Misunderstood: Lyrical Losses

Years ago, a friend and I got over our strange addiction to the movie The Rules of Attraction by acquiring a new drug, by becoming obsessed if only briefly with the movie Napoleon Dynamite, a wan and delicate movie whose humor still gets me to this day and whose repeatability (for me) has been bested only by that greatest comedy of the modern era, Office Space.  Part of what I liked about the movie was the use of music in the prom scene where a few of the corniest songs seem almost profound.

But the song that got me the most was “The Promise” by When in Rome

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Songs of the Year–2004

In honor of the return of the Red Sox to the World Series, here are the songs I was listening to when they finally broke the ‘curse’ in 2004.

Songs of the Year: “Colours,” Donovan;  “The Good Times are Killing Me,” Modest Mouse
Runners Up: “Hey Ya,” Outkast; “Cinder and Smoke,” Iron & Wine; “Every Moment”, Rogue Wave
Honorable Mentions: “Take Me Out”, Franz Ferdinand; “Handshake Drugs,” Wilco

2004 was a year that in retrospect was one of transitions. The world of media was in the throes of cyclical change in musical tastes intensified by uncertainty with the rise of the iPod and internet music. The world was still at war with a US presidential election in the works. And I was moving along in graduate school only to have the entire process stalled and then accelerated by a fire.

In early 2004, there was a fire in my apartment in NYC that basically destroyed everything. Now, I could offer this as a narrative of the challenges I faced and the loss I suffered. But even at the time I realized that the event was cleansing and liberating. I was already somewhat nomadic (staying at my future wife’s place in Washington Heights or crashing on friends’ couches) and I spent most of my days in the library, a classroom, or the gym.

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Old Friends, New Friends and New Music

So, one of the interesting things that has happened since I started telling people about this blog (which I have done only sparingly and sometimes with trepidation) is that many have almost immediately asked me about bands they love. It is nice to witness people get so voluble and eager to talk about music.

This volubility comes, I think, from an honest desire to share something with someone else that each of us has found dear—by making a connection with music and seeing someone else make a similar connection (even if the content is different) we triangulate and make connections with other people (and not just the music).

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On the Radio: The Musical Chimera

The goat head breathes fire!

In Ancient Greek myth the terrible Chimera—part lion, serpent and fire-breathing goat—represents the degeneration of the offspring of the earth and the type of marginal monster mankind needs heroes to kill. By destroying such beasts in stories, early man, in part, assuaged his own fears of the unknown and tamed the world around him.

(we even get a nice adjective from this that is not commonly used in English: chimerical, “fantastic or imaginary”; perhaps even “unnatural”).

Modern science, however, uses the term to describe a creature made from the parts of distinct species. For us, disturbingly or not, the threats to the order of things come not from the earth itself but from our own ‘unnatural’ meddling. (Although I am not so sure that scientists use this term pejoratively, as we might expect.)

Why am I thinking of the Chimera? Well, as I have mentioned, I have been listening to the radio a good deal thanks to the demands of parenthood. Now, recently, I wrested the control of the station from my wife and children (well, from my children who can’t articulate what station they want to listen to; my wife isn’t in the car when I do this…) and returned to my adolescent roots: the local independent alternative rock station.

Now, local alternative independent rock stations are really not all that different from one state to another (unless they are college stations, a topic for another post) : they all tend to play the same ‘classic’ alt-rock songs from the 90’s, they all play too many Foo Fighters tracks (a rant for a later date), and they all play the latest alt-rock hits. So, as a result, my brother and I can live 3000 miles apart and hear the same songs every day by listening to our ‘local’ and ‘independent’ rock stations.

Where is the Chimera, you ask? One song that I cannot escape is Fun’s “We Are Young”. I don’t want to tear the song down—it is actually quite catchy, appealing content-wise, and not hard to listen to. After hearing it, I find myself humming it as I walk from house to car or even in bed when the baby won’t sleep (and when I feel far from young).

The problem with the song is that I feel like it is not one song, but two. The first verse and the last bit sound like something from a David Gray or Mumford & Sons. The middle part sounds like a discarded AWOLnation track or a glam-rock anthem from the 1980’s. The two parts just don’t go together at all. They are so ill-fit  as to make the pairing unnatural, chimerical. (Now, this may be intentional (to create a jarring feeling, to wake the addressee into thinking about fleeting youth and to “gather rosebuds” while we may) but I suspect it is not).

Or so I thought. I decided to embark upon an experiment to test the case. It was simple and fast. I tricked my wife into listening to the radio station that was more than likely to play “We Are Young” every hour. When it came on, I let my wife listen for a few seconds and then turned the volume down. Then I asked her, do you know that “We are young song” (and I sang her the chorus). She did. I told her the song I just turned down was the first part of that song. She swore at me . I turned it up and waited for transition. Typically, laconically, my wife said: “that’s stupid”.

I am not sure I agree with that, but I do wonder about the effect on the audience of the contrast. Cynically, I suspect that the chorus was written first and the rest of the song just thrown around it. (Which is, incidentally, the way I feel about Maroon 5’s highly chimerical “This Love”). But even if that is the case, should we care if part of the song is so good?

In the case of Maroon 5, I think the contrast between the parts makes this creature completely monstrous and the song unlistenable. For Fun’s “We Are Young”, the more I hear it, the more the less beastly it seams

PS: Although I am not the biggest fun of the type of a cappella that plagues small college campuses, I actually like this version of the song a lot:

On the Radio: Move My Jacket

As I mentioned in a previous post, my wife corrupted our daughter in utero. On her way to and from work, she would listen only to top-40 and Hip-hop stations. I worried then that this would make our first child predisposed to my wife’s musical tastes, but I could not have that argument. (Who but a fool argues music choice with a pregnant woman?)

The actualization of this fear was not complete until my daughter started eating ‘table’ food, as they (pediatricians and other baby people) call it. My daughter is about as finicky an eater as you can imagine (although her aunt, the sister may have given her a run for her money: she ate nothing but grilled cheese and cheerios for a decade or something like that).

We learned early on that we could get our daughter to eat by (1) distracting her with novel household objects (2) singing and dancing or (3) playing music. We exhausted option 1 fairly quickly; we found ourselves often too exhausted for option 2. So, we turned to the radio. And guess what, the only stations that worked as an invitation to dinner were the stations my wife listened to while pregnant.

Of all the horrors I have been subjected to during this time, the song that has tortured me the most is “Move Like Jagger” by Maroon 5 (with Christina Aguilera). The first problem I had with it is understanding it: for the longest time I was convinced that the lyric was “move my jacket”, which I took as a metaphor for locating your home and identity with another person. That was, obviously, too deep.

The second issue: I don’t think the vocal stretching of the vowel in “move” is clever, aesthetically pleasing, or an indication of talent (too much autotune). The song is catchy the way an advertising jingle is.

(It doesn’t help that I think that Maroon 5 is completely overrated or that Adam Levine should be silenced by executive order.)

The third problem: I can’t tell what moving like Jagger means. See, Jagger doesn’t even move like Jagger. He moves like a white version of James Brown (on heroin). That patently tortured issue of identity aside, what is the semiotic value of Jagger’s movement? What cultural association is the singer trying to evoke? I fear that, like too many pop songs, Maroon 5 is merely trying to float a reference out there from pop culture to force a shared frame of reference and derive some benefit from a prior cultural symbol. By evoking a revered icon, however, in an unclear usage, the band runs the risk of cheapening it and emptying out any preferred meaning.

Or something like that.

The larger objection is that the song is stupid and the forced reference is lame. Someone moving like Jagger might be effective if mentioned once (as when Ben Folds starts a song by singing “I met a girl who looked like Axl Rose / got drunk and took her home / and we slept in our clothes” in “Julianne”); as the centerpiece of the song the reference starts out confusing, becomes hollow, and then gets lame.

I know that you don’t share my disdain for Maroon 5, brother, but am I off-base for this song?

Here’s the kicker: every time I move a jacket, I sing to myself “mooooooooooove my jacket..”  Do I protest so much because I secretly like the song?

Here’s something better: