The Music in my Head part 1

I find that I don’t talk about music much, which is weird. I’ll talk about comics till I’m blue in the face, and y’all know how much I like to talk about books. But there’s something with talking about music that just makes me really… hesitant.

Perhaps it’s because I know a lot of people who are really into music, and who have very strong musical tastes. Perhaps I don’t want to lower myself in their eyes by revealing the ridiculous things that I snap my fingers to sometimes. Or perhaps it’s because the songs you like really say a lot about you as an emotional being. Unlike books, music is best when it’s not appreciated as an intellectual exercise – you should just let it wash over you and through you and see what kind of buttons it pushes and switches it flips. Maybe I fear that revealing the songs I like will tell you more about me than I really wanted you to know. [1]

I thought a lot about how to approach this post, actually. Should it be the songs I will always listen to, the ones that make me angry or sad, or the ones that remind me of those dear dead days beyond recall? Should it be the ones that I can’t listen to anymore, or the ones I like that I know I really shouldn’t?

In the end, I realized that I have an iTunes playlist of four-or-five star songs – which should be the best of my collection – that I invariably skip through like an ADD kid at a Five Second Film festival. So I’ve fired up the ol’ iTunes Playlist of Favorites and set it to shuffle, and I’ll write about the first ten songs that come up. Here we go…

1. “Snail Shell Remix”, They Might be Giants, Back to Skull, 1994

Ah, college… I’ve been a fan of They Might Be Giants ever since high school, thanks to Jonah Knight (singer/songfighter), who played “Triangle Man” for me once and got me hooked. After that, I was always sure to pick up the new TMBG CD when it came out. The original version of this song was off their John Henry CD, and it really spoke to me as a twenty year-old with issues of ego and my place in the eyes of others. A significant sample of the lyrics is as follows:

Was it something you would do for anybody?
Was it what you’d only do for me?
I need to know because you see
I want to thank you for putting me back in my snail shell

Look what you gave
And how can you ever be repaid?
How may I give you a hand
From the position at your feet where I stand?

There’s a certain bitterness there, isn’t there? The singer is angry and sarcastic and just a wee bit passive-aggressive in trying to complain to his “friend” about how he’s been treated. The narrator of the song struck me as someone who perhaps tried to move out of his comfort zone, to do something different that his friends wouldn’t expect of him. Perhaps even to challenge his friend’s sense of dominance over the narrator. For which the friend swiftly and sternly smacked him down and put him back in his place.

It really was a good song for someone who held his friends’ opinions of him in high regard and was at the some time convinced that they didn’t return the opinion. I don’t play it as much anymore because it’s a phase that you should grow out of as you grow up. The friends who didn’t think much of me have fallen by the wayside, thanks to time and distance. The ones who thought I was worth keeping did so, regardless of how far away I went and how long I stayed here.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m not still in a snail shell – I have a nice cozy one all set up. The difference is that I’m not blaming other people for putting me there.

2. “Such Great Heights”, The Postal Service, Give up, 2003

I don’t remember where I heard this song first, but there was something in it that I really enjoyed. Maybe it was the way the little electronic beeps bounce back and forth from left to right in my headphones, or the weird earnestness of the song’s message. It’s a love song, of course – a message across a distance to a loved one that the singer cannot be with, and as someone who has a lot of loved ones at a distance, I can certainly relate.

true, it may seem like a stretch, but
its thoughts like this that catch my troubled
head when you’re away when I am missing you to death
when you are out there on the road for
several weeks of shows and when you scan
the radio, I hope this song will guide you home

It’s adorable in its way, with the reedy tenor of Ben Gibbard [2] adding a sort of youthful idealism to the song. I mean, of course they’ll be together – he wrote a song! And that’s sort of what the refrain promises:

they will see us waving from such great
heights, “come down now,” they’ll say
but everything looks perfect from far away,
“come down now,” but we’ll stay…

They’ll keep themselves separate and above the fray, together forever on their great height.

Iron & Wine did a fantastic version of this song too, though slower, acoustic and – because it’s Iron & Wine – sadder.

3. “Tank!” The Seatbelts, Cowboy Bebop OST, 1998

Despite living in Japan, I’m not a huge anime fan. Mostly because for the longest time the only anime I could get was from video shops, which for some insane reason didn’t have English subtitles. Can’t imagine why. Now, of course, I can “acquire” anime through other means, but I’ve really lost the impetus to do so. I’ve got limited TV viewing time, and I don’t want to either waste time on a show that’s going to just slowly get worse, or have to slog through a show I don’t like in order to get to the good parts.

I did try “Cowboy Bebop,” though, mainly on the recommendation of its music. From what I’d heard, it had one of the best soundtracks in anime, which it did. The stories got kind of repetitive after a while, so I just got my hands on the music and stopped watching the shows.

“Tank!” is, of course, a fantastic opening theme for any show, much less a show about two guys running around outer space causing trouble and helping people. It just smacks of being cool and sexy, and if that song plays when you enter the room then you’re gonna get shit done. There’ll be drinking, a fight, and you’re sure as hell not sleeping alone. It’s a song I wish we could have played when I was in jazz band in high school, except I know I wasn’t nearly cool enough to play it.

4. “Overreacting (Funkwerk Remix)”, Brad Sucks, I Don’t Know What I’m Doing, 2003

Brad Sucks is a musician who’s been making good use of the internet for quite a while now, and I tend to like a lot of what he does. His songs range from slightly silly to kind of dark and introspective, which pretty well describes this song. The original is a little bit less spacey, but still kind of quiet and tentative – a plea to someone to rethink their way of looking at the world.

when there’s no place you feel at home
and you think you’d be better off alone
when you think there’s no reason to try
and you hate yourself and wanna die

when you’re filled with anxiety
and everyone’s your enemy
when you wish you were someone else
and you wanna go out and kill yourself

ooh you’re overreacting
(you can change your mind)
ooh you’re overreacting
(take your time)

Now if there’s one thing that hanging out on the internet has taught me, it’s that things are never quite this simple. The song is urging someone who is clearly depressed to basically buck up and get over it, which doesn’t really work. Depression isn’t something that can just be “gotten over,” no matter how much time you take or how much you want to change your mind.

So, if you’re clinically, medically depressed, then this song isn’t very helpful.

For the rest of us, some of whom just might be mopey and going through a bad patch, it’s like a quiet hand on the shoulder. “It gets better” about eight years before Dan Savage made it popular. And especially for people like me who tend to get a wee bit dramatic about our hardships, who imagine the worst case scenarios and prepare for the end of the world, even if the end of the world really isn’t on the horizon. Sometimes we need that hand on our shoulder to kind of keep us down on the ground.

5. “One Headlight,” The Wallflowers, Bringing Down the Horse, 1997

This one’s from my post-college era, just after I graduated, and I think it stuck with me because it was sort of the soundtrack for the dead-end I was pretty sure I’d run my life into at the time. I was working retail, completely aimless, and absolutely certain that I had sprocked up everything. Other friends were putting together Careers and Families and Stuff. I lived in a succession of apartments until I ended up in a crappy little one-room thing in Troy, NY, in a neighborhood that was about one block away from buildings that had been boarded up and burnt-out.

And as far as I knew, that was where I was going to grow old and die. [3]

Well this place is old
It feels just like a beat up truck
I turn the engine, but the engine doesn’t turn
Well it smells of cheap wine, cigarettes
This place is always such a mess
Sometimes I think I’d like to watch it burn
I’m so alone and I feel just like somebody else
Man, I ain’t changed, but I know I ain’t the same
But somewhere here in between the city walls of dyin’ dreams
I think of death, it must be killin’ me

Something like that, yeah. It was a song about people whose dreams were always out of reach, whose lives were slowly falling apart before their eyes, and even if they could escape it would be in a car that would probably get them pulled over by the cops. Jakob Dylan, of course, had a voice that sounded like he’d been there – which he probably hadn’t, but that doesn’t really matter – and I could listen to that song and think, “Yup. There we go.” Everything was crap, and I wasn’t the only one who knew it.

Fortunately, there was a way out, and I took it. Just because it’s in a song doesn’t mean it’s true.

6. “Face to Face,” Siouxsie and the Banshees, Batman Returns OST, 1992

Man, all those ladies who want to sing sexy should take a lesson from Siousxie Sioux.

This song hearkens back to when I was a ravenous collector of soundtracks. There was a period in movies where the soundtrack to a film wasn’t just music to punch up the emotion in a scene – music that you weren’t really supposed to notice – but were actually good pieces of music by themselves. I used to make these wonderful soundtrack mix tapes that were some of my favorite listening, and they were dominated by Danny Elfman.

Which should be no surprise.

This was the only lyrical song on the Batman Returns soundtrack, written specially for the film, which features the complex relationship between Batman and Catwoman. They were both fundamentally good people, who had chosen only slightly different paths of vigilantism. The gulf between them may be insurmountable, but they’ll at least have fun trying. The song is really string-heavy and builds and recedes, swelling and relaxing throughout the chorus until it builds to a climax, just like… um… something… Jeez, it’s on the tip of my brain.

Ah well, I’m sure I’ll think of it later.

What’s more, the lyrics play with the idea of multiple identities and the uncertainty of the Self, something that really interested me when I was in my late teens:

Another life
Another time
We’re siamese twins writhing intertwined
Face to face
No telling lies
The masks they slide to reveal a new disguise

At that time, I was fascinated by the idea of trying to figure out who I really was – something that a lot of young adults do, though I was a bit more methodical than most, I think. And the song hit on something that I was just beginning to deal with. The idea that there are aspects of ourselves that we show to some people, don’t show to others, and some we don’t even reveal to ourselves. And even when we manage to remove the mask from someone, who’s to say that the face underneath is really theirs? With Batman and Catwoman, it’s pretty literal, but I think it turned out to be true for everyone. Myself especially.

7. “Take a Picture,” Filter, Title of Record, 1999

I remember thinking that this wasn’t what I expected from Filter, at least not as it starts. The band splintered off from Nine Inch Nails [4] back in the day, and seemed to carry a lot of that angry, grungy sound with it. Then they come out with this, a song with a grooving beat, acoustic guitar, and a kind of wistful sound to it. The repeated refrain, “Would you take my picture / ’cause I won’t remember” speaks to the frailty of human memory and the sheer evanescence of being in the moment.

Either that, or the story I heard was true – that the lead singer had gotten really high on an airplane, stripped off all his clothes and and started fighting with the flight attendants. I like my interpretation better.

Regardless, it turn a little weird when he starts in with, “Hey dad, what do you think about your son now?” It’s a weird line, especially when paired up with the others and you overthink it a bit. Leaving aside the airplane nakedness story for a moment and dealing with the song just as it is, those lines to the singer’s father suggest two scenarios, neither of which is very happy.

A) The singer has done something to prove to his otherwise disapproving father that he’s worthy of approval, but the singer won’t remember doing it. He’s finally done something right, something to make the Old Man happy, and he’ll have no memory of what it was. This makes it a desperate plea for evidence of his worth – not just for his father, but for himself.

B) The other option is that he has internalized his father’s disapproval so hard that he’s actually trying to outdo himself. He wants to see how far he can push his dad before the man snaps, and he’ll do whatever crazy thing he has to if he can make it happen. Whatever it is he’s done this time, he’s sure that it’ll be the last straw, and he’ll finally get the reaction he’s been looking for for so long. But again, he won’t remember doing it, so he needs that evidence just to prove to himself that he is capable of cutting his father to the bone.

Note that we are never led to believe that the picture ever actually got taken. All we have is his desperate, hypnotic plea.

I don’t think I could’ve explained all that back when I first heard the song and decided that I liked it, but I’m pretty sure I knew it nonetheless.

8. “Life is a Highway,” Tom Cochrane, Mad Mad World, 1991

C’mon, do you have to ask?

I don’t drive anymore, because I live in Japan, a country with outstanding public transportation. Also, some of the roads are crazy narrow, and there’s no way I could drive on them without having a complete nervous breakdown. In any case, I don’t miss having a car at all – buying gas, finding parking, tune-ups, flat tires, the engine catching fire… But I do sometimes miss driving, especially when songs like this come on.

