I promised I’d do another one of these posts, but I’d like to say in my defense that I never specified when…Why now? Well, two reasons, really. The first is that I have the urge to do something creative that doesn’t have anything to do with teaching. I do love my job, but it sucks every bit of creative energy it can. My Thronging Legion of Fans  have probably noticed that the podcast has ground to a halt, as has all forms of blogging. It’s not necessarily that I have nothing to say, but that I put so much energy into work that I don’t really have a whole lot left to entertain you all. I know, I know – I’m a terrible person. Just be glad I don’t have kids.
The other reason is because my friend Chris is doing his damnedest to try and find me music I’ll like, and true to form, I’m being kind of a pain in the ass about it. The fact is, I find it tough to condense “music I like” down to a simple, catchy answer. It’s often a matter of what catches my ear, and I’m never entirely sure what that’ll be. I cast a wide net, and only keep a tiny portion of what I catch, so finding new music is a little more time-consuming than I’d like it to be. After all, if I can’t muster the energy to write a blog post more than (checks last entry) once a year, I certainly can’t devote much energy to plowing through album after album, hoping to find something that makes my heart sing.
So, for this edition of Music in my Head, I thought I’d talk about not just the first ten songs to come up on a random shuffle, but the first ten songs that I don’t automatically skip. What will this tell us about the music I like? Is there a pattern? Let’s find out…
1. “Let It Go”, Cherri Bomb, This is the End of Control, 2012
I got this song from playing “Tap Tap Revenge,” an IOS game where you have to keep rhythm to music. It was good fun, but the people who made it made it almost impossible to migrate your game – and your purchases – from an old phone to a new one. Pity, because I found some good music among their libraries.
This is one of those songs, and it falls squarely into my “Songs to End Worlds To,” (which includes “Come Alive” below, too). Basically what this means is that at some point in the song, it feels… Elemental. Like it’s less of a song and more of a force. It’s kind of hard to describe in a way that makes sense, but it’s right around that guitar solo at 2:40, coming after a slow musical burn and a glass-polishing vocal burst… It’s where I kind of blank out and expect to see the Avengers or the Justice League tearing shit up.
Thematically, it’s one hell of a song too. All about taking control of ones life, but less in a self-affirming Women of Power kind of way and more out of a kind of rage-induced primal need to put some fucker in his place. To quote:
You never see my way
Pissing on my flame
I’ll be the one left standing
With everything i do
It never pleases you
But I’ll be the last one laughing
There’s no doubt who’s in charge of this conversation, and even less doubt about who will come out on top in the end. Definitely worth stopping and listening to.
2. “Man of Steel”, Hans Zimmer, Man of Steel Soundtrack, 2013
This isn’t about the movie, with which I (and lots of other people) had issues. Just getting that out there. It’s about Hans Zimmer stepping up and taking a crack at a character that John Williams pretty much claimed as his own more that thirty years ago. The original Superman theme is so embedded in our consciousness that people had a hard time figuring out how Zimmer would top it. The answer: He didn’t. He looked at what Williams had done, and decided to go in a different direction.
I can’t find the YouTube video that did a very good analysis of the two themes, but what it boiled down to was this: Williams’ theme is a proclamation – Superman Is Here. It’s all brass and triumph, announcing that our hero has arrived and we can celebrate. And it’s a wonderful song.
Zimmer’s theme, however, is more tied to its movie. It’s about becoming. This Superman hasn’t become who he is yet, and the theme allows us to follow his journey from the quiet strings of Kansas to the orchestral flow of discovering his birthright to the full-on brass and percussion that is his debut against Zod. The chord progressions climb relentlessly upwards against an unchanging thrum of strings, but they never quite hit that sweet note of resolution. Zimmer’s Superman hasn’t quite found his feet yet, and there’s something in there that we can relate to. Williams’ Superman is the hero we would like to be. Zimmer’s Superman is the one we think we might actually be.
It’s a song that makes me feel like flying, and that’s pretty much what a Superman song should do.
