Friday, November 28, 2008

Kyle's Mom's A B**ch (from South Park, Bigger, Longer, & Uncut) by Trey Parker

One way to judge to quality of art is to examine what the artists wants to say and how well the artists says it. Trey Parker and Matt Stone created a film that intends to make people laugh and reflect on the ridiculousness of our culture. I have yet to meet someone who has watched this film and not gotten exactly what the creators intended out of this piece of art, a great film titled South Park, Bigger, Longer, & Uncut.

Some of you may be wondering why I’m talking about South Park, Bigger, Longer, & Uncut in a music blog. Well, for those of you haven’t see this film, it’s a great comedic musical. It includes some of the best traditions from musicals including the “I Want “ song, dance numbers and song reprises.

South Park began as a television show in 1997. It gained a strong audience who found the social commentary and edgy humor refreshing. At the same time, others criticized this show for its inappropriate content. Because of its short production time South Park is able to comment and satires current events and social issues which have included: NAMBLA, 9/11, U2, Michael Jackson, Global Warming, High School Musical, the elderly, Paris Hilton, homosexuality, Catholics and politics. This show is also highly referential borrowing jokes and scenes from art in our culture including the plot from a Shakespeare play (“Scott Tenorman Must Die”).

The creators of South Park released South Park, Bigger, Longer, & Uncut in 1999. The plot (wow, ok hang on) involves Satan falling in love with Saddam Hussein, blaming Canada for the death a child, a boy searching for a mystical female body part (which some people are still searching for), censorship, betrayal, love and Brian Boitano (and if you’ve seen enough musicals, this plot really isn’t that strange). Then there is Eric Cartman who becomes frustrated with the fact that his friend’s mother has started a group to censor art and attack Canada. Eric expresses his viewpoint in “Kyle's Mom's A B**ch.”

Sebastian went crazy in The Little Mermaid during “Under The Sea” trying to convince Ariel that sea life was better while she swam away. The genie in Aladdin showed off the title character’s wealth in “Prince Ali” not realizing that Princess Jasmine didn’t care about material possessions. Lumiere (the candlestick) created a massive dinner show singing “Be Our Guest” in Beauty And The Beast while Belle only got a small taste of the grey stuff. And Cartman goes crazy telling Kyle’s how much of a b**ch his mom is while Kyle’s mom herself sneaks up behind him and watches the entire spectacle.

In this song, the word “b**ch” is uttered fifty-one times and “f**k” is uttered twice to make it a total of fifty-three swear words in eighty seconds of music. Cartman is 9 years old and ff you ever hear a 9 year old swear, they have no idea the meaning of what they are saying. The only reason they use the swear word is because it is forbidden and is funny; the same way a fart sound is funny. Compare this to Cartman’s other insult to Kyle’s mom, which is about her hair (“She's a mean old b**ch and she has stupid hair”). This is a juvenile insult and in Cartman’s eyes, so is calling her a “b**ch.” The swearing in this song is so over the top that you can’t help but laugh at its ridiculousness. At first, you may get offended by the swearing but it goes on and on making it lose its negative meaning and we become a 9 year old laughing at a fart joke.

The song begins with a false start, which is funny to South Park fans because this isn’t the first time that this song has been used, however this time is gets full orchestrated background with other levels of musical depths. The orchestra instruments provide wide array of colors including the “um-pa” background, woodwind flourishes, “ethnic” colors in the middle section and a brassy, jazz inspired break down in the very end. The high level of orchestration sets the juvenile lyrics in a mature artistic context making the humor more palatable and ridiculous.

In the middle of the song, Cartman explores how kids around the world feel about Cartman’s mom. First, he stops in China, then France, then in a Danish country and finally in an African nation. The stereotypes are extreme and clearly intended to be jokes, that it really isn’t offensive (though Cartman in back face during the African bit is pushing it). When people play with stereotypes in humor, it is more often then not pointing out how ridiculous they are. It’s when people unintentionally comment and judge on stereotypes that I believe we truly take offense to them. There is a level of irony in Cartman, an America stereotype, making fun of other races.

The song ends with a burlesque style breakdown, with a brassy over the top slow down as Cartman performs the final lyrics of the song, complete with jazz hands. It’s not enough for Cartman has to make fun of Kyle’s mom but he has to sell it with all of his soul and sing it with all of his heart.

Trey Parker one of the creators of South Park sings this song. He is singing in a patter style, which was used by Mozart in the beginning of his opera The Marriage of Figaro and was often utilized in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas like in the song “I Am The Very Model Of a Modern Major General” from The Pirates of Penzance. Composers use this style of singing for comedic effect while also allowing the performer to show off his or her singing technique. Sometime when you there are kids around and you’re not at work, just try singing along with this song. It’s not impossible but it’s not easy. Now try to sing along in your most nasal and irritating tone of voice. There is the talent in Trey Parker.

There is nothing appropriate about South Park, Bigger, Longer, & Uncut for anyone under the age of seventeen. People often get stuck at that point and do not allow themselves to enjoy this show. Many things aren’t appropriate for children including lobster dinners and professional massages but we don’t let that get in the way of our enjoyment. South Park has always been on late at night and has a mature television rating and if a child does what the show, it is more a reflection on his or her home life and upbringing then the art itself.

South Park, Bigger, Longer, & Uncut creates powerful emotional connections. People often don’t take the feeling of humor and art that expresses humor as being important, however, it could be more crucial to our humanity. We live a world full of darkness, and sometimes we need art to remind us how much fun it is to be alive. Laughter is all the same, sometimes it’s from a precocious 3 year old, sometimes its from a stand up comic and other times it comes from a child who lives in a in a “quiet, little, pi**-ant, redneck, po-dunk, jerkwater, greenhorn, one-horse, mud-hole, peckerwood, right-wing, whistle-stop, hob-mail, truck-drivin', old-fashioned, hayseed, inbred, unkempt, out-of-date, out-of-touch, white-trash mountain town” called South Park.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters by Elton John

One of the challenges of being an immigrant to the United States is the holidays. When my parents who came from Taiwan, raised my brother and I, they made an effort to participate in the major holidays in order to provide an “American” childhood. Some holidays made more sense then others. My parents understood Valentine’s Day, which correlated with a similar Taiwanese holiday, but others like Halloween were a little bit more mystifying. Seriously, why do you dress up as characters in our popular culture and beg for candy from complete strangers?”

Thanksgiving made a little bit more sense. The stories of the pilgrims and Native Americans did not mean much to my family, but the idea of coming together as a family and sharing a meal did.

One Thanksgiving when I was young, we went over to a family friend’s house and before we ate, we went around the table and said what we were thankful for. As I pondered the yam dish in front of me that for some reason had marshmallows in it, Thanksgiving started to make sense.

The true meaning of thanksgiving is for families to take a moment out of their lives to share a meal together and reflect on what they are thankful for in their lives. When I think back on my Thanksgiving experience I think about the times with my family, the three Thanksgivings I spent with college friends and the current tradition I now have of sharing that day with my wife’s family. What I am most thankful for in all of that are the people I shared those times with. As Elton John sang, “I thank the Lord for the people I have found” from his song “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters.”

There was an Elton John before The Lion King and after “Your Song.” A daring, compassionate and audacious artist, Elton John not only revealed himself but also reflected the world around him. From 1969 to 1979 Elton John released thirteen albums including the double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The pace and quality of his albums is something rarely seen in popular music. Elton John released Honky Chateau his fifth solo album in 1972. “Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters” was the second to last track on Honkey Chateau, an album that included other popular songs like “Honky Cat” and “Rocket Man.” Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist, wrote these lyrics after hearing a gun go off in New York City. Elton John considers this one of his must underrated songs and plays it frequently to describe his love for New York City.

There is a balance in lyrics between keeping them specific enough so that they connect to peoples feelings but ambiguous enough that they relate to different peoples’ lives. Bernie Taupin is a master of expressing themes and emotions through his lyrics while maintaining this balance. This song is about looking back at an experience and realizing truths about the world and the way people live their lives. Along with these realizations comes thanksgiving for the people in our lives. Sometimes it is in our struggles that remind us of the beautiful people in our lives.

Elton John carries on the tradition of popular piano players from artists like Little Richard. From a young age, Elton John trained as a classical pianist. This foundation allowed Elton to explore different types of music including, Jazz, Country, Blues and Rock music. “Mona LisasAnd Mad Hatters” features subtle and skillful piano playing. Elton varies the background creating motion between the vocal phrases with rising and falling shapes while outlines the chords of the song. The piano line seems organic and natural but is also deliberate and intentional providing a foundation for the emotional setting of the song.

From the affirmation of the melodic leaps to the longing of the held notes, Elton John creates a melody that is introspective and honest. Not often thought of as a great vocalist, Elton John demonstrates his ability to sing in an effortless way, clearly expressing the lyrics while drawing us in like a master storyteller. The clarity of his voice has slight edges and tension, which reflects a worldliness and understanding of the deepest levels of our humanity.

This is one of my favorite, if not my favorite song of all time. I first heard this song when Elton John performed it on a televised concert after the attacks on the World Trade Centers on 9/11 to honor the work of the firefighters, policemen and other heroes. It seemed so fitting. Here was a song about New York City, about a loss of innocence but more then that, a song of thanksgiving. I had always enjoyed Elton John’s music but never thought of him as master musician until I bought Honkey Chateau and delved in to the vast catalog of the music he recorded.

My wife and I featured this song during our wedding ceremony. We wrestled with the idea of having a pop song performed at the wedding. What we came to was that the genre of the song was irrelevant. This song is a musical statement that reflects our lives growing up. But more important it expresses how thankful we are for the people in our lives. After all that that was said and done, it really was the people in our lives that made our wedding day so meaningful.

I hope you all have a great Thanksgiving. I’m not sure if it really matters that we recognize the original intention of Thanksgiving. If the personal meaning that we get Thanksgiving relates to the pilgrims, fantastic. If it’s not, no big loss. My parents found great meaning in the simple act of breaking bread with people we care about and I hope that you all do too.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Everytime by Britney Spears

"Everytime" Music Video

We don't deserve Britney Spears.

I’m not saying that we deserve better. I’m saying that Britney does.

Critics often say that we get the popular icons that we deserve and with insidious way we treat our celebrities we deserve much less then Britney.

If one of your friends checked into a drug rehab clinic or had to fight for the custody of their children, I doubt any of you would make a light of it. I doubt that any of you would say that they deserve these struggles and I doubt that any of you would hope that this friend would have to face further tragedies in their life.

Yes, there are times in our lives when we feel hurt, threatened and insecure and we wish bad things on other people. This is often our first response but always our worst. We would not accept this attitude in our children, then why do we accept in the way we view our celebrities?

Britney Spears came on to the scene in 1999, a pop princess for a new generation who could do no wrong. She was touring, releasing albums and entertained people around the world. Then things started going wrong in her life and the media became critical of her marriage, her children and her lifestyle. Instead of showing concern for the problems, people seemed to enjoy watching her life fall apart. There is nothing sadder then watching a friend’s life fall apart, and nothing more rewarding then watching it come back together. Then why is it different with Britney?

Some say it’s because she deserves it. She has money and she lives in a big house. Therefore, it’s ok to be overly critical, it’s ok to make jokes about a serious medical condition and it’s ok to call into questions the character of people from gossip and speculation.

Britney chose this profession; she knew what she was getting into. Paparazzi have been exploiting celebrities long before Britney was even born, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. Corruption in politics is not ok just because its been around a long time and I don’t think its ignorant to expect that the people we elect into office to be able to rise above a corrupt system. We may not have created the machine that feeds our appetite for celebrity drama and yes, celebrities in many ways are as much to blame for this as we are, but I believe that we can do better. It is a human need to observe outside drama to help us deal with our own lives and the greatest and the most meaning drama is in the art, not the artist. Britney proves this in her strongest song “Everytime” from her fourth album In The Zone released in 2003.

“Everytime” is a daring song for Britney Spears because it features her voice. Britney Spears is not a great singer. Her voice lacks the sexual prowess of Shakira, the range of Mariah Carey, the soul of BeyoncĂ© and the pop sensibilities of Madonna. Britney usually belts with a nasal, whiny voice that only through recording techniques comes across with an appealing vocal quality. In “Everytime” Britney does something different. She pulls back her voice, carefully singing through a half whisper which clarifies her tone and pulls her sound higher up into different resonating cavities in her head creating a light and airy tone, which may not work for all songs but is absolutely perfect for this song.

Britney sings the first words “notice me” with such childlike sadness. She barely sings these notes through the tone of someone choked up and fighting back tears. Britney stays at this line between crying and singing allowing her voice to shake. When she gets to the last line of the first verse “Why carry on without me?” she has nothing left. Instead of getting louder into the chorus like we expect she gets soft like a person defeated by her own failed hopes.

The lyrics reveal a level of depth that most Britney Spears songs do not approach. This is the story of a girl who realizes how much she needs a person in her life. She blames herself for her own depression and disturbingly self-aware of her mistakes. Overall this song is an apology that climaxes in the bridge:

I may have made it rain
Please forgive me
My weakness caused you pain
And this song is my sorry

Britney follows this apology in the next verse hoping that his face will “fade away.” In some ways apologizing is Britney’s first step in moving on with her life. Sometimes in life apologizes bring people back together after conflict. However other times apologies allow people to move through difficult times. Britney is not trying to get this guy to come back to her. She is acknowledging her own feelings, her own faults and in some ways, this apology is more for herself then the other person. If the other person forgives her it may make her feel better, but it is only through forgiving herself that she can truly move on.

The greatest part of Britney’s performance is not her singing. It’s two breaths that are heard, one after “I need you baby” and the other at the end of the bridge “and this song is my sorry.” When you are close to someone feeling them breathe is like feeling their living soul. Hearing this small breath in followed by a longer breath out we feel the emptiness that is inside of Britney and feel a closeness to her emotions.

In this song, Britney has givens us a tragic figure, a drama we can relate to. This song expresses feeling of defeat and exhaustion more emotional then physical. It speaks deep emotional truths about the challenging in life and how much the mistakes we make can haunt us throughout our lives.

The drama created here is fictional but emotionally real. Yes, it is true that there are photos of Britney Spears driving with her baby on her lap, but the emotion we get out of reading about that story is a shallow reflection of our insecurities as opposed to a meaningful connection to our own feelings.

I know that they way we view our celebrities is not going to change any time soon. People get great joy out of following celebrity’s lives and it’s not really fair for me to stand judgment of what brings joy to people’s lives. This is probably all harmless but maybe it is not. Maybe every time we look into a celebrity’s life and mock it we are bringing darkness into out hearts. It just feels wrong and I challenge you to think about the way we view the people in our lives, celebrities included.

My hope for Britney Spears is my hope for all people.

I hope that she finds happiness in her life.
I hope she has people in her life who she loves and loves her back.
And I hope that every time she tries to fly she soars into the sky.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Livin' On A Prayer by Bon Jovi

I used to be a music snob.

I came to Northwestern University as a composition major and I thought I had an open mind and a broad knowledge of music. I accepted popular music artists like the Backstreet Boys and the Beatles and I thought I knew everything about popular music there was to know. Then during my sophomore year I met Elizabeth.

I remember one of my first conversations with Elizabeth and her talking about how her favorite musical artists, Bon Jovi and Garth Brooks. I remember trying to be respectful of her taste while thinking that both Bon Jovi and Garth Brooks were not valid musical artists and that it was not really worth my time. The thing was, that she was so open to my music as a composer and the classical musical that I loved that I really wanted to give what she loved a chance. I’m really glad I did.

Bon Jovi and Garth Brooks are incredibly important artists in our popular culture. They have pulled together communities of music lovers in ways that few artists have and they speak to the human experience that draw in people all across the world not through pandering but through genuine expression. I credit Elizabeth with helping develop my love of country music but giver her full credit showing me how much Bon Jovi rocks.

“Livin’ On A Prayer” by Bon Jovi is one if the most important rock songs of the 1980s. While other artists like U2 were pushing the envelope of rock music, there were bands like Def Leppard, which sat squarely in the middle of the rock genre, later called “hair bands” that spoke directly to people’s tastes. One of the greatest bands to do this, captivating millions and filling up stadiums like never before was a band from New Jersey called Bon Jovi.

Bon Jovi is most known for their second single “Livin’ On A Prayer” from their Slippery When Wet album. There is an art in creating a song that stadiums full of people sing -along with and Bon Jovi were masters of that art. Not only did “Livin’ On A Prayer” have an great melody and irresistible hook but it spoke to the Reagan-era working man who felt the hit of the economic downturn of the time. This song is so effective that over twenty year later it has become an anthem of hope, optimism, possibility and rocking out like you just don’t care.

“Livin’ On A Prayer” starts with a soft synthesized line that brings in the guitar, drums and bass. The guitar line utilizes a “talk-box” which is a technology made famous by Peter Frampton. Instead of having the guitar be amplified through a speaker it’s pumped into a tube that is placed in the mouth. The amp pushes the sound through the tube into the mouth and a microphone picks ups the sound like it would a person singing. The guitar acts as the vocal chords and allows the guitarist to form different vowel shapes to effect the sound. This is how Richie Sambora, the lead guitarist of Bon Jovi created the different sounds and tones of the guitar line in “Livin’ On A Prayer.”

The melody line is simple without being overly repetitive. The melody in the verse outlines the natural rhythms and contour of the lyrics, which makes it easy to remember. The melody in the chorus features sustained high notes, which are hilarious fun to sing. They rise through the chorus and the notes between the high notes become rests for us to prepare for trying to sing the next high note. It quickly becomes a “how high can you sing” competition that we all want to participate in.

Singing the chorus of “Livin’ On A Prayer” is so much fun because you can just scream along with it and it works. It takes NO singing technique to have fun with this song. People know they aren’t going to sing the high notes and sound great which makes it all the more fun to try. The high notes are in a call and response game with the lead singer, Jon Bon Jovi. It is simple to learn, lots of fun to sing, and even though never sounds great when you are doing it feel great to try.

This song tells a hopeful story. There is Tommy and Gina. Tommy lost his jobs on the docks and Gina continues to work and supports both of them. Tommy is so strapped for cash that he puts his guitar in a pawn shop (second verse: “six string in hock”). Gina dreams of running away but they keep it together. In the first verse, Gina comforts Tommy and in the second verse, Tommy comforts Gina. They say the same things to each other reminding each other of hope with some of the most powerful lyrics in rock music.

We’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got
cause it doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not
We’ve got each other and that’s a lot
For love well give it a shot

We’re halfway there
Livin’ on a prayer
Take my hand and well make it - I swear
Livin’ on a prayer

What Tommy and Gina have to hold onto is each other. The idea that it doesn’t matter if they “make it” reflects the fact that they feel in some ways they have already made it in finding each other. It is both an adolescent idea and a mature realization of the importance of finding someone you love. For love, they will work through all their struggles because in each other they have a lot

They are halfway there because they have a dream they share through a prayer. Alcoholics talk about admitting the problem as being half the solution. Tommy and Gina see having the prayer, the hope and dream as being half the journey to “making it.”
This is a powerful idea that harkens back to being a kid and being told that if we dream it, we can it happen. This song is anthem, crafted for people to sing along with in stadiums while embodying not only the struggles but also the hopes of within all of us.

I can still remember Elizabeth telling me about how much she loved Bon Jovi. I remember her eyes. There was a light in her eyes that could only come from true joy and a depth in her look that came from speaking about something that held significant personal meaning. I had a choice, either hold to my stereotypes about music or let her break down my understanding of art and experience the music she loved. I am so glad I chose to share in her music and I am grateful to her for reaching out to me with what she loved.

I hope you have met or will meet someone like Elizabeth in your life. When you do, look into those eyes and make the choice to share in world that they love. You just might be halfway there in making that human connection that brings meaning to our lives.

I promise you will not regret it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I Can’t Help Myself (Sugarpie, Honey Bunch) by The Four Tops

My dad is one of the most important musical influences in my life. He never learned how to play musical instruments, he does not have the greatest singing voice and he probably could not understand most concepts in music theory. What he taught me is more important than all of that. He showed me that the love of music is the only thing that is truly relevant in being a musician. He gave an understanding of music’s role in society and showed me the power it has to enrich our lives every day.

My parents drove me to school almost every day until I started driving myself in high school. In middle school, my dad drove to school almost every morning and we would listen to the local oldies radio station. One of my favorite memories of my dad and I rocking out to “I Can’t Help Myself” by The Four Tops on the way to school.

