(4) lou bega, "mambo no. 5" defeats (13) duncan sheik, "barely breathing" 130-77 and moves on to the second round
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 3/2.
david legault on "mambo no. 5"
Here’s a sentence I didn’t think I’d ever be writing in 2017: I bought myself a ticket to a Lou Bega concert. I’ve recently moved to Prague for work, and the five hours on a train to Germany and the 40 Euros for an Air BNB seemed like a reasonable enough commitment to make in the name of Lou Bega—a pilgrimage to late-90’s nostalgia I could not have anticipated.
Here’s another sentence, perhaps more surprising still: When the concert is cancelled, I find myself devastated in a way I would not have believed possible. It sets off a week of other small disasters: my family’s illness brought on by unprecedented smog warnings that hang over the city for days; I fall hard on the sidewalk in a freak accident, breaking my elbow in a way that now requires surgery (meaning all of this is finger-pecked, meaning I hate the world and words and qwerty keyboards and I sincerely hope this doesn’t poison the love I otherwise feel for this song). That despite the insanity and turmoil of the year both politically and personally, this is the thing that totally breaks me—that has me up at two in the morning, unable to sleep, listening to Lou Bega deep cuts I find online including, preposterously, an entire album dedicated to 80’s covers called A Little Bit of 80’s. It seems that even as I look to "Mambo No. 5"—a song from the 90’s sampled off a song from the 50’s—there are still plenty of other opportunities for looking fondly backward.
And why shouldn’t Lou Bega have that sort of power? Why do I find my own sadness comical except to say that I’ve undervalued the emotional damage that the man could inflict? I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have led my life with an arrogance toward the thought of the “one hit wonder,” the pre-supposition that an artist (in this case musicians but all artists really) can be concentrated down to a single song. I’m hoping that this essay can serve as my apology: as my humble acknowledgment to the greater body of work, to the glory of Lou Bega forever and ever amen.
Which isn’t to say that "Mambo No. 5" isn’t his best work, because it clearly is. It fits into this impossible sweet spot of feeling distinctive to two separate eras: fitting somewhere into the bewildering swing/jazz revival of the late 90’s that included notable Fadness omission Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, (my first concert) Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Squirrel Nut Zippers. It also has the flat MIDI synthesizer lines that make it distinctly late 90’s pop. Duke Ellington fucked an episode of TRL and made something both timeless and incredibly of its time.
So what if it sounds a little dated? It doesn’t diminish its impact, its lasting influence. Weirdly, in the six months I’ve heard "Mambo No. 5" twice in the wild: first at the coffee shop on my street, and once again coming out of the open windows of a neighborhood pizzeria. Perhaps this has more to do with the bizarre music choices of European stores—hearing grunge rockers screaming “Fuck” in a Burger King, Alanis Morrisette B-sides in my local grocery store. I wouldn’t say its behind American aesthetics musically, but rather that there is less of an impulse to always reach for the newest thing, even when it comes to pop. Perhaps there’s a simpler explanation: Lou Bega is from nearby Germany and maybe holds regional appeal. Perhaps it’s simpler still: this song kicks ass.
And yet I was surprised to hear this song not once, but twice. I think this was my arrogance: to dismiss a career because I personally don’t hear this song in the car three times a day; because I’m no longer feeling awkward to its rhythm and “jump up jump down” directives at a high school dance; because I no longer feel the need to shout an imitative “Wah!” at my friends. It was this arrogance that led to me treating music as if it stopped existing once I stopped listening.
But this is not the case, not only for Bega but so many Wonders: The Venga Bus is still coming, and we are all still jumping. Aqua’s life in plastic is still fantastic. La Bouche still has sweet dreams of rhythm and dancing. It is still possible to hear a Live version of The Macarena. We are still asking the question: “Who Let The Dogs Out?”
And Lou Bega is still putting on pinstripes and fedoras. He still has the pencil thin mustache. He doesn’t do Twitter but has a Facebook profile. Almost twenty years and he seemingly hasn’t aged a day. He is married now: a little bit of Jenieva in his life; a daughter named Jada by his side. There are domestic pictures of sledding with his daughter that make me irrationally glad. A greatest hit album I would’ve thought preposterous until I listened to it this morning with unironic joy. Like the "Mambo No. 5" video, I am nothing but looks of bewilderment; but a series of eyebrow raises; but a knowing smile into a camera while history plays out behind me.
Let me put it another way: I am writing this essay in a small cabin in a rural corner of the Czech Republic. It is in a town whose name was not told to me; I simply got into a car with some friends and drove to stay with a lot of people I hardly know. My arm is in a cast up to my shoulder and I am wearing the only shirt I own that fits over it. Half the people here are from countries foreign to me: Honduras, Slovakia, Czechia. Though everyone here knows English, the language flits into native tongues often; I find about half the time I am oblivious to conversation. Normally I’d be hating all of this, but I have been given lots of bourbon and though my arm is useless I’m certain I could shoot lightning from my fingers If I wanted it just a little more than I currently do. And then we start to sing. Not just Lou Bega, but all our favorites as found on Spotify: TLC, Boys to Men, R Kelly and Sublime and 311 and No Doubt and I am telling you now that these songs are the first time I’ve felt like I’ve had friends in a long time. Don’t you dare tell me that these songs are disposable.
So feel that love and choose "Mambo No. 5" because one hit wonders are still a Wonder, still worthy of our praise. Do it for Lou Bega and his domestic bliss as seen in awkward dad Facebook photos. Do it for Angela, Pamela, Sandra, and Rita. Do it for the lightning coursing through my body. Do it for a love that cannot die.
David LeGault's book One Million Maniacs: Beanie Babies, Killer Cars, and the Power of Collecting, is forthcoming in June from Outpost 19. More work and information can be found at www.davidlegault.com
moira jo mcavoy on "barely breathing"
When I searched for Duncan Sheik’s “Barely Breathing” on Spotify a few weeks ago, his version was the second result; the first is a cover from an episode in the fourth season of Glee wherein Cory Monteith’s Finn Hudson reacts to his high school sweetheart, Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry, potentially cheating on him in college in New York. This storyline is convoluted and overly-simplified all at once, like most serious relationships between teenagers are, and I could not tell you how it ended, specifically, even though I rewatched this exact story arc mere months ago. All I remember is that Berry was swept up in both the pressure and the glamour that come with attending a prestigious performing arts program in New York City, and that this pressure and this glamour are both heightened and abated when she starts spending more time with a boy who, seemingly by his presence at NYADA, is the antithesis of her downhome quarterback boyfriend, a stand-in escape from suburban Ohio entirely, a symbolic invitation to a new life, a new Rachel.
Admission: I am just shy of 24 years old, and therefore did not actually “experience” the 90s the way most in this bracket did. There is a penchant in my generation—low-rung millennials, born in the first half of the 90s—to model our lives off of that decade despite having scattered, post-9/11-tinged memories of those years at best. We readily quote Clueless’s Cher in arguments about immigration. We have brought back flannel and, more improbably, chokers, and spend just about as much time reading (and writing) thinkpieces about how Kurt Cobain would react to Donald Trump on his should-have-been fiftieth birthday as we do reacting to whatever fresh hell Donald Trump is bringing on Kurt Cobain’s should-have-been-fiftieth birthday. I don’t think this tendency towards all things 90s Lite is bad or shameful; rather, I see it as a reclamation, however unintentional, of a decade lost due to the global events taking place soon after its close—the fake anxiety of Y2K, the arresting reality of 9/11—at the same time that we were all busy coming of age. We’re running back in an effort to run forward.
All internalized 90s nostalgia and melodrama considered, it’s not surprising that I tended to view the American college experience through end-of-summer, MTV-studios honey-colored glasses. I have not actually seen most of the great American College 90s movies, but the presence of their narratives—heavy-drinking, deeply impactful but simply resolved personal epiphanies, a soundtrack supplied almost exclusively by the Goo Goo Dolls—was so strong that I came to associate those images with the very idea of college itself. Drinking shitty beer in a questionably sanitary frat house basement was as much a part of how I assumed I’d spend four years as was pulling all-nighters over pots of coffee and piles of procrastinated essays.
I’ve long held an unshakeable urge to make my life follow some externally-presented trajectory to a T, and as a result, I held up this impossible vision of undergrad as some kind of hybrid-Dionysus Messiah while desperately unhappy in my strained high school home life. I anticipated that my college experience would be a raucous, rapturous four years of binge-drinking, guy-fucking, club-leading and top-of-class-graduating, at the end of which I would emerge a fuller and happier version of myself—with an offer to Harvard Law a la Elle Woods to boot. Despite all the baggage I would bring with me to its gates, college would not just give me a degree: college would give me an out; college would grant me a transformation.
My first two years of undergrad were notably uneventful; the transition, which I hyped up for myself far more than necessary, had stirred up already boiling mental illness that eventually spilled over into an all-consuming set of nervous tics, neuroses, and paranoid ideations. I engaged in very little of the debauchery I thought I would and instead spent my time being crushed by anxiety and angstily blogging on Tumblr.
When I did do anything remotely similar to partying, it was usually with a handful of girls from my floor in a too-small dorm room, yelling and sipping warm Jack Daniels my roommate’s long distance boyfriend bought, all scored to our single universally-agreed upon Pandora station: Summer Hits of the 90s. Eschewing the TLC, N*Sync, and Run DMC’s that would show up on the poppier version of the genre station, this algorithm sent us “Semi-Charmed Life,” “Closing Time,” “Sex and Candy,” and “Champagne Supernova” (which was, in fact, the theme of my 19th birthday “party”). This was not a station dedicated to a soundtrack of the 90s; this was a station dedicated to the soundtrack of College, despite our being in college in 2011, not 1997. Even if we weren’t living like we thought we should have been—no real frat parties, no one diving off roofs—we still had the easy guitar-heavy melodies and almost-grating vocals to make it feel like we were doing it “right,” if our “right” had to be a gaggle of painfully awkward 19 year old girls isolated in our camaraderie.
I loved my friends, and I loved those weird, small hangouts, but I felt the disconnect of “should be doing” versus “am doing” acutely. I longed for the story arc that would save me from my misery—as if a sequence of events itself could save the protagonist from their effects—and pull me into the joy I assumed inherent to being in college, oblivious to the fact that this intense longing was a player in perpetuating my discomfort. In an effort to carry the plot I wanted to be living, I listened almost exclusively to pop punk from my middle school years (FOB 4EVA) and the tracks that looped through the Summer Hits station; I spent more nights than I’d like to admit panicking and trying to soothe myself to Matchbox Twenty’s “Push” and Third Eye Blind’s “Motorcycle Drive By,” just like any character in a cramped dorm in 1995 would during the maudlin montage before her ultimate moment of undergraduate enlightenment.
Admittedly, the first thing I think of when I hear “Barely Breathing” is also not of Sheik’s version of the song, or ANY version of the song for that matter, but instead his first foray into Broadway composition, Spring Awakening—the initial run of which, weirdly enough, starred Lea Michele. Sheik did not write the lyrics for the musical, moving in their raw adolescence, jubilance, fear, and sensuality, but instead mostly contributes the melodies and arrangements. Here, his influence is evident: maudlin guitars, grating strings, a tendency to circle around the same set of notes and chords until the songs blend in a way that would seem brilliant if it weren’t so predictable (a move seen on his eponymous 1996 album, which brought us “Barely Breathing,” which I used to confuse with a subsequent track, “She Runs Away”). Sonically, it feels like a disgruntled boy plucking his guitar in his dorm room on a particularly humid afternoon, chasing after a song greater than the ones he knows how to play, instead opting for the only one with which he is comfortable (a good number of the play’s songs sound tellingly melodically similar to those from his individual debut). However, when this ultimately forgettable set of compositions is connected with the more masterful lyrics—accomplished in their ability to not reach towards a goal but rather burrow into the role readily offered by their presenting characters—the work becomes visceral, almost physical, Sheik’s work a touchstone for something greater. The sophomorish college rock vibe is at once discordant and perfectly apt, an arresting juxtaposition of what youth and freedom the music entails and what loss, darkness, and pain the lyrics assure the listener lie under the sun-soaked-sounding surface. The melodies are deep in tenor, but poppy in tempo, sweeping and still all at once: we can hurt you, we will hurt you, but oh, isn’t it fun right now? In a way, Sheik’s persistent 90s aesthetic perpetuates the grounded escapism American 90s college rock has, in retrospect, come to be known for, even in this play set in 1890s Germany.
My mental health had stabilized itself a bit by the time my Junior year rolled around, and I dove full-force into trying to make up for the chunks of the Ideal College Narrative I thought I’d lost. I certainly did more than my share of binge-drinking, and arguably engaged in a fair amount of club-leading. Everything else, however, was middled and muddled and complicated. The drinking and leading coupled with my poor time management to leave me solidly high-middle of the pack GPA-wise, and the fucking never happened. Mostly, I passed through those two years in bursts of what felt like improbable happiness, characterized by the sort of not-quite-but-almost friendships that are endearing only when you’re an inebriated twenty year old in a townie bar bathroom, followed by the hazes of almost-regret that washed over me as I languished in my single dorm room, Virginia’s spring breezes and construction racket blowing through my window as I attempted to drown out both the noise and my lack of memory from the night before with Lit’s “My Own Worst Enemy.”
I was going to the parties. I was meeting the right people. I was even doing interesting academic work. From all outward appearances, this was what college was supposed to be, and yet, deep into my penultimate semester, the only time it felt right, felt College, was when I would drive through Fredericksburg long past midnight, windows down and high beams bright, listening to “Closing Time,” mourning the impending end of something I never felt I had in the first place. Even in its own final moments, College still existed as a figment, a vision, an ever-expanding horizon of could, would, should be, a ghost of the decade for which myself and my peers continue to futily grasp; this only strengthened the power of its ending. Graduation found me a class officer with honors, a close and good circle of friends, and a wicked hangover from the Grad Ball two nights prior, and, as I loaded my car to drive back to my hometown, I felt little different than I had when unpacking my mother’s van four years before. I had finally found and followed the plot; it didn’t transform me.
I have to note that in all my years of listening to Summer Hits of the 90s, and all the playlists tangential to it, I’ve never once had “Barely Breathing” shuffle onto the tracklist. I’ve had occasions of hearing the opening chords of “She’s So High” and inexplicably assuming “Barely Breathing” was about to play, likely because “She’s So High” is a more grating, more offensive, and thereby more memorable version of “Barely Breathing.” Before seeing the list for this year’s Fadness, I didn’t even know that “Barely Breathing” would qualify as a hit; I had always assumed it was a footnote on some larger career of Sheik’s (though what that career was, I could not tell you). Whenever I mentioned this essay to anyone, their automatic response was to bring up literally almost any other song from the 90s—something poppier, or grungier, or rappier or sadder or longer or more danceable—but never actually say anything about “Barely Breathing,” instead harkening to a memory or feeling stemming from the movement or decade of which “Barely Breathing” is reminiscent.
I think this avoidance, this immediate jumping off of onto something else, is “Barely Breathing”’s greatest fad strength. Fads do not derive their fun or their power from their own presence—who actually loves scrunchies for the sake of scrunchies?—but are fun because they evoke something else, something deeper, or happier, or more arresting. At their core, fads are doorways into larger cultural narratives. They are emblems, not substance.
Sheik’s single hit is everything the college-rock-y fad songs of the 90s tended to be—overtly sexual while downplaying the sex, slightly voyeuristic, full of self-deprecating drama tinged with unbelievable, and unbelieved, hope—but watered down beyond individual recognition. The lyrics are mediocre at best, a speaker chasing after a beloved he knows will not, cannot, reciprocate his affection, and who yet finds solace in the momentary suspension of disbelief anyway, falling in love with the moment of being free to pursue love rather than the object of that love itself. A declaration that the chase outweighs, and ultimately defines, the inevitable failure, it is vague and sweepingly applicable to almost any situation, a general anthem for the notion of abstract hope in the face of abstract demise, with an almost-wicked strain of self-deprecation to boot, evidenced in the chorus when Sheik sings:
I don't know who I'm kidding
Imagining you care, and I could stand here
Waiting a fool for another day
But I don't suppose it's worth the price
Worth the price, the price that I would pay
But I'm thinking it over anyway.
“Barely Breathing” is the accessible entry into the escapism that has come to define the memory of 90s college rock, a guitar-measured stairway into we are young, and that youth won’t save us, but we’ll tell ourselves it sucked less when we’re older, so let’s keep chasing this anyway, the schtick myself and my peers desperately tried to preemptively apply to our own reckonings with the narrative we assumed this decade represented, a coping mechanism defined by the very sense of unavoidable doom we’re trying to escape.The song is less than memorable in its own right, serving instead as a nebulous catch-all for the decade of music itself; in its non-specificity, it is perfect.
When I hear “Barely Breathing,” I don’t think of the creepily Ross Geller-esque music video, or the too dramatic and deeply shallow lyrics, or the overproduced lead chords. I think of a night in my junior year of college, at a party hosting some of the actors in the university’s production of Spring Awakening, where, four shots and another drink in, a friend as intense as she is empathetic cups my face, teaches me how to kiss while telling me it doesn’t mean anything—which I try to make myself believe, but cannot quite internalize, the tenderness of the gesture heightened by its hollowness. I think of the brief moment when the expected storyline arched precisely—drunk, happy, proverbially getting some—and how even then, underscored by the fact that it was obviously doomed, that Finn was always watching just around the corner, that the century was about to turn and crash the computers, that the plot was never going to save me, our lips met anyway, the chase was finished yet extending, my moment of escape creating a longing for escape one step further:
But I don't suppose it's worth the price
Worth the price, the price that I would pay
But I'm thinking it over anyway
Moira McAvoy's work has appeared in The Rumpus and Storyscape, and she has also served as Editor of the Rappahannock Review and an Associate Editor at NANO Fiction. McAvoy lives in DC where works full-time in a cubicle and part-time as a youth literacy volunteer, but mostly, she spends her time yelling about politics, pop punk, and running on Twitter (@moyruhjo).