man / it’s a shame the way you hurt me.” Blah blah blah.
It seems like a terrible relationship; the speaker himself seems immature, blaming his infatuation with a woman (who seems neither kind towards him nor interested in him) on her. As if making a mantra of “it’s a shame the way you hurt me” might somehow transform a terrible relationship into a healthy one. If he’s trapped, he’s done so to himself. His song, another bar in his cell.
Grandmaster Flash’s “It’s a Shame (Mt. Airy Groove)” echoes this lack of agency, but switches the concern from problems with a lover to problems with a culture. In it, the speaker asks a teacher and a preacher about the state of the world. The teacher says that man’s love of money has destroyed any chance for peace; the preacher says it’s destroyed any chance for hope. The chorus echoes the helplessness of The Spinners’ speaker, as he asks “It’s a shame that all people won’t stick together; don’t they know that we need each other?”
In their concern for others, these lyrics present a more mature way of approaching the world than that of The Spinners’ bitter lover. But like him, this speaker lacks any sense of agency that might allow him to improve the world. As in The Spinners’ chorus, a disconnection occurs in this lyric as well; the term people both excludes the speaker as he states “Don’t they know” (suggesting that people are separate from the speaker), while it becomes inclusive when he says “we need each other.” It’s a small detail, but it makes the act of connection transitory; tragic in its brevity.
Love’s lyrics reject the sense of hopelessness found in both of these songs. She begins, not by accusing anyone or claiming to have a perfect understanding of the world, but by offering support: “My sister, tell me what the problem is. I’ll try to listen good and give the best advice that I can give.” No bravado. No accusation. It opens with a request to hear about someone else’s problems. As the song continues, we learn that the addressed woman is in a potentially unhealthy relationship. Despite this, Love never presumes to know what she should do. Instead, she tries to ask questions and provide insight that’ll help the addressed woman determine what’s best for her to do.
The advice she finally offers in the song is beautifully simple. It seems to state: take some time to think about what is going on, fully, and you’ll be able to determine what is best for yourself.
It’d be easy to have echoed the accusatory anger of The Spinners’ speaker. It’d have been easy embrace the world-weariness of “It’s a Shame (Mt. Airy Groove)” and offer explicit advice. But this isn’t what Love does. This song’s about listening and showing support. There’s no personal glory, only an attempt to empower someone by helping them analyze their situation. There’s no pretense of isolated genius or individual authority.
Whether intentional or not, even the original “It’s a Shame” comes out of the spirit of collaboration. According to G.C. Cameron, the Spinners’ lead singer at the time, Stevie Wonder wrote “It’s a Shame” out of the spirit of friendship. One night, Wonder shows up saying “I wrote a song for you.” After playing it for Cameron, Wonder records the instrumentals and Cameron records the vocals in a single take the following day.
When you listen to Love’s version, you’re hearing Stevie Wonder play the instrumentals for a song he wrote for a friend’s band— one that launched that band into stardom after sixteen years of obscurity.
The only other sample in “It’s a Shame (My Sister)” comes from a phrase in Graham Central Station’s “The Jam.” Love also chose to replace G.C. Cameron’s vocals with an incredibly powerful female voice—her labelmate at Warner Brothers, Ultra Naté. True Image, an a cappella group, sings the backing vocals.
Ultra Naté still records and performs. True Image has a lower profile, but there are videos on YouTube of the group, singing at banquet halls. These are the sorts of performers that come closest to embodying success for me. None of them have strong name recognition.
Talking with friends and strangers over the past two months, I haven’t found anyone who recognizes Monie Love’s name. Between recording, performing, songwriting, broadcasting, and rap-related outreach projects, she’s continually worked in the industry for more than two-and-a-half decades. But still, I only hear “oh, I think I remember her” after mentioning her work with Queen Latifah or her participation in the Ladies First movement.
The most luck I had came from talking with a neighbor on our porch one night. His Wu-Tang neck tattoo made me hopeful, and though he practically fell off the banister with excitement when I mentioned her work with Native Tongues, he quickly shifted the conversation away from Love to De La Soul.
These conversations all go the same way. Mention Love’s work with Prince or MC Lyte or her work in radio or with the Hip-Hop Sisters Network or virtually any project she’s worked on, and the conversation immediately shifts to the artist she worked with. Usually, that means one who’s more commercially successful.
But commercial success amounts to fame, and fame amounts to visibility; if something goes wrong (an inevitably suggested by nearly every episode of Behind the Music), it won’t go unnoticed. People forget that notoriety, too, is a form of fame.
Take Vanilla Ice’s career for example; his first studio album hit number one on the charts, but his next five never broke the top 100. His last album floated in limbo between labels for years before its lackluster release. In 2015, the year before he appeared on Dancing With the Stars (and twenty-five years after “Ice Ice Baby”) he was arrested for burglarizing a house in his neighborhood. Two years before that he did a reality TV series called Vanilla Ice Goes Amish. Even if he dedicates the rest of his life to music, he’ll still have to overcome the fact that his audience consists of people who are more interested in watching him than listening to him.
Once a reputation’s been applied to a musician, it’s nearly impossible for them to shake. Combine that with commercial failure (or even commercial stagnation), and it becomes nearly impossible for a musician to evoke anything but kitsch or nostalgia in their former audiences. Monie Love managed to escape all of that. She still draws huge crowds to see her perform her old work (sometimes accompanied on stage by her children), but her focus extends beyond these performances.
Monie Love, Ultra Nate, and True Image have been fortunate enough to continue working in the fields they love. Their names may not be as familiar to a general audience, but each has been able to participate in shaping music in different ways throughout the past decades. While none of them have been outstanding commercial successes, the idea of using commercial success as the metric for the value of a song leads to some ridiculous conclusions.
It’d suggest that Down 2 Earth, Love’s album containing “It’s A Shame (My Sister)” (along with the grammy-nominated “Monie in the Middle” and my own personal favorite from the time, “Ring My Bell”) was a failure. Although it received heavy radio play and made the rounds on MTV, the album sold fewer than the 500,000 copies it would need to go Gold in the US (Gold being the RIAA’s lowest certified title for sales). Despite being the most successful British rapper at the time, Love’s album didn’t even hit the 60,000 unit mark required to go Silver in the UK (the BPI’s equivalent to the RIAA’s gold certification).
Using sales as a metric would also suggest that Meat Loaf ’s Bat Out of Hell is twice as good as Prince’s Purple Rain (the former selling 43 million copies, the latter only selling 20 million). But it’s a metric that ignores Meat Loaf’s bankruptcy, his failed follow up to Bat Out of Hell which cost him his voice for a brief period of time, and the fact that his own manager called the idea of Meat Loaf continuing his career after Dead Ringer “a joke.” Failure and success become contingent upon a temporal frame of reference.
Billboard’s Top-100 generates a more positive impression of “It’s a Shame (My Sister).” But even in the 16 weeks the song stayed on the charts, it never managed to break into the top 25.. The Spinners’ “It’s a Shame,” peaked at the 14th position. But again, these charts would award Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” the title of the most successful song ever recorded.
While it might have been great for a wide audience in a certain time and moment, the song feels like it panders to the least offensive qualities of music. It doesn’t engage or challenge its audience. Instead, it repeats overly familiar end rhymes to support vague, melodramatic notions of romance. Shared and cared. Say and away. Way and day.
Industry awards present similar problems. In 1991, Love received a Grammy nomination for “Monie in the Middle,” a song that describes an emotionally intelligent girl being constantly harassed by a boy in her school who’s upset that she’s interested in someone else. MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” earned the Grammy.
In case you’ve somehow avoided it, “U Can’t Touch This” is a song that emphasizes the greatness of MC Hammer along with his desire for you to dance. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Hammer’s album was much more of a financial success than Love’s. Again, the same story repeats itself: despite his commercial success, he filed for bankruptcy in 1996 and has continued to work tirelessly to repair his reputation.
The shared problem with all of these metrics is they quantify aspects of the music industry without providing the slightest bit of insight into why people care about music. And what makes Love’s career so impressive is the fact that she wasn’t focused more on community and message than on commercial success.
As she states in one of her early interviews, her greatest aspiration as a musician was to show American rappers how wide-reaching their art was. There’s no ego; no “I wanted to be the best” or “I wanted to take over the game;” she wanted to participate. And in one form or another— performing, recording, and broadcasting, she’s been able to continually be an influential part of rap since she started in the late eighties.
And this is what I think of when I hear the word success: an artist willing to uproot her entire life, one who’d move from London to America, just for the opportunities to better connect to a community and to participate in an art form that she loved.
To be able to sustain that energy and those opportunities for decades, without losing interest or hope or being resigned to nostalgia, seems nearly unimaginable for me. If you love something, having the chance to participate in it is a success in itself. And here she is, still doing it.
Jamison Crabtree is, somewhere. His collection of monster poems, rel[am]ent, was awarded the Washington Prize. please please get over here please, his chapbook of video games, is forthcoming from Cartridge Lit.