Monday, August 30, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Paris Hilton's "Stars Are Blind"

When people say something hyperbolic like "That song saved my life," they mean that that particular song--whatever it may be--inspired them to change the direction of their life. Maybe it gave them the idea to quit doing drugs, to switch occupations, to be a better spouse, or to join the United States Peace Corps. NOBODY who says something like this, though, has ever had their life literally saved by a song. I know that I generally refrain from disclosing many details from my personal life when I write about the songs that changed the landscape of human thought and understanding. But perhaps you, the ever-so-gracious reader, would be willing to allow this one indulgence? I only ask because a song HAS saved my life. I was only a few seconds from dying when divine intervention intervened, giving me another chance at living this life. For I was resurrected like Lazarus by the dulcet tones of Paris Hilton's 2006 smash hit "Stars Are Blind."

The Spring of 2006 was a bad time for your humble narrator. I was fired from a prestigious, well-paying job, on a late Friday afternoon, because I was "not mean enough." Losing the job didn't hurt my feelings so much as the reason why I got canned. To make matters worse, I received a call from my ex-boss the following Wednesday. She told me that they would have re-hired me if I would have protested my firing and "showed a little chutzpah." Apparently, the cliche "Nice guys finish last" is actually true. To make matters worse, my mother saw a picture of me that I had recently posted on MySpace and said that I "looked way too skinny." My mother, usually a very nice woman, had never, and I sincerely mean this, never insulted me once in my entire life. And she knew I was insecure about being too thin. As a result, I gave up my life-long vegetarianism and began eating MickDonald's and Olive Oyyul's Chicken twice a day (that's right, both of them). I started gaining weight. My mother never even mentioned the weight thing again. Well, around this time, my mother was becoming as moody and erratic as I was. To make matters worse, out of nowhere, my girlfriend at the time left me. She left a note on the front door that read, "I'm leaving." That was it. All her stuff was gone, and, for some reason, she took all of my fishing gear (and nothing else of mine?!). Two weeks pass, and I've eaten nothing but fast food and, curiously enough, haven't heard a word from my mother, who used to call me every day. Then, out of nowhere, she calls, telling me she's on vacation at Niagara Falls. She tells me she has a surprise. She puts my ex-girlfriend on the phone who proceeds to tell me that she's in love with my mother and that they plan on moving to Massachusetts to get married. My pride and masculinity crushed, not to mention being totally weirded out by the Freudian smorgasbord of jacked up family issues at work with this whole scenario, I went to a Patrick Swayze Roadhouse near me and vowed to eat one of their 64 ounce steaks in a hour. Within twelve minutes, I was clearly full and had more than 3/4 of the steak to eat. I decided to jam one rather healthy hunk of the New York Strip down my gullet. I quickly realized this was a bad idea right as I started to choke. I tried to signal to the wait staff that I was choking, but they were all doing a line-dance to Big and Rich's "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)." As I almost slipped away, the song stopped and the PA system in the restaurant went right to the chorus of Paris Hilton's "Stars Are Blind," when she sings, "Even though the gods are crazy / Even though the stars are blind / If you show me real love baby / I'll show you mine," and, I kid you not, the song wrapped its arms around my diaphragm and thrust its fists, immediately ejecting the piece of grisly meat from my windpipe. I was saved, thanks to Paris Hilton and her amazing song. She is right on the money when she sings, "It could get physical," and, later, "This moment is critical." Without the physical application of the Heimlich Maneuver at that "critical" moment, I would probably be dead.

Because of that near-death experience, I now see that song in a totally different light. What she's saying is that we are filled with dualities, competing drives, and though we usually choose one over the other, these choices are never so easy, like when she sings, "I can make you nice and naughty / be the devil and angel too / got a heart and soul and body / let's see what this love can do." Before, I just thought the song's lyrics were told from the perspective of a person who was only using poorly-phrased rhetorical pleas to beg for sex. But now, I realize it is so much more than that, its tropical musical backdrop merely providing a mental vacation from the unconscious hard work of our conflicted minds. Even if, as the dead Lester Bangs points out, "There has never been a song that has sounded so much like Blondie's 'The Tide is High' since Blondie's 'The Tide is High,'" that doesn't dispel the true fact that "Stars are Blind" saved my life. Maybe it will one day save yours.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Meat Loaf's "I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)"

Love makes the world go 'round, literally. Every time a person utters the word, draws a heart, or puts "XOXOXO" at the end of a text message, it powers the rotation of our planet. It's science. It's true. It's been that way forever! Because of this, people have done some strange things for love. Wars have been fought for "love of country." People will occasionally murder somebody in "a fit of passion." But, thanks to Meat Loaf and his Wagnerian #1 hit "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)," we now know that there exists THE POSSIBILITY of things that people would not ever be willing to do for love. Here is just a brief list of some of the things Meat Loaf wouldn't do if we totally run on the assumption that his love-interest has some rather EXORBITANT demands:

--He wouldn't stick his left leg in a wood-chipper.
--He wouldn't get a large tattoo of a swastika on his forehead and walk around Jerusalem.
--He wouldn't eat human flesh marinated in Box-of-Wine puke.
--He wouldn't call his significant other 'Mommy Dearest' during sex.
--He wouldn't get a job as a telemarketer.

For nearly two decades now, people have wondered what Meat Loaf WOULDN'T do for love as they ponder the miracle of this song. During the chorus, when Meat Loaf initially admits, "I would do anything for love," we as listeners assume this is unconditional. However, mindblowingly, he immediately disqualifies the claim, adding, "But I won't do that." This is all just a part of the web that makes "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" so genius. The listener is forever left to speculate what "that" really is. Perhaps the most radical achievement of the track, though, is that it undid years of damage caused by the powerful jingle "What would you do for a Klondike Bar?" I'm pretty sure that if somebody did a mash-up of the two songs, a black hole would immediately form.

Marvin Lee Aday, nee Meat Loaf, rose to superstardom in 1977 with the release of his album Bat out of Hell. With its campy lyrics, over-the-top production, and Meat Loaf's dramatic vocals, it went on to sell over 14 million copies in the U.S. Success, though, eluded the Loaf in the years following Bat out of Hell. And by the early 1990s, he was more known, to the kids at least, for his part in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) than for "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." After patching things up with Bat out of Hell composer Jim Steinman, the two got back together at an unlikely time in music history. The year was 1993. Grunge had dethroned the likes of Michael Jackson and M.C. Hammer from the top of the charts. Bill Clinton was pissing off Republicans. The Clapper was in bedrooms all across the United States. What the world needed was a song that fused that old Meat Loafiness with one of the eight-minute songs from Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion II that made us, as human beings, rethink the power of love and its limitations.

The seven-minute song (the album version is twelve minutes long!) is passionately sung by the Loaf as he easily convinces the listener just how HARD he loves. I mean, shucks, he is willing to "run right into hell and back" for it. (Of course, this only seems extreme if one believes there is a hell. Literally running into "an abstract concept" and back suggests he is barely willing to do the minimum amount possible for love.) After making his case, he reaches the conclusion that there are some instances where indulging in outrageous actions for love are just not warranted. He just doesn't provide any specifics, though. The moral of the song is that people are prone to making bad decisions when they are in love (like the inability to recognize they have fallen in love with an utterly horrible person). Clearly, Meat Loaf's love-interest is using him because of his apparent gullibility, but he has been, up until now, unable to realize this dynamic. His love-interest (voiced by the otherwise obscure singer Mrs. Loud) gives Meat Loaf some rather esoteric exercises to prove his love to her near the end of the song, including "build[ing] an emerald city with these grains of sand," "colorizing" her "black and white" life, "tak[ing her] to places [she's] never known," and, weirdest of all, "hos[ing her] down with holy water." Meat Loaf is perfectly willing to do these things, which suggest that the guy is a total freak! However, after her un-named, specifically dubious demand, he now realizes how far he has gone and how much farther it will take for him to get back. I don't know what this means, but neither does anybody else.

The point is this: With "I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)," Meat Loaf created the most ambitiously ambiguous song in the history of animal-, plant- and man-kind. I still maintain, to this day, she has asked him to punt a football made of broken glass barefooted to prove his love to her. It's totally in the lyrics ... somewhere ... I guess. What do you think?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": Robyn - Body Talk pt. 2

One of the biggest questions in twenty-first century pop music has to deal with North America's pop scene to greet Sweedish pop sensation Robyn with open arms. Not only does Robyn have some of the catchiest, best produced pop songs in recent memory, she also has the attitude and image of a star--almost. Perhaps North America's problem with Robyn--the thing keeping her from an acceptance of Aguillera/Pink/Timberlake/Gaga proportions--is that every facet of her pop star persona is just a half step off from the industry norm. She's got an unusual fashion sense, but not unusual enough. She's got a tough "bad girl" exterior, but also a warm, surprisingly human center that exposes the toughness for what it is, a facade. She brings killer club dance songs to the table, but peppers them with lines of playful bursts of midnight poetry. While these might be the reasons Robyn isn't massively successful State-side, they are also the reasons she is one of the most engaging and endearing pop starts making music at the moment.

On Body Talk pt. 2, the middle chapter to Robyn's alleged three mini-album Body Talk cycle, all of these idiosyncrasies are on full display, and work together to further illuminate just what makes Robyn so interesting. The album's songs veer from sincere pep talks like "In My Eyes," to the crude smack talk of "Criminal Intent," and "U Should Know Better," the later of which includes a surprising, and well employed guest vocal from Snoop Dogg. As usual, Robyn's ability to seamlessly blend the gooey bubble gum synths and heart-to-heart vocals of a song like "Hang With Me," with the electro-clash pulse and absurdly vulgar lyrics ("Even the Vatican knows not to fuck with me")of "U Should Know Better" is still the crux of the album's success, and points toward Robyn's biggest asset--her persona.

There are songs on Body Talk pt. 2, on both of the Body Talk albums for that matter, that shouldn't work. A song like pt. 2's "Include Me Out," with its overly earnest verses and nonsensical chorus should not work. But it does. And the reason it works is because of the balance Robyn maintains within her persona. She blends toughness with vulnerability, sincerity with knowing nods to pop artifice, and she does it all with an undeniable exuberance. Not many pop stars could get away with speaking the line "we dance to the beat of bad kissers clicking teeth," over a club-banging beat in a way that isn't embarrassing. Robyn does it, and the line is successful for the same reason Robyn is successful--it's fun and weird, a little bit awkward and a little bit sexy.

Like Body Talk pt. 1, this second entry is a solid collection of eight songs that sneak up on us, get under our skin, and don't leave us alone. Now with the first two installments of Body Talk to enjoy, let us wait with baited breath that pt. 3 arrives this year, as promised.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: The Buoys' "Timothy"

Many things make us laugh. Like farts. Or platitudes. Or Crotch-shots on America's Funniest Home Videos. Or elaborate jokes involving three holes in a wall and a particularly vicious milking machine. These things are funny. And so is making fun of old people. One thing that's not funny, however, is cannibalism. Aside from incest or bestiality, humanity finds nothing more repulsive or terrifying than cannibalism. In fact, imperial powers often claimed the people they were colonizing were cannibals to justify their actions and to tame these so-called "barbarians" with bullets and poison-tipped arrows full of "civilization." Over the last sixty years, Americans have been morbidly fascinated with revolting mass murderers like Edward Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer, both of whom ate some of their victims. If there is one instance, though, when cannibalism seems to be only slightly less disgusting, it is in the act of survival. This is why the travails of the Donner Party in 1846-7 or the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crash of 1972, dramatized more recently in the 1993 film Alive (directed by Frank Marshall), have long fascinated many people. I'm sure many people wonder just how deprived of food they would have to be to seriously consider cannibalism as a viable gastronomical option. More mind-blowing than any of these facts, well-researched though they may be, is The Buoys' 1970 hit single "Timothy." To date, it is the only American song about cannibalism to crack Billboard's Top Twenty.

The man who wrote "Timothy" was preoccupied with flavors. Rupert Holmes, The Buoys' pianist and "Timothy"'s scribe, would later become an international superstar with his epic single "Escape (The PiƱa Colada Song)," the yacht-rock song that would go on to define an entire generation."Timothy" presents the narrative of a small group of miners, three to be exact (the narrator, Joey, and Tim), who become trapped. The Buoys' lead singer, Billy Kelly, with his competent, impassioned voice deceptively relates this narrative, coming off as a Summer of Love crooner singing about flowers in his hair and getting crabs. The shuffling rhythm work of the group's guitarist, Chris Hanlon, is backed by a tight rhythm section, a light brass section, and some of the most deliciously sappy strings you'll ever hear. It is against this bubblegum wash of diabetic infectiousness that Billy Kelly delivers this chilling tale.

What is so brilliant about "Timothy" is that Kelly never mentions cannibalism by name. Instead, he drops hints. Seriously. The lines "Me and Joey feasted on the delicious meat of Timothy down in the mine / He sure was tasty! / We now have a constant craving for human flesh / Where's the A1 sauce? / Because we're totally cannibals now" do not appear in the song. Instead, Rupert Holmes' sly lyric begs the question, "Do you like Can-ni-bal-ism ... and getting caught in a mine?" The track's brutal setting is a mine disaster. Three men are trapped. But when they are rescued, only the narrator and Joey are to be found. During the chorus, the group sings, "Timothy, where did you go? God, I don't know." God refuses to answer their question because He hates cannibals. Clearly. He also dislikes people who sell their souls for just a piece of meat, like Joey, who tells our hungry narrator, "I'd sell my soul for just a piece of meat." The narrator, however, has no qualms about being a cannibal, because, unlike Joey, he makes no such Faustian deal to survive. He proves that, yes, there can be atheism in a foxhole, so to speak.

What elevates the song above being a cruel joke is its potent commentary on the dispiriting nature of collective apathy. In the final verse, the narrator mentions that he has blacked out, waking up to find himself rescued from the mine disaster. Curiously, his stomach is full. How on Earth did that happen? Clearly, the narrator is a lousy detective, as are his rescuers. The narrator notes, "Nobody ever got around to finding Timothy." Perhaps if they would have noticed the narrator's bib or how his breath curiously smelled just like Timothy, they would have found out the ugly truth. BUT NOOOOOO!

What The Buoys' "Timothy" actually accomplishes is quite stunning. In the song, they manage to rail against apathy, criticize the betrayal of ones own humanity, and make cannibalism seem cute and funny, WHICH IT IS NOT. Cannibalism is serious business, and no laughing matter. As a result of this song, the bubblegum pop scene of the early 1970s got just a little meatier, if you know what I mean?

Here's a clip of the song: