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.

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