This post is egregiously unfair to essayist Justin St. Germain, who I do not know. I’m sure he’s a wonderful person, but he sure as hell backed the wrong horse here I tell you what.
Just before the election, Radiolab ran an episode seeking out those mythical moments where one vote made a difference. They did it too early. On March 3, something went badly wrong with March Fadness, in a way which arguably speaks to the fundamental failure of democracy in which we are all immersed. Specifically: Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” lost to OMC’s “How Bizarre” by one vote.
For those unfamiliar with March Fadness, the tournament’s WTF page explains:
March Fadness features one-hit wonders of the 1990s pitted against each other in ridiculous and possibly pointless games, all in search of understanding the 1990s and its culture as well as the uses and failures of memory.
This is what makes MF particularly beautiful, I think: it suggests that the ridiculousness of the 1990s can somehow give rise to an understanding of ourselves and our culture—that, say, asking us to choose between “I Wish” and “What Is Love” can give us a way of examining the gaps between who we are now and who we were then. The tournament assumes that the question asked in each round—”Which song is the best?”—means something bigger and deeper than its simple wording implies.
Come with me this far, at least: March Fadness is in truth an essay made of essays, a great metaekphrasis1 using art and memory to heighten and sharpen one another’s mystery. March Fadness is rooted in a belief that art—even the one-hit wonders of the 90s—offers access to humanity.
These votes are immensely complex; if two of us vote for the same song, can we say with any certainty that those two votes mean the same thing? We cannot. Are people voting for the songs? For the videos? For the memories? For the essays? For the essayists? For the preservation of their own brackets? Or against any of those things, as I always root for whoever the Jets are playing?2 Or do all these strands braid around the maypole of a single radio button? Can we have a meaningful conversation about “which song is the best” if we are not in communion about what purpose art serves?
That last question is why Justin St. Germain—and, by extension, OMC’s “How Bizarre”—must be stopped.
St. Germain begins his essay by explicitly discarding the idea of aesthetics, observing that the alleged experts walking the halls of museums seem to have differing standards for interpreting art. His response is personal: “I mostly just like to stare at it for a while, and see if I can see the genius.” The conclusion this points toward is that exposure is “all you really need to formulate some aesthetics.” The feeling I get—which, I think, pervades his essay—is that because there are so many standards, aesthetics must be subjective, and that if aesthetics are subjective, they must therefore be personal and individual. I don’t know whether Justin St. Germain is a climate denier, but this is certainly the climate denier’s stance. There are conflicting opinions; therefore, all opinions must be equally valid.
Thus, his argument is rooted in the personal: “Quick,” he asks, “what does ‘How Bizarre’ remind you of?” What makes art valuable—or, at least, what makes the art of 90s one-hit wonders valuable—is how powerfully it is linked to his personal memories. He attempts to colonize ours, too; despite what St. Germain seems to think, I don’t have any of “How Bizarre” memorized, except for the words “How Bizarre.” He glances back briefly at the question of aesthetics, but only sarcastically. He winks at some metrics of value—”How Bizarre” was popular; OMC has an interesting story; one specific image and line from the video resonates in a PT Barnum sort of way with current events—but he does not seriously engage them as ways of comparing. (“OMC is better because of the story” works only if it is held up against Mark Cohn’s story, or Donna Lewis’s, or Harvey Danger’s.)
All of this points toward a solipsistic, cynical view of human endeavor, but what bothers me most are the constant jabs at “Walking in Memphis.” It’s not on Memphis’s wikipedia page, hurr hurr. There’s not a book about it, hurr hurr. It doesn’t belong in the National Gallery, hurr hurr. As “How Bizarre” has advanced through the tournament, these snarklets have been tweaked to address each opponent, revealing how little merit they have. These digs are superficial and even nonsensical—will “How Bizarre” end up in the National Gallery?—but they all speak to a way of thinking about art that I find deeply unsettling: my thing is good because I like it, and therefore I denigrate your thing without attempting to understanding it.
“Walking in Memphis,” on the other hand, reaches right into the heart of what MF is supposed to be about. St. Germain may discard or trivialize aesthetics for “Bizarre,” but “Memphis” is itself an argument about the purpose of art: for Cohn, the honest, wholehearted pursuit of art is the pathway to the divine.
In her essay, Lisa M. O’Neill argues that “Memphis” is a celebration of earnestness, of “might:”
Only every so often as adults do we experience—do we allow ourselves to experience—what this earnestness feels like. When we free ourselves from posturing as experts. Every single one of us knows what it is to sing with all our might. Belting out the notes. Holding nothing back. Pouring every iota of ourselves into the song. All that striving.
The story she tells of the song—which, St. Germain’s glibness notwithstanding, unquestionably “wins on pathos”—is one of a man searching for the best of his art, following a holy man on a pilgrim’s path, seeking contact with something greater than himself.
And the song itself is liturgy: Cohn puts on his blue-suede vestments. He invites the protection of Saint Handy. He walks the Stations of the Cross—remember, he’s a Christian tonight—stopping for a moment to reflect on each holy site. Graceland. The Hollywood. Amid the rising incense of gospel, he comes to the Lord’s Table for communion, and Reverend Green offers him a holier substance than bread.
Threaded throughout, the question: “do I really feel the way I feel?”
“Walking in Memphis” is a statement of faith: that if there is anything out there, beyond the borders of this world, it is through art that we will someday reach it. “Memphis” is Cohn trying to reach through the city to the beyond, to make sense of loss, of pain, of death. The ghost of Elvis his Beatrice, his Paradise the Jungle Room, music his vehicle to the numinous.
“Walking in Memphis” absolutely should have won. When I voted, “Memphis” was well behind “Bizarre,” and I thought briefly about whether I should vote on other devices. That would clearly be wrong,3 but I wish I’d cheated, just a little, so Cohn’s pilgrimage could have taken him—and us—just a bit farther.
In the end, it comes down to this: Lisa M. O’Neill was asking, “Does ‘Walking in Memphis’ speak to the best of humanity?” Justin St. Germain was asking, “Was ‘How Bizarre’ playing on my stolen boombox while I felt up Shelly Wallace in the back of my Ranchero?”4 I don’t care so much that Mark Cohn lost to OMC, but I do care that people who ask the first kind of question lost to people who ask the second.5
St. Germain and OMC are now facing The Proclaimers’ “500 Miles”—another earnest journey—in the Elite 8. Go vote against them.
Almost certainly the most pretentious term I have ever used in my life. At least I didn’t say μετάἐκφράσις? ↩
This seems a more effective way to be a Dolphins fan than rooting for the Dolphins. ↩
Although something about the feel of his essay suggests that St. Germain maybe voted for himself eight times. ↩
The stolen boombox is canon, but Shelly Wallace and the Ranchero are speculation. ↩