Monday, December 31, 2012

A Plaque of Platinum Status is Whack if I'm Not the Baddest: Songs to Drive to

And I don't mean like drive like drive in a car, I mean like drive like be driven.


Earlier today I was in a situation that does not hit me where I am strongest: a large dark room filled with mostly-strangers having emotions.

(Cigarette smoke used to crowd away some of the overwhelming emotion-ness of bars but now there is just no respite!)

Anyway, suffice to say shit like that is hard for me but I was doing decently until I decided you know what, enough, and I went home and ate donuts and watched Vh1 with my friend because you know what, that is where the real joy of life lies for me.

And ON VH1 WAS THE ABSOLUTE PERFECT SHOW FOR THE SITUATION: "100 Greatest Pop Songs of the 00s".

Because like yeah, why the fuck should we wait until a "reasonable distance" from the 00s has passed before we start nostalgizing them? Who decides a reasonable distance? And heck, a LOT of great pop music lives in the 00s and maybe instead of nostalgizing, we could think of it as eulogizing.

One of these songs in the top 5 was Eminem's 2002 classic, "Lose Yourself", which, yes, is just an amazingly good song -- actually let's just pause here and talk about what an amazingly good song "Lose Yourself" is for a hot second.

1. The perfect crescendo of narrative that sweeps you from "nervous dude just off stage" to "desperately ambitious person who knows a lot is riding on his imminent performance". If that last verse where he thinks to himself "This may be the only opportunity that I got" and walks on stage (around 4:14 in the version I linked above) does not grab you by the intestines and just COMPEL YOU well then, I do not know about you.

2. It's a very cinematic moment and a very cinematic song (no wonder since it was basically the backbone of 8 Mile and was also -- deservedly so -- the first rap song to win an Oscar), but it's also very self-referential in this delicious way when he says "and there's no movie, there's no Mekhi Phifer, this is my life". What he's saying is, "In the movie version there's no tension because we know the hero must make it, but in real life which is where all of us are living, there is NO guarantee the hero will make it and that is scary and motivating as shit."

3. When he says, "I guess it's old, partner, but the beat goes on da-da-dum da-dum" because man, I believe that Eminem IS brilliant and does nothing unintentionally, not least mentioning a person who is best known in pretty much every aspect of her life for bringing it COMPLETELY hard. (I told you everything comes back to Cher eventually.)


But let's get back to this other song, a lesser-known (somewhat) cousin of "Lose Yourself" that is admittedly not quite as brilliant but is still very good.

The song: Eminem ft. Nate Dogg, "Till I Collapse"; 2002

The opening is pretty similar to "Lose Yourself", and the military theme in the next few seconds bears a distinct similarity to "Jesus Walks", with which I will always associate that gambit although it came out two years later than "Till I Collapse".

The reason I love "Till I Collapse" is that it's just as gut-twisty and compelling as "Lose Yourself" but the scenario it depicts is much closer to Eminem's actual life situation at that time -- not the nervous no-name about to see if he can make it, but the newly-established musician dealing with a meteoric rise to fame and desperately searching for something that maintains his drive although he has achieved everything he could have previously dreamed. The recognition, the fame, the money, Eminem had all of that in 2002 (he really hit big in 2000).  In this song he's found what can keep him going, and it's his own pride.

He'll keep working as hard as he can because he's realized, to put this in the softest and New-Age-iest terms possible, because he's realized that if he doesn't feel good about himself inside, all of the outside trappings are empty.

Is this interpretation a bit Free To Be You and Me?  Indeed it is! But tell me if it doesn't seem true to you of people we call "driven", that their drive creates itself.


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I Was Wasting My Life Always Thinking About Myself: Happy Birthday to Me!

By the time you read this, it will be my 25th birthday.

Also the first birthday LITERALLY IN MY ENTIRE MEMORY OF MY ENTIRE LIFE that I have not felt some angst about being a year older.

When I was a teenager this was a nameless angst, but by the time I got to college I could put my finger on it and it was named I Am Worried That My Lack Of Blinding Success By This Age Means I Am A Talentless Hack Who Should Let Her Dreams Be Like Dust In The Wind.

Which is, I now realize, evidently ridiculous -- but that is incredibly hard to see for a certain kind of person, a certain kind of person I most certainly was, the kind of person who sits around in coffee shops the first week of her freshman year of college lamenting that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at 19 so what's the point of even trying.

Fortunately, the side of me that tries without realizing it (we can call this the "rational side") is small yet mighty and now, at the lofty age of 25, I can see that this side of me has propelled me along and will continue to propel me along as long as I get out of my own damn way.


It's my birthday so I can write about whatever weird half-baked shit I want. And today that weird shit is two things that have interested me recently: The popular HBO television show Game of Thrones, and the wonderful world of modern-day royal-watching.

(One of these is easy to admit that I like; the other regularly makes people unconsciously back away from me in bars. Strangely, the latter is not the one of the two that involves graphic depictions of beheadings.

Weird world.)

In any case, I could expound on each of these at length but I'll restrain myself to talking about what connects them. Namely, systems of inherited power that depend on a majority buy-in to maintain. Like any sort of royalty or nobility or Powerful Families thing.

