Nevermind The Posers

See ya in the pit.

Call Me Nauseous December 9, 2012

by Andrew P. Moisan

how-i-feel-about-the-call-me-maybe-fad

It is not news that Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” has caused widespread illness, infecting millions of people’s heads with bubblegum and stuffing their souls full of hell. A moth flew by the other day and landed near the computer, and when I played the song, it flew off. It, too, had had enough.

Of course, this is not the first hangnail we’ve had to put up with in hit radio, nor will it be the last. But like any hangnail, all we can do is chew on it, yank it away and try to stop the bleeding.

The song is not bad per se, as it serves its purpose: It feels young and comes off as fresh and fast. If you’re 19 years old and away from home for the first time, this is the mood you’re probably in: Just fly free and give in to abandon. And aptly, there is a simple chord progression, with a blend of teen-pop, a bit of disco and an animated dance tempo. Plus it includes a pretty lead singer whom girls might want to emulate and whom boys might want to think about at night…overall, a good formula, if the point is to pump cash into the pockets of moguls.

But if we were to leave the boardroom momentarily and see music as a vehicle for emotional ideas, and if we compare what 20-somethings were listening to back in the early 1970s, then we would be forced to place a song like John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” right next to this song.

Some lyrics from Lennon: “Instant karma’s gonna get you/gonna knock you right on the head/you better get yourself together/pretty soon you’re gonna be dead.”

Some lyrics from Jepsen: “Your stare was holdin’/ripped jeans, skin was showin’/hot night, wind was blowin’/where you think you’re going baby?”

YouTube views of “Instant Karma”: 5,706,837.

YouTube views of “Call Me Maybe”: 344,450,353.

Obviously songs about hormonal, infatuated kids have always sold. And yes, it’s a bit absurd to highlight a YouTube clip of a record that’s currently charting and compare it to a hit that came out 42 years ago and wasn’t on YouTube to begin with.

My point is not the numbers, however; it’s the substance. Lennon wrote about geopolitics and American culture. But for the last 30 years or so…on and off, of course, as we’ve had respites here and there…the subjects in contemporary music have drifted, meandering from concerns about love, fear and politics, and wandering, in a general sense, toward deeper concerns about things like people’s butts.

Undoubtedly, Jepsen did not set out to write a song about love or politics. This was a song about butts. And again, in this respect, the song is pretty perfect, since it achieves what it aims to do: It encourages young men and women to freak each other in nightclubs, get to sniffing and then tell lies to their mates about where they had been until 4 a.m.

But the triumph of a hit is measured neither by the content of its character nor the character of its listeners. What makes a Jepsen a Jepsen are unit sales, marketing mannequins, focus groups, bar charts, PowerPoint shows, standard deviations, nerd-talk at Starbuck’s and rambling inexactitude on the part of know-nothing, pencil-pushing trust-fund ken dolls who, for some reason, are able to very accurately predict what the proletariat will drink up.

I’m actually starting to depress myself a bit here, so I’ll move on. Besides, I need to take a break since I have a little bit of throw-up in my mouth.

The 27-year-old Canadian artist’s hit debuted on the U.S. charts last March, entered Billboard’s Top 10 in April, hit number one in June and stayed there for nine consecutive weeks. But it’s so far passed the nuclear smell test: As of Nov. 26, 2012, the song lingers, rather like a cockroach or a dirty diaper, holding at 31 on the Hot 100.

Jepsen told Rolling Stone earlier this year that “Call Me Maybe” had started off as “a folky tune,” which I expect is even funnier than finding out your favorite professional wrestler likes to drink chamomile tea, decorate for the holidays and make scrapbooks.

She wrote the song with her guitarist Tavish Crowe and Josh Ramsay of the Canadian band Marianas Trench, whose song “Desperate Measures” may help inform us as to how Jepsen’s song migrated from “a folky tune” to what now spews like butt vomit from radio speakers.

Ramsay “helped us kind of pop-ify it,” Jepsen told Rolling Stone, basically explaining how he is really the one to blame. “He’s really good. He’s got a little bit of pop genius in his blood. It was written, recorded and produced within four or five days, tops.”

And to think aristocrats have been deposed in less time.

To be fair, however, she isn’t a total disappointment. In Canadian Idol’s fifth season, in 2007, she hazarded a rendition of Queen’s “Killer Queen” in a cabaret-style performance that was interesting and charming. And while it bugged me that her bangs hung over her pretty eyes, like caterpillars dangling over the rim of a nice glass of lager, I thought she did a good job. Now, I’m a lover of Queen, so I may be partial.

But like any veteran of a singing competition…and despite that she didn’t win the race…she has had a handicap. Original songwriting done subsequent to these prime time spectacles tends to leave the artist looking unimpressive, as we had come to know them as glorified karaoke performers—conduits through whom we could hear our favorite hits reborn in younger vessels. So as they try to carve a place of their own in the music business, the point of comparison becomes a Whitney Houston or Madonna song versus their own material. The emerging singers mostly lose in the end. In Jepsen’s case, her musical innovations went head-to-head with Freddy Mercury. This is like trying to outrun an airplane.

But even though she failed to become the Canadian Idol, losing it to some fellow named Brian Melo…whose song, “Soundproof,” is an unremarkable blight that resembles what would have popped out had Linkin Park and Maroon 5 mated—she bounced back after the defeat and gave Justin Bieber night sweats as her YouTube hit climbed up very near to his comfy chair in the celebrity sky.

But here was something I didn’t expect.

“She has such a twinkle, like a little star,” Brian May, the lead guitarist of Queen, said on Canadian Idol. He had just watched Jepsen sing. “You can’t possibly watch a performance like that and not smile.”

I wasn’t sure whether to hate May for liking Jepsen or hate Jepsen for seducing May. I nearly put a pistol in my mouth that night.

By the way, YouTube hits on Queen doing “Killer Queen”: 3,717,498.

YouTube hits on Jepsen doing “Killer Queen”: 51,219.

Phew.

But the problem with Jepsen is also the success of Jepsen. This is a song that is hummable, like any hit on any successful record ever pressed. Hearing it on the radio recently, it was like being sprayed by a skunk: You didn’t mean to be there at the time, but since you were, now you’ll spend days trying to wash the stink out.

In fact, A-sides like this…to use an antiquated term…will follow you to your casket. The utter simplicity of it drills through your skull and wets your brain. If the damn toilet flushes at just the right pitch, these sorts of hits will enter your body and possess you. Next thing you know, you’ll be pissing all over the living room carpet in the middle of your parents’ dinner party…and then, if you’re lucky, some priests will show up.

This is the meat-and-potatoes tack that worked magic for Elvis Presley, Wal-Mart, M&M’s, Starbuck’s, and who knows how many other enterprises: modest but rich; bold yet accessible; colorful but not too pricey. And yet, with Jepsen, I’ve nary a teaspoon of respect for her with which to take sugar for my coffee.

There will always be these hangnails in pop music, just as there will be in life: like how there will always be morning breath, impurities in drinking water, guys like Bonaparte, influenza, unscrupulous business owners, bedbugs, America’s Funniest Home Videos, gorgeous people who stroll by when you are very, very single, etc. To some extent, we must accept these hindrances, fall to our knees and just pray for better days.

In life, though, I find meaningful moments reside at the very busy intersection of simplicity and honesty. And so it is with music. This is a hectic juncture, and many accidents occur. But if you can navigate it, what comes out the other end is some part of your soul suddenly made tangible. And maybe, for nearly half a billion people, “Call Me Maybe” fits the bill.

But for me, this is a lot of horse apples.

The best news is that, before writing this, I listened to “Call Me Maybe” about eight times, and then, right after, I played “Killer Queen”…Mercury’s version. I had played it only once. And as any degree of common sense would tell you, Mercury trumped Jepsen, and all became right with the world. There will be no more bubblegum-pop or skunk spray riffs. The moths and I will sleep well tonight.

 

The Musical Creative Process April 22, 2011

By Sean Davis

Musicians take a variety of approaches to composition; in the world of popular music alone several schools of thought inform the process of song writing.  John Lennon insisted on writing meaningful, poetic lyrics bathed in metaphors and expression; while Paul McCartney’s focus was on musical precision, making sure every note was carefully planned and perfectly executed.  McCartney was well-known for filling in melodies with nonsensical syllables, replacing them with words later (and often with John’s aid).  This compositional discontinuity is found not only in modern popular styles, but also throughout all western musical history.  Chopin was famous for laboring over minute details for hours, trying to discover the perfect combination of tones.  Monteverdi believed in the concept of text dictating the flow and direction of the music, going so far as to break the fundamental rules governing musical composition at the time.  Regardless of how one composes, the end result will almost always beg questions from listeners.  What inspired such and such song?  What did you mean by this lyric?  I really love the chords in that song, where did you come up with that?  It is these questions, and more, that spawned the fields of musical criticism, music theory, and continue to guide people into a musical life.  The problem with such questions, however, is that the creative process is almost always just as unique as the individual creator; there is no blanket truth we can ascribe to song-writers and composers that will reveal an objective musical process for creating good music.  What we can discover through analytical and historic study, are commonalities that might provide useful insight into how we can discover our own unique musical identities.  By understanding what aided those who came before us, we can capitalize on that information, and possibly use it to enhance the evocative powers of our own compositions.

