Wednesday, June 30, 2010

6/30/10 - Songs of the Summer, #17-18, "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Teddy Bear"

Top Song of 1956: "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley

Oh, Elvis.

My dad used to work with a guy who was famous for his "Graceland story", which I had the pleasure of hearing while on a work retreat in which a bunch of lawyers hiked up to the top of Mt. Laconte in western NC and stayed a night at the lodge; one of my first experiences with real hiking.

In any case, the Graceland story was an elaborate account of visiting Graceland on an air-conditioned tour bus, taking in the general ridiculousness of the place and the people who worship at the throne of the King of Rock 'n' Roll, and it memorably climaxed with a woman throwing herself on the ground in the Meditation Gardens where Presley is buried and letting out a primitive howl of "Ohhhhhhhhhhhh Elvis!" This was delivered in what can only be termed Charming Southern Lawyer accent, and it killed.

I understand a little more now some of what must have driven that kind of reaction.

If "Rock Around The Clock" is a radical change of sound on the summer charts, "Heartbreak Hotel" marks a transformational stylistic shift, embodied by Elvis Presley, who, when you strip away all of the craziness of the man's life and death, is a phenomenally talented vocalist (Obligatory note that Chuck Berry and Little Richard really should get more of the Founding Father treatment, but they weren't the lightning rods that Elvis became - not his fault, you can't control sometimes who the culture's going to suck up into its tornado). Bill Haley's playing rock music, but he still comes off as the MC facilitating a good time at the party. Elvis brings a shuddering depth of feeling to "Heartbreak Hotel", laying bare a whole suggestive world of sex, betrayal, and anguish. Match that up with the blues thump, and you can glimpse the kind of seismic shift that his emergence marked in pop music.

Elvis's intonations have been imitated so often that the real thing can't help but feel a little affected, but it's worth noting that his mumbled "so lonely baby"'s and buttery quaver sound organic and natural at this point in his career at least. It's really a powerful performance, to say nothing of the visuals of Elvis melting the audience into quivering pools in that YouTube clip above. The man brought it, you can certainly say that.

Top Song of 1957: "Teddy Bear" by Elvis Presley

"Teddy Bear" is the more playful Elvis. Less raw than "Heartbreak Hotel", "Teddy Bear" features a liberal dose of doo-wop influenced backing vocals, a barroom piano that gives the whole song a jaunty, carefree, air, and a cutesy central metaphoric conceit that plays nicely off of the volcanic virility of peak-era Elvis - despite being a figure of hip-shaking youth corruption, he doesn't want to be your tiger: they play too rough. There's a playfulness to Elvis's vocals, and the lyrics, that nicely undercut the swagger endemic to the sound of his voice.

What's interesting is that Elvis fits the template of "pop star" much more closely than the current conception of "rock star". Primarily a vocalist, he didn't write his own songs. He was billed as the artist, not his band. And sexual friction was his implied stock in trade. And, furthermore, the visual element of his performance was not to be underestimated, underlined by the famous dictum to not film him below the waist. Theses characteristics are more similar to modern pop artists like Ke$ha, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, etc. than they are to the traits that would come to be associated with "rock" stars, where the templates were the Beatles (for the fresh-scrubbed turned experimental direction), or the Rolling Stones (for the bad boys out to seduce your sons and daughters). I would hypothesize that it's a reason that Elvis is subject to a lot of both a) parody and b) misunderstanding, where bands like the Beatles and Stones aren't. In a lot of ways, he was a groundbreaking figure for rock-and-roll, but existed more comfortably in the pop idiom from a cultural perspective.

Monday, June 28, 2010

6/28/10 - Songs of the Summer: #15-16 - "Sh-Boom" and "Rock Around The Clock"

Top Song of 1954 - "Sh-boom", by the Crew Cuts:

Sh-boom, sh-boom, we've got doo wop coming up on the horizon. And, although there are still some instrumental big band horn fills coloring in the margins of this song, they sound much more out of place than they do in the late '40s/early '50s summer hits. The harmony vocals are front and center here - instead of the single powerhouse vocalist a la Vaughn Monroe or Vera Lynn the emphasis is much more on the blend of voices. Cuz, duh, it's doo wop. But even this sounds like a quantum leap forward in terms of musical styles from the croony croony goodness found on the summer #1s up to this point.

The bass has more of the standard pop progression, as well, moving in cheery major key bounces underneath the barbershop quartet harmonies above. This is also the first appearance of the nonsequitur rock lyric on the summer charts, something that I had always associated with '50s/60s rock and roll - think "Tutti Fruitti", "Who Put the Bomp", etc. "Sh-Boom" is a meaningless phrase in this context, denoting the nonsensical hook of the song, rather than anything to do with the content of the lyrics.

"Sh-Boom" also marks the first time that the lyrical subject matter becomes expressly adolescent. Unrequited love has been present in earlier songs, but it was more a matter of adult romanticism - "Auf Wiederseh'n Sweetheart" and "I'll Never Smile Again" are both dramatic songs, but their casting of heartbreak is explicity adult - "Sh-Boom" marks the first song with the world-is-ending emotionalism of teenage romanticism: "Life would be a dream...if you would tell me I'm the only one that you love". Variations on that theme have sustained the pop charts ever since.

Top Song of 1956: "Rock Around The Clock" by Bill Haley

Well, that was quick. I thought doo-wop would last a little longer before rock and roll came knocking, but here's "Rock Around The Clock", the first song in this list that I had heard before I started this project. It's always hard to listen to the sounds of the revolution after the government's in place and see what all the fuss was about, but listening to this song after a steady diet of pre-rock music gives me a greater appreciation for how alien and terrifying the devil's music seemed at the time. Here's a quick run-down of what immediately jumps out about the first rock song to grace the top charts in summertime:

1. Drums. This song has drums. The earlier songs on this list, for the most part, don't. Drums mean rhythm, and thus begins the drive toward rhythmic focus on the pop charts over the last half-century, until by the 2000s you've got Gwen Stefani topping the charts by singing cheers over martial foot-stomps. The song announces them with authority, with a drum roll right into the signature "1-2-3-4 o'clock rock" opening line over a pause, after which the drums crash back in for another pause, receding like the tide, and then coming back in to anchor the verses. The difference it makes to have a rhythm section, and not just a bass anchoring the song, account for why it suddenly got easier to dance to. You wouldn't dream of shaking your groove thang to a Tool song, but here at the foundations of rock and roll the drums are built for dancin'.

2. Chaos. The instrumental breakdown in this song sounds like Captain Beefheart atonal jazz freakout compared to the polished instrumental breakdowns in the earlier songs. There's much more of an emphasis on noise and feel, and less on melody.

3. Country + Blues. That's it. That's the formula, and you can really hear it in the early stages. the bassline could have been airlifted right out of "Smoke Smoke Smoke (That Cigarette)", but that repeated phrases, dramatic-tension producing pauses, and rudimentary melodies are all blues. Before the skyscraper's complete, it's a whole lot easier to see the foundation.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

6/22/10 - Songs of the Summer, #13-14 - "Auf Wiederseh'n Sweetheart" and "The Song From Moulin Rouge (Where Is Your Heart)"

The Master List:

Top Song of 1952: "Auf Wiederseh'n Sweetheart" by Vera Lynn

Boy, do I dread those swelling strings that start this song. There are certain musical motifs that establish themselves in different periods of hit songs that have a certain knack for driving a person crazy. For example, Auto-Tune. In the '50s era, the dramatic strings intro instantly fires up all of my reflexive ironic responses. After the dramatic intro, the chorus of voices singing "Auf Wiedersehn" doesn't exactly throttle back on the melodrama. And then, to top it off, you've got Vera Lynn coming in with vibrato at full blast. For someone like myself that came of age when irony was the dominant mode of expression in the musical idiom ("I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me", etc.), it takes some getting used to the kind of open-hearted melodrama in a song like this. Nowadays it would be a seven-minute Celine Dion song, but in the summer of '52 it was a relatively tidy 2:48 of Vera on the vibrato.

