(3) jane child, "don't wanna fall in love"
(11) michael penn, "no myth"
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 3/16.
martin seay on "no myth"
Back in 1992, my junior year of college, when I was a toxic dork given to memorizing William Butler Yeats poems for fun, I belonged to both the BMG and Columbia House CD clubs.
These were not entirely casual undertakings. Both clubs would mail you a bunch of crap you didn’t want if you failed to stay on top of them; plus their constant come-hither inducements of free bonus albums were tricky to leverage against the paucity of decent selections—particularly in that pre-Napster, pre-YouTube Paleozoic of the internet, when almost any music purchase had to be a bit of a crapshoot.
It didn’t help matters that I was an avowed “lyrics guy” who had a hard time believing that any new music could deliver satisfactions comparable to, say, listening to Highway 61 Revisited for the billionth time.
Still, when the BMG catalogue arrived sporting a boxed section on “Literate Singer-Songwriters”—I think they meant “literary”—I figured I’d bite. After some deliberation, I copied the numbers corresponding to Perspex Island by Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians and the newly-released Free-for-All by Michael Penn onto the order form, dropped it in the mail, and began the quaint, meditative process known in those days as “waiting.”
Robyn Hitchcock I’d never heard of, but his album cover looked cool. Regarding Michael Penn, there was a lot of biographical data that I might have picked up had I withdrawn my head more often from The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry—e.g. he’d been in the L.A.-based new wave band Doll Congress; he was the son of actress Eileen Ryan and director Leo Penn, and the elder sibling of up-and-coming actors Chris and Sean (which also made him the freshly-erstwhile brother-in-law of Madonna)—but in fact I knew exactly one thing about him: He was responsible for “No Myth,” a hit single that had popped up regularly on MTV and on the radio a couple of years earlier.
I thought “No Myth” was pretty good. It had a big chorus, a punchy bridge, and a couple of above-average guitar solos, all carried along on a corkscrewing acoustic twelve-string riff that flitted between lurching drum-machine beats like a butterfly stuck in a waterwheel. The whole thing had an idiosyncratic made-from-scratch vibe that resisted classification: a little George Harrison, a little Elvis Costello, maybe even a little They Might Be Giants in the nerdy abstruseness of its references and the wry extendedness of its metaphors. I didn’t know it at the time, but all this was probably attributable to Penn’s auteurist methods: He’d sung, played, or programmed almost every note of “No Myth.” (The most notable exception was the keyboard accompaniment of his main collaborator, former Doll Congress bandmate Patrick Warren; the warped, woozy sound of Warren’s modified Chamberlin—keep an eye out for it in the video—would later help establish him as one of the most instantly-recognizable session players of the coming decades.)
“No Myth” made me a little uneasy, too. It was a breakup song, more or less, narrated by a glum and bookish young man, which made it plenty easy for twenty-year-old me to identify with. Being who I was, I immediately understood it as an updated version of a different artist’s breakthrough hit, with J. Alfred Prufrock’s “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” here supplanted by unflattering self-inflicted comparisons to the brooding antihero of Wuthering Heights and a natty post-punk Romeo Montague. Sounded like a typical Friday night in the dorms to me.
But on closer inspection, “No Myth” seemed to hint that its narrator might not be totally reliable, or deserving of our full sympathy. Unlike the coming, going, Michelangelo-ing women in Eliot’s poem, his ex isn’t depicted as pretentious or vacuous; in fact she’s barely depicted at all, except as, y’know, an embodied consciousness with normal human desires, a girl who just wants to have fun. Her declaration that “it’s time she goes”—phrasing that indicates an outcome that’s foregone, anticipated—seems to take our hero by surprise, suggesting that he’s made the whole relationship out to be something it never was. (Thus “we said goodbye before hello.”)
Does our narrator stop at this point to consider what unnoticed signals of discontent his girlfriend might have been broadcasting? Does he take this as an occasion to reassess his amatory assumptions, or to hone his listening skills? Hell no! Instead, our dude’s immediate impulse is to brainstorm ways he might have asserted his no-doubt-fascinating masculine subjectivity in a more decisive and compelling manner, might have better conveyed the depth of his thoughts, the intensity of his feelings: Guy In Your MFA avant le tweet, basically. (“My secrets she will never know,” he laments, flipping both the structure and the pronouns of a more typical lost-love sentiment.) His wild stab at a Yeatsian “When You Are Old”-style scolding in the bridge overshoots its mark into silliness—rather than hiding his face amid a crowd of stars, he seems to be off on some retro-exotic Hope-and-Crosby adventure—and he keeps returning to (just as the song’s chords resolve at) the same sheepish realization: the qualities he cultivates most assiduously in himself she won’t miss at all. And why should she? Romeo and Heathcliff are eternal paragons of capital-R-Romanticism; they’re also objectively terrible boyfriends. Looking for some parallel can be an endless game, that’s for sure—but what this young woman wants is straightforward and reasonable, despite the narrator’s grandiose efforts to complicate and mystify it. Strictly speaking, “No Myth” isn’t a literary song; it’s a song about being literary, and about the inbuilt limitations of same.
