My Life in 33 Songs: #32 – “Poker Face” (My Not So Secret Guilty Pleasure)

 

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Nearly five years after she arrived on the music scene, it can be easy to forget how wild and revolutionary (in Pop music anyway) Lady Gaga was. You could argue that she’s become tiresome or over worn her welcome. With the exception of her hard-core fans and Tony Bennett, it seems that the rest of America has moved on.

But in 2009 “Poker Face” was everywhere and America ate Lady Gaga up. At the time, I was working in a job I hated. It was not my thing and I was feeling pretty low about it.  To make matters worse, pop music was always in the background. Hearing these awful songs did not improve my mood.

But “Poker Face” was different. It was catchy, a little bit edgy and extremely melodic. As much as I tried, I couldn’t resist it. Hearing that song lightened my mood, if only for four minutes.

I tried to convince myself it was a guilty pleasure. I can’t like pop music, I told myself. But oh, guilty pleasures – they’re such bullshit. We use them as masks to wash our hands of something we know we shouldn’t like but do anyway. It’s a way of admitting we might like something without truly admitting that we do.

By defining Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” as a guilty pleasure for myself, it made easier for me to enjoy a pop song. Even if I wasn’t willing to come to terms with the fact that it was a good song. At least not yet.

The more I listened to it, the more I broke down. It became the one thing I looked forward to at work. But I still tried to come up with “legitimate” reasons for enjoying it.  ”It’s weird, that’s why I like it,” I told myself.  ”Gaga’s a mix of David Bowie and Madonna – that must be why I find her kind of cool.” It couldn’t be the fact that I found the song pleasurable for its own merits. No, I have to like “Poker Face” ironically.

But “Poker Face” is a good song. As far as pop goes, it’s pretty great. The chorus is such an ear-warm and easy to sing along to. And it is weird.  The Techno/industrial beat may seem quaint now, but it came out of left-field in 2009. The “ma ma ma” that opens the song and repeats throughout? Who the hell came up with that idea? And “bluffin’ with my muffin?” That’s an extremely idiotic lyric, but somehow within the context of the song it works.

I’m not sure I would be as attached to it if it weren’t for my work situation. Music has the power to lift your spirits and in an odd way, “Poker Face” did that for me. For a few brief moments when I heard that song I was fairly happy at work.

Guilty pleasure?  Nah.

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New Music: Jensen Reed & Taryn Southern Cover Tove Lo’s “Habits (Stay High)”

By now, you’ve most likely heard Tove Lo’s single “Habits”.  Alt/pop artist Jensen Reed recently put his on spin on the song with some assistance from Taryn Southern.

The original is melodic and catchy. Musically at least, it only hints at the desperation and loneliness found in the lyrics.  Reed’s cover is sonically darker with sparse beats and haunting vocals from Southern. Slowing the pace down of the song down is key to Reed’s cover.  It reveals the problems of the narrator even more than before and perhaps make you think of “Habits” differently.

 

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My Life in 33 Songs: #33: “Three Little Birds” (Or How I Survived French Class)

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Don’t worry about a thing,
’cause every little thing’s gonna be alright.

Bob Marley is almost like a Patron Saint of college students.  His image  has adorned many walls and doorways in college dorms.  You could blame some of it on his love for weed – but if that were the only appeal you’d also see Willie Nelson’s face everywhere.

I think part of the reason Marley appeals to college students is because of his idealism. He set out to change the world with music and bring everyone together. It’s a very lofty and noble goal, but not quite realistic unfortunately.  It’s very easy for a college student to think it’ll all work out and “everything little thing’s gonna be alright.”

So, it only seems natural (and perhaps even a bit cliché) that I should “discover” Bob Marley when I headed into college.  The week before I left, I spent hours trying to figure out which CDs I should take with me. I wanted my musical collection to be a conversation starter.  To define a part of me.  I left behind various albums which I deemed “uncool”.  In an attempt to make my collection seem cooler than it actually was, I rummaged through my brother’s old room and took a bunch of CDs he had left behind at my parents house.  One of them was Bob Marley’s Legend.   Marley didn’t really appeal to me at the time, but I figured it might be good to have for hanging out.

