(5) divinyls, "i touch myself" defeats (12) tal bachman, "she's so high" 151-60
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.
jennifer gravley on "i touch myself"
The opening crash of the cymbal, the thrumming, the build to more instrument, more sound, louder, louder, and then “I love myself,” Chrissy Amphlett says, and I believe her. Before Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” became a breast-cancer-awareness anthem, before Chrissy Amphlett’s too-early death, it was a one-hit wonder beyond what the 90s deserved.
At the time, I was in tenth grade. I had to fight my sister and my mother, who was always ready to settle any argument by tuning into the oldies station, for control over the car radio. We also had to engage in that delicate dance where everyone pretended that none of the pop songs on any of the stations were about sex. “I Touch Myself” made that game harder to play and, annoyingly enough, was a damn catchy tune.
Did I sing (badly) this song in the car with my younger sister and my mother? I’m pretty sure I did. After all, my mom’s station wagon was our family’s embodiment of that essential automotive space, good for uncomfortable conversations, where everyone staring at some different point outside the car facilitates the fiction that we’re not all sharing the same environment inside the car. A few years earlier, my mom had told me about sex in the car. Actually, she asked if I knew what sex was, and I said yes. (In the fifth grade, some girls laughed as one pushed a finger into a circle she had formed with the fingers of her other hand. I laughed too. They asked me if I knew what that was, and I lied. This exchange happened about four or five times, and then finally they told me it was sex.) This knowledge, however, did not spare me my mother’s one-sentence explanation. Staring even more firmly out the window, I deemed the entire enterprise “gross.” So yes, I’m pretty sure there must’ve been times when I sat in the front seat and sang along, lowering my voice to a mumble at that most obviously dirty line, as if I couldn’t understand what she was saying, as if no one else could either.
What “I Touch Myself” has over other masturbation songs is that it’s not just about pleasure—it’s also about longing or at least pretends to be. It’s implied that if the object of affection were to return said affection, the touching would move in an entirely different direction. As love songs go, it takes on both infatuation and desire at an oblique angle. We do get to know a little about personality (assuming that that would have at least some effect on this relationship): the intended makes the speaker laugh and “shine.”
We know that even a fool could see how much she adores him. How much of high school is bound up in that sentence? Everyone knows just how much everyone adores everyone. Sometimes the intended knows as well, resulting in outright cruelty or the slower and more painful cruelty of a continuing friendship with only friendship benefits.
On Christmas Day, 1990, I wrote in my five-year diary: I hope something happens in ’91. George would be nice. I wrote in this diary a handful of times, all in 1990. Many of the entries simply note George sightings. I wore my black shirt & tights & checked skirt. I saw George going to 6th. or I saw George going to 3rd. I was coming from lower to middle & he was coming from upper to middle. We were walking next to each other, but I let him in front of me because I didn’t want to walk in front of him. A two-part saga details him asking to borrow twenty-five cents from someone else on a Friday, me lending him a dollar, him paying me back on Monday, and me using his dollar to buy lunch. A particularly detailed day recounts him asking to eat my fish nuggets, confessing that he might not eat them himself, and then asking for my catsoup [sic]. I wrote, I let him have it.
In “I Touch Myself,” the power of the intended over the speaker is a bit larger than that George had over me and my fish nuggets. When she thinks of him, she masturbates. One has to imagine that she’s thinking about him a lot, so we have to accept that there’s a lot touching of herself going on. The repetition of these frank words reinforces that, mimics the action, so to speak, though perhaps with a lack of variation that can be thought of as more replicative of male masturbation.
Some lines are clear teen-bait but sound insincere in the mouth of Amphlett. In adolescent fashion, she declares that no one else will do. Dude, I’ll just be here masturbating until the end of time if you don’t love me back—which only seems realistic when you have never paid for your own car insurance. Similarly, perhaps the strangest lines are the “I honestly do”s. Object of my affection, I’m not exaggerating! I’m not speaking metaphorically here! Dude, for real, I’m touching myself!
