Mike Shenk’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Three Little Words” — Conrad’s review.
This week we’re told: The answer to this week’s contest crossword is a three-word #1 song of the 2000s. It took me a while to spot the theme: there were no three-word entries in the grid, and the six long-ish 8-letter entries provided no signal. However: two of those entries had unusual clues comprised of three 3-letter words. So I jumped to the clues to see if others shared that characteristic and found nine that did:
- [10d: Hit the hay]: RETIRE
- [15a: Bio lab gel]: AGAR
- [18a: Jet set jet]: LEAR
- [24a: Cry out for]: LACK
- [36a: Cut and run]: FLEE
- [37d: Not too old]: YOUTHFUL
- [38d: Fit for use]: OPERABLE
- [43d: Hue and cry]: UPROAR
- [57a: Way too big]: OBESE
(Narrator voice: I over-complicated this one). I didn’t see a pattern in those answers, so I Googled this List of Billboard Hot 100 number-one singles of the 2000s. I found Janet Jackson’s “All For You“, which was the only hit song that seemed to fit the theme.
That was a plausible answer, but I didn’t feel a 100% “click” (something Mike Shenk is famous for). Re-scanning my notes: I saw the letters of All For You, out-of-order. I went back to the grid, and (finally) placed the themers in across, then down order:
- 15a: (A)GAR
- 18a: (L)EAR
- 24a: (L)ACK
- 36a: (F)LEE
- 57a: (O)BESE
- 10d: (R)ETIRE
- 37d: (Y)OUTHFUL
- 38d: (O)PERABLE
- 43d: (U)PROAR
That locks in our meta answer: ALL FOR YOU, a #1 hit for Janet Jackson. I can’t think of a better song to end with than Mike’s choice, so here it is. It samples the 1980 Euro/Disco song The Glow of Love by Change, which featured Luther Vandross on lead vocals.
I started with the title : Three Little Words. There were a number of clues comprised of three words, but only nine were made up of three LITTLE words (each word was three letters long). The answers to those clues gave me the answer to the meta.
Another all-clue meta from Mike! He loves those. As soon as I see Mike’s name, I immediately look at the clues for the solution. For a meta like this, though, I bet a skilled clue writer could make this meta work with almost any grid in existence, as long as there are entries that start with those letters. Just rewrite nine clues and boom, done.
As soon as you start looking for that, he’ll be using another ploy. The only time I scrutinize the clues is when there is nothing obvious in the grid.
I knew I didn’t have a chance as soon as I saw it’d be a 200s’ pop song, but I didn’t expect how little chance. I kept dwelling on the completed puzzle, looking for even so much as a rabbit hole to go down and got nowhere.
You don’t have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of pop songs to solve a puzzle like this. You just have to find the mechanism. I got it and I had never heard of this song.
As someone currently obsessed with StereoGum.com’s thrice-weekly, highly-recommended “Number Ones” column, this theme answer was an enjoyable foreshadowing of an essay to come. I’d completely forgotten about this song and my wife’s love of it. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Mike!