Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ultimate Pop Song Tournament #3

Headquarters and ballot boxes still over here. Here are my votes on the latest rounds.

Deep Feelings, Game 9 (Vote Here)
"Alone" (Heart) vs. "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" (Meat Loaf)

I know some fans of Heart never got comfortable with their swerve away from the hard-charging guitars of "Barracuda" and the exquisite rock-radio of "Magic Man," but if you're going to put your eggs in the basket of power-ballad pop, this is absolutely the way to do it. Crystal clear lyrics don't need verbal complexity when Ann Wilson can pour it all into the phrasing: is she moaning in ecstasy at an optimistic dream of holding him tight, or is she luxuriating in codependent masochism? Does it turn her on to suffer? Possibly both, but the sheer strength of the vocal takes this woman as far from pathetic as she can get. The pleading is so voluptuously earnest you sort of want the guy to show up after all, even if the spectacle of this gal's abandonment is so blow-back-your-hair formidable that you hate to call a halt to it. Other versions by voices as big have lacked bite, or any sense of personality, and without the clammy but tremendous excessiveness of a woman who loves way too much, who's almost predatory in her loneliness ("How do I get you alone"?), this can become just empty belting. Though you can understand the appeal of the song to other wailers, listening to covers by Celine Dion and Carrie Underwood has been like watching a Bette Davis role taken over by Susan Hayward and then by Reese Witherspoon. I'll take the original, thanks, and I'll take it forever ... even over the addictive hugeness, the barreling emotion, and the bravely back-loaded lyric of the Meat Loaf track. I love that song, but if "Alone" died, I would take a bus for an hour just to leave a flower at its grave.

Deep Feelings, Game 10 (Vote Here)
"Total Eclipse of the Heart" (Bonnie Tyler) vs. "Time After Time" (Cyndi Lauper)

Jesus, there are some big-ass songs in these brackets. One is tempted to vote for "Time After Time," as if one needed any additional prompting, just to show some respect for the artistry of the intimate ache. Has anyone ever put that over as beautifully as Lauper does here? Except maybe Lauper herself, in "True Colors," where she sounds almost as beat-up and careworn as the person she is ostensibly assuaging? Lauper makes every song better, but I cannot vote against "Total Eclipse of the Heart," because it would be like voting against the Pyramids, or voting against the Pacific Ocean. It's monumental, and though you wouldn't necessarily want Bonnie Tyler singing every song you threw at her, she has the right loud-to-quiet range, the right power, the right huskiness, and the right go-for-broke attitude to shoulder this gargantuan load. Every decision that needed to be made to keep the song from sinking under its own weight has been expertly made, including the decision to play to its own deeply appealing cheesiness around the edges (those lightning crashes?). With Tyler howling out "And I need you now tonight" with such rock-Tosca conviction, the track can afford to call its own bluff just an eensy bit. I think "Total Eclipse" is illegal in China because they're worried it will crack the Great Wall.

Deep Feelings, Game 11 (Vote Here)
"Viva La Vida" (Coldplay) vs. "Voices Carry" ('Til Tuesday)

For me, this vote comes down to production and how it can improve or impinge upon a fundamentally strong song. "Voices Carry" benefits from Mann's customary lyrical prowess. The relationship she describes seems even more starkly troubled as it continues, even though the tune itself gets louder and more effusive, and the whole thing is so scrumptiously easy to swallow. These are hardly demerits, yet I've always thought the intricacy in Mann's lyric is swallowed a little by a synth-heavy and overloud mix. Beyond the blunting of nuance, even the basic gist of the song suffers a little. I've met two people at two different times of my life who have misrecognized the title phrase as "This Is Scary." By contrast, the gossamer grandiosity of "Viva La Vida" is the key to the song's success. The colossal braggadocio of the lyrics and the kaleidoscope of audio textures maintain a fragile, unlikely lightness, like the whole song could blow away in a dandelion wind. This serves the central theme of evanescence, the conceit of a narrating persona who is saying goodbye to an era when he "ruled the world," whatever that means to him. Further than that, and without getting maudlin or lamely facetious, the majestic but wispy atmosphere suggests that he might never have ruled the world, that it's all a romantic dream, making the song more ironically rich and more beautiful at the same time.

Deep Feelings, Game 12 (Vote Here)
"Fast Car" (Tracy Chapman) vs. "Not Ready To Make Nice" (Dixie Chicks)

Two extraordinary achievements, and you won't catch me gainsaying anything about "Not Ready to Make Nice." Not the simple but gorgeous harmonics, not the pointed but measured lyric, not the accomplished vocal, soaring but steely, with the occasional tug at the throat or quiver near the top, proving that Maines does feel hurt by what she's singing about, although she's even more angry and unrepentant than she is injured. Even harder than standing up to current leadership in pop music is taking a stand against your own (former) fans, and not only do the Chicks negotiate this expertly, they do it without too much or too little bravado, making sure that they craft a song and not just a sandwich board. Other presidents whom they presumably prefer could take a few notes about graceful eloquence that nonetheless pulls no punches. If it were any song but "Fast Car"...

But it is "Fast Car," which is even rarer and more precious in the orchid grove of pop, a sober indictment of present realities that lets a persona and a situation speak quietly and brilliantly for themselves. Compare the blunter sloganeering of laudable album-mates like "Talking 'Bout a Revolution" or "Across the Lines" and the more bone-chillingly modest, more desperately sad craftsmanship of "Fast Car" proves even more sublime: piquant, detailed storytelling combined with a totally warranted rut of repeating choruses. The dream of escape is almost as sorrowful as the certainty of more of the same. The whole song is gorgeously paced, produced, and plucked, and Chapman's indelible vocal is just the right quarter-inch away from a mumble. That said, it's a surprisingly pliable lyric. I've been fascinated forever with the girl in this song, and I like singing it in different ways, making her more bullying or more plaintive, giving her ideas about that "deal" she's maybe willing to make, making her angrier or more self-pitying about having quit school. Is she competing with other girls she thinks this guy will take instead? Is she a wallflower in the shelter who took this big risk of opening her mouth this one time? She's already a different girl if you stress the second rather than, as Chapman does, the first word of the line "We'll move out of the shelter." And then there are the well-hidden subtleties built into the song, like the fact that the up-tempo chorus is always narrated in past-tense. This isn't a stop-motion portrait of a plan that had a hail-mary chance; it's a dispassionate recollection of yet another letdown that's already played out from the moment the song starts... unless the girl had been in the car before. In that case, she's not remembering the time they skipped town, but some earlier, world-opening moment when she felt, maybe for the first time, that she was someone, or could be someone, and that feeling is the reason why she built up the futile, heartbreaking gumption to ask for one more ride, to somewhere further away.

You can dig around "Fast Car" forever and still find more in it, though I'm not surprised no major artist has yet worked up the steel to attempt a cover. Who could ever forget Chapman, and who would want to compete with her?

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Blogger Tim said...

"Total Eclipse of the Heart" and "Time After Time" are, literally, my two favorite ballads of the 1980s. Voting for one over the other would be like something involving a movie that uses the Holocaust in an incredibly cynical attempt to give a beloved actress a good Oscar clip.

11:47 PM, July 26, 2011  
Blogger James T said...

I really enjoyed these posts!
I think we agree on half of the matches.
I don't think I would have a problem if Total Eclipse.. ended up winning but it seems like it won't even get to the next round. I won't judge. Zeus and Jesus will, as I'm sure Bonnie will create an eclipse of a plantet or a galaxy or something to send them the message. Or she'll just sing.

Plus, I found out about the existense of the lovely "Kissing a Fool" because of you. Thanks!

6:00 AM, July 27, 2011  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

"Though you can understand the appeal of the song to other wailers, listening to covers by Celine Dion and Carrie Underwood has been like watching a Bette Davis role taken over by Susan Hayward and then by Reese Witherspoon"

How long did you spend on this line? It's so brilliant especially when I think of Celine as a Susan Hayward type...so overwrought.

But, "Alone" is just great and that's because even when it wails it doesn't wail for its own sake. (Love the Kristin Chenoweth cover, though...and she doesn't really wail.)

I like what you write on "Viva La Vida". The song reached a level of poignancy I never expected with Coldplay. I always like them, but the intricacies of the song are astounding to me.

The Dixie vs Tracy match-up is cruel, but the way "Fast Car" evokes nostalgia for me makes it the indisputable winner.

(So you're great at writing about film and music, when are we going to have a piece on literature and TV?)

10:05 AM, July 29, 2011  
Blogger Catherine said...

I was a member of the choir at my graduation from secondary school and we ended up choosing two Cyndi Lauper songs to sing at the ceremony, one of which was "Time After Time". I can confirm that this song, especially those verses, are deceptively tricky to sing while retaining any semblance of the tune. No idea why, but they're a bitch to make sound halfway decent, so it's a testament to Cyndi that she makes them work, and, I suppose, that we agreed that we liked the song so much that it was kept in the programme despite being so deceptively fiendish.

(The other song, if you're wondering, was "True Colors". None of that bubbly "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" froth for our graduation!)

9:11 PM, August 01, 2011  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: Imagine the extra box-office that The Reader might have reaped if only it had taken a chance on the poster tagline: "For the world, a nightmare. For two people, a total eclipse of the heart."

@James: So glad you're liking these... and isn't "Kissing a Fool" grand? I'd like to think I would have cottoned to the song anyway, but I must give credit where it's due. It was Debbie Gibson, in that paperback autobiography I admitted to reading repeatedly, who advocated for that song as the kind of contemporary pop craftsmanship she was aspiring to as a standard for herself, at 17. Such taste, that girl.

@Andrew: Sounds like we're of like minds on a whole lot of these contests, which is gratifying. That line about Bette and Susan and Reese just came to me, which probably lets you know that a certain part of my brain is always thinking about the actresses.

@Catherine: Bless you for reading all of these and commenting so generously, and with such great stories. My shower head and shampoo bottle have been privy many times to the deceptive awkwardness of those minor notes and tricky tonalities in "Time After Time." Would have been fun if your graduation choir had ripped into "She-Bop," but as a planet, I'm not positive we have reached that emancipated view of education.

9:35 PM, August 01, 2011  

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