One thing I do love about the '40s and '50s so far, and this song is no exception, is their brevity. So far no song has cracked the 3 minute mark, and songs have no compunction about only hitting a chorus twice before the song ends. Leave the people wanting more, indeed.

Top Song of 195"Where Is Your Heart" by Percy Faith

I'm going to digress on this one a little bit. Having never seen Moulin Rouge, in either of its forms, this song wasn't one I knew. It's very pretty, with a swooning main melody hook with a bittersweet air. But click that YouTube link: the comments there are amazingly and atypically wistful and romantic, which speaks better to the people's responses to this song than any words of mine:

"It was pop in the 50s, soft to the ears and
sealed deep in the hearts of then young

"After thoroughly enjoying this beautiful music I thought to myself --if performed/recorded for the first time today, it'd be all but ignored--. Kinda sad commentary on us really...perhaps just too much brandy...

"This was my dads favorite song. He heard it as a soldier in Korea in 1952. I miss you every day Dad and all of us miss you so much. You were the best dad a son could ever wish for."

"A lovely video the song taking me down memory lane again. Thanks for posting."

"this song was #1 on the music charts the day I was born. I just found out and wanted to hear the song.Very beautiful.Thanyou for posting."

And, for comparison's sake, some comments on "Bad Romance", by Lady Gaga:

"shes so kewl luv her!!!!!!!!!!!"

"@LouieWasHere66 You're just hating cuz she's so famous and your not you stupid bitch what if you were in this video? you a lame ass!!!"

"OmG what is this?
Is this music...I ....NO!!
Why do peaple listen to this?"

"Excelente Video..."

Monday, June 21, 2010

6/21/10 - Songs of the Summer, #11-12 - "The Third Man Theme" and "Come On-A My House"

The Master List:

Top Song of 1950: The Third Man Theme by Anton Karas

I really do love the sound effect of the needle dropping onto vinyl, followed by the tinny guitar chords that start this song. I referenced the associations these sonic signatures carry in the writeup of the Ink Spots song earlier, but there's something about that particular sound that carries with it a certain sepia-toned air of nostalgia that can be easily manipulated for several effects.

In this song, the guitar carries everything, and it's the kind of piece that isn't used much, unless its used to signify something old or passing. The tune itself is relatively jaunty, with the ping-pong-ing bassline that usually signifies old country or bluegrass sounds lying underneath a sprightly melody. It's the kind of song that makes me want to ride a bicycle through a meadow with a picnic basket sitting on my handlebars. In that sense, perfect for summer.

"I never knew Vienna before the War..." is the first sentence of the movie whose theme this song accompanies, and the double layer of nostalgia is achingly timeless.

Top Song of 1951: "Come On-A My House" by Rosemary Clooney

I always appreciate pop songs built around elegant metaphors, and this is one of them. It's one of the reasons that "My Humps", by the Black-Eyed Peas, drove me batshit insane: it literalized sexual desire in such an imbecilic way that I wanted to put my fist through a wall every time I heard it. There's such a lack of lyrical imagination and effort in describing a woman's curves as "humps" and "lumps" that the song becomes almost anti-erotic in its aggressive stupidity.

"Come On-A My House", on the other hand, establishes in two short minutes a much more elegant sexual metaphor: Clooney enumerating all of the succulent fruits and sweets that she will offer to the person she is singing to, if he will come to her house. When she offers him "everything", it carries a seductive charge because of the way that all of the delicacies she offers are what they are, and also what they symbolize. The song bounces along in a jaunty, swaying rhythm, all the while Clooney beckons.

Friday, June 18, 2010

6/18/10 - Songs of the Summer, #9-10 - "Woody Woodpecker" and "Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend"

Top Song of 1948: "Woody Wood-Pecker" by Kay Keyser

Well, that answers a question that I never had...what top summer hit was also the inspiration for Woody Peckpecker and his uber-annoying vocal tic? Apparently this song by Kay Keyser. I wonder what it was about mid-century hit songs about birds? This song and "Rockin' Robin" I'm going to go out on a limb and call a trend. If I had a time machine I would go back to the late '40s and write a song called "Sir Sparrow vs. the Green Knight" and watch the money roll right in.

This marks the first time in the compilation of summer songs that the modern-day trend of using one vocalist to drop the hook while a different vocalist sings the song appears. Kay Keyser: ahead of his time. As befits any son of North Carolina (he was born in Rocky Mount). Other than the woodpecker vocal tic, this song's pretty generic.

Top Song of 1949: "Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend" by Vaughn Monroe

(Embedding disabled, follow above link)

This song I really like. Vaughn Monroe's got the bassiest voice to show up so far in these songs, and it's the kind of voice that doesn't really make much of an appearance on the pop charts, usually. The last band I remember that had a hit with a lead vocal that low in the register were the Crash Test Dummies with "Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm:"

But back to "Ghost Riders in the Sky". The minor-key tonality really works for this song, and the swelling background vocals add a kind of eerie atmosphere that works well with the supernatural imagery of the lyrics. The steady-rising melody over the galloping beat also builds nicely to the "Yippee-ai-yay" refrain. One notable aspect of the songwriting on this one is the use of two main hooks. There's the obvious hook of the refrain, but there's also the melodic phrase that happens on the second line of each verse, where the melody ascends upward in a little bit of foreshadowing of the the throttle-open refrain. The way the strings float in and out of the song, too, help with the propulsiveness and eerieness of the song overall.

Also, Vaughn's voice. Wow. I know I already mentioned it, but that's one powerful instrument. Thing sounds like a foghorn in a wind tunnel, in a good way. One thing that must be said about all of the '40s hits is that vocalists are, to a one, technically flawless. Whether or not you care for the style is one thing, but you can't knock the technique on display. It's abundantly clear that Dylan hasn't come along to make it safe at the top of the pop charts for less conventionally "good" vocalists.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

6/17/10 - Songs of the Summer, #7-8: "The Gypsy", "Smoke Smoke Smoke (The Cigarette)"

The Master List:

Top Song of 1946: "The Gypsy" by the Ink Spots

I know the Ink Spots only from their presence over the opening credits of Fallout, a post-apocalyptic role-playing game for PC that came out in 1997. Their "Maybe" is used for haunting effect, playing over a closeup of an old black-and-white TV giving exposition of a worldwisde nuclear conflict before the camera pans back to reveal the TV is sitting in the midst of a whole destroyed cityscape. As on opening shot, it's amazingly evocative, and one of the primary pieces of evidence I would cite in the whole video games as art debate (I'm on the "for" side).

I note that because when I heard the tinny opening guitar chords of "The Gypsy", I felt the eerie reminders of journeying through the desert of California shooting radscorpions. In music, context is everything. The way the song is recorded is almost stereotypically "old-timey"; its sonic qualities are now almost exclusively used as signifiers: of irony, in Fallout, often of nostalgia, or some other wistful emotion. What's interesting about "The Gypsy", and songs like it, is that its sonic qualities are now more striking than its effectiveness as a song. Like when "Mr. Sandman" is used in Back to the Future to signify "The '50s", the trappings have become the meaning.

Top Song of 1947: "Smoke Smoke Smoke (The Cigarette)" by Tex Ritter

This is the first song that seems unambiguously dated lyrically as well as musically, mostly for the lines in the opening verse that go: "...I don't reckon it'll harm your health/smoked all my life and I ain't dead yet", before going on to observe that no matter what situation the narrator finds himself in, if he's around smokers everything grinds to a halt while they have their next cigarette. It could be easily updated for the smartphone era to apply to the compulsive checking of one's iPhone, or of any other low-level social faux pas. Philosophically, this kind of song pops up every so often - the one that came to mind for me was "Bad Habit", by the Offspring, which is all about the frustrations caused by bad drivers.

The changing social attitudes toward tobacco mean that listening to this song creates a tension between what Williams is singing about and the knowledge of the weight of historical and political forces that are shaping his unquestioned acceptance of the practice of smoking. It goes to show how our cultural understanding shapes the art we produce. A lot of enduring art questions the culture it springs from, but very few pieces of art, and pop art in particular, don't bear the marks of the cultural modes from which they spring. And when culture turns on a dime, the prior pop art can seem dated and laughable.

I do love the rockabilly instrumental, and Tex Williams accent. And the phrase "smooching party".

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

6/16/10 - Songs of the Summer #5-6 - "Swinging on a Star" and "Sentimental Journey"

Top Song of 1944: "Swinging On A Star" by Bing Crosby

Well, hello first recognizable name. Bing Crosby, step on down. I have greater appreciation for why Bing Crosby's songs (or song interpretations, I should say) have endured, when other singers from mid-century have faded into obscurity, after listening to this shortly after some of the other '40s songs in this list - his voice is remarkably expressive and distinctive. As opposed to yesterday's Dick Haymes song, where I found myself focusing more on the background vocals and overall architecture of the song, I found that Crosby's vocal style has a way of casually asserting itself as the dominant instrument of this song.

So, even though we've got the standard horn solo, and harmonized vocals in counterpoint with Crosby's lead, his voice really establishes itself - not by trying too hard, but by achieving a kind of controlled casualness. It's the kind of smoothness that doesn't call attention to itself - not a lot of overemoting or "emotionalism", but the kind of line reading that suggests that Bing has just kind of sidled up to you at the bar and is chatting about all of life, or nothing at all.

My favorite example of this is the way that when he sings "You might grow up to be a fish", he hangs extra on the "sh" sound of fish - it's a touch that connotes a simple pleasure in the sounds of the words. The only time he gets a little fancy with the delivery is when he holds on "star" at the end, and it stands out because of how straightforward his reading of the song is for the bulk of it.

Top Song of 1945: "Sentimental Journey" by Les Brown and Doris Day

Again, a slower-tempo ballad to pair with a more swinging, up-tempo number. I'm wondering how long that's going to the pattern from year to year. I don't expect it'll hold up for longer. I love the way this song starts - the instrumentation is very dramatic at the beginning, leading all up to a very restrained delivery of "Gonna take a sentimental journey" in the middle of Doris Day's register. Like Bing Crosby, Doris Day also has a really enjoyable voice, similar in that there's an element of casualness of a lot of her lyric delivery. She gets after it by the end, but for most of the song she's also in a more low-key mode.

This song is notable for not really having much of a pop structure. It's 3:15, which is right in the comfort zone for pop song length, but it's got a really long instrumental intro (more than 1:15 of the song). As opposed to most pop songs, and summer songs are almost always pop songs, it doesn't have an ebb and flow structure, where it returns to a certain refrain; it proceeds in a straight line from beginning to end, without really circling back except for the penultimate set of lines, where the first couple of lines are echoed. Which is all a long way of saying that this song has no chorus.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

6/15/10 - Songs of the Summer #3-4: "Jingle Jangle Jingle" and "You'll Never Know"

The Master List:

Top song of 1942: "Jingle Jangle Jingle" by Kay Keiser.

"Yippee Yay/There'll be no wedding today!" That's quite an opening line. "Jingle Jangle Jingle" is another up-tempo swing song, and the lyrical conceit is well-done: the title onomatopoeia is the sound of the narrator's spurs as he rides along, a free and easy single man. The Western iconography is an interesting touch, especially paired with the sophisticated big-band touches and smooth vocal delivery. The song starts all-vocally, with the declaration of independence happening over a bed of melancholy backing vocals. Then the percussion kicks in for the first verse, followed by the big-band horn solo in the middle.

