Wednesday, January 12, 2011

1/12/11 - Songs of the Summer, #54-55 - "I Swear" and "Waterfalls"

Top Song of 1994: "I Swear", by All-4-One

I always respect it when a band throws the chorus upfront a cappella. It always feels like a small piece of bravado, even in a vibes 'n' vibrato piece of squishiness like "I swear", a way to say: this right here is awesome, it's the best part of the song, it's the chorus, and it's going to get STUCK IN YOUR HEAD. Granted, the only other example that I can think of off of the top of my head is "You Give Love A Bad Name", but when prime Bon Jovi's making the move, the move leads only one direction, and that is to the top of the charts. Gary Baker and Frank J. Myers, who wrote the song, knew they had a winner as soon as those first lines of the chorus were set down.

It's a good thing, too, because the rest of the song is about as colorless as a bowl of oatmeal. The vibes that sounds like a Casio keyboard set to "Vibes". The tasteful and tasteless "funk" guitar backing. This was the sound of Babyface, who absolutely dominated the R&B charts for a spell in the late 90s; I still remember "Change The World", his lite-rock lite-R&B collaboration with Eric Clapton, showing up on MTV about 3,000 times per hour. This song makes me appreciate the Ushers and the Ne-Yos of todays evolved new jack swing, because the romantic contours of "I Swear" are a little too close to the squirmy romantic sensibilities of late Vagrant label emo for my taste. And I have quite the soft spot for wimped out '90s pop-punk, even.

Top Song of 1995: "Waterfalls" by TLC

If "I Swear" comes out of the gate all blatantly needy/confident, chorus first, "Waterfalls" takes the opposite tactic, playing the cards close to vest, letting the instruments take the listener slowly inside the sonic world of the song, before TLC even start singing. The drums kick it off, with that wah'd out guitar coming in for texture, and then the vocals start. It's a long way off before the powerhouse "Don't go chasing waterfalls," in the chorus. It's the more conventional song structure, but no less effective for that. It's not like the principles of building a house has changed all that much since the invention of the house.

Choruses. It's true that, in general, lyrics don't really mean much in pop music. There is a loud and proud history of hooks and choruses that are meaningless, just plain asinine, and sometimes both. "Go Johnny go/Johnny B. Goode" - profound in its way, but not making into the new Norton Anthology of 20th century poetry, necessarily. Same with "I can't live/with or without you", or "Ohahahahahahooooooooooooaaaa I'm still alive", etc., etc. So witty turns of phrase or elegant metaphors are no prerequisite for a great chorus - it's all about melody and delivers. That being said, when that melody or hook is paired with a sentiment that does capture something universal and human, a song can often vault into the stratosphere, as "Waterfalls" did. The "don't go chasing waterfalls, please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to", scans awkward on the page, and gives one pause to contemplate the metaphor to a certain extent. But the sense of it, and the image of it, compared with the aching way TLC sing it, drills down into a very specific kind of sadness that cuts across the human experience; the sadness in knowning someone diving headlong into their own demise, pushing the limits of something known to the point of danger. It's somewhat of a surprising lyric, paired with the kind of prosaic urban ills-depicting verses, but the sudden contrast works. The beauty and danger of the natural world, along with its purity, colors the emotional landscape of the verses, and, even if you don't even listen to those verses, those two simple lines captures something very complex and sad.

It's the same way that "Smells Like Teen Spirit", nonsensical as the rest of it is, nevertheless acquires a certain crystal clarity with the chorus: "With the lights out/it's less dangerous/here we are now/entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious/here we are now/entertain us". All the loading up on guns and incoherent loser wordplay of the verses gives way to a universal sentiment: I feel like I don't belong, so I will smirk my way through this experience to protect myself. Or, to put it another way, stick to the rivers and the lakes that I'm used to.