Monthly Archives: November 2014

Day 14 – A Song From The First Album You Ever Purchased

You’d think I’d remember, wouldn’t you?  That I’d have some distinct memory of saving up my pocket change to buy a certain album with my own money.  But, y’know… nope.

My parents were members of the Columbia Record Club, or BMG, or one of those mail-order deals, and in order to not get an excessive bill – and to avoid getting sent some “free album” nobody in our house would even use as a coaster – there was some minimum monthly order.  Which meant that, once a month or so, we’d get the flimsy, tabloid-style catalog in the mail, printed on paper that was a little better than the supermarket circulars in the Sunday paper, but a little worse than Parade.  I’d curl up on the living room couch and pore through it, squinting at the tiny font, and circling my hopeful choices with a pen that jabbed straight through the paper half the time. I got a fair few of my earliest CDs that way: “Heigh-Ho! Mozart,” “Bugs & Friends Sing The Beatles,” “Songs in the Key of X.”

Still, I wasn’t the one who purchased those.  And I’d had albums even earlier that my parents had bought me – generally at the local K-Mart.  We didn’t have a proper music store in town, and I don’t even remember there having been one at the mall until the FYI opened up when I was, oh, in middle school or so.

Still, that place was a revelation.  An entire huge store full of music, aisle after aisle packed with the slim, shiny cases of CDs, and a forlorn section off to the left, at the very back of the store, where the cassettes and records gathered dust.  All along the walls, there were little standing areas with listening domes, designed so you could scan and preview an album before you bought it – though most of the more obscure albums had no song samples at all.

I rarely bought anything, but I loved – and still love – window-shopping as an entertainment in its own right.  It isn’t even an aspirational thing, going around and looking at all the stuff I want but can’t have.  It’s more objective than that: a simple thought process of “This exists.  Humans made it.  Humans made the songs, somebody made this cover art, people made a bunch of decisions, money changed hands, a factory churned this out, all under the expectation that enough people will buy this thing to make it worth the effort. And there it is: Michael Bolton.”  Between being a chronic outsider from everything “popular,” and living in a town where there was practically nothing to do for entertainment besides going shopping, I cultivated an almost anthropological perspective.

Not to say that I didn’t pine for that sense of inclusion, of awareness.  We seemed to define each other and form our subgroups based more on musical tastes than anything else, so the music store felt almost like a living history museum.  Artifacts of dozens of subcultures, carefully catalogued, but available for anyone to view and interact with and learn from.  But I always had that dim and hollow hope that, if I were somehow to listen to enough music, become versed enough in the archetypal bands for the musical subcultures around me, I’d be able to fit in.  Music wasn’t how I defined myself, because I didn’t have much sense of self, at that point, to define.  Still, I knew its power, individually and socially, and I wished I could grasp it.  Music was not my armor and heraldry; it didn’t protect me or define me.  I was the polisher of the armor, inspecting it and – if not seeing myself truly housed within it – seeing myself reflected in it.  I couldn’t be a standard bearer, or even count myself among the ranks, but I could think about how the music became iconic, how and why people might choose to form beneath its banner.  So I rankled a bit as the Parental Advisory stickers began to pepper all the album covers, black-and-white castigation that, I knew, would only become its own banner: The Music THEY Don’t Think You Should Hear.  So I snuck albums by Rammstein and Marilyn Manson to the listening domes, so I might get the barest glimpse of what people were talking about at school.  So I looked at almost all the music, hoping to at least be familiar with artists, if not with the music itself. But, on the days I went home with anything at all, it was probably a Beatles album.

So I don’t have a clear memory of the first album I personally purchased, at that music store, at Kmart, or from anywhere else.  But I could certainly tell you the first CD my family purchased, shortly after we got our CD player:  Paul Simon’s “The Rhythm of the Saints.”

To say that my parents are reluctant adopters of technology may be a bit of an understatement.  It’s understandable, to some degree: when you’ve lived your entire life without some certain high-tech gizmo, whatever you have is good enough.  So I was amazed when we got our first CD player.  I’d feel the same sort of cusp-of-the-future amazement when we later got a cordless phone, when we got our first computer, when we first got email, when we finally got the Internet.  If these bleeding-edge Future Tools were mainstream enough that my father was buying them, it really must not be a fad!  (My grandfather, meanwhile, had cable TV, surround sound, and a laserdisc player.  Go figure!)

Our stereo system must have been from the 70s.  Two-foot-tall speakers in the living room, a glass-fronted cabinet that held a record player, an equalizer, a dual cassette deck,  a stereo, and, suddenly, a CD player.  I’d remembered listening to the radio, certainly, and cassette tapes as well.  No real memories of records, though.  But when it all got hooked up, after I’d had my first look at the rainbow colors of a CD – and heard the first of many refrains of “DON’T touch the bottom!  DON’T put it face-down!” – in it went.

And on came the drums.

It really did sound clearer than any music I’d heard in my admittedly-few years of life.  Cassettes always had that faint hiss.  Radio usually came through a little tinny and staticky.  But this was clear as life.  I sat there, watching the “sticks” of the equalizer dance to the beat, jumping up and down to a rhythm like nothing I’d never heard before.  I didn’t know how any of it worked – not the CD, not the speakers, not the equalizer, nothing. It was unfathomable, but wonderful.

The album would become a fixture of my childhood.  If we were going on a long road trip and needed albums with as few clunkers as possible, that was always on the roster.  Somehow – perhaps because we were sick to the gills of traditional music by that time – it even became the album we’d play while putting up the Christmas tree (along with The Best Of The Ventures.)

I still don’t grok much about the magical stack of stereo stuff – how to tweak the equalizer for the best sound for a song, etc.  I was never supposed to touch those settings, and I didn’t want to mess something up and not know how to get it right again.  (Another common thread throughout my life.)   I’m sure it’s just that I grew adapted to CD-quality sound – and why wouldn’t I?   But something of that first magical listening was lost, or taken for granted, in time.  And I always felt like, if I understood things enough, I’d be able to tweak those knobs and shift those sliders, and somehow zero in on That Sound again – that world-infusing, clarion clear, present and stunning sound, like I’d never heard it before. I’d be able to bring back that same amazement of sitting on the fuzzy green living room carpet, watching the bright green sticks.

But it’s funny. It had been such a singular moment on my first listen, a moment I wished I could replicate with it or some other music ever since.  And yet, now, I’m okay with it being a bit of background radiation.  Not analyzed, not thought over, just a soothing wash of sound.  What was once revolutionary is now comfortable; what that was once innovative is now familiar. So much so that it’s difficult to even write about the music as music; all I can do is dispense anecdotes and experiences with no clear point or purpose.

And, intellectually devoid as it may seem… I like it that way.  Easy access to music has dulled so much of my nostalgia; the songs that I’d once heard only in my childhood and never again, I can now call up on a whim. They no longer code exclusively for childhood.  The more I listen to them, the more I think about them, the more I think about them as the person I am now, the less power they have to remind me, so immersively, of my past.  That’s something I can’t get back.  I can’t critically analyze something into reminding me of when I was six years old.  I can’t rationally interpret a song and make it remind me of perpetually grass-stained knees and a perpetually Red #5-stained tongue.

Even if it means locking a song away in a mental time capsule, vaulting it away from rational thought, barring me from genuine appreciation… I think, sometimes, it’s worth it.

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Day 13 – A Cover Song That Is Better Than The Original

You know what, writing prompt?  I don’t feel like being objective today.  You heard me.  I don’t feel like attempting to quantify what makes a song “better,” then supporting my arguments with evidence.

Sure, there are covers that feel so more genuine, so more harrowing when covered by another artist that the original pales in comparison.   The age and experience in Johnny Cash’s voice as he covers “Hurt” by NIN.  Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” originally by Leonard Cohen, sounding so much more fragile and plaintive somehow.  Gary Jules’ “Mad World,” no longer couching the melancholy in upbeat New-Wavery.

And sure, there are covers that I’ve been surprised to learn were covers at all.   Otis Redding did “Respect” before Aretha Franklin?   Manfred Mann’s “The Mighty Quinn” was written by Bob Dylan, who called it “Quinn The Eskimo?!”

Not to mention the things I thought were originals, but were actually traditional folk songs!  The Animals sure weren’t the first to cover “House of the Rising Sun.”  And the origins of “Stagger Lee” are long lost to the mists of time, but I’d always figured Lloyd Price wrote it up one day.  Then there are even more ancient things, like Dead Can Dance’s “Saltarello,” which dates back to 14th Century Italy, and In Extremo’s “Herr Mannelig,” which is Probably Swedish and Probably Old, and nothing else seems forthcoming.  I learned of their folk-song nature before I’d heard them, before, so I’ve known them as nothing but covers.  However, it’s a particular delight to hear them, and to know that this same melody has been played over and over for hundreds of years now.  I’m awful at music, but I’m irrationally tempted to make my own version of them, just to be some small, if unfortunate, part of that tradition.

But you know what?  It’s cold out there.  It’s cold, and it’s dark, and the world is dumb, and right now, I think that “better” means “more fun.”

Even then, it’s hard to narrow it down.  But there are two that come to mind tonight.

The Presidents of the United States of America has a version of “Video Killed The Radio Star” that I played to death in college.  It’s louder, faster, and just… fun.  It wasn’t the first mp3 I ever heard – though, given the history of its original, it would have been nicely appropriate.  But it was one of those songs where simply having it stuck in my head seemed to turn the entire day up a few notches.  The world itself seemed brighter and louder and sillier.  I’m not about to weigh it against the original on any objective merits – but I will say that having the original stuck in my head didn’t give me nearly so much oomph.

Similarly, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes’ take on “Who Put The Bomp?”  Not only did it seem to give me a +3 to Stamina and Will Saves, as it were, but it was one of my first experiences in sharing music with other people and taking delight in their enjoyment.

The dorm I lived in had an annual outdoor event, replete with burgers and ice cream, chalk to draw on the sidewalks, bubbles, bounce houses, and an assortment of live music and DJery.  It happened in spring – not the fickle early spring, but late spring, the first time of the year when you knew it was only going to get warmer and sunnier, no more ice and slush.  The daffodils were trying to headbutt their way out of the mulch, the trees were trying to take leaf, and you could sense that summer was coming – but, somehow, the approach of finals didn’t seem so near.  It was a genuine festival atmosphere.

I hadn’t been all that participatory in… well, anything, the entire time, to be honest – but the person DJing mentioned that if anybody had a song they wanted to hear, and he didn’t have it, all we had to do was bring it out on a flash drive or something and he’d fire it up.  So – feeling awkward all the way about doing things and being seen and saying words – I brought him this song, and he played it.  The people who’d been dancing kept dancing.  Some people started dancing who hadn’t been dancing before.  I don’t think any minds were blown or anything.  But for being someone who was clinging so tenuously to the periphery of all things social – for being someone who had a hard time justifying going outside that day, or any day – for being someone who felt they should be neither seen nor heard nor remotely impactful on anyone else’s life to any degree… seeing anyone smile or seem remotely happy about a song I’d shared was a new and electrifying joy.

I could wonder what it is about these songs that brings them to mind right now.   Perhaps it’s just that they remind me of college, and springtime, and daring to go out in the world – if just so far as downtown or the mall.  Those glimmers of freedom, the way I felt I could cultivate a different sense of self.  That music could be reinvented, and maybe so could I.

Maybe it’s that I wonder if I, now, am better than what I used to be.  If it’s enough to just feel better, happier, more socially adjusted — or if objective success was really more important all along.  If I was wrong to feel so bad about myself then, but even more wrong to feel remotely okay about myself now.  It’s cold and it’s dark, and the world is dumb, and if I try to think seriously about anything more than a week or so away I kind of want to puke out my heart, and sometimes it feels like everything I have ever done was an utter unforgivable mistake, and I’m only allowed to still exist because of some cosmic bureaucratic error.

But maybe it’s not as if I have to rewrite everything in my life in order to make it acceptable.  Maybe it’s not as if I have to somehow unmake all of it and do something completely different and Other, with all the fear of change that would bring about.  Maybe it’s more like hoping for a cover version.  With some of the voices in a little more harmony, the tempo a little more to my liking, the vocals a bit bolder, the instruments less tinny.  The song’s really already there, and maybe it’s even a good one – it’s just the current performance that doesn’t suit my style.  It could be that there’s not enough emotive range, or enough of a sense of history, or enough awareness of the ways it’s already evolved.

But, even if all my life’s juxtapositions seem baffling and absurd right now… maybe that just makes it funny.  If only to other people.  Still, if it puts a grin on someone else’s face,  gets stuck in their head in a pleasant way, harmonizes well with them, helps them sing their own song… perhaps that’s more important.

We’re all in this noise together, after all.

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Day 12 – A Song You Know Every Word To

Have you ever had a great idea that you never pursued, only to see some sad simulacrum of it enter the public eye years later?  Not necessarily some history-altering innovation or cultural touchstone.  Maybe even something mundane.  Gripped in the chilly torpor of insomnia, you channel-surf post-midnight TV, and amid all the black-and-white scenes of incompetence and the 80s-era video effects, there it is:  that idea you had five years ago.   Maybe it’s a stackable spice rack, or a clear-backed, window-mounted birdhouse.  Who knows.  But you had that idea, years ago – and yours was better than this tacky gimcrack, for damn sure.  You could have been The Guy Who Invented The [Amazing Product!] Instead, you end up as The Guy Who Will Never Stop Telling That “Story” About How He Came Up With The [Amazing Product.]

That’s me and “Don’t Forget The Lyrics!”

I grew up listening to the radio a lot.  And, as kids do when they don’t really have any useful skills or talents or meaning in their life, I used to daydream about situations where those paltry talents I did have were, through some incredibly contrived process, so laudable that it granted me fortune and respect.  One particularly fond imagining was The Lyrics Contest.

In my imagination, it was a radio contest, “but nationwide, somehow.”  Ah, the heady days of youth, when local radio truly was local, and you weren’t hearing the exact same song as the exact same time as listeners in Denver and Detroit and Duluth.  Depression.  But on The Lyrics Contest, a couple dozen contestants would be on the stage, all standing behind a grove of podia.  A song would play.  The song would stop. A random contestant’s podium would light up!  The spotlight swivels smartly onto them!  Do they know the next line?  They don’t have to belt it out like Aretha Franlkin.  They don’t even have to sing it.  They just have to say it.  If you failed, you were out.  And so the field of contestants would narrow, until it was just between me and some wrinkly, elderly 50 year old.  Everything I’d been selected for so far had been unavoidable pop or 80s hits.  The old man had been lucky, too.  And now it was down to this.  The crowd would hush.  The lights would dim. The final song would begin.  An oldie.  It varied, in my daydreams: sometimes Herman’s Hermits.  Sometimes Dion.  Sometimes The Coasters.  Sometimes Pet Clark. But the old man would look over at me, a smirk on his face, believing I was surely too young, too oblivious, too much like the normal kids to possibly know the words to those songs of his own faded youth.  The song would stop.  The podium would light up.  And, pausing only to take a breath, I’d sing the next full line, in perfect pitch.  The doddering fifty-something would stare, his mouth agape. The balloons and confetti would fall.  I’d finish out the rest of the song, the audience cheering for, and inspired by, this talented, enlightened youth whose very weirdness was something everyone could be proud of!

And then I’d remember what an actual clod I am, acknowledge that I’d probably faint on stage, imagine everyone making fun of me for that and every other foolishness forever, realize I deserved it, and go on to feel ashamed of myself for having imagined anything so stupid.

That’s part of why I never actually watched “Don’t Forget The Lyrics!” nor its knockoff, “The Singing Bee.”  I totally had that idea.  I totally could have done something with it.  I totally could have done all right on the show itself.  But I knew it would just be a big flashy half-hour reminder of all the ways my imagination and my abilities completely fail to overlap.

So I have a host of accurate answers to this prompt.  But what song I’ve memorized is particularly special?  Is there some song that, perhaps, counters that awkward sense of shame, of seeking approval from others, denying it of myself?   A song that, just maybe, I should be proud to know in full?

I could be a little glib and say “Albuquerque” by Weird Al.  It’s eleven minutes long, and I do indeed know the whole works. Obviously, Weird Al is about nothing if not, well, embracing one’s weirdness – and that’s one of the most surreal songs he’s ever done.  And yet.. I can’t help but classify it in the same place as The Frantics’ “Tai Kwan Leep / Boot To The Head” or The Vestibules’ “Bulbous Bouffant.”  Do I know all the words?  You better believe I do!  I’d lay in bed late on a Sunday night, long past when I should have been asleep, and hear them on The Dr. Demento Show.  And I’d hear them so often, for so many years, that they inscribed themselves into my brain.  I’d mouth them all, replete with facial expressions, whenever I heard them – and damned if I don’t still do so!  And yet… how much do they really count as “songs?”  “Albuquerque” is the most musical of them all, and it’s still more or less a spoken-word piece with a chorus.

It’s damn tempting to pick something from Dr. Demento, though.  I was so quick to feel stupid or ashamed of every interest and enjoyment I took, but… the exuberant, self-acknowledging silliness of Dr. D made it unmockable.  Sure, someone could say “This is all ridiculous and pointless and surreal and stupid!”  But when that is the express point and purpose, it’s not an insult anymore, and the joke’s on them for failing to take it in stride.

Plus, my parents had no affinity for any such silliness, so it gave it all that little hint of rebellion.  But also a sense of camaraderie: The Dr. Demento Show was like a secret club, hidden in plain sight.  Only certain people knew about it (or cared) – knew that, if you tuned the dial just right, at just the right time, and if the weather was clement and the radio gods were willing, you’d hear things that almost nobody had ever heard before.  And a lot of it was made by weirdos like you. You might never meet anyone else in your daily life who’d heard – or even knew of – Dr. D, but no matter how isolated you were while you listened, you knew other people were out there listening to it, too.  The same song, at the same time, in Denver and Detroit and Duluth.

And yet… even that doesn’t quite convey what I want to convey with this choice, though it’s close.  What is it that I want to evoke?  What, if anything, is there that could make peace with my youthful daydreams of significance and the constant soul-evaporating Awkward?  A song involving awareness of something from “before my time,” yes.  Coupled with rebellion, yes.  Adult disapproval.  Their fear of the weird. My sense of… ownership of the music, of participation, of being among a few who were wise to it.  That desire to be separate from, even in conflict with, the mundane.

Something from Jimmy Buffett’s “Songs You Know By Heart,” if just for the sake of literalism as well?  Possibly.  “Don’t Dream It, Be It?”  Maybe.  Not personal enough…

Aha.  I had to step away to think on it a while, but I’ve got it:

“American Pie” by Don McLean.

“The hell?” you say.  Allow me to tell a story from the dimly-lit warehouse of my childhood memories, reassembled as well as I can.

As I said, I grew up on oldies.  I knew this song from a pretty young age.  And I knew my mom hated it.  She saw no redeeming qualities in it whatsoever.  “It’s too long, it makes no sense, and nothing has anything to do with anything.”  I thought it was okay, and wouldn’t launch myself across the room at Mach 5 to turn the radio down or anything – that distinction went to Bobby Vee’s “Rubber Ball.”  Still, I could understand her on the “This doesn’t make sense” front.

Fast forward to sixth grade Music class.  We were getting ready for some program – you know, the ones that make your poor put-upon parents come to your school, sit in the uncomfortable bleachers of the gym, and endure a few hundred K-12 students butchering an assortment of Americana over some substandard PA.

But that year, we were going to do something different.  Our class wasn’t just going to sing “God Bless The USA” or “If I Had A Hammer” or what-the-hell-ever.  We weren’t even singing something in the book.  Instead, we got a flyspecked photocopy of the lyrics to “American Pie.”

The reaction of the class was much like the reaction of my mother.  “This is, like, too long an’ junk.  It makes, like, no sense. Nothing has, like, anything to do with, like, anything an’ stuff.”

The next time we had Music, one of my classmates came in with his own flyspecked photocopy.  It, too, had the lyrics to “American Pie.”

On the right, it had a line-by-line interpretation and analysis.

“February made me shiver?”  That was Buddy Holly’s plane crash in February of 1959. The Day The Music Died.  Kurt Cobain’s suicide was recent enough – and relevant enough – for us to draw a parallel.

The Jester was Bob Dylan, and Elvis was the King, and The Beatles were the marching band, the Sergeants – symbols of the counterculture movement that took over after the 50’s sock-hops and doo-wops became a thing of the past.

Jumpin’ Jack Flash referred to Mick Jagger, on the stage at Altamont, where “hands were clenched in fists of rage” as a Hell’s Angel – an “angel born in Hell” – murdered a man and put paid to the idealism of Peace, Love, and Freedom.

Janis Joplin, the girl who sang the blues, had no happy news to give, and turned away from life after an overdose.

The sacred record stores didn’t have the 50s music anymore – it wouldn’t play, not even in Peoria.

All meaningful communication seemed to be over, nothing left but screaming, crying, dreaming, wordlessly, because words had failed.

The “three men [he] admired most / The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost” could be interpreted multiple ways – as Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens; as John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.

Whoever they were, they were gone as well.  All his icons had fallen.  The world of his childhood had vanished, overturned by a counterculture that failed anyway. And all that was left was a hollow sense of “Real America,” of black-and-white 50’s “values,” of misplaced nostalgia – and a descent toward anarchy and futility.

It was like cracking a code.  I’m not sure if I’d ever been made so aware of symbolism, of interpretation, of the idea that things could be interpreted in more than one way!  The song went from nonsense to something gritty, something pained.  It wasn’t just silly, it was a dirge, a dirge for childhood.  And there we were, facing the end of our own.  If nothing else, the song felt a lot cooler when we knew it was about the Rolling Stones and murder and plane crashes. And stuff.

For once, we were actually a little excited for the program.  This wasn’t just fluff – it was About Something, in a secret code that even our parents didn’t know.

We never knew whose parent it was.  We had our suspicions.  But someone started making phone calls.  It wasn’t appropriate, they said, for children to sing the word “Hell.”  Or to sing about “sacrificial rites,” or “Satan.”  How could a music teacher possibly ask children to sing about Satan being happy?

Of course, we complained.  Look, didn’t we learn that it was a metaphor?  It’s not our fault the Hell’s Angels are called Hell’s Angels.  It’s not like the song is presenting them, or the murder, or Satan, or – worst of all – hippies in a favorable light. Look, it means something more than just the lyrics…

The memory blurs still more here.  It may just be nostalgia and idealism that makes me want to say we sang it one last time in Music class, and we were supposed to hum on “Hell” and “Satan,” but a lot of us “accidentally forgot.”  Regardless, we didn’t sing it for the program, and we wound up singing “God Bless The USA,” or something still worse.

But, ill-remembered as that is, it’s still actually one of my stronger memories from elementary school.  I remember it as a time we really learned something in music class.  Not just the yearly reminder of what notes looked like, not just singing along with some insipid songbook, but singing a song that had a real life, that was written by a real person, a song that talked about real people and real things, awful things.  I remember the few days we were treated like we were old enough to understand it, mature enough to express it.  And realizing that our parents… weren’t.  The song was foursquare against teenage rebellion, against revolution, against change.  Especially now, I see it as a sad, kids-these-days, past-clinging lament, not prescient enough to realize that the music never died at all. Even Neil Young would, only a few years later, realize that rock and roll could never die, would try to understand his imminent obsolescence, would reach out toward DEVO and Johnny Rotten – and would be embraced as the Godfather of Grunge.  But someone’s sainted mother was in even more denial than Don.

So I still know every word.  I don’t necessarily like the song, even now.  I don’t know that I even agree.  But I remember how a whole world of history seemed to open up.  I remember hoping to find symbolism in other popular songs.  It may well have been one of the sparks for my long love of overanalyzing everything, interpreting everything, trying to tease deeper meaning from the inscrutable, the pedestrian, the inane.

And if nothing at all else, it brought forth “The Saga Begins,” which I also know by heart – and which actually makes the best of the ruination of cherished childhood media.

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Day 11 – A Song By An Artist / Band You Wish Everyone Knew About

Yes, this is meant to be 30 Days of Songs.  Yes, I started it a full year ago.  Yes, the fact that I haven’t finished it yet is also part of what’s been making me sit on my hands and not post much on this blog.  But let’s pick up Day 11 on the 11th, shall we, and see if I can’t just manage to do 30 Days of Songs in less than a year.

This is an interesting question, really.  A band I wish everyone knew about?  Everyone?  A band whose music I wished to inflict on absolutely every human on Earth?  Surely not:  no matter how much I loved any given group, no matter how meritorious I thought one of their songs might be, there’s no way it could successfully cross all the cultural gaps and somehow be worth everyone’s time, right?

So I’m going to scale this question back a little, at least to start, and I’m going to be ethnocentric about it: by “everyone,” I’m just going to assume it means “everyone in my culture.”  Which is still more nebulously defined, but it’s at least more approachable than the freaking Voyager Golden Record task of thinking of some song I would want to share with an entire planet. Maybe whatever I figure out will work more universally, but I’ve gotta start small-scale.

Even when it’s scaled back like this, though, it’s still a pretty weighty question.  Should I pick a group that’s very well-known already, but that deserves being even more well-known?  Or should I pick something that’s obscure?  Should I pick something I actually think everyone would like, something I think they’re missing out on?  Should I pick something that’s so different, so avant-garde, that it would be shocking — but would be incredibly inspiring for the fraction of people who operate on a similar wavelength?  Perhaps I can narrow it down.

I do think it would be best to pick something obscure.  Even though that itself is vague; almost everything is obscure to somebody.  Okay, maybe not The Beatles.  Or maybe so The Beatles; I really do wonder how aware my niece’s generation is of their music.  Back when I was in elementary school, there was only a small knot of people — many of them not even in my grade, but a year behind me — who had any real cognizance of oldies or classic rock.  Even in junior high, there was still that sense of discovery, hilarious in hindsight:  “Dude, have you ever heard of this ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ thing?”  “Yeah man, that’s trippy stuff!  But here, you’ve gotta check this out — it’s a Led Zeppelin CD, but its name is all symbols, so I dunno what it’s even called.”  “Whoa.”

Now that more time has passed, and the Internet has made discovering new music so easy it’s rather overwhelming, that sense of discovery is both heightened and defused.  Heightened, yes, because it’s so much more likely that you and your friends are stumbling across some band or artist that very few people know… yet defused because it’s so much less likely that you’ll meet anyone else who’s a similar fan.  When you’re in school, you’re a captive audience to commercial culture.  Your personal preferences outside of school may be whatever they are, but for eight hours a day, you’re still going to see your peers wearing certain shirts, making references to certain artists, listening to certain bands.  If you take the bus, you’ll probably hear the Top 40 hits — which is usually more like the same ten songs, over and over.  Whether you’re actually caught up in it or not, you’re still in sight of the mainstream, and it becomes part of that ambient culture of your generation.  Even though high school subcultures could practically be defined by their music preferences — the Rapper Kids, the Goth Kids, the Stoner Kids, the Punk Kids, the Christian Rock Kids, the Country Kids.

By the time you’re out of school, however, and no longer in forced proximity to people in your same age range, you have the latitude to choose what sorts of people you hang out with, where you go, what you do, what you listen to.  It’s easy to break away from the mainstream entirely, and to drift off into a little eddy of your own — ideally no stagnant pool, but still much more selective.   Commercial culture isn’t marketing to your peer group anymore, and so you have to make a point of seeking out the trends to see what today’s hip, happenin’ teenagers are listening to.

What you grew up on is obscure to them.  What they’re immersed in now is obscure to you. Everything’s alien to someone.

But I’ve shared enough music with enough people to know how truly wonderful it is to watch someone discover something and fall in love with it.  To go from complete unawareness of the song’s existence, assuming themselves pretty content with their lives, to hearing that song, and feeling such great affinity for it that their brains are simply swimming in endorphins.  It was no part of their life before, but after hearing it, they’re happier!  Amazing!

Oddly enough, it’s that exact thing that makes me lean away from picking something… safe.  Yes, I could try to pick a song that I thought a lot of people might like, based on all the other things that they hear and like.  But that’s the same path to madness taken by everyone who designs art by committee.  Seeking mass approval at all costs, creating only some thin and tasteless gruel that everyone finds equally inoffensive, but few people really love.  This is why I don’t believe in “giving the people what they want.”  I don’t think the people know what they want.  I think that the most amazing things, the most beloved things, the most exciting and interesting and influential things, are by definition the things that nobody quite saw coming.  They’re logical progressions from previous genres, sure; it’s no musica ex machina.  But nobody asked for rock and roll.  Punk was not approved by a focus group.  Rap was not born in a boardroom.  When they bubbled up into mainstream awareness, they were controversial.

And that’s good.

I think we need that again.  I think we need a new artist, a new genre, that gets parents and preachers upset.  Something that makes old people a little bit scared, because it’s nothing remotely familiar. I’m not sure if we have one right now.

Well, besides dubstep, perhaps.  Though it’s already fallen well out of vogue, from what I can tell.  Still, it was a common target of mockery as it rose from obscurity and mutated from its roots.  It was decried as noise and garbage, as the sound of broken robots arguing in a blender.  It seemed to make some people outright angry.  It’s no surprise that we burn out on things faster than we used to; it no longer takes nearly as long for an artist or genre to become incredibly well known, so it also doesn’t take nearly as long for people to get utterly sick of hearing it.   Trap seems to be rising as a successor, but it doesn’t seem to have the same shock-your-parents level of strangeness to it, and I’m not sure that it could.  It’s derived so clearly from rap and from other EDM that it’s not really all that alien.

