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.
Shawn Mullins – Lullaby
PEAK CHART POSITION: #6 in January 1999
Here’s a first for my #LMFAO series: I hadn’t heard “Lullaby” until several impassioned requests sent me scurrying to Spotify a couple days before the Fourth of July. As Wallace Stevens as my witness, I assumed Shawn Mullins was the singer and writer of 1997’s Grammy-winning “Sunny Came Home,” (in)famous now for the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s rude, bizarre interruption, a forerunner of Imma-let-you-finish. Well! Y’all were right: a dreadful piece of work, unsure about whether it’s inventing Kenny Chesney or LFO or if Mullins heard Stephen Jenkins’ quasi-rap delivery in the verses of megahit “Semi-Charmed Life” and thought, Fuck, I can do this. I hate the lot of you.
At the same time “Lullaby” frightened my readers, Steven Soderbergh released The Limey, a fractured fever dream of a movie in which memory and desire prove drugs as potent as coke. Edward Lachman lights The Limey in a fog-drunk mellow haze; things are at stake in this picture, but they don’t matter much. Animating it is Terence Stamp as Wilson, a personality reconstituted from Ken Loach and the memory of his Swinging London elfin beauty. The people he meets are so zonked out — often without touching a drop of alcohol but on various emollients from therapy to acting classes — that Wilson’s insistence unsettles them; he’s like an American tourist in a Caribbean island wondering why room service is late.
This is the character with whom Mullins shares similarities. Instead of a daughter corrupted by Hollywood who needs rescue, he’s got a girl. “She grew up with the children of the stars/in the Hollywood hills and the Boulevard,” Mullins begins over oh-so-fashionable acoustic riffing over a drum loop. He would know. Although he did a stint in the U.S. Army Reserve, he sings like an entertainment lawyer who’s done a snoot or two on convention weekends: a prissy, epicene thinness, as self-satisfied as the Mona Lisa. Then it begins to rock at the mention of Bob Seger and, uh, Sonny and Cher; a piano bangs, tinkles. For the chorus he switches to a pallid falsetto because, after all, “Lullaby” is a lullaby. The piano adduces Mullins’ sense of his own ability to comfort this fallen angel: “She can’t let go and she can’t relax,” so he’ll help.
Not much else to “Lullaby” except repeating the chorus, but there’s not much to the worldview of a songwriter like Mullins: women need his self-deprecating help, the more anxious the women the better. Context, as usual, boggles my mind. A hit during the impeachment proceedings against William Jefferson Clinton, I should have thought pop culture would have repudiated this paternalistic approach (Sheryl Crow’s “My Favorite Mistake” spoke more for the times). But it’s okay: the world closed ranks against Mullins by rejecting his cover of George Harrison’s “What is Life.”