Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Spin Doctors’ “Two Princes”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #7 in April 1993.
Students of chart pop often examine whether a song could’ve been a hit in any era. Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” would have been a monster in 1982 or 1972, no question. R&B hits by Jade, Prince, and En Vogue too. The serrated edges on its guitars notwithstanding, Spin Doctors’ “Two Princes” joins them. Its Fisher-Price boogie and faint shuffle would have seduced a War or Mungo Jerry fan twenty years earlier. Several months earlier the innocuous carbon copy “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” did for Pocket Full of Kryptonite what “Alive” did for another album released in 1991: in the era of Tom Cochran and Mick Jagger solo singles, album rock radio took to it. Hard. MTV too. “Little Miss” peaked at #17 in the fall of 1992, but it didn’t prepare an unsuspecting American and, to my shock, British public for what awaited them when “Two Princes” get going. And going. As much as The Bodyguard and The Chronic, “Two Princes” dominates my pop radio memories of my first year of college. Surprisingly for a hit this omnipresent, “Two Princes” only peaked at #7 while Snow’s “Informer” – Canadian dancehall dressed in decent sunglasses – kept its vise on the top and is remembered by completists.
A couple of elements make “Two Princes” the equivalent of sitting in a hospital waiting room anticipating dreadful news. First, the poor-boy-marrying-the-princess analogy gets hammered over and over, finding its analogue in the repetition of the Bm-A-G chord progression. Second, when a song is all chorus, it better be a damn good chorus or have a singer who can insert variants. Chris Barron is not that singer. A bearded wannabe hippie who studied in Bennington, Barron palled around with Blues Traveler’s John Popper in the early nineties; something of that genteel jam band aesthetic powered Spin Doctors tunes, and like Edie Brickell and New Bohemians’ “What I Am” the hesitation about going all out kills “Two Princes.” Besides lapsing into a quite predictable banality of theme, “Two Princes” is a horror to listen to: every time Barron’s “That’s what I say now” refrain comes around another patch of meadow browns and dies. A singer more gifted than Barron will sing past the dumb words or at least enunciate clearly, and he does neither. Without looking at photos, you’d think he was a host at a diner escorting guests to their tables. I didn’t know he sang “This one got a princely racket,” which I learned after consulting a lyric sheet and I’m sorry I did. There’s nothing either princely or a racket about “Two Princes.” The sound of this record is cut-rate. The engineering team mix Aaron Comess’ drums to so that they they’re all top, no bottom.
I explained how “Two Princes” becoming a hit made sense; I’ve said nothing about why. I don’t know anybody who tolerated it in spring ’93, but I may be admitting to elitism. Maybe, like a period Steven Seagal movie, the devotion with which it stuck to the familiar acted as a balm: stumble on a hook, play it repeatedly, let programming directors do the rest. It worked. In the last two weeks I’ve avoided chart monsters that disappeared like “You Light Up My Life” and, well, “Informer.” By contrast “Two Princes” stuck like glue for years such that Spin Doctors’ 1994 followup Turn It Upside Down was one of the decade’s more ignominious flops, barely scraping platinum after its predecessor went five-million-plus. The festival circuit beckoned. Bored with Spin Doctors, America turned to, where else, Barron’s boys in Blues Traveler and the Dave Matthews Band. Spin Doctors can claim they played John the Baptist for them. That’s what I say now.