Let us examine the two different approaches used by Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney.  There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to both systems, which is probably why the music that came from the collaboration between these two was so expressive.  Lennon’s practice of allowing the text do the work for you is not new, as mentioned earlier the baroque composer Monteverdi famously claimed that the music should follow the expressive motions of the text.  This idea can create wonderfully striking relationships with the listener, every word reflected in some musical gesture; we see this notion take form in Lennon’s famous single “Imagine,” the harmony is relatively simple, however the focus on major 7ths and circuitous, repetitive progressions signify a dream-like, ethereal atmosphere.  We can surmise from Lennon’s view on composition that he probably wrote the words first, and then crafted the music around them, trying to match the emotions he felt were in the lyrics.  Composing like this is effective for many, however it does exhibit a few pitfalls.  When the music takes a subordinate role to lyrics, very often it fails to express all that it can.  In other words, the music may not live up to its full potential.  I may be crucified for suggesting this, but in my opinion this dilemma is the main problem with the music of Bob Dylan.  Lyrically speaking, his songs are evocative, poetic and worthy of great praise; however, the music is stale, boring, and goes on far too long without variation.  Also, many times when the words predate the music, it can be difficult to find a way to seamlessly integrate the text with the musical syntax.  Clunky transitions, awkward phrases and misconception of text are often the result of a poor marriage between lyrics and music.

Paul McCartney approached song-writing from a different point of view, he would sweat over the harmony or melody of a song long before even considering the words.  When a composer or song-writer creates in this manner the instrumental aspect of the music tends to be just as important, if not more so than the words.  Focusing on the purely musical allows for a wider range of expression and interaction between musical devices, thus increasing the music’s ability to signify deep and meaningful concepts.  When listening to the opening bars of “You Never Give Me Your Money,” one can commiserate with the singer’s confusion and dejection.  The progression sequences down by fifths, cycling through all of the chords in A minor.  The descending lines coupled with the interaction of the piano chord voices evoke a musical atmosphere separate from the lyrics.  When we finally hear the words, the music has already set the scene for us, coloring our interpretation from the onset.  These kinds of expressive devices come from a learned set of syntactical symbols, arranged in various ways to extract an emotional (or physical, or psychological, etc…) response.  Most people are familiar in some way with how most songs unfold: two or more contrasting sections presented with lyric alteration guiding the listener from beginning to end.  Of course there are any number of variations on this framework; the fact is that because we know what to expect, due to exposure to these symbols over and over again (via radio, television, dance clubs, internet, etc…), we develop a sense of music’s ability to signify.  The skilled composer and/or song-writer has such an understanding of these symbols that she/he is able to utilize them to either fulfill, or stifle, an expectation.  However, ignoring the capacity of lyrics to resonate with individuals can cause even the most well-constructed songs to fail to connect.  Sometimes when composers, especially song-writers, place too much emphasis on the instrumental and non-verbal in their songs the listener is left with a vague wash of expression devoid of any real form.  In the worst case scenario the words and music are almost contradictory, would anyone have listened to “I Want To Hold Your Hand” if the title was “Please don’t hurt or murder me,” and the lyrics grim depictions of armed robbery and muggings?  The imagery of the words would not have matched the imagery of the music.  This kind of extreme case rarely occurs, however poorly worded songs can cause a disconnect with the listener.  Musical creators do not want poetic lyrics with drab music, or poetic music with drab lyrics, the true artist finds a medium between the two, balancing the forces and dipping one way or the other as the situation calls.

It is our job as musicians to learn from these techniques, and to use them to further enhance musical expression.  The famous axiom “you must learn to walk before you can run” rings true here, for we must learn the language of musical signification before we can create artful music, capable of expressing our most intimate thoughts and desires.  Want to be a rock-star?  Want to write the next great song, and not the next hit pop-tune, but the next “Erlkönig” or “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”?  Then your greatest assets are your ears, listen to as much music as possible, and to the greatest variety of music possible.  Learn the symbols and how they manifest themselves in music, use that knowledge to your advantage to create new styles and new symbols, and music will continue to grow in expressive capacity.

 

Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix by Charles R. Cross May 5, 2010

A review by: Alexander “Stigz” Castiglione

When you hear the name “Jimi Hendrix,” a lot of words pop into mind.

Rock Legend.  Guitar-God.  Iconic figure of the Peace & Love movement.  Poet.  Pauper.  Druggie.  Fashionista.

But after reading this book, it’s easy to see that these words and phrases only scratch the surface of the enigmatic and magnetic man that was James Hendrix.

Following a meteoric rise to fame in less than a decade, this burning star was extinguished at the young age of 27.  Ironically and tragically, the same age Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain were when they died.