However, despite being explicitly about female masturbation, the song doesn’t feel dirty. It feels like a celebration—a longing, sure, but one tempered by power. Chrissy Amphlett doesn't sing “I Touch Myself” like the kind of loser high schooler with a crush I was. She was a full-grown woman. Garnering the affection of her intended would be a nice mix-in, but she has the frozen yogurt already, and it’s good.
I didn't grow up with cable television. I’ve now seen the video on YouTube, but in the tenth grade, all I had was the song. And since I know nothing about music and can’t clap to a beat, mostly all I had was the words, the words and Amphlett’s voice. Her throaty voice is at times a put-on, at times a roar—at all times nothing I was capable of reproducing. In 1991, I had never had a boyfriend, never seen pornography. I didn’t really know what a woman touching herself would entail. I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. For me, all of that would come later.
Despite my Christmas wish, the only thing that happened in 1991 was that I stole a picture of George. As a small-scale fundraiser, my high school’s annual staff would sell the photo proofs at a table in the gym on annual-distribution day. People would buy their boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s, presumably the color version distributed earlier in the year not being proof enough of young love. I was sitting on the bleachers with my friend Tammy when she suggested a joint venture into petty crime. Since it would’ve been taboo and world-ending to purchase the photo of someone you weren’t going with, we would pretend to browse and just take the photos of our crushes. She would steal mine, and I would steal hers. In the end, there was nothing I could really do with the torn black-and-white photo once I had it (and obviously, it was the same photo that appeared inside the annual) so my blood-pumping foray into scandalous immorality resulted in nothing more illicit than stuffing George and his fledgling mustache into my little-used diary, where he has resided now for a quarter of a century.
It’s hard to imagine a situation in which the object of Chrissy Amphlett’s affection wouldn’t be charmed by this ditty. She doesn’t beg for him to create something for her; the song is an invitation to join something already built. There’s a love fest going on, and who wouldn’t want in on that? All these years later, Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” offers us the best of one-hit wondership: an anthem for the more powerful versions of our youthful selves that never existed, an inexhaustible repeat performance of defiant self-ownership.
Jennifer Gravley is a writer of sentences, a watcher of bad television, and a reference and instruction librarian.
thomas mira y lopez on "she's so high"
In the fall of 2015, I was teaching a creative writing class at a college in upstate New York when Ryan Adams released his song-for-song cover of the Taylor Swift album 1989. One Sunday, driving back from a weekend trip and listening to the album, I thought I’d have my class write their own covers of a piece of writing. I printed out James Wright’s “May Morning” the next day and asked students to first map out sentence structure, then parts of speech and finally the number of syllables in each word (meter being above my pay grade). Afterwards, they were to write, as best they could, a word-for-word replica. The winner would receive a candy bar. I advertised the assignment as fun and carefree, a welcome break from the semester. I called it “The Ryan Adams Cover.”
That same morning, news spread that two freshmen, a young man and woman, had died in a plane crash the previous afternoon. They flew in a single-engine plane; the woman, I believe, was the pilot. Both came from a town near Greenwich, Connecticut, and the dark thought passed through my mind that this death was both tragic and privileged. The plane crashed around the same time I was driving back through the fields and dairy farms outside the town; I tried to remember whether I had seen one fly overhead. The community grieved and a candlelight vigil was held the next night. I did not attend. My absence meant it would only be weeks later—after I had bought candy bars for everyone in the class but awarded a special Snickers to a student nicknamed Abba for his use of the word tarantella; after the students’ remains were transported and possibly flown back to Connecticut to be buried or cremated—that I would find out the male student who died was named Ryan Adams himself and that the assignment I had thought up, quite possibly in the last hour this Ryan Adams was alive, must have seemed to my students a bizarre tribute or, worse, a bad joke. Too soon, as they say. And too late. For while I felt very guilty over what had happened, however accidental, too much time had passed by the moment I learned of my mistake that any mention of it to my class proved awkward and unfeasible.
I feel somewhat similarly about the 1990s: we want the decade to have meant something lighthearted and fun, but, really, once we realize it was just kind of shitty, it’s too late to go back and fix our mistake.
