(10) The Smiths, "There Is a Light That Never goes Out"
For starters, that the Smiths are the lower seed in this matchup seems nuts, right? But here's the thing: like Morrissey, the Smiths tend to have a nearly impenetrable sheen of ironic distance that makes it hard to really claim that most of their songs are sad exactly. So this was the committee's choice, and though the band has an epic reputation for mope, we're not sure either this or the Morrissey song (also in the same region by design, since no one wants a Morrissey-Smiths final four matchup, except maybe Morrissey) really has the legs to go far. And besides, in our view, this is probably the best Smiths song, and the one that has the least distance between listener and speaker which seems pretty important for a sad song (see also the way that as I write this (which will be past tense by the time you read it) the Magnetic Fields are explicitly not dominating The Church. This is also a brilliant pop song in its way, certainly one of the colossi of the age. But will the voters prefer the many-layered splendiferousness of the Smiths to the gut-punch of Chapman?
(7) Tracy Chapman, "Fast Car"
A lot of the songs in the tournament happen to be the best-known, and often the first-known songs by the singer or group. That’s potentially a flaw in our picking process, but on thinking about it, sometimes the first cut is the deepest, as that other song goes. I’m thinking here of our Tori Amos selection, certainly. We could easily have picked “China” or “Winter” (though all those are on her first, spectacular album). “Fast Car” is one of these, Tracy Chapman’s first song that anyone knew. But it’s a hell of a first song, isn’t it? Haunting, hopeful, and we all know that the speaker here really isn’t going anywhere, and she knows it: “leave tonight / or we’ll die this way”. The bit that gets me is how the chorus—is it a chorus? yes, a strange chorus, but I guess it is one—quickens and brightens, and we’re in memory, the memory of speed, and we feel her excitement; we feel possibility for a moment, we’re suffused with it, that thrill, that buzz, and we believe, and then it evaporates and we’re back where we were before: “I know things will get better / you’ll find work and I’ll get promoted / we’ll move out of the shelter / buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs.” Well, I'm not sure we believe that. Don't think she does either, though she has to. Maybe she does. And maybe things will change. They won't without belief. And it's sure dark here either way. Is it better to live in a wish or in a memory?