The Stroke

“If that forecast for severe thunderstorms comes through, I’m gonna look like Billy Squier by 2:00.”

“Billy Squier…?”

“He sang for Foreigner for a while*, but also he did ‘The Stroke,’ a song I have wanted to cover for a long time. I tried, but that song is nothing without the backward snare.” (*Wikipedia has informed me that Squier did not actually sing for Foreigner. Instead, he employed Foreigner as his backup band on arena tours in the early 80s.)

(Puzzled look, wondering how this relates to a severe thunderstorm)

“Also he had curly, layered hair that was the embodiment of the 80s. Think cocker spaniel.”

Mother nature ended up only mustering serious wind, rather than severe thunderstorms, but the conversation did prompt me to look up “The Stroke” on YouTube.

The video features Squier in a white tank top and jeans tight enough to make me feel violated, wagging his curly bob passionately on stage to a non-existent audience. This was 1981: MTV barely existed and people were only starting to grasp the concept of the music video. As some artists began to experiment with what videos could be (narratives, motion editorials, mini-movies), some artists just seemed puzzled. Seemingly having no idea what to do and deciding to lead with their strengths, they went with what they knew and just filmed themselves performing. Some artists filmed actual concerts, and some awkwardly set up concert stages in empty soundstages. The result of the latter always came off feeling a little bit sad and delusional, like a teenager performing an elaborate air guitar solo before a toothpaste-spattered bathroom mirror. Squier’s video for “The Stroke,” not unlike Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend” is one such video.

If this song is looking to avoid ridiculousness, the song’s lyrics don’t help, either. They are filled with the kind of not-so-subtle innuendo that 70s rock seemed to love (see also: “Love Gun”). Squier is, in effect, comparing a life in the music business to an awkward hand job. Classy!

Still, I maintain that this song is a classic.

Squier delivers those cringe-worthy lyrics with a pronounced sneer, straddling the line between sassy bad ass and petulant child. His delivery sells the lyrics. “When you find you bled me, skip on by” is delivered with a sub-textual middle finger so huge that it almost blocks the view of Squier’s repeated use of duck face.

The guitar is strategically placed and filthy, serving as punctuation for Squier’s delivery. It’s a sort of call and answer: Squier delivers a line, and the guitar jumps in with “damn straight.”

But, readers. Readers! The most noteworthy part of the song, the reason why I may never successfully cover the song, the instrument that gives the song an instantly-recognizable signature…is a backward snare. Snares had probably been run backward before and they’ve definitely been run backward since but this, for me, is the textbook example. The use that all other uses aspire to be. That backward snare gives the lyrics one more dimension: rowing crew. Toward the end, when the chants of “stroke! stroke!” start, we can picture the crew of an early 80s viking ship, propelled by dudes with curly layered bobs and jeans leaving nothing to the imagination. Those magnificent, feather-haired bastards are rowing in time to the beat of a drum, but on this viking ship, the drum is backward.

Ass backward, plodding along to a steady rhythm and on a journey to who-knows-where. Like the music business. Or, if you will, an awkward hand job.

Freedom: A Love Letter

This morning, I looked up George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” video with the intent of just letting a semi-forgotten song play as I started to work. I had never noticed the pointed nature of the title of the song: it bears an exclamation point, a nod to his former band, Wham!, which also had a song called “Freedom,” hence the year number in the title of “Freedom! ’90.” Michael is snarkily differentiating the “now” from the “then.”

As the song played, I found that I couldn’t take my eyes off the video, and I realized that the “now” isn’t what it used to be.

The video was made in the days before Tyra Banks demystified the “supermodel.” Here, we are treated to images of Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington, with all those angular cheekbones playing in some wonderfully dramatic lighting.

The video itself is one of those things you look at as a former art student and think, “damn, I need to take more pictures.” The lighting is amazing: warm and golden one minute, cold and blue the next. Any movement in the shot appears to play in a shower of light, causing a delicious array of light and shadow. Everything is about steam, sensual lip-syncing and jukeboxes exploding exactly on-beat. It is everything that music video was meant to be: dramatic, inspiring, beautiful. It is not simply a marketing tool, hoping to sell us music by selling us tits and ass: it is a series of well-crafted images that cause us to wish that our own lives could be that cool.

When this video came out, there was a big to-do about how Michael, still hot and riding the sex symbol wave started with “Faith,” did not appear in the video. It didn’t matter. Director David Fincher had delivered a gorgeous love letter to light. It was then and still is one of my favorite videos of all time, from an era when music videos were still art…and models could still be “super.”

