Debussy Comes At You Fast

Stumbling through an inadequate description of how Khatia Buniatishvili’s interpretation of Claire de Lune got such a strong response out of me

Last night, as I was trying to get to sleep, I watched a video of Khatia Buniatishvili playing Debussy’s Clair de Lune from her video album Motherland Live: Concert in the Woods. (The embedded video, assuming it still works, is from the same performance, but for some reason has lower audio quality. For me, at least, it was enough to “break the spell.”)

There’s a part in Clair de Lune that always makes me gasp, as the tension of the song “breaks;” in this performance, it’s around 2:15. Hearing it last night, though, I didn’t just gasp. I burst into tears, to the point I was a little concerned for myself.

Suddenly I was like the women in Mulholland Drive listening to “Llorando,” except I wasn’t in an extra-dimensional concert venue; I was lying in my bed watching a performance of a song I’ve heard thousands of times before. Yet there I was, crying like I was auditioning for St. Vincent.1I couldn’t decide which reference I liked better, so I stuck with both.

I started experimenting on myself, like a surgeon with questionable ethics poking different parts of a patient’s exposed brain, to see what kind of reaction they can get. Here’s another video of Buniatishvili performing the same piece, with just as much expression, but while it’s no less beautiful, it didn’t provoke the same response. I watched this neat video from “Rousseau” that all but explains how the song works, and as I’d expected, I got no more emotional than I would have reading (and not understanding) the sheet music. But then I went back to the original, even fast-forwarded to the part that got me last time, and then boom I was crying again.

I have to admit that the music of Claude Debussy kind of scares me. As someone who can barely read sheet music and has little frame of reference for classical music apart from what shows up on compilations, I just don’t understand Debussy’s music at any kind of intellectual level, or how or why it has such an impact on me. I can explain why I burst into tears reading The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager. I can explain why I still gasp every time Raymond Burr looks at the camera in Rear Window, and I can explain why the seemingly mundane image at the end of The Blair Witch Project is more chilling and creepy than any of its contemporaries. I could even make a reasonable attempt of explaining why you can stare at a Magic Eye painting and suddenly see a dolphin.

Another classical music moment that always makes me gasp is Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. (In that performance, it’s the section that starts at around 2:50, and the part that gets me every damn time (even now, as I’m surgically picking it apart) is at 3:35). But at least with that, I feel like I get it. As in a performance of Peter and the Wolf for children, I can pick out the different parts of the orchestra, and I know what kind of emotional response they’re designed to provoke. I can imagine Copland going to the Adirondacks or Yosemite or wherever he went, looking out over the vistas, hearing this kind of instrumentation in his head, and building a traditional melody into an anthem for national parks and beef commercials.2Yes, I know it was Rodeo and not Appalachian Spring in the beef commercials.

I can’t, however, imagine Debussy standing at the beach for a bit, cracking his knuckles, saying “Très bien, faisons cette chose!”3Or however you actually say “All right, let’s do this thing!”, then sitting down and coming up with La Mer. I’ve listened to that performed dozens of times, and I try to conjure images of the ocean because of the title, but I never “see it.” Instead, it seems to fill my brain with ideas and emotions in the abstract — wonder, suspense, victory, sadness, awe, mystery, calm — glowing words floating in a black void, like an educational cartoon. I realize that it’s not intended to conjure images of the ocean, but make me feel exactly how Debussy felt when he saw the ocean.

At that moment in Clair de Lune last night, I felt a similarly profound sense of connection. First, to Buniatishvili, because even though her connections to the song (which she describes in an interlude at the beginning of the video as being those of a woman realizing she wants more from the world) aren’t familiar to me, the emotional response is. And then Debussy himself, who seems to be reaching out across a century to transfer his feelings, Brainstorm-style, directly into my brain. And then, because I inevitably trace my strongest memories directly back to Disney parks, the Impressions de France film at Epcot, which might be the first time I heard Debussy’s music — in particular, an orchestral version of Clair de Lune is set to a flight over the French Alps at around 10:40 in that video — and I remember how much my mother enjoyed that movie. And it was one of the few attractions that we could share together. It was a sense that every human who’s ever heard this song performed has this exact same feeling in common with each other, even if we all have our own interpretations of and emotional connections to it.