Don’t worry about a thing,
’cause every little thing’s gonna be alright.

Like many students, I had a tough time adjusting to college life. Before I left, I told by many that “college isn’t exactly what you think it is.” My teachers in high school loved to say that the workload would be far greater than anything we had previously experienced.  Still, nothing could have prepared for me for my French Class.

As an English Major, I was required to take two semesters of a foreign language.  I chose French, because I had taken 4 years of it in high school. I wasn’t the best student, but I thought I had a pretty good handle on it and would do fairly well.

Right from the first class, I knew I was wrong.  It didn’t help that the class was scheduled at 8:15 AM.  The professor was very gruff and clearly had his favorites.  We weren’t required to speak French in class (which I was very glad of) but the professor always seemed to make students feel stupid if they didn’t know an answer or conjugated a very incorrectly. More often than not, he singled me out. From the very start, I knew that he didn’t like me.

Each morning started with a review of the homework.  We went around the room with each student taking a turn writing down their answers to a question on the chalkboard.  Each day, I dreaded the moment when I would go up to write out my answers. When it was my turn, I nervously scrawled my answer with a piece of chalk, knowing that I was going to be made an example of.

When I was half-way through, the professor stopped to ridicule of my handwriting. I’ve never had the best handwriting, but it wasn’t like all the other students had immaculate handwriting either.  As the students laughed, he then asked why I conjugated a verb a particular way.  I didn’t have a good answer – I had thought it was right . He seized the opportunity, loud enough for everyone to hear:  ”I thought you said you had taken 4 years of French?”

It wasn’t like I didn’t study or put the time in.  I was, but whatever I was doing wasn’t enough. I was never going to be fluent in French, that much I knew. I wasn’t going to let my professor bully me either. I became determined to do well in French and show him that I was actually smart.

Don’t worry about a thing,
’cause every little thing’s gonna be alright.

I’ve never been someone who can study in silence. I need music. It helps pass the time.  Back in my dorm room, I searched for the perfect soundtrack for studying.  Nothing seemed to fit.  After what was probably 20 minutes, I decided I would finally give that Legend Cd I had taken from my brother a try.

As I wrote down French vocabulary words desperately trying to memorize them, I was surprised by how soothing Marley’s music was.  It was easy listening for sure, but didn’t drift into dreaded adult contemporary territory.  Plus, the easy rhythms and feel good vibes relaxed me and kept me from becoming too stressed out.

I didn’t pay too much attention to the lyrics, but “Three Little Birds” caught my attention immediately with its laid-back groove and uplifting message that “every little thing’s gonna be alright.”

As I thought about it, Marley’s message seemed a little too optimistic. Even for a Bob Marley song, “Three Little Birds” is almost too much.  There’s no way someone could possibly be that happy.  Still, the music and melody was undeniable.  It’s almost impossible to be cynical when that song comes  on.

Then I remembered that Marley was nearly killed in his home by a gunman about six months before Exodus (on which “Three Little Birds” originally appeared) was released.  If he could feel happy after that, what right did I have to be stressed out over French class and a jerk of a professor?

Don’t worry about a thing,
’cause every little thing’s gonna be alright.

If I had Legend on Vinyl, I’m sure I would have worn it thin that semester.  It was constantly on repeat as I spent many long nights memorizing vocabulary words and conjugations.

As the semester wore on I became more confident with my homework and tests and the results showed.  But naturally, the professor still bullied me in other ways.  Most of the time, all he really come up with was how tired I looked or how I needed coffee to function.

At the end of the semester, I was shocked to see that I had received an A minus in French. I’m pretty sure that I never received that high of a mark in high school. “I guess you are pretty good at French after all,” My dad said when he saw my grades.  Little did he know.

Maybe Marley was right.  Everything did turn out alright.  Especially since I had a different professor for the next semester of French.

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Weezer’s “Back to the Shack”: Send It Back, Please

 

If “Back to the Shack” is any indication, count me out for checking out Weezer’s new album Everything Will Be Alright in the End.  Some fans will argue that they haven’t put out anything good since Pinkerton but I tend to think that Make Believe was their latest album worth listening to.  ”Beverly Hills” alone makes the album a worthy contribution to Weezer’s catalogue.

Weezer has always been known for being clever, but on “Back to the Shack” Rivers Cuomo seems to be trying too hard.  It seems as he’s adrift in his songwriting and knows that fans haven’t dug Ratitude or Hurley so he purposely throws in some self references to try and grab the old fans attention.  When Cuomo sings that he wants to “go back to the strat with the lighting strap” you have to wonder if he’s traveling down the road of nostalgia for himself or his fans.

Weezer aren’t the first or last band to try to reclaim their old glory by looking to their past glories for inspiration.  Voodoo Lounge and A Bigger Bang tried to capture the feeling of Exile on Main St. to mixed results. R.E.M. went back to their basic guitar sound after the shitpile that was Around the Sun.  Perhaps Cuomo thinks that if he’s purposely throws it out there, that it won’t be seen as a parody but instead ironic.

And he might have been able to get away with it, if the music were better.  For the first time ever on a Weezer song, the band sounds tired.  The main riff that drives the song sounds clunky at best. The whole thing sounds unconvincing. At least Ratitude and Hurley had some energy, spark and adventure.  On “Back to the Shack”, Weezer sound like they’ve turned into their own worst tribute band: a tribute band that thought it could write a Weezer original.

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How Nirvana Exposed “MTV Unplugged” For the Farce It Was

In the ’90s, if were a “serious” rock artist, there’s a good chance you ended up giving a performance on MTV Unplugged. As a show, Unplugged became something of a cultural touchstone.  In an era before social media and Youtube, Unplugged was one of the few ways that a fan could catch a glimpse of their favorite band performing within the confines of their own household. For younger artists, the Unplugged performances provided them with two very important (but different) motives: exposure and a bid for credibility.  Older artists such as Neil Young and Bob Dylan had one foot in the acoustic realm already and didn’t really need exposure, so I’ve never why they agreed to it in the first place. Naturally, the younger artists ate this shit up. Bands such as Live, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam among others stripped their songs to the core in a bid for legitimacy. They (incorrectly) assumed that by taking away their amps, critics and new audiences would suddenly realize how great their songs actually were.  Alice in Chains songs became even more morbid and Live’s faux-spirituality was exposed for the farce it was. Pearl Jam gave a spirited performance, but Eddie Vedder’ s stage antics (which included surfing on his stool and scrawling the words “pro-choice” on his arms) seemed more like desperation than anything else because he didn’t know what else to do.  He’s a gifted performer, but on the Unplugged show, his presence seemed clunky at best. If an artists need to strip the songs down in order to convince people that they’re great, maybe the songs aren’t that great after-all. I’ve always thought that if it takes an acoustic version of a song for you to realize the song is good, the song is either 1.) either shit to begin with or 2.) you weren’t listening properly. Eric Clapton’s version of “Layla” on Unplugged is a great example. I’ve had discussions with people in a bar (why someone would play that version on a jukebox is beyond me) about this.  It’s actually happened more than once.  Usually it involves some guy trying to convince me, that the Unplugged version is miles better than the original “Layla” because “we can feel his pain.” Really? It took the Unplugged version of “Layla” for you to “discover” that Clapton is tortured?  The lyrics, the biting, interlocking guitars and poignant piano coda didn’t tip you off?  Is there a “happy” electric version of “Layla” that I’m not aware of, lurking around in Clapton’s vaults? This isn’t to say that I’m against acoustic-based music. Anyone who loves folk music and Bob Dylan as much as I do, can’t hate acoustic guitars.  But I am against the idea that by “stripping” a song to only acoustic instruments somehow makes it “better” or more “artistic”.  Do you think that the Sex Pistols, any Phil Spector produced single or Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” would “better” if they were acoustic? But in the ’90s, everyone seemed convinced of this charade. No one more-so than Nirvana. It’s no secret that Kurt Cobain desperately wanted to seen as an “artist”, while MTV was practically foaming at the mouth over a possible Nirvana Unplugged performance.  It seemed to be a match made in heaven. Over the years, the behind the scenes stories of Nirvana’s Unplugged performance detail how Cobain did not want to play his hits. I can understand that.  But I’m willing to bet that he also realized that songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Heart Shaped Box” would sound terrible in acoustic form.  Who would want to hear a stripped down version  of the fuzz-punk snarl of “Breed” or a lifeless version of “Teen Spirit”?  If they had chose to do that, I’m almost certain critics would have cried foul and the Nirvana myth wouldn’t loom as large as it does today. Wisely, Nirvana played only a handful of their own songs, and filled the rest of their set with obscure covers and a mini-Meat Puppets set.  Their own songs were mostly ones that seemed suited to an acoustic form.  But everyone knows the best songs on that performances are the covers, particularly Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” and the folk standard “In the Pines” (re-titled  here as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”). Those two songs showed that Nirvana were great interpreters while also revealing that Unplugged as a way for artists to prove that their own songs were great, is a complete farce.  Because almost any person who likes that album will tell you that those two songs were the best.  And as for Nirvana?  The band and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” have done pretty well in the credibility department without Unplugged.

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Is “Shiny Happy People” As Bad As You Remember It? Not Quite

 

“Shiny Happy People” is one of those songs that almost everyone seems to hate.  It’s constantly viewed as not only the worst song in R.E.M.’s career, but one of the worst songs ever recorded.  (A pretty lofty claim.)  I blame much of this hatred on the song’s video.  It took an already cheesy and campy song, and double-dipped it in a sugary glaze that would make Krispy Kreme donuts weep with its bright colors, and awkward dancing courtesy of Michael Stipe.  Viewers who had grown up with the R.E.M. of the mid-80s (when they could do no wrong and recorded a string of near-perfect albums) cried foul.  That band was nowhere to be seen in the video for “Shiny Happy People”. 

But let’s think about this for a second.  Yes, the video is pretty bad.  The song itself, not so much.  It’s incredibly poppy and silly, but it’s not like R.E.M hadn’t recorded goofy songs before.   “Stand” is pretty much a pre-cursor to “Shiny Happy People” and “Pop Song 89” is pretty goofy too, especially when Michael Stipe did his patented should dance when the band performed the song live.  And as for embarrassing, has anyone recently listened to “Radio Song” off of Out of Time (the same album which “Shiny Happy People” appears on) recently?  Even the mention of that trash makes me cringe?  KRS-One and the band must have been good friends (and possibly stoned?) for that to be recorded and actually see the light of day.  And to make matters worse, the fucking thing opened the record!  In case you were wondering, I also count Reveal and Around the Sun as being embarrassing too, but I usually just become sad when I think about those records.)

As a kid, I loved “Shiny Happy People”.  I was about 9 when Out of Time came out, and it was one of the few songs on the album I could actually relate to.  It made me incredibly happy, even though I loved the rest of the album too.   But it was a nice contrast to the acoustic and folk influences that permeated the rest of the record.  I loved the carnival-like intro and its reprise during the bridge.  Mike Mills count-off and exclamation of “Here we go!”  when the band kicked back into the main riff made me giddy. 

When I became a teenager, I grew to loathe the song and had a hard time defending it to kids in my high-school class.  Whenever I’d profess my love for R.E.M. (which was pretty often) almost inevitably, someone would bring up, that song.  “Yeah, yeah…it’s pretty bad…but you should check out…Murmur or Reckoning,” was usually my response. 

After years of not hearing it, I heard it on the radio a few years ago and was shocked by how much I didn’t hate it.  Hey, it’s not that bad!  It’s certainly better than I remember.  The guitar riff was pretty good and in its own way, classic Peter Buck.  But as soon as Kate’s Pierson’s voice came in syncing with Michael Stipe’s it occurred to me that “Shiny Happy People” wasn’t really a R.E.M. song after all.  It makes much more sense if you think of it as a B-52s song. 

 “Love Shack”, “Rock Lobster” and “Roam” (among many others) are all overly campy, silly and sweet and those songs have become staples.  You’re likely to hear “Love Shack” at almost any wedding or reception that has dancing involved.  The audience knows what they’re getting from a B-52s song, and many people love them for it. 

