Crossing The Stream

Well, I've done something I didn't think I'd ever do: I signed up for Apple Music.

Streaming services kind of bug the jeeblies out of me. The fact that the artists who make the music are getting boned, while somebody, somewhere is presumably making money is the sticking point. So I've resisted mightily. Railed online against Spotify, told everyone who would listen that Pandora is nothing but a box full of troubles and woe.

But I just got tired of my music collection. Riding in the car into the city, Lisa always Bluetooths her phone into the car system, and I love The Who, but if I hear "Goin' Mobile" one more time I'm going to jump out the sunroof and stick the landing in the very center of the diamond lane and kiss a BMW 3 Series hello and my life goodbye. So, I caved.

And damn it... it's great. Turn on a radio station, hear tunes you haven't heard in years and new music you've never heard before, and if you love it, push a button and download it? I mean, c'mon. Yesterday I had a ton of admin work to do (and again today... tax prep, software updates and installs, getting a small direct mail campaign together, building a flyer for a new market I'm invading), so I set the virtual radio on a station of my own devising (West Coast Blues, featuring Robben Ford), and just let it roll. (I know I'm late to the party on this: see above.)

And that "whistle while you work" thing is for realz, yo. I was way more productive than any recent day, just buzzing through the kinds of task that usually make me drag my feet. When I got tired of guitar solos, I switched over to Hits of The 60s and 70s, and it was so nice. I haven't heard Aretha's version of "Til You Come Back To Me" in a decade, and it felt so good.

Still... am I evil? Are the people who made that music seeing a dime on this? Am I stealing their work, simply not caring that they're getting robbed? I can't defend my actions, not with either the standard "hey, those musicians are already rich" canard or the "dude, music is so beautiful, it can't be owned, it belongs to everyone" weed-infused cop out. So, yeah, it still bugs me.

If any of you have a solution to this dilemma, help me out in the comments. Right now, Earth, Wind and Fire are playing "September," and I gotta get up and dance.

The Most Wonderful Tunes Of The Year

Writing a blog is hard. You have to keep doing it, for starters, but far more difficult than persistence is positivity. Have you noticed how many blogs are 100% negative stuff about movies and music and books or whatever? I can testify that writing about something you hate is a lot more fun that writing about something you love.

It's the holidays, so when I sat down here I thought this was going to be about the holiday music I can't stand, because writing that would be fun and easy (snark is a breeze). But as I touched the keys, I decided to break the mold. So here's an annotated list of Xmas music I really enjoy.

1. Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Issabella. This beautiful 16th century French carol can be sung by virtually any choral group and remain absolutely perfect. First, it has the kind of melody that grips you by the heart. Second, it has added interest because of it's unusual madrigal-style timing: it's usually notated in 3/8 time, so it has a sweet swing to it. My top carol, for sure.

2. Christmastime Is Here (Vince Guaraldi).  Guaraldi said in interviews that he really didn't know how to approach the Peanuts cartoons, but clearly he figured it out in a big hurry. Everyone loves "Linus & Lucy," and "Skating," both instrumental charmers from A Charlie Brown Christmas. But this song is the real deal, capturing both the sweetness and the melancholy of the season.

3. All I Want For Christmas Is You (Mariah Carey). How can you not love this? It's as if Ronnie Spector called you up to wish you a happy holiday, and the Ronettes were in the room. The chord progression endlessly rises throughout the verses, the band and production just nail down that Wall Of Sound, and Mariah's knockout lead vocal gives it wings. I love this record so much it makes me choke up a little every time I hear it.

4. Happy Christmas (War Is Over) (John Lennon/Yoko Ono). It is. If you want it.

Lots more, but these are my faves. And just to make it feel like a blog, is it okay for me to say that Sir Paul's "Wonderful Christmastime" is an abomination, and one step below fingernails on slate in auditory terms? Seriously, there's some bad holiday music out there, but come on, Paul.

Rock & Roll Can Salve Your Soul.

Nope. That's not a typo. I meant "salve." As in soothe, chill, heal, protect. 

I was reading this list of "11 Problems Music Can Fix" (http://mentalfloss.com/article/30649/11-problems-music-can-solve) this morning, and it made me think that I had just been through a couple of pretty rough weeks emotionally and physically. But it was, in part, the music (and the opportunity to create music) that made me feel better.

Think of some of your favorite tunes (for me, the oddball autopsy of life and death performed over winning pop tracks by They Might Be Giants is very near the top). I could talk at length about what I find appealing about that band, and I probably will pretty soon. But all the critique and allusions aside, I like TMBG because they just make me feel good. It's smart, it's funny, it's musically clever. TMBG is like hanging out with a really sharp pal with a great sense of absurdist humor, and that just makes me feel good.

What music makes you feel good? I'm not talking about which band has the most indie cred, or who has the coolest t-shirt, or which singer you're in love with, or any of that peripheral stuff. Just what makes you feel good?

Can you name something right away? Good for you. If you can't, you need to hear some new stuff, and maybe listen differently, too.

In fact, with this recent election fresh in our minds, I know a lot of people who are really concerned for the country's future, and it's making them feel bad. In my mind, the most important people in the next four years will be visual artists, writers, musicians, comedians, and playwrights. The real base of resistance against the potential of fascism is always composed of artists.

If you're feeling like this, take my suggestion: find a musical artist that you didn't know about before every month for a year... longer, if you can. And judge them on one criteria only: does it make you feel good? Because that's all you need to know.

Here are some artists you may not have heard just to get you started: Gillian Welch. Scritti Politti. The Pimps of Joytime. The Record Company. Björk. What, you've never heard The Clash? You should fix that, right away. That stuff is angry, raw, and it makes you feel real good.

It's Not Me. It's You.

I really dislike "blame songs." You know, the kind where the singer spends two verses, a chorus and a bridge reeling off everything that's wrong with you (or, more precisely, the ex they're apparently singing at). You don't do this, you don't like that, blah blah blah.

Back in my ad agency days, I worked with a young woman who, in the wake of her divorce and an ugly side-project break-up, did what every young woman did in 1995: she came to the office every morning and put on Alanis Morisette's Jagged Little Pill. To my chagrin and against my will, I got an intimate knowledge of that album.

I still don't like it much. Partly because the production style fits the title: Jagged Little Pill is the audio equivalent of broken glass in a metal bucket. Digital distortion sucks, no matter who your producer is (I'm looking at you, Glen Ballard, you with your rack of ADATs, you).

But mostly because the songs flop back and forth between "you filthy bastard, I wish you agony and disease and heartbreak" and "hey, I'm just being little old free-spirited me, whom you should love regardless of how my whimsy may ruin your life." God knows what the paramour being shrieked at in "You Oughta Know," has actually done except stop calling her, but whatever he did it apprently makes him very bad and he should feel bad. But don't try to tag Alanis with that can of Krylon: she's this and she's that, she's up and she's down, she's all and she's nothing, she can't be pinned down and that's your problem, too. ("Hand In My Pocket.")

This is the message of the entire album. Mr. Hideous Jackass Boyfriend the Third is to be held accountable for every stupid thing he ever said or did, while Ms. Jagged Herself is exempt, 'cause God isn't done with her yet ("You Learn"). Morisette brings the full weight of her 19-year-old insight into love and and pain to the entire production. (In the following two years, she discovered Buddhism, thankfulness, and the Eightfold Path, and toned her anger down, along with her career... like the 2016 Presidential Election, it turns out all they wanted was the anger.)

I came to dislike Jagged Little Pill intensely. And to be honest, I hope that both my former colleague and Alanis have, too, and have further come to realize that everybody is more or less a mess. The jagged little pill is prescribed to us at birth.

Real Rude and Totally Removed

No record better encapsulates the early 80s (and the slow grinding change from Disco to New Wave as dance music) than "The Safety Dance" by Men Without Hats. So indicative of that Go-Go-Grab-It era, the writers of Futurama had a soulless MBA from 1,000 years in the past hum the synth line from the record to cement his status as The Thing that Came From The 80s.

"The Safety Dance" is, in a word, perfect. And like a lot of pop culture perfection, it was mostly an accident.

