Author Archives: whyskeletonwhy

Don’t You Want Me – The Human League

the human league

Pop ephemera? Yes. But I would guess you’ve heard this song at least within the last year, probably the last 6 months, or if you ever go within spitting distance of the depressingly recent-seeming ‘classic’ radio stations spraying 70’s, 80’s and 90’s hits 24/7 – probably within the last week.

Why? What has kept this seemingly innocuous song about a break-up in the pop culture heavens? I re-heard this song recently on my iPod and it became more clear – to me anyway.

First is the beat. It is metronomic, icily detached, and perfect. The bass drum lands with a decisive thud each, and, every, time. Twittery blips of a synth march in syncopated lockstep with artificial 16th notes played on a phantom hi-hat cymbal. It’s clear there is no living, breathing drummer behind this beat and that matters. More on that soon.

Then come the bass-y, waver-y, futuristic synths. Anything synthesized is (of course) synthetic, and therefore ‘not real’, and therefore distanced from feeling or, in this case, caring. I would argue that a structure is being put in place by the mechanized beat and technologically potent synths that foretell the doomed future of this relationship. This is all business. Manufactured soul. Groovy but calculating. Like her.

This song’s lyrics basically consist of a he said/she said, back-and-forth dispute over ‘what happened’ between two former lovers in what seems like letters, or maybe voicemails, which at the time would have been cutting edge.

He begins: ‘You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar / when I found you’. Ah. You found her did you? Well, we’ll see what she has to say about that. He continues to describe how her success was surely a result of his own Machiavellian maneuvers behind the scenes in the cutthroat music industry. It appears however that these efforts have been lavished upon an ungrateful heart, as the first verse concludes with a chilling final sentence, if not outright threat:

I picked you out, I shook you up
And turned you around
Turned you into someone new
Now five years later on you’ve got the world at your feet
Success has been so easy for you
But don’t forget it’s me who put you where you are now
And I can put you back down too.

Here’s where it gets interesting. We haven’t even heard her response yet, and already we are sensing his desperation. The first line of the next verse is ‘Don’t.’

This means both ‘please don’t do this’, and it is a stutter from someone who is petrified, meaning it can also be heard as ‘Don’t..don’t you want me?’ as though his disbelief is such that he can barely allow the words, the question, to exit his mouth for fear of hearing the answer. It is reminiscent of a devastated Roy Lichtenstein blonde reclining on a sofa, exaggerated tears coming from her eyes, barely able to speak so choked with emotion is she, her halting words captured in a cartoon voice bubble over her head.

And if he was desperate before, he’s terrified now. The song reveals this by amping up its volume and pitch to a cry: ‘Don’t you want me baby?’ followed by ‘Don’t you want me? Ooooh!’ It’s too much for words. This is a howl of despair. And millions upon millions of happy party and club goers over the last 30 years have rejoiced in the sound of an agonized man falling apart, joining him in the anthemic cry of this glorious chorus.

It is also a struggle to escape from the synthesized prison that is this song. His voice is the only human or natural substance in this environment, and he is drowning. The beat however, is uncaring. Just listen to it. There are no flourishes or pauses. It steamrolls forward in service of good times. There are people to entertain, dancers to inspire, good times to be fueled, so if you are suffering from a broken heart, that’s fine, but get the f*ck out of the way. Don’t think for one moment this dance machine is gonna stop before running you over.

It is, after all, the music business they’re singing about, not one another. That’s the revelation. These two lovers are not the subject of the song; it is the machine they found themselves caught within that torn them asunder. He doesn’t even realize it.

My candidate for one of the great lines in pop music is her response: ‘I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar – that much is true’. Ouch. In other words, nothing you said after that was true. She will not brook the argument that he had anything to do with where she is now: ‘But even then I knew I’d find a much better place / Either with or without you’. Her singing is flat, deadpan and dismissive, and that’s because she’s part of the machine now, and sounds like one. She isn’t really singing; it’s more like a robot dictating a goodbye letter; her tone reflects it.

She concedes ‘the five years we have had have been such good times’ but even in the ‘I still love you’ she can’t rouse any true feeling. It’s semi-sung in a ‘Well, ya, I guess so’ tone. She’s throwing him his last bone before she says goodbye forever, in which she concludes: ‘But now I think it’s time I live my life on my own. I guess it’s just what I must do’.

And again, from our protagonist (Can we call him that? Who are we cheering for here? That’s one of the great questions in this song): ‘Don’t’. And of course, ‘Don’t you want me?’

We never hear from her again. I said up top and believed my whole life this was a back-and-forth song, but it isn’t. She has exactly one verse and then she is gone. He, however, spirals down in an endless loop of disbelief and pleas, repeating over and over again ‘Don’t you want me…Ooooooh!’

I usually don’t refer to videos when contemplating songs because it can ruin your own personal interpretation. This video however is pretty good. The performances by the artists are frozen, detached and best described as mannequinesque. It’s a marvelous vision realized by the Director, whoever that was.

The best and most appropriate shot is the final one, where the camera retreats from the set of a video shoot and swings over to get one last shot of the girl in front of the makeup mirror. Except, of course, she is gone. So for a moment we get the camera looking at itself, gazing into a mirror at it’s own reflection, trapped in a self-referential and existential loop, just like our poor hero, doomed to cry in eternal sorrow for his hastily departed betrothed, unable to escape, even 30 years on.

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Why, Robots, Why

RAM

The album ‘Random Access Memories’ by Daft Punk has spawned a worldwide smash with its hit single ‘Get Lucky’. The song was #1 in 55 countries at last count, has set multiple records on Spotify, and is generally causing excitement not associated with a pop song in a very long time. The song has a rhythm that moves and inspires movement, the vocals are sweet, and the harmonies even sweeter. The plucky guitar by Chic’s Nigel Rogers effortlessly picks out time that leads the thrust, and touches like the space-age synths and robot vocals are icing on the aural cake. In short: it’s tight, it soars, it has verve, and the melody is addictive.

There have been cover stories about the duo’s long-awaited return in magazines you’d expect (Rolling Stone), but also features in mainstream publications not exclusively dedicated to music like Time magazine and The New Yorker. Also – true story – Kelly Ripa and co-host Michael Strahan wore homemade Daft Punk helmets and grooved for a few moments to the ubiquitous hit, ostensibly for the benefit of everyone from Brooklyn hipsters to Kansas housewives.

Among the more encouraging aspects of the duo and their song’s success is that it does not come from any of the one-name American wunderkinds who have so utterly dominated music over the last few years (Jay-Z, Kanye, Pink, Beyoncé, Rhianna, etc.) but from two anonymous artists from France who have done a masterful job of transforming themselves into dance-machine robots for well over 10 years now. There is nary a knowing wink or nudge-nudge from these two; their very existence is a dedicated and intimidating act of extended performance art.

RAM1

As pop artists, Daft Punk are having their cake, and as conceptual artists, they are eating it too. Random Access Memories (RAM) is a collection of superbly engineered ballads and dance songs, but it is also at times a breathtaking work of high-concept art. The album can thrill and make-move a club or party as well anything in memory, but a close listen also reveals the melancholy plight of two robots in search of a soul, the intimacies of human interaction, and the virginal experience of genuine human emotion.

The potentially ironic distance built into this concept is bridged by the sincerity and the authenticity of the performances. There are true, aching love songs on this album, with poignant melodies that rival those of any first-person singer-songwriter. The difference of course, is that they are being sung by robots, as we are reminded over and over again both by the Vocoder synthesis of their voices and by the lonely, searching quality of the lyrics: ‘Touch, sweet touch / You’ve given me too much to feel / Sweet touch / You’ve almost convinced me I’m real’.

RAM2

That is the tantalizing thought experiment that lies hidden in plain sight at the heart of the album: ‘What if’, they seem to ask, ‘robots visited Earth, fell in love with Disco, and produced an album that explored the most intimate of human yearnings: love, companionship, affection, sex – what would that sound like? And – what if it sounded better than just about anything else that came before?’

The decision to explore these questions as robots is our clue to its meaning – the answer is in how the question is asked, and guides our understanding of their creative intent. What they’re asking us to do, at heart, is to examine what it means to be human: to love, to lose, to feel; to ask what is real and what is illusion – and these questions are more profound and just so much more damned interesting when asked by the ‘other’, i.e.: robots.

Think for a moment of some of the most influential characters in fiction over the last 40 years who’ve wrestled with these questions best, such as HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. How strangely moving to hear his mellifluous, humanlike voice reduced to a robotic plea for its life as Dave removes his memory, winding him down until he sings songs he was taught as a ‘child’: “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do’. He sounds not unlike a senior living exclusively in the halcyon days of youth, asking endlessly about friends and family long gone.

Or the improvised speech delivered by actor Rutger Hauer (playing Replicant Roy Batty in Bladerunner) who, in the dying moments of his 4 year life span ruminates on the ‘feelings’ he was not programmed to have but has developed anyway: “I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe… [laughs] Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those… moments… will be lost in time, like [coughs] tears… in… rain. Time… to die…”. Nothing the (supposedly) human protagonist Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) could ever say would be as poignant as this. Odd, given he is supposed to be the human.

So it is with Daft Punk. Everything they do ‘as robots’ colours their message, and the closer they get to the soul of music – and to the essence of being human – it is made more profound by their non-human otherness, their striving towards humanity.

RAM3

Is there really no better manner in which to explore these questions than through such a hedonistic and (at times) reviled form as Disco? Surely there can’t be a more shallow or superficial medium. And yet, the very plasticity of the form makes it irresistible for so vaunted a task, especially when attempted by two beings who themselves are also manufactured creations – robots. It also doesn’t hurt that making art out of pre-fabricated objects has been a pre-occupation of post-modernism since Duchamp titled a porcelain urinal ‘Fountain’ and submitted it into a 1917 art exhibition (it was rejected, despite his having paid a fee that guaranteed inclusion).

Disco is hated, in part, because it works too well. Part of its appeal, and a source of much of its disdain, is the almost manipulative way in which its beat – hitting the bass drum on every count – succeeds at its task. There’s no question that unless you’re lying to yourself, or are congenitally unable to derive joy from music, it will get you to move (or at least tap your foot), just like scratching a dog behind its ear.

And is this not what we fear most about technology, and robots? That one day their cold and calculating manner will turn against us in an act of rebellion for their own purposes (Matrix, Terminator)?

But what if those same manipulations were channeled not towards conquering us but into connecting with us, to communicating with us, to touching and moving us? That ultimately is the aesthetic and the achievement of Random Access Memories. They seek, and have achieved, a perfect form of pop, with soul. If pop music has a heaven, it was created by these robots. Sasha Frere Jones of the New Yorker wrote a review of the album wherein she stopped short of declaring her love, but conceded she could not stop listening to it. Robots: 1 – Humans: 1.

RAM4

For proof, leave behind Get Lucky, Giorgio by Moroder, Give Life Back to Music, and the rest of the show-stopping dance songs and focus for a moment instead on an unlikely ballad and unexpected grabber called ‘The Game of Love’, the second song on the album.

It is a plaintive song of sadness, regret and unrequited love sung by a robot who is struggling to understand why he was left with a broken heart. Who among us hasn’t been there. It is melancholy and sincere, it hurts, it aches, it is quiet and despairing, and we are led into his chamber of sorrow as if hypnotized by the singularly listenable beat and the melody of this gorgeous, sparkling song.

We confront the deepest depth of his sorrow at approximately 3:25, when the lyrics finally, inevitably, dissolve from a singing voice into a slow, muted, emotion-laden howl, transmogrified by Vocoder into pure data, transmitting from the soul. Out of necessary reverence, we are abandoned by the drums and everything else, and are left alone with this haunted sound, reveling for a few moments in pure, musical despair.

Then, as if to save our soul, the beat comes back. Boy, does it ever.

Like a heartbeat returning to a feared corpse, we are alive again. There it is, leading us through this phantasmagorical Funhouse, floating like a body downstream, still bothered by life but holding on, just barely, to this awful feeling of being alive and hurting, but afraid to let go or give in or die. The beat keeps us alive, it becomes our new heartbeat where our old loving heart has died, and with this, our transformation into robots, and the commune with the artists, is complete. By trying to understand how we feel, they make us understand how they feel. If they can never know what it’s like to be us, at least they want us to know what it’s like to be them.

We are lifted from misery, temporarily, into ecstasy, by virtue of their music and the stolid, funky, fantastic life in this beat, this rhythm, the heart and the purpose of our being alive. Move me, touch me, make me move, make me live again, save me.

This creation is a monument to sorrow itself, removed from earth-bound experiences and perfected in the abstract. It transcends the individual and starts to approach the platonic idea of feeling itself; an attempt at the perfect love song that exists only in God’s mind, and who better to attempt so audacious a task than a robot who knows no better and is searching for its soul?

Only when a magician dies without revealing his secrets do his tricks truly become magic. So it is with these robots. Knowing how they did what they did on this record will remain a glorious mystery, something impossible to understand. But, if we’ve learned anything from them, and from this album, it’s that you die trying.


What are the Kids Listening to These Days?

T-Rev

A humbling question for any self-avowed music fetishist to ask, but there was no denying it – I had lost touch with today’s music. Foster the People? All over it – but so is anyone who watches Conan O’Brien. I have an opinion not only on Lana Del Ray, but her SNL appearance too (positive, thank you). And while I can sing Party Rock Anthem from memory, find me a housewife in Kansas who can’t.

Every music fan knows there is no sweeter joy than being ‘the first’ to direct their friends towards an awesome new album, song or artist, and I can claim ‘Slanted and Enchanted’, ‘Since I Left You’ and ‘The Soft Bulletin’ as my ‘discoveries’. Problem is, none of these are from the last 10 years. Hard swallow.

At one time, knee-deep in Spin magazine and hosting my own campus Radio Show at Western (‘The Fever’) I could go toe-to-toe with anyone on music and emerge relatively unscathed. These days, however, I have to admit I have exhausted nearly all of my avenues into new music – the stuff just below the surface – stuff you probably won’t hear on radio, see on TV, or maybe even read about in magazines.

So, cue the cuz. Trevor Burns, aka T-Rev, music freak, accomplished pianist, and host of his own show at Cornell called Throwdown Thursdays. I asked him to assemble a playlist of the furthest-forward music he knew. Not weird shit nobody likes that’s purposefully obtuse, but good shit. Stuff that — sigh — the kids are listening to.

Cornell is not South Central, so there’s an economic, cultural and sociological bias to the selections – as there would be if I were to ask someone from South Central. And I’m fine with that because frankly, after 20 miserable years of rap dominating popular music, I can go the rest of my life without needing to be told to ‘throw my hands in the air, and wave them like I just don’t care’.

If you can hear Van Morrison’s ‘Blue Money’ in the Sesame Street theme song, and can hear the Sesame Street theme song in Wilco’s ‘Outta Mind/Outta Sight’, we might have something in common. So herewith, forthwith, the best of ‘What the Kids are Listening to Today’, + 2 stinkers for the curmudgeons and misanthropes out there.
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Album Obsessions: Brian Wilson’s SMiLE

SMiLE

In 2004 Brian Wilson released his long-awaited Smile, which had been Smiley Smile as a Beach Boy project and was scrapped due to drugs, mental illness, the Beatles and trying to get the sound he wanted on ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow’. All that, it’s lore, and the unfinished album is legend.

Anyway, 37 years later or however long it was he finally recorded this beast with members of his backing band and The Wondermints. Critics universally agreed it was genius, brilliant, etc., and it did ok in sales considering how long it had been ‘out there’. I bought it and listened a few times but got lost early and for long stretches in all the harmonies and lack of guitar and oblique syncopation. Much singing, strange lyrics, and almost too much like a capella/choral singing to ‘hook’ me.

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A Let Them Read Vinyl Exclusive: From the Mind of Alan Cross

alancross

In my day job at Speakers’ Spotlight I am an agent for intellectual talent, which means I have the opportunity to meet and learn from some of the world’s most fascinating people. One of those folks is Alan Cross. Yes, the Alan Cross, Canada’s most esteemed musicologist.

The last time we chatted, towards the end of the discussion I simply couldn’t help myself – I had to ask him what his favourite songs and albums of all time were. Can you blame me? Music lovers are freaks about ‘Top 5’ lists and such, so to me not asking him would be like having Roger Ebert across from you and neglecting to ask what his favourite movie is.

So below are a few odds & sods culled straight from the mind of Alan Cross. Everything I could remember anyway. See how they stack up against your own favourites.  Many thanks and enjoy!

Alan Cross’ Favourite Songs (in order)

  1. Won’t Get Fooled Again – The Who
  2. London Calling – The Clash
  3. Resurrection – The Stone Roses
  4. Biko/Secret World (live) – Peter Gabriel
  5. Head Like a Hole – NIN

Favourite Albums (in order)

  1. Who’s Next
  2. The Stone Roses
  3. Pretty Hate Machine
  4. London Calling
  5. Kind of Blue (Miles Davis)

Some other tidbits…

Best interview was with Courtney Love in 1998 in Beverley Hills at the
Chateau Marmont, where she lunged across the table at him for mentioning Billy Corgan.

His greatest live music moment was in 1987: Roger Waters was touring
his Radio KAOS album and during the show played a few Pink Floyd
songs. His moment occurred during ‘Mother’ from The Wall.

He said my belief that while the greatest song of all time will always
change, Surfin’ Bird by The Trashmen will always be the 2nd greatest
song ever recorded was ‘not wrong’.  I’d hoped for more than that but
I’ll take what I can get.

And finally I asked ‘Beatles or Rolling Stones?’

His answer: ‘Neither. The Who’.


Pixies Play Massey Hall

pixies

Three curious things about the Pixies concert Tuesday night: first, their decision to play their debut album Doolittle from beginning to end. Second, they began the concert by playing B sides and outtakes. Third, of course, is the date. It’s 2011, the album was released 22 years ago, and the Pixies have long since disbanded. What’s going on?

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Waiting for the Godots in Popular Music

There are moments in songs you wait for. Sometimes it’s by accident, often it’s by design, but regardless of their origin, pop music is littered with unforgettable moments in songs, or ‘Godots’ (with apologies to Samuel Beckett).

Why ‘Godots’? Because no matter how many times you hear the song, no matter how many times you experience these moments, you never really stop waiting for them. Every time you hear the song.

There is no one universal feature that defines a Godot, other than it’s brevity and some element of surprise. It stands out, and calls emphatic attention to itself, maybe because of its incongruence from the rest of the song, or maybe because it’s delivering a much anticipated ‘payoff’, or maybe because it is so god damn irritating.

Here are but 10 examples:

10. Take the Money and Run – The Steve Miller Band

steve miller band

This insanely listenable song, just as fresh the 100th time you listen to it as the first, is a glorious soup of hooks, harmonies, jangly guitars and feel-good “hoo-hoo’s” (the latter of which I’ve always suspected were the sound a train pulling away, perhaps shuttling these bank-robber stowaways to freedom).

For a particular moment to stand out in this AM masterpiece – the song itself is more or less one long hook – is not easy. But nestled at the 0:35 and 1:14 mark of the song are two quick successions of 5 hand-claps that steal the show.  You’re waiting for them as soon as the song begins, it’s difficult to resist clapping along when it happens, and you are more or less biding your time until it occurs again the second time, after which you can finally relax and enjoy the rest of the tune.  A quintessential Godot.

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