It’s time to BREATHE FIRE.
A holiday in LA, feat. hipsters, a Christmas tree, festive lanterns and a hallucinating man
Holiday card by Trevor Alixopulos

a pink and gold Hydra, breathing FIRE
Illustration: Tyler Littwin

Hello and welcome to FLAMING HYDRA's Holiday Preview Spectacular!!! For more on our newsletter, contributors and plans, pop over here.

This site and our newsletter will remain under construction until our official launch in late January 2024. Until then, please enjoy new Hydra stories from Leila Brillson and a star-studded cast on Ace of Base, Diana Moskovitz on "Sleepless in Seattle," and Tom Scocca in a long-ago Dodge.

Scheming in Seattle

a still of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan from 'Sleepless in Seattle' with pink and gold vintage travel-themed decorations
Illustration: Tyler Littwin

Movie Good, Journalistic Ethics a Little Dodgy

by Diana Moskovitz

Nora Ephron loved journalists. She made her female protagonists reporters again and again: There’s Sally Albright in “When Harry Met Sally,” and food blogger Julie Powell of “Julie & Julia.” Yet of all her reporting heroines, it’s Annie Reed of “Sleepless in Seattle” who stands out, for me, because she holds a job that I’ve had too—daily newspaper reporter. So with the holidays here and “Sleepless” always a natural fit for any December film rotation—we first meet Annie on Christmas Eve, after all—I embarked on an investigation. Old movies show us all kinds of things once taken for granted, things that now raise questions, perhaps even a hackle or two. In her quest to find true love on the company dime, is Annie ethical? Furthermore, is she even a good journalist?

Meg Ryan as reporter Annie Reed, on the phone and munching a Lorna Doone cookie
Meg Ryan as Annie Reed in Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
(Spoilers abound! You’ve been warned.)

The film opens with Annie, played by Meg Ryan, at Christmas dinner; she's introducing her family to her new fiancé, the well-meaning but perpetually allergic Walter (Bill Pullman), who also happens to be the paper’s associate publisher. (Did the duo mention this relationship to their managers? Were conflicts of interest in the office avoided? It was the 1990s, and the film doesn’t say.)

From there, and for about the first half of the movie, Annie works very little. Her work life is mostly talking with her editor and best friend, Becky (Rosie O’Donnell), but not about journalism or what’s going in the paper, or even current events. Deadline, somehow, never comes up! Instead, they talk about Annie’s obsession with Tom Hanks as Sam Baldwin, a Seattle architect and single father she heard on a radio call-in show. Annie’s reporting finally kicks in about halfway through the movie when, like any shoe-leather reporter, she picks up the phone … but instead of reporting a real story, she uses her journalism skills to chase down Sam, under the guise of writing about call-in radio shows.

The ethical murk starts here. Annie tells one source that she’s trying to reach the call-in radio show host for an article, and then cajoles Sam’s phone number out of the radio show by claiming to be working on a story about bereavement. But Annie does not leave Sam a message. Instead, she uses the info on Sam’s answering machine to extract even more personal info about him from a computer database called “Nexus City News Bureau,” a thinly veiled reference to the journalism stalwart LexisNexis.

And Annie’s just getting started. Upon finding the right Sam, as well as his young son Jonah, she hires a private detective to track him down, requesting a background check with photos! Still more troubling, it’s at least implied that her company is paying for this private eye, who’s also likely assuming he is doing this job for journalistic reasons (he is not). Also, Annie hires him from her work computer in the middle of the office using a company fax account. Upon rewatching the film recently with my spouse, a former journalist, I immediately turned to him and asked what he thought. He replied, “That’s hella unethical!” (He never uses the word “hella.”) 

I came of age during the great decline of newspapers, and in the newsrooms where I worked, any purchase over $24, especially without a receipt, was highly scrutinized by multiple layers of bureaucracy. Sure, maybe the Sun had the budget for hiring private eyes thousands of miles away with no signoff from a supervisor. Maybe Annie’s supervisor, also her best friend, does give the OK. Maybe that’s all it took in 1993! 

Becky does sign off on the next phase of the reporting: Annie’s trip to Seattle to meet Sam. There is no way this is ethical, although it could have been. All Annie had to do was find a Baltimore angle, and actually write a real story! Maybe start with a story about Baltimore call-in shows. Then do a second piece on this national trend, with a third story in the series focusing on this one call, from Seattle, that captured the fascination of the nation—with an in-person interview. See? Problem solved!

This was not a minor expense report. 

In Seattle, Annie rents a car and gets a hotel room for at least one night, but probably two, in her search for Sam. This leads nowhere, because, though Annie is a reporter, for whom talking to strangers is part of the job, she sees Sam with another woman—his sister, whom she assumes is a girlfriend—and freezes up, almost getting run over, first by a truck, and then a taxi. It’s here that my concern shifts from Annie’s ethics to that other, equally obvious question: Is Annie even good at her job? Or does Becky just give her really easy assignments and cover for her because she’s so adorable? 

Despite the utter failure of the Seattle trip, Annie realizes that Walter is not her bashert. Through a series of quirky events and twists of fate that could happen only in a movie (Jonah, the real matchmaker of the story, reads Annie’s letter to Sam, decides that she is The One, and wangles himself a plane ticket to New York City, forcing Sam to follow suit), father and son meet Annie at last, atop the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. Sparks fly. The happy couple walk off into the night hand-in-hand as Jimmy Durante croons “Make Someone Happy.” 

This is where the movie ends, leaving us with more questions than answers. What happens back at the office? Things could get a little awkward—she did just dump the associate publisher, though Walter will likely be too busy sneezing to take revenge. As for her ethics, yes, I have concerns but I should note that Annie squandered all that company time and money from Times-Mirror, which would become Tribune, a company known for its frat house corporate culture and perpetual layoffs for workers

So, no, Annie did not act ethically when she took that trip to Seattle or to pretend she was working on a story that didn’t exist, and that meant a few less pennies for billionaire corporate shareholders. But the only person who is hurt journalistically in this scenario is Annie, because, I’m assuming, Annie needs a new job. Maybe, after finding love in Sam’s eyes, she moves to Seattle and joins the local newspaper (jobs at newspapers actually existed in bulk back then!) I have my doubts about Annie’s chops, but Becky surely will provide a glowing reference. 

Ultimately, though, Annie’s unethical behavior as a journalist should be seen through the lens of Ephron's own body of work. In most movies about journalists, our lives begin and end with printing a salacious story, getting a big promotion, or landing an Earth-shattering scoop. But for Ephron, reporters are humans too, with the same desires and foibles as anyone else. She should know; she was one of us too. She knew us. She loved us. And so she gave us that other thing we really want—the thing that is even bigger and wilder and better than the biggest scoop—true love.

A Christmas Story

The glorious ride of the Aberdeen HS Art Club

by Tom Scocca

I can't say whose idea it was for us to get into the Christmas Street Parade with Steve's car, the Stevemobile. We were 16 years old and our schemes didn't really have individual authors; we just kept resonating on our shared frequency, and things would happen. For this one it was Steve, of course, and me, and Wendy, and Mark. 

Two years before, we'd been freshmen, marching down Christmas Street with the marching band (trombone, trumpet, clarinet, and trumpet again, respectively), freezing despite our heavy gold tunic jackets, tartan drapes, and towering synthetic-fur busbies. We'd gotten out of the marching band, but once you've been in a parade, who wants to go back to watching from the sidewalk? 

image courtesy of the author

The Stevemobile was a 1970 Dodge Coronet 440, dark silver-gray. It got its name because its styling, especially the twin pinched ovals of chrome running like eyes around the headlights and split grille, made it look like some cousin to the Batmobile from the TV reruns. Among the other hand-me-down Detroit iron and the Volkswagens on the high school parking lot, it had a degree—a degree—of panache. Relatively.

Christmas Street was a short jaunt down West Bel Air Avenue, our town's de facto Main Street, past the First National Bank and Frank's Pizza and the stationery store that sold scout uniforms in the back. Before long, the center of retail would shift west toward the I-95 interchange, with new shopping plazas and big box stores going in where the sand pits were. For now, though, downtown remained downtown, maybe 30 or 40 percent as charming as a charming small town's downtown would be. The town motto was still "Agriculture and Armaments" then. 

I don't suppose I told my parents what we were up to when the Stevemobile rolled into our driveway on the morning of the parade. Steve and I had been going places and doing things together since I'd moved to town in second grade; by now, our little gang could pursue its business with minimal supervision or explanation. We were good kids. Even granting Mark's long history of self-inflicted sprains and broken bones, our judgment was sound. Steve, in particular, had a brother and sister who'd passed through the high school as model citizens before him, and by some transitive property he had acquired the air of a responsible older sibling. 

What's more thrilling than being a teenager during the holiday season? Everyone knows the best part of Christmas is the windup to it, a model for your own life. Time is short but you stand outside it with your comrades; the anticipation of the future is merely the background energy in your all-absorbing current moment. We had scrounged or bought a collection of seasonal decorations and art supplies—streamers of tinsel, cutout snowmen or Santas, posterboard, tape—and one of us, Wendy, I believe, had got a bag of candy canes. The showstopper was a fake Christmas tree, decorated and two feet tall. 

We rode downtown, parked at the rear of one of the banks—right behind where the band was milling around—and got to work. We were not half-assing this. We decked the Coronet with decorative elements from bumper to bumper, until it was indisputably a festive offering. The point was not to interrupt the parade, but to participate. The Christmas tree, we taped securely upright on the hood. For a final gesture at legitimacy, we wrote ABERDEEN HIGH SCHOOL ART CLUB on a piece of posterboard and attached it to the passenger-side door. No one could say we weren't the Art Club. 

Somewhere up ahead of us, the opening ranks of the parade began moving off toward the start of the route. The band mustered up and headed out. The Stevemobile followed, at a safe but connected distance, and whatever was behind us followed us. We wound around the back side of downtown and then there we were, rolling slowly down the middle of West Bel Air Avenue, the crowd on either side of us. 

Every December that ever happened, as Charles Dickens knew, runs superimposed on every other one. Sometimes I am in a hard wooden pew, the air suffused with light and incense on a cold night, singing: "Mild He lays his glory by / Born that man no more may die." Sometimes and always I am in the front seat of a Dodge Coronet, looking out the windshield at a two-foot Christmas tree and a mass of spectators. Unless Mark was the one sitting up there, or Wendy. Steve, certain and steady at the wheel, was at the halfway mark of his allotted time on Earth, though none of us had an inkling then and it seems almost beside the point now. We were in this together. 

We threw candy canes out the windows of the Stevemobile to the public till some parade supervisor ran up and told us to stop, so as not to lure children into the roadway. This was an unfair assessment of our throwing skills, but we accepted our obligation, as parade members, to follow the parade safety rules. No one else raised any sort of challenge or objection. On the VHS tape someone took of the event, as we passed the reviewing stand, the announcer did a double take at the unlisted entry and then, reading off the car door, credited us as the Art Club. 

We got to Route 40 and that was it. We parked the Stevemobile and stripped it back to its usual condition. The Christmas Street Parade was over; the Christmas Street Parade would go on forever.

But What Sign Did We See Exactly?

Looking Back At 30 Years of Ace of Base

by Leila Brillson

Think of a ubiquitous song, an eternal song. The kind of song you might hear in a bar in Shinjuku or a wedding in Topanga Canyon, and nearly everyone knows the words—and not a few have begun belting them out. Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” Madonna’s “Like A Virgin.” At the highest reaches of this list of songs with total global recognition, with its compressed, simplistic drums and instantly identifiable synth flute, is “The Sign” by Ace of Base. No matter who you are, no matter what your penchant or otherwise for pop culture, from elder Boomers to burgeoning Gen Zs, that loping rhythm is seared into your brain. 

These massive, transcendent hits usually come woven round with all the richly textured lore of superstardom, or with an exceptionally freakish backstory, like a shocking video or a meddlesome producer. In this way “The Sign” is almost ahistorical; a techno-reggae dance tune with near-clinical catchiness that emerged from Iceland? Denmark? Who knows. (Sweden.) The pop-culturally savvy might remember that the band was made up of siblings; some might even dimly recall a strange Nazi backstory. But the story of Ace of Base mostly slips through our collective memories.

