Friday, December 30, 2011

Adele and Katy Perry: Ironic and Historical Variations on a Theme

Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” and Katy Perry’s “The One That Got Away” address longing, loss, and memory. They are hits by singers in full control of their abilities and who are clear about their aesthetic sensibilities. The songs also point to how complicated and expansive a field  popular music can be because, no matter their superficial similarities, these two songs are profoundly different from one another, and they point to the gulf in artistic ability that separates these two talented performers.

Katy Perry is all winks and nods. She makes incredibly accessible music that nonetheless references the history of “serious” popular music that probably goes over the heads of many of her target audience. It’s hard to believe that her hardcore fans would love Radiohead as much the characters in her song did, let alone understand its reference to June and Johnny Cash. Those references are there as an ironic gesture to listeners who think themselves too sophisticated to like her uncritically but who “get” her music nonetheless. Just like the nostalgia of the song is tempered by an unobjectifiable irony, so too is most of her music delivered with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility that allows uptight listeners to enjoy it as the delightfully sweet foamy froth it’s supposed to be. She also always seems to be working at the edge of her talent and the lack of seriousness also betrays a lack of faith on the part of the singer to deliver something straight. There’s probably a good reason for that. Those moments in which she opens up her throat and really sings, like when she repeatedly yodels “the one” in this single, are really the worst part of her music. The strength of her work lies not in her technical mastery; rather it lies in the lightness of her touch, which allows us to love her music without ever taking it seriously.

You have to take “Set Fire to the Rain” seriously. This song does not invoke the history of popular music, it makes itself at home in it. This is music that would make Dusty Springfield happy and jealous. Adele does not work in nods or references. There is something very sincere and vulnerable in her music. Her imagery is dark and anguished. She sings: “I set fire to the rain/And I threw us into the flames/When we fell, something died/’Cause I knew that that was the last time, the last time.” The pain feels immediate and recent, and yet we are at the same time raised by it. It’s paradoxical but the pain that the song expresses fills you with joy because of its expression. This songs makes the emotional tourism of emo music into a mass experience: it makes us all happy to be sad. But it does this while still holding something in reserve. Surely it paints its picture in broad strokes but it does so without quite reaching the level of melodrama. This has to do with the texture of Adele’s voice, I think. She can convey the subtlety of emotion with understated phrases. She keeps from using the full strength of her voice in order to draw a fuller emotional picture. This is ultimately what separates her from Katy Perry: even while holding something back for the sake of her music, Adele can climb heights impossible for Perry.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Gavin DeGraw and the Temptation of Flattery

To be perfectly honest, Gavin DeGraw’s “Not Over You” sounds like a song that a college guy would play on the piano in the student union in order to show off to girls. The song makes the singer sound kind of vulnerable, capable of deep loving, and in need of some emotional healing. “Dreams,” he sings, “that’s where I have to go/to see your beautiful face anymore/I stare at a picture of you and listen to the radio.” I think the appropriate emotional response is supposed to be a sort of internal and dramatic “aw!” But also while the song predisposes you to like the sentimental boy who sings it, it’s also supposed to make you want to be the object of that intense devotion. Who doesn’t want someone to keep holding the torch for you?

It strikes me as purely performative, though. Guys who do that stuff in real life seem like real dickheads. Surely, dudes playing guitar in public are the devil’s work. They seem to perform sensitivity in order to get attention and that attention they hope becomes the entryway to the ladies. Gavin DeGraw did not invent this persona nor is he currently the most successful of these figures, John Mayer is.

I’m also pretty sure that most women see through this charade as well. So why does it work? Why is popular music so full of patently disingenuous sentimental singers? Before I address that question, though, a quick aside. I’m not sure where the boundary lies between what I consider the performative sentimentality of “Not Over You” and the real sentiment of a song like “Johnsburg, Illinois” by Tom Waits. I don’t think I can explain the difference between these songs but I feel it nonetheless.

