Thursday, August 19, 2010

8/19/10 - Songs of the Summer, #48-49: "Dirty Diana" and "Right Here Waiting"

The Master List

Top Song of 1988: "Dirty Diana" by Michael Jackson

Man, Michael Jackson. When he died, and the world exploded in appreciation for his peerless pop gifts, it was like a flood of pent-up relief that we no longer had to reckon with the complicated horror-show that popular adoration can be for those subjected to it. If you want to chill your blood, read this profile of Justin Bieber in New York: Bieber's plaintive attempts to get some, any downtime, straining gently against bonds that he is only just beginning to perceive, were strikingly uncomfortable for me to read. For all that showbiz success seems to be some sort of glorious golden prize, it can in practice often turn out closer to Tolkien's One Ring to rule them all. Beautiful, compelling, desired by all, and terrifically dangerous and addictive.

You can see the Smeagol-to-Gollum transition just by tracking the evolution of Jackson from his early hitmaking days on through the hits and into the wheel-spinning '90s and '00s. All fresh-faced and innocent to start, Jackson put out a throat-clearing disco innocent collection of songs in Off The Wall before declaring himself a solo artist with authority with "Billie Jean", one of the most paranoid chart-toppers ever recorded. Even in a list of summer songs that includes "Every Breath You Take", that's a feat. "Dirty Diana", coming as it does a scant three years before the grunge explosion of the early '90s that really destroyed Jackson's club pop until the tide receded at the end of the decade, is at the beginning of the end of Jackson's reign of King of Pop. It sounds it, too - the clockwork drum machine, dry guitars, and Jackson in full-paranoia mode - it's a relatively desparate and off-putting song, a kind of quasi-prequel to "Billie Jean".

And, because it's Michael Jackson in the late '80s, it's catchy as hell. The way the guitar rises in the chorus after snaking threateningly through the verse gives the song a queasy anthemic quality; some of that Van Halen rubbing off, maybe? The vocal melody is catchy all the way through, snaking against the guitar in the verse to rise and fall to the incantation of the title as refrain. Success did not come unearned to Jackson, though it ultimately destroyed more of him than is comfortable to contemplate.

Top Song of 1989: "Right Here Waiting For You" by Richard Marx

Oh, the ridiculous piano balladry with the overemoting singer. I believe it was "Endless Love" that I was struggling with earlier. This song is of a piece with that, or any other piece of Adult Contemporary syrup.

The thing about songs like this is that they seem insincere. Marx's delivery is so over the top, so ridiculously plaintive, and the piano is designed for maximum tear-wringing "melancholy" in its melodic construction, that something seems off about the whole thing. It's an easy type of song to mistrust. It's hard to locate the beating heart at the core of the song. Is it a cynical Hallmark card? Preying on a universal emotion to sell some CDs (or iTunes downloads in the current day)? Or is this really a cry from the soul of Richard Marx? One suspects the former, even if the strings, acoustic guitar solo, and melody try to point at the former.

All it takes is to be in the right frame of mind, and you can be gobsmacked by a song like this; feeling melodramatic, perhaps driving late at night through the rain and turning the radio dial to catch something to ease your boredom, thinking of things that make you sad, and then BAM! That piano has you right where it wants you. Even if, like dirty Diana, its intentions are less than pure.

Monday, August 16, 2010

8/16/10 - Songs of the Summer, #45-46: "Papa Don't Preach" and

The Master List

Top Song of 1986: "Papa Don't Preach" by Madonna

In 2010, the Summer of Gaga, it's worthwhile to go back to the original source, because Gaga seems like the chopped-up remix of the original article; the two share an overwhelming desire for fame and success, a willingness to deploy eroticism in service of same, and a knowledge that all of the identiy exploration/transformation, sexual and otherwise, don't mean a thing without great songs to wrap the whole package in.

