Two tangentially-related tunes for Tuesday, to remind me how I was so much more blissfully ignorant before Wikipedia
There’s a new 10-year anniversary version of Foster the People’s album Torches out now, which is weird because I’d swear it only came out 5 years ago, and also because I’m still somehow 35 years old. That made me think of my favorite track from an album full of great tracks, “Houdini.”
Which reminded me of the first time I heard the song, while watching my boyfriend (now fiance) play SSX Tricky at his apartment. Except that song wasn’t in Tricky, it was in the version of SSX that came out 10 years later in 2012.
In reality, Tricky is credited as producer on “Enjoy.” Which isn’t my favorite track on the record, but it’s memorable and great for the album’s overall pacing. Plus I appreciate how much she commits to the subjunctive in the lyrics. Is “I wish this be enough” grammatically correct? I dunno, but it doesn’t matter if you can make it work!
This wildly careening train of thought is proof that my memory isn’t the most solid, but instead of thinking about that, I’m going to focus on my abilities!
What could be worse than an earworm? Two earworms!
The only thing worse than getting an earworm is getting it in the form of a mash-up. This week I’ve had “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence drilling its way through my brain, and I made the mistake of listening to the version sung by Goofy (by ProZD) and then that got stuck in my head.
And because viruses mutate, over the week, this has gotten merged with “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia to form a horrible, millennium-spanning Aussie Pop/Nu-Metal hybrid:
Wake me up! I’m all out of faith Can’t wake up! This is how I feel Save me! I’m cold and I am shamed, lying naked on the floor
Edited to add: I hadn’t heard any mash-ups of these songs before, but of course it’s not surprising at all that they already exist. The best one I’ve found is “Bring Me Torn Life” by Jed K.
These next ones are the first song on their old albums
I was a freshman in college in 1988, and I had a CD player and two CDs: Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits, and Green by REM. It’s odd how even now, over 30 years later, the opening of “Rhiannon” transports me back to that dorm room, when I had no clue what I was doing but was still arrogant and optimistic enough to believe that I did.
And because I had those two CDs on constant — and I mean constant — rotation, I’m sure the opening of “Rhiannon” means something very different to my poor roommates and our neighbors. We had a downstairs neighbor who was straight-up obsessed with the song “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction, and would play it in a constant loop, to the point where that beginning bass line sends shivers up my spine to this day. I hope I managed to instill in them the same dread over the beginning to “Pop Song 89.”
Later I would go on to UGA, where cosmic justice was delivered to me in the form of having to hear “It’s The End of the World As We Know It” at least twice daily by the REM-obsessed youths of Athens, after I’d kind of gotten tired of them.
The video for “Pop Song 89” must’ve had a lot of horned-up UGA undergrads extremely twitterpated, seeing as how it had a long-haired Michael Stipe dancing shirtless in harlequin leggings (along with three also-topless women, which was likely stated to be a bold statement about the hypocrisy of American prudishness about the human body but was more likely just an excuse for Michael Stipe to dance shirtless in a video).
Once again, he’s used the video to promote charity donation, this year emphasizing three immediate causes: protecting access to safe abortions in Texas, recovery in New Orleans after Hurricane Ida, and campaigning for responsible climate policy.
Try to remember to donate if you’re in a position to do so! Hey, that reminds me of a song. I was unaware that Harry Belafonte had done a fairly well-known version of “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks, which is nice to discover. I’ve liked the song ever since I had to sing it for an audition once1I did not get the part., but every version I’ve ever heard is almost cringingly white, like it’s not incidental but they’re leaning heavily into the whiteness of it.
Continuing a theme for the week, I guess, with two songs from ABBA
If I’m sharing my odd pre-adolescent crushes with the internet, I should probably mention Benny Andersson. I was obsessed with ABBA as a kid, even by gay boy standards.
I’m not sure how exactly I first saw their videos — we didn’t get cable until after I’d “outgrown” them, so I guess it was Night Tracks? — but I was still impressionable enough that the one for “Take a Chance on Me” was hugely formative. One of my favorite songs being performed by a beardy man who dressed kind of like Han Solo? I was completely on board.
I’m also not sure exactly how obsession with ABBA became stereotyped as a gay thing. Obviously, the costumes were over the top, but it was the 1970s. There were plenty of glam pop and rock groups that were even more extravagant but weren’t publicly made up of straight couples. Still, the stereotype is pervasive enough that I know of multiple stores in predominantly gay neighborhoods catering to gay customers, called “Does Your Mother Know?” Which is a song that almost sounds more like Cheap Trick than ABBA.
It used to bug me that so many of the most common stereotypes applied to me; nobody likes being a basic bitch. But now there’s something kind of comforting about realizing you’ve got a common frame of reference with so many other people. As I’m looking through old videos, hearing songs that I’d completely forgotten about but somehow I can still sing along with every single word, it feels like I’ve had Agnetha Fältskog floating over my shoulder all this time, coming to me in times of trouble to whisper about good days and bad days.
Surf Guitar and Outer Space are two great tastes that taste great together
Today’s theme for the Tune Two-Fer: Space Surf Guitar!
Although I’d heard examples of it previously, the first time I became aware of combining surf rock and sci-fi was on Space Mountain at Disneyland, when it debuted the soundtrack with Dick Dale doing a space surf version of Carnival of the Animals. It seemed like such a novelty, even though it made perfect sense: the “golden age” of surf music roughly coincided with the popularity of sci-fi B movies and TV series.
I admit that I’d always just assumed that combining space and surf guitar was a novelty the Pixies invented, on Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde. In my defense, if you compare their cover of “Cecilia Ann” on Bossanova with the original by the Surftones, it does sound like the song had spent decades Earthbound until the Pixies added otherworldly organs and echoes.
The above links are from Apple Music; here are the Spotify versions, if that’s your thing:
Marveling at how many layers there are to being a pop star and how much you have to do to get any kind of message out these days
I swear I’m not trying to maximize my SEO or anything; I’ve just been really genuinely enjoying Halsey’s new album and all the overblown, ostentatious marketing about it.
When I saw the album cover on Apple Music — the singer posed as a queen on an elaborate throne of bent metal, wearing a crown, a relatively understated gown, and minimal make-up, with one breast exposed, looking to the side while holding a baby to face the viewer — I had the most geriatric response possible: “Well, good for her!”
But really, it’s such a good image and it says everything the album wants to say, perfectly and immediately: it’s about femininity, motherhood, and power. It fits in with the medieval aesthetic of the whole album and its associated IMAX movie, functioning perfectly as both marketing and as artist statement. It shouldn’t be controversial at all, and I was briefly happy to think that we’d all finally grown up enough to realize that it’s not controversial. That’s the end of that, and good for… oh no wait it can’t be that simple.
I was in Target yesterday, where there’s still a tiny section in which they try to sell music on physical media, and while I didn’t dare go into that section — it was full of darkness and mists, and the echoing cries of Ariana Grande — I did start wondering how the cover would be received when it was on display in the more prudish parts of the country. Won’t someone think of the children who have never been confronted with the sight of a woman’s breast?!
Sure enough, there’s a Target Exclusive Vinyl edition of the album, and its version of the cover is hilariously cautious, deftly pushing the baby up and over a skosh, so that its hand covers Halsey’s offending nipple.
I also found this article in Variety from July with a press statement (from Instagram, apparently) describing the cover as part of an attempt to get rid of the stigma around breastfeeding, and to dispel outdated notions of the Madonna/whore, in which a woman can be either motherly or sexual but not both. That’s giving wide exposure of a great message to a younger audience, and I’m all for it.
Except it’s undercut by the fact that the Variety article itself contains the censored version at the top and embeds the uncensored version via Instagram within the article. It’s a hypocritical double standard, just driving home that when marketing and artist statement are unable to peacefully co-exist, marketing is always going to win.
I’m still extremely thankful to that Variety article for exposing me to this fantastic video from Halsey’s team, unveiling the album artwork back in July at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It’s far too long at 13 minutes, most of which is dead time showing Halsey traipsing through the halls checking out depictions of the Madonna and other Renaissance Moms with an inscrutable expression somewhere between “I totally get it now” and “Holy hell I’ve got to pee again already it’s only been like five minutes being pregnant suuuuuuuhhhhhcccks.” They also look back to the camera occasionally, as if to say, “Do you get it yet?” Finally, they s l o w l y walk out to the lobby to reveal the main exhibit: a giant framed print of the cover, taller than they are. Halsey yanks off the covering and walks out of frame, as if to say, “Yeah, deal with it.”
I genuinely, unironically like the overblown audacity of the whole thing. And while I understand that it threatens to undermine Halsey’s own contributions to keep mentioning Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s work on this album, I don’t see it as a slight. It feels to me like a really successful collaboration. This video reminds me so much of the vibe of The Downward Spiral-era Nine Inch Nails videos: simultaneously silly and cool. (“Mr. Reznor, please stop throwing your microphone away. We’ve talked about this. They’re expensive, and you need it to buy your house. These microphones are what make your house hot.”) I don’t like it because it’s silly — although my favorite part of the Met unveiling video by far is that they committed to the silent “Oh hello, I didn’t see you there,” opening, which is hilarious — it’s laughably absurd, and it’s thoughtful and earnest and well executed, at the same time, without collapsing into one or the other no matter how many times I observe it.
The idea behind the cover simply isn’t controversial; technically it may be more revealing but it’s still 10,000 times less sexualized than, say Halsey’s video for “You should be sad.” Which is itself a case of getting sillier and sillier as the video progresses, to the point where they’re sprawled out naked as Lady Godiva on a white horse. (And I’d bet you anything that the part that caused the most grief wasn’t all the mostly-nude people grinding on each other, but that they say “fucking” in a non-sexual context). After all, it’s not exactly news that record companies are eager to show super-sexualized images of young women to sell music, but will freak out if the young women try to take control over their own sexuality or to say anything with it.
But it’s not a particularly deep idea, either; certainly not something that requires 13 minutes of starting blankly at paintings to get across. It would be a little hypocritical to accuse anybody of making such a big deal out of an exposed breast, when the artist themselves is literally unveiling it in a museum.
It’s all part of this gigantic marketing blitz driven by people who have decided that Halsey is going to be a super-star no matter what, dammit. Just looking for articles for Halsey’s own take on the album, this weekend, I’ve learned more about them than I know about most musicians I actively follow. It feels invasive and, inescapably, less than genuine. I realize that that’s just how the business is now, where you have to have an entire alternate persona and multi-media marketing blitz just to make a dent in the public consciousness.
It’s also made it near impossible for commercial success to coexist with earnest sentiment. I’m not a fan of St Vincent’s current album Daddy’s Home, but I realized recently that it’s not just a case of disliking a bunch of songs while looking forward to the next album in a year or two. It feels like I’m rejecting this entire new persona she’s built for herself, pounding us over the head with 1970s imagery and merchandise that says “Daddy.” (And I confess I totally bought one of the Daddy shirts because I thought it’d be funny, and therefore I am part of the problem). It feels like it’s getting harder and harder to find out what’s real at the core of any of it, or whether it’s all just commerce.
Maybe sometime this century, the US will be able to get over its prudishness and misogyny, and stop sending out messages to women like “we’ll pay to see you naked, and you should be ashamed for it.” I’m just skeptical that the positive change is going to come embedded in a multi-million dollar marketing campaign.
Halsey’s new album feels experimental enough to make me a fan, finally.
Halsey’s not completely new to me, although until about an hour ago, the entirety of my knowledge of their work was based off that episode of Saturday Night Live they hosted. (I’m basing Halsey’s pronouns off of an interview on Apple Music). While I was watching the episode, they were enough of a natural that I’d just assumed the show had added a new cast member.
Once I found out they were the musical guest and the host, I was left with the impression that they must just be one of those people — the preternaturally charismatic and beautiful people who can just do everything. It’s convenient I just read Circe, because my reaction is kind of like that character’s reaction to the Olympians: all these aspects of perfection but not much for me to relate to. I more or less liked all of Halsey’s music that I heard afterwards, but the songs passed through me like bran.
The album is produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which to me is most apparent in a track like “The Tradition,” which sounds to me like a song from a soundtrack that’s a little too somber and pleased with itself for being deep, which is the impression I get from most of their soundtrack and Nine Inch Nails work. I don’t even mean that as dismissive as it sounds; they really do manage to add a sense of weight and power to material that might otherwise feel slight.
It left me with the impression that this was going to be Ghosts I-IV but with a pop singer, but I actually don’t think it overwhelms everything. To me, it provides exactly the hook that pulls me in.
My favorite track is “The Lighthouse”, but “Easier Than Lying” is the point where I was struck that the album was something interesting. On its own, the song seems to me like fairly predictable early 2000s pop/punk; something that I can’t place exactly but I’d swear that I’ve heard it before. But in context with what came before and after, it felt Evanescency: maybe a little too self-serious to be taken entirely seriously, but damn if I don’t have the song stuck in my head, and it won’t go away. (And if you told me “1121” was an Evanescence cover, I’d believe it).
The rest of the album jumps between styles, but I think it manages to feel coherent. Much of it feels familiar to the point of being derivative — going from “Lilith” to “Girl is a Gun” in particular gave me the oddest feeling of deja vu to the soundtrack to The Saint. Not for any direct reference so much as for being a mish-mash of electronic music styles that somehow holds together.
In honor of Biz Markie, two tracks from one of my favorite albums.
“Intergalactic” from Hello Nasty (as opposed to the video version) ends with what sounds like Biz Markie demoing the style that the boys kind of ended up using in the song. (“Is that an echo?”)
Hello Nasty is easily my favorite Beastie Boys record, and it’s one of my top 10 of all time, so even if I’m mistaken and that’s not what was going on, nobody tell me. I like the memory better.
Biz Markie died last week, from severe complications from diabetes. The memorials I saw online all talked about his hit “Just a Friend,” but I’ve always thought about him in relation to Hello Nasty. That’s not back-handed or condescending. It may not be his album, but the album wouldn’t have become such a classic without him. He’s got such an outsized presence — or at least my favorite tracks — that in my mind, it’s a collaboration, not a guest appearance.
Maybe even more than “Body Movin'” and “Intergalactic,” I think my favorite track on Hello Nasty is “The Grasshopper Unit (Keep Movin’)”. On the Deluxe version of the album, there’s a neat outtake called “The Biz Grasshopper Experiment” that gives an idea how the track came together. You probably can’t go wrong if you’ve got an echo delay effect and Biz Markie as your hype man.