the sweet 16:
(4) proclaimers, "i'm gonna be (500 miles)"
(8) tom cochrane, "life is a highway

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 close @ 9am Arizona time on 3/22.

Which song is the best?
(4) The Proclaimers, "I'll Be (500 Miles)"
(8) Tom Cochrane, "Life is a Highway"

analysis by zaza karaim

"Life is a Highway": This song is kind of annoying but also very catchy. What else is there to say? I think the Rascal Flatts version is slightly better than the Tom Cochrane original. Zaza’s rating: 4

"I'll Be (500 Miles)": I love this song. It’s iconic. Besides being really catchy, it’s also just a fun listening experience. I have no complaints. I wish this song the best. My affectionate feelings for this song started when I watched the episode of How I Met Your Mother where Ted and Marshall take a roadtrip and listen to it around a thousand times. Zaza's rating: 8.

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.


When one is young, even as one’s taste remains malleable and relatively unformed, one begins to realize that to be able to assert with confidence what one likes—sincerely and without fear of coming across as uncool—is a complex form of power toward which to aspire. 
     When I was young, from the academic years of 1992-1993 and 1993-1994, I attended Jefferson Junior High School in the Chicago suburb of Woodridge, Illinois. Once every month, all of us malleable middle-schoolers had an opportunity to test out our musical taste at the Video Dances put on in the Jefferson gymnasium by the Woodridge Park District.
     On those Friday nights, the DJ—or VJ, I guess—would set up his stereo speakers and his enormous projector in the space that doubled as our cafeteria and smelled faintly, always, of tater tots and unwashed PE uniforms. Against the wall, out of the way of the bleachers and basketball hoops, he’d set up his screen, vast and white like the sail of a ship that would transport us shortly to exotic realms we’d glimpsed on MTV. We’d watch and dance, dance and watch. Seeing, hearing, and moving to those songs was a big freaking deal because in those pre-YouTube days, there was no guarantee that you could simply click a link and see an artist’s visual interpretation of a song you admired. 
     For some reason never explained to any of us, each of these dances would conclude with the same two-song send-off: first “Life Is a Highway” by Tom Cochrane followed by “You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC. Both songs are full of innuendo and explicit sexiness, and I loved both of them, as did my peers as evidenced by the sweaty vigor of the dancing and the head-banging and the fist-pumping that they did in response to both of them.
     What I didn’t say then (fear of coming across as uncool by criticizing either beloved piece) was that I understood “You Shook Me All Night Long” to be the superior song—musically, probably, but definitely lyrically. Sure, the title was familiar, but the individual lines—“knocking me out with those American thighs,” “working double time on the seduction line”—were fresh and hilarious. Even the VJ seemed implicitly to agree with my assessment—“Life Is a Highway” was the penultimate, not the ultimate heading-triumphantly-off-into- the-night song. 
     I really enjoyed “Life Is a Highway,” but I knew even then that the title and entire premise of the song were huge clichés: expressions and ideas which have become overused to the point of losing their original meaning or impact. 
     Life is a highway. 
     Perhaps at some point very shortly after the passage under Eisenhower of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the phrase was considered novel, but many decades later, it seems irritating and trite. 
     Cars are terrible, encouraging a sedentary lifestyle and destroying the environment. And highways are awful—high-speed, ugly, dull ways to get from one place to another, deliberately void of the charm offered by scenic routes or rail.  
     To call anything that is not actually a highway a highway certainly betrays a lack of original thought. 
     Life is not literally a highway. It should be against the lyrical law to say that it is. And yet.
     Cochrane makes the banality sound so good: poppy and optimistic. Unstoppable even. I mean: “Life’s like a road that you travel on / When there’s one day here and the next day gone. / Sometimes you bend and sometimes you stand / Sometimes you turn your back to the wind. / There’s a world outside every darkened door / Where the blues won’t haunt you anymore.” 
     The video makes it look good as well. Shot in the Badlands of Alberta Canada, it shows Cochrane playing guitar amid striking rock formations and follows the golden-lit road-trip adventures of an attractive young couple: driving a 1965 Chevy Impala with the top down through beautifully desolate landscapes, cavorting as they wait for a car ferry to cross a river, changing a tire, stopping at a road house to play pool, breezing by an eccentric but harmless cast of roadside characters—gas station attendants, members of an austere religious order, Cochrane himself wearing a leather jacket and standing inexplicably in the middle of the road playing his harmonica, et al.
     The two youthful lovers do everything in their power to invite you to want to be them: perfect wind-tossed hair, glowing sun-kissed skin, optimal early-90s jeans, bandanas, sunglasses and tank tops. “Where the brave are free and lovers soar / Come ride with me to the distant shore.” Who wouldn’t want to say yes to that invitation? Especially at 12 or 13? Hackneyed as the chorus is—“Life is a highway / I wanna ride it all night long. / If you’re going my way / I wanna drive it all night long”—its confidence seduces. 
     A quarter century after hearing it over and over at the video dances, I realize that I didn’t love the song then and I don’t love it now in spite of its clichés, but because of them. “All night long” as if nothing else matters and we’ll never grow old or fall out of love or die. Of course we’ll do all of that, and of course life is a lot of things, though none of them are highways. But who cares because the song is so happy and welcoming. “Life is a Highway” is the audio equivalent of a big friendly golden retriever asking you to play fetch; you’d have to have a heart of stone to resist.
     The song appears on Cochrane’s 1991 album Mad Mad World, and it’s not nostalgia that moves me to say that the world has since gotten quite a bit madder.
     The song became a number one hit in his native Canada and reached number six on the Billboard charts here in the United States in 1992—his only one to crack the Top 40.
     Listening to “Life is a Highway” on repeat to write this essay (in late November of 2016 in the wake of the most catastrophic American presidential election that I’ve been alive for) and again to revise it (in late January of 2017 in the wake of the fascistic and pathologically dishonest Donald Trump’s week—and counting—of fulfilling all his most repellent campaign promises) lends the song poignancy now that it didn’t have for me then. I think harder than I did in junior high about Cochrane’s being from Canada, our boring and kindly neighbor to the north. Here in the States, we live, as the purported curse says, in interesting times; our new president is a corrupt, racist, misogynist, xenophobic authoritarian maniac with narcissistic personality disorder and little apparent interest in civil or human rights. 
     Much preferable would be to ride the highway of life down here in a fashion more closely resembling the life-highway of Canada. Much preferable would be to have a leader as evidently civil, empathetic, and progressive as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Much preferable to be under the direction of someone like him, who in November of 2015 introduced a 30-person cabinet that was half men and half women, and who, when asked to explain the gender parity of this group, replied, “Because it’s 2015.” Or who in January of 2017, in response to Trump’s unconstitutional travel ban on refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada
     Straightforward. Matter-of-fact. Life is a highway. 
     Would that the highways in the U.S. could be equally appealing. 
     And that at the end of them, we could let the people who want—and need—to be here in. 
     I once heard a Catholic priest say, “With ritual, what is natural becomes supernatural.” Which sounds to me like a recipe for magic. Which sounds to me like why the VJ always sent us home from the Video Dances with those two songs. 
     I value rituals—maybe not religious ones, per se, since religion comes with too much oppression and expectation. But secular, community-based rituals that are all-inclusive and offer to encompass everyone give us all a common basis for interacting and being together in a particular moment, surrounded by love and not subject to fear. Cliché to say that life is a highway. But it could be. A highway. With room on it for everybody. Or it could if we want it to be.