"Papa Don't Preach" is Madonna at her best; pouring all of her efforts into turning out a great song, so that it can be a hit, so she can be famous. She would obviously go on to have many more great songs and her plan worked to perfection, but there's something incredible about the kind of high-quality pop music that comes from burning ambition not yet realized. It usually results in songs like this; drum-tight, without a wasted moment.

The song started with strings that nod to disco, before kicking in with a terrible-sounding '80s bass part that is nonetheless a fantastic bass part, before Madonna starts singing the verse. The verse then maneuvers back and forth between major and minor keys, before landing on that staccato chorus. The effect is that of a gently undulating rollercoaster, peaking naturally at the chorus after the melodic hooks intensify throughout the pre-chorus.

This is true '80s club-pop; sonically, I can't stand it, but I can't deny the greatness of the song itself. A theory I've always had is that a great song will sound great played on acoustic guitar along (probably not an original theory), and this song passes that test with flying colors.

Top Song of 1987: "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" by Whitney Houston

This is perfect example of a song, that, while superficially similar to "Papa Don't Preach", falls short of the former song's greatness due to inferior supplemental construction. By which I mean that both songs have great choruses, but "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" is just marking time until the chorus rolls around.

The song begins with synth bass, as "Papa Don't Preach" does, and then the instruments kick in, but it maintains the same burbly club-pop mix all the way through the entire verse. The verse itself isn't that catchy - Houston can obviously sing, but the way the synthetic vibes skitter around her vocals just detract from the main melody. Even when she hits the pre-chorus, she just continues along a somewhat half-catchy melodic path, as opposed to Madonna's deft shift between minor and major key to capture the shades of grey of the situation depicted in the lyrics.

But, the chorus is pretty awesome. The syncopation between that monster hook and the double-note synth stab is pretty much unstoppable.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

8/12/10 - Songs of the Summer, #43-44: "When Doves Cry" and "Everybody Want To Rule The World" "

The Master List

Top Song of 1984: "When Doves Cry" by Prince

Things end badly for perfectionist pop maestros. Look at Billy Corgan, who wrote some of the most dynamic singles of the grunge era and wound up kicking out every member of his band except for his otherwordly drummer, who then quit because he wasn't satisfied playing music w/Corgan anymore. Look at Rivers Cuomo, who, after serving as the architect of two of the best albums of the '90s, successfully drove Matt Sharp out of his band, turned Weezer into a kitschy pop band with songs as emotionally deep as the average Katy Perry hit. Look at Brian Wilson, who went insane for decades after composing his impossibly gorgeous teenage symphonies. Look at Phil Spector, who brandished a gun at the Ramones and later killed a woman after overseeing the sonic blueprint of an entire pop movement.

Prince has settled into Cuomo territory: he seems happy, he fills stadiums, he makes money hand over fist, and his muse has completely betrayed him. The thing about being an exacting pop genius (I would guess), is that you have to be willing to say "screw you, I'm right", as you pursue the sounds that only you can hear in your head, but that same impulse means that you aren't going to listen to anyone when you start turning out crap. After all, when that muse is on target, you turn out something like "Geek U.S.A.", or "Say It Ain't So", or "Then He Kissed Me", or "When Doves Cry", so why should you listen to anybody tell you anything?

"When Doves Cry" is a great song, first and foremost. Prince is, if anything, underrated as a songwriter (and as a guitarist: listen to that first guitar solo; the man can shred when he wants to, which on record is rarely). The construction of the song is immaculate; it's one of those songs that could easily be played on an acoustic guitar; the melodies are strong enough to support it, twisting against the syncopation in the verses and then opening up for the naggingly insistent chorus. The keyboard riff that comes in after the chorus, too, adds another hook to what is already an immensely catchy section. Lyrically, too, the Freudian depths suggested by the mother/father lines give the song a charged, dark undercurrent. For all his freakery, and probably because of it, Prince has always been interesting. When he paired that with his formerly unerring pop instincts, he was pretty much unstoppable.

