(5) Joan osborne, "one of us"
(13) culture beat, "mr. vain"
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 3/10.
hannah ensor on "one of us"
I sometimes fantasize about being a touring drummer for a 90s singer-songwriter. She’s someone I admire, but not someone I idolize so much that we couldn’t hang out. I might have a little crush on her: just enough to smooth out our socializing, to give us reason to chat. If you’re listening to “One of Us,” as I hope you are while reading this, listen to just the drumming for a second. Do you hear how easy and fun that would be? You could do, like, anything, and not have to be very good at all. Every four bars or so you would just move your hands over to some other part of the drum set but keep all your hands and feet essentially doing the same thing with slight variations. At some point—say, while the guitar solos—you could do the thing that for most of the song you were doing on the slightly-parted hi-hats but do it over close to the dome of the ride cymbal. For dramatic effect, later, you might stop playing anything but a cymbal and the snare drum. She might make you harmonize into a microphone even though you’re not a singer, which works because the song’s premise is imagining what it’d be like if God was just good, not great, so you don’t have to be particularly sonorous. Just on-key and a normal level of talented. And, when you’re not ping-ping-pinging on the ride cymbal, when the crowd’s not calling out someone’s name that isn’t your name, watching every move of a hero who’s not you, you could spend the day, all day every day, until doors at 7:00 or so, reading books and writing poems.
This is the kind of dreaming I do when I’m not fixated on the idea of Donald Trump killing us all, of me finding out about it at 11 PM on a Monday night. I’ve been staying pretty close to my phone, waiting for the thing I’ve known was going to happen my whole life.
Time was once that people thought “One of Us” was disrespectful because Joan Osborne offered a possibility that God was “just a slob like one of us.” A certain subset of people went on television, furious. What is it with contemporary Christianity and loathing? It’s pretty fucking capitalist, to be against the slob. Always a looking down. WWJD? Does anyone self-identify as a slob? One thing is certain and that’s that “slob” is a word that has to do with productivity. There’s a way of looking at it that says that God in all these stories is productive, but from my non-scholarly seat I’d say that’s really just at the start of each of the books. There’s the part where He makes everything, and there’s the part where He sends His Son. What else does God do, though? Was it “productive” to flood the earth? God gave the instructions for building the ark, but His main role in that story was the part where He brought the water. God did not create jobs. God did not build a WalMart. Was God a slob? Some people have suggested that Trump spent his first few days writing executive orders just to get the presidency out of the way. On the first day, he… On the second day…
On a lark, I google “productivity slob late capitalism” and find my way to an article about how Trump won the presidency through the power of entertainment and gestural comedy. It points to a moment in the campaign when Trump, at a rally, teased John Kasich for eating quickly—in Trump’s caricature, Kasich shoves pancakes into his mouth in front of the press. The article posits,
In this dramatization of Kasich’s table manners, we are again confronted by a display of discomfort with non-normative bodies. It is well known that Trump avoided the fray of vernacular embodiment on the campaign trail by rarely eating with locals, even though this activity is expected of presidential candidates. In fact, Trump is famous for eating even fast food with a knife and a fork. Anthropologists familiar with the work of Norbert Elias (1982) and Pierre Bourdieu (1982) on the importance of table manners to class distinction would recognize Trump’s enactment as a veiled class assault: Kasich is a slob, a low life, a “subhuman” who would have difficulty being presidential. Trump, in contrast, is a man who teaches his children to exhibit good manners and eat politely in “small bites.”
When I listen to Joan Osborne’s “One of Us,” I get very emotional. Or, to get the rhythm of it more right, I listen to the song a few times on repeat with some quick returns to “St. Teresa,” I’ll be feeling really good, loving her, rocking out (I’m usually in my car), and then with seemingly no pattern or reason, I’ll be hit with it. It’ll creep up my chest and I’ll get it right behind the eyes. Yeah. Yeah.
I have been finding religion through these times. I’ve been praying, actually praying. I started right before the election. It didn’t do any good. A poet I know recently told me that my generation is too fixated on results. She said we need to protest, show up, talk to our representatives, not because it’ll work (she says it won’t), but because we need to live ethical lives. She’s right. She told me she would write me a letter about it and title it “Dear H.”
Dear God, why aren’t You helping? Are You helping? Is this You helping, all of us out in the streets? Cancelling our Uber accounts and instead taking a cab to go see our representatives? Did You help through the judge ordering a stay on Trump’s Muslim Ban? Is it You that moved that veteran, the one with four purple hearts, to drive four hours with his young son to be at the Dulles airport to protest? Did You at least see it, when he pinned one of his purple hearts to the shirt of an Iraqi husband, reunited with his wife after the stay was granted? Did You see me crying on my bed?
Should I mention here that I’m a Jew? Is that of any concrete use to this inquiry? Jews like to close read. Jews don’t totally get what’s going on with all this New Testament stuff. I’m a Jew who still doesn’t understand why some books got to be gospels and others didn’t. The Jews’ God, I have to say, is much closer to a slob than Jesus is. Jesus loved slobs, but He wasn’t one. He was, of course, “One of Us,” in a much more structural way than the Torah’s God. But the God of our Book is awesome (in new and old uses of the word) very much because he’s sloppy, sometimes (or even pretty often) wrong, impetuous, gets pissed, destroys everything, tells fathers to carry their sons up mountains to kill them only to pull back at the last minute for some unknown but presumably moral rationale that we’re still wrestling with, arguing over, shrugging and saying we’ll never understand. He puts His people in bad positions, hard ones. Maybe the thing is: He sets up all these scenarios in which people might become slobs, but they have to be something with more fortitude, for better or for worse. A lot of times it’s not for better. It reminds me a little of what my great-grandmother told my great aunt and my grandmother: You have to behave yourselves because someday the world will be the world again. My family, other people’s families, families in Poland and in Rwanda and in the U.S./the Americas before there were geopolitical lines cutting it all up (and in the U.S./the Americas through and after the geopolitical lines) and in the Torah: at no point have we been just allowed to chill, peacefully, by the banks of a river carving slowly through the desert. We haven’t been allowed to be slobs, but it’s not because slobs are bad, at least I don’t think that’s why not.
I think about Jesus a lot these days, and I think I like him. My great aunt collected Catholic icons and put them on the walls of her house. It seemed at many moments of my life an odd choice for someone who had survived the Shoah despite other humans’ best attempts, but at this moment I’m gaining a little access into it all. It’s not a Christian thing, and it’s definitely not a “Jews for Jesus” thing. Not for me, anyway. I can’t speak for her, not at all.
My God is not better than yours. I don’t know anything about yours, or honestly anything about mine. I know that as a kid I loved Sister Act, and when I re-watched it recently I wept through the whole movie. I know that I have a “Magic Created The World, Only Magic Can Heal It” bumper sticker on my wall. I know nothing about Joan Osborne’s relationship to her own spirituality. I know that mine changes probably daily. It’s growing fast these days in messy outward motions – horizontal and spin-wise, not vertical. Not necessarily toward any particular texts or traditions. I’ve always liked community. I feel deep allegiance to my family. I know there are a couple of sticky subjects that get hard to talk about, or to think about; I think we’re all moral relativists, trying to make our way home. When I imagine turning my head upwards and praying to an individual, I think of that scene in The Lion King when Simba sees his father in the night sky. I’ve been getting acupuncture a lot recently, and a friend cleansed my chakras. I watch Lady Ghostbusters regularly and believe it’s a parable for modern times. It is the 21st century and for reasons inextricable from my relationship to the patriarchy and a queer lineage I still pop Relish into my car CD player every few months or so and sing along full-throatedly as I glide down the streets of Tucson. I believe in epigenetics, and that I have a fight inscribed in my genes. I’d spent all this time assuming it was weakness—and now I know it’s a super power.
I think I would be okay with this being the song I listen to while I die.
The album version of “One of Us” starts with an old lady. Or, rather, with an old recording—made on October 27, 1937 by American folklorists Alan & Elizabeth Lomax for the Archive of American Folk Song—of an old lady—Mrs. Nell Hampton—singing an old song—a hymn written in 1928. To honor the great folklorist and believer, hypothesizer, wonderer, Joan Osborne, and for all the ladies who are both one of us and more, I’ll end the same place she starts:
So one of these nights and about twelve o'clock
This old world's going to reel and rock
Saints will tremble and cry for pain
For the Lord's gonna come in his heavenly airplane
Hannah Ensor is from Michigan and received her MFA in poetry at the University of Arizona. She coordinates the Reading & Lecture Series and the Summer Residency Program at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and is also a co-editor of textsound.org, a contributing poetry editor for DIAGRAM, and has served as president of the board of directors of Casa Libre en la Solana, a literary arts nonprofit in Tucson, Arizona. Her first book is forthcoming from Noemi Press.
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.