So Tom Cochrane is in the middle of touring in support of the 25th anniversary of his album Mad Mad World, but on Sunday night, just hours before this match went live, he was kind enough to provide the following answers to questions I sent him over Twitter. You’re a class act, Tom Cochrane!

KR: You released “Life Is a Highway” roughly 25 years ago. What prompted you to write it in the first place and did you realize at the time that you had a monster hit on your hands?

TC: I was encouraged by an associate, John Webster, to finish the "sketch" or demo after a trip to Africa in late 1989 with the NGO World Vision. I needed a song to pull me out of a funk. I was in a pro talk to myself, so to speak, and that was it.

KR: One of the things I talk about in my essay is how comparing things that are not literally highways to highways is a cliché, and how as a creative writing teacher, I’m frequently encouraging people not to use clichés. However, one of the other things I talk about is how much I love the song and what it does with that familiar phrase. How do clichés work differently in songs versus regular language and writing?

TC: Yeah, it's hard to describe the power of a song like “Life Is A Highway” to inspire people until you're "in it.” As a performer and songwriter, the power it has to lift people up is overwhelming. I feel blessed to have written it, and sometimes wonder what life would have been like without it, or if indeed I'd still be performing at 63.

KR: Are there songwriters who you particularly admire for their use of words?

TC: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young to name a few.

KR: Here in the States, you qualify as a “one-hit-wonder,” yet your musical output has remained consistent and steady for decades, and in Canada you’ve been successful and well-known for many years, both as the front-man of the band Red Rider and as a solo artist. Do you feel that the runaway success of “Life is a Highway” changed the way you were perceived at home in Canada? And did it change the way you feel about your own musical career?

TC: Well, I suppose as Tom Cochrane, but as the singer and songwriter for Red Rider, “Lunatic Fringe” was a Rock Radio hit and continues to garner much airplay. As a matter of fact, before Rascal Flatts covered “Highway,” “Lunatic Fringe” had eclipsed it in recurrent airplay in the States. You have to remember that in Canada, songs like “Boy Inside the Man” and “Big League” in particular are stronger cultural touchstones in a way than “Life Is a Highway.”

KR: Speaking of your native country, there has always been something quintessentially Canadian to me about the song (even though I think that a lot of times here in the States, we mistakenly think that we have the road song/Americana market cornered). Maybe it has to do with the fact that the video is so beautifully shot in the Canadian Badlands. How strongly do you identify as a Canadian songwriter and performer, and does “Life Is a Highway” embody anything particularly Canadian to you?

TC: It's funny because when we were touring a lot in the States, many people thought the video was shot in Arizona Ha! I think Canada and the States share the commonality of the road as a metaphor. The highway has always been the bloodline for our countries. Before that, the railway. It is the stuff of freedom, imagination, and adventure, and—linking us from north to south and east to west—it is the single biggest commonality we share as countries.

KR: In the interest of taking this “March Fadness” tournament, which focuses on so-called “one-hit-wonders,” as a chance to expand listeners’ familiarity with your work, what other songs of yours should people listen to if they like “Life is a Highway”? What are the other gateways you’d recommend into the musical world of Tom Cochrane?

TC: “Lunatic Fringe,” “White Hot,” which also reached 45 on Billboard in 1980, “Big League,” “Boy Inside the Man,” “No Regrets,” “Sinking Like a Sunset,” and I am particularly fond of the whole first side of the Neruda album.

A founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, Kathleen Rooney is the co-editor of Rene Magritte: Selected Writings, and her second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, has just been published by St. Martin's Press. She lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay. 

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