Which just makes it even more amazing that he took the bass out of this song, just as he did with "Kiss". For an '80s pop song, that's absurdly ballsy. The bass carries the funk, and for a dance-influenced/oriented tune, bass is by far a more important instrument than guitar (or keyboards). But to Prince, it sounded too conventional, so he took it out. It was his call, after all, since he played every single instrument on the song. This kind of damn-the-torpedoes thinking would later lead him to record a triple album described by a review on as "so full of filler and misguided ideas that it actually makes nowadays bubblegum pop albums look cohesive". So it goes in the life of the pop perfectionist: sublimity leading to putridity.

Top Song if 1985: "Everybody Want to Rule The World" by Tears for Fears.

I hate this song. I like some music from the '80s, but this is a perfect example of the kind of plastic '80s synth-pop that drives me crazy. What do I hate about it? Let me see...

  1. The fake, hollow, fake synth bass. God I hate that synth bass sound. It just screams robotic artificiality. Sucks the feeling right out of any song in which it appears. Music is so often a way to communicate messy feelings, and that boinging synth bass just leeches the feeling right out, underpinning the whole song with the sound of something tinny and false.
  2. The overdramatic vocals slathered in reverb. Again, all technique, no heart.
  3. The drums or drum machine, I can't even tell which. Along with the synth-bass, it adds to the mechanical, bloodless feel of the song.
  4. Overuse of keyboards. It's true that I'm a keyboard skeptic, nonetheless, some of my favorite songs prominently feature keyboards/synthesizers ("Just What I Needed", "Baba O'Reilly", "I Just Threw Out The Love Of My Dreams"), but this is good example of a song that suffers from too much keyboard goop. Just a whole lot of rococo flourishes that clutter things up.
Haterade drank.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

8/10/10 - Songs of the Summer, #42-43: "Eye of the Tiger" and "Every Breath You Take"

The Master List

Top Song of 1981: "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor

"Eye of the Tiger" belongs to a very unique and particular subgenre of songs: those where the intro of the song is way, way better than the song itself. The opening power chords of this song are iconic for a reason: they are fantastic. The way they hammer down onto the muted guitar notes create instant momentum propelling the listener on a rocket ride to...a song that sucks.

Not all songs like this are as bad as "Eye of the Tiger", but there are definitely a fair share of songs that really fall off once the intro is over. So instead of spending more time elucidating the divide in quality between the intro of this song (awesome) and the rest of it (tripe), I will lay out some more examples below. I'd love to hear more examples in the comments.

Europe: "The Final Countdown"
Deep Purple: "Smoke on the Water"
Styx: "Renegades"
Jimi Hendrix: "Foxy Lady"
Led Zeppelin: "Misty Mountain Hop"
Radiohead: "The National Anthem"
New Radicals: "You Only Get What You Give"

(Thanks to Andrew & Mike for the assist on these).

Andrew additionally suggested a complementary category: great songs with bad intros, offering up:

Genesis: "Watcher of the Skies"
Rolling Stones: "You Can't Always Get What You Want"
Tool: "Parabol/Parabola"

I'd love to hear more in the comments.

Top Song of 1982: "Every Breath You Take"

The song so good, it was a summer hit not once but twice: once in this form, and once in 1997 when Puff Daddy/P. Diddy jacked it and renamed it "I'll Be Missing You". It speaks to the elementary power of the riff at the core of the song that it was good enough to sustain a summer hit twice fifteen years apart. It is, in fact, a great riff, and further supports the point that I made about the Replacements in an earlier post: it's a great riff greatly recorded. The spacey, haunting quality of the way the song sounds is what gives it so much of its melancholy power. There's a lot of empty space in the sonic architecture - note the way that the core riff is played pizzicato, with hardly any sustain. The notes cut off almost as soon as they begin, which opens up space for the bass and drums to be heard. The drums, though, are also somewhat muted, and despite Stewart Copeland's technical virtuosity, he plays only a basic backbeat. The space, then is partially filled by Sting's quietly pinging bass, and partially by nothing at all.

