Lyrics and Life
By Caitlin Ward
He Got Game
My wandering, got my ass wondering
It’s time we stopped children
There are two things I remember from my childhood better than anything
else: first, I’m pretty sure it was always summer and, second,
I watched a lot of the original Muppets show. I was too young to recognize
how incredibly 1970s the series was, from the music to the costumes to
the fact that Steve Martin had brown hair when he was the guest star.
It was many years later that I learned that this song was an actual song by an actual band, as opposed to a plaintive cry against hunting from a load of woodland Muppets. In fact, the song is For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield — a 1967 single that characterized the turbulent reality of protest, counter-protest and police violence at the time. Many band members went on to write and perform many well-known songs in other bands (notably Neil Young and Stephen Stills, though also Jim Messina and Richie Furay), but it’s probably the only Buffalo Springfield song you know. It’s certainly the only one I know. You might not recognize the name, but you’d recognize the iconic guitar hook, the harmonics at the top of the neck, and you’d know the chorus: “stop, children, what’s that sound? / Everybody look what’s going down.”
For What It’s Worth has shown up in various incarnations throughout the years — covered by everyone from Cher to Led Zeppelin, soundtracking fictitious treks through Vietnam throughout the 1990s, and perhaps my favourite, sampled by Public Enemy for their song He Got Game.
He Got Game was the lead single off the soundtrack for the Spike Lee film (or Joint, as he would say) of the same name. In many ways, the Public Enemy song bears little resemblance to either of the versions I’ve already spoken of, but strangely, I feel as if this 1999 version has a peculiar affinity with both the 1967 Buffalo Springfield original and the woodland creature version of 1977.
You see, regardless of the fact that each of these versions is aimed at a different audience, perhaps for different reasons, they all have a similar underlying motivation. The original For What It’s Worth spoke to a latent unrest in the States that was about to become very public, and as a result it became the anthem of a movement. The Muppet version, though on first listen more adorable than anything else, somehow manages to be an indictment of hunting for sport: “the forest echoes silent woes / a million years of bucks and does.”
And the Public Enemy version, though it bears the least resemblance to the original, in many ways carries a similar spirit. It’s much more specific than the Buffalo Springfield version — I’d say that’s the luxury of a genre as verbose as rap — but there’s the same sense of suspense, of underlying discontent, of apprehension. Thematically, I don’t think there’s much difference between, “there’s battle lines being drawn / and nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong,” and “Year by year, all the sense disappears / Nonsense perseveres, prayers laced with fear.”
The real difference, I think, is that the Public Enemy
version takes a step back farther than the original. The Buffalo Springfield
version asks the superficial question of what is happening in an immediate
sense, with protests and police, but the Public Enemy song wants to know
happening on a much larger scale. It’s asking questions about society,
about justice, about the difference between a sound bite (“it might
feel good / it might sound lil’ somethin’”) and reality
(“Damn the game if it don’t mean nothin’”). And
in some ways it’s a harder song to take because of that; it implicates
the privileges of being white and middle class in the United States in
a way the original does not address. He Got Game is rather humbling;
when I listen to it, I feel as if it calls me out of the emotional and
intellectual comfort that I find it easy to sink into.
Ward is a freelance writer and aspiring documentary filmmaker based in Saskatoon. You can find her short bursts of insight and frustration at http://www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings