Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Song Analysis: Favorite Songs for their Lyrics: Part VIII

This is another edition of a series where I dissect and analyze songs I like for their lyrics. I'm generally only approaching the lyrics because I don't really believe qualitative value can be assigned to melodies and chords. It's also worth  noting that in the same way that some of my culture writer peers will wear their knowledge of obscure bands like a badge of honor, I tend to do the opposite and try to remain as openly unashamed as I can about owning records by Maroon 5 and Katy Perry.

Lastly, check the lyrics tag down below for other versions of this series.

Silent All These Years, Tori Amos-The implication on Genius is that the barking dog and antichrist referenced in the first verse indicate the narrator is an abusive relationship. As Freud said, sometimes a barking dog is a barking dog and an antichrist is just something you throw in to be poetic. The abusive lover theory also doesn’t hold up when you consider that she is upset that this subject is with another woman in the second verse (the one with deep thoughts though I think Tori Amos could give her a run for her money in that department) and strangely seems to be back with him by the end of the verse. There’s also a very clear case of changing subjects: At first it’s a passive observer she wants to trade places with, and it’s very unclear who she wants to stand where she stands when the mother shows up in a nasty dress (although isn’t it superficial to harp on her wardrobe?).

The confusion in narrative focus leads me to believe that the song’s unifying element is what’s there under our very noses: the song title. Amos’ relationship (and her life) isn’t one that can be easily characterized and she just wants to express it. The line “sometimes I hear my voice” indicates that only occasionally does she have any sense of inner clarity.  The more the narrator expresses herself, the more empowered she is. Threatening her boyfriend what can either be a pregnancy scare or physical evidence of abuse (“boy you best pray that I bleed real soon”) is followed by a dropping-the-mic  equivalent of “how’s that thought for you.” On the other  end of the spectrum, silence worries her that she will be “stripped of her beauty till there’s nothing left.”

There’s also an indication that this imperfect boyfriend is bound to her through economic hardship. If twenty-five bucks and a cracker (I’d like to hope it’s a whole carton of Ritz bites because one single cracker seems tough) is all she has to get “there”, then leaving a romantic partner who could potentially break into money isn’t an option. 

Changes, David Bowie-My knowledge of musicians in their prime before I started consistently  listening to the radio (1997-1999) is pretty embarrassing and it’s only through commercials and film soundtracks that I’m familiar with most of them. David Bowie is an artist I only came around to in a roundabout way: Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic” in which his songs are covered on-screen with a sole acoustic guitar in Portuguese. It was only upon his tragic death earlier this year that I became aware of how beautiful of a man Bowie was.  

One thing about Bowie that I imagine to be both a blessing and a curse was his propensity for recrafting himself musically. For all his musical generosity and his inspiring sense of openness to every musical genre imaginable, there seemed an underlying dissatisfaction with sticking with anything else too long. He best expresses this in the ubiquitous “Changes.” There are both hints of being trapped by society’s expectations of him (“How the others must see the faker”) as well as liberation. There are also signs of Bowie’s curse here too: He speaks of the taste not being as sweet when he realizes a goal which seems moderately tortuous. Either way, there’s a sense of pressure to stay ahead of the curve (“I’m much too fast to take that test”) but whether it’s legitimate (hitting “a million dead end streets” is a problem whether society is pushing you or not) or some externalized threat from the next generation (“oh look out, you rock and rollers”) is curiously left vague. In a way Bowie has never known himself if you follow the opening line: “Still don’t know what I’ve been waiting for.”

Evaporated, Ben Folds Five-Perhaps I should be more certain but I’d give 7 out of 10 odds that I know what this song is about and if it were any more specific I’m sure I would like it less. My theory is it’s about a deadbeat dad who’s been riddled with guilt by the choice he made. The biggest hint I can gather is his comparison to his old man and the conclusion that it’s the nature of “all men [to] want to get into a car and go.” Rather than try to correct his wrong, the narrator has resigned himself to his fate and without a possibility of changing his future, he is textbook depressed (“don’t you know I’m numb man, I can’t feel a thing”). Going by that old saying about children being prone to making the same mistakes as their parents when they grow up, perhaps the narrator has felt that his failure would be pre-destined.

My favorite line is in the second verse: “I’ve faith that there’s a soul somewhere that’s leading me around, I wonder If she knows which way is down.” If faith in some overarching spirit to guide you somewhere is your saving grace, why would you want them to lead you down? In this case, the narrator is in a purgatory-like state and while he doesn’t have an explicit death wish, the divine spirit is keeping him from falling any lower (the narrator is numb but still alive). He imagines he deserves worse and wonders why a bigger punishment hasn’t yet befallen him.

Angel, Sarah McLaughlin-While these entries are supposed to be about lyrics, it’s hard to deny the contributions to McLaughlin’s serene voice to these lyrics. This song is pretty ubiquitous for good reason: Few songs soothe me on a bad day as this one and I find few songs whose status as a good is indisputable. McLaughlin perfectly captures the feelings of weariness and fatigue: Waiting for the “break that will make it ok”, being “tired of this straight line” and the imagined paranoia of “vultures and thieves at your door.” McLaughlin’s song is so powerful that it almost makes me want to celebrate the way life can run over you. The line “In this sweet madness, oh this glorious sadness” says this is all part of the human experience and can even be sweet and glorious if you take a step back and appreciate the value in these struggles. It’s not easy to do but this is a song that helps me get there.

On the Western Skyline, Bruce Hornsby and the Range-One of my two favorite piano players, Bruce Hornsby is a rare piano rock star who draws from bluegrass music: Rich portraits of place and somber portrayals of hard economic times often color his songs. Interestingly enough, Hornsby is from my home state of Virginia (he made several donations to my alma mata’s music department) and he hails from not the mountainous part but the Eastern tidewater region which is mostly known for producing rappers (Mary J Blige, Missy Elliott).

Although the song’s most repeated line is “I hope she’s out there somewhere on the western skyline,” he seems to be singing from a resigned sense of loneliness. Rather than seek love in the place where the “rooftops sag on second street,” he’s simply a passive observer to what’s happening around him.

As love is both an end to itself and a metaphor for some larger truth in much of music, it seems that pining over lost love (also explored in “Mandolin Rain” and “River Runs Low”)  can easily be read as a metaphor to pining over lost economic opportunity. His line “too many dreams, not enough hope” speaks directly to the kind of imbalance in jobs and job seekers that could set a community on a downward spiral. It’s also important to note that everyone seems to be affected since the lonely woman also say a prayer.

Time, Ben Folds-I’m reminded here of the biggest heroic act in the notorious tear jerker “Rudy.” It wasn’t anything that happened in the film but rather that the real-life coach  volunteered to become the villain In the screenplay so that the film would have more conflict thereby increasing its chance of being greenlit. Similarly, Ben Folds feels enough for his subject that he’s willing to be a transference of negative emotions and blame. “Think of me anyway you want. I can be a problem if it’s easier,” he sings. It’s a generous offer to say the least.

As the title suggests, the song is about time, and there’s a deeper connotation here. Ben Folds is willing to be whatever his subject wants because he sees emotional wounds as inconsequential. Mainly, they abate with time. “In time, I’ll fade away, in time, I won’t care what you say, and in time….time takes time you know”

Boston, Augustana-Because I saw the song covered by a heart-broken Leonard on “The Big Bang Theory”, I’m a teensy bit ashamed to list this one. Fortunately, I’m defiantly against musical shaming so here we go: The song is about a sad, jaded girl in need of a life change and one of its strengths is that it seems like it’s exactly as long or as short as the word count should be. While the narrator has empathy for the subject (“oh dear you look so lost, eyes are red and tears are shed”), he is mostly a passive observer (as opposed to “Annie Waits” which I’ve covered). As such he doesn’t have the capacity or obligation to fully present us with the why and how of this girl’s rush to get to Boston.

The narrator uses a lot of colorful imagery to describe her but the song sticks out more for the second hand perspective. The narrator doesn’t have the answers to her sadness  either  and also ponders about “the world you must’ve crossed.” Appropriately enough, the girl wants to start a new life where no one knows her name and the narrator grants her that anonymity throughout the song.

Seven Wonders, Nickel Creek-History’s first tourism campaign was the seven wonders of the ancient world (of course, then the word “ancient” wasn’t there). But of those seven, only the Great Pyramids at Giza remain which can be seen as a lesson on the fallibility of man.

Fittingly, the song centers around a man (or perhaps an unusually weak diety) coming to terms with his limits. He can’t “unleash the hands of time” or prevent the rain from falling. It’s a broad metaphor for man’s struggle to control his circumstances but this is bluegrass and (as I said with Bruce Hornsby) it’s a genre that thrives on the specifics. For instance, the subject is consigned to “never owning more than second place.” It’s a throwaway line that gets you thinking more about whether the protagonist’s feelings of inadequacy stem from being second place to some  rival, his internal nature or nature itself.

Raise Your Glass, Pink-Pink’s persona is one of punk-inspired defiance mixed with girl power. Songs like “Try” “Just Give Me a Reason” or “F---ing Perfect” aim to be inspirational and I won’t deny that they succeed. But sometimes her lyrics just seem sloppy. “Who Knew” is a poignant anthem to lost love, but Pink can’t resist throwing in the line “If someone said three years from now, you’d be long gone, I’d stand up and punch them out.” It’s almost as if Pink knows  she’s about to get too mushy and throwing a line about randomly punching someone will maintain her “in your face” cred. Attempting to split the difference between sentimental Pink and punkish Pink is what often makes her sounding silly.  

“Raise Your Glass” works because it embraces the “in your face” side of Pink without irony . According to Pink, we’re supposed to turn off the lights, call her up if we’re gangsta and snatch some panties (if I got that line right). She makes up words (“Dancey” which is apparently the opposite of fancy) and just flat-out laughs her way through the bridge. It’s reminiscent of Kesha’s “Tik Tok” in knowing exactly what it is but it’s got a bit more depth. I especially like the line about being “wrong in all the right ways.”

All Songs I've Analyzed at this point:
Anna Nalick: Breathe
Augustana: Boston
 Avril Lavigne: I'm With You
The Bangles: Hazy Shade of Winter
Ben Folds: Landed, Annie Waits, Time, Evaporated
Barenaked Ladies: Testing 1 2 3
Bruce Hornsby: On the Western Skyline
Cat Stevens: First Cut is the Deepest
Charlotte Martin: Your Armor
Coldplay: Speed of Sound, Viva la Vida
Counting Crows: She Don't Want Nobody Near, Hard Candy, Rain King
David Bowie: Changes
Dave Matthews Band: Gray Street, #41, Dancing Nancies, Grace is Gone
Ed Sheeran: The A-Team
Fall out Boy: Dance Dance
Five for Fighting: 100 Years
The Fray: You Found Me, Over My Head
Foo Fighters: Learn to Fly
Gin Blossoms: South of Nowhere
Goo Goo Dolls: Broadway is Dark Tonight, Better Days, Here is Gone
Green Day: Wake Me Up When September Ends
Jason Mraz: On Love in Sadness
John Cougar Mellencamp: Jack and Diane
John Mayer: Clarity, 3 X 5, No Such Thing, Bigger than My Body, Why Georgia
Howie Day: Collide
Hootie and the Blowfish: Time
Leona Lewis: Better in Time
Lorde: Team
Macklemore and Lewis: Thrift Shop
Mamas and the Papas: Dance Dance
Matchbox Twenty: Downfall, All I Need, Let's See How Far We've Come, Black and White People
Michelle Branch: Game of Love
Nickel Creek: Green and Gray, Seven Wonders
Paramore: Ain't It Fun
Pink: Raise Your Glass 
Sara Bareilles: Bottle It Up, Fairytales, Hold my Heart
Sarah McLachlan: Adia, Angel
Smashing Pumpkins: 1979
Script: For the First Time
Sister Hazel: Your Winter
Steely Dan: Barrytown
Switchfoot: Stars, Dare You To Move
Sum 41: In Too Deep
Taylor Swift: Blank Space
Tori Amos: Silent All These Years
Whitney Houston: I Want To Dance with Somebody
Zedd: Clarity

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Haters Back Off Season One Review: A YouTube Celebrity Tries to Make it Episodically

Colleen Ballinger created a unique YouTube persona with legs in Miranda Sings. She's also a likable personality. Sincerity works in the favor of most YouTubers as they create vlogs and tweet to authentically connect with fans and Miranda has succeeded in connecting to her fans outside of her character.

Most of them know she's a very talented singer in her own right. In sketch-sized bits, the Miranda Sings character is quite brilliant as Jimmy Fallon's audience has gotten the chance to see a couple times.  .

Still, this only buys a small amount of of goodwill when you have to transfer an unlikable character into a narrative format. In this version, Miranda Sings, a horrible singer whose flirtations with YouTube gives her delusions of grandeur, tries to achieve fame with her deluded uncle (Steve Little).

The show's inherent weirdness also has a whiff of Tim Burtonesque suburbia (the framing of the house recalls "Edward Scissorhands") and the uncle's circuitously empty get-rich schemes recall Mike Judge.

Part of the origin of Colleen Ballinger's idea was her perception as a classically-trained musician that YouTube was giving rise to a coddled generation of singers who thought they were stars simply because they are getting internet views. That commentary is definitely apparent here: Miranda Sings is bratty to sociopath levels here, but she has an army of enablers. Her mother (Angela Kinsey) is afraid to say no to her, her (possibly intellectually challenged) uncle (Steve Little) fosters the worst parts of her self-esteem by a misguided belief that she'll be a star, and the boy next door inexplicably pines for her as if she's remotely worth the trouble.

The net effect of all these characters' combined idiocy is that you have to suspend your disbelief quite a bit. When you realize how terrible of a person Miranda Sings is, there's no reason to really want to try either. While many worthwhile TV shows have featured irredeemable characters, it's generally a tricky line to pull off.

It generally helps if there's an awareness in the TV show's universe that the person is, in fact, terrible (off the top of my head: "Legit", "The League", "It's Always Sunny", and "Curb Your Enthusiasm") and the show has the level-headed sister Emily but it's hard to explain away all the other people in Miranda's immediate sphere (the pastor who wants to date Miranda's mom) who aren't just yelling for poor Emily to be transferred to child protective services ASAP.

The show has a small smattering of moments of warmth in the first few episodes but for the most part, it's a tiring retread of the same problem-ridden characters continuing to do harm to themselves/ In the medium of TV that can be less tolerable to the viewer.

If you can hang on to the end of the first season,   SPOILERS AHEAD the show starts to turn things upside down in the penultimate episode with a game-changing season finale in which most of the characters wake up to the reality of their experiences. I'm not sure I'd recommend one should watch every episode until you get to the juicy stuff and I would have to fault the show for lacking an movement in the first six episodes.

Still, the season finale takes on an added level of depth that was lacking through much of the season. The ending has the haunting aura of a  Stephen King novel or a Twilight Zone Show episode. Miranda achieves fame but sells her soul and family in the process. I'm not sure if I'd recommend viewers stick it out to the en

Sunday, October 16, 2016

"Documentary Now!" Review through Season 2 Episode 5

Documentaries are generally a pretty esoteric cinematic experience and co-creator Fred Armisen's comedy is also pretty esoteric. As a result putting those together is going to lead to something that's not easy to appreciate or particularly funny every time out of the gate.

While the premise's novelty-- re-imagining popular documentaries with a comic bent -- was enough to get it through the first season, the show usually sinks or swims based on how funny the episode is.
With the exception of Michael Moore, Spike Lee, Morgan Spurlock, or Werner Herzog, very few documentaries have ever surfaced to the national consciousness. As a result, many viewers (including myself) are not going to go to know of the original source either, so the comedy often has to stand on its own in a way that most direct parodies don't.

Despite these challenges, co-producers Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers and BIll Hader do an admirable job of working comic magic out of wayward references.

"The Town, A Gangster, a Festival" approaches the brilliance of Christopher Guest's films (what I'm sure is an influence on these guys) in terms of attention to detail. A whole world is colored in by oodles and oodles of funny characters. This should cater to the wheelhouse of a writing staff-- all SNL alumni  -- where creating characters who can display a memorable quirk within a minute or two of screen time is a prerequisite.

Without the advantage of the large ensemble format, the show faces a harder challenge with generally only two people front and center. The show can sometimes work brilliance here but some episodes have also fallen flat. Among the most brilliant entries are "Kunuk Now" and "Globesman" as both are hilarious based on stand-alone comic characters and broad reference(the primitive Eskimo in the former, the 1950s image of masculinity and the corporate salesman in the latter) rather than a specific cinematic style. "Kunuk Now" tells the story of a kooky producer who jumps production in Alaska and an intellectually-challenged Eskimo who single-handedly creates all our modern ideas of cinematography. "Globesman" takes the squeaky clean image of the 1950's and turns it into a portrait of sheer obnoxiousness.

Among the other episodes that work somewhat well, "The Blue Jean Committee" is an exaggerated character portrait of two men whose lives have gone in opposite directions since fame. It distinguishes itself by being perhaps the only episode in the series with sentimental value (the final hug between the two tugged at my heart strings). Armisen is a music obsessive and his effort falls flat in the similarly themed second season episode "Test Pattern" which feels derivative: It mines similar nuances of "Blue Jean Committee" in mining similar nuances of concert culture without giving us a reason to care.

"Dronez" also roughly works without any source material as it provides a never-ending supply of dumb people and juxtaposes them with an incredibly dangerous situation.

Others like "Juan Likes Rice and Beans" and "The War Room" are middling: They work based on the hyper-specific which will vary. In the case of the former, I saw "Jiro Likes Sushi" which helped me enjoy it at a fuller level.

The rest of the episodes, including the series premiere, fall painfully flat based on hyper-specificity. But that's the risk one takes when they follow their passion and there's a lot to admire by how often they succeed..