Worst Songs Ever: OMD’s “If You Leave”

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Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself after airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

OMD’s “If You Leave”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #4 in March 1986

An enterprising young critic could pitch a 33 1/3 book on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack. Released in the spring of 1986, the album served as a introduction to the alleged sumptuousness of college rock for millions of teens. Auspicious timing too, for several of the acts collected were just making beachheads on the American charts. You wanted electro pop crossed with hi-NRG and the first stirring of freestyle? There was New Order’s “Shellshock.” Histrionic romance? Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Bring on the Dancing Horses.” Misrerabilist lullaby? The Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,” one of its two appearances in a John Hughes film released that quarter (it serves as instrumental accompaniment for Cameron’s I-want-to-vanish-in-a-Seurat-painting moment in the Art Institute of Chicago in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Intentional misspelling of a word to signify funk credentials? INXS offered “Do Wot You Do.” Psychedelic Furs’ garish re-recording of the cruel-glorious 1981 tune after which Hughes named his film? Check. And don’t scowl at Jesse Johnson’s inclusion: all things Prince still got MTV play, even former things Prince.

Yet another of what former pop critic Neil Tennant would call (poking fun at himself) a nauseating synth-pop act, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark enjoyed a modest American college radio profile thanks to their string of British hits, including four consecutive top tens at the height of New Pop. I’m not a fan, but “Joan of Arc” and “Enola Gay” never fail to get me nodding, and I appreciate the tension between the austerity of the arrangements and the purploid articulation of singer-leader Andrew McCluskey; Architecture & Morality represented them at their peak. In 1985, “So in Love” became their first single to reach the American top forty. Hughes and his musical directors couldn’t have better timed the release of “If You Leave.”

If only the song didn’t suck. Characterized by a paranoid if not hysterical overstatement, the High Reagan Era of 1985-1986 saw many former DIY and DIY-esque bands record and mix their music and style their hair and pad their shoulders as if every track were meant to be performed before thousands at Wembley and the Meadowlands. For every Tears For Fears who triumphed in these new settings, a Simple Minds, Thompson Twins, and Spandau Ballet succumbed to what the age demanded; even a band like Heart whose antecedents and career trajectory had been quite different turned Liberace for the sake of MTV play. OMD’s “If You Leave” is the synth pop equivalent, a love theme appropriate to Pretty in Pink the film’s absurd demands. Thanks to his hip tastes, John Hughes could exploit the tonal and sexual variants of college rock for the sake of re-animating a mossy Cinderella reprise; Pretty in Pink felt different because former Eagles and Irene Cara didn’t incarnate Andie’s secret desires. In 1986, a young woman as intelligent and bullshit-free as Andie had to fall in love with simpy future George W. Bush campaign bundlers like Andrew McCarthy’s Blaine. Meanwhile her best pal Duckie (Jon Cryer) wasn’t allowed to be gay but was allowed to overact heterosexual longing (the late Harry Dean Stanton as Ringwald’s ne’er-do-well dad is like a flashlight in search of truth).

To give “If You Leave” its due, McCluskey and his cohorts remember their New Pop tutelage: an effective use of strings, probably synthesized, maximized to mirror the tumult of the adolescent heart. The use of a pause in “You always said we’d still be friends…someday” has a gay subtext that a more courageous Hughes would have used to deepen Duckie’s character (what a different movie it would’ve been if the gay boy had been in love with the proto-yuppie). Gradually, however, as I wrote in 2012 during my first pass at knocking “If You Leave,” the annoyances become menaces. I’m particularly repelled by a bass fillip at the end of verses, and the drum sound. McCluskey honors that overstatement. A better singer might have done more with “Seven years spent under the bridge like time standing still,” but I doubt it. And the DON’T LOOK BAAAAACK, preceded by lots of gulps, throws me out of the song, out on the street.

And OMD didn’t look back. They scored a couple more hits, saw their 1988 comp go gold. “If You Leave” is widely loved, and I accept I’m an outlier. But I regard their earlier singles with more affection. I would’ve accepted “So in Love” as the Grand John Hughes ballad. Or Suzanne Vega’s “Left of Center,” which I haven’t even mentioned yet and to which I could devote six hundred words.

‘In an ideal world, the United States would not be systematically soft on white-collar crime’

Watching the 6:30 FOX News segment led by stolid Brett Baier last night was like stepping into a leprosy ward after an afternoon of sunshine, a suspicion shared by several anonymous FOX employees today, as it happens. Hours ago, Robert Mueller brought official DC to a stand still with his office’s announcement that they had approved charges against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates and, more importantly, that foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and was cooperating with Mueller. The real culprits, explained Mollie Hemingway of the conservative power elite graphic novel known as The Federalist, were Hillary Clinton and Tony Podesta and the special uranium they traded to Russia in exchange for making Bill and Hillary Clinton co-presidents. I could tell that Hemingway, who manipulates her one-note smugness with considerable finesse, was dying to refer to “President [Hillary] Clinton” just so Baier’s audience of Geritol addicts could issue fatwas on Nancy Pelosi and her socialist fellow travelers as if it were 2012 again.

You can expect these half truths and leaden evasions to become GOP talking points from now on. Matthew Yglesias assembled a dandy list of the many instances of GOP cooperation with if not downright acquiescence to the Trump administration:

They greenlit a number of woefully unqualified Cabinet nominees, including Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, and Steve Mnuchin.

They sat idly by as the administration made clear its intent to completely disregard the spirit and purpose of American conflict-of-interest law.

They overlooked material factual misstatements under oath from a number of nominees, including disgraced now-former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

They allowed the president to install unqualified family members at the heart of the West Wing operation and turned a blind eye to serious misconduct on their part.

They watched Trump break all normal procedures to pardon Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio for refusing to comply with valid court orders and said and did nothing.

In another piece, Yglesias wonders whether the Mueller probe isn’t the nearest approximation to federal oversight of white collar crime. Once again, reading about Trump’s malfeasance in list form is bloodcurdling:

By the same token, over the years Trump has been repeatedly fined for breaking federal money laundering rules, been paid millions in hush money to settle civil fraud claims, been caught breaking New Jersey casino law, been caught violating the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act, been caught violating federal securities law, been caught violating New York nonprofit law, and — of course — been accused of multiple counts of sexual assault.

Yet throughout this storied history of lawbreaking, Trump has never faced a major criminal charge. He gets caught, he pays a civil penalty, and he keeps on being a rich guy who enjoys rich-guy impunity — just like Manafort. In an ideal world, the United States would not be systematically soft on white-collar crime.

Let’s remember: Trump still hasn’t released his tax returns, nor has he placed his income in a blind trust.

Worst Song Ever: Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #5 in January 1996.

Achieving peak innocuousness takes talent. Convincing an audience that nothing is at stake can at worst get them to tune out or, at very worst, such as what Deep Blue Something achieves with their only hit, tie a plastic bag around their heads. A top five in fall 1995, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s was crunchy pop-rock with the faintest drops of the college radio ethos in its veins. In the Friends era, bands like Del Amitri and The Rembrandts had no trouble following the Gin Blossoms path of selling a three-minute guitar confection with the most facile of singalong hooks: Goo Goo Dolls were about to score a substantial airplay success with “Name”; Third Eye Blind’s run of superior hits would start a year and change after “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

So what goes wrong with a song based on one of the twentieth century’s most adored movies? For starters, it succeeds almost too well in finding an aural correlative for the film’s heavy handed charm. When released in 1961, Blake Edwards’ adaptation of the thin, chic Truman Capote novel turned Holly Golightly into a G-rated kept woman, as how could she not be with Audrey Hepburn, at the height of her gamine beauty, playing the role, and George Peppard playing the novel’s gay narrator as a blond and grindingly straight Robert Taylor type? There is mawkish business involving a cat named Cat and some kisses in the rain. Edwards includes a party scene that is the last word on the Hollywoodizing of the beatnik era. I need not say a word about Mickey Rooney’s irate bucktoothed Japanese man except that it offended Kennedy-era spectators too. However, Breakfast at Tiffany‘s was one of the year’s biggest box office successes and got Hepburn her fourth Academy Award nomination for what is likely her most famous film — goddamn Morrissey covered “Moon River.”

That Deep Blue Something got a hit out of their tune at all shows the virtues of good label support. Recorded for their 1993 album 11th Song, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” fascinated DBS enough for them to give it another go on 1995’s Home. Adding electric guitar strums in the chorus is the only difference I hear. At least I think it’s electric guitar; the problem with “Breakfast in Tiffany’s” is the wind tunnel mix, as if instruments were hooked up to hot air blowers in public restrooms instead of amps. “You say, ‘We got nothing in common,'” sings singer-songwriter Todd Pipes in the sincere tones of a man who cried during the movie’s cat scene. Pipes had a curious idea: most of the verses consist of dialogue between the mixed up girl who loves Breakfast at Tiffany‘s and the dude whom she perplexes and frustrates. The dialogue is sorry stuff, though – a mix of the plainspoken and the Hallmark card. I’d get excited if my boyfriend got my attention by admitting that he read the book and liked it — wouldn’t you? It has nothing to do with Capote or Blake Edwards, much less Audrey Hepburn; it sounds like what a third-rate Ethan Hawke knockoff (Skeet Ulrich, say) would say to a third-rate Parker Posey (were there any?) in a movie whose script is obstreperously complicated in that post-Pulp Fiction way. The cumulative effect of those damp guitar runs and Pipes’ vocal is Quaker Oats left in the pot.

Astonishingly, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” topped the British chart during the height of that island’s periodic jags of jingoistic fervor, speaking to the general affection for the movie but not for American attempts at ashen pop rock crossovers, of which this was the only one. The #1s around BAT? Fugees’ “Ready or Not” and the Chemical Brothers’ “Setting Sun.” Talk about slumming.

Singles 10/27

After a desultory performance at Pitchfork a couple years ago touring behind the anniversary of Last Splash or something, the Breeder return with the sort of comeback single meant to reassure – they can rock, it’s fun, and so on. Shania Twain did the same with “Swingin’ with My Eyes Closed,” one of the few tracks on Now that sounds as committed to aural pleasure as her work even fifteen years ago. The sleeper is McGraw-Hill, which looks like a publishing house but is actually the most consistent brand in modern country.

Click on links for full reviews.

Twice – One More Time (7)
Tim McGraw & Faith Hill – The Rest of Our Life (7)
Big Shaq – Man’s Not Hot (7)
The Breeders – Wait in the Car (6)
Shania Twain – Swingin’ With My Eyes Closed (6)
Keith Ape x Ski Mask the Slump God – Achoo! (6)
Lizzo – Truth Hurts (5)
Kah-Lo – Fasta (5)
Shekhinah – Suited (5)
Julien Baker – Appointments (4)
BANKS – Underdog (4)
Tove Styrke – Mistakes (3)
Anne-Marie – Heavy (3)
Era Istrefi ft. French Montana – No I Love Yous (2)

Worst Songs Ever: Katy Perry’s “Ur So Gay”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself after airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Katy Perry’s “UR So Gay”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 on US Hot Dance Singles Sales chart

Signed to an indie Christian label in her teens after her chops impressed adults, Katy Hudson has made a career out of a blank messianism through which a mixture of Hollywood, teenage dreams, and self-help lit runs strong and true. In a paper delivered at the Experience Music Project Pop Conference a few years ago, Elijah Wald said the eponymous album released in 2001 dominated by solo compositions is worth discovering. After a pair of canceled albums, including a Matrix-produced crossover, Hudson changed her name to Perry and used provocation to sell; thus, the multi-platinum One of the Boys in 2008, home of “I Kissed a Girl” and “Ur So Gay.”

For those who care about those things, Katy Perry can “sing” in the traditional sense. But I don’t believe a note she sings. Her contralto range is strong but not true. She’s the dullest of the Obama-era pop stars, an artist whose authorship is never in doubt whether she’s in the studio with Dr. Luke, Sia, or Max Martin because their aggression has a performative tinge; she isn’t believable projecting sexual attraction or self-celebration. I’ve known male and female students like Perry over the years: theater kids trained to express emotions not theirs. Because they spent their adolescence feted for playing characters, they enter college with an impressive command of language, their larynxes commanded by a brain several miles away. Katy Perry shouldn’t be any different than Ryan Gosling, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and other survivors of the Disney machinery. Yet she has a unique ability to get under my skin. I dislike the experience of listening to her.

Released as an airplay track that wandered onto club playlists, “Ur So Gay” had the misfortune to precede “I Kissed a Girl,” Perry’s #1 breakthrough and a song that plays like the kid who bussed a friend on a dare and can’t stop talking about it for fear people may get the wrong idea about him or her. Thanks to living in Miami, “Ur So Gay” got as much airtime as “Girl” such that its non-chart action surprised me. What made the song dire was how anachronistically it played with the denotative possibilities of the title; in 2008 and 2009 calling somebody “gay” as a synonym for dumb was already bad form and getting worse. And the knock-kneed skank of the rhythm allows no air, no litheness as Perry pummels every crass line as if she were Gene Simmons drooling on your neck about putting his log in your fire. Really, Katy, “You’re so sad maybe you should buy a Happy Meal” is at that level (Desmond Child, a KISS enabler, co-wrote “Waking Up in Vegas”). As critics pointed out at the time, Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” forms an indissoluble part of “Ur So Gay”‘s DNA: the repetition of “You don’t even like” mirrors the Simon #1’s taunting “Don’t you?”s; the catalog of banal horrors committed by “you”; the certainty — the blamelessness — of the singer.

Indeed, Perry’s enthusiasm turns a one-note joke into a mortal sin; we know there’s a place in hell for people who insist on their bad jokes. From Cyndi Lauper’s cover of “When You Were Mine” to any number of George Michael song, pop music has many intelligent examples of subjects realizing their lovers are queer. But “Ur So Gay” offends because
Perry limits herself to clichés about effeminacy (she might as well accuse him of mincing and liking Streisand) and because the object of her ire isn’t gay.

Placed in the context of her career, “Ur So Gay” makes sense. “Fireworks,” “Teenage Dream,” “Roar,” “Dark Horse,” “Rise” — an unending string of self-congratulatory explosions.

Worst Songs Ever: KISS’ “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself after airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

KISS – I Was Made For Lovin’ You
PEAK CHART POSITION: #11 in August 1979

Kiss is not a great band, Kiss was never a great band, Kiss never will be a great band, and I have done my share to keep them off the ballot.

— Dave Marsh

Thunderstruck by the realization that KISS dolls weren’t selling at toy stores, Paul Stanley got to work in 1979. Releasing four solo albums the previous summer had resulted in hundreds of thousands of returns, a tactic mastered by their label Casablanca Records during the height of disco fever. And it must have pissed him and Gene Simmons off no end that their bibulous guitarist Ace Frehley scored the biggest hit with “New York Groove.” Meanwhile drummer Peter Criss, recovering from a car crash, was already being shown the door, rudely. KISS needed to refill their coffers. With the teetotaling Simmons distracted by Hollywood and whatever else Gene Simmons does when he’s not overseeing KISS’ ledgers, Stanley assumed control of their first album since 1977’s Love Gun. In a gesture both altruistic and realistic — maybe Ace had another “New York Groove” from which the band could profit! — Stanley and Simmons let Frehley sing two of his own “compositions” and a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Man.”

Thus was Dynasty born. But no one remembers KISS released an album named Dynasty, the same way no one remembers Gene Stanley played the villain opposite Tom Selleck in 1984’s Runaway. What we remember is that disco was still hot when KISS stepped into the recording studio, and for Stanley the mercenary gesture came as naturally as Francis of Assisi’s dialogues with birds. “I had heard all these 126-beats-per-minute-songs and listened to the lyrics and thought, ‘Gee, I can do that.'” he remembers in Face the Music. “I went home and set a drum machine to 126 bpm and sat down and started ‘I Was Made for Lovin’ You.'” Contemptuous of art, suspicious of labor, KISS thought they were showing the Donna Summers and Bee Gees, not to mention Rod Stewart and the Stones — the people whom they considered peers — that they could do this disco shit too, it was so easy. Behold “I Was Made For Lovin’ You,” as dumb as a Reader’s Digest commemorative Indian plate. Reprising what Stanley considered disco cliches produced a track of easily describable crassness; the descriptors “unbelievable” and “astonishing” don’t work for a band that set new standards for neanderthal. “I was Made For Lovin’ You” was made by stupid people who think we’re stupid for deserving the shit they sell.

“Tonight I’m gonna give it all to you,” Stanley croons over slap bass, his idea of funky forward motion (played by Stanley; Simmons, wanting nothing to do with the farrago, was probably reading an Erica Jong paperback upside down). He also says he’ll do something or other “in the darkness,” a promise that should make any woman hold tightly to her can of Mace and an ice pick. Stanley’s absurd falsetto is the song’s centerpiece, although listeners have to wait until 2:30 for the twinkle of a gross synthesizer to announce Stanley’s Frankie Valli impersonation. Session man Anton Fig, replacing Criss, drums as if on quaaludes. Fig, who has worked with Dylan, B.B. King, and Warren Zevon, isn’t the problem. “They are soooooo deadly slow and plodding,” rock critic Scott Seward wrote on the notorious ILX Eagles listening thread. “And not in a cool doom metal slow and plodding way. And they weren’t heavy enough! Some good talented heavy band should do an album of KISS songs where everything is faster and heavier.”

On “I Was Made For Lovin’ You,” everything is leaden. For all the shit Frehley took from Stanley and Simmons, he contributed when they most needed him: his controlled bursts of noise midpoint demonstrate that at least someone had an EKG reading. The foundation is quicksand, mush. Yet the chorus is catchy — bad songs and good songs sport catchy choruses, recall. By this point in his career Stanley had exhausted his meager resources. Study the songwriting credits: Vini Poncia, Ringo Starr’s erstwhile songwriting partner, fine; the third name’s the killer. A hack’s hack responsible for later co-writing several Bon Jovi and Ricky Martin hits, Desmond Child was drawn to the state like a donkey to thistles; he was responsible for giving the track its shape. Dynasty marked a milestone for KISS: from now on, song doctors would dominate, and the likes of “Hard Luck Woman” and “Christine Sixteen” would sound like “I Can’t Stand It” and “Waterloo Sunset.”

But the experiment worked. KISS got its last top fifteen entry until 1989’s “Forever,” song doctored by, here’s a surprise, Michael Bolton. No one who heard “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” danced to it, it chilled their fan base of adolescent boys, and, worse, contributed to a backlash that made the mention of dance or disco a buzzword for faggot music. The public wasn’t grossed out by “Hot Stuff” — it was grossed out by Salvation Army castoffs like “I Was Made For Lovin’ You.” Unlike many peers, I don’t give a damn about who gets in and out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If you sold lots of records and had chart hits, you should get inducted.

Dave Marsh, I must admit, was right: no band in the Hall had more rotten material. It matters not. KISS lives, and KISS will live until you don’t, until Gene Simmons has sucked the blood of your condescension while stealing your wallet.

A twelve-inch mix exists.

 

Worst songs ever: Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians’s “What I Am”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself after airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians’s “What I Am”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #7 in March 1989

By 1989, shrewder programming directors sensed rumbles from college radio stations. R.E.M. had had two consecutive platinum albums and a pair of top ten singles. Depeche Mode had sold out the Rose Bowl the year before. Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” and The Church’s “Under the Milky Way” became grocery store standards. The Cure’s #2 success with “Lovesong” peeked beyond a distant corner.

With their hats, curious name, and jam band ethos, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians presaged the Dave Matthews Band and Blues Traveler by five years but surpassed them in genteelness. If New Bohemians jammed, it was for the sake of guests at a “Meet the Honors College Dean!” event on the quad. Their debut album was called Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars and the music did nothing so impolite. But its success was instant and impressive: by the time its chart run ended it had gone double platinum and peaked at #4 on the Billboard album chart, thanks to “What I Am,” which also sashayed up the Hot 100.

Hooks matter for good and bad song alike, and “What I Am” boasts a hook that only a person whose jaw’s been shot off couldn’t karaoke. But I suspect a phenomenon just below the surface ensured its success. In 1988, a majority of the electorate decided George H.W. Bush was a safer bet than the hapless Michael Dukakis. “Safer bet” mattered this decade, for after spending the early eighties frightened of Ronald Reagan’s bellicosity the septuagenarian suddenly emerged as a peacemaker open to talks with the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev saved Reagan, and as his own popularity tumbled at home Reagan and the new president-elect returned the favor by allowing the Soviet general secretary to stand beside them on daises in Governors Island and Malta. The way the electorate read the ’88 election was, Reagan fucked up Iran-Contra, but he’s old, and besides, the world hasn’t blown up and I still have a job; why trust the scowling squirrel in the tank?

I provide this brief lesson in electoral politics because another artist profited from the cultural stand-patness. In fall 1988, Bobby McFerrin took a prodigious experiment in layered vocalizing, grafted it to a moronic hook, and called it “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” The character in Edie Brickell and New Bohemians’ “What I Am” basks in a similar kind of sunny ignorance. “I’m not aware of too many things/ I know what I know if you know what I mean,” the opening goes over a brisk folk-influenced acoustic riff. As a song “What I Am” has craft: verses, bridge, chorus, each bearing a melodic stamp by which to remember it. The craft is the Achilles heel: that bridge contains the indelible lines, “Shove me in the shallow water/Before I get too deep,” and Brickell imbues them with the air of having found a long lost dime under the car seat. Intentional, its author pressed. “‘What I Am’ is a smart-alec’s way out of a deep discussion on the universe as it relates to the self,” Brickell explained in a songbook included with the single.

A homosexual for whom 97 percent of pop songs are not for or about me, I don’t confuse narrative with autobiography. Joni Mitchell’s comments and two generations of rockcrit shibboleths have insisted: Mitchell may have based Blue on the dreadful experience of sleeping with Graham Nash, but the experiences changed the second her fingers found their places on her dulcimer. I don’t confuse the simpleton in “What I Am” for Edie Brickell the same way I don’t confuse Jake LaMotta for Robert De Niro. But from the soda cracker crunch of the arrangement to Brickell’s fluting, deranged stresses (“PHILOSOPHY!”), “What I Am” is a song about complacency sung and played as complacently as possible, and, worse, the obviousness is part of the joke. The Bush campaign employed this strategy at a much greater order of magnitude and cynicism. Reporters knew Bush wasn’t tough, Texan, coherent, or Reagan-esque, and they knew we knew — it just didn’t matter. I know what she knows and I know what she means. The New Bohemians’ accompaniment is as anonymous as a K-Mart t-shirt; they might have joked around with the guys in 10,000 Maniacs at a tour pit stop about who was less maniacal or less bohemian. But co-writer Kenny Withrow gets off one terrifying filip: a guitar solo played through an envelope filter, responsible for a wah-wah sound as spongy as oatmeal in a drain. They couldn’t even evoke ’60s airheadedness right.

As soon as 1990’s Ghost of a Dog proved a commercial disappointment, Brickell released an inevitable solo album co-produced by none other than husband Paul Simon, a songwriter who has been many things but has never played dumb, although he has often sounded dumb acting smart. Meanwhile “What I Am” still gets recurrent play. Be glad it’s that and not their cover of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” recorded for the Born on the Fourth of July soundtrack and my first exposure to the Bob Dylan evergreen. I owe Edie Brickell for making Bryan Ferry’s sound revelatory.

Screenings #29

Here’s the crop from the second half of October. After a third viewing of Out of the Past, I awarded it a rare perfect score.

Lucky (Lynch, 2017) 5/10
Faces Places (Varda, 2017) 7/10
4 Days in France (Reybaud, 2017) 6/10
Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino, 2017) 8/10
The Meyerowitz Stories (Baumbach, 2017) 5/10
The Florida Project (Baker, 2017) 4/10
Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017) 6/10
Three Dancing Slaves (Morel, 2004) 5/10
* Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) 8/10
* Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947) 10/10
* Footlight Parade (Bacon and Berkeley, 1933) 8/10

Worst songs ever: Drake’s “Hotline Bling”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Drake – “Hotline Bling”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #2 in October 2015.

As social media has allowed women more possibilities to seek redress for instances of sexual assault and abuse, Drake’s records continue to sell or, most likely, stream. Since 2009 the singer-rapper has issued product whose attitudes flaunt the vulgar commonplaces of heterosexual relationships. The bro gets a sympathetic ear and requires no coaxing to unburden himself. To self-censor would sully his conscience.

I accuse Drake of nothing in the real world. Transforming oneself from Aubrey Graham, a Canadian with a white Jewish mom and who had a role in Degrassi: The Next Generation, to the biggest “multi-platform” threat in the world is a fictive leap we expect from ambitious artists. But the transformation kept the exhausted weariness with women intact; he’s the guy sick of explaining shit to whomever he’s dating. Despite the damp caverns that Noah “40” Sheib carved in Take Care, to my ears Drake’s most sustained work, he still sounded like an asshole who begged for indulgence, a mosquito who wanted to be treated as a giraffe. Celebrity hadn’t expanded his curiosity so much as reinforced the limits of his egoism.

By the time he dropped “Hotline Bling” two years ago, Drake, erstwhile ally The Weeknd, and Kanye West had formed an Axis of Glower, ready to unleash expensive battalions of top line writers on unnamed victims in songs who made these dudes’ lives miserable because they looked at other men or had the temerity to date other men after they’d broken up. Thanks to the shrewd way in which producer Paul Jefferies (aka Nineteen85) layers a sample of Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together,” “Hotline Bling” never drops its pretense of thoughtfulness; the sheet blocks of organ and the way Nineteen85 undergirds the original’s rattling-lid percussion with a tougher program convey the unswerving nature of Drake’s obsession with the girl who used to call him on his cell phone and whom he used to revere because he could trace, like Sting in “Every Breath You Take,” her movements.

“Hotline Bling” might still have worked as the confessions of a jealous cad worrying creepily about his ex “running out of pages” on her passport; he would’ve been like Alvy Singer, jetting to Los Angeles only to realize that Annie Hall had matured beyond his smothering hold, the kind of vise that even dictated what Sylvia Plath volumes to read. It might still have worked if Drake didn’t sing like a six-year-old falling down a staircase and landing on his head. But I understand its inescapability. The hooks, whether his or ghosted, are easy to sing along to — facts are facts. For many of my female students, Drake works as a case study: he reminds them of men they’ve dated, of men they need to avoid. When the argument starts, I mention Erykah Badu’s “Cel U Lar Device,” a cover treated as inversion — and redress. The rest of us have to deal with continued ubiquity.

Worst songs ever: Uncle Kracker’s “Follow Me”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a  plastic thimble-sized cup.

Uncle Kracker – Follow Me
PEAK CHART POSITION: #5 in June 2001.

