Monday, April 25, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #74 Song Cycle

It would be an understatement to say this is merely sad. Even the Wikipedia page for the album provides very little information or insight into an album that, by all means, is one of the best of the 60's. This isn't surprising, of course, as Song Cycle was barely purchased upon its release, and its praises rarely sung by any but the most well-informed critics in the decades following the album's entrance into the world of popular music. As such, the task of anyone choosing to write about an album like Song Cycle might be a bit daunting. In his entry into the 33 1/3 series about Parks' album, Richard Henderson largely rises to the occasion with a volume that is very purposeful and thorough, if a bit dry at times. Of course, saying the book is dry "at times" might also be a bit of an understatement. In all honesty, Henderson's volume, while well written on a technical level, is a bit of a slog because the author is so dedicated to the album's (and Parks') history that it's easy for a reader to get swallowed up in the dense torrents of information. Henderson occasionally tries to get playful--especially in the book's first section, which happens to be a highlight--but ultimately, while full of outstanding information, the volume is a bit of a drag to read.

But that's okay for this book. In past reviews of 33 1/3 books I've been quite critical of overly-traditional approaches to the featured albums. Song-by-song summaries and analyses, chapters that compartmentalize the various facets of an album's production and reception, loads of facts without any fresh ideas--these are all elements of 33 1/3 books I've taken issue with in the past, and all of them are present in Henderson's Song Cycle. But while a plethora of books have been written about, say, AC/DC and plenty of articles written about and interviews conducted with My Bloody Valentine, Henderson's work on Parks is filling a glaring void. We see this even more when we look at the bibliography at the back of Henderson's volume and see it filled with books about Brian Wilson, 60's pop music, California pop music, recording studio histories, record label histories--but nothing about Van Dyke Parks. So yes, Henderson's Song Cycle is dry and even a bit banal, but the author had little choice. Many authors of 33 1/3 books have had the benefit of a rich and varied body of writing about their chosen albums from which to draw, which ultimately frees them to approach said albums from interesting and unique angles. Henderson did not have this luxury.

And of course, there are some fascinating and engaging moments throughout the book. In particular, the opening chapter, in which Henderson describes how he came to the album, is fun and engaging, and the section dealing with the controversial marketing of Song Cycle is a wonderful case study of the 60's music industry and the tensions that arose between "big business" and "counter-culture" art.

But by and and large, Henderson's Song Cycle is more the type of book that fans and scholars of pop music should read rather than one they'll necessarily want to read. And that's fine--because they should read the book. They just shouldn't expect to have their socks knocked off with the exciting prose and new insights that the 33 1/3 series has been so good at providing as of late.


Next Up: I don't know--my stack of unread 33 1/3's has grown immensely. I might pick one at random.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: USA for Africa's "We Are the World"

There has never been a song in the annals of history that has fused egoless philanthropy with pure pop-songwriting chops the way USA for Africa's mega-hit "We Are the World" did in 1985. This supergroup, this X-Men of musical acts, reminded us who "we" are, that WE are "the world," and that it is indeed a heavy burden, literally. According to Wikipedia, the Earth weighs over seven gajillion tons. And that's heavier than two stoned hippies* having a conversation about how "we are the world." So how are we the world exactly? That is the question Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, the song's composers, set out to ask. And, fortunately for us listeners, they answer the question with ease. They also make us feel good for solving what had previously seemed to be a problem without a remedy: WORLD HUNGER. Through sheer hope, starpower, and the insane amount of cash money generated by the song, the people of Ethiopia were able to forget about an unforgiving climate--which provided the region with a historically devastating drought and subsequent famine--and the long history of European colonization of the African nations surrounding them. I bet you never did anything that cool. Seriously. I know I haven't. Feeling special because I once helped out my grandmother during her walk for Breast Cancer Awareness just makes me feel like a great big jerk in comparison. Perhaps the song's greatest achievement, though, is that it presents a universal, timeless picture of who "we" are.

Who are we, then? Well, we are a bunch of popular musicians from the mid-1980s, that's who! We are Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Hall and Oates, The Pointer Sisters, Kim Carnes, Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis and the News, Steve Perry, Sheila E., and James Ingram. We are pop-rock legends Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Harry Belafonte, Smokey Robinson, Dionne Warwick, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, the living half of The Blues Brothers, and Lindsay Buckingham. I think we can all relate to that. As an added bonus, the presence of the British musician Bob Geldof (the brainchild of Band Aid) on the track lets every listener know that one of the goals of "We Are the World" was to make the world forget about "Don't They Know It's Christmas," the most religiously presumptuous song ever recorded (well, except for Carrie Underwood's "Jesus, Take the Wheel").

The song also speaks generally to the human condition. There are most certainly always times "When we heed a certain call / When the world must come together as one." Since we are the world, we are also "the children" as well as "the ones who make a brigher day." Because, ultimately, this is an existentialist "choice we're making," as we are a part of "God's great big family," there is only one choice: to "[save] our own lives." Cool beans. Most people can't handle the responsibility of their own job, let alone feeding and clothing the entire populace and knowing that their actions are, essentially, the actions of all seven billion people on this planet. Therefore, "We Are the World" is the most reassuring song ever recorded. Whenever we slip up--like, say, we forget to pick up our kid from school because we were deep into a game of World of Warcraft--we can realize that we are just a microcosm of this world that we also are, that for every mistake, we are actually our own lives, and we are curbing world hunger while we're at it. And for those critics who think this message is convoluted, well it's not. You are. Get me? Or, rather, get we? Are the world?

The knowledge that we are all helping goes down so much more smoothly with great vocal performances. And "We Are the World" has 'em by the boatload. The song is highlighted by that most dulcet of crooners, Bob Dylan. When he sings, "There's a choice we're may-can / We're saving aaaahhhh own liiiiives / It's trooooo we make a bedduh day / Just yooooooo and meeeee," you can literally feel that same burning passion in in the pit of your stomach. Similarly, Bruce Springsteen feels so committed to this message that apparently he didn't have a bowel movement for two weeks before he recorded his take. It meant that much to him. And with that kind of focus and determination, USA for Africa's "We Are the World" was and will always be a song that changed the landscape of human thought and understanding.

*-I'm fully aware that the phrase "stoned hippies" is redundant.

Below is the rousing video for the song. Try not to shed a tear for our greatness: