(16) natalie imbruglia, "torn"
(9) len, "steal my sunshine"
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 3/17.
AARON SMITH ON "TORN"
I was supposed to be writing an essay about Natalie Imbruglia’s song “Torn” when my mother was diagnosed with kidney cancer. It was in the back of my head that I had a deadline approaching. Over the course of three weeks, I sat in rooms waiting to see what each doctor would say about my mother: urologist (You have a big mass in your kidney); urologist again (Your lungs are clear); oncology urologist (You’ve had this tumor for at least fifteen years); and the post-surgery room where they take you and you worry the news is bad because they’ve isolated you. Thankfully, my mother’s prognosis is good: after the doctor cut her in half, pulled out her kidney, he said: Good news and She did great. He even drew us a picture with a pencil (kidney mass as a big scribbly circle and a “thrombus” (a new word we learned) moving toward her liver). My whole family listened rapt and confused and relieved. I kept thinking: those hands have been inside my mother.
Every day after the diagnosis I told myself I’d work on the essay at night before bed. I’d hum the beginning of the chorus: “I’m all out of faith. / This is how I feel.” And then I’d get distracted or too tired or someone in my family would need something or I’d think: what if her cancer is as bad as we are afraid to imagine. I’d say to myself on the back porch: “I don’t think I can leave her body in the ground and drive the fourteen hours back home to Boston.”
I first encountered “Torn” on MTV when I was in graduate school. I mostly wanted to fuck the guy in the video, whom I found out is gay in real life when I bought an expensive British magazine in a gay bookstore on Pittsburgh’s South Side that put everything a person bought into a brown paper bag. The bag told everyone you had a secret and it was sexy. This was right as the internet was beginning: bare-bones email and picture-less gay chat rooms, but nothing elaborate, and porn was still a tangible thing on VHS that my friends and I passed to one another, a kind of intimacy knowing which scene a friend liked and exactly what they were into. But it wasn’t just sex I hid. It was anything that marked me as a fag. My shame then was a tumor as big and sick as my mother’s.
Like I imagine many guys who grew up gay in the late 70’s or early 80’s, I got used to imagining myself in the place of women in movies, television and videos. Every shirtless stud was on top of me. That man was bringing me flowers. The guy, Jeremy Sheffield, in the “Torn” video might actually love me if I had glossy lips, a pixie haircut and tugged my sleeves like Natalie singing about being “naked on the floor.” I didn’t know then that guys like Jeremy—muscled, gorgeous, floppy-haired—don’t usually date chubby, balding guys like me who wear glasses; they usually date guys who look like them: Narcissus pinching his own nipples, staring into the stream. I hadn’t had sex with a man at that point, but I’d been every woman fucked by every sweaty man in every movie: Sharon Stone in Sliver, Melanie Griffith in Working Girl kissing Harrison Ford out of his dress shirt, Kim Basinger in 9 ½ Weeks.
Everyone kept praying for my mother. Each text from her friends: Praise god! We have everyone praying! Wait and see what god can do! And I kept thinking: why did god let her get cancer and carry it around in her body for over fifteen years? Why did she have to have cancer while her mother was dying? Why did she have cancer when she scrubbed the kitchen cabinets on Saturdays? Why did she have cancer at my parents’ fortieth anniversary party my sister and I threw when she looked so pretty and happy and cancerless. I’m all out of faith. This is how I feel.
Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” written by American alternative-rock band Ednaswap, survives because of the melody, the springy guitar at the beginning, the catchy, spin-around-your-room-in-a-circle push of it, the chorus and the electric guitar leading us out of the song while Natalie thrashes in her blue hoodie (the blonde homo in the baby-blue sweater and nineties corduroys who, for obvious reasons, can’t seem to get the kiss right).
The lyrics really don’t make sense: “I thought I saw a man brought to life. / He was warm, he came around like he was dignified. / He showed me what it was to cry.” It’s as if the writers needed a rhyme, something to fit the established structure. What does dignity have to do with crying in this scenario? “Illusion never changed / into something real” leads us eventually to “You're a little late. / I'm already torn.” Wasn’t he, like my mother’s cancer, already there?
I look at these lyrics and feel like I can make sense out of them sometimes, but then I feel like my writing students who try and try to understand a poem that makes no sense, that only the writer (barely) understands, and then try to convince me with republican-spin that it’s obvious, common sense, not confusing at all. I always say: “Sounds like you’re writing a poem instead of reading one.” I guess wanting to believe in anything requires a bit of spin—like Natalie twirling on that set—more work than we should be asked to do and still not quite making sense.
“So I guess the fortune teller's right. / I should have seen just what was there /and not some holy light.” Now that things are looking good for my mother, everyone keeps saying that god had a hand in the result. I keep thinking about the doctor’s hand opening her torso. I asked a lover once which finger he put inside me, and he flipped me off across the bed: fuck you and this is how I fucked you. How to make sense of what’s inside us? How to make meaning? Do we need it?
Maybe some songs just feel good. Maybe it’s okay not to understand, not to pick at the threads. Maybe it’s not necessary to point out whether a thing is poorly constructed or not. Maybe songs like “Torn” let us fuck a British guy in a video and imagine a life, even briefly, where we can have everything we want just the way we want it. Maybe the point is to belt out with passion silly words that sound good together because we don’t have the right words for things we don’t even know are inside us?
Perhaps songs like “Torn” are aptly titled “one-hit wonders.” There’s no need to really think about them, but year after year they come back to us because it just feels good to sing, because it just feels good to get fucked. They help us deal with the fact that there isn’t a god who gives a shit about us. We don’t need to waste our time hiding the things we want in brown bags.
Just because “the perfect sky is torn” doesn’t mean we have to look.
Aaron Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Primer, Appetite, and Blue on Blue Ground. He is assistant professor in creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
mike powell on "steal my sunshine"
This song—bratty, casual, brimming with attitude—became a hit in July, 1999, the summer after I met a girl named Sarah. As with most of my childhood friendships, the precise origins of Sarah and I are lost to me now—only that we were in English class together, mutual unknowns one day, nearly inseparable the next.
I was, at the time, 16; serious in the pitiable way only 16-year-old boys can be, the hero—as one of my girlfriends' mothers so memorably put it—of my very own melodrama. My taste in art skewed toward the difficult and obscure, assuming in my serious teenage-boy way that real enjoyment was the product not of relaxation but hard work. Because I presented myself as anything but, a group of older girls had given me the nickname Happy Boy.
The culture, of course, validated this. Indie rock, abstract art, the World Cinema shelf of our unreasonably well-stocked public library: to appreciate these fineries was a sign of intelligence, of having the bearing to defer instant gratification for richer, longer-term rewards. Songs like “Steal My Sunshine” were second-class citizens, advertisements aimed not at committed adults but at teenage girls, delirious with hormones, skimming the surface of their life like pond skaters.
Sarah was too smart to share my hangups. If anything, she wielded her love of this song—its breeziness, its defiant simplicity—like a taunt, tucking into it with the uncomplicated relish of a workman tucking into a steak. I have since seen this tactic in parents encouraging their children to try new foods, miming pleasure from the other side of the Rubicon, as though enjoying life was mostly a matter of surrendering to it.
That Sarah was obviously smarter than I was didn’t bother me, it was that she didn’t have my need to be seen as such. In the same way people born rich never talk about money, Sarah shied away from intelligence, as though the caste systems of teen movies—where nerds are outcasts and jocks are inexorably dumb—were real. Her achievements—star swimmer, never off the honor roll—doubled as embarrassments.
Though I hate myself for thinking it, Sarah was not a pretty girl. She had coarse hair, thick eyebrows, and big, indelicate features. I preferred her company to almost anyone else’s but our relationship remained fraternal: Driving around, watching TV on Sunday nights, baking cookies, dinners with each others’ respective families. We could, I had learned, laugh together, an expression not just of vulnerability and disarmament but of an appreciation for life unburdened by the need for meaning, as immediate as it was deep.
When she died of a pulmonary embolism a few weeks after turning 21, I found myself listening to “Steal My Sunshine” on repeat, as though this thing she understood so intuitively—and that I had resisted so arrogantly—might carry some kernel of her essence that would reveal itself to me over time, like the clue to the riddle of what her death had meant. For a little while, I had wished, in the self-flagellating way of the grieving, that the embolism had been mine, only because she seemed that much better at being alive.
The obvious always becomes clear last: Sarah died. She didn’t know she was going to die when she did, but therein lies the gamble of being born. As for Len, they remain, like the creation of the universe itself, a one-hit wonder, a bright flash remembered, paradoxically, for its transience. The band’s singer said that when they went to Daytona Beach to shoot the video for “Steal My Sunshine” they ended up destroying five scooters and bought so much liquor it broke the hotel elevator. A video for the album’s next single, “Feelin’ Alright,” featured C.C. DeVille of the hair-metal band Poison wearing a purple feathered jacket and electrical tape on his nipples, soloing on a white flying V guitar from the tabletop of a high-school cafeteria. Then came “Cryptik Souls Crew,” which seemed to require nothing more than a few snowmobiles and a cabin in the woods. “Bobby (It’s a Summertime Thing),” released on the band’s next album, The Diary of the Madmen, had no video budget at all.
Mike Powell lives in Tucson, Arizona.