pop music

Random Thoughts

I’ve been doing a lot of writing at work, so lately it’s hard to get excited to write stuff.

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I know lots of people hate Creed, and I’m not going to try to convince anyone not to, because I only heard them a few times and thought they were bad enough that my mind blocked their music forever, and I couldn’t even tell you what their songs are.  You could play Nickelback and I’d be like “oh, OK.”  I actually don’t know Nickelback’s songs either.  I do recognize the Foo Fighters.

At any rate, singer Scott Stapp seems to be on a very bad path either on account of addiction or mental illness and that’s not funny.  I hope he gets better.  In general, it’s fucked up to laugh at the misery of people who make music you don’t like.  Seriously, it’s just music.  The only artists that deserve condemnation for their art are propagandists.  Leni Riefenstahl, for instance.  Or really racist ones.  But there’s no reason to hate someone for putting out cheesy music.  I would say that even if I weren’t someone who makes cheesy music.

I haven’t heard anything from Kesha lately and since she’s fighting with Dr Luke, a guy who is behind a ridiculous number of pop hits, maybe we won’t again.  This makes me very sad, because Kesha is my favorite pop singer.  And there’s no one to replace her yet.  I am bummed about this.

This song is so good and the video is great.  Super lo-fi.

I love how Kendrick just wanders into the shot like a lurker and starts rapping- you wanna see a dead body?  Where does that voice come from?  He’s amazing

Why do I have bad taste?

Way, way back I was hanging with some friends at my seldom-seen co-blogger’s house and his older brother had some tapes sitting on a shelf.  One tape in particular caught my eye.  W.A.S.P.’s Inside the Electric Circus.

I made to listen to it when one of my friends asked me a question that gets to the very heart of who I am as a person.

Why do you like everything bad?

I don’t know why I like everything bad.  It’s something I’ve puzzled over for years.  Decades really.  Embedded in the question was a plea- please don’t subject me to any more crap.

My friends have all experienced it.  I become obsessed with things that no one else gets or likes.  I’ve made them listen to the cheesiest punk rock, the dumbest possible rap songs, watch terrible movies- in one of the more terrible things I did to my friends I made them sit through two John Waters movies in a row.  Why?

I don’t know.  It’s not because I’m trying to be mean to my friends.  It’s that I really like some things that, for whatever reason, society doesn’t see that same value in.

Let’s talk for a second about what’s bad.  By bad I don’t mean I don’t like it.  90% of all arguments could be averted if instead of people saying “____ sucks” they said something more like “It’s just not something I’m into”, because that’s what they really mean.  Also, by bad I’m not making a moral judgement, i.e. saying something is bad for society, or even sillier, bad for the children, because for the most part moral judgements aren’t interesting to me if they involve the finished product.  If, for instance, a child molester makes a song that I like, say this one:

that’s moral problem, because if I buy his record I am possibly giving material support to a bad person.  If, however, someone writes a song encouraging people to join the Church of Satan, I don’t know, I just don’t care.  It would have to be something truly egregious for me to care.

When I say bad, I mean something just didn’t come out right.  I don’t think W.A.S.P. set out to write a song that cheesy.  It’s not even a song that’s bad to listen to.  It just didn’t succeed in some important way, in this case, it sounds like they were trying to be menacing and it’s just not that menacing.

But I’ll admit that badness is subjective.  For instance, Dio holding a sword like he’s swinging a baseball bat should make me think this is a bad video

But I can’t say that.  It’s an awesome video.  Because Dio was a strange little man with an amazing voice and I can totally see him being a dirty barbarian swordsman.  On the other hand, that dude from Def Leppard swinging a comically huge sword?  I’m not even sure what they’re going for here:

Then again, maybe something can’t fail at a metric that I can’t establish.

Maybe one explanation is that I learn from failure.  Something that doesn’t work has moving parts that I can pick apart and understand.  On the other hand, something too perfect is impossible to learn from.  What would you learn from something like this?

I’d learn- give up, writing perfect pop songs is way too hard.  Really, that’s it.  There’s nothing to pick apart in this song, because everything works.  Really.  There’s nothing I would add or take away from it.

That’s not to say that I like it all that much, or listen to it in the car, because it’s just not relevant to my life.  It’s not my thing.

