(8) tom cochrane, "life is a highway"
(1) sir mix-a-lot, "baby got back"
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 3/11.
joe wenderoth on "baby got back"
I like big butts and I cannot lie.
Nine decidedly ordinary words—base words, let's say—set in one precise order. Nine words cast, set free together in mid-air… turning gold. Millions of people afflicted with the English language have never been the same. Sir Mix-a-Lot, little known alchemist-Knight out of Seattle, let something slip.
Let's look a lil' more closely at his sound-concoction-treatise on "that healthy butt." Said treatise posits, first, that women have different kinds of butts. (Men's butts aren't discussed, so we'll set them aside—no offense, fellas.) There are, for Sir Mix-a-Lot's purposes, black butts (thick soul sistas, Flo Jo, that bubble) and non-black butts (Jane Fonda, beanpole dames, Cosmo and Vogue). If only things were so simple! But no, things are hecka complex when it comes to butts. Not all black women have that bubble ("my hump"), and not all white women are beanpole dames; some white women have that bubble, and some black women have the flat ass Cosmo endorses. In other words, some black women have a white butt, while some white women have a black butt.
Some white women have a black butt? Some white women have a black butt? What? This is a blatant contradiction of the law of hypodescent, or what is more commonly referred to as the one-drop rule. Said rule is the key to understanding the history of race in america. It operates by way of a contamination metaphor. If you have any known black ancestor, you have been contaminated with blackness… and thus, you "are" black. Seven white great-grandparents are not enough—if you have even one who is categorized as black, whiteness is not afforded to you. Even if you have bone straight hair, a totally flat ass, a pointy nose—even if you play hockey, golf, listen to NPR—so long as your contamination is known, whiteness is withheld.
Whiteness, as the one-drop rule conceives of it, is purity, complete absence of contamination. Blackness operates very differently; a black person is somehow immune to whatever white ancestry he or she has. Whiteness cannot contaminate blackness; blackness simply absorbs and transforms whiteness. To understand the history of race in america, you have to understand the contamination metaphor that is built into its foundations. Said metaphor works in only one direction, and as such, engenders either "race" or "racelessness."
Maybe you noticed my use of the term white rather than non-black in the immediately preceding block of text. I've done so because the one-drop rule conceives of white as the polar opposite—the inverse—of black. To say non-black, then, is not the same as saying white. The only women, in america, who are understood to have achieved completely non-black status are white. That is to say, white women are the only women wholly exempted from racialization. Whiteness isn't a race—it's exemption from race. To be white is to have that peculiar birth-right: presumption of oneself as the default human, completely uncontaminated with race. At the same time, to be white is to be the possessor of the racializing gaze, and so, in a sense, to be the Creator of the imagined races. James Baldwin understood this very well; he always said he couldn't be black until someone somewhere had decided to be white.
"What are you?" kids ask my daughter at her school. Those who have been enticed to racialize, as well as those who have been racialized… need to know her racial substance. She is a threat to the whole idea of race so long as her racial substance remains unknown. In order to racialize someone, you judge any number of things, but first and foremost you must judge physical appearance. Such judgment is often (and more often) unsure of itself. How, in any case, is someone's race to be decided at the level of appearance? In america, the physical traits of a potentially racializable other are always interpreted, first, by overlaying the established "white/black" dichotomies.
Baby Got Back begins with a little satirical skit in which two white women are looking at the butt of a black woman. It seems more than appropriate I should quote that skit in full:
Oh my God Becky, look at her butt! It is so big… she looks like one of those rap guys' girlfriends. But, ya know, who understands those rap guys? They only talk to her because she looks like a total prostitute, 'kay? I mean, her butt is just so… big. I can't believe it. It's just so round. It's like… out there. I mean… gross. Look—she's just so… black.
Beginning the song with a white woman's gaze, particularly when it is directed at a black woman's body, is telling. It frames the song's object, "big butts," as a matter of contention between women. The white woman marvels at a "big butt's" grotesqueness, the self-evidence of which seems—somehow—to have been called into question. The black woman they're looking at is dancing by herself, as if she was sexually attractive to someone. They stand near-by, gawking in disgust. In the song's video, they all seem to be situated in a void, the background of which is something like a pink and orange sky. If I had to place them in a reality, it would be in an Arizona desert in the early dusk, filmed from down low, a la Leni Riefenstahl. Strange scene (stranger ob-scene). In any case, the question—the threat—right from the jump, is clear, if unspoken: who could a grotesquely big-butted woman possibly be attractive to? The white woman begins then to venture an answer to her own unspoken question:
But ya know, who understands those rap guys? They only talk to her because she looks like a total prostitute, 'kay?"
Even black guys only talk to this big-butted woman because they presume she is willing to have sex with them. For these white women, black guys are very clearly other. "Those rap guys," that is, are unintelligible, less evolved; their desire is for sex, not love or beauty. Love and beauty are perhaps too subtle for their crude minds. Such is the thinking of the white women.
The opening skit establishes the white women's perspective, wherein two concurrent, incompatible gazes are attached to the black woman's body: the disgust/repulsion of the white women themselves (self-articulated), and the unintelligible and less evolved desire of black men (not self-articulated but posited from the afar of the racializers). The mention of the black men—their allegedly unintelligible and less evolved desire—when added to the view of the white women, is a step toward filling out the context of a larger scene, which I would call: america. There is a step not taken, however. A step the white women can't—or won't—take. These white women look on to a black woman's body; they are aware, at the same time, that black men are looking on to a black woman's body. Only the white man's gaze remains unknown. This is quite significant, given that the gaze of the white man, historically, has been the primary organizing force of the whole society. Indeed, to try to understand the perspectives of "inferior" gazes, one must first understand the supreme gaze, the gaze under which they toil.
America was founded and developed as a white supremacist, heteronormative, xtian-privileging, patriarchal oligarchy, and there have been "conservatives" enthusiastically devoted to conserving it ever since. The white man's gaze has always mattered most, and has always worked to "conserve" america, i.e. a white supremacist, heteronormative, xtian-privileging, patriarchal oligarchy. The white man's gaze, when it is directed at a black woman's body, should of course fall in line with the white woman's gaze… and be repulsed. This particular should is the problem.
This particular should has always been a real problem in american history. An awkward silence has always remained attached to its unfulfillment. The terrible truth, of course, is simply that white men have always been attracted to black women. The challenge has always been: how to explain this and at the same time maintain the idea of white supremacism? The white woman in the video makes the argument that has been popular from the beginning: if a man desires a black woman, it's not because she's beautiful—it's merely because she's sexually available. She's hyper-sexual by nature, a "total prostitute." That's actually an interesting way to define a female slave: "total prostitute." Prostitute not for the hour, but for life. Prostitute not by choice, or even out of desperation; prostitute by State law.
Example. In the film, Jefferson In Paris, the infamous relationship of Jefferson and Sally Hemings is represented. Indeed, the film's makers were bold enough to represent the key moment—the origin and the impetus—of this relationship. Jefferson is in Paris, seated at a desk in his own ornate private quarters, hard at work writing. His 14 or 15 year old house slave, Sally Hemings (a "black" slave who was ¾ white, and ½ sister to his wife…), is creeping around the room silently, clearly desirous of (maybe even physiologically drawn to) the great and noble man. Her lurking so close seems to evidence a kind of awe at his presence, a nearness-to-master trance. Jefferson pretends not to notice this; he lets her float there, transfixed. He lets her watch his greatness. At some point in all of this letting, however, her quivering desire becomes too much for him… and he suddenly snatches her arm like he was some kind of predatory insect. The point is clear: Jefferson did not seek out this relationship with his 14 or 15 year old slave. Heavens, no! No, the relationship happens because a helplessly interested "black" woman (or girl, if you insist) gave the Founding Father no other choice. The poor guy was trying to get some writing done! The film manages to make a confession of one of Jefferson's failings (it has to, really, given the DNA findings), but said confession does everything it can possibly do to diminish the criminality of the crime. It is able to do so by placing the originary desire in the slave, or even in the slave's nature. Amazing how many slaves are reported to have had consensual sexual relationships with their masters. But thus the master narrative solemnly teaches, and so who are you to question it!? If you start doubting the love of the slave for her master, what's next? WTC 7? (Voltaire: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.")
As we enter the song proper, we switch—rather dramatically—to the self-articulated desire of "the average black man." The repulsion the white women feel has been well established, and now it is suddenly contradicted by a black man's unashamed (and fully articulate, as it turns out) desire. Suddenly, that is, we are thrust into a rap video, i.e. into what has been alleged as the most grotesque of places, wherein the unintelligible and crudely sexual expectation "those rap guys'" make manifest is dangerously free to sound itself out. This sudden shift obviously clashes against the white women's disgust. The "average black man," the "brothers," "like(s) big butts." The white women do not. The massive question remaining is so plain you can look right through it: what do white men think?
It's interesting that Sir Mix-a-Lot evokes, in the first line of the song, Washington and the cherry tree. Lil' George is the Founding Father of this country, purportedly. In the cherry tree story, we see that, even as a child, he was wholly (preternaturally!) bound to tell the truth. Even when it might hurt his own cause, George "cannot tell a lie." The implications are not hard to fathom; america's master narrative was established by way of just and truthful white men. The master narrative said (and still says), out loud and often (with a straight face!), that, in america, all men are created equal, and that all men have inalienable rights. It might as well say that america has been (and still is) governed by 8 year old girls with 6 fingers on each hand. Both statements are huge lies. The latter is more conspicuous and more frivolous, but not more untrue. America has never been, nor tried to be, a "democratic" ot a classless society—to the contrary, its whole history is about the definition and maintenance of class boundaries. Indeed, one of the classes it established was so low that its occupants were regarded (and legally established) as sub-human. One can go through the master narrative's assertions one by one… and what one finds is anything but the truth. What one finds is a bunch of lies.
Sir Mix-a-Lot, for his part, cannot lie. The implication is: cannot lie anymore. The implication is: something has been forcing everyone to lie, but Sir Mix-a-Lot has finally decided to stand in opposition to that force. But what is that force? Is it just these two gawking white women? Is that all that is keeping the lie in place—these ditzy racist women? Or, put another way: WHERE ARE THE WHITE MEN? Surely they stand behind their women, repulsed by the grotesque display of blackness. If they do, however, it isn't apparent in the video. In the video, the white women seem to stand alone. WHERE ARE THE WHITE MEN?
The white men are in office buildings—they are the record label executives and the Mtv executives etc…—they are the guys who prey upon the success of black artists like Sir Mix-a-Lot. Yes, true—and clever to point out. So clever it misses the point. There are wealthy white men on that side of the process, diverting much of the profit to themselves. But there are exponentially more white men on the other side of the process; Baby Got Back was launched, that is, into a vast sea of white men. Unseen, all over the country, white men were made witness to this strange clash, and this bold claim, this sudden purported truth-telling. As witnesses, white men were (and still are) implicitly asked to take a side. Sir Mix-a-Lot believes he knows what side they're on, and he reveals as much as he propositions the big-butted "Ladies" halfway through the song.
so ladies (yeah), ladies (yeah)
if you want to roll in my Mercedes (yeah)
then turn around, stick it out
even white boys got to shout
baby got back
The absence of the white man's public confession of preference, when it comes to style of butt (i.e. black or white), is for the first time made conspicuous in the wake of Baby Got Back. Since it has become conspicuous, it has had to be dealt with. Sir Mix-a-Lot has thrown down the gauntlet: even white boys have to shout. With this assertion, a great silence was broken: the silence the master narrative secures when its absurdities go on unopposed. Even white boys have to shout.
He come right out and said it, and every day since—every day, that is, in the subsequent 25 years—when a white man hears the song, or even refers to or thinks of the song, he cannot help but hear the unambiguous preference implicit in the chorus, and he has thus to face Sir Mix-a-Lot's challenge. He's got to take a look at a big-butted woman and shout… or refrain from shouting. There are white-on-white interactions whereby a white boy might refrain from shouting—and indeed, the whole long history of the minstrel show's audience can be seen in this light. But maybe he faces his own experience and he feels that he has to confess—he has to shout. This particular shout has thrown The Kingdom Of Butt into great confusion… and rapid change growth. The master narrative has alleged, or at least implied, the white man's preference for white butts. For the white man in the pre-Baby Got Back world, this preference was self-evident. At the same time, said preference was casually (and continuously) contradicted… By casually I mean that no one made any remark; the contradiction was not understood to be a problem. It went unspoken. It was allowed to go unspoken. Baby Got Back was the first huge attempt to speak into this particular american contradiction. With Baby Got Back, the master narrative has been opposed, destabilized; the butts themselves, moreover, are now more conspicuously unstable, and more often contradict their possessor's perceived race.
Some songs—not many!—change the world so much that it becomes difficult to remember how things were before they were released. This is certainly the case with Baby Got Back. The white woman's diatribe at the beginning of the song may strike some young people today as unbelievable, maybe even unintelligible. Certainly it would be unintelligible to the many young women who have gotten, or even considered getting, butt implants. In the eighties, white women found the idea of getting butt implants absurd, or they would have, if the idea was even thinkable to them. In the eighties, that skit was more or less real. I heard it, in its myriad variations, all the time.
Today you can openly prefer the kind of butt you actually prefer, no problem. It wasn't always like this. There has been a new birth of freedom, within which a small and late-arriving justice should not go unmentioned. A "black" trait—the trait of a woman, no less—has been recognized—confirmed, even—as a potentially desirable trait (to make the very least of a clear trend).
We're different since we imbibed Sir Mix-a-Lot's Rump-oh-smooth-skin concoction. In america, the realm of the proto-scientific has been altered… and it is now a better place—more just. The Kingdom Of Butt has been driven into a new awareness of the confusion in its Constitution, and has by way of this confusion become more free, and less doomed to artificial (i.e. civilized) restriction.
Joe Wenderoth is an itinerant butcher and a Normal teacher of pseudo-patience. He labors softly at the University of California in the soon-to-be MFA program in creative writing. He's published all kind of books, through which a kind of language has flowed and died, flowed and died.
kathleen rooney on "life is a highway"
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.