Songs of the Year – 1990

(Note: This is the first entry of a series on the most memorable songs from each year. The songs selected are not necessarily the most successful or the ‘best’ in any other way; instead, they are those that most clearly represent the year in memory. These entries will appear monthly.)

My-my-my-my music hits me so hard
makes me say oh my Lord
Thank you for blessing me
with a mind to rhyme and two hyped feet
-MC Hammer

Songs of the Year: “U Can’t Touch This”, M. C. Hammer; “Ice Ice Baby”, Vanilla Ice

Runners Up: “Nothing Compares 2 U”, Sinead O’Connor; “Poison”, Bel Biv Devoe

This running item is not about picking out the ‘best’ song of the year, but instead for selecting the song(s) that we most strongly associate with specific years and times in our lives. The Younger J introduced this topic to me as, I think rightly, fitting well with our focus on the power of memory and the inescapable connection between songs and times.

I will start not at the beginning of my life (perhaps later the Younger J and I will write about the best songs to be born to) but with the first years when I was buying albums. And, rather than revisit the NKOTB nonsense of 1987-9, I will start with 1990.

A banner year for music, 1990 saw the release of They Might Be Giant’s Flood, Frizzle Fry by Primus, Fear of a Black Planet by Public Enemy, Social Distortion’s eponymous album, Glider by My Bloody Valentine, Goo by Sonic Youth, Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de Lo Habitual, Pixies’ Bossanova and Chronicles by Rush. What was I listening too? M. C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” and Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”.

This topic is worth revisiting. Pre-adolescence can be as tough on boys as adolescence. I made things tougher on myself by spending the previous years wearing NKOTB pins to school proudly. I was not allowed to sit certain places on the bus. I actually got in an altercation that involved (1) insulting Bugle Boy jeans and (2) re-breaking an arm.

During each summer, I attempted what I think most of us did every year from elementary school on: self-reinvention. When the boys at the back of the bus were reciting “U Can’t Touch This”, I convinced my parents that I could not live without Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Them (that title alone incited a temporary war with my mother). When, later in the year, the fixation turned to  “Ice Ice Baby”, the less threatening, for unfortunate skin-tone reasons, To The Extreme soon found its way to my home. (The cassette singles just wouldn’t do.)

(Perhaps at a later date I will write about the disturbing quality of certain tracks. M. C. Hammer’s “Soft and Wet” was a bizarre sex-ed class; half the songs on To the Extreme were incoherent. Nevertheless, this is about the song…)

Liking these songs wouldn’t be enough. That would be inauthentic. I had to learn to love them (which implies, truly or not, that I didn’t at the outset). Along with the theme song from The Fresh Prince to Bel Air and the 99 lives code for Super Contra, every boy my age had to know at least the first verse of “U Can’t Touch This” and “Ice Ice Baby”. We would sing these songs on the bus. We would sing them on the playground. I would practice my cadence while walking home, skiing, or lying in bed at night.

(There was much talk of the videos for either song; but alas, MTV was still verboten in my house. That didn’t stop me from surreptitious viewings of Mariah Carey’s early videos or the scandalous C+C Music Factory sequences. Another story, another time).

All right stop
collaborate and listen
Ice is back with my brand new invention
Something grabs a hold of me tightly
Flow like a harpoon daily and nightly
Will it ever stop? Yo I don’t know
Turn off the lights and I’ll glow                  Vanilla Ice

What made these songs attractive to pre-adolescents in the second whitest state of the union? Some questions are beyond me, but it is fair to say that ‘black’ music, especially de-racialized music like that of these artists, had long been the mainstay of pop merchandising and the complicated, not to mention seedy, marketing of popular music. Marketing, serendipity, and cultural context.

Why did I like these songs? Well, the beats were good (enough). The lyrics were catchy (M. C. Hammer’s were certainly more inventive and interesting than Vanilla Ice’s). But the real fact is that I didn’t know much better (it is certainly debatable whether or not they represent improvements on NKOTB). But mostly, these songs were about fitting in, about being accepted. Music can be, and often is, a lingua franca of social conformity. 1990 is the year I tried to speak that language and didn’t do a terrible job.

I still feel something when I hear these songs. I feel a twinge of pride (?) in remembering the first verses and, now that I have accepted their places in my life, I don’t love them, but I feel. And that is the bedrock of being alive.

And you brother? Were you even out of diapers in 1990? Was it Barney whose songs entertained you, or do you too remember these days (and my sad part in them)?

The glory:

7 comments on “Songs of the Year – 1990

  1. professormortis says:

    1990…hmm…1990. I think, most likely, that I was still lost in the sea of metal (hair and harder), lead by my sister, in 1990. It was in 1991 that I discovered (rediscovered?) The Clash and chose to start my long march backwards in time. I think in 1990 I was probably listening to Metallica albums a lot. Faith No More’s Epic was sort of the middle school metal fans’ version of needing to know MC Hammer’s lyrics. I can’t recall how many times I heard that. The more embarrassing alternative was Cherry Pie, though you didn’t listen to that so much as watch the video and drool. And if I ever hear Janie’s Got a Gun again I think I’ll need one.

    That being said-I loved Can’t Touch This and Turn This Mother Out (Vanilla Ice was a guilty pleasure; I knew he was a lame pale rip-off), but the one that most resonates with me from your list was Poison. I loved that opening drum beat. Still do. Can’t forget Just a Friend (and the much lewder lyrics kids had to it) and of course The Humpty Dance. Looking down the charts I was all over the place that year-listened to Depeche Mode, Madonna, Motley Crue, Poison, Dee Lite, Tom Petty, INXS, B-52s-guess I just was listening to/watching was out there, but it’s amazing how many of those songs I could take a stab at least a few lyrics.

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  4. […] with NKOTB). When my lack of coolness began to first dawn on me, I remember trying to fit in—by memorizing “U Can’t Touch This” and “Ice Ice Baby”. It was Weird Al Yankovic cassettes copied from friends that I first wore out on my father’s […]

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  7. […] of course, are excuses. The real fault is my own. After an early love for bad mainstream rap (MC Hammer, I still feel you), I was a bit put off by the gangsta rap explosion (which came around […]

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