And maybe more to the point, there’s nothing to take away from the song because it’s a perfect whole.  There’s not any one thing that sticks out.  Contrast that with, say Mamma Mia

It’s not a bad song by any means, but not all of it works to the same degree.  I like the guitar lick that Bjorn does.  I like pause when they sing just one look and I hear a bell ring.  Little things.  I can take something away from listening to the song that maybe I can use in my own life.

To be continued

What’s on Pop Radio right now?

This song is kind of nuts.

I’m not sure I like it so much- the hook isn’t exactly a real good one to sing along, probably because it’s too hard.  But wow.  It’s amazing that it works, because these kind of group songs usually end up tragically unbalanced.

I heard about Bang Bang and when I heard who was singing the song, but before I heard the song itself, this song came to mind-

This Lady Marmalade remake doesn’t even approach balance, and it’s a shame because Lil Kim’s verse is solid, and Pink is pretty good as well.  But if I had to break down the impact each singer has by percentage I would say it’s something like:

Mya- 2%

Pink 10%

Lil Kim 20%

Christina Aguilera- 1000%

I get it that everyone’s supposed to get a part, but even before it’s Christina’s turn she’s in the video lurking there in the back, just waiting to jump out and stomp on the rest of the group.  And when it gets to her part it’s like the volume jumps up several notches.  It must have been in her contract that all the levels would be set before anyone recorded, and she just went in and sang like three times louder than everyone else.  I’m not mocking her performance on the song, but if I were any of the other three, I’d be considering requesting that my tracks be deleted before the song was released.

But anyway, Bang Bang actually works- maybe the producer told everyone to go into the recording studio and hold nothing back.  Because the producer doesn’t hold anything back either- the arrangement is over the top too.

I’ve been following Jessie J’s career since she came out with Price Tag.  I knew she could sing, but she takes it to another level on this song.  She’s got some crazy charisma too- B.o.B. called her “colorful”- she’s someone who’s not afraid to look a little bit silly.  I’m looking forward to see what she does next.  Maybe she’ll be my new Kesha (hehe remember what I said in my last post about entertainers not being able to relax, because someone else will come along and take their place?)

I admit it, this song is kind of cute

Boy are some people upset with this song

Probably the usual gang of internet dummies, but people are getting way too uptight about this one.  Yeah, it’s not a great work of art, but it’s funny and kind of catchy.  But I tend to like most things Nicki does- the way she jumps back and forth between a brainless pop voice and her rapid-fire rap delivery on this song is particularly awesome.    I thought Noah Berlatsky had a good take on it- maybe the video isn’t made for men, it’s directed at women who like big butts.  I don’t know if that’s true, but Nicki is definitely trolling men with this.  The kitchen scene with the banana that she tosses aside and then the lap dance with Drake being left bummed out both point to the idea that she’s toying with mens’ expectations.

Great Albums: Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed

So for my 250th post I am going to talk a little bit about one of my favorite albums ever.  The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed.

LetitbleedRS

I have mentioned this before, but I grew up in a small town with limited radio, almost none of it rock and roll.  So my rock and roll education came almost entirely from my parents’ collection.  Let It Bleed was one of the five or six Stones albums my parents had, and was the most recent chronologically.

The other albums my parents had were their early blues records.  Those are fun records to listen to still, but there’s a huge divide between those and Let It Bleed.  In fact, it’s fashionable to divide the Stones’ career between Pre and Post Beggar’s Banquet, and I agree mostly that this is how they should be seen.  That was when they really matured as a band.  Or when they became irrevocably debauched.  In their case it might just be the same thing.

Anyway, also in fashion is to state that the four albums they put out in this era- Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St.– are mostly the same level of quality and that picking the best of the four is mostly a matter of taste.  I agree with this in theory, but since my parents only owned one of these, Let It Bleed is the best, and it’s grown better as I get older.

When I was a kid it was a collection of crazy songs with a funny cover of a cake made out of junk that’s destroyed on the back cover.  I had to get older to know what some of the songs were about.  I had to get older than that to understand some of the feelings conveyed in the music.

Let’s review some songs-

I don’t know if there’s much to say about Gimme Shelter that hasn’t already been said.  It overplayed and used too often in movies.  It’s also one of the best songs of the 60s.

I wasn’t there so who knows, maybe I’m full of it, but I’ve always assumed that the great struggles of the 60s must have taken a toll on a lot of people, and this song captures that.  It’s a haunting song.  Keith Richards claimed to never like writing topical songs or songs about politics because one day they’d stop being relevant.  There is that risk.  But sometimes having a song that acts like a time capsule is a great thing too.

And purely in technical terms it’s masterful in how it keeps building in intensity.  The Rolling Stones were great at arranging songs to sound like they weren’t actually arranged.

Love in Vain is a nice choice for second- the first so is so intense it’s good to unwind a bit

By this time the Stones could actually do some decent blues.  The guitar is really pretty as well.

Country Honk was ruined for me by that scourge of record listeners everywhere- the record skipping.

That ever happen to you?  You have a song you like, but somewhere along the way the record gets scratched and that sound of a record skipping every single time at the same point in the song becomes etched into your mind, so that every time you hear the song you cringe, expecting the record to skip?  It happens to me, even when I hear it in a format that can’t possibly skip- like the internet

the sweetest ballroom queen I met in Memphis,

in Memphis,

in Memphis,

in Memphis,

in Memphis

Arrrrrrrgh!

Live with Me is the funkiest song on the album

I loved this song and its wild, anarchic sound.  I had no idea what it was about.  This was my favorite song on the album when I was a kid.  So nasty, and such an epic ending when the piano players starts going for it.

Just after that Let It Bleed takes nasty to another level.

Like Love in Vain, this is the song that tones it down a bit after a fast rocker.  As a child I knew what breasts were, so I had an inkling of what was going on in the song, even if I couldn’t have said exactly what.  I had no idea why Mick was singing so slow.  I have a better idea of what he was trying to convey by doing that now.

Midnight Rambler is a song I liked better when I was a kid.  It’s just a little too long.  I’ve never really cared for You Got the Silver.  Oh well, every album has a dud or two.

Monkey Man strikes me as sort of a throwback to when the Rolling Stones were trying to write pop songs, but with an edge to it.

The piano is really pretty.  Wikipedia tells me that the other instrument in the beginning of the song is vibraphone.  Didn’t know that.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want always struck me as an attempt to provide something uplifting at the end of an album full of danger, fear, cooks who are whores, visiting parking lots for “coke and sympathy” and sticking knives down people’s throats.  Like the Stones are trying to make listeners feel better about themselves after their journey to the depths of depravity and I’ve always been grateful for them doing that.

One of the great things about the Rolling Stones is how they can work in so many different genres but always sound exactly like themselves.  Like the Stones don’t bend their music to play in other genres, genres bend to make room for the Stones.

Anyway, 250 posts feels like a real milestone.  I honestly can’t believe I’ve kept at it for as long as I have.  It’s been very interesting though, and thanks to everyone who reads this.  I’ll try to keep ’em coming!

Great Albums- The Kinks’ Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)

The Kinks are, in my opinion, the most criminally underrated band from the 60s.  They weren’t the best, they weren’t most ground-breaking, but the fact that they have such an amazing songbook and that people remember maybe four songs of their whole catalog is a shame.

If I had to guess I’d say the problem for them is that Ray Davies isn’t a dynamic frontman like Jagger, or a great singer like Lennon.  The band isn’t a rock and roll machine like the Who or a kickass gang of pirates like the Rolling Stones.  They don’t have anyone who would be notable on their own, no Ginger Baker type drummer and Dave Davies is no Jimi Hendrix.  They don’t particularly have grit like the Doors or Janis.  They never managed to reinvent the pop song like The Beach Boys or the Beatles.

What could they do?  Well, they could rock about as hard as anyone, when they wanted to, which was not that often, at least in the 60s.  They were funny and irreverent and Ray Davies was a great story-teller.  And they wrote great songs.  Mostly it was Ray writing them, but every now and then Dave would come along with a classic of his own.

That’s really the heart of them for me.  Other than Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones, no one wrote so many good songs, that were so good, in so many different ways as the Kinks.

They could caveman proto-punk- You Really Got Me, Til the End of the Day.  They could do funny social satire- Sunny Afternoon, A Well Respected Man, Village Green Preservation Society.  They could do hard rock, either anthemic- Lola or groovy- Powerman.  They could do great, sad songs like Dave Davies’ classic – Strangers. or the somewhat tongue-in-cheek Alcohol.  Or just cute songs- Act Nice And Gentle.  They put together some of the most beautiful ballads ever recorded- Days, Waterloo Sunset.

They experimented with a variety of styles, and probably in a smart move, didn’t do a ton of psychedelic rock (they weren’t very good at when they tried), but were really all over the map.

Perhaps most amazingly, the Kinks did something none of their contemporaries managed to do… record a good song in the 80s:

But I wanted to focus on my personal favorite album by them- Arthur:

Arthur was intended to be a concept album to accompany a television special that never got off the ground.  I don’t know if knowing that makes the album better.  You could just as easily think of it as a series of character studies.  It’s about a family, Arthur being the father.  He’s got some kids:

One of them goes off to war:

And dies:

Part of what I like about this album is how much it’s grown with me over the years.  This was always a terribly sad song about a young man trying to be brave and leaving his mother behind.  Having become a parent it’s just devastating.  It’s amazing to me that a young man could have written a song with such empathy.

Arthur also has a son who is a hectoring leftist of some kind:

And some other kids who are looking for a new life in Australia:

The Kinks did a great job of giving the listener a varied emotional experience.  If the whole album were versions of Some Mother’s Son, it would be a real drag.  If you listen to this on LP, this is the last song on the first side, and if it weren’t for the preceding songs, the long, kind of repetitive jam at the end would seem kind of lame, but it lets my brain unwind.  This is one of the sad things about losing the concept of the LP- you can’t really take the listener on the same sort of journey in 3 minutes.

So Arthur’s kids have all gone away and he’s left at home alone.

Sometimes it’s impossible to know whether Ray Davies is making fun of the character in his song, when there’s also clearly so much love for his subject.  I don’t know if he’s criticizing Arthur for accepting his place in society, or if he’s admiring his finding it.  Sometimes I listen to this song and want to be Arthur.

I shouldn’t say Arthur is alone, his wife is with him

I love this song.  This is a song I used to think was kind of stupid, and again, I wasn’t sure if Ray was mocking Arthur and his wife or not.

It wasn’t until I was poor myself that I understood why poor or working class people place so much value in things.   I grew up in a reformed hippie, middle class household and it was considered in poor taste to want to buy luxury items, or brand name items.  That was just tacky.

But I had a rough time for a while when my son was just a baby and now I get it.  Being poor is hard.  Every day is tough, because if you’re close enough to the edge you never know what’s going to cause you to really get stuck- stuck with recurring bills, and debt you can’t pay off.  It’s scary and demoralizing.  But sometimes just having a little something nice makes it tolerable.  Yeah, maybe it shouldn’t matter if you have a nice hat, like the one Arthur is presumably wearing, because who cares, it’s a hat and you’re still poor.  But sometimes having a nice thing to point to, when everything else sucks, can make you want to go on.

Music can sometimes teach you things like that.

Maybe some day this song will grow on me.  So far it hasn’t yet:

The album ends with a great rocker

This is at heart maybe a sad song, but it always brings a smile to my face.  It’s a song that laughs in the face of pain, sadness and disappointment.

I didn’t cover all the songs on the album.  There are a few more, and they’re worth listening to, if not my favorites.  Like I said before, I’ve enjoyed this album for close to twenty years now, but it’s grown with me in a way that few others have.  It’s taught me lessons that took me years to understand.  It’s helped me put myself in the shoes of people who don’t even exist, but I feel better for having done that.  The best music can do this and this is some of the best.

Beyonce and the meaning of not wearing pants

I was kind of laughing about this:

Beyonce’s feminist VMA message prompts some eye rolls

What does it really mean to be a feminist in Hollywood these days?

Others chimed in with opinions such as “an excellent night for women not wearing pants,”

(my emphasis)

OK, so Beyonce did a pretty epic performance at the VMA’s- 15 minutes, most of her album.  And she did so without pants and flashed FEMINIST across the screen at one point.

I didn’t really see a problem.  Feminism includes the idea that women should be allowed to wear what they want and not get judged on it.  But then I remembered this Kathleen Hanna interview from a while back:

CNN: What do you make of singers like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Ke$ha who are seemingly touching on themes of gay empowerment in their music, but for some reason it doesn’t quite resonate?

Hanna: I mean, is it really that different when it’s a skinny white woman in a bathing suit singing these things? None of these women ever wear pants, first of all. Second of all, just because you’re wearing a goofy hat doesn’t make it performance art.