A photo-illustration of the four members of Ace of Base.
Illustration: Tyler Littwin

And yet, Ace of Base is no one-hit wonder: The Sign was the first debut to produce three #1 hits on the Billboard top 100—“The Sign”, “All That She Wants”, and “Don’t Turn Around”. Tucked between Green Day’s Dookie and Whitney Houston’s Whitney, The Sign (the album) is one of the top selling albums of all time, surrounded by giants like Eminem, Prince, and Carole King. It could have been a juggernaut. A powerhouse. But among these hallowed names that shaped music history and changed pop culture, Ace of Base became another ‘90s relic, on the shelf with the bubble skirts and Tickle Me Elmos. 

The Sign debuted in 1993, and only a few months later Ace of Base took off—and crashed—in America. The reason for their sudden disappearance isn’t a Fleetwood Mac-style soap opera, but something as banal as it is familiar: The mistreatment of women in the spotlight. Just four months into their global domination, a crazed fan broke into the Berggren’s family home in Sweden and held singer Jenny Berggren, then just 22, at knifepoint. Her sister Linn began to break down, refusing to perform at Madison Square Garden and turning down Pepsi contracts. She didn’t want this. She leads a lonely life. 

And so, thirty years later, we COULD turn around to see that The Sign was the first album made for the cheerfully self-centered, fun-lovin’ cohort of millennials. As flannel-shirted Gen-X musicians strove gloomily for authenticity and rebellion (remember: peak grunge), Ace of Base shimmered in, offering a lovely and sunny pop experience that simplified underground euro-dance and added a nice reggae sheen. Why have angst when you can dance?

For its 30th birthday, I invited some who remember that breezy shift on the airwaves to reflect on why this album did—or didn’t—change the world. 

“All That She Wants”
Max Collins

“All That She Wants” is one of those songs that is musically way more sophisticated than it sounds. My band covered it a while back and when I sat down to learn it, I was like, Goddamn, this is so much more ambitious than it seems

"All That She Wants"

There are some wild major to minor chord changes in there and the melody in the verses is strange and unpredictable, but it still goes down like Peach Snapple. Add to that the inane lyric and the effect is transcendent. A perfect Swedish pop song. 

Max Collins is the lead singer of Eve 6 and gets the ‘90s better than most people.

“Don't Turn Around”
Lauren Caruso

I remember the day my sister ran home from school and interrupted my mom’s precious alone time to beg her to take her to RadioShack. That only ever meant one thing: A new cassette was out, and she’d saved up enough birthday money to buy it. She was barely nine, and I, just six, which meant everything she wanted and liked would eventually become my entire personality via osmosis. 

My sister wasn’t yet old enough to consider me gravely uncool, so we played the tape for two hours straight—or at least until we could memorize the lyrics. I stayed up late after she fell asleep making sure I had a good handle on the hook, and the next day, my best friend Lindsay came over, buzzing with the familiar anticipation that could only come from wanting to be included. 

"Don't Turn Around"

The beat—simultaneously moody and exuberant—was easy enough to carry for two kids who barely had control of their arms, so we did what any ‘90s-era kid with too much energy, not enough supervision, and a basement would do: We came up with a dance. A choreographed dance. On rollerblades. Three nights later, we’d invite our parents to join us in the basement to be dazzled as two little kids on blades dramatized the agony of a shattered heart. (Her mom played the part, but mine wasn’t impressed.) 

We didn’t know it yet, but “Don’t Turn Around”—the second and arguably the best song off the album—would eventually serve as the framework for dozens of choreographed dances to come. (Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” was our second go-round, and we’d perfected our coordination by the time Hanson’s “Middle of Nowhere” debuted in ’97.) Any time the song plays in a bar—often ironically, now—my body perks up just a few seconds before my brain catches up and I remember I’m not six anymore.

