Pop-Ambiguity

“I have climbed highest mountain / I have run through the fields / Only to be with you”
“I still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, U2

For years I have contemplated what I still see as one of the greatest three-song sequences on any rock album: the first three songs on U2’s 1987 release The Joshua Tree (“Where the Streets Have No Name”; “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”; and “With or Without You”). Love them or hate them (and I suspect once most of us get past any U2 antipathy created by the last decade there will be more love), these songs are immediately recognizable and eminently successful.

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The Shows We’ll Never See

The Younger J and I are true believers in the live show—when it is possible nothing matches the experience of seeing a band perform. Now, while at times the experience is sublime, at other times, it can also have a deleterious effect on your view of a band. Despite the outcome, however, the experience of witnessing a musical performance and, more importantly, absorbing the reaction of other audience members as well, alters your relationship with the music irrevocably.

(I was not a Bare Naked Ladies fan (back in the Gordon days) until I saw them live; their energy and improvisation made me respect a band I would have otherwise ignored. Conversely, my heart was broken at a Dandy Warhols show, but that is a story for another time…)

These days, I leave most of the concert going to my brother. I am old an ornery: most good shows start after my bedtime . (Old, Old Man.) But I do have some experience to draw on: my first show ever was Jerry Garcia; my last concert was the Austin City Limits. There are many and varied acts between.

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Sound and Sense?

The Post Below was written early on in the Brothers’ experimentation with the blog essay. The Younger, probably rightly, often rails against me for my egg-headedness. As the Greek poet Pindar writes (to prove my brother’s point): “not even the tawny lion nor the red fox can change the color of their kind”.

The post below is one of an infrequent series where I try to figure some things about popular music out. When my brother first read this he told me he felt like he was back in English class and was being forced to respond to a prompt. I apologize to him and anyone else for flashbacks.

“The Sound must seem an echo to the sense”

The epigraph above comes from poet and translator Alexander Pope and represents a dominant trend in interpreting and teaching poetry from Ancient Rome (where similar sentiments can be found in the Latin poet Horace’s Ars Poetica) through Pope’s 18th century right up through the 20th century where it resonated with New Criticism and Formalism.

Alexander Pope, no slouch

What this phrase means is a little more complicated that it seems (although, at times, just as simple). For Pope and others, if a line of poetry is about a whisper, it should be metrically light and full of susurration. Weighty matter (war, violence, etc.) should come in long syllables and harsh consonants. Mourning poetry, similarly, should evoke sounds of grief with nasal consonants and wide open vowels.

Of course, this is a brief and insufficient illustration of the principle as a way of asking whether or not we can expect the principle to work in music as well as it does or doesn’t work in poetry.

(I, for one, don’t think it matters if it works perfectly at all. The value of a theory isn’t its universal application or truth but whether or not the idea persuades you to consider something in a new way. For that reason, interpreters who cleave tirelessly to one theoretical approach—or for that matter politicians who embrace and espouse one governing philosophy—leave me bored and suspecting that they have let ideology get in the way of clear thinking).

I think we all realize intuitively that music regularly matches “sound” with “sense”—for this reason, dance songs are typically filled with happy beats and unimportant lyrics; love songs are pretty; and angry songs are, well, angry.

My question for pop songs, however, aims for more than their atmosphere and attitude. It is more a question of the extent to which the sounds of a song may be able to reflect the sense of its lyrics. If we want to claim (as I do) that pop songs have not only cultural and historical relevance but also the aesthetic complexity to rival conventional forms of ‘high art’, then their amenability to the same types of questions as those posed for the conventional forms is an important litmus test.

