Monthly Archives: November 2013

Day 08 – A Song You Enjoy, But Don’t Understand

Running still more behind, thanks to a herculean housecleaning effort.  But I forge ahead nevertheless!

As the prompt clarified, the lack of understanding could fall into many categories:  “(Foreign Language, Singer Mumbles, Historical Context.)”   I have a strange fondness for not understanding things, sometimes.  The things we can’t understand are often mysterious.  Even though you know they have an actual meaning, until and unless you know what that meaning is, it feels like it could be about anything.  As much as I love figuring things out, I also love the  semantic limbo of not knowing.

Of course, thanks to the Internet, I could find out.  I’m not one of those nimrods who’ll ask a stupid question on Twitter or Facebook instead of using the very Internet I am on to do basic research. But sometimes, the very fact that I could learn it with a trivial amount of effort makes me resist doing so.  Maybe I hope that it’ll just come to me someday, like that time last year when I realized Freddie’s unintelligible line in “Killer Queen” was actually “Drop of a hat.”  There’s a sincere pleasure in figuring something out for yourself, even if it takes a ridonkulously long time to do so, and even if it’s much less an intellectual effort than “figuring it out” would suggest.

Take, for example, the classic case of “Louie, Louie.”

I happen to be from the state where the Governor personally banned “Louie, Louie” for its horrible offensive content that nobody could understand.  Even when I was a kid, we still heard the rumor that it was a filth-laden ode to unimaginable perversities. So, at some point, curiosity overwhelmed me and I looked up the lyrics.   Spoiler alert: it’s about a Jamaican sailor pining for his faraway love.  If learning that Santa Claus doesn’t exist is the great disappointment and betrayal of childhood, learning the real lyrics to “Louie, Louie” is the great betrayal of adolescence.  Even learning that the drummer actually yelled “Fuck!” at the 54 second mark couldn’t redeem it.

Other Oldies are inscrutable, too.  I‘ve had twenty*suddencoughingfit* years to figure out all the lyrics to “Keep On Dancing” by The Gentrys, for example, but half the words just seem to blur into the others.  

Manfred Mann needs some enunciation lessons, because no way does that line in “Blinded By The Light” sound like “Revved up like a deuce.”  We all know what it sounds like.

Also, I never misheard Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” as “Tony Danza.”  No, I heard “Hold me closer; tie me down some.”

But English songs are one thing.  I’ve got quite a fondness for some foreign songs as well.  Like, yes, “Dragostea Din Tei,” better known as “Numa Numa.”  It’s a song with pleasant memories attached, as I first heard it while listening to Radio KOL, a radio stream associated with the Internet’s best dropdown-based stick-figure comedy game, Kingdom of Loathing.  If I’d first heard it elsewhere on the Internet, just through YouTube or whathaveyou, I might not have been as receptive to its weirdness.  But the game itself had me primed for charming absurdity.  I know it’s probably a love song, and probably devoid of much intellectual integrity.  But it could be nothing but nonsense syllables, and that’d suit me fine.

Glukoza’s “Schweine” has similar contextual associations, as I first heard it through friends in another game.  At least the video clues me in that there’s rather more meat to this one than the last, but I still don’t know the specifics.  And I like it anyway.

Another friend is something of a specialist in Early Music, Folk, and the various ways those occasionally overlap with metal.  So that’s exposed my ears In Extremo,  Hedningarna, Korpiklaani, and other such fonts of unintelligible awesomeness.

I know enough to know that Herr Mannelig  is an old Swedish song involving a troll.  But I certainly can’t say I understand the lyrics. Additionally, I’ve been informed that In Extremo rather mangle the pronunciation, as well.

As for Hedningarna… I think they’re Swedish, too?  I’m genuinely not sure.  But their “Pornopolka” is fun to listen to!

Korpiklaani’s music is usually in English, ostensibly, but damned if I can make out most of the words.  Still, if I can sing along to no more than “BEER! BEER!,” that’s fine by me.  The rest of the song can be for drinking said beer, or for dancing about in a frenzied manner such that the beer sloshes all over everything.

My very favorite incomprehensible songs, though, might be the ones where I’m reasonably confident they don’t actually make sense in any language at all.  Like El Mundo’s “Chaccaron Maccaron,” which is ridiculous and catchy and intentionally bizarre.

Or, perhaps most of all… Der Mosselman’s “Mossels.”  It is loud and fast and relentlessly upbeat and slightly unnerving, and I laugh every time I hear it.

That’s perhaps the finest thing about music: the way it can still convey some basic emotion independent of language. I’d love to have a deeper understanding of how music affects the mind.  When the music swells or the key changes and the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, just what is happening in the brain at that time?   Why does the tritone sound so creepy?   How much of that is cultural, and how much is innate?

When you get down to this level, though… every song is a song I don’t fully understand.

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Day 07 – A Song You Want To Dance To

Oh how I love the phrasing of this prompt.  Is it asking me what song I’m good at dancing to?  No sir!  Is it asking me what song I like dancing to?  No ma’am!  It’s asking what song I want to dance to — and that makes all the difference.

I’m not a very coordinated person.  I’m not talking “Our romantic comedy protagonist / audience proxy girl needs flaws, but nothing that would actually be unpleasant, so we’ll make her drop things sometimes” uncoordinated. It’s not a zany, gangling Rick Moranis kind of uncoordinated.  It doesn’t even ascend to the level of Martin Short.  My legs simply seem to have a fundamental dissatisfaction with the idea of being legs, and with doing the kinds of things that legs are supposed to do.  I literally have to watch my step to determine where my feet are, I’ve a tendency to lose my balance even while standing still, and prolonged spans of standing can themselves make my muscles feel like they’re going to snap right off my bones.  Practically speaking, dancing is a lot like gym class — it’s supposed to be fun, but I just find it painful and embarrassing.

However, if I’m shooting a wall’s worth of bricks from the two-point line, that’s terrible — but it’s an isolated kind of terrible.  A constructed kind of terrible.  It means my body is bad at playing certain invented and arbitrary games.  My body’s also bad at doing some of the unstructured, “natural” things like running and jumping and whatever, too; I recognize that if I’d been born a few thousand years ago, I’d be nothing but Smilodon Chow.  But dancing is a kind of art.  One that goes hand-in-hand with the art of music, as well. So it’s one thing to have a body that can’t run fast or jump high or swim, a body that can’t win competitions or contests of skill.  It’s another thing to realize that your body does not function as a channel for certain kinds of art.

So what kinds of dancing can I do?  It’s a short list.   I’ve been subject to brief fits of The Pogo, which I later immensely regret.  My Electric Slide could use a little WD-40.  And, yes, I am of an age such that the moves to the Macarena are etched into my brain.   Headbanging is probably my move of choice, though that’s less of a dance than a maneuver.  In my brief and unillustrious history of dancing, I’ve felt most at home at my college town’s Goth night.  We had only one actual dance club venue, so they rotated between hip-hop and techno and foam parties and whatever else.  But, once a month, there was a Goth night, usually with a theme of some sorts.  A Steampunk Night, a Zombie Night, even a wonderfully self-mocking 90s Goth Night.  I’d go, when I could, dressing up to whatever degree I was capable of, having a drink or two, and generally staying out of everyone else’s way. I was surprised to find that I felt comfortable there — I  overheard snippets of often-nerdy conversations, and saw plenty of other solo people drinking and dancing.  The dancing itself seemed to be my style, too:  the disjointed shuffling and inexplicably greater emphasis on torso and arm movements than leg movements made my traditional Stand In One Place And Sway more suitable there than it had ever been.

But what songs make me want to dance?  What songs most make me wish I could bust any number of moves?  To what songs am I liable to dance anyway, despite every reason to the contrary?

A good few of them would be Oldies, if just because there were a vigintillion dance crazes back then.  As a kid, I’d listen to 50s and 60s dance songs and wonder what these moves were, how they were done.  The name-dropping of dances sounded like a secret code — one weird word that could tell those in-the-know what to do, leaving the baffled outgroup to retreat to the walls and watch.  Even though I was aware enough to know that Oldies were no longer cool, I still thought it would be time-defyingly awesome to be able to do all those moves.  All, say, 1000 of them.

Which would make me more than capable of shaking a tail feather right alongside the Blues Brothers and Ray Charles:

Songs that are exhortations to – and therefore justifications for – dancing are perhaps the easiest things to dance to.  When the Ramones ask if you want to dance, you do not say no:

And if nobody asks you to dance, well, if Billy Idol doesn’t mind dancing with himself, neither should you.

Some songs don’t even ask, though — the beat alone makes me want to move.  I’m usually no big fan of dance music, but I’m a tremendous fan of mashups, so when the two overlap, I tend to have a pretty great time.  John Marr’s mix of Martin Solveig’s “Hello” with Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White” never fails to get me chairdancing:

As is the wonderful alchemy of mashups, it can make me want to dance to things that never move me on their own.  Disco?  Yech.  Rap?  Kindly no.  Rap mixed with disco? Clear the way to the dancefloor!  Daily Daze’s “Stayin’ Low!” mixes Lil Jon with De La Soul and The BeeGees, and it makes me want to dance every time I play it.  Which is a lot.  I can’t find it on YouTube and the Soundcloud link is down, so you poor souls will just have to get your very own free mp3 of it!

Of all the songs that have ever made me want to dance, though, one stands out.  I’ve heard it a billion times on the radio and at every wedding reception worth its salt.  I can’t dance to it, but I can always almost see myself dancing to it, with a whole big crowd.  Maybe at my own wedding reception someday, if that were a thing that ever was going to happen.  It might be its very overplayedness that appeals to me — a commonality that becomes tradition that becomes something nigh upon ritual.  Regardless, The Isley Brothers’ “Shout” will never not make me want to dance like an absolute goon.

So I envy the people who can dance.  Who can tell their bodies where to put their parts, and to have the movements be fluid and graceful and accurate.  The ones who can move in ways that impress others, or who can express a range of emotions just through wordless movements.    I envy the people who have the stamina to dance all night, even in ridiculous shoes, and still walk home afterward — probably with somebody. The ones who can be moved by a song and move themselves to it without doing an utter disservice to at least two different forms of art.  The ones for whom dancing is just as fun as it should be.

Maybe that’ll never be me.  But that’s all right — my body might not be able to move to the rhythm, but that doesn’t mean I can’t detect it.  I’ve got a sense of rhythm so deeply ingrained that I edited my college essays for spelling, grammar, usage, and meter.  I can write poetry that, instead of being a column of florid words, actually scans.  I can even wreak the occasional parody, coming up with lyrics that fit the original rhythms and rhyme schemes.   I can’t tell my physical feet what to do, but I know my way around another kind of feet.  Creating things like this is still often an utter disservice to art — but it’s just as fun as it should be, and then some.

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Day 06 – A Song That Makes You Sad

My original intent was to post as frequently as I could, double-posting on some days, so that I could finish the 30th prompt on November 30.  Friday’s Game Night kept me from even making a single post that day, and my floundering attempt to finish it had so many wild offshoots, pruned for future transplanting, that it didn’t even get posted on Saturday. But I’ll admit it: I was somewhat intentionally dragging my feet, because I didn’t want to get any closer to today’s prompt.

As I’ve said before, music can be an incredibly powerful trigger for memories and for emotions.  Sometimes, that works out in my favor:  I’m glad that just listening to a song can give me a rush of adrenaline that makes me feel like I could stab a charging bear in the heart with a burning electric guitar.  I’m glad that some sappy romantic songs can make me feel a surge of limitless love.  I’m glad that some songs can just build up to a peak that sets my every hair on end.   I have no idea if other people’s limbic systems are similarly switched on by a certain high note, a certain harmony, a certain chord; I might be very lucky to be so sensitive.

But when it comes to sad songs, it’s hard not to resent that emotional capacity.

I could try to weasel out of this post, I know.  I could stick to the original intent, slap down a YouTube link to single arbitrary sad song, say nothing more about it, and have done with the whole thing.  But I’ve posted song upon song for most of these other prompts, I’ve gone on unmerciful tangents.  The end of the childhood-related post was nothing but half a dozen songs.  (Which, I just realized, I should go back and actually write down the names and titles of, since those links will surely die one of these days.)  If I’m to even pretend to have a shred of writerly integrity, I can’t just shrug it off.  I need to go to the places I don’t want to go, look at the things I don’t want to look at, feel the things I don’t want to feel anymore.

It’s a little scary because, well, I’m good at being sad.  I know very well how easy it is to stay sad once you start.  How quickly it can snowball.  How easy it is to feel like nothing is ever good enough, happy enough, or loving enough to counteract everything there is to be sad about. How that very inability to appreciate goodness and joy and love feel like proof that you deserve to stay sad.  How sadness itself eventually becomes a luxury, like any other emotion — something that you’re just not meaningful enough to deserve.

Moreover, this entire year has been so thoroughly imbued with stupid, depressing, frustrating, terrible things that it’s hard to rationalize being as relatively-not-sad as I am.  I can’t help but fear this will open up the floodgates, I’ll feel sad for all the reasons these songs made me feel sad, I’ll feel even more sad for all the things I’m sad about now, I’ll feel still more sad for having spent so much time being sad about things as a teenager when I didn’t have anything real to worry or be sad about, I’ll feel yet more sad for being sad now instead of being a more functional person by now, and then I’ll just go to bed and curl up in a ball until, oh, March.

But at least the next day’s prompt is a fun one.  So let’s forge ahead.

Certain children’s songs always made me sad when I was little.  “You are lost and gone forever, O my darlin’, Clementine?”  Well, that’s lovely.  “Hush, Little Baby,” where everything your loving parent gives you will always end up broken or ruined, no matter how many times they try?    “Rock-a-bye Baby?”  We put children to sleep with a song about an infant stranded in a tree until the branch breaks and it falls to its inevitable death.

Even Sesame Street songs weren’t safe.

“I Don’t Want To Live On The Moon” always made me so sad I had to turn it off, as a kid.  And, whaddaya know — after having moved a thousand miles away from home and from every person I’d ever cared about save two, it’s still really really sad.

Also, I’ll defy anyone who says “The Rainbow Connection” isn’t sad.

It’s about hope, about looking for connections between yourself and others.  And about not being able to find it yet.  “Someday, we’ll find it.”  Someday, not now.  Right now we’re all still lost.  We’re all still trying to love, still trying to dream, still trying to make real our hopes.  We aren’t even yet who we are.  The voices are calling our name, but are they calling us by our true name?  Are they calling us to greatness, or are they just singing us out to the rocks, as sirens do?  We can’t just believe in rainbows and we can’t just believe in stars.  All we can do is believe in wishing, in daring to want something in defiance of all logic and every rational reason it shouldn’t work.  The song doesn’t promise us that dreams come true, and it doesn’t even promise us that it’s okay to dream anyway. All it can offer is the nebulous hope that we useless people of the world, we lovers, we dreamers, we wishers on stars, might someday feel less disconnected from – and  by – our dreams.

Everything gets harder, every single year, and we’ll never be as safe and as loved, as innocent and blissfully ignorant, as we were before we started to actually think.

(Alabama: You’ll Never Be One Again)

And we grow up.  No matter what we grow up to do or how wonderful it is or how closely our life is to what we’ve hoped for, no matter how much good we do or how many people we make happy, no matter how much we live, no matter how much we love, everyone goes away someday.

(Tom Smith: A Boy And His Frog)

Nevermind the fact that so few of us get to do such good in the world.  Nevermind that so many of us fail ourselves and each other tremendously.  Even if we try to avoid this, try to follow the rules, try to do things right, try to play everything safe and static and boring, it never works that way.  We break and try to fix and keep breaking again.  Everyone and everything still goes away.

(Johnny Cash: Hurt)

It’s not a matter of being brave enough or smart enough or good enough or strong enough.  Those are all such human words, such human ideas.  No matter what we want or what we do or how hard we try, sometimes things just work differently.  We can try to tell ourselves it’s fate or karma, we can try to put it in the context of a greater plan.  But, even then, we’re deluding ourselves  into thinking that the universe operates in ways that our squishy little meatbrains are capable of comprehending.  We understand some things, so we think we can understand it all.  Even if we’re not theistic, we tend to think of a universe made, in some way, for us.  That the universe follows rules at all times, and that those rules are things our brains are powerful enough to understand.  But against the cosmos, we are so powerless that the very concept of power is absurd.  Entropy always wins.

(Moby: My Weakness)

So we keep coming back to the things we can feel we understand.  The human things, the emotional things.  Our lives, our relationships, our wants and needs, our own tiny personal sagas.  How we grow, how we love.  How we try to fit in with some subset or other of our ever-arbitrary culture, since our attempts to relate to the wider world are so futile.  We try to forget how transient our feelings of love and happiness and competence are — and to forget how much more rational it is to be lonely and confused and afraid as we navigate this maddeningly arbitrary world.

(Gary Jules: Mad World)

But we still want to love anyway.  We want to be loved.  We still just want to be held and to be cared about, to matter to someone.  Even when, even because, we can’t matter anymore to ourselves.   We want to love each other forever, if just for a little while.  It’s so simple, and it’s still something we can so rarely have, and even when we have it, we have it so briefly.  But what we want is so simple, so clear and so shining.  We want love.  We want home. We want forgiveness. We want them to feel safe.  We don’t want to be alone.  We want to be allowed to keep loving.

(Tom Waits – Take Me Home)

Everything is only temporary.  Whoever and whatever it is that we love, the best we can do is try to appreciate it even as it fades.  To put our arms around it, to hold it in our hearts, to take it home.  To, with it, create what home is.  To live in that home so long as love can last.

And, when it’s gone, to remember.  And when we’re gone, to be remembered.

Just for a little while.

(The Chameleons UK – I’ll Remember)

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Day 05 – A Song You Like More Because Of The Video Than The Actual Song

Inadvertently but unavoidably, the post on music that reminds me of my childhood had more than enough context to reveal my approximate age.  Unlike most of my peers, though, I didn’t grow up with cable TV. Nickelodeon was a rare delight, watched only when visiting my grandparents.   This also meant that I didn’t grow up watching MTV, or even VH-1.

But, contrary to what Buzzfeed would have you believe, it was possible to have a childhood without Nickelodeon.  It was even possible to be a teenager without MTV.

Although our rabbit-ear’d TV did offer an alternative…

I’d flip through our handful of channels, the numbers climbing quickly.  I’d reach the snow line of Channel 23, above which static crept into everything.  I’d hike past the preacher-stations of Channels 40 and 42, twin monasteries echoing with febrile testifications, their acolytes lining the path and tugging on sleeves to beg for coins.   But just a little higher and, if the weather was just right and the antennae were positioned just so, I could see Channel 47, home of a station called The Box.

The Box showed nothing but music videos.  This was already surprising for a broadcast TV station.  But, unlike MTV, The Box showed music videos on demand.

It worked like so:  Most of the time, you’d see a sort of menu.  There’d be four or so lines per screen, each line with the title and artist of a music video in their selection.  They had a little bit of everything – TLC, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Prodigy, Korn.   Each video had a three-digit code.   And at the bottom of the screen, a 1-800 number.   You called the number, paid by credit card, put in the three-digit code, and in half an hour or so, they’d play the video you requested. Of course, tempted as I may have been sometimes, I never stole my parents’ credit cards to request a video.  So, instead, I just had to sit and hope real hard that something I liked would come on.  And that I’d be able to see it through the static when it happened.

It felt so secret, somehow.  The way we could get the channel on some days and couldn’t see it at all on others, the way the music was all chosen by people, the way you never saw a veejay or a talking head, the way they played music videos I was surprised you were allowed to show on television before 10 pm…. I didn’t know what a pirate radio station was at the time, but if I had, it’s precisely what I would’ve thought The Box must be.

My favorite video was probably “Three Little Pigs” by Green Jellö.  It’s one of the few that I can really remember watching.  And what wasn’t to like?  It was funny!  It was claymation!  It had twisted fairy tales just like The Stinky Cheese Man, which was the coolest book around at the time.   It had all sorts of Adult Situations!   There were BUTTS!   I didn’t dislike the song itself, but the video — and the sheer fact I could see it at all — was amazing to me.

YouTube now makes this all sound incredibly quaint.  As high-speed broadband became mainstream, it became easier to download, and eventually stream, any music video you wanted, whenever you wanted.  The Box’s very principle of playing only music videos is exactly what guaranteed its demise: MTV and VH-1 were glad to just stop playing music videos and switch to other content.    And yet, YouTube has preserved it:

I was fascinated by the interactivity of it all.   The idea of being able to request television just like you could request a song on the radio was amazing to me.  Picking a video from a list is such a trivial degree of interactivity now, compared with our present ability not just to watch anything at any time, but so easily create our own media in response.  Watching The Box had all the same randomness and uncertainty of radio — even moreso, because the kinds of stations that played “All I Wanna Do” probably weren’t going to follow it up with “Put ‘Em On The Glass.”  And yet, even though some people in suits somewhere decided what selections to offer at all, actual people still got to pick what was shown.

I remember trying to imagine a way for all television to work like The Box:  You put in the code of a TV show you wanted to see, maybe even a specific episode, and they’d play it!  No, that wouldn’t do; one person couldn’t pick a whole 30 minute or hour long show  That’s a long time, if what they picked sucks. So I revised my idea:  it would have to be majority rules — whatever got the most votes got played.  But wait, adults would still just request the news all the time, or Lawrence Welk or something.  And they were the ones with the credit cards, so we’d never see cartoons again.  So I revised my idea again, imagining that in The Future, everyone would have free cable, with a channel just for news, a channel just for cartoons, a channel just for science shows, etc.   The Cartoon Channel would have all the Nickelodeon cartoons, and all the Saturday morning cartoons from every station, every single Looney Tunes ever and every single Disney movie.  And, instead of a TV Guide, they’d just mail everyone a list of all the TV show codes for all the different stations, with every station’s phone number.  And voting, of course, would be free.   It would be so much easier on everyone, I thought: stations like ABC wouldn’t have such a muddle of programming.  Cartoons in the morning, soap operas all afternoon, news in the evening, dramas or comedies at night, stupid infomercials late late at night.  In The Future, nobody would vote for stupid infomercials, and you’d never see them again.  In The Future, you’d only get to see the best stuff.  In The Future, you’d be able to watch TGIF on Tuesday afternoon.

But I realized, being a kid who was deeply fond of traditions and rituals — whether as big and meaningful as how we celebrated Christmas, or as personal and immaterial as only eating Spaghetti-Os with the Spaghetti-Os spoon — that I’d miss looking forward to certain shows at certain times.  And that, if TV only ever played the shows I liked, and didn’t have inexplicable marathons of The Beverly Hillbillies once in a while, I’d always be forced to choose between watching my favorite show… and everything else.  Favorite show, or playing with Legos?  Favorite show, or going outside?  Favorite show, or playing Nintendo?  Harsh.

While I was obviously way off the mark in most ways as a kid — this being a few years before “Internet” was even a household word — I suppose it wasn’t too bad a guess, for the time.  And I suppose I’m now faced with an even harsher constant choice:  The Internet or Everything Else.  I’d do well to remember the value of stepping away from the Internet, Font Of All Knowledge And Fun though it may be, and looking forward to occasional other pastimes.

But that’s the downside of being an adult.  You can, to some degree, decide what you want to do and when you want to do it — and that even extends to our media, nowadays.  However, that makes it so much harder to be surprised, so much harder to feel like you’re stumbling upon a secret.  You get to decide what’s appropriate and inappropriate for yourself.  You don’t have to be sneaky anymore — which means you don’t get to be sneaky, either.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch “Baby Got Back” in incognito mode.  

Day 04 – A Song That Reminds You Of Your Dad, Mom, and/or Childhood

If you’ve enjoyed my more objective, analytical tangents thus far — about what constitutes Horribleness, or the way a lack of control can make hearing a favorite song on the radio so much more rewarding, or the way one’s expectations can color your experience and enjoyment — well, too bad for you; this one’s just a semi-truck full of subjectivity with all the brake lines cut.  Especially once we get to the “childhood” bit, because you’d better believe I can’t pick just one song.   Maybe picking just one song is supposed to be the point of this whole thing —  given that it wasn’t originally intended as a writing prompt as much as a prompt to share a YouTube link each day.  But I say again:  too bad for you.

