natalie imbruglia, "torn" defeats
tonic, "if you could only see"
and will play ini kamoze, "here comes the hotstepper" 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. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on Feb 20.
aaron smith on "torn"
I was supposed to be writing an essay about Natalie Imbruglia’s song “Torn” when my mother was diagnosed with kidney cancer. It was in the back of my head that I had a deadline approaching. Over the course of three weeks, I sat in rooms waiting to see what each doctor would say about my mother: urologist (You have a big mass in your kidney); urologist again (Your lungs are clear); oncology urologist (You’ve had this tumor for at least fifteen years); and the post-surgery room where they take you and you worry the news is bad because they’ve isolated you. Thankfully, my mother’s prognosis is good: after the doctor cut her in half, pulled out her kidney, he said: Good news and She did great. He even drew us a picture with a pencil (kidney mass as a big scribbly circle and a “thrombus” (a new word we learned) moving toward her liver). My whole family listened rapt and confused and relieved. I kept thinking: those hands have been inside my mother.
Every day after the diagnosis I told myself I’d work on the essay at night before bed. I’d hum the beginning of the chorus: “I’m all out of faith. / This is how I feel.” And then I’d get distracted or too tired or someone in my family would need something or I’d think: what if her cancer is as bad as we are afraid to imagine. I’d say to myself on the back porch: “I don’t think I can leave her body in the ground and drive the fourteen hours back home to Boston.”
I first encountered “Torn” on MTV when I was in graduate school. I mostly wanted to fuck the guy in the video, whom I found out is gay in real life when I bought an expensive British magazine in a gay bookstore on Pittsburgh’s South Side that put everything a person bought into a brown paper bag. The bag told everyone you had a secret and it was sexy. This was right as the internet was beginning: bare-bones email and picture-less gay chat rooms, but nothing elaborate, and porn was still a tangible thing on VHS that my friends and I passed to one another, a kind of intimacy knowing which scene a friend liked and exactly what they were into. But it wasn’t just sex I hid. It was anything that marked me as a fag. My shame then was a tumor as big and sick as my mother’s.
Like I imagine many guys who grew up gay in the late 70’s or early 80’s, I got used to imagining myself in the place of women in movies, television and videos. Every shirtless stud was on top of me. That man was bringing me flowers. The guy, Jeremy Sheffield, in the “Torn” video might actually love me if I had glossy lips, a pixie haircut and tugged my sleeves like Natalie singing about being “naked on the floor.” I didn’t know then that guys like Jeremy—muscled, gorgeous, floppy-haired—don’t usually date chubby, balding guys like me who wear glasses; they usually date guys who look like them: Narcissus pinching his own nipples, staring into the stream. I hadn’t had sex with a man at that point, but I’d been every woman fucked by every sweaty man in every movie: Sharon Stone in Sliver, Melanie Griffith in Working Girl kissing Harrison Ford out of his dress shirt, Kim Basinger in 9 ½ Weeks.
Everyone kept praying for my mother. Each text from her friends: Praise god! We have everyone praying! Wait and see what god can do! And I kept thinking: why did god let her get cancer and carry it around in her body for over fifteen years? Why did she have to have cancer while her mother was dying? Why did she have cancer when she scrubbed the kitchen cabinets on Saturdays? Why did she have cancer at my parents’ fortieth anniversary party my sister and I threw when she looked so pretty and happy and cancerless. I’m all out of faith. This is how I feel.
Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” written by American alternative-rock band Ednaswap, survives because of the melody, the springy guitar at the beginning, the catchy, spin-around-your-room-in-a-circle push of it, the chorus and the electric guitar leading us out of the song while Natalie thrashes in her blue hoodie (the blonde homo in the baby-blue sweater and nineties corduroys who, for obvious reasons, can’t seem to get the kiss right).
The lyrics really don’t make sense: “I thought I saw a man brought to life. / He was warm, he came around like he was dignified. / He showed me what it was to cry.” It’s as if the writers needed a rhyme, something to fit the established structure. What does dignity have to do with crying in this scenario? “Illusion never changed / into something real” leads us eventually to “You're a little late. / I'm already torn.” Wasn’t he, like my mother’s cancer, already there?
I look at these lyrics and feel like I can make sense out of them sometimes, but then I feel like my writing students who try and try to understand a poem that makes no sense, that only the writer (barely) understands, and then try to convince me with republican-spin that it’s obvious, common sense, not confusing at all. I always say: “Sounds like you’re writing a poem instead of reading one.” I guess wanting to believe in anything requires a bit of spin—like Natalie twirling on that set—more work than we should be asked to do and still not quite making sense.
“So I guess the fortune teller's right. / I should have seen just what was there /and not some holy light.” Now that things are looking good for my mother, everyone keeps saying that god had a hand in the result. I keep thinking about the doctor’s hand opening her torso. I asked a lover once which finger he put inside me, and he flipped me off across the bed: fuck you and this is how I fucked you. How to make sense of what’s inside us? How to make meaning? Do we need it?
Maybe some songs just feel good. Maybe it’s okay not to understand, not to pick at the threads. Maybe it’s not necessary to point out whether a thing is poorly constructed or not. Maybe songs like “Torn” let us fuck a British guy in a video and imagine a life, even briefly, where we can have everything we want just the way we want it. Maybe the point is to belt out with passion silly words that sound good together because we don’t have the right words for things we don’t even know are inside us?
Perhaps songs like “Torn” are aptly titled “one-hit wonders.” There’s no need to really think about them, but year after year they come back to us because it just feels good to sing, because it just feels good to get fucked. They help us deal with the fact that there isn’t a god who gives a shit about us. We don’t need to waste our time hiding the things we want in brown bags.
Just because “the perfect sky is torn” doesn’t mean we have to look.
Aaron Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Primer, Appetite, and Blue on Blue Ground. He is assistant professor in creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
dustin parsons on "if you could only see"
Tonic doesn’t believe themselves to be a one hit wonder, but one might be hard pressed to name another song on their late 1996 album Lemon Parade besides “If You Could Only See,” unless you guess, correctly, there was a title song. Each album that came after was different—the urgent chords of Lemon Parade gave way to the soaring “One Tree Hill” sound of Sugar, which in turn morphed into the narrative Head on Straight—and offered no billboard chart successes. Nevertheless, the band culled from these albums to make a Best of in 2009, kind of like a bartender emptying the drink prep area into a glass and chugging it to get drunk.
“If You Could Only See” was released as a single in 1997, nearly nine months after the album. The same year brought us Oasis’s Be Here Now (a meager effort after (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?), the Spice Girls, and “MMMBop.” In comparison, “If You Could Only See” seemed like a desperate and slightly grungy sound that helped recovering 90s college students settle into contemporary pop music, even though The Colour and the Shape and OK Computer came out at the same time, acting as a sort of methadone for early 90s post-undergraduate depression. (And, of course, Semisonic’s “Closing Time” would come out a year later—the over-the-top 90s post-undergraduate extended-metaphor anthem.)
Lemon Parade ended up going platinum in 1997, and “If You Could Only See” earned the distinction of being the most played rock song on the radio that year. But the rest of the album didn’t harness that passion in the same way “If You Could Only See” did. Shawn Haney, writing for Allmusic, said the album sounded, “like shoes splashing through muddy puddles of water.” While Emerson Hart’s gravelly voice rang consistent, the pace and style of the album was uneven, the lyrics were too often direct address (and a little “you’re kinda like my uncle” creepy—see “Soldier’s Daughter” and “Lemon Parade”), and the pseudo-sadness was too surface.
The direct address of “If You Could Only See” attempted to shift the audience to a participant, to use them as a surrogate authority from which to receive a blessing not attainable in real life. So who was the singer trying to convince, when he pleaded over and over “If you could only see…?” Hart told an audience at an Australian show that the song was directed at his family. He tried to convince them that his pursuit of an older woman, who they considered inappropriate for him, was not as bad as they thought. Hart believed her look was heartbreaking enough to convince us that he was doing the right thing. But aside from her blue eyes he could only lament, “if you could only see how she loves me,” knowing he had neither the descriptive power nor the means to make this woman present to convince anyone. It’s on them for not accepting her. Hence: tragedy.
But we were sucked in by the frustration enough to follow the acoustic guitar through the hook, then the electric whine through the verses to the chorus. You could hear the slide in the background at times, when the verse piled on. And it glided through the chorus too. For a second, as the layers of electric guitar bombarded us, we felt not like the audience, but like the singer, knowing we had no control over who we loved, and we understood that it was unfair. The singer didn’t want to rebel, he wanted harmony, but he wouldn’t get it.
I craved validation too. Undergraduate was a hazy five years of drinking too much, being too emotional about loneliness, and studying only as much as necessary. By some miracle I was accepted to graduate school, and the intervening summer between the two was punctuated by, among other things, long hours in the oil and gas fields of southwestern Kansas and Tonic’s “If You Could Only See” on the radio (the song was released in April, as I discovered when I looked the song up, but like all elements of culture in western Kansas, I wouldn’t receive it for at least two months after that). I’d never worked so hard in one summer. In undergrad I always worked; bartending, Wal-Mart, anything that I could schedule around my classes. But this was work that reminded me I wanted to be in school. The sun and the sand whittled me down to nearly nothing.
I wanted my dad to know that graduate school wasn’t a whim. Like a lot of other humanities majors, I’d started off in another program—for me, engineering—where my performance was mediocre at best, and so I switched quickly to English with a minor in history. My parents took the change very well, but supposed it would end with my BA degree. Neither of them had gone to college, and it made them proud to see me there. But I earned a TA position and free admission to graduate school, and intended to do the whole thing on my own. (In fact I hadn’t put too much of my undergraduate expense on my parents either). But I still wanted his blessing. I had a whole summer working alongside him in the heat to get it.
But I couldn’t ask for it.
I wanted him to know I wasn’t soft. That I could do what he does, but I could also choose not to. Near the end of the summer he told me he thought going to graduate school was something he could never do. He said it was harder than what he did day in and day out. It wasn’t a dramatic moment, and he wasn’t offering a blessing. He said it simply when we were driving back to the house after working all day. He’d thought all his life he wasn’t capable of what I took for granted, that writing and studying were beyond him, but he’s still one of the most capable men I know. I have no doubt he would have trouble at a desk for hours a day, but he liked making things, he liked solving problems. He still does. There was nothing about what I wanted to do that he couldn’t have done.
The thing about “If You Could Only See” to me was what it asked of its intended audience. In genre it was a transitionary song, labeled as “post-grunge.” There was something transitionary about that desire for acceptance too. It wasn’t uncool for the speaker to want his family’s blessing, after so many years of musical rebellion. Maybe some of us, hearing it after we left undergrad, felt that way for a short time in college, while we were listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, too shy to talk to the attractive others, introverts who couldn’t bring themselves to say fuck it all. It was the right song at the right time to help us enter adulthood.
I got the approval I was seeking. The approval Emerson Hart or the narrator of “If You Could Only See” didn’t get. However, instead of feeling like a validation, it felt like a challenge, and I didn’t want to be the equivalent of a one-hit-wonder.
Dustin Parsons currently writes and teaches from Oxford, Mississippi. His work has recently appeared in DIAGRAM, Pleiades, Seneca Review, Passages North, and Natural Bridge. You can find more at www.dustinparsons.info