3. “Fresh Blood”, The Eels, Hombre Lobo, 2009
Okay, that video is really stalkery, but that’s pretty much because that’s what the song is. According to the Wikipedia entry (which, of course, is a guarantee of accuracy), it says that the song is “about a werewolf who desires ‘fresh blood.'” So, not really letting up on the hunter-prey angle here.
Despite that, it’s a song that makes me stalk as I walk. I’m not trying to make people uncomfortable, but I feel my teeth go on edge as the song growls along, and every time that wolf howl comes in I have to remind myself that I’m in public and that sort of thing is frowned upon while, say, riding the subway.
There’s also something to the lyrics’ sense of desperation. Here’s this monster, hanging his hopes on this woman who probably doesn’t even know he’s there. He says:
The moon shines in the autumn sky
Growin’ cold, the leaves all die
I’m more alone than I’ve ever been
Help me out of the shape I’m in
After the fires, before the flood
My sweet baby, I need fresh blood
This is a monster who’s looking for salvation from a person who would probably find him, well, monstrous. It makes me think of the value we put on other people in terms of how we see ourselves. If things get bad enough, we might look for people to save us, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. But the tone of the song here, dark and gritty and animalistic, is a hunter’s song, not one of a sad, pathetic beast. It’s someone who’s likely using that pity as a lure to get what he wants. As a werewolf, of course, that would be fresh blood. As a man, it might be something less murderous, but no less damaging.
I sometimes wonder if I would like this song if I were a woman. Probably not.
Daniel Kanemoto used this song to make a kick-ass opening credits for The Walking Dead, which is where I first heard the song. Check it out:
4. “Bohemian Like You”, The Dandy Warhols, Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, 2000
Come on, this song is just plain fun. It was making fun of hipsters before hipsters were even a thing, which makes it pretty damn hipster itself. It just stinks of being young and having no responsibilities for anything, which is a condition to which I think we all aspire to return sooner or later. It’s not about deep and abiding love, but rather the convenience of the moment. “Love the one you’re with” for the 2000’s, perhaps.
I’m getting wise and
I’m feeling so bohemian like you
It’s you that I want, so please
Just a casual, casual easy thing
it is for me
This is a song in praise of superficiality, but it’s such an obvious one that it comes off as almost parody of shallow hipster culture. We can imagine being as ironically disconnected as the singer of the song, but at the same time we know that he’s not really happy, right? Not really… But it would be nice, maybe.
5. “Time Warp (1989 Remix)”, Richard O’Brien, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1989
Oh, Rocky Horror. Such a bad, bad, terrible movie that is the most fun you can have with other people without running a risk of some nasty infections. How this movie became such a cult hit is a mystery to me, but someone must have seen the potential in it. The few times I’ve gone to see a live show, it’s been a blast.
This means, of course, that I’ll probably never watch this movie again. I don’t have any Rocky Horror friends around here, The Boyfriend already thinks Western comedy is just weird, and watching Rocky Horror alone is kind of like learning that Santa Claus doesn’t exist – it takes a wonderful memory that you hold dear and just rips it to pieces.
That said, I enjoy this song. The Time Warp is an entertaining song in itself, with a goofy dance, and the 1989 remix has just enough sound clips from the film to bring back those good memories without running the risk of revealing the awful potential underneath.
6. “Legion of Super-Heroes Season 1 Titles”, Michael McCuistion, Legion of Super Heroes, 2006
I am a huge fan of the Legion of Super-Heroes. I’m not sure what it was about them, but the moment I started reading these stories of a futuristic team of teen superheroes, I was hooked. I’ve been a fan through a lot – the Five Year Gap, the destruction of Earth, the SW6 batch and the eventual Zero Hour reboot. Even the Mark Waid “Threeboot” that got overturned in favor of an unexplained return to the pre-Zero Hour team – which turned out, after the New 52 was put in play, to not be the “real” Legion after all (originating on Earth 2, as it turns out).
Maybe it’s something about their diversity or their endless optimism, but something in that team really stuck with me. I was thrilled, therefore, when I found out that there was an animated series based on the Legion.
It wasn’t bad, really. They had a good time with the stories, kept that sense of fun, and that whole unrequited love thing that Brainiac 5 was doing with Superman was endlessly entertaining. What caught me right away, though, was the theme song. It’s this fast, driving, brassy tune that brings to mind the spy movies of the 60s, and it’s unlike a lot of the other DC Comics properties out there in the Animated Universe. Where the music for Superman or the Justice League was unashamedly heroic, and the music for Batman was dark and brooding, the LSH theme was just… fun. It promised the kind of adventure and optimism that had always underscored the Legion, even in its darkest times.
The show only lasted two seasons, alas, but it was fun to watch. And every time this song shows up in my ears, I feel just a little bit more heroic.
7. “Come Alive”, Foo Fighters, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, 2007
This is another in my short list of “Songs to End Worlds To,” mainly because of the way it ramps up to a semi-apocalyptic rush of heavy percussion and guitar at 3:32. Put that whole section to any of your better class of superhero movies where entire cities get mangled, and it wouldn’t feel a bit out of place. Given that the song starts so quietly and calmly, it’s not the ending you expect. The Foo Fighters open us up with quiet acoustic guitar, singing a little lament about life Before You:
Seems like only yesterday
Life belong to runaways
Nothing here to see, no looking back
Every sound monotone
Every color monocrome
Life begin to fade into the black
Such a simple animal
Steralized with alcohol
I could hardly feel me anymore
Indeed, that’s pretty bleak, and I think pretty much everyone has been to this place before. I certainly know I have, and I’m sure, Dear Reader, that you have as well. But more musical elements start coming into play, slowly and carefully – a bass guitar, some strings, finally some drums – until we hit this full-on rock howl in which the Narrator has finally found something to take him out of the bleak monotony that his life had been before:
Nothing more to give
I can finally come alive
Your life into me
I can finally breathe
I lay there in the dark
Open my eyes
You saved me the day that you came alive
And as he comes alive, so does the song. And so do we.
8. “Be My Yoko Ono”, Barenaked Ladies, Gordon, 1992
Good lord. Did we all dress like that in the 90s, or was it just Canada?
Let’s face it, this song is just silly and fun, and we all need some silly and fun. It’s got that kind of friendly goofiness that the BareNaked Ladies (or BNL to the initiated) are so famous for, with tight harmonies, entertaining lyrics, and it’s just plain fun to sing.
If you want to dive deeper into the song, you certainly can. Given the weight of vitriol that Yoko Ono had had to bear over the years, asking someone to be your Yoko Ono is basically saying, “Please be the person I love, the person whom everyone else hates.” Which, now that I think on it, is kind of a weird request to ask of someone. The song itself seems to have something of a love/un-love relationship with the person it’s singing about, too:
Now that I’m far away it doesn’t
Seem to me to be
Such a pain
To have you hanging off my ankle
Like some kind of ball and chain.
If I were John and you were Yoko,
I would gladly give up musical
Just to have my own
So what is BNL saying about this relationship? That it’s weird and self-destructive? That they know it’s a relationship that looks awful from the outside but wonderful from within? That perhaps sometimes it’s possible to be so in love with another person that it hinders your growth as a human being?
Or did one of them just come up with the phrase “Be my Yoko Ono” and the band just ran with it? The world may never know.
9. “Robot High School”, My Robot Friend, Soft-Core, 2009
First of all, I like this video because it’s done as a practical effect – no CGI or anything like that. A giant rotating drum, a scrolling background, and a costume that looks like something Devo would have rejected as being “a little out there.”
Secondly, the song uses a nice bit of apophasis, which is a rhetorical technique where you bring up a subject by denying that it should be brought up. To wit:
Everything they say about my bad education
A million broken records have already said
Basically bringing the entire “disaffected high school student” genre right to the front of your mind while, at the same time, basically saying that they have nothing to add to it. Nice move.
Thirdly, of course, is that it does add to that “disaffected high school student” genre, which is something that I – being a high school teacher – try to pay attention to. It’s probably the lines that directly follow the above that catch my attention the most:
Learning how to live like I’m under sedation
Learning how to live like I’m already dead.
Even though it’s a bit hyperbolic, it’s something that sticks in my mind as I’m dealing with teenagers every day. These kids are full of energy and passion, both positively and negatively, and I don’t want to see them lose that. True, there are times when that vibrancy of life can be distracting, counterproductive, and just plain annoying, but the world will temper all that in due time. I know what it’s like to live without a passion for something, and I don’t want them to lose what they have.
There’s also the strong criticism of schools as robot factories, a criticism which is not entirely inaccurate. I feel lucky to teach in an IB school where we value independence of thought, but even we keep an eye on the students’ final outcomes once they’re done with the course. It’s great that we’re turning out interesting human beings, but they have to be interesting human beings that meet our strict quality control standards. In public schools that are governed by standardized testing, it’s even worse. If you want to see broken spirits, read stories from first year teachers who have watched their dreams of Dead Poets’ Society be ground to dust by the relentless gristmill of Common Core Standards.
It’s a nifty little song, is what I’m saying.
10. “At Least It Was Here”, The 88, Community (Music from the Original Television Series), 2010
To be fair, this song isn’t just here because I like the song, but because it serves as the theme song to the show Community, which I’ve really come to like since I started watching it. It’s quick, clever, consistently funny, and manages to take completely outlandish scenarios and use them to create likable, (somewhat) believable characters. It’s something to look forward to every week, which we all need.
As for the song itself, it kind of reminds me of “Be My Yoko Ono” above, in that it seems to be a song about conflicted feelings. From the final chorus:
But I love you more than words can say
I can’t count the reasons I should stay
One by one they all just fade away
But I love you more than words can say
It’s weird – so many reasons to stay, all fading away? Sounds like someone trying to convince himself of something he knows isn’t true. The preceding bridge verse isn’t much help either:
I’m tied to the wait and sees
I’m tired of that part of me
That makes up a perfect lie
To keep us busy
But hours turn into days
So watch what you throw away
And be here to recognize
There’s another way
So let’s just say that I have no real idea of what’s going on in this song and call it an association with a show that I really like. Whether it’ll survive the test of time is something that only… well, time will tell.
BONUS: “Gay Pirates”, Cosmo Jarvis, Is the World Strange or Am I Strange?, 2011
Right off the top, I want to give these guys credit for their stagecraft. Very nicely done.
More importantly, though, it’s a genuinely touching song which echoes the experience of so many gay people – and not just pirates – over such a long time:
We deserve much better than we’ve had.
If I may put my English Teacher Hat on for a moment, Cosmo Jarvis has created a pretty clear-cut metaphor here. Gays and lesbians throughout history have had to either hide their true selves or, having chosen to be open about who they are and whom they love, endure the tortures of people who neither understand them nor care about them. The singer of this song has to endure pain, punishment, and eventual death at the hands of people he should be able to trust (pirates notwithstanding, if you can’t trust the members of your crew, your boat is going to have a Very Bad Time), and in the end has only his love to hold onto as he sinks beneath the waves. The most touching moment of the song is possibly right before Sebastian jumps, where he sings:
I hope they didn’t tie up
Your hands as tight as mine.
Even in the face of death, he’s thinking about the one he loves. And that kind of devotion is being thoughtlessly punished. If that’s not a stab in the eye of centuries of societal norms, I don’t know what is.
Of course, things are indeed getting better, which makes me wonder if this song isn’t just a little bit anachronistic already. In just the last few months, more and more US states have been working their way towards full recognition of same-sex marriage, something which the US federal government has pretty much already gone in on. The idea of treating gays and lesbians as people worthy of respect and dignity is no longer a pipe dream, but coming closer to a reality. Perhaps soon, within even my lifetime, the people who cannot accept me and people like me will be as anachronistic as the pirates in this song. Another bonus point to Cosmo Jarvis, then.
It’s a touching song all in all, despite the nastiness that underlies it, and the way the video ends lends it something of a love-conquers-all vibe. The CD version is a little different, actually, ending in an extended mandolin solo. That’s pretty much the only complaint I have against it.
That, and the next time I meet a man named Sebastian (which has never heretofore happened, but you never know), I probably won’t be able to resist greeting him with “Yo-ho.”
 Not one of the New 52 titles put out by DC Comics, but it should have been.