If you listen to this song and you don’t smile or get a little bit of joy out of this song you either got to be dead or have a heart smaller then the Grinch’s. The beginning bass line leads up to the third notes, which accents the offbeat throwing the momentum forward and settles into an irresistible but simple groove. Like most jazz music and many Motown songs of the 1960s the groove lies less in the drum set but in the bass player who drives the beat forward.

Most popular songs have a verse/chorus form alternating between verses and a chorus often with bridge later in the song. This song’s form is simpler. The form is made of a repeated 8-measre phrase that the producers skillfully varied in each repetition. The first three repetitions features Levi Stubbs the lead singer. This is followed by the fourth repetition which is a saxophone solo (or back-up singer feature on the clip). The fifth and sixth sections go back to singing and then there is a break down. The instruments thin out and the music builds. This section is only six measures long, building momentum into the final repetitions. The form maintains a level of predictability with just enough variation to keep the listen engaged.

Levis Stubbs is one of the greatest singers in popular music. While most groups utilized a higher tenor voice to sing lead, The Four Tops featured the lower baritone voice of Levi Stubbs. His gravely voice seemed to border the line between singing and shouting without sounding forced. Even through his rough voice, there is clarity and energy like that of a Baptist preacher. He makes the words “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” so genuine and heartfelt that we forget how silly those words are. Next time you are around a male friend, see how manly they sound when they call their significant other by their pet name.

Levi Stubbs could make anything sound manly, and I mean anything (if you listen to The Four Tops’ cover of “Macarthur Park” you will cry when Levi sings “Someone left the cake out in the rain. I don’t think that I can take it Cause it took so long to bake it and Ill never have that recipe again!”). And more importantly he made you believe in what he sang about through his unbridled expression, humanity and charm.

The subject of this song is pretty straightforward. A man is infatuated with a woman, he sometimes thinks of leaving her but he can’t help himself. You can always tell when you are falling in love with someone because you think about them all the time and you bring them up in conversation without realizing it. It’s the greatest kind of torture when your heart will not let your mind forget how good it feels to be with that person. Levi gets that from his “Sugarpie Honeybunch” and I get that feeling from my “Boo-Bear.”

Sometimes I try to imagine what it was like for my dad growing up as a teen in the 1960s in Taiwan listening to American pop music. I imagine it represented youth, freedom and the American Dream. The term “American Dream” is not some singular path that all Americans have but rather the individual hopes and ideas that my father had about America.

One of my dad’s dreams was to own a Ford Mustang. In the 1950s and 1960s the Ford Mustang was an incredible machine that epitomized the best in American engineering and freedom of American youth. Unfortunately, by the time my dad got to America in the late 1970s and bought his dream car of a Ford Mustang, the American auto industry had taken a down turn and the Mustang was a shadow of the great car it used to be. That dream may have failed my dad but I like to think that the music did not.

He introduced my brother and I to the music of Motown which represented some of the best music of that my dad’s youth. My dad derives so much infectious joy from that music and Motown music became a cornerstone to how I identified what it meant to be American.

From Motown, came my infatuation with the Beatles, which led to my interest in the music of the 1990s, jazz, classical, show tunes and many other genres of music that solidified my love of the art of music. The more music I listen to the more I come back to the idea that music’s power to connect us with certain times in our lives and dreams in our hearts is central to the musical experience. “I Can’t Help Myself” lyrically has nothing to do with my dad, and was created seventeen years before I was born. It has no innate reason that it connected with me or my dad but it did and I can’t really explain why that happened but I can tell you how wonderful it is to hear this song play and think back at great moments I had with my dad.

If you ever met my dad before then I guarantee you’ve seen him smile. There are many things my dad has taught me but one of the most important things I learned from him is how great life is and how important it is to enjoy life sharing the simple moments with the people you love.

Thanks dad for making the effort to drive me to school all the times you did. I would not have had it any other way. Thanks for introducing the world of Motown into my life, which has brought me more joy then I can describe. And Thanks for teaching me what it means to truly love music and how important it is in shaping our dreams and connecting us people in our lives. I hope you’ve enjoyed the music I’ve shared with you and I can’t wait until the next time we get to rock out in the future.

Oh, and the signature Four Tops dance move (about 1 minutes 12 seconds into the clip), my dad totally owns that.

Monday, November 17, 2008

With Or Without You by U2

The 1980s were a time of great musical exploration. Synthesizers became widely used to create new musical landscapes while an unseen variety of musical genres came over the popular music horizon. New and unique voices shook the foundations of rock music. Bruce Springsteen reintroduced America to the workingman. Metallica explored the depth and darkness of rock and U2 showed us possibilities in music that few had imagined.

Like Springsteen, U2 expressed the conflicts of the human heart, refusing to speak through the trite and derivative lyrics that characterized so much of the rock music of the 1980s. “With or Without You” is one of U2’s most well known songs and was featured in their critically acclaimed 1987 album, The Joshua Tree. It is a simple song in its structure and in its ingredients however there is nothing simple about the feelings this song expresses.

“Without or Without You” has the same chord pattern repeated throughout the entire five minutes of the song except for a short break before the last instrumental section. The chords are outlined in the bass line pattern, which is the four different notes, each played eight times. The kind of musical structure is a chaconne. One of the most famous chaconnes is the “Canon in D” by Johann Pachelbel. Many blues musicians also utilize forms that have repeated harmonic structures but not repeated bass line patterns. The momentum and creativity of this song come from the musical development and exploration of other instruments within the framework of the baseline. While other bands would fail in the chaconne form, U2 succeeds through the artistry of Bono and The Edge.

The voice of U2 is Bono and his singing is pure rock ‘n roll gospel. It’s one of the most soulful and dynamic voices in popular music drawing from the great traditions of soul singers like Otis Redding. This voice is able to draw the listener with a whisper in the beginning of the song, dig into a rich well of warmth when singing “with you” at the end of the first stanza, and break out into a unbridled scream of agony at the climax of this song. He holds nothing back and expresses a level of vulnerability that in some ways almost makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s like watching a son give a eulogy for his mother’s funeral. It’s uncomfortable, it’s hard, it’s beautiful and we can’t help but let it speak directly to our souls.

If Bono is rock gospel then The Edge’s guitar is his choir. The Edge (the guitarist for U2) has one of the most distinctive guitar sounds in rock music. The constant background arpeggios (broken chord patterns) throughout the song create a distinctive layer of motion like a rolling river. The Edge utilizes the “infinite guitar” which is guitar effect created by Michael Brook which allows guitar notes to be held for seemingly infinite amounts of time. Throughout “With or Without You” The Edge uses the “infinite guitar” to create long notes that seem to enter like beams of light. The Edge also responds to Bono’s singing to crashing guitar chords that echo and resound like splashes of color.

U2 takes the thought “I can’t live with you, but I can’t imagine living without you” and examines the different facets of this statement. The lyrics initially explore the dichotomies in the relationship.

See the stone set in your eyes
See the thorn twist in your side
I wait for you

Sleight of hand and twist of fate
On a bed of nails she makes me wait
And I wait without you

With or without you

The beginning comments on beauty in the person’s eyes contrast with the much uglier statement of the thorn. “Sleight of hand” is a trick that misleads our eyes while a “twist of fate” moves life in a different way that you expect. The first two lines comment on the person that Bono sees explaining is why he is willing to wait, but it is the circumstances in the second stanza, which is why he must wait without her.

Through the storm we reach the shore
You give it all but I want more
And I’m waiting for you

With or without you
I cant live
With or without you

Through struggles they reach a better place and he acknowledges how much she gives him. In the next lines it is no longer about waiting for her but the fact that he can’t live with or without her. Then Bono repeats “and you give yourself away.” She keeps giving and it tears him up inside that all her effort isn’t enough. It’s not necessarily her fault and that is why it torments him so much.

At three minutes into the song Bono lets loose in a scream anguish and conflict. It’s like he’s been holding it in and he is finally allowed to be free with his emotions.

After the climax of the song, there is about a minute of instrumental music without words. This space allows us to reflect on what has just happen and leaves us with a sense of peace. The conflict may not be settled but there is a feeling a relief from finally getting something off one’s chest. There is freedom in saying what you feel even if that feeling is of entrapment.

Feeling trapped comes from the emotion of fear. It is being scared of losing what one has to face the uncertainty of the future. Though not every one of us can relate to the being a relationship in which we cannot live with the person but can’t imagine life without them, we can all relate being uncertain of the future. The bass line reflects the stability in our lives and reminds us that there are things that are constant in our lives.

We all have in fears in our life. I’m afraid of losing the people around me to tragedy. I fear the uncertainty of the future and I am not comfortable with my own mortality. “With or Without You” is about facing our fears. The song is not about finding solutions but finding understanding. It is only through facing our fears ad truly understanding ourselves and the people around us that we can us appreciate life and reflect on the beauty and peace that is there right in front of our eyes.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hurt by Johnny Cash

“I HATE country music.”

Through the groans and protests, I insisted that we were going to listen to some country music in the music theory class I taught last year. We started each class listening to different kinds of music to expand our musical knowledge. I felt it was important to discuss all genres of music so one day I told the class that day that we would explore to country music.

One student asked, “well, who are we doing to listen to?”

“Johnny Cash,” I answered.

“That’s ok, Johnny Cash rocks. I hate country music, but Johnny Cash is different. He’s more then country” replied the student.

Great people in our society transcend the labels that we put upon them. Abraham Lincoln was more then just a president. Albert Einstein was more then just a scientist and Johnny Cash was more then just a country musician. Johnny Cash was a force of nature. He was an artist that never compromised his integrity and never forgot the audience who he continued to serve until days before he died. He was not a saint, but he was a man, flawed like all of us but empathetic like so few of us.

In 2002, “Hurt” introduced Johnny Cash to a new generation and reintroduced Johnny Cash to the world. Rick Rubin, one of popular music’s most influence producers, started a new series of albums in which Rubin presented a raw and intimate Cash. These albums featured Cash covering modern popular music, older country music and new songs written by Cash himself. The fourth album they did together American IV: The Man Comes Around featured “Hurt” a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song by Trent Reznor which represents some of Cash’s best work.

This song speaks from the voice of a man in depression. He is looking back at failed life full of regret and pain.

[Verse 1]
I hurt myself today to see if I still feel
I focus on the pain the only thing that's real
the needle tears a hole the old familiar sting
try to kill it all away but I remember everything

The lyrics in this first verse are uncomfortable raw. Self-abuse and drug use are subjects that make us feel uneasy and what is truly striking is how aware the narrator is of his actions. He knows that he is trying to escape the pain of remembering a life and he knows he is failing. The “old familiar sting” tell us that he has done this many times, and many times before the drugs did not help him kill the pain of remembering.

what have I become?
my sweetest friend
everyone I know goes away in the end
and you could have it all my empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

The chorus is not so much about self-doubt but the inevitability of pain in life. Everyone this person knows has left. We don’t know if it’s through death or loss of a friendship but he is left with nothing. He has been let down and hurt so much that he believes it is inevitable for him to do the same.

The second verse reflects elaborates the first verse with a feeling of helplessness and the passage of time that separate us from people around us as it makes feelings disappear. The chorus that follows has the same lyrics and where the first chorus stops the second chorus continues.

If I could start again a million miles away.
I would keep myself, I would find a way.

Even though he admits in the end that he would find a way, it’s only through a distance too far to imagine. There is no chance in his life that things could improve, so all he can do is hang on to the slight possibility that maybe he could have made things different.

There are different musical sounds that describe the range of human emotion. Many times when we think of musical expression, we think of express joy through the sound of a beautiful orchestra. Sometimes we forget there is also musical sounds that bring out darker feelings in ourselves. The guitar line that starts the song is bare like a tree in the dead of winter that has long forgotten the memory of its leaves. Low sounds on the piano echo mysteriously in the first verse. Then right before the chorus, the piano begins playing the same note, constantly and incessantly throughout the entire chorus. It starts out like a bell tolling in the distance but then comes to the forefront. This ugly sound hammers at our ears like a mistake that refuse to forgotten as it that take over our minds like a specter of doom.

The second verse provides some aural relief and the piano note begins again. The piano note slowly comes to the forefront and where we it in the first chorus, it continues. The sound builds to peak and you feel like the music is about to explode. Rick Rubin distorts the recording like a speaker that is turned up too loud on purpose at the end of the song to add another layer of intensity. It makes us feel like things are shaking apart until the texture draws back and we are left with Cash’s voice.

Johnny Cash’s baritone voice is one of the expressive in popular music. His voice is distinctively country in the way he shapes his notes. At the end of every line in the fist verse, he lands on the last note purposely under the pitch and glides back up to pitch at the end of the note. This “twang” gives a color and shape to the notes working around the pitch to give distinct feeling of longing that characterizes so much of country music.

Johnny Cash was seventy years old when he recorded “Hurt.” Few, if any artists produce music at this age and even fewer of those create some of their best work at this age. Some things get better with time. Great whiskey over time becomes pure. The true core of the flavor comes forward as the impurities diminish. Johnny Cash’s voice reflected a long life filled with many emotions and his art purified towards the end expressing raw emotion, closer to the human heart then many dare to explore.

I listen to “Hurt,” and I feel sad, torn up and afraid, but somehow safe because he is there. Johnny Cash reminds us that even when going through the darkness in our life we are never alone. In solitude, we can find solace in that belief. Johnny Cash is more then country. He is more then a singer and he is more the music. Johnny Cash is the feeling right after the tears have stopped that reminds us that only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Part Of Your World by Jodi Benson

Everybody has a dream.

Some picture a new car. Others think a life without work, and we all hope for a world in which we can understand each other on a deeper level to make us closer as human beings and diminish the conflict in our lives.

“Part Of Your World” is from the Disney animated film, The Little Mermaid. This film was released in1989 and marked the beginning of a new renaissance in Disney animation including the films, Beauty And the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. “Part of Your World” is the “I Want” song that is part of most musicals. The “I Want” song features the main character describing his or her motivation for the actions he or she takes within the story. Other well known “I Want” songs include “I Just Can’t Wait To be King” from The Lion King, “Up There” from The South Park musical and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. These are often the memorable songs from musicals because they provide a direct insight into the hopes and dreams of the main character that define their beliefs and actions.

I’m not saying that we all know what if feels like to be a mermaid, become infatuated with a guy you saved and want legs but I think we can all understand desiring something different in our lives and feeling misunderstood which is what “Part of Your World” is really about.

The Little Mermaid was the first Disney movie that felt like it spoke to my generation. The animation was more modern, the story was less predictable and the music reflected modern sensibilities. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman created a musical universe in The Little Mermaid that took the musical traditions of Disney and modernized them for a new generation. No longer was the singing a caricature of the human voice like in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves but the sound of real people singing. The background music, though orchestrated with tradition acoustic instruments melded effortlessly with synthesized colors reflecting the music of the 1980s.

Jodi Benson is my Disney Princess. She did the voice acting for Ariel in The Little Mermaid, the title character in Thumbelina, as well as Tour Guide Barbie in Toy Story 2 (if you haven’t seen that film in a while pay special attention to Benson’s work here, it’s a stroke of genius). Jodi Benson sings with a bright clear tone that at the beginning of "Part of Your World." She doesn’t have a lot of vibrato (a pulsating effect produced by rapid variations in pitch) which often makes trained classical music voice not as relatable to people’s ears. Her voice isn’t weak and you can hear her fill out tone when she holds the word “more” at the end of the first verse. In the chorus she pulls back her volume with “I want to be where the people are blurring the lines between singing and speaking. Her voice floats around the notes and has a weightless quality that propels the music along. She utilizes variation in her tone and dynamics as great speakers do, sometimes speaking loud, sometimes speaking softly, sometimes speaking quickly and sometimes taking time make sure that they are understood.

Bet'cha on land they understand
That they don't reprimand their daughters
Proper women sick of swimmin'
Ready to stand

We all know as landlubbers that female oppression is not exclusive to the undersea world. This level of hope through child-like ignorance is charming because we understand that Ariel feels misunderstood by her father. As much as the realist in us knows that Ariel’s dreams are preposterous, it is hard not to smile at the innocence and the hope that she embodies.

Almost all the melody lines have an upward direction. It’s like how we raise our pitch when we ask a questions. With Ariel, the melodies don’t so much question but rise to differenr possibilities. She idolizes the human life partially through ignorance but also because she doesn’t know how to make her mer-life better.

I have the pleasure of spending my days as a teacher with fourth grade students. And if you talk to fourth grader they share many feelings with Ariel. They wish for a recess that would last forever or a life where their parents can just get along. They just want to be like everyone else and can’t understand why their teachers seem to make their lives so difficult. It’s a time in life when dreams are so often crushed by reality, a time where the world becomes darker and a time when hope is so often disappointed by reality. The genius of this song is that it relates to children but also speaks to adults, because we remember how it feels to be a child and we so often see that hope in the children around us.

The inspiring part of the story of Ariel is that her unrealistic hopes come true.

There are people who fight through the doubts and the criticism and rise beyond reason to make the improbably a reality. They are people like Fred Rogers who was told that children would never watch a television show that focused on education with little song and dance to entertain. However, in Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Fred Rogers created television show that has inspired generations of children to believe in themselves.

They are artist like George Lucas, who had to personally finance the first Star Wars film because no one else believed the universe he created would capture the imagination of audiences. More then thirty years later Star Wars has entertained millions of people and has become one of the most influential franchises in entertainment.

There are politicians like Barack Obama who after losing his 2000 bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives was left with little in his life savings and personal credit. When he went to the 2000 Democratic National Convention after the election he had just lost, his credit card was rejected he was not even able to get a floor pass. Eight years later, Barack Obama has done what many thought was impossible and is preparing to be inaugurated as the forty-fourth president of the United States of America.

What defines us? Is it our jobs or where we come from? Is it the people that we love and things that we believe? Or is it the dreams that we have and hold close to our hearts? We tell children that they can grow to be anything that want but we stop telling ourselves that somewhere along the line. What we hope for, what we desire reflects what we value in our lives. It informs our motivation and actions as well as the outlook we have in life.

When I listen to “Part of Your World” and it makes me want to part of Ariel’s world. A place where dreams come true, forgiveness and true love are around the corner, and crabs can conduct impromptu orchestras filled with sea animals. The great thing though is that my world isn’t that far away from Ariel’s (except for the crab part) and maybe the reason this song warms my heart is because it reminds me of the feeling of hope that makes each day shine with the potential to make our dreams come true.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Tears In Heaven by Eric Clapton

Today I’m going to a funeral.

For the fourth time in my life, I am preparing to say goodbye to someone who was once in my life and now only lives in my memory and in my heart.

When someone passes on in our lives, most things in our lives are the same but when we think about that person, our memory reminds us that they are no longer here in our world. It doesn’t matter that you may not have seen that person every day when they were alive. Just knowing that someone is out there caring about us brings us comfort and being reminded of our loss makes our heart ache just s little bit, just enough to bring us back to how it felt to lose them. That feeling never leaves us and that is why "Tears In Heaven" is speaks so deeply to our souls.

Eric Clapton in known for many things. People wrote graffiti with the words “Clapton is God” in London and sarcastically nicknamed him “Slowhand” early in his career because of his virtuosic guitar skills. He composed some of most memorable guitar licks in popular music history and influenced generations of guitar players with his blues and rock infused playing.

Then in 1991 Eric Clapton’s four-year-old son, Conor fell from a 53rd-story window to his death. It was a tragic accident and Clapton was distraught for months afterward. He wrote this "Tears In Heaven" with a friend, Will Jennings for the film Rush. The song garnered critical and commercial success and Clapton featured it on his album Unplugged.

The lyrics are simple and understated but reveal great depth of emotion.

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven
Will it be the same
If I saw you in heaven
I must be strong, and carry on
Cause I know I don't belong
Here in heaven

Clapton asks his son if he will recognize him in heaven and if there relationship would be intact if they met in heaven. What he is really asking is if his son will forgive him. There is a tragic level of self-blame. When coping with tragedy we often blame ourselves in an attempt convince ourselves that we had control over the uncontrollable. He is saying that his son is in heaven because he could not protect him. He hopes that his son will forgive him, but regardless he feels that he does not deserve to be with him in heaven.

After the instrumental break, Clapton reassures himself that his son is in a better place.

Beyond the door
There's peace I'm sure.
And I know there'll be no more
Tears in heaven

Clapton is reassuring himself that his son will find peace as he know he is leaving his son taking his tears of loss with him.

Playing an instrument with a high level technical ability with incredible speed and accuracy takes years of practice. Notes however doing create meaning, it is how they are played. In the first 13 seconds of the song, Clapton is playing guitar with no other instruments. He balances lines in the lower strings with melodies in the higher strings. The lower notes and the higher notes are like two different instruments responding to each other, mostly playing apart and coming together at specific places. The guitar does not only provide harmony but depth and lines in a single instrument. The guitar responds every vocal line with slight subtle nuances and melodies. The guitar cannot communicate lyrics but reassures Clapton by being present. The guitar is like a friend in a time of need. Sometimes by simply being there makes all of the differences.

The instrumental break features a duet between Clapton’s guitar and a slide guitar. The slide guitar answers the melody that Clapton folds into his guitar lines. This playing may not seem impressive but it is mature. The song is not about Clapton’s guitar planning, it is about the emotion that he is trying to express. Through his artful, precise and careful playing of each note, we almost forget about the playing and focus on the emotion itself. Great musicians play in a way that the music disappears and all that we experience is pure emotion.

Clapton’s singing like his guitar playing is never overdone. It is simple, intimate, and mournful. The ease in which he slides up to the high note right before the instrumental break expresses a feeling that comes from the heart through a voice that is bare and open with nothing left to lose. The simplicity in his singing is all the more powerful because it doesn’t tell us how to feel but creates a palette for our own feelings.

One of my grandfathers died more then six years ago and I still don’t feel like I know what to do with those emotions. I don’t know if I’m really over it. I don’t know how I’m suppose to feel and I don’t know how to really make his death mean anything.

Music does not provide any answers.

The power in music is that it reassures us that we are not alone in our emotions. Listening to "Tears In Heaven" doesn’t make us miss that person any less but it does remind us that someone else out there feels the same way we do. We are reminded that we are not alone in our emotions and even though it doesn’t change our emotions it makes us feel better about our emotions knowing that they reflect the humanity and the experiences that we all share.

Today at the funeral, I will not be alone. I will mourn and be comforted sharing meaningful emotions with others. Sharing our lives with others honors the people who have passed on because it is the times that we shared our lives, our emotions and our hearts with ones we have lost that make the people we morn mean so much to us.

I miss the people and in some ways, it seems ungracious to hope for more time with these people in heaven when we have been so blessed to share in their lives. I don’t know if I belong in heaven, I would like to think so but I do know that it is the time spent sharing my life with the people around me that brings a piece of heaven into my life every day.

Friday, November 7, 2008

I Want You Back by The Jackson 5

Before Michael Jackson was investigated at the center of celebrity criminal investigations, way before Michael Jackson became a target for tabloids across the world and even before Michael Jackson became one of the best selling solo artists in music history he was a 11-year-old boy from Garry, Indiana.

It is easy to forget that Michael Jackson used to be that boy who danced and sang beyond his years with a level of artistry that inspired generations of musicians. But it is impossible to forget the music that this Mozart of popular music produced in his time with The Jackson 5.

"I Want You Back" introduced the world to Michael Jackson and his brothers that made up the group, The Jackson 5. Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, saw the potential of in The Jackson 5 to reach beyond the African-American population to mainstream America. Gordy was a marketing genius who understood how to meld different genres of music to appeal to masses while maintaining a high level of musical artistry. He got together with three other composers to write and produce songs for The Jackson 5 as “The Corporation” to create the music that would catapult these five brothers into an international sensation.

"I Want You Back" is an intricate arrangement of musical colors that inspires child-like wonder in sonic world that it creates. It all begins with the piano glissando that falls like a rock splashing into a lack. Then right at the end of glissando there is cymbal hit that splashes like a bucket of water against a window. Other instruments enter the musical landscape as it comes into focus like water falling off a window clarifying what is seen beyond the glass.

The bass line immediately draws in the listener refusing to simply be a traditional bass line. The first note of the bass starts and is followed by space, then it rushes ahead, then there is more space. It pushes ahead again and finally we get a steady sense of the beat. This baseline almost seems to stutters before it becomes steady playing with our expectations and creates sonic space for us to listen to other instruments as they enter.

The rhythm guitar fills out the harmony while a rhythmic groove with the bongo drums before the drum set enters. Then the first verse begins and drums drop out. The Corporation chose to not use the drum set in the verse so that when it did enter during the choruses it not only provided a refreshing musical color but also kicked the chorus into high gear with a feeling of arrival. Other guitar lines and string orchestra countermelodies add other colors to this song, never overshadowing other instruments.

In this entire song, one can hear each individual instrument in the overall texture. This is because the different instruments are occupying different musical space. For example, the piano and bass play the same notes in the beginning of the song but because piano is playing it in a higher register while the bass in playing in a lower registers they are both audible. One can hear the slower rhythms in the bass line against the faster patterns of the guitar because they are playing at different times. Each instruments has a purpose and space that it occupies that works like an assembly line doing different things all at the same time to create a single amazing product.

The other Jackson brothers are not the typical back-up vocalists. They provide harmony but also countermelody, rhythmic energy and Michael’s inner dialogue. Let me show you what I mean. Here are the lyrics of the chorus. The text in the parentheses is what the back-up singer’s lines.

Oh baby give me one more chance
(show you that I love you)
Won't you please let me
(back in your heart)
Oh darlin' I was blind to let you go
(let you go baby)
But now since I see you in his arms
(I want you back)
Yes I do now
(I want you back)
Ooh ooh baby
(I want you back)
Ya ya ya ya
(I want you back)
Na na na na

It’s like Michael is trying to tell this girl what he means but he can’t quite get it out. The back-up singers are like his friends goading him on to really say what he means. The only time you hear Michael sing the words “I Want You Back” is in the fadeout during the last ten seconds of the song. He never gets across to his girl what he really wants. It’s a charming and almost comical scene to picture reflecting the optimism and naivety of young love.

The most musically inspired sections in this song are the transitions. At about 1 minute and 10 seconds, the section that leads back into the verse is like a musical black hole. None of the instruments play patterns that are on the beat. The feeling of the groups of four beats that the composers organized this song in seems lost and then the verse comes in two beats earlier then we expect. This propels us out of this black hole suddenly and unexpectedly into the second verse with a great sense of motion and arrival. Other transitions also play with our sense of rhythmic stability to draw attention to not only where the music is going but also how it gets there.

Michael Jackson’s voice as an 11-year-old boy is an astounding music artifact. It is a child singing with incredible singing technique and expression emulating the master soul singers in Motown that he grew up listening to and actively worked with. Michael is able to bring forth a level of intensity and sincerity in the verses while during the choruses his voice sails with a sense of pure joy and freedom.

Meaning in music comes from the artists, from our lives and sometimes it is something that changes over time. The high level of musical invention and artistry in "I Want You Back" communicates certain emotions but there is something much deeper in my own life that has made this song hold personal meaning.

