Friday, January 18, 2013

Track 5: Telephone Line

You can probably tell this just by looking at my face, but high school was a weird time for me. Here. Go ahead. Look at my face.

I entered high school at the TURN OF THE CENTURY (awesome that I'm allowed to say that), when big pants and Paul Frank were still a thing. Technically Paul Frank is still a thing, but when they start handing out toys from the favorite clothing line of your adolescent youth in Happy Meals, it's time to hang it up and call it a friggin' day.

(Just kidding, I wish I owned all of these.)

Like a lot of my friends, my musical repertoire was mainly steeped in pop punk and ska, with some "ironic" boy band love thrown in for good measure. In my junior year, I started driving myself to school in my mom's car. Because I didn't have a car of my own, it meant bringing my own CDs to listen to on the way, then bringing them back inside to listen to in my room. On the semi-frequent occasion that I'd forget to bring my own music, it meant listening to whatever my mom had in the car. I listened to a lot of Celine Dion that year. I also listened to a lot of Boston, Styx and Kansas. The more I listened to my mom's music, the more I realized that I liked it. And not ironically.

The CD I listened to the most, though, was a cheap compilation my mom had picked up at Wal-Mart, entitled "18 Rock Classics." I could write blogs about several of the tracks on that album, like how I used to associate Starship's "Sara" with an older lady of the same name who was the treasurer at my dad's church in Alabama; her house always smelled thickly of roses and she used to let us swim in her inground pool and she eventually got caught embezzling from the church. Or how Toto's "Africa" was my number one college karaoke jam. Or how I, like Foreigner, want to know what love is.

My favorite track, though, was number 8, "Telephone Line" by the Electric Light Orchestra. I remember the first time I heard it: I almost didn't get past the (admittedly quite cheesy) synth/dial tone opening. But then a voice came through, saying (appropriately): "Hello? How are you?" in the most fragile tone you could hope to muster in song. I was listening.

What follows, of course, is a musical representation, high in drama, of what it feels like to call up somebody you used to love, somebody you lost. I had almost zero experience with romantic relationships when I was a teenager. Like I said, high school was weird for me. Or rather, I was in high school and I was weird, and nobody wanted to date me. Except other people who were in high school and also weird. I dated one guy because we started a ska band together for about a week, even though it was just the two of us, and we were both trumpet players. Then I realized I didn't really like ska anymore. So we broke up. C'est la vie, and all that.

Even though I didn't really have a point of reference for the lyrics, that chorus used to tear me up: building and swelling, with those strings doing their arpeggios in the background, and the heartbroken voice proclaiming "I'm living in twilight!" I used to sit in the car, singing this song to the top of my lungs, crying. I wasn't sad because I'd been dumped, but because I was sure, one day, I would be.

Which, of course, I was. Years down the road, I came back to ELO. I sat in my car again, in the Taco Bell parking lot, holding a soft taco and singing as loudly as I could: "And I wonder why! The little things you planned ain't comin' true!"

In point of fact, the melodrama surrounding my past break-ups is hilarious, per the aforementioned soft taco. In the present, you're embarrassed at how broken up you got about it, how many people you complained to, how many hours you spent listening to torch songs while eating how much fast food.

One night in the recent past, on the way home from a rare solo movie date, I stopped at Five Guys to pick up some food for me and Anthony. As I was waiting, "Telephone Line" came on over the loudspeaker. For a moment, I was back in the car at Taco Bell.

But it never takes me long to remember: I might be standing alone in a Five Guys eating peanuts and remembering the loneliest time in my life, but I'm not lonely now.

Still, it felt nice to remember that loneliness, that highest of high drama. When was the last time I was able to feel something so frivolously, for all of my thoughts to be wrapped up in myself? Break-ups bring out the toddler in everybody, no matter what side you're on, but as a mom, I'm not allowed to be the toddler anymore. I mean, I'm not selfless by any means, but I don't have time to put on socks sometimes, much less dwell endlessly on my own thoughts and feelings. Maybe I was reveling in something other than happiness for the moment, but at least I was reveling.

The bleak memories, combined with the happy knowledge that, though I'm scatter-brained and perpetually harried, I love my family and (probably) never have to go through another break-up, gave this song a new level of significance that night. I downloaded it to my phone, and listened to it the whole drive home.

