Popular has been continuing steadily through 1998 and into 1999. More of the tracks are new to me now, so my comments have been getting briefer, but here are a few of the longer ones, edited and adapted.

Boyzone, “No Matter What”, 15 August 1998

I inadvertently tested this song’s earworm potential by listening to it precisely once when Tom Ewing’s entry went up and not at all afterwards—and could still remember the tune note-for-note a week later, which was a plus for Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s contribution. Not his finest tune by a long shot, but still memorable.

On that first listen the production annoyed me no end, as with all of Boyzone’s work, but production alone doesn’t drive their songs down to a 1 for me. I was so focussed on the surface of the song that I didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics, but after studying them more closely, ye gods, they’re appalling. Jim Steinman has gone down in my estimation a fair few notches.

On one level I can see them being read as simple affirmation of a young couple’s love for one another in the face of hostility from friends and family. No doubt that’s what drove the song to the top in Britain. But a blind-faith religious interpretation is also possible: if you read from “Then we would hear God say” onwards as if the “I” is the voice of God and “they” is secular society, the whole song becomes about not what you, the individual, believe, but what we, the collective followers of our faith, believe to be true. It’s surprising this didn’t help it do more business in the US, at least in the midwest.

For my part, I find the sentiment of “No matter what they teach you / What we believe is true” totally toxic. It’s the worst aspects of cultural relativism in lyric form. It’s fundamentally anti-science, anti-rationality: a total eclipse of the brain. Ignore the evidence of the real world, ignore the expertise or experience of others: what you believe is true, because God says so.

Jesus. 1.

The Manic Street Preachers, “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next”, 5 September 1998

I remembered the fuss about Generation Terrorists (and a cynical reaction from some quarters) from my year in England in ’91-’92, but didn’t board the Manics Express until I picked up Everything Must Go from a Soho bargain bin during my ’98 visit to London. From that point on I was sold, and “If You Tolerate This” confirmed it. I am the very model of a major later-Manics fan, having loved Know Your Enemy, Lifeblood, and more recently Postcards from a Young Man. The early albums, by contrast, haven’t grabbed me yet—even Journal For Plague Lovers didn’t—although there are always tracks worth a listen on any of their albums.

The forced scansion of their lyrics used to annoy me, even as an admirer of their work, but eventually I realised that it was one of the key hooks of their songs, drawing my attention every time. In a roundabout way, it might help explain why I’m a fan, at least of their later stuff: the orchestral flourishes and epic sweep of their best late-90s work sounds so odd next to that mangled metre and admittedly sometimes routine rock guitar that the whole feels more interesting than it ought to. Perhaps it’s also why I haven’t got into the early albums, with their G’n’R influences and the rest—a less interesting setting for those vocal tics.

If you asked a bunch of random people to name a Manics song this would be in the top three responses, I’d wager, because of its memorable title. There were good reasons why the title resonated in the supposedly peaceful 1990s. It struck me then—and still does—as a perfect response to a decade full of war in Europe, genocide in Africa, and the West watching impotently from the sidelines. Although ostensibly about the Spanish Civil War, the only lyric that overtly ties the song to Spain is “I’ve walked La Ramblas, but not with real intent”. I could say that, and I was born thirty years after Homage to Catalonia. Thousands of people have walked La Ramblas as tourists, but have no idea what once happened there; we travel and shop and play our way through our lives, so young and so vain, forgetting the wars of the past and the wars happening elsewhere: gutless wonders, tolerating the intolerable. (I hope it’s obvious that I’m interpolating lyrics here.)

I gave parent album This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours a fresh spin when this song came up on Popular, and had quite forgotten “You Stole the Sun from My Heart”, and other tracks like “My Little Empire” and “Nobody Loved You”... there’s a lot of focus on their lyrics, but it’s the Manics’ music that draws me in. “Tolerate” is no exception, with that fantastic intro; it still sounds very fine to me, crunching-gear-change delivery and all. 9.

Chef, “Chocolate Salty Balls”, 2 January 1999

South Park pretty much dominated 1998-99 for me, and many of those early episodes are burnt into my brain, including “Chef’s Chocolate Salty Balls” (which must be why the fad for salted caramel has always struck me as vaguely amusing). Isaac Hayes’ character was just one of many great things about the show. It peaked for me with the 1999 movie, which was relentlessly, deliriously funny if you were a fan of the show, and I-wouldn’t-know-what if you weren’t. The movie contained the best South Park song by a mile: not the Academy-friendly “Blame Canada”, but the opening barrage of “Uncle Fucka”, which I would link to here if it weren’t far too wrong taken out of context (and hilariously wrong in context). “Chocolate Salty Balls” is tame by comparison, but still plenty entertaining in its own right, and worth a 6.

I lost track of it in the 2000s after moving country, going TV-free and living off DVD box-sets for a while, when Futurama took over as our household’s preferred animated half-hour. With kids around nowadays, it’ll be a while before we settle down to watch the latter-day equivalent of “Kyle’s Mom’s a Bitch”. The result is that those early episodes and songs have taken on the golden glow of nostalgia, untainted by whatever has come since.

30 August 2014 · Music