First, songs that remind me of my parents.  I could try to dig into their personalities and seek out a song that described my parents as people, but honestly, that wouldn’t be a song that reminded me of them.  Moreover, the songs that DO remind me of them may not be their actual favorites.  Because, to be honest, I associate whole bands with them quite a bit more than any individual song, and also because I’m not exactly sure what their favorite songs are because I am A Terrible Person.

My mom is friendly to the point of social fearlessness.  She’s the kind of person who’ll strike up a conversation in the grocery line with any stranger around.  She always has a budget for greeting cards — for all occasions, and for everyone from relatives to former coworkers.  When children are polite in public, saying “Please” and “Thank you” to cashiers or waitresses, she rewards them with golden dollar coins.  If she ever gets around to looking her age, she’ll be the archetypal Nice Little Old Lady, just like her mother before her.  

However, if she’d been born a few decades later, I lay odds she’d have been a big fan of The Cure.

Despite all her sunny grandmotherly ways, she loves murder mystery novels.  She watches all sorts of gory police procedurals and forensics shows.   The entire PBS series “Secrets of the Dead” might as well have been produced just for her.    The Lost Colony of Roanoke, Terracotta Warriors, mummies whether Egyptian or bog.  So, not surprisingly, that undercurrent of morbidity has extended to music as well.

She’s always been rather fond of the teen-tragedy genre of songs: Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel,” or “Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers.   Even if they wouldn’t be on her own Top 10 list of favorites, the fact that she likes them at all is weird enough to me that, whenever I hear them, I think of her.   And then I turn them off, because those songs are total bummers.

Beyond that, I know she also likes Ricky Nelson, as well as Roy Orbison.  I’m not sure exactly which of their songs are her favorites (remember: Terrible Person,)  and there’s no particular song that has a clearer association than any other.  Which might make them pretty crappy answers, huh!  Still, I feel I’d be remiss not to include them at all.

Therefore, picked somewhat randomly, I give you Fig. 1: Ricky Nelson’s “Fools Rush In.”

And Fig. 2:  Roy Orbison’s  “Only The Lonely.”

My dad likes a surprising diversity of music under the general aegis of Oldies.  Southern Rock, like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Alabama and CCR.  Doo Wop, like The Diamonds and The Coasters. Motown, like The Temptations and Smokey Robinson.  The music of Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys often remind me of him as well, if just from their focus on car culture and his own appreciation of hot rods — and his occasional teenage leadfootery.

He liked Jim Croce, too, and for some reason I have particular memories of listening to those albums.  Sitting in the green-carpeted living room, perched on the arm of his orangey recliner, the green bars of the stereo equalizer hopping as, across the room, stereo speakers taller than I was thumped out the tunes.  Also, as is required in the great handbook of fatherhood, my dad would pick on me upon occasion.  Whenever I tried to pick back, he had a habit of reciting the chorus to “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.”  Even apart from that, the song just made me laugh.

So did “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” for that matter.

I guess I liked songs about bar brawls.

But my dad also likes things that, I suppose, would be considered Classic Rock now — but which, at the time, wasn’t too current, but also wasn’t an Oldie, and wasn’t yet Classic Rock, and so floated in genre limbo.  Things like The Eagles,  Eric Clapton, Bob Seger, the Dire Straits, and Jimmy Buffett.

And this is where, as the prompt surely intended in the first place, “songs that remind me of my dad” overlaps “songs that remind me of my childhood.”

We didn’t go on vacations much when I was a kid.  We’d visit the occasional relative, or spend a night at the inn of a State Park, or spend three or four nights somewhere in a neighboring state — but we’d always go by car.   We’d have the radio on the local Oldies station when we started out, as it always was.  But, in perhaps an hour’s time, it would begin to warble and fade, or get run through by jagged fragments of other broadcasts.  Soon, the snakes of static would slither in and hiss.   That, more than any terrestrial landmark, more than any mile marker, was how I knew I had crossed a threshold, how I knew I was Far From Home.

Only then was it time to put on the music.  Since my father was doing the driving, his tastes also drove the album selection.  So, through the years, certain bands became entrenched in my mind as road trip soundtracks.  Vagabond anthems without which, somehow, the journey would be incomplete.  (When I moved a thousand miles away from home a few years ago, I pointedly avoided these songs or bands.  The magnitude of the move was overwhelming enough already — the symbolic finality, the acknowledgment that I was parting not just with a place but with my past, would have been more than I could handle.)

I’m not sure what Eagles album we listened to.  Maybe it was a Best Of.  Maybe we just listened to all of them.   Some songs made me a little sad:  “After The Thrill Is Gone,” “Desperado,” and “Wasted Time,” in particular.  “Lyin’ Eyes,” as well.  It wasn’t just sadness, though; it was always tinged with… frustration, perhaps.  I was a painfully idealistic elementary school kid, already hopelessly struck with unrequited crushes.  I couldn’t really relate to songs of heartbreak, of course — but it wasn’t encouraging to be reminded that, even if anyone ever did love me, they probably wouldn’t for long.

So I much preferred a few other Eagles songs — the first one or two times we heard them, anyway.  “Witchy Woman” was catchy, and the harmony was interesting.  “Take It Easy” was upbeat and fun, if just because I liked the hamburger-focused parody my friend and I had penned (entitled “Make It Greasy,” as if you were wondering.)   I didn’t want to admit liking something so clearly country-fried as “Seven Bridges Road,” but I loved the harmony.

My favorite of the lot?  “Take It To The Limit.”

It does something I love in any music: it starts simple and slow, but as it goes, more instruments fade in, more harmony comes in, the vocals become more strident, and generally builds to a peak.  Roy Orbison’s music often did the same thing — “Running Scared” is a prime example — so I guess I was primed to enjoy it by both my parents.

The Dude would not abide my mentioning them in the same post as The Eagles, much less immediately after them, but for many of the same reasons, I also liked when CCR’s “Long As I Can See The Light” came on:

And, even moreso, Bob Seger’s “Like A Rock.”

But man.  The Dire Straits.  “Money For Nothing” was one of the albums I hoped would be played during the few hours of the trip when I wasn’t dead asleep in the backseat.  I loved the guitarwork, and Mark  Knopfler’s muffled but earnest vocals. However, the fact that I so often was asleep gave it some additional appeal —  because, rarely but wondrously, the songs would filter into my dreams and guide them.  That’s a long ramble for another time, but still I’ll share one of my favorites, “Tunnel of Love.”

But of all “dad’s music” I embraced for my own favorites as a kid, nobody surpassed Jimmy Buffett.  It was unlike anything I’d ever heard — there were twinges of folk and country, but all with a carefree Caribbean flair.  And I always liked how he could sing slow and sad ballads like “He Went To Paris” or “A Pirate Looks At Forty,” then play upbeat nigh-upon-novelty music like “Fruitcakes” or “Volcano.”

So, while most of my fourth-grade peers were listening to Boyz II Men or Tag Team, I was making accurate the title of “Songs You Know By Heart.”   Awesomely and improbably enough, there was someone in my class who knew and enjoyed Jimmy Buffett, along with all the other Oldies and Classic Rock songs and whathaveyou that I’d been growing up with, in seeming isolation from everyone else.  And, in another improbable contrast to everyone else, he deigned to acknowledge my existence, and continues to do so to this day.  So, while most of elementary school is a mostly-forgotten muddle of awfulness — like a durian smoothie left out on a counter — Jimmy Buffett songs still offer, as always, an escape.

Jimmy Buffett – Cheeseburger In Paradise

I’d also stumbled across my sister’s CD of Bat Out Of Hell II at about the same timeframe, and found myself absolutely smitten.  It was everything I loved — howling guitars, jangling pianos, pounding drums and choral harmonies.  Semi-orchestral theatrical bombast.  Hammer-down Fender-burning ivory-banging paeans not just to Love and Lust and Wasted Youth but to Mystery and Surrender.  Everything Louder Than Everything Else, ingoddamndeed.   And yet there were catacombs underneath, reminders of inevitable death and irreversible loss.  It had a haunted, Byronic, masculine vulnerability.  Yes, yes, and thriceyes.  Nobody ever told Meat Loaf not to wear his heart on his sleeve. He’d nail it right to his wrist and use the run-through point as a plectrum.

Meat Loaf – Out Of The Frying Pan (And Into The Fire)

Mirabile dictu, the same Parrothead also liked Meat Loaf as well.  He is a fellow who knows What’s What.

Though these songs remind me broadly of childhood, there’s another category of songs, a little more specific, that trigger even more specific memories.

For me, sound is second only to smell in its ability to make me feel nostalgia.  It’s so potent that I’m not sure “nostalgia” is a strong enough term — at least, not the way we currently tend to use it.  Okay, I know I promised to avoid the pedantry, but forgive the etymology:  it’s from Ancient Greek, in which “nostos” meant “a homecoming” and “algia” — just as in “neuralgia” — meant “pain.”  Nostalgia isn’t just a wistful reminiscence of times gone by.  It’s when you want to go back in time so desperately that it hurts.  When you think about your childhood or your teenage years and you feel all warm and fuzzy, that’s not nostalgia.  Nostalgia is when the hands of time suckerpunch you in the solar plexus.   When I hear certain songs, or smell certain smells, it doesn’t just make me think of my past.  It’s more than memory. It’s an incredibly vivid sensorium, a mental time capsule of What It Felt Like To Be Me, Then.  It’s like a snapshot of my entire mental state.  Or like an old saved draft briefly overwriting your latest version (ahem.)

There’s a lot of music that used to give me that instant, overwhelming sensation of nostalgia, of reliving a past sense-of-self and realizing how very different it was from who I am now.   But, as time has gone on, as “retro” music has returned to the mainstream, returned and been milked for these very same positive associations among the disposable-income’d twentysomething, as music has become so easy to get at any time… some of those strong associations have been defused.  And diffused. They’re spread too thin between my childhood, my college years when I first heard some of them again, and my recent years when I’ve played the mp3s.  Even something as often-played as Bohemian Rhapsody was once, for me, a key to parts of my childhood brain.

But there are a few that still have that near-teleporting power.   Songs that take me back.  What it takes me back TO isn’t usually anything eventful: mundane things like the view of my childhood room, or a view of the family room before we remodeled it, or a view of the public library desk because the song was stuck in my head at the time.  The songs don’t mean anything to me, and might not even be my favorites.  But they, for whatever reason, are the ones that take me back. They aren’t things I’ve tried to remember, they’re just things that had always been there, waiting silently until I found their sounds. But I can no more articulate that sense of What It Felt Like To Be Me In That Moment than I can articulate what it feels like to be me in -this- moment.  So I’ll share them essentially without comment:  songs that take me back to some part of my past, songs that I forgot I remembered, songs that I didn’t know I knew until I found myself singing along.

(Is it a cheap shot to use a Sesame Street song?  Do I actually care?)

Sesame Street – Telephone Rock

(Another PBS kids’ show song!  Because it’s awesome.)

Square One Television – Mathematics of Love
Guns ‘n’ Roses – Sweet Child O’ Mine

Janet Jackson – Miss You Much

Club Noveau – Lean On Me

Billy Joel – The River of Dreams

The Cranberries – Dreams

Martin Page – In the House of Stone and Light

Moody Blues – I Know You’re Out There Somewhere

Not the most intriguing or in-depth or cohesive post — if just because I went on a severe tangent and clipped it all for future extrapolation.  But there are more days to cover — and I’ve got a lazy Sunday ahead of me.  Onward!

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Day 03 – A Song You Know Is Horrible But Love Anyway

I am a connoisseur of horrible songs.

However, I don’t always consider them “horrible.” Like I’ve said before, I try to look at each thing on its own merits.  If it’s a discordant, off-tempo audio collage, it’s absurd to expect it to be as melodious as a Beethoven sonata; if it’s a perky pop song that’s the audio equivalent of glitter-infested cotton candy, don’t expect scathing social commentary.  If you impose your expectations, or even your preferences, on any work, judging it by how closely it matches what you think it ought to be, you’re going to end up reviling everything you hear.

This puts you at risk of turning you into That Guy.  You know, That Guy who only listens to Finnish black metal, because everything else is for wusses.  Or That Guy who won’t shut up about Zeuhl.  If you think you already know what kind of music is, objectively, The Best, and you won’t sully your ears with anything else, you might think you’re more refined, more pure.  Really, you’re just missing out on a lot.

It’s easy to be like that nowadays.  As with almost all media, it’s easy for people to isolate themselves musically, listening to what they want to hear, avoiding everything they don’t like.  Even as mainstream media tries to be everything to everyone, churning out the same sorts of music, the same sorts of TV shows, the same sorts of music, the same sorts of video games, independent creators fill the Internet with uncategorizably weird alternatives.  The Long Tail is long, and if someone loves nothing but zydeco covers of classic rock, she could not only find that music, but also affirmation in her belief that everything else is Horrible.

No matter what anyone thinks is Horrible — Christian Rap, musique concrete, children’s music, Jingle Dogs — someone out there loves it, truly and sincerely.  They might acknowledge that it’s not the apex of human achievement, sure.  But they’d never call it Horrible.

So, as it becomes easier to listen to and learn from anything you like; as it becomes easier to avoid anything you don’t like; as it becomes easier to indulge and affirm your obscurest tastes and to do so excluslively; but, despite that, as it becomes apparent that your interest is just one of many islands in a great archipelago of genres that stretches back to the mainstream mainland; as we immerse ourselves ever deeper in our subjectivity… Whither Horribleness?

Is it even possible to, with complete objectivity, call any song Horrible?

Fortunately for us all, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid cracked their respective knuckles and applied SCIENCE.  In 1996, Komar and Melamid set up an online poll to ask readers what they liked and disliked in their music.  What instruments were preferable, and which were unlistenable?  What were their favorite lyrics about, and what topics could they not stand?  How long is too long?  How much could the pitch vary before it became repellent?  How frequently could the tempo change before it became frustrating?

When all the data was crunched, David Soldier used it to guide the composition of two song.  Nina Mankin crafted their lyrics.  And then they were released.  One was The Most Wanted Song, made only of the most wanted instruments, at the most wanted pitch, the most wanted tempo, with the most wanted lyrics.  It ran just over five minutes, and was something like a jazz / R&B duet between Springsteen and Mariah Carey.  It was, of course, a love song.

The second, as one might suspect, was The Most Unwanted Song.  Clocking in at over twenty five minutes long, it is an amalgamation of everything the test subjects thought to be Horrible. Strange time signatures, sudden pitch shifts,  accordions, banjos, bagpipes, political buzzwords shouted through a megaphone, children singing jingles about holiday shopping at Wal-Mart, and a rapping Country/Western soprano.

Despite the fact that it wasn’t a scientific study and that the whole endeavor was tongue-in-cheek — Komar and Melamid being conceptual artists who, previously, had hired actual polling companies to determine The Most and Least Wanted Paintings of eleven different countries — the results are still interesting.   It’s an equally unscientific sample size, but whenever someone I know has encountered these songs for the first time, their reactions have always been the same:

“The ‘Most Wanted’ one is WAY worse.”

While The Most Unwanted Song is hard to listen to, almost everyone I’ve spoken too has called it “more interesting” than the Most Wanted Song.   Is it interesting because it’s made of so many repellent components that we consider it a sort of threat, making our brains more active?  Or is it just interesting because it’s unlike anything you’ve heard before?  It’s a clash of instruments, genres, and even social classes that makes almost anyone with a forebrain think about why those juxtapositions are so jarring.  An operatic rap about roping cows is absurd — because of what we know, or think we know, abut The Kind Of Person who sings opera, The Kind Of Person who raps, and The Kind Of Person who tends cattle.  Our cultural experience tells us that these are all Different Kinds Of People — so, to hear one person embody all three is statistically unlikely, ergo Weird.   And we can simply learn more from unexpected things than from the satisfaction of our expectations.

I am not a neuropsychologist, but it seems to go a little like this.  We get surprised by novel information, or information that conflicts with our current mental model.  We realize that the way we think about the world doesn’t prepare us to deal with the surprising thing.  This is stressful, because we want to believe we understand the world around us.  To resolve that conflict, we have two main options:  We either change our mental model to incorporate the surprising thing, making future occurrences of that thing simply not surprising anymore — or we don’t change our mental model, we avoid the aberrant thing, and we refuse to acknowledge it as a valid thing at all until and unless it meets our expectations.

I’d joke that this is where “liberals” and “conservatives” come from, except for the fact that all humans do this sort of thing all the time, and we often don’t even know when we’re doing it or what we’re doing it about, because we’re brimful of cognitive biases.  HOORAY BRAINS.

Humans are always tripping over their own shoelaces as we ride the Hedonic Treadmill.  We like novelty, but we like the familiar. We like to feel independent, but we like to feel validated.  We think we know what we like, but we don’t.  We think we know what we want, but we don’t.  We think we know what we think, but we don’t.

So, again:  we can ask what makes a song Horrible, but that’s treating Horribleness like a big box into which all sorts of things can, or should, be deposited.  Which leads to confusion when two people look at the same thing, but only one of them wants to put it in the Horrible Box.  Instead, Horrible is more like plastic wrap: it’s a term we can wrap around whatever we find distasteful, in hopes of smothering it.  Two people can still disagree on whether something should be called Horrible, but instead of arguing about where that thing should be put, one of them can just slap on a layer of Horrible Wrap while the other one doesn’t.  Some things end up covered in a lot of layers of Horrible Wrap from a lot of different people.  Some things are covered so thickly that you see the layers of judgment before you see the actual thing inside — like when you hear about how awful a new song is long before you actually hear the tune.   And it’s hard, incredibly hard, to make yourself see through all the layers to judge the thing for itself.  I’m not about to suggest that I can do so any better than anyone else.  Once again, as is ultimately the point of this whole series of prompts, the answer is subjective.

So, let’s get down to the nitty and/or gritty:  what kinds of music do I think are Horrible, by any measure?  What do I see so many layers of Horrible Wrap upon that I feel socially compelled to add my own?   And, to distinguish this from Day 28, what song do I enjoy despite recognizing its lack of merits — as opposed to a song that, despite public opinion to the contrary, I DO find merit in and believe to be unfairly maligned?  (Which, of course, means that this post’s objective blather would probably be better off in that future post instead, but: meh.)

Three are so many things that I initially found repellent, but later found more complexity in, more depth in, or liked better when I tried to stop being jaded.  I really do think there’s more to everything if you listen closely, that everything has some meaning, that everything says something about the culture that created it.  As long as it gives me something interesting to think about, I don’t readily call anything “horrible.”  This means I’ll stand in defense of all sorts of things.  I will tease the hidden substructures from audio collage, and embrace its recontextualizations.  That part of me which is a perpetual adolescent will forever rally to the bombastic pathos of power rock.   Gladly will I headbang to cheesy hair metal.  I will advocate the most unlikely mashups as musical koans, brain-breakers that crack apart your cultural assumptions and open you up to seeing the similarities in even the most seemingly-disparate music.  And, since what we scorn and mock says as much about our culture as what we love and believe; since only ephemera can truly encapsulate a cultural moment, having been designed to be disposed of long before the next shift; since there is always a bitter core of honesty in humor; and since, all overanalysis aside, it’s valuable to just enjoy the absurd once in a while; for all these reasons and more, you can have my Dr. Demento albums and novelty songs when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.  I’ll also remember that it’s valid to enjoy something for personal reasons:  for happy associations, for in-jokes with friends, and for knee-jerk nostalgia that makes me so vividly visualize my world as it used to be, as seen from a few feet closer to the ground.

But, sometimes, what music says  — about culture, about the industry, about its own fans — is really godsbedamned depressing.  It reminds you just what we value, what we find aspirational, what we reward, and how incredibly unworthy they are to be glorified.  Sometimes, it’s just a great big shiny celebration of all the Suck in the world.

So it’s a long way around to end up at no big surprise, but the genre of music I find most meritless, yet most enjoyable, without even the slightest hope of defending it, would have to be pop music.  Because pop music exists to be popular.  It exists to be approachable to everyone, innocuous, unthreatening — and it exists to make an unholy riot of money, usually at the expense of the tweenaged patsy of the day.  Pop music is catchy as a fishhook:  baited with something that isn’t even food, just manufactured, glittery plastic — but damned if we’re not compelled to bite.

But what’s my favorite of the worst?  What do I recognize as such crap that it’s not even compost — yet still, doglike, feel compelled to roll in?   For what songs do I have absolutely no excuse?

Yes indeed, Jefferson Starship’s “We Built This City.”  Why?  WHY?!  I don’t know!  It does have a strong association with a high school play I was in, and anything that reminds me of my old theatre days is always wonderful.  But I’m pretty sure I had heard it and liked it even before then — but not due to childhood nostalgia!   The lyrics are ridiculous — nobody calls a radio a “Marconi,” Marconi wasn’t fit to lick Tesla’s bootheels, and the “mamba” is a snake, not a dance.  I’d like to believe it’s saying “mambo,” but the horrible hacky slant-rhyme of “mamba” / “rememba'” and “radio” / “rock and ro'” make it impossible to give them the benefit of the doubt.  It’s ostensibly an ode to rock and roll, but there is simply no rock to be found.  Lyrics about “corporation games,” “police have got the choke-hold,” and asking “who counts the money” are tepid attempts at rebellion, tired and incoherent, like a half-asleep toddler refusing to take a nap. It’s generic-brand Caffeine-Free Diet Rock.  It’s audio aspartame.  It is as catchy as syphilis, and squiggles little holes into your brainmeats just as well.

But some stupid part of my reptilian brain likes it.  It likes something about the beat.  It likes something about the harmony in the chorus.  There’s no justification whatsoever.  There’s no excuse. But it’s true.

Hooray brains.

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Day 02 – A Song You Would Sing In Public Or At Karaoke

(Yes, I’ll be multiposting some days to try to catch up.  Hooray!)

Singing in public, you say?  WELP, time for an instrumental.

I like to sing, honestly.  When everyone else leaves the house, Item One on my usual agenda is to turn up the speakers and shamelessly belt out an unholy travesty to all melody, such that Euterpe Herself would stab a golf pencil through her eardrums.

Why no, I’m not particularly good.

I did go to all of two vocal lessons some years back.  I ran out of disposable income soon thereafter, but I got a fair bit of information first:  I can hit the D below Middle C, I have very good pitch, but my rhythm is usually a bit off and I’m too ‘breathy.’   I can no more figure out how to sing from the diaphragm than I can figure out how to do anything coordinated with any other muscle, though, so my attempts at self-education hit a wall rather promptly.

Plus, I was living in a studio apartment the size of some walk-in closets, and I didn’t want to subject my neighbors to my horrible caterwauling.   Chiefly because they’d call animal control on me, saying I was clearly strangling an elk.

Yet I still really enjoy singing.  I hate hearing myself, I hate the idea of anyone else hearing me, but I still like producing the sounds, the sheer -feel- of belting along with whatever song has caught my lyrical fancy.   I recognize that it doesn’t make much sense to enjoy something you’re bad at, and simultaneously to be so awkward about others hearing how awful you are that you’ll actually avoid practicing.  There’s no way you can improve without doing it, but if you have the slightest respect for others, or even a glimmer of dignity, you’re simply not allowed to do it unless you’re already good.

That’s much the same with any artistic endeavor, though.  It happens even with my writing.  It’s the only thing I’ve ever been remotely good at, but it’s still horribly awkward to put anything in the public eye, and everything could — and should — always be so much better.   I could live without ever singing again, though.  I don’t think I’d make it a week without writing.  Even if every English-speaking person on Earth lined up to tell me, face to face, how horrible I was at it…  I’d still probably write tiny little notes on scraps of paper every night.  I’d probably burn them as soon as I had finished them, but I still don’t think I could keep myself from writing entirely.

However, that kind of… well, “commitment” and “devotion” are too proud of words for it; “unthinking zombie-like neural programming” is probably more accurate.  Whatever that sort of drive is, it is also, in some way, an excuse.  If I don’t write, my brain will probably liquefy and ooze down the back of my neck, so no matter how horrible it is when I do, maybe I’d better keep on writing.  It’s not a justification, mind you — but an excuse.

Since singing is optional, though, I should probably exercise the option to avoid it.

Especially among strangers.

Unless, of course, something were to happen to override my better judgment.  Some chemical solution, for example, that is known to lower inhibitions, increase feelings of camaraderie, and artificially enhance feelings of competence.

I still don’t think I could sing at a karaoke bar.  For one, knowing that alcohol lowers inhibitions, I don’t think I could let myself drink enough around strangers to actually get to that point.  For another, I don’t think it’s LEGAL to drink the amount I’d need  to let down my guard.  And for a third… well, again, it’s one of those ridiculous artistic Catch-22s:  Obviously, there’s no point in doing it if nobody else can hear it.   But to thrust yourself forward, perhaps into a literal spotlight, and impose yourself on others’ attention?  Awful!  I can imagine getting drunk and stupid enough to start — but the adrenaline-rush of panic when I actually got up there would surely keep me from going through with it.  And might also make me pass out.

One of the local joints circumvented this by having karaoke rooms:  you reserve a room just for you and your friends, so nobody is there except the people you’re comfortable with.

If I were actually in the presence of more trustworthy humans… well, I still couldn’t go up and sing out of nowhere.  Maaaaybe if other people started it.  Though I’m far better than in years past, it still takes quite the herculean effort to put my guard down.

But let’s assume ideal circumstances.  There aren’t any strangers around, it’s a soundproof room full of me and my friends.  They’ve already been singing.  Nobody’s been a judgmental jerkwad to anybody else.   People aren’t ignoring others when they sing, making it feel pointless and awkward — but nobody’s being stared at and scrutinized like the Breaking Bad finale, either.  And there’s a little booze in me for good measure — not enough to make me outright stupid, but just enough to make me care about looking stupid a little less.  Oh, and we assume they’ve actually got an absurd variety of songs far surpassing any normal selection.  Whatever the syzygy of circumstances takes, I actually step up and sing.  But sing what?

If just for the self-acknowledgment of it all — nevermind the fact that I do indeed love to sing it — Lucky Soul’s “I Ain’t Never Been Cool” might fit the bill:

Still, just as much as any instrumental, that’s a bit of a weasely choice.  It hangs a lampshade on my awkwardness.  Even if we assumed I somehow sang it well, belting it out with perfect pitch and timing, it might still prime everyone to see it as lame attempt.

If I were still compelled to, essentially, sing my own excuse, one could hardly do better than the Dresden Dolls’ “Sing:  ”

But maybe there’s a No Meta sign on the wall, and we have to sing a song we like without being self-referential.    Despite how absurd it would be to go from instrumentals and low-balls to Mike Freaking Patton…   well, sometimes I wonder if it’s not better to do ambitious things poorly than it is to do mediocre things competently.  Regardless of that, I just like the song, I can hit the notes,  and it’s awesome.  So I’d sing Mr. Bungle’s “Retrovertigo.”

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Day 01 – A Song From One Of Your Favorite Albums

And it begins!

This is a tricky question for me, mostly because I’ve rarely listened to albums straight through.  I’m one of those heathens who always listened to the radio more than anything else.  I was fortunate enough to live within broadcast distance of my state’s capital city, so despite the paucity of other entertainment options in my small town — pre-Internet, no cable,  under half a dozen broadcast channels (and two of them were preacher stations, which don’t count) — I  still got to pick up a variety of music over the airwaves.  However, I mostly kept to the Oldies stations as a kid.

I liked the randomness of it, of never knowing what you’d hear.  The way that hearing your favorite song always felt like some divine blessing — music-manna falling from the sky, just for you.   Putting in an album and listening to it straight through never had that same thrll, even if you knew your favorite song was on there.  It was so controlled, compared to the roulette wheel of the radio dial.  You spins the knob and you takes yer chances.

So I never had a very big budget for CDs, and it wasn’t a high priority.  Which was just as well, because the local Kmart didn’t have a very big selection.  Really, the only reason I had CDs at all was that my parents had signed up for the Columbia Record Club, and if you didn’t buy a gross of CDs every month, they’d send someone to break your kneecaps.

Still, at some point late in elementary school, I rediscovered The Beatles.  I’d heard them on the Oldies station, sure, but they tended to keep to the safer tracks.  “She Loves You” and “Penny Lane” and “Hard Day’s Night.” None of the more psychedelic, avant-garde stuff; you’d never hear “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or “I Am The Walrus.”   “Helter Skelter,” certainly not.  “Revolution 9” was right out.  And even “Strawberry Fields Forever” was, apparently, too trippy.   So, as I was experiencing some pre-teen rebellion and my father was a rather conservative man with a strong distaste for all things Hippie, some of these albums became like forbidden fruit.

Which, of course, meant that I had to get my hands on one.

I couldn’t just circle Sgt. Pepper in the Columbia Record Club booklet, convinced as I was that my father would kick me right out of the house.  And I didn’t have the means to go buy the CD myself.  Fortunately, despite all assertions that Home Taping Was Killing Music, my grade-school peers and I had a reasonably thriving subculture of mixtapes and bootlegs.

And so it was that, one day, I smuggled home a cassette of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, courtesy of an even-more-Beatlemanic friend.

My first challenge was getting the tape into my room at all.  I always just abandoned my backpack on the couch, so the obvious method of taking it into my room would be nothing but suspicious.  Instead, I had to wait until nobody was looking, then transfer the cassette from pack-pocket to pants pocket, then dash from the living room to my room.  It seemed a lot more daring at the time.  However, that act of subterfuge had only been the first hurdle.    I couldn’t just put it on the stereo — my parents would hear.  If they even found me listening to the stereo with headphones on, they’d surely ask what I was listening to.  Clearly, I thought, the only safe way to listen was to pop it in my Walkman, then hide under the covers, disguising myself as the usual lumpy bundle of bedsheets and pillows.


So I huddled down, flimsy headphones on my ears, the old Walkman in my hand, thinking about the strange and transgressive music I was about to hear, the album I knew was famous, but otherwise knew nothing about.  I pushed down the Play button, which made that satisfying mechanical CLUNK.

However, instead of the innocuous orchestral tuning noises and hushed audience chatter, instead of the bouncy strum of the bass and the vaguely metal-prefacing screech of the guitars…

The tuning sounds sounded like alien instruments being dumped into a cave.  The mutterings were bizarre chants.  The bouncy strum became a low funereal dirge, and the guitar didn’t screech, but drone.  I had no way to know something was wrong at the time.  I had no frame of reference.

And so, for a good twenty minutes, I was convinced that Sgt. Pepper was an atonal, experimental album — probably designed to represent the feeling of being on drugs.

No wonder it was famous!

When the music slowed and slowed and finally stopped, and I opened up the blanket-fort enough to let in a sliver of light, I saw that it was no pregnant pause in a song — the batteries had died.  They’d been dying all along.

Feeling somewhat like a heel, I quickly found some replacements, rewound the tape, and tried again.

I didn’t dislike it, by any means.  And it did still seem fairly far-out.  “Lucy in the Sky” was as wild as I’d anticipated, and “Within You Without You” even moreso.  “Good Morning Good Morning” was a catchy but brutal ode to suburbia that, decades after it came out, I could still relate to.  “She’s Leaving Home” was rather depressing, and “A Day In The Life” was even more forlorn, but ended with such a nervy, cacophonous buildup, that, for a long time, I couldn’t listen to it all the way through, But none of it was anywhere near as strange as I’d thought it was during that brief bubble of time, hidden beneath the blankets.

Still, the more I listened to the album for what it was, the more I enjoyed it for what it was.  I had wondered before whether I’d have appreciated The Beatles as much if I’d grown up with them.  If I’d have dismissed them as firmly as I dismissed things like the Backstreet Boys.  But, hearing Sgt. Pepper, I realized that The Beatles really were more than pop stars, more than a manufactured boy band.  Maybe it wasn’t as avant-garde as I’d originally misheard it, but the album actually was experimental, throwing in sound effects and sitars and whole orchestras playing fierce non-music crescendos.  The Beatles used their power as the biggest pop stars around to get away with breaking that very mold.

In later years, I found different albums to sneak into my room, everything from Nirvana to Pink Floyd to Ozzy Osbourne to David Bowie to Marilyn Manson.  In hindsight, I don’t think my parents cared what music I listened to, at least not by the time I was in my teens.  But there was something about the sneakiness that made them all sound a little better.  Sitting on the bedroom carpet, door closed, headphones on, volume low in case the cord popped out, doing nothing else but listening with studious intensity.  Trying to think of everything on its own merits, and also in the context of everything that had come before it and everything that came after, as if trying to put together a map of pop culture itself, of Coolness itself.  Hoping I might, at last, figure out where I was — and how to get somewhere else.

Of all the songs on Sgt. Pepper, the reprise has always hit home most.  It is, itself, a different version of a song already heard.  Its grinding and screeching guitars seem to carry echoes of hard rock and heavy metal music still to come.   The alter-ego band motif calls to mind all my unanswerable questions — what if The Beatles never became famous?  What about the parallel universes where John never met Paul, or where Richard Starkey died of his childhood illnesses, never living to become Ringo Starr?   What about the one where John never met Yoko, and The Beatles were playing that very night in Branson?    Somewhere, maybe Sgt. Pepper really was released as half-speed avant-garde art piece.  Maybe that had a different effect on that otherwise-identical culture — or maybe it made The Beatles a footnote.

So it reminds me that music can matter.  It can be the soundtrack to someone’s personal life, or the soundtrack to a cultural revolution.  It can become so iconic that millions know it by heart, even though thousands discover it anew every year.   And yet, in the end, it’s rather arbitrary. Things could always have been different.  But no matter how a work IS, the way we actually perceive it  — the way we perceive anything — is informed as much by our expectations as by the work itself.    I certainly had strange expectations of Sgt. Pepper – and a still-stranger first experience.  It truly felt like music that fell out of a wormhole somewhere, and wasn’t meant for this culture at all.  How could I not be a little let down to realize that it was all so much more mundane?  And yet, how ridiculous would it be to scorn that album, or any album, or anything, for not living up to my incorrect assumptions or out-of-context first impressions?  I’ve tried to keep that in mind ever since, whenever I encounter something new.  Take it as it is, and in its proper context — not as I mistakenly thought it should have been.

But there’s another part to the story.  A part that I never knew until maybe a decade after this incident.  A deeply subjective part that, truth be told, might be the biggest factor in why I like the album so much.  Not just because it makes me think about my expectations, or transgressive media, or the cycles of teenage rebellion, or relationship between art and culture, or the way everyone has some sort of baggage or priming that disposes them to perceive things differently.   Rather, just because it reminds me that the world is very weird.

You see, I was in my late teens, visiting a friend’s house to help her and her family prepare to move away.  She had only come to the state a few years previously, so we had never known of each other until we were in high school.  But those few years we got to hang out in person were marked by ridiculous weirdness of only the highest caliber.   We were taking a break from the housework efforts, discussing our usual melange of whatever was interesting at the time.  And I told her this very story.

She blinked in surprise.  “That actually happened?”

I swore on a stack of moose.

She, too, had smuggled home a bootleg tape of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

She, too, was in grade school at the time.

She, too, listened to it in secret — and for the very same reasons.

She, too, had even hidden under the sheets.

And yes, she, too, thought it was one of the strangest, most avant-garde albums she’d ever heard.

But hers played back at double-speed.

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Preface to a Series of Rants

When I started this blog, I didn’t have any particular idea for what it would be.  Slice-of-life?  News commentary?  A place to share new music I found?  Somewhere to trepidatiously dispense fiction or – dare I suggest – poetry?    Over time, it’s ended up as more of the second.  I’ll read some news article that pisses me right off, and as my main response to that is to vent my frustrations in word-form, this blog bore the brunt.

Although I appreciate having a space for that, and although news topics are Important, it’s really not my favorite sort of rant.  Gender matters, political matters, economic matters… they do matter, and the emotional investment can drive some strong and stirring prose.  However, it’s just a loud yell in an echo chamber.  The more Important something is, the less attention anyone pays to the writing itself, the reasoning itself.   People tend not to respond to the argument itself, but rather to whatever they think the argument is — which is usually based more on their pre-existing views on the subject.  If they pay attention to the writing at all, often it’s little more than the first paragraph, or perhaps just the title.

You’d think I was being hyperbolic, but some commenters on an old entry proved otherwise.  They were absolutely certain that they knew what the post was about better than I did, and asserted that i was really writing about one specific case — despite the clear thesis statement to the contrary, despite the fact that 90% of the article was an exploration of that thesis, despite the clear disclaimer that most of the facts of that specific case were unknown.  It didn’t matter how clearly I indicated that the post was distanced from that matter — was, in fact, a response to the type of response one individual had, not only to that case but to all others like it.  It didn’t matter that this individual’s reaction wasn’t even unique to him, that it was held by many people who heard about that case and all others like it.  No matter how clearly I indicated that the post was a general exploration of the phenomenon at large, nothing more specific than a template — these commenters could not acknowledge it.   They knew what they wanted the post to be about — and nothing, not even the post itself, could dissuade them.

That’s the peril of writing about anything “sensitive” or “political” or “controversial.”  Despite how important it is, despite the greater need for empathy and understanding others’ perspectives, those are the very issues about which we’re most unwilling — perhaps even incapable — of changing our minds.  Blame self-delusions, or logical fallacies.  Blame being human.

But it might be another fallacy to believe that only these Important Issues are, in fact, important.  That, so long as there’s still injustice and stupidity in the world, it’s horrible to use any media platform to talk about anything else.  Because somewhere, people are being persecuted, tortured, killed, and you’re going to write about MUSIC?


Is it a harsh and sudden gearshift, given the rest of these posts’ blatherings about Important Social Matters and Important-To-Me Coping Matters?  Rather; thus this bit of buffer.

But I had intended this to be a place where I could write whatever I damn well wanted to write, this time in a place where people might actually find it and read it.  I’m no great communicator; I’ve got no pretensions of changing the world, or even changing one single mind.  I am not Batman, nor The Night; my only purposes in writing are not to A) punish evildoers and B) brood.

All I want of this place is to be a petri dish, a neutral setting in which my amoeboid thought-processes can envelop and digest whatever morsel of information drops onto the agar.  And I’ve fed my thoughts too long on a diet of Things That Make Me Go HNNNNNNNG,

Moreover, since November seems to be the month for writing challenges, this will give me some vague semblance of direction — and might even have me in here posting something every day.  How ’bout that.

So, I’ll be taking the easy route:  I’ll be doing a 30 Days of Music prompt, one of those semi-memetic things that bounce around social networks sometimes, as they used to migrate through email address lists of yore.  A series of lowballs?  Perhaps — but they still might have the potential for interesting tangents and blatherings.

And, if I happen across any compelling writing prompts — or, yes, any particularly rage-inducing news I need to froth about — that will likely happen as well.

For anyone who’d like to play the home game, here’s the list of prompts I’ll be using.  I’ll try to get caught up to the present day.

Day 01 – a song from one of your favourite albums
Day 02 – a song you would sing in public/at karaoke
Day 03 – a song you know is horrible but love anyway
Day 04 – a song that reminds you or your dad/mom/childhood
Day 05 – a song you like more because of the video than the actual song
Day 06 – a song that makes you sad
Day 07 – a song you wanna dance to
Day 08 – a song you enjoy but don’t understand (foreign language, singer mumbles, historical context)
Day 09 – a song that gets you ‘hot’
Day 10 – a song you listen to/sing on the way to school/work
Day 11 – a song by an artist/band you wish everyone knew about
Day 12 – a song you know every word to
Day 13 – a cover song that is better than the original
Day 14 – a song from the first album you ever purchased
Day 15 – a song from the last album/the last song you actually paid for
Day 16 – a song you need to listen to again right after it’s finished
Day 17 – a song by the first band/artist you saw live
Day 18 – a song by a band/artist you wish to see live (living/dead/together/broken-up/fictional)
Day 19 – a song that describes you/your personality
Day 20 – a song that you thought was sung by a female but was actually sung by a male (or vice versa)
Day 21 – a song from your favourite movie
Day 22 – a song that energizes you
Day 23 – a song by an artist/band that you have no idea why people like
Day 24 – a song that describes your job/how you feel about it
Day 25 – your favourite/the most tolerable musical number (movie/tv/theatre)
Day 26 – a song that tells a great story
Day 27 – a song you think can save the world
Day 28 – a song you’re embarrassed to tell other people you think is good
Day 29 – the theme song for your life if it were a sit-com (doesn’t have to be a tv theme song)
Day 30 – the last song you’d want to hear before you die


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