Songs That Elate You

The other day, new mom Laura was scolding me for listening to the Cure while I was fretting about housecleaning. “Listening to the Cure is not going to make you feel like you can get your house packed up!!” (It was the repeated exclamation point that got my attention.)

Rather, she admonished me, I should be getting into that sabbatical spirit by listening to, for instance, “Joy To the World” by Three Dog Night. When I recovered my muscle control from the involuntary shudders that suggestion provoked, we struck up a conversation about songsd that played the role opposite to last weekend’s “songs that make us cry” — — what songs lift our spirits, elate us, kindle joy and delight under even the bleakest circumstances?

Laura nominated “Joy To the World” as the happiest song ever, but I was very, very quick to deflect the discussion to a different trajectory. We agreed that the songs of which we were thinking had to be brightly positive without being saccharine, delightful without being stupid (or being stupid so cleverly that the stupidity counted as part of the charm), not “hanging on admirably in the face of bleak despair” but exhilarating, encouraging, joyous music. What qualifies?

Laura thought of “Twist and Shout,” and I nominated “Johnny B Goode.” Laura noted that the Stray Cats tried for this but missed by being too ironic, which made me think of boogie-woogie and good old R & B — Louis Jordan style. Buddy Holly also approximates what we were after.

Then we hit the motherlode: Funk. Parliament/Funkadelic — “Tear the Roof Off the Sucker” and “One Nation Under a Groove,” for intance, or Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder.

(Since at this point we were touching on sacred music — Motown and Atlantic soul — I will not call public attention to the possibility that one of us mentioned musical theater, including such suggestions as “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.”)

Laura chimed in with Joan Armatrading, commending “Bottom to the Top,” while I cheered for “Back to the Night.” The accordion connection reminded Laura appositely of Beausoleil, and I flashed ahead to the various recordings of the Finn Brothers (they’re brilliant at “poignant” — cf. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” or “History Never Repeats” — but they’ve got a sense of whimsy and exuberance that predominate on other tracks. We agreed on Billy Bragg’s Buoyant moments (Laura chose “A New England,” I chose “Greetings to the New Brunette”) and that tapped delight with Kirsty MacColl (say, “Mambo De La Luna” or the whimsical ̶There’s a Guy Down At the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis,” but also “Golden Heart,” “Us Amazonians,” and “In These Shoes”).
“Golden Heart” makes me happy, but not in this riotous way.

Then: Talking Heads. Say no more.
That settled things; our work here was done.

Since transcribing our chat and posting this, several other favorites came to mind. Plastique Bertrand’s “Ça Plane Pour Moi,” for one, and various items from Magnetic Fields’s 69 Love Songs: “Electric Guitar,” “The Luckiest Guy On the Lower East Side,” “Kiss Me Like You Mean It.” More as they come to me.

Continue reading “Songs That Elate You”

Pope Declares “St. Miscellaneous Day”

Well, not quite, but I’m encouraging everything short of a papal decree to celebrate the official release of David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous, the book he’s been talking to us about in bits and pieces for a couple of years, now. I can’t wait to see it — Cory Doctorow’s review on Boing Boing spots a handful of reasons to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest his explanations of ways that the internet changes our relationship to what we think we know. Cheers, David! I’m looking forward to seeing it.

On a related note, Steve Moramarco of the Abe Lincoln Story shot me an email to call attention to the video for our family favorite, “I Don’t Need A Bag.” In a subtle irony, the site also promotes ALS totes emblazoned with the slogan, “I Don’t Need A Bag,” which (first) raises the question, “Then why are you carrying one around?” and (second) constitutes something of a performative contradiction, since our family already has so many totes that we do not, under any circumstances, need another such affordance (even with a snazzy slogan on it). But check out the video and when the new album comes out, let’s see about supporting them.

Continue reading “Pope Declares “St. Miscellaneous Day””

Stars and Signification

It should come as no surprise that someone who loves popular music, semiotics, and digital media would have a fascination with the five-star “rating” system built into iTunes. I blogged about this more than a year ago, and in the intervening period I’ve had to reassess this minimalist six-category taxonomy of selections.

At the time I wrote, I was thinking of the stars mostly (not absolutely) as a way of describing my evaluation of a particular item. That worked pretty well for me, for a while, but it doesn’t adequately address two problems. First, I have a large array of selections that I just don’t know very well; friends send me a CD, or a music blog rhapsodizes about a new band, and these get added to my list without my having a strong basis for identifying them as one thing rather than another. I had been assigning them two stars (which in my former system meant “Baseline: good enough to enjoy, but not outstanding,” but that mixes songs I may never have heard with songs that I positively think are good (on the basis of repeated listening).

That touches on the second problem: iTunes’s intelligent shuffling can use the “star” rating as one of its criteria, which makes the stars very useful for categorizing the likelihood that I’ll want to hear X or Y any given day. Much as I enjoy learning about new performers and performances, though, sometimes I want to listen to “baseline” selections that I already know to be OK, rather than hearing three or four unfamiliar numbers followed by one that I know and appreciate, then two more unknowns. Assigning unknown selections two stars mixes known and unfamiliar in a way that helpfully mingles familiar with unfamiliar music when I’m casually listening to whatever comes up, but that thwarts my efforts to construct playlists to accommodate days I want to hear only familiar material (unless I inflate “known OK” to three stars).

I could assign “zero stars” to unknown material, but the category of zero stars serves very helpfully for items that I don’t want ever to appear on a music playlist — say, Chris Lydon interviewing Elaine Scarry or something. I think, then, that I’ll choose either to work toward identifying unfamiliar/uncertain material as one star, and then obliging myself to listen to my one-star playlist in order to get acquainted with them; or leaving two stars as my category for unfamiliar material, and limiting my range of stars for music I know well to three, four, or five.

But that’s all too much thinking about something that doesn’t matter much, and I have work to do.

Blasphemy and U2

A couple of weeks ago — can it really have been that long? that recent? — Seabury celebrated a communion service in a context defined by the music (and politics) of U2. This is, in essence, a great idea — and I say this in large part because I had it, ages ago, but never did anything about it. No, but really, it makes a certain sense for people to worship God with songs with which they actually feel comfortable, which they love, which they understand to express their own deep feelings about God.

After the service, someone stopped me to ask what I thought, and while I hesitated I was told, “I figured that an Anglo-Catholic like you wouldn’t like it.” Errrr — it’s not my churchmanship that was hesitating. I can easily cope with diverse modes of worship, and I can compliment praise music and folky-casual liturgy when they’re offered with integrity and excellence. (That doesn’t mean I understand why anyone would worship that way just that I’m capable of appreciating excellence in casual-praise worship.) I wasn’t hesitating because of my liturgical theology, I was hesitating because I like U2.

The service involved playing songs by U2 over the Garrett Seminary chapel’s amplification system, which for the first few selections involved painful equalization that grossly overemphasized the high end and midrange (Adam might as well have been sitting out those selections). After the EQ hit a more balanced range, the other main problem with this programming choice became clear. It just plain feels weird to sing along to recorded music, especially so when a moderate proportion of the congregation doesn’t know the music as well as you do and are trying to follow the lyrics on the overhead projection screen. I will sing along enthusiastically in the car, or while I’m washing dishes, or walking, or just listening to the stereo — and sometimes I’ll sing along at live performances, though I prefer hearing the actual performers. But a large gathering of people singing along to recorded music just gave me the creeps.

The PowerPoint slides exemplified the un-subtle literal representation school of illustrating music. Love = people holding hands, poverty = starving African child, and so on. Bono doesn’t usually hit the heights of lyrical nuance; he more often falls within the bounds of the excellent-conventional use of language, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when those lyrics are juxtaposed with [attempts at] direct illustration, the combination draws the whole matter closer to cliche. Which again makes it harder to sing along.

The best aspect of the whole evening came when the music button person played a version of the Sursum Corda that seems to have been edited together from instrumental portions of U2 compositions — I couldn’t identify any specific source, because the editing and the match of melody to words worked so well that it conveyed the impression of actually having been composed for the purpose. That I could sing to.

For the rest, I’d rather have sung along to Garrett’s house band performing the music, or have listened (not sung) to recordings of U2. I’d rather have heard the music through a clearer, more well-balanced sound mix. I would have liked to have sung “Gloria” in a eucharistic setting, but maybe Latin is the one language that’s absolutely forbidden. But none of the above criticism derives from my being a fussy Anglo-Catholic. If anything, I’m a fussy U2 admirer, and that particular service did not (I think) make the strongest possible case for their liturgical pertinence.
Continue reading “Blasphemy and U2”

We Need Help

We have to whip our household into shape as soon as possible. None of us is a housekeeper (our obsessions and compulsions lie elsewhere), but we need to clear our house to a lend-able condition very promptly, ideally as much as possible within the next two weeks. That will not include me — I have way too much to do even to think about house-cleaning — so I need to find someone discreet, patient, gentle, but determined, resolute, and positively disposed toward clearing out years of clutter and bringing tidiness where my disorderly temperament has permitted a tropical rainforest of paper, unused implements, outgrown clothes and books, and the impedimenta of generations, locations, clever ideas, good intentions, and flat-out laziness and depression.

Looking forward to what comes after, but not what lies between.
Continue reading “We Need Help”