Since I watched Moonrise Kingdom recently, I thought it might be interesting to listen to a little Françoise Hardy. She doesn’t especially have a style. She sings a lot of different styles. It might be best to consider her a chanteuse. She is able to make me long for being in love. And sad. (More or less the same thing.)
But her early work is that classic French pop sound that I never seem to tire of. (Or that I just still like because it hasn’t been playing on the radio my whole life like the British Invasion.) A lot of Françoise Hardy’s albums are named, Françoise Hardy. She released albums of that name in 1962, 1963, 1963 (that’s right), 1965, and 1968. Today, we are interested in the 1968, Françoise Hardy. As is typical of these Morning Music posts, I’m limited to the videos I can find. But it really is a great one. It is “Comment Te Dire Adieu?” (“How to Say Goodbye?”) It is Serge Gainsbourg‘s lyrics for Goland and Gold’s It Hurts to Say Goodbye.
I’ve known the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” for a very time. But I seldom pay attention to lyrics of a song that I hear casually. Today, I looked them up. It’s pretty good. I like the connection of self-mutilation (“I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel”) and heroin use (“The needle tears a hole… Try to kill it all away”). I’m not so fond of the externalization of the self (“What have I become, my sweetest friend”). But that’s a choice, and very typical of the genre.
The wonderful thing about a song like this is that everyone can related. You don’t have to be self-mutilator or a junkie. Even 14 year old kids feel like they’ve experienced it. When Trent Reznor wrote the song, he was only 29. And his greatest period of depression and despair came years after writing the song.
Depression Is Not Absolute
In the 12 Step mythology, one must reach “rock bottom” before one can “recover.” But the truth is that there is no rock bottom. As bad as you feel, it almost certainly will get worse. All that happens is that you get better at dealing with it. Depression and despair become decoupled.
I remember one of Vincent van Gogh’s last letters to Theo where he noted that he could get some canvases and paint and do some work, but comments what would be the point. I’ve misinterpreted that comment however, thinking that it came right before van Gogh’s suicide. But it didn’t. After writing that, he did get some canvases and paints and did continue on. In fact, he appears to have shot himself while painting.
Anyway, we continue on. Artists whine for us because it is certainly true that no one is interested in hearing us whine. Everybody’s got their troubles. And everybody thinks theirs are as bad as they get. Don’t make that mistake.
I couldn’t find a good copy of the album version. The change of “I wear this crown of shit” to “I wear this crown of thorns” is pretty much unforgivable. It trivializes everything else in the song. Sorry about that.
The Fourth of July always makes me think of the Minutemen’s song “I Felt Like a Gringo.” It tells the (true) story of the band taking a day trip down to Mexico on 4 July 1982. It ends with the line, “Why’d I spend the fourth in someone else’s country?”
I guess that’s why I don’t much go in for this holiday. I feel like an outsider. I think that’s a lot of my desire to live in Mexico: if I must feel like an outsider, I might as well be one.
Anyway, “I Felt Like a Gringo” was first released on the EP, Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat. It was the first Minutemen album I bought. Less than three years later, D Boon would be dead in a tragic car accident, and one of the best bands ever was finished.
Happy Fourth of July, everyone!
Got a ton of white boy guilt, that’s my problem,
Obstacle of joy, one reason to use some drugs.
Slept on a Mexican beach — slept in trash
American trash — thinking too much can ruin a good time.
I asked a Mexican who ran a bar for Americans
“Who won,” I said, “The election?”
He laughed, I felt like a gringo.
They played a song and they had some fun with us.
Why can’t you buy a good time?
Why are there soldiers in the street?
Why’d I spend the fourth in someone else’s country?
We will finish off this Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion week with The Smithereens and probably their best known song, “Blood and Roses.” It’s what I think of as “power pop,” but most people wouldn’t classify it like that. It’s very pleasant, melody-driven music with a bit more heft to it than pop normally has (or had).
