Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Stan by Eminem

What does the jazz music of Duke Ellington, the rock ‘n roll of Elvis Presley, the folk music of Bob Dylan, the theatrical rock of Kiss, the punk music of the Sex Pistols and pop music of Madonna have in common? Parent groups criticized all of this music as having a dangerous influence on youth, disseminating non-Christian values and as being examples of insidious, worthless and bad art. People even put into questions whether this art was even music. All of these styles music threatened people so much that some even concluded that it was the work of the Devil himself.

This type of music criticism seems silly to us now. It’s hard to believe that anyone thought the way Elvis danced was too sexual for the eyes of youth and that people honestly took Kiss records away from their children because the believed them to be “Knights In Satan’s Service.” Did these people even listen to this music? There biggest hit, “Beth” is about as threatening as a Care Bear. It seems every generation has a style of music that their parents just don’t understand. This lack of understanding brings up the same criticisms and one of the most polarization genres of music between my generation and my parents’ generation is rap music.

The common complaints about rap music are that it uses explicit language, it glorifies an undesirable culture, and that it takes little skills and musical creativity to produce. These broad generalizations do describe some rap music. However criticizing a whole genre of music based on its worst examples is like calling all classical music trite, repetitive, unoriginal and lacking music skill because I just heard an 6 year old play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on a violin.

Yes, a lot of rap music includes swears word and explicit descriptions of sexual activity. Some rap music does describe gang and drug culture in a favorable and sentimental way. And I have heard some rap music that seems to have been put together with as much a skill and creativity as a 3 year old making a house out of Duplo blocks. Including explicit language does not mean that something is automatically “bad” art (i.e. Pulp Fiction) and just because the subject and the perspective of a piece of art is not one that you agree with does not mean that it is worthless. If we judged everything in this world as bad because we don’t get it, we’d live is a very dark and narrow-minded world.

“Stan” by Eminem, one of his most effective works, is a unique song that tells the story of a crazed fan named Stan, whose obsession with Eminem leads him to commits suicide and kill his pregnant wife in the process. Like many rap songs, “Stan” includes a sample from another song that is used for the chorus and the bass line during the verses. Most rap music sample music from 1970s funk music and Eminem takes an unusual approach taking him sample from the British pop singer, Dido (who is featured in the music video for “Stan.”). Eminem utilizes the beginning of the first verse from Dido’s hit “Thanks You”.

My tea's gone cold, I'm wondering why I got out of bed at all
the morning rain clouds up my window and I can't see at all
And even if I could it'd all be grey, but your picture on my wall
it reminds me that it's not so bad, it's not so bad.

The original song is a simple and intimate statement of gratitude that starts with a level of darkness and opens up to a soaring and beautiful chorus. The part that Eminem uses only hints at this maintaining the feeling of rain clouds throughout. Instead of these words being about a loved one, the lyrics become a perverted statement of Stan’s obsession with Eminem. This is an amazing example of how context can change the meaning of lyrics.

The first time we hear Dido’s sample it is in background covered by rain and slightly distorted as if it is being listened to on the radio. Then it is repeated in the foreground accompanied by an aggressive drum beat and baseline which immediately transforms the sample and brings us into the mind of Stan.

In the first verse, Stan is explaining how much he likes Eminem. The rapping is closer to talking. The lines don’t rhyme and only at the end of the verse “This is Stan, your biggest fan” do the words have a clear rhythm to them that line them up with the beat. The song lays out the Stan’s obsession with Eminem and that there are some hints of something a little off when he explains that he will name his kid after Eminem’s daughter. Stan then explains how he has a room full of Eminem’s pictures and it becomes clear that the picture on the wall that Dido is singing about is in Stan’s world the pictures of Eminem he has up on the wall.

The anger starts to build in the second verse. The swear words that were used casually in the first verse begin to be said in anger as Stan explains how he feels he was dissed by Eminem. Stan reveals personal issues including abuse by his parents and the act of cutting which Eminem has joked about in earlier songs. Eminem is openly responding to his critics by dealing with the possibility that people may misunderstand what he is joking about and taking it for truth. He is also defending himself by filling out his character of Stan with other problems in his psychology unrelated to Eminem which in some ways are more responsible for Stan’s behavior. The speed of the rapping becomes faster in this verse, and even though it doesn’t included rhythm schemes, the faster tempo reveals rhythmic patterns in the speech that work within the framework of the drumbeat and the base line.

What Stan does in the third verse is an amalgam of jokes that Eminem made in previous songs. Stan misinterprets these lines as being taken seriously and we are witness to a disturbing and atrocious act. Eminem performs his lines as Stan with a uncomfortable level of anger so much so that it's almost unbearable to listen to.

You ruined it now, I hope you can't sleep and you dream about it.
And when you dream, I hope you can't sleep and you scream about it.

The screams of the pregnant girlfriend in the background are haunting, the tears of frustration can be felt in the Eminem's performance and like a nightmare, we finally awake from horror at the end of the verse.

The last verse is Eminem’s letter back to Stan. He tries to help Stan and give him some advice revealing a caring and giving artist beneath the bravado that Eminem carries as a rap star. Eminem raps in his normal rapping voice which is slightly higher and more nasal then the voice he did for Stan. In the last verse, Eminem raps in the more traditional way with a clear rhythm scheme and accentuated rhythm in the words to line up with the beat. There is a smoothness about the way that Eminem works through his lyrics, and takes pauses in order to keep the lyrics set in certain places in the beat. The beauty is that you don’t think about his rapping because there is nothing awkward in his delivery. The rhythms don’t point themselves out but instead help provided punctuation points at the ends of the line help to reinforce a sense of phrase and continuity.

If art truly is a reflection of the human experience, then art needs to comment not only on the beauty in human emotion but also in the darkness. There is no doubt that this song is not pleasant to listen to for some people. I still remember listening to this song for the first time and feeling like Eminem does at the end of this song, frozen in utter shock and disbelief.

Eminem answered his critics with a song explaining the worst thing his influence could lead to and instead of arguing back and saying that the possibility of something like this wasn’t possible, Eminem comments that in some ways even he is powerless to stop this kind of madness. This doesn’t excuse Eminem from any responsibility in a situation like this but it does make it clear that in any crime there are feelings more complicated than we can imagine.

Does this song use explicit language? Yes, but it is used to reflect the way some people communicate. Does it talk about a subject that some people would rather ignore? Yes, but obsessions is a true human emotion that is undeniable in our human nature. Will this song influence young people to do exactly what Stan does? I don’t know, maybe for some people but I know the majority of American’s who have heard this song didn’t as the amount of people who murdered their pregnant girlfriends did not spike when this song came out.

Is this song an example of great music? Yes, as it clearly communicate emotions that we all share and tells a complex story that comments our worst fears. It is essential that art helps us deal with the many facets of the human experiences in order to create a more connected and understanding world.

You may not like “Stan” and that’s ok, but hopefully you understand it a little better. It is important to work to understand songs that we are not accustom to. As getting to know people that are different then us helps us know ourselves better, exploring art that is beyond our everyday experience helps us understand what is meaningful about the art we love and the emotions deep within our hearts.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Auld Lang Syne

On New Year’s Eve across American, right after the countdown to midnight, people will sing “Auld Lang Syne.” Though people make jokes about not knowing what this song means and may not understand why it is sung on New Year’s Ever, it is a fitting and powerful song that speaks to beauty and struggle in life and questions the power of memories in shaping ourselves and our future.

“Auld Lang Syne” is a Scottish poem written by Robert Burns in 1788. Scholars aren’t sure if the tune that we sing the poem to, a traditional Scottish Folk song, was the intended by Burns but it has become synonymous with the poem. “Auld Lang Syne” translates literally to “old long since” but means “long, long ago.”

The performance that I’ve included is by Dougie MacLean one of Scotland’s most important musicians and composers. He is best known for writing the opening song for the film Last of The Mohicans titled “The Gael.” There is something very genuine about his performance that is not only due to his accent. His simple performance is a reminder of the folk tradition of the song and the reflective nature of the lyrics.

The tune itself is built around a pentatonic or 5-note scale. A quick way to play the scale is to play just black keys on a piano. This scale is of the first scales that teachers teach to students in elementary school music class because of its simplicity and ease of harmonization. The construction of this song contributes to how easy it is to learn and sing

“Auld Lang Syne” has a consistent phrase structure throughout the melody and repetitive rhythmic pattern. What brings interest and longing to the song is the contour, the way the phrase moves through higher and lower notes. The first phrase of the verses leads up to a higher note and the second phrase of the verses comes down ending on a lower note. The chorus starts high, dips down and then gently rising up again. The highest note of the melody, “we’ll take” which sets up the last phrase, descends to the lowest note of the phrase on the words “auld lang syne.” There is a sense of drama as the melody in the verse leads to the last phrase of the chorus, which has the widest and most dramatic contour of the entire melody.

“Auld Lang Syne” opens with a question that the song will examine through five verses.

[verse 1]
Should auld (old) acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld (old) acquaintance be forgot,
And days o' lang syne?

The verse starts by asking if we should let go of memories of people in our past and then the song asks if we should remember the days in our past. These questions tie together the people in our lives with the days in our past reminding us that it is the people who made those days meaningful. .

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for days of auld lang syne.

There is something very meaningful of paying tribute with a toast filled not with liquid but our kind words. This helps us remember the good parts of the past and color our memories not with bitterness but the same good will we would like to share with all of the people in our lives. The next two verses speak of great times shared with people in the past and how those things have changed.

[verse 2]
We twa hae run about the braes,
(We two have run about the slopes,)
And pu’d (picked) the gowans (daisies) fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony (many) a weary foot,
Sin (since) auld lang syne.

[verse 3]
We twa hae paidl’d in the bur,
(We two have paddled in the stream)
Frae (from) morning sun till dine (dinner time);
But seas between us braid hae roar’d (broad roared)
Sin (since) auld lang syne.

The act of running through a field and picking flowers is a joyous form of walking while wondering, tired and lost is one of the saddest ways we move through life. Paddling a boat with a friend is an image of peace while that same water becomes a roaring sea is an image of violence. Things change in life and sometimes the activities that once brought us joy transforms into struggles through the responsibility and circumstance of adulthood.

[verse 4]
And surely ye’ll be (buy) your pint-stowp! (pint cup)
And surely I’ll be (buy) mine!
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

Instead of looking back, this verse looks to the future. It looks forward to a time when friends will get together share a drink, and speak with fond words in tribute to times past. The song brings the realization that reminiscing about good times with friends in itself is something to look forward to in the future.

[verse 5]
And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere! (friend)
And gie's (give) a hand o’ thine !
And we’ll tak a right gude-willy waught, (good-will draught)
For auld lang syne.

The first verse ask a question in the present tense, the second and third verse reflect on the past, the fourth verse looks to future and fifth verse brings us back to the present. It’s like a friend convincing a friend of the importance of the past sharing handshake an expression of friendship and trust. This song not only convinces us that the past is worth remembering but that sharing a moment together is the past way to pay tribute to those times long ago.

I’ve been very fortunate in the past year. There are so many moments that I’ve gotten to share with people that I’ve love that mean so much to me. The picture at the top of this post is the first dance I had with my wife during our wedding reception. When I think of the question “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and days o' lang syne?” that moment with my wife in my arms surrounded by the people that we love comes to mind and my answer of course is no. And I hope I never do forget moments like that which bring me solace and strength.

Have a great New Year. Take a moment and share a great memory from the past year with a friend. Honor those times by filling the new year with wonderful moments with the people that you love that in future years you will reminisce as days of auld lang syne.

Wannabe by the Spice Girls

One time I was helping chaperone a group of middle school students (5th or 6th graders) on a trip to a movie theater. As we were walking in the parking lot after the movie, I heard some of the girls talking about guys they thought were cute and how they wanted to get their phone numbers. I asked the group, “Well, once you do get the phone number of a guy that you like, what do you?” One of the girls responded, “Well, what you do is get their numbers, but you don’t call them, that would just be weird.”

Young girls have interesting and sometimes mystifying ideas about love and friendship. Almost all of the drama in the 4th graders I work with comes from the girls. There are fights over many topics including what to play at recess and who wasn’t invited to a birthday party. They conflicts are over the way they think they are perceived by their friends and not being able to work through misunderstandings. I’m not saying their isn’t drama among the male students but it’s different. With the boys I observe, the conflicts less emotional and there is more of a focused on solving the issue as opposed to understanding the feelings involved. I’m not saying that guys are smarter or dumber than girls. However, there are clear differences in the way that boys and girls socialize and mature and whether that is due to nature or nurture does not change the fact that it is apparent and prevalent.

When Elvis Presley broke out in the late 1950s, America witnessed something they had never seen before, pre-teen and teenage girls screaming in excitement. This escalated to hysterics when the Beatles became popular in the 1960s and artists and producers have since marketed music towards the pre-teen and teenage girl demographic. Pop groups that were created to appeal this audience included the Jackson 5, New Edition, New Kids On the Block and the Backstreet boys. Then in 1996, for the first time a pop group made of woman were manufactured and marketed for young female audiences introducing the world to the Spice Girls.

Don’t worry, I don’t think the Spice Girls are the greatest pop group of all time and I don’t think that “Wannabe” is a critical, and defining artifact in our cultural canon of art. However, “Wannabe” an insight into not only the minds of young girls but into the power that art can have in speaking to a specific audiences. And anyways, this song is just fun.

When the Beatles first came to America, the press gave them nicknames, John was the smart one, Paul was the cute one, George was the quiet on and Ringo was the funny one. This inadvertently helped market the Beatles to girls as each Beatle now represented different types of guys and because of this, there seemed like there was a Beatle for every type of girl. The Spice Girls took the idea a step further and made it more personal. Instead of helping girls identifying and define the kind of guy they liked, their Spice Girl personas were something that girls could identify their own personalities with. If you loved sports, you had Sporty Spice. If you loved shopping, there was Posh spice. If you were a little cutesy, there was Baby Spice. I guess some girls like the idea of being Scary Spice (I don’t claim to completely understand the minds of young girls), and well honestly, I’m don’t have a clue what kind of girl is Ginger Spice (maybe it’s a British thing).

The Spice Girls released “Wannabe” as their first single, which was their opening statement on their term “girl power.” In the song, the girls explain what they want and what someone would have to do to become one of their “lovers.” Once upon a time like most kids I thought that lover was just a term for someone that you loved. It wasn’t until I watched the trailer for the Ellen DeGeneres’ film, Mr. Wrong, which featured Bill Pullman describing Ellen’s character as his lover and make a thrusting motion that I realized that lover meant “sexual partner.” I was fourteen years old when I came to this realization and I think most kids don’t really understand the full context of the word “lover” and I don’t think that the Spice Girls are really talking about sex. Some of the lyrics have sexual overtones like “I won’t be hasty, I’ll give you a try” but it’s followed by “If you really bug me then I’ll say goodbye.” This line makes it seem like she’s giving the guy a try as a boyfriend, not a sexual partner as most people have figured out if the person “bugs” them before taking them as a lover (we hope).

Like the girls I talked to at the mall, the Spice Girls have a sense of what relationships mean but they don’t really know what they want. The song opens with Scary Spice singing about how she will tell us what she wants. And after listening to her tease us for 15 seconds about what she wants she tells us that what she really wants is “zigazig ha.” That’s exactly the kind of thinking that the middle school girls I was talking to me displayed. They do things to get a guy but they are devoid of understanding of what they really want from a guy once they got one.

Young girls may have already developed a desire for boyfriends but they may not have developed their self-esteem and an understanding of what they deserve as a girlfriend. The Spice Girls help girls understand what kind of standards to have with some simple guidelines:

Your past should not be your boyfriend’s focus. Relationships should never feel like a waste of time. A boyfriend should make an effort to be friends with your friends. A boyfriend should enjoy giving things to you and you should feel the same way. Be patient with boys, give them a chance, but if they are annoying it’s ok to dump them and um. . slam your body down and wind it all around . . . fall on the ground and wind up into a ball? (I never said that this was a perfectly interrelated song).

These ideas are not only important for girls to understand but are good advice for boys. The album that featured “Wannabe,” Spice sold over seven million copies in the United States, so I’m sure that some guys bought it, I mean, I couldn’t have possibly been the only guy to buy that album.

The singing in this song is unremarkable. The first verse starts after the whole “zigazig ha” thing. Sporty Spice begins the verse with her closed and thin nasal voice and is followed by Baby Spice who has a pleasant voice but lacks much tone and energy. Scary Spice follows singing with great energy her singing technique more resembles yelling than singing and Ginger completes the verse barely able to define the pitches she is singing. It’s not good and we are spared the worst singer of the group Posh Spice (Mrs. Victoria Beckham) singing a solo line but if you really want to know what she sounds like by herself check out “2 Becomes 1” and slide to the middle of the second verse (1:27). Seriously, who thought it was a good idea to give her a solo during a slow song?

The Spice Girls are not exemplary singing models but that’s ok. Most middle school girls do not have the vocal capacity to emulate an opera singer or even Beyonce. The Spice Girl’s voices are not threatening. They sing in a way that young girls cannot only relate to but can also imitate. There’s a level of accessibility to the music when people can not only understand a piece of art but replicate it and the Spice Girls create this for not only young girls but for people of all ages.

When there is music that you don’t understand, try to find out who does get it. Musicians often create music for a specific audience and often art will make more sense when you see it through the eyes of the intended audience. With this perspective, will you instantly enjoy the song? You might, but even if you don’t you will understand just a little bit more about that audience.

Now here’s the answer to the most important question.

God knows I am not coordinated enough to be Sporty. Scary, yeah right I’m about as scary as a My Little Pony, Baby, seriously maybe when I WAS a baby. I still don’t know what Ginger is and even if I go with the South Park definition, I don’t have freckles or red hair. So that leaves, Posh.

If I was a Spice Girl, I’d be Posh Spice.

I can live with that.

“Slam your body down and wind it all around!”

Friday, December 26, 2008

Viva La Vida by Coldplay

When I think of the words “cold play,” I think of playing a piece of music for the first time. Playing something cold may not be a great for an audience but it’s a fascinating and unique experience for musicians. Figuring out how music unfolds is like reading a great book for the first time. We also get that feeling from listening to great music, a sense of anticipation and wonder. The amazing thing is after listening to “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay multiple times I am still getting that feeling.

What makes a piece of art interesting is not necessarily what makes it meaningful. In researching this song, I’ve read different theories about the subjects of this song including ideas that it’s based on Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Caesar, Mohammad, Hitler or even Moses. I don’t know which interpretation is right, I don’t know Coldplay’s intent and I don’t think defining the specific subject of this song gets us to the core of why this song is meaningful to so many people.

If Coldplay wanted to express the specific story of a historical figure, they would have made it clear within the context of the song. Yes, there are specific lines in this song that draw from historical events that we know but Coldplay uses them in service of the overall emotional meaning in the song. If you think about the art you love, it’s not the subject that makes us love it like we do. “The Grapes Of Wrath” by John Steinbeck is one of my favorite books. I enjoy the fact that it’s about the Great Depression but what I I love about it is the emotional journey of the characters in the book and how it makes me feel on my own family and what it means to be American.

“Viva La Vida” directly translates in Spanish to the phrase “live the life” but it’s meaning in Spanish is “long live life,” a celebration of life. The song is from the perspective of a former king who is looking back on how he came to rule his kingdom and how he lost his throne. This isn’t a fallen king who is regretful or depressed. This king is looking back, like many of us do, focusing on the glory in his past.

The songs start with the narrator talking about how when he was king he could control the seas, and instill fear in the eyes of his enemies. There is this mythic power and feeling of invisibility that accompanies his description of what it was like to be the king. This is similar to the way we feel about their past. It’s not that we were invisible in our past, but it’s that we feel more venerable right now. Because of this, we often look back to college or elementary school as being a time where nothing could go wrong. The past always looks brighter from a distance and sometimes our minds exaggerate how that time felt turning us from people into royalty.

Coldplay juxtaposes descriptions of being king with explaining the current situation and how things fell apart. This man now sleeps and works on the streets but at one time while telling us stories of the past. Revolutionaries came into his palaces and wanted to execute him. The people can’t believe what the king he has become. It is at this point towards the end of the song when the king realizes that he was just a puppet and asks, “who would ever want to be king.”

It’s like going out with someone. The dreams of true love motivate people to find each other but often the fact that people are too different or they live in different cities breaks apart a relationship. Reality can do tear apart dreams but it cannot take away how great things were in our memories. After break-ups, people often can’t imagine people would even want to be in a relationships, but more often then not dreams inspire people to take chances in life and chase dreams despite the weight of reality.

The chorus captures glory of being king. Lyrics don’t always express feelings through a narrative form. Bob Dylan would often create emotion not with the meaning of the words but instead how they sounded. Coldplay doesn’t create a concrete statement on being king in the chorus but like collage takes different images to create a feeling. The bell, the choir, the missionaries, the sword, the mirror and the shield all create a sense of majesty. There is a sense of something epic and truly amazing in this description. The music helps paints this picture with the chimes toll that on the offbeats and timpani drums that boom in the background at the beginning of ever phrase.

Something that instantly made struck me about this song was the use of the string instruments. Coldplay goes against the conventions of rock music and utilizes strings instruments at the core of it’s rhythmic and harmonic structure. Only a handful of artists have done this in the past including the Beatles’s“Eleanor Rigby,” and Annie Lennox’s “Walking On Broken Glass.” Sometimes it’s easy to forget how rhythmic and driving a string section can be. Most of the time when strings are used in pop music that provide sustained melodic lines. These are not synthesized strings and because of that you can hear a slight grit and bite in the beginning of each note which provides a unique energy to this song.

One of the most distinctive things about Coldplay is the fact that the music seems to always be in motion. It’s like the sound is constantly swirling around you with different colors appearing coming from all directions. Even though the strings maintain a constant rhythm and there is a strong steady bass drum pulse throughout the each verse, every section of the song has unique layers. The instruments in the song all relate to each other and change the way we listen to each section, like how viewing a painting from different distances and angle changes the way it looks.

Chris Martin, the lead singer of Coldplay, sings like he’s telling a story to child. There is a sense of lightness in his tone even when he describing people wanting his head on a platter. In some Coldplay songs Martin stays in his higher head voice, but this song he freely dips into his chest voice and sings with intimacy without sounding weak.

In some ways, this song is a modern fairy tale. Kings and queens in most of our minds are as much as part of childhood stories as they are part of world history. Coldplay plays with our perspective and creates a unique musical experience. This song may be about Napoleon, I’m not sure, but the meaning of this song for me speaks to dreams that motivates us, the reality that tears us down and the regret that we all have to live with.

I’m reminded when I hear the chorus of this song that life is great and that we need to celebrate the great moments in our lives because it’s that memories of happiness that keep us going. We must keep chasing those dreams, because every so often reality doesn’t tear us down and we get to live as kings for a moment which makes all the struggle worth it and our lives that much more meaningful.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

All I Want for Christmas Is You by Mariah Carey

Is Christmas a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ? Yes. Is there other traditions attached to this holiday that have little to do Jesus Christ? Yes. Is a necessarily a bad thing? Yes, but only kind of.

Christmas in many ways seems like a disingenuous holiday. Research has shown that Jesus Christ was most likely born not in December. Early Christians celebrated Christmas in December to overshadow pagan holidays that celebrated the winter solstice. There was of course no snow when Jesus was born, the Coca-Cola Company created the modern day image of Santa Claus and retailers aren’t thinking about baby Jesus when they are pumping Christmas music over their speakers the day after thanksgiving and holding holiday sales throughout the month of December.

It’s slightly annoying sometimes (well it was REALLY annoying yesterday when I was trying to find a parking space at the mall) but despite all of the artificial and over-commercialization of Christmas, American culture has changed Christmas in a true national celebration of what is most joyous and important in our lives. Moreover, I can’t think of song that exemplifies that better then Mariah Carey’s Christmas masterpiece, “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

Almost every pop artist you can think of has released a Holiday themed album or song, most of which are focused on Christmas. Most of these songs are ok, some are just painful and a few of them are inspired. What is it about “All I Want for Christmas Is You” that has made it have a more beloved than let’s say “'Please, Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)” by John Denver?

