(11) skee-lo, "i wish" DEFEATS (6) shakespears sister, "stay" 128-41 AND MOVES ON TO THE SECOND ROUND
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 2nd.
keith pille on "stay"
There’s probably a lot of this going around in this tournament, but for me this song and my experience of it are 100% tied into the time and place where I was first exposed to it: 17 years old in pre-internet rural Nebraska, just barely coming online as a conscious person aware that there was a world beyond my immediate surroundings and mainstream mass-market cultural inputs. The sort of state of mind where you see U2 work with Brian Eno and think they’re operating out there on the far out fringe of sanity.
This was a world and a mindstate where you took whatever it was MTV served up next, shrugged, and said “OK, this is what I’m checking out right now.” Stuff came and went with no background and limited chances for further investigation. These days, if you run across a strange song that strikes your interest, you’re just a few minutes of Wikipedia/Spotify investigation from having a pretty solid grounding. Back then, at least in the sticks, it was standard operating procedure to turn on MTV, see a weird-ass video, and then sit there for a while wondering fruitlessly what the hell you’d just seen.
And it’s worth noting that, with Shakespears Sister’s “Stay,” it was definitely a case of seeing the video; I don’t remember this song getting much airplay on Omaha’s rock or pop stations, but for a while it had a very strong presence on MTV (this was, by the way, before my grandmother successfully fought to have MTV removed from the cable offerings in Blair, NE, on grounds of immorality. This really happened). Anyway. The video, watching it now, is quite visually arresting at first. The early 90s were an age of narrative videos, and this thing’s narrative as hell (or at least it appears to be). A guy with a sensitive early 90s haircut is dying- he’s in a bed, sandwiched between some life-support equipment and a window showing some early 90s CGI space. The guy’s tattoo looks a little ahead of the cultural curve for 1992. A pretty but exotic (by rural Nebraska 1992 standards) woman is caring for him, occasionally cradling him, and belting out a musical request for him to stay with her. And I mean BELTING; when she really gets going, it sounds like the whole recording setup must have been on the verge of exploding.
(a brief aside here: I’m a fan of both Loretta Lynn and Neko Case. One of Loretta Lynn’s big strengths is her sense of dynamics. Typically, she sings in a quiet, tamer register in verses and then belts it way the hell out during the chorus, or for moments of big emotion—AAAAND IIII WAS BOOORN A COOOOALLLL MINER’S DAUGHTER—and so on. Neko Case is great in her own way, but suffers in comparison a little in that she pays less attention to dynamics. Case, for better or worse, has the vocal pedal down on the floor at all times. Which sounds great, but it means she never has anywhere to go to elevate a song. It’s not a crippling problem, it doesn’t stop her from being magnificent, but it’s a limitation. My point here is that Siobhan Fahey—or that’s the name of the dying-man-cradling singer, easily googleable now, but unknowable for me in 1992—makes Neko Case look positively restrained in the world of no-holds-barred belting it out)
OK. The video. At about two minutes in, the background music shifts, adding a vaguely menacing guitar part. And another woman shows up, apparently walking out of a blinding light, looking like Theda Bara with more clothes on and fewer skeletons lying around. She (her name is Marcella Detroit, again an easy thing to know now but unobtainable lore back in the day) is singing menacing lines in a low, menacing voice, which actually contrasts pretty nicely with Fahey’s upper-register belts. The camera cuts frequently between close-ups of Detroit’s face, where she tries to look scary but actually looks quite silly, and her crotch, which gets thrusted around a lot (this is probably not intentional, but this all weirdly mirrors the scene in Bye Bye Birdie where Conrad Birdie makes a whole town pass out with his gold-lamé pelvic thrusts). Fahey and Detroit have a struggle over the dying man, Fahey wins, the end.
Back in the day, I can’t say I liked it, but I was definitely kind of taken by it—what the hell was that? Watching and listening now, I’m struck by how little of anything there actually is here. The song and video are both all suggestion that never delivers anything greater. Musically, there’s not much here. Sparse arrangement with a woman belting out a high part, followed by slightly less sparse arrangement with a low part. It sounds like it’s starting to go somewhere, but suddenly it’s over. Likewise, the video—we have the suggestion of a story, but you never really get enough to care (this, by the way, is why all narrative music videos that aren’t called “Sabotage” are basically failures). Most of the heavy lifting in the video is done by immense amounts of eye shadow.
Wikipedia tells me that there are all sorts of interesting bits of background to the song; Fahey was formerly a member of Bananarama, where she worked with Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols. The group’s name is a (misspelled) Smiths reference, who were in turn referring back to Virginia Woolf. There’s a mountain of postmodernism here just begging to be unpacked. I can’t say that any of this background would have mattered a ton to me in 1992 (maybe the secondhand Sex Pistols connection), but it would have been nice to have at least a little exposure. On the other hand, I probably would have insta-dismissed anything connected to Bananarama.
The world used to be a smaller place. I might be wrong about this—I’m probably wrong about this—but I can’t help but feel like whatever success “Stay” had in the US was based mostly on the fact that it’s so damned European (and it was massively popular in Europe, sitting at #1 on the UK charts for 8 weeks). The song and video—especially the video—lean hard into a set of aesthetics that didn’t often make it too deeply into American pop culture, so that when people ran into this they had no possible reaction other than “my god, what was that, I need to see it again to figure it out!” Sure, Pavement put out a landmark album in 1992, but there’s nothing on Slanted and Enchanted that makes even the squarest of squares wonder if their cable’s been hijacked by a feed from another, weirder dimension. So give Shakespears Sister their/her due.
Keith Pille (@keithpille) is no one of consequence. He fills his time making comics about music, finding ways to make "Public Enemy Rules" a defensible art history lecture, and chasing his dog around the back yard with a broom.
dayvid figler on "i wish"
I am not a big man—my official height is 5’6 ¾”—but I’ve come to terms. There was a time when the prognosis was that I would never top the 5-foot plateau. My pediatrician was a lovely fella (maybe 5’4”) named Dr. Merkin who broke the news to my parents when I was ten.
Apparently, there was a hypothesis of a cartilage disorder. Talk of breaking and resetting my legs and then of human growth hormone treatment. It all seemed radical and hopeless. Luckily my folks waited it out, but it wasn’t a smooth transition: I was already a year ahead in school, so not only was I the smallest kid in my class, I was the smallest kid in the class behind. Suffice, sports. Suffice, girls. Suffice, bullies.
The spurt to steady and current height happened all at once and not until age 15. More of a spurt-ita.
“I wish I was a little bit taller.”
Skee-Lo (20-year old Antoine Roundtree) dropped his personal wish list on radio/video audiences in 1995. Seemingly, no one was content in 1995 and Skee-Lo struck that zeitgeist. Add in the catchy hook, the easy flow, easy repeat rhymes, the Tribe Called Quest-Lite (with an edict from the Fresh Prince) atmospheric background and it’s a hit, blasting at every stoplight from every White Dodge Neon for a good six months.
But, back to the core wishes of that catchy hook:
3. GIRL WHO LOOKED GOOD (CALL HER)
4. RABBIT IN A HAT WITH A BAT
5. 64 IMPALA
In retrospect and as much as they felt good to profess to all of us, are these really the universal wishes? The desires that unite us all? At the very least, are these the wishes that make a great song for the ages? Within the confines of the dope rhymes did the rapper tap the matter of the all-times?
Let’s dig in!
“I wish I was a little bit taller”
Remember the Brady Bunch episode where Bobby (perhaps as proto Skee-Lo) decided to do something about it by hanging from the top bar of the backyard swing set? All the same reasons. Shrimpdom’s universal complaint. But yeah, that was stupid. Think it would only make your arms longer, if even that, Bobby. Waste of time. Wait! Did you just find HGH in Johnny Bravo’s backpack?*
Then again, what’s the end game of height wishery? Will little Bobby Brady ever be happy?
Wish all you want, there is a terminus. A final measure.
I will never be 5’7”.
Bobby will never be taller than Greg.
Skee-Lo will never be Skee-Hi.
Is this wish a folly? And how tall is tall enough? I know plenty of 5’10” guys who want that 6 with every fiber. What is the magic of a little bit?
Maybe that’s it. Just a “little.” The annoyance of falling just short, or the possibilities from having a smidge more. Maybe an unattainable goal, but also a scapegoat for all your shortcomings? The one chance (if a miracle happened) to get modestly more tippy in your toes. Peer over the fence. Better your percentage at the hoop. Give your crush a better line of sight. Remove yourself from the radar of one more bully.
An inch and no longer the keeper of the weather “down there.” No more last (or never picked) for even soccer. Soccer!
From us, wees, to you, already-perfectly-tall-shut-ups, a “little bit” is a solid wish. Dream away the pain.
“I wish I was a baller”
In 1995, Dennis Rodman was as “baller” as it got. Now, Skee-Lo was an LA Kid (the song video takes place on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles—total cred) but there’s not a Lakers jersey in the whole video and he’s seemingly wearing a Chris Webber Michigan jersey with his main basketball rival in the video is sporting a Larry Bird jersey! Seems like the whole Hoop Dream thing here was more wardrobe department decision than street ethic. So… back to Dennis Rodman.
Dennis fits the bill for “baller” in a lot of ways—grew up in an impoverished part of town, worked his way up to being one of the top rebounders in the country and then on to a five NBA championships with two different teams. And he didn’t do it quietly or without flare. Who can forget the ever changing hair styles and hues, the face jewelry, the fur coats, the Carmen Electra?!
Indeed, the metamorphosis of Rodman from basketball “baller” to just straight up, “baller, yo” arguably makes him the progenitor of the free-wheeling, cash-spending, living large for the sake of large-living person.
So here we can split the wish into two paths. To be a big time, basketball baller is likely unattainable. And so we are relegated to the wish, alone, and bide the time wearing jerseys, thinking about basketball, filling out brackets for March Madness (or ridiculous variants thereof), playing the video games. On the other hand, we can all be “ballers” if just for one day. I wish I could save up enough cash and treat all my friends to courtside tickets for the Golden State Warriors—popcorn is on me, Carmen Electra!
“I wish I had a girl who looked good, I would call her”
The first half of the 1990s was all about the pager. There were a lot of songs that referenced pagers. My favorite was A Tribe Called Quest’s “Skypager.” Like seriously good hip-hop (words not used for “I Wish”) and bonus (or wah-wah) it has a Donald Trump reference.
Pagers were cheap, tiny, handy and ubiquitous. Here’s how they worked.
You buy a pager from a strip mall or a kiosk from a guy who did outrageous television commercials. In my town, it was JJ, the King of Beepers. He wore a crown, had an accent of indistinguishable origin and was flanked on either side by audaciously festooned bikini-clad ladies who did NOT have a line of dialogue. The pager had a clip that attached to your pants. The pager would buzz and you’d look down to the display that would have a phone number or a code or a phone number followed by a code. Like 555 1212 911 911—which could translate to either call your mom, you’re really in trouble for not calling earlier, or call your mom because your house is on fire, etc.
And even though pagers were just middlemen for land line calls, people weren’t really into calling each other on the phone in 1995 any more than they are today. People would just hit each other’s pagers if for no reason to let the other know they were thinking about them.
That Skee-Lo is seemingly wishing for a conventionally attractive mate is neither unexpected nor does it in any way elevate the underdog hero of wishery. He bespeaks of “hood rats” as his typical dating fare and it’s a lament. In fact, there’s a whole section of laments: his hatchback, broken 8-track, a spare tire flat, getting picked last at basketball, getting hit with a bottle, rejection by fly girls. And while maybe we all just want him (and us) to wish for a girl who would give love for who you are and not what you wish to be—perhaps we can forgive Skee-Lo and place him in a different 1995 trope. That maybe the girl who looks good (for whatever awkward calling would follow) is one of those hood rats. Maybe she just takes off her glasses or does up her hair and finds the right dress a la Tai Fraser in Clueless (RIP Brittany). Skee-Lo, she was there ALL ALONG!
