83. I charm you and tell you of the boys I hate, all the girls I hate, all the words I hate, all the clothes I hate
“The Dark of the Matinée” Franz Ferdinand Franz Ferdinand — 2004
The list of competitors for the prize of Sexiest Song About Boarding School is not long. But Franz Ferdinand walks away with it easily in these four short minutes. “The Dark of the Matinée” never exactly comes out and says anything about sex, exactly — it’s all anticipation, tense encounters in the hallway and falsely-brave flirting, but it’s always looking forward to those scrambling moments in the dark. Between classes, it’s all talk, but, eventually, “the eyes find the eyes.” The throbbing bassline says everything else.
If it was just a great song about sex-crazed teenagers, I would still like “The Dark of the Matinée,” but there’s something else going on, and it happens in the last verse. After two verse of flirting, Alex Kapranos begins daydreaming about becoming an enormous star and bragging to UK television host Terry Wogan. Tellingly, in this fantasy, he doesn’t even know why he’s an enormous star — “I made it/And what I’ve made is unclear now/But his deference is/And his laughter is” — because it doesn’t matter. A teenager’s mind is always seven steps ahead, with no way to see what’s right in front of him. That’s why the conversations in the boarding school hallways may be awkward and strained, but they look forward to the dark, where they won’t be stymied by their own anticipation. And anticipation may, in fact, be what being a teenager is ultimately about.
“Freedom ‘90” George Michael Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 — 1990
Pop music is, largely, an arena of falsehood and deception. We know this, and yet it mostly goes without comment: these young people, conscripted into service to sing and dance at the command of their corporate overlords, all for the entertainment of the masses. Sure, it’s rough, but they get to keep the money, don’t they? It’s hard to feel bad for a nineteen-year-old millionaire, after all. We just buy the records until we move on, then sit back and wait for the inevitable collapse into obscurity and rehab.
But every once in a while, a pop star comes along who grows tired of those overlords, and tries to shake off their orders. “Freedom ‘90” is the sound of George Michael blowing up the expectations of the press, of his record company, of his fans. It’s a song that announces that everything from this moment will be different, and it only asks the listener to come along for the ride. “I won’t let you down,” he says, “so please don’t give me up.”
Everything about the track reflects that theme. The odd “‘90” was tacked on to the title to make sure to differentiate it from “Freedom,” a song Michael had recorded with Wham! back in his early pop star years. He sings about his former partner from Wham!, Andrew Ridgeley, a man who had so tired of the music business that he left it altogether. The old days were great, but “today the way I play the game has got to change.”
In keeping with this change in attitude, Michael does not appear on the cover of Living Without Prejudice. He also refused to appear in the video, demanding that his music speak for itself. Director David Fincher, in a brilliant move, populated the clip with supermodels — another group of corporate puppets with little agency or control — and made it sexy, mysterious and impossible to look away from. And in a final gesture, the key elements of George Michael’s iconography — the leather jacket, the guitar and the jukebox — are quite literally destroyed.
It’s always special watching someone gain their freedom. Even a millionaire pop star.
86. That’s what makes my life so fucking fantastic
“The Fear” Lily Allen It’s Not Me, It’s You — 2009
When I was in kindergarten, I had to write a short essay — if you can call six sentences scrawled by a five-year-old an “essay” — about What I Wanted to Be When I Grew Up. If memory serves, I wanted to play baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers, basketball for the Lakers, hockey for the Kings, and — in my spare time — I was going to be an astronaut. My backup plan: rock star.
My dreams were ridiculous to the point of absurdity, but that’s what you expect from a little kid. The key point here is that I wanted to do things — lots and lots of things. I was going to renowned the world over for my multiple talents, showered with praise and love from everyone. I would be the most super of superstars.
Kids today, when asked that same question, don’t say they want to do things. The most common answer these days? “I want to be famous.” That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it’s not — they want to skip past all of that pesky doing things step I so carefully outlined in my awesome essay. Fame is no longer a byproduct or a result — it’s the destination.
Lily Allen might have been more than a little hypocritical when she released “The Fear,” a satirical takedown of just that kind of get-famous-or-die-tryin’ philosophy. Or was she? Perhaps “The Fear” is a confessional — a rich, catchy pop confessional, filled with witty asides and brilliant puns (“I’ll look at the sun / And I’ll look in the mirror”). We’ve been conditioned as a society to see fame as a worthwhile goal, a end that justifies whatever means required. “The Fear” is Allen’s attempt to diagnose her own compulsions.
87. Verbal pocket play is as discreet as I can muster up to be
“Galaxie” Blind Melon Soup - 1995
The thing I love most about Mad Men — hang on, I’m going somewhere with this — is the way that most episodes and plots end up illuminating its Great Theme: the seemingly endless gap between Who We Are, Who We See Ourselves As, and Who We Want to Be. The characters suffer in the gap between those three points, and every oasis in that existential nightmare is eventually revealed to be only a mirage. No matter what it is — a new job, a new baby, or a gleaming new Cadillac — the gap remains.
“Galaxie” is, on the surface, about a car — Shannon Hoon’s Ford Galaxie, a cheap junker he picked up before his band hit the big time. After the fame and money came, he got himself a fancy luxury car, but it doesn’t feel right. He longs for the car that feels “at home.”
But of course, it’s about more than that. It’s about approaching the oasis of Who We Want to Be, and finding nothing but sand. Fame and money weren’t the answer for Hoon, who had lost himself to drug addiction by the time he wrote “Galaxie.” (If you’re curious about the frantic editing in the video, it isn’t just a stylistic choice — Hoon was so out of his mind on smack they had to slice the footage to pieces to get anything usable at all.) It’s not surprising, given the terror on display here: “No, no, no, it isn’t me!” he screams, and it’s easy to forget he’s still ostensibly talking about a car he doesn’t like. But that car is a powerful symbol, a symbol of an empty dream, a sweet lie that didn’t hold any answers or peace.
Shannon Hoon died of an overdose not long after this video was made. Because sometimes you don’t make it through the desert.
88. Could it have been just anyone, or did it have to be you?
“I Don’t Want to Be Alone” Billy Joel Glass Houses — 1980
Resignation is not something that comes up very often in pop songs. People triumph, people are defeated, but rarely do they just give up and go with the path of least resistance. Especially not in love songs, where fate and romance are always supposed to win the day.
Billy Joel didn’t get the memo. “I Don’t Want to Be Alone” is about a reunited couple, like many love songs are, but these two aren’t brought back together by the knowledge that their love is meant to be. No, it’s simple loneliness and desperation. The woman is tired of being alone, and she decides to settle for her ex, because even though he’s clumsy and nervous and kind of a dweeb, he’s familiar. He’s easy. And even though he’s suspicious of exactly how well this will turn out in the end, he goes along with it. Because, really, who wants to be alone?
There’s a great moment in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything… where Ione Skye returns to John Cusack in a moment of crisis, and he gives her a look and says, “Do you need someone? Or do you need me?” Before she can answer, he shakes his head and says, “Forget it — I don’t care.” Billy Joel is describing the same sort of conversation, but his protagonist does care, very much — he just concludes he’d rather not know the answer.
It’s not everybody who can just create an entire genre of music from thin air. It’s even fewer who can watch as that genre rules pop culture for the better part of five years, while you lounge in obscurity, your contribution ignored as your misbegotten copycats trash your genius and rake in millions.
It must have been really frustrating to be in Faith No More in the late ’90s.
“Midlife Crisis” sounds, more or less, like every other hit song you would find on modern rock radio at any point between 1998 and 2003. I mean, it’s clearly on an evolved plain from, say, Papa Roach, but every nu-metal trick is definitely present. The throbbing bass line, the harshly whispered vocals, the squeaky guitar noises, the hiphop-esque breakdown, the shouty singalong chorus. If I’d told you this was a long-lost Korn track, only its superlative quality might make you doubt me, right?
But of course, you notice that this song was released in 1992. “Midlife Crisis” is a song so incredible that countless shitty bands spend their entire careers trying to match it. The whole of nu-metal rose and fell as the likes of Staind and Limp Bizkit farted around, trying to replicate what Faith No More had achieved in four short minutes.
And they failed. Of course they failed. Because “Midlife Crisis” is just too goddamned good.
Not everyone can say they created a genre. Even fewer bands can say they embarrassed an entire genre without even showing up.
(Oh, and apparently the song is about Madonna? I’ll let you figure out how “My head is like lettuce” fits into that.)
If the technology existed that would let you turn old, dusty letters and faded photos into musical waveforms, the result would sound a lot like “Holocene,” I think. It’s the sound of old friends laughing, of now-dead relatives wishing you a Merry Christmas, of fondly-remembered loves whispering.
Justin Vernon performs the lyrics in his trademark high register, rendering the words almost indecipherable at times. This is ironic, of course — “Holocene” is about, in the end, clarity: those scattered moments in our lives when we discover that we are part of something larger than ourselves, larger than we can comprehend. And it’s about how fleeting those moments of understanding can be, and why it’s important that we relearn that lesson every time.
Vernon does this in the most opaque language possible, but that’s appropriate: a moment of clarity is an intensely personal experience, and any attempt to make it universal would come across as farce. He lets the gorgeous music and the indescribable mood help carry us along, so that we’re nodding our head even to impenetrable references to places and people we’ve never met or seen.
Because he knows the key line is one to which we can all relate. Vernon collapses a novel’s worth of emotion into one of the greatest lyrics I’ve ever heard: “And, at once, I knew I was not magnificent.” Clarity is revealing, it’s moving, but it’s also humbling. And, like, “Holocene,” it’s over far too quickly.
A bonus: There are something like two thousand covers of “Holocene” on YouTube. Most of them are not this good.
91. Let me make you a present of song as the wise man breaks wind and is gone
“Thick as a Brick” Jethro Tull Thick as a Brick — 1972
People react to disagreeable criticism in all sorts of ways. Some artists ignore it. Some use it as fuel for their creative fire, as a challenge to better themselves and their art. Some people use it as an excuse to become spiteful and mean spirited. If it’s Axl Rose, he might challenge you to a fight. It varies.
Ian Anderson is…different.
See, Jethro Tull’s 1971 album Aqualung was received — and praised, I should point out — as a “concept album.” A remarkable collection of songs dealing with faith and reason and the darkest aspects of humanity, it scored both commercially and critically. This was the beginning of the progressive rock boom, of course, and bands like Yes and Pink Floyd were stretching multi-song suites across entire sides of their LPs, and getting lauded and rich doing so.
The problem is that Ian Anderson, Tull’s singer/songwriter/flautist, had not intended Aqualung to be a concept album. He didn’t think the songs had anything in common at all*, aside from having been written and recorded around the same time. And it kind of grated his nerves to see his band’s work get lumped in with the likes of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, whose music was drenched in pretension.
But he couldn’t shake the label. Jethro Tull was suddenly a prog rock band. (The flute didn’t help.) Well, Anderson said, if the world had decided that Tull was a progressive rock group, then, goddammit, they were going to be the most progressive rock group. And if they were going to release an epic concept album, then it was going to be the concept album to end all concept albums.
Thick as a Brick, the album, contains only the song “Thick as a Brick.” All 44 minutes of it. There are so many styles, instruments, genres, time signatures and tempo changes that a complete breakdown would triple the length of this post. The album required the most elaborate album art ever conceived: a full 12-page newspaper, complete with a crossword puzzle, a connect-the-dots piece and a review of the album itself. The record’s “concept” was equally ornate and ridiculous — it purports to be Anderson’s musical interpretation of an epic poem written by a eight-year-old boy named Gerald “Little Milton” Bostock, about the perils of growing up. The lyrics are either brilliant or ludicrous, and are often both at the same time.
Anderson was trying to send up prog rock, and he did it so well that he accidentally made a masterpiece of prog rock. Yes, it’s smug and pretentious — it’s supposed to be. He even made time in the middle for some of that moody sound effect and stop-and-start bullshit prog musicians had been using to fill time for years. (Hell, they’re still doing it: listen to a Mars Volta album sometime, you’ll hear what I mean.) People say things like “God is an overwhelming responsibility” while flutes flutter in the background. Is this stupid? Or genius? Yes.
Short version: you know how sometimes Weird Al will write a song making fun of a certain genre, but ends up nailing the style parody so well that he ends up making something that can stand alongside the great examples of that genre?
Yeah, “Thick as a Brick” is like that.
*With due respect to the artist — who, of course, wrote all of those songs — Aqualung really does come across as a concept album. I mean, the songs have persistent themes and recurring characters and everything.
It’s quite probably the only song to mention the United Nations, obscure punctuation terminology and Lil Jon in the lyrics. The clash of references and styles could easily be read as a jab at the song’s target: an insufferable snob, using pretentious grammar correctness and an exaggerated bank account to try to impress. Vampire Weekend would prefer you take a laid-back direct approach — like Lil Jon, who “always tells the truth.” If you say so — I think if anybody would be willing to use hyperbole, it would be Lil Jon.
But Jon could definitely relate to what’s really at the song’s heart, which is spelled out right from the start: “Who gives a fuck?” “Oxford Comma” is a long, sad shake of the head at the image-conscious, the self-obsessed, the self-important. Which led to some sad irony when Vampire Weekend became accused of that very same self-importance, and the indie rock scene decided they weren’t cool anymore. Were they snobs? Were they making music for rich people? Were they too popular to be cool?