Margaret Cho on why Yello’s “Oh Yeah” reminds her of sex clubs and John Hughes
Mar 2, 2016 12:00 AM
In HateSong, we ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world.
The hater: Margaret Cho lives for shattering taboos and speaking nothing but her mind. The three-time Grammy and Emmy nominee joined E!’s Fashion Policethis year as co-host, elevating the low-hanging branch of fashion snark with her acerbic wit. What she brings to the show, and to her comedy and music, is the voice of a woman completely comfortable in her skin; an openly bisexual rabble-rouser taking fat-shamers, ageists, republican candidates, and vacuous celebrity worship to task. Cho doesn’t shy away from her past, from championing female sex workers to writing the survivor anthem “(I Want To) Kill My Rapist” for her upcoming album American Myth.
Cho is currently on her Psycho comedy tour, where she typically performs a few songs at the end of her set. We caught up with Cho to discuss how Yello’s “Oh Yeah” reminds her of ecstasy and bondage clubs.
The hated: Yello, “Oh Yeah” (1985)
The A.V. Club: Do you associate the song with your time as a sex worker?
Margaret Cho: I think so. Like the Birth Of Venus, the song denotes the birth of the bro. The song just reminds me of bros looking out over lowered Ray-Bans. It birthed a negative sexual revolution. I was going to a lot of bondage clubs at the time and they did play this song. The song I associate more is that horribleEnigma song with the Gregorian chant. There’s something good buried in that song and I might not hate it as much if I hadn’t been a sex worker. You didn’t hear Yello until later in the night in the bondage clubs. Things would start getting crazy and that’s when you’d hear Yello. It was bad.
AVC: Was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off your first exposure to Yello?
MC: I think I heard it earlier. This was being played on a station in San Francisco called Live 105, which was a new wave station. It was one of the first stations to change its format in the early ’80s. There was this wave of really strange music coming from Europe like Kraftwork and Freur. I was crazy about the song “Doot Doot,” so I usually love this genre of weird, European electronic. It was what would eventually evolve into modern music and EDM, but this song really bothered me from the beginning. It was totally ubiquitous. The song was sold and bought a lot, and continues to be. It is associated with John Hughes movies; for some reason I always think it was in Sixteen Candles but I know it wasn’t. It could have been in any of his films.
There’s something about it that really upsets me. I don’t like to criticize music and I had a really hard time picking out the song I hate for this because I end up seeing and working with musicians all the time. You can’t deny how terrible this song is. I’ve been exposed to it so much that it upsets me.
AVC: Do you think of it as a novelty song? Is it soulless?
MC: It’s soulless in that I don’t understand anybody who would rock out to it. I could definitely rock out to Kraftwerk’s “Tour De France,” Tubeway Army, or Gary Numan. All of that stuff has an infectious beat, but with “Oh Yeah,” I can’t even identify what’s going on. It sounds like typewriter keys, a couple of synth notes and then this really deep “Oh yeah,” which I always picture as Andre The Giant on vocals. It’s one of those weird things where I think Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” and this song are somehow connected. I don’t like catchphrases either. A current one would be, “Bye, Felicia.” It’s used so much that we don’t even know the origin anymore. I have a song about how much I hate emojis and the lazy thinking of people who use them. I wish that more people had respect for the English language. People keep returning to these memes and emojis and I feel like this song started it. [Laughs.]
AVC: The song encapsulates the go-go ’80s, cars and bikinis, coke-fueled personification of lust. Is it the unsexiest song of all time?
MC: It’s completely unsexy. It does capture that weird ’80s materialism and “We’re gonna get it on now” vibe. But it’s a very juvenile approach. It also became a weird signal for comedy, in the sense that when you heard the song, it meant comedy was happening on screen. I feel like this song was probably done in a couple of minutes in a studio. There was probably no thought behind it; they were just playing with some samples and threw it together. I feel like there’s no dream behind the song. Usually there’s a dream or some kind of passion attached to a song. This song feels very empty. It made a lot of money for the songwriters but at the expense of culture.
AVC: The song was definitely ubiquitous in the late ’80s where it was featured in The Secret Of My Success, She’s Out Of Control, and several Twixcommercials.
MC: Even though it’s very attached to that time period, it remains untethered. You will still hear it in modern life. Not necessarily on the radio but certainly in advertising.
AVC: Were you involved in the late ’80s underground club scene?
MC: I was about 17 or 18 and there were a lot of clubs and dancing. It was the beginning of rave culture and a lot of ecstasy. Because of all the drugs, there are certain songs that make me feel high. “Oh Yeah” is definitely one of them. I heard it so often when I was rolling that when I hear the notes it chemically shifts something in my brain. The same thing happens with any Happy Mondays song. Something weird happens and I either become very excited or uncomfortable. “Oh Yeah” definitely triggers something very uncomfortable. That’s not to say I didn’t see a lot of great bands then. This was an era where I was going out every night seeing Sparks, Berlin, Duran Duran, and Split Enz. Amazing acts doing really weird stuff, and I was very open to music and letting it transform me. I mistakenly opened up to “Oh Yeah” and had to pay the price.
AVC: Are there certain artists that are an audible influence on your upcoming album American Myth?
MC: I get a lot from great ’90s artists like Juliana Hatfield, The Pixies, and bands like That Dog and The Breeders. I think it’s very riot grrrl. It’s Juliana Hatfield before Evan Dando. I’ve written with Patty Griffin, which made a huge impression on me, so there’s definitely a country side too. There’s no Yello or “Oh Yeah” influence though.
MC: I can definitely appreciate it and the commercial sensibilities behind it. If you’re a songwriter, you want to write a song like “Oh Yeah” that radically shifts everything. You can definitely retire on that song. You want to have something you can put in your songbook that everybody can recognize, whether it’s a good or bad thing. It’s something we all need to do as songwriters. Your goal is to write that masterpiece. Yello’s masterpiece was “Oh Yeah.” Whatever I say about the song doesn’t matter, because it has a huge impact on how we remember the era.
AVC: If we consider “Oh Yeah” the unsexiest song of all time, what’s the sexiest?
MC: I love Wilco’s “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” Nels Cline has that weird guitar slide at the beginning and the song is whispered actually. Jeff Tweedy isn’t screeching it at you. The guitar does the yelling for him and he just hangs back. All the songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are the encapsulation of heterosexual love. I have different records for gay sex.
AVC: What’s your favorite gay sex record?
MC: Anything Vince Clarke, whether it’s Erasure, Yaz, or Depeche Mode. It’s basically R&B with synths. It’s very sexy music and perfect for gay sex.