After that last post of fist-shaking ranting, I feel that it’s only fair for me to hold up some examples of good pop music and talk about stuff that I actually like. Pop music that doesn’t have sophomoric lyrics or stupidly naive views of human love and relationships. Pop music that’s actually good, that says something astute and interesting about the human condition (whatever that is) and turns us into better, smarter, sexier people by listening to it. There’s plenty of music like this out there. Music that doesn’t just smile at us through a haze of pot smoke and idealism about how nice niceness is, but instead links up its brain and heart into an emotionally mature, intelligent supersongwritingmachine and entertains us with flashes of brilliant melodic insight.
Here are a few examples of stuff about love and emotions and all that that seems like it was actually written by rational adults. If you can think of any additional examples, by all means speak up.
Pretty Much Anything by the Magnetic Fields
69 Love Songs is easily one of my favorite albums. If I were a character from High Fidelity, it would be on my top five list. On that list, it would have a number like “three” or “two” assigned to it. The album isn’t just great because it has songs about dancing bears and bunnies fucking, it’s great because so many of the songs that once can actually relate to. These are songs that drag love into a laboratory, do bajillions of test on it, and then publish their findings in Nature. Not many naive proclamations of how awesome stuff is, these are mostly studies of the particular.
Elliot Smith, Say Yes
While a lot of Elliot Smith’s career is a nasty illustration of Why Heroin is Bad, he was also a brilliant lyricist in addition to being a suicidal smack addict. He wrote lots of songs, but I’ll focus on the one that everyone seems to like, Say Yes.
The song’s all about vulnerability, expecting the worst, and feeling sort of weird when things actually work out. Smith finds himself in a position where he doesn’t feel like he has any power or agency. (“They want you or they don’t,” etc.) Feeling powerless, feeling like you have nothing to offer and plaintively asking for acceptance is an experience that I think pretty much everyone except psychopaths and egotistical douchebags have experienced. Say Yes encapsulates yearning, definitely, but also the pleased disbelief that things can actually be good. The lyrics seem to say “Holy shit! You’re still around? I haven’t fucked this up? Um… Wow!”
Early stuff by Liz Phair
Years ago, before she turned into an overly polished Avril Lavigne soundalike, Liz Phair was a respected, self-taught, indie singer/songwriter. Remember that? Anyway, I still like her. I even kinda like her in her new pop-princess guise. I have particular affection for Johnny Feelgood off of Whitechocolatespaceegg because it’s just so damn direct, and that’s not something you get out of pop music much (really- explicit lyrics usually aren’t). It’s a song about having dirty, rough sex with a guy who sounds like kind of an asshole, and the refrain is simply “And I liked it,” the implication being, that maybe she shouldn’t have.
Who hasn’t thought that at one point or another? (Well, virgins and Mormons haven’t.) But, for everyone who’s ever had a sexually rewarding encounter with a person of dubious character, this is the song for them.
Favorite lyric: “Moderation is a memory.” Phair isn’t proclaiming her love to the cosmos, or belting out how unrealistically transcendent it all is, she’s acknowledging her own irrational mental state. Refreshing little twist, there.
Most stuff by Dan Bern, especially Johnny Cash and Anais Nin
Dan Bern is another singer/songwriter from the nineties, and at this point in my little list I feel like I include someone slightly more current, but whatever. This is a post about good love songs, though, not hip, new music.
Johnny Cash and Anais Nin is a delightful little song about two very dissimilar people having a relationship. This sort of thing happens quite a bit- I once dated a girl who wasn’t a depressive cynic, for instance. In the song the two titular characters run grooves into each other, shape each others’ interests and experiences, and each adapts, changes, and learns something from the other. They get into what their partner is into, expand their field of experience, and generally become more well-rounded human beings. This is great! As much fun as temporarily getting lost in some superhigh love-nirvana might be, ultimately relationships ought to bring out the best in us, improve us as people, and help us experience more of the world at large. Jonny Cash and Anais Nin is a song about that- people who, instead of retreating into the maddeningly comfortable little bubble of their relationship, become partners in crime and subsequently devour more of the world because they met each other.
Also, the song has horse fucking. How could you go wrong?
The Beatles, Something
Since I spent my last post beating up on the Beatles I feel that it’s only fair that I say something nice about them now. I actually love the Beatles- I remember listening to my stepmother’s old Sgt. Peppers cassette back when I was in middle school, and it blew my friggin’ mind. I mean it. The ominous and discordant climax of A Day in the Life scared the shit out of me when I first heard it. Really! I wondered to myself what the hell was that about, what was that?
(Answer: Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.)
But, onto the song at hand. The Beatles wrote lots of cheesy little love songs that probably took them about ten minutes or so to pound out. (I’m not exaggerating- they allegedly wrote I Wanna Be Your Man, the Rolling Stones’ first single, over lunch while Jagger & Co. watched.) Something is not one of those songs. For one thing, it was written by George Harrison, whom I always thought was a bit more introspective than Lennon & McCartney.
The reason I like Something, is that even though it is a soaring and cuddly-sounding song, it’s ultimately about uncertain about a person and relationship, but going with it anyway. There are plenty of times when people can’t really articulate why they’re attracted to a person, and when their friend asks them “So, what’s your plan with this,” the reply is “I don’t know.”
That’s the best part of Something- the big big, spiraling bridge bit is a profession of ignorance. Harrison is saying to us “Wow, I have no idea why I like this or where this is going, but damn, it’s great and I’m going to enjoy this.” The Quiet Beatle managed to write a song that was about reverie without pretense, no small feat.
I’ve also always liked Lovely Rita for some reason. Nifty piano part there.