Tag Archives: Populist

“The girl is the most French looking person I’ve ever seen”

Popular gets to “Lady (Hear Me Tonight),” a much bigger hit in the UK but in Miami got heavy rotation on Power 96 around the holidays; I often heard it preceded or followed by Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” another hit much bigger locally than nationally (and
Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better With You” did get mainstream airplay here). Already a Chic fan, I felt clever and special and gay for catching the “Soup For One” sample. Their last Hot 100-charting single has an enervated groove, the soundtrack to a reveler out too late whose wrinkles are showing and hangovers are worsening. By contrast Modjo accelerate and pitch-alter Nile Rodgers’ lick so that “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)” emits a rictus grinned energy that bears the same relation to euphoria as anxiety does to excitement — a recasting of the scenario in Chic’s “My Feet Keep Dancing.”

The summery vibe extends to the video, in which two dudes and a girl use their coolness to mow through a rural town and cap the experience by sleeping together (a commenter: “The girl is the most French looking person I’ve ever seen”).

Eminem as ‘pop fixture’

Internet-based criticism was in its Pre-Cambrian phase, but I still read a formidable number of essays, rebuttals, columns, and dismissals of every kind on The Real Slim Shady in 2000. “My Name Is” having passed me by in 1999 (don’t ask), I was prepared to love “The Real Slim Shady” the rest of my life. I objected to the dumb boy band references. Em was pretty, was played alongside “It’s Gonna Be Me,” wanted to be pop. But “The Real Slim Shady” was every bit the landmark on Clear Channel radio he wanted it to be; not since mid nineties Mariah Carey had a performer so reveled in the vocal dexterity at his command (he had a few things to say about her too). The Marshall Mathers LP remains a slog: what’s awesome and novel at 4:44 is exhausting at an hour, like listening to a decent Rush Limbaugh skit in loop (I listened to “Under the Influence” again to be sure). As usual Tom wonders what revolution “The Real Slim Shady” was talkin’ about Tom:

In “The Real Slim Shady” his enemies now stop being the world and himself and start being more specific parts of pop culture. Which is where the “soft targets” problem comes in. Eminem is announcing his arrival as a pop fixture – and the success of his first album had made that inevitable – by taking on the weakest of imaginable enemies. He knows his tribe, and their prejudices well, but this stuff is the opposite of shocking. He’s consciously consolidating the audience he’s found. But the arrival of Slim Shady in the real world loses something. In the twisted universe of “My Name Is” he’s a force of chaos, a self-destructive trickster. Here he presents himself as just another cultural commentator, needling away at the entertainment biz’ foibles and hypocrisies. What’s his actual critique of those “little girl and boy groups”? They annoy him, and maybe Christina Aguilera slept her way to the top. It’s less Loki, more Perez Hilton.

The loud majority, as it were, symbolized by the MTV Video Music Awards appearance of Eminem leading the Slim Shady Army onstage, sticking with him as he braved every trend in the next decade, keeping his sales largely intact.

“I know that you’re in love with him…”

Buoyant in an embarrassed and goofy way, “Beautiful Stranger” is like the bridegroom at a wedding reception leading his friends and relatives in a conga line. I liked it in the summer of ’99 because the first dozen listens persuaded me that Madonna could still write hurried lyrics and coax co-writer William Orbit into getting down to business. Now I cringe when those training-toughened pipes stretch the last word in “I fell in love with a beautiful stranger” into a noise that suggests she has no idea what fun is.

I don’t remember thinking “American Pie” mattered at all. My sister owned the The Next Best Thing soundtrack; instead I listened to “Time Stood Still,” a superior recasting of the lacquered grace of Ray of Light ballads like “The Power of Goodbye.” As gesture, the cover surprised me: despite “True Blue” and “Cherish,” I can think of few artists who gave less of a damn about sixties mythos than Madonna Ciccone. Maybe this cloddish version is her attempt at demystifying. Listening to it again after Tom’s Populist write-up, it’s a bizarre lapidary gesture between Ray of Light and Music, two of her most au courant album projects:

The wider issue, though, is the translation of folk-rock into dance-pop. McLean’s lines are long and rangy, and an acoustic accompaniment gives him space to stretch, play with the cadences, tell a story, even if it is a dumb story full of smarmy riddles. William Orbit’s elegant, clockwork productions are inimical to that, pushing McLean’s words back into line and tempting Madonna into the regulated, autocue reading she gives.

