(9) len, "steal my sunshine"
(8) amber, "this is your night"
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 3/9.
forever amber, forever night: ander monson on "this is your night"
It’s after midnight as I write this sentence in Tucson, a dark city, as amber neighborhood lights sparkle through the trees. The Fadness is well under way and I’m up still thinking about it, trying to figure out how “This Is Your Night” fits into it: what purpose it served. It feels right to be writing about Amber at night, and with any luck you’ll be reading this in darkness, the glow of your screen illuminating these words and your face. I want to know: Who are you now? Who did you want to be?
Amber’s best-known song (at least to US mainstream listeners) was one of her first, 1996’s “This Is Your Night.” It lands right in the center of the genre I’ve always referred to as “baby techno,” by which I mean Real McCoy, La Bouche, Technotronic, and the like. You’ll recognize the template immediately: driving synths that often sound borrowed from the last song, one of only a couple chord progressions. Usually we’ll find a beautiful female singer and some shadowy Germans providing beats and programming behind her, and about half the time the singer will be trading verses with a rapping guy with a tenuous command of English.
I think I’m the only one who uses the term “baby techno,” though. Usually it’s called Eurodance, since these acts were a whole lot less American than I’d imagined. I heard them in Detroit clubs and occasionally on MTV, so how was I to know that Snap! (“The Power,” “Rhythm is a Dancer”), Culture Beat (“Mr. Vain”), Real McCoy (“Another Night,” “Run Away”), and La Bouche (“Sweet Dreams,” “Be My Lover”) were all German, or that Black Box (“Everybody Everybody”) and Corona (“The Rhythm of the Night”) were Italian? They didn’t sound European, did they? Well, probably they did, and I just couldn’t tell. By this point I’d been nourished by a steady diet of synthesizer from Kraftwerk through New Order, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, and Depeche Mode: not a lick of it American. I had gravitated to the synth because it felt like a negation of what the radio contained: Foreigner, Journey, Ratt or Dokken. AC/DC if you were lucky.
Still, even a fool could tell that Rednex were not American given their obsession with Idaho and bluegrass (they’re Swedish, and drummed out of this tournament, sadly). But surely even the all-american seeming Technotronic—what could be more American than techno + tronic?—was Belgian. And so I had no idea that Amber was Dutch.
The night has its uses. During these years I moved from Michigan’s long snowy nights to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where all there was was inescapable day and sun and heat. There I got into the habit of denying where I lived and living at night instead to escape it all: the place, the day, my boring life, my sweating body. I’d stay up all night and dial into telephone and bulletin board systems back in the states, consuming an inexhaustible supply of Hot Pockets and Totino’s Party Pizzas while hacking. I’d settle into bed by 9am if I got to bed at all. Some days I barely saw the light. I have no idea what my father must have thought of this behavior.
A couple years went by. I listened to some more songs. I went to a boarding school in Michigan where I would get up to some trouble, as my friends would have told you then, trying on versions of myself—thespian! bassoonist! chamber chorist! chess club! physics nerd!—as if I was trying to open a door with a ring of keys I’d found on TYMNET, one of the predecessors to the Internet.
Many of the mes I was then were oriented around the night, whether it was sneaking off campus to go to shows at St. Andrews, a cavernous multi-level club in downtown Detroit, or polishing off a plate of popcorn shrimp at the Southfield Red Lobster then breaking into Michigan Bell company trucks to grab random hardware and whatever manuals I could find for later use. My hacker handle—the name anyone who knew me online knew me by—was a genius of subtlety: The Grim Reaper. (So I could wear this mask out in the daytime, I even got the initials TGR monogrammed on my Land’s End bag, an act that I later learned was substantially less goth than I’d imagined.) The Bulletin Board I ran out of a hollowed-out dresser in my dorm room was called, modestly, Datacrime International. Only rarely did I meet anyone in person who knew me online, which is probably for the best. Only rarely did I meet anyone who knew me, in retrospect, at all.
I know I don’t have to tell you about these former selves, unlike the contemporary young who can’t discard those selves, who will be surrounded by their ghosts on social media until they’re smothered by their crisscrossing trails. Or maybe the inescapability of all our teenage pasts online will eventually cancel each other’s out?
A few years ago I realized, as I caught myself in the car attempting to lay a La Bouche-style mid-song rap on whatever I was listening to, probably the National or something, that these 90s dance songs really got their hooks in me fiercely. I felt—I feel—imprinted: it’s a little disturbing how powerful it is, how quickly I start salivating when I hear the bell. I know it’s not good, but it’s okay, I say, today anyway. Whitney agrees, hollering at me from my CDs.
