Two videos I just want to watch, so back off, okay?
Is there a word for when you feel like something is blatantly, shamelessly pandering to you, but you’re still into it for reasons beyond your control? That’s how I feel whenever I watch the video to “Fast Slow Disco” by St. Vincent.
But maybe I’m being dismissive of its artistry. Perhaps I should watch it again.
I can’t get too into this video, because I get irrationally and unfairly annoyed whenever I see women in gay bars. I also think that while I’m still a huge fan of St. Vincent, sometime around Masseduction she started over-estimating her own coolness by about 10-20%, and she could stand to pump the brakes a bit.
But it’s still a pretty good song, and I can hardly ever turn down a chance to watch guys with their shirts off making out with each other. And even though it feels a little like she’s wearing a gay bear leather bar as a costume — similar to how Lady Gaga’s meat dress probably wasn’t intended to make people think about cows — it’s nice to see someone fairly mainstream normalizing body types like this as being sexy and fun. This video isn’t all that sexier than the one for “Cold-Hearted” by Paula Abdul, and that one ran constantly in 1989 — on network television, even! — back when I was still trying to figure out why the scenes with Bob Hoskins and Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? were clearly connecting with me in a way they weren’t intended to.
Two tangentially-related tunes every Tuesday! This week: do you have what it takes to unlock the baffling subtext?
Two songs have been running through my head this week. What mysteries could my subconscious be holding?
One is Seu Jorge’s Portuguese cover of “Changes” by David Bowie. If for some reason you haven’t seen The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, or unfamiliar with Jorge’s music for that movie, I really recommend checking it out! I think those covers, along with The Venture Brothers, made me more of a fan of Bowie’s music. (This one and “Life on Mars” I have to say I actually like better than the originals).
The other song is “Found a Job” by Talking Heads, which isn’t one of my favorite of their songs, but it was in Stop Making Sense, which means that it’s permanently embedded in my brain.
First up is this lovely version of Clair de lune from the soundtrack to Sayonara Wild Hearts. It’s the music for the first level of that video game, and I think it’s beautifully performed and brilliantly used as the magical introduction to the game, even though I am just terrible at it.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is one of those games that I can appreciate intellectually even though it brings me little joy. It’s not fun to me because it’s not really my type of game, and it just makes me feel clumsy and old. Also the music is unabashedly synth pop, and so it isn’t really for me, apart from “Clair de lune” which I like in just about any form. (Except, surprisingly, Debussy’s own performance of it).
I bought the game anyway because Simogo are outstanding developers, and they’ve got eternal goodwill from me for making Device 6, which remains one of the best games I’ve ever played on any platform. The game is relentlessly clever and darkly funny throughout, but if I’m honest they had me from the opening theme, which was also composed and performed by Daniel Olsén.
I feel like video game music is too often dismissed as being just a pastiche or an imitation of styles, but I think some of the best video game music — outside of a Mario game — is more like a distillation of a style down to its essence, so it can be re-applied to a new piece of art. This somehow immediately evokes the themes of The Prisoner and The Avengers to me, even though it sounds nothing like either of them, and it’s distinctively modern. Like every other aspect of Device 6‘s aesthetic, it’s perfect.
I had a hard time coming up with a theme for today’s tune two-fer: what do you say about a totally uneventful Tuesday in February, in the midst of a year of shelter-in-place orders, where every day feels like the same? Even YouTube seems to be in a bit of malaise: I went on this morning looking for something interesting to watch, and I could only see an old action movie from the 1990s starting Alec Baldwin. It’s going to be a long winter!
Instead of anything appropriate, I’ll just pick a familiar classic: this old song performed on Top of the Pops in 1965. I think I was just the right age so that I didn’t know Sonny & Cher as singers, but as guests on The New Scooby-Doo Movies. So they’re always up there in the pantheon along with Jerry Reed, Sandy Duncan, Cass Elliot, and of course, Batman & Robin. Looking back at that video now, I have to say that people were right: Sonny’s hair was too long.
But for a change of pace, here’s this performance from Late Night With David Letterman. What’s remarkable watching it now isn’t so much how much changed between 1965 and this video in 1987, but how much has changed between this video and now. Sonny Bono’s passing, the mentions of Chaz Bono with his name at the time, and I’d forgotten about Cher’s feud with Letterman. I was actually surprised when I realized that 22 years had passed between the first two, but it’s been 33 years since the second! Somehow, I always think of Letterman clips as being contemporary, and probably will forever, since that was part of my cultural “anchor.” I guess it’s a reminder of how time keeps moving on, and you can’t just keep reliving the past.
Today has been a drag, and I almost forgot it was Tuesday. I’d been happy that we were getting unusually heavy rain over the past few days, until I was reminded that heavy rains tend to bring a biblical plague of ants into the house. We spent a good chunk of the morning and early afternoon trying to head them off, and ever since, it’s been a combination of obsessively cleaning surfaces and freaking out when I imagine something crawling on me.
It’s been difficult to get any work done, much less my blogging duties. But in honor of the tragedy, here’s “It’s Raining Again” by Supertramp. I never liked this song, to be honest, but I’ve heard it a billion times because it seemed to play every ten minutes on MTV and Night Tracks. In the early 80s, you just had to make a video “cinematic” to guarantee it got played a lot; it didn’t have to be particularly good cinema. In videos like this, where they hired actors and dancers for most of it, you could only tell who was actually in the band by looking for beards.
I’m pairing it with “Come to My Window” by Melissa Etheridge, because that’s how they’re getting in. And I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve about had it with Melissa Etheridge letting ants into my house!
Because I genuinely can’t understand a single word Ariana Grande is singing in “Thank u, next”
“Take Out the Trash” by They Might Be Giants seems appropriate this week, the day before January 20, 2021. TMBG may be my favorite band with one of my doppelgängers in it, and they’ve got a song for just about everything.
I’d thought I was going to use “Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye,” but I discovered to my horror that the title is actually “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” which is an image nobody needs now in this time of happiness and healing. If you want to see a bunch of studio musicians in 1969 failing to lip-synch to it, though, that video’s got you covered.
So instead, here’s the only time you’ll ever see Motley Crue linked on my blog, with their timeless hit “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)”. I looked for a pop song titled “Go Get Fucked (You Worthless Shitstain)” or “I Look Forward To Never Having to Hear Your Name Again (You Treasonous Little Bitch),” but didn’t turn up anything. Even from the Dead Kennedys!
Two songs about wanting America to live up to its promise
“America” is my favorite song by Simon & Garfunkel, but lately I’ve gotten a greater surge of emotion from listening to this cover by First Aid Kit, a duo of Swedish sisters born over twenty years after the song was first recorded. (This live version recorded in Stockholm that got a solo standing ovation from Paul Simon is also wonderful).
Simon’s genius lyrics take a bunch of highly-specific references and generalize them into a perfect expression of the hope and disillusionment of being an American in the late 60s. The cover resonates with me because it shows that the song is even more universal than that: it was never about a specific time or even a specific place, but about an ideal, and the perpetual sadness that comes from seeing that ideal remain unrealized.
Growing up in the Ronald Reagan-led, Newt Gingrich-fueled, jingoistic travesty of America that was the 1980s, I learned to reject American patriotism as the weak-minded arrogance of bigots and fools. So much of it seemed to be manifested in the laser shows at Stone Mountain. There were all the obvious signs of corruption and rot — the show’s climax traced the mountain’s carving of Confederate leaders and animated them riding off to glory, set to a medley of Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson singing “Dixie” and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. As the crowd around us hooted and hollered at the majesty of it all, my (white) friends and I could safely roll our eyes and mock it as gross and misguided but ultimately harmless. Virulent racists were dying out, I told myself, and the casual variety would flee back to their comfortable homes in the suburbs, where they weren’t reaching out to be part of a larger community, but at least they weren’t actively making things worse.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the comically absurd rot — a Confederate War memorial? In 1985?! Ha ha! — was more or less a front for the more pervasive fear and greed that would get more and more entrenched over the next few decades. That was manifested in a song, too: Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” I always misinterpreted it as dumb but harmless, a shallow take on patriotism that was easily dismissed with an eye roll and a wanking gesture. But it’s jarring now to look back and see laid bare just how selfish and transactional it always was. It’s all pride, no responsibility. You’ve got to thank the troops, but only for giving me my freedom and my rights. It’s all my family, not my community. The only suggestion of “stand[ing] up next to you” is to fight to keep what belongs to us.
I can at least understand why people like Greenwood’s version, though: sometimes you do genuinely just want the bombast and pride and being able to shout “America, Fuck Yeah!” Anybody who believes that the whole idea of “the American experiment” is based on just an accident of where you were born — for good or for ill — is missing the entire point, which is that none of this works unless we all to agree believe in it. That requires some faith and some swagger. It’s not a refusal to acknowledge all the layers of disillusionment and injustice; it’s a refusal to drown in them.
There are few more powerful accusations of American denial than Langston Hughes’ poem “America never was America to me.” It was Hughes’ prescient warning from 1935 to any of us who in 2021 are tempted to say “This is not who we are.” As if greed, exploitation, insurrection, corruption, and bigotry were new, foreign things to the USA, and not manifest in every phase of our history. Except that’s not actually the title of the poem, even though I always mis-remember it as such. The actual title is “Let America Be America Again.” It’s not content to just reject the promise of America as a lie; it insists that we work together to make it true.
And because it can’t be said enough: we can’t work together without first rejecting the lie. There’s no unity without justice, and no justice without accountability.
So if you want the simple anthem with waving flags and cheering and middle-aged people on their feet dancing, Neil Diamond’s always had you covered. My parents took me to a Neil Diamond concert when I was a teenager, and I was a capital-C Chode about it because I thought I was too cool for it. Even though it was a huge deal to my mom. I wish I hadn’t been such a chump, because his performance that night (as always) was a show-stopper. And if I’m going to stand up and shout “America!”, I don’t want it to be all about selfishness or fighting to keep what’s mine. I want it to be about welcoming everyone who wants to share in the idea and work together to make something better than any single one of us.
Since my home state of Georgia is in the news so much lately, both for the crucial Senate run-offs today against two of the most crassly, disgracefully, and blatantly corrupt and unqualified Republicans ever to run for public office; and because of a blatantly corrupt attempt to shake down the Secretary of State to subvert the democratic process and steal the Presidential election: today is two tunes from bands from Georgia.
Specifically, Athens, Georgia, which is where I went to college. First up is “McIntosh” by Chickasaw Mudd Puppies, who were one of my favorite bands while I was in college but never seemed to make much of an impression outside Athens (despite having Michael Stipe as a producer). I saw them perform twice at the Georgia Theater, and they were some of the most amazing concerts I’ve ever seen. One of the guys would play guitar, and the other sat in a rocking chair and would stomp on a box with a microphone under it. (They also had a drummer for their live shows).
Second is “Love Shack” by The B-52’s, since the first concert I saw in Athens was the band doing their Cosmic Thing tour. It’s definitely not my favorite song from the album — even before it got so overplayed — but it does mention the Atlanta Highway at the beginning. That’s the road out of Athens that I used to drive every weekend to my retail job in college, a frustratingly long, two-laned, tree-lined road that would pass places like Peanut’s Redneck Bar-be-que. There are several Athens references throughout Cosmic Thing, so being in town while there was so much hype around the band and the album was a neat feeling, like being at the center of something.
I was debating whether to include “Love Shack” or “The Rooster” by Outkast, which is my favorite song from Speakerboxxx, and which I like 99.9% as much as the more popular “Hey Ya” from The Love Below. But I felt like a poseur for naming it, because I didn’t even hear about Outkast until long after I’d already moved out of Georgia.
I hope everybody who’s eligible to vote in Georgia has already voted in the run-offs, or has a plan to before the polls close tonight! It’s crucial to get the corrupt Republicans out of the way before we can even start to make things better.
Until I did a search for year-end appropriate songs, I’d never heard of Two Door Cinema Club, or their song from 2013 “Next Year.”
It’s a pleasant song about making plans for later we can’t carry out today, which seems extremely appropriate for the long-awaited end of 2020. Most remarkable to me, though, is how much the beginning of the track reminds me of the Apple Loops-provided backbeat in my friend Graham’s legendary video “We Sing the Forest Electric.”
I’m hoping that in 2021, we all have more of the uninhibited forest dancing, and much less of the implied killing.
There’s also “Next Year” by the Foo Fighters, which had a video of the gang going to the moon and, impressively, choosing not to wear fat suits for comedic effect. I’m impressed they pulled it off! And I hope next year is better for everyone reading this, and even some of the people who aren’t.
If you don’t agree with me about these songs celebrating a season of peace and unity, you’re wrong and dumb. Merry Christmas!
This week’s theme is my favorite Christmas songs, which inadvertently turned into an additional theme of “needlessly controversial Christmas songs.” First is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside“, which over the past decade in particular has turned into a perfect litmus test for judging whether someone knows what they’re talking about.
Short1-ish version: this song isn’t creepy; the worst you could say is that it’s “mad horny.” The “I’ve got to go home” part is mock-protesting to keep up appearances. Anyone saying that it’s got a tone of sexual assault is either being deliberately manipulative, or is just demonstrating they’ve got a simplistic and condescending notion of gender.
And yeah, it’s a hill I’m going to die on. If it were just a bunch of people misinterpreting the context of a song and spinning it into a simplistic message about the importance of consent, I’d just shrug and carry on. After all, the re-interpretations and re-makes come out every year but quickly disappear2Most hilarious are the versions that claim to be progressive by gender-swapping the parts, seemingly unaware that the song’s first appearance in a film does exactly that, back in 1949, while the originals live on. But it’s not harmless to call it “problematic” or worse, “rapey.” It perpetuates an idea that women are fragile and/or frigid, that people in the 50s were more uptight and less self-aware than we are today, and is generally prudish and sex-negative . Not to mention, it also says that people always mean exactly what they say and that context is irrelevant, which is gradually making the population more and more stupid.
For the record, my favorite version of the song is actually the scene from the movie Elf. (Better than the one with Leon Redbone on the album, even). Partly because I love Zooey Deschanel’s voice, but also because it’s a modern interpretation that plays around with the idea of romance and innocence/prudishness inherent in the song. Also, it makes the song unequivocally a Christmas song.
Another perennial favorite: “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. Funnily enough, I was originally just going to include it with the note that it’s the most stirring Christmas song that contains the words “slut” and “faggot.” But I’m only just now discovering that the “official” version on The Pogues’ YouTube channel edits out “the f-word.”3I can’t actually tell what they changed it to; it sounds something like “haggis?”
I honestly don’t know how to feel about this one. On the one hand, I hate the word, I went back and forth on whether I would keep saying “the f-word” or type it out, and its use in the song has always made me uncomfortable. On the other hand, it’s supposed to make me uncomfortable. The Pogues were a punk band. The contrast between the song’s couple absolutely hating each other and falling for the magic of Christmas in New York, hate and love, hope and hopelessness, is the entire point of the song.
Whenever you see someone complaining about “political correctness” or mocking the “woke,” or whining about censorship online, 99.9999% of the time, it’s just someone going out their way to defend being arrogant, selfish, and thoughtless. It’s the equivalent of being churlish and insisting on either “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” as if that were a real thing to be upset about, instead of brazenly manipulated outrage. If you can make a minimum amount of harmless effort and make other people feel better, you’re an asshole for stamping your feet and refusing to do it.
Except again, this is a weird take. This version suggests that “cheap lousy faggot” is inexcusable, but somehow “old slut on junk” is acceptable. That suggests that individual words are somehow more powerful than the context and intent behind them. It’s also odd because it’s being changed after MacColl’s death, and I get the sense that she’d be better able to justify it than anyone speaking on the song’s behalf, even Shane MacGowan. Apparently there’s a long history of edits to the song, with attempts that seem more equitable in cutting out all the potentially offensive words, but as a result making it completely toothless.
My ultimate takeaway is that it all makes it easier to understand why Christmas songs are typically more about gifts and carols and snow, and less about adult couples being angry and horny.