Of course it’s possible that Madonna loved Don McLean’s song as a girl growing up in ’70s Michigan and wanted to honor it with a straightforward reading. Maybe the “I know you’re in love with him” was a sop to gay co-star/pal Rupert Everett. But a stiff it remains. Commercially too. “Beautiful Stranger” may have peaked on the American Hot 100 in the teens, but only because her label released no physical single; it would’ve been an automatic top ten otherwise. By contrast “American Pie” stalled at #29. It didn’t hurt her. Embracing another, final way of popular acclaim, Madonna would ride ROL’s sales and good notices through Music, home of her last two consecutive top fivers. In 2015 “American Pie” stands out as a genuine oddity — hell, even “Hanky Panky” had an well-it-figures inevitability.

But listen to “Time Stood Still,” to my ears as poignant as another forgotten ballad, “The Look of Love.”

‘Always On My Mind’ — ‘a promise of pop music’

Tom Ewing’s been thinking and writing about “Always on My Mind” for years; for a year-end entry he goes section by section through one of Freaky Trigger’s top 100 songs, and certainly when I play “Always On My Mind” it sounds like the greatest recorded song in history. Here Tom concerns itself with the version on Introspective called “Always On My Mind/In My House,” which I initially rejected because Tennant and Lowe’s perversion: they exiled the huge synth hook to five-sevenths of the track:

It’s 1988. The thing about pop music, when you’re 15, is that its doors open all the bloody time. Years later, month-long obsessions or beliefs seem like eras. Was there a time when I disapproved of pop music, on the say-so of Morrissey or Roger Waters or some spanner on the front of the NME? There was, but it didn’t last. I’d like to say the moment I heard “Always On My Mind/In My House” killed it, but things are rarely so neat. Still, it was a moment – I rewound it again and again, playing the whole album or just that track or just that minute or two. After it, I could not honestly stake a position where I disliked pop music. Within it, I could trace the outlines of other doors, into house and disco, and a world where the glorious return of the riff wasn’t a great pop trick, but a first principle of making and building music.

Tom’s pieace is also an ode to “the most liminal time of the year” — the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, a period when those of us on vacation struggle to fill uncharacteristically barren schedules with lunches, library trips, movies, writing, reading:

The space in between is an equivocal season, something left hanging like an unresolved decision, or an unfinished list.

So we – a very specific we, the list-makers – fill it up, coming together every December 29th to go to pubs, catch up, talk nonsense, and occasionally in former years make lists of things to write about. Why lists? Because we were sad old nerds, obviously. But also, we liked – or at least, I liked, and I’m the one stuck writing this – the conceit that this unfixed time of year, and the magic of the pub, was a good time to make arbitrary decisions, like naming the greatest records, and accept the challenge of one day writing as if those decisions were right.

Ain’t nuthin’ but a mistake

Tom on the Backstreet Boys song It Was OK To Like:

“I Want It That Way” assumes, rightly, that you enjoy hearing these men harmonise around that title, and simply arranges itself to give you the maximum possible opportunity to do that, with slightly different emphases each time but no regard for whether all those swoonsome moments fit together. In between, the gaps are filled with a melange of phraselets that don’t fit whatever story the song is telling but which all sound fantastic sung, fist clenched on chest, by a handsome boy. “Fire….desire”, “you are you are you are”, “don’t wanna hear you sayyyy!”, “it’s to-oo-oo late”, all given their own lovely micro-hook and thrown into the song’s rising tide.

Months after it peaked as a hit, I heard a quartet of drunk dudes sing a note perfect karaoke version; like “Bye Bye Bye” eight months later, this was ubiquity at world-historic level. at the time I wouldn’t admit I preferred “Quit Playin’ Games (With My Heart)” and “Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely.” But those weren’t a miscellany of prenatal erotic slogans.

Britney: ‘an infinitely recombitant instrument’

“Britney Spears” came to me as a heterosexual love object. At my college newspaper the male editors lusted after her early ’99 Rolling Stone cover, for which I loathed them.. She wasn’t a person — she was, to quote Billy Idol, flesh for fantasy. “…Baby One More Time” mattered less to me than “Believe” and “Genie in a Bottle” or, a few months later, “Waiting For Tonight.” Within a couple of years I could acknowledge it slammed harder than any teen pop released in ’99: Kristian Lundin, Jake Schulze, and Andreas Carlsson took copious notes writing and producing “Bye Bye Bye” for ‘N Sync exactly one year later. But as Tom Ewing implies in his excellent essay/retrospective Britney doesn’t accommodate herself to pop narratives: she’s never “matured,” never released Serious Music — “teenage feelings matter, even the dumb and disastrous ones,” he writes. On the contrary: with each release Spears has regarded her voice as an infinitely recombitant instrument best suited for conveying the simplest pleasures. Soccer chants, Eurocheese, EDM — she’ll do it at any price. Fools don’t understand this availability is exactly what makes her a pro. Offer her a song and she’ll contort herself in any shape you want.

But this is the Britney of Femme Fatale; and Blackout. Eight years earlier, “…Baby One More Time” hit #1 on the American and English charts. Then and now we asked questions about songwriting credits, auteurism, and authenticity. Tom again:

But the whole debate over who came up with what is also a red herring. Even if Britney had zero input into anything, it’s her name up there in lights – the whole enterprise depends on her. The idea that you can dig into the credits and origins of modern corporate pop to find secret lines of creativity and influence is a true one. But to imagine those stories are more important than the public ones can be a seductive fantasy of insider knowledge. Britney Spears, like every modern pop star, is the frontwoman of her own career: the story begins with her. It’s like politics, that other great bit of modern theatre: every candidate is the creature of a party machine. But the individual candidates – their strengths, foibles and priorities – matter. They are the story.

So if “manufactured” is unfair, what is the right metaphor for Britney’s relationship to the pop machine? Scanning the pop culture of the late 90s gives us a better possibility: mecha, the Japanese anime genre where beautiful, tragic youth fuse themselves to sublime, state of the art machines. Britney is not the machine’s puppet; she’s its pilot.

I’d rewrite that last sentence: Britney is the puppet, and she’s the pilot — the automatic pilot. What makes her so intermittently effective is her lack of ego, her willingness to become an endlessly protean signifier of pleasure.

“How on Earth did this thing get so big, anyway? What were they feeding it?”

Hooks are overrated. Choruses are overrated. Oasis was overrated — in England at least. Tom Ewing on their 1998 number one “All Around the World,” destined to be most effective as a commercial jingle:

Back on “D’You Know What I Mean”, I said that Noel Gallagher seemed in love with the idea of long songs, but with no clear ideas of how to make them. That might go double here, except he does have one clear idea: do something like “Hey Jude”. “Hey Jude” still isn’t my favourite Beatles song, but it’s past time I publically admitted that I got that review wrong. I accused “Hey Jude” of exactly the same thing I saw in “All Around The World” – a bludgeoning, manipulative, Bigness for its own sake. But “Hey Jude” is, more than anything, a generous song – the Beatles invent the monster coda not just to make something epic but because it fits with the song’s story: OK Jude, we’ve tried telling you it’s alright, now we’re just going to have to show you.

Ewing’s referring to Noel Gallagher’s words as a “hug rock lyric” to which English bands are inexorably drawn. I thought of another song, but of recent vintage, also using a massed chorus for punctuation — a question mark in this case, not an exclamation point, and that has made all the difference.

PS: “All Around the World” is one of the few videos indebted to Tears For Fears’ “Sowing the Seeds of Love.”