A Big Nasty Redhead At My Side

Trying to figure out living in Los Angeles and songs about Los Angeles

This week we moved to Los Angeles, which really isn’t any of the internet’s business1Nothing personal, but you’ve seen the internet and you know how it is, but this blog is the closest thing I have to a long-running journal.

What is more in line with this blog is that I still can’t fully figure out what’s going on with the song “I Love LA” by Randy Newman. I’ve spent the last 40 years2I mean, not constantly. There have been whole decades in there when I haven’t thought about the song at all never being fully sure whether it was sardonic or sincere.

Since I’ve been reminded of the song over the past few weeks, I realized just how different 2022 is from 1983. If there’s anything good to come from the bottom dropping out of the music industry and everything going to streaming — apart from the convenience of having almost every song you can imagine immediately accessible from anywhere all the time — is that it’s near-impossible for a song to be inescapable anymore. And “I Love LA” was inescapable in the early 80s. It played every five minutes on the radio, on music video shows and channels, in department stores, in school announcements before the pledge of allegiance, on police scanners, HAM radios, and loudspeaker broadcasts from the correctional dreadnaughts that hovered over every city center.3I say if people are going to keep telling me that they were born after I graduated high school, I get to make shit up about what the 80s were like.

Disney did provide an eerily accurate recreation in the early 2000s with the first version of California Adventure, which broadcast a constant loop of “I Love LA” and “California Dreamin'” from speakers in every corner of the park. But it’s different hearing a song that’s supposed to be nostalgic in a theme park, versus hearing it played as a Top 40 hit in your doctor’s waiting room. So the next time you hear a musician complaining about how Spotify only pays pennies per thousands of streams, you can nod sympathetically while thinking, “Yeah, but at least now I can go years without hearing ‘What a Feeling’ from ‘Flashdance’.”

Anyway. Back in the early 80s, when the song was truly inescapable, I was convinced that it was sincere and genuine and genuinely cheesy. All the horny shots of bikinis and palm trees and stereotypical LA landmarks were standard operating procedure back then. People made shit like that with no trace of shame or irony.

But then, I started thinking, Newman was kind of a satirist. I say “kind of” because I don’t actually know. “Short People” is the only song of his that I know of before he started writing on behalf of sentient toys, so I don’t know if it could be classified as “satire” or just a goofy novelty song. He exists in some kind of nebulous zone between Roger Miller and Rick Dees.

Either way, the song’s clearly not supposed to be entirely sincere. “Look at that mountain/Look at those trees/Look at that bum over there, he’s down on his knees” qualifies as sardonic for early 80s pop music. But is that it? None of the streets he calls out are all that remarkable or scenic; is that supposed to be part of the joke? When he says “Everybody’s very happy ’cause the sun is shining all the time,” is that supposed to be an indictment? Is “It’s just another perfect day” supposed to be like La La Land‘s use of the same phrase, by which I mean the gentlest of toothless sarcasm? Why do I feel like I can’t unlock the mysteries of this dumb pop song?

Ultimately I suppose that wondering whether an ode to Los Angeles is sincere is missing the point entirely. Sincerity seems to be anathema to this city. For as long as I’ve been alive and watching TV, I’ve seen LA be the butt of jokes from people who would never, ever think of living anywhere else. I suspect that Gary Owens on Laugh-In talking about “beautiful downtown Burbank” was as genuine as Roman Mars on 99% Invisible talking about “beautiful downtown Oakland, California,” but the difference is that Burbank is universally and perpetually understood to be laughably bland, even though much of it is actually pretty nice.

I was trying to think of a song that talked about Los Angeles in an undeniably positive way, and I couldn’t come up with anything. “All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow is another song I’ve never been able to read; at first I thought it was an anthem to carefree southern California living, but as they lyrics sunk in, I realized it was kind of a miserable song about deadbeats day-drinking in a nearly empty bar. I guess maybe there always has to be an undercurrent of sarcasm when you’re talking or singing about Los Angeles. If you drain away all the self-awareness, you just end up with something like “Soak Up the Sun.”

I still haven’t fully adjusted to the idea that I no longer live in the Bay Area after living there for over 25 years (which, coincidentally, is half my life). It’s odd to realize that even after so many years, after I started to think of it as “home,” and after making so many friends there, I never really felt like I 100% belonged there. It is an effortlessly gorgeous place, and I’m genuinely looking forward to getting to see it as a tourist instead of a resident again, but I can’t say that it ever felt welcoming. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but I almost always got the feeling that the best I could get from people was begrudging acceptance, a feeling of being tolerated. In the few times I’ve been out in Los Angeles so far, I’ve gotten more friendly and welcoming reactions than not. Is it sincere? Probably not, but again, I suspect that that’s missing the point.

It’s still too early for me to tell how I’m going to adjust to living in a city that I hated until a few years ago, when I stopped seeing it as a traffic-clogged obstacle between me and Disneyland, and started seeing more of the things that made people want to live here. Maybe I’ll finally be discovered and enjoy my second career as a media superstar. Maybe I’ll just end up day-drinking in a nearly empty bar on Santa Monica Boulevard (we love it).

  • 1
    Nothing personal, but you’ve seen the internet and you know how it is
  • 2
    I mean, not constantly. There have been whole decades in there when I haven’t thought about the song at all
  • 3
    I say if people are going to keep telling me that they were born after I graduated high school, I get to make shit up about what the 80s were like.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: I Am Stretched On Your Grave

In case anyone’s forgotten that Sinéad O’Connor is a genius

On Neko Case’s newsletter Entering the Lung (which I recommend to everybody, even if — or especially if — you’re not already a fan of Neko Case!), she’s been writing about how profoundly she was affected by Sinéad O’Connor’s albums Lion and the Cobra and I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

That reminded me of the first time I heard the latter, over 30 years ago (!), and how striking it was to be expecting a late 80s/early 90s pop album and to suddenly hear O’Connor’s version of “I Am Stretched On Your Grave.”

It’s remarkable even on the surface level, and this clip from a concert video shows why. In case it gets removed from YouTube: It’s just O’Connor alone on the stage, singing a haunting folk song over a recording of a drum loop and bass. Occasionally the lights will flash along with the accented drum beats, casting huge shadows on the back wall as if to visually represent what an outsized presence O’Connor has on stage. I love the song, and it’s my favorite from a record I’d only bought because one track was such a big hit that everyone in the US in 1990 was required to own a copy. The traditional fiddle solo by Steve Wickam at the end indirectly introduced me to The Waterboys, which hit me right at the peak of my obsession with the Pogues and Irish folk/punk/pop music.

I only learned today that O’Connor’s version wasn’t a contemporary take on a traditional folk song, but a cover. The words are an English translation of a 17th-century Irish poem, and they were set to a folk tune by Philip King of the band Scullion in 1979. This counts as a Tuesday Two-Fer because the two versions are similar on the surface, but put into context, are remarkably different. The difference reveals the brilliance of O’Connor’s version, which I’m only just appreciating now.

Both are essentially a capella, to accentuate both the power of the singer’s voice and the power of the original poem. It’s full of the dark, sinister imagery of a gothic romance. And it’s resolutely Irish, celebrating and preserving the culture by reinterpreting it for a contemporary audience.

If Sinéad O’Connor had just done all of that and thrown “Funky Drummer” into the mix, it would’ve been brilliant enough. But she takes ownership of the song, not just as a showcase for her voice and her talent at production, but as a creepy interlude on an album full of songs about the things important to her. It’s easier to see now how it fits into the work of a defiantly anti-pop-star artist who was too talented not to be famous. And how she insisted on using her fame to highlight the things she felt passionately about, even as that fame was working hard to destroy her.

For one thing, it’s telling that it’s on the same record as “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a pop song that can’t help being good just because Prince wrote it, but still feels shallow in comparison. That song still wallows in the romanticism of someone pining over a failed relationship, while “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” goes hardcore into all-consuming obsessive grief. Like Kate Bush’s deliberately eerie voice in “Wuthering Heights,” O’Connor howls to suggest not a grief-stricken man, but a banshee doomed to eternally haunt the grave of her lover.

And there’s another layer when it’s put into the context of an album with songs about divorce1“The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” is my second favorite song on the record. Damn, what a good record!, pregnancy, motherhood, independence, and identity. O’Connor doesn’t change the gender of the poem, and leaving it intact acts as an indictment of entrenched misogyny that could be easily overlooked if it were presented as a man singing a traditional folk song:

Oh, and thanks be to Jesus
We did what was right
And your maiden head still
Is your pillar of light

Without changing a word, she drains it of any capacity for being interpreted as a love that transcends death. It becomes the lament of a madman who based his lover’s value on her virginity and her fertility. It comes across not as the loss of a soulmate, but the loss of property.

And yet, it’s not just a simplistic, facile rejection, either. I love that at the end of that concert performance, at the point the traditional fiddle solo takes over, she doesn’t turn the stage over to the soloist. Instead, she does an Irish dance over the recording. It seems to suggest that this isn’t just about the music itself and her arrangement; it’s about her. It’s a part of her heritage, one that she wants to share and celebrate.

The media tried hard to reduce Sinéad O’Connor to all the things that made her weird, as if she were nothing more than an angry bald-headed woman who made grand-standing gestures like tearing up a picture of the Pope on live TV. But there’s a complexity implicit in her music and the way she presented it, deeper than the nihilism of punk and deeper than the simple dichotomies of the present, when people seem eager to reject outright everything they find problematic. I don’t see any hint of irony in O’Connor’s Irish dance; I think she genuinely loves the spirit of rebellion and love of music and poetry that’s part of Irish culture, even if it’s a culture that had a history of trying to destroy people like her. Now I respect that she remained defiantly herself; her version of “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” suggests “in a couple of decades, you might be able to understand this.”

  • 1
    “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” is my second favorite song on the record. Damn, what a good record!

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Kutiman Mash-ups

Today’s episode of Tuesday Tune Two-fer is unique, and requires a special introduction.

Kutiman, master of the video-remix, embraced the spirit of Tuesday Tune Two-fer by posting a ton of short mash-ups using video clips of famous musicians jamming.

My favorites are “Herbie Collins” with Herbie Hancock on organ and Phil Collins on drums, and “Sabbath Boys” mashing up “Intergalactic” and “War Pigs.”

YouTube isn’t letting me embed the latter one, though, so instead I’ll include this short, pleasant combination of two eras of Eurovision.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: It’s Tricky

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.

But that already had me thinking about the record producer Tricky, who as I’ve known for years, produced my favorite Björk album, Post, with his style being most evident in “Army of Me.” Except he didn’t; that song was produced by Graham Massey and Nellee Hooper.

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!

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Bring Me to Torn

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.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Pop Songs 89

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).

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Do You Remember

September 21st… that’s today!

There’s only one tune appropriate for this Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire.

For his final September 21st video, Demi Adejuyigbe made a short film about a guy who started making videos for fun until it became an annual obligation to the point where he enlisted the help of friends in TV and movie production to go all out with multiple sets and choreography and secure the song rights instead of having to use a heavily remixed/amateur version and also getting a shout out from the members of the band.

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.

  • 1
    I did not get the part.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: The Swedish Side-Eye

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.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Surfin’ to Space and Back

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.

“Out of Limits” by The Marketts is the most obvious example I’ve heard; a frankly shameless surf guitar riff on the Twilight Zone theme.

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:

No Tits for Target

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.