Despite the way it may seem, I didn’t start this series as a way of heaping cheap scorn on past-their-prime recording artists. That kind of cynical criticism is very easy to find, and while I admit it can be fun to kick a little dirt on the corpse of a crappy musician’s career, what really fascinates me is what happens to an artist’s muse after people stop paying attention to the music. I think, in a lot of cases, that this is where the really interesting stuff happens — there’s something about that combination of bitterness, confusion, and having nothing to lose that seems to add up to magic. Well, maybe not magic, necessarily, but at least stuff that’s different and unpredictable.
But then there are albums like this. WHAT THE HELL IS THIS.
If you don’t remember Lou Goddamn Bega, it’s because you were either deaf or not alive in 1999, when he rode a Perez Prado sample to the top of the charts all over the world, including Vatican City, where I swear I saw the Pope dancing to Bega’s big hit, “Mambo No. 5.” I spent roughly a month in Europe that summer, meaning that through a spectacular accident of timing, I was able to experience “Mambo” mania as it happened — first as it blared through the PA systems of every shop in Rome and Paris, and then as it shimmied its way to Number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Put another way, I heard “Mambo No. 5” more or less every day from June through November; along the way, it went from being a pretty addictive novelty dance tune (and a source of welcome exposure for Prado) to a shrieking, inescapable nightmare.
It’s obviously unfair to blame Lou Bega for the overexposure of his one big hit, or to fault him for clinging to “Mambo No. 5” with a rock climber’s grip. And there’s something legitimately interesting about any song that reaches the Top Five in a dozen countries. On the other hand, Bega was a cheerfully one-note performer from the beginning, and his shtick got old pretty quickly; as Wikipedia somewhat smugly points out, his last album, 2005’s frighteningly titled Lounatic, “didn’t chart in any official national music chart.” And this despite the inclusion of “Return of ‘A Little Bit’ (Mambo No. 2005) (feat. Mixmaster Erich)”!
And yet Lou Bega returns. What does he have left to tell us? How far can a little bit of Monica, Erica, Rita, and/or Tina get a man, anyway? I don’t have definitive answers to either question, but my personal responses are “nothing” and “no further, please, God, I beg you.”
Before I start tearing into Free Again like the American Tourister gorilla, I’ll be charitable and point out that if you don’t listen to a single fucking thing that comes out of Lou Bega’s mouth, this isn’t awful. Musically, Bega just blends horn samples with programmed beats, but anything that reminds people what real brass sounds like gets partial credit in my book, and truth be told, he isn’t bad at coming up with toe-tapping grooves.
So maybe he should go into production and let someone else take the microphone, because the worst things about this album are Lou Bega’s voice and the things he chooses to say with it. And look, I understand dance music doesn’t have to be smart, but come on. It shouldn’t be this stupid:
I love you in those jeans
You know just what I mean
The best I’ve ever seen
They fit so good, my queen
Look into her eyes, look into her deep soul
She’s got the swagger that can gain control
Kick down the door, baby girl I want more
Have you ever felt like this before?
My, my, my, my, my, my girl
I would do anything for you
I swear my love is deeply true
The second time I listened to Free Again, a warm, clear fluid started leaking from my ear.
Here are the reasons why I hate Free Again. First: Most of the time, Lou Bega only sings about wanting to get laid, or brags about how he’s had sex with women all over the planet, and he does both of these things with all the intelligence and charisma of a potato. Second, even though his bio says he’s 35, Bega’s already pedestrian voice has picked up a thick rasp in the last decade, adding a really unpleasant layer of skeeve to his vocals. I can’t really put my finger on why they’re so unpleasant, but that’s because I’m not touching anything Lou Bega has touched. His voice sounds like a positive test result. At the end of the disgusting “Jump in My Bed,” when he starts panting “in and out and out and in,” your skin will crawl.
Third, when Lou Bega sings about anything other than vaginas, he sounds even dumber. In “Beautiful World,” after decrying all the violence and lack of whatever in the modern world, he follows with “It’s a beautiful world because I’m chillin’ with my girl.” And okay, so we’ve all probably felt that way at some point, but tucked between songs like “A Man Is Not a Woman” and “Mommy Is Hot,” it just triggers an image of Bega smirking in his fedora while a homeless baby dies, and you start thinking he might be a genuinely terrible person.
Fourth, a “Mambo No. 5” sample shows up in the album at least twice.
Chances are, you probably weren’t going to buy Free Again, and you might think writing a column about the album is unnecessary, or even mean. Why not let him have his fun? Isn’t Lou Bega releasing an album in 2010 like a tree falling in the forest when no one is around to hear it?
I say no. I say this album is more like being punched in the dark — the people around you might not be able to tell it happened, but it still hurts, and it deserves punishment. Curse you, Lou Bega. May you one day be brought to justice.