Truncated title: one hit wonders.
[This may turn out to be Part 1 of a continuing series, but I won't really know until I decide to write a Part 2.]
Hey, do any of you remember Whale? "Hobo Humpin Slobo Babe"? I figure that if you're in your mid to late 20s or early 30s and grew up watching tons of MTV throughout your middle and/or high school years, you have a pretty strong likelihood of answering in the affirmative. But the rest of you are going to need an explanation.
Back in 1993, when MTV still played videos and its "Buzz Bin", the feature that they used to promote new and unusual artists, was far more liberal than any FM radio playlist (and to think that this was before Clear Channel--imagine what a stark contrast to radio that it would draw now!), bands like Ween, Crash Test Dummies, and Urban Dance Squad found themselves thrown into heavy rotation despite their unusual sound due to catching the attention of one programmer or another. A great deal of the artists who came to the public's attention during the post-Nirvana alternative rock boom made their name based on having a video selected for the Buzz Bin. Some of these artists are well-loved to this day (and I'm sure younger fans of bands like Ween and the Flaming Lips sometimes wonder how the hell bands that weird ever got popular in the first place). Others, however, were never able to convert their moment in the sun into a more longstanding career, and had soon been completely forgotten.
Whale is definitely one of the latter, and I'm not going to deny that there's a reason for that. After a recent reminder of their existence, I looked into their career as a whole and found it tremendously underwhelming. However, their one Buzz Bin hit, "Hobo Humpin Slobo Babe", has a charm and power that's undeniable. Of course, I'd forgotten all about it years ago, and only remembered it when I took part in a recent message board discussion about early 90s Buzz Bin videos. People were posting Youtube links, and this led me to watch the video all over again. And although in my memory it was just a weird, silly song, I realized from watching the video that there was more than that going on. Specifically, there's an undercurrent of subversion throughout the song's lyrics that is made far more obvious by various elements of the video.
See, the whole thing purports to be a dismissal, a mockery, of a "hobo humpin slobo babe"--which may have been slang derived from the youth culture of Whale's native Sweden, or may have been a phrase they made up and used because it sounded funny, but either way is pretty obviously translated to "ugly slut". The song begins with its chorus, which is sung by guitarist Henrik Schyffert and bassist Gordon Cyrus. "You hobo humpin slobo babe, get it off, get off, get off of me!" they repeat over and over, following this with a chant of, "Baby we don't love you, baby we don't love you." The shots of Henrik and Gordon singing the chorus have been alternated with shots of a girl walking along a line of boys wearing what everyone who has ever seen the video have referred to as "tinfoil bikinis", but are probably actually tinfoil miniskirts if anything. She's licking a lollipop lasciviously and running her fingertips along the exposed midriffs of the boys, and while this is contrasted with the boy-sung chorus, it probably seems like condemnation. That is, until the chorus ends, the two of them step aside, and from behind them comes walking the hobo humpin' slobo babe in question, played in the video by Whale lead vocalist Cia Soro. And of course, she's funny-looking. The true opening shot of the video, sometimes obscured by overrun from the video before and therefore not even seen, is a full-screen shot of Cia smiling widely, revealing comically huge braces on her teeth:
The braces are obvious as she sings, as is the out-of-control frizzy mop of hair on her head. During the shots of her with the boys in the tinfoil miniskirts, she's wearing a red-and-white checked babydoll dress and combat boots, and under the dress (we see under it several times during the course of the video, for a variety of reasons), she's wearing ridiculous white granny panties. In the shots in which the band is playing the song, she's wearing a huge gray trenchcoat that makes it appear that she's wearing nothing underneath. Apparently, the braces were real, as was reported in articles about the band at the time (although in every other Whale video I've ever seen, including "Pay For Me", which dates from around the same time, she doesn't have them), but the out-of-control hair and the goofy clothes were almost certainly done for effect. The fact is, even with the braces and the hair and the clothes, anyone who takes a minute to get beyond those surface distractions is going to notice that Cia Soro is quite attractive, even in the "Hobo Humpin Slobo Babe" video, and DEFINITELY anywhere else you may see her (she now makes a living as a Swedish television presenter). Here's what she looks like in other circumstances:
But of course, the braces and the goofy hair/clothes are intentional misdirections, recreating the sorts of things that turn off shallow guys before they really get to know a girl.
