Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pseudo-Profanity in Pop Songs

So I have a piece in the Hartford Courant today, about profanity heard in current pop songs. Or, more accurately, about the profanity not heard in current pop songs, but definitely implied. Only instead of hearing the swear, you'll hear the first letter of the expletive, or you'll hear weird sound in its place. It's the "everything but" manner of swearing.

I called this phenomenon "pseudo-swearing," or just "pswearing." And, as I state in the article, what I resent the most about pswearing is the double-dipping: singers get their songs on mainstream radio, but the hard-core fans who don't mind a little cussing still think they're cool.

As with all of the pieces I've written for the Courant, there was a fence around this one. 700-word-long fence. To abide by the word count, some things had to get cut-- by me or by the editor. Usually, some details end up getting pitched, to preserve the central message.

But I like details. So I decided to go back to my original document and resurrect those details here, on this space, as a sort of "supplemental" to the article published in the Courant. That way, I get two articles for one-- a newspaper piece and a blog entry. (Now look who's double-dipping! Ah, delicious irony!)

* In my original draft, I listed a bunch of songs from the past year that contain "pswearing"--offensive language that was edited out. For space reasons, the paragraph containing that list was cut. But because I think that list shows the pervasiveness of the "pswearing" phenomenon-- and because compiling that list took some time and effort-- I wanted to restore it here. So here are some singers who pswore in their hit songs in 2011:

  • Usher (“DJs Got Us Fallin’ in Love”)

  • Maroon 5 (“Moves Like Jagger”)

  • Mumford and Sons (“Little Lion Man”)

  • Ke$ha (“We R Who We R”)

  • OneRepublic (“Good Life”)

  • Taio Cruz (“Dynamite”)

The last one is probably the most disturbing, only because kids seem to enjoy that song so much. My son Charlie has learned it on piano. There's even a version of the song on Kidz-Bop, for crying out loud. Meanwhile, in the second verse, Taio Cruz says "What the @&#!." Why you gotta go there, Taio?

* In the original piece, I acknolwedged that rock-and-roll artists have always used profanity in their lyrics-- and some didn't try to hide it. For example, while I can't say for sure that ZZ Top said "S-word, I got to have her" in "Legs," I absolutely know that Roger Daltrey drops the F-Bomb in "Who Are You."

The difference in the current drop of artists is that they're actually swearing in the titles of the songs. In my original draft, I listed three such offenders from 2011. Their names were cut from the Courant article due to space restraints, but I wanted to restore them here:

  • Cee Lo Green, “Forget You” (actually “F-Bomb You”)

  • P!nk, “Perfect” (actually “F-Bombin’ Perfect”)

  • Enriques Iglesias, “Tonight I’m Lovin’ You” (actually… well, you can figure it out)
* Of those three, I consider Cee Lo the most egregious pswearing culprit, if only because of the degree of mainstream fame he's achieved over the past eighteen months. Gwenyth Paltrow has covered his signature song on Glee. He sung at the Macy's Thanksgiving parade and is slated to sing for the Obamas as part of TNT's "Christmas in Washington" special. Heck, "Forget You" even showed up in the new Muppet movie, courtesy of Gonzo's chickens. How much of that, exactly, would have happened if he went with his original lyrics?

* The last point I wanted to restore had to do with the purposefulness of profanity in pop music. I'm not necessarily against swearing in a work of art, but I just don't see how many songs are improved, artistically, with the inclusion of profanity. To illustrate this, I said the following: "How about Gwen Stefani’s 'Hollaback Girl,' during which she drops the S-Bomb a whopping 38 times? What effect was she going for there? And could it not be achieved with a mere 37 curses?"

* Finally, I used several sources to while writing this article, and I wanted to note two of them here:

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Songs from the Fall/ Winter of 1986

In the fall of 1986, I was the anti-Bill Buckner.

In Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Bill Buckner let a routine Mookie Wilson dribbler roll between his legs, costing the Red Sox the game. The Sox eventually lost the Series, and the fans and the media pinned the loss, rightfully or not, on poor Bill. His life would never be the same.

Well, my life would also never be the same after the fall of 1986... but in a good way. That's the moment in time when I started becoming more social, when I started hanging out with other folks on Saturday nights besides Julie McCoy, Isaac the Bartender, and the rest of the crew from The Love Boat.

Here's something you have to understand: I went to an all-boys high school located about thirty minutes from my house. Thus, my school friends were scattered across various towns, which made it tricky to see them outside of school. And even when I did see people outside of school, I only saw other boys. For my first two years of high school, I knew NO girls. Forget about having a girlfriend; I didn't even have girl friends.

That all changed thanks to a little thing called a license—and no, not a License to Ill, but a driver’s license. At the beginning of my junior year, five or six of my guy friends got their licenses. Now, eventually, this ability to drive brought the realization that there is no place to drive to, that there really is nothing for teenagers to do in this world. But that came later. Now, the possibilities seemed endless.

So, even though I didn't get my license for another ten months, it didn't matter: I had no problem sponging off my friends. In fact, that's also how I started meeting girls: a friend met a girl from an all-girls school, and our circles of friends meshed.

As a result, in the fall of my junior year, my social life went from zero to... well, a little bit more than zero, to be honest. But hey, it was a transformation, nonetheless, a "coming into my own" (whatever that means). So even though I don't see my guy friends as often as I'd like, and I never see the girls I knew way back when, I always look back fondly on the Fall of 1986, as that moment in history which belongs particularly to me. (A Separate Peace shout-out there.)

I tend to equate epochs in my life with the music on the radio at the time. So, while thinking about the fact that twenty-five years have past since that fateful fall, I decided to do a follow-up to my wildly-successful post, "Rating the Songs of Summer 1986." (No, no one read the darn thing, but I liked it.)

As with the previous posting, I'm going to rate the staying power of twenty-five songs from the Fall of 1986, to determine whether or not they still hold up a quarter-century later. As before, I'm judging the songs according to three criteria:

(a) whether or not I still hear this song on the radio in 2011
(b) whether or not I cringe if I do hear this song in 2011
(c) whether or not I actually like the song

As always, some caveats before we begin:

(1) Since I was going with the whole "25 songs from 25 years go" angle, plenty of songs just plain ol' didn't make the cut. So, sorry in advance to Glass Tiger and Stacy Q, but as your fellow 80s casualty Robbie Nevil once said, “C’est La Vie.”

(2) I tried not to repeat some of the artists that appeared in the "Summer of 1986" posting. So that's why Stevie Winwood ("Freedom Overspill"), Madonna ("True Blue"), Huey Lewis ("Hip to Be Square"), Genesis ("Land of Confusion"), and Janet Jackson ("When I Think of You") don't appear here.

(3) Other songs that should have made this list (and would have if I thought of something witty to say about them) include the following: "Wild, Wild Life," Talking Heads; "Notorious," Duran Duran; "Sleeping Bag"/ "Velcro Fly"/ "Stages," ZZ Top (in my mind, they're the same song); "What About Love," 'Til Tuesday; and "Dancing on the Ceiling," Lionel Richie. (So sorry, Lionel.)

(4) I planned on doing this much earlier-- I mean, three-months ago earlier. I originally conceived this as a just "Fall 1986" piece, but as December dawned, I figured I better throw in Winter 1986 songs as well. And here I am, on the last day of 2011, putting the finishing touches on this stupid thing. Oh, well. I mean, what's time anyway but a human construct?

And now, Songs from the Fall (and Winter) of 1986—the era of The Fly, ALF, and Crocodile Dundee (not to mention the worldwide premier of The Oprah Winfrey Show).

"Take Me Home Tonight," Eddie Money: To borrow a catchphrase from Swingers, Eddie was money back in the 80s. How good was he? In the era of glitz and image that was the 80s, Eddie was able to sell records on the strength of his music. Which I guess is a nice way of saying he was none too attractive. Just check out the video, in which Eddie does the impossible: making Ronnie Spector look somewhat good by comparison.

OK, that's mean, so I'll say something nice: this song is gold. From the eerie opening guitar, to the kickin', legally-required-to-sing-along chorus, the Money-man hit the jackpot with this one. Plus, by getting Ronnie Spector in there, he was able to cash in on the mash-up phenomenon a good twenty years before mashing-up became a pop music pre-requisite. Dollars to donuts, this song is timeless-- and priceless. (Say, did you happen to detect any "money" puns in here?)

"Living on a Prayer" and "You Give Love a Bad Name," Bon Jovi: Recently, I made a bold pronouncement at work: "Of all the acts that rose to fame in the 80s, Bon Jovi has had the longest, most productive career." Then I realized that maybe that pronouncement wasn't all that bold. Honestly, who's their competition? R.E.M.? Van Halen? Only U2 comes close... then again, how many singles has U2 released in the past five years?

Now, one of my co-workers bristled at this idea, on "quality over quantity" grounds. "Sure, Bon Jovi still puts out music," he argued, "but it's all crap." I disagreed: sure, recent offerings such as "We Weren't Born to Follow" or "What Do You Got" may not be the greatest songs ever, but they're hardly crap. Derivative, maybe, but not crap. Oh, he's basically singing the same song over and over, all right... but it's a good same song.

And no matter what you may think of the quality of the music... two stupefying facts remain about Mr. Bongiovi:

(1) He's still cranking out hit singles. Now. In the 2010s. A quarter-century after the band exploded into the "household-name" stratosphere with Slippery When Wet.

(2) Those old songs still get played. Like Jon himself, these 1986 songs have aged well. (Damn you, you 49-year-old rock ambassador, with your wrinkle-free face and full head of hair!)

You know, it's funny: Back in the Fall of 1986, the guy who drove me to high school played his Slippery When Wet tape every morning. Flash-forward twenty-five years, to December 2011: I'm driving to high school (I'm a teacher now), and I hear "Livin' on a Prayer" on the radio. Nothing's changed. Like I said, funny... or, as a reminder of the passage of time and my own mortality, utterly soul-crushing. Take your pick.

"True Colors," Cyndi Lauper: It's clear that this song, her follow-up to her hugely successful She's So Unusual debut album, was meant to show the softer side of Cyndi. Less clear is why she needed to do that, since she had already shown us that side with "Time After Time." No matter: whatever her motive, this song is simply beautiful. But don't take my word for it: ask the 3,000 artists who have recorded the song since 1986 (including Phil Collins, Eva Cassidy, the gang from Glee, and a bunch of other people I never heard of).

By the way, fans concerned that this softer Cyndi no longer wanted to have fun need not have worried: at one point in the "True Colors" video, she's wearing a skirt made out of shredded newspaper. Talk about showing your true colors...

"To Be a Lover," Billy Idol: Another example of an artist showing a softer side in late '86. Granted, "To be a Lover" wasn't Easy Listening Idol... but it wasn't the Rebelliously Yelling Idol, either. Instead, for his first single off Whiplash Smile (great title), Billy "remade" a 1968 R & B song, "I Forgot to Be Your Lover," by William Bell.

I put "remade" in quotations because Billy's version doesn't sound anything like the original... nor does it sound much like anything else he had ever done. And the innovation paid off, at least in the short term: the song peaked at #6 on the Billboard charts. Unfortunately, audiences quickly forgot to be lovers of this song, which slipped from the mainstream by early '87. You never hear this on the radio anymore... and I place the blame for that solely on the doorstep of Cameron Crowe.

Why Cameron Crowe, you ask? Apparently, when he was writing the script for Say Anything..., he initally had "To Be a Lover" in mind for the Lloyd Dobler/ boom box scene. He quickly changed his mind (Crowe has said he liked "To be a Lover" for exactly "one day, the day I wrote that scene"), but imagine if he actually went with Idol over Peter Gabriel? What kind of world would this be?

"Welcome to the Boomtown," David and David: Under-appreciated song, from a wildly, sinfully under-appreciated album, Boomtown . And I don't mean just under-appreciated now; even in 1986, this duo of Davids didn't get the love they deserved. You never hear this or any other David and David song on the radio, and that's a shame, because this album is really, really good. Just didn't take for whatever reason.

Strangely enough, the same can be said about the short-lived NBC cop show from 2002, also called Boomtown. Everyone seemed to praise the show, starring Neal "The-Guy-with-the-Intense-Blue-Eyes-Who-Appeared-Opposite-Tom-Cruise-in-Minority-Report" McDonough, but it barely squeaked out a year. The lesson, of course, to artists everywhere: never name your project "Boomtown."

Three more comments:

(a) A lot of double groups in the 80s, huh? David and David, Duran Duran, Mr. Mister, Lisa Lisa (see below), Talk Talk, and even The The...

(b) If you don't know David and David (and who can blame you, since they only put out this one album?), you owe it to yourself to check out these two other songs, which I feel are even better than "Welcome to the Boomtown": "Ain't So Easy" and (my favorite of theirs) "Swallowed by the Cracks."

(c) Seriously, what's up with Neal McDonough's eyes? I mean, his stare just drills a hole right into your soul...

"Don't Get Me Wrong," Pretenders: I can't pretend to love this song, but I still hear it on the radio, so I guess someone likes it. And at least it's better than the repugnant, unredeemable "Brass in Pocket." What a terrible song, with its chorus and the uber-hip verses all sprinkled with unintelligible British slang like "new skank" and "so reet." The song actually makes my skin crawl and ears bleed at the same time. Man, I hate this song... Where was I? Oh, yeah... "Don't Get Me Wrong"... not a fave, but catchy, harmless, enduring. Let's move on...

"A Matter of Trust," Billy Joel: When perusing through Billy's extensive discography, one may find it helpful to put the songs into categories. First, you have Piano Songs and Non-Piano Songs. Then, as subsets, you have Songs that Are Autobiographical ("Piano Man," "The Entertainer"); Songs that Aren't Autobiographical But Seem As If They Should Be ("Goodnight Saigon," "Downeaster Alexa"); Songs That Tell a Story ("Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," "Allentown," "Movin' Out"); Songs That Suggest Billy Joel is Bipolar ("Summer, Highland Falls," "I Go To Extremes"); Songs That Are Sweet ("She's Got a Way," "Just the Way You Are"); and Songs That Seem Like They're Sweet But Are Actually Kind of Insulting ("She's Always a Woman").

Which brings us to "A Matter of Trust," which I'd call his best Non-Piano Song That By All Rights Should be a Piano Song. Here's what I mean: "A Matter of Trust" is a straight-up ballad, a love song, filled with Billy's signature poetry. In other words, a quintessential Billy Joel piano song. But he doesn't use a piano. Instead, he breaks out an electric guitar and flirts with hard-rock. The result: a “traditional” Billy Joel song that’s also unlike anything else he’s ever done.

Now, some will disagree. Members of the BJC (Billy Joel Critics) have most certainly enjoyed some hearty, self-important snickers over the fact that he called this album The Bridge, since it indeed marks a transition, from the consistent, quality work of his earlier career to the inconsistent, not-quite-so-quality work of his later career. And, yeah, this album, along with the next two (Strom Front and River of Dreams) had more misses than hits. That’s what makes “A Matter of Trust” so noteworthy: it’s the last truly great song of his storied career.

At least so far. But he has more gas in the tank. The original "Piano Man" has one more great hit in him. Trust me.

"The Way It Is," Bruce Hornsby and the Range: Speaking of "piano men"... OK, I'll admit it: for years, I drove the Hornsby bandwagon. From 1986 to 2003, I saw him in concert eight times; for two of those shows, I waited by the bus afterwards and talked with the man himself. So, yeah, you could call me a fan.

And for this, I have suffered. The Hornsby-haters-- and they're out there-- have mocked me, dismissing his songs as repetitive, "Adult Contemporary" fare. But whenever I got discouraged, I remembered all the great artists-- from Don Henley to Bonnie Raitt to Huey Lewis to Grateful Dead-- who have collaborated with him over the years. In short: Hornsby's got game.

And it all starts here-- with a song that earned the band a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1987, that was later sampled by 2Pac, and that is still heard today, twenty-five years later. Face it, Hornsby-haters: Bruce wrote a classic. You may not like it... but that's just the way it is.

"At This Moment," Billy Vera and the Beaters: A song that was never supposed to be on this list-- or any other list of memorable songs, for that matter. Originally released in 1981, "At This Moment" only lasted but a moment on the charts, reaching #79 on the Billboards before falling into obscuirty. For the next five years, Billy and his unfortunately-named Beaters waited for their break.... which finally happened when a TV producer heard them perform and had the idea of using "At This Moment" for his show, the Michael J. Fox sitcom "Family Ties."

And so this going-nowhere-fast song eventually skyrocketed to #1. Moreover, just like Michael J. Fox's marriage to Tracy Pollan, "At This Moment" has staying power; "light rock" stations still play it twenty-five years later. The lesson to undiscovered bands everywhere: if you keep marching confidently in the directions of your dreams, you will find success... even if you try to sabotage your chances with an absolutely ridiculous band name. (I mean, the Beaters? Honestly...)

"Everybody Have Fun Tonight," Wang Chung: Then again, if you have a goofy name, you might as well embrace it: Wang Chung not only included its name in its most famous lyric from its most famous song, but they even turned it into a verb!

What does it mean to "wang chung," exactly? Twenty-five years have not shed any light on this mystery, although the Internet swirls with speculation. (Does it mean "Yellow Bell" in Chinese? Does it mean "perfect pitch"? Is it the sound a guitar makes?) Personally, I think it has to do with the ancient art of Product Placement-- the product, in this case, being the name of the band itself.

Think about it: you take a catchy, up-tempo beat and combine it with a non-sensical chorus that includes the name of your band. And though folks may mock the lyric, everyone's still saying it. And I mean everyone: just look at the "Appearances/ References in Other Media" section of the song's Wikipedia page. From "Cheers" to "Veronica Mars" to "How I Met Your Mother," tons of TV shows have alluded to the line "everybody wang chung tonight."

Hey, I know the Product Placement worked on me: even though I dismissed the song as a 16-year-old, as a 41-year-old, I remember it fondly, as one of the signature songts of the 80s. Man, how did I get wang chunged like that?

"Sweet Love," Anita Baker: Not my necessarily favorite song back in 1986, but I wanted to give Anita some soulful props. This song, her first single, went to #8 on the pop charts and #2 on the R&B charts; plus, "Sweet Love" earned her a Grammy for Best R&B Song and another for Best R&B Vocal Performance (Female). As I said, not my cup of tea, but I respect her for giving us the best that she's got.

"I'll be Over You," Toto: This band really should have hung it up after "Africa." After all, how can you top that? But since everyone somehow thought "Africa" was sung by Asia, Toto soldiered on with this sappy little ditty, which actually reached #11 on the Billboard chart. Alas, the song's title proved prophetic, as fans were quickly "over" this song and the group. In fact, only the inclusion of the irrepressible Michael McDonald saves this song from obscurity. (As an aside, did Toto and Kansas ever go on tour together? Seems like a no-brainer...)

"It's in the Way That You Use It," Eric Clapton: Fun fact, courtesy of the book Scorsese on Scorsese: Clapton's original lyric for this song was "He's getting ready to use you." But director Martin Scorsese (who wanted to use this for The Color of Money) didn't care for the line. So Clapton and singer Robbie Robertson tweaked it a little and came up with a line with the same number of syllables: "It's in the way that you use it." And so was born a great song that, twenty-five years later, is never played and is barely even remembered.

Of course, I personally will always hold this song dear because of its appearance in The Color of Money, which is a film I saw with the first girl I could legitimately call a girlfriend.... regardless of whether she knew I called her that or not. Ultimately, the song's popularity and my relationship with the girl shared the same fate-- i.e. they were both short-lived.

"Shake You Down," Gregory Abbott: My inclusion of this song should in no way suggest that I endorse it; rather, I loathe it. I consider the week this terrible song reached #1 (in January 1987) one of the darkest eras in Billboard history. But I am mentioning it because it taught me something about female/ male perspectives.

The first time I heard this song, I immediately recognized it as limp, sappy-pappy crap. But my new female friends liked it-- loved it, actually. And while they didn't turn me around on this song, they did teach me something valuable: if men are born with the chromosome that prevents them from asking for directions, then women are born with the chromosome that makes them like crappy Gregory Abbott tunes. Somehow, it all evens out.

"The Rain," Oran "Juice" Jones AND "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades," Timbuk-3: I am bundling these two songs together because I never really knew, even at the time, if they were meant to be "real" songs, or jokey/novelty songs-- a la "Pac-Man Fever" or "Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun." "The Rain" seems real enough, but the talking part at the end-- the best part, for sure-- is played for laughs.

Timbuk-3's song, on the other hand, is just goofy all around-- at least, that's what I always thought. Only recently did I discover it's not goofy at all; apparently, lead singer pat mAcdonald (yep, that's how he spells it) considers it a song about... wait for it... nuclear holocaust-- with the "dark glasses" being a metaphor for turning a blind eye to a potential future that's made "bright" by a giant nuclear blast.


Yeah, I sort of see it, especially since he does make reference to studying "nuclear science" in the very first line. And yet... I somehow liked the song better when I thought it was just goofy.

While both Oran "Juice" Jones and Timbuk-3 were one-hit wonders, 'Buk-3 may have more "juice" than "Juice" as far as longevity goes-- if only because people still say the "bright future/ sunglasses" line. (Then again, that expression may predate the song, I'm not sure.) But I still prefer "The Rain," mostly because of its great put-downs-- for examlpe, "You without me is like corn flakes without the milk! This is my world. You're just a squirrel trying to get a nut!"

Plus, "The Rain' is the only one on this list (as far as I know) that has a rebuttal: Miss Thang's "Thunder and Lightning," which features the woman from "The Rain" sassing back to the man. When your song has a Rebuttal Version, you know you've made it.

"Human," Human League AND "Next Time I Fall," Peter Cetera and Amy Grant AND "All Cried Out," Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force: And I bundling these three together, not because they all do that "male/female duet" thing, but because they all fall into the category of "Songs That I Have Been and On Some Level Still Am Ashamed To Admit I Like."

When I asked my wife which of these three should embarrass me the most, she picked "Human"-- which I actually find the least shameful. So then I decided to do the iPod Test: I have both "Human" and "All Cried Out" in my music library, but no "Next Time I Fall." So I guess my appreciated for Peter and Amy is shoved so far back in the closet that I can't even admit it to my iPod.

The world seems to agree: as far as longevity goes, I feel I actually hear "Human" and, to a lesser extent, "All Cried Out" on the radio, but I never hear "Next Time I Fall." Of course, the next time I do hear "Next Time," you know I'll be singing along. (And now that I admitted that in print, this blog will self-destruct in five... four... three...)

"Will You Still Love Me?" Chicago: It's 1986, and gang warfare erupted on the Billboard charts. David Lee Roth and his ex-band Van Halen put out competing albums (Eat 'Em and Smile and 5150, respectively); Benjamin Orr and Ric Ocasek, both members of the Cars, released singles ("Stay the Night" and "Emotion in Motion," respectively) around the same time; and Peter Cetera and his former bandmates in Chicago slugged it out in an epic Battle of the Wusses.

Just how vicious was this Cetera-Chicago duel? Well, I'm reminded of Sean Connery's line from The Untouchables:

"He brings a knife, you bring a gun. He sends one of your guys to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue. That's the Chicago way."

Only, in this case, instead of knives and guns, the Cetera and the Chiaco guys were armed with cheesy, David Foster-penned ballads.

Who won this battle for soft-rock supermacy? Well, I'd probably give the nod to Petey, since both of his songs from 1986, "Glory of Love" and the aforementioned "Next Time I Fall," went to #1, while "Will You Still Love Me?" peaked at #3. Still, #3 is not too shabby, and Chiacgo proved they could survive without the bizarrely falsettoed Cetera. They'd go their own way-- the Chicago way.

"Heartbeat," Don Johnson: At some point in the fall of 1986, Eddie Murphy let out a big ol' *Phew*. See, up until that point, Eddie was the reigning Celebrity Who Put Out the Most Embarrassing Pop Song, 1985's insipid "Party of the Time." Then, in the Fall of 1986, Don Johnson decided to cash in on his Miami Vice fame by putting out this piece of steaming, soulless, opportunistic crud, which actually has gained some fame over the years.

For example, in 2007, put "Heartbeat" at the top of its "Worst Songs of All Time" list (beating out "Party All The Time" at #8). And back in 1999, it earned the #1 spot on MTV's 25 Lame show, commemorating the top 25 videos of all time (which MTV swore it would never play again).

But here's something curious: while I know no one who admitted to liking either "Heartbeat" or "Party All the Time," somehow they both reached the top five on the Billboard charts (#5 for Don and #2 for Eddie). And even curiouser: supposedly, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, and even Barbra Streisand helped Don Johnson on this album... which begs the question: just how crappy would the project have been if these folks didn't assist?

"Word Up!," Cameo: Going out on a limb here: I think this song has enjoyed a longer shelf-life than any other song on this list, save for the two Bon Jovi songs. Not necessarily because you hear "Word Up!" on the radio all the time (even though you do hear it occasionally), but because of the various incarnations the song has enjoyed over the past twenty-five years.

First, in the 1990s, a Scottish rock band named Gun re-made the song, a version which was apparently featured on the soundtrack of the Pamela Anderson vehicle, Barb Wire. (I never actually saw the film, but I'm sure the seventeen people who did would say it was the better for the song's inclusion.) Then, in the 2000s, the song lived on again: Korn (of all groups) made a version; and a radio personality out of Los Angeles named DJ Zax mashed-up "Word Up!" with Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl"-- and actually made "Hollaback Girl" somewhat bearable.

Why has the song enjoyed so many lives? Obviously, it has a great sound, but I wonder if people are also responding, on some level, to its paradoxical Deeper Meaning. See, when I actually looked at the lyrics, I realized the song is actually an indictment rappers and other "sucker DJs" for "putting on airs" and writing about "psychological romance" instead of just writing cool dance music. Hence the paradox: a song that seems to critique other songs for their Deeper Meanings actually has a Deeper Meaning. Ah, Cameo, you tricksters.

"Walk Like an Egyptian," The Bangles: On the one hand, the recording of the song caused some friction among the Bangle-gals (Ban-gals?): it seems the producer not only forbade bandmember Debbi Peterson from singing one of the verses (she was relegated to the whistling section, of all things), he also replaced her drumming with a drum machine. So, some trouble was a-brewing behind the scenes. (Three years later, the group broke up-- not necessarily because of the tensions involving "Walk Like an Egyptian," but it couldn't have helped.)

On the other hand, the good far outweigh the bad with this song: it reached #1 on the Billboard chart in December 1986 and stayed there into 1987; it was the very first song performed by an all-female group playing their own instruments to reach the top spot on the charts; it brought the concept of "cops hanging out in the donut shops" into the limelight; and it still lives on today, as proven by all the "Walk Like an Egyptian" puns that surfaced in conjunction with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Bottom line: when you think of great songs from the 80s, this one has to be near the top of the pyramid.

(Unless, of course, you're Toni Basil, the one-hit wonder responsible for 1981's "Mickey." Seems songwriter Liam Sternberg first took "Walk Like an Egyptian" to Toni-- who turned it down! And if you listen closely, you can still, more then twenty-five years later, hear Toni Basil crying.)

"Stand by Me," Ben E. King: Yeah, the movie Stand by Me came out in late-summer 1986, but you heard the song throughout the fall, so I figured I could include it on the list. Moreover, I wanted to end with this song (and, incidentally, *phew* for finishing this mere hours before 2012 rolls in!) for three reasons.

First, some temporal serendipity: on December 31st, 1986, I actually saw the movie Stand by Me in the theater for the first time. Now, twenty-five years later, to the day, I'm here writing about it. So weird.

Second, temporal serendipity, part 2: the song "Stand by Me" was originally released in 1961, so it was 25-years-old when the movie made it popular again. (As a pseudo-aside: I can think of only one other song that charted twice, after a quarter-century gap: the Righteous Brothers' version of "Unchained Melody," in 1965 and then in 1990.) So 2011 marked twenty-five years after that re-release. Fifty years of "Stand by Me"? Hard to believe...

Finally, and most importantly, I wanted to conclude my memory-lane jaunt with this song because of what the song means. The song is about the importance of enduring friendships. The friends I made twenty-five years ago, when all these songs were popular-- well, I don't see any of them regularly. But I do see five of them, at least once a year. We Facebook. We exchange Christmas cards. We are most definitely still friends.

These songs may have provided the soundtrack of this magical time in my life, but my friends were the characters who made the movie of my life fun and interesting and worthwhile. The songs were on the car radio, but they were ones in the car with me. They were the ones who made the memories. They were the ones standing by me.

Twenty-five years ago, I was a junior in high school. Now I teach high school juniors. And for them, I have this one wish: that twenty-five years from now, in the year 2036, you'll look back just as fondly on your friends... and your music.

Word up!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Springsteen's "The Rising" and 9/11 (Re-Post)

To commemorate the tenth anniversary of September 11th, I played Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" for my high school classes. And as I listened to the song (three times), it struck me how under-appreciated it is, not just as a 9/11 tribute, but also as a song.

Sure, it won Bruce a Grammy for Best Rock Song for 2002. And yes, Bruce played it at President Obama's inauguration. But the song only peaked at #52 on the Billboards, and I don't think many people outside of Bruce's fans remember the song. (Certainly, my students didn't know it. Then again, and it pains me to say this, they only vaguely knew who Springsteen is. As one of them said, "Oh, sure. He sings that song 'Glory Road,' right?" Eh, they're seventeen; they'll learn soon enough.)

In any case, to do my own small part on this tenth anniversary of 9/11 and to help honor the heroes who died that day, I wanted to re-post my interpretation of "The Rising." Basically, I feel the song recounts two journeys, two "risings"-- that of a firefighter literally climbing up one of the Twin Towers and that of a soul moving from this life into the next. Hope you find it enlightening.

You may also want to check out VH1's excellent edition of Storytellers (now online), in which Bruce himself talks about the inspiration behind the song and the lyrics. Start the video around 7:23. (Unfortunately, you have to watch an annoying shampoo commercial with Eva Mendes first. Ugh...)

Anyway, here's the original post...


For my money, Bruce Springsteen's song "The Rising," off the 2002 album of the same name, is one of the most significant works of art about the September 11th tragedy. Unfortunately, not many people seem to know this.

For one thing, I'm not sure how many people outside of Bruce's core fans actually know the song. Although released as a single in the summer of 2002, the song never enjoyed mainstream, "Born in the U.S.A." kind of success. In fact, although it won Bruce a Grammy for Best Rock Song, "The Rising" peaked at #52 on the Billboard charts.

Even Bruce's die-hard fans seem split regarding what the song means. A quick review of fans' comments at suggests this lack of concensus: although all posters seem to agree the song is a response to 9/11, some feel it's a song about a specific firefighter, while others feel it's a song about living with loss and still others feel it's a song about America as a whole "rising" up after the tragedy.

Bruce himself doesn't help matters much. When discussing the song during his VH1 Storytellers performance (in 2005), he makes no direct reference to September 11th (although he makes several oblique or subtle ones).

With that said, what follows is my own analysis of Springsteen's "The Rising." I've used two sources for this analysis: a Time Magazine article, from the July 27, 2002 edition, called "Re-Born in the U.S.A." and the aforementioned Storytellers broadcast. The rest comes from my own noggin.

As with all literary analyses, this is not the answer, but an answer-- just the interpretation of one man trying ot make his way in the galaxy.

Can't see nothin' in front of me
Can't see nothin' coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can't feel nothing but this chain that binds me

My interpretation proceeds from the idea that the "I" in the song is a firefighter climbing up one of the World Trade Center towers on the morning of September 11th. This premise is confirmed by the Time article which calls "The Rising" "one of two firefighter songs" on the album (the other being "Into the Fire.")

With that in mind, it seems reasonable to say that this initial verse describes a firefighter lost in the smoke-filled staircases of the doomed Twin Towers. This matches up with Bruce's description from the Storytellers performance, although Bruce gets a little more metaphoric, saying he begins the song in the "netherworld," a world that is "transformed" into an "unknown and unknowable place." That transformed "netherworld" could be the chaotic interior of the World Trade Center.

The "chain that binds me" could refer to the narrator's duty, his responsibility as a firefighter, what he calls later "the cross of my calling." The narrator undoubtedly knows he won't escape, that he's climbing to his death, but his duty compels him to keep climbing.

Lost track of how far I've gone
How far I've gone, how high I've climbed
On my back's a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile of line

This verse contains the song's first direct reference to firefighting (well, as direct as we're going to get, anyway): "on my shoulder half a mile of line," which could refer to the hose he's carrying.

Likewise, some listeners seem to think the "sixty pound stone" on the narrator's back is an oxygen tank or some other piece of equipment, but to me, it's more of a metaphorical weight-- once again, the burden of this man's impossible and inescapable duty.

Bruce himself, in the Storytellers performance, refers to the "sixty pound stone" and the "half a mile of line" as, respectively, "what I must do" and the "tools I need to do it."

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

I have a few things to say about the chorus, but I'm going to hold off until the end.

Left the house this morning
Bells ringing filled the air
Wearin' the cross of my calling
On wheels of fire I come rollin' down here

Again, some more overt clues that the narrator is a firefighter: "wheels of fire" and "bells ringing." (Bruce, on Storytellers, says the bells could be sirens, while also noting other possible connotations, including "church bells" and "tolling bells"-- both of which could be appropriate in the context of the song.)

As I said before, at no time during the Storytellers telecast does Bruce make any explicit reference to 9/11. But when describing the "cross of my calling" line, Bruce talks about the narrator's "uniform." Speaking in the narrator's voice, Bruce says, "my uniform fills me with the power and strength of my responsibility... who I am and what I must do."

One last thing: the "left the house this morning" line is so simple that it might seem like a throw-away line. But to me, it's one of the most poignant lines in the song, as the narrator is leaving behind, for the last time, everything and everyone he knows and loves.

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li

Not sure this gels at all with my interpretation, but for what it's worth: On Storytellers, Bruce says the "li, li, li"'s mean not only "sing with me" but also "stand along side of me." He later calls them reminiscent of a "prayer."

Spirits above and behind me
Faces gone, black eyes burnin' bright
May their precious blood forever bind me
Lord, as I stand before your fiery light

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li

Several times throughout the Storytellers discussion of "The Rising," Bruce uses the word "transformation," and I think this verse begins the transformation of this narrator. To me, the narrator is in a liminal or in-between space. He's moving into the next world, the world of "spirits." He's preparing to stand before the "fiery light" of heaven.

And yet, even though he's not part of our world anymore ("faces gone"), he's still linked to it. He knows what he's giving up: the flesh and "precious blood" that we all share, that make us human. On Storytellers, Bruce sums up what the narrator is going to give up this way: "Life, life, life... on the edge of something else."

(Incidentally: I originally thought the second line of this verse was punctuated this way: "Faces gone black, eyes burning bright." But, which seems pretty authoritative, puts the comma before "black." Personally, I like my way better: it suggests the faces have died, but something inside-- their spirits, their souls-- is still "burning bright.")

I see you Mary in the garden
In the garden of a thousand sighs
There's holy pictures of our children
Dancin' in a sky filled with light

May I feel your arms around me
May I feel your blood mix with mine
A dream of life comes to me
Like a catfish dancin' on the end of the line

This begins what I consider the most moving section of the song. To me, the narrator is still in this in-between place-- this surreal, light-filled "garden" (with all its Edenic associations). But, even as he keeps rising into the next life, he's still clinging to his old life and to everything he will be leaving behind.

On Storytellers, Bruce says Mary could be a "wife" or "lover," but he also recognizes the connotations of "Jesus' Mary." I gravitate toward idea that Mary is the narrator's wife, especially since he mentions "holy pictures of our children" two lines later. (Bruce does seem to like the name "Mary," doesn't he? He uses it in "Thunder Road," "The River," and "Mary's Place," to name only a few.)

In terms of the references to "your arms" and "your blood mixed with mine," I'll let Bruce himself describe what he means: "This is what I need; I need your arms; I need your blood. This is what I am going to miss: your physicality. Your flesh and blood. My own physical-ness."

In that sense, the "catfish dancing on the end of my line" is another example of what he's going to miss: the simple pleasures of life. (I've read comments from readers who dismiss that line as trite, but I think it's one of the most vivid, compelling images in the song.)

Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life)
Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life)
Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)
Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life)

Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life)
Your burnin' wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life

This powerful series of juxtapositions (love and tears, glory and sadness, mercy and fear) marks the culmination of the narrator's "transformation." His soul, his spirit has been rising up into this sky-- the sky which served as the backdrop of this terrible, terrible event. But he goes higher, above the painful emotions.

Throughout this journey, he's been "dreaming of life"-- that is, the physical life, the one he knows he's going to surrender. Finally, in that last line, his journey is complete. He leaves our physical world behind and moves completely into the next world-- the "sky of fullness, sky of blessed life."

Now, as for the chorus...

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine

So, after all my hard-hitting analysis, I bet you can't wait to hear what I have to say about the chorus. And, I have to tell you... well... this is the part that stymies me a little, to be honest.

I see how "The Rising" can have two meanings: the firefighter climbing the stairs, and then the firefighter's soul ascending into heaven. And I can even see how the "lay your hands in mine" line could refer to another soul welcoming this man into heaven (or even this man welcoming another soul that comes after him).

But one word trips me up: "tonight." Why is it tonight, when the attacks happened in the morning?

All I can say is perhaps the point of view shifts in the chorus. Perhaps the chorus describes a group of people coming together at a memorial service, holding hands and remembering their loved ones. Does that work? (Any help out there?)

I hope some people find this analysis thought-provoking or even enlightening, although I know full well some will say I'm over-thinking things, that I'm taking "all the fun" out of listening to music. (I'm an English teacher, after all. You think that's the first time I've heard that?)

And so, I thought I would end this post with a brilliant line from Bruce himself, from the Storytellers session. Describing the creative process that went into "The Rising," Bruce says the following: "Did I think of any of this prior to writing the song? No. But I felt all of it when I was writing the song."

Friday, August 12, 2011

Rating the Songs of Summer 1986

Summer of 1986-- the summer of Ferris Bueller and Max Headroom. The summer of Maverick, Goose, and Ice-Man. The summer I first read Catcher in the Rye and the summer when I finally committed to memory the words to "Hotel California."

During the summer of 1986, I was fifteen going on sixteen. In the mornings, I went to my first real job, as a counselor at Eager Beaver Day Camp. In the evenings, I usually rode my bike over to my friend Ned's house (neither one of us had our licenses) and swam in his pool or watched movies on his VCR. Somehow, none of this seems lame to me.

But, as I look back twenty-five years later, I think I remember the music that came out that summer most of all. So, with autumn lurking just around the bend, I decided to re-listen to twenty-five songs from that long-ago summer and see how well these tunes have stood the test of time. Basically, have these songs have held up twenty-five years later?

Now, then, to eleminiate some of the subjectivity in determining whether or not a song has achieved immortality, I am using the following criteria:

(a) whether or not you still hear this song on the radio in 2011
(b) whether or not you cringe if you do hear this song in 2011
(c) whether or not I like the song (Hey, I said, I was only eliminating some subjectivity)

Three more points before we begin:

(1) No real reason other than personal preference for why I chose these songs. I was going with the whole "25 songs from 25 years go" angle, and so plenty of songs just plain ol' didn't make the cut. So, sorry in advance to Level 42, Jermaine Stewart, and the Blow Monkeys.

(2) In most cases, I've provided links to the videos, but I take no responsibility for the cheesy content therein; and finally...

(3) Word of caution: the following list includes a rampant use of punning.

And now... the Unheralded and Thoroughly Subjective Evaluation of Pop Songs from the Summer of 1986

"Love Walks In," Van Halen: Some folks identify 5150, VH's first album with Sammy Hagar, as the precise moment where Van Halen jumped the shark, by marketing to teenyboppers and sacrificing face-shredding guitar licks for cheesy synth-keyboards. To them, I say two things: (1) "You ever hear of a little keyboard-heavy ditty called 'Jump'?" and (2) "Oh, and you didn't play the opening to 'Love Walks In' on your Casio keyboard ad naseum back in 1986?"

Haunting and beautiful, like the musical equivalent of Zooey Deschanel, "Love Walks In" also has that cool "aliens as a metaphor for love" thing going on, which never hurts. Hands down, the best single released from 5150-- in a whole other stratosphere than the unlistenable "Why Can't This Be Love?" You rarely hear it on the radio anymore (then again, outside of "Jump" and an occasional "Panama," how often do you hear any Van Halen on the radio?), but for my money, this space-age love song still lives long and prospers.

"Invisible Touch" and "Throwing It All Away," Genesis: I recognized "Invisible Touch" as a calculated, soulless piece of corporate pop before I even knew what calculated, soulless corporate pop was. To me, the song has an invisible touch, all right: it reaches in and makes me throw up my lunch. I much prefer the follow-up single, "Throwing It All Away," also released that summer; then again, "Invisible Touch" is the band's only #1 song, so what do I know? Ultimately, I heard both of these songs on the radio just last week, so I guess I have to concede that the duo have staying power.

(As an aside: Was there ever one moment in the 80s when you didn't hear Phil Collins' voice on the radio? From the summer of 1985 to the summer of 1986 alone, he released "Don't Lose My Number" and "Take Me Home" from No Jacket Required, for which he won a Grammy for Album of the Year. Plus, he sang the duet "Separate Lives" from White Nights. Plus, he had these two Genesis hits, with three more to come in the months ahead. Heck, he even appeared on an episode of Miami Vice! And that, my friends, is the paradox of the 80s: everyone seems to remember it as the decade of big hair and glam rock, but the frumpy, balding British guy in the baggy pants had more hits than anyone.)

"Higher Love," Steve Winwood: The first single from Back in the High Life and the song that officially kicked off my "Winwood phase" (which ended precisely two years later, with the release of Winwood's Roll With It, an album as derivative and insipid as High Life is original and transcendant). No need to think about it: this tune, from its drum-machine beginning to its Chaka-Khan-drenched ending, is a timeless classic.

"Rumors," Timex Social Club: I gotta tell you straight: while I liked this song a lot at the time, I can't say it has taken a lickin' and kept on tickin'. But that doesn't mean the group isn't trying to squeeze a little more blood out of this 25-year-old stone: did you hear that the group is selling a book called How Do Rumors Get Started: The True Story of the Timex Social Club? The long-awaited book, which can be purchased on the group's website, chronicles TSC's rise and fall, "a journey filled with greed (and) broken friendships (which) culminates in the group's break-up one year later." Finally, the truth can be told!

"Sledgehammer" and "In Your Eyes," Peter Gabriel: Shame that Gabriel releases albums with the frequency of Halley's Comet, because this album was So good. (Pun! Pun!) At the time, "Sledgehammer" was the smash hit (More puns!) and it still packs a whallop, but "In Your Eyes" is definitely the one that endures. And yes, "In Your Eyes" was originally released in the summer of 1986, not in the summer of 1989, which is when Lloyd Dobler famously played it outside of Diane Court's window. (Looking back, that scene really walks the line between sweet and creepy, doesn't it? Lloyd Dobler: hopeless romantic, or deviant stalker? You decide...)

"Touch and Go," Emerson, Lake, and Powell: I literally-- literally-- had not thought of this song in twenty-five years, and neither, I'd wager, has anyone else (including Messers Emerson, Lake, and Powell). So, easy "no" as far as standing the test of time, which is not to say it's a bad song; it just had the misfortune of coming out the same year as Europe's "The Final Countdown." (The two are pretty much identical.)

"When the Heart Rules the Mind," GTR: OMG, it's GTR! You know, GTR-- a VIP among the OHWs (One-Hit Wonders), that went MIA after their only single was DOA? Actually, that's not fair: this song is decent enough, but it definitely does not stand the TOT (Test of Time), since it almost never gets played, not even on "Back to the 80s" marathons. And as they say, out of sight, out of (heart-ruled) mind. R.I.P., GTR.

"Take My Breath Away," Berlin: Few things in this life befuddle me more than the enduring popularity of this song. As the "love theme" for Top Gun, this song gives me the need for speed, all right... the need to get this song off my radio as speedily as possible. And, yeah, I know I just said that thing about "enduring popularity," but will not endorse this song on general principle-- that principle being a steadfast refusal to support any song that sounds like the moans of a dying whale.

"Papa Don't Preach," Madonna: Remember Mr. Blue's assessment of Madonna in Reservoir Dogs? "I like her early stuff. 'Lucky Star.' 'Borderline.' But once she got into her 'Papa Don't Preach' phase-- I don't know, I tuned out." And I think I agreed with him, until I remembered that this "phase" also encompassed "Live To Tell" and "Open Your Heart," which I thoroughly enjoy. So, yeah, I've softened to the 1986 Material Girl and to "Papa Don't Preach" in particular. In fact, out of all the teen-pregnancy dance songs featuring Danny Aiello in the video, this might be the best.

(And if you're looking for a little depression: if the narrator of this song did indeed keep her baby, that child would be twenty-five years old. Now, excuse me as I attend to the liver spots exploding on my barren scalp.)

"If She Knew What She Wants," The Bangles: Sandwiched in between the releases of "Manic Monday" and "Walk Like an Egyptian" is this great song that no one remembers. Lost to the sands of time, and that's a shame. (On the flip side, lead singer Susanna Hoffs' starring role in the 1987 flop The Allnighter is also lost in those same sands, and that's not a shame at all. So I guess it all even outs.)

"Modern Woman," Billy Joel: From the soundtrack of the dark comedy Ruthless People. The movie is a forgotten gem; the song, thankfully, is just forgotten. Let's put it this way: even Billy Joel himself apparently wants nothing to do with it. In an interview he gave more than a decade ago, Billy justified the exclusion of "Modern Woman" from his Greatest Hits Vol III this way: "I hated that thing." Fun fact: this is the only song in this list that actually mentions the year "1986" in its lyrics.

"You Can Call Me Al," Paul Simon: And you can call this song a classic, stuffed with lots and lots of words and nutty turns-of-phrases married to an impossibly hummable melody. Who cares that we still don't know who this Al guy is, or why he wants a woman named Betty for a bodyguard, or even what a cartoon graveyard is? This song's still crazy after all these years. Amen and Hallejulah!

"Love Touch," Rod Stewart: From the soundtrack of the Robert Redford comedy Legal Eagles (which I inexplicably saw twice in the theater, although once was against my will), this is just dippy, innocuous movie-pop. I wouldn't call it un-catchy... just un-good. And un-enduring.

"Suzanne," Journey: Yeah, I didn't remember it either. I knew Journey had a song during this summer-- and a relatively decent one, at that-- but I couldn't place it. Even after I looked it up, I couldn't summon the tune. So I guess that says something about the song's ability to stand the test of time. It's also pretty much the only Journey song that has not been featured on Glee. (Then again, it could be in the future. Is Sue--as in Sue Sylvester-- short for "Suzanne"?)

"Tuff Enuff," Fabulous Thunderbirds: Twenty-five years before Bruno Mars proclaimed the things he's do for his decidedly unappreciative beloved (including catching on a grenade and jumping in front of a train), the lead singer of the T-Birds made similarly hyperbolic proclamations of love in this song.

From climbing the Empire State Building to wrestling with a lion and a grizzly bear--this guy will do it all to win the objection of his desire. Ah, but can he pass the most important test-- namely, the test of time? Tuff to say, but I'll let the Birds of Thunder roll into pop culture immortality, only because the lead singer rocks the red suit/ black beret combo and still has the guts to call himself "fabulous."

Incidentally, despite their boastings, the T-Birds do NOT win the award for the Most Outrageous Proclamations of Love by a 1980s Singer-Suitor. That honor goes to the guy from Modern English, who maintains he will not only “stop the world” for his girlfriend but also “melt” with her…. whatever that means. (Are the two related? Do you have to stop the world first in order to melt with someone? And why are either of those favorable things to do?)

"Nasty," Janet Jackson: Well, no one can say Ms. Jackson hasn't stood the test of time; it just hasn't always been for the right reasons. Still, I'll say the song endures, if only because it somehow reminds me of a time when Janet seemed innocent. Oh, the 1986 Janet was still sassy and tough. Just not as... well, nasty.

“Like a Rock,” Bog Seger: “Twenty years now—where’d they go?” Seger’s narrator laments as he looks back on his days as a brawny, carefree, charging-from-the-gate teen. Now consider that he asked this twenty-five years ago. (Oh, look… them liver spots again.)

And yet, despite its age, this song is still Ford-truck tough, enduring all these years later as one of Seger’s best, and certainly the best work of his later years. (And, yes, that most definitely includes 1987’s wretched “Shakedown,” from Beverly Hills Cop 2.)

"Glory of Love," Peter Cetera: Never really cared much for this song, the "love theme" to Karate Kid II, but I can't say that Time has swept the legs out from under it, either. So, I'll begrudgingly say it's stood the test of time, partly because lite rock stations still play it and partly because if I don't, my wife will resent me as trying to sound cooler than I actually am. Two more comments about this song:

(1) What's up with the summer of 1986 and soundtracks? Four on this list already, and that's not even including Michael McDonald's "Shine Sweet Freedom" (Running Scared) Carly Simon's "Coming Around Again" (Heartburn), Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone" (Top Gun), Jon Waite's "If Anyone Had a Heart" (...About Last Night), and El DeBrage's "Who's Johnny" (Short Circuit). Plus we had the re-release of "Stand by Me." And the Love Theme to Howard the Duck. (Kidding about that last one.)

(2) I always found it curious that Peter Cetera's first post-Chicago hit was a song that sounded exactly like a mid-80's Chicago song. What's the point of leaving if you're going to do the same old stuff? Wouldn't it have been infinitely more interesting if he did something completely different instead, like a cover of "Crazy Train"?

"Venus," Bananarama: The song may be about the goddess of love, but personally, I never had it--love, that is-- for this tune. Still, I can't deny the song has endured, showing up in razor commercials and on American Dad. I guess it all comes down to our collective desire to say the name "Bananarama."

"Mad About You," Belinda Carlisle: In the early 80s, two of my friends made a bet about who was going to be a bigger star-- Madonna or Belinda Carlisle. I guess we know who won that one. Still, Belinda had a few good tunes in her post-Go-Go's discography, including this one. At the very least, this song has lasted longer than the 90's sitcom of the same name. (Say, what happened to Helen Hunt, anyway? Has anyone seen her in, like, the past seven years? Should someone go looking for her?)

"That Was Then, This Is Now," Monkees: For reasons no one can quite explain, 1986 saw a bit of a Monkees comeback. As MTV showed all of the Monkees episodes, radio stations played this song (a remake of a tune originally recorded by a band called the Mosquitos, a name only slightly dumber than the Monkees). The comeback was short-lived, and I would hardly call this song a timeless classic, but maybe those wacky gents could still generate some mainstream Monkeemania in 2011? Hey, a man can be a (daydream) believer, can't he?

"Walk This Way," Run-D.M.C.: Believe it or not, this one gave me some pause. On the one hand, except for a recent mention in the new Smurfs movie, you rarely hear Run-D.M.C.'s version of this song on the radio, which could lead one to deduce the tune didn't have any legs. On the other hand... it's "Walk This Freakin' Way"! The song that introduced rap into the mainstream, revitalized the career of Aerosmith, and influenced pretty much every rap rock act that followed them! And here I am, on my stupid list, suggesting this song didn't stand the test of time? How smurfin' pretentious is that?

"Stuck with You," Huey Lewis and the News: On a recent car ride, my wife and I were trying to decide who had more hits in the 80s. Our calculations put Phil Collins as number one, but right behind him was Huey Lewis. Not Madonna or Michael Jackson or Hall and Oates or even Kajagoogoo, but the big-headed lug from San Francisco. We rattled off fifteen legitimate hit songs without even really thinking about it.

So why doesn't Huey get more love? We determined that, despite his fame, it was always a little embarassing, even at his peak, to admit you were a Huey Lewis fan. But I don't care. I proudly call myself a fan, of the group and this song, and I'm happy this tune has stuck with us for the past twenty-five years.

Hope this was good for a little nostalgia. Weird thing is, as I write this, I can clearly remember these songs from the summer of 1986--which was twenty-five years ago-- but I'm having trouble remembering even three songs from the summer of 2011-- which was just, like, last week. Maybe the short term memory is going in my 41-year-old mind is starting to go. or maybe the current crop of songs just aren't particularly memorable. But most of all, maybe the current songs just aren't that memorable to me.

I think a little paraphrasing of the last line of Stand by Me (a movie which came out, coincidentally, in the summer of 1986) sums up my thoughts nicely on this matter: "I'll never have music like the music I had when I was fifteen. Jesus, does anyone?"

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Can Boys Read Judy Blume?

So I had a piece a few weeks ago in the Hartford Courant, about talking to your kids about "the facts of life." And no, I don't mean the 80s show with Mrs. Garrett and Tootie... which is even harder to explain. (When the show went from seven featured students the first season to only four the next, how did they explain where everyone else went? Did that school only have those four students? How were those four girls, who were so different, even friends? And what exactly is a Tootie, anyway?)

Anyway, back to the article: for a hook, I started with a memory I have about reading Judy Blume books when I was in fifth grade; meanwhile, thirty years later, when my own sons got to the fifth grade, I realized, "Hey, I don't want them reading those books! They're too young for this stuff." Existential crisis ensued.

I got some good feedback on the piece, but quite a few people had the same question for me: What was a boy doing reading Judy Blume?

I guess I kind of understand why they were asking, since, yes, Ms. Judy does have a lot of female protagonists, and, no, her books never incorporated a ton of car chases or laser guns. So maybe she has developed a rep for being an anuthor for girls. But is it justified?

Hey, the first Judy Blume book I read was Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, which has male narrator named Peter Hatcher, and I just kept going after that. I was ten. What did I know about "boy" books vs. "girl" books?

But the whole thing got me thinking: why not go through the Judy Blume books I remember reading as a child and label them according to target gender? So if I think the book is primarily meant for girls, I'll label it "For Girls"; if I regard the book as primarily meant for boys, I'll label it "For Boys." If it seems to me immaterial, that there is no target gender, I'll say "Both." (I was hoping to use that wacky masculine/ feminine symbol that Prince used for a little bit in the 90s, but I guess just the word "both" will have to suffice.)

Before we begin, a few caveats:

  • This list is in no way exhaustive, as a quick Judy Blume Sporcle game revealed. My Judy Blume phase only lasted for about a year, and I never really read any of her books after 1980's Superfudge. (Sorry, Iggy's House-- just never got around to you...)

  • This list doesn't include Forever, which I never read. But my wife (who says she remembers girls passing around marked-up copies of Forever in the back of the middle school bus) assures me this is a book For Girls (or maybe Sllightly Scandalized but Nonetheless Very Curious Young Women is more like it).

  • Finally, this list does not include Deenie or Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself; I did read both of them, but I don't really remember anything about them. I think I'm blocking out Deenie because I'm pretty sure the main character had scoliosis, and in the fifth grade, the only thing that frightened me more than Fantasy Island and the insect segments on That's Incredible was scoliosis. As far as Sally Freedman goes, I honestly remember nothing about it other than the fact that one of the characetrs thought Hitler was living in her neighborhood... or something.

With that in mind.... here are my totally subjective, based-on-nothing thoughts about which genders should read Judy Blume books:

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing: The book that started it all-- believe it or not, the book has three sequels. Classic children's book-- regardless of gender. BOTH

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great: More of a spin-off than a sequel to Fourth Grade Nothing (you wouldn't call The Tortellis a "sequel" to Cheers, would you?), this book is actually more complicated than its predecessor, thanks to its somewhat detestable narrator, Sheila Tubman. But a great book that has a lot to say about owning up to your own shortcomings. A female narrator, sure, but that doesn't make a darn bit of difference. BOTH

Blubber: Basically, Mean Girls in the 1970s. Not a ton of guy characters, as far as I can remember-- the book is pretty much about girls bullying girls-- but I don't think that makes it a "girl" book; to me, the lesson about the dangers of bullying is universal. In fact, with renewed talk about bullying lately, this book should make a comeback. BOTH

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret: No equivocating here: totally a girl's book. Margaret and her friends are going through "changes"-- changes which I didn't understand as a fifth grader and only vaguely have a handle on now. (I'm kidding... kind of.) There's another narrative strand about Margaret trying to choose between her dad's Judaism or her mother's Catholicism. But the puberty stuff really drives the book. So, yeah, even though I read it, no one will deny it's a book For Girls.

Then Again, Maybe I Won't: Written a year after Are You There, God?, this is basically its male counterpart: the boy puberty book. At least, that's the way I remembered it. But over the past year, when I first had the inkling to write that Courant article, I read it over, and I realized that the puberty stuff acts as a metaphor for all the other changes the narrator Tony is going through. In this case, most of the changes have to do with his family's newfound wealth, after the dad invents something and makes a boatload of money. But of course, as Tony, a middle-schooler with a nervous stomach, discovers, mo' money means mo' problems. At its core, the book is about classism: if Karl Marx were alive today and had a talk show, this one could be a part of his Book Club.

Still... even though boys and girls could get something out of all the "problems of the nouveau riche" stuff going on, all the puberty talk means it's probably a book For Boys.

Freckle Juice: Hmmmm... honestly, don't remember much about this one, either, except that it was really short and it had illustrations. I read it in the fifth grade, and I definitely remember feeling it was a book for littler kids... which probably means it doesn't have anything edgy or offensive. I'd call this one right down the middle. BOTH

It's Not the End of the World: This "divorce" book has a female narrator, but that doesn't really matter to the plot, which is about children trying to survive their parents' break-up. Kinda unremarkable but not a bad book either. BOTH

Superfudge: This bona fide sequel to Fourth Grade Nothing has the Hatcher family move for a year to the suburbs, buy a myna bird, and add a new member to the family (a baby girl named Tootsie). Just like the original, I'd say this one works for both genders. BOTH

So take that, all you "what's-a-boy-doing-reading-Judy-Blume?"naysayers out there! Clearly, the completely objective data I've compiled shows that out of the eight books mentioned above, only one was pretty clearly "For Girls." Now that I cleared that up, I'll have to start thinking up answers for the new question I'll probably be asked-- "What's a boy doing watching 'The Facts of Life,' anyway?"

Monday, July 11, 2011

Does Bon Jovi Have Any "Forgotten Gems"?

I know it's been a while since I last posted, but I recently stumbled upon two comments that riled me up enough to write. Naturally, both comments involved Bon Jovi.

The first comment was made by my wonderful niece Lucy, who claimed she "hated" Jon Bon Jovi, because "he is old, he is ugly, and he is not a good singer."

The second was an off-handed remark I read on pages 162-163 of Chuck Klosterman's Fargo Rock City: "It seems the only good Bon Jovi songs were the popular ones," Klosterman posits. "The band has no forgotten gems whatsoever (except maybe 'Love is a Social Disease,' and even that is a stretch)."

(Incidentally, I know that FRC came out in 2001, and that my righteous indignation isn't particularly timely, but I just came across that comment this weekend. So my indignation is righteously timely to me.)

The first bundle of comments, about JBJ being old and not a good singer, I can let slide. My niece, after all, twelve; Dakota Fanning seems old to her. And being twelve, she's not really familiar with Bon Jovi's oeuvre. (And yes, I originally typed "body of work" there.) She's probably more familiar with his more recent offerings, the "Have a Nice Days" or the "We Weren't Born To Follows" or the "What Do You Gots," which no one would consider strongest stuff. Not bad, mind you, just a tad derivative. Oh hell, who are we kidding? They're pretty much the same song. But it's a good same song, so we collectively let it go.

But I couldn't easily dismiss the Klosterman comment about Jovi having "no forgotten gems" and felt determined to prove him wrong. After all, we're fast approaching the 25th anniversary of Slippery When Wet (released August 1986), which is when I first called myself a fan. So I felt I needed to speak on Jon's behalf-- because, you know, he really needs my endorsement.

However, while combing through my Jovi treasure trove for "forgotten gems," I realized two things. First, I'm just about the worst Jovi fan in the world, in that I only own two Bon Jovi albums: Slippery When Wet (on cassette, no less!) and Greatest Hits- The Ultimate Collection. Not sure why I don't own more; I think it started when I didn't buy 1988's New Jersey, both because I didn't like the debut single, "Bad Medicine" ("More like 'Bad Music,'" I oh-so-wittily quipped), and because the album came out right when I started college, a time when you're basically required to pooh-pooh everything that got you through high school. Bottom line: combing through my treasure trove didn't take as long as I thought.

Still, reviewing my admittedly sparse collection brought me to my second realization: "Geez, maybe Klosterman has a point. Maybe the only good Bon Jovi songs are the popular ones!" This came after a car ride spent listening to Disc 2 of Ultimate Collection, which such contains such anthems as "These Days" and "When We Were Beautiful." Never heard of them? There's a reason for that: they're lame. Forgettable.

(As an aside: Why do "greatest hits" collections invariably leave out at least one or two of a band's actual "greatest hits"? How can any Bon Jovi "best of" collection not have "Never Say Goodbye" or "She Don't Know Me" or even "Thank You for Loving Me"? Defies explanation. Would you have a John Parr "best of'" without "Naughty Naughty"? What about a T'Pau "greatest hits" without "Heart and Soul"?)

And yet, I refuse to agree with Klosterman's asserton that Jovi has "no forgetten gems whatsoever." In fact, I came up with three great Jovi songs that, to my knowledge, never got significant airplay:

"Shot Through the Heart": And no, I'm not confusing this with "You Give Love a Bad Name." I'm talking about a great "you broke my heart, you soulless meanie" song from their first album. Basically, "You Give Love a Bad Name, v. 1."

"Wild in the Streets": Last song on Slippery When Wet. Awesome tune, any way you look at it. Check and mate, Chuck Kolsterman.

"Silent Night": When I first saw Bon Jovi in December '86, Jon swung out into the audience on a trapeze-type device and sang this song from a platform. When I saw them in July '87, they did the same trapeze bit, only with "Never Say Goodbye"; when I saw them in March '89, they sang "I'll Be There For You." Yeah, they're all remarkably similar (you could probably throw "Bed of Roses" in there, too), but I think "Silent Night" is the best of the bunch. Definitely a forgotten gem.

So, Bon Jovi may not have a ton of forgotten gems, but he does have them. Of course, only after I wrote all this, I realized something: Why does it even matter, anyway? As long as his popular songs remain unforgettable, who cares about the forgotten ones?