Obviously, if I were prescient enough to know what the next new, weird, shocking, game-changing musical genre would be, I wouldn’t be sitting here blogging in my pajamas and eating lukewarm leftovers.

But the point still stands: I wouldn’t want to take my captive audience and share something I already knew everyone would like. I’m not ClearChannel.  IHeartMedia.  An asshole.

No, I wouldn’t necessarily want to everyone to smile afterward and thank me.  Forget just sharing a different band that I thought needs more love, a band that does a standard rock / pop / whatever thing, and does it very well, but hasn’t hit the big time though it deserves to.  Sorry.  I’d rather share something that is, in some way, unlike anything most people have heard before.  Something that takes the familiar and the comfortable and renders it unfamiliar: that recontextualizes it, restructures it, deconstructing and reassembling it in new ways.   Something that grows music in what seems a fallow field.

There are a few options for that sort of thing, Negativland perhaps foremost among them.  After all, they invented the term “culture jamming.” If anything, remixing and recontextualizing is only more relevant now than it was at the beginning of Negativland’s tenure, and the aims of culture jamming all the more important.  Still, their work might be – dare I admit – too different?  Not quite approachable?  Hard to appreciate without a lot more context.  That, I think, is the core.  It’s hard to just take a single one of their pieces and understand what they’re doing, what they’re using, and why they’re doing it – if just because most of their work is, well, older, sampling commercials and songs and speech that have already been defused by time itself.  (I haven’t listened to their newest album, It’s All In Your Head, yet, though; it may have more current stuff.) And it’s not as if their past work doesn’t still make relevant commentary about consumerism, war, and religion, obviously.  But unless one were alive cotemporaneously, the references used to make those points just won’t have the same impact.  It won’t be turning the familiar on its ear, because it won’t be the familiar.

So.  Scale back a bit again.  Something less avant-garde, but with similar workings.  Mashups?  Those work best, by far, when someone is already familiar with both sources, and I’m not sure of anything that could be so broadly known. They, more than anything else, seem to blow the minds of people who hear them – but only if they already have that cultural context to really appreciate the juxtaposition.  Anyone else would just hear some backing tracks, and some vocals, and might have no reason to believe they were originally from different songs.  Which is delightful, of course, but it also means it doesn’t carry as much meaning, and it’s not as much fun.

The Evolution Control Committee?  Similar issue: not everything they’re sampling is “the familiar.”  Their work tends to be more fun, though, and not always as expressly political (though the whole sound collage / plagiarhythm genre inherently makes a statement about culture by appropriating it.  …Though, well, what doesn’t.)

Other cut-ups, then?  Rx’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” built from Bush speeches is still a pretty amazing thing, and is even melodious, but has the same issue: interesting in its mechanics, but no longer timely. Much more timely is Diran Lyons’ parody of Jay Z’s “99 Problems” constructed from Obama speeches.  Timely, yes… but not as smooth and fluid or melodious, and hard to even follow the lyrics without reading them at the same time.

Schmoyoho, and Songify nee Auto-Tune The News?  Closer: it’s certainly more approachable, more upbeat, more melodious, less charged.  Auto-Tune, like dubstep, is mercifully less of A Thing now, or at least isn’t being used so blatantly.  But it still exists to take something mundane and pedestrian and weave music out of it.  Creating something often beautiful out of something boring.

Who else makes music of the mundane?  The Sursiks: their entire album I Didn’t Know I Was Singing takes answering machine messages and creates music based on the tempo and melody of casual human speech!   The instruments are played well, the music is catchy, and it really makes the listener aware of how musical “non-music” can really be.    So I think that’s my final answer:

“Sister!” by The Sursiks is something that everyone ought to know about.

It’s not on YouTube, so I can’t link to the song that way, but it is indeed listenable, in full, under that link.  Purchasable, as well!

Why that one?  Well, there are no swears, and only the mildest of potty humor.  Is there a great and compelling artistic message to it?  Nope.  It’s a message left from one sister to another, relating one of the little agonies of daily life – and remembering a similar incident from childhood.  It’s just a bit of spoken language.  But David Minnick and company flesh it out into a full and proper song, with expert instrumentation, catchy syncopation, and general improvement of everything the original source was.

That song, and that group, possibly more than any other, might serve as reminders that there’s music everywhere.  Not just if you’re talented enough or rhythmic enough, as with STOMP’s stuff.  But that the natural intonation of your natural voice may very well be someone’s song.

 

 

 

 

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