Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Sometimes songs move me deeply. I can't predict when a song is going to give me chills or even bring a tear, but it happens all the time. Get Ereck to tell you about the time we were out for dinner and I lost it as I extolled Blossom Dearie's recording of "Rhode Island Is Famous For You." (I don't even need to be listening to a song for it to affect me.) "Thanks For The Memory" by Bob Hope and Shirley Ross has this effect on me, too. As do many other songs.

So why did I get misty-eyed the third or fourth time I watched the video for "The Ketchup Song (Hey Hah)"? It's just another bouncy pop song, hardly the first or last. Of course I don't understand the words, which are in Spanish, and the chorus is nonsense syllables, meaningless in any language.

But there's something about that video, in particular. (Even though I think the song itself is endlessly clever. How can such a cheerful melody be in a minor key? It's a mystery.) It's the video that highlights what's truly important about "The Ketchup Song": the line dance that accompanies it. If you've seen the dance you know it, and if not, I won't attempt to describe it in much detail here. Suffice it to say, it's got a little shimmy, a little hand jive, and a little knee wobble. It's not hard. Ereck and I mastered it in seconds.

We live in an age in which dance fads come just once in a blue moon. The last one of note was of course "La Macarena," to which pundits have rightly compared "The Ketchup Song." My sense--without researching this at all--is that the phenomenon that is the dance-step fad hit its greatest stride in the early to mid-1960s, when there were new steps all the time, usually with their own hit song. I gather the Twist was the most inescapable of these steps--and that was quite a step, that Twist--and I could probably come up with plenty more without much effort; a lifetime of TV, movies, and radio has left me knowing about the Frug, the Watusi, the Bat-tusi, the Locomotion, the Swim, the Funky Monkey, and the Hippy Hippy Shake. And in the New Wave era, acts like the B-52's and the Fleshtones had songs (I'm thinking of "Dance This Mess Around" and "Land of 1,000 Dances," respectively) that celebrated these old dances. And seemed to invent some new-old ones--were there really dances called the Aqua Velva and the Escalator, or were the B-52's just making them up?

And I would speculate that another time of dance fads was the disco era, when I seem to recall it also was important to know the latest steps; I believe at least one of these steps was its own hit song, "The Hustle." And my sense is that the country line-dancing movement had step fads, though I confess I know next to nothing about country line dancing.

But with "The Ketchup Song" we come to this matter of line dancing, separate from country line dancing--which, incidentally, I think has an undeservedly poor reputation among the cognoscenti. Remind me to tell you about the line-dancing drag queens at the Rainbow Room. At any rate, I gather that at least some of the 1960s fad dances were line dances, based on that unimaginably fabulous sequence in the John Waters movie Hairspray: a bunch of kids in period dress dance the Madison, and it's the greatest thing ever captured on film.

So now that the dance crazes of the 1960s and 1970s seem to have died down, dance fads come around only every eight years or so, and they are line dances exclusively, and they are always sung in Spanish.

Which brings us back to "La Macarena." I was by no means an early adopter of "La Macarena," but once it took hold, I embraced it wholeheartedly. The appeal of a line dance like "La Macarena" lies in its simplicity, I think, and in the notion that two or more people who know it can together, with little effort, create a choreographed performance. What's the point? No point! Who cares! It's fun.

(Here is a picture I took in 1996 of some Chicago revelers dancing the Macarena. It was at a particularly unpleasant pickup bar in the Rush Street district. My friend and I went on a lark. This was when I first began to sense that sometimes doing lame things, but ironically, is itself lame.)

And so we return, finally, to "The Ketchup Song" and its mesmerizing video. What happens in the video is that, through the efforts of the sexy Ketchup girls, a group of lazy beachgoers gradually transforms into frenzied dancers, all of them madly dancing the "Ketchup Song" step. This narrative, the catchiness of the song, and the enormous appeal of the performers combine to say: This is the song you need to know about right now. Of course, this fundamentally is what any hit song says, but hit song plus simple line dance seems to have even more power: together they seem to say, listen to this, do this with your body, and be part of something important. This is why the video had an emotional impact on me, I think: I'm a sucker for a dance craze.

The irony, of course, is that although "The Ketchup Song" has been a smash all over the world, in the United States it stalled on the charts somewhere around #50. Apparently, the label pushed and pushed it to radio, but the song never really took off. Maybe it will--I get hunches about these things sometimes, and I suspect we'll see more of "The Ketchup Song." But if it fails to take off here, I doubt there's any profound reason: it's just another bouncy pop song. Sometimes they hit; sometimes they don't.

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