Culture  Stuck on shuffle: Pop culture’s whipping boy

Vanilla Ice is back – reminding us why we never should have listened to him at all

Poor Vanilla Ice. His real name is Robert Van Winkle, and for my money, he’s eligible for the Internet generation’s “guy least capable of catching a break” award. This year he released his fifth attempt at a comeback album, the wishfully titled Vanilla Ice is Back! Ice has taken to covering established hip hop classics like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain,” seemingly so desperate to prove that he’s still “hip hop” that he’s not even chancing it with his own material anymore.

In case you totally ignore pop-culture or you’ve never watched vh1 for more than 15 minutes, Vanilla Ice was a Caucasian pop-rap star who was fantastically successful from roughly 1990 to 1991. He came packaged with a totally fabricated back-story about his early life in the mean streets of Miami Lakes, Florida – which, when discredited, somehow helped pop music audiences sober up and wonder how they ever bought into the whole icy fiasco. Ever since, Vanilla Ice has been desperately attempting to stage a comeback, first in 1994 with Mind Blowin’, and then with the equally irrelevant efforts Hard to Swallow, Bi-Polar, and Platinum Underground.

Platinum Underground is especially amusing. In a display of shockingly limited self-awareness, Vanilla Ice’s fourth comeback album title was comprised of two words, neither of which described him at all. The record was released in 2005, at the dawn of an age where almost no one could go platinum anymore, so it was pretty safe to say that Mr. Van Winkle didn’t have a vanilla ice cube in hell’s chance of selling one-million albums. (This despite song titles like “Trailer Park Mullet Wars” and the highly anticipated follow-up to “Ninja Rap,” “Ninja Rap 2”). Tragically, thanks to Ice’s perennial whipping-boy status, his antics and his feeble comeback attempts have been widely observed by folks who care (on the Internet), allowing for maximum shaming (on the Internet). So as much he might sometimes wish, he’s not exactly “underground” either. A more realistic album title might have been something like Everybody Knows That Only My Mom Bought This.

The “pop-culture whipping boy” phenomenon is interesting, though. I think the main reason why people get really mad that a formerly huge pop star like Vanilla Ice still exists is a collective feeling of guilt and shame. He was a big white gimmick used to sell rap music to a pop audience; he had those lightning bolt racing stripes carved into the sides of his hybrid fade/pompadour, and those shiny pants – and he rapped about Ninja Turtles.

For a year or so, we really ate that shit up, allowing “Ice Ice Baby” to make history as the first “rap” song to top the Billboard Hot 100. Well, I didn’t because I was four. But maybe you did.

Now it seems that the only way we, as a culture, can make amends for these prior indiscretions is to publicly shame Vanilla Ice for the rest of his life, which is probably unfair because we’re more responsible for his existence and former success than he is. Unfortunately, we can’t all line up in the public square and flog ourselves, so we have to gang up on poor Robert, whose backward flexfit hat seems to get pulled lower and lower with each successive album cover – lest a lightning bolt escape from underneath, revealing his tough-guy transformation as an elaborate ruse.

While I don’t think the position of pop-culture whipping boy is the most enviable one to occupy, it doesn’t render a person impotent. In fact, the most impressive folks who’ve shouldered this noble burden sometimes manage to turn their public shaming into a joke unto itself. There are few things more satisfying than seeing a public figure play along with some self-awareness. Actually, it makes us impotent in a way: once the star is in on the joke, things aren’t so funny anymore.

Rick Astley, who sang “Never Gonna Give You Up” in 1987 and is a genuine champion, did this brilliantly when he appeared in the flesh and “Rickroll’d” the Macy’s Day parade this Thanksgiving. Rick and Rob really aren’t so different, when you think about it. Both of them were massively successful nerds who we’re ashamed of having once appreciated. Except Rick didn’t have a manic compulsion to stay popular, and faded quietly away and had kids. Rob, by contrast, has remade “Ice Ice Baby” on almost every album he’s released since his heyday in the early nineties, in a series of extremely confusing attempts to reinvent the very reason people hate him.

But I think I’ve figured it out. In the age of sarcastic, hyper-ironic post-appreciation, the line between detesting something and genuinely enjoying it is so blurred, I suspect most people in the coveted 18-24 marketing demographic honestly can’t tell the difference. Vanilla Ice and his “Ninja Rap” are cultural artifacts that people in our age bracket don’t really understand because we weren’t really there. We know that Vanilla Ice is supposed to suck, but if you throw “Ice Ice Baby” on at a party, people will lose their minds anyway, because “omigod so funny!” right?

So, Vanilla, I might respectfully suggest that you’re coming at this the wrong way. Your ticket to newfound relevance is as simple as a North-American campus tour – not as Vanilla Ice, the super-insecure, weed-smoking, tough-guy rap-rock sex-fiend, but as Vanilla Ice with the lightning bolts and the glitter suit. Do it valiantly and earnestly and I guarantee that you will be met with ambiguously unbridled enthusiasm. It’s irrelevant if people come to your concerts to be ironic, because they probably won’t be able to tell the difference. And if we can be a little bit honest about your self-awareness track record for a second, I don’t think you will either.

If you read The McGill Daily and have any further questions, Mr. Ice, or if you’d like to get together and hammer out the specifics of your comeback, please have one of your ice-ssociates contact me. My email address is Word to your mother.