These systems seem completely archaic, particularly to American audiences, which is why they are best observed in past-seeming environments like Game of Thrones or in their decay (which appeals to our sense of democratic righteousness) as in Downton Abbey.

BUT as the thriving monarchies of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Spain, Japan, Thailand, etc etc demonstrate, they are very much still alive in the present.

It increasingly seems to me that what holds these systems together in a time when they make little sense is a respect for age. A sense that age makes you wiser, better, more capable of representing a country, or of leading a people. Sure there is youth and beauty in any given monarchy, that's what heirs are for. But that's why they are heirs. Not fully seasoned yet.

When a monarch like Queen Elizabeth II (or her counterpart in Denmark, Queen Margrethe II, who seems completely awesome) celebrates an anniversary of 40, 50, 60 years on the throne, what is really being celebrated is not just the passing of time but also the accumulation of it in one person. The sense that there is at least one person who has borne witness to time as it rushes by the rest of us, who are too busy to notice.

It's a beautiful way to think of aging. It's like how you see as you grow older a new purpose of friendship, because all of your past selves live in your friends and theirs all live in you.

That's how people grow up.


The song: Morrissey, "That's How People Grow Up"; 2008


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Wild And Sweet The Words Repeat: Merry Christmas.

Here's a Christmas carol you don't hear too often, based on an 1864 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lamenting the state of the country during the Civil War.

I like this version a lot, and I like the song itself because it doesn't obscure the darkness and fear of troubled times or pretend that these go away on Christmas -- but that Christmas goes on despite, and through, and in the face of them.


The song: Johnny Cash and June Carter, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"; 1963


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Let's Be Like Children This Christmastime: Modern Love

The modern Christmas song is a tough thing to pull off.

For years my dad and I have joked that all we need to do to strike it rich in this life is somehow write the next hit Christmas carol, one that will be covered by generations to come, and then live easy forevermore on the royalties.

Somehow we always get as far as the title and then no further. But that's okay because the title is the most fun part, right? So far the frontrunners have been "I Don't Want To Take You To The Emergency Room on Christmas Eve" and "It's Hanukkah, Get the Flame-Thrower!". (We're an inclusive family.)

Neither of these concepts have really, shall we say, taken root (Dad, I think we'd be better off devoting our energies to our other get-rich-quick idea, writing the Next Great SyFy Channel Original Movie*) but that's because the modern Christmas song is a tough thing to pull off.


The song: Moody Blues, "Don't Need A Reindeer"; 2003

I like this one though. Because it reminds me -- and this year I evidently sorely needed reminding -- that Christmas is supposed to be fun. And that Christmas is supposed to be about showing the people you love that you love them.  That, I can do. I can't really do the consumerist aspect and I can't really do the religious aspect, but I can certainly take a day or two or three for love and family and togetherness.

I find this song to be a reminder of that, and I also find it truly romantic (So if you see me on the street, no need to ask me what would please me -- it's your love, believe me, this Chriiiiistmaaastime is such a nice line.)

I've felt a bit like a Grinch this year, so I'd like to issue a formal apology to the assembled on that front and say that if you're happily in love this Christmas and planning on merrily sledding or sitting by a roaring fire in a ski lodge or drinking hot chocolate as snowflakes gently drift by your lighted window or otherwise engaging in any holiday romantic activities of the sort depicted in the video for the seminal modern holiday classic "Last Christmas" by Wham!,

please accept this song as your soundtrack, with my compliments.


*So far the frontrunner is a little film we call Shopacalypse!, in which hapless holiday shoppers are trapped in a mall and forced to defeat the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

And Wonder If You Are Watching Snowflakes Too: A Tearjerker Christmas

By night I am deeply embroiled in an intensive cultural-criticism training program (eating microwave popcorn by myself and watching cable television) but my day job is about children.

I won't say too much about it, just that I am fortunate enough to work for a place whose core philosophy is based around this strange idea that "children" are "people" -- with thoughts and dreams and hopes and senses of humor and sad things in their lives just like you and me.

And if you've ever spent significant time around kids who are not your kids, you probably know that while "children" taken as a group are just about as likely to be kind or interesting as "people" taken as a group, individual children can be astonishingly difficult to not fall totally in love with.

I referenced recently that I think heart responds to heart, and that's as true between people as it is between people and songs. And kids -- even though they are capable of incredibly frustrating habits -- kids have heart coming out their ears. 


The song: Michael Jackson, "Little Christmas Tree"; 1973

Back at nearly the beginning of my involvement with this organization, before I worked there, before I even suspected that one day I could work there, I went to an elementary school one Friday morning and found that it was the day of their Halloween parade.

As volunteers we usually sat with students in their classrooms, doing things like encouraging students to write their names at the top of their worksheets and reading over persuasive essays about school uniforms. It was great. It was a glimpse of what life is actually like in the day-to-day for children, which is something most of us have totally forgotten.

But on this day, we joined a handful of other adults lining the halls and watched the Halloween parade. It was 2009. And every tenth kid, boy or girl, was dressed as Michael Jackson.

