(3) wreckx-n-effect, "rump shaker" defeats (14) rednex, "cotton-eye joe" 117-82

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 Saturday, 3/4.

Which song is the best?
(3) Wreckx-n-Effect, "Rump Shaker"
(14) Rednex, "Cotton Eye Joe"

john melillo on "rump shaker"


Begin with the monstrous earworm: 

All I wanna do is zoom-a-zoom-zoom-zoom and a boom-boom



“Rump Shaker” is probably the quintessential product of the genre of “New Jack Swing.” Largely accredited to the producer Teddy Riley, who produced and rapped on this song, “New Jack Swing” mixed pop, R&B, and hip-hop, and billed itself as pure entertainment and fun. As such, it stood in opposition to the self-seriousness and epic narrations of gangsta rap, the other dominant early 90s hip-hop genre.
     As an “entertainment,” “Rump Shaker” celebrates its own existence as the cause of pure movement. It does not demand that we pay attention to a truth-telling voice. Rather, in a way, it celebrates its pure technical achievements: 

It's called the rump shaker, the beats is like sweeter than candy

Or, as the young Pharrell Williams writes (and Teddy Riley raps) in the second verse:

The action, is packed in a jam like a closet
Beats bound to get you up, cold flowin like a faucet
Not mean to make you sit, not mean to make you jump
But yep make the hotties in the party shake your rump

Interestingly, the jam-packed “action” of the song is ambiguous. It’s supposed to “get you up,” to get you “cold flowin’” so that you’re neither sitting nor jumping, neither laconic nor spastic. It’s moderation in action.
     This ambiguity extends to the overall sense of the song, too. Dudes implicitly addressed by it might think it says something like: “Look, there is a clear line of causation here: this rump-shaker (the song) makes ‘the hotties in the party’ shake their rumps; this rump-shaking will lead to you (dude, onlooker) rumping [3] with a rump-shaker.” But if you listen closely to all the verses of the song, it never actually promises as much, nor does it end up in a place where actual rumping is achieved. It simply says “All I wanna do…” It provides the occasion for a pluralized male voice to imagine itself commanding and in command: “Yeah, SHAKE IT BABY, SHAKE IT NOW SHAKE IT LIKE THAT.”
     What this means is that the song, like adolescent fantasies of all kinds, actually speaks to desperation in the midst of imagined power and desire. The desperation about masculinity and its scope is also desperation about entertainment. As if the song were saying, “We’re all having a great time, right?”
     Another way of saying this: yelling “shake it baby, shake it baby” only asserts the powerlessness of the actual command. Those voices calling are caught behind the shaking rump. They do not make “it” do anything; they are the ones who have to compensate for its shaking by declaring “it” commanded. But the rump—as the remaindered, the left behind, the impossible desired “it”—shakes like hell in a way that refuses command and that stands beyond the gaze, the voice, and even the ostensible cause of all of this: the song and its sweet beats.[4]



What possesses a body shaking? What is possessed by a body shaking?
     To shake is not so much movement—as in a mobile transportation from one place to another—as a kind of agitated standing still, a state of vibration.
     To shake your rump is to be churned and agitated beyond your proper self. It is to be both inside and outside your body, to be here and not here. Controlled by part of you but not in control of all of you. This is something the voices in the song could never admit. This powerlessness is not just the position of the “hotties” trapped in a vortex of mobile immobility.[5] It is the position of the listening producer who suddenly lights upon All I wanna do is zooma-zoom-zoom-zoom and a boom boom. It is the position of the sudden, surprising, and random urge we might have to chant All I wanna do is zooma-zoom-zoom-zoom and a boom-boom. It is the position of M.I.A. when she interpolates All I wanna do is zooma-zoom-zoom-zoom and a boom-boom into her song “Hit That,” or when she takes the rhythmic shape of All I wanna do is zooma-zoom-zoom-zoom and a boom-boom and recontextualizes it in “Paper Planes” as the sounds of gun-shots and cash registers. The nonsense hooks him, her, them, us. A desire we didn’t even know we had encases us in rhythm.
     All I wanna do is zooma-zoom-zoom-zoom and a boom boom… We carry this little explosion with us.



Dan Graham’s video essay “Rock My Religion” connects the end-times possession rituals of the Shakers and other radical American religious sects to the obsessive shaking of rock ’n’ roll and punk rock. Sonic Youth’s song “Shaking Hell” plays a huge part in setting the tone for the essay. In it, Kim Gordon screams over the band at its darkest and most looming: SHAKE! SHAKE! SHAKE! SHAKE!
    “Rump Shaker” is the opposite side of the same coin. “Shaking Hell” is a turgid death mass; “Rump Shaker” is light and sweet fun. But both are apocalyptic celebrations of dissolution that look to the fantastical end of the nightmare that we call “reality.”

[1] I recognize that Rap Genius and other websites transcribe this as “poom-poom” and that “poom-poom” (as a euphemism for female genitalia) comes up in the third verse of the song. I transcribe it as “boom boom” for reasons that will be clear by the end of this essay. I wish for a both / and situation here. Let’s hear “poom” and “boom” together. The “boom” in the “poom” and vice versa.

