the 2017 march fadness championship:
(16) natalie imbruglia, "torn"
(6) omc, "how bizarre"
and is your 2017
march fadness champion
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. The polls closed at 9am Arizona time on 3/31.
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 none of these songs will.
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 White Town's "Your Woman," which would have been our second-round opponent, if there were any justice in the world.)
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.
Pauly relied almost entirely on an Elvisish charisma, a vestige of his background: the confidence of having survived something, a smolder borne of his hip hop origins. The best surviving illustration of what I mean is a brief clip from Top of the Pops, filmed in August 1998. Pauly had been on two weeks before and bombed; he couldn't afford to do it again. And so, in the most important moment of his career, what did Pauly Fuemana do? This:
Maybe not a great performance, musically; the dude really couldn't sing. But he came onstage, in the country that colonized his, with a chain and a rope around his neck, and stopped just short of telling that whole island to fuck off. In three minutes, he made himself a star.
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.
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. )
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.
AARON SMITH ON "TORN"
I was supposed to be writing an essay about Natalie Imbruglia’s song “Torn” when my mother was diagnosed with kidney cancer. It was in the back of my head that I had a deadline approaching. Over the course of three weeks, I sat in rooms waiting to see what each doctor would say about my mother: urologist (You have a big mass in your kidney); urologist again (Your lungs are clear); oncology urologist (You’ve had this tumor for at least fifteen years); and the post-surgery room where they take you and you worry the news is bad because they’ve isolated you. Thankfully, my mother’s prognosis is good: after the doctor cut her in half, pulled out her kidney, he said: Good news and She did great. He even drew us a picture with a pencil (kidney mass as a big scribbly circle and a “thrombus” (a new word we learned) moving toward her liver). My whole family listened rapt and confused and relieved. I kept thinking: those hands have been inside my mother.
Every day after the diagnosis I told myself I’d work on the essay at night before bed. I’d hum the beginning of the chorus: “I’m all out of faith. / This is how I feel.” And then I’d get distracted or too tired or someone in my family would need something or I’d think: what if her cancer is as bad as we are afraid to imagine. I’d say to myself on the back porch: “I don’t think I can leave her body in the ground and drive the fourteen hours back home to Boston.”
I first encountered “Torn” on MTV when I was in graduate school. I mostly wanted to fuck the guy in the video, whom I found out is gay in real life when I bought an expensive British magazine in a gay bookstore on Pittsburgh’s South Side that put everything a person bought into a brown paper bag. The bag told everyone you had a secret and it was sexy. This was right as the internet was beginning: bare-bones email and picture-less gay chat rooms, but nothing elaborate, and porn was still a tangible thing on VHS that my friends and I passed to one another, a kind of intimacy knowing which scene a friend liked and exactly what they were into. But it wasn’t just sex I hid. It was anything that marked me as a fag. My shame then was a tumor as big and sick as my mother’s.
Like I imagine many guys who grew up gay in the late 70’s or early 80’s, I got used to imagining myself in the place of women in movies, television and videos. Every shirtless stud was on top of me. That man was bringing me flowers. The guy, Jeremy Sheffield, in the “Torn” video might actually love me if I had glossy lips, a pixie haircut and tugged my sleeves like Natalie singing about being “naked on the floor.” I didn’t know then that guys like Jeremy—muscled, gorgeous, floppy-haired—don’t usually date chubby, balding guys like me who wear glasses; they usually date guys who look like them: Narcissus pinching his own nipples, staring into the stream. I hadn’t had sex with a man at that point, but I’d been every woman fucked by every sweaty man in every movie: Sharon Stone in Sliver, Melanie Griffith in Working Girl kissing Harrison Ford out of his dress shirt, Kim Basinger in 9 ½ Weeks.
Everyone kept praying for my mother. Each text from her friends: Praise god! We have everyone praying! Wait and see what god can do! And I kept thinking: why did god let her get cancer and carry it around in her body for over fifteen years? Why did she have to have cancer while her mother was dying? Why did she have cancer when she scrubbed the kitchen cabinets on Saturdays? Why did she have cancer at my parents’ fortieth anniversary party my sister and I threw when she looked so pretty and happy and cancerless. I’m all out of faith. This is how I feel.
Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” written by American alternative-rock band Ednaswap, survives because of the melody, the springy guitar at the beginning, the catchy, spin-around-your-room-in-a-circle push of it, the chorus and the electric guitar leading us out of the song while Natalie thrashes in her blue hoodie (the blonde homo in the baby-blue sweater and nineties corduroys who, for obvious reasons, can’t seem to get the kiss right).
The lyrics really don’t make sense: “I thought I saw a man brought to life. / He was warm, he came around like he was dignified. / He showed me what it was to cry.” It’s as if the writers needed a rhyme, something to fit the established structure. What does dignity have to do with crying in this scenario? “Illusion never changed / into something real” leads us eventually to “You're a little late. / I'm already torn.” Wasn’t he, like my mother’s cancer, already there?
I look at these lyrics and feel like I can make sense out of them sometimes, but then I feel like my writing students who try and try to understand a poem that makes no sense, that only the writer (barely) understands, and then try to convince me with republican-spin that it’s obvious, common sense, not confusing at all. I always say: “Sounds like you’re writing a poem instead of reading one.” I guess wanting to believe in anything requires a bit of spin—like Natalie twirling on that set—more work than we should be asked to do and still not quite making sense.
“So I guess the fortune teller's right. / I should have seen just what was there /and not some holy light.” Now that things are looking good for my mother, everyone keeps saying that god had a hand in the result. I keep thinking about the doctor’s hand opening her torso. I asked a lover once which finger he put inside me, and he flipped me off across the bed: fuck you and this is how I fucked you. How to make sense of what’s inside us? How to make meaning? Do we need it?
Maybe some songs just feel good. Maybe it’s okay not to understand, not to pick at the threads. Maybe it’s not necessary to point out whether a thing is poorly constructed or not. Maybe songs like “Torn” let us fuck a British guy in a video and imagine a life, even briefly, where we can have everything we want just the way we want it. Maybe the point is to belt out with passion silly words that sound good together because we don’t have the right words for things we don’t even know are inside us?
Perhaps songs like “Torn” are aptly titled “one-hit wonders.” There’s no need to really think about them, but year after year they come back to us because it just feels good to sing, because it just feels good to get fucked. They help us deal with the fact that there isn’t a god who gives a shit about us. We don’t need to waste our time hiding the things we want in brown bags.
Just because “the perfect sky is torn” doesn’t mean we have to look.
Aaron Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Primer, Appetite, and Blue on Blue Ground. He is assistant professor in creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.