The thing was frickin' ADORABLE. Kids, particularly the younger ones, have this off-balance, glazed-eye way of parading that makes costumes like Indiana Jones and Miss America unbearably charming. 

The day was a momentous one for me because I saw for the first time the humanity of children. And seeing children dressed as Michael Jackson (who had died earlier that year) brought home to me as well the incredible pathos of his story.

Michael Jackson was a gifted child, with talent so immense that it catapulted not only him, but his entire family, to not only fame, but ultra-mega-fame. Talent like that is scary because it never happens without a price.

The child Michael Jackson was incredibly sad and lonely. This was obscured by his mega-fame and the danceability of his music, but no one sells "all alone on Christmas Eve" like that if they don't feel it.


To pretend that children don't have the emotional depth to feel sadness and loneliness is a defense mechanism against the sadness and loneliness of life. An understandable impulse.

But one of the most beautiful things about children is their power for empathy and their ability to identify with others -- a power and ability, I think, that really exemplifies what is most beautiful about humanity, and that also indicates in itself the capacity for emotional pain.

Very few children are Michael Jackson, whose mega-talent means he represents something greater than himself simply by being himself.

To my mind he represents a very-hard-to-accept truth about the vividness and darkness of life, as seen by a child.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Just One Psychological Drama After Another: Wild!

It will most likely come as no surprise that I'm a person who can get really melancholy and self-pitying and just terrible. (Have I ever hidden how much I truly love Morrissey?)

Some of my favorite artists and songs are those that help me indulge this tendency, but that also help me  view it through a slightly different lens -- an ironic remove, or a sense of humor, or a sense of the general absurdity of everything.

Right now I'm really digging on these two songs, both from Erasure's 1989 album Wild! One lowers me into the pit where I frankly enjoy wallowing for limited amounts of time, the other lifts me back up. Here they are.

(Previously: Ray LaMontagne and The Pariah Dogs, "Like Rock & Roll and Radio", "Old Before Your Time")


The song: Erasure, "How Many Times?"

If I couldn't hear the lyrics I would almost believe this was a modern Christmas song, particularly in the bridge. There is a melancholy festiveness to this song that makes it a perfect complement to an activity I find myself inadvertently indulging in pretty often these days, namely walking around in a black trench coat past windows filled with lighted happy holiday decorations and couples.

And then there's this.

The song: Erasure, "Drama!"

This whole song is just gold. I started quoting my favorite lyrics but there are so many of them and they are all delivered with the perfect snideness. (The British pronunciation of "drama" as "drahmer" particularly enhances this song.)

If this song can't make you laugh at yourself and your black trench coat, there may really be no hope for you.

After all, "God only knows the infinite complexities of love."


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

If I Had To Do The Same Again I Would My Friend: "Fernando"

As I've mentioned before, I often have to force myself to turn outward.

When I start to feel stressed at work or the holiday-time blues or just in general down, it's never been so easy to get wrapped up in my own feelings of moderately severe misery and general patheticness. And to say "wrapped up" will hopefully encapsulate this feeling for the (many) among us who have found ourselves all damp and mummified in self-pity like, frickin', Frodo in the lair of Shelob or something.


 And so tonight what I have for you is a Story Song.

(Previously on In Bed With Amy Wilson: Clarence Carter, "Patches"; Reba McEntire, "Fancy")


The song: ABBA, "Fernando"; 1976

This song is just beautiful. Musically it sounds incredibly magical and fantastical and like there should be golden-winged dragons floating through the sky as it plays; lyrically it's SUPER sound, tight storytelling.

My favorite line is "we were young and full of life and none of us prepared to die, and I'm not ashamed to say the roar of guns and cannons almost made me cry", but REALLY, it's all so good.

I think the real strength of a story song lies in its brevity. Four minutes is nearly no time to establish a plot, characters, anything truly compelling -- and writers know that writing short is much harder than writing long.

A great story song can be summed up in one line, but most good stories don't really take more than that: "An aging veteran of an unsuccessful rebellion reminds his friend, whose memory is fading, of their long-ago moment of pride and glory."

(I don't know why I think the narrator in "Fernando" is supposed to be a man, but I sure do.)


My love for songs like "Fernando" is why I have to say publicly that I am not only slightly queasy about the term "guilty pleasure" these days, but that I actively disagree with the concept and see it as -- well there is just no other way to say this -- ANATHEMA to my ongoing personal philosophy of music.

The only way for a song to be something you feel guilty about is if you suppose that the act of enjoying it is somehow morally questionable. How could that possibly be?

Who you are is not what you like.

There are NO possible objective criteria to evaluate whether or not any given song is "good", other than if YOU think it is. (That no-possible-objective-criteria thing really makes people nervous, which is why the whole reprehensible culture of music-ranking and according coolness-ranking even exists.)

If you respond to a piece of music with your heart (as opposed to your feet or your hips or your sense of humor), the odds are that that piece of music was made with heart. Somewhere along the line.

And heart is not, will never be, something I can encourage anyone ever to be ashamed of.