[2] Rump? Strangely polite and grandmotherly lexical choice. Of course, I am again listening to this song after the declaration of “peak ass” in 2014 by Pitchfork.

[3] “Rump: (of the male) to coït with, esp. dorsally. (Eric Honeywood Partridge, A dictionary of slang and unconventional English, 1937).

[4] Another sense of “rump” is as a remainder or a leftover. The “rump”—as in the famous Rump Parliament of 1648 that found Charles I of England guilty of treason and had him beheaded—represents that which has been left behind, what has been cut off from the body. Perhaps to be consumed, or perhaps, to consume in its own right. The power of the rump, then, is ambiguous: on the one hand, it has a revolutionary potential to upset the given order. It can kill the king. Or, in the song, it can turn “mighty men to mice.” But, then, there always seems to be the fantasy power of the “manly” dominator to come in and call things to order: “A-Plus got a surprise that’s a back breaker.” (By the way, England became a monarchy again in 1660. Sigh.)

[5] Check out the video to see this “in action.” The dancing women are frozen to a particular place, their feet firmly planted on the ground / sand. Offering themselves up to the camera. They are animated rump-shaker statues. Suspended, stuck…but moving, shaking.

John Melillo is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Arizona. His recent publications include “Olson / Tape/ Noise” in jacket2, "Two Sides for Wallace Stevens" (with Johanna Skibsrud) for Harvard's Woodberry Poetry Room, and “Uncertain Revelations: Noise from the Old Regular Baptists to Susan Howe, Clark Coolidge, and Morton Feldman” in Act: zeitschrift für musik and performance. John makes noise and music under the name Algae & Tentacles

j. robert lennon on "cotton-eye joe"

Where did you come from, where did you go, the people who popularized “Cotton-Eye Joe”?
     The answer, roughly, to both questions is “Sweden.” But that’s hardly the whole story of Rednex, the bluegrass/Eurodance musical group whose cover of the nineteenth-century American folk song became an unlikely worldwide hit in 1994. That story is long and not very interesting, and I’m not going to tell it. In short, however, it’s this:
     Rednex was the brainchild of a couple of Swedish record producers who, in 1994, assembled a group of performers in an effort to meld dance and pop music with American-style country and folk. The members of Rednex wore the vestments of the imaginary American hillbilly stereotype, and may or may not have actually produced the sounds that appear on their albums. (It’s easy to find videos of Rednex holding musical instruments, but rare to find one in which they seem to be actually playing them, or displaying even the slightest familiarity with the rudiments of doing so.) “Cotton-Eye Joe”—they dropped the “D,” an alteration of which I enthusiastically approve—was their first release and biggest hit, and the group has been capitalizing on its success ever since, re-recording, remixing, and re-releasing the song at irregular intervals.
     I say “the group” as though Rednex has enjoyed some kind of personnel consistency over the past two decades. They have not. The original lineup consisted of Mary Joe, Bobby Sue, Billy Ray, Ken Tacky, and Mup. The last known lineup consists of Rufus Jones, Misty Mae, Abby Hick, Sawtooth Sam*, and Spades. In the intervening years, the group has also seen contributions, some of them legally challenged by other members of the group, from BB Stiff, Whippy, Scarlet, Dagger, Joe Cagg, Jay Lee, Ace Ratclaw, Boneduster Crock, Snake, Maverick, and Dakotah. These are not their real names.
     It doesn’t matter. These people recorded dozens of songs across three albums, some of them hits in some parts of the world; or, to be more accurate, somebody or other produced three albums that some of these people maybe were involved in recording, or maybe not; and some combination of these people then promoted these albums during many waves of worldwide touring and promotion: but the important thing to understand is that Rednex is, for all intents and purposes, five scraggly-looking Swedes pretending to be American rural unsophisticates, lip-synching over and over to “Cotton-Eye Joe.” That’s their brand. They’re more concept than musical group. You might even call them a subculture.


How on earth did “Cotton-Eye Joe” become a worldwide smash hit? I’d never heard, or even heard of, Rednex’s version of the song until recently, when a woman I’d just begun dating mentioned it to me. Initial emotional negotiations between us had included the question of dancing: is it a thing we did? Were we any good at it? Would we attempt to undertake it, if called upon to do so? The answer was no, with an asterisk: “I don’t dance,” she told me sternly, “except the ‘Cotton-Eye Joe’.”
     The Cotton-Eye Joe is a dance designed, apparently, to accompany “Cotton-Eye Joe,” not just the Rednex version of the song, but all that came before it. It is, my girlfriend explained, a staple of Orthodox Jewish bat mitzvahs. Really? I asked, incredulous.
     As it turns out, the Cotton-Eye Joe dance is a staple of approximately everything. It isn’t just one dance, in fact; it’s a variety of them, elaborations on a 150-year-old clog dance that draw from a pool of simple moves, in much the way that Rednex is a musical group that draws from a pool of ridiculously-named artificial hillbillies. It can involve toe-taps and heel-taps, shoe-touches and sidesteps, grapevines and handclaps and knee bends. YouTube videos reveal variations that involve high kicks, hip shimmies, hat tips, full-body spins, and marching in place. There are line-dance versions and partner-dance versions. Variations on the Cotton-Eye Joe are performed by cheerleading squads, dance-competition preteens, seventh-inning stretchers, bedroom soliloquists, and newlyweds, and a great variety of old cartoons have been re-cut to appear purpose-made as accompaniments to the song.
     In all the versions I bothered to listen to, “Cotton-Eye(d) Joe” is narrated by a man whose woman has been stolen by the titular character, a gawky stranger with inexplicable powers of sexual attraction. The oldest known versions of the song have a rather self-pitying air; one complains that “I’d’a been married forty year ago” if it hadn’t been for this cross-eyed stranger. Forty years! The Rednex version dispenses with the emasculating lament; its speaker does admit that he woulda been married “a long time ago,” but ascribes to Cotton-Eye Joe abilities both supernatural and sinister. “He brought disaster wherever he went,” we are told, and also that, in a staggering syntactical anomaly, “The hearts of the girls was to hell, broken, sent.”
     Is Rednex’s rendition of the song any good? Honestly, it’s really not. It’s repetitive, of course, as all versions are, but it’s also mechanical, sonically underelaborated, and incompetently sung. The official video of the song’s original release is frantic and stupid, consisting entirely of a dramatized and stylized live performance of the song in a barn that’s been converted to a rave space. (When the group re-recorded and re-released the song eight years later, they produced a new video too, for some reason recreating the original one in a sort of post-apocalyptic, Madmaxian fight cage where motorcycles roar through the audience and everybody sings into dangling light bulbs.) Rednex is merely the latest installment in a long, shameful tradition of mocking poor, rural Americans, and even if you like that kind of thing, it was done much more amusingly by Looney Tunes and Red Ingle more than half a century ago. The cover of the first Rednex album features a cowboy pissing into a chamberpot brimming with bright yellow urine (not just his, one has to imagine), in which the band members’ disembodied heads ghostily bob.
     But that’s all beside the point. “Cotton-Eye Joe” doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be played on the radio, either, or watched on YouTube. You just have to dance to it. It’s on every wedding deejay’s laptop, and couples all across the class spectrum demand it.
     And so, on a gray winter afternoon not long ago, my girlfriend offered to teach it to me. We moved the coffee table out of the way, and I plugged my phone into the stereo. “Would you like a shot of tequila?” she inquired, then prepared a couple of generous draughts of Espolón Reposado, accompanied by some coarse kosher salt and fresh slices of lime. Five minutes later, suppressing nausea, I was tapping, spinning, clapping, and grapevineing to the shrill, wounded sentiments of Sweden’s most opportunistic cultural appropriators. It was kind of fun. After a while, we kept doing the Cotton-Eye Joe to other, much better, music. It turns out you can dance it to whatever.


Rednex’s “Cotton-Eye Joe” isn’t your workaday one-hit wonder. Nobody has ever sung along to it at work, or in their car. Indeed, I don’t think anyone sings along to it, for any reason. Even Rednex themselves probably don’t; they barely managed to sing it the first time. It is, let me reiterate, an empirically awful song with pathetic lyrics, expressing sentiments most people would be embarrassed to feel, let along admit to in song, all set against a backdrop of cheesy stuttering synthesizer and robotic electronic kick drum.
     But few other one-hit wonders have had the staying power of this miserable piece of cultural flotsam, and it’s because it’s easy to dance to it, and a lot of people have. Its popularity is propelled not by its musical value but by the vernacular tradition that adheres to it, that requires friends to teach dance moves to friends, that compels your sister to bare her midriff with a knotted pearlsnap shirt, or your grandpa to sweat through his rented tux. And YouTube has virtually guaranteed a platform for its future dissemination and elaboration upon.
     There’s a shot a few seconds into the original video for “Cotton-Eye Joe” that shows a woman dispassionately extracting a rat from her hair. The image is intended as a comic evocation of the hillbilly’s natural state of filth and dishevelment, but it also serves as an inadvertent metaphor for the song itself: “Cotton-Eye Joe” is the rat. You will never get it out of your hair. It is indestructible and everywhere on earth, and, for better or worse, will be reverberating through school gymnasiums, football stadiums, dance halls and barns long after every other one-hit wonder is dead and forgotten.



* I have to admit, I think Sawtooth Sam is a great stage name for a member of Rednex, as it references not only the rusted old implement and snaggly choppers one might naturally employ to lampoon agrarian poverty, but also the most prominent synthesizer waveform used in techno and dance music.


J. Robert Lennon is the author of two story collections, Pieces For The Left Hand and See You in Paradise, and eight novels, including Mailman, Familiar, and Broken River. He teaches writing at Cornell University.

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