The most remarkable thing about the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” is that it’s ultimately so heartwarming. Despite its drunk tanks, characters calling each other “slut” and “faggot,” and lines like “Happy Christmas your arse, I pray god it’s our last,” the thing is like a rotten Christmas tree that somehow stays alive.
The reason this combination works is that “Fairytale of New York” is exactly what its title implies: it’s a fantasy, and it’s all in the imagination of its drunk protagonist. “I love you, baby,” sings Shane McGowan, drunkenly slurring his words. “I can see a better time when all our dreams come true.” Then the song kicks into high gear, as if McGowan has shifted from half-hearted daydream to full-on hallucination.
But what a hallucination. McGowan and his true love, played by singer Kirsty MacColl, cavort around a storybook version of Manhattan, joined by Frank Sinatra and the NYPD choir (which, by the way, isn’t a thing). Because this part of the song is in McGowan’s head, MacColl’s brilliant vocals pop up like McGowan’s distant memory, comforting and chiding him in equal measure. It’s a romantic Christmas as only the Pogues could do it: through seasonal delusion.
They pull it off, don’t they? You end up buying all of it, thanks to that blend of fantasy and reality. In a way, that combination is what Christmas means for all of us; we all deal with the stress of the holiday season while trying to hold on to the parts that make us happy. In other words, “Fairytale of New York,” in all its drunken, wide-eyed glory, is Christmas.
I’m a musician, and when I play guitar and sing somewhere, I usually end the set with “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” I do this not only because I think it’s a good song, but because I love watching people look over from their conversations, their game of pool, or their phone, because it’s slowly dawning on them that the dude up there is singing a Whitney Houston song. Usually, it’s a look of confusion followed by a look of recognition, and almost always completed with a look of enjoyment.
Why enjoyment? I’m not being falsely modest when I say that it’s not me. You love this song. I love this song. We all love this song, and there’s no sense in denying it. This is a great song.
The weird thing about “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” that effervescent pop hit that immediately brings to mind a bouncing, eternally youthful Whitney Houston, is that it’s pretty fucking sad. Reading the lyrics without hearing the song, you’d be forgiven in thinking it’s a cry-in-your-beer ballad by Hank Williams (except for the “I need a man” part). The fact that the words are paired with the synth-happy bubblegum sound is very strange, but of course, it works like gangbusters.
This song was the first single from Whitney Houston’s second record Whitney, which also features “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” and “I Get So Emotional.” The album was at the top of the Billboard 200 chart for 11 consecutive weeks, a monster success that was all set into motion by this song.
According to Wikipedia, the song’s co-writer, Shannon Rubicam, decided that “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” would be different from other love songs about dancing: “I pictured somebody single wishing that they could find that special person for themselves. It wasn’t, ‘I wanna go down the disco and dance,’ really. It was, ‘I wanna do that dance of life with somebody’.” In the meantime, the narrator is seriously bummed out. The sun’s going down, he or she needs to chase some blues away, and then there’s “I’ve done alright up to now, it’s the light of day that shows me how/ and when the night falls, loneliness calls.” With all that daylight talk, maybe this is a song about Seasonal Affective Disorder. (I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that’s probably not what Rubicam had in mind, but I call ’em like I see ’em.)
The video doesn’t seem to know what to do with all these feelings, especially as they apply to the super-poppy song they’re in, and the result is a hilarious mixture of ideas thrown at a wall. Black-and-white angst! A series of guys twirling near a coat rack! Fireworks! Maybe we can be generous and say that this confusing melange of tired clichés is meant to illustrate the confusion that accompanies the difficulties of finding companionship, especially companionship as depicted in popular culture. Let’s do that! Whew.
I don’t have many regrets when it comes to music. I try not to subscribe to the idea of guilty pleasures, and I don’t think anyone should feel bad about not having heard a particular song. But I do regret not getting into hip-hop earlier, especially since I was an impressionable youth during hip-hop’s “golden ages” in the mid-to-late ‘90s and early ‘90s. Aside from some Beastie Boys tracks and inescapable songs like “Bust a Move” and “Funky Cold Medina,” I really didn’t seek it out until college.
Why not? I was definitely intimidated, both by the breadth of artists and what I assumed was terrifying subject matter. I knew of Public Enemy and NWA, and that was some scary sounding-shit. And it was (and remains) scary, to its credit, but I probably could have handled it, and I might have loved it.
Of course, there was plenty of (for lack of a much, much better term) non-scary hip-hop that came out around that time, from Run-D.M.C. to A Tribe Called Quest, that I love now and would have loved then. I’ll be writing about some of those groups on this blog, but today I’m writing about a duo that I discovered even later. I’d been meaning to check out Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full for years, and I finally did so last month. Last month! Ugh.
Paid in Full is amazing, not only because it’s flat-out great, but because you can spot the moments that influenced untold numbers of MCs and DJs. In “I Know You Got Soul” alone, you have the phrase “pump up the volume,” which became a popular expression and the name of a cult-hit movie, as well as the sentence “I sink into the paper like I was ink,” which became the refrain to a Mos Def track (“Love”) 12 years later. A couple more: “I’m the R, the A, to the K-I-M/If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am” (from “As The Rhyme Goes On”) became the basis for Eminem’s “The Way I Am”; “A contest is what you owe me” (“My Melody”) pops up in Jurassic 5’s “Concrete Schoolyard.” This referencing happens all the time in hip-hop, of course, but for a relative neophyte like me, each discovery is like a revelation. I love how hip-hop is on a continuum, with admiration and respect under all the bragging and macho posturing.
Rakim was one of the first rappers to use what many refer to as a “writerly” style; his verses, full of internal rhymes and rhythmic complexity (Eminem would use these techniques to great effect years later), are clearly not improvised. Rakim, in this song especially, is a gifted writer and rapper, one who could spit circles around guys like Jay-Z.