(5) deee-lite, "groove is in the heart"
(4) lou bega, "mambo no. 5"
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 3/16.
david legault on "mambo no. 5"
Here’s a sentence I didn’t think I’d ever be writing in 2017: I bought myself a ticket to a Lou Bega concert. I’ve recently moved to Prague for work, and the five hours on a train to Germany and the 40 Euros for an Air BNB seemed like a reasonable enough commitment to make in the name of Lou Bega—a pilgrimage to late-90’s nostalgia I could not have anticipated.
Here’s another sentence, perhaps more surprising still: When the concert is cancelled, I find myself devastated in a way I would not have believed possible. It sets off a week of other small disasters: my family’s illness brought on by unprecedented smog warnings that hang over the city for days; I fall hard on the sidewalk in a freak accident, breaking my elbow in a way that now requires surgery (meaning all of this is finger-pecked, meaning I hate the world and words and qwerty keyboards and I sincerely hope this doesn’t poison the love I otherwise feel for this song). That despite the insanity and turmoil of the year both politically and personally, this is the thing that totally breaks me—that has me up at two in the morning, unable to sleep, listening to Lou Bega deep cuts I find online including, preposterously, an entire album dedicated to 80’s covers called A Little Bit of 80’s. It seems that even as I look to "Mambo No. 5"—a song from the 90’s sampled off a song from the 50’s—there are still plenty of other opportunities for looking fondly backward.
And why shouldn’t Lou Bega have that sort of power? Why do I find my own sadness comical except to say that I’ve undervalued the emotional damage that the man could inflict? I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have led my life with an arrogance toward the thought of the “one hit wonder,” the pre-supposition that an artist (in this case musicians but all artists really) can be concentrated down to a single song. I’m hoping that this essay can serve as my apology: as my humble acknowledgment to the greater body of work, to the glory of Lou Bega forever and ever amen.
Which isn’t to say that "Mambo No. 5" isn’t his best work, because it clearly is. It fits into this impossible sweet spot of feeling distinctive to two separate eras: fitting somewhere into the bewildering swing/jazz revival of the late 90’s that included notable Fadness omission Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, (my first concert) Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Squirrel Nut Zippers. It also has the flat MIDI synthesizer lines that make it distinctly late 90’s pop. Duke Ellington fucked an episode of TRL and made something both timeless and incredibly of its time.
So what if it sounds a little dated? It doesn’t diminish its impact, its lasting influence. Weirdly, in the six months I’ve heard "Mambo No. 5" twice in the wild: first at the coffee shop on my street, and once again coming out of the open windows of a neighborhood pizzeria. Perhaps this has more to do with the bizarre music choices of European stores—hearing grunge rockers screaming “Fuck” in a Burger King, Alanis Morrisette B-sides in my local grocery store. I wouldn’t say its behind American aesthetics musically, but rather that there is less of an impulse to always reach for the newest thing, even when it comes to pop. Perhaps there’s a simpler explanation: Lou Bega is from nearby Germany and maybe holds regional appeal. Perhaps it’s simpler still: this song kicks ass.
And yet I was surprised to hear this song not once, but twice. I think this was my arrogance: to dismiss a career because I personally don’t hear this song in the car three times a day; because I’m no longer feeling awkward to its rhythm and “jump up jump down” directives at a high school dance; because I no longer feel the need to shout an imitative “Wah!” at my friends. It was this arrogance that led to me treating music as if it stopped existing once I stopped listening.
But this is not the case, not only for Bega but so many Wonders: The Venga Bus is still coming, and we are all still jumping. Aqua’s life in plastic is still fantastic. La Bouche still has sweet dreams of rhythm and dancing. It is still possible to hear a Live version of The Macarena. We are still asking the question: “Who Let The Dogs Out?”
And Lou Bega is still putting on pinstripes and fedoras. He still has the pencil thin mustache. He doesn’t do Twitter but has a Facebook profile. Almost twenty years and he seemingly hasn’t aged a day. He is married now: a little bit of Jenieva in his life; a daughter named Jada by his side. There are domestic pictures of sledding with his daughter that make me irrationally glad. A greatest hit album I would’ve thought preposterous until I listened to it this morning with unironic joy. Like the "Mambo No. 5" video, I am nothing but looks of bewilderment; but a series of eyebrow raises; but a knowing smile into a camera while history plays out behind me.
Let me put it another way: I am writing this essay in a small cabin in a rural corner of the Czech Republic. It is in a town whose name was not told to me; I simply got into a car with some friends and drove to stay with a lot of people I hardly know. My arm is in a cast up to my shoulder and I am wearing the only shirt I own that fits over it. Half the people here are from countries foreign to me: Honduras, Slovakia, Czechia. Though everyone here knows English, the language flits into native tongues often; I find about half the time I am oblivious to conversation. Normally I’d be hating all of this, but I have been given lots of bourbon and though my arm is useless I’m certain I could shoot lightning from my fingers If I wanted it just a little more than I currently do. And then we start to sing. Not just Lou Bega, but all our favorites as found on Spotify: TLC, Boys to Men, R Kelly and Sublime and 311 and No Doubt and I am telling you now that these songs are the first time I’ve felt like I’ve had friends in a long time. Don’t you dare tell me that these songs are disposable.
So feel that love and choose "Mambo No. 5" because one hit wonders are still a Wonder, still worthy of our praise. Do it for Lou Bega and his domestic bliss as seen in awkward dad Facebook photos. Do it for Angela, Pamela, Sandra, and Rita. Do it for the lightning coursing through my body. Do it for a love that cannot die.
David LeGault's book One Million Maniacs: Beanie Babies, Killer Cars, and the Power of Collecting, is forthcoming in June from Outpost 19. More work and information can be found at www.davidlegault.com
SUCCOTASH WISHES AND SIAMESE DREAMS: KAREN POJMANN ON "GROOVE IS IN THE HEART"
At the end of 1990, at a time when we imagined ourselves too independent for conventional family vacations, my sister, Wendy, and I traveled with our parents to San Diego. We wouldn’t have considered not going, of course; it was the coldest, grimmest, darkest part of winter, and we lived in the bleak American Midwest. Grasping a chance to visit sunny and progressive California was—to use a phrase that was then soaring in popularity and at which I already had begun to roll my eyes—a no-brainer.
Opinions differed, though, regarding what constituted a fun vacation. At 17, I held vague notions of “adventure,” a thing I craved insatiably and sought directionlessly, informed only partly by actual experience. Wendy, 20, went to college in Chicago and had an elevated, though unarticulated, relationship with excitement. I was wildly envious.
Our parents' idea of pleasurable travel, as far as we could discern, involved driving around in a large, comfortable rented vehicle and looking at stuff. Lovely scenery. Interesting architecture. The ocean. They did not share our interest in dusty thrift shops, dark night clubs or boys with mohawks. They did not want to linger in record stores or take in spoken-word performances. They chuckled at our appearance on the beach, in black tights and floppy hats, a Goths-in-Hot-Weather-blog scene materializing long before blogs were even a thing. Moreover, as a retired Army colonel and spouse, my parents were drawn to the perks and small luxuries officer status afforded them in various parts of America. So when traveling as a family, we found ourselves frequenting locales in polar opposition to the bastions of nonconformity we sought: military bases.
On a base in San Diego, shopping at the post exchange, Wendy and I searched the music department for something to distract us from the suburbanity of the van. Pickings were slim. We settled on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Mother’s Milk and, somehow, Deee-Lite's World Clique, both on cassette. Back in the van, we’d cycle through the Chili Peppers, our parents cringing and shifting the sound to the rear speakers, and then pop in Deee-Lite for the catchy "Groove is in the Heart."
Every time the song ended and the first few notes of the subsequent track, “Who Was That?,” sneaked into the airwaves, Wendy would huff in annoyance, stop the tape, rewind back to the one-hit wonder of which she had inexplicably grown fond, and play it again. It was odd behavior. She was the sort to mock people who knew only a band’s greatest hits, nearly always, knowingly, deeming an obscure B-side superior. Yet here we were. “Groove is in the Heart.” Over and over. Not even on “repeat” because it was a tape. The ritual began to infuriate me. Eventually, I was all, “Really? We can’t even give the next song a chance? What if this is a good album?” But her resolve was firm. “Groove” only.
The real question isn't why Wendy refused to hear World Clique in its entirety, to bask in its kitschy glory, but, rather, why we were listening to Deee-Lite at all. We were rebels. We eschewed the mainstream. And she, certainly, was not one to succumb to “catchy.” She ridiculed my bent toward alt-pop, my elevation of Morrissey over, say, Soundgarden. Moreover, at that particular moment at the start of a musically complicated decade, she stood on the precipice of definitive ‘90s musical innovation. She worked for Chicago’s Limited Potential Records and had become friends with the members of the band Smashing Pumpkins, among others. In fact, a scant five months from that day in the van, we would be in Chicago, on the eve of my high school graduation, bar-hopping with Billy Corgan and James Iha in the wee hours of a spring night/morning. Billy would be describing to me how he wanted their first music video to reflect “not so much the progression of the song as the intensity” and I’d be naively dismissive of yet another pretentious garage-band-guitarist friend of my sister’s. A mere two weeks from that moment, the album Gish would be released and the American indie music scene would be turned on its head. Or notably affected, at least. And this newly famous band’s members would find themselves grilling burgers on the tiny back deck of Wendy’s Wrigleyville apartment. This is the level of cool my sister had attained in the early 1990s. So why the Deee-Lite fixation? What was, if I may borrow another phrase from the decade, the deal?
1990-91 was a time when grunge was evolving and “college rock” was enjoying a heyday. New sounds came in forms like Jane's Addiction and Nirvana. The original Lollapalooza was born. Emerging music was edgy and loud and dark. Often cathartic. But it was also a time when, conversely, people who had never experienced Flower Power firsthand suddenly became nostalgic for it. Claire's Boutique sold peace-symbol jewelry. College girls donned mini-skirts and braided headbands or combed secondhand shops for polyester bell bottoms. Volkswagens experienced a surge in popularity. In the absence of a Vietnam War or a draft, of real civil unrest or a civil rights movement, the colorfully Deee-Liteful trappings and adornments culled from the late '60s and early '70s offered solace. Balance. They provided an iridescent lightness to counteract grunge and rage rock. A groove. A happy place. Respite. We were not immune. In short, Deee-Lite’s funky tune had a good beat, and we could dance to it—though never in public.
Karen Pojmann is a university communications director and magazine editor in Columbia, Missouri. Her poetry has appeared in in Writers Digest, The Madison Review, Mom Egg Review and Interpretations. She co-directs a monthly arts and literature series in a local gallery.