The next section is where the song takes a fun twist, as a lead female vocal joins and echoes the male lead, providing ironic counterpoint to the narrator's assertions of independence. Either the narrator is less independent than he asserts, or else the female perspective is added as a counterweight voice of equal independence, an interestingly ambiguous twist on what starts out a simple declaration of independence.

Top Song of 1943: "You'll Never Know" by Dick Haymes

For the second time in the '40s period, we've got a ballad. The song itself is pretty unremarkable - smooth crooning delivery of standard pop sentiments ("You went away and my heart went with you"). It's nice enough, and Dick Haymes has a velvety smooth voice, for sure, but it doesn't really stand out.

What does stand out about this song is that the backing is all a cappella, with a bevy of background vocalists building out instrumental tracks. It's a different feel from the "a capella" widely mocked and practiced on college campuses - again, there's no approximation of rhythm in the backing vocalists musical lines, which tends to be the most annoying part of modern a cappella (think of that dude with the low voice going 'bomp, bomp, bomp ba-bomp bomp'). Instead, the a capella backing in this song seems more akin to a string section - long melodic lines strung together to harmonize with the lead vocal.

Apparently, the musicians were on strike, which is why there are no instruments. Beware the day that the samplers all go on strike these days - we might be subject to a whole lot of a cappella all over again.

Monday, June 14, 2010

6/14/10 - Songs of the Summer #1-2: "I'll Never Smile Again", "Daddy"

Top song of summer 1940: "I'll Never Smile Again", by Tommy Dorsey.

**Buzzfeed posts the 1959 version, also recorded by Frank Sinatra, so I'm discussing that version here**

So, summer in 1940. The weather it hot. It's time to get down. What club banger do we have? Why, "I'll Never Smile Again," a mournful, velvety smolder of romantic despair. Well, that's a downer. Fitting I suppose since there was a war on and all. I'm sure Flo Rida is working on his own version of this song as we speak.

But I digress. An interesting aspect of this song for a child of the '80s (I was born in '81) and '90s is that a song at the top of the Billboard charts in summer is so slow and melody-focused, as opposed to rhythm focused. Especially as hip-hop staged its takeover through the '90s of the summer soundtrack, rhythmic drive became de rigeur. "I'll Smile Again" is all melody. It's a lovely song, even if the smoothness of the delivery wears strangely with the despair of the lyrics.

Top song of summer 1941: "Daddy" by Sammy Kaye & His Orchestra.

Ah, here we go. "Hey Daddy/I want a diamond ring/bracelets/everything/Daddy/You want to get the best for me." And there we have a straight line right through to "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)".

This song is more in line with what I expected in diving into the '40s material. An uptempo swing song, all about a figure that pop music knows all too well: the mythical gold digger of vaguely ill repute. It starts with a mindlessly catchy series of "la da das," before launching into the story of lazy Daisy Mae, with her charming and occasionally alarming disposition. I'm assuming that's '40s euphemism for a lady in the streets but a freak in the bed.

Here also is some of the rhythmic primacy I associate with summertime jams. It's big-band swing, but the syncopated chorus and the whole champagne/caviar sequence adds a swing to the vocals that nicely counterpoints the instrumental. I could see "Daddy" finding its way to the soundtrack of an outdoor barbeque for some throwback flavor. I can't say the same for "I'll Never Smile Again."

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

6/11/10 - Songs of Summer, Introduction

While the pop-cult omnivores over at Vulture ( are working on their Battle Royale of the song of summer (2010), they provided this handy link to an article on Buzzfeed:

That's right, it's every hit "Song of the Summer". Starting in 1940. I naturally started right where I was familiar in the mid '90s, but then got intrigued by the earlier stuff. So, since I'm not trying to blog about Infinite Jest this summer (that's so summer '09), I'm going to listen to these two at a time and blog about them, starting with "I'll Never Smile Again" and ending at "I Gotta Feeling."

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

6/1/10 - LOST and the perils of endings

I've had time to sit with it, and I've gorged myself on all the analysis, and I wanted to weigh in with my own thoughts on the finale of Lost in particular, and my thoughts on the series in general now that it's over and the whole work is out there.

First, though, the reading that I would say I align with the most is Noel Murray's analysis on The Onion's AV Club site:

The most resonant point that Murray makes is the following one:

"Does it work as a finale? Yes and no. As noted above, it was definitely emotional, and allowed fans to say goodbye to the characters. But Lost wasn’t just about the characters; it was about the place where the characters met and lived together and died alone and had that shared adventure that Christian Shephard insisted represented all of them at their best. Understand this: I don’t need to know any more about The Island than we already do. It’s a source of great power that can be exploited for ill and thus must be protected—I get that. But in focusing so much on the Sideways resolution, I’m afraid that “The End” doesn’t give The Island itself a proper sendoff. This is a magical place, right? I needed to feel that magic a little more in the closing moments."

I'm going to bullet-point this out, because like Lost itself my reactions are a little all over the place:
  • I felt emotionally satisfied by the ending. From a storytelling perspective, Lost really threw in with the inner journeys of its core characters over an exploration of the island itself. There is a strength in that: when science fiction doesn't invest in characters, it can get either really dry, or really hard to care about. Without believable people anchoring crazy events (and Lost had plenty of those), there's just no way in as an audience member. In fact, one of the most satisfactory elements of Lost as a show is the way that Jack's character arc is elegantly completed - his evolution from disbelieving man of science to uber-believing man of faith happened completely organically, with all of his messiah issues and daddy issues and all other issues laid bare and fairly explored over the six seasons of the show. The same is true for Ben and Sawyer, and to a lesser extent Jin, Sun, and Sayid. Because the characters were so strong, Lost was able to really try on some ambitious things narratively.
  • Unfortunately, narratively the ending did what many Lost naysayers claimed the show would do: it petered out to a whimper that suggested that a lot of the intrigue and mystery of the island itself and the overarching narrative were just thrown in without a lot of careful narrative underpinning. The more you look at the show as a whole, the more unsatisfactory it becomes from a narrative perspective. It seems that fundamentally it has to do with the fact that the writers never really resolved the questions of the Island into any sort of elegant structure - rather, some questions were answered, some hinted at, and some left outside the scope of the show, while the overall question of the island, Charlie's bemused "Guys, where are we?" never really got a definitive answer. I.e. the Rules between Jacob and the Man in Black, the Rules between Ben and Widmore, and a lot of the initially intriguing mysteries got half-resolved, and never seemed to add up to a cohesive whole. For example, in the Shining a lot of crazy stuff happens, but it all comes back to the fact that the hotel is haunted. There's no such elegance of underpinning structure to the island of Lost.
  • A cardinal rule of sci-fi and fantasy is that the rules of the world have to be consistent. Otherwise events just seem arbitrary and the stakes disappear. This became a major problem for Lost. Characters couldn't come back from the dead, until they could. Some people got "infected" for some arbitrary reason never understood. Eloise needed everyone on the plane to get back to the island, until she didn't. Christian was a nasty alcoholic, until he was a shining dead figure of forgiveness. The various websites devoted to unpacking Lost exhibited a much stronger adherence to the rules of world-building than the actual writers of Lost did.
  • It was a major mistake to let characters get off of the island. In retrospect, there was no reason to have them get off, come back, and then get off again (at least the ones that lived). And it put the emotional escape from the island not at the end of the show, but right in the middle. That meant a lot of the fourth and fifth seasons, in retrospect, were wheel-spinning. And it meant that the Man in Black's attempted escape from the island never acquired the mythological weight that it seemed like the writers were going for in the finale.
  • The buildup/reveal of Jacob and the Man in Black happened too late. The creepy scene of the Man in Black in the cabin in the woods was enormously effective, but then we wasted a whole lot of time with Keamy's mercenaries, who served Widmore, who ultimately was less than irrelvant.
