Monday, February 27, 2012

You Probably Didn't Hear It Here First: "Rich Girl"

I think once people who lived through the late seventies and early eighties work out their collective shame and angst about it the music of that time will be rehabilitated.

Seriously, I can't be the only one of my generation who thinks--yes, ASIDE from the gradual disillusionment of an entire country--a time when people actually danced to disco music and there were women who looked like this can't have been all bad.

(There's a reason disco songs are played at every bat mitzvah and un-ironic wedding and it is because they are easy and fun to dance to.

"Dancing Queen" may not be ABBA's best work but it is so good at doing what it does.)

But this post is not about disco or what happened to make a country full of people who stood on the National Mall and actually sang "Give Peace A Chance" over and over again "so the President would hear" all vote for Reagan and believe in things like "welfare queens" and "just say NO to drugs".

It's about Hall & Oates.

(But if you figure out that second thing--the idealism of a generation turns sour thing--please do let me know.)


The song: Hall & Oates, "Sara Smile"; 1976

Please do me the brief favor, which for many people will not be too difficult, of forgetting you ever knew anything about Hall & Oates.

Yes, John Oates is an odd-looking guy, and yes, it's unclear what contributions he actually made to the band (although he did co-write "Sara Smile"!), and yes, both Hall AND Oates did get bad plastic surgery and now do embarrassing washed-up things like play three shows in a row at Spirit Mountain Casino, and YES, they did record a truly execrable cover of "Jingle Bell Rock" in 1983.

But if you can find it in your heart to forgive them all those outward representations of their human foibles, and listen to "Sara Smile" as a song,

I think you will like it a lot.


The song: "Rich Girl"'; 1977
The moment: 0:27; 0:53

What "Sara Smile" reveals about Hall & Oates is not only the incredible power, subtlety, and depth of Daryl Hall's voice but also the band's superb sense of timing and pacing. Although "Sara Smile" shows its hand pretty thoroughly just in the not-iconic-but-probably-should-be-now-that-I-really-think-about-it opening four bars, it builds with laconic ease into a lush, layered peak and then fades away just as smoothly and simply.

(This seems like a good point in the progression of this blog to reveal that I actually do enjoy eating plain vanilla ice cream quite a bit, if that illuminates my worldview at all to you.)

"Rich Girl" adds to this formula with its more cutting subject matter and vocal delivery; its corresponding, driving guitar line; and its well-reasoned, sturdy structure.

0:27 represents the moment when "Rich Girl" really kicks off, with the strings and vocals slamming in over a measured, easy drum and guitar base. Although the song will continue to build and grow until my personal favorite line at the very end (2:17, for the curious), the addition at 0:53 of the back-up echo vocals under the "Rich Girl" refrain is what really says to me, "Okay, guys, we are Hall and we are Oates and we are DOING this song right now so you might want to stand back. It is going to get big, and the violins are going to get crazy, and the guitar line might go a little honky-tonk in the middle, and damn it, we are going to pretend to be the Marvellettes here in these backup vocals if we have to, but we are going to make this song work because we are Hall, and we are Oates."

This, and everything I said above about bad plastic surgery and horrifying Christmas carol covers, is put so much more elegantly than I could ever hope to express it for myself on Wikipedia:

"While much of the duo's reputation is due to its sustained pop-chart run in the 1980s, Hall & Oates are also respected for their ability to cross stylistic boundaries."


The question of where pop crosses into rock is a large and divisive one. (Otherwise, why would it make any sense at all to ask someone if they are a "Beatles person" or a "Stones person"? But let's face it, it does and the answer does matter.)

My personal definition--and this explains a lot of why Guns N' Roses are actually my favorite rock band*--involves an element of chutzpah.

The risk of sounding like an inspirational quote on a Luna Bar is too great for me to illuminate this further other than to say that a great pop artist does what needs to be done in order to make a song sound like what it should.

If you can think of one thing you would add or remove from "Rich Girl" that would improve it, I challenge you (no, really, I'm not just being needlessly combative--this would be completely awesome) to e-mail me at

In the meantime I'll be practicing my glissandos and four-on-the-floor drumbeats in preparation for my major defense of disco.


*The post in which this proclivity of mine swims up to the light from the murky depths in which it currently resides is going to be, no doubt about it, EPIC.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Just A Song That I Like: Peter Fox, "Schwarz zu Blau"

After some reflection, I've determined that the only way I can maintain both this blog and my already-tenuous grasp on sanity is to occasionally just drop the Pop Music Will Save Your Life shtick* and simply share a song that I think is a cool song.

Peter Fox's "Schwarz zu Blau" came into my life just last night. The friend who introduced to me shared his own interpretation, which is that the narrator is walking the streets of Berlin at night watching the sky turn "slowly black to blue" (the title of the song) and contemplating the changes in the city and its population in the last century.

To which I say: KLINGT GUT.

(There's certainly plenty to contemplate, and the psychedelic nature of this video contributes quite a bit to that kind of historical reflection in its own way.)

What caught my notice about "Schwarz zu Blau" is the Lord of the Rings-style drama that really soars underneath the chorus. I definitely think it supports my friend's assertion that this song somehow encompasses 20th-century Germany.


Please enjoy.


*Only 35% of this Pop Music Will Save Your Life shtick is actually shtick; the other 65% percent is dead serious.

Update 3/31/12: Had to switch out the videos since the one I originally posted fell victim to Copyright Wars. Plz enjoy the song still, but ignore what I said about the "psychedelic nature of the video". This video is not all that psychedelic.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Tackling The Greats: Fleetwood Mac, Rumours

The story of the making of Rumours is well-known.

It's a band of mixed British and American members, and that might not seem like it matters but oh, it MATTERS. Everybody loves everybody else and also hates them. (Seems to be pretty common where matters of the production of great pop music are concerned.) They're all going through breakups and on drugs and at the beach. (Which probably is the best place to be if you must be going through a breakup whilst on drugs.) Stevie Nicks is there, which implies a certain surreality in every case.

AND the only member of the band who was not sleeping with someone else in the band, Mick Fleetwood, was unceremoniously left by his wife.

Sorry, Mick Fleetwood.

And then Fleetwood Mac literally--literally--lock themselves in a windowless room to make Rumours.


"Best Pop Album Ever Made" is not a designation I think could ever possibly exist in the universe in which I--and hopefully also some other people, a universe to oneself sounds pretty lonely-- exist.

Even with an album as cohesive as Rumours, I can't consider songs as anything other than songs. It's (part of) why I could never write one of those 33 1/3 books where people contemplatively navel-gaze about an album as a whole.

(There is one possible exception and it is Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark, but I don't know when I will be brave enough to take that one on.)

So I hereby propose the following awards and honors for Rumours:

The song: Fleetwood Mac, "Go Your Own Way"; 1977
The moment: 0:31

  • Best Album To Listen To At That Stage Of A Breakup Where You Have 95% Convinced Yourself That You Believe In Statements like "You can go your own way" and "I don't want to know the reasons why love keeps right on walking on down the line"
  • Best Breakup Vocals to Lindsey Buckingham for the line "If I could, baby, I'd give you my world/But how can I, when you won't TAKE it from me?"

The song: "I Don't Want To Know"
The moment: 1:57
  • Best Repetitive Driving Guitar Line Underscoring Essentially Passive Aggressive Nature Of Song
  • The Anti-Sonny And Cher Award for Best Combative Non-Harmonies
  • Best Cuttingly Ironic Hand-Claps for Those Hand-Claps Falling Immediately After The Line "You tell me that I'm crazy/It's nothing that I didn't know"

The song: "Dreams"
The moment: 0:30
  • Best Lyrical Portrayal Of An Obsessive's Reaction To Loss for the following line:
Listen carefully to the sound of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat, breaks you down
In the stillness of remembering what you had
And what you lost
And what you had
And what you lost

Best Use Of Tambourine, Dramatic.


And lastly, "The Chain".

The song: "The Chain"
The moment: 3:45

I have no award for this song. I once spent an hours-long plane trip listening to "The Chain" very loudly on repeat (I had headphones on; I'm not a monster) and convincing myself it was perfect.

I still believe it.

For instance, as evinced by the Anti-Sonny And Cher Award above this is characteristic of many of their songs, but I love how Buckingham and Nicks are pretty much just each attacking their vocal lines without trying to blend or harmonize.

This is a case in which it's impossible to tell how the backstory of the album has affected the perception of the album. Do I think Nicks and Buckingham are giving their competitive, cutting all to every line of this song because of their vocal performance or because I know and love the romantic story of two brilliant musicians who collaborate brilliantly and love each other brilliantly and also despise each other brilliantly?

I think it's intrinsic to the song, but you may disagree*. This is the only song on Rumours on which all members of Fleetwood Mac put down their hookahs, left their beach houses, and went into that windowless room to collaborate.

"The Chain"'s seemingly simple lyrics lead down a rabbit hole of interpretation. (On the other hand, one could argue that any song one listens to on a five-hour plane trip on repeat will lead down a rabbit hole of something, most likely actual madness.)

What is "the chain"? I started out--we're talking listens 1-20--pretty sure it represented a marriage vow, or bonds of commitment more generally. But then I convinced myself on listen 21 or so that "the chain" was the cycle of dysfunctional relationships that many people find themselves trapped in, and that "I can still hear you saying we would never break the chain" is a reference to some pessimistic prediction about the FLEETING NATURE OF LOVE that ultimately, and bittersweetly of course, came true.

Obviously I am in love with my own interpretation of that lyric, but this song can do that to you.

And then there's the fact that the relatively restrained vocal line leads to the musical break starting at minute 3. It starts with a simple and foreboding bass line (evidence of the band's bluesy past) and then explodes into Lindsay Buckingham's unrestrained, untrained guitar which you think will not get any more passionate and intense and then it KEEPS GETTING MORE PASSIONATE AND INTENSE. (The moment chosen above is the one during which I personally feel the guitar line hits its passionate and intense climax but I think that's individual.)

Over the course of many listens I have convinced myself that this minute-long musical interlude represents a pure musical expression of the frustration and pain endemic to HUMAN EXISTENCE.

But you can convince yourself of a lot of things on a plane.


*Disagreement on this point and others (including on this post's omission of "Second Hand News") can be directed to

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

There's Something That I've Just Got To Say: Why In Bed With Amy Wilson

When I was 20 years old, I took a Spring Break road trip to Memphis with four of my closest friends in the world. This was a formative experience both analytically and personally, and as such will probably come up again on this blog.

On our last day in Memphis, we decided on the spur of the moment to visit this "Stax Records Museum" we saw on a brochure at the hotel. As you can see on the Wikipedia page, it looks like exactly nothing from the outside. But on the inside it is actually, you know, pretty much the Platonic ideal of What A Museum Should Be -- totally immersive, immensely interesting, and unforgettable. Also, there is an entire room devoted to Isaac Hayes, including both the car Shaft drove AND his chain-mail vest.

One of the many things I learned from the Stax Records Museum was that the pioneering soul producers at the time loved to use big, brassy horn lines because they sounded interestingly similar to the human voice. (I also learned that the label was, wonderfully, known for valuing musical collaboration between members of different races--sadly rare at the time apparently, despite what a good idea it obviously is.)

The first, cosmically less-important, topic is what this post is about, and it's surprisingly wide. I expect to cover only the smallest slice of it today.


The song: Ollie and the Nightingales, "I Got A Sure Thing"; 1968
The moment: N/A; see below

This song is a pretty typical example of an inoffensive pop-soul song in 1968. Notice the horns. They're present and accounted for, sure, but they're not the only thing going on there in the background. You've got the soaring violins, a pop music staple that everybody throughout time seems to love and admire. The doo-woppy, Motown-y backing vocals. The adorable, occasional glockenspiel hit.

Now another song from the same year. (Turn the volume up.)

The song: Aretha Franklin, "(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone"; 1968
The moment: 0:44

Okay, let's be fair: whoever this "Ollie" of Ollie and the Nightingales was, he was no Aretha Franklin. (Very few people are.)

And admittedly, some of the striking differences between this song and "I Know I Got A Sure Thing" can be accounted for with the simple fact that Aretha Franklin is A Soul Goddess For the Ages and Ollie was just Some Dude. But let's also be fair about the fact that the horn line in this song is AWESOME, and when it punches in after "I've just been so blue" and before "since you've been gone!" that is a moment that I would describe as downright stirring.
There is so much I'd like to say about this song that I can't figure out how to say, and that's a feeling that drives me insane. It's also what has kept me coming back to this song since I was 20 and went to Memphis with four of (at the time) my greatest friends in the world. Everything changes and so has that, and so those memories are less than completely positive. 
But, for today: The way the horns jump and play and slide around Aretha's vocal line is brilliantly playful and rich--the ideal showcase.


Why pop music? Why In Bed With Amy Wilson?

I don't want to get too mystical about it--oh, who am I kidding, I want nothing BUT to get too mystical about it--but it seems to me that the art of pop music lies in creating a perfect setting in which to hear all the many things the human voice is capable of.

Soul music uses horn to create this setting. Bluegrass music uses fiddle. Electronic music uses electronics. Guns N' Roses used Jack Daniels.

(I'll get to them soon enough.)

I called this blog In Bed With Amy Wilson because I love, just like people have loved this since the dawn of Pop Music Time, to listen to pop music and lie in my bed and think.

It's a perfect setting in which to hear all the many things the human (voice) is capable of.


Don't Think I Don't Think About It: The Mature Breakup Song

It is my firm and fervent belief that in every truly great pop song, there is one moment in which all the various elements come together to take the song to the Next Level.

I've come to understand that I experience this Next Level in the way that, perhaps, others experience transcendental meditation or the starvation-induced euphoria that is day 2 of an expensive juice fast and that, perhaps, I am not alone in this.

It is also my belief, equally firm and fervent, that truly great pop songs are all around us.

This is In Bed With Amy Wilson.


The song: Dave Mason, "We Just Disagree"; 1977
The moment: 1:05

This is what I call a Grocery Store Song. It's got that much-maligned soft-rock quality of easiness, but a dedicated listen reveals depth.

This 1977 semi-hit features a man--one pictures him in a Kris Kristofferson-style denim shirt, well-worn--describing with a devastating combination of affection and coolness the all-too-common situation that most pop songs (and, let's face it, people) handle as the harbinger of the apocalypse: seeing one's ex for the first time after an amicable breakup.

"Been away," says the man in the song's brilliant opening lines. "Haven't seen you in a while. How've you been? Have you changed your style?"

These mastery of these lyrics lies in the simple fact that this is only one side of the conversation. But it's realistic, and perfect: of course she's changed her style. They broke up and he went, simply, "away" but he's still the kind of guy who asks her if she got a haircut. He was the perfect boyfriend, and now he'll be the perfect ex-boyfriend, and he'll do it all with a seeming lack of awareness of his own easy perfection.

(Most people who have lived past the age of 20 have met this kind of person, and so most people who have lived past the age of 20 know that this kind of person can inspire feelings of either unparalleled rancor or intense infatuation. But most often some combination of the two.)

The very ease and simplicity of the music itself, with its sweetly soaring 1970s orchestral pop arrangement, underscores the confidence the narrator projects.

"You don't seem the same," he says, "Seems you've lost your feel for me." This line, tossed off casually, might be a mature, reasonable (and probably honest) thing to say after a breakup (or so it seems to mostly immature, unreasonable me) -- but it's also unbearably cutting, considering we know nothing about the circumstances of this breakup or what led to the loss of this unheard woman's "feel".

Then he throws out the song's major argument (which happens of course to also be its chorus): "So let's leave it alone, cause we can't see eye to eye/There ain't no good guy/There ain't no bad guy/There's only you and me/And we just disagree." The major chords build to a tense and pretty point, and after just a BEAT longer than you think it should take the drums kick in.

It's sweet. It's beautiful. It might seem to lack zest. But the very fact that this unnamed Kris Kristofferson knockoff has to suggest that they "leave it alone" when so far their interaction has been literally nothing but charming pleasantries. What is the issue that lurks under the surface here?

I think any person who has lived past the age of 20 could fill in his or her particular blank.

That's the Moment. It reveals, in all this creamy 70s pop smoothness, the bitter kernel that is what's unresolved between these people who have a whole song dedicated to how resolved their Mature Breakup has been.

Cleanup on aisle 12!


The song: Darius Rucker, "Don't Think I Don't Think About It"; 2008
The moment: N/A; see below

In my very first post I am breaking my only rule. This is not a truly great pop song.

It is, however, a wonderful experience in addition to being one of the only other Mature Breakup Songs I know.

Darius Rucker is, to say the least, an unlikely country star. You might know him better as Hootie.

(of the Blowfish)

My first Pop Country phase was in the summer of 2009, when Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me" ruled the charts, and took place almost entirely in the form of obsessively watching country music videos on the Great American Country channel which I mysteriously had in my apartment. Darius Rucker was just coming to prominence.

(You can NEVER understand how annoying commercials for Busch's Baked Beans are until you've spent at least 100 hours watching GAC. They always involve a running gag where a talking dog crashes innocent Americans' tailgate parties.)

The world of Pop Country is a strange and wild place which I hope to better address in the fullness of time BUT suffice to say it's not a place where you would expect to find Hootie.

But one of the most wonderful things about the genre of Pop Country is that it truly respects talent, even though it is chocked with factory-line songs about Good Country Boys and Good Christian Bitches by singers with names like Easton Corbin and bands with names like Little Big Town. This is why it is also one of the few genres that regularly honors and plays the NEW music of artists who are 40 and older (and there are many of these: when Brooks & Dunn announced their retirement to much fanfare in 2009, guitarist Kix Brooks was 54 and singer Ronnie Dunn was 56).

So even if you are black-- even if you seem kind of sensitive and political-- even if you are best known for singing lyrics like "I'm such a baby cause the Dolphins make me cry/ But there's nothing I can do/ Been looking for a girl like you"-- if you write a good song they WILL play the video on Great American Country. Several times a day.

And "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" is a good song. It's not a great one, but I dare you to watch that video and NOT want to hang out in a sun-dappled barn with that wonderfully friendly looking dude and drink whiskey and talk about What Might Have Been.

Don't think I don't think about it!


Topics to come on In Bed With Amy Wilson:

- Why In Bed With Amy Wilson?
- Soul Music And the Spring of the Soul
- Seriously, Guys, I Love Morrissey and You Could Too
- Is Neutral Milk Hotel's "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea" the Best Folk Song Of Our Time (And What Does That Say About Us)?
- "I'd Rather Be Run Over By A Real Train Than Listen to 'Peace Train'": The Agony and the Ecstasy of Cat Stevens
- Moonstruck and Billy Joel: Who Is Amy Wilson?
- Why It Means Everything That Cher's Twitter Page Says Cher (Cher)

I also like to talk about movies, the possibility of being abducted by aliens, forms of hysteria in modern-day life, the British Royal Family, and nail polish.