Amber’s not her real name, but it’s the one her listeners know her by. I hold it up to the light and turn it a little bit. Marie-Claire Cremers reportedly chose it because it occurred early in the alphabet so as to catch the CD buyers early in their obsessive browse for something new to fill them.
I discovered “This Is Your Night” not in CD stores but in Chicago clubs in 1996. Amber would have been twenty-seven then, just a few years older than me. I’d figured out enough to move on publicly from the baby techno leanings of my teenage years, but I still had my import CDs as proof of what I was at heart, and I’d play them late at night once my roommate went to sleep. I’d come to love Red House Painters, Swans, and Felt, but that’s not what I wanted to listen to when it got dark.
When I heard Amber, it came as a revelation and a reminder. Here was a singer, like my beloved-but-never-to-be-spoken-of-among-the-cool-music-nerds Laura Branigan (see also “Self-Control”), who articulated important truths about the darker hours.
In fact “This is Your Night” is a perfect exemplar of the escapist nighttime dancefloor anthem, the soundtrack to so many nights in which I closed my eyes and I believed—I really fucking believed! and in that belief was the possibility of it happening!—that something amazing could happen TONIGHT by virtue of my presence and my willingness to change.
This is your night
Dancing free until the morning light
Together forever 'cause, this is your night
And everything is gonna be alright
Well, let us all admit that no one is winning a Nobel for those lyrics. As in almost all these songs, the singers sing of the jam, the beat, the rhythm, the girl, the boy, the lover like no other, desire, love, sex, the freedom of the dance floor, the self-regard and considerable lyrical skills of the rapper (if there is a rapper). They tell us stories of the dream and of course the night, being the setting for dancing, which is the setting for transformation.
The night is where you listen to La Bouche or Real McCoy. It’s where you listen to Amber or read and wonder about her. The night is escape, where you lose control and become someone else—perhaps the you you always meant to be or were capable of becoming.
Still, the night is always passing, and when it passes, you’ll be alone—even if you’ve lost yourself to another song or another body or another way of being. Until, that is, you hear the beat again and the sun goes down.
Like the song plays its role to animate your body, the lyrics play their role in that animation: They’re the fuel-filled rocket stage that, having got its payload into orbit, can detach and fall back into the atmosphere and then the ocean and let the rest of the song float free and do its sexy bit to move your sexy bits.
And besides, I’ve always thought it an essential part of the best pop songs that they contain some lyrically irreducible mystery. As Archibald MacLeish told us in 1926, “[a pop song] should not mean / But be.” Think of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” (which way exactly is never explained) or the Spice Girls’ “zig-a-zig-ah.”
It’s like Amber listened. The Internet tells me that the hook goes:
or in Amber’s own transcription (I asked her for a clarification):
'dabadabadap dip dap 'm dey
This kind of scat is a theme she’ll return to later in “Sexual (li da di).”
As she told me, “if the first hook does not work, make sure you have a second one—then you have two chances to see if at least one of them sticks…and the simpler they are, the better your chances are for a hit for the masses.” It came to her “kind of like an adlib which was then taken and sampled along the song so it took on a steady repetition.”
On the dance floor or in a car or on the treadmill, we want to be more machine than man. If we want to be empty, Amber’s with us there: she’s reduced herself to a percussion instrument, a voice floating over the wilderness.
Voices in the wilderness don’t typically last. Amber told me that “in dance music overall, you are not in good company when it comes to longevity.” That seems so obvious to not need mention, since most of the songs we know and love do feel disposable. Or we disposed of them anyway. This is a sadness. As such they’re easy not to love except as soundtracks for memories of being. They’re easy to laugh at or ignore. They’re easy to stash away in memory and not return to who you used to be. Autobiography is hard; it’s risky to try to exhume those songs, those selves, and it’s easier to just keep it all packed away.
