Saturday, December 26, 2009

"Can't Get You Out of My Head" by Kylie Minogue (2001)

Ah, Kylie. What can I say?

I am neither a gay man nor a teenage girl, so by rights this song, like the rest of Kylie Minogue’s oeuvre, should do nothing for me. In fact, more to the point, it should trigger my gag reflex and send me hurling, right? That would be the expected typical adult heterosexual male response to Kylie? And then to run off and play some Pearl Jam or crap like that?

Kylie’s music is angst-free low-calorie entertainment. The thing is that I reckon that’s a compliment. I’ll take genuinely artificial over artificially genuine any day. And Kylie brings to her pop ditties a legitimate dedication to, and pride in, making people happy.

“Can’t Get You Out of my Head” doesn’t mean anything. It’s a skip-rope melody over a roller-rink beat. Its catch phrase is ‘na na na’ repeated over and over again. A nine-year-old could dance deliriously to it and appreciate it in just the same way I do.

Is there anything wrong with any of that? Not a bit. Songs like this can fall very easily into tackiness, phoniness and deliberate childishness. In my opinion, this song has none of these shortcomings, and Ms. Minogue herself deserves most of the credit for that: her performance is filled with sexiness but confidence, a love of life that still takes life seriously. It took Kylie a long time to get to that stage (and she didn’t hold onto it long): between “I Should Be So Lucky” and this (not the widest progression musically) she went through all kinds of phases, but finally came back to what she was good at, with an appreciation that being good at this kind of music is (a) no small feat, and (b) a real gift.

The result made her superhuge, or else remade her as superhuge. The trick? Showing that ‘pop’ really does mean ‘popular’, in the most democratic vox populi manner possible. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this song – in keeping with the opening paragraph, I should say that while I can imagine lots of people claiming not to like this song, in their hearts, alone in their rooms with their headphones on, I can’t imagine anyone not being transported to a place of simplicity and of innocence.

No wonder she’s such a gay icon!
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Saturday, December 19, 2009

"Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues (1987)

The potential minefield that is the Christmas song... Christmas is such a major holiday, such a major event in the lives of people in Western countries that it's easy to imagine the impetus to commemorate it in song. The thing is, of course, that the vast majority of Christmas songs are horrible beastly things that you would never dream of listening to eleven months of the year and only give an ear to on the twelfth because shopping centres and radio stations just won't... stop... playing them.

Oh, but then there's this: by any rational definition the best Christmas song ever, and one of the few that merit playlist inclusion at any time of the year. That is, of course, because it's not really about Christmas, merely set during Christmas. But more to the point, because it's not mawkish, cloying, crass... any of those things Christmas songs tend to be. It's just undoubtedly, undeniably real. In short, it's a tale of two Irish immigrants to New York and their volatile, on-again, off-again relationship. It's about the kind of desperation people feel when they have no real future, and it's about the dignity that maintaining hope in such circumstances engenders. Heavy stuff for a Christmas ditty, but those messy emotions are what drives the song and what makes it so special.

I could have included any of a dozen different Pogues songs here, and maybe eventually I will. Their impact on the 1980s is sadly underappreciated, but their fusion of old and new, of tradition and modernity, and of art and entertainment, was groundbreaking and truly wonderful. The music was exciting or beautiful or often (as is the case here) both. But ultimately it was Shane MacGowan's words, and the voice with which he delivered them, that made them a cut above (I realise not all of the lyrics were written by MacGowan, and in fact my second favourite song about Irish immigrants in New York on If I Should Fall from Grace with God was entirely written by Philip Chevron). This is a hopeless case – a drunk, a gambler, an eternal dreamer. The female role in this duet (sung by the enchanting and sadly long gone Kirsty MacColl, making her incidentally the first person to have two entries in this list) is endlessly frustrated at his shortcomings, yet still able to find comfort in his words. They define dysfunction. All of us know, or perhaps are, a couple like this. Their story has no real resolution, because soon enough she'll realise again that the cold comfort of his words is ultimately empty. She'll try to get out again. He'll pull her back in. It's not his fault: it's much more difficult for men to grow up and give up on their dreams than it is for women. “I could have been someone,” he pines, bitterly. “Well, so could anyone,” she replies, deflating his pronouncements in an instant.

All of this is borne out over a melodic backdrop so light that it carries the listener in the wash of contradictory, bittersweet emotions. The box set Just Look Them Straight in the Eye and Say... Pogue Mahone contains several early versions of the song, a work-in-progress that show just how much labour went into making it sound so light and free. It takes effort to give the appearance of effortlessness. The takes are interesting because they're so terrible: they're 95% there, yet that extra 5% seems to make such a difference: what makes the song great instead of merely good.

There is a reason this song is so timeless, and it's not because of the naughty-words verse (which I appreciate in its place but consider perhaps the least wonderful part of the song). It's because it's something that Christmas songs almost never are: honest. It cuts to the bone of the mess of emotions that Christmas evokes, and for that reason they'll still be singing it 100 years from now.
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Saturday, December 12, 2009

"Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" by the Shirelles (1960)

Ah, youthful innocence. There are, and have always been, people who claim that this generation loses its innocence more quickly than the previous generation. Being now old enough to claim that if I so choose, I do wonder. I think that a lot of the perceived generational differences we claim have to do with our own shifting perspectives, not those of any given generation. As we slide into age-induced conservativism, perhaps we colour our own childhood memories differently, so that when we see a child today behaving more or less exactly as we did, we misremember our own youth and see today’s kid as more licentious.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps we truly are going to hell in a handbasket, morally.

To learn, let’s go back in time – way before I was born, before even my parents were old enough to worry about the sentiments expressed herein. I have no idea what age group the record labels presumed this was written for, but I suspect it’s the teen age group. Popular music is generally marketed to teens, and in 1960 I don’t think anybody marketed anything except movie soundtracks and big band music to adults.

So this is an experience meant for teens. The lead singer’s crystal-clear vocal performance is so filled with fear and anticipation that you suspect it really was recorded on the verge of her ‘first night’. The strings (an absolutely gorgeous use of strings) conspire to inflate the romance inherent in the event, but the singer is all about uncertainty. She is quite naïve, not very worldly at all, and quite dependent on her boyfriend for emotional satisfaction: all very pre-Kennedy era.

As Carole King’s lyrics, artful yet conversationally plain, explain, she is about to surrender her virginity to her boyfriend and is terrified that he’s just in it for the conquest and will disappear the next day.

In that light, almost fifty years seem to have changed nothing. Girls today – and if not at the same age group then at least in the neighbourhood – ponder the same dilemma. This girl is not married; this is not a ‘wedding night’ song. This event is happening in a bedroom in either her house or the boyfriend’s house, with the parents downstairs watching TV, unaware. They’re both young, emotionally unaware, yet going with it anyway.

And she’s looking for assurance. Perhaps the most explicitly female emotion there is, outside of motherhood, is the need for that ‘first sexual encounter’ to be a sharing and bonding experience for both of them. This is a need that men, particularly teenage men, are almost entirely bereft of. This is why it matters that the words were written by a woman, and an 18-year-old woman at that (addressing, no doubt, her songwriting partner and soon-to-be husband). In an era where older men were awkwardly putting insincere words into the mouths of teenage girls, this song is so completely legit because it’s written by someone who knows, who feels the emotions expressed in the words. This is virginal female sexuality laid bare, and though it might be filtered through a the lens of a more inhibited era, the emotions are just as raw and real as if they had been written today.

I hear this song with a bitter nostalgia: not for the era, which is almost a full generation before me, but for the age at which girls feel this way, and age that has now long passed for me.

And perhaps if I find myself judging the kids of today, it’s with more than a twinge of jealousy.
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Saturday, December 5, 2009

"Ojos Asi" by Shakira (1999)

Okay. Let me just say it and get it out of the way: Shakira is an immensely talented woman who deserves financial recompense for her talent at whatever cost that may entail. Whew. I feel better.

I say that sentence because I’m not a snob, truly. I don’t sit there with a latte sniffing and accusing any underground artiste who’s ever sold in excess of 10,000 copies of their music of ‘selling out’. Glamorizing obscurity (or in this case ‘authenticity’) for its own sake is a little pointless. It is genuinely a pity the sacrifices artistes sometimes have to make for a wider audience, but life is not always fair.

So… who am I to criticize Shakira for going blonde, moving to the States, collaborating with Gloria Este-frickin’-han and singing repeatedly about the size of her breasts? Right? Hey? Plus, “Hips Don’t Lie” and “Objection” are all right. The less said about songs whose titles end in “…Clothes”, the better.

But this… this is a hurricane, a whirlwind, a force of nature. This is something fundamental in the human spirit brought forth and recorded onto modern machines. Exotic as hell, it seamlessly mixes Arabic and South American – Lebanese and Colombian – with a guitar sound and an attitude out of American heavy metal, all grafted onto a Euro techno pulse. Yet despite all of this, it never sounds anything less than natural and never for a minute pushes you away by being foreign or disparate. Listening to this song makes you feel that there’s a little bit of American- and European-influenced Lebanese Colombian in all of us.

Okay, tongue ever so slightly in cheek. The thing is that I really don’t understand why this is not enough for the world. Why something this stunning, this powerful, this forceful didn’t suffice to make Shakira a star, why inevitably it came down to the language she was singing in. The first question I have is whether or not we here in the English-speaking world are truly so provincial that we cannot connect to music whose lyrics we can’t understand. For every “99 Luftballons” whose original happily manages to outsell its ‘translation’, there are a dozen singers taking English lessons in order to pursue that golden ring. And the second question is why, outside of the English- (and in this case Spanish-) speaking markets, sales should increase the moment the singer puts out an English-language song. I mean, a foreign language is still a foreign language to, say, a German, isn’t it?

Shakira speaks excellent English and writes great lyrics in English too. But I’m not sure if I can find an English-language song by her that has quite the passion we can hear in this song as she declaims forth over that beguiling mix of eastern percussion and western machines. No, I don’t know what she’s saying. But I fee what she’s saying. And since music is a gut-reaction experience, that’s the more important thing, in my opinion.

Pity so few people worldwide, or at least so few record companies worldwide, appear to agree.

Oh, and as a final note, isn’t she drop-dead gorgeous as a brunette?

(This blog mentions in it.)
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