The Music in my Head Part 2

I promised I’d do another one of these posts, but I’d like to say in my defense that I never specified when…

"Children are the future. Children are the future. Children are the future..."

“Children are the future. Children are the future. Children are the future…”

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 [1] 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.
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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.

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Love in the Time of Al

I’ll say this right now: this blog post has been rattling around inside my head for a month now. I don’t know why – probably Al is using his mind-control lasers just to make me do it, or maybe Harvery the Wonder Hamster has finally evolved into a great and terrible beast, able to broadcast the thoughts of its master far and wide. But for whatever reason, I have things to say about at least one of the songs off his new Alpocalypse album, so I’m gonna say ’em right here.

First off, let me just say that I think Yankovic is brilliant. For one thing, he’s been producing music consistently for nearly as long as I’ve been alive, which is impressive all by itself. What’s more, as part of that consistency, he produces good work. Parody pop is something that is easy to do very, very badly, and when you hear it, you want to cringe and run away. Bad parodies usually have the cleverness of a room full of elementary school children, and are about as much fun to listen to. But Yankovic is able to take a pop song, find a good hook into the parody, and make it funny and clever and memorable – sometimes more memorable than the song he’s making fun of.

On top of that, he’s done something I know I haven’t been able to do: keep up with the trends in music. I mean, I think a lot of music today blows goats, which makes me feel really old and crotchety, and if I were a parody pop musician, I probably would have hung up my accordion somewhere around 2000. But not Al. He knows what’s hot, he knows what the kids are listening to, and he tackles it with just as much fun and gusto as he did back when he was bleeding Michael Jackson and Madonna dry in the heyday of my youth.

And his original songs sometimes greatly outshine his parodies. He can flip between genres, perform vastly different moods and tones, and has shown over and over again that he knows music better than most musicians performing today.

So that’s out of the way.

There are some really good songs on the new album, and I may come back to talk about a few more in the future. The one that’s been sitting on my shoulder and begging me to think about it, however, is his parody of “Whatever You Like,” originally by rapper T.I. Now I hadn’t heard the original song, but a quick search of the lyrics and the song reveals itself pretty clearly:

Stacks on deck. Patron on ice.
We can pop bottles all night
Baby you can have whatever you like
I said you can have whatever you like.
Late night sex, so wet and so tight
I’ll gas up the jet for you tonight and baby you can go wherever you like
I said you can go wherever you like

Anytime you want to pick up the telephone you
know that it ain’t nothing to drop a couple stacks on you
If you want it you can get it my dear
5 millions dollars homes drop the business I swear.

I want your body. I need your body.
As long as you got me you won’t need nobody
You want it, I got it. Go get it, I’ll buy it
Tell them other broke niggas be quiet

The rest of the song is pretty much in that vein. It’s T.I. telling his young lady how pretty she is, how much money he’s willing to spend on her, and how much he’s looking forward to having sex with her. The video – which isn’t embeddable – reinforces this idea, wherein a fantastically rich young man gives his number to a girl working in a fast-food chicken joint. The video is positively dripping with symbols of wealth: diamond necklaces, a giant swimming pool, a stack of $100 bills, champagne ejaculating all over the place. The message that I get is that this man is so rich that he can afford to keep a girl no matter how much she wants from him, and he’ll make sure that this new girl knows it. Watching the video, I did get the feeling that he was basically purchasing her to add to his collection of pretty things, but that may have just been my biases coming into play.

Now, just for full disclosure: I don’t like hip-hop. Never have. Probably because I’m so white that you could put me through a prism and I’d come out as a rainbow. I’m so white that polar bears tell me to stop showing off. I’m so white that Wonder Bread and mayonnaise constitute “living it up.” Whatever the reason, I don’t like hip-hop, and I think T.I.’s song pretty much exemplifies a lot of what I don’t like about it.

But, to be fair, I only listened to it after I heard Yankovic’s take, and really, T.I. didn’t even have a chance.

Al’s song is an entirely different beast. He keeps the basic flavor of the original, in terms of orchestration and style, but instead of a horny rapper trying to entice a lady into his bed with promises of mansions and buttsex, he turns it into a love poem in the time of the working poor. This isn’t the official video, but it is the song:

The basic story is this: the singer is poor, but despite that, he’s willing to indulge his girlfriend and give her whatever she likes. Unlike T.I., Al doesn’t have very much at all:

Tater tots, Cold Duck on ice
And we can clip coupons all night
And baby you can have whatever you like, if you like
I said you can have whatever you like, if you like

Take you out for dinner anywhere that you please
Like Burger King or Mickey D’s
And baby you can have whatever you like, if you like
I said you can even have the large fries, large fries

Baby, you should know I am really quite a sweet guy
When I buy you bathroom tissue, I always get the 2-ply
Want it, you can get it, my dear
I got my Costco membership card right here

Yeah you like Top Ramen? Need Top Ramen?
Got a cupboard full of ’em, I’ll keep ’em comin’
You want it, I got it, go get it, just heat it
Dump the flavor packet on it and eat it

In this song, Al really doesn’t sound like he can afford to have a girlfriend. Two-ply toilet paper is a special deal, Top Ramen is a staple food, and large fries is an extravagance. It doesn’t matter, though. He loves her enough to make very real sacrifices to his budget just to make her happy. He’s offering to share his very meager lifestyle with her, with no thought of compensation. The line that resonates the most with me, the one that I find rattling around in my head when I wake up sometimes is this one:

And you can always ride the city bus
Got a stack of tokens just for us
Yo, my wallet’s fat and full of ones
Yeah, it’s all about the Washingtons, that’s right

I don’t know why that verse should be so powerful for me. Maybe it’s because public transportation is often the only thing keeping low-income people from unemployment and homelessness. The city bus, as demeaning as it’s so often made out to be, is freedom. If you can’t afford a car, then that’s the only way you’re going to be able to experience the rest of your city, and he’s willing to share that freedom with her. He’s offering up his own tokens as a dowry to her, making a possible sacrifice of his own freedom in exchange for her love.

This is a theme that pervades the whole song. In nearly every verse, we get the impression that not only is Al willing to spend money on her that would be better spent on himself, we get the feeling that he’s doing so out of a sense of love and selflessness. At no point does he sound bitter or resentful – in fact, there’s only one line in the entire song where he even suggests that she might pay him back for his largess: when he needs gas money to drive her up to see her cousin Phil.

Al’s song is about sacrifice, about giving up his own advantages in order to make another person happy. He has very limited resources at his disposal. If he gave up on having a girlfriend, he might fare better financially. Without her, he might be able to take measures to save money and better his situation. With her, he will almost certainly stay poor. But she means more to him than his comfort, than putting money away for a future where he’s no longer safely employed at Kinko’s, than having a cushion of savings in case his Hyundai should break down. Her happiness means more to him than money, and he’s willing to sacrifice to see her happy.

T.I.’s song is about indulgence. He has so much money that he can throw it away on whatever his girl of choice may like, and it won’t make a dent in his already ostentatious lifestyle. With or without the girl, his life is pretty much the same. In fact, at the end of the video we discover that the whole thing has been a daydream of the girl in question. He gave her a $100 tip, which is lovely, but not his phone number – the key to getting out of a life she clearly wishes to escape. So not only does T.I. not really care about this girl, he seems to either be utterly unaware of the consequences of his actions, or a real cruel son of a bitch. Again, the contrast with Al could not be more stark.

So, in conclusion, whatever Yankovic’s intentions were in recording this song, what he’s made is really a testament to love in hard times, to dedication with sacrifice, something you don’t often see in a lot of modern music. His song is – as many of his parody songs are – superior to the original in every way.

I’ll probably come back to this album later on, as there’s a lot of great music on it. But this one was the one that really wanted to get out.