Friday, September 03, 2010

9/2/10 - Songs of the Summer, #50-51 "Step by Step" and "Summertime"

The Master List

Top Song of 1990: "Step by Step" by New Kids On The Block

Boy bands really came a long way from NKOTB, who sound like a rough draft of the finished work to come at the end of the '90s in the form of the two-headed Backstreet Boys/N Sync beast. The beginning of the song is pure pop bliss - the "step by step" refrain getting the angelic harmonic counterpoint of "gonna get to you girl". That descending melody on the second and fourth lines of the chorus are the song's secret weapon. For about ten seconds, I thought that maybe this song was some kind of lost classic.

And then the music kicked in. Sweet Moses, is it terrible. The tinny drum machine, the terrible sounding synth bass; I simply cannot believe how many songs sounded like this in the late '80s and early '90s. The perfectly serviceable pop cotton candy at the heart of this song is trampled beneath the machine-tooled crappiness of its production. There's also the small matter of the fact that the song leans really, really hard on its secret weapon of a hook, to the point that secret weapon may not be a very accurate description of it. Not that I'm crying out for more of the New Kids' philosophy or anything, but would it hurt to have a verse or two?

I do have to say that I really appreciate listening to the inspiration for the genius bridge of "Dick in a Box", though.

Top Song of 1991: "Summertime" by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.

I can't really be objective about this song. It's one of my absolute favorite songs ever, and one of the most perfect summer songs that I've ever heard. It's this kind of song that prompted me to start this project; fixing as it does to my memory of one summer in Brooklyn, recently graduated from college and soaking in adult life to an endless loop of that lazy, hazy Kool and the Gang sample, with Will Smith piloting the narration with charm and efficiency. Everything works together in this song - Smith's low-key description of the kind of idle summer bullshit that make the season so wonderful floats around inside the background chatter and those synths in a way that make you feel that the coolest person around is taking you on a leisurely tour of the finest of the four seasons. To me personally, it's the Rosetta Stone of the summer song - a song that stand on its own, sure, but when paired with hot weather, windows rolled down, and the other signifiers of summer takes on a sacramental air.

A lot of times, summer signifies hedonism; what I like about this song so much is that it takes a different tack, highlighting the way that the warm weather brings out a kind of ease in humanity - a widespread bonhomie that spreads like a warm breeze. Even the carnality is easy-going and flirty, with the depiction of the both genders flocking to the basketball courts, ostensibly for the game but really for a different kind of game entirely.

That Kool and the Gang sample that the song is built on, too, is expertly used in the hands of DJ Jazzy Jeff. A lot of hip-hop production circa '91 is so bare-bones as to be fairly monotonous, but the looped and chopped sample creates the kind of hazy good vibes that Dr. Dre would push in a gangsta direction a few years later. For all of Will Smith's frontman charisma, the song wouldn't work without the looped sample and drum track creating a warm bed of sound for Smith to bounce on with his customary ease.