tournament play-in game:
EDWIN MCCAIN, "I'LL BE"
and will play (2) meredith brooks, "bitch" in the first round march 1-8
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. The polls are closed.
sean rys on "i'll be"
The thing about one-hit wonders is they rarely coincide with profound human experience. They are not the songs of relationships or their failures, are never what you’ll hear in the headphones that whoever is the Natalie Portman in your friend group has placed over your ears promising “This will change your life.” They won’t change your life because they are your life. Or, they are a backdrop to the life that happens to you, one you may hardly acknowledge, except, maybe, to suddenly wonder aloud, like I have, in one of those lookalike stores found in any serious American mall, “Man, what ever happened to Edwin McCain?”
I always assumed the word wonder in this construction referred to the magnitude of the hit, its popularity, the spectacle of Top-40 radio in general, but I see now the referent gestures forward toward the future listener. Wondering fills the void vacated by knowledge; we re-member the world by wandering beyond its known borders. To wonder and to wander. Because listening lasts only as long as the song’s duration and wonder is how we return; because wondering, always active, seeks entrance; because knowing contains whereas wondering unearths. I wonder now what must remain, the aftermath, some wisdom reached, touched, however fleeting, of the rarified air McCain entered for a few months in the summer of ‘98. I wonder if we can know and also why we should want to.
Do you believe celebrity should endure? And when it does not? I have singlehandedly imagined, I confess, an array of debilitating character flaws in my fallen idols. Is it fair to feel, after years of listening, we have earned this right? We were, after all, the ones who dragged our parents to the nearby Wherehouse music store to purchase the shitty cassette tape in the first place; we’re at least owed, aren’t we, the opportunity for voyeurism now. I seem to recall a whole industry built around this shared wondering and watching that emerged in the 90s, shows such as VH1’s Where Are They Now? each racing to pull back the curtain where fatter, more addicted versions of old heartthrobs posed in varying stages of scandal and distress. True, Edwin McCain never reached the fame threshold for Where Are They Now? consideration, and I assume twenty years of non-news means he’s probably doing okay, but it’s hard to imagine he’s made it through unmarked by the ‘one-hit’ modifier to his wonder.
The song under consideration, “I’ll Be,” is the fourth track on the album Misguided Roses—a period piece title which sounds cool but doesn’t push much beyond that. The #4 slot is significant: the formal shift from doubled-sided albums (LPs, cassette tapes) to continuous play (CDs, MP3s) replaced the physical album hinge with an artificial one—the radio hit. Listeners knew, or could expect to find, the album’s best song in this hinge position, surrounded by enough mediocre quality to prime expectations for the next album release. Ask any teenager from the 90s and they’ll tell you this formula pretty much worked.
“I’ll Be” opens on a strummed B-chord, a guitar fingering I never learned because it seemed to require an extra digit or just weird flexibility. You can tell right away it’s a breakup song (“I’ll be captivated, I’ll hang from your lips / Instead of the gallows of heartache that hang from above”.) Apparently this song has enjoyed a prolonged twilight as a popular wedding number, a fact I’ll try not to regard as a categorical shortcoming in an entire generation of young folks’ close reading abilities. Maybe romantic-sounding lines like “Tell me we belong together” and “I’ll be your crying shoulder” elicit momentary aphasias that restrict listeners from registering their counterparts: “Tell me we belong together / Dress it up in the trappings of love” and “I’ll be your cryin’ shoulder / I’ll be love suicide.” Not your typical first-dance optimism, but it’s more about the feeling, amiright?
As for looks, it seems important to mention that mid-decade McCain falls halfway between Scott Stapp of Creed and Chad Kroeger from Nickelback, the two most reviled lead singers of the 90s. I will comfort you, reader, with the assurance that I spent twenty minutes tooling around on MorphThing.com to confirm this so you wouldn’t have to, blending Stapp and Kroeger headshots into confused-looking Billy Ray Cyrus clones. Hold all three in mind simultaneously and that’s more or less the look. You see this borne out in the “I’ll Be” music video, where a startling number of blurred long shots suddenly snap into focus, pseudo-metaphors, I’m sure, for something like the “fog” of breakup and the “clarity” brought about by post-breakup perspective. There’s also the usual genre regime of hair-grabbing (he’s got plenty) and shaky close ups of McCain’s mouth (pained-looking), with additional blurry shots of a woman in white interspersed (the “you” of the song, presumably, though there’s enough “isn’t-this-fun-and-mysterious” ambiguity to leave the exact relationship terms unclear). It’s nowhere near the hateability of Creed’s “Arms Wide Open” music video, wherein Stapp pretends he is Jesus 2.0 while standing atop an array of natural and manmade pedestals with, you guessed it, his motherfucking arms wide open, and which, for me, remains the enduring image of alt-rock’s decline toward decade’s end, but it won’t leave you changed in any meaningful way either.
If I’m being truthful, “I’ll Be” is a blameless song. Its chart success feels accidental in an aw-shucks sort of way. Why this formula was unrepeatable for McCain across his long career (he’s still, it turns out, touring), or why, for other artists of the era, hits accumulated with relative ease, we can’t know. But ephemerality and music have long coexisted.
The oldest known musical instrument, by way of example, a pentatonic flute carved from a vulture’s radius bone, dates back more than 40,000 years. But the oldest known musical composition to survive in its entirety, the Seikilos Epitaph, dates “only” to first-century A.D. Between the two extend generations upon generations of unpreserved musical legacy, erased or simply forgotten, songs living that failed to root. One can imagine a great deal of speculative hand-wringing among contemporary scholars today over these music-history phantoms.
The point is songs in their earliest incarnation were never meant to be kept. They belonged to the oral tradition, traveling on with their singers. This means for the great majority of human history songs were allowed to disappear when they ran their course. It’s likely the troubadours of antiquity would have considered this whole obsession with one-hit wonder misguided, a little insane. But they would have known something about music’s impermanence. Perhaps they’d have even said the song is a transmission that passes through, that they were its brief keepers.
Wondering, in its reach, writes its own ending. From pop music’s temporality to words carved into stone, from memory’s graveyard to an actual ancient grave site unearthed in Turkey. It is here the Seikilos Epitaph was discovered, our oldest preserved song, which also, it turns out, included these brief lyrics: “While you live, shine / Have no grief at all / Life exists only for a short while / And time demands its toll.”
Edwin, if you’re reading this, may these words impart their approximations of comfort.
Sean Rys lives in Tucson, Arizona. Previous work appears in journals such as The Indiana Review, Cutbank, Hobart, Verse Daily, Salt Hill, The Seattle Review, and Whiskey Island, among others.
denry winter willson on "informer"
“Your voice type is determined by the weight and color of your voice, and how fast it can move.” —Eula Biss from “The Voice Box: Our Opera of High and Low”
“Informer. Again with Informer.” —Snow on MTV Cribs
I remember “Informer” very well but don’t really remember my experience of it during its time as a hit. I was nine during the song’s marathon radio play. Outside of my parents’ copy of 1987’s A Very Special Christmas with Run DMC’s “Christmas In Hollis” on it, I didn’t have a lot of rap music in my life at the age of nine. I imagine I liked “Informer” because rap music would go on to become a very special part of my life and “Informer” sounded close enough. I can also imagine myself as being shy about the song, however, due to feeling like I was supposed to be able to easily tell what Snow was saying, that probably everyone else knew what Snow was saying, but that I alone did not know what Snow was saying.
From the beginning of my time revisiting “Informer,” I felt disinclined to look up the lyrics. I also thought that if I spent some time with the song that the lyrics would reveal themselves to me. Some key words from “Informer” that I was able to pick out in the early goings of the revisit were: ‘informer,’ ‘tornado,’ and ‘Jamaica.’ “Informer"-filled days passed. I began to ask around. I learned that if you asked people about the song, they would almost inevitably say “gibberish,” and then something that sounds like “lick your boom-boom down.” In the following days, I became aware that “lick your boom-boom down” had become a resilient ghost in the life of Snow.
There was some backlash with “Informer.” The backlash is probably best summed up by the music video parody “Imposter” from In Living Color. The gist of “Imposter” is that Snow is an imposter, someone who makes “watered down” reggae for profit, someone who, at the end of the video, will get tracked down and beat up by men who look like American Stereotypes of Jamaican people. The backlash resembled some of what Vanilla Ice went through a few years earlier but with reggae instead of hip-hop (“Informer” was more pop than reggae but reggae’s influence on Snow is undeniable. Some of Snow’s music I think is technically called dancehall. Part of what made “Informer” a hit was that it was hard to classify).
It was easy to associate Snow with Vanilla Ice: they both came out of the early 90s and both looked like somebody else’s troubled older brother, somebody else’s so that there was an aura of the unknown shrouding them and their troubled ways. Beyond their looks, the similarities between Ice and Snow dip considerably.
A QUICK REFRESHER ON MTV CRIBS
In case you missed it, MTV aired a show called Cribs which is like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous for the aughts. It’s an entertaining-the-fantasy show where celebrities walk you around their houses and show you what they’ve got. Then you get to decide if you think what they’ve got is tasteful enough to maybe someday be included as part of your big someday house. Cribs caught controversy, however, over the idea that some of what it portrayed wasn’t real. People showing houses that weren’t their houses, cars that were not their cars.
Cribs is probably best remembered for the Redman episode. The whole thing with the Redman episode is that Redman’s house was in straight-up disarray during the shoot. Its popularity is due to the fact that most people cleaned their houses to death before letting the cameras roll, meanwhile Redman’s house featured rolling hills of clothes, X-rated VHS tapes, his cousin Sugar Bear, and a shoebox full of crumpled cash.
Cribs has many pleasures. Please consider the following examples:
It could be cool: Big Boi has a shark and a surveillance system. Big Boi admits to having never eaten a single meal in his dining room. Not ever in his entire life. One of his rooms is painted in a color that Big Boi describes as “Player Orange.”
It could be boring: Manny Pacquiao states that there are two beds in his kids’ room because he has two kids.
It could be sad: Ludacris says that the TV in the steering wheel of his Cadillac is “the dopest thing you could ever imagine.” The number of TVs proudly displayed on the show in general is just ridiculous, even if oddly apt.
It could be Snow’s: Snow’s house is covered with snow. Snow wears a white Nike jump suit and the first thing he does is show off three all-white, all-bullet-proof cars. The idea that all of Snow’s cars are bullet-proof leads me to believe that Snow believes that people want to shoot guns at him. There is someone in Snow’s studio playing a piano. I don’t believe that there is any way that what the guy is playing is as bad as it sounds on the recording. The recording I found looked and sounded as if it were a recording of another recording so there is just no way it’s that bad. There must have been some negative echo. Snow has a “Grammy” that he got in Japan. He has a framed white hockey jersey that he wore while accepting a Juno award. It says ‘SNOW’ on it, the jersey does. It is while showing the jersey that Snow first sings a bit of the chorus from “Informer.” Snow explains that “Informer” came about while he was in jail with his brother and his uncles over a stabbing that took place at a hotel. He sings the bit from “Informer” again. He has a leather couch and a fireplace. He has a—wait for it—a TV. He has a 1999 Guinness Book of Records which lists “Informer” as the top selling reggae single of all time. The Guinness serves as a launch pad for a toy helicopter which Snow claims to only launch off the Guinness. I can say that I imagine playing with a toy helicopter could be fun but that watching someone else play with a toy helicopter is not. His fridge is full of Arizona brand Grapeade and Snow claims that the drink is “ghetto,” and, “the only drink you need.” In one of the episode’s warmer moments, Snow shows a picture of his daughter and then a painting that he painted for her. The painting is of characters from The Wizard of Oz. Snow shows us his custom suit tailored by Canadian custom-suit legend Lou Myles. Snow shows us the funky shirt he wore for the “Informer” music video. It’s at this point that Snow breaks out with the chorus to Informer for the third time, this time abruptly shutting it down right after singing the word ‘informer’ by saying “again with Informer.” The thing I can’t quite figure out is whether Snow regularly bursts into “Informer” or whether the camera crew asked him to do it multiple times. I can’t tell if “again with Informer” is a self admonishment or an I-can’t-believe-you-keep-asking-me-to-sing-“Informer” comment meant for the production crew of Cribs. The episode cuts to the part of the music video for “Informer” in which Snow is wearing his funky shirt and singing the line that sounds like “lick your boom-boom down.” Snow has a magical staff that keeps the bears away. Snow shows us his lake which he dubs “Deep Informer” and warns us that people who talk too much end up in “Informer Lake.” Threats of violence are not uncommon on Cribs. Cribs is a show where rich people let camera crews come record footage of the insides of their houses. Snow threatens violence too, but because someone might be informing and not because people might use the footage to, like, rob him. Armed robbery seems to be the more common concern of the rappers especially. At the end of the episode two previously unseen but menacing looking men appear to push the cameras away, away from the crib that “Informer” built.
I know that simply listing stuff that happens on Cribs makes Cribs sound stupid but Cribs is stupid. Some of my favorite artists did it anyways. Snow claims to have sold the house he showed on Cribs because it was too cold.
But so it turns out that what Snow said about being in jail while he was coming up with “Informer” is exactly what he is trying to inform us about in his lyrics to “Informer” (I broke down and looked them up), and that that was why he was in a stagey jail cell during parts of the music video (why is he in jail, I kept asking myself). As in, this is what Snow was trying to inform us about the entire time. To inform us that he had a rough and tumble youth, and that a man had recently informed on him and implicated him in a stabbing and that the—presumably false—informing on the behalf of the informer landed him, Snow, in jail.
When I first came back to “Informer” the fact that the person who is Snow had continued to exist after “Informer” quit being a hit dawned on me rather slowly. Snow was poised in my mind as a ball of yarn for me to have my feline ways with. But my desire to hate Snow faded. He quit drinking in 1997. His wife died from cancer in 2009. Worse things than early success have happened to the man. On one of the radio shows I watched, Snow shares with the hosts that he had been with his wife since he was fifteen. After this one of the hosts nods and says “she stook with you.”
In another one of the interviews I watched, one of the hosts makes a joke. She says that if you are a tourist visiting Jamaica, you probably have some idea that there are parts or neighborhoods of Jamaica that you as a tourist should steer clear of. The joke is that if you see Snow walking around, you can assume that you have wandered into one of those areas and that you should collect your belongings and head back to your hotel.
Snow claims to have gotten into reggae by listening to it and trying to figure out what the artists were saying. If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Snow’s 1995 album Murder Love never hit in the United States but did hit in both Jamaica and Japan. Over the course of this project I’ve listened to more Snow than I realized even existed and I can honestly say that the experience leads me to believe that Snow truly loves reggae and that reggae does in fact dwell in Snow’s soul.
I don’t know why my first impulse was to clown and hate on the song or what this says about me. At worst it seems to say that I am a perpetrator of small-time hate and that, by definition, this makes me a small-time hater, although I won’t deny the fact that small-time hate can be delicious fun though.
Does “Informer” get more fun if you know the lyrics and can sing along with it? Yes, but you will probably have to practice. Try it out some day in front of your friends. It takes brass.
Denry Willson is a student at the University of Arizona. Go Cats.