Kid Rock needed a guy to play turntables for his former band Twisted Brown Tucker. Matthew Shafer, I learned on Wikipedia, “knew nothing of using turntables, but since his brother was an experienced DJ, he agreed.” Which is fine, very punk rock. When Devil Without a Cause made Kid Rock a wealthy man, one of his beau gestes was to produce his bandmate’s debut. Shafer restyled himself Uncle Kracker and I don’t even want to know why. The solo album Double Wide housed “Follow Me,” an immediate hit that endured like flu symptoms through 2001 past 9/11, a banal example of our national plight.

I can understand the attraction to “Follow Me.” Top forty stations weren’t playing simpy acoustic ballads with strong hooks in the summer of N Sync and Alicia Keys; now the Total Request Live generation had its own “More Than Words”! But the Extreme hit from 1991 had the tonal complexity of Brahms compared to “Follow Me.” Kracker can’t do a damn thing with his voice except mewl, which his idea of a coquette’s trick. The approach is especially gruesome when he gets to the line everyone remembers: “I’ll be the one to tuck you in at night.” Is Kracker a dad perving out for his kid or does he think fluffed pillows and a goose down comforter mean his girlfriend will slip off her bra?

As the Eagles did with “Lyin’ Eyes,” it can’t be said that Kid Rock and Kracker don’t find an arrangement for “Follow Me” that acts like an accessory after the fact: an electric piano rumbles under key verses, a sinister echo of Player, Ambrosia, and other mustachioed soft rock desperadoes of the late seventies; the acoustic upstrokes help the lines stick like glue; and the harmonies, possibly by Kid Rock, suggest a roomful of Pablo Cruise wannabes lighting candles in the bedroom because they read in an old Redbook that chicks dig candles. And Kracker, who’s a mind reader as well as a turntablelist, is confident he has the magic fingers and hips: “All you know is when I’m with you/I make you free/And swim through your veins like a fish in the sea.”

A recurrent hit that torments new generations of children in Ford Expeditions, “Follow Me” also presents itself, immorally, as a bodice-ripper for thousands of young men a year: a cretinish “Tonight’s the Night” for seventeen-year-old boys relieved they’re not getting laid. But Uncle wasn’t, for in 2003 he offered us more crackers. A cover of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” confirmed Shafer’s allegiance to polyester-clad acts and went one better by appealing to the parents of “Follow Me” fans: it spent a bewildering twenty-eight weeks atop the adult contemporary chart, a record almost broken this year by Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You.” I associate “Drift Away” with Counting Crows’ pestilential cover of “Big Yellow Taxi,” a hit from the same period that like Karl Rove was everywhere but unlike Karl Rove has fattened Joni Mitchell’s old age pension.

The only other fact to mention about a hit that defined what W.H. Auden, in a verse about the 1930s, would have called a low dishonest decade is that its maker pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge in 2007 to avoid a trial for sexual assault. Tucking you in night had more dimensions than we dreamed.

The GOP’s moral courage

While y’all slept after an afternoon of tweeting about Jeff Flake’s vow to stay in the Senate as long as voters allow until Trumpism is destroyed, the Senate complicated your attempts to file a class action lawsuit against a behemoth transnational corporation:

Senate Republicans on Tuesday night leaned on a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence to kill a landmark financial regulation that restricts banks and credit card companies from imposing mandatory arbitration on their customers as a means to resolve disputes.

The vote is a blow to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its controversial director, Richard Cordray, who some Republican lawmakers have urged President Donald Trump to fire because of his aggressive regulation.

“It’s really a rogue agency,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said on the Senate floor.

Other senators who voted for this evisceration of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – a rogue agency because it protects taxpayers from being swindled by Wall Street with the collusion of the federal government – include the courageous Lisa Murkowski, the stalwart Susan Collins, the rogue Ben Sasse, and the Lion of the Senate, the Honorable John McCain. The rogue agency made it harder for behemoths like Wells Fargo (hi! remember this?) and Bank of America to use arbitration agreements for the purpose of dissuading the average person from filing suit.

Yesterday, Jonathan Chait posted his interview with Charlie Sykes, a former nutball talk show host whose elaborate courtesy and baby powder voice have made him a favorite Never Trumpist on MSNBC. Chait got Sykes to admit that “the GOP embraced or at least tolerated white grievance because its underlying policies were unpopular.” So unpopular is its fiscal policy that senators pass far-reaching legislation at night. No matter how deep their hatred of Trump, GOP congressmen and their think tank satraps stan for an unregulated economy whose resultant chaos benefits themselves. George W. Bush, Poppy Bush, and Ronald Reagan went to congressional lunches before Donald J. Trump.

Worst songs ever: Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a  plastic thimble-sized cup.

Eagles – “Lyin’ Eyes”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #2 in November 1975

By 1975 the Eagles had scored a few hits, made some dough. Keeping an eye on their bottom line, leaders Glenn Frey and Don Henley watched the Laurel Canyon acoustic country-rock scene from which they had drawn sustenance slip into desuetude as a afternoon variety show kind of story-song, epitomized by David Geddes’ “Run Joey Run” and Gordon Lightfoot, gripped the Hot 1oo. Disco and funk made threatening noises. The band wanted slicker and trashier. Enter Don Felder, a journeyman guitarist who’d given a young Tom Petty lessons in Gainesville and had kicked it with the Eagles during tour rehearsals. “We thought, ‘Well, how can we write something with that flavor, with that kind of beat, and still have the dangerous guitars?'” Frey told Cameron Crowe in 2003.

“Lyin’ Eyes” did not have that beat, nor were the guitars dangerous. But Frey, who wrote most of it with Henley’s help, channeled the purported danger into the lyrics: a narrative about a dumb chick not actress enough to hide her promiscuity. This trope is as archetypal as they come; men learn that women matter insofar as they remind them of their sweet, angelic mamas. Hundreds of guitarslingers from Robert Johnson to Richard Thompson have specialized into disciplining these devil women.

Two things grate about “Lyin’ Eyes.” First, the precision of the arrangement, normally a virtue, is in scary congruence with Frey. “Lyin’ Eyes” is not about the chick so much as the guy naive enough to have trusted her, to keep trusting her; Bernie Leadon’s typically excellent mandolin work emphasizes the sour grapes (Leadon, not long for this change, skedaddled).  Second, with Frey at the mike, “Lyin’ Eyes” sounds cramped, devoid of generosity. “She’s headed for the cheatin’ side of town” is a line that Gram Parsons would’ve sung with wit, that George Jones would have suffused with so much pathos that the listener might feel creeped out eavesdropping. On the same album’s “One of These Nights,” on which Henley sings lead, the character acts as if he were one of the men who could have slept with the “she” in “Lyin’ Eyes.” Thanks to Henley’s weathered, thin, faintly effeminate timbre, the character could be the woman in ‘Lyin’ Eyes.” A superior performance and song, approximating Frey’s ambitions about the period.

Steeped in bad faith, “Lyin’ Eyes” is a lie. For, after all, what’s “Lyin’ Eyes” about except for the curdling of the Eagles’ own dreams as Lear jets and cocaine complicated the lives of former Linda Ronstadt backup musicians? So impervious to irony are the songwriters that when Frey sings, “She’s so far gone she feels just like a fool” there’s no suggestion that Frey is the fool. A song about an asshole? Hallelujah and why not. I mentioned “One of These Nights.” A couple years later Frey and Henley also wrote “The Long Run,” a sly, nasty little number on which Henley’s vocal and the other musical elements – Joe Walsh’s mocking slide guitar, the cheerful harmonies, the organ – are in perfect collusion. “Lyin’ Eyes,” on the other hand, is congealed toothpaste. Also, it’s long. Very long – I can believe the malice poured out of Frey, difficult to contain on the pages of his yellow legal pad. I hate “Lyin’ Eyes” because its torpid professionalism has convinced millions that it’s a good song. Its blanket airplay has magnified its chowderheaded sentimentality.

I belong to an exclusive club: a dozen of us on ILM in the fall of 2013 listened to an Eagles song a day, even the material on 2007’s Long Road Out of Eden. We salute each other, my band of brothers and sisters, as survivors of the musical equivalent of Antietam, the Marne, and Midway. We learned, over the course of three months, that, the stray oddity like Leadon’s narcotized space-banjo operetta “Journey of the Sorcerer” aside, the Eagles’ best hits were on Greatest Hits. They had no talent for even simulating empathy. Henley and Frey kept fellow travelers like J.D. Souther, Jack Tempchlin, and Jackson Browne on retainer to augment their meager talents, and superb guitarists like Leadon, Felder, and  Walsh for subtlety and wit (why Walsh, a superb multi-instrumentalist in his own right whose James Gang surpassed the Eagles in rhythmic finesse and hahas, indentured himself to characters as repulsive as Frey and Henley, would require a Leon Edel. I don’t want to say it was merely filthy lucre).

But these complains don’t matter. I’m another workaday critic spared one of Henley’s poisoned apple missives — fulsome denunciations of dissent, women’s bodies, and common sense. To receive one of these beauties in 1987 meant you’d made it. “Lyin’ Eyes” and its brothers have had the last laugh. I can’t not go to CVS, you know.