The sense of open space is there in the vocals as well; unlike the instrumental, there's a lot of echo and reverb in the way that Sting's vocals are recorded, which gives them a haunting, ghostlike quality. It's as though there's a haunting spirit floating around a empty house, which matches the feeling of the lyrics perfectly, as the narrator haunts his lost love. The irony of Sting's lament "Oh can't you see/you belong to me" when it's clear that the object of his affection couldn't disagree more is carried in the lyrics, but also the sonics of the song itself. Even when Sting amps up the vocal intensity in the chorus, the instruments expand a bit (the guitar takes up more space), but they stay restrained, further emphasizing the disconnect between the narrator and the stalkee. Even if the song weren't recorded in the style that it is, it would be great do to the solid songwriting on display, but the sounds of the song push it up into the stratosphere of greatness.

Monday, August 09, 2010

8/5/10 - Songs of the Summer, #41-42: "Funkytown, Inc." and "Endless Love"

The Master List

Top Song of 1980: "Funkytown" by Lipps, Inc.

The symbiosis between synthesized sounds and dance music is pronounced but also somewhat inexplicable. Before synthesizers and drum machines, music to dance to was all created live, and even listening to "Funkytown" there's really no reason that the song needs the insistent hook to be played on a synthesizer. It would work just as well as a horn line, for example. Then again, would it? After all, Keith Richards famously originally conceived the central guitar line of "Satisfaction" as a horn line, and the version that became a massive chart hit was more than a little dependent on that distorted, dirty quality of the guitar line. Which all got me thinking about the way that a song's sonic texture can be just as important as its architecture.

I was thinking about this already from reading a review of a greatest hits album by the Replacements on Pitchforkmedia. One line especially stood out to me, and I think succinctly captures the real reason that the Replacements never really had a breakout hit: "[They] could never figure out what sort of production worked with [Paul] Westerberg's songs." The early, indie stuff was too thin, the peak Sire records material was too echo-y, and then the later, softer material was laden down by strings and horns and adult contemporary reverb/echo. They just never hit that perfect confluence of song and sound. Most songs that become massive hits have both; think "Smells Like Teen Spirit". No way that becomes a hit if it sounds like it's recorded in a trashcan like the songs on Bleach.

"Funkytown", then, gains somehow from the plastic-y and otherworldly sounds that frame it - the synth bass and main melodic refrain, as well as the near-vocoder sound of the "Gotta move on to a town that's right for me..." intro, leading up to the peak of the chorus, where recognizable guitars and relatively unprocessed vocals provide an anchor point. There's a cyborg quality to the song, where real, breathing instruments like the saxophone and drums share space with the processed vocals and synthesized sounds of the bass and keyboards. It captures the mechanistic, repetitive qualities of the music. It is by turns alienating and seductive, I think, because to be honest it leaves me more than a little cold.

Top song of 1981: "Endless Love" by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie

This is the kind of song I was talking about when I said that piano gets a bad rap as a rock instrument. It is frequently deployed the way it is in the first verse of this song and then throughout; as a pretty-fier - arpeggios undergirding festivals of melodramatic melisma. And then, of course, the strings as the treacly cherry on top. My favorite use of this song is in the original Butabi brothers sketch, when it appears as a brief oasis from the wall-to-wall blasting of "What Is Love?", and Jim Breuer tries to look sincere as a groom and fails.

I am of two minds when it comes to songs like this. I'm an unabashed romantic, so part of me really loves them. I will defend the greatness of, say, "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)", to my dying day. There's something admirable about such openhearted sincerity in song format; it's easy to mock as cheese, but operatic melodramatic emotions are part of the human experience. There's a reason songs like these are hits from time to time - they tap into the part of the human experience when emotion runs roughshod over everything else.

At the same time, they can really leave a bad taste in the mouth, or seem really suspect, because it's impossible to shake the feeling that the emoting of a song like this is all controlled and technically; thus a song that purports to be about absolute passion instead becomes passionless, bloodless. The coldness of a heartstring-pulling song like this exists dialectically with the emotion that they seem to be expressing. The times that I enjoy these songs is when there's some hint of wavering or roughness instrumentally or vocally; thus the Bryan Adams song at least has the illusion produced by his rougher voice that he's broken up by the depth of his love; Ross and Richie are such technically good singers that they build a wall between their singing and the ostensible emotion of the song. It's why Michael Jackson's ballads are so much less convincing than his uptempo songs; effortless execution in an effort to appear vulnerable just comes off as passionless.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

8/4/10 - Songs of the Summer, #39-40: "Shadow Dancing" and "Hot Stuff"

The Master List

Top Song of 1978: "Shadow Dancing" by Andy Gibb

One very interesting aspect of the rock-to-disco transition at the top of the summer pop charts is the increasing fluidity of masculine sexuality from the singers. Elvis was all primal sexuality, his quivering baritone a direct carnal plea. Gradually, different aspects of male sexuality emerged, from Brian Hyland and Mick Jagger's smirky leering to the itchy plea for rapture of Bobby Lewis to the leonine caveman primitivism of the Troggs and the Guess Who.

All of these are clearly and identifiably male; different aspects and expressions of dudes' desires for women. As we move into the disco era, however, a certain gender fluidity begins to creep in. So, in "Shadow Dancing", you hear the first instance on the summer #1s of the kind of androgynous vocal styling that Prince and Michael Jackson would later perfect in the '80s; a kind of polysexual expression of desire that can read as both/either male/female.

Which is all an elaborate way of saying that Andy Gibb and the rest of the Brothers Gibb absolutely destroy on this song. The Bee Gees are fantastic vocal stylists, and their harmonized falsettos are both unmistakable and slightly otherworldly. Based on the evidence of the Beach Boys and the Bee Gees, it can really help to harmonize with siblings; maybe there's something about the simpatico nature of the voices that help them blend even more effectively. But Andy's lead does bear special mention, as he brings a high, breathy delivery to the song that reads as much more female than the singing in any earlier summer #1s (by male singers). Listen to the way he sings the first line, the "You got me looking at that heaven in your eyes/I was chasing your direction/I was telling you no lies". Vocally, it uses an old trope - the male chasing the female, unable to resist his desire for her. But musically, Gibb sounds vulnerable and fluttery, deploying vibrato and singing in the upper part of his range in a way that makes it sound as though he's the object of desire. When his brothers come in with their unmistakable high falsetto backing vocals, the gender dynamics collapse further. Michael Jackson would follow this road down the rabbit hole, but the Bee Gees were there a full decade earlier.

Maybe it's disco Stockholm Syndrome, maybe it's just the fact that both songs on this entry are fantastic songs, but I'm kind of sad that there will only be one more disco entry before the schizo '80s hits arrive. "Hot Stuff" shows another potential branch on disco's evolutionary tree; it amps up the intensity and mechanical aggression that lies beneath the surface of disco's sonic characteristics.

For one thing, it's a pretty fast song, comparatively, giving it a certain breathless quality that dovetails nicely with the raw desire of the lyrics. Second, the guitar/horn/synth power chord "thing" that opens the song before the funk guitar and melodic synth line kick in lays down a wall of sound that makes the song sound large and imposing before it even gets started. Third, the guitar solo halfway through the song also presages '80s pop metal both sonically and melodically, continuing the motif of aggression laid out earlier in the song.

