Monday, June 25, 2012

#147 - The Lyrical Offenses of "Hey Jealousy"

The Lyrical Offenses of "Hey Jealousy"

6/25/12 (#147)

My friend Ben, who I like and admire, recently attempted to sever our friendship by admitting to having fond memories of The Gin Blossoms. This is hard for me to accept because the band was borne from a tainted era of generic American "alternative" bands. If you lived through so-called modern rock radio in the 90s, you know the crop of crap I'm talking about — it was an endless potpourri of upbeat innocuousness sung by that annoying prick in your high school math class. The bands were generally interchangeable: you could slip a Dada disc into your friend's Better Than Ezra case and the subterfuge would likely never be discovered; if someone went to see a Marcy's Playground show and Blind Melon took the stage instead, would they be disappointed? Would they even notice? Ditto for The Gin Blossoms. Even the band's own mothers sometimes mistook them for Dishwalla.

Don't get me wrong, I will grant that "Hey Jealousy" is undeniably, even unmercifully catchy. (See the video here.) But if we measure quality by the ability to create an earworm that burrows into the listener's skull and leave them so crippled that they frantically seek out mattress-store jingles as a means of relief, then roll over Beethoven, because Katy Perry has some news to deliver. Ben's mention of the band reanimated that insidious melodic virus in my head, and after de-friending him on social media (including LinkedIn, because I could never work with someone who might say, "Hey, know what will make this workday go faster? New Miserable Experience!") I could feel old questions rising up within me, questions that confront me every time I listen to "Hey Jealousy":

  • Is Jealousy a person? The syntax of the lyrics makes it seem so, but perhaps he's speaking of an emotional abstract, sort of in a Chuck Palahniuk-esque "I am Jack's wanking nostalgia" sort of way. Though neither way makes much sense, so this is more of a rhetorical question.
  • Have these guys ever had the cops chase them around? Let's be honest, this band seems a bit wussy, what with the well-washed shoulder-length hair that makes them all look like the actors listed as "Rock Band Members 1-5" in a Disney movie. And frankly, while the video features a vintage 60s Ford or some other retro-approved gas-guzzler, this band is pure Toyota Corolla, and cops don't chase Corollas — cops catch Corollas. Ten-to-one says that if The Gin Blossoms were pulled over by the police, at least one of them would say, "Shit, my dad's gonna freak. I'm still on his insurance!"
  • Considering the vacuousness of the lyrics, couldn't you have written a third verse rather than repeating the first? Before you assert that many songs repeat verses, here's how the repeated-verse device usually works: The first verse seems to mean one thing; the second verse adds a twist; the first verse is then repeated, but has a different meaning because of the new information. For example:
    Verse 1: I hate going to Jenny's house.
    Verse 2: I have always ached for Jenny, but she likes girls. Like, like-likes.
    Verse 3: I hate going to Jenny's house.
    See what happened there? Verse 3 is a repeat, but it's more poignant because of what you learned elsewhere in the song. That doesn't happen in Hey Jealousy. Instead, a drunkard tells you he's in no shape for driving, and then drunkenly says it again 90 seconds later because he apparently doesn't remember saying it.
  • What the hell is a Gin Blossom, anyway? Is that some Southwest cactus thing, or is it like Concrete Blonde, a juxtaposition of hard and soft words? Watching the video, I doubt these guys drink a whole lot of gin. Though Wine Cooler Blossoms is admittedly long.
  • Does the singer really think he's making a plausible case for regaining Jealousy's affections? A quick examination of a few particular lines reveals some serious chinks in the singer's Ring-Ding wrapper armor:
    • "If I hadn't blown the whole thing years ago, I might not be alone" — ahhh, so sweet. Rather than emphasizing your previous inability to recognize someone's value, just tell them you don't want to be alone. Who wouldn't jump at the chance to be a convenient port in the storm?
    • "All I really want is to be with you, feeling like I matter too" — Listen pal, time to brush up on Wooing 101: Make the other person feel special; telling them YOU want to feel special makes you seem like a high-maintenance douche.
    • "You can trust me not to think, and not to sleep around" — Wow, you are setting the bar so high. How could a person ever live up to such a chivalric declaration?
    • "If you don't expect too much from me, you might not be let down" — This lazy pronouncement of slackerdom would be awful even without the caveat, but note that he says "you MIGHT not be let down." So even if you DON'T expect too much (and let's be honest, Romeo, no one is by this point in the song) this jackass STILL might not live up to those low expectations. Gosh, what a prize!

I know The Gin Blossoms aren't the only chumps who parleyed a catchy riff into a few years of steady blasting from frat house windows; I know that the canon of banal pop lyrics is vast enough that it's hard to single out one band as special; I know that many of America's youth have succumbed to the notion that growing one's hair out is a sure-fire remedy for blue balls. The Gin Blossoms didn't invent any of that — but they are the essence of that, the overlapping center of the Venn diagram of laughable rock clichés, and I'd wash my hands of them forever if I could just get that goddam song out of my head.

©2012 wpreagan

Sunday, June 17, 2012

#146 - Pandora's Boombox

Pandora's Boombox

6/17/12 (#146)

Have you seen Louis CK's mini-monologue on The Conan O'Brien show, generally known as "Everything is amazing and nobody's happy"? I am not prone to hyperbole, but I think it's the most important four-minutes of television of the 21st century. In a humorous and curmudgeonly way, he lambastes the modern entitlement mentality and all that we take for granted. I'm 45 years old, and I couldn't agree more.

I think of Louis' rant whenever I listen to music on Pandora. If you aren't familiar (and you are forgiven if one of the overwhelming number of web services and apps got past you,) it's a program that lets you create a "radio station" based on specific music you select. Not like regular radio which offers a few stations that may or may not maintain the mood you're in; instead, you type in a song title or a band and it customizes an endless playlist of songs by using musical algorithms to parse your selection ("basic rock song structures, a subtle use of vocal harmony, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, and major key tonality") and then finds other music that fits that description. For example, type in Portishead and it creates a stream of trip-hop deliciousness. Songs you know, songs you don't know, but almost without fail, it serenades you with a string of similarly themed music that you would never have enough time to find and investigate on your own. It doesn't matter where you start  —  Nick Drake, Prince, obscure Boston-band O Positive  —  it's like having an instant mix-tape of that style of music.

Frankly, it is nothing short of amazing — and I'm happy. Science fiction Arthur C. Clarke once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." That's how I feel about Pandora. My daughter thinks that Pandora is the norm, that immediate access to a personalized music stream is how you listen to music; but I know better — because I have known a reality other than this one.

I grew up sitting in front of the Realistic stereo (purchased from the leading technology outlet of the era, Radio Shack) patiently waiting for a song I loved to get it's slot in the radio rotation. (That patience was often tested.) When the DJ's blather seemed to be coming to an end and they promised a coveted song was coming up, I had my finger ready on the record button of the 8-track. Those early 8-track mixes were technically horrible (I had no understanding of what the "record level" knob did) and aesthetic train wrecks: intros to songs missing due to slow reaction time, many songs rudely interrupted by the alarming "kachunk" of the 8-track player switching to the next program. When I tell this to my 9-year old, she looks at me like I must have been dating Laura Ingalls at the time.

A few years later, the cassette tape came into vogue - and no wonder! The cassette was so efficient, the pinnacle of human achievement. Half the size of an 8-track, and without that violent lurch of the program change. Sure, it had to be flipped over at the halfway mark, but so did an LP record, and the LP had to be handled like a museum piece to make sure you didn't scratch it. Not true of the cassette — you could toss 30 tapes into a shoe box and they were impervious to destruction. (Unless you left that shoebox on the seat of the car on a sunny day.)(Cue sad trombone sound.)

At risk of channeling my inner-Wilfred-Brimley, that's what I had and I liked it. So what if I missed the first 18 seconds of Freebird and there was a 12-second gap when the 8-track clunked over to Program 3 — I could listen to Freebird whenever I wanted! It was amazing.

Of course, as Louis CK said, there are still people who find fault with Pandora. They respond to this stunning technology by bitching that it doesn't fully utilize the music genome logarithms, and that there are other applications that more accurately synthesize the central musical theme and produce better playlists. I suspect they're right, because Pandora isn't perfect — last week I heard The Time immediately followed by 38 Special, and I assure you, that's far from perfect. But to me, that's like complaining that the guy who instantly makes you an unlimited number of mix tapes based on any genre of music sometimes includes a song that you wish you could skip. (By the way, there's a skip button.) When I hear someone make this complaint, I try very hard to conjure Louis CK into existence so he can punch the malcontent in the face.

If I could travel back in time and tell that kid laying on the floor by the 8-track about Pandora, he would never believe it. "A steady stream of music, new and familiar, custom-selected for my mood, all for free? And all I have to do is listen to a 15 second ad every 15 minutes? You are bullshitting me, future Bill." That version of me would hear about Pandora and assume it was only possible with magic.

And he'd be exactly right.

©2012 wpreagan

Monday, June 4, 2012

#145 - Unspeakable Things

Unspeakable Things

6/4/12 (#145)

It seems we tend toward definitive beginnings and endings, usually deliberate and ritualistic: We start a new job by eagerly settling in at our new desk, and we leave the job cleaning out our desks; we write love letters that carefully articulate why we want more, then Dear John letters that carefully articulate why we've had enough; we make a virtual holiday out of birthdays and wedding anniversaries and other significant events that marked new chapters in our lives. Our resumes are a detailed timeline of our career, an obligatory means of asserting a competency that is in no way proven by calendar dates. As a rule, we like clear starts and clean finishes, probably because closure helps us catalog our own lives in a logical manner. At least that's true for me.

I've been thinking about this since the horrible Café Racer shooting in Seattle on May 30. If you hadn't heard, a gunman shot a handful of diners, killing four people and critically wounding another before he left to kill one more person and himself in other parts of town.

I didn't know any of the people killed, but I saw footage taken moments before the shooting and they all look like people I know. There is no drama in the photo, no impending doom — just some folks talking and drinking coffee, a scene so commonplace that it underscores the randomness of the event. None of the victims have any idea that their lives will end or irreparably change in the next moment.

When I heard the news, my thoughts jumped to all the loose ends left dangling in the victim's lives. From the minutia of phone calls unreturned and emails unwritten to the massive bulk of conflicts unresolved and ambitions unrealized, these were lives interrupted midstream. In that way, it was like every sudden tragedy: no chance for professions or apologies; no chance to say goodbye. The thought of it cascades through my head like a line of dominos. I try to imagine the intensity of their last moments and worry that, had it been me, I would be overwhelmed with regret for things those loose ends left hanging. I cringe at the thought of my daughters not having my guidance and support, the emptiness that would rush into their lives at that moment and remain forever.

I am not heading toward a platitude like "make sure the people you love know you love them" — though that is certainly good advice. My frustration lies in a sense that I will never be able to adequately express the depth of my emotion for my daughters. I could talk myself tired and whatever I said would still feel inadequate. Trying to sum it up with words feels like trying to use jars of pennies to buy a home.

I expect most parents understand this. Before I was a parent, my friend Doug told me, "You never know how much love you have in you until you have a child." He was right — and it's an amount so great that I feel helpless to express it. I tell my oldest often, and emphatically, how important she is to me, but it's like describing a sunset: I can wax eloquent about the radiant hues and expansive splendor, but she will quickly sigh and say, "Yeah, dad, I get it, lots of pretty pinks." Yes, lots of pretty pinks. But a sunset is more than the colors in the sky — it's how the shifting lights changes the entire world around us, how everything is in a process of transformation as the darkness envelops us. It's the temperature of our skin as we slip first into cool shadows and then the cold of dusk.

I tell her anyway, but I have no way of knowing if she understands how completely.

I've been wrestling with this dilemma since I heard the news of that shooting. I try to make it a point to tell my friends how much I appreciate them (though I don't tell them often enough), I try to emphasize to my wife how excited I remain about being with her (though after 20 years together, I worry the phrases are too familiar to carry real meaning), I try to reinforce my pride in my oldest daughter and my elation with my youngest (and vice versa,) but it never feels like enough. I never get the feeling that it's complete.

I don't have a solution. But I've come to the conclusion that the only way my daughters will truly understand is to one day have children of their own, children who fill their hearts until it feels like panic, who slay them for years with stunningly logical insights and terrible improvised toddler jokes and earnest gray-day lemonade stands. Maybe in those moments, they will finally understand what I fear I will fail to convey. In those moments, my most important loose ends might finally be tied.

©2012 wpreagan

PS My deepest sympathies go out to the families and friends of the victims of the Café Racer shooting, wrestling with a horrible reality that is only hypothetical to me. I wish that a lifetime of wonderful memories soon reclaim the parts of your hearts and minds where sadness currently has its hold.