Written Elsewhere: Frat Rap and a Final Word on Macklemore

After we posted no fewer than three entries about Macklemore and Lewis’ The Heist in a week (one review, one reaction and one fine guest-post traversing between the personal and the artistic), I swore that I was never going to write about Macklemore again (or at least not for a few weeks!). I still couldn’t quite figure out how to evaluate Macklemore fairly.

Vanilla Ice wasn’t ‘real’. And MC Hammer was?

Since the birth of hip-hop and its spread to the suburbs on the airwaves and through MTV thanks to unthreatening dance artists and, then, even later after gangtsa rap dominated the landscape, a rapper’s persona was in part defined by his color. The early pioneers, the Beastie Boys, were really just shouting. Vanilla Ice was a wannabe’s wannabe. Eminem was an exception because of his experience and his unique ability to rap at a machine gun pace and twist surprising rhymes.

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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: