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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Music Theory

Somehow it seems appropriate to write about music while being aurally assaulted by the Flaming Lips. No joke, they are about a quarter mile from where I sit and damn they are loud! Yeah, I know, free concert, and hey, if that's your thing then cool, but they're not my thing. Especially the song playing right now.
You see here's the weird thing about me: My life ambition up until the age of sixteen or so was to be a rock goddess. I used to own over 500 cassette tapes (thank you Columbia House!). I married a rock star.
Clearly music has had a huge impact on my life.

But I hate music.

No really. I do. Not just new music either. As it happens, those 500 cassette tapes? Mostly crap from the late eighties that I cringe to think about now. I've probably switched gears musically about fifty times in my life.
But I didn't write this post to complain about what is wrong with music. I'm simply giving you the background needed to understand my point of view.
This post is actually about what makes a pop song me, at least.
Now, keep in mind that I'm skipping over the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elvis, Michael Jackson and all the rest of the "legends." What I have compiled is a list of songs, at least ten years old that still get frequent radio play, that I think hold up.
By all means, feel free to disagree with me. I am certainly not claiming any authority on the matter (please reference my "technical speak" below).
On with the list!

'Love Song' The Cure
Not their best, but I'm willing to bet their most popular. It's been covered, what fifty seven times? But none of the covers come close.
The reasons:
Jangly-clangly guitars (see that's a technical term); trippy, acid days of the sixties keyboards; Robert Smith's semi-suicidal drawl.
Yep, I spent a lot of my youth wearing black and writing poetry, but I think this song has universal appeal.

'Whiter Shade of Pale' Procol Harum
Covered twice, incorrectly I might add, that I know of. This is the number one most played song of the last 50 years in English pubs so in a way it speaks for itself, but I'll speak for it anyway.
The reasons: Trippy acid organ, I have a thing for that; Fantastically confusing lyrics; elements lifted straight out of classical compositions.
I once had a friend who told me that my love of this song was "a phase" that I was going through. I was 23 at the time. Twelve years later I still love it. So there!

'Cars' Gary Numan
I know, this song is steeped in eighties elements that should make it as dated as jelly shoes and Rubik's Cubes, but it totally perseveres.
The reasons:
Intentional minimalism; Kickin' synth bass; Short and too the point.
Think about it, a lot of pop in the eighties did minimalistic synth, but the songs repeated for a full three or four minutes. This song is almost four minutes, but it doesn't get bogged down with key changes, repeating choruses or the like. It's simple, and I like that.

'Under Pressure' Queen and David Bowie:
As stand alone acts, these two are disqualified as being in the "legend" category, but I'm taking this one out as it was a slight departure.
The reasons:
The contrast of Bowie and Mercury's voices play well against each other; More intentional minimalism from artists not known for that; The Epic crescendo that takes us to the end of the song, yet still retains the minimalist feel.
It's now been 20 years since a certain rap reject sullied the good name of this song, yet every time it comes on the radio I listen very carefully and count out the first eight notes. If it repeats at eight I listen, if a bastard 9th note slips by I reach violently for the tuner.

'Losing My Religion' REM
They may fall into the "legend" category, but REM has been off my radar ever since 'Shiny Happy People' (which, if I remember correctly, was the next single from the same record?) so I don't really know what the general consensus is on them. Like The Cure, this is not their best, but it still gets airplay...a lot.
The reasons:
Guitar/Mandolin/Sitar or what ever the hell it is, it's got a pretty twang; Excellent use of simple rhythm; Subtle key changes as opposed to the eighties gimmick of simply repeating the chorus a half step higher.
To be honest, Michael Stipe has a voice that annoys the hell out of me. But I'm a sucker for plink-plunk*, jingle-jangle, swirly music.
*I lifted this term from a review of my husband's band. This is probably the reason I love them too.

There are, of course, many others, but I think I've carried on long enough. Besides, I also wanted to list a few songs that do not stand up to the test of time, yet still get heavy rotation. I promise not to be as verbose:

'Burning Down The House' Talking Heads: Everything that I previously mentioned as being wrong with eighties pop.

'Come Sail Away' Styx: This song embodies what is wrong with Prog Rock. Not that I hate Prog, well, some Prog, but this song is epic navel contemplation material.

And Jason's additions, that I agree whole heartedly with: Anything by The Cars.

So how about it? Weigh in on what you think holds up, and what doesn't. I'm curious.


  1. At my wedding the first dance will be to Love Song by The Cure. WE shall both dance like Robert Smith.

    You know, sometimes I hate comedy and I hate art and often I hate fashion. But it doesn't last. We're a funny species, us humans.

  2. I haven't listed to the radio for music in years. Most popular music annoys me, and I can't stand country. (Those are the two choices where I live.) The public radio station does play swing music at night, and I like listening to that.

    My husband was on a Talking Heads kick lately, and he has all the albums, before that he was into Bowie, the Cure, REM… (I usually get to listen to what he picks out because he’s the one paying for the CDs.)

  3. I don't understand. I just don't understand at all. I love all the songs you love, and I LOVE THE FLAMING LIPS! And they never come anywhere near where I live. And I am pig fightin' jealous!!!!!

    Well, it just goes to show.

    Losing my Religion is a great song.

  4. Sorry, Cellar Door, I think I am in the minority among people our age in that respect. But it really did sound like they were putting on a good show. I probably shouldn't mention that it was free (not just free to us living within earshot). It was part of a festival that started last year as Denton's answer to South By Southwest called North By 35.

  5. genesis holds up, clapton, rod stewart, carly simon, fleetwood mac, mamas and papas, some of madonna's mostly crap all as you say hold up,

    don't know what does not hold up,
    cause I just don't know
    I like classical, some jazz, hip hop, 60's to now
    do not care for 50's music, was not a big fan of elvis, though looking back i do like his gospel and a few of his mainstream songs, in the ghetto anyone?
    ok love from yo mama