(13) culture beat, "mr. vain" defeats (4) jennifer paige, "crush" 119-72
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 3/3.
clint mccall on "crush"
The brake lights of the cars ahead of him blinked on and off almost in time with the music blaring out of the speakers of the 1993 Accord. He was singing and thinking about everything but the traffic: "justify my love...hoping, praying...for you to justify my love.”
In the late 1990’s any remix or maxi-single of Madonna was his obsession and the Virgin Mega-Store was making a small fortune off this 20-something. The trip tonight had two goals: an import of the new single from Madonna and a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts to last him the weekend. It would be an extravagant evening to be sure, one that would end in a sugar induced coma heightened by a trancelike state brought about by the Queen of Pop.
Walking through the Mega-Store was sensory overload. It felt like acres upon acres of media: VHS Cassettes, DVD’s, the collectable items in the middle of the aisles. They surely contained all that which one should know at 26 years of age: the secrets of sexuality, images of men whose bodies were heavenly visions. This place was a holy grail of knowledge for him: his church.
There. There it was. The 50 square feet of the store that mattered. At first glance they looked like regular CD’s, nothing out of the ordinary. A closer examination would reveal a small sticker “IMPORTED FROM GERMANY” or something in Japanese he could not decipher. A quick glance to see if something new from Depeche Mode or the Cure had arrived. Nothing of note. Besides this really was just foreplay before he would arrive at the altar of Madonna.
Finally it was time. Krispy Kreme (the reason he had added those extra miles at the gym) would surely have a line that would take forever to get through, and there were several hours ahead of listening to the four or five tracks over-and-over. He laid his fingers onto the placard marked “M”. Pulling it towards him it made a clicking sound as it fell forward. “Vogue,” got it. “Rescue Me,” yeah, that was worth the money. “Justify My Love”… Come on where was it?
A momentary lapse in concentration and he was caught off guard by the melody that was filling the massive space. He tried to brush it away, almost like pushing his hair out of his face. The loyalist in him wasn’t about to be deterred from the hunt for the maxi-single for "Frozen." Surely Madonna would deliver just as she had every single before this one. Boom. Found it. He had saved for a good two weeks to shell out the $20 for the single and then another $10 on the doughnuts.
Making his way to the counter, the tune filling the space was now in his head and caught hold. Could it be that this ingenue whose voice sang “It’s just a little crush, not quite complete” could compete for the role of sex muse? She continued to sing: ”It’s not like we have a date with destiny.” Making a snap decision, he apologizes to Madonna (under his breath) and picks up…not just the single, but the entire debut CD of one Ms. Jennifer Paige.
Handing over his $15 he walked out, giddy at his purchase. He decided to wait until he got home (with his Krispy Kremes) to open the CD. Reading, scouring the liner notes while listening would surely shed light into the life and influences of Ms. Paige.
The line was as he expected: long. Getting out of his car and ‘beeping’ the alarm, he pulled open the doors and was hit by the wall of intoxicating sweetness. Waiting in line, he hummed what little he could remember of the song and wondered what else was waiting for him to discover on that little disc. His turn. “I’ll take a dozen.” Spinning around on the greasy floor, he had a doughnut in his mouth before he even hit the door and was already thinking about his second.
Arriving home, he walked up the steps to his apartment, opened the door and tossed the remaining six doughnuts on the counter. Ashamed that he had lost self control and eaten six on the 20 minute ride home he vowed to go the gym the very next morning. But for now: showtime. He pondered, “What does Jennifer Paige have to say to to us.”
Apparently not much. As quickly as he had engorged himself with doughnuts, he realized that Ms. Paige was just the little crush that she sang about. To be fair though, the single has lasted as long as his love of doughnuts and has earned a spot on this year's March Fadness.
Not a writer by any stretch of the imagination, this the longest essay Clint McCall has written since 1994 when he graduated college. He has loved dance, pop and techno for as long as he could afford to buy music and has a special place in his heart for the fadness on display in the March.
how one sexy can perplex me: me & mr vain by karyna mcglynn
Whenever I hear “Mr. Vain,” my soul takes on the sickly green effervescence of a Zima spiked with sour apple Jolly Ranchers. I can taste the cocaine residue along my gum line. I feel the ghosts of white thigh-his like phantom limbs. Sure, the song is an adrenaline shot of youth, but I think I age a fortnight with each listen.
“Mr. Vain” was Culture Beat’s first mainstream hit in the U.S. That was in 1993. River Phoenix was still alive. So was Kurt Cobain. Bill Clinton had just become president. Donald Trump did an interview that year where he said, “I think certain women are more beautiful than others, to be perfectly honest. And it's fortunate I don't have to run for political office.”
I was a sixteen year-old living in Austin, TX, and still stinging from my unsuccessful audition for Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused, which came out that year. I was less fixated on the on-screen arrivals of Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, and Matthew McConaughey—because who the hell were they? And never ever could I have imagined that twenty-two years later McConaughey would be the commencement speaker at the very ceremony where I received my PhD, a ceremony in which he framed his classic “alright, alright, alright” line as a “life lesson,” much to everybody’s amusement. And as surreal as this seemed at the time, it’s worth noting that this ceremony took place exactly a month before Donald Trump announced his candidacy (also to everybody’s amusement), and so the whole affair now takes on the halcyon glow of both innocence and retroactive dread.
No, in 1993 I was more obsessed with the fact that my fourth-grade quasi boyfriend, Mark Vandermeulen, had gotten a minor speaking role in Dazed & Confused as one of Wiley Wiggens’ freshman friends.
But whatever. I was a sophomore. I had recently received my full-fledged driver’s license, quit my church youth group, and discovered gay dance clubs.
Songs in the “Mr. Vain” vein may have been unavoidable in 1993, but I also desperately needed them. I was burning the candle at both ends: sneaking out to clubs four or five nights a week, dancing & drugging with drag queens until 3am on week nights, and getting up at 5:30am to go to drill team practice followed by a full slate of AP classes. And “Mr. Vain” and its ilk (e.g. Crystal Waters, Haddaway, La Bouche, Le Click, 2Unlimited, Real McCoy) were everywhere. They were my getting-ready music and my driving-downtown music. They pulsed through the clubs and infused all the drugs. I dragged them drunkenly home down 1-35 with me. Back in my bedroom, I’d peel off my sweaty stockings, vinyl boots, and bustier tops—shedding fake ID, dollar bills, lip-gloss, a few Capri cigarettes—and crawl into bed where I would dream these songs, which never quite felt like falling asleep. It seemed like the minute I closed my eyes, the alarm went off—and it wasn’t today’s pleasant arpeggio of wind chimes either; it was the brash electronic yawp of a clock radio from the late 80s playing those same songs. Out of bed I’d climb, and into the stale sweat of yesterday’s toast tights and wind pants, and whatever-color-leotard-we-were-supposed-to-wear-on-Tuesdays (which I often got wrong and had the demerits to show for it). I had Mini Thins for breakfast. It sounds like a cereal, but it was basically trucker speed, or the 90s equivalent of Adderall, except you could buy it at the gas station. Did I mention I was bulimic? I was dizzy all the time. Most of the girls I knew were dizzy all the time. For lunch, we chewed cinnamon twists from Taco Bell and moaned briefly before spitting our mouthfuls into paper cups.
Drill Team is serious business in Texas high schools, but I didn’t realize until much later how regional that business was. Not everybody grows up in the shadow of the Kilgore Rangerettes and Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, or under the glare of the IRL Friday Night Lights, or beneath the physical and social weight of traditionally huge (and numerous) Texan homecoming mums (i.e. fake chrysanthemums leaden with glitter glue, floor-length ribbons, and faux school spirit in the form of tiny teddy bears & plastic megaphones).
A lot of “outsiders” mistake drill team for flag corps or ROTC, but it’s more like the Rockettes competing in a hickish mash-up of So You Think You Can Dance? and Battle Royale.
Our team was called the Sundancers, and we were kept in a perpetual state of competition—not just against other teams at the numerous regional and national competitions, but against each other and the limits of our own exhausted bodies. It was a constant fight: to get on & stay on the team, to be cast in routines, to work our way up the militaristic ranks, to get on & stay on a whole slew of “special squads” like “First Kick Line” and “Honor Jazz Line,” to be blessed with a coveted solo, and to stay well under our allowable weights & measurements for our monthly check-ins.
For four years, I spent every single weekday—from 6am to 8:30am, 1pm to 2:30pm, and 4:30pm to 6pm (not to mention our performances at most basketball games, every assembly, and all football game—rain or shine, both home and away)—leaping and high-kicking across the rubbery floor of the practice gym to songs like “Mr. Vain,” and desperately trying to keep my place on First Kick Line. Being on First Kick Line required not only a superhuman amount of endurance, but also the demonstrable ability to kick off our sequined cowboy hats (with both legs, and without bending our knees or hunching forward) before jumping and freefalling into the splits. The desired look involved a fun little bounce as our pussies hit the turf, and a big smile. We were a shiny, smiling, blue-eyeshadowed crew plagued with self-starvation & shin splints.
As long as I stayed on First Kick Line, I thought, I was unassailable. And so I did, thanks to trucker speed, youth, and the artificial heart-pumping beats of Hi-NRG Eurodance, which, while lyrically blurry & about as nutritive as those spat-out cinnamon twists, somehow served as a source of life support.
Two days after my sixteenth birthday, I sped recklessly through the neighborhood, eager to show off my brand new seafoam green Ford Probe. (It looked like a shark!) That same day, Culture Beat’s founder, Torsten Fenslau, lost control of his Mercedes-Benz 500SL, causing it to roll several times before coming to rest in a field near Messel. Fenslau, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the vehicle and killed. He was 29.
Not that I knew any of this back then. There was barely internet in 1993, and MTV was in Peak Grunge mode—thus, not exactly in the business of reporting on Eurodance traumas. I think I would have been hard pressed to even name the act behind Mr. Vain. Partly because they were a one-hit wonder from Germany, and partly because they had a terrible name: Culture Beat—an unmemorable and unimaginative Frankenstein of a name stitched together from the extremities of better and more alliterative bands, like Culture Club and Bronski Beat.
The song’s lyrics are...well, substantively, syntactically, and sexually perplexing (despite the song’s claim that “one sexy can’t perplex me”), featuring hilarious head-scratchers and contorted rhymes like:
Feel the presence of the aura of the man none to compare
Loveless dying for a chance just to touch a hand or a moment to share
Just another fish to fit the worm on the hook of my line, yeah I keep many
Females longing for a chance to win my heart with S-E-X and plenty
The most obvious confusion involves the chorus, in which the lead singer, Tania Evans, proclaims “I know what I want and I want it now. I want you, ‘cause I’m Mr. Vain.” I remember vaguely wondering, “Wait...you’re Mr. Vain? You: the woman singing this song?” This confusion is easily cleared up by a peek at the lyrics. Turns out, there’s a barely noticeable “he’d say” dialogue tag that precedes the chorus, so the chorus is basically Evans quoting what Mr. Vain would say...like, if he were here? Where is he? Who is Mr. Vain?
To answer this, we need to turn to the video [above]. It features a fierce Tania Evans and a solemn American rapper named Jay Supreme as they wander though a baroque house party populated by a mélange of powdered dandies in puffy-shirts & silver-vested ravers in oversized hats. Some of the women look downright Pre-Raphaelite. One dude is wearing a tricorne hat for some reason, and another is wearing a doublet. Supreme, it seems, is the titular and single-minded Mr. Vain in pursuit of Evans—following her up dark staircases and skulking after her down empty hallways. He wants nothing to do with the festivities down below—presumably because he “know[s] what [he] wants and [he] want[s] it now.” Meanwhile, an epic arrangement of fruit has been served and the motley crew gorges on it. The whole dance party devolves into an orgy of juice.
But there’s something more ominous going on. We keep cutting to these black & white shots of Jay Supreme sitting alone at a mirrored vanity. Easy symbolism there. Most of the time he looks like himself, but occasionally his reflection shows him in a state of decay, like his skin is starting to zombify and peel off. In any case, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on because the makeup job is bad. It looks like a middle school drama geek’s first experiment with latex and spirit gum.
In the final shots—somewhere in the gothic upper floors of this pleasure palace—Tania Evans grabs a hand mirror and marches defiantly up to a glassy-eyed Supreme, confronting him with his own disintegrating reflection. Cut to a shot of a white rocking horse rocking eerily alone in a white room littered with leaves, as if it’s being ridden be a Victorian ghost child. And that’s it. We’re left wondering whether “Mr. Vain” is a Eurodance homage to the Picture of Dorian Gray. And whether this has anything to do with the fact that Torsten Fenslau was working at a club called Dorian Gray right up until his death. And whether maybe—just maybe—it might be that easy to destroy the image of other vain sexual predators wandering myopically through their own pleasure palaces, thinking that “Girls all over the world...hope and pray and die for men like me...the male epitome.” Calling Ms. Tania Evans: 2017 needs you. Bring on your magic mirror. I’ll make you a homecoming mum, or at least buy you a Zima. I hear they’re coming back.
Karyna McGlynn is the author of Hothouse (Sarabande Books 2017), I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl (Sarabande Books 2009), and several chapbooks. Her poems have recently appeared in The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review, AGNI, Ninth Letter, Witness, and The Academy of American Poet’s Poem-A-Day. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Oberlin College, where she teaches poetry, translation, and humor writing. Find her online at www.karynamcglynn.com.