Song of the Day: Education in Music (Day Seven). “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm …”

Canadian folk rock band Crash Test Dummies released their second album God Shuffled His Feet in October 1993.  The first single from the album was Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm, was released in the same month.  The song’s distinctive chorus of simply “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm …” sung in singer, songwriter and guitarist Brad Roberts’ distinctive bass-baritone voice helped to make the song the band’s most successful single  and an international hit.  The song was a number one hit in Germany, Australia and on the US Modern Rock Track chart.  Additionally, it reached number 2 in the United Kingdom and number 4 on the US Billboard Hot 100.

Of writing Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm, Roberts, whom had studied to be a professor of English literature prior to the band’s success, told The Independent in May 1994:

“When I wrote that song, it didn’t flow through me, I wasn’t inspired.  I sat down and I decided I had certain themes that I wanted to make sure I handled in a way that wasn’t sentimental but at the same time was powerful and poignant.  I wanted to put a funny angle on it without being merely slapstick.  It all boils down to careful scrutiny of what you’re doing, your rational faculties being brought into play”.

Each verse of Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm deals with the isolation and suffering of a child, two of whom have a physical abnormality.  The first verse of the song tells of how “Once there was this kid who, Got into an accident and couldn’t come to school, But when he finally came back, His hair had turned from black into bright white, He said that it was from when, The cars had smashed so hard”.  Ironically, in 2000, Roberts was nearly killed in a car accident but escaped with a broken arm before his car exploded.

Meanwhile, in the second verse, Roberts sings about a girl with birth defects:  “Once there was a girl who, Wouldn’t go and change with the girls in the change room, But when they finally made here, They saw birthmarks all over her body, She couldn’t quite explain it, They’d always just been there”.

Following this, the bridge of the song expresses the boy and girl’s relief that “one kid had it worse than that” before Roberts tells of how “then there was this boy whose, Parents made him come directly home right after school, And when they went to their church, They shook and lurched all over the church floor, He couldn’t quite explain it, they’d always just gone there”.  During a live performance of Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm for Dutch radio station Kink FM, Roberts whispered during the third verse, “Pentecostal”, inferring that the lyrics relate to the Christian denomination.

Sometimes when the band perform the song in concert, the character in the third verse is replaced by a boy whose mother disposed of his tonsils after a tonsillectomy, thus depriving him of the possibility of bringing them to show and tell.

The promotional video for the single sets the song’s lyrics as the script for a series of one-act plays performed by school children.  During the performance of the plays, the band are seen playing the song at the stage side.

Despite the success of the single, Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm is constantly mentioned on lists of bad songs.  The song was ranked number 15 on VH1’s 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs Ever, whilst Rolling Stone magazine named it as the “15th Most Annoying Song”.  On AOL Radio’s list of 100 Worst Songs Ever in 2010, Matthew Wilkening described the song as “Not only bad but amazingly monotone and depressing”, and “Absolutely the last song to play for your sad friends”.  On a positive note though, in 2011, VH1 named Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm the 31st greatest one-hit wonder of the 1990’s.

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