Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ultimate Pop Song Tournament #4

Here we finish out the Deep Feelings quadrant, although as with the Joy Bombs (see previous entries), you still have plenty of time to vote. In what follows, I commit to two votes that defy everything I once thought I knew about myself.

Deep Feelings, Game 13 (Vote Here)
"Nothing Compares 2 U" (Sinéad O'Connor) vs. "I Will Always Love You" (Whitney Houston)

At this point, I can't even tell what more people detest: Sinéad's anti-establishment antics or Whitney's much-imputed travesty of Dolly Parton's fond, reflective, softer-spoken lament. People get riled up about both, which from my perspective is too bad, because I think Sinéad really wanted to start some earnest discussions and wasn't only calling inflammatory attention to herself, and because Whitney sang the bejeezus out of that song in a way that unquestionably transforms its meaning and register, which I think is what a cover is supposed to do. "I Will Always Love You" '92 will never win a Lifetime Achievement Award for subtle work with the lyric, but it's not without its own shadings, like the gratifying shimmer of stank in Whitney's phrasing of "Please - don't cry." Unlike Dolly the Magnanimous, Whitney will probably permit your train-hopping ass to shed a tear for this break-up, and even if she wails better than you do, who wants to mourn alone? Still, half an instant later there's a genuine lump in Whitney's throat on "We both know," which is the closest this big-hearted belter is going to come to admitting this relationship wasn't meant to last, and that it might not have been his fault at all, it might have been her.

The song's stock in trade is obviously the unfettered bombast of total adoration, surely heightened at the prospect of watching the beloved walk away, and glowing with the narcissistic fluorescence of making what you know is a dazzling show of your own sorrow. Well, that's all one stock in trade. The other is the strength and power of those pure notes, the mighty vibrato, the bravely a cappella beginning, the river of real grief that flows into the second repetition of the chorus. It's a bit much, but if your thing is Degas, don't hit the Rothko exhibit, okay? My mama almost had to whup me for playing this song from sunrise to sunset for a few months that winter, and in deference to that memory, I'm sticking by it, even though Sinéad works miracles (take that, Pope!) with Prince's spare, subtly affected lyric. I love when she gets pissed that this dearly departed guy has set such an impossible standard; she practically spits out the line about all the other boys she could put her arms around, as though that will help. Both of Sinéad's first two albums are chock full of wonders, and this is only ninth or tenth on the list of songs I steadily go back to, which is the best tribute I can pay to her. Short of actually voting for her.

Deep Feelings, Game 14 (Vote Here)
"We Belong" (Pat Benatar) vs. "Lost in Your Eyes" (Debbie Gibson)

I admit that with all the songs I have been forced by circumstance not to vote for, I find it hard to tick the box next to either of these. Granted, they're terrific songs, and they both capture something essential about their performers: Benatar's flintiness, even when she's verging weirdly on lullaby territory in the verses, and Gibson's earnestness, as evident in the abstinence-commercial recreations of the video as in the clean, lovely, self-authored music and lyric. I still think "Love Is a Battlefield" eats "We Belong" for lunch, and Gibson's talent as a songwriter and her attraction to more complex states of feeling are more evident on the lower-charting ballad "No More Rhyme" from the same album. I'm voting for Benatar, because the cadences of the song are so halting and strange, and she's a gutsy, engaging enough singer to be able to squish her rock-concert impulses inside the wispiness of the arrangement between choruses. Whoever decided to spike the song considerably with that walloping drumbeat was a genius. The song's a bit of an oddity, which gratifies, and Benatar's charisma is more unusual, which at this moment appeals to me more than Gibson's limpid good-girl love letter.

But you cannot ever report this to the 7th-grade version of myself, who bought Debbie's cassettes seconds after they came out, read her autobiography (!) repeatedly, dreamed of going to Vassar because that's where her sisters all went, and thumped a lot of Tiffany fans on the head with our favorite stand-by, "Well, Debbie writes her own stuff!" The 7th-grade version of myself would hit the current version of myself with a giant Trapper Keeper for what I'm about to do... and that's saying nothing of how borderline-grating Debbie's upper register often seems to me now, enough so to make you pine for the fascinating, throaty, disconcertingly wise-sounding alto that Tiffany brings to "All This Time" and "Could've Been" and "Danny." Now I feel that all of my loyalties are spiraling into shapes I no longer recognize, so I'm moving on to...

Deep Feelings, Game 15 (Vote Here)
"Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)" (Kate Bush) vs. "Losing My Religion" (R.E.M.)