It has a driving beat, simple chords, and Cochrane just keeps singing the song forward. The words don’t even matter very much – his mouth-noises are like another instrument, keeping the song moving forward. He could’ve released it as an instrumental and it would have had much the same effect. Until you get to the refrain, of course:

Life is a highway, I want to ride it
All night long.
If you’re going my way, I want to drive it
All night long

If you’ve never been speeding down a sunlit highway on a beautiful day, heading towards a place you want to be and screaming out the chorus as you drive, then you’ve really missed something.

9. “Always On My Mind,” Pet Shop Boys, Introspective, 1988

“Diplomatic immunity!” BLAM!

Sorry, but that was bugging me. What a weird opening to the video…

Anyway, this song is probably on here because there’s just something so very Gay about the Pet Shop Boys – I’ll lose my license if I don’t have them in my playlist somewhere. That aside, though, it’s a groovy, peppy little song where the tone of the music is at odds with what the song is actually about.

Maybe I didn’t treat you
Quite as good as I should;
Maybe I didn’t love you
Quite as often as I could;
Little things I should’ve said and done
I never took the time
You were always on my mind.
You were always on my mind.

Maybe I didn’t hold you
All those lonely lonely times;
And I guess I never told you
I’m so happy that you’re mine.
If I made you feel second best,
I’m so sorry, I was blind
You were always on my mind.
You were always on my mind.

Tell me
Tell me that your sweet love hasn’t died.
Give me
One more chance to keep you satisfied…

When Elvis sang it, the song was slow and pitiful. It was a man who’d finally realized what a jerk he’d been and was now desperately trying to hold on to his manly dignity. He wants to admit his neglect, but can’t bring himself to do it without qualifying it as “maybe” being neglectful. The fact is, though, that he took his woman for granted, and the best thing he can come up with to make up for it was, “Well… I was thinking about you a lot.” Stay classy, Elvis.

So what happens when the Pet Shop Boys revamp it for the gay nightclub scene? It feels… different to me. Like one of those passive-aggressive breakups, where the singer wants out of the relationship, but doesn’t have the guts to end it himself. Its peppy perkiness is at odds with the lyrics, making it less a desperate cry for forgiveness and more an admission of the singer’s own self-centeredness.

Of course, this being done by the Pet Shop Boys gives it another interesting layer, seeing how tied up they are in gay club culture and how gay men in that particular segment of the culture are notorious for being unfaithful and flighty lovers. That makes the song something of an attempt for the singer to save face. He knows he’s not getting his lover back, but at least he can try to keep from looking like a complete jerk.

He doesn’t succeed, of course. But he can try.

10. “Candy Everybody Wants,” 10,000 Maniacs, Our Time in Eden, 1992

The Maniacs are nothing if not subtle.

Here we have another example of a song where the music and the words just refuse to agree with each other. I guess I like that kind of thing. In this case, Natalie Merchant is coming at us with a two-by-four to tell us that we’re all slaves to corporate interests whose aim is to not only cater to our worst impulses and desires, but to encourage them.

If lust and hate is the candy,
If blood and love taste so sweet
Then we
Give ’em what they want.
So their eyes are growing hazy
Cause they wanna turn it on;
So their minds are soft and lazy, well…
Do you wanna blame?

Like I said, not really subtle. And this does speak to me on a certain level. Over on my story blog last night, I wrote about how I distrust corporations, thus leading me to make them into Evil Entities when I put them in a story. So to have someone come at me with a song that says, “The companies and the media are trying to keep you stupid and apathetic,” my reaction is, “Well, yeah. Of course they are.”

Ultimately, though, the song falls victim to the very practice it decries. It doesn’t call on the listener to do anything or change anything. It doesn’t try to disturb or distress us, to shake us out of our complacency. It’s simply something peppy that we can hum along to without actually giving it any thought.

Which is… giving us what we want. Oh, the irony!!

So there we go. Ten songs off the “Best Of” playlist. This was kind of fun, actually, so I’ll have to do it again sometimes. Maybe the ten most played songs? Or ten songs that I haven’t listened to in over a year? The last ten I bought? The possibilities are endless!


[1] Until now, of course, since I’ve done a silly thing and written a blog post about it.
[2] Thanks, Wikipedia!
[3] See what I meant about getting a wee bit dramatic about hardships?
[4] I had a friend get really mad at me once for playing Filter because it marked a “betrayal” of Nine Inch Nails. And you wonder why I’m not more free with my musical tastes…


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