Bonus material: here's a cover of the song that I recorded half a year ago, on my iPad, in my closet. It's too fast and some of the chords are wrong, among other things. Enjoy.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Track 4: This Year

This Sunday was my birthday, which marked the beginning of an annual week of birthday celebrations that I like to call "My Birthday Week." My birthday is a mere five days after New Year's Day, which is when everybody calls off doing fun stuff for the rest of the dang year. I always have an understanding with myself that any new year's resolutions, particularly those pertaining to my health and wellness, are effective after the conclusion of My Birthday Week.

In celebration of a new calendar year and the completion of another full year of my life, I've been listening to "This Year" by the Mountain Goats, a track that I've busted out at so many New Year's celebrations that it's now a personal cliché.

I started loving the Mountain Goats in college. I heard my first Mountain Goats song, "Jam Eater Blues," on the FSU radio station on the way to check in at the Tallahassee offices of Cutco, where I, like so many other bewildered students before, had been made to believe that I could hawk overpriced cutlery to my parents and their friends. I was the worst at that job. And I hated it. So when John Darnielle's churning guitar came over the airwaves, telling me in no uncertain terms that "life is too short to refrain from eating jam out of the jar," I knew I was going to quit that job, and then I was going to drive straight to Krispy Kreme. And that's precisely what went down .

It was the early 21st century, but even so, I didn't have Google glued to my fingertips like I do now, so I believed that John Darnielle and company were as new to the music scene as my tastes were. In point of fact, the man had been inspiring fans to make his music the soundtracks of their early twenties for well nigh a decade-and-a-half. Of all the albums that I heard and loved in my collegiate years, it was and will forever be The Sunset Tree, the album on which "This Year" appears, that runs underneath the memory of that time, even though it came out not long before I graduated.

I'm not sure how it's possible, but somehow, my time in college seemed to contain more angst than even my teenage years, possibly because I was pretending to be both a teenager and an adult at the same time. I was, in fact, neither. "This Year" spoke to that reality in a lot of ways: it's a song about looking hard at the present moment, and longing for a different future. It's also a song about recklessness; a very specific brand of recklessness (i.e., stealing your stepdad's car to play video games and get drunk with Cathy), but the spirit of the song was something I could relate to, even if I didn't drink and didn't know anybody named Cathy. I knew a Katie, though. Sometimes we'd get a milkshake. I guess it's not the same thing. In any event, that's the best way to describe how the song sounds: like a nervous kid getting away with something. Didn't we all feel like that the when we first struck out on our own?

Even outside of my personally outrageous angst, it seems like twenty-somethings in college consider themselves to be the most put-upon beings on the planet. To that end, the song's chorus, "I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me!", was something I could really get behind back then. That's not to say that I discredit the events of that time in my life as being less mountain than molehill:  it's actually not easy to work and go to school at the same time, and it's not easy to consider your place in your family home now that you don't live there anymore, and it's not easy to try and figure out what to do about your friends and your boyfriend or girlfriend when you leave school, and it's not easy to figure out what the heck to do with your life next. It's just that "making it" didn't really mean anything tangible or even practical. When I lit the sparklers and ran around the yard with my friends singing this song at the stroke of midnight, all I was really hoping for was to attain the kind of happiness I assumed the world owed me.

This year, we stayed in on New Year's Eve. The baby had just gotten over an ear infection, and we didn't feel like waking her up and taking her out in the cold to get to the annual ball drop downtown. Frankly, we didn't feel like going out ourselves, so Anthony cracked open a beer and I poured some Spumante and we watched King of the Hill until it was 2013. Then, I headed off to bed, and the usual pre-sleep worries started to swirl around my head: when do I get paid next, and where will that money go, and is Lucy ready for the potty, and do we damage her psyche when we tell her big girls don't poop the floor, and can I take on an extra day at work, and when will I find time to finish that story I started months ago, and will we ever find a bigger place to live, and why do I feel old now, even though I know that I'm not?

I put on the Mountain Goats, and I felt that same thrill that I do every time I hear this song. Yeah, alright. It's true. I can do this, and everything, probably. I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Track 3: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Well, I had planned to write a post about a different Christmas song every day leading up to J.C.'s birthday, but as is holiday tradition, I did not get jack shee-aht done while on Christmas vacation, with the exception of laying in the hot tub at my parents' apartment complex while watching video of my 11-year-old sister's dance class do "Gangnam Style" and drinking Bailey's.


A holiday well spent.

Although the holidays are over now, I still want to write about one of my Yuletide favorites, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Like every other Christmas song, there's about a billion versions of this one floatin' around. This year, I heard Chrissie Hynde sing it at least 17 times. While her version's not terrible, I absolutely cannot hear her voice without thinking of her mid-'90s performance of the national anthem at a World Series game, which was one of several such performances that were played in rotation on our TVs each morning in middle school. I just remember praying each morning that they'd play the one with Hanson singing, which was always an omen of a good day to come. Hynde's chronically flat, clearly drunk rendition was the opposite.

But I'm not here to insult rock and roll legend Chrissie Hynde of the iconic band, The Pretenders. She is probably an awesome dude.

I am here to insult all versions of the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," besides the one and only true version, which was performed by Judy Garland in the 1944 MGM musical, Meet Me in St. Louis. For those who haven't seen the film, it's a predictably cheery one about Judy Garland and her older, hotter sister finding love in early 20th-century St. Louis. In the background, their two little sisters create hijinks, their mom sighs exasperatedly, their granddad mumbles about the old days, their mouthy cook is mouthy and their dad is kind of an asshole. And also, the St. Louis World's Fair is about to happen. And everybody's totally stoked.


Asshole dad comes home from work to tell everybody he's got a promotion at work, and they're all moving to New York after Christmas. And they all better just suck it up.

Well, needless to say, Judy Garland is not happy, because she's just spent at least the first 45 minutes of the movie seducing the boy next door, and now they're about to skip town. But she tries to keep it together, and after coming home from the Christmas dance (which she attended with her GRANDPA), she goes upstairs to find her youngest sister crying about leaving home and worried that Santa Claus won't be able to find her next year in New York. Judy, who just had to break up with her boyfriend outside the Christmas dance because of the move, tries to cheer both her sister and herself up with a song.

 The first time I saw Meet Me in St. Louis, it was June 10. I know this because it was Judy Garland's birthday, and Turner Classic Movies was playing a day-long marathon of her films. I was sick that day, so I sat on the couch and watched Babes on Broadway, Babes in Arms, Strike Up the Band, Easter Parade, The Harvey Girls, Summer Stock and, of course, Meet Me in St. Louis. I was about 15 years old, and that day I became a lifelong lover of the MGM musical.

I also became a lifelong lover of this version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," for three reasons. The first is that Judy Garland sounds objectively better than Chrissie Hynde on this track (sorry, girl, it ain't personal). The second and third, which are pretty closely related, are that it provided a context for the song, and that its lyrics, though only marginally different, are superior to the ones performed by most artists today.

The song spends most of its time repeating is titular phrase and discussing the various joys of the holiday season, like seeing old friends and being merry and bright and all that other Christmas crap. In the current popular version, the final verse goes like this:

Someday soon, we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough!
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

According to the Wikipedia article for the song, we have Frank Sinatra to thank for this version, who asked Hugh Martin, a co-writer of the song, to "jolly [it] up" for him. 

Before its jollification, the verse was originally:

Someday soon, we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

This one little line changes the entire meaning of the song, especially in terms of the film's context. It becomes, not a jolly song about a jolly day, but a sad song whose singer's life is about to dramatically change, and who is trying to convince herself that things are going to be alright. In this day and age, moving several thousand miles is still a drag, but it's not quite the issue it was then: it probably meant they weren't ever coming back again. Suddenly, "Next year all our troubles will be out of sight...Next year all our troubles will be miles away" sound like what they really are: somebody trying to soothe her little sister's fears and worries, urging her to be happy while she can, even though she's not quite convinced by her own words. In the end, she breaks down a little, and sings that wonderful line, "...we'll have to muddle through somehow," admitting that things are maybe not so great now, and maybe it's going to take some time before they're back to those idyllic "golden days of yore."

Which is why I think it's still appropriate to write about the song today, even though Christmas is over; especially because Christmas is over. I spent a week seeing my family and friends in Florida, some whom I haven't seen in years, and came home to spend more time with Anthony's family, most of whom live far away. Now everybody's back where they came from, and it's all business as usual again. Another year before next Christmas.

Until then, we've got some muddling to do.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Track 2: I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

So I know it's like totally not cool to like Christmas music: the trend of complaining about how early in the year Yuletide decor and tunes get whipped out in public used to be a practice reserved for the "You dang kids get off my lawn!" demographic, but it's skewing younger and younger every year. The Facebook generation always needs something to roll its eyes at, and the saccharine sincerity of Christmas music (as well as the innumerable re-boots of the same song over and over, not to mention its mass-marketability and the cultural implications thereof) is an easy target.

But I will not partake in this nonsense. I will proclaim, right here on the internet: I genuinely like Christmas music. Not ironically. For real. Do you remember what that was like, internet? Liking something genuinely, despite its flaws, without your tongue planted in your cheek? It's hard for me to remember sometimes, too.

Christmas is a week away. In the next week, I hope to write about a different Christmas song every day.

And now that I've gone on my little tirade about how I don't care if it's not cool to like Christmas music, let me begin my week of posts with a Christmas song that I have always friggin' hated.

This song, particularly the Jackson 5 version, horrified me as a child. I did not understand the joke implied in this song, because I was a dang kid, and was supposedly under the impression that Santa was a real dude. I mean, all the other Christmas songs talked about Santa as though he were a matter of fact. Not only does he exist and shoot breeze with Rudolph and company, but he's actually COMING TO TOWN.

And now, here he is, in your living room, making out with your mom. And nobody singing this song, not even little Michael Jackson, is troubled by this.  The only consternation Michael feels at all about the situation comes at the end of the song, when he's trying to convince Tito and Jermaine and the other ones whose names I can't remember that, in fact, he had really seen Santa Claus, and they laugh at him. Let me repeat: none of those five children are at all concerned that mom is gettin' some on the side. They even find the notion hilarious.

In point of fact, the tale-bearer in this song goes on to pontificate that it would be just hilarious if, say, old dad were to walk in on this hot mom-on-seasonal-icon action. It always sounded to me like some kind of reverse Parent Trap: let's see if we can't get mom and dad to break up, and in the process, why not score the fella that makes all the toys in the world for our new dad? This is why I always envisioned the narrator, not as Michael Jackson or Diana Ross or any of the other 800 singers of the song, but as the kid from Problem Child. Doesn't that just sound like the kinda shit that little idiot would pull on poor, delightful John Ritter?

Of course, eventually I grew up and realized that Santa and John Ritter are the same person.

Well, you know what I mean: Santa was dad all along. So it's really just a cheery little song about how your mom and dad still totally have the hots for each other and probably do it all the time when you're asleep in bed. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Track 1: Alternative Polka

Well, this here's the first entry of my blog, in which I intend to write about songs, in the least academic way possible. So. Okay. I guess I'll start now.

Occasionally, when driving, the radio will lose signal, or I'll have forgotten the ancient (read: more than five years old) iPod where is housed my entire music library. When these things happen, I resort to listening to the music on my iPhone. This consists mostly of impulse purchases brokered through iTunes; for example, apparently there were times when I simply couldn't bear the thought of not hearing a song from E.L.O, Debbie Reynolds or the original Broadway cast of "The Full Monty."

One of the songs that occasionally pops up on my shuffle is "The Alternative Polka" by "Weird Al" Yankovic. 

Let's skip back in time: it's 1997, my 13th birthday party. Amid gifts of money, matching "best friends" necklaces and purses shaped like animals (there were two: a dog and a turtle), there was one gift that stood out: a cassette tape of the album "Bad Hair Day" by Weird Al. It was given to me by my friend Jennifer Creamer. Middle school was a weird time, which goes without saying, made more weird for me by the fact that I was re-zoned to a school which separated me from a lot of my friends, and forced me to make new ones all over again. 

Jennifer and I became friends because we were, at the time, the only girls in the band who played trumpet, and because we shared a love of comedy, however that manifests itself to a tween. Parody is one of those ways: the appeal, I guess, is that it's something you already know, but turned on its head and made absurd. This is perfect for a burgeoning teenager, to whom the absurdities of life are only just beginning to reveal themselves. So this tape instantly became my favorite thing. 

The album's major track, "Amish Paradise," which is, of course, a parody of "Gangster's Paradise," was a veritable laugh riot in my house. I had very little knowledge of the original track on which Weird Al's piece was based, but it didn't seem to matter, since the altered lyrics were so silly on their own. There was one particular set of lyrics that made me lose my proverbial shit so much that I had to rewind the tape at least twice every time I heard it:

Hitchin' up the buggy
churnin' lots of butter
raised a barn on Monday
soon I'll raise a-nudder!
Think you're really righteous?
Think you're pure at heart?
Well I know I'm a million times 
as humble as thou art.

Amazing stuff, right? See, it's funny because of the juxtaposition, guys. Amish dudes rapping? That's just wacky to the max, my friend.

It's this same juxtaposition that Weird Al applies to one of his most popular album staples, the "polka medleys." As the term suggests, these are medleys of songs of particular genre, all re-imagined as polka: there's "Polkas on 45," "Bohemian Polka," "Angry White Boy Polka" and so on. It's on "Bad Hair Day" that "Alternative Polka" appears, and which, at the risk of sounding too dramatic, changed my life.

The issue with comedy of the parody type is that it helps to understand the reference material. As I said, I didn't need to know too much about "Gangster's Paradise" to find it funny, but when I first heard "Alternative Polka," I had literally never heard any of the songs in the medley. I was coming off more than a decade of a musical repertoire consisting entirely of hymns, contemporary Christian tunes and the occasional foray into "light rock." 

(My big secret love in fifth grade, for example, was Phil Collins, specifically the song "Something Happened on the Way to Heaven," which was the soundtrack to an elaborate music video I had produced in my head, starring Tommy and Kimberly from "Power Rangers." And I will save the story on that for a future blog.)

Anyway, "Alternative Polka" was the first time I'd ever heard, for example, anything of the Smashing Pumpkins. Even set to the merry churning of accordions and a screeching, muted trumpet, the lyrics hit me hard: "Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage!" I sat and pondered over these words. What exactly the singer meant I didn't quite grasp, but I was 13 and just starting to feel the stirrings of angst and suburban ennui, and I had the feeling that these words were somehow relevant to me. (Note: they were not. I was 13 and still watching "Power Rangers" when nobody was looking.) 

In any event, though I liked what I'd heard, I needed more context, needed to know the rest of lyrics. Without Google or YouTube or the saving grace of Grooveshark, this meant I had to actually start listening to the local rock station. I did this at night, with my little clock radio pulled next to me ear, the cord dangling down from the top bunk. So, eventually, I also heard some of the other artists represented in "Alternative Polka": Beck, Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters, and most importantly, Green Day. While I never really explored much more into the catalogues of the other artists I heard, Green Day brought me into the world of mid-to-late '90s pop punk, a genre which dominated my musical taste for my teenage years. 

And it was a genre that was being rapidly eaten up by the Christian music industry, which meant it was totally okay to listen to on church trips, and so in my own home, on my very own CD player, in the light of day.

So, soon I was wearing ironic t-shirts and going to "shows" and dancing around in my clearance rack skate shoes and writing "punk's not dead" on my backpack. (PS: this was the signal to the rest of the world that punk was totally dead.)

And that was middle school, that was high school. And on into college, this love of "alternative" music meant listening to the college radio station, which opened up a whole world of new music with which to challenge the knowledge of friends, a whole new bevy of even more ironic t-shirts at the "merch" table of every band in every bar. The soundtrack of my life started with "Alternative Polka."

So, I thank you, "Weird Al" Yankovic: I genuinely like your music, and I sincerely dig your comedy.

And a million thanks to you, Jennifer Creamer, wherever you might be. I'd love to run into you some day, maybe have a drink, pop in Weird Al, and catch up on the last 15 years.

Monday, December 10, 2012

This is a new blog. I am going to write stuff in it.

Well, here's the deal: I hear songs. I think thoughts. Now I'm going to write the thoughts down. And post them on the internet. Because it is 2012, and that is just what we do now. I promise, there will be nothing educational or even vaguely enlightening about this blog. So you can feel safe in that knowledge.