The early 1990s was a good time to be a female vocalist. You could be appreciated for your voice and your writing talents, and not have to be a fantastic dancer or look hot in a bikini. That seemed to turn a corner in the mid-to-late 90s - heralded in many ways (including ironically) by the arrival of Girl Power - but let's take a moment to appreciate these pre-princesses of pop.
Stay by Shakespears Sister
"Staaaaaay.... wiiiiiith..... meeeeeee..."
I can still remember my mother's delicate voice eeking out those vowels. She heard the song on the radio and fell in love with it. I can't remember if she picked up the CD herself, or if I helped find it for her in Brashes (remember Brashes?). But she put that thing on repeat like no one's business.
Shakespears Sister seems an oddly constructed sort of band, comprising two hardcore vocal dynamos. Siobhan Fahey founded the group after leaving Bananarama. That's right, Bananarama. I think she was the goddess on the mountain top. Oh no wait, Venus was her name. Anyway, she teamed up with American chanteuse Marcella Detroit to produce a few albums, complete with eponymous name alterations at every turn. Wikipedia instructs me that the true version has no "e" in Shakespeare and no apostrophe. Rebels. It sounds like Fahey was a complicated character, and apparently declared the band split to the public before Detroit herself even knew.
Stay - released in 1992 - is such a simple song but in many ways a perfect pop power ballad. The light ethereal keyboard chords; Detroit's haunting entreaty to her lover ("I'll go anywhere with you/just wrap me up in chains"); then that chorus. Three words. "Stay with me" repeated, repeated, amen. It's a hymn, a prayer, an ode, a plea. Suitably, Detroit is featured in the film clip in a demure in a simple black dress, maintaining a vigil by her lover's bedside (my favourite thing about the clip is that there's a bunch of medical machines near him, but no evidence he's actually hooked up to any of them). It's given a cosmic edge by the night sky and shooting stars out the window; and a 90s grunge with Fahey's on-trend heavy eyeshadow and full red lips. How good is the short hair? Heroine characters in film clips never have short hair anymore, unless you count Pink.
And then! That crunchy guitar kicks in and hello, here's Fahey, resplendent in a devilishly sparkly onesie, gurning like she just ate bad cheese, stalking her way down from some other dimension to mock Detroit's suffering in the bridge ("Only time can tell/ if you can break the spell/ back in your own world"). By the way, I'm pretty certain I had the exact same shade of greyish-purply lipstick as Fahey's when I was in Year 9. It was called "Iron Vixen". HOW COOL IS THAT NAME.
The tension mounts until the only thing Detroit can do is letting out her piercing howl of a high F. Apparently, this is called "whistle register". Hells yeah. Play this song in front of your dog, see what happens, report back in the comments. Detroit's character wins the day; her lover comes back to life, and Fahey's villain is admonished enough to slink away. Part of me wishes the song had a stronger solid ending, but as it started soft, I can see the why the choice was made to let it fade out; repeated, repeated, amen: Stay is the hymn that never ends.
Stay by Lisa Loeb
Were you a teenage girl in 1994? Did you like reading books, or find yourself in awkward conversations about how many boys you've kissed when in reality you hadn't kissed any? Did you keep a journal of your thoughts, and attempt to style your frizzy hair in a series of interestingly antique up dos, in the hope that people at school would find you noble and unknowable?
Then chances are you had the CD single of Lisa Loeb's Stay (technically, it's got a bracketed "I Missed You" on the end, but what the hell). Famous as a soundtrack hit from the Gen-X-define-a-thon movie Reality Bites, it's a wonder of introspective stream-of-consciousness. Like the best love songs, it's about a relationship going wrong, and the hurt and accusations on both sides. "I don't understand if you really care/I'm only hearing negative/no no no no". Despite its relatively unstructured structure, it's a terrific karaoke number, particularly if there's a few of you around who were teenage girls in 1994. It's almost spoken word in a way, and the musicality of the long sentences and high emotion behind them are wonderful to replicate, even after a few too many raspberry Bacardi Breezers.
The video clip was actually directed by Ethan Hawke, and in it, Loeb is the ultimately geeky thinking man's geeky girl crumpet. Massive librarian-friendly horn-rimmed glasses, brown hair, a cute short black dress with thick black tights - and a cat! Who wouldn't want to wake up next to that, drink coffee and read the newspapers? The popularity of the song was a victory for sensitive, artsy types everywhere. It was OK, for just a little while, to be vulnerable, to put your true feelings out there. Our pain was here, expressed, all the frustration, all the pain, all the longing, and of course... all the rejection. "And you say/ I only hear what I want to" is the closing line - it's after he's asked her to stay, but is he going to treat her any better?
This song always reminds me of the one boy I went out with in Year 9. It turned out he'd only "gone out" with me (we'd spent half a Saturday morning walking around Westfield Strathpine) to get revenge on my friend, whom he'd dated a few weeks before. After six days, he got his best friend to dump me at the school swimming carnival. I spent most of the day in tears, but did woman up enough to win a first in the breaststroke (insert your own jokes here). I later heard he'd had a mental breakdown and had to be institutionalised because he thought he was Jesus, and had written down a list of the 12 "disciples" he was going to take back to heaven with him.
I never bothered to find out if it was a true story.
Anyway, Lisa Loeb's song came out around that time - early 1994 - so it is forever linked with awkwardness and a little touch of heartache. But at the end of the day, I think soul-pop epic drama beats out folk-pop personal tragedy.
Verdict: Shakespears Sister. By that whistle.
Over to you! Leave your verdict in the comments, and we'll see who wins next week.