Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What's So Bad About a One-Hit Wonder?

Since last week’s MTV entry went over so well, I thought I’d do another larger entry focusing on one aspect of ‘90s music. This week, I’m going to plunge headfirst into the magic behind your favorite (okay, mostly my favorite) one-hit wonders!

What Is a One-Hit Wonder?
This may seem like a question with an obvious answer, but sometimes one-hit wonders get a little complicated. What exactly counts as a one-hit wonder? The default answer is an artist with only one major hit song. But some artists categorized as one-hit wonders actually have more than one hit.

“This is blasphemy!” you shout to no one in particular. Well, it’s really not blasphemy—it’s just convenient to lump artists with a similar history into one big category. Plenty of ‘90s artists are one-hit wonders on a technicality.

So let’s broaden the definition a bit:

One-hit wonder (n.) 1) an artist with only one Top 40 hit song; 2) an artist with one hit song that overshadows the rest of their work

Basically, some of the artists I’m going to mention technically have more than one successful song, but only one of those hits really defines them (i.e. Toadies had three hits, but most people only remember “Possum Kingdom,” so they’re a one-hit wonder).

Now that we’ve got that sorted out, let’s talk about some specific one-hit wonders!

The “Novelty” Hits
I’m using the term “novelty” here quite loosely, as the word implies a certain level of comedy. I tend to categorize songs that don’t seem 100% serious as novelty songs, and plenty of one-hit wonders fit quite comfortably into this category.

So the “novelty” hits of the ‘90s include Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” and Rednex’s “Cotton Eye Joe.” These are typically the one-hit wonders most people remember because most of them were beyond annoying. Oh, and that also includes Los Del Rio’s “The Macarena.” But we don’t talk about that. I am actually having war flashbacks to learning this dance in elementary school. Sweet Jesus, I fucking hate “The Macarena.”

Anyway, the appeal of these novelty songs lies in both their infectious hooks and silly subject matter. These are the tunes that get stuck in your head no matter how much you hate them. Do you remember the first time you heard “Barbie Girl?” Have you been able to get it out of your head since? (My guess is no, since the mere mention of it has resulted in you humming the chorus. COME ON BARBIE LET’S GO PARTY.)

VH1, in all their infinite wisdom, ranked the Top 40 Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the ‘90s a few years ago and placed “Baby Got Back” at number one. Though VH1 lists tend to piss me off (see their incredibly disappointing Top 100 Greatest Songs of the 2000s list), I actually think they got this one right. Based on popularity and cultural relevance, I can agree that “Baby Got Back” is the best one-hit wonder of the decade. (I’m just really glad “The Macarena” wasn’t number one.)

“Baby Got Back” was the second best-selling song of 1992 (right behind Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”). That’s right—a song celebrating the female posterior was second only to one of the greatest love songs of all time. And in a way, “Baby Got Back” is also a love song…to an ass.

So yes, I can get behind “Baby Got Back” (pun completely intended). But not every one-hit wonder is as genuinely fun as Sir Mix-a-Lot’s masterpiece. “Cotton Eye Joe” by Rednex is perhaps the worst song of the ‘90s. There are few songs as annoying and pointless as this one. In fact, I’m pretty sure “Cotton Eye Joe” is on repeat in hell.

In case you were unaware, “Cotton Eye Joe” was written before the Civil War, though its exact origins are unclear. It started as an American folk song and ended up as a bizarre dance hit by a Swedish techno band. Amazing.

The Alternative and Pop Hits
Not all one-hit wonders are hilariously bad like “Cotton Eye Joe” and “Barbie Girl.” There are plenty of decent (and beyond decent) one-hit wonders out there. These include “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers, “You Get What You Give” by New Radicals and “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks.

These hits are also catchy as hell, but tend to find their way on to “Greatest Songs of the ‘90s” lists rather than “Worst Songs of the ‘90s” lists. Of course, their musical merit is based purely on subjective opinion, but let’s be honest—if you don’t like “Tubthumping,” you’re wrong. And if you don’t sing it when you’re drunk off your ass in a karaoke bar, I don’t want to know you.

Since I’ve already gone into the mass appeal of “Tubthumping” (see my Chumbawamba entry), let’s look at “You Get What You Give.”

“You Get What You Give” by New Radicals is a fairly straight-forward pop rock song with one of the best opening lines of any song: “Wake up, kids, we’ve got the dreamer’s disease.” It also features some petty celebrity-dissing, though singer Gregg Alexander claimed that section was a “test” to see if the media would focus on the dissing or the real issues addressed in the song. (Spoiler: they just focused on the dissing.)

Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” is not nearly as pretentious. Though frequently misattributed to Alanis Morissette, “Bitch” is a solid tune for a one-hit wonder. Meredith has a lot of talent and it’s a shame so many people think she’s just an Alanis rip-off. She even got booed off the stage during a 1998 tour with The Rolling Stones (the booing ultimately became glass bottles being thrown on stage).

Meredith is currently writing and producing songs for other artists, along with recording children’s albums.

New Radicals broke up in 1999, but Gregg Alexander has gone on to write and produce songs for Enrique Iglesias, Geri Haliwell (a.k.a. Ginger Spice) and Rod Stewart.

One-Hit Wonders Who Should Have Had More Hits
Having one huge hit is great for some artists—you can live off the royalties from a song like “Unbelievable” by EMF (which was re-recorded for an embarrassing Kraft Cheese commercial). But some artists have the talent for an entire career’s worth of hits. They just don’t have the audience.

While there are tons of ‘90s one-hit wonders that could have been so much bigger, I’ll focus on three that really strike me: Toadies, Marcy Playground and Imani Coppola.

If you want the full backstory on Toadies and Marcy Playground, take a look at their artist profiles on this blog. To keep it short and sweet, those two bands are the most wonderful kind of bizarre.

Toadies have this weird, sludgy post-grunge sound with a Texas-sized ego. While “Possum Kingdom” is a great tune, the rest of the band’s catalogue is even better (and so much stranger).

Marcy Playground sounds like an art school kid’s band in the suburbs. “Sex and Candy” may have been one of the creepiest mainstream songs of the ‘90s, but it’s got nothing on some of the other songs on the band’s debut album.

Imani Coppola is a bit different. Known for the song “Legend of a Cowgirl,” Imani was always destined for bigger. She scored a spot on the 1998 Lilith Fair and teamed up with another one-hit wonder, Baha Men, for a song called “You All Dat.” By age 22, she was dropped from her major label and decided to start an independent career and ultimately joined a band called LittleJackie. The band’s most recent album, Made4TV, was released in 2011.

So is being a one-hit wonder a bad thing? Not at all! Like I said before, some artists make plenty of money off just one hit song. But others end up falling short of their potential, mostly because they’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. My advice to you is if you like a song that’s becoming a one-hit wonder, listen to the rest of the artist’s catalogue. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Unless that band is Baha Men.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The MTV Generation

Well, hello there, loyal readers! In case you haven’t already noticed, I’ve decided to do something a little different this week. In lieu of the usual artist spotlight, this week’s entry will be about a little something called MTV—more specifically, about how MTV shaped the music industry in the ‘90s.

We will delve deep into a time when MTV actually played music (and why it makes sense that they don’t anymore), with emphasis on the most successful directors, VJs, music series and original programming. So let’s get to it!

A Brief History
Some of you may already be familiar with MTV’s beginnings. Since we’re only looking at one decade of programming, I’ll brief you on the embarrassing early years of MTV in the ‘80s.

The concept of a music-based television channel started with Sight On Sound, a specialized channel available on the interactive QUBE service based out of Columbus, Ohio. That channel only played live band footage, but it was an inspiration nonetheless.

Music videos weren’t a new concept by the ‘80s, either. Back in the ‘70s and even in the late ‘60s, very cheap (and very cheesy) videos were used as promotional material for bands. Even The Beatles had music videos (and boy, were they weird).

MTV premiered on August 1, 1981 with perhaps the most presumptuous (and coolest) broadcast intro in history—a proverbial “lift-off” featuring footage from the first Space Shuttle launch of the Columbia. The words, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock ‘n’ roll” ushered in a new medium of music consumption.

The very first music video ever played on MTV was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” (an appropriate choice). The network’s effect on record sales was almost immediate—artists such as Men at Work, Bow Wow Wow and The Human League got exponentially more attention, and MTV’s attention on non-US bands sparked the Second British Invasion.

Most of the early programming consisted of your run-of-the-mill promotional videos with some live footage thrown in for good measure. To break up the 24-hour music video format, MTV hired VJs (or video jockeys) to introduce new videos, relay music news and just generally promote the network. The original five MTV VJs were Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson and Martha Quinn.

MTV started broadcasting special events in the mid to late ‘80s, including the Video Music Awards (started in 1984) and Spring Break (started in 1986). Other original programming soon followed, and by the early ‘90s, MTV had become an entity much larger than anyone could have predicted.

The Alternative Explosion
Punk really didn’t break until 1991, but MTV was ahead of the curve in 1986. The network began airing an original show called 120 Minutes, which catered to alternative and “underground” bands of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, such as The Jesus and Mary Chain, New Order and Butthole Surfers.

In 1991, a little ditty called “Smells Like Teen Spirit” premiered on 120 Minutes, but soon became so popular that it was moved to regular daytime rotation. Once Nirvana proved successful, MTV added bands like Soundgarden, Alice In Chains and Nine Inch Nails to their regular rotation. Soon, alternative rock and grunge had become as mainstream as Madonna.

I think we all like to point to Nirvana as the instigator of all this mainstream business, but let’s be honest—MTV was really the mastermind behind it. Nirvana’s success was directly affected by the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Sure, the song was getting airplay on radio stations, but the band’s image was a huge contributing factor.

And that’s what MTV sells—not necessarily music, but an image. It was more about the music in the ‘80s, but by the ‘90s, everything kind of shifted to the artist as a product. Grunge (which I typically characterize as a fad rather than a music genre) was everywhere in the early ‘90s, and MTV helped cultivate it, package it and sell it to its viewers.

Now, this doesn’t make MTV the enemy (though I’m sure some would disagree with me). There’s nothing wrong with being mainstream, despite what your unfriendly neighborhood music elitist might tell you. MTV just embraced “alternative” culture because, well, it looked cool. In fact, the term “alternative” is kind of ironic considering just how popular the “alternative” style was in the ‘90s. (Side note: There’s a wonderful article by Thomas Frank called “Alternative to What?” that addresses this issue perfectly. Unfortunately, I don’t have a link for it here, so you’ll have to go hunting for it.)

The Music Video as an Art Form
Yes, the primary purpose of any music video is to promote a band, but that doesn’t mean a video can’t be cinematic masterpiece. By the early ‘90s, MTV was playing a plethora of new and interesting music, which required new and interesting videos to promote it.

Enter the music video director. After pressure from the Music Video Production Association, MTV began listing the names of directors at the bottom of videos, beginning in 1992. As a result, MTV’s audience became acutely aware of who exactly was making these short spectacles.

The ‘90s spawned some incredible music video directors, including Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Anton Corbijn, Samuel Bayer and Mark Romanek, to name a few. Soon, music videos became more like short films than promotional snippets of live footage.

I appreciate music videos more than I think I should. I think it’s because I enjoy film in general, and after all, music videos (well, most of them) are basically just short films. Though I could go on and on about videos of the alternative variety, I have to give props to the rap and hip-hop videos of the ‘90s. Some of the best ones were directed by Hype Williams, including Biggie and P. Diddy’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” and Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” Even if you don’t like hip-hop, you have to admit those are incredible videos (especially Missy Elliott).

Why Doesn’t MTV Play Music Anymore?
I’m sure everyone’s uttered this question aloud before. Even those of us who didn’t grow up with classic MTV seem to ponder this.

So what exactly happened to MTV after the ‘90s?

Well, once everyone started pirating music, the record companies lost a shit ton of money, which left almost nothing to spend on music videos. The only videos MTV can actually play are from mainstream artists you probably don’t like (i.e. Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus) because they have the money to pay for the videos. And even those videos are awful because they’re usually made up of 90% product placement (again, because of the whole no money thing).

Sure, we all miss watching music videos on MTV, but can’t you do the same thing with YouTube or Vimeo? You may miss the sometimes brilliant “alternative” programming of the ‘90s, but isn’t that just your nostalgia clouding your judgment?

But if you don’t believe me, give this video a gander. It explains everything (in a delightfully sardonic way).

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Britney Spears

Sound Familiar?
“…Baby One More Time,” “(You Drive Me) Crazy”

Who Is She?
…Britney, bitch. (Or, you know, one of the biggest pop stars of the past 25 years.)

Britney Jean Spears got into showbiz early on, appearing in commercials and on Star Search at the tender age of 8. At age 11, she joined the relatively young cast of The Mickey Mouse Club, which included Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling. Once the show was canceled, Britney returned to school, but longed to be more than just another teenager with TV experience.

In 1997, Britney met manager Lou Pearlman, known for putting together a little band called the Backstreet Boys. Lou originally wanted her to join the all-female pop group Innosense, but Britney was destined for bigger things.

Family friend and entertainment lawyer Larry Rudolph sent her an unused Toni Braxton song, which Britney recorded and sent out to four labels. Three of the labels rejected her, arguing that only pop groups like the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls were selling, not “another Madonna, another Debbie Gibson, or another Tiffany.”

Britney eventually signed to Jive Records and released her debut, …Baby One More Time, in 1999.

(Fun fact: Britney had originally envisioned her first album to sound more like Sheryl Crow, but the producers wanted to go in a more pop direction. Can you imagine adult contemporary Britney?)

Following in the footsteps of Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, Britney embarked on a US shopping mall tour to promote her debut album. Her first real show was as an opener for ‘N Sync.

…Baby One More Time debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart and has since become the best-selling debut album by any artist ever. By June of 1999, Britney was headlining her own US tour.

(Fun fact: Execs at Jive Records wanted the video for “…Baby One More Time” to be animated, but Britney rejected that idea and suggested the infamous Catholic school girl uniform we’ve come to know and love.)

As Britney’s popularity began to rise, her image went from “girl next door” to “lingerie-clad Lolita” (not that there’s anything wrong with that). She posed for the cover of Rolling Stone on her bed in just a bra and shorts, and began wearing some revealing outfits for her headlining tour. Shortly before all this, Britney publicly announced that she wanted to remain a virgin until marriage.

After the American Family Association slammed the Rolling Stone photo shoot as “a disturbing mix of childhood innocence and adult sexuality,” Britney retaliated by saying, “What’s the big deal? I have strong morals. I’d do it again.”

Where Is She Now?
Riding the success of her eighth studio album, Britney Jean.

Britney’s second album, Oops!... I Did It Again, was released in 2000, and like its predecessor, debuted at number one. Meanwhile, Britney’s onstage persona became more and more provocative, as evidenced by her revealing costume change at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards.

Just one year later, Britney released her self-titled album, featuring the overwhelmingly more adult single, “I’m a Slave 4 U.” She returned to the VMAs in 2001 for another provocative performance, this time with an albino python draped over her shoulders.

After a role in 2002’s Crossroads (a teen girl slumber party staple) and a highly publicized split from dreamboat Justin Timberlake, Britney made yet another appearance at the VMAs in 2003. And how did she top her past two performances? Why, she kissed Madonna, of course.

Britney’s fourth album, In the Zone, dropped in 2003, and featured the smash hit that just about everyone admits to liking, “Toxic.”

(Fun fact: Think “Toxic” is just another catchy pop song? Both NPR and Pitchfork listed the track as one of the most important pop songs of the 2000s. So you don’t have to feel so guilty about liking it anymore.)

In 2004, Britney got married twice. Okay, so technically the first marriage wasn’t really a marriage because it was annulled 55 hours later. But unfortunately, the marriage to Kevin Federline was real. The two’s painfully awkward courtship was documented on the reality show, Britney & Kevin: Chaotic.

Two kids and a greatest hits album later, Britney filed for divorce. And that’s when things went downhill.

She shaved her head, went to rehab, lost custody of her kids and attacked some paparazzi with an umbrella (but they probably deserved it). I’m sure we’re all familiar with Britney’s very public breakdown, yes? The lackluster release Blackout in 2007 didn’t help her career, either.

But Britney managed to get back on her feet. Circus, released in 2008, faired much better with both critics and audiences, and 2011’s follow-up, Femme Fatale, did even better. In 2012, Britney became a judge on the American version of The X-Factor, along with Simon Cowell, L.A. Reid and Demi Lovato.

Britney’s latest album, 2013’s Britney Jean, is currently the lowest-selling album of her career (which is surprising considering how much I enjoy “Work Bitch”).

But Why Britney Spears?
Because this blog isn’t complete without her. Duh. Also, I’ve wanted to talk about Britney for a while because she’s quite the interesting character.

What Does Sam Think?
I’m just going to come right out and say this: Britney Spears is a musical icon and she definitely deserves that title.

Now, before you start attacking my judgment and questioning my sanity, let me explain myself.

Britney is not by any means a musical prodigy. The girl has a good voice and everything, but compared to her fellow pop divas (like, I don’t know, Christina Aguilera), her voice isn’t really that impressive.

And while it’s true that she’s put out some incredibly catchy songs, she’s definitely not the first female artist to top the charts.

So what exactly makes Britney Spears an icon? The answer: she knows how to market herself like a fucking pro.

Even as a teenager, Britney knew exactly what audiences were looking for. She was the one who suggested the schoolgirl outfit in the “…Baby One More Time” video. She refused to apologize for the Rolling Stone photo shoot. She upped the ante at three consecutive VMAs and we’re still talking about it.

Her infamous breakdown was obviously not planned, though. You can’t be that big and not pay some sort of price. That kind of fame would drive anyone to shave their head and attack paparazzi. The fact that Britney brushed it off and continued on with her career shows a strength that not many pop stars have.

More recent pop divas have attempted to rival Ms. Spears (see Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus), but let’s be honest here—they don’t even come close. Most people tend to compare Gaga and Madonna, but I think Britney is the closest contender for the Queen of Pop crown. Miley may know what she’s doing with her new “bad girl” act, but if you haven’t kissed Madonna on national television, you really aren’t even in the same league as Britney.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Sound Familiar?
“Freedom of ’76,” “Piss Up a Rope,” “Push th’ Little Daisies”

Who Are They?
Experimental rockers who wow their cult fanbase with sheer absurdity.

Ween was formed in 1984 by Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo (or Gene Ween and Dean Ween, as you may know them). Since the two met in an 8th grade typing class, the name Ween (which is a combination of the words “wuss” and “penis”) is appropriately juvenile. But juvenile is not necessarily a bad thing.

Gene and Dean made some early home recordings, drawing heavily on influences like Syd Barrett, The Beatles, Frank Zappa, Prince and Butthole Surfers. After gaining some local recognition in their hometown of New Hope, Penn., Ween became a five-piece and signed to Twin/Tone Records in 1989.

The band released two albums on the label (1989’s GodWeenSatan: The Oneness and 1991’s The Pod) before switching to Elektra Records and releasing Pure Guava in 1992. Pure Guava spawned Ween’s biggest single to date, “Push th’ Little Daisies,” which became a target on MTV’s Beavis and Butthead.

Ween tried something new with 1994’s Chocolate and Cheese. The album had a ‘70s pop/rock and soul feel to it and a much crisper production sound. The equally bizarre 12 Golden Country Greats and The Mollusk followed in 1996 and 1997, respectively. 12 Golden Country Greats had, you guessed it, a country theme. The Mollusk, on the other hand, had a nautical theme and incorporated just about every genre you can think of, including 1960s Brit-pop, sea shanties, Broadway show tunes and progressive rock.

(Fun fact: 12 Golden Country Greats only has 10 tracks. There are two possible explanations for this: the number is a reference to the dozen veteran musicians on the album known as The Shit Creek Boys, or Ween did, in fact, record 12 songs, but chose to leave two of them off the album and refused to change the title.)

Where Are They Now?
Unfortunately disbanded, but there’s always solo material to look forward to.

Ween started the new millennium with a new album (2000’s White Pepper) and an Internet radio station (WeenRadio). In 2001, the band started its own label, Chocodog Records, which is home to Moistboyz, Instant Death and Chris Harford.

(Fun fact: Remember that early episode of Spongebob Squarepants where Spongebob sings a song about tying his shoes? Ween wrote that song. The band also contributed a song to The Spongebob Movie called “Ocean Man.” Ween loves Spongebob, apparently.)

After releasing a couple more studio albums and a ton of live albums, Ween appeared to still be going strong by 2011. In May 2012, Gene Ween (a.k.a. Aaron Freeman) announced the end of Ween, but this was apparently news to Dean Ween (a.k.a. Mickey Melchiondo). Dean laughed it off and said, “As far as I’m concerned, as long as Aaron and I are both alive on this planet, Ween is still together.”

Unfortunately, Dean was dead wrong. Gene confirmed his departure from the band, claiming that he had to leave Ween in order to stay sober.

But Why Ween?
Honestly, this band just intrigues me and I wanted to take a closer look at its history and discography.

What Does Sam Think?
Okay, so here’s where I would usually gush about how awesome this band is and how much I love them (since I tend to choose bands/artists that I really like).

Unfortunately, this won’t be the case with Ween.

Now, if you’ve read this blog on a regular basis, you’re pretty familiar with my music taste. So you know that I love when bands get weird. For example, I absolutely adore both Primus and Butthole Surfers. Those are two incredibly creative bands that have fascinated me for a very long time. I understand why some people may not dig them, but I still love them.

I tend to lump Ween in the same category as Primus and Butthole Surfers, along with The Flaming Lips. To me, those are the four “weird” bands that people either love or hate. And, I’m sorry to say, I really just don’t like Ween.

It’s not that I don’t “get” this band—Ween is all about absurdity for absurdity’s sake. That’s not a bad thing. And the band’s music isn’t really the strangest I’ve ever heard—it’s still accessible to some extent.

I guess there’s just something about Ween that rubs me the wrong way. It’s difficult to put into words. This band doesn’t fascinate me the way the other “weird” ‘90s bands do. Primus has Les Claypool’s mind-blowing bass prowess. Butthole Surfers have an insane stage presence. The Flaming Lips have Wayne Coyne (arguably one of the most interesting frontmen ever). But I don’t see anything that really sets Ween apart, aside from its tendency to put out some genre-bending albums.

I’m not saying Ween is terrible by any means. I’m not going to look down on you if you genuinely like this band. The music just doesn’t do anything for me (though Chocolate and Cheese is pretty decent). Ween has a huge cult following, and I can see why. I just can’t get into it myself.

But I’m always willing to give bands another chance. Who knows? Years from now, I could put on Pure Guava, slap myself on the forehead and say, “What the hell was I thinking? This is fucking brilliant!”

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s