  • The glowing cave was a total cop out. The island is "death, rebirth, everything." Sorry, but that's bullshit. If the Man in Black gets out, "everything ends". That means that the meaning of the island and the stakes for the story are both exceedingly vague. This may work for a loose allegory, but the island portion of Lost is structured as a mystery show, almost like a supernatural Agatha Christie novel. That's why so many people fixated so much on "the answers", which the writers/creators seemed to chafe against at a certain point. People wanted answers because the structure followed the structure of a mystery - several strange occurrences were presented with the suggestion that these occurrences were all stemming from some central organizing fact or truth about the island itself. That this central truth was that there was a mysterious glowing light in the middle of the island was incredibly deflating; akin to finding the wizard of Oz was the small man behind the curtain. The narrative expectation that the shows own writers set up was that the show would follow the course of something like Murder on the Orient Express, where a series of details became stranger and stranger, and more mysterious and more dislocating for the central characters (in this case Poirot), until the solution of the mystery resolves those mysterious happenings like a set of dominoes falling over. On Lost, instead of having that first domino fall to trigger the logical falling into place of all of the narrative questions, the creators just kept stacking dominoes and then ultimately said "you know what, they're just dominoes, forget about them, we're not knocking them over, you should pay attention to the people stacking the dominoes." Which would all be very convenient if they hadn't been telling us along (through the cliffhangers and story structure) that the dominos would fall. Nobody cares if things are left unresolved in something like 28 Days Later. There are zombies, they want brains, OK fine. But narratively you get in a lot of trouble if you say something is important and interesting and organized around a central truth and then wind up having to insist that that central truth is vague and ineffable (glowing cave).
  • The show really benefited from its two villain characters being such strong actors. Even when Lost treaded water, watching Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn act was always a pleasure. It really goes to show how a strong story needs strong antagonists, and for all of its faults Lost really brought it on that front.
  • Jin and Sun's story really suffered from them being kept apart for so long. When the show explored their marriage it was really interesting. When it reduced them to just asking "Where's Sun/Where's Jin," they kind of collapsed as characters. So their deaths didn't carry as much weight as it might have. That said, it still carried a lot of weight, even if it's ridiculous that Sun never insisted Jin leave to take care of their child (!)
  • Lost was terrible with children. The writers loved the drama of pregnancy, but had no idea what do with actual motherhood. So as soon as Aaron and Ji Yeon were born they were whisked away to the mainland so they could be separated from Kate/Claire and Jin/Sun. It really highlighted how the writers just liked to go for the dramatic pregrancy/childbirth scenes without considering how infants might fit into the overall story.
  • I agree with some other comments made by critics: at some point, Lost fell too much in love with its remaining characters. It was a much more interesting show when you never knew when a character might get shot by surprise (Shannon, Libby), or fall off a cliff to their death (Boone) or just have the Smoke get medieval on them (Eko). But that taut sense of danger disappeared right around the fifth season or so, and we were left with characters that repeatedly came back from the dead. Lost was always stronger when it was able to let the dead rest, i.e. John Locke.
  • The story of John Locke was an uncompromising tragedy handled really well. He remained one of the most fascinating characters in the show until the very end.
  • I respect the towering ambition of the show. It strove to be about more than just good vs. evil, up until the very end, touching on reincarnation, free will, fate, and the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives. For that I'm willing to overlook a lot of the narrative flaws. It also had some amazing individual episodes, as well as one of the most mind-bending and intelligent time travel story arcs in mainstream media.
  • My favorite episode from the show - definitely "The Constant".
  • My favorite moment: early in Season One, when Sayid is walking along the beach and discovers the huge cable in the sand. He lifts it up, and just looks incredibly confused. The intrigue of that cable, and the suggestion of all that was beneath the surface (of the island, of the story, of the characters), was, for me, the moment that really hooked me, and remains a moment that encapsulates that rush of not knowing and needing to know (plus we eventually learned where that cable went, so it wasn't one of Lost's dead ends, so bonus points).