Tag Archives: machine vs. man

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.


LTEV Contest: Win tickets to My Morning Jacket!

my morning jacket

Do you ever wish you could clone yourself?

Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “Of course I do, Spencer. Who doesn’t want to clone themselves? Duh…” Sorry, consider it a rhetorical question. Cloning seems like the sort of thing that would start out as a delightful experiment but quickly go horribly awry, which is likely why we humans are drawn to the concept (or am I the only one?) Sometimes I think that it would be better, in fact, to have a robot version of yourself. Although I am pretty sure that Robot Spencer would turn out to be wickedly evil and would cut a swathe of destruction through my life, ruining my job and marriage, making snide remarks to my friends, and forcing me to turn against it, culminating in an epic battle royale involving flame throwers and explosives. Who would emerge as the victor? Hopefully we will never have to find out the answer to that question.

Maybe what I’m really asking is, do you ever wish you could be in two places at once? Of course we know this is impossible (unless you subscribe to the theories of Hugh Everett III. Why can’t someone just go ahead and prove the whole parallel universes deal once and for all? Jeez. I’m waiting, Science).

Sadly, this proof is unlikely to occur in time for July 11th. Why is July 11th an important date, you ask? Because there are two musical events happening simultaneously that evening that we have tickets for. And I desperately want to attend both of them.

How did this happen? Let me explain. A few years ago, The Finn and I had a friend who worked as a bartender at The Berkeley Church in Toronto. They were in the midst of filming Season 3 of the show “Beautiful Noise,” a music profile and performance series, and he let us sneak in for free to catch a few of the acts. My Morning Jacket happened to be on the bill and we were absolutely blown away by their live performance. Like seriously, it was just massive amounts of AMAZINGNESS. They had just flown in from somewhere in South America about two hours prior to the show and they still KILLED it. After that I became completely obsessed with their live album, Okonokos. They are one of those bands that really takes it to the next level live in concert, and Jim James has one of the coolest voices I’ve heard in a long time.

Anyway, when I was looking around for a birthday present for The Finn this year I realized that they were playing a show here in Toronto on July 11th so I got us tickets. Yay! Great, good plan, ready to go, super pumped. I can’t tell you how excited I was about seeing them live again.

Except…

July 11th is the same night that U2 is playing their rescheduled show.

F&CK.

You guys. I love U2. Like, I love love LOVE them. The Joshua Tree is my favourite album. ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ is my favourite song. When I went to see them two years ago and they started playing that song, I cried. I totally cried like a baby.

SIGH. What to do? In the end, we decided that we just could not miss U2. But, our loss could be your gain. We are giving away our My Morning Jacket tickets to one lucky Let Them Read Vinyl reader. The winner will receive two tickets — so you can bring a friend/spouse/significant other/relative/nemesis/archenemy/evil robot of your choosing. Whoever you decide to take with you, my advice is that it’s not someone you’re on a first date with, because this band is so good that you will forget all about your date as soon as the music starts and ignore them for the rest of the evening. This will probably make them mad and they will refuse to date you again, and then you will blame old Spencer and LTEV for your ruined love life. So don’t say we didn’t warn you.

All you have to do to enter the contest is tell us, in the comments section: what is the best concert you ever saw, and why? Doesn’t have to be a super long answer, a few sentences or a paragraph will suffice. We will choose the winner using highly scientifical methods (don’t worry, these will be totally impartial — we are bound by the music blogger code of ethics) and we’ll notify the winner by e-mail.

The deadline for entry is 12:00 midnight on Friday, July 1st.

The only qualification to enter this contest is that you must have a cell phone. Tickets were purchased through the Rogers Wireless Box Office so we will text them to you, and you bring your phone to the venue with the text (they scan your phone for entry). If you lose the text, it can be re-sent to you. More information about the Rogers Wireless Box Office can be found here.

Here’s a preview of what YOU could be seeing on July 11th. This song is so good it makes me want to cry:

SHOW DETAILS:
July 11th 2011, Kool Haus, 132 Queens Quay East, Toronto, Ontario. Doors at 7pm. All Ages. GA Floors.


Shazamit! Vol II

shazamit!

If you read my first Shazamit! post, you know how scared fascinated I am by “the computers” and the many ways in which they are slowly but surely taking over the world. Soon they will be doing all of our thinking for us. For now, they must content themselves with worming their way into our lives by performing dazzling tricks, such as instantly identifying random songs that we hear playing in the grocery store or Starbucks. This is actually a critically essential service. It’s very important when you hear a song to be able to find out immediately who the artist and album are so that you can go and buy it, thus further lining the pockets of Steve Jobs contributing to the convalescence of the global economy. Shazam even has a convenient link to iTunes. How helpful is that! Thank you, computers! I love you, and I fear you. Obviously a very healthy relationship.

Anyway, as previously mentioned, I use the Shazam app a lot. It has led me to some really good music over the years, and also some not-so-great songs. Working in chronological order from my previous list, here are my next 10 tags…

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Spotlight on Style: Star Wars

star wars style

Look, guys, I know what you’re thinking. What does Star Wars have to do with music, right? Um, hello, it only has the BEST MOVIE SCORE of all time (John Williams I ♥ u 4ever). To this day, whenever I hear the 20th Century Fox intro at the beginning of a movie I get chills, because it’s so closely linked in my mind to the opening bars of the Star Wars theme.

Sigh.

Best. Movies. Ever.

There was just so much to love about the first three (Episodes IV, V, and VI, that is). Intergalactic warfare. Rakish smugglers. Droids!! Ewoks, bounty hunters, a city in the clouds. The dark side of the force. Darth vader. Yoda. A love triangle (at least, until the incestuous aspect of it was revealed. Ew). Good vs. evil. Jedi masters, fighter pilots, the Death Star….

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Shazamit!

shazamit! 1

i don’t know about all of you, but i am kind of obsessed with shazam. like…your phone listens to songs and tells you what they are, instantaneously! if this isn’t a sure sign that the computers are taking over, i don’t know what is.

anyway! shazam is one of my most frequently-used apps, and every once in a while i like to take a little scroll back through all of the songs i’ve tagged.  some have become standard faves, while others i can barely remember looking up.

i’ve decided to open up my shazam history for your viewing pleasure. since i have over 50 tags i’m gonna break this up and do a few at a time. for our first shazamit! outing, please join me back in november of 2008…a time of wonder & merriment, when i first got my iPhone…

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