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country” is one of my favorites songs, but a song that features son pleading to his dad to not get drunk so his mom won’t cry on Christmas is just wrong. ANYWAYS, moving on . . .

Mariah Carey and her writing partner Walter Afanasieff utilized musical allusions so that the music, even without the lyrics we would instantly recognize this as a Christmas song. The first sound we here are orchestral bells that bring to mind a toy piano which places us in the mind a child anticipating opening presents of Christmas mornings. The chimes that follow remind us of church bells and Mariah Carey’s gospel inspired opening takes us to Christmas service. Then come the sleigh bells from “Jingle Bells” one of the most beloved Christmas songs (which has a hilarious third verse in which the narrator falls in the snow is passed by a “gent” who laughs at him and drives away). This is enough to put us in the Christmas mood but there is even more to this song.

“All I Want for Christmas Is You” creates an enthusiastic and joyous energy through th rhythmic organization in the music. After the introduction of the song, the piano enters with the sleigh bells. The piano is dividing the beat into three equal parts, emphasizing every three notes (0.51 into the song):
1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3

Right when Mariah comes in the piano part changes still dividing the beat into three parts but accenting every two notes it plays (0.57 into the song):
1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3

The speed of the notes stays the same however the piano line accents them differently.

If you take the rhythm from the first line “I don’t want a lot for Christmas” and identify which subdivided beats the words fall on it looks like this:
1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3
I___Don’t_Want_a lot_for__Christ-mas

If you look carefully you will carefully you will notice that “-lot for Christmas” accents every three divided beats its’ just shifted over one note. Now if we superimpose the melody emphases over the piano emphases we see an interesting relationships.

Melody-1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3
Piano---1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3

Only during beats, 1, 3, 4, 6 & 8 does the emphases in the melody line up with the emphases in the piano. When the verse gets to the line “All I Want for Christmas Is You” the melody and piano line both emphasize ever three subdivided beats creating a sense of arrival and resolution. The bass line, which seems rhythmically dull keep these two lines from drawing apart by maintaining a consistent beat. Whenever two instruments that are emphasizing subdivided beat in different ways the music has an chaotic energy that is like the feeling of kids engaging in different activities during recess, but like teachers who supervise recess the bass line keeps them the frameworks makes sure this energy never gets out of control.

My favorite moment in the song is at the end of the bridge singers, which features a fascinating development in the back-up singers part that helps create the energetic climax of the song. From the beginning of the bridge, the back-up singers change notes predictably every 4 beats. The part changes with the line “and everyone is singing” when the back-up singers hold their note for this entire line which is 8 beats long. In the next line the “I hear those sleigh bells ringing,” the back-up singers change the notes every 4 beats starting before “I” and changing their note on “sleigh.” Then the back singers drop out and punctuate the third beat of the next two measures accented “bring” and “need” of “Santa won't you bring me the one I really need.” Finally, the back up singers come earlier then we expect in the next measure on beat two instead of beat three emphasizing “my” of “Won't you please bring my baby to me?” The changes in the back-up singers make the bridge drive forward without actually the song speeding up. It expresses a frenzied almost uncontainable child-like excitement that propels the song into the last verse.

Mariah Carey goes through a Christmas journey in this song. The song starts with her disregarding many American Christmas ideas that really don’t have anything to do the birth of Christ. She doesn’t want presents or stocking. She doesn’t think that Santa Claus can make her happy. She’s not looking forward to snow or reindeer. All she wants is for Christmas is the one she loves. In many ways, Mariah is describing what is at the core of the holiday season for many people, including myself, which is sharing time with the ones we love.

Then in the bridge, something changes. She sees the Christmas lights and the excitement of children. She hears people singing and sleigh bells ringing and she eve asks Santa to bring her baby to her, even though she said earlier that Santa could not make her happy. She falls into the magic of the seasons and it’s a heartwarming transitions in which she accepts what is all around as part of what makes her happy making the final verse even more joyous and celebratory.

I’m not Christian and I understand that it’s challenging for non-Christians to have a religious holiday pushed into their face and the middle of the culture. It does overshadow over cultures but we do live in Christian-centric society. I’m not saying that because the majority of Americans are Christian that means our society doesn’t have a responsibility to acknowledge other religions holidays. It does and honestly, we do a pretty mediocre job of learning about other religions. How many Americans do you think can effectively explain Ramadan to their children? But let’s not be bitter about this.

The emotions and the meaning of Christmas in America is something that we can celebrate without mentioning Jesus Christ and understand without ever going to church. If we as non-Christians can do this, it helps us gain and understanding into the spirituality of Christianity, which gives us perspective to help others understand our own beliefs.

“All I Want for Christmas Is You” is about wanting what is important. It’s about taking a look around and enjoying the happiness of people around you and it’s about looking on the bright side of life.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s as my friend Sara told me last night: a song about a girl who wants to get laid on Christmas.

Either way, I hope you all have a great time during the next couple of days celebrating whatever you are celebrating and sharing this time with the people that you love.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Imagine by John Lennon

"Imagine" music video

I didn’t watch John Lennon appear as a member of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. When the Beatles broke up, I wasn’t there to mourn the passing of the most important rock group of all time. I missed seeing John Lennon on the news protesting for peace and my I didn’t share in the shock and pain of losing John Lennon when he was shot dead in 1980.

I was born in 1982 and by that time John Lennon was more then a man, he was a legend. What John Lennon did and who he was has become an integral part of our cultural consciousness so much so that his life and his music seem unremarkable. However there are few people in our popular culture who were as influential as John Lennon and there are songs in popular music as powerful as “Imagine.”

As a teenager, I explored the Beatles and was fascinated by variety, the invention and the depth of their music. I knew all four of the Beatles did solo work after they broke-up but I disregarded their solo work and assumed it was inferior to the work they did as the Beatles. Later, I found that to be unfair and not true and was exploring John Lennon’s music that changed my mind. After he left the Beatles, Lennon didn’t take the easy route, he pushed his music further and experimented more than most of the public accepted. He work was audacious, extreme and progressive and there is no better example of this than “Imagine.”

The piano line is plodding and repetitive. There are some interesting harmonies in the chorus but there is nothing inventive or unique about the piano part. The melody if played alone would come off as trite, repetitive and forgettable. However, like great folk music, the background music and harmonies are merely a blank canvas for the lyrics and the singing to express the meaning of the music.

The lyrics are broken up between three verses and a chorus. In the verses, Lennon is asking us to imagine different things and in the chorus, he defends his own belief. The form is simple. There are no missing beats or twists in the song. We know exactly how it is going to unfold from the beginning and it does with slow and deliberate pace like a flower blooming. Like the leaves folding outward the song reveals a deeper meaning than is expected in a way that we don’t imagine.

The three verses outline three ideas which Lennon feel will lead to living as one: living for today, living life in peace and sharing all the world. Critics have called this song anti-religious, anti-nationalistic and anti-capitalistic and Lennon himself commented that this song was virtually the “communist manifesto” (which he may have been saying in jest). Regardless of Lennon’s intent, I believe that this song is none of those things. If this song expressed all of these things it would not be as widely accepted in this Christian-centric, nationalistic and capitalistic culture that we live in.

Lennon never says that all the things that he imagines needs to come true for the world to be one. What he asking us is to examine and reflect on our lives and by doing so we can reach a better place. In the first verse, he asks us to imagine that there’s no heaven or hell so that people can live for today. Do some people focus too much of their lives on the afterlife? Probably, just as there are people who disregard the afterlife. What John Lennon is doing is asking us to examine this question. If we ask ourselves what if their no heaven, what does that change? Finding that answer in your heart may change your mind but more likely, it will reinforce your beliefs. It is through this self-examination that we can truly understand what our lives mean and how important it is to live for today.

Americans base much of their nationalistic pride on our borders and more so our wars. In the second verse, Lennon asks us to imagine no countries, nothing to kill and die for and no religion. He ends the verse asking us to imagine living life in peace and all these things, countries, reasons to kill and die and religion, are interrelated. John Lennon grew up during World War II in Liverpool, England and he saw first hand how countries, death and religion get in the way of peace.