I grew up during 90s but I didn’t pay attention to it, least of all its songs. Its music is supermarket music. Time has not made me grow fonder. The current nostalgia for the decade that gives rise to sentimental, themed dance parties seems not only a failure of the imagination, but a butchery of it. Why, when we were young enough to be enjoying everything the cultural moment of the aughts had to offer, would people celebrate and rue what had just passed? Shouldn’t we demand a grace period before nostalgia for a decade kicks in—say, 30 years at least? What did we think our lives were missing?
But more than any distaste or repulsion, the 90s just don’t interest me. I played some POGS, sure, but overall the decade was a blank space, if you allow me to keep going with the Taylor Swift thing. The names in this bracket are names out of a hat. To this day, it gives me some pride to know I’ve never listened to the Smashing Pumpkins.
Still I’m here to say, however, that I do enjoy Tal Bachman’s “She’s So High”, which is, after all, the very 90s song I’ve chosen for Fadness. Not only do I enjoy the song but, to quote a movie of its time, it “makes me want to be a better man.” I am here to confess what I have learned too late: that, within me, there is a certain vulnerability to 90s cheese. I hope you understand this doesn’t come lightly.
When I say I enjoy the song, I’m not talking about my love for it when “She’s So High” was released in 1999 and made it to Billboard’s #1 for Adult Top 40, nor am I talking about any memories I have of eating afternoon cereal and watching Carson Daly on MTV. I’m talking about when I first heard it a few weeks ago, after plucking it from a dwindling list of one-hit wonders because I thought it would be a song about drugs and those songs—because they’re a joke we’re all in on—are always the best songs.
“She’s So High” is not about drugs. But you already knew that, if you’ve listened. Still, it’s a good song, or at least it’s a catchy song, which isn’t always the same thing. What’s the famous line about Billy Joel? He’s catchy, but so is the flu?
But there’s more to it than that. Listen. The drums have that 90s sound of being made out of cardboard. The rhythm never finds a downbeat it doesn’t like. There’s a little Kinks and early Who vibe going on, especially when Bachman over enunciates to try and sound British. In the music video, which involves tightrope walking and Bachman julieting off fire escapes, Italian model Yvonne Scio wears a costume meant to resemble, as best I can tell, a hooded peregrine falcon. Shouldn’t we feel some pangs of sympathy for this song, for its awkwardness and goofiness, knowing it was one of the last to be picked? And what of the faint whiff of Bachman Turner Overdrive that permeates throughout? Doesn’t this biographical tidbit matter—that Tal Bachman is the son of such finely aged cheese as Randy Bachman? Do we dock him points here for nepotism, the way we maybe do for Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers, or do we extend clemency for his escaping the orbit of an epic cornball?
Or maybe there’s less than that. I can already hear my dreaded workshop voice saying the lyrics are confused as to what they want to be about. I challenge you to find a better mixed metaphor in the field than Bachman’s chorus: “She so high, like Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, or Aphrodite.” Or a better failed metaphor than “She’s touch, smell, sight, taste, and sound.” Do those senses belong to the subject or the singer?
Bachman evokes an elevated yet static feminine ideal: part-seductress, part-carnal goddess, and part-Christian anarchist saint (I mean, imagine Joan of Arc and Aphrodite making small talk). In doing so, he swaps out artificiality and replaces it with fantasy: “She’s blood, flesh and bone/ No tucks or silicone.” And, sure, who among us hasn’t placed someone on a pedestal or considered them out of our league? But if internet memes are true, “She’s So High” works as an ode to another tragic, privileged figure: I imagine it sung in ultimate praise of Melania Trump. That’s in part why I find the song so appealing, so epitomic of the 1990s. In nostalgia and exaltation, Bachman takes what could be real and makes it unreal, and though he might have his heart in the right place—like naming an assignment after someone who has just died; or like beginning a testament to a song titled “She’s So High” with the anecdote of a woman who died in a plane crash—he’s really just doing something shitty.
Thomas Mira y Lopez lives and teaches in Athens, Ohio. His first book, Monument Valley, will be published by Counterpoint Press in the fall.