Ultimate Pop Song Tournament #2
Joy Bombs, Game 5 (Vote Here)
"Bad Romance" (Lady Gaga) vs. "9 to 5" (Dolly Parton)
"Bad Romance" is exciting from the moment the electronic cloud bank under the opening beats start spiraling immediately into a tornado cloud of perverse, portentous determination. The first round of monosyllabic dada (Ra-ra, ah-ah-ah...), when the music all but recedes, are like the telltale droplets of what's coming, and then the thunderclap hits. It's all extravagant, righteous, loins-on-fire neediness from that point forward, and I find it pretty damn irresistible, even when the lyrics are straining a little hard. I'm stunned that I'm not voting for it at least in the first round, but beyond my huge soft spot for Dolly Parton's pert lyrical acumen and her endless shadings of compassionate emotion, I love when pop takes a break from being about love, falling out of love, or getting jiggy in a club, without going all "Another Day in Paradise" on us. "9 to 5" is a vibrant, cubicle-shaking pick-me-up that we all need, often five times a week, and it uses the music as well as the lyrics to lead you through the daily cycle from wake-up to punch-out. Only this day is different. It's Bring Your Fabulous To Work Day.
Joy Bombs, Game 6 (Vote Here)
"Flashdance (What a Feeling)" (Irene Cara) vs. "Groove Is in the Heart" (Deee-Lite)
As with "Bad Romance," "Flashdance" just seems like a song for which I would automatically pull the lever, at least in the first damn round. Having both welded and danced, I can absolutely verify the greater joys of the second vs. the first, but even if you don't have Jennifer Beals and her day job in mind, "Flashdance" is one of the greatest, most steadily surging odes to the pure release of letting go with your own body, whether or not you're dancing with anybody. And Cara! She got paid $180 for this vocal, and she's breathing fire anyway, ratcheting up from first to third to fifth gear with perfect timing. Still, I'm swayed by the fact that while "Flashdance" is a perfect, perfect realization of a certain kind of song we know, "Groove Is in the Heart" is a perfect realization of a song we barely knew could exist. Deee-lite has all the ragtag, pass-the-baton looseness of Sheryl Crow's Tuesday Night Music Club, but this is a crazier, doper, more lava-lampy, more adventurous, and more purely joyful Music Club. Everybody gets in on the jam session, and even though the track changes colors and registers more often than a karma chameleon (ahem...), it all hangs together as an integrated piece, slide whistle and all. You can practically hear the platform shoes and smell the wigs.
Joy Bombs, Game 7 (Vote Here)
"Karma Chameleon" (Culture Club) vs. "Straight Up" (Paula Abdul)
A Tale of Two Hot Messes. George, wipe your nose. Paula, seriously, it's not even 11am. The clinic cannot keep turning a blind eye to these serial infractions, but I understand you deposited so much cash such a long time ago in your Pop Deity account that you basically get to draw on that as long as you want in order to pay your Crazy Bills. Paula always sounded like she was singing inside a Pepsi can, probably Diet Pepsi, maybe even Diet RC, but unlike the wonderfully bubble-gummy singles that followed from Forever Your Girl, "Straight Up" splashes some Ketel One into the cola, which I'm pretty sure is how Paula likes it. She's still hot for this boy, but she's more than a little fed up, and the combo of lust and impatience is set at an ideal register of rat-a-tat-tat-tat. Still, I'm voting from the same convictions as above: there are a lot of Paulas singing a lot of "Straight Up"s in a lot of studios every month, and almost none of them are as fetching, but how many "Karma Chameleon"s is anyone writing, producing with such feather-light melancholy, and singing with such casual, gently bruised sensitivity? The lyric makes emotional sense even if the precise syntax is tough to work out, and the two-line bridge (Every day is like survival / You're my lover, not my rival), eminently worth repeating, is a pinnacle among bridges, like what Carly Simon and Andrew Marvell would write together and then hand to an almost-crossdesser to sing with full, perfect, un-heavy understanding. (I had never seen the video to "Karma Chameleon" and I love how eye-catching but also how lackadaisical it is, with George up there on that mound like the opium-smoking caterpillar in Lewis Carroll.)
Joy Bombs, Game 8 (Vote Here)
"Since U Been Gone" (Kelly Clarkson) vs. "What's Love Got To Do With It?" (Tina Turner)
So, we're four for four in these match-ups insofar as I think every single song deserved to advance to the next round, and would have, on my ballot, if they were paired off against something different. Mark already offered a brilliant distillation of what's so special about "Since U Been Gone," and loud, brassy, chip-on-your-shoulder singalongs don't get better than this. The mood is so contagious you get swept right up in it even if you've never ended a relationship feeling remotely this way (as I, thank goodness, have not). But still, we are talking about Tina Damn Turner, people. If anybody could ever have sung "Since U Been Gone" with righteous authority, albeit with a less than ideal match of voice to arrangement, it's Tina. She wrote the book about breathing for the first time.
In this instantly and indefatigably iconic song, she has so moved on from that stage and is sailing in murkier waters, insisting on her right for pure physical pleasure while resisting the tug of the love she is feeling. The resistance feels real, muscular, unmistakably wise to the dangers: unlike a lot of songs built on this sentiment, you really don't know which side of her instincts is going to win, though it's clear in either case that Tina is going to win. The song is like an audio equivalent of a black eye that's just barely healed, only listening doesn't make you feel bad, because Tina takes seriously that she's as aroused as she is alert. And speaking of The Hall of Fame of Bridge Verses! Does it "scare her to feel this way" because she's frightened of feeling emotionally attached, or frightened of allowing herself not to feel emotionally attached? This is a completely frank song that is also rich in mystery, as early as the first five seconds. Right here, they ought to have retired the jersey for Tough As Nails But Still Vulnerable But Still Tough But Still Vulnerable.
Extra points for that moment when the uppity alto sax tries to cut in early for its solo, and Tina puts it on blast with one husky Mega Yearn. She lets the sax do its thing after that, but we know who is Queen Bee, as if we didn't already. Fierce, hon.
Oops, this is my stop! Getting off the train. Go vote, folks!