Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Friday Request Line: “Give In To Me,” “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy),” “Saving All My Love for You,” “Hey Soul Sister”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 17, 2010

Reader MBI Writes:

Dammit, I want to pick four songs. I’m a loyal reader, you have to review them!

“Give In to Me” – Michael Jackson
“Pretty Fly for a White Guy” – The Offspring
“Saving All My Love for You” – Whitney Houston
“Hey, Soul Sister” – Train

Yup, contractually obligated. Not like I’m using the space for much else these days, anyway.

Gotta admit, this was a new one on me–I was a little too young when Dangerous came out, and if I ever caught this in one of the many Michael Jackson A-Z specials I’ve seen on MTV and VH1 over the years, I don’t really remember it. That’s one of the things I love about Michael Jackson, though, and one of the things that made him such a great pop star–dude rolls deep. What makes a pop legend, in my mind, isn’t so much their classic songs that everybody knows, but their third-to-fifth-tier types of hits–the songs that you had to either live through or specifically search out on your own to really enjoy. That’s what gives these artists their true character. You could spend hours arguing about the best Michael Jackson song is–“Rock With You” would probably be my personal choice, though it changes–but I find it far more interesting to argue about what the fourth-best single released off Dangerous was.

Anyway, as far as lower-tier hits go, “Give In To Me” seems like a pretty good demonstration of what I’m talking about. Nobody’s going to be confusing it for “Billie Jean” or “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” but it’s still extremely compelling, mildly fascinating, and perhaps most importantly, not the least bit redundant in the scope of the rest of his catalogue. The thing that really strikes me my first couple listens through is how convincingly lustful the whole thing is. As a celebrity, MJ always gave off something of an asexual vibe, understandable for a kid forced to mature far too fast and essentially never allowed to really go through the growing pains of puberty. Consequently, his more obvious demonstrations of sexuality–think him and Lisa Marie at the ’94 VMAs, or don’t–gave off an uncomfortable, disquieting air. This occasionally translated to his music as well, with his best love songs often sounding innocent to the point of chastity, or sexually insecure to the point of near-paranoia.

Not quite so with “Give In To Me.” The key to writing a great song about lust is usually to sound at least a little bit pissed off, and Mike sounds stark-raving mad on this one. I always liked Angry Michael Jackson–songs like “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana,” “Scream,” and others that allowed him to stretch his inimitable voice to the very limits of its flexibility. Combined with a quintessentially 1992 shuffling beat, a nicely moody guitar line (reminiscent to me of Whitesnake’s “Is This Love?,” which might just be because I wish every song was Whitesnake’s “Is This Love?”), it’s just about everything I look for in a Michael Jackson song that I hear for the first time two decades after its initial release. The late-game guitar heroics from Slash are also highly-appreciated–though I love the “Black or White” riff as much as the next guy, I figured his talents were slightly wasted in that song, so it’s good to know their early-90s jam session extended to a second song as well.

There might be more layers or subtext to the song not immediately apparent to me. Interesting choice though.

This might be one of those songs that I’ve heard too many times to possibly ever have an actual opinion on. I was a huge fan of The Offspring back in the 90s–Smash was probably my first-ever true favorite album, and even though I didn’t really get into Ixnay on the Hombre in quite the same way, I still had great appreciation for a couple of the singles. It was enough that I was still hugely excited back in 1998 when I heard the DJ on Y100 announcing that coming up next was the brand-new Offspring song, “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy).” Twelve years later, it’s hard to articulate just how shocking the song that followed was to me at the time. My jaw dropped at the first “GIVE IT TO ME BUH-BY!!” / “UH-HUH, UH-HUH!!” exchange and didn’t recover until well after the song was over. I mean, some songs on Ixnay were a little, uh, off by the straight-up punk standards of Smash (which may as well have been Damned Damned Damned as far as I was concerned back in the day), but this…what the hell was this?

I came around to like it in time, of course, mostly because when I was 12, the song really spoke to what I felt to be a pressing societal ill at the time–that of the suburban white kid obliviously immersed hip-hop culture, which we called wiggers for about six months before someone (correctly) decided that the term was more offensive than it was catchy. (I’m still not sure what we should have used in its stead, though–wappers just sounds weird). Guy Cohen, the titular and appropriately-named Relatively Fly White Guy in the music video (and one of the lost true music video stars–he got on TRL and everything back in the day) , even looked exactly like one of the more urban-infatuated Nice Jewish Boys at my middle school–probably danced the same way too. I thought that knocking these fellows down a peg or two was a fairly noble cause, and that lines like “they didn’t have Ice Cube, so he bought Vanilla Ice” and “he asked for a 13, but they drew a 31” were relatively biting satire. (Not that I had any idea what the latter one meant).

These days? It’s an OK enough, song, I guess. It’s certainly not lacking for hooks–by the time of the first verse, there’s already cowbell, call-and-response vocals, Def Leppard quotes (not that I got those at the time either) and that cool grate-y instrument thingy that they use on “Gimme Shelter” which I can never remember the name of. It also probably deserves from respect for transitioning The Offspring into their post-Epitaph career, a surprisingly long-lasting and relatively fruitful one. Since “Pretty Fly” came out, you feel like every Offspring hit sees them decreasing in popularity, but then all of a sudden you look at the modern rock charts and they’re still topping them as reliably as ever. They’ll never approach their Smash heights again–“Self-Esteem” still goes down as one of the best hits of the 90s, and one of the five or so best punk love songs ever–but they keep pumping out those 6 out of 10s, just good enough to stay on the right side of modern rock relevancy.

Actually, the thing doing the biggest favor for “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)”‘s lasting legacy is what came immediately after. “Why Don’t You Get a Job?,” the second single off of Americana, was just as unexpected-sounding as PFFAWG–a jaunty, “O-Bla-Di, O-Bla-Da”-style romp railing against the evils of mooching–but significantly worse in every conceivable way. Not only was the song bad, but the video was, with no hyperbole on my part, the worst music video ever to receive regular rotation on a major video network. In fact, you could say that “Why Don’t You Get a Job?” played a key role in my development as a music writer, since it was the first rock song that I can remember ever consciously thinking that I was above listening to. Twelve-year-old pissants don’t often consider themselves the intellectual superior to much, but that’s how fucking dumb that song was. Compared to that, I guess we never knew how good we really had it with “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy).”

And when my grandkids ask me to explain the late-20th-century phenomenon that was Weird Al Yankovic, it is almost certainly “Pretty Fly (For a Rabbi)” that I will have them summon in the mentally ingrained music libraries they have access to just by thinking real hard. Not his best, not his best, but just his most…perfect.

Wow. I had heard this song before, of course, but never paid any real sort of attention–the only part that really stuck in my memory was the obvious cascading “Sa-ving all-my love, for you-uuuu” hook. I assumed that the rest of it was your basic mid-80s Whitney Houston song–innocent, effervescent, maybe even borderline-religious. This was what always kind of shocked me about Whitney Houston–if you saw the videos for “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” you would never believe that this person would be capable of crack-smoking escapades with a ne’er do well like Bobby Brown. There was just too much life, too much unchecked enthusiasm for her to end up going down that dark kind of path. Little did I know that “Saving All My Love For You”–her first-ever #1 hit back in 1985–was actually a salacious, morally questionable anthem of infidelity that let us know right off the bat that there was more to the Whit than her trademark day-glo outfits and adolescent glee.

Really, I never would have guessed. Only remembering the title of the song, I always assumed that “Saving All My Love for You” was some “Let’s Wait a While”-style anthem of chastity, or at the absolute worst, just reassuring the guy she was dating that there was no other to give her eye cause to wonder. Listening to the song’s lyrics, though, painted a different picture of Whitney altogether. Basically, Whit is singing this song from the perspective of the infamous Other Woman (I actually shouted out “HOME WRECKER!!” as I was listening and the song’s true meaning dawned on me), telling her beau that even though he has his own family, she’s gonna keep on representing for him until the day that he one day makes good on his promises to take her away and live their life together. I mean…seriously? This was the first chart-topper for America’s Sweetheart? Is this what “The Greatest Love of All” was referring to as well? Did “I Will Always Love You” take on such a fatalistic air because the subject was previously betrothed? Wasn’t Whitney just a little too young to be saving all her love for some older stepper-outer asshole? It just doesn’t make sense. The song itself is all right–I still love the trip down the musical scale that the chorus hook takes–but man, I just can’t get over that subject matter revelation. You bad, girl.

