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Divine Symmetry I 21 I Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” (1990)

Why does the mere mention of this song make me want to snicker? I think it has something to do with a possibly manufactured controversy about its bassline, which is clearly based on that of “Under Pressure.” After initially denying a connection between the two songs, Vanilla Ice eventually conceded it was and gave Queen and David Bowie a co-writer’s credit (along with the accompanying royalties). The whole thing has always struck me as a little Milli Vanilli.

But, insofar as Bowie is now listed as one of the song’s cowriters, you can add hip hop to the many genres for which Bowie broke new ground, even if in this case he did so unwittingly. How did this song break new ground? Amazingly, it was the very first hip hop song to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Also, since Bowie is actually given a credit on the song, it doesn’t exactly fit into the “Divine Symmetry” category of songs that have some sort of similarity to a Bowie song — this actually should count as a Bowie song. But neither Nicholas Pegg nor Chris O’Leary include “Ice Ice Baby” in their extensive compendiums of Bowie songs, and since I make up my own rules for this series, I’m going to let it count.

Other than the bassline, is there anything else about this song that has any similarities to anything about David Bowie? Again, surprisingly, the answer is yes. Vanilla Ice was doing something Bowie had done years before on Young Americans— he was performing in a genre more typically associated with black artists. If Bowie’s version was “plastic soul,” perhaps this could be thought of as plastic rap (plastic wrap?) Similarly, Vanilla Ice, whose real name is Rob Van Winkle really seemed to be playing a part, complete with a partially fabricated biography.

And… there are some other similarities with the song itself. At least part of what Vanilla is rapping about here is his own musicianship. This is not a song I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, but paying closer attention and looking at the lyrics made me think of Bowie’s “Star.” The two songs sound nothing alike, but in “Star,” Bowie sings about being a rock ‘n’ roll star and in “Ice Ice Baby,” Vanilla is rapping about being a rapper.

Vanilla hits on a few topics that Bowie did as well, such as the centrality of the role of a disc jockey in music. Bowie sang, “I am the DJ, and I have believers;” whereas Vanilla sings, “Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it.” Moreover, both use frozen water metaphors — “ice” seems to be a pretty common term in rap, which I think usually is supposed to evoke diamonds or “bling” in general. Bowie seems to be suggesting cocaine when he sings about “walking on Snow White” in, “The Jean Genie” (1973), and when he asks, “ Is it nice in your snowstorm; freezing your brain?” in “Sweet Thing” (1974). Actually, perhaps I’m just too ignorant of rap, but purely within the confines of this song’s actual lyrics, I’m really not sure what “ice, ice” is supposed to mean.

Finally, Vanilla is telling a story in this song, which is something else Bowie had done from time to time. Central to the story is a shooting incident, which is another topic that Bowie wrote about, such as in the songs, “Running Gun Blues” (1970) and “Valentine’s Day” (2013). Very different stories, but nonethless there’s another point of commonality.

So did Bowie influence Vanilla Ice? Well, obviously, yes. In this case, though, the influence is primarily musically and not lyrically. There are some points of lyrical commonality, but, noting that we know Vanilla Ice had listened to some Bowie, I think the lyrical similarities are probably coincidental.

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The Divine Symmetry series compares Bowie songs to other songs with some sort of similarity, intentional or otherwise. The term is borrowed from Bowie’s song, “Quicksand.”

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