Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ultimate Pop Song Tournament #5

We now enter the Rock Warriors quadrant of the tournament bracket, a land of guitar gods, hard-drivers, and unrepentant freaky-deakies, pushing the envelope of radio. Occasionally all at the same time.

Rock Warriors, Game 17 (Vote Here)
"Sweet Child o' Mine" (Guns 'n' Roses) vs. "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" (Smashing Pumpkins)

I could say nice things about "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," especially about the tense, slow reveal of the opening movements. Other compliments deserve to be paid about the production and the musicianship, and in general, I'm a big Pumpkins fan, but I just hate the high-school lit-mag caterwaul of that chorus, and Corgan sells it way too shrilly, seeming much too self-satisfied with the epigram he's cooked up. A much weaker song than "Sweet Child o' Mine" would be enough to take it down on my end, but this is no pyrrhic victory, since I'm as tickled and floored by the whole Appetite for Destruction album now as I was 20+ years ago when it first dropped. This is a very sweet song wrapped in barbed wires. You feel them grazing the surface of Axl's voice and in the way Slash's guitar, in and out of the virtuoso solos, seems ready to pounce with even greater force, knocking out a Winger or a Warrant with one swipe of its giant paw. I know this was the Best Hard Rock Performance Goes To Jethro Tull era, but the fact that "Sweet Child" got no Grammy nominations despite one of the most accomplished vocals and one of the most tuneful, limber, unpredictable constructions of any #1 hit of its decade is... well, people, it's a real problem.

Rock Warriors, Game 18 (Vote Here)
"Rolling in the Deep" (Adele) vs. "Dog Days Are Over" (Florence + the Machine)

Full confession: I had never heard "Dog Days Are Over" before Mark and Joe nominated it, and subsequent comments at Mark's site have implied this is a bizarre omission, and that you'd possibly have to be dead to have avoided it. My deadness to contemporary pop has become a truly sad thing, though even I have been swept up in the Adele tidal wave of late. Beyond just being dead, you might need to have never been born to avoid confronting "Rolling in the Deep" these days, and how sad that would be for you: the song has an exciting, muscular gambol to it, deliciously figured in the Jurassic Park quaking of the water glasses in the video. I love the girl-group refrains threaded into the pre-chorus verse, even if I can't quite make out what they're saying, and Adele's ability to carry her voice to its biggest proportions without losing her hold on tone or feeling is pretty majestic. That I'm not voting for it comes down mostly to the fact that the song and the vocal arrangement could stand just a tad more variety from couplet to couplet. Eventually, I'd like to follow Adele through the crazy figure-eights and the hairpin turns of a song like "Dog Days Are Over," a blissfully invigorating Indy 500 ride that starts out all Brooklyn Consignment Shop Ukulele, heads upstate for some happy clapping in a field, and then rockets to the ozone with nearly deranged exhilaration, the kind that implies both a summit of genuine release and a sense of protesting too much. Both singers get A+ grades for keeping perfectly, powerfully in sync with where their songs need them to go, but where Adele hammers out concentric drumbeats in the air, Florence puts on an entire Fourth of July show, robust in color and dazzle without descending into messiness. Mark, Joe, your check is in the mail. Thanks for this one!

Rock Warriors, Game 19 (Vote Here)
"You Oughta Know" (Alanis Morissette) vs. "Sober" (Pink)

I spent some time resisting Morissette during the whole Jagged Little Pill year, because it seemed like her bridling energy had an embarrassing lack of finesse, and a production and PR machine that both goaded her to be rough and rushed to administer dishonest coats of polish. It's a nervy album that certainly gets under your skin, impressively able to survive its patchier aspects and its airtight packaging to the public. Still, all the monomaniacal and frequently stupid media coverage ("Oh my God, girls are getting so angry!") kept draining attention away from the major artistic feats like PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love and Joan Osborne's Relish that were repeatedly shoved, both incongruously and inauspiciously, into supporting paragraphs and footnotes in Alanis-heavy articles. It took me a while to get over that and really enjoy the song, but even as I say that, I am confronted by the clear memory of being caught by my stone-faced Bulgarian college roommate while I was kind of – how would you put this? – dervishing to "You Oughta Know." Definitely feeling the fervor. As time passes, it's easier to see that the over-reaches in some of the writing and the vocals aren't just flaws in the song but integral parts of what makes it so transfixing, almost like a jagged little pill. And then there are lyrics that never needed any apology, like the deliciously deadpan "I'm not quite as well" and the insolent sneer of "I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner."

The song still is its moment in so many ways, so I'm voting for it despite my suspicion that the magnificent "Sober" is a quote-unquote better song, which is made all the more clear by Mark's brilliant endorsement in Comment #4 of his own blog entry. Pink seemed to epitomize the flash in the pan when she first dropped, and then her Mae West face, punchy sense of humor, and ability to gene-splice pop hooks and rock refrains really came into their own. She has only gotten more formidable, such that now she's like a new generation's Joan Jett, a little more fun but still unpredictable, capable of anthems and character songs, both of which "Sober" is. Phenomenal video, too. And my 61-year-old mother has repeatedly been caught, not only by me, answering the phone with Pink albums blasting so loud in the background that she didn't answer till the fourth ring and has to leave you for a second to go turn down the stereo. Which I love. Hey, did I mess this vote up?

Rock Warriors, Game 20 (Vote Here)
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" (Nirvana) vs. "Hey Ya!" (Outkast)

Like "You Oughta Know," these are two already-immortal staples that I have kept at arm's length in certain ways except when I'm actually listening to them. At that point, the unique undeniability of each exerts its stupendous power. When I'm in a Nirvana mood, it's almost always for In Utero rather than Nevermind, and I probably like "Lithium" and "Come As You Are" as much as "Teen Spirit." I'd trade 'em all in for almost anything on Live Through This, and now you see what happens: confront me with "Smells Like Teen Spirit," one of the most bracing and centrifugal songs in the last 30 years of pop, and I somehow end up distracted. I don't know why that is. But I love that filthy guitar, and those two twangy notes that keep rising above the din like the gleam of a skylight. I admire the sulphurous tone of the lyrics and the instrumentation, perfectly brought to visual life by the video. I've always understood the song to allege the scariness of a boxed-in, impatient, depoliticized teen generation that feels stupid and contagious and is only living to be entertained; go figure that it became the rallying-cry of that very generation, although how could it not with those chords and that much momentum? I like how all these years and countless tributes later, the song still feels elusive, like it's hiding something about the way it feels and what it's got on it's mind, even though Kurt is screaming all of it out in big, throat-scarring block letters. It just goes for a little more and preserves a bit more allure than "Hey Ya!" does, which is genius, bouncy, idiom-blending, tailfeather-shaking radio funk for a nutty, life-sustaining planet. And when I put it like that, I think, how am I not voting for this? But here's the kicker. Even if I prefer other Nirvana songs, once "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is spinning, I'm totally swept up in it. Whereas even when I'm Snoopy-dancing to "Hey Ya!" the thought is never fully out of my mind that, man, "Ms. Jackson" is an epic achievement.

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Anonymous Paolo said...

Oh, these are some tough choices. I didn't like both songs when I first heard them. But then Adele's song is like a four minute version of constant passion, while Dog Days Are Over have waves and probably one of the best bridges ever written.

And Hey Ya is structurally better than Teen Spirit, but both bands have had better songs. Nirvana has Big Long Now and all of Incesticide, their best album. Outkast has Elevators and their earlier songs.

10:59 AM, July 28, 2011  
Blogger Catherine said...

"Rolling in the Deep" never clicked with me until I read someone on the internet mentioning how the backing vocalist in the chorus - "You're gonna wish you / Never had met me / Tears are gonna fall / Rolling in the deep" - sounds eerily like Carly Simon. Once I heard that, the song immediately unlocked itself to me. Those desperate, spiteful wails are the lynchpin of the song, for me - absolutely indispensable.

Florence Welch can delve a little too deeply into the Bag o' Whimsy for my liking, but I have deliriously foot-stomped and hand-clapped to "Dog Days Are Over" in a circle of my best friends, so who I am to sit back now and criticise her? It's such an "in-the-moment" song and I loooove the way it playfully engages with the listener who is in the process of listening to it: those anticipatory wooshes, the false ending, the handclaps.

Incidentally, f you put both songs in a blender, the result might sound a little like Florence's "Hurricane Drunk" which is well worth investigating if you don't know it already. A pop song about heartbreak that manages to be muscular and water-y at the same time, a total battle cry of a song. It's delicious.

9:03 PM, August 01, 2011  

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