But R.E.M. isn’t known for that – even though both bands came out of the Athens music scene in the late 70s and early 80s – they’re a serious band.  Imagine if the B-52s had recorded “Shiny Happy People”.   It might not be universally loved, but I’d be willing to bet that it would be more popular than it is now and people wouldn’t hate it the way they do. 

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New Music Premiere: ‘Heartbeat’ – Vishno

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Electro-pop rock artist Vishno has just released his latest single ‘Heartbeat’. The song is full of crunchy beats that make you want to get up and dance. It’s a good mix of dance music with some rock elements. Leading Us Absurd is happy to offer the exclusive premiere of ‘Heartbeat’. Check out the song here.

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Animal Years Ticket Giveaway at Baltimore’s Ottobar

m_04_EmpB8ewZFNtAifkMMjGhHd5z75cEI5QGNxyY-o[1] Mike McFadden of indie-rock band Animal Years is returning home to Baltimore this Friday (June 6th) to play with the band at the famed Ottobar. The show coincides with the release of Sun Will Rise (deluxe edition) has received rave reviews by such places as Indie Shuffle and Filter Magazine.  The band’s roots-rock sound has been compared to such acts as My Morning Jacket, The Avett Brothers and the Wallflowers. Leading Us Absurd is giving away 2 tickets to the group’s 6/6 show at the Ottobar. To enter the contest please email matt@leadingusabsurd.com  with the subject line ‘Animal Years’ by 1pm Friday 6/6. Please include a brief description of why you like you would like to see the show. Winners will be selected on Friday afternoon and notified by email. Additional Info: Ottobar: 2549 N. Howard St. Baltimore MD Doors at 8/Show at 9/Animal Years at 11.

To listen to Animal Years’ music, check out their SoundCloud page.

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Folk Artists Adam & I Release Intimate New Song “We Have Love”

 

 

acb00d0776b5ca0d-cardboard-3-07Nashville folk artists Adam & I (real life couple Adam and Andrea Melia) have recently released their latest single, the upbeat and adorable “We Have Love”.   In an era where cynicism and insincerity is commonplace, “We Have Love” is the direct opposite.  Over an acoustic guitar, Adam and Andrea bring their harmonies together professing that “it’s all good, we have love.”  The positives vibes continue with lines such as, “hey hey, everything will be ok.”  The song could easily veer into cheesy territory, but the duo’s enthusiasm keeps it from doing so. If you’re looking for a sunny tune to check off your summer, check out “We Have Love”.

 

For more info on Adam & I, please check out their web-site.

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The Michael Jackson Hologram: Slave to Rhythm Indeed

 

At last night’s Billboard Music Awards, Michael Jackson “performed” his newest single “Slave to the Rhythm”.  Now, I don’t know about you but I can’t sense that anybody was really hungry for a performance by a holographic Michael Jackson.

Jackson was always bigger than life. His performances were part star power and spectacle. He could get away with the most outlandish performances, but he could command attention in a way that no one has ever since. Even at his worst, there was still something about a performing Jackson that made you want to root for him.  At his personal life became the stuff of tabloid legend, it impossible to ignore his presence on the stage.

One thing that was always apparent was his love for the music. Those feet and hands didn’t move that way because he wanted the money. There was sheer joy in the way he moved around on stage. It was probably that joy that led to his death while he was in rehearsal for his comeback. He wanted to prove to the world that he still had it.

But this hologram seemed to be farce. It’s totally taking advantage of an audience that still misses Jackson.  The “performance” was everything people expected of Jackson, but in a life-less form. Though the Tupac hologram at 2012′s Coachella was just as contrived, at least that had the element of surprise.  The hologram Michael Jackson was nothing more than PR stunts for both the record labels and Billboard.  It may not have felt this way if the “performance” was say, a song like “Billie Jean” or “Thriller”.  But no, instead what we got was “Slave to the Rhythm” off of the recently released Xscape - which also seems in and of itself like a cash-grab.

A real MJ performance would have wowed the audience simply by him being there.  But the audience got blown away because it looks and acts like Jackson – a far cry from the real thing. Instead of paving the wave, a hologram Jackson reduces what we loved about him down to a product.  Jackson’s legacy certainly deserves better.

 

 

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