The final part of my playlist, which is mostly about feeling a connection to other people through popular music.
With the goal of updating my blog every day, I’m spending this week compiling a playlist of songs that were supposed to help me sleep but instead just brought back vivid memories of significant times hearing them. In part three, I wrote about “Starbucks Music” and what life was like back when we had to wonder what song was playing.
Hyper-Ballad, Björk This isn’t my favorite song from Post, but that’s mostly because Post is such a brilliant album it’s almost impossible to pick a single favorite song. (Except I can, and it’s “Isobel”). But this song brings back two strong and related memories, fifteen years apart.
The first is listening to Post non-stop for what seemed like months, as I was driving to my job at a game studio in Emeryville. I remember really paying attention to “Hyper-ballad” the first time, because it stood out as the most stereotypically Björk song on the album — the most remarkable thing about her genius is how she maintained her unique weirdness but was still able to make it commercial. She’s successful without ever feeling like a sell out, and a song about imagining throwing herself off a cliff is a great example of that.
The second is just last year. YouTube recommended a video of someone who’s not Björk doing a cover of “Hyper-ballad.” I thought it was a one-off oddity, but after watching it, it kept recommending more covers. The song seemed so unique and personal to one specific artist, and I remembered being obsessed with Post and feeling like I’d somehow formed a unique connection to it. Seeing all these covers of this weird song — and remembering that it was a hugely popular album — made me feel connected to all these other fans who loved the music and had probably gone through the exact same process of discovery.
Gypsy, Fleetwood Mac My memory of this song is likely the same as anyone alive in 1982: I remember the video. It was pretty epic for the time, and it played constantly. Specifically, I remember the image of Stevie Nicks running into the rain singing, and I thought she must be the most beautiful person in the word.
Lovesong of the Buzzard, Iron & Wine I already wrote about having a near-out-of-body experience listening to The Shepherd’s Dog on a plane, but the specific thing that makes the album so brilliant is the production, which has the songs drift in and out of each other with weird audio flourishes that seem like the transitions in a dream. “Lovesong of the Buzzard” is probably the most straightforward and pleasant song of the record, and it immediately follows the sinister “White Tooth Man,” and transitions into the more ethereal “Carousel.” The effect is like the last hypnagogic shock of wakefulness and then gradually falling into a deep dream.
The Sea, Morcheeba I first heard about Morcheeba right before I took my first trip (as an adult) to London. I’m too ignorant of music to even know how to classify them (house music?) but it must’ve been a popular genre at the time, because from the moment I got on the Virgin Atlantic flight to the moment I left London, I heard it constantly. It was like Morcheeba was following me through England, just out of my peripheral vision.
My stronger memory is a comically petty one: it was another trip to Disneyland with my friends and one of my friend’s parents. We were driving back from Anaheim at night, and I’d put on a playlist I’d made called “Fire and Rain.” The last half had all the water-related songs I could think of, and it ended on “The Sea.” When it was over, my friend’s mom said, “That was really nice,” and I felt inexplicably proud.
I Wish I Was the Moon, Neko Case I may be misremembering this one, and it didn’t actually happen but I instead read about it in an interview, but I like the memory enough not to care. It was seeing Neko Case in concert for The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight…. in San Francisco. She introduced “I Wish I Was the Moon” by saying (paraphrased): “This was a tender love song I wrote for my dad, and now it’s the theme to vampire fucking.” I already had a crush on Neko Case for her music, but I think that was the moment that cemented my respect for her as one of the most effortlessly funny people I’ve seen.
Dirty Back Road, The B-52’s This song reminds me of my first year in Athens, when I saw The B-52’s in concert at UGA for Cosmic Thing and instantly became a huge fan. This song in particular reminds me of weekends driving from Athens to my job in Gwinnett County (coincidentally, at the mall that was used for season 3 of Stranger Things). I would head down the Atlanta Highway (the one from “Love Shack”) in my beat-up old VW Bug, and even though it was kind of a major artery, most of it was a stretch of two-lane road through the woods. It wasn’t particularly reckless driving, and I definitely wasn’t in a sportscar, but that song — especially the extended sound of crickets at the end — perfectly reminds me of driving on a highway through Georgia at night surrounded by nothing but darkness and trees.
Into the Mystic, Van Morrison This always reminds me of the first time I heard the song, which wasn’t Van Morrison’s original but a cover by Poi Dog Pondering. (Which I don’t have a decent recording of). I believe that as the years went on, Frank Orrall would frequently do a cover of “Sweet Thing” in the encore of a Poi Dog show, but for this specific memory, he was doing “Into the Mystic.” This was the second time I’d seen them at the Georgia Theater, promoting their album Volo Volo. While the first concert had been a complete surprise — and remains one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to — I’d become a big fan since then, getting as much of their music as I could find and listening to it obsessively. So I’d spent the entire show singing along with songs I already knew by heart. When he got to “Into the Mystic,” I couldn’t sing along anymore. I had never heard it before, but it seemed as if everyone else had. So I just stood there and listened as the rest of the crowd sang along.
Usually, that kind of thing would make me feel isolated, but here it was different. It made me realize that there was an entire world of beautiful music I hadn’t heard yet, and I could spend the rest of my life discovering it.
That’s more than enough of that. If you’ve somehow enjoyed reading these self-indulgent posts, please let me know, and I can make it an ongoing thing. Probably with just one or two songs at a time. And if not, then the next time I need to sleep on a long plane flight, I’ll just use Advil PM and a boring book.
My playlist of memories continues with Starbucks Music and hazy recollections of the 1970s.
With the goal of updating my blog every day, I’m spending this week compiling a playlist of songs that were supposed to help me sleep but instead just brought back vivid memories of significant times hearing them. In part two, I wrote about false memories, driving, and being homesick.
Shoot the Moon, Norah Jones I still say Come Away With Me is a great album, one of my top 20 even if not my to 10. (If you don’t believe me, listen to the tracks “Seven Years” and “Nightingale”). I think the reason I tend to forget that it’s so good is that I’ve unfairly lumped it in with “Starbucks Music,” because I so often heard “Don’t Know Why” playing in coffee shops.
My strongest memory of “Shoot the Moon” was hearing it in a Borders bookstore in Marin County in 2002 and making peace with being in my 30s. I recognized the song and realized I really liked it. I’d been having a lot of anxiety around turning 30 the previous year. All of my optimism about getting to work for LucasArts had been more or less crushed by the reality of working for LucasArts, and by that point, my follow-up job had either ended or was clearly on the way to its end. My career hadn’t ended up where I wanted it to be, and I was worried that I hadn’t accomplished all the things I’d wanted to accomplish by the time I turned 30. But being in a chain bookstore in Marin County — in many ways the Heart of Whiteness — and hearing a relaxing jazz-infused contemporary pop song, and realizing that I recognized it and liked it: that was somehow calming. I just let all the suburban middle-class whiteness wash over me and take me into its bland but loving embrace.
If the Stars Were Mine, Melody Gardot This, on the other hand, is the darker side of “Starbucks Music.” I don’t believe in “guilty pleasures” anymore — what’s the point in feeling guilty for liking something? — but I’ve got to say this is a song I’m not 100% happy to have in my music library.
Unlike anything on Come Away With Me, this feels like a song that was specifically created to one day appear on a Starbucks compilation album. I think the stereotypes of Starbucks and PSL basic bitches is marketing nonsense, but this feels like something trying to capitalize on that as if it were a real thing. It doesn’t seem like a genuine piece of music that happened to connect with a certain audience, but crassly designed to hit a very specific demographic of white person.
Still, the reason I keep it is because it conjures such a perfect memory. I was on one of the once-in-a-lifetime jobs I was absurdly fortunate to get with Imagineering multiple times. I was at the Grand Floridian at Walt Disney World, standing on the porch outside Narcoossee’s restaurant, and the weather was perfect and the day was perfect. For the first time, it occurred to me that I could uses Shazam to identify the music playing around the resorts, and I’d end up with a playlist that would always take me back there. (It had actually never occurred to me that Disney licensed the music that played around the resorts instead of recording it specifically for them).
Hearing this song reminds me of one of the only times that I was having the best time of my life and realized it in the moment, instead of after it was already over.
Lady Pilot, Neko Case This reminds me of driving back from Disneyland on I-5 with my friends. They were playing all Neko Case albums, and it was the first I’d heard any of her music. (And known it — I’d never made the connection she sang my favorite New Pornographers songs). At the time, I thought her voice was phenomenal, but also kind of exhausting — her earlier country-heavy records are pretty spare, and to the uninitiated can seem a little overwhelming. I liked it, but also I was tired and grouchy and felt like I’d spent an hour listening to a woman with a uniquely powerful voice yelling about Tacoma and Deeeeeeeeep Red Bells.
Later, I was listening to Blacklisted and during “Lady Pilot,” everything clicked for me. It was suddenly the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. And it’s still up there with “Dirty Knife” and “This Tornado Loves You” as my favorite Neko Case songs. My crush started there.
(And because I feel like this sounds a little harsh and undermines my huge fandom of Neko Case: if you watch her live singing her own material, she frequently does that thing where she starts belting out a note away from the microphone and then sweeps across it. So she must be well aware her voice is too powerful to take at full blast).
We’ve Only Just Begun, Carpenters This reminds me of being a little kid in the seventies. I don’t really have any single specific memory, more a montage of being a weird little kid who adored the Carpenters. In my mind, it’s shot like one the Disney live-action movies from the 70s, all fuzzy and amber and set to “On Top of the World” and “Close to You.” My mother used to like to tell a story about me being around 4 years old and sitting on a stool to perform “Sing” with a little microphone, and I crossed my legs and leaned toward the camera like I’d seen singers do on television. Like I said: kind of a weird kid, and that plus the fact that I loved ABBA intensely should’ve been a sign that something was up with me. Just sayin’.
I picked “We’ve Only Just Begun” because I think it’s the most 1970s of the Carpenters songs I loved in the 70s. I only found out within the past few years that Richard Carpenter got the tune from a jingle for a bank, which seems obscenely crass and commercial now, but fit right in with the gestalt of the 70s. It was a different time.
Day After Day, Badfinger I remember finding out about this song. I felt like it was just part of the background music of the 1970s, kind of like how I know all the words to “Dust in the Wind” despite never owning a Kansas album. Whenever “Day After Day” would come on, I would think how much I liked it, but then forget about it until the next time. I never knew the title or the artist. In fact, because the singer sounds a lot like Paul McCartney to me — and, I would later find out, it was produced by George Harrison, and the band was “mentored” by the Beatles — I always assumed that it was a slightly-lesser-known Beatles song from an album I just hadn’t bought yet.
Years later, I heard the song playing while I was out somewhere — I don’t remember the details, but I do remember the realization that I was living in the future and could just use Shazam to identify the song once and for all. One of the minor mysteries of my teen years was resolved, and gone forever were the days when we had to spend even a moment wondering about pop culture trivia.
Now that I think of it, it’s a companion piece to “Sleeping Satellite” by Tasmin Archer, which I wondered about throughout the early 90s. Once I got identify it on Shazam and instantly get it on Napster (ask your parents), it drained a little bit of the mystery from the universe.
Next time: Our not-particularly shocking, easy-listening finale! Featuring Fleetwood Mac, Morcheeba, and Björk!
Day 2 of the playlist brings repressed memories, homesickness, lots of driving, and feeling slightly more connected to the Japanese people
With the goal of updating my blog every day, I’m spending this week compiling a playlist of songs that were supposed to help me sleep but instead just brought back vivid memories of significant times hearing them. In part one, I wrote about the album and the airline trip that inspired the whole thing.
Aguas de Marco, Cibo Matto If the theme is “memory,” then this was a case of repressed memory, missing time, and possible abduction by Cibo Matto-loving aliens. Recently we were watching a documentary that featured Antonio Carlos Jobim’s son performing “Aguas de Marco,” and it made me want to listen to the well-known original with Jobim and Elis Regina.
Except that wasn’t the original version, or at least it wasn’t what I remembered as the original. After listening to every cover I could find on YouTube, I stumbled onto the one by Cibo Matto, which stuck in my mind as the “real” one. I also suddenly remembered a brief period where I was obsessed with Cibo Matto, and had completely forgotten about it. Like when Obi-Wan says he couldn’t remember ever owning a droid, but then you see him going on all these adventures with R2-D2, except even less exciting and I somehow knew all the lyrics to “Spoon” without any memory of ever hearing it.
I Hear the Bells, Mike Doughty This is kind of cheating for the rules of the playlist, since I can’t remember exactly when it was or where I was headed. Regardless, I have a vivid memory of being in my car, driving on the most boring stretch of 580 at night, nothing visible out the windows except highway and hills. It was the first time I’d listened to Haughty Melodic loud, without any distractions (and finally rid of any preconceptions that it’d be just like another Soul Coughing album). The music was swelling, I was singing at the top of my lungs, and I would’ve sworn that at any second the car would take flight and launch off the freeway into the darkness.
You Are the Everything/Untitled, REM I got Green while I was in my freshman year of college in Manhattan, just because “Stand” was popular on MTV at the time. I’m not sure that I’m cut out to live in New York now, and I know for a fact that I wasn’t when I was 17. I remember sitting in my dorm room one night when I was feeling particularly homesick, and when “You Are the Everything” started with its sounds of crickets and frogs at night, it occurred to me that it had been a month since I’d actually seen a tree outside of a planter. That album became one of my links back home to Georgia whenever I started to regret trying so hard to escape Georgia in the first place. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d end up leaving Manhattan to go to school in Athens, Georgia, instead, where I soon got sick of hearing REM constantly.
Which reminded me of the untitled bonus track from Green, which conjures a vivid memory of annoying the hell out of my roommates. We had downstairs neighbors in the dorm who listened to “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction super loud at least four times a day, which in retrospect was lucky for me, since they bore the brunt of all the annoyance that would’ve been directed at me for listening to Green almost as often. The opening drum beat from that untitled song is now combined with the sound of my Mac Plus ejecting a floppy disk as my memory of my year-long audio assault on the poor people who lived with me.
Sweet Thursday, Pizzicato Five I was taking beginning Japanese language classes in Japantown over the weekends, and I’d always hit the bookstore afterwards to pick up an import CD from Pizzicato Five, Fantastic Plastic Machine, or game and anime soundtrack. I was riding back to Marin from San Francisco on 101, listening to The Sound of Music by Pizzicato Five, and I was enjoying it so much that I drove past my exit and figured I’d keep going north until the album ended. I thought “Sweet Thursday” was beautiful (and still do), but this day in particular was after a class where we’d gone over the days of the week. The phrase “mokuyoubi no asa” (Thursday morning) jumped out at me, because it was the first time I’d heard it as the word for “wood” plus one of the words for “day.” I’d spent all my time learning vocabulary through arbitrary memorization, and it had never occurred to me that the Japanese names for the days of the week had a system just like English, with “sun” + “day,” “moon” + “day,” “Odin’s” + “day”, etc. It suddenly felt like the language would be more accessible and fun if I looked for patterns and similarities instead of thinking of it as something completely foreign and difficult.
Sweet Thing, Van Morrison For some reason, the two best Van Morrison songs (“Sweet Thing” and “Into the Mystic”) weren’t on his best of collection from 1990. So I heard multiple covers of the song before I heard the original. One was from an album by The Waterboys, and the other was during a live show by the band Poi Dog Pondering. (The first two Poi Dog Pondering concerts I saw at the Georgia Theater in Athens are still the best concerts I have ever been to). One day after classes, I went to one of the used music stores in Athens and finally bought a copy of Astral Weeks. I listened to it on the drive home but didn’t even make it to the end of Baxter Street before I was entranced by it — a flowery word, but I don’t know how to describe it. It really wasn’t like any album I’d ever heard before. I drove around the campus and then around the town to give enough time for the tape to finish, then I rewound it and started it over again.
“And I shall raise my hand into the nighttime sky and count the stars that’s shining in your eye” is still one of the most romantic lines from any song I’ve ever heard.
Next time: Starbucks music, both good and bad! My eternal and ever-evolving crush on Neko Case! And I can’t stress enough how weird a kid I was in the 1970s! You don’t want to miss this one!
Compiling a playlist that didn’t help me sleep, but did start me on a weird ride though my teens and twenties.
My friend is participating in something called “Holidailies” this December, and while I definitely can’t post every day, I like the idea of taking part informally and writing as often as I can. For as long as this blog has existed, I’ve been fighting against my natural tendency to write 5000-or-more-word rambling essays that even I get lost in. Writing shorter stuff more often seems like a good counter to that, a good way to be less dependent on Facebook, and a refreshing callback to the early 2000s. And as long as we’re doing flashbacks to the early days of blogging, why not start with an unsolicited playlist?
Last night I was on a very late and delayed cross-country flight back home, so I tried to compile a playlist that would help me sleep. My goal was to get a repeat of my experience with The Shepherd’s Dog by Iron & Wine a few years ago.
For most of my life, I’ve been okay with flying, but there was a period of a couple of years where I would get a severe, morbid anxiety every time I had to get on a plane. Final Destination-style visions of fires, explosions, crashing into buildings, wings shearing off, plunging into the ocean — all kinds of nightmare visions that wouldn’t go away unless I just sat there with my eyes tightly shut and hyperventilated for a couple of hours. At the start of one of these flights, I was feeling too exhausted to panic, so I just closed my eyes and put on some music. It was the first time I listened to The Shepherd’s Dog all the way through, and it was one of the most profoundly, memorably relaxing experiences of my life.
At the risk of sounding like a Sunday School camp counselor advocating a “natural high,” it was better than any experience I’ve had with marijuana, and was even more relaxing than the first time I was prescribed Vicodin. It felt like my spirit floated out of my body, guided by a similarly-floating big-bearded man whispering in my ear but in a way that was neither creepy nor sexual, to a wide stretch of imaginary North Georgia countryside in the summer filled with trees with swings and cicadas and creeks running underneath old wooden train bridges.
As the last song faded out, there was a peaceful silence for a minute and I must’ve fallen asleep, because both the flight and my anxiety were almost over. I won’t go so far as to say that album “cured” me, but the vivid memory of that feeling of relaxation is something I’ve been able to go back to ever since.
Last night’s attempts to “recapture the magic” didn’t work, but they did have another oddly profound effect: conjuring up unexpectedly vivid sense memories of the most significant time I heard each song. It’s been a while since I’ve really paid attention to the music I was listening to, instead of treating it just as background music, so it was surprising to keep coming up with such vivid and specific associations with each one. The first was
The Rain Song, Led Zeppelin In high school, I got all of the Led Zeppelin albums on vinyl, even though cassettes were what all the cool people were using. All the Zeppelin album covers were weird and varied and maybe even thrillingly blasphemous to a sheltered Pentecostal kid, so it was worth it to get the vinyl and record it to a tape on my friend’s turntable. That had the added benefit of letting me make hand-drawn art for the tape sleeve that mimicked the album.