Don’t Have Sex with People Who Don’t Like Prince

As a new acquaintance (a terribly clinical term I use for someone who is not just a friend but not committed to me) and I were doing our second “get to know you” meetup/date/whatever, I recounted the story of the first time I went to goth night.

“I walked in and ‘Policy of Truth’ was playing, and I thought ‘I’m home.'”

Thus, my dinner companion pretty much knew most of what I’d been listening to since: goth stuff, synthpop, industrial and a little pop on the side. I usually don’t get into this with new people because they usually have no idea what half of those genre names even mean (dark wave? really?), much less any of the bands. I start trying to explain Skinny Puppy or Das Ich and, upon receiving bewildered looks, I just start rounding off. My musical history, in their eyes, becomes little more than The Cure, Nine Inch Nails and “those German dudes that did ‘Du Hast.'” I can’t explain why it feels like home. It’s like trying to get someone to understand why you like your favorite color: you just do.

“So, if that was college, what did you listen to before that?”

Easy question.
Prince.

It was Prince when I was 4, sitting in front of the TV watching him prance around in that shiny purple trench coat. It was Prince when I was 8, dancing around in purple satin pajamas, putting on lip sync shows for my sister. It was Prince when I was 16, playing a pseudo-audition for my would-be piano teacher. For all of these reasons (and just because it’s funny), Prince occupies the locket I wear all the time.

This led to a conversation about early 90s R&B, entire chunks that I’d forgotten because no one ever brings them up. Years of time when I would rush home from school and sit in front of the TV eating single-serve Red Baron pizzas and flipping between MTV, Vh-1 and BET. Shai. Silk. Jodeci. Al B. Sure. Bobby Brown. Tony Toni Tone. Troop. New Edition. Boyz II Men. The list of harmonizing black men stretches out as far as the eye can see, but the tenors were always my favorites.

“And ‘Freak Me!’ That was such a filthy song, to just be getting played on the radio like that!”

Now that we have Sean Paul and the Ying Yang Twins singing about blue balls and seeing someone’s dick respectively, the idea of licking someone up & down seems sort of quaint and sweet by comparison. I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy being licked up & down?

A person with a prosthesis made of Jolly Ranchers.

All of this got me thinking about what the effect of today’s music will be. What kind of relationship are children going to have with sex when they’ve been getting pelted with “Fuck Me Like You Hate Me” all their lives? And when they’re not getting fucked in a hateful manner, they’re being fed sugary fairy tales written by Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen. Listening to all of that, what are you supposed to think love IS, anyway?

Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. Maybe pop music is stupid now because it’s always been stupid. Let’s not forget, the 90s also gave us Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me,” while the 00s have given us songs like “Miss Independent” (both the Kelly Clarkson and Ne-Yo versions make the point) and one song urging women to have standards. Ne-Yo’s over there doing his best, and Rihanna waltzes in and poops out “Birthday,” a half-assed effort made with her abusive ex. It seems so unfair.

All of this curiosity led me down a narrow alley of question. Does listening to slap-dash music turn people into slap-dash lovers? Or is somebody somewhere having caring, meaningful sex while listening to Hinder? I wonder a lot about the cult of the slap-dash, wonder whether instant access to everything is causing us to be impatient about things that really deserve to take a long time. Whether Twitter is somehow going to turn all of us into clock watchers with A.D.D. Whether our approach to conversation, sex and love will turn into our approach to food and information. Where faster is better at the expense of quality.

All of this from listening to some Bobby Brown, ladies and gentlemen.

The answer is probably “Amy, a lot of people are doing a lot of things, in a lot of different ways.” Still, I thought I’d throw the thought out there and see what came echoing back at me from you guys. In art school, we called this “creating a dialog.” In English class, they call it “not finishing your essay.” Potayto, potahto.

Killing Mary Jane. Or not.

I have looked at the lyrics to “Late Night Radio” on more than one occasion, and I always come away feeling like I’ve misunderstood or that David Gray got it wrong. I always come away thinking, “that’s fine, Dave…we’ll agree to disagree.”

I keep trying to kill Mary Jane.

The piano line is partly to blame. There is no way that chord progression can read as happy to me. It’s all conflicted an unresolved. Unfinished. Like something was supposed to happen to fix and resolve it, but got stopped first. The piano line pops up and everything feels all sad and undone.

