Monday, July 12, 2010

Carrie Underwood song makes me ill

"All-American Girl"
Carrie Underwood, 2007

youtube video with lyrics here

[I haven't written on this blog for a couple of years, but hearing this song has put me into a ranting mode, and I figured I might as well post my thoughts here.]

My daughter started singing this song last week - I missed it when it was popular a few years ago - and I've had occasion to hear it a few times since. Underwood sings the hell out of it. It's got a solid, if run-of-the-mill, contemporary Nashville sound, a hooky melody, a song-structure that really is quite delightful, and some of the most insidiously hateful lyrics I've heard recently.

Now, I should say that I'd never stand in the way of anyone who wants to write offensive lyrics - in fact some of my favorite songs fall into that category. I actually enjoy the way divergent opinions, viewpoints, assumptions, biases can appear in pop songs. Sing away about any old thing you like. In this particular case, however, it's the fact that the agenda is a hidden one that gets me riled up, and I feel there needs to be a critical context.

I've copied the lyrics below, for reference. At first blush, it appears to be a story song about how the birth of a baby girl changes the lives of people around her (more on why that's the the crux of the problem later, after I've gotten through a first layer of critique). Underwood has performed and co-written some genuine female-empowerment songs, so it's easy to misconstrue this one as ... well if not exactly Ani DiFranco, at least something a cut above the Spice Girls' ouevre. Sadly and shamefully, it reminds me more of Billy Joel's creepily bitter "She's Always a Woman" more than anything else.

The lyrics of "All-American Girl" sure do focus on football a lot, don't they? Presumably because this is safe male territory - basketball and baseball (well, softball) having been infiltrated by women. The birth of the daughter brings down her father's big dreams of football championships, then as a teenager the girl interferes with her boyfriend's game too. Yet in the end, she's still liked, and the boyfriend (now husband) is even hoping to have a daughter himself - such progress! Oh you womenfolk, the song seems to say, you're always screwing up our football, but god bless ya, you're just so darned adorable! I can almost guarantee that there was another verse written and later scrapped, about how the birth of the next-generation baby girl happened on Superbowl Sunday and kept everyone from watching the game.

I'm going to gloss over other obvious grimace-inducing bits, like the fact that the father can't seem to imagine going fishing with a daughter, and perhaps the biggest cultural signifier: marriage to the high-school sweetheart and a baby on the way in short order.

In my view, the unforgivable sin of this song is right out of a Women's Studies 101 textbook. The baby/girl/woman who is the subject of the song is 100% passive, with no agency at all. Her only worth, within the world of the song, is in the effect she has on the men around her. Presumably men are women-hating neanderthals until they encounter her sitting there prettily, then realize that women aren't so bad after all. This is called progress.

It's the Nashville equivalent of Sarah Palin calling herself a feminist, and I want to go wash my ears out with Erykah Badu for a while after hearing it.

Since the day they got married
He'd been praying for a little baby boy
Someone he could take fishing
Throw the football and be his pride and joy
He could already see him holding that trophy
Taking his team to state
But when the nurse came in with a little pink blanket
All those big dreams changed

And now, he's wrapped around her finger
She's the center of his whole world
And his heart belongs to that sweet, little, beautiful, wonderful, perfect
All American girl

Sixteen short years later
She was falling for the senior football star
Before you knew it he was dropping passes
Skipping practice just to spend more time with her
The coach said, hey son what's your problem
Tell me have you lost your mind
Daddy said you'll lose your free ride to college
Boy, you better tell her goodbye

But now, he's wrapped around her finger
She's the center of his whole world
And his heart belongs to that sweet, little, beautiful, wonderful, perfect
All American

And when they got married and decided to have one of their own
She said, be honest, tell me what you want
And he said, honey you outta know

A sweet, little, beautiful one just like you
I want a beautiful, wonderful, perfect All American

Now, he's wrapped around her finger
She's the center of his whole world
And his heart belongs to that sweet, little, beautiful, wonderful, perfect
All American girl

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Pet Sounds
The Beach Boys, 1966

[I'm getting serious about doing some more music writing, so hopefully there will be some regular posting here in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!]

Let me start by saying that this is one of those big important landmark pop albums that I just never listened to. I should make a list of those one day, actually. I picked up a copy last week, and I've listened to it intently ten or twelve times now. Normally, I haven't written here about records that I don't have some history with, but I'm going to break that rule now, because I have something important to say about this album that I haven't seen written anywhere else:

Pet Sounds is a sad, sad, sad, sad record. Maybe the most melancholy I've ever heard.

It's quite excellent, don't get me wrong, but not for the reasons I usually like popular music. There is no groove here - it's not funky, doesn't swing, doesn't rock, has no grit or grease whatsoever (OK, the cover of "Sloop John B" doesn't completely obliterate its calypso roots, and "Here Today" has a rocking feel to it, but that's about it). It's solidly in the midcentury definition of popular song recordings. We tend to skew the 1960s towards rock, soul, and folk music in our generational imaginations, but looking at the top 40 charts for the year Pet Sounds was released, I see hits by Petula Clark, Herb Alpert, the Ray Conniff Singers, Frank Sinatra, etc. That's the tradition that this album belongs to, really.

But it goes beyond that, because there's no strong personality behind the microphone either. The singing is only fleetingly self-expressive, instead opting for a clean (if adolescent) vocal style. No singer puts a real signature on any performance. I think we can consider this a recording of compositions by Brian Wilson, much like a recording of compositions by, say, Heinrich Schütz. We're supposed to hear the composer more than the performer here.

Much has been written about all the studio trickery and experimentation that went into recording this album, and rightly so. Here's an essentially self-taught kid from Hawthorne, California, with a big sonic palette in his head, achieving really amazing results by knob-twiddling in the studio. He's obviously got a pretty masterful ear, which is why I am certain that the overall sadness of this album was a desired goal.

You see, the real sadness comes from the way the vocal tracks are isolated. In every single song, the lead singer sounds like he is alone in an empty room, unable to truly connect with the rest of the music. It's as if the vocalist is in a constant state of lonely yearning, reaching in vain for meaningful contact with the rest of the world. This can't be accidental - the vocal parts are in a very different sound-space from the accompaniment (with a big wet reverb, among other things), and somehow the fact that it's in mono instead of stereo only emphasizes this more.

It's fitting, since so many of the lyrics are about longing and wishing, or other kinds of subjunctive mood (see "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "God Only Knows," "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," etc.). When listening, I thought that my maudlin response to "Wouldn't It Be Nice" was preconditioned by how it was used in the film Roger and Me, but upon further listening, it's all right there in the music and the production. I mean, it's actually got a bridge with a slower tempo, plus all that flipping back and forth between chest voice and ethereal falsetto, as if trying to bridge some gap between the current state and the desired one. Performed and recorded differently, this might have been a happy-go-lucky chugging little ditty, but what's on record is at the very least bittersweet and at the most darkly pessimistic.

Getting back to my point about listening to the composer: the melody of the chorus for "God Only Knows" has a very satisfying shape, spun out into some effective counterpoint, and nice modally-inflected harmonic motion, contrasting the more chromatic and dramatic structure of the harmony in the verses. The most fascinating song for me, though, is "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)," which falls into the very small category of songs I can't believe anyone ever thought could be on a popular record in a million years. It doesn't do any of the things that commercially-successful songs are supposed to do, yet it's absolutely compelling, like a message from another world, or music heard in a dream.

This is an album to listen to with a glass of wine (and all sharp objects removed from the room) on a lonely Saturday night. Beautiful, thought-provoking, strange, and very very sad.

Get it on itunes: The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds

Friday, January 18, 2008

Rockin Out

The Woods
Sleater-Kinney, 2005

[Yes, it's been a long time since I've posted anything here. Maybe it'll be a while before I do again - I want to, but it's been difficult to find the time.]

Sleater-Kinney is one of those bands that I'd heard of a lot, and knew a lot about, before I'd heard a single note. Such is the odd way of media and criticism, not to mention hipsterism. The music itself is one thing (be it live performance or recording), but its footprint in culture is quite another. It's hard to talk about music directly, as I've proven here many times, but to become a shared experience in the larger world, words have to be used, it seems. (Whether musical expressions need to be shared on that scale, and whether scaling up might enhance or corrupt, are issues way beyond this silly blog.)

In any case, while I had some admiration for the band, and enjoyed the songs that I'd heard, I never bought an album until this one. And I admit that part of my motivation was that my daughter was starting to investigate rock music, and I realized that it was slim pickings on my record shelf when it came to women-led bands. This disc was part of solving that problem, and also a way of guiltlessly spending money on something that I wanted. A win-win for sure.

This is pretty raw punk energy expressed in tightly arranged songs. Here's a parallel that springs to mind: what Led Zeppelin did to synthesize and re-energize the English rock of the 60s decade, Sleater-Kinney attempts to do here for the Seattle-ish alternative rock of the 90s. (Yes, Zep-heads, feel free to pounce, it's just an analogy.) There's a fair amount of variety here in terms of style, though everything hangs together because of the lead vocalist's passionate delivery and the way the production is just drowned in layers of bittersweet feedback.

I genuinely like every cut on the album - it can be exhausting to listen to, since the emotion is ratcheted up high, but of course that's kinda the point. One standout for me is "Rollercoaster," which takes a couple of hot guitar riffs and thundering drums, and puts them in the service of what could almost be a Beach Boys song. The fact that Corin Tucker seems to be on the verge of utter hysterical meltdown throughout made it a favorite of mine during some recent personal issues. She barely keeps contact with the song-structure and tonality, just enough to draw needed power from it.

The other highlight for me is "Modern Girl," which just drips with acidic irony, cranking it to levels I didn't think pop music capable of, honestly. Starting out simply sarcastic, with an optimistic twangy guitar supporting lyrics about love and consumerism. But it gets darker as it goes, and by the last chorus, so slathered in thick swaths of lo-fi analog feedback and clipping, we are in deep ironic territory indeed. She sings not that her life is a sunny day, nor that it's like a sunny day. No, she sings "my whole life is like a picture of a sunny day." Just as that sweet optimistic melody repeats while it rots from the inside. Again, not easy to listen to, and not exactly subtle, but it gets its point across for sure. Leave the subtlety to Ira Gershwin.

Get it on itunes:
Sleater-Kinney - The Woods (iTunes Version)

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

think big

Symphony No. 9
Gustav Mahler

I don't think I've been explicit here about my feelings surrounding orchestral music. It's an odd thing, which maybe has its roots in going to too many classical-music concerts, but on average I find chamber music about 100 times more compelling than music for orchestra. Yes, there are lots and lots of exceptions to this rule, but generally I'd buy a ticket for a string quartet concert before I'd pay to see the symphony. This is true for music of any era and any style.

There's just such an immediacy to chamber playing, for one thing. The interaction among the performers, the drama between "characters," the more intimate connection between players and audience. Plus, chamber music generally takes as its subjects things that are human-scale. And even when the ideas are big ones, they are by necessity taken on in a way that mimics the way we think and live and struggle and triumph as individual beings.

But sometimes I get in the mood for something big and monumental, it's true. Something that speaks to us as communities, cities, societies, civilizations. Something that addresses the history and grand complexities of human endeavor. And usually that's when I turn to Wagner or Mahler.

It's hard to imagine that this kind of project can be done better than how it's done in Mahler 9, really. This is music that reaches for the sublime at every turn - everywhere you feel the composer's anxiety about whether his craft is up to the huge task, and yet everywhere he succeeds. The spirit of the individual is subsumed by the larger picture, or perhaps expanded to map itself onto the larger picture.

It's a sprawling work - the first movement alone is probably longer than all of Beethoven's 9th - with moments of lush beauty, moments of dark introspection, moments of terror, moments of stark despair, and moments of pure light. But though it's a triumph merely as a collection of moments, it's also far more than that. This is a piece of music that rewards deep listening, and having heard it probably 100 or so times in my life, even owning a copy of the score, I can honestly say that there are new mysteries that are opened to me each time I listen.

Nothing is simple here, or rather anything that seems simple is either undercut or reveals itself to be teeming with hidden facets. It's always hard to talk about music without using metaphor, but especially so with pieces like this. I find mind reaching for ways to explain what draws me to the music, and I keep coming up with literary or sociological tropes like those above. That doesn't occur as often with the lean, focused music I listen to more often.

It's a testament to the work's complexity that, after hearing several, I still have no favorite recording or performance. I checked, and I actually own three recordings, oddly enough. Here's the one I listen to most often.

get it on itunes:

Bruno Walter & Wiener Philharmoniker - Great Artists of the Century - Bruno Walter - Mahler: Symphony No. 9

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Charlie Haden and the vinyl mindset

Charlie Haden
Quartet West, 1987

After a long break, I'm back blogging again. Among a million other changes to my life, I recently moved into a new place, with room for a real stereo. And that means being able to play actual records for the first time in a number of years. Funny how listening to something I haven't heard in a while can instantly forge connections to my past, and funny how having all this "new" music around mutes my consumer impulse to go out and buy new stuff.

[On a side note - I really wish I could go back in time and spend just a little more money in the Greenwich Village Tower Records in 2002. Basement chock full of vinyl that was being liquidated. Von Karajan's complete Beethoven symphonies: $3. Pristine copy of Ornette's Free Jazz: $1.50. Die Walküre: $4. White Album: $2. Obscure King Sunny Ade recording: $1. It was kind of crazy and unreal to browse down there, where Adam Smith's invisible hand created a record-collector's paradise.]

Anyway, I'm quite enjoying all the rituals of the vinyl record - carefully lifting and lowering the needle, listening to the hiss and pop (which adds texture and constantly reminds your ears that it's a recording), appreciating or cringing at the big cover art, reading the lyrics sometimes written on sleeves, smiling at the duality in the structure of a two-sided album, which some exploited and some didn't. It's a load of fun.

Which brings me to this album by Charlie Haden. One of my favorites, bought when I was a senior in high school, I believe. An avid jazz fan at that point, I really didn't listen to any other style of music for a couple of years. And since I was a bassist, this was a natural record to want. But even if I didn't, there's a serious selling point here: "Hermitage."

This track is, simply put, radiant. The tune is by Pat Metheny, about whom I can be hot and cold, but this recording really makes a case for "Hermitage" as a jazz standard. As played by the quartet (including Haden on bass and the great Billy Higgins on drums), it's atmospheric, sweet-and-sour, seemingly in constant motion yet standing still at the same time. The players explore emotional places that you wouldn't think the tune could go, especially true in Ernie Watts' sax solo, pushing at the seams of a composition that wants to be understated, and dragging the rest of the ensemble with him. It's hard to put my finger on just what makes it so memorable and great, so I suggest you listen to it yourself, and let the mood of the piece settle over you and pull you along, maybe break your heart just a tiny bit and rescue it again right after.

Other great stuff on the album - a version of "Body and Soul" wherein the main melody is never quite played, but hinted at. "Taney County" is one of Haden's countryfied jazz compositions, ridiculously simple yet so compelling, and it's just him alone with his bass. There's quite a range of approaches in this album that is nominally a mainstream straight-ahead jazz disc. There's warmth and heart in the more "out" playing, as if the players are remembering a moment in time together, or having a conversation about a shared emotional experience.

On the liner notes for one of the Quartet West albums (not sure if it's this one or "Haunted Heart"), Haden talks about evoking the spirit of Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles. Some of that spirit really does come through - the feeling that everyone is widespread and disconnected for the most part, and human attachments form on the basis of unexpected things, leading to unforseen places. Quite remarkable to be able to say things like that with sound.

Get it on itunes:
Charlie Haden - Quartet West

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

l'Histoire du soldat

The Soldier's Tale
Igor Stravinsky, 1918

This is one of my favorite Stravinsky works, probably the first piece of chamber music of his that I'd ever heard. I remember studying it as an undergrad and getting so caught up in its rhythmic world. It's a piece of music that combines several of my favorite things: a drama expressed in musical rhetoric, a non-standard instrumental ensemble, integration of the spoken word into music, meticulously crafted overlapping ostinati, interpretations of popular music styles, etc. There's the sense of a finely-wrought mathematical jigsaw puzzle, and simultaneously a very organic instinctual feeling for cadence and rhythm which is uniquely beautiful to me. Stravinsky's sense of pacing, both on the small scale and the large, are so precisely right that it makes my hair stand on end.

So there's a story (hence the word "Tale" in the title). It's a little parable about a soldier matching wits with the Devil. The three voices (the soldier, the devil, and a narrator) don't sing, but speak their words, sometimes in an exacting rhythm, and sometimes in ordinary speech, always over musical accompaniment. With good actors who also have a fairly sophisticated musical sense, it can be very compelling. There are long stretches of purely instrumental music as well, some of it angular and deliberate, some of it lush and fluid, all of it engaging. Stravinsky writes idiosyncratically for the instruments in the ensemble (2 brass instruments, 2 woodwinds, 2 strings, plus 1 percussionist = brilliant concept), teasing out combinations and sonorities that seem ludicrous in theory, yet are beautiful in actuality.

The recording that I enjoy is one that has big-name actors preforming the spoken roles: Ian McKellen as the narrator, Sting (yep, that one) as the soldier, and Vanessa Redgrave in a bit of excellent casting, as the devil. They all chew up the auditory scenery, overacting and emoting up a storm. Redgrave in particular seems to be having a ball. But this is a melodrama after all, and for me it's infectious - I have fun right along with them. But despite the star-power of the actors, to me the real gem is the conductor, Kent Nagano. He's one of my favorite conductors overall, and probably my all-time favorite conductor of Stravinsky's works. Not many can make the adjustments necessary to direct a smaller ensemble like this, but he is right there in it, making the music breathe and sparkle and meditate and gallop. It's quite an accomplishment in itself, and of course it helps that he's got some amazing instrumentalists too.

So this recording is a treat, and the piece of music an essential one. You really feel like you've been brought into a special universe of musical and dramatic relationships that can only exist in this defined space - perfect for what is after all an allegorical tale.

Sadly, itunes doesn't have this recording!
but here's a link to another that looks good:

Rolf Schulte - Stravinsky: Histoire du Soldat Suite, Renard (Vol. 7)

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Youssou N'Dour

The Lion
Youssou N'Dour, 1989

Ah the late-1980s. The "World Beat" trend had pretty much run its course, and it would be another half-decade or so before NPR began bestowing its Oprah-like blessings upon third-world flavor-of-the-month albums. This was the age of top-40 superstars exploring other musical cultures in order to grow as artists, man.

I'm being too sarcastic, because actually there was a lot of great music from that pocket of time, and because once you get past the colonial aspect of it all, really being exposed to music from around the world is a net positive for everyone listening. I wonder if Bush et al. would have a different understanding of America's place in world works if they'd been the right age to own, say, that one Ladysmith Black Mambazo album that was in every college dorm-room tape-deck right after Paul Simon's Graceland came out.

I'm also being too hard on myself, because like many others I got my introduction to the music of the great Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour from a Peter Gabriel album.

The Lion was the N'Dour album marketed to cash in on the duet "Shaking the Tree" which appeared on Gabriel's iconic So. And I bought it. And I liked it. And getting on 20 years later I still like it.

I'm no expert in the music called mbalax, but I do have a lot of appreciation for it. The music, whether in fast or slow tempo, has a percolating energy that derives from the overlapping polyrhythmic textures (the same kind of dynamic that you might find in Afrocuban musics or funk, for example, but of course with different kinds of rhythms). The instrumentation usually includes the kind of percussion I associate with Malian griot tradition, layered with a standard drum kit, and then the electric guitars, keyboards, and horn section one might find in afropop. The bass lines in particular are delightfully syncopated and keep the music pushing forward. N'Dour's voice often just sails above it all, winding and stretching and expanding. But just as often he dips down into a growl or a declamatory cadence.

I find that the transitions between these vocal "states" form some of the most compelling moments in the music. It's as if he's hinting at a path between the base guttural body and the soaring unlimited spirit. This is very dramatic in the title track, a rocking number that has one of those little pre-chorus "ramp up" sections that's so perfectly suited to its function it should be used as a model in songwriting classes. "Bamako" has a slithery chord progression over lots of talking drum - N'Dour sings on this one with a presence that's somehow bombastic and intimate at once (still trying to figure out how he manages that). I think my favorite of all the songs is "Bes," which is a beautiful minor-key 12/8 soundscape for a while. Then when the female back-up vocalists come in with their gently rising "oooh"s and the bass starts to pop a little, it transforms into something hauntingly gorgeous. There's even a real bridge section that keeps you on the edge of your seat waiting for the return of the chorus - but when we get there the backup vocalists launch into this little counterpoint on the words "don't forget me," which is somehow all the more intense for its control and reserve.

I'd be remiss not to mention lyrics here. N'Dour sings in Wolof (a Senegalese language), French, and English, often blending all three in a single song. Liner notes have translations of the lyrics into both English and French, and that's where I discovered that the song "My Daughter/Sama Doom" is basically a reworking of Yeats' "A Prayer for My Daughter," with a refrain that is achingly full of parental anxiety: "My daughter, do not follow your heart."

get it on itunes:

Youssou N'dour - The Lion