Monday, August 25, 2014

In Defense Of: "How Bizarre" by OMC

This week's In Defense Of was contributed by Square Zeros' Derek Hawkins

Pauly Fuemana. That name probably doesn't ring a bell. But unless your mom forbade you from watching MTV in the mid-90s, you know the man's music, I'm sure — maybe a little better than you want to.
Cruisin down the freeway in the hot, hot sun.

Fuemana is the late frontman from OMC and the author of what's widely regarded as one of the biggest one-hit-wonders in a generation: "How Bizarre." You remember the video, right? The one with the red Chevy convertible and the shitty green screen shots and those backup dancers that weren't really that hot? Of course you do. What about the synth trumpets and the Casio keyboard dance beat and that mariachi guitar? So lame. Were they Mexican or something? And who could forget the goofy singer guy with the black leisure suit and his painfully awkward delivery:

Elephants and acrobats, lions next monkey
Pele speaks righteous
Sistah Seena says FUN-KY
Yes, that one. "How Bizarre" was the kind of garbage you had to sit through back in the day while you were waiting for that awesome "Everlong" video to come on, or, if nobody was around, that sweet Mariah Carey video where she's rollerblading at the amusement park in those denim cutoffs and black midriff shirt. Ouch. 

OMC was so far out of left field, there was nothing you could do but make fun of it. It was perplexing that "How Bizarre" had even made it onto mainstream radio and TV in the U.S. via wherever those 30-year-old-looking weirdos were from. The song sounded like nothing that got played alongside it. If anything, it seemed to typify the boring, softcore adult contemporary that your parents would have raved about after hearing it on a Borders Books Cafe summer mix CD.

Thing is, I've always loved "How Bizarre." Hearing it for the first time as a pubescent punk rocker, I was struck by how... bizarre it was (sorry, I had to). It wasn't anything I could admit to at the time, but now, pushing the age that Mr. Fuemana was when his hit made it stateside, I'm proud to publicly go to bat for what I think is a legitimately catchy and original pop artifact.

What I've dug about it since day one is the half-sung, half-spoken vocals — the thing that most people despise about the track. There's something anti-commercial about the way Fuemana slurs out the words that makes the overall effect more badass than you'd expect given the extremely safe tempo and chord progression. To me, it's like he's channeling some of (brace yourself) Lou Reed's lazy energy in his voice. The chorus is great, too. Rather than relying on a big, emphatic pickup — as was a huge part of the pop formula at the time — the song gives way to some pleasant female harmonies that, to be honest, I can't help but sing along to (and the backup dancers are actually kinda cute, after all). And, of course, the "how bizarre" refrain is just too cheeky to leave alone.

Not sold? Well, there's a cool backstory too, one I wasn't familiar with until fairly recently.
Fuemana is half-Niuean and half-Mãori, and he grew up in a poor suburb in South Auckland (not Mexico) called Otara. According to profiles, he spent his early life in gangs and even served time in a New Zealand youth prison, where he got his first music lessons. In 1993, he started OMC with his brother Phil. Conceived as a rap group at first, OMC stood for Otara Millionaires Club, a satirical jab at their socioeconomic roots.

At some point, a producer named Alan Johnson discovered the group and coaxed out some of the Polynesian musical influence that was apparently buried in whatever (probably awful) hip hop they were making. As the story goes, the night before their first major concert, Fuemana and Johnson wrote eight songs, one of which was "How Bizarre."

The chain of events that followed is murky, but within a few months Rolling Stone was heralding Fuemana as a "young Marvin Gaye," and the track was getting international play.

The lyrics describe one of the many times police stopped and searched Fuemana and his friends in their hometown. The verses play out as if they're fugitives, struggling to keep it cool and stay one step ahead of their pursuers.

TV news and cameras
There's choppers in the sky
Marines, police, reporters
Ask the where, for and why
The contrast between the subject matter and the lighthearted tone of the song gives it an element of subversion you don't get on a casual listen. And the thought of a gruff, tattooed ex-gang member making millions off a seemingly innocuous pop track is a nice middle finger to the cops who did harass a young Fuemana and his brother. The lines "how bizarre" and "every time I look around it's in my face" carry a measure of genuine confusion, frustration, and sadness.

OMC rode the success of "How Bizarre" and its companion album for several years, touring the world and earning a claim as the biggest musical export in New Zealand's history. But it was short-lived. Fuemana and Johnson suffered an immense falling-out over royalties from the song, and by 2006 Fuemana declared bankruptcy. After a brief and localized comeback effort, Fuemana died in 2010 of a neurological disorder at age 40.

With all that in mind, I think it's important to give credit where it's due. Even if "How Bizarre" sounds like the background music at a Fort Myers Beach tiki bar, it's impossible to deny that there's an element of danger in it, and that the song represents the success of a true outlaw who overcame the odds, if only for a short while.



  1. Dude. Talkin'. 'Bout. Mariah in the "Fantasy" video. As if I needed another reason to get all hot and bothered when "Genius of Love" comes on.

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