Saturday, January 28, 2012

Train and the Work of Stupidity

The guys of Train are the undisputed kings of mellifluous horseshit. Their singles are joyously happy and catchy; they are underwritten by an unshakeable sing-a-long quality; and they are deeply stupid. When happily singing along to a Train song alone in the car you will inevitably come to that moment of consciousness when you realize what you are actually singing and you’ll think, “Jesus, what is this shit?” I had that moment today while singing the chorus to their new single “Drive By.”

“Oh I swear to ya/I’ll be there for ya/This is not a drive by-y-y-y-y/Just a shy guy/looking for a two-ply/Hefty bag to hold my-y-y-y-y-y-y love.” There it is in all its silliness. The first three phrases make sense. They prepare the explanation for why the protagonist of the song vanished after the one night he spent with the object of his desire. Then it gets baffling. I’m shy, he claims, and I need a container for all of this love. Huh? How does it follow from your shyness that you won’t see someone until you have the right container for the love you feel? Frankly, this is the kind of crap you tell someone you never intend to see again after your one night stand: “really, baby, I love you too much to ruin what just happened by seeing you again.” But it’s the metaphor itself more than its lack of logic that is appalling. I think that name-brand, two-ply garbage bags don’t belong in romantic art, and I doubt that this will become a common metaphor for explaining the depth of one’s love. These guys have a history of choosing strangely banal figures for illustrating love. In “Drops of Jupiter” the singer asks his loved one to imagine the delights that await their romance. He sings: “Can you imagine no/First dance, freeze-dried romance/Five hour conversation/The best soy latte that you ever had/and me.” The best soy latte, for reals? These guys must write songs like Brick Tamland talks about love: just mention the first thing you see. I love lamp!

To be fair to Train, however, nowhere does it say in the popular music handbook that pop songs are supposed to make sense or not sound stupid. If that were the case, considerably less music would exist. Even a perfect song like Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock,” for example, is mostly free-association gibberish. The Stooges’ “No Fun” is a self-aware exploration into the sense of self of someone who does very little thinking beyond their own immediate sensations and desires. That is, it’s a song about a dummy. Lastly, there are song like The Cramps’ “Human Fly” (which begins with these extraordinary verses: “Well I’m a human fly/I-I spell f-l-y/I-I say buzz, buzz, buzz/and it’s just because”) that make it impossible for the listener to decide whether they are stupid songs or songs about stupidity. In short, pop music has always had plenty of room for idiots.

Yet one gets the sense that the Train guys don't see themselves as idiots. Their songs are dumb by accident. So how do we explain their success other than by assuming that the people who buy their records must also be stupid? The large share of the explanation is that their songs are just musically very accessible and catchy. But the unsophisticated quality of the lyrics is also part of their appeal in as much as they provide a very unthreatening and distracting version of art. Sometimes we want art to raise us above the mire of the everyday by confronting us with difficult truths and sometimes we want it to divert our attention by painting the dirt. Train are doing the latter even if they probably imagine that they are doing something else.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Martian Genres

When I hear Bruno Mars sing I picture him leading Journey through a particularly soulful version of “Separate Ways.” The timbre in his voice seems so well suited for Journey’s catalogue that it feels like he and Steve Perry were cut from the same sweetly melodramatic cloth. Both of their voices manage to be appealing even when singing the most conventional or lugubrious lyrics. Bruno Mars, unlike Perry however, is associated with “Urban” music, which is a polite way of saying black music.

Associated but he doesn’t quite seem to fit. He has sung catchy choruses in successful R&B and hip hop singles by B.O.B., Travis McCoy, Eminem, Lil’ Wayne, and Snoop Dog and Wiz Khalifa (see below). Despite this visibility though, you can’t say that his solo music sits comfortably in those traditionally African-American genres. His singles are oddly unclassifiable crooner tunes that would seem out of place if not for the universality of their sentimentalism or the production value that makes them sound completely up to date even if to people with a sense of music history they sound like they’re from an earlier era of pop.

Ill fitting music this, not beyond genre but not in it either. Much like Bruno Mars himself. He is ethnically ambiguous: neither black, white, Latino, or Asian but also all of them at once. He is a half-Puerto Rican, half-Filipino, Hawaiian-born former Elvis impersonator. I have no way of quantifying this but it seems to me that somehow his racial ambiguity makes his generic ambiguity more palatable. Because we can’t place him racially, it makes it easier to accept his generic indeterminacy.

I’m not sure how deep the connection is in popular music between racial fluidity and generic fluidity. But it certainly speaks to the unspoken racial boundaries that make up our world. Lenny Kravitz, for example, is a commercially successful artist although he is known for performing in a musical genre not traditionally associated with African-American performers, guitar driven rock. But clearly Lenny Kravitz is mixed-race. Even in our one-drop society, his phenotypic appearance suggests racial intermixture. More than that is his name,“Lenny Kravitz,” which suggests less a decadent rock star than it does a wise-cracking comic from the Borscht Belt. This stands to reason, of course, because he was named after the brother of his Russian Jewish father. This is all speculation and conjecture but I doubt that Lenny Kravitz would be as acceptable a rock star with a more “traditional” African-American name.

We shouldn’t take this too far, however. Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Bad Brains, TV on the Radio, Robin Thicke, and many other performers have straddled the racial/generic divide. Nonetheless, the slight hitch that we feel when confronted with the discrepancy between how a performer looks and the music s/he is performing is eased some by racial confusion.

A caveat: rap metal. No matter who performs rap metal or what kinds of racial and generic boundaries it challenges, I feel about it the way most people feel about genocide: I don’t understand why a good and loving God would allow something like that to happen. Just the worst, most terrible music ever made, rap metal. Nothing justifies or forgives it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

M83 and Familiar Sonic Spaces

You don’t need to know Spanish in order to understand the core of Bebo Y Cigala’s seminal rendition of “Lágrimas Negras,” that old Cuban Standard. Bebo’s singing is so deeply embedded in the Flamenco tradition that he does not bother to adapt his vocal rhythms to the song, which is a Cuban Son; instead, he makes the Son fit his way of singing. Cigala too changes nothing. It does not matter that he is playing a popular tune or that he is singing with a Flamenco singer, his part is rendered in the uncompromising Afro-Cuban jazz playing for which he is famous. The primary reason the song works is of course musical: these masters make Flamenco, Son, and Afro-Cuban jazz harmonize perfectly.

But history plays its part. Flamenco developed in the late medieval period in southern Spain as a hybrid form that blended local musical styles with the imported patterns of Muslim, Jewish, and Gypsy (Roma) origin. The Muslim influence is so heavy in Flamenco, it forms part of a continuum with traditional Arab music, it seems to me. Along with musical styles, Spain also learned plantation agriculture from their former Moorish masters. Slave-driven cotton and sugar plantations were first developed in Africa by Muslim traders. Spain exported both the techniques of plantation economy and the work force from Africa to the Americas. Slaves and their descendants in Cuba created Son, as well as other popular styles like the rumba, danzon, boléro, and cha-cha-cha. Jazz was an expressive form of slave culture in the U.S. and it ultimately proved compatible with Cuban music. So to return to the question implicit in the earlier paragraph, why do Bevo and Cigala’s styles go so well with each other despite the fact that neither tries to adapt to the other? Because "Lágrimas Negras" as a whole reflects the transatlantic world of racialized slavery and the expressive cultures to which it gave birth. The triangular flows between Spain, Africa, and the Americas that constituted the slave economy are concretely represented in this song. It’s the sense of what Gilroy calls the Black Atlantic that we feel in this song even if we don’t understand a word of it.

(By the way, for some reason middle-class white people love this song and music like it, but they are generally less enthusiastic about contemporary popular genres. Celso Piña’s “Cumbia Sobre el Río” is every bit as ambitious a song as “Lágrimas Negras.” Piña’s song tries to fuse many recent popular (cumbia, reggaeton, dancehall, Hip Hop) styles into one whole. It is largely successful, I think, but middle-class white people are not so down with it. I don’t have the space here to speculate on the reasons for why this is.)

 This was a long preamble to the topic I wanted to discuss, M83's "Midnight City." Language in this song like in "Lágrimas Negras" is not necessary to understanding its effects. I've read that it's about Los Angeles but I don't think you would know it from listening to it. Rather than a evoking a physical geography, this song creates a kind of emotional topography. The song's very deliberate layering of elliptical synthesized sounds generates this sense. Each layer evokes diffused types of affect: melancholy, ennui, nostalgia, longing, the bittersweet, aching, wistfulness, and joy. You feel this song. It's meaning does not travel through your rational consciousness, and the voice in it, the lyrics, is not the privileged site of meaning-making. Instead it forms another dimension in its atmosphere. M83 foregrounds the secondary role that language plays in music, but what the band is doing is fundamentally true of all music.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Sample

Jameson is right: we live in an age that has forgotten how to think historically. Yet history registers in many of our everyday things. This makes sense since the structures of everyday life are expressive of the slow moving currents that have made us who we are. We are embedded in history but we find it nearly impossible to locate ourselves in that embedding. We have been taught to believe that our world was made by us as the product of our longing and desire. Thus we struggle to think of ourselves as the objects of history and not only its subjects. The closest we seem to get to a historical sense is the reference. We invoke the past as a kind of affectation, a superficial and empty gesture. The past serves mostly as an index of cool, a catalogue of trends and styles, a graveyard for the social pressures that generated the artistic expressions that we have reduced it to. We have turned the past into a sample, as it were, and it is for this reason that Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling” and Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Otis” are so interesting to me. Both these songs sample important artists in the annals of black music in America. In sampling the past these songs raise the specter of history, which makes claims on them and the listener even if we choose to ignore those claims.

To be perfectly honest, I really don’t like Flo Rida’s song. And I don’t like it because of the Etta James’ sample that serves as its recurring phrase. I can’t change the station fast enough when the song starts playing. Flo Rida has reduced Etta James’ swinging, lusty “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” to a cloying, repetitive hook. The past is put in service of the present in this song in a way that means to contain and discipline it. Unfortunately, it’s mostly effective, I think, and the song suffers artistically because it does not open itself more fully to the past.

“Otis” is a different case. The whole song is structured around the concluding bars of Otis Redding’s slow-burning masterpiece “Try a Little Tenderness.” Redding’s plaintive, pleading voice serves as the songs introduction. As the tempo and the intensity of the original pick up Jay-Z asks: “Sounds so soulful, don’t you agree?” And after that we’re off. The rest of the song is the usual Hip Hop self-indulgent bullshit delivered with Jay-Z’s virtuosity and Kanye West’s verve. (A brief opinionated and probably incorrect aside: I’ve never quite gotten why these two love performing together. Or maybe I don’t get why West likes performing with Jay-Z since it always highlights the former’s limitations as an MC.) Although Redding’s delivery seems to drive the rappers' song, this isn’t exclusively the case. Just as significant is the music playing behind Redding, the distinctive sound of the greatest house band ever in all of American popular music, Booker T. and the MGs. The MGs defined the Stax sound and we hear their playing behind Rufus Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, and Otis Redding among others, that is, behind some of the most iconic performers in the history of black music--which means that although Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn of the MGs are white, in my mind they still belong in the history of black music. Through "Otis" Jay-Z and Kanye West connect directly to that history. This song both samples the past and tries to find its relationship to it. Whether listeners will hear that attempt or not is a different issue.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Loneliness of Drake

Hip Hop is often in the business of compensatory fantasies of wealth and power. The money, the jewels, the clothes, the cars, the houses, the stacks of bills, and the sexual partners that rappers go on about are intended to be signs of the poverty and marginalization that they have overcome. “But look at me now,” they tell their listeners. This can take on cartoonish proportions. Rick Ross, for instance, asks in DJ Khaled’s “I’m On One,” “Ever made love to the woman of your dreams/In a room full of money out in London and she screams”?  Well, no, and for reals though, who the fuck has? The verse is supposed to be an affirmation of his wealth and virility but it is nonetheless complicated by its lack of immediacy. In other words, if that situation did actually occur to Rick Ross his rapping about it is a testament to its symbolic and not its real nature. He raps about it because it illustrates how far he has come. He is not wealthy and virile necessarily; instead the situation proves that he has become wealthy and virile.

Psychosexual fantasies of affluence and privilege spun by once impoverished young people who render these things in illusory ways, that is much of the thematics of Hip Hop. Although he also raps in “I’m On One,” there is something else at work in Drake’s music. “H.Y.F.R.”, like many of his songs, is driven by conflicting impulses. The bravado of Hip Hop echoes in Drake’s music but so too does the feeling that what fame has brought him does not fill the need of what life has taken away. If so much of Hip Hop sounds like a hollow boast then Drake’s music examines the hollowness of the boast while at the same time still boasting.

“H.Y.F.R” centers on his unresolved relationship with an ex-girlfriend. He presents the background in an unromantic light. But the coldness of the past is a ruse. She remains a part of him even if now “we don’t talk too much” “just only ‘hello’ or ‘happy belated.'” He claims he loves fame and all that it brings yet it does not give him the happiness to let go of the past or of her. He raps: “Even though it’s fucked up, girl, I’m still fucking wit ya/Damn, is it the fall/Time for me to revisit the past/It’s women to call/There’s albums to drop, there’s liquor involved.” His moment of triumph—the albums to drop—is also a moment of boozy, sad introspection. Drake here sounds isolated and empty. The present drives him into the past before fame, a past no happier than the present but at least no sadder.

But this is Hip Hop! He cannot remain in despairing self-examination. That is a theme for other genres, like the classic country that the first line of his song references. There is also space in rock and roll to dwell on the loss that a rock and roll life brings. Drake is further opening that space in Hip Hop but he still feels compelled to affirm the slogans. An imaginary interviewer asks him: “Do you love this shit?” Although his verses show us nothing if not his ambivalence toward fame and the emptiness that fame cannot fill, he nonetheless answers at the end of the song: “Hell yeah/Hell yeah, hell yeah/Fuckin’ right/Fuckin’ right, all right.”

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Death and The Band Perry

This song! I was under the impression that our society looked down on encouraging teen suicide, but The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young” has disabused me of that notion. We usually think of the death of a young person as a tragic waste. This song, however, frames the early, virginal death of its protagonist as a deeply meaningful and affirming act. So go ahead, kill yourself!

The song begins with a romantic portrayal of a burial scene. “If I die young, burry me in satin/Lay me down on a bed of roses/Sink me in the river at dawn/Send me away with the words of a love song,” she sings. The sadness of the protagonist’s mother is ameliorated through her dead daughter’s lingering presence: “Lord make me a rainbow, I’ll shine down on my mother/She’ll know I’m safe when she stands under my colors.” And although she does not yet know “the loving of a man,” there is nonetheless a boy in town who says he will love her forever and of course her death turns his promise into a fact for her.

So if you’re a young teenage girl redefining your relationship to your mother but still need her love and affection, or perhaps you are going through your first painful love and wish that the feeling would last forever, this song has great advice for you: Kill yourself. Your death, this song maintains, would be the best expression of all those things that you wanted to say but were unable to say or that you felt went unheard. “Funny when you’re dead how people start listening,” the song claims. And besides, the song repeats in its melodic refrain, you may have not lived long but you’ve had “just enough time.”

It’s an outrageous song, as far as I’m concerned, and whenever it comes on I’m still kind of shocked to hear it. It would be like hearing The Cramps’ “New Kind of Kick” on Top 40 radio. That song thumbs its nose at bourgeois philistine complacency: “Life is short/Filled with stuff/Don’t know what for/I ain’t had enough.” Ultimately, what the singer says he wants and needs is drugs, more of them and different kinds. Everything would be better with lots and lots of drugs. There is nothing wrong with recommending heavy drug use or suggesting suicide to young people as such, but these are not sentiments I expect to hear on commercial radio.

What makes these songs different and why one is on the radio and the other one isn’t is only partially explained by their different musical qualities. Both songs address a lack, the feeling of incompleteness, of fragmentariness that sits at the back of our minds. We have a need to feel that our lives are adding up to the kind of narrative that we would want to read or a film that we would want to see. Instead, we often experience life as a series of disconnected and meaningless episodes. The Cramps have no answers for you. They just tell you that drugs will help you deal with it. The Band Perry have faith that our deaths will make our lives meaningful in the way that living them didn’t. Many of us want to believe them.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Working at Cross Purposes: Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa

Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa’s “Young, Wild, and Free” celebrates the hedonism of youth. Its pace is so mellow—which corresponds to its stoner ethos—that you can’t quite call it an anthem. Nonetheless it contains a distinctly anthemic quality: this is a song that will be sung out loud by buzzed young people and embarrassingly drunk older people at parties for some time, I imagine. But even as it celebrates irresponsible celebrating, the song is weighed down by a sad undercurrent that it can’t quite smoke away.

Inconsistency in popular music, as in any art, is not a problem. We live in a contradictory world so we should expect our representational forms, if they are going to be faithful to life, to embody its contradictoriness. Art is not identical with politics or philosophy. We should not expect ideological purity or logical consistency from it. Indeed, what makes art so compelling sometimes are its contradictions.

Take Black Sabbath’s “Lord of this World,” for example. The song is supposed to make you repent your evil ways and rethink your relationship to God. “Your world was made for you by someone above/But you choose evil ways instead of love,” the song warns us. But of course the song has the exact opposite effect. Its menacing and abstract heaviness and Ozzy’s almost demonic voice make most listeners want to embrace the darkness that the song ostensibly rejects. The song, like Black Sabbath as a whole, aestheticizes darkness, makes it desirable in its sinister beauty. Thus rather than turning its listeners more godly, “Lord of this World” has instead created legions of Satanists.

There are similar contradictions in “Young, Wild, and Free.” The song’s philosophy as a whole is contained in its chorus: “So what we get drunk/So what we smoke weed/We’re just having fun/We don’t care who sees.” Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa then take turns delivering verses that deal mostly with different manner of getting high and enjoying being high. The song revels in the spontaneity and liberty of youth. Youthful dissipation is transformed by it into the only product of a good life. But everything is not so simple. First of all, Snoop Dogg is older than I am. So his take on youth is delivered in the key of nostalgia. “It’s like I’m 17 again,” he raps. But as William S. Burroughs once observed, “in order to feel something, you have to be there. You have to be 18.” Snoop Dogg might be wild and free, who knows, but he is certainly not young so there is something insincere about his lauding of youth. And as for Wiz Khalifa, he sings repeatedly in quieter voice near the end of the song “When you live like this you’re supposed to party.” So instead of the affirmation of freedom, partying becomes at the song’s conclusion a necessary convention. That is, he parties not because he wants to party but because he is supposed to party. So this joyful song about spontaneous youthful excess is also about old men missing their youth and about young men who feel obligated to party. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Kelly Clarkson and the Threatened Self

Maybe its because I’m an unbearable pedantic know-it-all, but Kelly Clarkson’s “Mr. Know It All” strikes a chord with me. The protagonist of the song defends herself from someone who tries to corner her figuratively by fixing her identity. If he knows who she is then she cannot figure out for herself who she might be or might become. But she will not let that happen, and he should know that she will “lead, not follow.”

This is the second song in recent memory to dramatize a female protagonist rebelling against an asymmetrical relationship in which she is the subject of someone else’s assumptions. Sara Bareilles’ “King of Anything” covered similar ground. In that song, the singer lashes out in an act of almost petulant defiance: “Who cares if you disagree/You are not me/Who made you king of anything.” The song ends in a ridiculing gesture—“Let me hold your crown, babe”—that suggests that she is free from her antagonist.

The theme of rebelling against expectations is an old one in pop music. “It Ain’t Me” by Bob Dylan comes quickly to mind. But that theme is reworked in these songs with more current cultural anxieties. First, as a contemporary audience, we are more predisposed to side with the heroines of these songs. There can’t be too many people around that want to see women living under the heels of their overbearing boyfriends—that is, these songs give us a very safe version of feminism that allows us all to see ourselves as gender progressive.

Furthermore, we live in an age in which constructing and maintaining our own unique identity is our most important life project. We live in a period that places an ever-increasing burden on people to define their individuality from an ever-increasing field of choices. The self-reflexive project of creating one’s individual identity, of cultivating one’s interiority has developed alongside a growing fear that we might make the wrong choice or that we might indeed fail in creating an identity that is fully expressive of our individuality. In this context, the idea that someone “knows” us better than we know ourselves doesn’t give us comfort, doesn’t give us the peace of mind that someone really understands us. Rather, it becomes a threat to our ability to be fully self-expressive.

There is also a strong current of anti-intellectualism that runs through these songs. Clarkson sprinkles homey “ain’ts” liberally in her song and Barielles’s song is marked by its mocking tone. This too is a symptom of our social imaginary. If we level all ideas to the status of opinions then there is indeed no difference between one claim and another. In such a rhetorical position, no one can know more than you because everyone’s knowledge is a matter of opinion. You have nothing to learn from anyone because they have nothing to teach you besides their own opinions. Opinions you can discard if you don’t agree with them. You and you alone are responsible for the knowledge of who you are. In other words, our age has turned solitude and isolation into a social virtue.