(10) haddaway, "what is love" defeats (7) the verve pipe, "the freshmen" 115-95
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 8th.
freshman writing: matt dube on "the freshmen"
This is an essay about teaching. This fall, it will be twenty years since I started doing it, and I don’t think I’m much better at it than I was when I started. I aspire to being a Kevin Seconds, Craig Finn, Mark Eitzel kind of presence in the classroom, bullying, confrontational, pushing the issue, but it’s a bad fit. I’m fumbling and awkward by nature, not really credible playing an extrovert, and my only trick is to throw something on the table—an essay, a poem, a YouTube video—and then bear down till the whole class surrenders, admits defeat, gives up trying to have the kind of reaction to it I wanted. I spent a lot of time going to rock shows when I was growing up, and it made me think that’s how people respond to art, first confrontation and then realignment. I should know by now it doesn’t work—it's never worked—but I keep trying to force it." You can cut out the last sentence of the paragraph.
In the fall of 1997, I was teaching freshman writing for the first time, and I had a whole slate of papers designed to fail for all the usual reasons. One I assigned asked students to explain their summer job to a celebrity actor or famous musician. In another, I wanted them to connect their life to a song they knew well, that spoke to them. I thought to bridge the gap for my students between their experience and the world of college writing. I thought that school could be their scene, if they were open to that and were asked to bring themselves into it in the right way, by the right person. And sure enough, I had a student who wanted to write about the Verve Pipe song, “The Freshmen.”
I knew Verve Pipe, of course. I’d been going to rock shows in Kalamazoo, MI since I’d moved there four years before, and everyone knew The Verve Pipe. They were from Grand Rapids, or maybe Lansing, or maybe Muskegon. They had that kind of “not-from-here” vibe, that sense of trying a little too hard to be everything to everyone. No one I knew took them seriously, and everyone expected them to break big on the strength of this song, “The Freshmen.” The band expected it too, had woodshedded and re-recorded the song for years, in at least a couple different arrangements—a 12 string acoustic version, a more jangly, REM-ish mix. I’m pretty sure I was at a Verve Pipe record release party, but left before they played. And now my student wanted to write about their hit song.
I forget her name, but let’s call her Alicia. Alicia was slight in the way college freshmen are slight, four eleven and ninety-five pounds and most of that hair that fell straight past her shoulders. She was in my office to talk about her essay. She was struggling to make out the features of her story in the Verve Pipe song. “Okay,” I must have asked, “you’ve got a song. Now what you need to do is figure out how it applies to your life.”
“I’m a freshman,” she said, staring up at me from someplace untroubled.
“And?” I asked. “A lot of people are freshmen. What about you, in particular, do you see in this song?” If I was good at my job, I would have been an expert on the song, on all the songs my students wanted to write about, but I wasn’t. I’d heard it played over the PA system in the student center when I waited in line for a McDonald’s chicken fajita, and that was about it. It was the early days of the internet, so it didn’t occur to me to try to look up the lyrics, but looking at them now, I don’t think that would have helped. To me, the song’s lyrics read like grunge-themed magnetic poetry, phrases from different scenes thrown together. The singer, Brian Van der Ark, won’t be held responsible, but for what? “Baby’s breath and a shoe full of rice”? The song’s word salad tossed prom corsages with a wedding, maybe, but not even that specifically. But to Alicia, this grab bag of references was saying something.
She was a freshman; the song was about her. We talked, or I talked and she confirmed or denied, without committing to either, especially. In the end, we figured something out. The song, it turns out, was about her twin sister, who went to school someplace else, and who’d had her heart broken. You know how twins are, how they are supposed to have this connection, to feel each other’s pain? That wasn’t Alicia and her sister. But for Alicia, the song somehow closed that distance. The swelling minor chords, the singer’s raspy melodies, drew her closer, emotionally, to the sister who wouldn’t return her calls. It put her in the place her sister was, that swirl of bruised, unspecific confusion, or at least made her feel like she was.
When she stared into that song, she saw herself: a freshman. Baby’s breath and a shoe full of rice. Or if not herself, someone like her. A twin, or close enough.
A couple years later, I was teaching in Alabama, in another freshman writing program. This time, the assignment was to have students connect their experience to something we read from our class anthology. I asked a student to stay after class after reading her paper, because I had grave concerns about plagiarism. Or maybe they weren’t so grave. I knew Consuela had plagiarized, and I wanted her to acknowledge it, and do better. Go forth and sin no more, that was my philosophy after teaching for a few years.
Consuela wasn’t a typical freshman writing student at the University of Alabama, which was mostly populated with well-to-do kids who had a good basic education and who didn’t really know what was next for them. Consuela was older, maybe older than me, but if I had to guess, she was hovering around thirty, my age, give or take a few years. She came to class with her hair did like she was going to church, and she insisted on calling me mister. And apparently she’d worked a few years as a domestic, because of course.
“The reason I wanted to talk to you,” I explained to Consuela, “is that in your essay, when you write about Maya Angelou and use her words, you didn’t put quotes around them.” Our anthology included an excerpt from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In this excerpt, Angelou is working as a domestic for a wealthy white woman. The white woman won’t call Angelou by her given name, insists on calling her Mary. Maybe she gave the same name to all her maids to make them easier to relate to, so they were all the same to her. In her essay, Consuela blended Angelou’s ideas with her own, without a break. So in a paragraph that included a section from Angelou’s chapter, copied word for word, Consuela added her own thoughts, with no signal that we weren’t reading Angelou. Stranger still, parts of Consuela’s essay included scenes with Mary that weren’t in the excerpt we read. When I first sat down with her to talk about it, I wanted Consuela to admit that she’d read the whole of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and found more evidence to support her case. I thought, whether she’d read Angelou before the class started or since, that there was a connection there, and I was excited to see it develop, as long as it was documented appropriately.
But instead, Consuela told me that no, the things she described happening to Mary had happened to her. Which things, I asked? And she told me, all of it. I said, okay, sure, you had a similar experience to Angelou, but why do you refer to yourself in the essay as Mary? She looked at me like I was stupid. “That’s what I mean,” she said. “I cleaned for a woman, she didn’t like my name. So she made up a name for me, and that’s how she called me.”
Consuela and I went around for another five minutes. I underlined passages in her essay and showed her the same words in our anthology, but Consuela was unmoved. She knew all this because it had happened to her, too. The rest of the semester, thankfully, nothing we read spoke to her in the same way. She didn’t feel the need to engage it as fully.
I’ve been calling that a teaching fail, when a student doesn’t see herself in the work she’s doing, especially in a humanities classroom. When the connection between the person and the work of art that’s put in front of her doesn’t come into focus. It’s what I wanted from bands when I went to see them at Club Soda, the rock club in Kalamazoo, to find a place for myself between the noise and the melody, the board shorts and sleeveless t-shirts. But what if we’ve got it backwards? Maybe the way we teach writing makes the same mistake we make when we talk about one hit wonders. We tell ourselves that the band wrote this one song that came from a genuine place where we all reside. All the other songs, the ones that didn’t become hits, the ones with the fumbled hook, the verse that drags, the murky production, we dismiss by saying the band got in the way; their eccentricities and hang-ups, their personality conflicts and their ambitions, their hunger for another hit blocks us from needing to orient ourselves toward the experience of the song. But what if the opposite is true, that when people listen to the hit what they hear exists only on the surface, and it’s the lack of any depth, any trace of real human experience, anything that can’t be easily assimilated, that makes a hit? What if everything you and I don’t like in Verve Pipe’s other songs is what makes them great? Who would want to read, or to write, about that?
Matt Dube's friends' favorite bands recorded their favorite albums in the nineties. He tells himself he likes a lot of new music and enjoys it as much as anything he listened to in college. Every year, this is a little less true.
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.