It’s easy to become jaded over what passes for art in a consumer driven culture. Whether your form is film, music, writing, cars, couches or whatever, there exists a temptation to believe that personal preferences are based in objective criteria and that the broader public is too lazy/stupid/indifferent to venture beyond what Big Media has spoon-fed them. As a younger man I was stubborn and plagued too by the belief that my music was superior to what resided in the Top 40 morass.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” restored my faith in popular music. When I first heard it during a 3am drive I thought, “This is such a great song. It’s a shame that nobody will ever hear it.” I chalked it up to being the sort of song that the last remaining homo sapiens DJ attempted to slip by his Clear Channel robot overlords and felt a pang of sadness for the loss of a song to the late night radio ether.
I almost exploded when “Crazy” popped up again a week later. That’s the song! And then I heard it again. And again and again. “Crazy” became ubiquitous and was as likely to be encountered while lounging at a barbecue as it could be while sipping a latte at Starbucks. It peaked at #2 on the Billboard Top 100 list and stayed their for seven weeks. Critics loved it, the public loved it, and the only protestations against it were that it was just too popular. I regard it as one of the greatest pop songs of all time.
Danger Mouse & Cee Lo Green
The popularity of “Crazy” was a hash mark in the poptimist column. It also took my sizeable ego down a notch. I realized that the public could pick a winner and that quality music didn’t stem from age, obscurity, inaccessibility or the fact that I liked it (What can I say? It was 2006 and I was only a year out of college; I had a lot to learn). I went through years when I couldn’t be bothered to know what the song of the summer was, but I take greater joy now in the fact that songs like “Crazy” or “Call Me Maybe” can dominate our collective cultural mindspace. It’s time we find out what song we can’t escape for Summer 2013.
I love “Turning Blue” for being the song I’d write if I’d ever learn to play the guitar gathering dust in my bedroom. There is joy to be found in straightforward, infectious rock and the now deceased Jay Reatard was a master of it in its sloppiest, most raucous form.
If you let the Wikipedia page tell the story the exact type of rock is up for debate. The genre header lists every possible permutation of the words “garage,” “punk,” and “rock” and though each term works, it also implies that none are distinct. “Garage” is usually applied to the lo-fi guitar music with pop appeal of the pre-punk era . The problem is that a Jay Reatard record sounds more punk than a Ramones record does. The Ramones themselves don’t sound nearly as punk as their garage rocker predecessors, The Stooges. And The Stooges outpunk any of the early 2000s garage rock revival “The” bands (Whites Stripes, Hives, Strokes, Vines, etc.).
I’m not a huge fan of the genre proliferation that’s prevalent in music journalism. I like when a genre communicates something substantive about the music (“punk” has specific connotations that “rock” does not), but I hate when genre becomes a barrier to entry or is simply a rebranding of something older. Do seapunk fans have a right to be mad at Rihanna? Is drill music anything other than the gangster rap coming out of Chicago in 2012? I once saw a passionate argument that Purity Ring was SO OBVIOUSLY a part of the probably-doesn’t-exist witch house scene. This has always happened to a degree, but the Internet seems to have accelerated our tendency to divide musically. It allows for micro-genres to develop united by blog posts, forum communities, and SoundCloud uploads.
Based on the Hollywoodian calendar (the practical successor to the Julian and Gregorian models), summer is upon us and we should be spending our time in air conditioned movie theaters or lounging poolside, drinking flavored rums from the hollows of coconuts. But we’re not because it’s still like 40 degrees out there for some reason! What is going on, Nature, and why do you hate us?
Still, I wanted to share with you two songs that remind me of summer’s better days ahead. I found both of these songs on one of my best days of musical discovery. Last year I was sitting in a beer snob bar with a friend from out of town when “Here Comes The Summer” by The Fiery Furnaces came on. I’d never heard the song, so I furtively Shazam’d it under the table. From the jump-start initial chord, the song is like sipping distilled nostalgia sprinkled with the essence of summers gone by. It makes me think of my Pittsburgh past. I hear it and I think of barbecues and beers on Dawson Street, of iced teas and a book club that met on Murray Avenue. I think of the Washington, DC version of myself and how March 2012 was so warm that it really did feel like summer. Daylight savings time had toyed with my body clock, so I jogged in the mornings and evenings and discovered that I could run five kilometers.
The other song I unearthed that day, “Oscillations” by Silver Apples, was truly ancient, having been released as a single in 1968. I acted coolly with “Here Comes The Summer,” but I became an obnoxious smartphone geek the moment that “Oscillations” hit my ears because I feared losing the song forever. It just sounded so damned cool and yet I couldn’t place it at all. The recording was primitive, but the music was so modern. It was dancy and psychedelic, but electric guitars had been replaced with synths. Silver Apples project leader Simeon used so many synthesizers/oscillators that he rigged together his own device to control it all, apparently also called The Simeon. This work places Silver Apples at a pretty influential spot on the electronic music timeline. Musically, you can hear a little of what will eventually become Radiohead and Simeon has Thom Yorke beaten on the digitally disaffected front by about 40 years. The group had a big impact on Portishead as well, who do a spot on Silver Apples impression on their tribute, “We Carry On.” Other recommended songs are “You And I” and “I Have Known Love.”
The same friend at the bar with me that afternoon moved to Washington, DC recently. We’ve known each other since we were both little and we’ve spent many summers at the park, first fighting monsters, and later on talking about life and love and just trying figuring out who in the hell we actually were at 13 years old. We haven’t seen each other consistently for 17 years, but with the best friends you don’t have to. This is the same kid that I figured out music with and watched the 1994 World Cup with. The same kid whose elbow I broke in pursuit of a bouncing rubber ball and the one I learned how to do an oil change with. The last time we watched a Knicks playoff game together OJ had just killed a guy. We have a lot of summers in our past that I look back on fondly. We’ll be adding another.
I saw Iron Man 3 this weekend and absolutely loved it (there is only the tiniest drop-off in quality from the spectacular first film). As I do with movies that I enjoy, I searched for podcasts to listen to the critical reactions of the viewing public. The guys at Overthinking It mentioned that Iron Man 3 successfully passes the Bechdel Test because two women (Pepper Potts and the ambivalently evil Maya Hansen) manage to talk to each other about something other than men or romantic relationships. Well, they do mention that Maya’s boss is a man who may be working for an international superterrorist (certainly worth mentioning), but they also discuss things like the impact that US military funding has had on their projects. I don’t regard passing the test as any sort of Sisyphean task, but I’ve also never been on the lookout for it. I’m sure that its existence is evidence that Hollywood could spend a little more time thinking about these issues when it comes to scripts. So… points to Iron Man 3 for passing the Bechdel Test.*
You know who doesn’t get points for passing the Bechdel Test? Boorish lout Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley. She’s got a man on her mind and she aint’ afraid to talk about him.
I discovered “Does He Love You?” this week and the song absolutely floored me. There’s so much good going on here. The spring morning melody, Lewis’ magnificent voice, the theatricality that ramps up with each passing verse. “Does He Love You?” is a one-sided conversation between Lewis and another woman with whom her relationship is unclear. They share a lover and Lewis certainly plays the mistress, but are they friends? Lewis calls her a friend (for what that’s worth), and there is some evidence of a prior relationship:
Let’s not forget ourselves, good friend. You and I were almost dead.
The third verse provides little clarity, but a strange role reversal occurs. Upon discovering the affair, the wife calls and confesses to the mistress that she only married out of desperation. Lewis, perhaps as a consolation, offers up the pained admission that despite the affair, she will never have sole possession of her lover. Whether that fleeting loyalty stems from true love for his wife or from familial duty, Lewis knows she can’t be enough to trump the emotion.
The music leaves no ambiguity as to the pain of both confessions. I love how it peaks on the line he will never leave you for me followed by the addition of the strings (at the 4:03 mark) for maximum dramatic effect. A lesser group could have played this for melodrama, but Rilo Kiley avoids the overwrought through strong songwriting and just enough restraint.
*Editorial note with SPOILERS: A friend has commented that I’m setting an incredibly low bar for Iron Man 3 by praising it for passing the Bechdel Test. Let me be clear – I am praising Iron Man 3 because it’s awesome. I have set a low bar, but that is also a part of what is notable. The superhero genre so frequently relies on retrograde depictions of women that it’s barely even noteworthy. Iron Man 3 successfully engages in minor genre subversion by giving Pepper Potts agency outside of the immediate world of Tony Stark and even though she spends some time as a damsel in distress, she also saves the day in the end.