“I wish I had a rabbit in a hat with a bat”
“The Magic You Will See Tonight Is Performed Without Camera Tricks or Video Effects. You Will See At Home Exactly What You Would See If You Were Here With Our Live Audience.”
Unexplained Forces was magician David Copperfield’s sixteenth and penultimate television special. It aired in 1995. Copperfield (David Seth Kotkin, born in 1956) emerged on the stage in a poofy, white, overly button-clad (but barely-buttoned) shirt, with a black T-shirt underneath and a hairdo equal parts pompadour, mullet, feathered mane and Tribble. Jet black. There were no rabbits, but an exasperatingly long bit involving a chicken that variously appeared and dis. He talked up ladies from the audience and brought one on stage. His assistants were in nighties. He sported hypnotic sideburns. In 1995, David Copperfield was THE face of magic.
Wishing for magic is pretty pedestrian, since, well, you already have wishes. Maybe, all paths lead to the same destination. Mastering magic gives you a permanent wish machine for the (now ridiculously aforementioned) girls! But with magic, you can create the illusion of anything—being good at sports? Being taller? Astounding bullies into distracted submission? And if that doesn’t work on the latter—that’s where the wished-for “bat” comes in? Now whether the bat is for Skee-Lo or for the rabbit to do the dirty work for him is one of those unanswerable questions. Indeed, it’s all quite curious—this peculiarly specific foray.
Then again, the easy answer is Skee-Lo was sitting in his house, watching TV, going down the list, and decided—sure, that one, too! Later, in accord with the instructions he placed his hands on the family Zenith.
“Later You Will Be Asked To Touch Your Television Screen And Take Part In An Illusion With David Copperfield. Follow His Instructions And You’ll Experience The Magic Right in Your Own Home.”
Did he feel it? Did something happen when like a visitor to a prison, he placed his hands on the glass between him and Copperfield?
Dunno, but this one seems off. The path of Copperfield prospectively from 1995 seems a wonky road.
“And a six four Impala”
A fully restored 1964 Chevy Impala is a sweet enough car. And maybe this of all the rest could be the Monkey Paw in the mix. I mean, wish for it and it happens, but your favorite uncle had to die. And then all the repairs, and the lack of safety features. It could get quickly get dark. But granted, a nice vintage ride is a totally legit wish.
Only wonder if he asked for the ‘64 Impala merely because of the rhyme. In that vein, did he have other transportation options? Most certainly, my favorite two of which are:
A 1995 Ford Explorer (far more practical).
A Fishing Trawler (far more unique).
In any event, with a slick ride, a little height (to see over the steering wheel), a pretty girl paging you incessantly on your way to the basketball court to not not get picked. Seems like a solid set of wishes, with or without magic bat-wielding rabbits riding shotgun. Literally, or as a metaphor, the song (generally) holds. From my personal experience, I did and do endorse this song as an anthem of the underdog. Maybe not definitive, but worth consideration.
Wish away with Skee-Lo. Unlike HGH or radical, elective bone-breaking procedures—it seems like it can’t really hurt.
*More likely a Quaalude
Dayvid Figler is a capital defense attorney practicing law in his hometown, Las Vegas, Nevada. He’s a radio commentator, essayist and lead screecher of the seminal (and only) punk-rock polka band, Tippy Elvis. In the 1990s, he was a deejay at the coveted 2AM to 5AM Sunday morning shift on College Radio station, KUNV, where he played far too much Ciccone Youth. His mini-memoir, NO KIDS, NO SCAT, NO PISS—A First Amendment Love Story is available on Kindle for a buck.