Plus, Donna Summer really sings the hell out of the song. "Hot Stuff", vocally, is like the photo negative of "Shadow Dancing"; lyrically, it's an expression of need, but the way Summer sings it makes it sound like she's out on prowl, actualizing her desire. The fluidity of sexuality is made explicit, also, in the second verse, where she declares that she'll sleep with a woman or white man if that's what it takes.

EDIT: Whoa boy, did I mishear some lyrics. Scratch that. "wild man." Not quite as subversive. (Good looking out, A)

And, as a metaphor, "Hot Stuff" is about as subtle as Warrant's "Cherry Pie".

Monday, August 02, 2010

8/2/10 - Songs of the Summer, #37-38: "Shake Your Booty" and "The Best Of My Love"

The Master List

Top Song of 1976: "Shake Your Booty" by KC and the Sunshine Band

Disco, for all of the perceived faults, hits a particular kind of transcendence when it's done well, best summarized by the Funkadelic slogan/album title/life philosophy of "one nation under a groove."

No one embodies this more than KC and the Sunshine Band, who managed to write songs that will play at roller rinks and bowling alleys and in "wacky" movie previews from now until the end of time. "Shake Your Booty" is like a guided disco missile aimed right at the pleasure center. Each couplet it simple and catchy, and the chorus is both a titanic hook and a directive to do exactly what the music makes the rhythmically inclined listener want to do. The rhythm section is locked in to the point that it almost sounds mechanical. By the end of the song, when KC is intoning "Shake, shake" over the endlessly repeating horn riffs, the song reaches a kind of incantatory power, becoming more of a mantra or chant than a song. It's like dance as transcendence, with KC and the Sunshine Band serving as the guiders of the meditation.

Lyrically, there's not much there to speak of, in fact, the song is saying about as much as "Do The Hustle" with more words. Listening to disco now makes me think of house music, where the song itself matters far less than locking into a particular kind of groove. It may in fact have hurt disco as a musical form to have to shoehorn itself into the pop song format; in three minutes or so, it's hard to reach the state of dancefloor ecstasy that KC and the Sunshine Band are reaching for.

At the same time, the band has to be recognized for putting out three of the most enduring songs of the disco explosion. Between "Get Down Tonight", "Shake Your Booty", and "That's the Way I Like It", you've got a holy trinity of songs that can (and sometimes do) function as shorthand for an entire musical movement. The only other band I can think of that serves as such quick sonic shorthand for a musical era is the Cars, who similarly provide an easy template for new wave rock with "Just What I Needed" and "My Best Friend's Girl". Even those, though, pale in cultural ubiquity next to the disco triforce of KC and the Sunshine Band's nigh-interchangeable massive hits.

Top Song of 1977: "The Best of My Love" by the Emotions

This song, to me, is more interesting musically than "Shake Your Booty", even if "Shake Your Booty" fascinates me more as signifier of a cultural phenomenon. The difference between the two songs is that "The Best Of My Love" fits much better into the framework of the three minute pop single. Unlike "Shake Your Booty", "The Best of My Love" has peaks and valleys, with lead singer Sheila Hutchinson winding her way through the horns and bouncing disco bass on the verses and then rising up into the top of her range as she gets near the chorus, the back-up singers rising to join her.

The backing vocals are reminiscent of doo-wop, as they "doo-doo-doo" their way to the climactic three part wordless peak of the song, where the instruments drop out and the vocals climb and climb to the top. That peak is the key to the song, and what makes it more of a pop song in the classic sense than the KC and the Sunshine band hits. The rest of the song is all building up to that moment, and once it happens the rest of the song is winding down. The song has plenty of funk, without a doubt, but never hits the hypnotic repetitive groove that "Shake Your Booty" does.

Both of these songs bring us back to the realm of the great chorus. After the mostly-instrumental "Do The Hustle" and the wispy Smokey Robinson refrain of "Rock Me Baby", both of these songs have clear, bright choruses that lodge in head and don't leave. If you want #1 in the summertime, it's as close to an ironclad prerequisite as you can get by this point.