(6) omc, "how bizarre" DEFEATS (11) marc cohn, "walking in memphis" 130-129
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 3/3.
justin st. germain on "how bizarre"
The other day, I went to the National Gallery for the first time. I don’t know anything about art. I come from poor people who didn’t have the money or time for it, and I went to schools that didn’t teach it much, where I also didn’t seek it out. But I like to look at art, and have stumbled into seeing a lot of it: on one list of the top art museums in the world, I’d been to eight of ten.
It’s a strange thing, to have seen so much art as an ignorant. It makes you wonder about aesthetics. The hired guides walking groups around the gallery seemed to evaluate art mostly by context: historical movements, influences, contemporaries, career stages. Some talked more about technique, composition, and color. I mostly just like to stare at it for a while, and see if I can see the genius. Some are obvious: the big Pollock, the O’Keefes. Others seemed more esoteric; I was the only one spending much time with George Bellows.
I don’t know anything about music, either. Can’t play an instrument or sing a lick, and am often told I have bad taste. But I listen to a lot of it, and that’s all you really need to formulate some aesthetics for pop, especially the songs in this tournament; Warhol and Lichtenstein might have wound up in the National Gallery, but “Walking in Memphis” sure as hell won’t.
A good way to evaluate a one-hit wonder is by how well it defines a moment. Quick: what does “How Bizarre” remind you of? Whatever you just remembered happened twenty years ago this summer, when the song played half a million times on the radio, the biggest reach platform in the US. It had already been a worldwide hit for a year by then, which means, for a few weeks in July and August of 1997, it was possibly the most-heard song in the world. If you were alive and sentient then, you remember doing something while “How Bizarre” played in the background. I’ve asked a few people my age, and it reminded them of what teenagers do while listening to the radio: working shitty jobs, riding in cars, drugs.
For me it’s the former. I turned sixteen that July, procured a pickup truck, and had to figure out a way to pay for gas. A family friend owned a restaurant in my hometown. The friend, whom I’ll call Rick, was a froglike guy with a bullhorn voice who drank Tanqueray for lunch and imported furniture from Mexico. Employees figured the restaurant was a drug front, which seemed like the only explanation for a place staffed by bunch as motley as we, ex-cons and dropouts and your correspondent, then a lanky sophomore virgin in JNCOs.
I had to work my way inside the restaurant; I started in the employee lot out back. Rick got a wild hair to grow the restaurant’s tomatoes himself, in an atavistic patch of crabgrass that had been a garden back when the restaurant had been a house. He needed someone to replace its dirt with soil from a garden across the street, behind a house whose owner Rick claimed to have permission from, but which sure seemed pretty vacant.
So I became a soil thief. I spent most of an Arizona summer in a hat and a bandanna, sunburnt and salty, scooping dirt, listening to a staticky pop radio station from Tucson on a boombox I’d stolen from the dishwashers. (Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” which was mercifully left out of March Fadness, still makes me want to stab myself with a shovel.)
I worked at that restaurant for about a year, a period more or less parallel to OMC’s abrupt success. When I think of that time now, I remember it in moments: my dismay at scraping pork into scrap buckets for Rick’s friend, the pig farmer; cooks chopping rails of crank on the lid of the employee toilet; hearing during a dinner rush that Princess Diana had just died, prompting months of Elton John; picking a cockroach out of the hot line and wondering if this was all just some story to tell later, or if it would be my life, like it was for some of the others. Those moments have a soundtrack, and “How Bizarre” is on it, right after the Spice Girls and Hanson, before Puff Daddy and Usher and “Return of the Mack.” (So is our second-round opponent, assuming any justice in this world, White Town’s “Your Woman.”)
Of those songs, “How Bizarre” defines that time the best, at least for me. Forget the video—we just don’t have time—and listen to the song itself. Acoustic guitar, a trumpet, an accordion, what might be a drum machine. A catchy hook, a few talk-sung verses, a duet chorus. It apes hip-hop, acoustic rock, and mariachi, at least, but can only properly be called a pop song. The lyrics don’t make sense, nobody involved seems talented, but it’s just so goddamned catchy. You can hear how it became the worldwide sound of a summer—why, if you were alive twenty years ago, you still know at least some of “How Bizarre” by heart.
If you prefer your one-hit wonders to have a story, this one’s a humdinger. There may have never been a less likely pop star than Pauly Fuemana, who pretty much comprised OMC. Pauly was twenty-five when he recorded “How Bizarre,” the son of a Maori mother and a father from Niue, which if it were a fully independent country would be the second smallest in the world. A former gang member raised by grandparents and the system, Pauly lived in a musical hinterland that prided itself on producing one of the guys from Crowded House, and he wasn’t much of a musician: he couldn’t play any instrument well or sing in tune consistently. He probably never wrote an entire song himself, and he danced like me, which is to say poorly, and primarily with his face and forearms.
Pauly started off as part of Otara Millionaires Club, the forerunner of OMC, a hip-hop outfit named ironically after the poor Auckland suburb it came from, known for carrying machetes onstage. The band made two songs before splitting up. On one of them, “We R the OMC,” you can hear Pauly before the industry got hold of him: brash and angry, all bluster and snarl, a wannabe Tupac of the South Pacific. His lone verse is hostile, insipid, and homophobic, and the song didn’t even chart in New Zealand. But it did intrigue the owner of a local nightclub where Pauly had worked as a doorman, who fronted him five grand for studio time. A year later, he released the most successful pop song in the history of his country.
Popularity is an admittedly poor metric for art, and “How Bizarre” wasn’t released as a single in the US, making its success harder to gauge. But OMC’s only album sold roughly as many copies here as Beyonce’s Lemonade. The song hit #1 in five countries, including America, becoming the first song from New Zealand ever to do so. “How Bizarre” was such a phenomenon in its homeland that the ministry of history devotes a website page to it. (The city of Memphis doesn’t even have a page for “Walking in Memphis”; I checked.)
We all know what’s coming, so I’ll skip ahead. If you have three minutes, you can hear Pauly’s career end. Go find OMC’s last major-label song, “I Love L.A.,” recorded that same summer of 1997, while “How Bizarre” was climbing the American charts. By then, Pauly was rich and fame-drunk and rootless, obsessed with becoming a rock star, even though the dental surgery he’d had to fix his teeth had ruined his trademark choked-off voice. OMC needed a second American single, and his label didn’t like any of the album’s other tracks. For some mystifying reason, they asked Pauly to cover a song about loving a city he’d never even seen until the year before. It gets worse. The song was for a soundtrack; the movie was Bean. And they didn’t use it—the original plays instead. That’s right: OMC’s last single was so bad it got cut from the Mr. Bean movie and replaced by Randy Newman.
Pauly’s attempts at another hit—including sessions with White Town, where they spent their studio time smoking weed—failed, and Polygram dropped him after he assaulted one of its employees. He returned to Auckland and sank into debt. His reunion with the producer of “How Bizarre” was a disaster. (At one point, Pauly thought his next hit would be a song called “Planet Phat,” in which he called an overweight lover “my hippopotamus.”)
OMC released one more song, a duet with fellow Kiwi Lucy Lawless—aka Xena the Warrior Princess—called “4 All of Us.” A treacly ballad about unity, it was a one-off single for a human rights charity; Pauly, dead broke by then, still did the song for free. The accompanying video, in which he gauntly whispers lyrics about leaving, prompted concerns about his health. His behavior grew erratic, he fell out of touch with friends, and in 2010 the news broke: Pauly Fuemana had died at 40 of a rare neurological disease.
So OMC wins on popularity and pathos. But maybe the best measure of art is how it ages. So, if you’re still debating how to vote, I’ll leave you with this: “How Bizarre” begins with a cop pulling over a car full of dark-skinned people who’ve done nothing wrong, followed by an incoherent circus which prominently involves the press and military, until soon everyone wants to escape. The rest of the song repeats a chorus in which an unspeakable evil makes the singer insane. Every time I look around, it’s in my face.
Twenty years after its release, can you imagine a song more relevant now?
(Note: much of the information here is from a book by Simon Grigg, How Bizarre: Pauly Fuemana and the Song that Stormed the World. There’s a book called Walking in Memphis, too; it contains 16 walking tours of Memphis.)
Justin St. Germain is the author of the memoir Son of a Gun. His essays have recently appeared in Barrelhouse and Territory, and are forthcoming in DIAGRAM and Tin House. He grew up in Tombstone, Arizona, and now lives in Oregon.
lisa m. o'neill on "walking in memphis": Earnestness or Do I Really Feel the Way I Feel?
I have always been attracted to the earnest. Children’s trembling voices as they recite their lines in the school play. Weeds and daisies piercing pavement. Blurted professions of love—especially uttered by those who likely don’t have a chance with the object of their affection. The striving, the yearning, the refusal to kowtow in the face of potential failure, the trying too hard. To be earnest is to risk the saccharine in pursuit of the sweet, to bellow when others may deem you too loud or too much. And one of the most earnest songs I’ve ever heard is Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis.”
I was 11 going on 45 when the song first came out. I loved Paula Abdul as much as the next early ‘90s tween but my black boombox spent most of its time tuned to the Adult Contemporary station. Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart, and Sting rasped out their argument of all for one and one for love. Bonnie Raitt crooned about how you can’t make your heart feel something it won’t. Whitney Houston told me the children were our future and I believed her. No, that’s not right. I knew in my bones that what she said was true: learning to love yourself was the greatest love of all. Their words and voices permeated and I belted along as if I knew what it meant to be ignited by love or struck down with the grief of betrayal.
I excelled at falling in love with hit singles and buying the entire cassette when these songs spoke to me. That’s how I ended up with stacks of Pebbles and Taylor Dayne. I remember the crestfallen feeling after shelling out carefully-counted allowance money only to discover that “The Living Years” was the only good song on Mike & The Mechanics album of the same name.
That song, like “Walking in Memphis” is a tale of middle-aged reckoning and spiritual awakening: “Say it loud/Say it clear/You can listen as well as you hear/It’s too late (it’s too late)/When we die (oh, when we die)/to admit we don’t see eye to eye.”
Before I broke into my teenage years, I was already nostalgic for the life I had yet to lead. I worried I wouldn’t ever do the things I wanted, that I wouldn’t tell the people in my life I loved them before it was too late (never mind that I didn’t know who most of these people were yet). These songs provided for me a container for the deep-seated fear that life was not, in fact, all it was cracked up to be and that grown-ups were as clueless as us kids.
Despite my love of these earnest songs, I was also embarrassed. I understood that to be earnest was to be exposed, to risk being seen as deeply uncool. Your desire and need laid bare.
“Walking in Memphis” is a journey. The song begins: a pounding arpeggio on the keys. We put our blue suede shoes on. We board the plane. We touch down in the town of the Delta blues in the middle of the pouring rain. The song satisfies in the unique way only narrative songs can because we accompany the singer through the journey: we walk down these physical and psychic streets, we reach the bridge, we circle back to where we came from, with new discoveries lingering in the final notes.
“Walking in Memphis” is entirely autobiographical, based on a trip Cohn took to Memphis when he felt stuck and worried about the trajectory of his career. In an interview with Keyboard magazine, he said, “One night while listening to all of my demos, I came to the realization that I shouldn’t be signed, because I didn’t have any great songs yet. My voice was good and the demos were interesting, but the songs were only just okay. I was 28 years old and not in love with my songs. James Taylor had written ‘Fire and Rain’ when he was 18, and Jackson Browne wrote ‘These Days’ when he was only 17. I thought, ‘I’m already ten years older than these geniuses. It’s never going to happen for me.’”
“It was a pretty desperate time” when he booked his flight to Tennessee—inspired to do so after reading an interview with James Taylor who said when he was blocked, he went somewhere new.
In his formative years, Cohn devoured music and Memphis was home to some of the artists who most inspired him: Ann Peebles, Al Green, plus the rest of the Hi Records’ soul singers and Elvis, Isaac Hayes, and the rest of the Stax catalogue. “[There was] an almost endless stream of brilliance and soul that came out of Memphis. I was aware early on that just like Detroit and the music of Motown, there was something going on in Memphis that was utterly inexplicable,” he said. “It was part of what made me want to be a musician in the first place.”
Most of the video—shot in black and white—features Cohn singing while looking pensively into the distance, sitting and playing piano, or traipsing around recognizable sites in Memphis: the W.C. Handy statue, the quarter-noted gates of Graceland, Sun Studios, a bridge on the riverwalk. In one shot, superimposed over his face is the riverboat The Memphis Queen. He is a tourist: nostalgic, looking for meaning, walking us through the places we have been or places we would go.
On the recommendation of a friend, Cohn went to see the Reverend Al Green and his Full Gospel Tabernacle Choir. As he sat in the pew and listened to Green preach and sing and preach and sing, he witnessed how the Reverend’s voice strengthened, as if gaining power, as the sermon continued. Cohn began to cry. Not impatient tears like in his childhood synagogue days in Cleveland when he couldn’t wait to leave. No, instead, this would go down in memory as one of the best experiences of his life.
Then Cohn drove south 35 miles to Robinsville, Mississippi to the Hollywood Café where Muriel Davis Wilkins played. In the Keyboard interview, he said, “The Hollywood Café had supposedly once been a slave commissary, but it was now a lovely little restaurant that served fried pickles and catfish. Muriel was a schoolteacher [in her sixties] who on weekends made extra money playing music.” She played old gospel standards like “The Glory of Love” and “Nearer my God to Thee.” Some patrons listened but most talked and ate their supper. He says, “I felt an immediate connection to her voice, her spirit, her face, and her smile. I was totally transfixed by her music.”
His rendering of that time is my favorite verse in the song: “They brought me down to see her/They asked me if I would/Do a little number/And I sang with all my might/She said, ‘Tell me, are you a Christian child?’/and I said, ‘Ma’am I am tonight.’”
I’ve been thinking so much about these lines and why they beg to be sung too loudly in your car or at karaoke. It’s not just because they are the climax of the song. Something else is at work here. “All our might” speaks to a vulnerability placed solidly in the realm of childhood. I see a little girl in patent leather shoes with hands clenched tight at her sides so that she gets one more ounce of volume. Only every so often as adults do we experience—do we allow ourselves to experience—what this earnestness feels like. When we free ourselves from posturing as experts. Every single one of us knows what it is to sing with all our might. Belting out the notes. Holding nothing back. Pouring every iota of ourselves into the song. All that striving.
Right after this verse, the gospel choir joins him on the chorus. When I heard the song for the first time in a long while, I was both startled by the memory of their presence and remembered the power of their voices as a big part of why I love the song. The voices in solidarity, the blatant spirituality of living, the reaching up and out, the unwillingness to be grounded by our petty fears and insecurities, or the tragic histories of this land. The song itself a working through.
My therapist told me that the songs that resonated with us at age 10 or 11 are “soul songs.” She was referencing the work of folklorist and anthropologist Angeles Arrien. In her book the The Four-Fold Way, Arrien talks about soul retrieval, the need to reconnect with core parts of ourselves to reawaken the visionary, healer, teacher, and warrior within us. We do this by remembering who we were before we could fully control or censor our desires, before we knew to be ashamed. She asks: What songs from childhood stay with me? Between the ages four and twelve, what activities captivated me for hours without the need of anyone else around?
I grew up in the Mississippi Delta where this song is situated. Music was my communion. Listening to the song, I see the crescent of the muddy river winding through, oak trees dripping with moss, men frying catfish in back kitchens, families gathered at the park for picnics, singers in old piano bars, their voices soaking into the wood siding. I hear the breathy song of riverboat calliopes. At 11, the time I first heard this song, my feet were too big for my body, my best friend left me behind for a new best friend, my parents sat me down in our yellow living room and told me they were separating, I switched to a new school. At 11, I presented a Social Studies project focused on deltas and the mouth of the river. I learned the word silt: fine sand or clay carried by running water before being deposited, settled back down.
In my early to mid-twenties, I was a music writer and reviewer in my hometown of New Orleans, covering local and national musicians. I loved interviewing them to get insights into process and artistic vision. In green rooms and living rooms, they gesticulated wildly or curled themselves into the corners of couches. They broke randomly into song or pulled guitars onto their laps and began to explain how a song came into being. Seeing how their selves unfolded into the music onstage or streaming through the radio ignited my curiosity and expanded my understanding. But I hated doing reviews.
To dissect, divide, and discuss someone else’s creation was a responsibility I did not want. Not only did I believe that not all music was made for me, I resisted the idea that because I sang and played instruments, because I had a somewhat trained ear, I should be an authority on another person’s creative work.
More than that, I had written songs and I knew what it meant to sit with a string of words or an empty page, a riff or a chord progression and try to seam those bits into something that felt true. Who was I to say that if someone wrote a song that didn’t resonate with me that that song wasn’t resonant? Who was I to use my words to break apart something someone had tirelessly woven together? Whatever the flaws or shortcomings, doing this to someone’s work felt like a deed of disregard, an act of unmaking, a stridency in the face of what was, ultimately, an offering.
In the bridge of the song, Cohn sings “when you haven’t got a prayer” and his voice flips. That gesture was something I wanted to do before I even understood it was there. The sudden change in register, on purpose, that suspends us for a second and makes the emotion real.
His voice settles for the next line: “Boy, you’ve got a prayer in Memphis.”
One definition of earnest is: “resulting from or showing sincere and intense conviction.” Another is “a thing intended or regarded as a sign or promise of what’s to come.”
Cohn worried about including Elvis in the song at all. Although how do you write a song about Memphis without mentioning the King? Still, one tribute to Elvis’ legacy, Cohn has said, is if you include him in a song, the song becomes about him. Such was his power and influence.
Elvis grew up in Mississippi, singing gospel music and although he is often credited for his blend of gospel, blues, country, and rock, his songs are threaded through with the clear influence and inspiration of black musicians in the South who revolutionized that sound: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, Big Boy Crudup. Southern roots of colonialism and slavery continue in the erasure of the work of black artists. What happened in Memphis wasn’t “utterly inexplicable” as Cohn once noted of music coming out of Memphis and Detroit, but the result of generations of musical experimentation and emotional ancestry, in large part led by African-American culture bearers from the South. Elvis was not the only royalty, not the only King.
In “Walking in Memphis,” Cohn sees the ghost of the Elvis, watches him walk through the gates of Graceland: “security didn’t see him/they just hovered round his tomb.” I was born two years after he died and Elvis’ death was the first exposure I had to celebrity rumors and conspiracy theories. Elvis Lives. Is the King really alive? A willful suspension of disbelief for someone whose music resonated with so many, for someone who maintained, even as a grown man, a wistful air about him; a childlike insistence; blatant, unapologetic desire.
On August 16, 1977, Elvis died of heart failure from a suspected overdose. He was 42.
On August 8, 2005, when he was 44, Marc Cohn was leaving a concert in Denver in with his bandmates and manager, who was driving the tour van, when he saw a man running towards them. His first thought was: I wonder who he is running from. Then he saw the gun.
Cohn yelled “Duck.” The sound of a shot firing and breaking glass. A solitary bullet grazed the driver before lodging in Cohn’s temple.
"I touched myself and there was blood all over my hands and my clothes. And I realized I was the one who'd been hit. Every second that passed by I thought that's the last one, that's the last second I'll be here," Cohn said when interviewed by 20/20 two weeks after the failed carjacking.
He was conscious during the entire shooting and aftermath, including when they removed the bullet from his skull.
The surgeon who treated Cohn said the bullet struck his skull without the velocity to fracture it but just enough to stop the bullet. Another centimeter or two and it would have hit his brain.
When he looked at the X-Ray, Cohn said, “"It was a terrifying moment and a moment of sheer relief. And release. I mean, I saw that there was exactly enough room in the soft tissue between the outside of my face and the beginning of my skull, there was just enough room to hold that bullet.”
He spent only one day in the hospital, and writing songs became part of his recovery, a way to write into and out of what he was feeling. He said in an interview with the Denver Post a couple of years later: “‘Five or six weeks after this happened, these songs sort of just came out. I had bad writer’s block for a while. And even the songs that have nothing to do with what happened, there was a clearing made by this event, and that’s another part of it that I can’t explain or understand.’ All of a sudden, ‘I could write.’”
Many people reference the line where Muriel asks him: “Are you a Christian child?” and his reply: “Ma’am I am tonight” and ask if the song is about being reborn. In interviews, Cohn talks about this: saying he is Jewish and that only a Jew could write that line. But to me, that line: “Ma’am, I am tonight” isn’t about Christianity or Christ or being saved by some other holy being or even about irony. That line isn’t about grace that comes from a higher power with a name. That line to me is about ecstatic offering, about might. That line is ushered into being by the gospel singers that follow after and by this basic truth: to live, to offer, to simply move through the world is an act of faith.
Some of the most joyful moments of my life have been singing in church. And even though I’m not a believer in the way I was as a child, I still feel a pulsing charge flood through my body when I hear gospel singers sing. When their voices carry up over the rafters, I feel the duende Lorca spoke about: sound both of and not of them, rising up out of the ground through their feet, their legs, their torso, their arms and neck, and ushered out of their open mouths and to our ears.
Even when their voices are imperfect, even when they go off key, even—and especially—when they falter, I feel a deep gratitude. I actually love when a singer’s voice cracks. I like music that reminds me of the humanity of those singing. I like music that reminds me of my own. I like music that reminds me that I am alive and breathing and that sometimes my breath carries and other times it just catches in my throat.
When Marc visited the Hollywood, Muriel asked why he was there. In between sets, he told her he was a songwriter looking for inspiration. He confided, too, that he had written profusely—in journals and songs—about his mother. She died suddenly when he was two and a half. The greatest heartbreak of his life so young. A decade later, his father followed. His stepmother raised him. I felt stuck in time, like I’d never quite been able to work through that loss. At the end of the night, she invited him onto the stage.
When Marc sang with Muriel, they didn’t know any songs in common. So Muriel played the weathered, upright piano and fed him lines from old gospel songs which he improvised melodies to. The last song they sang together that night was “Amazing Grace”: “I once was lost/but now I’m found/was blind but now I see.” When they finished the song, Muriel leaned over to him, whispered in his ear, told him: Child, you can let go now.
Lisa M. O'Neill is a writer, teacher, and creativity usher born and bred in New Orleans and living in the desert. Her work has appeared in Diagram, defunct, drunken boat, Salon, GOOD, Good Housekeeping, Bustle, The Feminist Wire, Edible Baja Arizona, among others. You can find her at lisamoneill.com or on twitter.