Thursday, July 08, 2010

7/8/10 - Songs of the Summer, #21-22: "Itsy-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" and "Tossin' and Turnin'"

The Master List

Top Song of 1960: "Itsy-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini"


This is the first song of all of the ones I've written about that I truly dislike. There have been some songs that haven't really been my jam, there have been some that had parts I liked and parts I didn't, but this song irritates me in a way that's new to the songs on the list. Even moreso than "Purple People Eater", this song is clearly written as a novelty, and the rib-nudging "One, two, three, four..." sections are too cutesy by half. The delivery of the vocals also seem to carry a kind of smirking tone, and the song in general feels like the guest at a party that thinks he or she is the most charming individual around, but has no idea that what he thinks is charm comes across as overbearing.

The central hook is designed to be just as insinuating of Purple People Eater, but I actually find that the song tends to evaporate from my brain seconds after listening to it. Its attempts at playfulness come off as leaden, which may be due to the fact that lyrically it's really about shame and embarrassment, which kind of gets in the way of the chirping beach vibe that it seems to be sonically going for.

Instrumentally, too, the song seems hacky. The steel drum feel is all a little too reminiscent of Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band. It's the first instance where the sounds of slick professionalism start to detract from the music on the summer songs I've written about so far.

Top Song of 1961: "Tossin' and Turnin'" by Bobby Lewis


The sounds of faith restored. After listening to "Itsy-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" multiple times in a row, putting on "Tossin' and Turnin'" felt like taking a cool drink of water on a hot day. The sound explodes out of the speakers; it's a glorious mess of gospel, blues, and another raw blast of early rock and roll.

The a capella entry "I couldn't sleep at all last night" jumps out just ahead of the instruments, and then it all comes crashing in: the gospel-inflected backup singers, the primitive banging of the drums, and the snaking bassline compose most of the sonic landscape that isn't Bobby Lewis urgent, pleading lead vocal. The sound is vital and immediate, and you can already start to hear how rock music benefits from an overload of the sonics - the sound feels like its stretching against the boundaries of the speakers, and the song is better for it.

"Tossin' and Turnin'" also marks the first summer song appearance of the gospel backing vocals undergirding (or soaring above) the chorus, which is one of my absolute favorite rock tropes. When used poorly, it can be bombastic, but when used well, as it is here, it can inject a song with the rapture of religious ecstasy. When that song is all about carnal desire and frustration, the blend of profane and sacred, sexual and transcendental joy become a potent cocktail indeed.

1 comment:

ariyele said...

good thoughts on the second song in terms of gospel backup vocals, i agree. not only is this done well in rock, but i think kanye west does it really well too. i didn't like the teenie weenie song either--can anyone say, repressed sexual energy of the fifties outing itself? muchly.