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Sep 05

THE FT TOP 100 TRACKS OF ALL TIME No.78

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Culture Beat – “Mr Vain”

There is an argument, one I hope to elucidate in the following, that Culture Beat are exactly that. The rhythm of our Western Culture in 1993: the thud of the backing of this song is merely the underpinning of the songs accurate and razorsharp critique of that culture. That it sold 4.5 million copies worldwide and hit the top of the charts in twelve countries also manages to show how self-reflexive said culture is, even to the extent of taking a scabrous political song and treating it as mere dance music.

Lyrical analysis is never the best way to discuss a song, but perhaps with Mr Vain it is the lyrics which are most disregarded. Certainly it is a wonderful song to dance to, but it also demands a singalong. Yet do we ever really consider the meaning of the words? Take the best known parts:
I know what I want and I want it now
I want you cause I’m Mr. Vain

If you do not recognise this as the 90′s mantra then we lived through a different decade. It is all about the narcissistic “me” generation of the period. And why do they want so much, citing vanity as a cause for profligate consumerism may seem contradictory: but is it? The reason we need to acquire so much (and in this case sexual conquests are seen as much as acquisitions as anything else) is that cultural vanity requires us to experience and judge everything. We turn the music into an extension of our own creativity. We are the artist. And we are not exactly modest about this.

Ironically this process of unpacking the song and turning it into our own product, “a nice safe cheesy dance record” seemingly neuters the power of the tune. Mr Vain is remembered as just that, a slightly embarrassing floor filler from the early nineties, where German producers grafted in a singer in spike heels and ruled the pop charts. But Mr Vain is a Trojan horse: it still fills the floor today and the words sometimes get through. When a lagered up lad at that wedding disco mouths “I’m Mr Vain”, the response is certainly in the affirmative. That Mr Vain is the soundtrack of 1993 there can be no argument to. But I would also propose it is the soul of 1993 too. And when we are also invited to note the equivalence of Mr Vain to Mr Wrong, we can see instantly what Culture Beat’s line on 1993 was.

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