So what I’m ultimately saying is that Debussy’s music feels unsettlingly intrusive to me. Even more when it’s being performed by someone with as much expressiveness as Khatia Buniatishvili. (Slightly less when it’s put at the beginning of “Dream a Little Dream of Me” by Pink Martini and the Von Trapps, which implies that everyone has their own emotional connection to the music and associations with it). He’s a dangerous alien, and he must be stopped.

Edited to add: I’ve been informed that M. Debussy passed away on March 25, 1918, and is therefore no longer an immediate threat. And it was raining. His music still has emotional volatility that seems to last beyond years and beyond death, so I recommend listening to it with caution.

Semi-new Song Sundays: Rina Sawayama

Have you been to that Japanese place, Wagamamas? The one in Heathrow is amazing.

(Warning in case you’ve got profanity-sensitive kids around: the video for “STFU” doesn’t actually say “STFU.” But honestly the f-bomb isn’t anywhere near as offensive as the stuff the boorish guy keeps saying in the first couple of minutes of this video).

Anyway, Rina Sawayama is awesome AF. I heard about her from a “Records in My Life” interview with, unsurprisingly, a few members of Dirty Projectors, in which Felicia Douglas picked Sawayama as an artist she’d recently gotten into via social media. I’m grateful for the reference, because I admit I probably would’ve skipped over Sawayama’s music, because I didn’t understand what she was doing with it.

In short, she’s treating genre as irrelevant, and glamour as irrelevant, combining hooks from pop, dance music, and R&B with heavy metal and whatever the hell else she wants. The result is that it feels like she’s tearing down preconceptions from the inside. She knows that people are going to make assumptions and “read” her as Japanese even though she grew up in England, and dismiss her as “just” a beautiful model instead of as an artist.

Even though I think the song itself is nice but kind of unremarkable, the video for “Bad Friend” is brilliant. It mimics a Japanese TV broadcast of a drama from the late 50s or 60s, with Sawayama in drag as a middle-aged man who’s his own worst enemy. From the sound of the song, you’d never expect it to be a beginning-to-end faithful homage to Tokyo Story-style dramas, much less that the singer would portray herself as a man getting in a bar fight until his hands are bloodied.

But I get the feeling that Sawayama is treating all of it as drag. The video for “XS” first comes across as an R&B-inspired dance pop song, but it’s immediately apparent that that’s just the hook that skims along the surface, in between a metal riff and what sounds like taiko drums and a little bit of flute that seems to mock the idea (or at least lean into the idea) that Japanese culture is alien and exotic. Sawayama’s in drag for this one, too: in the double role of a hyper-excited QVC host and the hyper-sexualized alien creature whose essential juices are being harvested for the product she’s selling.

So again: Rina Sawayama is fantastic, doing pop music with a sensibility that’s somewhere between glam and punk. I think the thing I like best about her work is that she probably doesn’t give a damn what I think of it.

More Dirty Projectors

On second thought, do I really need to like more than one musical group?

You know that thing where you’re minding your own business, and you randomly stumble on music from a band you hadn’t heard before, and then you discover that they’ve got well over a decade’s worth of interesting music, and song after song comes up gold, and you realize that the last time you really got heavily into a new musical artist was before the Obama administration, and it feels like there’s this huge wealth of creativity and talent available online that you just haven’t been paying attention to, and so you pledge to seek out music that’s new to you and share it once a week, but even into the second week of that pledge you remember that you find 99.99% of popular music boring, and you’d much rather just keep listening to your favorites over and over again?

Yeah, turns out I always underestimate how rare talent and originality are, and over-estimate how much I’m missing out by not staying up to date. I’m still pledging to keep looking for new stuff — since it’s such a thrill to find it, even if everyone else has already heard it by the time I do — but I’m concerned that in three weeks I’ll be reduced to being the middle-aged guy who goes online to say “Hey have you guys heard about this new band Vampire Weekend?!”1Just for purposes of illustrations. I’ve tried multiple times to get into Vampire Weekend, and they just don’t do it for me.

So I’m not expecting this to turn into a Dirty Projectors fan page — although really, would that be a big loss? — but I’m finding more stuff I love even as they’re putting out new EPs for me to look forward to.

Two favorites at the moment: “Gun Has No Trigger” from 2012, which sounds kind of like they were doing a James Bond theme on spec, and ended up with something better than most of the actual James Bond themes. I like the part where they scream.

Slightly newer is “Cool Your Heart” from 2017, which also has a remix by Ludwig Goransson that, unlike any other remix I can remember hearing, turns a weird, somewhat experimental song into an even more conventional version. The video for the official version is perfect, as if they’d wanted to make a traditional hip hop video and decided to film it at the entrance to the Black Lodge.

Tuesday Tune Twofer: Cookies and Milk with The Go! Team

Two tenuously and tangentially related tunes every Tuesday, starting off with an easy combo from The Go! Team

How about another weekly blog series as an excuse to share music I like? Every Tuesday I’ll choose two songs with some kind of connection — either tenuous or obvious — that I think more people should hear.

I’ll choose an easy one to start with: two from The Go! Team, “Cookie Scene” released in 2020 and “Milk Crisis” (one of my favorites) released in 2007. My fiancé introduced me to The Go! Team — I’d heard “Get it Together” in promotions for the video game Little Big Planet, but never knew who the band was — not long after we started dating, and I was quickly hooked. We’ve seen them perform live a few times in San Francisco since then. They’re so unabashedly joyful, and despite being led by a British man I’d reckon to be at least 10 years younger than me, they’ve somehow managed to plug directly into my nostalgia of being a child in the US in the 1970s, when my only knowledge of a world outside my neighborhood was via Disney movies and educational programming.

Semi-new Song Sundays: Dirty Projectors

Even before I found myself aged out of the most desirable demographics, I was never somebody who was up to date with new music. That’s partly why I’m so excited to have discovered and fallen in love with a song that was actually released this year! It’s “Overlord” by Dirty Projectors.

On the surface, it just seems like a really pretty, perfectly produced, but straightforward song. And the video (filmed in New York at the beginning of the year, pre-COVID) seems like a combination of New York City as dystopian sci-fi futurescape, and the hazy late 70s-early 80s Childrens Television Workshop film style that The Go! Team gets so right in their videos.

But the more I listen and watch and pay attention to the lyrics, the more sinister and meaningful it becomes. I read it as an indictment of all of us who lose our obligation to the rest of humanity, and see other people as abstracts, while we work towards our own comfort. The only time anyone makes eye contact with the audience is when the singer (Maia Friedman) faces us to say “Help me.”

I first heard the song last night via an NPR Tiny Desk Concert the band performed remotely. As much as like the studio version — from Windows Open, one of the EPs that Dirty Projectors is releasing this year — the version for Tiny Desk is my favorite. I realized after the fact that the format reminds me of Thru-You by Kutiman: although it’s an actual band separated by the pandemic, it has the feeling of a bunch of talented musicians being brought together to make something new.

Unsurprisingly, I’m in love with Dirty Projectors now, especially in its current lineup. My entry point was just last night “discovering” this song from 2018, “Break-Thru”:

It seems like it shouldn’t work, like it’s just on the verge of falling apart, with nothing but a hook, some odd synth sounds, and a falsetto chorus the only thing holding it all together. But it feels not just catchy but absolutely joyful. The effect of the video reminds me of a surreal version Snow White or Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, singing about falling in love to the friendly birds flying in through the window.1I’m only just now catching that I’d typed “birds flying into the window,” which is a much different image than “birds flying in through the window.” We regret the error.

Speaking of falling in love, I’m enjoying being able to discover a brand new band and having 15 years’ worth of their music available to explore. So much that I’m going to try to make it a weekly thing. Giving myself the goal of a weekly blog post will encourage me to look for new music even if I’m not in an exploring mood. I can almost guarantee that most of it won’t be “current,” just that it’s new to me, and I think it’s worth everyone else checking out.

Finally, here’s the embedded version of that wonderful Tiny Desk (Home) concert with Dirty Projectors:

Music to Remember By, Part 4: Go Through All This Before You Wake Up

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.

Music to Remember By, Part 3: Our Dark Shazamless Days

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!

Music to Remember By, Part 2: Driving and Forgetting

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!

Music to Remember By, a Weeklong Playlist

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!

No Insight To Be Had Out There

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.
  6. 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.”
  7. 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. Skelton’s awkwardness is poking fun of the image of Montalban as a sexy Spanish lothario.
  8. 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 Hays 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.