I guess you can be in the corner and also in the spotlight, especially if you are an ambivalent celebrity, about to be promoted to mega-celebrity on the back of the very song where you voice your own burgeoning agnosticism about music, a lifetime calling that suddenly comes stitched to so much money and out-of-body obligation. Perhaps for reasons that aren't good enough, that's what I've always understood "Losing My Religion" to be about. Michael Stipe is saying too much about his reluctance to be our alt-rock god and also not quite saying enough to really be straightforward (read: abrasive, bad for business) about it. It's an engrossing, utterly unusual track, especially for pop radio, with adventurous instrumentation, an exciting, whitewater momentum, and an ending I've always liked, as though the frenetic mandolin just fainted and the music box just wound down.

And that, said Forrest, is all I have to say 'bout that, because next to "Running Up That Hill," even a song as deft and commanding as "Losing My Religion" looks like a pile of cotton socks. You want to talk about religion and really mean religion, even if you also mean something else? You want to talk about exciting production, making the drum machine feel like the most avant-garde apparatus you could possibly get your wood-sprite hands on? You want to talk about barreling momentum, frightening earnestness, openly sexual reverie, and the whole cadre of Miltonian devils who start shrieking like a hydra-headed army before that last repetition of the chorus? You want to Exchange the Experience? I think you know what I mean. Plenty of people make deals with the devil, especially in the world of popular entertainment, but few get up the gumption to lay down terms with God. And what are those terms? What is the deal? The song distills overweening, headstrong, libido-led willfulness to a scary essence, but a will to what, exactly? To figure that out, you have to diagram and parse, like the reader of a Dickinson poem, but first you'll have to stop dancing. And given the tones and rhythm of the song, it's probably a dance that you and your partner would much rather continue.

Deep Feelings, Game 16 (Vote Here)
"Don't You (Forget About Me)" (Simple Minds) vs. "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" (Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield)

"Don't You (Forget About Me)" has been my lifelong answer when people ask, What is an example of a perfect 80s pop song, and sometimes just, What is a perfect pop song? That unbelievable energy! That first ten seconds, with the Transylvanian echoes and the glistering surges of electro-pop instrumentation! That winking, conspiratorial edge in the singer's voice, as though he already knows, and you know, and he knows you know, that you won't forget him. The high notes of the Casio faux-organ are bright enough to make everyone happy, even if they aren't already thinking about the cereal sandwich and the dandruff-art in The Breakfast Club, which would make anyone happy. But the song has a real brooding energy going, too, like a bat wing that keeps flapping past. I adore that short lyric where the singer ticks off the lover's favorite defenses ("Vanity, insecurity") with the haughty concision of a Nabokov sentence ("Picnic, lightning"). I just love the whole song, and unbelievably enough, I can see all five members of the Breakfast Club itself playing it on their Walkmans. "Don't You (Forget About Me)" remains the Roger Federer of 80s pop songs. It is indisputably the best.

So why does it always lose to Rafael Nadal, by which I mean, why does it seem so clear to me that I love "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" even more? Both have that gift for winning you completely in the first five seconds, but there's a sleeker drama to how the Pet Shop Boys pull that off, with all the brass and the racquetball percussion promising a roof-raiser of a song while those three tiny and repeating phrases, those seven high notes, suggest a thin line of something quieter, more internal, and genuinely upset within the song. That upset is only going to grow, although so is the surrounding storm. "You always wanted a lover / I only wanted a job" is a hilariously witty opening, and a pretty tough impasse for two lovers to get past. "I always worked for my living" is a tough, cryptic rejoinder even if it isn't being sung by Dusty Springfield in her trademark register of husky withholding. The song's dramatic in about five different ways, everything from bouncy to brooding, just like the Simple Minds song, but whereas "Don't You" finds its phenomenal groove early on and then continues to work it, the music and the narrative of "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" build to an escalating crisis, epitomized in the Boys' deepening, relentless, robotic repetitions and Dusty's ardent expostulations, when this ongoing argument hasn't reduced her to gasping for air. Both lovers seem genuinely flummoxed at what they have done to deserve this. I also don't know what I have done to deserve this, but in the best way, and I will forever be thankful.

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Blogger Andrew K. said...

I was so certain I'd left a comment here...apparently I didn't. It was looong, so in an effort to be succinct I love the work both Sinead and Whitney put in but I have to props to Whitney and I especially love what you write about Whitney's diction taking the song that much further. Both are great songs of heartbreak, but ugh...Whitney!

9:58 AM, July 29, 2011  

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