Lennon is not saying that all religion leads to war, but there is no argument that religion has be used in history to justify killing and his statement here is more focused on that facet of religion. Throughout history, people have misrepresented, manipulated and misinterpreted religions leading to atrocious horrors. It is through imagining a world without religions that we can see what parts of religion when gone would enhance our lives and what parts would we need to complete ourselves. With that perspective, the world can actively work to keep religion close to its true intentions.

Would there be there peace on earth is there wasn’t countries? No of course not and is Lennon saying that countries are bad and we shouldn’t have pride in them? No, but like Thomas Jefferson argued, we should always questions our government and its actions. This helps us define what it means to be a country and what we should base our nationalistic pride on.

In the last verse, Lennon is contemplating the Buddhist idea that through releasing our earthly possessions we will be free from want. This is directly contrary to our capitalistic mindset and if there is any true “anti-” argument in the songs it is against capitalism effect on our capacity to share with each other. I work with fourth grades and you’d think that by nine years old that they would have the “sharing” thing down. Well, they don’t and many adults don’t either.

A world without possessions would free us because it we truly shared everything they we never want anything for ourselves. In questioning our desire to want things, we come to realize not only how much we have but how much other people lack. I know that sharing with others is at the core of what’s important in life but I guess sometimes we forget that.

In the choruses, Lennon says that he may be a dreamer but he’s not alone. As adults, optimism sometimes takes a back cynicism, but I believe that at heart we all imagine the world as better place. Lennon is not the only one and maybe through self-reflection we can join together, embrace hope and the world can live as one.

Lennon’s voice is calm and patient like a philosopher stating deep truths. At the ends of the verses he jumps singing a high note “you” which is a throw-back to early Beatles songs in which they would sing high notes that would make girls scream. This is a little wink at us all that he’s not mad at us. This is a joyous thing. He believes what he is saying and it brings him happiness. It makes us want to believe these things too.

What John Lennon asks us to imagine are things that I can’t imagine and I desperately want to. I want so much to feel the hope that John Lennon does. He inspires us to dream of something better through questioning our intentions, our actions and our beliefs.

Take a moment, imagine.

It probably will not change the world, but it just might change you.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Go U, Northwestern! by the Northwestern University "Wildcat" Marching Band

9 wins and 3 loses.

Not since the year 2000 when the Wildcats went 8-3 in the regular season has Northwestern University had such a phenomenal football season. To end this season, the Wildcats will travel to the Alamo Bowl in San Antonia just as they did eight years go and just like eight years ago the finest band in the land, the Northwestern University “Wildcat” Marching Band (NUMB) will accompany the team on this historical trip.

In 2000, I was a freshmen alto saxophone player in NUMB. That season I rejoiced as the ‘cats beat Michigan (which after this year may become a trend), I survived the bitter cold marching during an away game in Iowa and I went to the Alamo Bowl. It was a phenomenal season but it wasn’t until the following years when the team did not do so well, that I developed my love and respect for Northwestern.

The song that was the soundtrack and the soul of that experience is a song that I’ve play more then any other piece of music in my life, “Go U, Northwestern!” I’m not going to make the argument that Northwestern has the best fight song ever. There are imperfections in the song, for example in the lyrics. Well-placed lyrics in songs have the melody accent the same syllables one would emphasize when speaking and no one would normally say “Break right through THAT line.” However, I do believe that “Go U, Northwestern!” is a quintessential and amazing American college fight song that uniquely expresses the spirit of Northwestern.

The song follows the standard form of most college fights. There are two main sections, the first part (first strain) and the instrumental interlude (break strain). The first strain is broken up into four 8-measure phrases:

1st phrase-Go U Northwestern! Break right through that line.
2nd phrase-With our colors flying, We will cheer you all the time, U Rah! Rah!
3rd phrase-Go! U Northwestern! Fight for victory,
4th phrase-Spread far the fame of our fair name, Go! Northwestern win that game.

The 1st and 2nd phrase present different material while the 3rd phrase is a repeat of the 1st phrase with an altered ending. The 4th phrase features material derived from earlier parts of the song and completes the first strain.

“Go U, Northwestern!” inspires people with a feeling of momentum and spirit. If you are trying to solve the problem of how to give music a feeling of direction, the easy solution is to have a piece start slow and speed up but that would not work with a marching band. So it is creating that same rush of energy when the tempo is staying constant that require a high level of musical invention.

One way composers create momentum is with rhythm. Simply following a longer note by shorter notes creates the illusion that the song speeding up. The 1st phrase starts with a long note that is followed by two shorter notes that drive into “-wes-“ of “Northwestern.” This occurs again with two shorter notes on “break right” which follow the longer note values of “-wes-“ and “-tern.” This pattern continues with the shortest note of the phrase on “through” which is followed by an off-beat accent on “that” which holds the listener in suspense before landing on the next downbeat.

The short-long rhythm on “through that” is called a Lombard rhythm or a Scotch snap. This is when a composers arrange a dotted rhythm so that the shorter note is firsts and on the beat. This rhythm manipulates the momentum of a phrase jolting it forward unexpectedly with the short note and creating anticipation with the longer note. In “Go U, Northwestern!” the Scotch snap moves around within the phrases creating unique twists in the first strain that play with our sense of direction. In the 1st phrase the Scotch snap is in the end of the phrase and in the 2nd phrase the Scotch snap is featured in the middle of the phrase.

The 3rd phrase mimics the 1st phrase placing the Scotch snap back in end of the phrase and then the 4th phrase starts immediately with the Scotch snap and features it twice before ending the first strain. This is unusual compared to other fight songs like Michigan’s “Hail To The Victors” which have a much more square and repetitive rhythms. This creates more militaristic feeling and opposed to the rhythmic invention in “Go U, Northwestern!” which express a mood of dance and celebration.

Within the anatomy of a fight song there are five roles that instrument groups play:
- The melody and the harmony of the melody (which in general have the same rhythm as
the melody) include the trumpets, mellophones, alto saxophones and trombones.
- The obbligato line, which is the higher and fast countermelody, features the flutes and
- The tenor saxophones, euphoniums, and baritones play the tenor countermelody.
- The sousaphones cover the bass line.
- The drum-line provide the percussion.

These roles change in certain places for example when the trombones double the bass line at the end of the 1st phrase and when the flutes and clarinets double the melody in the 3rd phrase of the first strain.

The obbligato line fills in motion whenever there is a long note in the melody so that the momentum never stops. For example, there’s a fast ascending scale “-wes-“ in the 1st phrase when the melody has a long note. Another example one is right before “U Rah, Rah” when the flutes and clarinets trill, (an un-metered flurry of the fasts note) which provide an explosive drive into the next measure.

The tenor countermelody, which I believe is the most overlooked parts of the song is the long smooth notes in the first strain which contrast the melody’s separated notes. This line outlines the contour of the melody, which is important in reinforcing the direction of the melody not only for the listener but also for melodic instruments in the band. It is easy when playing short notes to lose sight of the overall direction of the phrase and tenor line is essential in reinforcing the contour that gives this song a sense of direction.

The bass line in “Go U, Northwestern!” provides not only the foundation of the harmony but also acts as an expressive voice that supports the melody. The bass line plays the Scotch snap whenever it appears in the melody and provides interesting and dynamic transition material at the ends of phrases like in-between the 3rd and 4th phrases in the first strain.

I used to think of a drum-line like bunch of toy monkeys hitting every single beat. The drum line does keep a constant beat and drives the pulse of the band but like the bass line it does so much more. The clearest example of this is the cymbals. Listen carefully to when they play. They don’t play on every beat but instead highlight parts of the phrase. The bass drums, which are not as clearly audible, do the same thing and within snare drum and tenor line, this musical approach to playing provides and important layer of texture to an already rich musical landscape.

The break strains contrasts the first strain with three 4-measures phrases as opposed to the four 8-measures phrases. This sections creates momentum not with the rhythm but with the way the band is arranged into two different groups. They work together trading off measures like two groups of people within a crowd participating in a call and response cheer. The first two measures are the higher instruments on an ascending line, which the lower instruments respond to with a descending two-measure motif. The band repeats this pattern in the next four measures and then compressed the call and response into two beats groups instead of two measures groups. The lower instruments begin with a two beat pattern on beat 4 and beat 1 that is followed by the higher instruments on beat 2 and beat 3. The band is pulled apart first by 2 measures, then band comes closer together separated by only 2 beats and finally they play the same rhythm together as one in a glorious feeling of arrival and unity.

“Go U, Northwestern!” perfectly the spirit of Northwestern and what NUMB taught me in those years after the Alamo bowl is that it’s not about winning football games. It’s not about making fun other schools and it’s not about blindly following traditions.

It’s about the fact everyone can contribute. It’s about pride not only in ourselves but in each other it’s about finding the meaning in traditions and reinventing them for future generations.

Mr. Rogers, one of my personal heroes once said:

As you play together in a symphony orchestra, you can appreciate that each musician has something fine to offer. Each one is different, though, and you each have a different ‘song to sing.’ When you sing together, you make one voice. That’s true of all endeavors, not just musical ones. Finding ways to harmonize our uniqueness with the uniqueness of others can be the most fun—and the most rewarding—of all.

I found this true of my journey in NUMB, which was one of the greatest experiences in my life.

Go ‘Cats, Beat the Tigers! And if you don’t, no worries, we’ll still be here.

Oh, and Matt, my dear brother-in-law, congratulations man on being accepted to Northwestern. You already have the Northwestern spirit in your blood so I have no doubt that you will not only have a fantastic experience but that you will contribute great things to the people, the community and the tradition that is Northwestern.

Monday, December 15, 2008

When She Loved Me (from Toy Story 2) by Sarah McLachlan

I didn't cry when Bambi's mom died. I didn't cry when Simba walked off into the dust believe that he had killed his father, but I did cry when Jessie told us her story about the love she once shared with her Emily.

Pixar continues the grand Disney tradition of animated films that feature incredible technical innovations but more importantly powerful character-driven stories that examine the human conditions. One of the central themes in Disney animated features is love. In Sleeping Beauty, it was the kiss of a her true love that woke her but like in many early Disney films this love was more based on destiny rather then human interaction. Later Disney film took a deeper more realistic examination into love like in Beauty And the Beast. Belle and the Beast both learned to love from a relationship that started in conflict and evolved into friendship. This was not love at first sight but rather love that born out of struggle and true caring.

In Pixar's first film Toy Story, romantic love took a back seat to the love between friends. Woody and Buzz, two toys learned to care about each other like a family and enjoyed a mutual love for their owner Andy. In Toy Story 2, released four years later in 1999 we found out just how powerful and beautiful love between friends could be when Jessie another toy told Woody about the owner she had lost.

Randy Newman the composers of “When She Loved Me,” is a master orchestrated who has composed soundtracks for over twenty films and is a skilled song writer as well. Great orchestra composers show their skill not by using as many instruments as possible but by using particular instruments at specific times like a painter with a palette of colors. For example, in the last verse, the word loved of “like she loved me, ” is colored with the high strings, the woodwinds, the French horns, and accentuated by plucked notes in the lower string. These instruments warm up the song like a gentle ray of sunlight and are made effective by the fact that this is the first time this particular group of instruments appear in the song.

“When She Loved Me” feels like a simple song and one of the reasons that it speaks so clearly to us is the way the lyrics and the rhythm in the melody work together. If you were to say “when somebody loved me,” you would probably have a slight emphases on “loved.” It would come out as “when somebody loved me,” as opposed to “when somebody loved me.” Newman also emphases “when,” which doesn’t necessarily feel natural but it changes the meaning of the line to be more reflective.

Later Newman sets “So the years went by, I stayed the same” working so closely to the rhythm of the words that he disregards the meter and drops beats. This doesn’t seem awkward because people don’t speak in perfectly organized meters. Working from the natural rhythm in our language makes the melody an organic extension of the words that helps the melody be more accessible while allows the composer to add layers of meaning within the text.

“When She Loved Me” is a perfect marriage between the song and the singer and Sarah McLachlan performs this song as only she can. Sarah McLachlan is an accomplished songwriter and singer with a unique and powerful artistic voice. She has a dynamic singing voice that can start at a whisper and grow to an incredible full glorious sound flowing between different colors in her voice effortlessly. Sara McLachlan often will slide up to notes in an almost like yodel way but slower and with more grace. She does this at the beginning on the word “was” in “everything was beautiful.” The best example of the power in her voice is when she sings “I will always love you” at the climax of the song, the clarity of the tone, the way she colors the pitch by pulling each note flat and the shape in each word creates sublime and emotionally draining moment.

At it's core "When She Loved Me" is about a break-up. Jessie was Emily's toy. While Emily drifted away, Jessie stayed the same and Emily eventually gave Jessie away. The love that they shared has never left Jessie and this not a selfish love. Jessie reminisces about making her happy when she was sad and comforting Emily when she was lonely. As beautiful as the descriptions of love are, each verse reminds us of the heartbreaking truth that this love is gone. The first line “when somebody loved me,” sets the mood for the whole song and does not only imply that Jessie has lost love but also that she does not feel like anyone currently loves her. This song describes love so well that the thought of life without love almost too much to bear.

Jessie gets a second taste of love in the last verse and it is wonderful but Jessie knows that it’s not real as Emily holds her “like she loved me.” Most people I know after a break-up would rather not have that person give them the same feeling of love if they knew that it wasn’t true. The reason that Jessie accepts it and speaks so warmly about it isn’t that because is ignorant of the way that Emily truly feels but because she is so sad that even illusion of Emily’s love makes her feel alive.

“When She Loved Me,” is one of the saddest songs I know, but I love listening to it. We listen to sad music not because we like being sad but because the experience of feeling makes us feel alive. In “When She Loved Me” we experience great sadness, it touches our hearts and we may cry but when it’s over we appreciate the love we have in our lives even more.

If you have never watched Toy Story 2,please do. It’s a beautiful film. After seeing it I promise that you will never forget “When She Loved Me” the same way that Jessie never forgot her Emily. . . with love in her heart.

Believe by Cher

Why are people afraid of technology in music? Audiophiles continue to argue whether the record or the compact disc creates the best sound. People wonder if live music will become less pervasive in our culture as the majority of music that people listen is recorded and produced in a studio and people morn the loss of live musicians in studios that producers replace with synthesizers.

Relax people.

Yes, music is changing, but not it’s all bad. New media like compact discs and digital formats have made music more accessible then ever before. Live music is still alive and disc jockeys have created a new musical language manipulating recording music to create unique live musical experiences. In addition, synthesized sounds have not only made music more accessible to musicians but also created tools that have widened the expressive palettes of artists. Yes, people have created some awful music by utilizing synthesizers, but people have also created horrible music using acoustic instruments. Great artist have created incredible works of art before the use of synthesizers and there have been many great pieces of art that have utilized technology to create interesting, expressing and meaningful music like Cher’s 1999 hit “Believe.”

Yes, Cher I fully acknowledge that there is something just not right about listening to Cher and well . . . analyzing her music. This was brilliantly demonstrated in the television show Buffy The Vampire Slayer, season 4, episode 2 titled “Living Conditions.” When Buffy goes to college, she has a stereotypical annoying passive aggressive roommate and one of her first signs that something is wrong with her is that she is listening to “Believe” over and over while ironing (the roommate does end up being a soul-sucking demon, but that’s beside the point). Cher is a strange and sometimes mystifying popular icon, but she has made a lasting impact on our culture. Like “Since U Been Gone,” “Believe” is just one of those songs that almost everyone seems to like, regardless of the feelings we have about the Diva named Cher.

One of the reasons this song is well known is because for the electronic effect heard in the verses and in the end of the song. This effect is first appears in the song on the word "can't" in the first verse. Artists have used similar effects before but it was heard in main-stream popular music. The producer Mark Taylor used the computer program called auto tune to create this effect. This program can adjust the pitch of a recorded sound so that it is in tune. For example, if someone sings a flat note, it will raise the pitch without any distortion to the sound. Producer Mark Taylor put the settings of auto-tune to an extreme forcing the note Cher was singing to beyond correcting pitch to a different note, which created the ornaments that are heard. Auto-tune usually will compensate for the tone but because the settings were so extreme, Cher's voice comes across as distorted and robotic. Producers continue to use auto-tune continues to be used to help raise the quality of recordings as well as to create interesting vocal effects like in Kanye West's newest album 808s & Heartbreak.

The electronic processing of Cher's voice creates two different Cher's in the song.: a reflective Cher in the verse and an in your face “I Believe” Cher in the choruses.
The first Cher during the verses that is thinner and features the auto-tune ornaments. In the first verse she concludes that he’s going to be the lonely one when he leaves and in the second verse, she concludes that she is in fact too good for him. Cher is singing to someone who wants to leave her and she concludes that she is in control and does not need him.

The second Cher is during the chorus when she is singing with a full and bright sound. This creates contrast between the verses and chorus and a sense of release when the chorus come. She is figuring out how she feels in the verses and in the chorus she comes to a conclusion

Do you believe in life after love?
I can feel something inside me say
I really don't think you're strong enough now.

Cher is stating that she knows that there is love left inside of her and she doesn't believe that he is strong enough to truly have much of a life after he leaves her. The bridge continues this sentiment with the second Cher

Well, I know that I'll get through this
'Cause I know that I am strong
And I don't need you anymore.

Cher repeats "I don't need you anymore" each time with more conviction and more heart.
The next section builds to the last time we hear the chorus in which we here the chorus for the first time in the first Cher voice utilizing the auto-tune ornaments. Like in the verses, there is a feeling that Cher is reflecting back and the auto-tune effect makes the chorus seem like it is in the distance, in the past. This is something she has come to terms with and now truly is moving on with her live.

Throughout the song there is world of electronic sounds that flow organically through out the song. Long tones ebb and flow like waves in the ocean over a variety of colors with kinetic and unrelenting energy. The emphasis on every beat makes this song easy to dance to because and the constant changes in the texture maintain the listeners interest throughout the song. If you listen carefully, every different section is marked with different sounds dropping out and being added without interrupting the flow of the song.

It doesn’t matter what tools the artists uses, what matters it the feeling we get from the music. This song is fun. It’s joyous. “Believe” captures a feeling of elation and wonder that only synthesized sounds can express.

If you only read the lyrics this song would seem vengeful. Cher is basically saying that everything bad that he thinks he is doing to her will only hurt himself. She is not saying that after the breakup he’ll land on his feet, but instead that he will fail to find love. However, after listening to this song with it’s upbeat and confident feeling it becomes clear that Cher is insulting this man but merely stating facts about what will happen.

There is a sense that this is a relationship that has lasted a long period of time and that tried to have power over her, but now she realizes that this has only corrupted his own heart and left him incapable of loving again. When she says "I really don't think you're strong enough" it's not about being insulting, but more about sympathy.

In working on this post, this song has been playing in my head for a couple days and yesterday I told this to my wife (who by the way thinks Cher sounds like a man). That may seem annoying to you but it was an awesome feeling. It’s not about the technology but the artists and meaning in the music. Even if there is something that is just not right about Cher, I got to admit that there’s something indescribably awesome about “Believe.”

Friday, December 12, 2008

Not Ready To Make Nice by the Dixie Chicks

Multiple choice:

If a popular singer that you like makes a joke about a politician that you support, which is an appropriate response?

a. disagree with the comments but still support the artist’s
b. boycott the artist’s music and dispose of any of the artists merchandise that you may own
c. send a threat stating you will shoot the artist dead during a performance

If you chose “a,” I agree with you as I look to musicians for their art and not their political opinions. If you chose “b,” I disagree with you but I completely respect and understand your choice to not support someone that makes statements that you disagree with. If you chose “c,” then I am concerned about your lack of moral judgment and strongly suggest that you seek professionally help for your inclination to threaten people’s lives for what they say.

In 2003, after the United States invasions of Iraq, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks stated in front of a live audience in London, “Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” Natalie Maines made her comment during a time when President Bush had some of the highest approval ratings of any United States president. At that time, few Americans spoke out against the war in Iraq and unlike now when it almost seems fashionable to criticize President Bush, it was not common to make jokes about the President.

I’m not going to get into my opinion about Bush or the war in Iraq, that’s not the point of this post. But what I do what to point out is the shameful reactions by many Americans who disregarded the Natalie Maines rights to free speech. Yes, freedom comes with responsibility and as much as Natalie had a right to make her comment, people had a right to disagree, but no one had the right organize illegal radio boycotts and send death threats to the Dixie Chicks.

In reaction to all the fervor and criticism the Dixie Chicks did what they did best, create music. In 2006, the released the album Taking The Long Way which featured songs reacting to the controversy including “Not Ready To Make Nice.”

“Not Ready To Make Nice” is a song that refuses to be ignored. The lyrics are direct and raw. The background instruments have a clarity and immediacy that instantly draws the focus to the singer. The song takes us on a journey through Natalie’s feeling playing with our expectations of the tradition song form. The song starts with a first verse, then a chorus and then the second verse. Halfway through the second verse the music changes and it builds to a climax at the end of the verse. This leads into an instrumental break that brings soars into the following chorus. Climaxes in popular music are more often in bridges or choruses. You can make the argument that the build up in the middle of the second verse is actually the bridge. If that is the case, it is still unusual, as this bridge cuts the second verse short.

One of the key instruments in the building to the climax is the violin. It starts playing long notes and then transitions into chords on every other beat. Next, the violin plays these chords on every beat and finally the chords double in their speed. Right before the instrumental break slowly another violin line enters with a long note, getting louder and releasing into a soaring melody. When chords are played on a violin, they have an aggressive almost grainy quality to them and when they speed up it creates an driving tension making the release of the following violin melody line that much more satisfying.

Natalie Maines has a big voice. She sings with so much resolve that it seems to lack restraint at times. But moments like this build up to the climax remind us of the skill in her singing. When she starts “I made my bed. . .” she sings the notes with a certain swing by giving push to the certain words (i.e. made, baby, no). She keeps her voice gentle and open until she hit “sad, sad story” when adds an edge of insistence to her voice. Natalie hits the first syllable of “daughter” pulling the pitch flat on purpose. Instead of resolving the note by raising the pitch up into tune, she stays flat on that pitch creating tension between her voice and the harmony. She continues to maintain this flat pitch while adding a slight edge to her voice. Instead of emphasizing syllables with a push as she does earlier, she starts emphatically punching words out turning her swing of her voice into a declaration.

She twists the word “send” mixing her singing with a tortured scream. Finally, she raises the pitch back up in this line but maintains the intensity. “Write me a letter, sayin’ that I better” are closer to being spoken then sung. Natalie lightens up her voice lifting at the end of both of these lines before slamming down on “shut up and sing.” At this point, Natalie has reached the height of her intensity and the instrument take over the final steps to the climax. Natalie begins singing “over” with a harsh scream like tone, which opens up and clears to a full and pure tone as she resolves the held note downward.

The lyrics in this song are clear and direct. If know the story there is no doubt what she is talking about. Even if you don’t it is still a powerful statement about regret, resolve, independence and empowerment.

The Dixie Chicks represent the best in popular music. They are true musicians. All three play their instruments at a high level and are accomplished songwriters. They are true artists. There music shows invention, development, courage and an uncompromising dedication to creating genuine and meaningful art. And they are inspiring people, who have accomplished amazing feats in their music but feel their priority in life to each other and their families.

In 2006 Academy Award winning director Barbara Kopple released her documentary on the Dixie Chicks, Shut Up And Sing. This film followed the Dixie Chicks from before the comment on push was made all they way through the making of Taking The Long Way. This is a phenomenal film that I recommend to everyone. This film is not just for Dixie Chicks or music fans but for anyone interested the power of friendship and witnessing three phenomenal woman working through an unimaginable situation.

Martie’s comments twenty seconds into this clip sum up what is so powerful about this group and “Not Ready To Be Nice.”

Martie, Natalie and Emliy, you are my heroes and thanks for never giving up and sharing your music and yourselves with the world.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

Sometimes I wonder what is point of people re-recording songs. If there is a definitive recording of a song that millions of people love then why bother record it again. Often covers of song only work off the fact that we love the original version so much and not on the quality of the performance itself.

Sometimes however a cover song says something different, something surprising, and something fresh about songs that we already know. These songs are like revelations that change the way we experience the original piece of art and creates an independent piece of art building off our prior experiences with the original recordings to create something unforgettable.

One of the best examples of this is “Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World” by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.

Israel (often referred to as Iz) is one of the most beloved and respected Hawaiian musicians. He was a master ukulele player who melding traditional Hawaiian styles of music with jazz and reggae. He started his career as a member of Makaha Sons of Ni'i a which was the most popular Hawaiian group through the 1980s. In 1990, Iz started his solo career and in 1993 he released his second album Facing Future that featured “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.” This album was a critical and commercial success not only in Hawaii but also beyond as the first Hawaiian album that was certified platinum

Iz died in 1997 due to issues relating to his severe obesity. When he died, the Hawaiian state flag was flown at half-mast. Iz was only the third person in Hawaiian history to receiver this honor and the only non-politician. Over 10,000 people attended his funeral and people mourned him throughout the island.

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” is a medley of two of most beloved and well-known songs in American culture. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow" written for the film, The Wizard Of Oz and sung by Judy Garland is considered by the some the greatest American song ever written. It is quintessential “I Want” song and speaks reflects the hopes and dreams of Americans across generations. Dorothy, facing a dust bowl tormented Kansas farm during the 1930's, wishes for something better. In reality, we all know that the story of her character probably only faced more struggle and heartache. This hope in the face of hardship is a remarkable characteristic we all strive for.

"What A Wonderful World" a song made famous of Louis Armstrong, one of the greatest Jazz musicians, was created in response to the politically and racially charged climate of the 1960s. Louis Armstrong, an artist with cross-racial appeal, seemed like the perfect artist to remind American that even at the worst of times there is beauty to be thankful for. This song is a reflective statement reminding us of simple everyday joys in life that we so often for granted.

Both of these songs feature unique and remarkable singing voices: Judy Garland with here 17-year old country accent and Louis Armstrong with his gravely charm. The originally recordings of these songs also feature beautiful orchestra arrangements. These performances include a wide array of instrumentals artfully arranged. And it these two distinctive musical elements that Iz changes to add his own personal meaning to these songs.

Iz’s voice is remarkable. It feels Hawaiian in the way that his voice is airy and the slight bounce with the way he sings each note. He glides effortless through the notes dipping into a rich dark chest voice while floating up to higher brighter tones. Iz’s voice is like the arms of a grandmother holding a newborn grandchild. There is strength, softness, care, joy and love is those arms. Iz’s voice holds us making us believe in a way that only a grandmother can.

Musical instrument evolve and develop within styles of music. A darker, angrier style of singing would sound silly with an acoustic guitar but works perfectly with a distorted electric guitar sound. Iz’s voice, gentle and soft works so well with the ukulele because it’s a lighter and gentle sound does not overpower Iz’s voice. Iz’s ukulele playing works around the same basic rhythmic pattern. He uses different arrangements of the same chords to bring out different notes in the harmony. Iz’s playing creates a relaxed rhythmic groove that draws the listener in and prepares them for a beautiful artistic experience.

Iz makes a few change to the each of the songs. One of the things that he changes in “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” is the first two notes. Iz does not sing the longing leap that make people instantly recognize “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” but instead stays on the same pitch. We instantly realize that this is a more reflective and less longing rendition of the song.

In “What A Wonderful World” he ends the first verse of the song on an unresolved pitch on the word “world.” On that word, he also changes the chord adding a darker color before resolving this harmony in the beginning of the next phrase. He seems to end the phrase with a question mark, which brings more momentum into the next section while Iz flows through harmony with his rising vocal line. By asking us if we are in a wonderful place, he brings us into a reflective state to truly enjoy what we have to be thankful for.

This song takes the optimism of the "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and takes it a step further. It’s saying that even though things are great, we still can hope for more. It’s not ungrateful but more a reflection of reality of our world.

I know that the world will never be perfect. I know there will always be people on this world who will not have their basic human needs met. I know even if everyone is as lucky as I am to have what I do that some people will be still be in great pain. But I believe we all want everyone to be happy, to have their dreams fulfilled and to reach that place over the rainbow. We do live in a wonderful world, but they should not make us complacent. In dreaming about a better world we can’t forget to be grateful for the things that we have and in thinking about all that we have we can’t forget that there is something better we can always strive for in our world, in our relationships and in ourselves.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul & Mary

A couple weeks ago I was driving my with one of my fiends, Allie. My iPod was plugged into my car stereo and was playing a random selection of songs. The guitar introduction of “Puff the Magic Dragon” started and Allie immediately asked me to change the song. “Why? This song is awesome, I know it’s a kid’s song but it’s great,” I replied and then she explained, “I can’t listen to this song, every time I hear it, I cry.” I didn’t understand why at the time, but after some reflection, I think I know why.

Peter Yarrow and Leonard Lipton composed “Puff the Magic Dragon” in 1963 and was made popular by Yarrow’s singing group Peter, Paul & Mary. This group was part of the folk music revival movement of the 1960s which including Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. This movement carried on American folk traditions and featured songs with acoustic backgrounds, simple melodies and an emphasis on lyrics. “Puff the Magic Dragon” follows this tradition featuring two acoustic guitars. It also features a melody that utilizes a small range of notes that is repetitive and easy to sing along with which is an important feature in social nature of folk music.

The lyrics tell the story of an immortal dragon named Puff and his friend, Jackie Paper. They play together in a land called Honalee. Jackie grows up and looses interest in playing with Puff leaving Puff alone and depressed. I’ve known this song all my life and as a child this song was fun to sing with an imaginative story. The wonder of having dragon to play with and the Peter Pan-like adventures captured my imagination as a child. The part about growing up didn’t mean much but now as adult I understand the hardships of growing up described in this song.

Is it inventible that when we grow up we lose the wonder and imagination of being a child and like Jackie Paper does? The transition to adulthood is hard. The fun of school transforms into work, weekends, which once were mini-vacations, are now opportunities to run errands and the hopes and dreams in our hearts become weighed down by the practicality of life. As an adult, there are freedoms that children dream of but they come with the price of responsibility that sometimes makes theses freedoms seem not worth the trouble.

Probably the saddest realization in this song is the Puff is dead because we grew up. The first line of the song is “Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea.” He “lived” by the sea and even though the song explains that dragons live forever, the song reminds up that he is no longer with us. When Puff ceases his fearless roar and goes into his cave, it becomes clear that he only lives forever with Jackie Paper as people who have passed on live in our hearts.

After listening to “Puff the Magic Dragon” if we aren’t feel bothered by the ending, it may be because we accept it’s message as part of life. However, if we feel sad at the end, its because we are mourning what is lost in adulthood and because we don’t accept that losing the wonder of childhood is part of our destiny. Sometimes I look at children and become envious of their innocence and the simplicity of their lives but then I catch myself because I don’t believe that it is inevitable that we lose the wonder of childhood as adults and now neither do Peter, Paul & Mary.

In the 1960s Peter, Paul & Mary may have believed the story they were telling but in recent performances (see the “live performance” link at the top of this article) they have made one small but significant change in “Puff the Magic Dragon.” In the last chorus, Mary calls out “present tense” and they sing “Puff the magic dragon lives by the sea.” Maybe after 30 years of singing this song and seeing the wonder of and joy in children’s faces when they sing this song they realized that Puff is alive in all of us. We don’t lose the wonder of being a child, we just seem to forget about it, and like Puff, it’s waiting there for us whenever we want to go play again as a child.

Allie, I think the reason why this song makes you cry is because the original recording of the song is saying something that you don’t want to believe. Maybe on some level, you feel sad that the rest of the world seems to become pessimistic and disheartened. The thing is that I like that about you. I believe you should admire the people you keep close to you and one of the things I admire about you is your optimistic and sense of wonder that you hold in your heart and the fact that you want others to share in that.

I hope this song brings you tears of joy knowing that Puff is still with us. We write the next verse of this song with the way we live our lives and I have no doubt you will have further adventures with your dragon and that he can’t wait to see you again.