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Friday
Sep092011

« In Which We Contemplate Hierarchies In The Mid 90s »

Popular Fantasies

by LEON DISCHE BECKER

One of the primary benefits of growing up a full-time though, at times, rebellious apparatchik of my sister, was that she tried to steer me clear of all the atrocious music on offer in 1990s Germany. Eurodance formations, boybands, girlbands those were not acceptable choices in our household cassette player. I am grateful for that.

Unfortunately, though, those songs were omnipresent at the time, and not liking them didn’t mean one could block them out. When MTV first showed up on our TV in 1995, I watched every video that came on and studied it closely (I was addicted to watching television). One issue that preoccupied me greatly was the hierarchical structure of boy and girl-bands. Some members sang a part of every song, others only sometimes. The camera seemed to discriminate between them also, showing some faces and torsos more frequently than others. Who was making these unjust decisions?

Why, for instance, was Michael McCary restricted to doing the “bum bum bum” and spoken apology bits in Boyz II Men songs? Surely he was as capable a whiner as the other three members of the group. Why did only one of the four singles released off CrazySexyCool feature a verse by quirky midget Left Eye? T-Boz sang "Creep" all by herself, and only left the bridges of "Red Light Special" and "Diggin' on You" to her foxy, Native American bandmate Chili. Who forced the one fat member of 'N Sync to carry his burden in his name? Was Mel B considered scary because of her ethnicity?

My younger self, of course, had no idea that he would one day grow up into hack writer with the resources necessary to demystify these oblique organizations. I recently figured out why TLC’s hierarchy was reshuffled around the turn of the millennium, and Chilli and T-Boz henceforth shared front-woman duties. Their management preferred Chilli’s dating choices. She had dated up (Usher, who allegedly cheated on her), while T-Boz had married down (The Westside Connection’s Mack 10, who allegedly beat her). Apparently Left Eye’s decision to burn her boyfriend’s house down didn’t affect her standing in the group.

I’d always sensed a strange tension between the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, two similar variations on a format. Turns out they were managed by the same pervo. Lou Pearlman, so his name, urged the bands to compete with each other. He even organized basketball games between them (hence the five members). And yet 'N Sync were intended for a slightly different, a slightly higher, market than BSB. They were constructed to suggest artistic integrity — the ugly members, the many acapella performances — they were sold as the boy band that could actually sing. In other words, while both 'N Sync and BSB were both compiled to appeal to pre-teen girls, 'N Sync’s image was aimed at slightly smarter ones. But BSB were tougher. Hence the backstreet.

In Germany of the mid-90s, such arranged bands were referred to as "acts." Unlike most English words misappropriated for colloquial German use, that term was instructive. But the implication failed to register with their pious fans. They ran away from home to attend their idols’ playback concerts. They waved homemade signs, wept through their make-up, hyperventilated, and threw their undergarments at poor Lance Bass. At home, they memorized lyrics they didn’t understand. And that is where the farce turned tragic. With songs like "Wannabe" and "Everybody", acts like the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys significantly degraded the ESL-capabilities of their overseas fans. To many Germans of a certain generation, the words "crazy" and "blue" denote lovesickness and not much else.

Leon Dische Becker is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Brooklyn. He last wrote in these pages about Hurricane Irene.

"Waterfalls (Darp remix)" - TLC (mp3)

"Waterfalls (Onp remix)" - TLC (mp3)

"Waterfalls (album instrumental)" - TLC (mp3)


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