1998 was a gentle time for rock music. Between the grunge era and the revival of new wave, a smoother, acoustically charged singer-songwriter format dominated the airwaves. This was a great time for sad white men—okay, every era has been a good time for sad white men—but the late 90’s had a surplus of dudes with guitars eager to reveal their tormented hearts to the beat of a softer drum.
While our President was facing impeachment (when a president lying mattered), a talky teen soap opera was in its first season, beige was everywhere, two guys from Stanford started Google, which we used Yahoo! to find, and Mark McGwire was juicing his way to 70 home runs, alternative soft rock soundtracked nearly all of our pre-Y2K emotional turmoil.
This era of rock featured a bevy of male vocalists with a particular singing inflection. We all have our own way of describing it: Muppet mouth, stressing the letter R in words without R’s, the suppression of vowels, crooning as if your testicles are being held at gunpoint. For me, it was the sound of a man singing with too much saliva in his mouth.
If you’re still not with me, sing the phrase, “with arms wide open.” Now, sing it the way Creed did: worth rems word yerpin. It should feel similar to when you ludicrously have to answer a question mid-dental appointment. Got it? Good.
These vocals were ubiquitous to rock music in the 90’s, but there was one artist who nailed this with more harmony than the others. In 1998, he scored a hit that briefly made him the prince of constipated soft rock. He didn’t just sound like the genre, he embodied it. If a song wore cargo pants that zipped into shorts, it was this song. If a song was a plain blue and white web page with comic sans font, it was this song. If a song was the AOL sign-on process, it was this song. If a song was hair with frosted tips…well, you get the point.
I’m talking about a two-hit-wonder, whose ballad would triumph in the post-Jerry Maguire taupe-painted culture. I’m talking about Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be.”
“I’ll Be” was somehow the fourth, but only track on Edwin McCain’s album, Misguided Roses, the whitest of album names. He knew damn well he had a hit. Nobody who looks like Meat Loaf’s younger sister tops the charts without a premeditated decision to go full on shower-singing ballad. No, he is not Hanson’s fatter older brother. He’s a rock star with soul, dammit. Of the white male Muppet voices, McCain’s was arguably the best. In 1998, he would craft a song perfect for its time.
The music video for “I’ll Be” checks all the boxes for a basic alt-rock featurette, in that it adequately captures pale people looking sad with no discernable narrative of any kind. The video accomplishes absolutely nothing, which is precisely why I am mesmerized by it. In the course of four minutes, we are given a treasure trove of late 90’s beigeness without a single explanation:
Urban backdrops that slowly come into focus. A singer holding the face of a man that desperately needs to poop. A beautiful woman who was just napping. Trench coats. A drummer in his 40’s with bleach blonde hair. Pigeons. Hard tuck T-shirts. Gender-neutral jeans. Running, because. A taxi cab metaphor? A triumphant finale where said singer appears to have finally pooped. Puddles. And a saxophonist eagerly awaiting his turn, knowing full well how fucking important he is to this song.
The video’s ambiguity is, in part, the byproduct of the ballad’s outstretched lyrics. “I’ll Be” is McCain flailing in the baby pool. It’s about a man’s promise to be all sorts of overdramatic in order to have sex again. The verses are spent using abstract or grim language to tell a woman that loving her is a lot cooler than being dead. The chorus is where the real melodrama lives. First, he promises to be an assumed lover’s crying shoulder. That’s a layup. In the very next breath, he hams it up by saying he’ll “be love’s suicide.” Edwin, you and I both know how full of shit that sounds. It’s got weight without making any sense at all. Nicely played. The chorus finishes with a couple more lobs about being a fun hang, clearly an effort to hedge his bets on the “I’d die for your love” talk.
Now, those of you who are younger may have listened to “I’ll Be” and found some of McCain’s lyrics to be imperceptible. Please understand that late 90’s rock was like today’s mumbled Xanax-rap, in that you will look back on it and laugh too. But even for the biggest of Edwin McCain fans (anyone still rocking a soul patch or the partner of someone still rocking a soul patch), they too know the part of “I’ll Be” that is bewildering in its articulation. I’m referring to the bridge, right before that final triumphant chorus. It is so specific to the Muppet mouth era, that anyone younger than 25 might need a translator. Don’t worry, I’m here to help. Let’s take a look:
What you’re hearing:
And I’ve dropped ert, I’ve binned up, I’ve fart mir were bick from the dyyyr’d.
I tuna’d, turd lawn, remembered the thing, that yer…
(this is where you get judged on American Idol)
What Edwin is singing:
And I’ve dropped out, I’ve burned up, I’ve fought my way back from the dead.
I’ve tuned in, turned on, remembered the thing that you…
(this is where Edwin hopes you’ll have sex with him)
Okay, you should be all set. Also, if you’re wondering if McCain recognizes the irony in his offer to be the woman’s crying shoulder when he’s the one crying his way through the song, he does not.
“I’ll Be” is an easy target. McCain doesn’t really deserve it, nor does he care. Syrupy songs get made fun of, but syrupy songs also stick. This song was always on because people wanted it to be on. It’s cliché, it’s mawkish, it’s a little creepy — it’s a bona fide hit. McCain is set for life.
He returned in 1999 with another hit single, “I Could Not Ask For More.” This was ill-conceived, as America took this literally. He probably should have asked for more. His talent fit a potent, but brief period of time when rock music had nice round edges. Constipated soft rock would be pushed out by the caffeinated resurrection of new wave, punk, and nu-metal. Edwin McCain’s soul-bearing love balladry had no place in the Seven Nation Army.
“I’ll Be” would go on to be the chosen song of the over 150 Bo Bice’s that performed on American Idol. Today, it is the preferred track for 2 AM karaoke and hillbilly weddings. But in 1998, there was no choosing “I’ll Be,” it was just there. It was everywhere. And while it oozes late 90’s rock—the soft saxophone, the glowing guitars, McCain singing like there’s a knife twisting in his anus—it is both of one time and completely timeless. Try to bury it, it’ll just fight its way back from the dyyr’d.