Outtake From a Work in Progress

I’m trying to write an essay about dancing. Still trying to find my angle inward. The other day I got way off track, and started writing about Susan Boyle. Because I can’t imagine any other place for it, I leave it here for you:

Dancing is easy. It’s easier than writing, of course, but it’s also easier than sex (lower stakes, no culmination, no need to provide another person their pleasure). It’s easier than sleeping (no dance form of insomnia, or apnea). It’s not easier than sitting, and it’s probably not easier than walking. And here I come to a fact of dance I’ve avoided: dancing is ableist. Dancing requires a body that can move. Not necessarily a standard body. Here’s a YouTube video of a legless girl doing a routine to “Shake It Off” in her bedroom. Here’s a clip of a one-armed woman and one-legged man doing a ballet duet together. Here’s a video of a man in a wheelchair dancing with an able-bodied woman. Here, though of a different kind of disability, a video of a UK boy with Downs Syndrome dancing to Justin Timberlake on national television, and making the TV host cry.

These are videos of triumph, bodies overcoming limitations placed on them by the suspecting audience—the suspicious, presuming audience. What becomes viral is the infectiousness of the feeling we get when those presumptions get overturned. Susan Boyle’s voice is just pretty good until you see what she looks like compared to other chart-toppers. Then it becomes magical, transcendent. “You didn’t expect that now, did ya?” Britain’s Got Talent’s co-host says, pointing into the camera at us, after Boyle begins her infamous rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream” and the audience goes wild. I find, watching the clip 10 years after it was aired, my heartrate jumping in anxious anticipation, as I see Simon Cowell ask his obligatory questions, roll his eyes, the audience vocal in how willingly they laugh at this beetlebrowed frump in a the ugliest dun-colored dress ever seen on TV. I am very scared and nervous for what’s about to happen, because I know something that not one of those hundreds of people know, and it’s thrilling.

Then she starts singing, I listen to the first wave of applause, and then I click away, bored of her voice now that the surprise has exhausted itself.
When I wrote just above that Boyle’s voice was magical and transcendent, that was a lie. Her voice is pretty good. She couldn’t hold a candle to Lady Gaga, or Maria Callas, or David Bowie. Her performance is what’s transcendent, delivering her ugly appearance up past reality’s velvet ropes to the VIP section of beauty/grace/fame. The magic of Susan Boyle requires her image, a truth of contemporary art that Lady Gaga and Sia worked, earlier in their careers at least, to fight against.

What I’m getting at is the visual—because dance is all visual (though dancing is physical; I can dance in pitch dark and get most of the same pleasures I do dancing under disco lights)—and the visual’s impact on success. What I suspect is that all dance performances, regardless of the dancer’s (dis)ability, are about bodies overcoming limitations placed on them by the suspecting audience.

Those suspicions come down to two related arguments:
1. You can’t possibly dance well.
2. I’ve already seen what you’re capable of.

When the girl with no legs, or the boy with Downs, or Janet Jackson’s plus-size backup dancer pulls off the thing they have put themselves on camera to do—or more accurately, put in front of our stingy attentions to do—we revel in Argument 1 being proven wrong. When Janet Jackson follows up her “Rhythm Nation” video with the video for “If”, we revel in Argument 2 being proven wrong.

When I got a reply to the email I sent to a writer in town, thanking her for inviting me to her party, I reveled in the words she ended the reply with: “You’re such a good dancer, I had no idea!” Argument 1 and Argument 2, slain to bits by the kindness of someone with 15 times the Instagram followers I have.

Some Audacity

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.

I felt I had to do something.

Some years back, Topher Grace got famous again for taking the Star Wars prequels and cutting them into one movie he’d screen at parties. Everyone agreed it was a finer film than any in the trilogy.

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.
1. Belong
2. Monty Got a Raw Deal
3. Low
4. Nightswimming
5. Sweetness Follows
6. Shiny Happy People
7. New Orleans Instrumental No. 1
8. Drive
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.

Some Thoughts on Pop Music

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)

  1. Brady Mae Stimson is the closest approximation I have to the name right now. Kelly Rae?
  2. 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.

“Swans on the Lake”

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.