(again, my emphasis)

PANTS!  WHAT ARE THE POLITICS OF WEARING OR NOT WEARING PANTS?

I don’t know.  I think this pants thing is silly, and Kathleen Hanna came off as an angry old person in that interview.

On the subject of pants, I will firmly state that I do not consider pants (or lack thereof) to be a reason to discriminate against someone or not listen to their opinion.  Provided they wear something that covers their genitals.

Some awesome people not wearing pants:

Wait, who was that last one?  Kathleen Hanna.  With no pants on.  In her defense, I’m sure I can find photos of her wearing pants back then.

For the record, I have never appeared at a show in anything that looked like underwear or a swimsuit, and the world is probably a better place for it.  But I don’t want to rule it out either.  Keeping my options open.  Just in case.

What is Kanye West trying to say? Diamonds from Sierra Leone

Just like superheroes, every rapper needs an origin story.  It’s got to involve some hardship or another- usually some combination of being poor, being a drug dealer and/or gang-banger, being black, having a crazy drug addicted mother and an absent father or just starting from the bottom, wherever that may be.  For the record, I’m not trying to make a joke about these things- a lot of rappers probably had some terrible experiences growing up.  But making the origin story a virtual requirement for rappers, has occasionally meant that some people would experience a different, albeit less sympathetic, form of hardship- having to wrack their brains coming up with an origin story, with sometimes comical results.

I don’t know Kanye personally, so I’m just going off of Wikipedia, but Kanye had none of the classic challenges, other than being a young black man, to overcome.  He had a middle-class upbringing, with both parents at home.  So far as I know he never had to deal drugs.  He did drop out of college to pursue music full time in around 1997.  Within a couple of years he was a successful producer, who was also writing rhymes in his spare time.

While producing some huge hits for Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella records- including a good deal of Jay Z’s The Blueprint- Kanye was shopping around for a record deal.  Finally he was able to convince Roc-A-Fella to release his first album, which they did in 2004.  Not bad right?  It only took him seven years, and by the time his first album was out he was already a very wealthy man.

But that’s Kanye’s origin story.  He had a hard time getting signed.  I know, it’s not much to go on, but every rapper must have an origin story.

I love this song and its subsequent remix.  It’s an old James Bond movie sample and Kanye telling his origin story and trying to explain the reasons behind the first of his awards show freakouts.

Award shows- everyone remembers how he grabbed the mic from Taylor Swift, but apparently he walked out of the 2004 AMAs after not getting the new artist award

I was sick about awards
Couldn’t nobody cure me
Only playa that got robbed but kept all his jewelry
Alicia Keys tried to talk some sense to them
30 minutes later seems there’s no convincing them

So Kanye didn’t get the award he wanted.  Oh well, right?  These are some of my favorite bars from him ever

What more can you ask for?
The international asshole
Who complain about what he is owed?
And throw a tantrum like he is 3 years old
You gotta love it though somebody still speaks from his soul

I love it because Kanye is doing two things at once- owning up to being a big baby and then taking pride in being a big baby.  I do admit, I love it that someone does speak from his soul.  Famous people are fucking boring.  You know with Kanye that he’s going to speak his mind.  Do I think I he is owed an award?  Not really.  I’m not even sure he thinks so.

And wasn’t changed by the change, or the game, or the fame,
When he came, in the game, he made his own lane

This is maybe the most important thing to take from his origin story- Kanye really did do something different.  By he made his own lane, he’s claiming to have carved out a new spot in hip-hop- something that was different than what Jay Z called “thug rappin’ & gimmicks”, the party rap that was coming out of the South or even the conscious rap of the 90s.  He did make his own lane.  That’s true.  Guys like Drake, Kendrick Lamar or J Cole owe it to Kanye for creating a space in hip-hop for them.

Speaking of conscious rap, Kanye went back after the original was released and recorded a remix of this song

This is part of why I like Kanye.  The original comes off as just another ode to being rich, Kanye brings that into context of what was going on in Sierra Leone at the time

The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses
I thought my Jesus Piece was so harmless
‘Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless

What other big famous rapper would go out of his way to worry about where his jewels came from?  At that point I don’t think there was anyone who would have.  Part of why I like the guy.