This was not a lesson that my sensitive undergraduate ears were exactly eager to receive.
One might legitimately ask whether Penn really intended listeners to question his narrator in the way I’m doing here; certainly “No Myth” can be heard as meaning exactly what it says. But I think the evidence to the contrary is pretty strong, with Exhibit A being the music itself, a jaunty pop blast that undercuts the misunderstood-young-man narrative at a fundamental and structural level: The jilted lover may be home alone moping over his Riverside Shakespeare, but the song is on the girlfriend’s side, just looking for someone to dance with.
Other clues are more deeply embedded, threaded subtly through the lyrics. Lately when I listen to “No Myth,” what jumps out at me is a particular shift in mood: not the shift from glum bafflement to ecstatic escape that our metaphorically-China-bound narrator undergoes, in fact not a shift in emotional mood at all, but a shift in grammatical mood, from the subjunctive to the indicative. “What if I were Romeo in black jeans?” Penn sings; “What if I was Heathcliff? It’s no myth.” (Emphases mine, obviously.) Why the switch?
Well, okay, there’s a purely practical explanation. It’s a hell of a lot easier for a singer to hit that high note on the first syllable of Romeo from were—simply jumping from one rhotic to another, opening up the vowel—than from the clenched sibilant buzz of was. And Heathcliff, conversely, sings more gracefully after was than were. (Give it a try next time you’re in the shower.) Really good songwriters, of whom I believe Penn is one, tend to concentrate above all else on the way a lyric sits on a melody; he’s doing that here.
But like many of the practical decisions that smart artists make, this one accrues additional significance as the song takes shape around it. The songwriter starts the chorus in the subjunctive because it sounds good; the narrator does so because it’s more grammatically “correct,” and because he’s just the sort of jerk who’d insist on such stuffy scrupulousness. By the next line, though, his sense of his own superiority has already started to deflate: He switches to the indicative, the mood that the majority of ordinary folks actually use when discussing hypotheticals in casual conversation. And of course by the chorus’s third and final line the narrator has dropped out entirely, absent except as a perceiving entity, taking what may amount to his first, last, and only clear glimpse of his ex as she walks away.
The more I listen to “No Myth,” the better it gets.
The package from BMG finally arrived! I fed its contents to my CD player. For many weeks afterward Bob Dylan sat neglected on his shelf.
Robyn Hitchcock’s Perspex Island still holds up as a pretty solid album. Regarding Penn’s Free-for-All, I maintain that it is as good as or better than anything released by anybody in 1992, and yes, I am aware that Slanted and Enchanted, Your Arsenal, The Chronic, Automatic for the People, Check Your Head, Little Earthquakes, Rage Against the Machine, Joshua Judges Ruth, Dry, Kiko, Diva, Wynonna, etc. etc. also came out in 1992.
Calling Free-for-All an extremely well-made guitar pop album is accurate, but doesn’t begin to cover it. Across its ten tracks Penn refines and expands every effective component of his earlier work; he also adds depth and resonance through greater specificity, firmly rooting the songs in the history, lore, and streetscapes of his hometown. The Los Angeles evoked on Free-for-All is vivid and personal, refracted through memory, nostalgia, and dreams; the album is catchy as hell throughout, but at the same time shot through with a haunting vein of sepia-toned surrealism that’s uncommon to encounter, particularly in the realm of pop music. It’s a remarkable work of art.
In terms of chart success, needless to say, it went nowhere. One-hit wonders are a diverse group unified and negatively defined by a single shared attribute: the fact that they never had a second hit. It’s generally worth considering why that second hit never materialized; in Penn’s case, I gather, it was partly due to record-label mishandling, but mostly attributable to changing tastes. Between the releases of “No Myth” in ’89 and Free-for-All in ’92 looms Nevermind and the alternative-music revolution it helped spur, a disruption that few in the industry saw coming or knew how to navigate. Penn is fundamentally a pop artist—his music makes connections, gives of itself generously, pitches its tent in the commons—and the ’90s were a tough era for pop; the musicians who accrued commercial and/or cultural capital in that decade more often did so by defining a microgenre, signifying on behalf of a subculture, and riding out the storm. Sometimes these kinds of shifts reverse themselves after a couple of years; this one didn’t. And then the internet happened.
After Free-for-All, Penn evidently spent a few years fighting with his label before getting back to making records. Today he’s 58, married to fellow literate singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, and has established a prosperous sideline as a soundtrack composer. (He did the scores for Paul Thomas Anderson’s first two feature films, and currently provides the music for Girls.) In the course of his career he’s released five albums of songs—three since Free-for-All—and all of them are good. A couple of them are great.
So Michael Penn seems to be doing all right. As for the rest of us, we go on finding our music where we seek it, and trying not to worry too much about what slips past unheard.
Martin Seay’s debut novel The Mirror Thief was published by Melville House in 2016. He blogs—infrequently, but often at great length—at New Strategies for Invisibility. Originally from Texas, he lives in Chicago with his spouse, the writer Kathleen Rooney.
MANUEL MUÑOZ ON "DON'T WANNA FALL IN LOVE"
Am I the only one who needs to be forgiven for confusing Jane Child for Taylor Dayne? “Don’t Wanna Fall in Love,” at least to my young ears at the time, was cut from the same dance/pop-with-heavy-synth formula as “Tell It to My Heart.” When I first heard the song on the radio, I thought Taylor had made a welcome return from the adult-contemporary side of the dial, where she was learning a thing or two from Anita Baker about the money to be raked in from the kind of music played over white wine and maybe a bear-skin rug if you played your cards right.
Back then, I also listened to music through constant flipping among the MTV-VH1-BET axis and it caught me by genuine surprise when I finally ran across the Jane Child video. To paraphrase Blanche Devereaux, I knew it couldn’t be a Taylor Dayne video because there were no boy dancers. If Taylor Dayne knew the value of a well-staged and well-packaged (as it were) dance number, Jane Child went the other way with a largely gritty, sometimes black-and-white, sometimes color depiction of her walk to a New York studio to lay down this track. Whether strolling along in some cool-ass boots or hailing a cab or taking the N train to (or from?) Queens, she’s always alone, and as exuberantly fine with that as the song suggests she would be. “Ain’t no personal thing, boy,” she warns in the opening line, “but you have got to stay away.” The chaos of the video’s editing makes the most it can out of a formidable persona being brutally honest about what love with her might mean. Like any opening of Saturday Night Live, just about every variation on the possibilities of city nightlife gets trotted out, only to overshadow the performer it is meant to highlight.
I’m really torn about this song for all sorts of reasons. I’ll be honest here and admit that I cringed when I saw that this song was up against Monie Love, a performer who I think is going to benefit most from (re)discovery in these brackets, and who brings back fond memories of one of my high-school friends endlessly playing her cassette single (her cassette single!) on our drives around town. I’m secretly (or not so secretly) rooting for Monie, even as I acknowledge that the great bluster in Jane Child’s lyrics were part of the draw. I appreciate how the song posits that her kind of love won’t be for wimps and the relish she takes in that. But that can get lost amid its dance appeal and, to be fair, Jane Child’s delivery. The acidic possibilities of those lyrics get a bit muddled and the 90’s-synth comes on thicker (and more dated) in this song than in others within the bracket.
Ultimately, I wonder what “Don’t Wanna Fall in Love” means in defining the one-hit wonder for this era, and am left pondering Jane Child’s presence: her ankle-length braids and the nose chain and the long black coat remind me of just how inimitable she was. By that, I mean that emulating the look and the posture (as was our wont when I was growing up) took a hell of a lot more effort than copying Taylor Dayne’s bangs from her “Tell It to My Heart” video. There’s a lot to be said for creating a formula that allows for just enough emulation but not complete derivation, uniqueness but not idiosyncrasy. Taylor Dayne herself knew exactly how to package her power ballads—as neat, elegant, well-lensed studio performances, going black-and-white where Anita Baker had gone sepia. Jane Child struck all the right notes in blending a flashy dance track with a satisfyingly dark undercurrent in her lyrics, but it might be the kind of strike a performer can make just once. You’ll have to forgive me if I remember “Don’t Wanna Fall in Love” as two hot guys dancing against a white backdrop, jean jackets and no shirts, and a final, infuriatingly sexy turnaway from the camera. The one in the yellow socks, especially, with the deliberate hitch in his step: every time, it calls my name.
Manuel Muñoz is the author of a novel, What You See in the Dark, and two short-story collections. He’s midway through a third, with recent work in American Short Fiction and forthcoming from Southwest Review.