Lauren Caruso is a freelance writer, consultant, and editorial strategist who splits her time between NYC and Los Angeles. She has more than ten years of publishing industry experience, with a focus on fashion, beauty, and lifestyle, at outlets including Refinery29, Allure, and The Zoe Report.

“The Sign”
Tyler Dean

When I was ten, my younger sister and I pooled the loose change around the house for a few weeks and walked four or so blocks through suburban Woodland Hills, past our usual haunt—the Psychic Eye Bookshop–to Thrifty’s, where we purchased a brightly colored cassette of Ace of Base’s album The Sign. It was the first album I had ever bought: the first time I had ever really intuited, despite my father’s capacious LP collection, that the music heard on the radio could be acquired, placed in a boombox, and played over and over again in the privacy of one’s bedroom, uninterrupted, save for the time it took to rewind. 

The title track was inescapable, of course. The older, cooler teenage girl who lived down the street and briefly took the reins of my sister’s pop culture education was obsessed with it. My step-sisters’ deadbeat uncle did an exaggerated, genderfucked dance to it in our backyard; he probably meant it as mocking panto, but I was enthralled. I would spend long minutes on the front porch, auditory processing glitches from my as-yet-undiagnosed ADHD on full display, arguing that the lyrics were actually “the Sun” to my sister, step-sisters, and the little crew of kids-who-also-lived-on-the-cul-de-sac. I hadn’t yet been exposed to the Allegory of the Cave, but I think I must have interpreted the song’s meaning along similar lines: the singer steps into the (sun)light of understanding and consequently leaves her shitty boyfriend. Then I bought the album and the liner notes punched a decisive hole in my theory.

“The Sign”

Despite its Europop energy and aggressive BPM, “The Sign” always felt a little off to me—a touch sad, a touch haunted. Maybe it was something in the plaintive insistence with which Berggren sings, “and I am happy now living without you; I’ve left you,” as if trying to convince herself. Possibly it was the keening-wind sound of the synth flute–unnervingly similar to one used in the operatic and chilling Super Metroid soundtrack. (That game, with its core aesthetic of pernicious loneliness, was my other major obsession of Q1 1994.) I was ten, going through the most viscerally unpleasant part of my parent’s divorce; maybe I just felt sorrow even in the fizziest of anthems. 

Thirty years on, though, the song still sounds melancholy to me. Or perhaps I’m the one that’s melancholy—looking back on that era of slightly mistranslated English lyrics and Moog-powered blare—knowing that ATC and Eiffel 65 and Aqua and all those other bright confections are yet to come, but will not last. 

And gone with them are the Psychic Eye Bookstore (at that location, at least), the days of not being entirely sure of the lyrics to a chart-topping hit, and a childhood mired in worry about having lost the halcyon days while still in the midst of them. 

Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian and Gothic Literature at a number of Southern California colleges. He is a frequent contributor to and his recent academic work can be found in the December 2022 issue of Victorian Studies.

“Living In Danger”
Ira Madison III

The thing about Ace of Base is you never know what the fuck they're talking about. This song has been described by Jonas Berggren as being about not trusting people, because you'll do better on your own. His sister Jenny has said it's about not giving into peer pressure and doing drugs, which sure, I didn't realize The Sign was funded by D.A.R.E. The beauty of these Swedes making music in English is that something was always lost in translation and their songs are consequently equal parts mysterious and didactic. "I see lies in the eyes of a stranger, you'll been living in danger." Who? If it's about what they say it is, then the stranger is the danger. But the stranger seems to think the person THEY are viewing is in danger? For not doing drugs? For wanting to live solo?

"Living In Danger"

Whose expectations are they talking about? Truly, the song is about being happy go-lucky (you are listening to Ace of Base, after all, and it's 1993!) and then you encounter some mysterious stranger, whose eyes are full of lies. Stay away from them, or you'll be living in danger. I'm not sure why, but all strangers are evil. Maybe the stranger is Medusa.

Ira Madison III is host of the Crooked Media pop culture podcast Keep It! You can also read Ira's newsletter Frank over here, and you can (and should!) follow @IraTheThird. 

“Dancer In A Daydream”
Gene Park

I think of daydreams as the beating heart of creativity, where ideas flow in and out in the conscious self. “Dancer in a Daydream” kicks off with its thumping bass and dark synths, reminding me of that process; it's probably the hardest-hitting song on the LP, and that’s why it stands out to me among the hit parade. Also, I’m a sucker for any song titles with the concept of dance in them, and it all started with this underrated gem; I grew up a punk rocker in the 1990s, but dance music was my secret passion. It was Ace of Base who first gave me permission to embrace beats.  

I hated not being able to express my admiration for house and techno, but the popularity of Ace of Base made it impossible to keep it entirely hidden away. When Jenny and Linn sing, “I want to be lover but you’re so shy, what you need is perfect assistance, let me guide you,” I absolutely knew that it meant my own love of dance. 

“Dancer in a Daydream”

When I finally learned to drive, this song was burned into my “cardio” homemade CD of dance tracks for cruising. If I boot it up now, there’s renewed confidence in my step, like I’m 14 again, skating along on rollerblades, daydreaming of who I’d dance with. 

Gene Park is a features writer for the Washington Post who’s covered video games and music. Born and raised in Guam, he studied journalism in California and transitioned into social media and audience work. He has been writing for the Post since 2018. 

“Happy Nation”
Leila Brillson

In 2016, before that year somehow stretched on and on until it was 2023 but also still, somehow, also 2016, wrote an article about how Ace of Base secretly got us all into Nazism. It was classic Cracked clickbait, with exuberant writing and an SEO-worthy headline with little nuance and a lot of poorly sized images. 

The article proclaims that Ace of Base’s main motivation was Nazism. Indeed, member Ulf "Buddha" Ekberg did have a white supremacist past, which he openly discussed before The Sign even arrived in the States. In a 1998 Nordisk doc on the group that somehow only survives on YouTube, Ulf doesn’t shy away from his time as a fascist, and talking about it, he seems embarrassed, saddened, apologetic. The other Ace of Base members, siblings who grew up down the street, stayed away from him during this time, and when he turned 17 he realized that "this isn’t how he wanted to live his life." Which: Yes, fair.

So, nearly 18 years later, when Cracked wrote, “How A Pop Band Tricked 9 Million Americans Into Being Nazis”, it felt like it would be an old rehash of Ulf Ekberg’s racist punk past which was openly discussed in 1993, but no. Oh no. Oh no no. It is an obsessive breakdown of the secret NWO signs, symbols, and messages that float through Ace of Base’s songs, specifically, “Happy Nation,” that reached Swiftian levels of Easter egg hunting.

You see, The Sign was originally called Happy Nation in Europe, where it had been out for a few months before being swooped by Clive Davis personally on Arista and brought over to America, where a few songs were added, and the label insisted on calling the album The Sign. (The article also makes the nefarious claim that Rupert Murdoch was somehow involved in bringing Ace of Base to the States, and I simply cannot find a connection there.) 

But the kicker is, of course, the music, which has Latin chanting in the beginning, which may mean Nazi, but also was a weird Euro trend in the early ‘90s (Anyone remember “Sadeness”?) The lyrics, which talk about building a “happy nation” where everyone can be brothers (“Happy nation living in a happy nation/Where the people understand/And dream of perfect man”) are alleged to be Nazi clarion calls, and not just… the kind of nonsensical lyrics that Planet of the Bass so expertly skewered this summer.

“Happy Nation”

No doubt, there are some bizarre cultural mashups going on here with Ace of Base, a Swedish band using a dub reggae tempo, with half-hearted stabs at Indian ragas and a smattering of whistle. “All That She Wants” did this better, but “Happy Nation” is an even clearer example of the bizarre and inexplicable hole into which the band’s history has fallen. First, there’s Ace of Base, a tech-reggae group with hippie-esque lyrics promising unity and brotherhood. Then there is’s QAnon-lite interpretation reminding us, frankly, how weird Ace of Base really was, how their impact both shook the world and was immediately forgotten. 

And now there is us, looking back over thirty years and wondering if something this manufactured can still feel timeless. 

(I would be remiss to omit that the “Controversies” section of “Happy Nation’s” Wiki entry, which was the soul of the Cracked article, has eerily disappeared. Someone call Rupert Murdoch.)