Which doesn't mean they won't mess around with her in private, so long as no one knows about it. And as soon as Cia starts singing, she sets about skewering that exact mentality, bursting the bubble of the dudes who are trying to dismiss her. She begins by describing herself: "Seeking candy on the shore. Lost her eyesight, teeth are poor. Left for dead, back for more." She freely admits that she wants the same thing that the guys are accusing her of wanting, that she is not exactly a perfect female specimen, and that she knows they've blown her off--which does nothing to stop her from continuing her quest. At this point, she's basically responded to the condemnations of the boy-sung chorus with, "Yeah, so?" And she isn't done, either. Next verse: "Seeking candy who sleeps around." In the video, as soon as she delivers this line, she leans over and licks the armpit of the nearest tinfoil-miniskirted boy. And you know a million 15 year old boys sitting on couches across America yelled, "Eww, gross!", even as they were thinking, "Whoa, that's kinda hot." "Afraid of telling--tiny sounds," Cia continues, and this verse points out what the boys really don't want her to get into: that even as they act like she's below their standards, they're enjoying every minute of it. That the only thing that keeps them from admitting it is fear of what their friends will say. And now she's blowing their cover completely, especially as she finally reaches the chorus. Up until this point, she's sung her verses in a high, playful tone. Even as the words take a defensive tone, she maintains a sweet singing style. But then, that all goes by the wayside as she reaches the chorus. "But you," she says in the final line of her verse, delivering the word "you" with an unmistakable undercurrent of contempt, "you always came BACK FOR MORE!" She screams the last three words, even as the band slams back into the chorus and Henrik and Gordon start singing again.
Up to this point, I haven't talked about the music. The combination of the lyrics and the imagery in the video is a great deal of what makes the song entertaining, but it'd be nothing without a good song to lay it all over. And "Hobo Humpin Slobo Babe" is that, though it's pretty weird as well. The chorus the song begins with is based around a funky riff that is played with some distortion but still retains a mostly soulful groove sort of feel. Then, when Cia starts singing, the guitar drops out completely and the rhythm section keeps an understated but bouncy groove going throughout the verse. Apparently this song was a dance-club hit in Europe, and I can sort of understand why, although it seems a bit too weird for kids in America to ever dance to. But when the chorus comes back in after Cia's first verses, there's an added layer of guitar distortion that wasn't there in the beginning of the song, making it sound heavier. After a third verse sung by Cia, which is again quiet and guitar-less but features her snarling out the word "misunderstood" at the end, before once again declaring, "You always came back for more!" From here on, the chorus riff is pretty much constant, with the guitars getting more and more discordant and feedback-laced, up to the end of the song. At one point, even as Henrik and Gordon are still singing the chorus and still blasting out the chorus riff (which has by now gotten so distorted that it's buried its basic funky groove under layers of noise and feedback), Cia starts singing her verse again, and in the video, she's walking past the line of boys in tinfoil miniskirts, slapping each of them in the ass with her lollipop as she goes. This is my favorite part of the song; I really appreciate the overt contrast between Cia's sweet vocals and the wall of distortion and screaming coming from Henrik and Gordon. Eventually the song falls apart completely, trailing off into feedback, over which Cia sings "Back for more" several times, until eventually she's the only thing left.
I really like the way this song's lyrics work on multiple levels, the way it pretends to be a typical male condemnation of girls having the audacity to be less than perfect and still want to get laid. But pretty quickly it becomes obvious that instead of exemplifying this attitude, it's subverting and making fun of it. By the end of the song, you can't help but root for Cia Soro, in all her funny-looking glory. She seems like she'd actually be a lot more fun than the type of girls for which dudes typically pass over girls like her.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, Whale never did anything else that was the equal of this track. This might be explained by the theory, advanced by at least one website, that Whale initially formed just to record "Hobo Humpin Slobo Babe" as a joke. Their first single contained that song and a minute-long B-sde, and it wasn't until the next year that they released a 5-song EP, "Pay For Me". The first two songs on this EP, the title track and "I Think No," are in the same basic style as "Hobo Humpin Slobo Babe", although they aren't as good. The rest of the EP, and their first full-length, 1995's "We Care", are mostly made up of dance-pop tracks (although "Hobo Humpin Slobo Babe" is awkwardly shoved into the middle of "We Care"). They had a moderate hit with "We Care"'s leadoff track, "Kickin", but it sounds nothing like "Hobo Humpin Slobo Babe", fitting more into the sort of mellow, danceable pop vein that was being explored by The Cardigans at that time. Like The Cardigans and their earlier material, this era of Whale still featured some elements of subversiveness underneath the charming pop exterior, but Whale didn't have the songwriting chops to compete with The Cardigans at their own game, and should probably have stuck to goofy slabs of noise-funk.
None of this, however, takes away from the fact that "Hobo Humpin Slobo Babe" is a great song; in fact, I'd go so far as to call it a lost classic. For those of you who haven't heard it in a long time (or at all), I am proud to present a copy that you can add to your Ipod and let it surprise you when you're using the shuffle function:
Whale - Hobo Humpin Slobo Babe
But really, anyone who is unfamiliar with this track won't get the full experience unless they see the video. And fortunately for us all, Youtube has it available for your viewing pleasure. And so, without further ado: