the sweet 16:
(11) skee-lo, "i wish" defeats (10) haddaway, "what is love?" 139-103
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 21.
ANALYSIS BY DANIELLE CADENA DEULEN
For me, it’s Skee-lo all the way. I love its beat, its allusions to so many other 90s songs, and in a musical genre where the main players usually try out-bravado one another, a man who spends an entire song discussing his diminutive stature and lack of cool is not only totally endearing, but also brave. Like Figler says in his essay, it’s the “anthem of the underdog.” But while I’m here, I have some questions for Haddaway’s “What is Love” video: 1) How much did it cost to be filmed in the same mansion as “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and what did you do with those creepy choir boys? 2) Are the spastic, fluctuating frame rates during Haddaway’s gyrations symbolic of the unease he feels in this relationship or is that vest just really uncomfortable? 3) Why are these four female vampires so into EDM? 4) Is this the interpretive dance, TV-friendly version of an orgy (in both senses of the word, sex and, if they are vampires, feast)? 5) What is that mysterious steam ejaculating forcefully out of your marble table, and is that love?
ANAlysis by zaza karaim
“What is Love” is a classic! I had already heard this song about 100 times. I remember classmates singing it in like fifth grade. I don’t know about its merit as an actual musical composition, but it has become (dare I say it) a meme among the young folks. It’s sort of a joke at this point, but I guess there was a time when people enjoyed it as music. Zaza’s rating: 6.5
"I Wish": This song isn’t that interesting, but it’s catchy. It basically screams 90s to me. It’s a fun but not life-changing listen. There isn’t a lot to say about it, honestly. Zaza’s rating: 5
HENRY BREAN ON "WHAT IS LOVE"
Before it became a U.S. club hit, then a cliché, then, finally, the punchline to a one-note joke on Saturday Night Live, Haddaway’s breakout single “What Is Love” briefly belonged to the boys on Wheaton Court.
Make no mistake. This was nothing to be proud of—for us or for poor Haddaway.
My best friend and college roommate, Chad, bought an import version of the single on CD during an awkward, early stage in his transition from mainstream synth pop fan to guy who orders obscure EDM through the mail.
I was headed in the other direction, deeper into the backwoods of jangly, guitar-driven indie rock, just across the border from alt-country. But even in my flannel-addled state, I instantly recognized two things about “What Is Love”: The song is incredibly catchy, and it is also pretty dumb.
I’m not sure which quality appealed most to our other roommate at the time.
We’ll call him Banks.
Today he’s a successful sportswriter and columnist at a major newspaper, married with two children. But in the early fall of 1993, Banks was a bully and a drunk, prone to wild emotional displays—fists through walls, screaming arguments on the phone with his family, loud sobs after a breakup.
He even drove around our college town of Columbia, Missouri, with a certain level of aggression. He would lower the windows on his worn-down Volkswagen Jetta and blast whatever loud song he currently had in rotation from aftermarket speakers that thumped static.
Banks only seemed to like music one song at a time. Whole albums were wasted on him. He would narrow in on one track and play it until everyone around him wanted to scream.
Once during our freshman year, his girl back home dumped him over the phone, so he spent the better part of a day locked in his dorm room blasting “Something I Can Never Have” by Nine Inch Nails. He even left it going on repeat when he went to class, eventually causing his boom box, over the course of at least an hour, to emit a piercing death rattle as it melted under Trent Reznor’s ceaseless growl.
For reasons unknown, Banks took an instant liking to “What Is Love.”
For what seemed like months during my senior year of college, I would hear the song through the paper-thin walls of our shitty duplex on Wheaton Court any time the Jetta pulled up or drove away.
Maybe Banks genuinely enjoyed the song. Maybe he just liked how loud and pulsing it sounded coming out of his car. Maybe he only played it like that so people would notice him and so someone, inevitably, would tell him to turn it down.Maybe then he’d get to tell some random stranger to fuck off.
Here’s the funny thing about Banks, though. For all the growing up he still needed to do by the time we finished college—and for all the ways he tried to pick fights with the world around him—he already somehow knew exactly where he was headed and how to get there.
I was toiling away at the University of Missouri’s vaunted school of journalism with no real plan or prospects after graduation. Banks was already getting paid for his work by real newspapers and wire services, despite his bad grades and the basic bachelor’s degree he was about to earn.
I was secretly terrified of what came next. Banks didn’t seem scared of anything.
Our college years ended at roughly the same time as Haddaway’s brief popularity.
By the late spring of 1994, “What Is Love” had become that song the DJ played every night just before they turned the lights up and kicked everyone out at Deja Vu, a generic dance/comedy club a short stumble from campus. You could set your watch by it. Instead of last call, Deja Vu had Haddaway.
Two years later, the song most of us had already forgotten cropped back up on SNL, where it was typecast as generic dance music in a recurring sketch starring Chris Kattan, Will Ferrell and whoever the male host was that week. Dressed in shiny silk suits over black T-shirts, the three of them would bounce from club to club, listening to Haddaway and grinding themselves against unwilling women. The gag proved popular enough to be turned into a terrible, feature-length movie that no one saw. “What Is Love” was pulled right down with it.
The last time I recall hearing anyone play the song unironically—and let’s face it: Haddaway’s schtick was borderline self-parody to begin with—was in the early summer of 1994.
We had just graduated, Banks and I, and he immediately found a paying newspaper job, the first in a progression that would eventually lead him to a high-profile gig covering an NFL team for one of the nation’s largest papers.
I was still sending out resumes and wondering what the hell I was going to do when my lease ran out in a few months.
The day Banks left for good, his Jetta was so packed with stuff that the back bumper sagged almost to the ground.
I stood watching from the front step of the duplex as he drove away, the car’s back end throwing sparks with each bump he hit.
The windows were down and the Haddaway blasting as Banks flipped me the bird one last time.
Henry Brean is a newspaper reporter, desertphile and amateur social media wiseass. Each December, he makes himself a two-disc mix of his favorite new songs from the year, complete with cover art and a theme. This is his idea of fun.
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.