“Song 2” Turns 20
“Woo-hoo!” – Damon Albarn
Damon Albarn has accomplished a lot in his life. He’s generated impressive quantities of timeless music and made a seismic impact on pop culture several times over, both in his native Great Britain and the world at large. Blur’s sizable discography alone is enough to qualify him as a legend, and at this point Gorillaz is arguably just as important to his legacy. Plus there are the sundry other side projects, solo endeavors, and collaborations that have combined to make Albarn one of the busiest, most adventurous people in music throughout the past quarter-century. Maybe in England, where he was a tabloid celebrity at the height of Britpop, the average person knows about all of that. But here in the US, and ostensibly around the world, he’ll always be best-known for a song that sounds nothing like the rest of his catalog, a song many people know instinctively even if they’ve never heard of Blur or Albarn. That song is “Song 2,” and it turns 20 years old today.
Really, Blur’s self-titled album is what reaches the two-decade mark today — “Song 2″ was released as a single two months later — and it’s a memorable album in its own right. “Beetlebum,” the opening track, belongs on any shortlist of the finest Blur songs ever. “Look Inside America” is one of several Pavement-indebted gems on the tracklist. “You’re So Great,” the first Blur track to feature guitarist Graham Coxon on lead vocals, is a charming little lo-fi love song. The experimentalism that would bloom into a new kind of genius on 1999’s 13 generated some intriguing left turns. But ultimately Blur’s self-titled will always be remembered as the album that gave us “Song 2,” the Blur song you know even if you don’t know Blur.
If you do know Blur, you know “Song 2″ is an outlier in their catalog, a quick blast of adrenaline from the Britpop wars’ brainy art-school contingent. You probably also know the band conceived it as a tossed-off grunge parody, its semi-sarcastic posture undercutting this once stridently English band’s newfound embrace of America. It’s no coincidence that after playing the “Song 2″ video, YouTube will often queue up Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the song most obviously being lampooned by this tune’s brilliantly stupid chord progression and loud-quiet-loud dynamics.
Who cares if it’s satire when it functions so spectacularly as the genuine article? It helps that some of grunge’s more self-serious moments now play like jokes, so Blur’s sendup fits right in, all the way down to nonsensical lyrics such as: “I got my head checked/ By a jumbo jet/ It wasn’t easy/ But nothing is.” This track’s appeal really isn’t grounded in its lyrics, though; musically it just fucking wallops you. Whereas Albarn’s earlier works studiously evolved The Village Green Preservation Society and other resolutely British Kinks concept albums, he’s never come as close to approximating the raw power of something like “You Really Got Me” as he did on “Song 2.”
Its charms are simple but bountiful. Dave Rowntree’s spare, simple drumbeat lulls you into Blur’s vicinity before the rocket-launch power chords arrive to blast you to infinity, conducted with slapdash vigor by Albarn as he tops off the clamor with a rousing, “Woo-hoo!” It sounds fantastic blaring across a sports arena, as it so often has these past two decades. “Song 2″ is sort of a precursor to the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” in that way, a rock band popular among music nerds delivering one of its generation’s finest jock jams. But whereas the iconic “Seven Nation Army” riff is readily replicated by thousands of chanting football fans, there’s no recapturing the visceral rush that is Blur’s studio recording.
Blur had a minor US hit with “Girls And Boys,” and their quirky “Coffee And TV” got some MTV burn, but “Song 2″ remains the only major impact the band ever made on America. And that impact was definitely major: airplay on rock, alternative, and even some top 40 radio stations; constant MTV circulation and two VMA nominations for Sophie Muller’s music video (itself a callback to Blur’s “Popscene” video); licensing in countless movies, TV shows, and commercials; and yes, you still hear it from time to time at sporting events to pump up thousands of people who couldn’t pick Albarn out of a police lineup. It was and is such a massive Stateside success compared to the rest of Blur’s output that folks who don’t know better might be tempted to label this band a one-hit wonder — to which I imagine Albarn would sardonically reply, “Woo-hoo!”