the sweet 16:
(5) joan osborne, "one of us" defeats (8) chris isaak, "wicked game" 153-131
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 21.
ANALYSIS BY ZAZA KARAIM
"One of Us": This song is great! I had never heard it before, but I’d heard my dad singing it to himself while working. It’s a beautiful song. The lyrics are very strong, especially compared to some of these other hits. (i.e. “I Wish”) Not sure how I feel about the beginning bit, but everything after that is quite nice. The melody is strong and memorable! I’ll be keeping this song in my music library even after all this Fadness is over. Zaza’s rating: 8.5
"Wicked Game": This song has a haunting melody. I had never heard it, but now that I’ve listened to it a few times I think it’s a pretty song. It grows on me with each listen. It’s another song that brings out my emo teen feelings. On a lyrical level, it’s certainly better than songs like “I Wish” but not as complex and intriguing as “One of Us.” I keep listening to it—is that a tear in my eye? Zaza’s rating: 7.5
hannah ensor on "one of us"
I sometimes fantasize about being a touring drummer for a 90s singer-songwriter. She’s someone I admire, but not someone I idolize so much that we couldn’t hang out. I might have a little crush on her: just enough to smooth out our socializing, to give us reason to chat. If you’re listening to “One of Us,” as I hope you are while reading this, listen to just the drumming for a second. Do you hear how easy and fun that would be? You could do, like, anything, and not have to be very good at all. Every four bars or so you would just move your hands over to some other part of the drum set but keep all your hands and feet essentially doing the same thing with slight variations. At some point—say, while the guitar solos—you could do the thing that for most of the song you were doing on the slightly-parted hi-hats but do it over close to the dome of the ride cymbal. For dramatic effect, later, you might stop playing anything but a cymbal and the snare drum. She might make you harmonize into a microphone even though you’re not a singer, which works because the song’s premise is imagining what it’d be like if God was just good, not great, so you don’t have to be particularly sonorous. Just on-key and a normal level of talented. And, when you’re not ping-ping-pinging on the ride cymbal, when the crowd’s not calling out someone’s name that isn’t your name, watching every move of a hero who’s not you, you could spend the day, all day every day, until doors at 7:00 or so, reading books and writing poems.
This is the kind of dreaming I do when I’m not fixated on the idea of Donald Trump killing us all, of me finding out about it at 11 PM on a Monday night. I’ve been staying pretty close to my phone, waiting for the thing I’ve known was going to happen my whole life.
Time was once that people thought “One of Us” was disrespectful because Joan Osborne offered a possibility that God was “just a slob like one of us.” A certain subset of people went on television, furious. What is it with contemporary Christianity and loathing? It’s pretty fucking capitalist, to be against the slob. Always a looking down. WWJD? Does anyone self-identify as a slob? One thing is certain and that’s that “slob” is a word that has to do with productivity. There’s a way of looking at it that says that God in all these stories is productive, but from my non-scholarly seat I’d say that’s really just at the start of each of the books. There’s the part where He makes everything, and there’s the part where He sends His Son. What else does God do, though? Was it “productive” to flood the earth? God gave the instructions for building the ark, but His main role in that story was the part where He brought the water. God did not create jobs. God did not build a WalMart. Was God a slob? Some people have suggested that Trump spent his first few days writing executive orders just to get the presidency out of the way. On the first day, he… On the second day…
On a lark, I google “productivity slob late capitalism” and find my way to an article about how Trump won the presidency through the power of entertainment and gestural comedy. It points to a moment in the campaign when Trump, at a rally, teased John Kasich for eating quickly—in Trump’s caricature, Kasich shoves pancakes into his mouth in front of the press. The article posits,
In this dramatization of Kasich’s table manners, we are again confronted by a display of discomfort with non-normative bodies. It is well known that Trump avoided the fray of vernacular embodiment on the campaign trail by rarely eating with locals, even though this activity is expected of presidential candidates. In fact, Trump is famous for eating even fast food with a knife and a fork. Anthropologists familiar with the work of Norbert Elias (1982) and Pierre Bourdieu (1982) on the importance of table manners to class distinction would recognize Trump’s enactment as a veiled class assault: Kasich is a slob, a low life, a “subhuman” who would have difficulty being presidential. Trump, in contrast, is a man who teaches his children to exhibit good manners and eat politely in “small bites.”
When I listen to Joan Osborne’s “One of Us,” I get very emotional. Or, to get the rhythm of it more right, I listen to the song a few times on repeat with some quick returns to “St. Teresa,” I’ll be feeling really good, loving her, rocking out (I’m usually in my car), and then with seemingly no pattern or reason, I’ll be hit with it. It’ll creep up my chest and I’ll get it right behind the eyes. Yeah. Yeah.
I have been finding religion through these times. I’ve been praying, actually praying. I started right before the election. It didn’t do any good. A poet I know recently told me that my generation is too fixated on results. She said we need to protest, show up, talk to our representatives, not because it’ll work (she says it won’t), but because we need to live ethical lives. She’s right. She told me she would write me a letter about it and title it “Dear H.”
Dear God, why aren’t You helping? Are You helping? Is this You helping, all of us out in the streets? Cancelling our Uber accounts and instead taking a cab to go see our representatives? Did You help through the judge ordering a stay on Trump’s Muslim Ban? Is it You that moved that veteran, the one with four purple hearts, to drive four hours with his young son to be at the Dulles airport to protest? Did You at least see it, when he pinned one of his purple hearts to the shirt of an Iraqi husband, reunited with his wife after the stay was granted? Did You see me crying on my bed?
Should I mention here that I’m a Jew? Is that of any concrete use to this inquiry? Jews like to close read. Jews don’t totally get what’s going on with all this New Testament stuff. I’m a Jew who still doesn’t understand why some books got to be gospels and others didn’t. The Jews’ God, I have to say, is much closer to a slob than Jesus is. Jesus loved slobs, but He wasn’t one. He was, of course, “One of Us,” in a much more structural way than the Torah’s God. But the God of our Book is awesome (in new and old uses of the word) very much because he’s sloppy, sometimes (or even pretty often) wrong, impetuous, gets pissed, destroys everything, tells fathers to carry their sons up mountains to kill them only to pull back at the last minute for some unknown but presumably moral rationale that we’re still wrestling with, arguing over, shrugging and saying we’ll never understand. He puts His people in bad positions, hard ones. Maybe the thing is: He sets up all these scenarios in which people might become slobs, but they have to be something with more fortitude, for better or for worse. A lot of times it’s not for better. It reminds me a little of what my great-grandmother told my great aunt and my grandmother: You have to behave yourselves because someday the world will be the world again. My family, other people’s families, families in Poland and in Rwanda and in the U.S./the Americas before there were geopolitical lines cutting it all up (and in the U.S./the Americas through and after the geopolitical lines) and in the Torah: at no point have we been just allowed to chill, peacefully, by the banks of a river carving slowly through the desert. We haven’t been allowed to be slobs, but it’s not because slobs are bad, at least I don’t think that’s why not.
I think about Jesus a lot these days, and I think I like him. My great aunt collected Catholic icons and put them on the walls of her house. It seemed at many moments of my life an odd choice for someone who had survived the Shoah despite other humans’ best attempts, but at this moment I’m gaining a little access into it all. It’s not a Christian thing, and it’s definitely not a “Jews for Jesus” thing. Not for me, anyway. I can’t speak for her, not at all.
My God is not better than yours. I don’t know anything about yours, or honestly anything about mine. I know that as a kid I loved Sister Act, and when I re-watched it recently I wept through the whole movie. I know that I have a “Magic Created The World, Only Magic Can Heal It” bumper sticker on my wall. I know nothing about Joan Osborne’s relationship to her own spirituality. I know that mine changes probably daily. It’s growing fast these days in messy outward motions – horizontal and spin-wise, not vertical. Not necessarily toward any particular texts or traditions. I’ve always liked community. I feel deep allegiance to my family. I know there are a couple of sticky subjects that get hard to talk about, or to think about; I think we’re all moral relativists, trying to make our way home. When I imagine turning my head upwards and praying to an individual, I think of that scene in The Lion King when Simba sees his father in the night sky. I’ve been getting acupuncture a lot recently, and a friend cleansed my chakras. I watch Lady Ghostbusters regularly and believe it’s a parable for modern times. It is the 21st century and for reasons inextricable from my relationship to the patriarchy and a queer lineage I still pop Relish into my car CD player every few months or so and sing along full-throatedly as I glide down the streets of Tucson. I believe in epigenetics, and that I have a fight inscribed in my genes. I’d spent all this time assuming it was weakness—and now I know it’s a super power.
I think I would be okay with this being the song I listen to while I die.
The album version of “One of Us” starts with an old lady. Or, rather, with an old recording—made on October 27, 1937 by American folklorists Alan & Elizabeth Lomax for the Archive of American Folk Song—of an old lady—Mrs. Nell Hampton—singing an old song—a hymn written in 1928. To honor the great folklorist and believer, hypothesizer, wonderer, Joan Osborne, and for all the ladies who are both one of us and more, I’ll end the same place she starts:
So one of these nights and about twelve o'clock
This old world's going to reel and rock
Saints will tremble and cry for pain
For the Lord's gonna come in his heavenly airplane
Hannah Ensor is from Michigan and received her MFA in poetry at the University of Arizona. She coordinates the Reading & Lecture Series and the Summer Residency Program at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and is also a co-editor of textsound.org, a contributing poetry editor for DIAGRAM, and has served as president of the board of directors of Casa Libre en la Solana, a literary arts nonprofit in Tucson, Arizona. Her first book is forthcoming from Noemi Press.
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.