I’m reading these days about the history of opera, specifically the fall of the castrati and rise of the soprano, and thus the aria, and I remembered this, which I wrote in 1994:
That’s a scan from our high school’s literary magazine. I’m proud of this thing, and I like—playing it for the first time in 25 years via musical typing on Garageband—that I chose C minor, of all keys. I also find it very funny. The dynamics!
Title is probably an homage to Camper Van Beethoven’s “Ambiguity Song”. Anyway, this is what a high school junior does when he’s afraid of drugs and sex.
Once, back in Nebraska, I asked my friend Mathias what it was about death metal that he liked so much. I found death metal fascinating as an idea but dull to listen to. It took him a few seconds to think of a response, and his answer astounded me:
“That’s the sound I hear in my head all the time,” he said. “So it’s almost soothing.”
Was he kidding? Possibly yes, probably no, but either way I took it to heart. Left in solitude, and quietude, our brains play a soundtrack of noise and feedback from our lives and the thoughts that careen around in there. Everyone’s soundtrack might be as original as their fingerprint.
And I’ve taken it to heart when I’ve come to understand some of the music I find myself drawn to, and soothed by. If Mathias hears blastbeats and deathgrowls, what I hear is a lot of quickly busy machinations. Or like imagine the nonsynchronous chewings of a hive full of bees—if that’s what bees are doing while they make honey, is chew stuff?
Some clips, by way of example:
I know 2 people who know of Operation Re-Information, a trio that formed and disbanded during the years I lived in Pittsburgh. This album will forever live in my top 5 of all time, and I don’t have anyone else to share my love for it with, and if you listen to the record all the way through it’s probably clear why: it’s not for everyone. But I hear it like a warm bath.
This is one of my favorite guitar solos ever, and it is to guitar solos what Devo’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is to the Stones’ version: stunted, desexed, neurotic. Do these adjectives reveal my heart to you?
This is perfect music. This is what all classical music should be up to. It’s so busy. It doesn’t stop. It’s hard to write about how this busybusyness stirs emotion in my heart, but it has something to do with the way minimalism (which we’re not at all working with here) works a thing over and over and over to build a foundation for the shift that comes eventually. Bill Callahan does this very well. When you hear one chord for long enough, over and over, the presence of a second chord can floor you, if timed right. It’s like a surprise and a gift but also a cannon or like a beanbag shot at you from riot police. There’s a spatial way you’ve been suddenly pulled from a dark corridor into a room full of light that wins my gratitude every time.
This one’s my favorite. I don’t listen to Sufjan Stevens much these days, usually wanting something less soft and more with an edge, but I’ll always be grateful for these 38 seconds where there’s so much going on for me to hear. Sometimes I like to tune into the clarinets that toot on 3-and-1-and-2, 3-and-1-and-2, and sometimes I like to hear the acoustic guitar whose bass note pattern steadies of 2-beat rhythm amid this 3 cadence.
Those 38 seconds are the music that’s playing in my head at any given moment. If you’re talking to me, that’s the soundtrack I’m tuning out so I can have a conversation.
Last week, my longtime friend Beage texted into a chain we have with our other longtime friend Farrell the question: “White Album: disc #1 or disc #2? Go!” Farrell and I, and Beage, being still, especially around each other, the adolescents we were when we three became friends, immediately went on the attack, arguing our choices.
In short: Beage said 2 (less consistent, better hits) and Farrell and I said 1, and we argued a lot about Paul, and we agreed “Honey Pie” is a garbage song, and were split on “Yer Blues”, which I submit is maybe worse than “Honey Pie” but blah blah blah.
Sometimes I’m glad I don’t have to sit through hourslong debates about these pop music minutiae anymore, but often times I miss them.
“Oh well probably now we each have to make The White Album #1.5” I texted, and it was on.
I couldn’t make a record longer than either disc (47 and 48 mins, according to my iTunes)
For elegance’s sake I couldn’t open or close with any opener or closer from either disc, nor could I sort any track in the same spot it has on the original
Because both discs have at least 2 songs each by John, Paul, and George, I had to have 2 songs by each, including Paul (I was originally planning on putting none, because I think very little of Paul McCartney)
Because both discs have 1 Ringo song I needed 1 Ringo song, which was easy, because “Don’t Pass Me By” is one of the Beatles’ greatest hits
Unlike Out of Time and Automatic, there are very few unlistenable songs on these records, and the hardest part was cutting out half of them. Also, a number of songs bleed together, making them unsequenceable without their counterparts. “Dear Prudence”, for instance, starts with plane noise from “Back in the USSR”, so it was out.
My process was to find the one song I wanted to open with, to set a mood, to be funny, to imagine a far different record than those guys did, using all their old materials.
I chose “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”
From there, I tried to find the best track to follow it. And then the best track to follow that one. I wanted to make as cohesive a cut as the original, just half the length. So I went on and on until I got to “Don’t Pass Me By”, which was always going to be my closer.
I called it The Wide Album. Here’s how it ended up:
Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?
Happiness Is a Warm Gun
Long, Long, Long
Wild Honey Pie
Cry Baby Cry
Back in the U.S.S.R.
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey
Mother Nature’s Son
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
Don’t Pass Me By
Look, I’m as surprised as you are by all the Paul in there, but here I am, learning things about myself. My only rule downfall was slotting “Blackbird” at track 11, because it’s track 11 on the original.
Maybe the first band I ever got obsessed with was R.E.M., and the peak years of my obsession were like 1991 to 1993—i.e., the Out of Time and Automatic for the People era. I listened to these records hundreds of times, just hundreds. And then around 1999 I pretty much never listened to them again.
Tastes change. I don’t know that I need to say anything more about it. And yet here I am about to: these records had too many soft textures for me to get excited about listening to them. They weren’t necessarily too slow and still—I listen to Smog once every other week or so, another onetime obsession. They were very 90’s.
And they both had all these missteps. “Radio Song”‘s cornyness. “Man on the Moon”‘s pollyannaism. I got “Ignoreland” of all things stuck in my had a few weeks back and when I listened to it I just got embarrassed. “I’m just profoundly frustrated by all this so fuck you, man.” And that “yeah yeah yeah” in the background of the chorus? Awful.
Could I make a better R.E.M. record out of these two subpar R.E.M. records? Yes. I loved the band enough to do this for them.
I laid some ground rules:
I couldn’t make a record longer than Automatic (48 mins) or shorter than Out of Time (45 mins).
I had to mix the tracks among each other, and not block sort them by album.
I couldn’t follow any song with the song that follows it on the original.
I had to make a record I wouldn’t want to skip any song of, but play all the way through.
I had to call the whole thing Outtamatic.
I wanted a rule that no track could appear at the same position it appeared in either original, but that didn’t work out; “Me in Honey” is my favorite album closer in all of R.E.M.’s catalog. Maybe one of my favorite album closers of all time. I wasn’t about to close Outtamatic with anything else.
Here’s the tracklist. If you’re on YouTube you can stream it here.
2. Monty Got a Raw Deal
5. Sweetness Follows
6. Shiny Happy People
7. New Orleans Instrumental No. 1
9. Half A World Away
10. Country Feedback
11. Star Me Kitten
12. Me in Honey
As you can see I wasn’t very kind to Mike Mills, and as a big huge B-52’s fan I’ve left all of Kate Pierson’s songs intact. I took it as a challenge to include “Shiny Happy People”, which if you ask me holds up better than “Losing My Religion” or “Everybody Hurts” in terms of overplayed R.E.M. songs.
Anyway it’s a better record, so rejigger your listening mechanisms and enjoy it when it comes up in the queue—if anyone’s queueing whole records in 2018.
This one’s prompted by a tweet I read this morning from a writer I follow but don’t know, which tweet said in so many words that, as late as 2018, it’s foolish and snobby to state a dislike for pop music, given its prominent role in the culture. The tweeter, too, had a punk-rock background, so the implication was that an appreciation for pop music was something one ought to grow into or acquire upon shedding certain adolescent trappings.
I didn’t buy it. Or: I bristled at the idea that my stated dislike for pop music was a form of snobbery and not just a value-free preference. But did I’m Not A Music Snob I Just Don’t Like Pop Music carry the same whiff of blind bigotry as I’m Not Racist I’m Just Not Attracted To Asians?
I wanted to figure out why I didn’t like pop music, where that taste is coming from, and because when I hear the phrase “pop music” I think almost immediately of “Call Me Maybe” by that solo artist I need a web search to help me remember the name of,[**] I’ll use it as my prime example here.
I hate “Call Me Maybe” conditionally. I hate it in a waiting room, or a store, or a mall, or any kind of commercial setting. I probably hate it in a stadium or arena. I hate it as a ringtone. I hate it a little less in a car, but I still reach for the tuner. Sitting among a karaoke audience, though, I find I rather like it, and many times on a dance floor I have loved it.
What does this say about my relationship to pop music?
I might relegate pop music to the social, the way I do what I used to call “techno” but now I know to call “EDM”. Much of my enjoyment of music is wrapped up in the private: rewinding tapes in my bedroom to learn the words of a song I loved, blocking out noisy public spaces with earbuds. I like to play the guitar, but I never play the guitar with another person in the room, unless that person is also playing a guitar.
In this regard, I like music the way I like books.
Pop music originates from and amplifies all the feelings and thoughts I’ve had that I know other people have had, too. (How I know this is from a lifetime of listening to pop.) They aren’t necessarily easy feelings, or even feel-good feelings, but they are safe feelings because they’ve been normed. They, by the needs of pop’s dictate to find a huge audience, fit the norm.
The music I like to listen to (shorthand: rock, though not categorically) I listen to because it’s shown me that the weird or dark feelings I have aren’t weird or even that dark, and that I don’t have to feel alone in having them. The music I like helps me feel less alone, whereas pop often reminds me I’m not hanging out with friends at a party or club. I feel more lonely when I listen to it.
No: pop has ever taken Assuaging My Loneliness as its task, but there it is.
Another idea: production matters as much as reception. I hate much of how “Call Me Maybe” sounds in my ears. I like synths (I grew up in the 1980s) but the synth-strings in “CMM” are sheenier than those old synths. They match the raspy sheen work they’ve done on her vocals. The song as produced is all thinned and flattened and leaves little to pay any attention to. (Years ago I read an article about how music producers are working hard to ensure songs still sound good coming from a phone’s tiny speaker.)
I love, though, “Call Me Maybe” as performed by the Roots with toy instruments, from when Carly Rae Jepsen[††] was on Fallon. (Which has been scrubbed from the Internet except with bootlegged-off-the-TV YouTubes that sound terribler than the original.) You can scoff here and say I love this for twee or hipster reasons.
That is: snob reasons. I’ll give you a moment to scoff. I see the argument and I see that it’s irresistible.
BUT, let me just point out how textured the song becomes when thrown together in this slipshod way, and how smart The Roots are to do some Pixies-style loud-quiet-loud dynamics when the chorus kicks in. To put it clunkily, it has more going on in vertical dimensions (Y-axis, I’m talking) while the song moves through its X-axis.
It’s such a good song. It’s just a wonderfully good song I almost always hate to hear playing.
I had another point to make about how the original of “CMM”, the production, seems to be all vocals (the better for folks to sing along) and beat (the better for folks to dance), which was going to bring EDM back up, calling it “dance music for the chthonically stupid”, but I can’t even imagine anything more snobby than that, so I’ll end instead with that positive note just above.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Brady Mae Stimson is the closest approximation I have to the name right now. Kelly Rae?↵
The crazy thing is that now I look back to the original tweet and see the abbreviation “CRJ”, meaning she was what prompted all of this, which I, a total dolt, originally read as some kind of K-Pop band, or perhaps an online magazine of pop.↵
My mom when I was seven or so bought from a friend or coworker an upright piano. They put it at the top of the stairs. I guess she learned how to play it when she was young. Sang in the choir. Was proud of her musical background and hoped, the idea was, to instill this in her kids. Shani, the eldest, was probably a lost cause, already into her teen years by then.
But Jenny and I, we ate it up. The piano came with a ton of instructional books in the bench, most of them from the early-to-middle part of the twentieth century. Our friends the Soltyses up the street had an upright, too, and their bench was filled with books that had sheet music for current TV theme songs. I learned to play the “Cheers” theme by myself, though I feel like Jenny learned it before I did and was better at mastering it.
At any rate, the first song I ever taught myself to play with both hands at once—and if you want your children to learn how to read music, put a bunch of early-level piano instruction manuals in your piano and keep those idiots bored to tears on summer afternoons—was this one, “Swans on the Lake”, from the John Thompson instruction manual. I’m pretty sure it’s Grade I of a V-grade series.
Here are the lyrics, which until I found them online had only sketchily been running through my head all day:
Stately as princes the swans part the lilies and glide,
under the willows.
Are they enchanted men soon to be free again here,
under the willows?
Oh how I would like to be
here when the fairy wand
touches the leader and
changes his looks!
Would he be handsome and brave as the heroes that live
hidden in my fairy books?
It’s a dumb song, right? But in many ways it’s my ur-song. And if you know me, go ahead and Freud-up the whole thing to say A-ha! No wonder! and we’ll call it a late-spring’s eve.