(8) tom cochrane, "life is a highway" DEFEATS (9) marcy playground, "sex and candy" 218-120
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 7.
kathleen rooney on "life is a highway"
When one is young, even as one’s taste remains malleable and relatively unformed, one begins to realize that to be able to assert with confidence what one likes—sincerely and without fear of coming across as uncool—is a complex form of power toward which to aspire.
When I was young, from the academic years of 1992-1993 and 1993-1994, I attended Jefferson Junior High School in the Chicago suburb of Woodridge, Illinois. Once every month, all of us malleable middle-schoolers had an opportunity to test out our musical taste at the Video Dances put on in the Jefferson gymnasium by the Woodridge Park District.
On those Friday nights, the DJ—or VJ, I guess—would set up his stereo speakers and his enormous projector in the space that doubled as our cafeteria and smelled faintly, always, of tater tots and unwashed PE uniforms. Against the wall, out of the way of the bleachers and basketball hoops, he’d set up his screen, vast and white like the sail of a ship that would transport us shortly to exotic realms we’d glimpsed on MTV. We’d watch and dance, dance and watch. Seeing, hearing, and moving to those songs was a big freaking deal because in those pre-YouTube days, there was no guarantee that you could simply click a link and see an artist’s visual interpretation of a song you admired.
For some reason never explained to any of us, each of these dances would conclude with the same two-song send-off: first “Life Is a Highway” by Tom Cochrane followed by “You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC. Both songs are full of innuendo and explicit sexiness, and I loved both of them, as did my peers as evidenced by the sweaty vigor of the dancing and the head-banging and the fist-pumping that they did in response to both of them.
What I didn’t say then (fear of coming across as uncool by criticizing either beloved piece) was that I understood “You Shook Me All Night Long” to be the superior song—musically, probably, but definitely lyrically. Sure, the title was familiar, but the individual lines—“knocking me out with those American thighs,” “working double time on the seduction line”—were fresh and hilarious. Even the VJ seemed implicitly to agree with my assessment—“Life Is a Highway” was the penultimate, not the ultimate heading-triumphantly-off-into- the-night song.
I really enjoyed “Life Is a Highway,” but I knew even then that the title and entire premise of the song were huge clichés: expressions and ideas which have become overused to the point of losing their original meaning or impact.
Life is a highway.
Perhaps at some point very shortly after the passage under Eisenhower of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the phrase was considered novel, but many decades later, it seems irritating and trite.
Cars are terrible, encouraging a sedentary lifestyle and destroying the environment. And highways are awful—high-speed, ugly, dull ways to get from one place to another, deliberately void of the charm offered by scenic routes or rail.
To call anything that is not actually a highway a highway certainly betrays a lack of original thought.
Life is not literally a highway. It should be against the lyrical law to say that it is. And yet.
Cochrane makes the banality sound so good: poppy and optimistic. Unstoppable even. I mean: “Life’s like a road that you travel on / When there’s one day here and the next day gone. / Sometimes you bend and sometimes you stand / Sometimes you turn your back to the wind. / There’s a world outside every darkened door / Where the blues won’t haunt you anymore.”
The video makes it look good as well. Shot in the Badlands of Alberta Canada, it shows Cochrane playing guitar amid striking rock formations and follows the golden-lit road-trip adventures of an attractive young couple: driving a 1965 Chevy Impala with the top down through beautifully desolate landscapes, cavorting as they wait for a car ferry to cross a river, changing a tire, stopping at a road house to play pool, breezing by an eccentric but harmless cast of roadside characters—gas station attendants, members of an austere religious order, Cochrane himself wearing a leather jacket and standing inexplicably in the middle of the road playing his harmonica, et al.
The two youthful lovers do everything in their power to invite you to want to be them: perfect wind-tossed hair, glowing sun-kissed skin, optimal early-90s jeans, bandanas, sunglasses and tank tops. “Where the brave are free and lovers soar / Come ride with me to the distant shore.” Who wouldn’t want to say yes to that invitation? Especially at 12 or 13? Hackneyed as the chorus is—“Life is a highway / I wanna ride it all night long. / If you’re going my way / I wanna drive it all night long”—its confidence seduces.
A quarter century after hearing it over and over at the video dances, I realize that I didn’t love the song then and I don’t love it now in spite of its clichés, but because of them. “All night long” as if nothing else matters and we’ll never grow old or fall out of love or die. Of course we’ll do all of that, and of course life is a lot of things, though none of them are highways. But who cares because the song is so happy and welcoming. “Life is a Highway” is the audio equivalent of a big friendly golden retriever asking you to play fetch; you’d have to have a heart of stone to resist.
The song appears on Cochrane’s 1991 album Mad Mad World, and it’s not nostalgia that moves me to say that the world has since gotten quite a bit madder.
The song became a number one hit in his native Canada and reached number six on the Billboard charts here in the United States in 1992—his only one to crack the Top 40.
Listening to “Life is a Highway” on repeat to write this essay (in late November of 2016 in the wake of the most catastrophic American presidential election that I’ve been alive for) and again to revise it (in late January of 2017 in the wake of the fascistic and pathologically dishonest Donald Trump’s week—and counting—of fulfilling all his most repellent campaign promises) lends the song poignancy now that it didn’t have for me then. I think harder than I did in junior high about Cochrane’s being from Canada, our boring and kindly neighbor to the north. Here in the States, we live, as the purported curse says, in interesting times; our new president is a corrupt, racist, misogynist, xenophobic authoritarian maniac with narcissistic personality disorder and little apparent interest in civil or human rights.
Much preferable would be to ride the highway of life down here in a fashion more closely resembling the life-highway of Canada. Much preferable would be to have a leader as evidently civil, empathetic, and progressive as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Much preferable to be under the direction of someone like him, who in November of 2015 introduced a 30-person cabinet that was half men and half women, and who, when asked to explain the gender parity of this group, replied, “Because it’s 2015.” Or who in January of 2017, in response to Trump’s unconstitutional travel ban on refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada”
Straightforward. Matter-of-fact. Life is a highway.
Would that the highways in the U.S. could be equally appealing.
And that at the end of them, we could let the people who want—and need—to be here in.
I once heard a Catholic priest say, “With ritual, what is natural becomes supernatural.” Which sounds to me like a recipe for magic. Which sounds to me like why the VJ always sent us home from the Video Dances with those two songs.
I value rituals—maybe not religious ones, per se, since religion comes with too much oppression and expectation. But secular, community-based rituals that are all-inclusive and offer to encompass everyone give us all a common basis for interacting and being together in a particular moment, surrounded by love and not subject to fear. Cliché to say that life is a highway. But it could be. A highway. With room on it for everybody. Or it could if we want it to be.
So Tom Cochrane is in the middle of touring in support of the 25th anniversary of his album Mad Mad World, but on Sunday night, just hours before this match went live, he was kind enough to provide the following answers to questions I sent him over Twitter. You’re a class act, Tom Cochrane!
KR: You released “Life Is a Highway” roughly 25 years ago. What prompted you to write it in the first place and did you realize at the time that you had a monster hit on your hands?
TC: I was encouraged by an associate, John Webster, to finish the "sketch" or demo after a trip to Africa in late 1989 with the NGO World Vision. I needed a song to pull me out of a funk. I was in a pro talk to myself, so to speak, and that was it.
KR: One of the things I talk about in my essay is how comparing things that are not literally highways to highways is a cliché, and how as a creative writing teacher, I’m frequently encouraging people not to use clichés. However, one of the other things I talk about is how much I love the song and what it does with that familiar phrase. How do clichés work differently in songs versus regular language and writing?
TC: Yeah, it's hard to describe the power of a song like “Life Is A Highway” to inspire people until you're "in it.” As a performer and songwriter, the power it has to lift people up is overwhelming. I feel blessed to have written it, and sometimes wonder what life would have been like without it, or if indeed I'd still be performing at 63.
KR: Are there songwriters who you particularly admire for their use of words?
TC: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young to name a few.
KR: Here in the States, you qualify as a “one-hit-wonder,” yet your musical output has remained consistent and steady for decades, and in Canada you’ve been successful and well-known for many years, both as the front-man of the band Red Rider and as a solo artist. Do you feel that the runaway success of “Life is a Highway” changed the way you were perceived at home in Canada? And did it change the way you feel about your own musical career?
TC: Well, I suppose as Tom Cochrane, but as the singer and songwriter for Red Rider, “Lunatic Fringe” was a Rock Radio hit and continues to garner much airplay. As a matter of fact, before Rascal Flatts covered “Highway,” “Lunatic Fringe” had eclipsed it in recurrent airplay in the States. You have to remember that in Canada, songs like “Boy Inside the Man” and “Big League” in particular are stronger cultural touchstones in a way than “Life Is a Highway.”
KR: Speaking of your native country, there has always been something quintessentially Canadian to me about the song (even though I think that a lot of times here in the States, we mistakenly think that we have the road song/Americana market cornered). Maybe it has to do with the fact that the video is so beautifully shot in the Canadian Badlands. How strongly do you identify as a Canadian songwriter and performer, and does “Life Is a Highway” embody anything particularly Canadian to you?
TC: It's funny because when we were touring a lot in the States, many people thought the video was shot in Arizona Ha! I think Canada and the States share the commonality of the road as a metaphor. The highway has always been the bloodline for our countries. Before that, the railway. It is the stuff of freedom, imagination, and adventure, and—linking us from north to south and east to west—it is the single biggest commonality we share as countries.
KR: In the interest of taking this “March Fadness” tournament, which focuses on so-called “one-hit-wonders,” as a chance to expand listeners’ familiarity with your work, what other songs of yours should people listen to if they like “Life is a Highway”? What are the other gateways you’d recommend into the musical world of Tom Cochrane?
TC: “Lunatic Fringe,” “White Hot,” which also reached 45 on Billboard in 1980, “Big League,” “Boy Inside the Man,” “No Regrets,” “Sinking Like a Sunset,” and I am particularly fond of the whole first side of the Neruda album.
A founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, Kathleen Rooney is the co-editor of Rene Magritte: Selected Writings, and her second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, has just been published by St. Martin's Press. She lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay.
kate bernheimer on "sex and candy"
Probably the most well-known fairy tale featuring sweets is “Hansel and Gretel.” In that story, a brother and sister are sent into the woods by their parents during a famine. The parents, incidentally, are biological in many international variations of this tale type, though we have the Grimms’ version from their seventh edition to thank for the now-tired cliche of the “non-biological mother” trope in so many films, novels (for children and former children alike) and in popular culture. The mother urges the father to send the children out to the woods, because not all four have a chance to survive. She chooses to save herself and her husband.
The brother and sister come across a cottage with a roof made of bread and window panes made of clear sugar. Though this is the only line where candy is mentioned in this story about child abuse, its cameo is fondly remembered and often depicted in the tale’s illustrations. A surprising number of candy stores are named after Hansel and Gretel, a surprising number of dollhouses modeled after the cottage are available, and there are thousands of available recipes if you would like to make a cake in the design of the tale’s cottage.
Unlike many fairy tales, “Hansel and Gretel” does not have any sex scenes, though if you Google “Hansel and Gretel” and “sex” you will find many results to enjoy, if you are interested in that sort of thing. I’m not, but no judgment.
It is true that candy and strangers have been iconically linked and in threatening ways; does anyone else find the song “The Candyman Can” in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” movie a little bit creepy? The Candyman has a little too much power for me!
And what child hasn’t been warned not to take candy from strangers, the implication being strangers with candy want to hurt you—and, as was suggested at least when I was a kid, that would be in sexual ways. (Despite the well-documented fact that the majority of childhood sexual abuse was suffered at the hands of a biological male relative, not those of a stranger in an Oldsmobile station wagon shaking a boxful of Nerds out the window at you as he slowly drives by, like Joyce Carol Oates’ character A. Friend in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” a story based in large part on multiple Grimms’ fairy tales.)
At least one high school teacher has, however, taught her students that the story of “Hansel and Gretel” is very much about sex—the female sex! According to this high school blogger, who took really good notes during class or posted his teacher’s lecture notes, it isn’t clear, he has been taught that:
The archetypes in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ present the children’s sexual awakening and the role women play in it. The biggest archetype occurs when it is mentioned that the family had “very little to bite or sup” (Grimm 1), and when Hansel and Gretel devour freely from the witch’s house “built of bread… [decorated with] sugar” (Grimm 2). Eating is the archetype of having sex; thus, the family is actually not hungry for food, but hungry for sex. The fact that the stepmother is dominant over the male in this sex-needy situation indicates that females are in control when the drive for sex takes over. The witch’s house is made of bread, which symbolizes the body, and thus when the children are having the time of their lives eating this bread house, they are in essence going to an all-you-can-have-sex buffet. [Emphasis mine.]
It is possible that, even though I am a fairy-tale scholar and author, I have not understood this story to date. Which leads me to Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy.” Yes! This will at least somewhat be an essay about a one-hit wonder! A very strange song! I remember it well. The thing is, and I am sorry to say this, but I may not be the right person to write about this song after all, and not only because I may not understand it. But I will give it a try.
First, and maybe you can help me out here: I am wondering if I don't understand “Sex and Candy” in much the same way that I don’t understand (apparently) “Hansel and Gretel,” which I always thought was a story of the weak overcoming the strong—of a young girl determined to save her young brother—of the mysterious abuses adults exact on innocent children, and which the children breathtakingly also survive—of loneliness (the witch’s) and hunger (everyone’s)—of the radical, mysterious ways we make it out of a bad story alive? Basically, a story about “brother, sister, woods, path, cottage, witch, oven”—some nice nouns! Nice solid nouns to count on! White bird! Bread crumbs! Window panes! Mother! Father! The End!
Then again, I don’t have a sweet tooth. Another thing is I have only once, by accident, used the word “sex” in my fiction, in a short story that is in a literary magazine and if I ever collect it in a published book of short stories I plan to remove the sentence from it. The only other time I mention something that is probably “sex” in a work of fiction is in a scene that reads in its entirety: “Then some other things happened.” Come to think of it, I pretty much refuse to discuss my personal interactions with its behaviors, much to the dismay of a novelist friend of mine who once worked at Hustler, sometimes writing “reader confessions” and sometimes reviewing “films” and tries often to engage me in all manner of discourse about “sex” activities. (I am perfectly happy to debate with her the various installments of the Buttman series, of course—which one is the best, and so forth.)
As to candy, I did recently make candy with my daughter and a good friend of hers who is a trapeze performer—these were homemade lollipops from corn syrup, sugar, and water boiled to 305 degrees Fahrenheit and poured messily onto parchment paper from a saucepan which ended up as a giant concave lollipop itself because the candy hardened on the bottom of the saucepan. The lollipops had no scent though lemon extract was indeed added. The lemon extract ingredient list contains no reference to lemons, so that could be the reason for the lack of citrus magic. The lollipops also were tasteless.
Now that I think of it, I once stayed in a hotel in Cork, Ireland that was down the street from a candy factory and the smell of the candy was one of the best smells I ever have smelled, which is saying a lot because I am a smell junkie, but not like my sister, who has what is called a “good nose” and has a wine store—talk about candy. Me, I collect perfume. My favorite perfume at the moment , now that I think of it, claims have a top note of sugar—cotton candy, to be precise. So perhaps I like candy after all. Though the base note of Dzing! (the exclamation point is part of the perfume’s name and not a typo, please note) is a mixture of hay, circus performers (after the show, i.e. sweat, which could possibly be mistaken for sex I suppose), tobacco, and a long-lasting finale of, indeed, horse manure. The fragrance is delightful to me though some reviewers—not of the fragrance on me, mind you, these are reviews in magazines—describe the scent as disturbing.
Do you think this is why I don’t understand “Sex and Candy”? It is not a disturbing song—unless it strikes you, as it does me, as having a touch of a stalker vibe. Candyman, etc and so forth. Or maybe I do not have to understand “Sex and Candy” at all. Maybe that’s the thing, and that can be a good thing. Can’t it?
To be sure it has what many reviewers call a “sexy” beat and a super catchy sound. That explains nothing—so do a lot of songs that don’t make it to number one for what, seventeen weeks? And indeed, “Sex and Candy” is written just like a pop song wants to be written; a pop song is an art form. But like any art form, this is no guarantee of anything, hitting a form. So do a lot of songs that don’t get popular let alone even recorded let alone released to the masses. A whole lot of songs. I’ve heard tons of perfect pop songs played live in bars, in basements, and in garages.
I have thought and thought about it, and first of all I think any “hit” is 99 percent luck—right time, right place, etc and so forth.
Second of all, and this is tentative, but I think it might come down to the non-symbolic nouns of “Sex and Candy” as best explaining its widespread appeal, as with “Hansel and Gretel.” Sex! Candy! “Who’s that knocking at my door?” asks the Witch! Wait, that’s the wrong story! I mean song . . . oh I get it! Is it possible that the more literal-seeming the language of an artwork—song, story, poem, painting—is—however abstract or however representational, however narrative or however disconnected, however weird or however mainstream the artwork is—the more chance it has to be popular with millions of people? When the words of a literary artwork easily point to the most commonly held associations at a given time—and only those most commonly held associations—that mainstream culture has with those words, the more people will like the artwork? Nothing is a stand-in for anything else—you can enjoy without recourse.
Third of all, the same year “Sex and Candy” was released, 1997, Elliott Smith also released a song about candy, “The Ballad of Big Nothing.” The speaker gets in the back of the car for candy with a stranger. Probably heroin. Elliott Smith wrote gorgeous, seductive pop songs about self-hatred, sadness, and slow suicide. “The Ballad of Big Nothing” was not a number one hit. This explains nothing about “Sex and Candy,” I just wanted to mention it because it’s from the same year and it’s a glorious song. It doesn’t mean a thing. What a line. A thing. What is a thing? Does not meaning a thing mean nothing? No, it does not.
A lot of songs that become highly popular with mainstream audiences actually use words in highly incomprehensible ways. “Sex and Candy” makes no sense. There are some words, put together in certain ways, that for a whole lot of reasons (which one could explain) do not disturb the majority of people at a particular moment in history. “Not being disturbing” at a particular moment in history to a large group of people is one of the primary attributes of a lot of popular entertainment products.
This is not an indictment of those artworks. It in part explains fairy tales’ longevity, for example, and fairy tales are my life work. What is “Hansel and Gretel” about? Hell if I know. I think it’s about how to recognize danger, but it is probably “still popular” in its diverse forms because most people don’t experience fear when they actually read it.
Which brings me to my final point, which I am reluctant to make, and it’s less a point than an association. It is about the historical writing about Josef Mengele, a Nazi also known as the “Angel of Death.” Much of it eerily recalls details from “Hansel and Gretel.” Mengele—who was often mentioned around the dinner table in my family, mainly at gatherings to “celebrate” Jewish holidays—conducted monstrous experiments on children, with a special interest in twins. The children were kept alive inside boxes, not unlike Hansel inside of his cage. And if the children were in distress before a procedure, "Uncle Mengele,” which is how the children knew him, would console the children and give them chocolates and other candies which he kept in his pockets. However, if Uncle Mengele was seeking information about twins that would be best revealed in an autopsy, there would be no candy. In those cases, the siblings were simply sent to the gas chamber. This isn’t a popular story, but many, many more people should know it.
In sum, and I mean this sincerely, it’s absolutely wonderful to enjoy the pleasures of pop music. You are allowed to enjoy it!
And as Slavoj Žižek also has written, “You are allowed not to enjoy.” Things.
“Sex and Candy,” it turns out, is a very evocative song. Isn’t it?
Kate Bernheimer is the author of three novels and the story collections Horse, Flower, Bird and How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales (Coffee House Press), and the editor of four anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award winning and bestselling My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin Random House). Her recent novella, Office at Night, co-authored with Laird Hunt, was a finalist for the2015 Shirley Jackson Awards and was a joint commission of Coffee House Press and The Walker Art Center. She also writes fabulist children’s books, all published by Penguin Random House, which have been published in Korea, Japan, Italy, France, Greece, Spain, Mexico, and other countries in translated editions. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker (Page-Turner), The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times, Marvels & Tales: The Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies, and elsewhere. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Arizona.