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Odi et Amo: On the iPod

“….Never change, Never Change, Never change / This is why I fell in love…”
–“I Can Change” LCD Sound System
“Sweetheart, darling, bear in mind all the time
that a constant friend is hard to find
But when you find one that is good and kind
Never you change, never you change”
–“Never You Change” Toots and the Maytals

In an earlier post, I lamented the deleterious effect that the digitalization of music along with technology like the iPod has had on the way we produce, consume and categorize music. Indeed, it is fairly easy to come up with a list of evils perpetuated by the iPod. We listen to (and purchase) individual songs rather than albums; the sonic fidelity (depending on the compression rate) is actually quite poor; the Apple headphones aren’t nearly as high-quality (or durable) as they claim; the ease of carrying around so much music trivializes it even more; and, to join other doomsday criers, the personal music player makes it almost necessary that we will listen to music alone rather than with others.
I Hate My Machine Overlord

Now, there are answers to each of these complaints. The album, for instance, has probably always been an unstable art form; for another, digital recording has long been compressing sound and altering fidelity (but so few people can actually tell the difference that this is negligible). Despite all of these complaints (especially about those damn white shitty headphones) I don’t want to present a jeremiad against the iPod. I’d rather sing its praises.

See, the iPod changed my life. Really.

And here’s where I will come too close to sounding like some a corporate puppet or parrot. Let me, then, first preface my effusive praise with a disclaimer. I really f**king hate Apple as a company. I hate their oh-so-aesthetically pleasing designs. I hate their emphasis on form and function. I really hate the implicit elitism of the cost difference between Macs and PCs and the overt elitism of Apple in the 80’s and 90’s when only certain stores could sell them. (My wife has a Macbook; I burn through a PC laptop every other year. I will not change.)

I also really hate Apple advertising campaigns. When they aren’t winking at you about their own cleverness, they are self-assured and self-righteous to the point of distorting reality. I hate the entire history of iPod commercials for trying so damn hard to look and sound cool. I hate the fact that I find myself liking 99% of the songs they use in these commercials.

I hate the iPad (I have a Kindle). I hate the iPhone (I have an android). I hate Apps for the iPhone. I hate people who have iPhones. I hate people who constantly check iPhones when they are at a restaurant, a movie, a meeting, a class etc. I know that my cell phones (which I change too often due to clumsiness) aren’t as easy to use or as aesthetically pleasing, but I will not change! So much of this is envy, but a good deal is revulsion at having a company try so hard to appeal to me and succeed right up to the point that I can only reject its overtures because I am by nature (and nurture, I suppose) a contrarian.

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One Word Wonders: Bush, Oasis and David Gray

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya

Poets vary in their use of words. Some are verbose; others are prolix. A basic rule of thumb for good poetry, however, is that each word should be measured and weighed; each sound and verbal idea should contribute to an overall sense.

(Another word for prolix: Laconic. This comes from the ancient Greek Lakonian, a synonym for Lacedaemonian or Spartan. The Spartans were known for using few words and being hostile to rhetoric—in contrast, of course, to their enemies, the Athenians.)

Now, while some might disagree with the contention, I think that the same standard should apply to similar genres—in this case, pop music. The lyrics of popular songs shouldn’t waste words or images—they should be carefully considered and placed to contribute to an overall, coherent idea. This, of course, may be too aspirational for most contemporary songs. But, then again, who will remember 95% of what is popular on the radio 20 years from now?

(Ryan Seacrest, maybe)

We are all familiar with ‘one hit wonders’—artists who flare up for fewer than fifteen minutes of fame on the virtue of one brilliant (or at least successful) song. In fact, with VH1 specials and the like it would almost be impossible to have escaped the concept over the past decade. There is something noble, I must say, about these artists. Like leaves on the tree (or human beings) they live vibrantly, die and pass away, leaving behind, for the best of them, the memory of an impressive flourishing.

I am interested in a different concept that is far from coterminous with the one-hit wonder, and that is what I call the “one word wonder”. I use this phrase for songs that have particularly bad or obscure lyrics and use as a hook, title, or chorus a word that appears nonsensical , misplaced, or merely misunderstood. So, the usage makes you wonder. Get it? One word makes you wonder?

(So clever, it hurts. Who needs a day job?)

Now, this is a phenomenon that I have noticed for some time and the interesting thing is that this sense-defying use of language has no direct impact on the aesthetic reception or commercial success of the song if all other aspects are equal. I would dare say, that the mystery or inaptness may even contribute to its success. Maybe? For sure.

The first song I remember thinking this about is “Glycerine” by Bush. The song, which is clearly about regrets in a relationship, is fairly straightforward. Built around a brooding chord progression with distortion, it basically features Rossdale’s voice mumbling and moaning about his failings. For the time, it was actually quite catchy and different.

The problem is that the chorus is merely one word: glycerine. I have long mused about what it means. Is Rossdale saying that he is unstable like nitro glycerine? (That wouldn’t be a terrible or unpoetic interpretation; but it possesses more subtlety than I would usually attribute to Bush’s lyrics.)  Is he talking about the viscous liquid instead or lubricant? (The first interpretation would be nonsensical and asymbolic as far as I can tell; but, then, even more justly parodied by Homer Simpson’s garage band with “Margarine” in Episode 411. The second interpretation would be, well, not gross but at the very least unpoetic).

Why is this one word there? My guess is that the band liked it because it sounded cool. We can vindicate it to a certain degree because it forces you to think about it, to weigh the possible meanings (or not) and select or dismiss. By using a known word in an uncommon way, the song invites the intervention of interpretation. I fear, however, that I am still crediting Bush too much.

Or, perhaps the audience thinks it sounds cool. Rossdale’s bending of the vowel in “ine” and the contrast between his earlier growling and the gliding “gl” is certainly attractive. I guess. At some level, the use of this word is poetically effective because it defies direct understanding. On the other hand, it may just be a crap lyric.

Another example, in brief. In Oasis’ first American hit “Wonderwall” the title and final word of the chorus is a neologism alleged to mean “an imaginary friend who’s gonna come and save you from yourself” (Thank you, Wikipedia). But, I suspect in truth, that the word has somehow filtered down from the 1960’s movie Wonderwall, the music for which was written by the Beatles’ George Harrison (thank you, again, Wikipedia). There is, certainly, an obvious allusion to the Beatles in the second stanza of the song (“Backbeat the word was on the street”).


My suspicion, however, is that despite all of these possibilities and the claims of the band, the word “wonderwall” is meaningless. More importantly, even if the songwriter understood the word in such a way, the fact that the audience isn’t clued in to the meaning creates a similar indeterminacy to that of “Glycerine”. We wonder what a wonderwall is; we like it because we don’t know what it means and, most importantly, it sounds cool. (What the fuck is a wonderwall? I remember this being a hot topic of conversation. Man, life was lame before the interweb.)

A final and truly brief example: David Gray’s “Babylon”. The word makes no sense to me. Is it a biblical reference? Is Gray asserting that he is somewhat like the sinful city or the whore? Or, is this an archaeological reference? Is Gray talking about ancient Mesopotamian civilization? Probably not. The word sounds cool. The reference sounds sophisticated. If we receive it that way, then we make it that way. Because it is mysterious, it works. The audience, it seems, is bamboozled.

But is that all that bad?

What do you think, mi germano? Is the label “one word wonder” useful? Are my explanations sensible? Can you think of other examples?

Everything (is) Good (On Criticism)

“When the critic has said everything in his power about a literary text, he has still said nothing; for the very existence of literature implies that it cannot be replaced by non-literature.” Tzvetan Todorov
“Fuck y’all, all ya’ll / if ya’ll don’t like me, blow me” Dr. Dre

In The Simpsons Episode 229 (“Guess Who’s Coming to Criticize Dinner”), Homer’s ability to speak eloquently and evocatively about food—from his own gluttonous experience—earns him a position as a restaurant critic. His early enthusiastic reviews attract the gratitude of the restaurateurs and the scorn of fellow critics who see his approach as too easy and, I suspect, unsophisticated and popularizing.

Under the spell of the evil critics’ cabal, Homer becomes an all too easily recognizable caricature of a critic who barely deigns to judge his material and whose blistering reviews can be explained only by how elevated and sophisticated his taste has become. Of course, Homer can’t have it both ways—he cannot be the food-loving hero of the people and the gastronomic esthete.  The restaurateurs conspire to poison him.

What does this have to do with music? It flirts with several issues at the center of criticism—issues that make the act of reviewing or judging music, for me, nearly paralyzing. What is the relationship between the critic and the object of criticism? Is it love for the form/genre? Is there a profit/commodification link between the two?

These questions are not restricted to food and music—indeed, anyone who has followed the 20th century crises in literary criticism will recognize some of the same issues. Why does a critic make judgments? Is it to  understand the specific instance of a genre or the genre as a whole? Or, more problematically, how can we tell when the review stops being (primarily) about the object of criticism and instead is really about the critic?

In reverse order. Criticism almost always reveals more about the judge than the judged. And this isn’t a bad thing. For instance, each generation’s reaction to Shakespeare communicates the values, emphases, and historical contexts of that time. On the other hand, a great deal of criticism suffers from personality cults. Too many critics write for the purpose of glorifying the critic by revealing through the sensitivity of the critic’s judgments and the dexterity of his/her writing the superiority of the critic over the creator of the object, other critics, and, of course, the reader.

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The Cover Song: Repetition. Imitation. Innovation.

“The author is a modern character, no doubt produced by our society…discovering the prestige of the individual, or, as we say more nobly, of the “human person”. Hence, it is logical that in literary matters it should be positivism, crown and conclusion of capitalist ideology, which has granted the greatest importance to the author’s “person.”” – Roland Barthes (from The Death of the Author)
Nihil sub sole novum, Ecclesiastes

Years ago a roommate (the Historian) and I got in a furious argument about Lauryn Hill’s cover of Frankie Valli’s 1967 hit “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You” (a ‘hidden’ track on the U.S. release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)). The Historian lamented both the lack of originality and the lameness of the cover in comparison to the ‘original’. Now, apart from the fact that Valli didn’t even write the song (Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio did, which complicates any claim of originality), Hill’s version, far from being a slavish imitation, is, I contended, a unique and worthwhile exercise that reflects her musical genre and time period and also enters into a long-standing tradition in art and literature. By updating the old, she created something new. And, as I added as an afterthought, originality is a false premise to begin with.

While my roommate retreated from his extreme “only the original and unique is good” position, he did not, lamentably, learn to love Hill’s version of the song. He has, however, come to see the importance of the cover song in popular music. Music is one area where we cherish repetition and imitation. Classical music and opera constantly revisit familiar territory; Jazz performance is built on a foundation of standards; Rap and Hip Hop made sampling at modern art form; and the history of Rock n’ Roll has the cover song as a staple of any new artist’s introduction.

Indeed, early canonical artists like Elvis and the Beatles were, at the beginning, cover artists (of course, some of this has to do with commercial viability; the rest of this has to do with re-packaging black music for white audiences). Anyone who has been in a band knows that you need cover songs to keep people listening to you and that learning and performing them is an essential part of musical and artistic development.

Somewhere along the way the cover song tarnished a bit. I suspect that part of this is a modern hang-up about “authorship” and “texts”; I suspect even further that once popular music was transported from its performance context where ‘authority’ resides in the current iteration (the performance) of the song rather than some dusty and fixed constant we started to be confused about its status.

Bear with me on this one. In classical music performances and live jazz shows, the money is for the performers—the commodity is in the moment. Since the dominant form of popular music has conventionally been the single played by the DJ and bought at the record store, the commodity is the fixed ‘text’ rather than the live performance or even the ‘transcript’ of the live performance. So, one explanation for the denigration of the cover song is that technological and cultural change facilitated a move away from a performance culture to prize the fixed recording instead.

Another explanation, and this one may be even more of a stretch, is that culturally we prize originality in artistic production because we overvalue ‘genius’. Some explanations for this phenomenon that I have encountered suggest that in a Christianized world we have followed the analogy author : text :: God : creation and that this implicit analogy has led us to devalue reinvention and repetition in favor of the divine original genius model. Another idea is that in a culture that so thoroughly praises the work of individual geniuses rather than the collective forces of human society, there is a certain psychological pressure on individuals to believe in this notion of ‘the genius’ with the secret and desperate hope that they might be one.

In truth, even the most innovative work is built on something that came before. In the ancient world, this idea permeates poetry. Telemachus claims in Homer’s Odyssey that men are always searching after the newest song—implying in some way that his song is new even as it builds on conventional and inherited language and motifs. In accepting a traditional form but claiming a different spirit, the Augustan poet Horace famously describes his poetry as “Roman wine in a Greek vase”. Imitation takes so many forms and is, like repetition, essentially paradoxical. By occurring in a different time, by having the ‘original’ behind it and in the mind of the observer/audience, a copy is never just a copy. The old is already something new. And nothing is ever truly new.

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