To return to the question of why false sentimentality works, the answer I think is rooted in our own unshakeable vanity. To have people in the thrall of your performance no matter how insincere is at the heart of all desire to be before a crowd. Regardless of how much I look down my nose at those goofballs playing guitar in public, a small part of me wishes that it was me that was getting the attention. Deep down we realize that even if all they’re singing about is trivial insincerities, musicians will always get more attention than most of us, and thus, despite ourselves, we wind up identifying in some small way with the singer. A similar thought probably occurs to the listener: even when you know you’re listening to conventional commonplaces about love and desire, you still wish they were directed toward you, that is, you identify in some small way with the object of the singer’s affection. We all want to be sung to even if there is little new or sincere in the emotions expressed by the song. Most of us are vain, vain people, and that vanity ensures that there will always be people in need of attention on either side of the microphone.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Loving You, Loving Me: Selena Gomez’ “Love You Like a Love Song”

It’s always deeply unsettling for an old man like me to consider seriously when teenagers sing “You just do to me/what you do,” which is what Selena Gomez does in her latest single, “Love You Like a Love Song.” But there it is. That’s what she sings. Fortunately, the song as a whole is mostly outwardly oriented, toward the object of her fascination, the person she loves like a love song. Or at least it seems that way.

The song begins in resignation. There is nothing new that can be said about love yet the singer must sing on if only so that the “melody” of her loved one “will play on and on.” “No one compares” to him; he “stands alone.” But even while he is the inspiration that generates the feeling, the song is mostly about what he does for her. “You’ve saved my life”; “I’ve been rescued”; “I’ve been set free”; “I am hypnotized”; the song keeps returning to singer’s feelings. On the whole, the song is less about him than it is about her emotions and what she wants to say about them to him. That explains why before every chorus she sings to him “I want you to know, baby,” and why in line of the chorus there are two “I” for every “you”: “I, I love you like a love song, baby.”

This is not a failure on the part of the song, nor is it an indictment of how self-absorbed our age is—though it is certainly that. A fantastically great song like The Cure’s Lovesong does something very similar to Selena Gomez’ song. Over and over we hear about the singer’s emotions and what the presence of his love one does for him. “You make me feel” is the overwhelming refrain of that song. What these two songs and countless others reveal is that we often lie to ourselves about love. Love is not about losing ourselves in other people, about becoming selfless in our obsession with someone else. If anything, love often makes us much more self-absorbed. We spend hours thinking about what we feel, how we feel, and how unlike any other or anyone else’s our feelings are. And, God forbid, if you think you are a creative person (I count myself in this group), you then spend all kinds of time trying to find the words to express to your loved one how they make you feel. That is, you spend even more time being wrapped up in your own emotions.

Selena Gomez thus reminds us how insufferable love makes people. How it makes them not care about anyone else but themselves and their own sentiments. If you want music that is really about other people, it’s best to turn to break up songs. You should start with Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.”

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Lady Antebellum and the Art of Abstinence

Now that’s ideology! In “Just a Kiss” Lady Antebellum convinces the listener that a kiss goodnight is a more powerful and satisfying affirmation of love than having sex. Is this objectively true? I guess it all depends on one’s personal history, but I'm not so sure. Nonetheless, the song is so persuasive, it’s romantic sensibility so strong that I imagine more than a few people will be drawn in by it. This song is a perfect example of how ideology works when it’s convincing: its argument is successful not because it denies you something or because it demonizes something but because it presents its position as the most natural and appealing.

The song begins by inverting the usual gender narrative of sexual desire. The female singer in the first verse sings: “it’s hard to fight these feelings when it feels so hard to breathe.” The male singer in the second verse reassures her: “We don’t need to rush this/Let’s just take it slow.” Then together in the chorus they both agree: “No, I don’t want to mess this thing up/ No, I don’t want to push too far.” Finally they realize the beauty of what they actually have, that this might be the relationship that they have been waiting for their whole lives and so they realize that they are “alright/ With just a kiss goodnight.” And what a kiss! “Just a kiss on your lips in the moonlight/Just a touch of the fire burning so bright.” Who wouldn’t want such a kiss?

Sex would ruin what they are building up. The scene, the kiss, the desire, they are all so ideally right that sex would only desecrate the perfection of the moment. The kiss, the kiss, that’s what you want! There is no need to lecture young people about what God and your family expects from you. There is no need to scare them about sexual diseases and unplanned pregnancies, no need for holier-than-thou preaching about saving yourself for the right person, under the right conditions, and after you are married. Abstinence is not a sermon here.

Abstinence in this song is the most perfect medium through which one can express love and desire. In other words, abstinence is the result of true love and if you really love someone then that love would motivate you to NOT want to have sex with that person. It’s a funny refiguring of the commonplace that love leads to sex. In this song, love leads to abstinence. Will this song keep teenagers from having sex? Who knows, but I’ll probably try to get my kids to listen to it a lot when they're teenagers.

Rihanna's Imagist Dance

Rihanna’s “We Found Love” seemed very repetitive the first time I heard it. Or maybe I was just predisposed to dislike it because of how wretched her earlier “S&M” was. That song was all crass language passing as edgy sexuality; this was not The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” or The Stooges’ “I Want to be Your Dog”. Perhaps Rihanna does enjoy the whips and chains she sings about but I doubt it. The attempt to get the listener to think of Rihanna as a sexual libertine is so obvious and superficial that it both embarrassed and angered me. It was a kind of pantomime self-sexualization that made her seem desperate for the wrong kind of attention.

So I was no neutral listener when “We Found Love” came on the radio. I mocked it aloud. But the radio is nothing if not persistent and so I began to hear it often enough that eventually I began to listen to it. My first impression could not have been more wrong. The song is fantastic. The repetition is what ultimately makes the song successful, what gives it the desperate insistence that eventually penetrates the psyche of the listener.

The first verse of the song could have come out of H.D. or Pound, it is straight up imagist poetry: “Yellow diamonds in the light/and we’re standing side by side/as your shadow crosses mine/what it takes to come alive”. The yellow diamonds, which seem to suggest the effect of electric light on the eye, of course evoke the fantasies of wealth and luxury that are so pivotal to the Hip Hop aesthetic. But they only invoke it, nothing more. The image is not attached to any other symbolic, cultural, or narrative meanings; it is simply imagistic. The rest of the verse works the same way: the light casts the shadows of two people standing together across one another. The image generates emotion. The song intensifies from there.

“We found love in a hopeless place,” she sings on and on. It’s a deeply sad affirmation but, because unlike “S&M” it’s not trying to convince you of anything, it strikes the listener as true. When we get to the emotional release of the instrumental section we get the glimpse of why dance music can be so cathartic: we dance not to get away from the sad truths of our lives but in order to transform them through dance itself into something else. Dance might sometimes be an escape but other times it is a coping mechanism that makes movement an expression of a truth that we can’t quite face but from which we cannot turn.

And if we can do it in a drunken delirium, all the better. I can imagine this song setting dance floors on fire as its remorseless rhythm turns all the dancers inward. Dancing not with anyone or for any other reason than to turn the inexpressible and unbearable truths inside them into a movement or a gesture.

Weak Voices and Christina Perri's "A Thousand Years"

Grantland loves to hate on weak voices. In recent articles, Whitney Houston’s old voice was lauded for its power and Mariah Carrey’s was mocked precisely to the degree that it was overshadowed by Houston’s; Zooey Deschanel was clowned for her unconvincing rendition of the national anthem; and a writer puzzled over the success of Rihanna given the limits of her voice. All of these articles assumed that vocal limits are an obstacle to an artist, that if a weak-voiced artist succeeds it is in spite of this natural limitation.

But this is not true. In popular music the very limits of a voice can be the explanation for the artistic merit of a song. Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years”, for example, is artistic to the degree that Perri’s voice is in unable to soar to the romantic heights that the lyrics of her song promises. The narrow horizons of her voice give a resonance and depth to what would otherwise be pure wish-fulfillment.

This is an age of paradoxical reversals so let me say straight off that I’m not trying to do something similar here. I’m not trying to convince you that something aimed for commercial success is secretly an artistic masterpiece. I am trying to explain that whatever artistic value resides in Perri’s song resides there because of her limited range. On the face of it this appears to be a contradiction in terms. We often equate art with virtuosity, that an artist’s quality is equivalent to their own natural proficiency with the mechanics of their chosen medium.

But this is not always the case. Jackson Pollock, one of the most influential and powerfully expressive artists of the 20th century, turned to his style of “action painting” because he recognized his limitations as a figural artist. That’s right, he became a great painter because he was not good at drawing. Put another way, his artistic success, which is great by any account, depended on his limitations; his art was fantastic as long as he did not try to draw.

Virtuosity in music means the ability to play instruments with a high level of technical mastery or, if your voice is your instrument, to sing with a full and powerful voice. But in my opinion, while musical virtuosity is crucially important in genres such as jazz, classical music, and in some measure in the blues, in popular music it often gets in the way of art. One here need only to think of the difference between Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottoms” and “Jazz Oddyssey”, one is musical stupidity and the other is stupidly musical. The joke of the first song is that they are unselfconscious idiots; the joke of the second is that they are very self-consciously musicians. The possibility of Jazz Oddyssey comes into play whenever musicality is foregrounded in popular music.

In some ways it seems that we have discarded the idea that technical proficiency is a requirement for great popular music, at least in the circles of musical snobbery that is. Few there would argue that the sloppiness of Black Sabbath or The Sex Pistols in any way circumscribes their art. Fewer still would argue that the voices of Bob Dylan or Tom Waits limits their expressive power. But no one would forgive any of these artists their technical limitations if they set about to make money by writing and performing in the safe ground of romantic sentimentality that is the natural home of commercial popular music. There, as the Grantland articles suggest, if you’re going to play and sing crap music then at least you better do it really well.

Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” is in some ways a perfect example of romantic sentimentality. It begins with primarily percussive piano notes that are accompanied by evocative, impressionistic lyrics: “Heart beats fast/colors and promises/how to be brave”. These words are given weight by the vulnerable weakness of her voice. From there the song moves to the fantasy that makes popular music popular. She sings: “how can I love when I’m afraid to fall/but watching you stand alone/all of my doubt suddenly goes away somehow”. The song continues in this vein. The lyrics sappily romantic and her voice sweetly quiet.

As the song nears its conclusion the music swells and one expects Perri’s voice to rise with it. This is the chorus with which the song ends: “And all along I believed I would find you/ time has brought your heart to me/ I have loved you for a thousand years/ I love you for a thousand more”. At first there is a matching crescendo between the voice and the music but then at the last second, on the last word, “more”, her voice gets quieter, much quieter. At the moment when her voice should soar over the music, the music swallows it up instead.

Her voice doesn’t tower above the music because she probably doesn’t have the vocal strength for that. Nothing in that song, or in any of the other songs that I have heard by her, suggests she has the chops to belt it out that way. But to see this as something that limits the song is to miss the point entirely. The quieting of her voice gives a final expression to a tension that gives her song more resonance and truth than if her voice roared over the music.

Let me explain. This song involves conflicting impulses: earnest lyrics of sentimental desire and a voice whose weakness suggests an inability to accept the truth of that sentimental desire. Her words say that she will love him for a thousand years but her voice doesn’t seem so sure. And that conflict is taken through all the way to the end, at that last moment when the lack of commitment to the sentiments conveyed is ultimately expressed by the quieting of the voice. The weak voice makes possible the ambiguity between earnest desire and sober assessment, between fantasy and reality that is the true artistic content of Perri’s song. Celine Dion’s massive voice would collapse all that distance and turn the song into syrupy schlock. The old voice of Grantland’s resident diva would do the same. But maybe all the troubling things she’s put her voice through would allow Whitney Houston to achieve what Perri’s considerably inferior voice does naturally.