This week the inmates are running the asylum. You'll remember I challenged people, once again, to Right This Blog! With that in mind welcome: Joe The Boxer
Go along with me for a minute. Imagine the following scenario: When you were 16 years old, you wrote a song. I assume a lot of musicians read Blog on the Tracks, so I assume a lot of you actually did this. I assume a lot of you also cringe when thinking about that particular song that you wrote.
Now imagine that five years after you wrote it, this song is massively successful. When I say massively, I mean the biggest-selling single of all time, from the most popular contemporary genre of music of the last 20 years. You get movie offers and date Madonna. You are successful and cool.
Then, as fast as you became massively famous and cool, you become massively uncool. You get regularly humiliated. You try to repeat your success, but fail. You try again. And again. Over two decades pass. You are now 44 years old, and playing a show at the Shoppingtown Hotel, Doncaster, a venue known to locals in the area for bingo on Tuesdays, and the attached TAB.
Something grabs a hold of me tightly when I hear that Vanilla Ice is playing somewhere in the outer suburbs of northeastern Melbourne. I have lived in Melbourne for five years, but had no idea where the Shoppington Hotel, or even the suburb of Doncaster, is. I look on the website and it turns out it's an hour on public transport from where I live - a convenient tram, bus ride and walk away. The website also informs me Vanilla joins illustrious company by playing this venue: Taylor Dayne, ABC, former Spandau Ballet lead singer Tony Hadley, and Pseudo Echo (original lineup!) have all played there recently. "Manpower Australia" is due early next year.
My girlfriend (taking photos) and I arrive at 9pm. There are about 200 people here, half packing a surprisingly large venue. It is a standard crowd of all ages, pretty much the same as you might see at a Foo Fighters concert or a rugby match, and about 70 per cent male. The only unusual thing: A large group of "Juggalos" (Insane Clown Posse diehards, who wear corpse paint in their faces and dress as scary clowns). The warmup DJ plays a nice selection of nostalgia hip-hop form the early 90s: A Tribe Called Quest, Blackstreet, Del the Funky Homosapien, and a tribute to Heavy D. He does a good job, and the crowd is in a good mood. There are few younger members who are dressed up in the Vanilla style. When Gangsta's Paradise comes on, a new world record is set for most dorky white guys rapping at one time. I drop a few lines myself, it's hard to resist. It's that kind of atmosphere.
I imagine that backstage it's a little like the scene at the start of Walk the Line (and later in Walk Hard - The Dewey Cox Story), where Johnny Cash, alone in a dark hallway, strumming gently on his guitar, begins to reflect on his life. Vanilla is doing the same right now: the meteoric rise to fame, dating Madonna and Debbie Gibson, reportedly being dangled from a balcony by Suge Knight, the dreadlocks, the nu-metal comeback. The soft thud through the walls of the crowd chanting "Vanilla! Vanilla! Vanilla!" will eventually rouse him from his thoughts and he will hit the stage with a vengeance. Chumps will be waxed like candles. Maybe it is time to do some reflecting of my own (cue dreamlike flashback sequence):
It was 1991. My older brother had stayed up late one night, and happened to catch an unheard-of rapper called Vanilla Ice performing a song called Ice Ice Baby on The Late Show with David Letterman. He told me about it the next day, and I had no idea what he was on about. "Ice Ice Baby?" "The VIP Posse?" "Check out the Hook while my DJ revolves it"? It was like he was talking gibberish. Nonetheless, he was convinced of its greatness and he ordered the Cassingle at Echo records that weekend. In the pre-internet era things took weeks to arrive in New Zealand, but thanks to my brother we still had the advantage of listening to Ice Ice Baby on heavy repeat for a week before it hit mainstream New Zealand culture.
And when it did hit, it hit hard. Ice Ice Baby exploded like a bomb all over Balmacewen Intermediate School. I remember where I was when Robbie Rakete announced it had debuted at number one. MC Hammer, until then the coolest man alive, was all of sudden positively "whack". I, like many others, shaved steps in the side of my head and started practising his dance moves. At that point, Vanilla couldn't have been any bigger than he was.
That was then, and this is now.
Years of cultural revisionism has tarnished the Iceman's legacy. He has become a joke. His biggest hit, Ice Ice Baby, which is STILL the biggest-selling rap single of all time, is only now played ironically. It was recently listed alongside Barbie Girl and Achy Breaky Heart as one of the worst songs of all time. His underrated star turn in the film Cool as Ice, recently re-released on DVD, sits unrented on dusty video store shelves.
The popular narrative says that Smells Like Teen Spirit was the great cultural milestone of 1991 - but it was Ice Ice Baby that opened the hip-hop floodgates - a genre that has had the most influence over the last 20 years of popular music, far more than grunge. In fact, I'll wager that if you are between 25 and 35 and reading this blog right now, there is a strong chance that you can rap most of Ice Ice Baby in your head. The same does not apply to Smells Like Teen Spirit.
A few years ago I talked about Vanilla with a friend of mine, a well respected Melbourne hip-hop DJ. He described Ice Ice Baby as "kind of dope actually", and pointed out that if the track was released by some underground rapper, it would probably be seen as a classic and would still be getting played in clubs. He told me he wished he could play it during a set - but if he did he would probably get laughed at and possibly fired. He was serious.
I have to agree with him. The Under Pressure sample is great and the hook and verses are super catchy. It was a victim of its own success, much like Vanilla himself.
And now, at 10.30pm, Vanilla is about to take the stage. Take heed, coz he's a lyrical poet. And he is really into scary clowns - there is a scary clown doll on the mic stand, the DJ is wearing a scary clown/skull mask, and there is a 7-foot-tall person walking around the stage, dressed as a scary clown. His first song is Dirty South, and from there, straight into Halloween, the chorus of which goes "I was born on Halloween" (which he was). When it finishes he shouts:
"I WAS BORN ON HALLOWEEN! THAT'S F$&*#G CRAZY!"
That is kind of crazy...somehow...
"TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES! I STILL LOVE THOSE GUYS! AINT NO SHAME IN MY GAME, I LOVE EM JUST THE SAME!" He gets a big laugh.
So far the vibe is okay. People are into it, even if they have never heard these songs before. He is doing okay. Then...
"FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER!"
"BUY MY NEW ALBUM ON iTUNES!"
"WE GOT SOLDIERS OVER IN IRAQ! I WANT YOU TO CHANT WITH ME: F&*K OSAMA AND HIS MAMA!"
...right then. Things getting a bit weird now...
He launches into his trump card: Ice Ice Baby. Four songs in - risky, we agree. With the help of the giant scary clown, he pulls about 30 women up on stage. They start dancing and a couple of them start grinding him down.
"SOME REAL HORNY PEOPLE IN HERE TONIGHT!"
"SEXY LADIES! YEAH!"
The mic gets passed around and everyone has a go. It's like karaoke at a strip bar. His trump card ends. He tries to convince a woman to take her top off. This goes on for a few minutes. It's getting seriously creepy now and it's hard to even be in the same room. He disappears and re-emerges with a bra on his head. He swings it around in the air for a bit, then pours water on a few women, then launches into Play That Funky Music, but only gets past the first verse before he stops:
"SAY MAKE MONEYMONEY MAKE MONEYMONEYMONEY!"
He has lost at least half the crowd, but those up the front respond.
"YEAH! ITS ABOUT MONEY! THAT'S HOW YOU DONT END UP LIKE MC HAMMER!"
The crowd cheers, but in a confused way. For the next few minutes, he brags about his success. Highlights include:
"YOU FORGOT ABOUT ME LIKE YOU FORGOT ABOUT DRE!"
"I PAVED THE WAY FOR EMINEM! HE WOULD HAVE TO SELL 15 TIMES AS MANY ALBUMS AS HE HAS NOW TO EVEN TOUCH ME!"
A slight exaggeration there?
"GIRLS GOING WILD FOR ICE! HOT SEXY LADIES!"
"FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER!"
More water over the head. It's taking a turn for the worse. Unwatchable.
"I'M SURE IF YOU LADIES WANTED TO SHOW A LITTLE SKIN..."
Some boos coming from the audience now, but not nearly enough. From here things wrap up quickly: he kicks his DJ out from the decks and starts playing something that sounds like a rejected Presets B-side. The audience can no longer see him as the stage is still packed with women. He re-emerges one more time, does one more terrible new tune, gets his photo taken a few times and says "GOODBYE!"
But wait. The DJ puts on Bob Marley's No Woman No Cry. He sings along out of tune, yelling out random things between lines. It sounds like this:
"I remember/when we used to sit...FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER...in a government yard...VANILLA ICE...in Trenchtown...PEACE AND LOVE..."
And then he is gone. He was on stage for 45 minutes.
After witnessing that, the obvious thing to say would be that Vanilla should just give up, but the more I think about it the more I think that this option is completely impossible.
The reason for this? Nobody, no matter how strong their will, can escape the pull of nostalgia. Nothing ever goes away and nothing really ends. The moment that he announces his retirement, people will be asking him about a comeback. There will always be people who look back fondly at 1991 and decide that going to a Vanilla ice gig is a good idea.
Just a few years ago, former Stone Roses guitarist John Squire gave an adamant answer in relation to the band reforming: "I have no desire whatsoever to desecrate the grave of seminal Manchester pop group the Stone Roses". The Stone Roses announced their comeback world tour last month. Did they want this to happen? Of course not! They wanted things to stay as they were, as a beautiful memory. But when faced with the reality of getting asked about a comeback every hour for the rest of their lives, they really had no choice. They realised that if they wanted to move on, they would have to go back - and give the people what they wanted: The Frankenstein Stone Roses, living again, undead.
Maybe Vanilla knows that it is better to just keep going and going, than to give up and be hounded back into submission. He has turned into some kind of warped, sleazy version of his young self, but he seems to be totally okay with it. That is why, in 2021, when Oasis, The Smiths and Talking Heads are headlining Glastonbury, Friends, featuring a 55-year-old David Schwimmer, is the most popular TV show, and ALF: the movie is competing with the Lord of the Rings remake for the summer box office, Vanilla Ice is still going to be somewhere in the world, rocking an aging crowd to Ice Ice Baby. He will always be Vanilla Ice.
And follow Off the Tracks to read 'The Vinyl Countdown' - an album-by-album review of my record collection.
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