(3) everything but the girl, "missing" DEFEATS (14) deadeye dick, "new age girl" 110-46
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 7.
kirk wisland on "missing"
Her name was Kinga. She was a Polish immigrant—from Krakow? Warsaw? I don’t remember. It was more than two decades ago. She was leaving Minneapolis, moving to Chicago to marry another Pole. Not exactly an arranged marriage, but a plan she wasn’t thrilled with. A safe choice, solid future prospects. Something real, not ephemeral like desert rain.
Todd Terry’s mix of "Missing" is what I think of as “gentle house”—a simple, elegant bass and drum propulsion, sparse inflection of the original guitar riff, stabs of organ in chorus with a classic disco bass line, a weeping high-register keyboard wash. A perfect blend of sonic elements that come together to create an ethereal, melancholic pulse. But the song is nothing of course without Tracy Thorn’s vocals. Her understated verse, building to The Chorus of Thorns, as she sings over the layers of herself that compose the backing vocals. The song’s strength lies in pure understatement. Thorn’s vocals are a soaring whisper. A lesser artist would have been tempted to go full-on heart-wrenching wail. Pop radio is filled with the detritus of such over-the-top love songs—teenage angst masquerading as meaningful emotion, as if the forcefulness of the voice was the key to romantic intensity.
Tracy Thorn is the voice of the late ‘90s for me—from her vocals on Massive Attack’s Protection, to Missing on perpetual dancefloor repeat, to the Walking Wounded and Temperamental albums in heavy rotation in cars and on home stereos, Thorn’s is the voice that narrates the melancholy of the last half of that decade.
The first time I heard "Missing" was a Wednesday night in September 1995. The scene at First Avenue on a Wednesday night midway through the 90s was a subdued affair—the Wednesday slot in particular had been a longstanding dead zone in the club’s programming, tucked in between Tuesday’s Club 241—always popular with the frugal Midwestern drinkers—and Thursday night’s live-music showcase. By 1995 First Avenue had settled onto a generic Wednesday night house/techno scene, with a moniker I have long since forgotten. My friends and I frequented the club on Wednesday nights because we were bored twenty-three year olds addicted to stalking the dancefloors of Minneapolis, of which there were limited options in that era.
That’s not entirely true. We were bored dancefloor addicts, but we started going to the Wednesday House Night at First Ave because of the low-key vibe. There was a pleasant mellow undercurrent compared to the thick bar and cramped dancefloor one encountered on the weekends. None of the aggro goths or fratboy types you ricocheted off of on the popular nights, no creeping sense of inevitable fisticuffs to dampen the dancefloor euphoria. The Wednesday house scene was for lovers, not fighters. The Wednesday scene was for dancers. There were enough people on the dancefloor to not be self-conscious, but sparse enough to allow for freedom of movement, for flamboyant twirls and neo-romantic vogue stylings. There was room enough to stalk people—in the most genteel way—around the dancefloor.
At first blush, it seems like a throwaway line. Almost cheesy—And I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain. But in the history of musical love metaphors, it is deeper than one might think. Because when you live in the desert—particularly the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona—you know that the coming of the monsoon rains is like the deluge of bridging a long-distance love. Seemingly dead dormant landscapes suddenly burst forth into life again. Cacti bloom, wildflowers sprout from the rocks. Improbable desert amphibians who spend most of their existence buried under the cooling sands emerge to spawn in temporary ponds. There is exuberant, joyous life in those downpours. This desert does miss the rain.
"Missing" was inevitable on those Wednesday nights. Every week, for those two months before she moved to Chicago, we would meet on the dancefloor as soon as we recognized that signature opening guitar riff, the siren song of our doomed affair. We would vamp and twirl and stalk each other to the swirl and bounce of our personal Romeo and Juliet soundtrack. For those five minutes, we were the only people in the world.
I was vaguely aware of Everything But The Girl before "Missing" took over those Wednesday night dance floor scenes. They were one of those semi-folky Adult Contemporary artists, the kind of music you would stumble across occasionally on the car radio after skipping through the alternative station, the college rock station, the Top-40, the metal station, and finally the classic rock station. Having found nothing suitable in these forays, one would then hit that infrequently explored sixth preset button on the early-nineties car stereo, which was set for the Adult Contemporary station (Cities 97 for my Minneapolis peeps), like a musical fire-extinguisher behind glass—hit this preset in case of musical emergency. It was there on that sixth preset that I probably first stumbled across EBTG, although it’s also possible that I heard them as unremarkable background music at some after-bar party or coffee shop morning. But they had never moved me before Missing.
The dancefloor version of "Missing" was a resurrection, the second life of the song as a single. The original album version was released in 1994 and largely ignored. The band then gave the song to Todd Terry who remixed it into the now instantly recognizable international dancefloor hit, which peaked at #2 in the U.S. Hot 100 chart in 1996, during its unprecedented fifty-five week run in the Hot 100 (the first single to ever spend an uninterrupted year on the chart). Sometimes the art knows what it needs, sometimes the vision will not be denied. I imagine the forgotten tape of the original track vibrating on a shelf in the recording studio, knocking a cable to the floor, drawing attention to its unrealized potential, invading and occupying Watt and Thorn’s collective musical brain, whispering obsessions in their lucid dreams. Set me free. Hear me as I am meant to be heard…
I think, although I don’t remember, that the legion of long-term Everything But the Girl fans probably responded with some hostility to this new dancefloor focus. This is always the case when a band makes a bold break from their current path—think Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, the Beatles going psychedelic, or in the first instance of this experience in my lifetime, U2 shedding their cloak of stifling 1980s self-righteousness and going Berliner Discotheque for Achtung Baby. For Everything But the Girl, rather than a one-off stab at club-land relevance, this remix of "Missing" was a true harbinger of their progression. Their follow up album, Walking Wounded, was full-on electronica, including another Todd Terry remix of the single "Wrong," which was so similar in beat and tone to Missing that it might have just been called "M2." But that remix was superfluous because by ‘96 Watt and Thorn had fully mastered the art of the electronica soundscape. By the time their pre-Millennium swan song—the sonically brilliant, tragically commercial flop Temperamental—hit the shelves in 1999, you might have never known them as anything but legends of the low-lit club lounge. I wonder how many of those Cities 97-era Folky-EBTG fans bought Temperamental? How many of those kids that shrieked along with "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" were willing to float downstream with the Beatles through "Tomorrow Never Knows?"
We tried to take the magic of "Missing" out into the real world. There were a couple dinner-dates. There were long chain-smoking talks (we all smoked then) in her car as the date of the move to Chicago lurched into view. There was her ambivalence about that oncoming future. There was my suggestion that she not go. To no avail. Ultimately she looked past our dancefloor chemistry, our "Missing" magic and saw…what? A twenty-three-year-old dancefloor boy with seemingly no aspirations beyond procuring the minimal cash necessary for the next night’s fun. In the illumination of the coming dawn on those nights of eternal talk she saw—rightly so—a man who was still years, maybe decades, from being a solid bet.
Music is the narration of our lives. That cliché might sound quaintly antiquated in the era of visual-overload, of perpetual frontal-cortex stimulation at our fingertips, but I believe it nonetheless. The visual is too specific. I can feel an affinity for a TV show, or character, or film—but that moment is never truly mine. It’s somebody else’s experience, another face, another background. The song is universal. All can inhabit these beats, these vocals, these ethereal keyboard melancholies. Simultaneously they are our experiences—personal, perpetual. We inhabit these sonic scenes with our own cast of characters. A song operates like a portal, a living history, a time-machine accessible with one click of the play button. Twenty-two years later, I don’t remember what Kinga looked like, I don’t remember the tenor of our arguments, or the specific cadence of her accented English during our circular philosophical firing squad. I don’t remember the name of that Wednesday dance scene, and I can’t remember any other specific song that narrated those nights. But every time I hear "Missing" I remember what it was like to be twenty-three, and to dance, and to be in thrall to the myth of the star-crossed lovers, and to believe that Tracy Thorn’s voice soaring above those beats could somehow fight that inevitable future.
Kirk Wisland is a Minneapolis native who lives in Tucson. He is working on a PhD in Creative Writing from Ohio University. He greatly misses Minneapolis in the summertime. Not so much this time of year.
ryan grandick on "new age girl"
This essay was almost about Waco.
Waco was an angle. An avenue to explore the text. I had been researching it while also trying to find an entry point into a pop song that I didn’t really care for and I wanted to combine the two. And so this essay was almost about 1990’s one hit wonder college rock act Deadeye Dick and their relationship to Waco.
Which, for the record, is seemingly nonexistent.
I was reaching for that angle in large part because I was avoiding the obvious.
There’s something strange about seeing yourself reflected in bad art. We expect to see ourselves in great art, to see explorations of self and identity. When we put our introspection in the hands of a writer or musician or filmmaker who we respect. We connect to them and we see ourselves in their struggles because depicting struggle is something that great artists are expected to do. When we talk about the bands who got us through high school or college or who helped us grasp our problems, when we see beautiful depictions of melancholy or rage or joy, we appreciate the artist’s self-awareness. A hallmark of truly bad art is that it doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing. When we create bad art it’s because we can’t make connections with our audience or with the work that we’re creating. When we see an artist make bad art, we watch them flounder. And when we connect to bad art, really see ourselves in it, it’s usually because of that floundering. That grasping at something, anything, that’s marketable or catchy or failingly grandiose. And when the artist is seemingly espousing something uncomfortable, when Deadeye Dick attacks its titular New Age Girl with a smarmy, borderline incoherent mean-spiritedness, it’s hard to admit to ourselves that part of why a song like that can be a hit is not only that general audiences can buy into such a shitty attitude, but that we may be sort of shitty as well, because, whether we want to admit it or not, we are part of that general audience.
Writers tend to pitch their flaws as either emblematic of their past, a smudge on their rearview mirror that has helped them become more enlightened and worldly adults, or as Byronic complications, romantic and individual and sexy. Writers like to write about their points of struggle, where they were forced to face themselves and overcome their own self destructive impulses until they arose bronzed gods in flannel, ready to explore a world without demons.
They don’t tend to write about just general, boring, banal shittiness. They don’t often write about the times when they’ve been mean to women because they were lonely and a woman wouldn’t fuck them so they said shitty things to their friends to make themselves feel better. They don’t talk about how they used to just say a bunch of homophobic stuff because that’s what their friends did and they wanted to fit in, and also they didn’t really understand homosexuality and they were told it was gross and they believed it. They don’t talk about those weird periods where they railed against political correctness with ironic racism and sexism because they felt entitled and someone had told them what to do and they had a hard time dealing with that.
I know I’ve never really written about that. I’d go far out of my way to find an angle or an arc. I was homophobic because I was confused about my own sexuality. I dealt in ironic racism because it was an attempt to understand the underpinnings of offense. I was mean to women and probably sometimes still am because I am an instrument of the patriarchy who is working to overcome his own natural prejudices and these moments will surely lead to a point wherein I am enlightened. And there’s truth to that, certainly, but by framing it as a journey, I’m removing myself from contemporary blame. I am working to overcome and therefore I am, on some vague level, beyond reproach. I’m being introspective. I’m being self-aware. I am a dynamo at creating problems that I then think I’ve solved. Of separating my art from actual change in my life.
It's a lot more consequence-free than just admitting that I used to be, and occasionally still am, just kind of a shitty person sometimes. It’s a shittiness that comes from loneliness and confusion and mental illness, but it’s also a shittiness that comes from entitlement and engrained narcisissm. It can be both. And it’s a shittiness that’s boring. It’s shallow. It’s not self aggrandizing because it’s endemic and stupid. It’s not interesting because my inherent shittiness is the exact same form of inherent shittiness found in most other people who feel entitled and petty. It comes out in diatribes and jokes and small moments. It’s mainly just dumb and hurtful and cruel.
“New Age Girl” is, at its core, a song about a guy talking shit about his hippy girlfriend to his friends. It’s not very good and it grows more grating on every new listen. It actively refutes analysis by becoming more and more unlistenable. It mixes a loose “Superfreak” inspired rhythm with a “Summer Nights” style call and response. It rhymes “vegetarian” with “septuagenarians” in a move that’s borderline criminal. It pairs the potentially interesting “She loves me so/she hates to be alone”, which in itself hints at a deeper depth, an understanding that her love for our narrator may not be genuine, that he may be ignoring potential clues to reinforce his own self-esteem, with “She don’t eat meat/but she sure like the bone”, which is gross in a very shallow boring shitty way.
But that’s the unintended depth. That’s the part where we find ourselves in bad art. Boy has a girlfriend who he doesn’t really know anything about, who he might care about but also he might not and not even he knows for sure, and he deflects his own confusion with the hackiest Dirty Uncle joke. Because he is being shitty. And in that moment, I recognize something that I’ve done a lot, because dating is hard and deciphering your own feelings is hard and showing respect for the people you may or may not care for is hard. Being shitty is easier. Pretending that you don’t give a shit is easier. So you just do that. You just make a shitty fuck joke to your shitty friends and you stop thinking about how she says she loves you but she also genuinely seems to be uncomfortable by herself, and you don’t even know for sure whether you’re just a warm body, but you also can’t figure out if that’s all she is to you. And when you see that part inside yourself, especially displayed so openly in such a bad song, and you realize that you’re the same type of shitty person as the narrator, that the distance you created by belittling him as a bad songwriter only holds for so long, because what you also recognize is that, if he were any better, he’d hide his general boring shittiness. He’d find a way to make something beautiful and complicated out of the banal and every day. He’d lift his own commonplace sexism out of the muck and give it a kind of air of import. He’d cut the sex joke. But the sex joke is the part that stands out. It is the culmination of the overall shittiness of the narrator. All of the dismissive, inconsistent listing of qualities and hobbies, the vague and insulting bullshit psychoanalysis, all of that leads to the moment when the writer makes a shitty joke because he’s dating someone who he doesn’t respect very much. Someone who he never says he loves, instead saying that “loving her has got to be a sin”. Mocking her sexuality and identity in a way that good art would be too self-conscious to capture. And we would lose that moment where we realize that we’ve done that. That we’ve gotten scared or acted stupid or belittled a woman for wanting to fuck too much or not enough to be respectable.
Instead, it would probably be a song about Waco. And it would still probably be bad. But it would certainly be less pure. And it would reflect nothing.
Ryan Grandick is a writer who lives in the desert like a Stephen King character from one of those ones you never got around to reading and you didn't really hear anything about but you're sure it's fine. He's currently putting together a collection of essays on professional wrestling.