Hearing “The Rain Song” makes me remember trying to copy the typefaces on Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti, and then putting the tape in my Walkman and lying on my bed in the dark, letting this song wash over me over and over again. I can guarantee you that during the part that starts I felt the coldness of my winter, I would launch into a fit of air drums at least as embarrassingly, earnestly clumsy as the cheesiest caricature of a dorky 1980s teen that you’ve ever seen on TV or movies. This was also the first time I can remember feeling that floating-out-of-your-body transcendence that listening to great music can evoke.
Dreams, Beck This song is terrible at making me drowsy but does a tremendous job of conjuring up a strong memory. This one is recent: I’d just been laid off from eero, and I was driving alone down to Anaheim for a “screw it, I’m unemployed” trip to Disneyland. As I got through the Grapevine and started going through Burbank, the album Torches by Foster the People came on, followed by Colors by Beck. Hearing those two albums back-to-back, in a car, on the I-5 through downtown LA, felt as much the platonic ideal of Los Angeles as anything in Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” video. It was like a sucking on a pure bullion cube of Los Angelesness. I remember the opening hook for “Dreams” came on as I was passing the Citadel outlets in Commerce, and feeling a sense of freedom and belonging that I never felt in southern California. I thought I could totally get used to living in southern California, after years of thinking of LA as nothing more than an obstacle between me and Disneyland.
Next time: suppressed memories of Cibo Matto! Driving in the darkness with Mike Doughty! Annoying my roommates with non-stop Green! A bilingual breakthrough in San Rafael! Don’t miss it!
Shallow takes on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” are a perfect example of faux-progressive pop cultural simplification for the Twitter generation
It’s December, which means it’s time for one of the Internet’s most cherished traditions: writing insipid and uninspired analyses of how the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is creepy and “rapey” (to use Key & Peele’s assessment).
Key & Peele’s parody is four years old, and there are plenty that are even older. This year’s is possibly the most vapid and insufferable version to date, as a couple of indie musicians made an acoustic version that’s updated for our modern sensibilities.
I won’t make a comment on the quality of the music itself, except to say that it’s just really twee and awful and I hate it. But most offensive — yes, even more offensive than making a reference to “Pomegranate LaCroix” and thinking it was a witty punchline — is how it attempts to fix all the problematic aspects of the original instead of making an effort to actually understand the original.
The original song — at least the most common version of it — is a back-and-forth between a woman and a man trying to come up with excuses for why she should spend the night. To suggest otherwise robs the woman of any agency and turns her from a modern, self-aware adult into a gullible victim. It also suggests that adults in the 1940s fell into stereotypes and were all either lecherous or prudish, and nobody realized it until the 1970s came along and everybody got woke. In fact, though, the song is a play against those exact same stereotypes.
What makes me so sure that interpretation is the correct one? Well, if there’s one thing The Young People Today love more than overly simplistic gender swaps and song parodies, it’s a bunch of stuff presented in list format. So here’s Eight Reasons Why A More Sophisticated Comprehension of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is Everything In The World Right Now:
The song was performed by a married couple at parties. For years I’d assumed it had been written for Neptune’s Daughter, but it was actually a duet that writer Frank Loesser performed with his wife. So it’s not the stereotype of the cigar-chomping MGM exec who directs a gullible ingenue to the casting couch; it’s the stereotype of The Thin Man-style sophisticates having dinner parties in which they make fun of less-sophisticated stereotypes like playboy and “good girl.”
It’s a duet. In the MPR write-up linked above, the writer describes the song as “like the ‘Blurred Lines’ of the holiday songbook.” It’s not for dozens of reasons, the most obvious being that the woman in “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has a voice, instead of just being “the hottest bitch in this room.”
It’s a call-and-response. In addition to being a duet, it’s a back-and-forth between two adults. You have to listen to both sides to get it, and you have to listen to how both participants play off each other before singing in unison at the end of each verse. If Liza and Lemanski wanted to “improve” on the song, then in addition to actually making an effort to sing on key, they should’ve chosen to end the song abruptly after she says “I’ve got to go away.” If you’re making a point about consent, then actually make the point.
The woman’s objections are all about keeping up appearances. She never talks about what she wants to do, but instead about what she should do. It’s about her mother worrying, her father being angry, what the neighbors will think, her sister and brother’s suspicions, the kind of gossip she’ll be subjected to. “There’s bound to be talk tomorrow, at least there will be plenty implied.”
The woman is totally into it. “Maybe just a half a drink more.” “I wish I knew how to break this spell.” “I ought to say no no no, sir, At least I’m going to say that I tried.” “The welcome has been so nice and warm.” She’s looking for excuses to stay, and playfully looking for a way to spend the night while still preserving her reputation. She’s talking herself into it just as much as she’s arguing against the man. At the end of each verse, they come together because they’ve agreed on the story they can tell people the next day: she had to spend the night.
Esther Williams is the star of Neptune’s Daughter. Her character isn’t being taken advantage of or fooled by anyone. She’s perfectly aware that Ricardo Montalban’s character is a “playboy.”
The gender-swapped version makes fun of all the stereotypes in play. The version of the song with Betty Garrett as the “wolf” and Red Skelton as the “mouse” is played as a farcical take on the more wry and sophisticated one, and that fact alone shows which stereotypes they were making fun of. When Garrett is portrayed as being “man-crazy” and Skelton as flustered, it’s supposed to be funny because women aren’t “supposed” to be eager for sex and men aren’t supposed to shy away from it. When Skelton does the absurd Spanish accent, it pokes fun of the image of Montalban as a sexy Spanish lothario.
Viva Las Vegas has the clumsy and obvious version. Don’t get me wrong: if I had to go back and live in a movie fantasy version of the past, I’d totally choose the universe of Elvis movies over 1940s romantic comedies. But the duet “The Lady Loves Me” between Elvis and Ann-Margaret is another perfect example of what would happen if you took the same basic setup as “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and removed all the wit and subtlety from it. The two characters are simply arguing, and there’s nothing clever or coy about the woman’s rejections. She’s just parading around for the audience in a bathing suit while getting off on the attention. The “the gentleman’s all wet” bit at the end is presumably a 1964 take on “Grrl Power” that doesn’t actually say or do anything positive.
It’s pretty arrogant to insist that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is supposed to be read exactly as it appears on the surface. In the song, adults could make a wry comment on the idea that “good girls don’t” and that men were perpetually horny aggressors taking advantage of innocent women. Today’s simplistic and reductive hot takes on the song act as if that idea were actually the common belief at the time, and most Americans from 1930-1960 actually did live according to the Hayes Code and network TV standards and practices. Basically, you’ve grown to believe the false version and become skeptical of the real one. (For the record, people didn’t live in black and white before 1950, either).
Okay, so why make an issue of it?
Usually this would warrant about as much concern as worrying about whether Alanis Morissette understands the idiomatic use of “ironic.” It’s well intentioned and at worst harmless, right? Why not remind people about the importance of consent? And isn’t it good to remind guys that they have a responsibility to listen to and respect the people they’re with, and not try to wear them down?
Sure it is, but the problem is that over-simplifications are polarizing. When you find yourself spending years asserting something that’s trivially true — and being rewarded as if you’re making a bold statement — then you gradually chip away at the idea that it’s trivially true. You open the discussion to the idea that the things that are true are in fact somehow controversial, or at least topics about which reasonable people can disagree.
The fact that’s incontrovertibly true about all this is that consent is essential. Only an idiot or a monster would consider that controversial. Idiots and monsters don’t deserve to be part of the conversation, but asserting the shallow and superficial take on an important issue (even if it’s correct) is inviting bullshit to be presented as if it were a reasonable counter-argument.
Reducing everybody who’s performed or enjoyed “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the past 70 years to a clueless, sexist stereotype isn’t progressive. It sets an unacceptably low bar for what constitutes progress.
On the 90s and the Internet and how Kate Bush is amazing.
For a couple of months in 1990, I was completely obsessed with The Sensual World by Kate Bush. It didn’t last for too long before I moved on to be obsessed with The Pogues and the Pixies, and I’d completely forgotten about it until just recently. A few nights ago, YouTube recommended I re-watch Noel Fielding’s brilliant parody of Wuthering Heights, and I had a vague memory that oh yeah, I used to be kind of infatuated with her.
I was trying to remember my favorite song of hers based on a few half-remembered details — what’s that one Kate Bush video where she’s against a black background and flinging gold sparkles everywhere? — and a memory of the chorus but not the actual title Love and Anger. That meant stumbling around all her videos on YouTube trying to find the right one, and coming to a series of conclusions, in roughly this order:
Watching these now is like suddenly remembering vivid details from a dream I had 20 years ago.
Holy crap, Kate Bush is brilliant.
Even if I’d tried, I don’t think I could’ve fully appreciated all this stuff in 1990.
I’d forgotten how different the music industry was back before Napster and the ubiquitous internet.
I never thought much about how important context is to appreciating a work of art.
No really, she’s just the best.
Until I went to college in a city that prides itself on its music, I only listened to whatever was popular at the time. So when MTV started playing that video for Love and Anger and commenting on what a big deal Kate Bush was and how significant it was to be getting a new album, it was all lost on me. To me, she was just “that woman who sang on that Peter Gabriel song.” I had a vague memory of Running Up That Hill, but had just filed it away in the same folder as Bonnie Tyler and Total Eclipse of the Heart: a synthesizer-heavy pop song by someone who was apparently a lot more popular in the UK than in the US. I can’t remember if I was even aware of Wuthering Heights at the time; if so, I almost certainly dismissed it as someone screeching over overly-precious lyrics. Knowing myself at the time, I probably picked up The Sensual World mostly for the cover, thinking that she looked like Jane Wiedlin and sounded like Cyndi Lauper and was probably worth a listen.
The album is a lot more interesting and varied than the pop record I’d been expecting. Rocket’s Tail in particular is fascinating; I don’t believe I’ve heard it in 25 years, but it all came back suddenly as if it’s been looping constantly in the recesses of my brain. I also suddenly remembered why I didn’t become an obsessive fan back then, and it’s two of the most 1990s reasons imaginable.
One is just raw early 90s proto-hipsterism. I thought the song Deeper Understanding‘s story about a man who retreats from human contact into his computer was facile and paranoid, the same way there a lot of stories around the same time talked about virtual reality and rogue AIs but didn’t seem to understand how computers actually worked, and instead panicked about a super-advanced, cold cyber-world that looked like Second Life. I dismissed it as out-of-touch and irrelevant. (And of course, I’m saying that as someone who now wakes up every morning and immediately grabs his cell phone to check on Twitter and Facebook).
The other reason is that doing a “deep dive” on anyone’s work was, at the time, an investment. In 2015, I started digging around YouTube, Wikipedia, and Apple Music, and within a couple of hours had seen and heard 90% of Bush’s artistic output since 1978. It’s hard for me now to imagine a time without YouTube, much less a time before the web and even USENET, even though I was a computer-fixated nerd back when a 300 bps Vicmodem was a novelty. But essentially, in a time without hypertext, I didn’t have much chance to appreciate what I was listening to.
There’s a 2014 documentary from the BBC called The Kate Bush Story that’s a lot better than it would seem on the surface. It’s the typical VH1 format, where a bunch of celebrities gush about Bush’s work intercut with clips from her videos. It seems about as vapid as a Behind the Music or I Love the 80s show, right down to the sour note of ending with Steve Coogan making a pun about “bush.” And they have interviews with the usual suspects, where Elton John and Tori Amos and Neil Gaiman say that they’re huge fans of Kate Bush.
But of course they are, right? I’m not being entirely dismissive; I was an enormous fan of Amos and Gaiman (I wrote Gaiman a fan letter on the GEnie network! And he sent a personal response with a great story about seeing The Pogues in concert!). But even my vague awareness of Kate Bush as “British and feminine and lots of pianos and literary references and scarves and dancing” fits solidly and predictably into the same category as The Sandman and Little Earthquakes.
And speaking of USENET, I was aware even back during those days that there was a pretty substantial fandom around Bush’s music. But even there, it was named after a song that was relatively obscure in the US. So I thought of it in kind of the same way as Doctor Who pre-Russell Davies: super-popular in Britain and good for them! but completely inaccessible to me.
So to watch that documentary and see St. Vincent and Johnny Rotten and Big Boi and Tricky pop up to say how much her work influenced them, it didn’t just grab my attention, but put everything into a context I hadn’t considered before. And made observations that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own, but seem kind of obvious once they’ve been pointed out to me.
Ooh, it gets dark!
For instance, that Noel Fielding parody of Wuthering Heights. I’d seen it years ago, back when my obsession of the moment was The Mighty Boosh. At the time, I hadn’t appreciated that it was a parody of two versions of the video: the iconic one of her dancing in a field wearing a red dress, but also the studio version with its cartwheels and 70s video-trail effects.
I also hadn’t appreciated that it’s not a mocking parody but a reverential one. The joke isn’t about how weird or fey Bush’s performance is in that video, but that she’s the only person who could pull it off without looking silly. And for that matter, what a touchstone the performance was for her fans. (Proof that it’s not mocking but instead a love letter from a fan is that Bush included Fielding in her remake of the Deeper Understanding video that year).
It’s also about how iconic the imagery is, and how indelibly it’s associated with that song. In several of her early interviews, Bush says (paraphrased) that she studied dance, mime, stage production, and eventually, filmmaking, in order to make visual extensions of her songs. To someone raised on MTV and cynicism, that could sound pretentious or disingenuous — videos are promotional material used to sell music, and only inadvertently become artistic works. But then you remember that Bush was doing this before videos were a thing. And you remember how strong the imagery is: I’m about as close to the polar opposite of “waif-like” as a person can get, but I still find it difficult to keep from making the same gesture when I hear the lyric “let me into your window.”
And — even more embarrassingly for me — I hadn’t put any thought into what the song was about. As someone with the perpetual mindset of a teenage boy rolling his eyes at “girls’ stuff” like gothic romances, I hadn’t considered that it was the voice of a dead woman appearing at her lover’s window in the night, pleading to be let inside. So what I’d dismissed as just weird screeching was, of course, completely intentional. For a female songwriter and singer in 1978, The Man with the Child in his Eyes would’ve been a much more accessible debut song. And it would’ve been successful; it’s a beautiful and memorable song that, in my opinion at least, evokes Karen Carpenter’s considerable talent and holds its own. But she deliberately chose her first appearance to be literary and otherworldly.
This Woman’s Work
And she’s done that throughout everything that I’ve seen and heard. Her stuff is clearly influenced by whatever else is going on in music at the time, but there’s a sense that she won’t bother doing anything unless it’s something she finds interesting and unique.
When I first saw the video to Eat the Music from 1993, I thought I’d figured it out: ah, here’s where she went through her World Music phase just like Peter Gabriel and the Talking Heads and pretty much everyone else in the mid 80s through early 90s. But it’s gloriously sinister right from the start, with the lyric “Split me open with devotion, put your hand in and rip my heart out.” As the video goes on, it gets even weirder and more sinister, as the spinning becomes unstoppable, and the other dancer’s eyes roll into the back of his head, and it becomes so frenzied that everyone collapses. What I’d mistaken as a novelty song or a one-off becomes (obviously, in retrospect) a crucial part of a concept album about obsession and loss.
Rubberband Girl from the same album sounds a little like an early 90s Eurythmics song, and the warehouse in which its video was filmed is the same one that supplied the backing bands and ceiling fans for countless other 90s videos. But then there’s that choreography, which suggests that her seemingly effortless grace is actually the result of her being pulled, exhausted and against her will. And then it, too, descends into a kind of frenzy that belies the “bend without breaking” sentiment of the lyrics. She’s bound into a straightjacket and is compelled to wave her arms around, all filmed with the harsh light of a Twin Peaks murder scene.
Apparently, all the videos from The Red Shoes are from a long-form video that featured Miranda Richardson (she has a lot of videos that feature British comedic actors) and one of her early mentors, Lindsay Kemp, which explains the non-sequitur beginnings and endings. Hilariously, in 2005 interview she describes it “a load of bollocks,” while I’m here 10 years later trying to make sense of its bizarre transitions. Removed from that context, Moments of Pleasure is even more fascinating — starting with a whispered soliloquy and then showing nothing but her spinning and tumbling over a series of backdrops. It’s at least as beautiful and powerful a song as This Woman’s Work, but what’s most remarkable to me is how conversational, almost extemporaneous, the lyrics are. It seems like the natural impulse for a song about death and loss would be to make the lyrics flowery and poetic, but having something so prosaic against such a moving orchestration just makes it all the more real.
And speaking of This Woman’s Work, I suspect that the real reason I stopped listening to The Sensual World was that it was too exhausting. Even without the video, it’s hard to hear that song without feeling emotionally drained by the end. Even while cynical early 90s me dismissed as “maudlin” to disguise the fact it never fails to get a sob out of me.
Same with Love and Anger, which I still love but had thought was nothing more than a product of its time with a simple “we’re all in this together!” message. Paying even a little bit of attention to the lyrics shows it to be more sophisticated than that: I think it’s about passion and empathy, expressing even what we think of as negative emotions instead of being repressed and “waiting for a moment that will never happen.”
In an interview around the release of The Sensual World, she said that it was her first album that was written from a feminine perspective, since up until then, all her musical and artistic influences had been men. Which, I think, is selling herself short, since so much of her entire body of work is uniquely feminine. In that BBC documentary, Neil Gaiman calls out the maternal aspects of the songs Breathing and Army Dreamers. The song that Americans around my age were likely most familiar with — Running Up That Hill — is a call for empathy disguised as synth-heavy 80s pop with some terrific choreography. (With the fascinating, slightly sinister twist of making it sound selfish with “let me steal this moment from you now.”)
“It’s in the Trees! It’s Coming!”
And then there’s Hounds of Love, which is so good that it kind of makes me angry that attitudes like the one 1990s me had kept it from taking off in the US and so I didn’t get to see and hear it until 2015.
The story I keep reading is that Bush was savvy enough to build on her early success from her first two records, to the point that she was able to free herself from the record label and do everything on her own terms. By the time of Hounds of Love, she was not only writing, singing, and producing her own music, but had built her own studio and conceived of and directed the video to the title track. It’s driving and cinematic and enigmatic, and it’s fantastic in the way that I usually think of Terry Gilliam’s movies as being. (And apparently, she collaborated with Gilliam on the video for Cloudbusting on the same album). In yet another interview, she casually mentions drawing storyboards for the video as if it were no big deal.
One of the reasons I admire St Vincent so much is that she’s able to go all-in on the conceptual art side of her work, and then in “real life” is as personable and down-to-earth as it gets. (Unlike, say, Bjork, who’s brilliant but whom I’d never, ever want to meet in person).
Kate Bush comes across the same way, as a person who pours all her imagination and idiosyncrasies into her work. This results in fantastic things like Sat in Your Lap from The Dreaming, which seems to me as early 80s prog rock as early 80s prog rock gets. And then this wonderful appearance on a British children’s show, where she says she’s lucky because she got to wear roller skates in her video, and she lets a little girl in the audience wear one of the minotaur masks.
It probably goes without saying that Kate Bush is objectively, almost impossibly, beautiful. But even that aspect seems to be something she always treated as incidental — great insofar as it helps the music, but never something that should take away from the music. Experiment IV, for instance, is a sci-fi horror story where she lets a bunch of comedic actors (and her then-partner) take the focus while she takes a bit part as a harpy and a horrible monster.
Most amazing to me is Babooshka from 1980. As with Wuthering Heights, she treats dance as a crucial part of telling the story of the song. She appears both as the scorned wife and as a wild-eyed Valkyrie. The first thing that amazes me about this video is imagining the concept stage: when coming up with ideas of how this alter-ego character would look, evidently Bush saw this piece of art by Chris Achilleos and thought, “Hmm, I bet I could probably pull that off.” The second amazing thing is that she totally does pull it off. And there’s absolutely no hint of pandering and zero sign of the Male Gaze. It has the vibe of an artist completely in control of her work, her appearance, and her sexuality.
Also remarkable to a viewer first seeing it in 2015 is Bush’s interpretation of the song at the time. I doubt it was ever intended to be a “deep” song, but I would’ve taken it as an indictment of the husband for discarding his wife once she was no longer young and beautiful. Bush’s take on it was entirely from the woman’s perspective, though; the husband was mostly incidental but sympathetic. Bush describes the song as being about the wife’s self-doubt and paranoia bringing about her own downfall.
At the risk of reading too much into it, I think that’s a perfect metaphor for Bush’s career. There’s a recurring theme of empathy and love and human interaction throughout her work, but never a sense that she’s defined by anyone else. The songs are inescapably hers, and even when she’s playing a character, it’s a character that she created.
And the final thing I find fascinating about Babooshka is that it sounds so much like an ABBA song. On every album of hers that I’ve heard, the sound is all over the place, reminding me at times of ABBA, the Carpenters, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Peter Gabriel, Kirsty MacColl, the Eurythmics, Pink Floyd, Queen, and probably dozens more that I’d recognize if I had more expansive taste in music. (Not to mention artists like St Vincent and Tori Amos, who’ve declared outright that Bush was an influence on their own work). But even when you can place it in a specific time period, it never sounds derivative or pandering.
If she were pandering, there’d be no explanation for Delius, which is beautiful and memorable and undeniably, unabashedly weird. Or for that matter, the concept album second half of Hounds of Love, which has tracks that are just as melodic as anything from her singles, not to mention an Irish reel that would’ve made me a lifelong fan if I’d only heard it when I was in the middle of my obsession with the Pogues. But it’s not at all concerned with being commercial, and only exists as a purely personal expression.
Even when that expression isn’t high-minded or cerebral, and just putting on costumes and goofing off with a bunch of friends and collaborators.
Stepping Out of the Page
So in other words: yes I said yes, I finally get it now. And what’s more, I wouldn’t have been able to get it in 1990. If for no other reason than I didn’t have Neil Gaiman to explain to me that the title track of The Sensual World was inspired by and referenced Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, and I didn’t have easy access to Ulysses to get the significance of that.
And even if I had, I would’ve thought that the significance of that soliloquy is just a woman’s anachronistically frank and vulgar discussion of her own sexuality. I would have — and did — come to the vapid, simple-minded conclusion that it’s just about being “sex-positive.” But the whole significance is much more than that; it’s how the stream of consciousness is an unpunctuated torrent of the entirety of her experience: vaginas and religion and landladies and chocolates and paintings and gossip and cigarettes and cleaning semen out of sheets and castles and geraniums and breasts and flowers of the mountain. And how she says yes to all of it.
And I wouldn’t have had instant access to decades of a body of work, and all the articles and documentaries and interviews that interpret it and put it in context. So I couldn’t have fully appreciated how that soliloquy would be significant to someone who’d spent years pouring all of her work and energy into sharing her experience without much thought over whether it was commercial or even accessible but just that it was genuine and uniquely hers.
For almost every one of Kate Bush’s videos, I can instantly tell roughly when it was made, whether she was responding to the “look” of the decade or whether she was helping define it. This is mid-to-late 70s, that’s clearly mid-80s, that’s absolutely a product of the early 90s. The exception is The Sensual World, which is timeless. It could’ve been made last year, or it could’ve been dropped to Earth as a response to the Voyager disc.
I’d said that seeing it again recently was like vividly remembering images from a dream, and that’s still the case. But now that I’ve caught up with the people who’ve been lifelong fans of Kate Bush, the images are even more powerful. In that documentary, St Vincent describes Hounds of Love, Stefon-like, as “that thing where it burns like wildfire and then comes alive,” and Viv Albertine describes it like repressed sexuality, as if “the whole song’s on a leash, but you know it’s gonna escape and burst and run free.”
For me, it’s that tremendous moment of release in The Sensual World where she removes her headdress and is dancing barefoot in front of a field of flames. And seeing her confidently and effortlessly dance backwards down a moonlit path in a velvet dress is the most beautiful thing.
Somebody who doesn’t know much about music tries to explain why he loves St. Vincent
The song says that this is no time for confessing, but if I’m going to be talking about St. Vincent (or for that matter, St. Vincent) I’ve got to make a couple of confessions:
First is that while I consider myself a huge fan of St. Vincent, I really only like about 50% of her music. The songs run hot and cold with me, and I’m usually indifferent to at least half the songs on any particular album. But the songs I like, I adore. Actor is my favorite of her albums, even though at this point I treat it as a 5-song EP — but since those five songs include “Black Rainbow,” “The Strangers,” and “Marrow,” that ranks it as one of the best albums ever recorded. And if I’m being honest, I really only like one song from Strange Mercy — but it’s one of my favorite songs ever:
My second confession is that I never really “got” David Bowie, even though I’ve always wished I could see and hear what everybody else seemed to. My first exposure to him was Let’s Dance, and I just didn’t (and still don’t) see the appeal. And then when Labyrinth came out, it was already established that he was some kind of superstar. It really wasn’t until Seu Jorge stripped the songs down in The Life Aquatic that I could appreciate how many really good songs he’d written. Of course by that point, I’d already missed all the years of being exposed to his Persona, which is as much a part of the show as his music.
I mention the first part because St. Vincent is an outstanding album by any measure. Actor is still my favorite, but St. Vincent is probably her best. Most of the reviews, and Annie Clark herself, mention that the album’s more confident and self-assured. Usually I dismiss that kind of thing as meaningless music review talk, about as meaningful as the language used by wine connoisseurs. But it really comes through here. St. Vincent sounds like someone who doesn’t have anything to prove.
She’s an excellent guitar player, and it kind of became her schtick, undoubtedly because of the novelty of it: a beautiful young woman with an angelic voice suddenly pulling out an electric guitar and just wailing on it. I don’t think she ever used it as a crutch; it was never like early Van Halen albums that’d just screech to halt for the sake of “Eruption.” But each song still had the sense of and here’s the guitar solo. (And don’t get me wrong; that’s a big part of why “Black Rainbow” is still my favorite of her songs). But the new record feels as if she said, “Okay, I’ve pretty much got the guitar covered for what I want to get out of it.” Now it’s part of a new sound consistent throughout the album: a drum kit, minimoog, and guitar with none of them drawing too much attention to itself.
In an interview with NPR’s All Songs Considered podcast, Clark described the sound as taking analog instruments and processing them to sound digital and artificial. Actor experimented with a thematic (almost diegetic?) sound as well, and it’s why I love it — my crush on St. Vincent was sealed the moment she described making a rock/pop album inspired by the music in Sleeping Beauty — but I also have to admit it’s a little bit “on the nose.” Take something sweet and melodic and put a dark twist on it: paint the black hole blacker. St. Vincent feels less like an intellectual exercise.
But what really makes St. Vincent work as a complete album is one song: “Regret.” Right at the point when the album could run out of steam and have me reaching for the controls to jump back to “Birth in Reverse,” she launches into a second half that feels as if it has the potential to go anywhere. She’s never been at a loss for a good hook, but dropping everything down to just her guitar and a drum kit instantly evokes Houses of the Holy for me. Then “Bring Me Your Loves” works better than it has any right to; is this turning into a Moog-rock dance album? Apparently not, since “Psychopath” tumbles backwards through 80s pop and then “Every Tear Disappears” turns it into a Berlin record. Combined with the visuals of the “Digital Witness” video and the album cover, it all seems to exist as part of a late-70s sci-fi movie (Clark described the look as “near-future cult leader”) that’s predicting the 90s nostalgia for the 80s, transmitted into 2014.
Which is why I mentioned the second confession: St. Vincent makes me feel like I’m getting the 70s art-rock experience that David Bowie’s fans got but that I missed out on. It’s not as explicit as anything that, say, Janelle Monaé’s doing (or Ziggy Stardust, for that matter) but it does all feel like a concept album. Finally I get glam rock I can call my own!
Best of all, it seems as if my favorite songs from her earlier albums were just a kind of prologue for what’s coming up. They were displays of talent with frequent flashes of genius here and there; this is a burst of creativity. Pulling in disparate influences, experimenting with all the different things she can do with her voice (she doesn’t sound the same on any two songs, much less the same as she did on Strange Mercy), and combining a good old-fashioned hook with an art-rock high concept.
And the whole thing’s got her sense of dark humor running throughout. There’s a laughably defensive article on Buzzfeed saying that the album’s fine and whatever, but St Vincent just doesn’t get the internet, man. (“…extremely condescending toward the diverse range of people who regularly use social media.”) It’d be silly enough because “Digital Witness” perfectly describes the always-connected loneliness for those of us who watch movies or listen to albums while simultaneously trying to come up with clever blog post titles, or now judge every memorable sight based on whether it’s best suited for Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. It’s even sillier when you combine it with “Huey Newton,” which — according to Clark, since the lyrics are kind of impenetrable — is about being in a hotel tripping on Ambien and falling down an Internet browsing rabbit hole.
That sense of humor and self-awareness is what bumps my admiration into shameless fandom. There are plenty of artists whose work I love but would never want to meet them in person; Annie Clark, on the other hand, seems like she’d be fascinating to meet. Hear her talk about guitar technique and pedals and her artistic influences, and it’s clear she knows what she’s doing. Watch her in a video or a live performance and she’s straight-up weird, putting everything into the creativity of a performance. Her teaming up with David Byrne was a surprise to me but seems natural in retrospect: if there’s anybody I can see putting on a giant suit and twitching and shuddering across a stage, it’s St. Vincent. But then she effortlessly turns it off. In interviews, and even between songs, she comes across as completely devoid of pretension or any sense of self-importance. Not as a persona but as a person.
I’ve already listened to the new record more times than I can count, and it’s got me excited about what’s coming next.
I’m only three-to-six years behind in hearing about The Go! Team.
It’s The Go! Team, and they’re loud, English, and awesome. This may be a new record for me: I’ve gone from “never heard of them before” to being a mega-fan in 24 hours.
I heard “samples from 60s and 70s kung fu and blaxploitation movies, horns, cheerleaders, and a pretty hot female rapper” and I was sold. As an extra added bonus, turns out they’re also the ones who did that terrific song from Little Big Planet that I was never able to find [“Get it Together” from Thunder, Lightning, Strike, in case that link goes bust]. So I’ve been a fan for years and didn’t know it.
Also highly recommended: “Milk Crisis” and the PBS-in-the-70s-tinged “My World”. I can’t get enough of this stuff. My favorite by far, though, is “The Wrath of Marcie”, which I’m still hearing even when the video’s not playing:
The word on their website is they’ve got a new album Rolling Blackouts coming out in January (UK)/February (US) 2011.
I frequently wake up with some random 80s pop song going through my head, which means I get to spend the rest of the day wondering what it all means. Occasionally it leads somewhere very dark.
Today’s song is “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield. Ostensibly it’s a song about a young man — Mr. Springfield himself, since he wrote the song — infatuated with a woman he can’t have. “Unrequited love,” according to the Wikipedias.
But I can’t help but notice that he seems a lot more preoccupied with Jessie himself than with his girl. We don’t know anything about her, like a name for instance, other than “property of Jessie.” (I’m assuming some kind of mail-order bride type of arrangement). All we know is that she has eyes, and she also has a body (he just knows it). In fact, Mr. Springfield keeps vacillating between wanting her, and being willing to settle with a woman like her.
We know a good bit about Jessie, though. Jessie was a friend — no, a good friend. So good a friend that Mr. Springfield is driving himself crazy thinking about him having sex. As guys tend to do, think about their friends having sex enough to write songs about it. He can’t even fantasize about her, he keeps thinking about her and Jesse doin’ it. It’s like if you couldn’t have a sex fantasy about Catherine Zeta-Jones without including Michael Douglas. The subtext is pretty clear: instead of holding her, why can’t Jessie be holding him in his arms late, late at night? He “feels so dirty” when they start talking cute, which is how they described it back in the 80s before they came up with the term “self-loathing.”
I started to wonder if maybe the whole song is supposed to be creepy-ironic. Like it’s really about jealousy instead of unrequited love. But you don’t usually see that kind of sophistication in a song that rhymes “cute” with “moot.”