(6) omc, "how bizarre"
(3) Donna lewis, "i love you always forever"
for a spot in the sweet 16
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 March 14th.
beth nguyen on "i love you always forever"
A song that’s titled “I Love You Always Forever” is probably bound to recreate the full and temporary nature of love. It starts out strong, with sweetness, and the burst of pleasure that comes with unabashed synth. Donna Lewis’s voice is baby-soft, trailing off into a wisp: “Feels like I’m standing in a timeless dream of light mists and pale amber rose.” I can’t say I’ve ever had a dream like that but I get it: we are meant to begin with wonder, enough that maybe the words don’t even matter. I’ve misheard some of the lyrics all this time but never bothered to look them up until recently. After “You’ve got the most unbelievable blue eyes I’ve ever seen” I hear something like “You’ve got the office smell to weigh.” Which, as it turns out, is “You’ve got me almost melting away.” (OK that makes more sense but why would anyone want to melt away?)
But never mind that. The overall feeling is clear. Blue skies, blue eyes. Beauty and fervor. And the refrain cannot be mistaken: “I love you, always forever, near or far, closer together. Everywhere, I will be with you. Everything, I will do for you.” (I will love you here, there, everywhere! Oh the places we will go!)
Most love songs are treatises on codependency. Especially if that song has been featured on Beverly Hills, 90210. I was with that show from the start, watching the gang from Michigan, where I lived the entire time 90210 was on the air—from 1990 when I was still in high school, to 2000 after I finished my MFA. 90210 brought in a lot of musicians, including Babyface, Goo Goo Dolls, Luther Vandross, Color Me Badd, Brian McKnight, The Cardigans, Duncan Sheik. In episode 15 of season 7, Donna Lewis performed at the Peach Pit After Dark, where Kelly and Brandon and friends gathered at night. These were the California University years. Those dark lipsticks and reddish-brown eyeshadows; the crushed velvet and mini skirts: I knew them well. Donna Lewis sat a keyboard and the fabric at her wrists gleamed purple. Her hair was 90210-blonde. But I recall a reluctance about her. As an introverted person, I felt I could understand it. Donna Lewis didn’t really want to be at the After Dark or on 90210, lip-synching to her own song. She did the performance but she wasn’t sure how to be a star.
“I Love You, Always Forever” is one of those perfect summer songs. All you need is one hit, one summer, and this is 1996. Those were my university years too. No Google, no texting. Just the possibility of warm rains and secret moments and soft spoken words—song stuff. More than twenty years later, it still works: a little dancing, a little dreaming. Forget the rest of the world.
The song is still a stalwart on what are now oldies stations (oldies!). It’s best caught at the beginning, with that synth momentum; the final third is mostly a long denouement. Because the rush of love is all good until you run out of things to say. “I love you always forever” becomes a command: “Say you’ll love, love me forever, never stop, never whatever.” The love becomes repetition becomes desperation becomes tedium.
But isn’t that how it goes. The way we begin with such hope. Sugar and magic. We inject the wonder, insist on it even if it isn’t really there. We are all stillness and mist and lying on the beach and looking at the stars, enacting the idea of romance we learned from shows like Beverly Hills, 90210. We make our declarations; we are swept up in them. And then it turns. It all goes on too long. The thrill of the I love you becomes mere information. There is no good ending because it doesn’t know how to end. Someone else has to step in and do it: the producer, the editor, the next person. Oh yes, we begin with such joy, such intentions, and then our own demanding words ensure the eventual ruin. But it’s OK. Sometimes you only have enough for one song. It goes skyward. In our minds, it can last always and forever. In real life, there is only so much time we get to have with such love.
Beth Nguyen, who also goes by the name Bich Minh Nguyen, is the author of the memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, which received the PEN/Jerard Award, the novel Short Girls, which received an American Book Award, and the novel Pioneer Girl. She directs the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco.
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 Donna Lewis 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 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.
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. (Donna Lewis doesn't even show up on the Wikipedia page for her hometown..)
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.