Tuesday, August 2, 2011

There Will Always be Songs that Suck Worse Than Yours

In pop culture, popularity has always had an uneasy relationship with the aesthetic.  Critics write off artists who have mass appeal simply because they have mass appeal.  In some cases, where popularity arises only from appeal to the lowest common denominator among listeners, the scale slides toward schlock.  An example might be, not to name names, but her initials are Celine Dion. On the other hand, during its ascending popularity throughout the seventies, Led Zeppelin was loathed by most of the musical press. I personally liked Zeppelin just fine, although I did tire of making out with my first girlfriend under her poster of Robert Plant's shirtless torso.
What "cool" might look like in 1975
 When you're thirteen, you like music that is "cool." However, cool is just the opposite of what it is when you're in college--you like a song simply because it's popular.  (As opposed to collegiate cool, when the more obscure the European death metal band on your t-shirt is the better.)  Like every kid, I tried to wear what was cool, and listen to music that I thought was cool, regardless of how authentic, soulful and accomplished a particular artist might be or, usually, was not.There was some good music to be found in my juvenile jukebox, but it was mostly there by accident. The line-up of and artists of bands I admired included what was popular on adult album radio, including Bachman Turner Overdrive, Elton John, Jackson Browne, Jethro Tull, Rush and for we true rebels, KISS.

I went to see Kiss in 1976 at Denver's McNichols Arena (the "Big Mac") . It was my first true rock concert and I'm still semi-shocked by parents let me go.  They would have been really freaked to see the fog of green smoke that blanketed the arena.  Nor would they have been amused by the wild-haired gentleman in the row directly in front of me, who had a huge bag of pot open on his lap while he methodically rolled joints and passed them around to whoever wanted.  Good times.

Anyway, Uriah Heep took the stage as the warm-up band. I had never heard of them, but was sufficiently impressed that afterword I bought Demons and Wizards with my next Columbia record club selection. It has not aged well.  Then came Paul, Gene, Ace and Peter!  Kiss was still touring in support of Destroyer, which included their hits, "Beth" and "Detroit Rock City."  My personal favorite, however, was "God of Thunder," the tune to which Gene Simmons most frequently spat blood.  You had to love that.

While I'm a firm believer in three chord rock, with maybe the one exception noted below, most of these songs just sound at best puerile if not silly. What was missing, to quote Alicia Keys, was the truth to go along with those chords.  Everyone knows Kiss devised themselves as a product first and they did it like no band before.  When I was thirteen that was enough.  I never really listened to the songs or read lyrics, which ranged from the mundane to the truly awful.  First, the low-hanging fruit. For your consideration, "Love Gun": 

I really love you, Baby
I love what you've got
Let's get together
We can, get hot
No more tomorrow, Baby
Time is today
Girl, I can make you feel
No place for hidin', Baby
No place to run
You pull the trigger of my
Love gun
Love gun
Love gun
Love gun

 As we say in the law, res ipsa loquitur (Latin for "the thing speaks for itself"). I have to believe this was at least part of Rob Reiner's inspiration for Spinal Tap.  I would also submit that, removing the acne inducing male organ metaphor, the song's structure and sentiment would not be out of place on a Brittany Spears CD.

But let's take a more sophisticated example, "Detroit Rock City," a cautionary tale told in the first person.  The first verse provides the exposition whereby we learn it is a Saturday night, that the narrator is uptight and that he hears his song, which tells him what he must do.  Or in other words: 

I feel uptight on a Saturday night
Nine o' clock, the radio's the only light
I hear my song and it pulls me through
Comes on strong, tell me what I got to do
I got to
Get up, everybody's gonna move their feet
Get down, everybody's gonna leave their seat
You gotta lose your mind in Detroit Rock City

The song featured a killer bass hook for sure.  This and simple lyrics are all that the Rock Anthem usually requires, i.e., "Rock and Roll All Night," a classic of the genre (and the exception I mentioned).  Where DRC fails is when it pretends to be something other than a party song by trying to tell a story and wedge in a moral.  By turning the dial of literary ambition to 11, Kiss tried to go where the lyrics couldn't take them. 

Getting late, I just can't wait
Ten o'clock and I know I gotta hit the road
First I drink, then I smoke
Start up the car, and I try to make the midnight show

The listener right away catches on that this may not end well.  While DUI awareness wasn't nearly what it is now, most of us knew it wasn't a good idea to drive wasted out of your mind.  But this guy has to make the midnight show (and we have to hear the clumsy near rhymes "road "and "show"). 

Movin' fast, doin' 95
Hit top speed but I'm still movin' much too slow
I feel so good, I'm so alive
I hear my song playin' on the radio

More foreshadowing with a dollop of irony.  Dude, it's your song playing on the radio!  I feel pretty alive, but drive faster. 

Twelve o'clock, I gotta rock
There's a truck ahead, lights starin' at my eyes
Oh my God, no time to turn
I got to laugh 'cause I know I'm gonna die

Why? Because you drove 95 miles an hour while stupid drunk and high, dumbass.  More unfortunate than this guy's quick and presumably painless death is having to listen to the trite rhyming of  "o'clock" with "rock."  Ninety-nine percent of first person story songs rely on the internal dialogue of the narrator's thoughts, but "Oh my God, no time to turn" is so not what this guy (or you or I) would be thinking.

All of this is to say that, if you want to write some songs, go for it!  There will always be songs that suck way worse than yours (and mine).

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