Being a huge fan of Jimi since I was a kid, there are a lot of items in this book I found interesting, some parts were inspiring while other parts were abhorrent.  The first hundred pages or so are the latter, illustrating his underprivileged and unstable childhood in the Northwest.  With the volatility of alcoholic parents and poverty surrounding him, Jimi never had it easy.  Most people don’t know that Jimi escaped this by going into the Army.  Or rather, he was given a “choice:” go to jail for joyriding in a stolen car, or go into the service.  He opted for the service and soon figured a way to make it out of the Army (which I’ll let you read to find out).  Most people don’t know about his drug bust in Canada, or how exactly The Jimi Hendrix Experience was formed.  This book answers all these enigmas and then some.

A Room Full Of Mirrors is a splendid synthesis of hundreds of interviews with family and friends, clips from music journals, and even some letters he wrote to his family.  Rarely does a biography make you feel like you know the person.  Not just the where’s and when’s of a life, but the how this person really was—their quirks, fears, mannerisms and eccentricities.  In that respect, Cross is a genius, as many of his anecdotes make you feel like your right there with Jimi.  From he and bassist Noel Redding being confused for clowns in an English pub, to Jimi partying with Leonard Nemoy- Yes, Leonard Nemoy—Spock from Star Trek, we get a feel for who Jimi was as a person.  All the way from his naïve early days playing back-up guitar for Little Richard to his overnight success in England, we are with Jimi on his entire struggle for fame and recognition.  Despite his antics on stage with blazing Stratocasters and epic guitar solos, he actually was an extremely shy man-something many pieces leave out.  From his voracious sexual appetite and phone-book size list of conquests to his professions to his Aunt Delores about his disgust with fame and the limelight, every facet of his persona is fleshed out in under 400 pages.

What I really like about the book is the fact that Jimi’s prolific drug use isn’t played up and sensationalized like other pieces, but rather Cross aims to take us into Jimi’s mind.  Within this “room full of mirrors” we see how Jimi viewed himself, cared for his family and lived like every day was his last.  From his stellar performance at Woodstock (where he subsequently collapsed from exhaustion after leaving the stage, since he had been up for 3 days straight), to being booed offstage early in his career on the Chitlin’ Circuit, this book doesn’t highlight the controversial and leave out the mundane.  It covers everything, going back to his father’s father in the first few pages.  The family history part of the book is rather dull at points, but vital to understanding most of the story in the long run.  In many ways, the novel pays homage to the notion that you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.

I could go on for days saying how intriguing and timeless Jimi’s life was and how tragic his death was in the end, but I figured I’d give you a few facts I walked away from the book with.  Most people don’t know this, but Jimi is probably one of the most interconnected and dynamic people to come out of the music industry.  He earned the love and respect of Eric Clapton and Cream, while literally having them scared shitless of playing a show with him for fear of being upstaged.  The same sentiment was held by Mick Jagger and the Stones.  Jimi also tried to date Keith Richards’ girlfriend, and the two legends almost had it out one night.  He even, in a monumentally ballsy move, played his own covers from The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album with Lennon and McCartney in the crowd at the Monterey Music Festival only a few days after the album was released.  McCartney came up to him and told him how solid his take on the song was.  Even the legendary Bob Dylan loved Jimi’s rendition on “All Along The Watchtower,” and it is extremely hard for musicians to give credit to another musician for playing a cover.  In a few short years, Jimi went from wearing loud, sequin suits behind Little Richard, to headlining Woodstock and being the highest paid musician in the world.  And yes, boys and girls, Jimi’s junk was cast in plaster long before any other rock star, kick-starting the rock star debauchery way before Mötley Crüe was on the scene.  And the biggest shock of all: Lemmy of Motorhead was a roadie for Hendrix at one point.  Yes, Lemmy Kilmister used to haul Jimi’s gear.

Another interesting tidbit: Janis Joplin and Jimi were rumored to have banged it out at the Fillmore.  And, even more badass, while Jim Morrison was heckling Jimi one night in the Village, Joplin smashed a bottle of Jack Daniel’s over The Doors front-man’s head.  The raging irony is that these three superstars and brilliant musicians all ended up dying within a year of each other.

For the casual Hendrix fan, this book may not be a good choice, as it really gets detailed and in-depth, even mundane at some points.  But for anyone who loves the music, culture, and times from when Jimi (and his contemporaries like Clapton, Jagger, Joplin, Lennon, McCartney and Morrison) came, you will absolutely devour this book.  Cross paints a picture so clear, so unique, so detailed, that you feel as if you knew the Voodoo Child himself.  From his rowdy early years as a child to his stint in the army to his stellar rise to the top of all things musical, this book leaves no stone unturned, no detail unmentioned, and no room for anything but awe of this brilliant man’s tragically short life.

 

 
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