Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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10 Years, 100 Songs: #73. “We All Smile, We All Sing…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 20, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

It’s sort of amazing that it took as long as it did for the UK to produce a British rapper for the US to really latch onto. There were plenty of hip-hop influenced artists during the trip-hop era in the 90s, but they wasn’t anyone quite like Mike Skinner–who didn’t necessarily sound like a rapper (his cadence, an often unmetric semblence of rhyming half-thoughts, was often closer to straight-up spoken word than anything), but seemed like one, or at least, what we’d pictured the British equivalent of one to be. He was young, he liked girls, video games and sneakers, and like the best stateside rappers, he had the voice of the common people in a way that you could tell he was smart enough to evaluate the lifestyle objectively, but not so far removed from it that it felt patronizing as satire. It still might have been impenetrable to American audiences, but luckily, Skinner also happened to write a couple really, really good songs.

I can only imagine what a song like “Weak Become Heroes” means to Skinner’s UK peers. I’ve never been to a rave, never taken ecstasy, only have a passing idea of who Danny Rampling is and couldn’t care less about the Criminal Justice Bill. But I know what it feels like to be young and in love with the idea of being young, I know what it feels like to feed off the energy of a crowd like you’re all in it together, and I also know what it feels like to look back and realize how distant you’ve become from the person you were back then, how the things that used to excite you so much no longer do, and how you barely even realized how things had changed until years after the fact.

Most importantly, I know what it feels like to hear a certain song, and despite all that water under the bridge, to be instantly trasnported to that lost version of yourself. And that’s what “Weak Become Heroes” is really about, to me at least–that sensation you get of hearing that song for the first time in years, and the wave of nostalgia, regret, second-hand happiness and deep-welling sorrow that comes over you to remember the ecstasy (no pun intended) of the times, and to also come to the realization that those days are over, not likely to return again. For veteran music fans, I’d imagine its an experience nearly everyone has had at least once, and for better or worse, it’s one of the deepest emotional connections you can make within the medium.

“Tune reminds me of my first E / polite, unique, still 16 and feeling horny,” Skinner raps as the beat kicks in and the song starts to take off. From there, Skinner relates the sensations of a night out with his raver friends and associates, the sort of aggregate experience of his days of being young and foolish. He experiences the thrill of blissing out with anonymous like-minded individuals (“Known you all my life, don’t know your name”), rants stonedly about the powers of the narcotics (“They could settle wars with this”), peaks (“Sail round diamonds and pearls / never seen so many fit girls”) and even freaks out a little (“Look at my watch can’t focus / Last two hours I lost”), but gets pulled back in by the crowd and the music (“The tribal drums, the sun rising / We all smile, we all sing”). It’s all unbelievably vivid stuff, the rare kind of lyrical detail that actually makes a music video completely redundant. It helps, of course, to have a beat both vaguely reminiscent and worthy of the classics Skinner is saluting–not as huge, perhaps, but I’m sure that a good off-the-beat piano hook like this still floods ex-clubbers with all sorts of memories regardless.

Alas, it can’t last forever. “Then the girl in the cafe taps me on the shoulder / I realize five years went by and I’m older.” Skinner leads a more by-the-book existence these days, but still feels a pull from the lifestyle that left behind (“that same piano loops over and over and over.”) Ultimately, he concludes that “life’s been up and down since I walked from that crowd.” It’s a heartbreaking finish, in a way, but it’s one where Skinner at least seems to reach the understanding that it’s better to move on and have the fond memories to look back on than to keep trying to recapture them until they’ve lost all meaning. And just to let you know he hasn’t completely lost touch, he gives a nice shoutout at the end of the song to dance idols of his like Paul Oakenfold and Nicky Holloway, and “all the people who gave us these times”–a eulogy, to be sure, but an accepting one.

Still, the real power of the song doesn’t come from the sobering morning after, but in Skinner’s recollection of the “dizzy new heights” he reached during his halcyon days. It’s the closest thing that an envious Yank like myself could probably feel to the sensations themselves without chugging a twelve-pack of glow sticks, but it should be relatable to fans of music from any genre. “Weak become heroes, and the stars align”–it’s hard to deny that as an abstract but on point for the power of great music of any kind, the way it empowers individuals and brings generations together, the way it feels like just the right thing at just the right place and time (reinforced by Skinner with that constant refrain, “We all smile, we all sing”). And “Weak Become Heroes” is good enough to join the ranks of those songs itself, perhaps even moreso with its spectacularly epic Royksopp Memory Lane Remix.

Skinner’s Original Pirate Material, the parent album for “Weak Become Heroes,” was a critical smash, and on his significantly more ambitious follow-up A Grand Don’t Come for Free, Skinner became a legitimate superstar in the UK. His music has been punctuated with bright spots since–“Blinded By the Lights” was a fantastic sort of dark-side take on the rapture of “Weak Become Heroes,” “When You Wasn’t Famous” was a fun piece of tabloid-baiting gossip, and though its straight-faced balladry took a significant amount of getting used to, a great video helped me realize that “Dry Your Eyes” was actually something close to a classic weeper. But it won’t be long before music fans of this generation are looking back on “Weak Become Heroes” itself with that same kind of nostalgic reverence, wishing for simpler, more exciting times.

The List So Far:

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia”
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)”
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly”
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar”
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)”
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious”
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space”
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below”
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
90. Cassie – “Me & U”
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater”
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’”
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood”
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over”
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent”
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It”
81. 311 – “Amber”
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite”
79. Nas – “Made You Look”
78. Royksopp – “Eple”
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha”
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)”
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet”
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz”
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes”

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