The main fault goes to Gray’s singing. He paints the city as a place that’s shiny and magical in Mary Jane’s idealistic mind, but then tells us (as impartial narrator) that it’s dark and dirty. Yes, it’s alive, but Mary Jane’s magical city is ultimately just a place where she ends up waiting tables, swearing that her ship will come in, talking to customers who look through her and her dreams like either exist.

When he finally shows us Mary Jane walking along a high wall, naively not thinking of the possibility of death, what are we supposed to think? Gray’s words tell me that Mary Jane is happy in her waitressing job, dreaming away as cars pass. Everything else tells me that our naive Mary Jane wasn’t thinking hard enough and fell to the ground. She’d go sailing to her death, thinking she was actually flying. The video is no help, just showing Gray doing some questionable lip synching while clad in a Cosby sweater.

I’m willing to accept the Eddie Vedder answer of “it’s about what you make it about,” but I’m curious as to what you think. Readers, which is it? Does she fall off the building or not?

Lyrics Here

Admittedly Horrible Video:

A Life in Song: Wolfsheim

I’m sitting at the coffee shop, working and minding my business when Wolfsheim’s “Once In a Lifetime” comes up on the good old iTunes shuffle. Every time I hear this song, two things come to mind.

I can see him there, underneath an oscillating blue light in a crappy bar beneath Second Avenue. He is close enough to me for his ponytail to almost hit me, and that’s fine, partly because he and I are friends and partly because he is a rather fetching creature. In a few years, a movie of Lord of the Rings will be made and I will think Legolas looks just like him. We will later lose touch. Even later, I will sit in a room crowded with his friends and we will all miss him. This friendship ends as many friendships do.

But when this song plays, he’s there next to me, nearly hitting me with a long blond ponytail, dancing like the fae. We flail without hitting each other and I suspect he will be beautiful forever.

The second thing that comes to mind is another club, another oscillating blue light, just me, my feet, hands and heart. I am focusing on the song’s lyrics:


it’s getting dark too soon
a threatening silence
surrounding me
a wind comes up from the islands
when distance fades to stormy grey
washed out from the deep of the ocean
here I will stand to face your wrath
while all the others are praying

calm down my heart, don’t beat so fast
don’t be afraid, just once in a lifetime
no rain can wash away my tears
no wind can soothe my pain
you made me doubt, you made me fear
but now I’m not the same
you took my wife, my unborn son
torn into the deep of the ocean
I don’t pretend that I love you
’cause there is nothing left to lose

and when silence comes back to me
I find myself feeling lonely
standing here on the shores of destiny
I find myself feeling lonely
I had a life to give, many dreams to live
don’t you know that you’re losing so much this time
beyond the waves I will be free
while all the others are praying

the love in you, it does not burn
there is no lesson you can learn
and there are sounds you cannot hear,
and there are feelings you can’t feel

I don’t pretend that I love you
and this time I’m not scared of you

Not all of the lyrics apply, of course, but what that means to my little hands, considerable feet and frequently identically-racing heart is this:

You can look into the void and realize that, big as it may seem, it won’t take you. Not completely. You can look in the face of whatever is making your heart beat so fast, take your fighting stance, look out over your knuckles and whisper, “bring it.”

My giant wave, friends, is panic. “I will stand and face your wrath while all the others are praying.” “You made me doubt, you made me fear but now I’m not the same.” “And this time, I’m not scared of you.” When that song would play, for 3:40, I could face anything. It was like some German man knew what I needed to hear and handed it to me with a lovely little synth. Even in the height of my crazy, I got nearly four whole minutes of bliss. Nearly four minutes of not ONE thought screaming something stupid and scary at me.

I don’t want to turn this into EBM-bashing, but lyrics like that are why EBM makes me sad. I like when my goth night music is about something. A fun dance beat with a very solid underpinning. That’s what we DO. We were emo first. We come from Keats.

EBM, to me, is like lust. It’s lovely and fun, but it wears off so quickly and then it’s over. Good goth music is like love. Even when the song has been played 100 million times, you still find a reason to dance because the song means something to you. Nobody ever read the lyrics to “Get Your Body Beat” and cried, except maybe an English teacher.

Poppelganger 2: A bit of a dick move.

Spraying bleach on your ex’s clothes before giving them back, telling everyone about her weird sexual habits, and posting blogs about her N*Sync action figure collection are all what most of us would call “dick moves” in a breakup. However, pop stars have access to a level of “dick move” that most of us don’t:

Jacking the sound of her song…in a song about leaving someone. I think if you Google “really, really not subtle,” this shows up.

Chris Brown: Deuces

Rihanna: Te Amo