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You can’t run and you can’t hide.

January 26, 2012

CONFESSIONS OF A ’90s SURVIVOR

Lou Bega – Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit Of …)
From: A Little Bit of Mambo

Angela. Pamela. Sandra. Rita. Monica. Erica. Tina. Mary. Jessica.

I’m guessing that if you bear any of those names, Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” resides somewhere in your collection. Maybe you don’t have A Little Bit of Mambo resting with the CDs you still leave out for company to peruse—maybe the MP3 is hidden away somewhere in your iTunes library, perhaps mislabeled as “A Little Bit of Angela” or “Rita’s Song!!!!!!!” or “OMG BEST SONG EVAAAA!!!!”

I don’t know this to be a fact. In my lifetime, I’ve known girls with these names. I have a cousin named Angela. I know more than a few Marys. This is a hypothesis I could easily put to the test, but I’d rather rest in the knowledge that I’m probably right. After all, I’ve been to enough dances, college parties and weddings (this song has been strictly relegated to the wedding circuit now, right?) to see how girls react to it. In each case there’s a big group of them dancing around and inevitably pointing—also very likely shrieking or whooping a little—when one of the girls happens to be namechecked by Lou.

The song came out when I was between sophomore and junior year in high school, so I was good-fortuned enough to find myself in the age bracket that would hear it at high school dances, college parties (seldom played ironically, mind you) and weddings. The f*cking thing won’t go away. I’d say I avoid Wrigleyville bars in Chicago because of the types of people that congregate there, but maybe even moreso because I’m sure many of those bars have “Mambo No. 5” on rotation (in only quasi-ironic fashion).

But despite my contempt for the song, I sometimes have trouble discerning exactly why I have those feelings for it. It was only ever there to serve the purpose of making a few girls too giddy at social outings, right? It was never meant to be appreciated and analyzed like Pet Sounds. I don’t get upset if I turn up at a wedding and “Electric Slide” comes on. Hell, I’ll be out there doing the damn dance with all the 40-something-year old women who are still single and laboring under the misapprehension that doing a slowed-down line dance proves they’ve still got it. It’s a laugh. That’s all there is to it.

But “Mambo No. 5,” no. There’s something sinister in Lou’s track.

I suppose the best way to describe it is as such: Anyone remember “The Single Guy”? It was a sitcom that served a little time in the 1990s on NBC and benefitted greatly from being strategically placed between “Friends” and “Seinfeld.” Now, your average “Friends” viewer differs from your average “Seinfeld” viewer. I’m not going to make blanket statements—I know there are girls that love “Seinfeld” and I know there are guys that love “Friends” (although they won’t admit it—they’ll quantify it by saying, “Hey, I appreciate it. My family watched it every Thursday when I was growing up, so it’s sentimental”), but the majority of people you talk to now that quote “Seinfeld” are men and the majority that quote “Friends” are women.

In the ‘90s there wasn’t that difference. Both men and women dug “Friends” and both men and women dug “Seinfeld.” In their primes, they were two shows that could provide a lot of laughs and had storylines that appealed to both sexes. As long as NBC didn’t put a half hour of single moms on meth feeding their infant children to wolverines in between the two shows, there was a good chance people would leave NBC on for the half hour between “Friends” and “Seinfeld.”

So between 1995 and 1997, NBC decided to fill the slot with “The Single Guy,” starring Jonathan Silverman who was hard to hate, but still pretty damn vanilla. The concept of the show? A single guy living in New York City. Just like Jerry, George, Kramer, Chandler, Joey and Ross.

And you know what? For a while, people ate it up. It usually landed in the top 5 of the Nielsen Ratings, until some genius decided to change up the timeslot, which sent it tumbling down below the top 50. But when consumers are presented with something they respond strongly to (a group of single friends in New York), executives tend to go, “Well let’s give them a similar concept” (a larger group of single friends in New York). When THAT goes well, executives go, “Let’s give them a different idea within that similar concept” (one single dude in New York). Then you have saturation, people in Chicago protesting (again) that their city doesn’t get enough attention and writers putting marriages into the show in a vain attempt to retain viewers.

Similar thing happened in music in the 1990s. Around the mid-1990s, and partially thanks to an unprecedented popularity in ska music, swing music came running back into the mainstream. CDs by the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy were duking it out for the upper reaches of the Billboard charts. People remembered how fun it was to do that uptempo dancing. “Well!” said the record executives. “You like uptempo dancing?! Because our labels’ Latin American divisions are full of that stuff!” Then you get the Latin Explosion. Well-groomed dudes in zoot suits give way to well groomed Latino dudes with better physiques, tighter-fitting clothing and rhythms that are even mas caliente!

Now, record executives are going, “OK, danceable rhythms and horns, what else we got?”

And then Mr. Bega, a German dude of Italian and Ugandan descent (not Latin, mind), starts calling out girls’ names over a processed beat and a sample of an old Perez Prado track.

See, my problem with “Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit Of …)” isn’t that it’s a bastardized version of something that was absolutely fine to begin with. No. That’s my complaint about Michael Buble.

My problem with “Mambo No. 5” is that—in addition to being a bastardized version of something absolutely fine to begin with—it’s a shockingly transparent cash-in on the fads of the previous summers. And the American public bought it like a f*cking bunch of Alzheimer’s patients.

Look at the video. A classy (if ill fitting) 1940s-era suit upon Lou, stock footage of old timey raveups and kicklines collide with roughly the same amount of modern T&A you’d find in the Mase and Jermaine Dupri videos of the day. Look at the look on Lou’s face at the 0:44 mark. It’s a quick shot, but he gives you that look of phony confidence that only a man who can’t believe he’s getting away with something this easy can give.

I don’t understand the need to call out “Mambo numba five!” other than further advertising the track within the track itself. Aside from a few shimmies from Lou, there’s a distinct lack of actual mambo dancing, and the most infuriating part of the song (and video) really—whereupon Lou dictates a dance that’s about as far away from mambo as dancing gets and then has the balls to say, “If it looks like this you’re doing it right” while providing no visual example whatsoever (even when he delivers the line in the video, he just nods)—is just more gasoline on my fire of hatred for this song.

So why spend so much time musing on a one-hit wonder that cooks such bile in me? Well, because in my junior year of high school, I was in Youth in Government. I know, I know, I taught myself cool by surrounding myself with the absolute legends. But it was actually a fun group that consisted of some of the most laid back, funny and friendly people with whom you’d want to associate. Every year on the bus ride to Springfield from suburban Chicago, someone would bring along a jukebox from which to blast the popular hits of the day. There was a girl who was one year older than me on that particular trip who I had an unwavering adoration for and who found a lot of delight in “Mambo No. 5.”

“Maybe it’s not such a bad song?” I thought to myself as I watched her laugh and bounce around her seat with a couple of her friends. “Maybe it is kind of fun.”

Unfortunately, at the end of that trip, she started dating a wrestler who took great delight in irritating the living hell out of me. So when I hear “Mambo No. 5”—aside from all the very legitimate reasons to hate that song and think of it as the outlandish phony it is, I also think of this.

And I seethe.

So Angela, Pamela, Sandra, Rita, Monica, Erica, Tina, Mary and Jessica? Please hide the Lou Bega CD next time I’m over. I will, however, be happy to join the line at the next wedding we all attend when “Electric Slide” starts playing.

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2 comments

  1. I look forward to your next post comparing “Livin’ la Vida Loca” and Caroline and the City. Sounds perfect for Grantland.com

    BTW, looking a the charts for 1999, that year was an absolute monster chalked full of catchy terrible earworm annoying pop classics. “Believe” by Cher was #1 but the whole list is incredible. “Baby One More Time” “No Scrubs”, “I Want it That Way” “Miami” Shawn Mullins “Lullaby”. Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” “Hard Knock Life”. “Doo Wop (That Thing)”-not terrible , Eagle Eye Cherry “Save Tonight”, a bunch of Shania, “Genie in a Bottle”, “Smooth”, “All Star”….The list goes on and one…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billboard_Year-End_Hot_100_singles_of_1999

    Hey, Carson!


  2. It’s the wonderful and lamentable thing about the ’90s. What’s scary is I’ve already done “Confessions” on TLC, Backstreet Boys and the Rob Thomas/Santana combo. And in the queue wait Will Smith, Smash Mouth and Eagle-Eye … and many, many more.



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