I’m sure Amber would have preferred to talk about her most recent album, out now from an independent label that she started (since 2004 she has put herself in control of all the rights and distribution to her music), but I approached her, of course, to talk about 1996. Still, she was game to tell me about the past:
I was called up by 2 producers in Germany who were told about me singing at a fashion show and who already had a deal at that time with Arista with a group called 'The Real McCoy'. I went and met with them and they gave me a track and told me to write on it—I remember their words until today: "The hook should go something like this: This is your night (the only clear melody was given here) …dumdumdumdumdumddumddddum, alright” … and left me with the rest… and I wrote it. I was pushed into their publishing company as a writer (did not know better then as they advised me on a lawyer I should take!!!) with a ridiculous percentage on the publishing part...and got a record deal through them with Tommy Boy in NY. They gave me a ridiculous small amount of the advance money they received from that label and went on to produce the first album with me...it was hell to work with them...musically, they were untalented but business wise, they were smart enough to enrich themselves on other people's talents. Many times, they hired outside producers to do the things they were not capable of and just put their names behind it. Then you have to deal with a record label where individuals work who are trying to tell you how you should interview and what to say and what to look like and who you should sound like… and offer you drugs on top (!!!) …and most of all…you are ‘always too fat and never good enough’…and one more...they screw you on your quarterly mechanical payments and the entire accounting on top. Not the most uplifting environment...oh...and of course...you are always as hot as your record is climbing the charts...there is no loyalty in the music industry.”
Yikes. But you knew that story already. While “many other artists got shelved for years, trying to get out of their contracts,” as she put it, she was lucky. The industry got blindsided by online filesharing, and they were so occupied elsewhere that when she asked, her label released her from her contract.
She took the opportunity for reinvention and became “free and independent as an individual and an artist,” which is, in her view, “the most valuable gift.… Most artists are not business minded bc they focus emotionally on their craft...either they get screwed by their labels or their 'managers' along the way... so in the end, I am not sorry that this industry self destructed the way it did.”
I don’t think anyone is (sorry, industry), but we should also take a moment of silence for it, since it’s the same industry that gave us something shared that we can talk about, something we could all listen to and react to, moving with it or against it. I miss that, its shitty ubiquity. It’s the same industry that gave us Amber, even if it also tried to keep her chained.
But Amber was also never just a dance artist. As she mentions in several interviews, her family’s classically trained musicians—opera singers, piano teachers, and composers. One wonders what they must have thought of their daughter—who at one point had studied to be an orthopedic doctor’s assistant—falling into the family business, if at a synthy, sexy angle.
Amber is in fact the 34th most successful dance artist of all time (Billboard ranks them, and it’s a fascinating list. Amber’s ranked just behind Aretha Franklin and ahead of Christina Aguilera, Mary J Blige, Grace Jones, and Daft Punk. She’s also way ahead of Deee-Lite and Shakira, Justin Timberlake and Eurythmics, Goldfrapp, Chic, and Duran Duran. She’s only ranked 9 places behind freaking New Order. That’s how nuts this chart is to me—and this is also an aside on how leveling the dance charts can be: all you have to do is throw a remix at it and you can be a dance artist. Just ask Everything But the Girl about Todd Terry).
But she’s never felt like a dance artist, and she bristles at the classification. She says “I wanted to take that genre, which I just happened to fall into, to another level. I wanted decent quality song writing. Songs that were not dependent on that one production but could stand on their own.”
Has she done it? That’s a question only you can answer as you listen, as you make the night—and this tournament—your own.
Though I hadn’t asked her directly about her story, which is usually (being story) some conflagration of fact and fiction, she could sense my interest and dropped some writing advice on me: “We all do have a story but it is less of what has happened to us but how we react to it.”
Patricia Hampl would agree. She tells us, in “The Dark Art of Description,” that the self is not the subject of memoir but its instrument. Meaning that the self becomes the tool we use to open up the subject. It’s one of the only tools we have in fact. In this case, the self and how music operates on it becomes the way to open up the culture. And what a culture the 1990s was. As at least one of my fellow Fadnessers puts it, the 1990s were a time when we had a culture, meaning that we shared it or shared most of it; it may have often sucked but it was ours. That’s why you hear these songs and they have some meaning for you, even as the meaning (or your pleasure) differs.
These days we spin our own soundtracks, cuing up songs that we like or that the algorithm thinks that we will like based on the songs it sees us listen to. Sometimes it feels like it takes a concerted effort to even find the culture through the hundred layers of personalized feeds and feels we tweet about. I don’t know how you do it. Do you do it? My friend Paul does: he listens to the radio whenever he drives anywhere. It impresses me, his willingness to listen to terrible things. (He also curates it for his friends in a year-end mix of the best radio songs he’s heard, which is helpful.)
If I could have avoided Snow or Gerardo in 1991, I would have, but I couldn’t, so, like Auden said of Yeats, together, they hurt me into poetry. Who’s hurting you or your kids into poetry? Who knows what’s being drummed right now into Paul’s brain or yours or mine? (We’ll find out in March Fadness 2037.)
What it will become, though, is part of your own story. It’s not what happens to you but how you remix it, how it transforms you.
Maybe I’ve taken it too far. I should lay down a shitty rap at this point in the essay but I won’t. Thank me later.
Blessedly “This is Your Night” lacks the mid-song male rap so common to the genre, which is surely for the best. Amber was never really interested in having a rapper on her songs, as she told me: “it was a stereotype for the genre at the time: everybody did it so why would I?”
Good call, and her song is better for it, though I have a secret fondness for those raps. They’re always a little off: the rapper is always overclaiming the power of his rap (“So get ready for this/ Mind your own biz / Cause I invented the microphone biz”, “Super, dope, def, and even outrageous”, “Like the crack of the whip, I Snap attack / Front to back, in this thing called rap/ Dingin' like a cymbal, rhyme thimble, on the heavenly level”—this whole essay was originally going to be a collage of Eurodance raps but I thought better of it). Methinks the gentleman doth protest too much about how hard they are kicking it.
The most outstanding songs of the genre follow this rap derangement to its obvious conclusion: “I know where the beat is at, / 'cause I know what time it is. / Bring home a dime, / Make mine a "99" / New style, meanwhile, always on a mission while / Fishing in the rivers of life”—in which the KLF, for instance, hijacked the whole convention and use it to dial into some real weirdo Illuminati shit, and then shot machine guns into the audience at the Brit awards the moment they’d achieved their peak mainstream success, then burned a million pounds in cash and deleted all their music from the catalog and disappeared.
And if we watch the video, we find lots of irreducible weirdness. For instance, in the opening scene (a shot returned to throughout the video) we find Amber, submerged in what looks like a pool with some sort of beaded fishnet thing like a hairpiece covering her. Later it will slip down and entrap her. I keep wondering: is she comfortable? Is she cold? The video cuts back and forth between that and the shirtless guy dancing in the rain. Bubbles bump back and forth and she seems pleased to be here, even if the shot is never explained.
I asked her about that too. The “water was okay and it was a fun experience... I just went along for the ride...even today, I do not have a clue what the actual story line of the video was supposed to mean or say... nor did I have the time or ever felt the need to ponder... one thing is for sure…my label SUCKED on image marketing: ever saw the cover artwork of my first single?”
I had not but I looked it up for you:
I actually kinda dig its synthy geometry, but it reveals nothing about the artist or the song. It looks like a Stereolab album hooked up to a kaleidoscope that did a line of comic sans.
I’m not sure that the SNL sketch turned spinoff film A Night at the Roxbury did Eurodance any favors. But what Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan understood about these songs is that unless you’re dancing to them or remembering dancing to them, they’re inherently comic. The distance between watching a dance floor and being on it is so nearly unbridgeable that it can cause intense discomfort, and the best human response to that is to laugh.
It’s also easy to laugh at Eurodance songs because they’re so easily consumable that they become near-interchangeable, so that they’re difficult at first to take seriously. I guess that’s all pop music, at least that’s how the music-nerd side of my brain thinks, which gravitates to the apparent “authenticity” and “depth” of, say, indie rock, which tends to attract whiter, straighter crowds. (In this way, the critical blind eye to dance is a direct descendent of the bias against disco: there’s plenty written about “the racism and homophobia of the rock audiences who held [disco] in contempt,” writes Kembrew McLeod, citing Ward, Stokes, and Tucker (1986) in his article “Genres, Subgenres, Sub-subgenres, and More: Musical and Social Differentiation within Electronic/Dance Music Communities”—and you already know from the title of that article whether you’ll enjoy it or not.)
So you have to get past that bias first, which is related to the gap between you and the dancers you are watching and maybe wishing that you could be. That could be you: so empty, so something other than whatever you are right now.
It’s even later at night as I’m finishing this. It’s cold in the house—funny since this is Arizona—but I feel a sense of heat here like I often do when I sense some real cultural meaning awaiting on the other side of an exhibit like this song. I’m sure there’s something crack-open-able about this bit of culture, like what’s here isn’t just autobiographical (though it is of course autobiographical too—that’s what draws me to it and makes me think about the self and how it can be wielded and to liberate what exactly?) but that it has some hot thing underneath it to be hatched if I can only look closely enough at it for long enough with a sufficiently concentrated gaze. Like the effect a magnifying glass can have in concentrating sunlight, and that in the burning some chemical signature can be revealed.
That is, I don’t know for sure what kind of machine we’re operating here, but it feels powerful to me, and with seventy of us turning cranks and doing dances and listening to songs and whatever and you—the important you out there listening and feeling and remembering (the machine is here to operate you or you it—I feel it’s capable of rendering something big and beautiful, and I’d like to see what it can do with Amber and Eurodance.
Or maybe I’m just writing against time here, since I don’t think “This Is Your Night” is going to get past Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” which is one of the best pop songs of the decade, here essayed into ably by an excellent opponent. So while I want Amber to get one more night in this tournament, one more moment for you to dance to, I’m not picking her to advance. I am, however, voting for her like a motherfucker, and you should too. Honor the night. It is, after all, yours to do with as you will, to become who you always thought you might one day be.
As the credits roll, let me point you to some of her other work, which is good and is more indicative of where she wanted to captain her own ship once she got her freedom:
Ander Monson is a member of the March Fadness Selection Committee and a writer and editor, among other things.
mike powell on "steal my sunshine"
This song—bratty, casual, brimming with attitude—became a hit in July, 1999, the summer after I met a girl named Sarah. As with most of my childhood friendships, the precise origins of Sarah and I are lost to me now—only that we were in English class together, mutual unknowns one day, nearly inseparable the next.
I was, at the time, 16; serious in the pitiable way only 16-year-old boys can be, the hero—as one of my girlfriends' mothers so memorably put it—of my very own melodrama. My taste in art skewed toward the difficult and obscure, assuming in my serious teenage-boy way that real enjoyment was the product not of relaxation but hard work. Because I presented myself as anything but, a group of older girls had given me the nickname Happy Boy.
The culture, of course, validated this. Indie rock, abstract art, the World Cinema shelf of our unreasonably well-stocked public library: to appreciate these fineries was a sign of intelligence, of having the bearing to defer instant gratification for richer, longer-term rewards. Songs like “Steal My Sunshine” were second-class citizens, advertisements aimed not at committed adults but at teenage girls, delirious with hormones, skimming the surface of their life like pond skaters.
Sarah was too smart to share my hangups. If anything, she wielded her love of this song—its breeziness, its defiant simplicity—like a taunt, tucking into it with the uncomplicated relish of a workman tucking into a steak. I have since seen this tactic in parents encouraging their children to try new foods, miming pleasure from the other side of the Rubicon, as though enjoying life was mostly a matter of surrendering to it.
That Sarah was obviously smarter than I was didn’t bother me, it was that she didn’t have my need to be seen as such. In the same way people born rich never talk about money, Sarah shied away from intelligence, as though the caste systems of teen movies—where nerds are outcasts and jocks are inexorably dumb—were real. Her achievements—star swimmer, never off the honor roll—doubled as embarrassments.
Though I hate myself for thinking it, Sarah was not a pretty girl. She had coarse hair, thick eyebrows, and big, indelicate features. I preferred her company to almost anyone else’s but our relationship remained fraternal: Driving around, watching TV on Sunday nights, baking cookies, dinners with each others’ respective families. We could, I had learned, laugh together, an expression not just of vulnerability and disarmament but of an appreciation for life unburdened by the need for meaning, as immediate as it was deep.
When she died of a pulmonary embolism a few weeks after turning 21, I found myself listening to “Steal My Sunshine” on repeat, as though this thing she understood so intuitively—and that I had resisted so arrogantly—might carry some kernel of her essence that would reveal itself to me over time, like the clue to the riddle of what her death had meant. For a little while, I had wished, in the self-flagellating way of the grieving, that the embolism had been mine, only because she seemed that much better at being alive.
The obvious always becomes clear last: Sarah died. She didn’t know she was going to die when she did, but therein lies the gamble of being born. As for Len, they remain, like the creation of the universe itself, a one-hit wonder, a bright flash remembered, paradoxically, for its transience. The band’s singer said that when they went to Daytona Beach to shoot the video for “Steal My Sunshine” they ended up destroying five scooters and bought so much liquor it broke the hotel elevator. A video for the album’s next single, “Feelin’ Alright,” featured C.C. DeVille of the hair-metal band Poison wearing a purple feathered jacket and electrical tape on his nipples, soloing on a white flying V guitar from the tabletop of a high-school cafeteria. Then came “Cryptik Souls Crew,” which seemed to require nothing more than a few snowmobiles and a cabin in the woods. “Bobby (It’s a Summertime Thing),” released on the band’s next album, The Diary of the Madmen, had no video budget at all.
Mike Powell lives in Tucson, Arizona.