Leila Brillson is a sell-out who left years of journalism to work in entertainment and is hoping to make up for it by joining the incredible people at Flaming Hydra. Read her weird thoughts at Night Creeps

“Voulez-Vous Danser”
Maria Bustillos

In the early ‘90s, when it was new, I found Ace of Base’s relentless sprightliness just wildly irritating. I was living in LA then, where I’m from, and these chirping disco-reggae Swedes clashed very hard with the doomy hangover were experiencing in the wake of the Rodney King riots, which had put a hard stop to the carefree glow of LA’s New Wave years.

I could escape into music only if it had some sadness in it—the Cocteau Twins, Peter Murphy, Japan, the darker Bowie, John Cale etc.—and later Beck, whom I first heard play, and bewitchingly (from across the street, at our place on Pico Boulevard), at Jabberjaw, a club/coffeehouse that gave off an unruly vibe despite the Pop-Tarts on offer. There were some happy, sugary songs in our house, to be sure, for my baby daughter, songs from Sesame Street, and Disney’s Aladdin, etc., not for (lol) grownups.

It’s hard to communicate how completely The Sign blanketed the world in 1993-94. When I revisited the record last week, I’d been thinking of writing something about shopping malls and their place in urban life. Flirting, gossiping at the “food court” (who made up this weird phrase), trying on clothes at Bloomingdale’s with our moms on long and lazy afternoons. The mall was the place where one was guaranteed to hear Ace of Base in 1994. “Hit songs” in those years were both universally shared, and inescapable.

“Voulez-Vous Danser”

But when I heard the Eurodisco strains of ‘Voulez-vous danser’ I was rocketed back, not to 1994, but to 1981, and the all-ages LA club called the Odyssey, which burned down in a mysterious arson fire in 1985. It’s a brainlessly phoned-in dancefloor tune evoking a brainless moment that was lost decades ago.

It bears mentioning that any song lyric mentioning Voulez-vous would take someone of my vintage right back to the “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi” of Labelle’s mid-70s hit, ‘Lady Marmalade’. Patti LaBelle swears she had no idea what she was singing about, and I believe it. Who did?

Maria Bustillos is a journalist and critic, and founding editor of the Brick House and Flaming Hydra.

“All That She Wants (Banghra Version)”
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

That Ace of Base spelled "bhangra" wrong in the title tells you exactly where this is going: an approximation, a gesture, a simulacrum signified by digital dhols. Still, the adoption in 1992 of bhangra's general vibe by a Swedish band—and most notably the omnivorous producer/DJ Denniz Pop—presaged the West's wider embrace of bhangra influences in pop music by a full decade. (Jay-Z hopped on Panjabi MC's "Mundian To Bach Ke" in 2003, to cite one significant example.) It also positions Ace of Base as a fascinating and dismaying postmodern subject—a group that included a reformed neo-Nazi, performing a maybe-admonishing song about a woman pursuing a series of one-night-stands, over a dub reggae beat-turned-bhangra refix. 

"All That She Wants (Banghra Version)"

Ace of Base scholars know that this song came to fruition after a demo version got stuck in Denniz Pop's tape player and his initial disdain was worn down to fascination and finally adoration, a story that encapsulates a neat little microcosm of the popularity of this song, and of a lot of others that emerged from terrestrial radio (RIP). I remember it playing constantly when it came out, and while I initially found the vocals grating and the lyrics inscrutable (I was a teen), by the 13th or 36th time I heard it it was suddenly under my skin or sneering inside my hippocampus. After that, it became a mystery: Why was this lady so sad? Who were these babies, and why did she want so many of them? Wasn't a human fetus's gestation period nine months? And when could I dance to this thing next? The "banghra version" just added another layer to its unknowability, the curiosities of a crate-digging DJ mining, and experimenting with, another sound from the global south, dropping heaters into an icy fjord.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is a journalist and editor, and a contributing writer at Pitchfork. Her first book, Vaquera, about growing up Mexican American in Wyoming and the myth of the American West, is forthcoming from Penguin.

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