Beginning with the title, the lyric is an ideal blend of dance culture and New Wave mechanization. But that's not what the writer was shooting for. Ivan Doroschuk and some friends got kicked out of a nightclub for pogoing amongst the white Angel's Flight-suited disco kids. When they complained and asked why, the bouncers told them it "wasn't safe." So the song is a snarky 'screw you" aimed at the dying discotheque culture. The Safety Dance is the one approved of by the boring Old Wave.

We all missed it because they set the lyric in a bouncy, breezy, cheerful sawtooth synth hook that dominates the record. Punctuated with a girlish voice speaking the French for "dance," the whole thing felt just about as upbeat as "Walking On Sunshine."

The reason I think of it as the quintessential 80s tune is its place in category of songs I think of as sui generis, a latin phrase that means "of its own kind:" that is, a record so unique that it transcends genre. (These are my very favorite records. I'll write about that sometime.) Its oddball structure and deliberately wacky lyrics make it an outlier: like the New Wave itself, it plows ahead diligently, industriously, leaving friends and conventions behind, moving on to "place they will never find." And when it gets there, it stops without warning, as if it was simply switched off.

As a product of the 80s, I love "The Safety Dance." 'Cause if we don't, nobody will. Everybody look at your hands.

The Not-So-Great American Songbook

One terrible thing that's happened as The Music Business slowly became The Music Industry is the creation of song "blueprints:" sure-fire but utterly boring roadmaps for writing a song with hit potential.

You know what I'm talking about because it's all you hear on radio. For example, here's The Modern Country blueprint: Four chords (the I, IV and V plus an outlier like a minor or diminished) and a set of lyrics referencing your girl in tight cut-off jeans, your truck, Saturday night, and things you should buy to make it all alright, delivered over a loping shuffle by a guy with a recently-acquired Tennessee twang. These songs don't get written by artists: they get written by professional hacks in Nashville conference rooms. Or the R&B Slow Jam blueprint: bell-like digital Rhodes piano supported by soft strings, while a male or female vocalist freestyles melismas on lyrics that express a deep, aching need to get laid. I am not being sarcastic when I tell you that these records are completely finished by producers before the "artist" ever shows up, with his or her notebook of words, and lead vocals are written and recorded almost in the time it takes to listen to them.

My personal nemesis blueprint is the Modern Top 40 Pop song: an AAAB-AAAB rhyme scheme, a melody that repeats every bar, a I-vi-ii-V chord progression (or slight variation), and sung in a wispy voice with lyrics borrowed from a high school girl's diary. For whatever reason, this droning approach to "songwriting" sets my teeth on edge like drinking a barium contrast.

Compare any Katy Perry song to anything from the Great American Songbook: let's say it's "Someone To Watch Over Me." In the Gershwin tune, the lyric is a finely crafted story told in just a few lines, and the melody creeps and soars and slowly recedes, always in service to the meaning of the lyric. The Perry song? Wallpaper paste. White, sticky, and hard to scrape off.

It's the difference between hard work and sloughing off, between craftsmanship and paint-by-numbers, between dedication and laziness. If pop music is the soundtrack of the movie of our lives, shouldn't we work harder to write music for a more interesting movie?

That's what I think.

Welcome.

Let's get this cleared up right now: no, I don't think I'm the first guy to write a blog about music, and I don't imagine myself to be frightfully clever for doing so. We all know the expression about dancing and architecture (and we've all seen it attributed to 30 different people). Still, even though I was a writer for a long time, it feels odd to try to make sense of my own concepts about music by writing words and not music.

The thing is, it's not like dancing to express something about architecture (which I suppose could actually be done, if one felt like it). Its more about decoding what the architect meant. Or what it meant to us. Or still means.  Or something.

I love talking about the semiotics of music, and half my daily musings have something to do with its social impact, so I'm going to spend a little time each day jotting them down. Maybe it will help clients understand my approach. Maybe it will amuse my friends. Most likely, all I'll do is clear up - and merely to my own satisfaction - some things I've been wondering about.

Please feel free to stop in. I don't invite comments, but if something strikes you, drop me a note and let me know.