(4) proclaimers, "i'm gonna be (500 miles)"
(12) digable planets, "rebirth of slick (cool like dat)"

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 3/17.

Which song is the best?
(4) Proclaimers, "I'll Be (500 Miles)"
(12) Digable Planets, "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)"

nicole walker on "i'm gonna be (500 miles)"

When I wake up, well I know I'm gonna be,
I'm gonna be the man who wakes up next you
When I go out, yeah I know I'm gonna be
I'm gonna be the man who goes along with you
If I get drunk, well I know I'm gonna be
I'm gonna be the man who gets drunk next to you
And if I haver up, yeah I know I'm gonna be
I'm gonna be the man who's havering to you

But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walks a thousand miles
To fall down at your door


Dear Craig and Charlie,
     You are further from me now than you were in 1993 when your song became a big hit. In 1993, I was in Portland, Oregon. You were in Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland. Four thousand, five hundred and forty-one miles away. I am now in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is four thousand, eight hundred and twenty miles away. You were further away from me then too because I was listening to Tori Amos and Bongwater in 1993. Benny and Joon made the song a US hit. In 1993, Bill Clinton was president. We could relax a little. In 1993, we watched the Simpsons. We went to see Richard Thompson at The Aladdin. I probably forced my friends to watch Mad About You. Here is the question: would Jamie, Helen Hunt’s character walk 500 miles to get to Paul, Paul Reiser’s character? Would Paul walk that far to get to Jamie? Would Rachel walk that far to get to Ross? Chandler to Monica? Joey to…not Phoebe. No, Phoebe and Joey no. They know better. Don’t even pretend to say you’re going to walk that far. It sounds sweet and romantic but really, someone will call you on your hyperbolic nature. Some day, someone will hold you accountable for the lack of wear on your walking shoes.

My sisters and I grew up singing Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “500 Miles” in the car on the drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon. “Not a shirt on my back/not a penny to my name/Lord I can’t keep on going this away./Lord I’m one, Lord I’m two, Lord I’m three, Lord I’m four, Lord I’m 500 miles from my home.
     My sisters are twins like you two. Salt Lake City is 500 miles away from where I now live. My sisters and I grew up watching What Is Eating Gilbert Grape and Benny and Joon. Now we live apart from each other and when it’s really lonely here in Flagstaff, I sing the Peter Paul and Mary “500 Miles” to them, imagining the words riding train tracks to Page, over to Kanab, then Orderville, then Mt. Carmel, up through Panguitch and Nephi, and finally into the Rio Grande train station where my sisters will pick up my words, and thusly, pick me up.
     Because they are twins, they are even closer. They don’t even have 500 miles between them and if they did, they wouldn’t because they would call each other every day. Maybe twice a day. Paige would sing Cat Stevens to Val and Val would sing songs from the movie Beaches to Paige and they would giggle in this gooey, popsicle stick way that would be impossible to get in on and impossible to pry apart. I’m only slightly jealous of their bond.
     They go back and forth between being political. Paige used to be majorly political. Meat is Murder, civil rights advocate, history-knowing, environmental science teacher political. Although she teaches AP Biology now, she taught 8th graders for a little while and they bummed her out. A combination of “yeah” and “so what,” you can only take for so long. Valerie is much more spiritual. She takes the “it will work out if you believe” approach. She also has some friends who are Republicans which is what happens if you’re sanguine about how the future will go and if you work in advertising. Valerie knows marketing. She knows you have a bigger reach if you coat everything with honey.
     On Facebook, Valerie post life-affirming aphorisms like this: “Butterflies can’t see their wings. They can’t see how truly beautiful they are, but everyone else can. Humans are like this too.”
     To which Paige responds:

Paige Walker Ehler IS that a STING song?

Like · Reply · 2 · February 3 at 11:48pm

Paige Walker Ehler Also, can they see other butterfly wings? Are they constantly playing that game where they ask people to guess the name of a movie star taped on their back. "DO my wings look symmetrical?" "Seriously tell me if the blue is more indigo or teal"

     Valerie concedes victory but then makes the image of the butterfly with aphorism her cover photo. Valerie is nice but there’s a jabby part. She’ll tell you what she really thinks like the time she saw my bra when I was changing in her hotel room. “Holes” she said. “Do you ever wash it?” She asked. “You have to wash your bras?” I asked her. She shook her head at me and told me ‘no’ and then went to Nordstrom Rack to buy me a new bra.
     Paige, on the other hand, reminds me that I didn’t even wear a bra through most of my twenties and that she and Val called me frogger boobs behind my back. Also to my face, apparently.

The Proclaimers’ song became a big hit in 1993 when Benny and Joon came out, the song was officially released in 1988. In 1988, you were in Auchtermuchty, Fife, Scotland recording the song. In 1988, I was in Salt Lake City, Utah where I spent considerably more time listening to music from the UK like CRASS’s “Banned from the Roxy, well OK. I didn’t much like playing there any way.” And, “Jesus Died for His Own Sins Not Mine.” and “Sheepfarming in the Faulklands, re-arming in the Fucklands” You don’t get far in the music business by telling Maggie Thatcher to fuck off. Or that Jesus and Buddha suck/fuck:

Do you really believe in Marx? Marx fucks.
Do you really believe in Thatcher? Maggie sucks.
Do you really believe in the system? Well o.k.

Or by telling the Clash that they suck:

Movements are systems and systems kill.
Movements are expressions of the public will.
Punk became a movement cos we all felt lost,
But the leaders sold out and now we all pay the cost.
Punk narcissism was social napalm,
Steve Jones started doing real harm.
Preaching revolution, anarchy and change
As he sucked from the system that had given him his name.

     But the Proclaimers, although maybe in 1993, when we had been saved from Reagan and the less-evil but still unpleasant George HW Bush, were best aligned with Mad About You, didn’t stay unpolitical. In 2007, they vocally support Independence. They campaigned to free Kenny Richey, a Scot on death row in Ohio, and leant their song to Comic Relief in an adapted version that advocated for people in wheelchairs. Benny and Joon featured a main character struggling with mental illness. You wouldn’t think mental illness was a political issue but ask Ronald Reagan why so many homeless people are dying on the streets (psychiatric hospitals closed or privatized on his watch, Medicare funding slashed) or why so many Gun Rights activists immediately blame mental illness when 23 people are shot dead with machine guns.
     Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser weren’t political on Mad About You unless you count the scene where Jamie comes out of the bathroom with a roll of toilet paper and the toilet roll holder, looks at Paul, and, pantomimes how one inserts the toilet roll holder into the roll of toilet paper, (all toilet paper instructionals should be silent) to show how political gender relationships are and forever and the hours I’ll never get back from inserting so many toilet roll holders into toilet rolls which is why this essay will be shorter than most men’s. But in real life, Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser are pretty liberal. According to the website Hollow Verse, Helen Hunt is a “true Hollywood Liberal” who writes, “#serenity” when tweeting about how much she loves Obama. Paul Reiser is also somewhat active, donating money to democrats. The Friends people? I think they too fall on the side of “True Hollywood Liberals.” The Simpsons modeled Montgomery Burns on Donald Trump. Or possibly Donald Trump modeled himself Montgomery Burns. Still, politics.

In 1993, Paige and Val were both still in college. Valerie had stopped watching Beaches. She became a pseudo-lesbian instead. Paige started eating meat again but also started her crusade to teach 8th graders about brine shrimp and evolution. In 1993, they made friends and more friends and came to visit me in Portland. We had crawdad races on the tile floor. Portland welcomed my sisters. In 1993, none of us were wearing any bras. Pro-choice, pro-legalization, pro-tree, pro-salmon. Portland is the one place where everyone agrees and everyone expects you to agree.
     We started marking 500 miles between us. I moved home but Paige moved to Baltimore where she became an activist for her black students. Val had a baby and joined the Jewish Community Center and advocated for the arts. I went to grad school and wrote letters about banning cougars. Where you live and where you work changes whom you can make on impression on. I have tenure. I can complain about the government. Paige works for public schools. She has to be careful what she says to her kids. She still says what she thinks but couches it in a lesson: “And what happens if we dump mercury into the Great Salt Lake and all the brine shrimp die?” She asks her students. They sit silently. “All the birds that feed on those brine shrimp die. Did you ever smell a dead bird?” Valerie works in advertising. She knows people with money. She still tells them what’s what, but she serves her what with a little bit of honey.

To be famous, or even one hitty famous, you have to be two-faced. To your big popular audience, you have to appear to be non-partisan. You have to be in-love and loving your woman and willing to walk 1000 miles for her. You have to want to drink with her and sleep with her and remember being twenty with her. You have to promise her all your pennies. But your other face, your twin face, can be your private, political face. The one that speaks out behind but only in whispers. The kind that sends money to Planned Parenthood and Amnesty International but doesn’t sing about rape or torture because that’s discomfiting. Or maybe it’s just because it doesn’t rhyme. But you want a big audience so maybe your big voice can be heard. Maybe you can tuck your message into a song. Maybe you don’t have to be as blatant as CRASS and sing “Do they owe us a living? Of course they fucking do.” Instead, maybe your original face can meet with your other face and you can rework some of your lyrics to read: “I’m going to Roll 500 Miles as part of the 500 Mile Wheelchair Challenge. Or perhaps you’ll play it as the finale at Edinburgh 50,000—The Final Push at Murrayfield Stadium on 6 July 2005, the final concert of Live 8, to symbolise the conclusion of "The Long Walk to Justice".
     Perhaps you and your twin, his Craig to your Charlie, his Charlie to your Craig, having spent your lives together writing music, that you will have one way to draw in the crowd, singing I would walk 500 miles, even though no one really walks that long, but it sounds so romantic and then turn it to say, maybe after many years, maybe because even a one hit wonder song still resides in our bones and so that now when you sing it, lo these fifteen years later, attach it to real walks that actually were long: the Navajo walk the many miles they walk from sacred mountain in Arizona to sacred mountain in New Mexico, to Colorado, to Utah. That huge swaths of people who walked across the country from Missouri to Utah and then to Oregon, from Selma to Montgomery,

The twin sides of a twin song. Sing for the people. Then sing for the people. Then walk the whole 500 miles to find your twin who checks out the wings coming out of your back and tells you they are beautiful and check out this buyer who said he voted for that man but now regrets it because his son and maybe his daughter will be drafted into the Syrian war and she said she was sorry with a lot of honey and then walks him the 500 miles from his one kind of voting booth to the other where she tells him he can make a difference, even though he will wear down the soles of his shoes, even though he still sells gas-guzzling vehicles that do not get 500 miles to the gallon.

NICOLE WALKER is the author of three forthcoming books: Sustainability: A Love Story, Microcosm, and Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse. Her previous books include Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She also edited Bending Genre with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.


Digable Planets, an early 90’s trio of Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, “Ladybug” Viera, and “Doodlebug” Irving, married hip-hop to jazz, and like kindred groups such as Tribe Called Quest, P.M. Dawn, and De La Soul, made music in what F.O. Matthiessen might have called the optative mode. [1] The cover art of Reachin’, the album on which “Rebirth of Slick” appears, shows the three MCs sprouting out of a root system (should one have missed the pun of planet and plant). If the coupling of reaching and rootedness suggests at outset a contradiction in terms, the image’s heliotropism oppositely posits a succinct argument for groundedness and external outward movement as mutually constitutive.  While there’s a bracing vitalism in the affective force of harder rap acts like Ice Cube, 2Pac, and Public Enemy, the reflective balm that Digable Planets seems to offer feels no less regenerative. I was old enough to know this song when it first went gold, but I didn’t, not in any substantive way; I’m only really hearing it now. All these years later, I can only imagine how dynamic this music really sounded at its inception. Not unlike “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade,” Richard Bruce Nugent’s infamous Harlem Renaissance soliloquy to indolence as queer activism, this is music that believes in the galvanizing force of a slow burn. 
     1993, the year that “Rebirth of Slick” won a Grammy, was also the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency. As though haunted by his ingratiating campaign semi-confession of not having inhaled, the Clinton years ramped up both the rhetoric and police presence of the “drug war” inherited from his Republican predecessors. With the previous decade’s crack epidemic subsiding, the Clinton government turned its attention to marijuana. Arrests and property forfeitures sky-rocketed, and the prison system mushroomed by over fifty percent. In this context, at least, “Rebirth of Slick” comes across as a ganja-friendly rally in the spirit of Michelle Obama’s recent entreaty, “when they go low, we go high.”
     Led by Ishmael Butler, the group’s singular sound comes not simply from the jazz it samples, but the generous, conceptually ambitious spirit of the sampling. With the feel of neither ornament nor co-optation, these riffs and licks are spun into an alternative universe, a sort of musical deep time that re-conceives the referential as synchronic (one of several ways we might understand “A New Refutation of Time and Space,” the album’s grandiose but also non-facetious dissertational. In this case, the buoying medium that floats the rhymes along (like a butterfly, Butler might say) is Art Blakey’s late-70s jazz composition, “Stretching.” In Blakey’s original, Valery Ponomarev’s trumpet hits and Dennis Irwin’s bass are bright and fast; Digable Planets slows these down to a simmer.
     Have you ever experienced the singular pleasure of watching an expert chef executing a simple meal? In the absence of pyrotechnics, one all the more distinctly imagines one can perceive the acumen of timing or easy brilliance of intuition, isolated from the culinary business of what any amateur might likewise accomplish. One of the most keenly gratifying aspects of such an encounter is the feeling of a certain meditative attention shaped in the instant by the attention toward which it, in turn, is directed, like calibrating one’s somnolent breathing to that of the person sleeping beside you. This isn’t to say the song is a snoozer, unlike Nugent’s text, which is difficult to read without feeling stuporously lulled by its careful, idiosyncratic mesmerism. Instead, the song seems to cultivate the soft eyes of a wakefulness not often associated with an African American attention, a practice of attention informing the startling penultimate metaphor of Rankine’s Citizen: “you have to create a/ truce—/ a truce with the patience of a stethoscope.”
     "Rebirth of Slick” opens with the isolated, decelerated shimmer of Irwin’s bass. Around the eleventh second, the song adds to the bass a steady series of spondaic snaps, the listener perhaps experiencing, here, the frisson of Blakey’s layered beat being recreated as if from scratch (onions thrown into the skillet’s heated oil). There are approximately ten seconds of this austere beat of bass and snap, until the drums come in. At this point—like following someone’s breath or counting out one’s own—one might not be surprised when this trio of sounds lasts just another ten seconds before giving way to the song’s (both songs’) inimitable brass. That the first half-minute of “Rebirth of Slick” is a triptych can’t help but figure the three members of the group, although as Sasha Frere-Jones has noted in a 2011 review in The New Yorker, Butler’s own intellectual repertoire was influenced by that of his father, a UVA history professor versed in revolutionary black jazz artists such as Sun Ra and Pharaoh Sanders and in this vein, the song’s opening play of thirds no less conveys the opening incantation of a spell commensurate with Sun Ra’s own investment in esoterica: “we be to rap what key be to lock.”
     “Rebirth of Slick (Cool like Dat)” is a one-hit wonder only insofar as the national metric by which it is recognized is a white one. That the song beat out Arrested Development, Cypress Hill, Dr Dre. and Snoop Dogg, and Naughty by Nature for a 1993 Grammy is erroneously invoked as an apogee that the band was never able to repeat. But since when have the Grammys gotten it right? I’m not suggesting that the song didn’t deserve the award, but that winning doesn’t say enough when the Recording Academy continues to celebrate music mostly to the extent that it contributes to the consolidation of bourgeois taste at the expense of music that otherwise interrupts or complicates it. After all, the Grammys that celebrated “Rebirth of Slick” over the above acts is the same one that celebrates Adele over Beyonce. What the Grammys got wrong in 1993 was their apparent misconception of the Digable Planets sound as that of an African American lounge act, a cool-without-content message that seemed enough innocuous (by white American culture standards) that it might be absorbed by white culture and redirected. After all, the early nineties in American music culture would never be known more generally as the Rebirth of the Slick so much as the advent of Tipper Gore’s Parental Advisory labels for records with “explicit content.”
      In this context, the industry’s myopic celebration of Digable Planets anticipates the song’s use in an inane 2009 commercial for Tide Cold Water. The ad opens with a series of washing machine dials in close-up, flipping of their own volition from hot to cold, like Mickey’s broom in Fantasia, records spinning themselves. Never has the refrain of “Cool like dat,” felt so literal, so toothlessly de-racialized, as when the commercial’s thirty-second spot turns to the genre’s paradigmatic scene of comparing the brand at hand to one of its ostensible inferiors by showing two otherwise identical pieces of clothing in split-screen. We have, here, two white t-shirts. Their whiteness wouldn’t so much conjure the very spirit of Tipper Gore and Susan Baker—let alone the white hoods in the closets of Alt-Right Trump-supporters—were the shirts not stained, of all things, with chocolate pudding.
     Tide Cold Water, cool like dat, restores the shirt on the left to a pristine perfect white, reiterated at commercial’s end by a woman (resembling a young Laura Bush) evidently inspecting the said shirt, pleased. “Rebirth of Slick” supplies to the commercial a hipness that has nothing to do with laundry, notwithstanding Tide’s subliminal positing of molecular affinity between the music and the detergent at hand. Bowdlerizing if not literally sanitized, the music practically lifts the chocolate from the fibers of a cotton shirt that can’t not speak in the context it itself proposes of the indelibly brutalizing legacy of slavery on which the antebellum cotton industry depended.
     If such a reading seems histrionic in light of the aesthetic levity that Digable Planets seems to profess, it plays all the same to the latter’s implicit belief in the karma of what goes around comes around, not to mention the song’s performance of an ethics of interconnection capable of dissolving the flint of the first person singular into the relations of which it is an expression. When Butterfly, up first at the mike, intones “I’m Cool like Dat,” the singular pronoun isn’t a sticking point so much as the inception of a lesson in giving itself up: unlike the self at the center of songs disparate as Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” LUNIZ’s “I got 5 on it,” Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman,” the only temporarily singular self of “Cool like Dat” performs its own re-calibration toward a trans-historical, inter-psychical community of “cool.”
     Up next, Viera tweakingly shifts the refrain to “I’m Chill Like Dat,” further shifted in Doodlebug’s final set (each of the three taking turns at the mike in performances remarkable, as others have noted, for their lack of posturing machismo or otherwise competing charisma) to “I’m Peace Like Dat.” At some point in an early Washington Post article, Butler insists, contra Arrested Development, that Digable Planets “isn’t talking about peace and happy vibes.” I understand Butler’s assertion not as a wholesale abjuring of peace or happiness, but as a wariness of a culture that inoculatingly reduces either term to the “happy vibes” of commodity fetishism.
     The song’s resistance to the strategic frivolousness of the above surfaces most powerfully in the genius of the deictic second half of its hook, like dat: an open but not endless circuit of reference insofar as the universe of correspondences potentially signified is singularly shaped by the difference between the dentalized “d” sound of “dat” and the conventional dental fricative of “that.” The former serves as a shibboleth, pronounceable on some tongues but not on others. “Dat” wishfully conjures a dimension just past the white hand that reaches out to grasp it. Inspired by an excellent group of grad students, I’ve recently been thinking harder about Emerson in terms of race relations. In this light, even those lines I’ve lived with longest acquire a new texture. “I take the evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers, then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition.” When it comes to race (in our own time, of course, no less than Emerson’s) we might well ask whose condition, whose fingers. How not to hear the slickness of “Rebirth of Slick” as just such a fugitive, lubricious object?
     In the face of the machinery of white capitalism into which the physical and psychical labor of this country’s minority persons has never not been fed, “dat” signals many things, including the ideal of an aesthetic commons traceable from the legacy of slave songs and be-bop to hip-hop and afrofuturism. In the words of Langston Hughes, “every time a cop hits a Negro with his Billy club, that old club says ‘BOP! BOP!.... BE-BOP!....MOP!....BOP!.... That’s what Bop is. Them young colored kids who started it, they know what bop is.” Much as the white music industry wishfully might imagine “Rebirth of Slick” apart from this history, some things won’t wash out.
     “Cool like Dat” might be mine to love and praise, but it isn’t mine. In 1993, I was sixteen and—to paraphrase Frank Sinatra curving into Chet Baker— it might have been a very good year for small town girls and soft summer nights but not for me. Not like that, not beyond the nonetheless not dismissible statistical situation even as, as far as statistics go, it probably looked good enough just past the narcissism of its own watery, not quite integumental perimeter. I was a white boy in southern CT, thirty miles from the Long Island Sound; a white boy in a white family flanked by two golden retrievers, relentlessly sunny by suburban Trauerspiel standards, like a pair of Dutch tourists, the rough taffy of their tongues lolling like a Darwinian trick: to look most placatingly content while catching one’s breath.
     I knew “Cool like Dat” as the song that white boys—in all their puka-necklaced, pop-collared splendor—unsuccessfully tried to impersonate as I unsuccessfully tried to pass as one of them. I’m embarrassed to have been so sheltered, to have taken my own racial responsibility for granted in the panic of my own nascent experience of double consciousness. “Rebirth of Slick” was light years ahead.

[1] I should say makes, not made, given the excellent news of a Digable Planets reunion tour, starting this coming May.

Michael D Snediker is a writer and a teacher. His most recent poetry book, The New York Editions, the winner of this past year's Poets Out Loud prize, will be published next Fall by Fordham University Press. After years of looking for love in the wrong places, he's coming around again to the notion of a long-distance relationship. Email him at ulyssesdove@outlook.com.

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