There are moments in our lives when we realize we are growing up. For some of us, it’s that moment we see our parents make a mistake, for others it’s a traumatic moment like a family member dying. One of those moments in my life was realizing that Michael Jackson was fallible and that there was a possibility, even a small one in my mind that Michael could be guilty of one of the most insidious crimes in our society. This was all the more powerful because we have a snapshot of that innocence in Michael that we all lose growing up in that 11-year-old boy singing about a lost love.

In young Michael Jackson, I see the things that I would like to remember of my childhood. And in the later life of Michael Jackson, I see the harsh reality of life, how people can hurt each other and themselves. However, Michael Jackson gives me hope. I know the child who sang "I Want You Back" is still in him and I know that myself as a child is still inside me.

Whenever I listen to this song, the sun just seems to shine a little brighter. "I Want You Back" is about the optimism and the innocence that even we have lost never cease to inspire us in our lives to hope as Michael does in "I Want You Back" to fix our mistakes and work for a brighter tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Since U Been Gone by Kelly Clarkson

She said that we were too different.

My girlfriend dumped me because I was too different.

The reality was that she gave up on the relationship and that hurt. And I never understood the different conflicted emotions that one feels during a break-up until I went through it myself. We blame ourselves in an attempt to take control of the situation, we blame others to doge responsibility for our actions, we mourn the potential of a relationship that is lost and hopefully, we see that we are better because of the experience.

Behind its veneer of a simple pop song, Kelly Clarkson’s "Since U Been Gone" takes us on an emotional journey through a break-up, the hard kind of break-up. This is a break-up where no one is the bad guy. This is a break-up where no single person can take the blame. And this is a break-up that through the pain, we understand that we can finally “get what we want.”

I’m not a fan of American Idol. I don’t think it’s a bad show at all, it just doesn’t capture my imagination. There are many interesting cultural dynamics in that show that I may address in a later post including amateur entertainment, cross-generational music selection and music performance as a competitive activity. I did not think much about Kelly Clarkson who won the first season of American Idol in 2002 until I heard "Since U Been Gone" from her second album, Breakaway.

Everything in "Since U Been Gone" serves to focus the listener on the emotional journey of a break-up. What does the opening guitar riff express about break-ups? Nothing, but the simplicity of the guitar and drums allows our attention to focus on the singing and the lyrics where the meaning of the song lies. Other instruments come in later creating a deeper texture but they never overshadow the singing and the lyrics.

Let’s take a look at the first two verses.

[Verse 1]
Here's the thing We started out friends
It was cool, but it was all pretend
Yeah, yeah, since you been gone
You're dedicated, you took the time
Wasn't long 'til I called you mine
Yeah, yeah, since you been gone
And all you'd ever hear me say
Is how I picture me with you
That's all you'd ever hear me say

[Verse 2]
How can I put it, you put me on
I even fell for that stupid love song
Yeah, yeah, since you been gone
How come I'd never hear you say
I just wanna be with you
Guess you never felt that way

The lines “Yeah, yeah, since you been gone” do not fit in the narrative of the verse, so let’s take them out and se what we got.

[Verse 1]
Here's the thing We started out friends
It was cool, but it was all pretend
You're dedicated, you took the time
Wasn't long 'til I called you mine
And all you'd ever hear me say
Is how I picture me with you
That's all you'd ever hear me say
[Verse 2]
How can I put it, you put me on
I even fell for that stupid love song
How come I'd never hear you say
I just wanna be with you
Guess you never felt that way

These verses discuss what happened in the relationship. She admits that she fell for this guy’s tricks and is frustrated that he doesn’t feel the same way but she does. The end of the first verse reflects her optimism and the end of second verse shows how he didn’t reciprocate her love for him. These verses involve self-blame, frustration and a realization that these people did not view this relationship in the same way.

Next we have the chorus:

But since you been gone
I can breathe for the first time
I'm so movin' on, yeah, yeah
Thanks to you, now I get, I get what I want
Since you been gone

She is happy that the guy is out of her life. Things are better without him and she thanks him for helping her realize what she wants in life. This is a celebratory “look at me, I am TOTALLY over you and my life is GREAT!” The interesting thing is how the line “Yeah, Yeah Since you been Gone” is part of the verses. This statement of independence and freedom is interjected between lines of self-blame and frustration during the verses. It’s like the singer needs to remind herself that things are better after the break-up when she reflects on the relationship.

The turning point emotionally in this song is the bridge:

You had your chance, you blew it
Out of sight, out of mind
Shut your mouth, I just can't take it
Again and again and again and again

There is no interjection of the line “Since You Been Gone.” There’s no need for the narrator to convince herself that things are better. She’s realizes that the bottom line is not about who’s to blame but about moving on in life.

This is not a simple female empowerment song. There are levels of emotion that even with a simple melody and popular music presentation speaks in a mature way to the conflicted feelings that make up almost every emotional event in our lives.

This song works for so many people partially due to its technical aspects. The producers have balanced the instruments well, featuring a melody that is fun to sing. "Since U Been Gone" rocks out with a great tempo and familiar aural landscape. However, what makes it lasts in our minds is that an American Idol is a singing a song that dares to go deep, dares to show inner conflict and dares to feature the emotional development of a person in pain.

This song is about hope. Break-ups can be devastating. They seem like failures of the human heart. In break-ups we question our compatibility and even our potential to love. We relate to the pain, but it is message that happiness does not lie in others but ourselves that is so powerful. Much of art reflects on how only through finding a soul mate can be whole, but more importantly "Since U Been Gone" speaks to the reality that we can truly love that life partner unless we are whole by ourselves first.

I am happily married and I hold no animosity towards my that girlfriend who broke up with me. She helped realized who I was and what I really needed in my. I thank her for all of that and for continuing to be a positive force in my life.

Thanks to U, I have what I want in my wife, and I love I got, since U been gone.


Monday, November 3, 2008


Do you ever listen a song that you love over and over and are amazed that you never get tired of listening to it?

Have you wondered what makes a song so great?

Do you love music?

I do love music and I’ve spent my life dedicated to the art of music. I’ve found that almost every person I’ve encountered in my life enjoys music in a meaningful and personal way. I’ve created this blog to discuss great works of music and examine what makes them so powerful, not only in our culture but in our lives. In my studies, I’ve found commentary on classical music, however these writings are often too academic and esoteric to be meaningful to most people. On the popular music side, I often find reviews that connect music to people’s lives but lack the level of musical analysis that explains the theory that makes music great.

The Purple Reaction is a music blog that focuses on music in our culture and explores the history, theory and artistry that make the music we love so great. I will examine music that lay deep in our cultural consciousness that reflects our lives and how we define ourselves. This is a celebration of art, the emotional connections that we feel through music and the deep personal meaning we experience through great music.

I’m open for discussion and any suggestions of songs that you would like to comment on. If you have any questions feel free to contact and thanks for reading.