The song has a very nice bass riff. And there is something very compelling about Pat DiNizio’s voice. The verse is almost modal. The interesting thing about that is I was always obsessed with that when I was writing songs in my youth. But the truth is that as a listener, at least now, it is fairly boring. I suppose what I used to like about it was its hypnotic quality. But the song breaks into a more interesting chorus.
Lyrically, there isn’t much there. But interestingly, we are back to the image of blood. Still, it’s distinctly adolescent material, “I want to live but I don’t belong.” It reminds me of a stand-up comedian I saw decades ago. I’m paraphrasing, but she said, “I found this poem I wrote when I was 15, ‘The moon is high; the sea is calm; I hate my parents.” Obviously “Blood and Roses” is more thoughtful, but not by a whole lot.
Just the same, it’s quite an enjoyable tune. And I suppose we can all relate to the basic idea of the death of love. Now that I think about it, the song is kind of like American Music Club’s Firefly, but from a writer who didn’t drink himself to sleep each night. That may be why “Blood and Roses” was a hit, and “Firefly” was not. But it’s still the case that American Music Club is a better band. Feel free to disagree.
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Continuing our Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion week, we have N-Trance’s remix, rap version of “Stayin’ Alive.” It isn’t an 80s song. It is playing at the club when Romy and Michele go out before even hearing about the reunion. But I thought I would highlight it because I hate the original song.
Look, it isn’t that I hate disco. The truth is, there was a lot of great disco. I just can’t stand that falsetto lead. It is quite a bit less annoying with the harmonies in the chorus. Also, the lyrics are ridiculous, although that’s at least true to form. The rap lyrics (by Ricardo da Force, who is also the rapper) are along the same lines, but quite a bit stronger. (Just to be clear, N-Trance is more of a music project, with two producers heading it and a floating, but dependable group of musicians helping out.)
I can’t say that I like this version of “Stayin’ Alive.” But I certainly don’t dislike it as much as I do the original. But the song works in the film, because when Romy initially has the idea that they will impress their classmates because of the cool lives they have, she isn’t wrong on the second part of that. Certainly Christie Masters-Christensen wouldn’t have been going out to clubs and listening to music that hip.
Watching a bit of the film again, I’m reminded that Mira Sorvino is so much better a dancer than Lisa Kudrow. Kudrow is amazingly stiff in all the dance numbers; she reminds me of myself! Or maybe it’s just great acting, because somehow it seems to fit her character.
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I think there are a couple of songs by The Go-Go’s in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. But I picked “We Got the Beat” because I know it was in there and I don’t want to go back to the film and search around. Anyway, it’s an amazing, and maybe even great, song. Writing something that charmingly awkward is really hard. I can do the awkward, but certainly during the last 20 years, no one thinks what I write is charming — in fact, they can’t even bear it.
But I was wondering earlier if I considered The Go-Go’s a punk band. Being of limited skill is really not what punk is about. For example, Minutemen were amazing musicians. And overall, I don’t think The Go-Go’s were a punk band. But they definitely had those roots. You can definitely hear this on the original Stiff Records version of “We Got the Beat” from 1980. The music is raw; it reminds me of early Kinks. But more than that, it pays explicit tribute to the “girl groups” of decades previous. And that is very much one kind of punk music. I would say that is ultimately what makes Velvet Underground and Modern Lovers punk.
The later recording of We Got the Beat (the one in the film) is much more polished. It’s still arguably a great tune in the tradition of Martha and the Vandellas’ Dancing in the Streets. (According to Wikipedia, the song “evolved” from The Miracles’ “Going to a Go Go,” but I don’t especially hear it.) Regardless, it’s a fun song. But I think this earlier version is more fun because I can imagine them in Beehive hairdos. Just click “play” and close your eyes and imagine.
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I’m going to veer off the Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion soundtrack and go back almost a decade to present “Just What I Needed” by The Cars. But let’s face it: it would fit in fine in the film. And there is much to recommend it. The truth is that music hadn’t change over that period of time, although admittedly, this song sounded pretty new back in 1978.
I’ve long favored guitar focused pop music, unless you are going to do something as pretty as Breaking Us in Two (although Joe Jackson was rather good at doing guitar based songs as well). But that’s the great thing about 1978: it was still before the explosion of FM synthesizers. There’s no pretense! “Just What I Needed” is using something very much like the Minimoog. Blessed be the analog god! I also like the guitar work on it — well, the lead work, which gives me chills. The rhythm guitar is pretty standard pop-rock.
What’s problematic is the lyrics. They are entirely typical of everything Ric Ocasek would ever write. He gets a good idea and then takes it nowhere. The best example of that is My Best Friend’s Girl, an idea that is so rich with emotional potential that he mines for exactly nothing.
Similarly, “Just What I Needed” means, what? I never get the impression that Ocasek knows. I guess we are supposed to take “I needed someone to bleed” as meaningful. But all I can find in it is that the word “bleed” rhymes with “feed.” Does he mean suggest that he needed someone who loved him so much that she bled?
I’m more than willing to interpret songs. That is, after all, what the listener is supposed to do. But the songwriter has to do their part and provide something to work with. I know emotionally what’s going on here: it’s about the beginning of a relationship that is a bad idea. But none of that much matters, as it doesn’t matter in any of Ocasek’s songs, because his mastery of pop songwriting is perfect.
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In a sense, this Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion Morning Music week has been a bust. The idea was that we would have a lot of terrible music from the 1980s, but thus far, the music has been pretty good. Today does not help matters: “Don’t Get Me Wrong” by The Pretenders.
But don’t get me wrong: it isn’t a great song. But it works very well. The first part of it seems to be a very cheery celebration of being in love. The second part of it is about the volatility of love. The key line is, “Don’t get me wrong if I fall in the mode of passion.” The “mode of passion” is, put simply, lust. And the singer seems to be saying that she should be forgiven the ebb and flow of her love just as she forgives it of her lover.
Regardless of how you want to read the song, there is always something incredibly compelling about Chrissie Hynde when she’s singing something that is sweet as in perhaps my favorite Pretenders’ song, Kid. But today, it is the much more straightforward “Don’t Get Me Wrong.” It’s nice. Nothing that Elizabeth needs to be ashamed of liking. But I will search the film for something really awful. There is at least some material that is mediocre.
Oh, and regarding this video: I had never seen it before, so it’s interesting that I should have mentioned the British television series The Avengers in yesterday’s Odds and Ends post. Although I think the video matching is terrible in it. But it was doubtless state-of-the-art at the time.
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Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion starts with a song that is not from the 1980s, because it is supposed to reflect their lives now. It’s a good song, “Just a Girl” by the band No Doubt. It isn’t great, like Trapped in a Box, but still.
What’s interesting about “Just a Girl” is that it is the perfect song for the film. Although it sounds light and pleasant, it is a highly political song. Slow it down and perform it with an acoustic guitar and you have a Natalie Merchant song. Although “Just a girl” is repeated more often, technically the refrain is, “I’ve had it up to here!” And that is, ultimately, what Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is all about.
“Just a Girl” starts with what was always a curious lyric to me, “Take this pink ribbon off my eyes.” Now it seems ridiculously obvious what that’s all about. The trappings of femininity are used to blind women from their subjugation. And the line is followed by a far more disturbing line, “I’m exposed and it’s no big surprise.” I see “exposed” as a synonym for “naked.” The song makes many references to the objectification of women. But it also indicates that regardless of the pink ribbons, women still know their situation on a more fundamental level.
Of course, “Just a Girl” is also exactly the kind of music that Romy and Michele would have been dancing to in the mid-1990s.
Album cover image licensed under Fair Use, via Wikipedia.
Since I really can’t think of anything else to do, I figured I would do a week of music from Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. That is: we will take a disturbing trip into 1980s pop. It was a time of twice destroyed music. First punk became “new wave” and then it just became pop. But it’s not always so bad. We start with the Cyndi Lauper tune “Time After Time.”
Interestingly, the song was not on the soundtrack for the film. But it is the most important song in the film. It is featured when Romy is stood up by Billy Christensen, and then it is played again when Romy, Michele, and Sandy perform their their interpretive dance number before flying away in a helicopter.
When the song was playing on the radio, I liked it quite a lot. Now it sounds dated. I can’t make out a single acoustic instrument despite the fact that it really doesn’t need any electronics at all. The song is solid, even with the cliche hook. But the drum samples and synth sounds are really not that offensive. I think that producer Rick Chertoff gets a lot of credit for creating an overall sound for the album that doesn’t make my skin crawl.
The thing that I most dislike in “Time After Time” is something I was very fond of at the time: guitar flanging. But like anything that’s interesting in pop music, it was used to death and then for a few decades more. Flanging quickly became the go-to guitar sound when a producer had no idea what to do. But it worked on this song at that time, as I recall.
But you can’t make me sit through that any more than I already have, so here is a beautiful, almost acoustic version of the song live.
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Today, we end this week of Negativland, in observance of the death of Richard Lyons. I’m going to jump ahead to their 1997 album, Dispepsi. I want to end with it because when I asked my boss if she knew the band, she said, “Pepsi?” She is the hippest person I’ve ever known. Of course, Negativland doesn’t have a song called “Pepsi”; I’m sure she’s referring to “The Greatest Taste Around,” which is the song we are going to listen to today.
The funny thing about the album is that the band was apparently afraid of being sued by Pepsi. This was not unreasonable, because as a band that made heavy use of sampling, pushing the bounds of IP law was kind of the norm. So the album cover does not have the word “Dispepsi” on it. It does have all the letters on it in various combinations. The album’s song list is done as a food nutrition label with the headline “Ideppiss Facts.” But Pepsi, wisely I think, had no intention of suing. Such acts are usually self-defeating. So the band started calling it “Dispepsi.”
Although “The Greatest Taste Around” is about Pepsi most prominently, the whole album is about Pepsi, Coke, the soda industry, and the idea of having to advertise products people wouldn’t normally want. The song “Hyper Real” is about the selling of New Coke. “Aluminum Or Glass: The Memo” does seem to feature an actual advertising memo. The whole album is brilliant in this way. It sounds great, but it is also great political and social satire: and it is all on YouTube.
“The Greatest Taste Around” is such an upbeat song that it’s easy enough to miss how scathing it is. “Tractors plowing down the hills: Pepsi! Ghastly stench of puppy mills: Pepsi!” All to a I-IV-V chord progression. Brilliant!
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Yesterday, I featured Negativland’s song “Christianity Is Stupid.” And I discussed how the song was used as the basis for a fake press release that claimed that the song had inspired David Brom to kill his family. The fact that so much of the media fell for the fake story seems to have delighted the band. Well, it’s hard to tell. Maybe they were outraged. Regardless, it inspired them. The first side of their next album, Helter Stupid, is dedicated to it.
There was always a little of The Firesign Theatre in Negativland’s work, and it really comes to the fore here. The following album side is composed of two songs. First is “Prologue.” This is made up mostly of a story that KPIX did on the fake story. And then we move directly into “Helter Stupid.” The basis of it is, I think, a sped up sample from Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.” On top of it is an amazing sound collage with bits from the original song, more of minister Estus Pirkle, Charles Manson, and lots of media reporting on the fake story. And then there is lots of laughing.
We also get a commercial for “Al’s House of Meat (on the sirloin strip).” Then the people in the studio notice when they rewind it has evil messages. For example, “This child, is a child of evil.” And, “Last night he murdered his parents; tonight his target is his aunt and uncle.” Finally, they have some fun with the trailer of Death Wish II. You don’t have to be analytical to figure out what they are saying.
When I was a teen, this idea that rock songs had evil things recorded backwards on them was very big. As I recall, “Stairway to Heaven” had “Sweet Savior Satan” or something. But even when I was young, the idea that people would somehow pick up on something said backwards was ridiculous. But isn’t it just like Americans to look for something so fantastical to explain our violent culture when Death Wish II is given an MPAA rating of R mostly because of the sex?
Anyway, this is 22 minutes of brilliance. Really, listen to this. It is probably the greatest thing that Negativland ever did. (This is the whole album. The rest of it is interesting and funny, but not as great.)
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