While we’re on the subject, there’s much of Whitney Houston’s catalog that I’ll continue to go to bat for–stuff of hers that was immensely popular at the time, but since become nderrated over time. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is up there with Madonna’s “Into the Groove” in terms of the best 80s pop songs about the sheer joy of really getting into the music. “Exhale (Shoop, Shoop)” is a nicely understated number, one which eschews the traditional highs and lows of a basic Whitney number for a refreshingly even-keeled trip through four minutes of relationship truisms. And even though the rest of the song is largely deplorable, I do have to give it up for the a capella first verse of “I Will Always Love You–a bold, bold move for such an obvious hit single, and one that continues to stun to this very day. (Cut about eight syllables out of the “AND IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII” part of the chorus, and I might be talking about the whole song on that level as well).

I walked in to my friend’s karaoke birthday party last weekend, when someone was singing this song. After a minute or so, it became clear that nobody else was going to join her in it–going for the newer songs is always something of a risk for a crowd already well into their 20s–and she was pleading with the rest of the room for someone else to step in with the other microphone and help bail her out. I hate to see that happen to a fellow karaokeist, and I was thinking that I could maybe score some nice-guy points with her if I helped out, so I picked up the other mic and tried to trudge my way through the song. After about another minute, though, I just couldn’t take it anymore, and I lowered the mic and exclaimed “This song is HORRIBLE!” Her expression soured, and we skipped ahead to the next song. Nice-guy points lost. Oh well.

Really, though, “Hey Soul Sister” is quite bad. The first time I heard it was in an episode of Medium, of all things, one I had to watch for work. I didn’t know what it was called or who it was by, but boy did it stick out–it was so weird and obtrusive, overpowering the already super-melodramatic scene it was soundtracking. I left the episode thinking “What the hell was the deal with that ‘Hey, Soul Sister’ song?” so it comforts me slightly to see that when I Google “Medium Hey Soul Sister,” the first response that comes up is an article entitled “What on Earth Was That ‘Hey, Soul Sister’ Song on Medium?” This song’s success makes no sense. None. Even if it was still 2003, and people still harnessed greater-than-super-vague memories of days when Train were not a totally irrelevant musical entity, there should have been no reason for this song to get popular. We have entire checks-and-balances systems in place our current central government for the express purpose of preventing songs like “Hey, Soul Sister” from getting popular. How the song ended up getting to #3 on the charts will no doubt eventually get its own Sci-Fi TV series.

The scary thing about “Hey, Soul Sister” is a quote from its Wikipedia page, courtesy of lead singer Pat Monahan: “I said, ‘I want to write an INXS-y song,” Monahan recalled. “So, they started playing kind of an INXS-y song, and I wrote the song ‘Hey, Soul Sister’ to it and the melodies and started to sing it.” Umm…an INXS-y song? Are we sure we’re talking about the same INXS? You know, the Aussie dudes, with the sex, and the songs? What you ended up with here is a very, very poor man’s version of “I’m Yours”–and it’s not exactly like Jason Mraz was swimming in rubles for that one either. If this is your idea of INXS, Monahan, I would absolutely hate to see what your idea of Air Supply or Barry Manilow was–it might be music so caucasian that it actually sparks clan rallies without any of its listeners actually conscientiously understanding why.

This band was never good, and this is about as bad a song as they could have possibly come up with. It’s a musical worst-case scenario. It belongs soundtracking key emotional scenes to a show like Medium, and absolutely nowhere else ever.

10 Responses to “Friday Request Line: “Give In To Me,” “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy),” “Saving All My Love for You,” “Hey Soul Sister””

  1. MBI said

    Ha ha ha yes, this request line thing is such a great idea. Pretty much all your thoughts echo mine perfectly — the fascination at Michael sounding compellingly adult, the sudden realization of what Whitney was singing about, and so on. One major difference though — nothing is worse than “I’m Yours.” “Hey Soul Sister” is at least compelling awful — awesomely bad, as VH1 used to call it back in the day. “Hey soul sister, ain’t that Mr. Mister” is one of the most hilariously awful rhymes I’ve ever heard, whereas the dippety-doo bullshit that is “I’m Yours” makes me wanna die.

  2. MBI said

    Nevertheless, that was a wonderful beatdown. That’s going to put a smile on my face for the rest of the day.

  3. Brent said

    I firmly believe that the only reason that “Hey Soul Sister” exists is to make me feel stupid for saying that “Calling All Angels” was the worst song ever made and nothing would ever usurp it. Seriously, it takes actual effort to create a song that inane…I don’t even know why you’d apply it in that way, but it must take some work.

    My four still stand btw, or you could just devote an article to the awesomeness of

  4. Brent said

    er, there should be a link to this at the end there

  5. Garret said

    They say he’s got a lot of chutzpah! He’s really quite hip! The parents pay the moyl and he! GETS! TO KEEP THE TIP!!!

  6. yancy said

    As much as I despise everything about Train, including their name, I don’t see what’s particularly vile about “Hey Soul Sister.” Far better melody and hook than most of the earnest white guy music I’ve been subjected to over the years. There are countless worse songs in the Rob Thomas / Matchbox 20 oeuvre. Low bar, to be sure. If this was a Duncan Sheik or Eagle Eye Cherry hit from 1998 I think we’d look back on it with smiling indifference, or at least not disgust.

  7. Byron said

    “It belongs soundtracking key emotional scenes to a show like Medium, and absolutely nowhere else ever.”

    Although I have to agree with the general sentiment of this takedown — this might be the most awe-inspiringly bad song in quite some time, to such an extent where I told local radio station surveys I like it just to increase the chance that other people will be subjected to it — the above statement is regrettably false; the song seems as though it was written with the express intent of being sung by Michael Scott on The Office in a misguided attempt to win someone over.

    I actually think Train were a good band early on, or at least a tolerable band whose commercial success eventually caused their weaknesses to overshadow their strengths. I liked “Meet Virginia” enough to buy the first album, and I think “Drops of Jupiter” works well on an emotional level despite (maybe even because of) what are some pretty laughable lines on…well, every listen.

    But right from the title, you can tell that “Hey, Soul Sister” is going to be bad. Who even addresses someone that way? Apparently Pat Monahan. And it immediately falls into the same problems Train’s had for the past decade: overcooked made-for-TV-usage melodies (not the worst flaw to have — and judging by the fact that to this day, I vaguely remember a commercial starting with “Well, an airplane’s faster than a Cadillac…” but don’t recall the product, it’s not like they haven’t been successful in that vein) and some of the worst lyrics this side of Interpol.

    It’s been pretty clear that they’re setting the bar low for themselves since, as Brent mentioned, “Calling All Angels” — the musical equivalent of a shamelessly manipulative TV-movie — but that chorus stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it. It’s disarmingly awful; what can you say when it seems like it requires a conscious effort to be so cheesy? It would be a major misstep for most acts, but for Train it might simply be instinctual.

    And yet there’s so much more to point out: The “INXS-y” song’s use of “You’re one of my kind”, “So gangster, I’m so thug” (perhaps the worst application of the word “thug” since Lance Bass’s “thug appeal” on Blaque’s “Bring It All To Me”), and “my untrimmed chest” all compete for low honors here. Congratulations, I suppose, are due; although the end result is worse to my ears than most Rob Thomas-penned singles (“Streetcorner Symphony” being a notable exception), it’s a hit, and ultimately it’s crossing over into “so bad it’s good” territory for me, which is probably the best I can hope for from them.

    P.S.: I can’t let the subject of Train pass without pointing out one of the great pop-culture fumbles of the 2000s: The Spider-Man 2 soundtrack. Contributions from relevant (at the time) bands — Jet, Maroon 5 and a host of hungry emo-pop acts led by Dashboard Confessional’s modern-rock soon-to-be-hit “Vindicated” — and Train’s “Ordinary” as the lead pop single. Even though “Hero”, “Bring Me To Life” and “Broken” were all big hits in the 3 years prior, “Ordinary” took the wind out of the sails of the short era of the superhero movie soundtrack smash.

  8. Byron said

    Wow, I wrote all that…about Train. I really needed to get out more last decade.

  9. Garret said

    “one of the great pop-culture fumbles of the 2000s: The Spider-Man 2 soundtrack.”

    Genuinely laughed out loud at this.

    Kind of a side note, but even though I will go to bat for a lot of these seemingly indefensible bands I still can’t help but feel nostalgia for the abundance of movie soundtracks in the ’90s that were actually worth listening to.

  10. len said

    wonder if they would have loved or hated this Japanese version of pretty fly from a white guy from Puncolle Punk

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