Monday, March 30, 2009

Kokomo by The Beach Boys

The plan this week was to comment on songs that were about places I wanted to visit. One of the first songs that came to mind was “Africa” by Toto. I’ve never been to Africa, but one of these days I’d love to visit to experience that continent. I researched “Africa,” and did some analysis and sat down a couple days ago to begin writing about this song. This is what I came up with:

“There is nothing African about “Africa.” The words don’t really talk about the continent so much as the idea of the continent. There isn’t anything authentically African about the music elements in this song (and no, even though it looks like he’s playing on African drums in the video, he is clearly playing a standard drum set in the recording). Toto, the band doesn’t even have any African-American band members and seriously, the lead singer mispronounces, Kilimanjaro. It’s ‘Kiliman- jar-ro’ like a jar of honey, not ‘Kiliman-jair-ro’ like a chair of honey. . geez.’”

After writing this paragraph, I stopped and kind of shocked at the negativity in my introduction. The mission on this blog is to celebrate what is great about music, not bash music. Concerned that I had missed something about “Africa,” I called up my brother Ed, who introduced me to this song in high school.

Me: Dude, so what’s good about “Africa” by Toto
Ed: Nothing man. That song isn’t very good, it’s recorded by a bunch of studio musicians who never made it. [Laura, Ed’s wife starts signing “Africa” in the background.”]
Me: didn’t you arrange this piece and perform it when you were in the high school jazz choir?
Ed: No, I didn’t arrange it, but we didn’t perform it and it was awful.
Me: I guess, I’ll bag that idea, I’m doing songs about places I want to visit for my next week of posts, any ideas?
Ed: Yes, Kokomo.

Seeing how my brother has rarely steered me wrong, let’s talk about “Kokomo”!!

The common joke about the Beach Boy’s song “Kokomo,” it takes its name from Kokomo, Indiana, which is about 50 miles north of Indianapolis. As funny as this is, the truth is the Beach Boys got the name from a poolside bar in the Holiday Isle resort in Islamorada, one of the islands of the Florida Keys (third bar listed on this page).

It’s understandable that people would think that the Beach Boys were talking more about an island rather than a bar because all of the other places listed in the opening of the song and during the chorus are islands, not bars (for a song that’s about relaxing, that’s a lot of islands to travel to). Though the song is misleading, thinking of Kokomo as a poolside bar makes sense and even though it doesn’t seem as appealing as a Caribbean island, it’s a lot more appealing than a city in Indiana which according to my wife who went there for a journalism convention, isn’t exactly paradise.

Now that we’ve cleared up one of the common misconceptions of the song, let’s start up some news ones: “Kokomo” is not only a tribute to the magical paradise in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean but it’s also a glorification of marijuana smoking.

The first verse is straightforward describing a beach scene, people sunbathing, tropical drinks, and falling in love with the assistance of a steel drum band. Fantastic, beautiful imagery, a place I definitely want to visit, especially after this miserable winter we just finished here in Chicago.

The Beach Boys start the second verse continuing the perfect Caribbean day that takes a slightly different turn than you expect.

Well put out to sea
And well perfect our chemistry
By and by we’ll defy a little bit of gravity

Going out on boats great and perfecting our “chemistry.”? That’s a little cheesy but clever and I appreciate the tongue in cheek way of describing a developing relationship, but then there’s the next line, “defy a little bit a gravity”? Ok this doesn’t necessarily read as “getting high” but it seems to imply it. I’ll give the song the benefit of the doubt and assume for a moment it’s about the feeling of freedom you get from love.

If you don’t know what “afternoon delight” means, I’ll let the Starland Vocal Band, help you out with this on. Some drinks and a “Dreamy look” ah, they are in love . . . wait a sec, “contact high”?!? I’m not the most savvy person about drug-lingo, so I consulted the urban dictionary.

contact high: Getting high by being around someone who is currently smoking some sort of drug such as weed. From inhaling the smoke, you also get high without actually smoking anything.

Wait a sec, my bad, it’s a ”tropical contact high” so maybe it’s about feeling good just being in the Caribbean. The thing is even if the second verse is not about smoking marijuana, they are at least comparing the Kokomo experience to getting high. Maybe they really were inspired by an experience Kokomo, Indiana in which they had to get high in order to enjoy their time in Indiana (now, I’m not Indiana bashing, just thinking up theories).

I love the Beach Boys. They are one of the greatest American rock bands of all time. Their music in the 1960s captured teenage love and idealism better than any other popular artist I can think of. Their musical invention driven by Brian Wilson challenged what was though of as popular music setting a precedent for groups like the Beatles and later Radiohead to explore the possibilities of popular music.

Does “Kokomo” speak from the teenage soul” No, does it stretch the conception of what is pop music? Well, no, though the use of steel drums in pop music is unusual. However, this song is fun, infectious, a little silly, and completely joyful. It’s about the fantasy of the being on a beach, similar to Margaritaville, but without the sobering up in the end of that song (link to post).

Sometimes, we all want to get away from it all. “Kokomo” reminds us of not only that but the feeling of paradise. The Beach Boys beautiful put together different musical elements that bring out the feeling of a warm ocean breeze under a beautiful blue sky.

The great thing about “Kokomo” is that it works on multiple levels. If this song does not do that for you on tropical paradise level, you can always laugh about the town in Indiana, the Beach Boys wanting to get high and chemistry, ah yeah. . . chemistry.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Like A Prayer by Madonna

My family has belongs to a Buddhist temple in Taiwan. In the main room of the temple, there are little shrines, maybe an inch tall and half an inch wide, which like tiles, cover the walls and the pillars. Inside each of these little shrines in someone’s name and in one of the shrines on a pillar is my name and every day the nuns in this temple pray for the people whose names make up the interior of the temple.

Last time, I visited the temple I walked into the temple and my mother introduced me, they went straight to the spot where I was in the wall, which they knew by heart since regularly prayed for me. Every day, when I wake up in the morning and slide on a necklace, a red string with a pendant that depicts Guan Yin, a central female Buddhist figure and I think of the nuns across the world in Taiwan who pray for me.

I’m not a religious man, in the “organized religion” sense. My parents do not belong to any church and I didn’t go to church regularly as a kid. However, I do feel that I am religious. I have delved deep into Buddhism, which acts as my spiritual center and I’ve made a strong effort to understand and know Christianity.

It is through this lens, that I hear “Like A Prayer” by Madonna. Released in 1989 on the album of the same title, “Like A Prayer” was widely criticized. The music video for “Like A Prayer” featured a field burning crosses, an attempted rape scene, police racial discrimination, religious miracles (crying statues, stigmata), a statue of a saint coming to life (which Madonna proceeds to make-out with), and murder. People criticized Madonna for the use of religious imagery (some of which including the fields burning crosses, a symbol used by the Ku Klux Klan, were understandably disturbing). Pepsi who had an endorsement deal with Madonna dropped her and the use of “Like A Prayer” from there ad campaign after Pepsi executives viewed the video. What is surprising is that the song itself did not seem to offend, which in some ways had more potential to be offensive than the music video.

“When you call my name its like a little prayer, I’m down on my knees, I want to take you there.”

This is the central line in “Like A Prayer” that Madonna repeats throughout the song. Literally, the line says that when you call my name it sounds like you are praying. This affects me in such a way that I get on my knees and want to take you “there.”

From my understanding people aren’t suppose to pray for frivolous things. Prayer is reserved for things that are beyond our materialistic wants, things that are close to the heart. Being in someone’s prayers is an honor, it means that you are one of the most important things in that persons life so Madonna’s first line “when you call my name, it’s like a little prayer” speaks to how much devotion and love she hears in her love’s voice.

If someone is speaking to you in a way that is so close to the heart that it sounds like praying, it would make you feel extremely honored. Therefore, you would logically make want to reciprocate that feeling get down on your knees as well and pray for them wanting to take that person to the same feeling.

Madonna blurs this literal meaning with the implication of comparing spiritual ecstasy with sexual ecstasy. If you interpret “there” as a state of physical euphoria than the line “when you call my name its like a little prayer, I’m down on my knees, I want to take you there” takes on a different message. Lines later in this song “your voice can take me there” enforce this layer of meaning.

Take away any thought of what this songs means and then listen to this song, because even though Madonna is playing around with religious and sexual implications the songs itself is a simply a fusion of Gospel and Pop celebrating how great someone can make you feel which may be closer to what Madonna’s intention.

The song starts with angry guitar riff, cut off with a bang like the closing of a door. Madonna has a solemn opening like a morning prayer and then the song kicks into high gear. After the first chorus, the verse fixates on the sound of “your voice” and the idea of someone can take Madonna away to a point that its like she is losing control. The second verse compares the subject to a child and a dream. The gospel choir enters which Madonna follows with a journey through darkness before a celebrative iteration of chorus.

At the least offensive, Madonna is comparing the love that she shares with someone to the feeling that she gets from being in church and singing along with a Gospel choir praising God. At it’s most offensives, Madonna is using religious allusions and musical artifacts like Gospel music to sing about sex.

Madonna wasn’t the first person to blur the lines between religion and sex in music. Ray Charles more than twenty years earlier started to take gospel melodies and sing them with sexual lyrics which caused people to be quite upset, like the couple in the trailer for the Ray (1 minute 14 seconds in).

When I listen to “Like A Prayer” it’s not about sex, it’s about the feeling that you get listening to great, joyous music. The song takes the listener from darkness to light combining the frenetic energy of 1980s music with the soul of a gospel choir. I don’t know much about religious ecstasy. I’ve never felt it or really know anyone who has, but the idea that we can find a transcendent level of joy in our lives, in each other not through sexual activities but meaningful and profound human connections is a beautiful idea and I know I’ve been lucky enough to feel these kinds of connections in my life.

“Like A Prayer” triumphant statement that begs to be questioned but cannot be helped but be enjoyed. It reminds me of great times with friends, the euphoric freedom that can only come through dancing with friends and spiritual joy that comes from knowing that somebody other there is praying for me.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Angels by Robbie Williams

America can be a stubborn country. We are one of the only countries who doesn’t use the metric system instead we prefer our “standard” system which clearly makes more sense (16 1/2 feet make a rod. . . .right and seriously how many of you know how many rods are in a mile?). Soccer or “football” is the most popular sport in everywhere but in the United States (which could partially be because of our sports casters).

Then there is Robbie Williams, one of the most popular solo pop artists in the world, who has sold over 55 million records worldwide. However, in America, it’s a different story.

Now this isn’t for a lack of trying. In 1999, after releasing two best-selling albums in England (and the rest of the world), he compiled songs from an American albu, He Ego Has Landed. The first single from this album “Millennium” was only a moderate success, reaching number 72 on the billboard top 100 charts and his second single “Angels” did better reaching number 41 on the charts. The Ego Has Landed ended up selling half a million copies, which was not a substantial success compared to the last album that he released in the United Kingdom which sold almost three million copies.

Britney Spears, DMX, Garth Brooks and the Backstreet Boys dominated the United States charts in 1999 and maybe there just wasn’t space in the market for Robbie. Maybe Capitol records didn’t properly promote Robbie’s album and maybe for the same inexplicable reasons that soccer never seems to catch on in America, Robbie didn’t either.

Robbie’s music, though not embraced by America is some of the finest popular music in our time. It ranges from quirky and funny to personal and reflective. There is no better example of what is so great about everything that is Robbie than “Angels” the second single Robbie released in America. A pop song not about romantic love or partying, it’s about a deeper and more powerful force, the faith and the love that we hold that sustains us.

The song opens contemplating the existence of angels and their power over us. Robbie sings about being told about angels and concludes the verse stating, “when I feel that love is dead, I’m loving angels instead.” When love fails us and we feel alone, there’s something greater out there to believe in. These “angels” are people in our lives that we know loves us unconditionally or a religious entity that shows its love through mysterious ways.

The lyrics in the chorus express all that the angel brings: love despite being right or wrong and love that will be there no matter where the “waterfall” of life takes us. The chorus has a glow to it. When Robbie sings, “I know that life won’t break me” it feels like comforting smile. It’s not cocky, or overconfident, it’s instead a feeling of faith and hope that you only get from being around someone who genuinely feel that the world is a beautiful place.

In the second verse, Robbie sings about pain describing it as going down a one-way street. This is followed by a statement of faith, “I look above and I know I’ll always be blessed with love.” The way that melody is shorter on “I look above” without held notes reflects a quiet contemplation. The melody fills out in “I know I’ll always be blessed” which is followed by “blessed with love” sung with quiet assurance. The way that this melody is structured puts an emphasis on the conviction of feeling loved reflecting the fact that it is knowing that we are loved, above the feeling of love itself that brings us faith.

If someone asked me to give an example of what a great pop male singing voice sounds, I would give them a Robbie Williams song. His voice is accessible, clear and expressive. He voice is a fusion of pop music genres that sounds organic and effortless. There is a range between the almost spoken verses and the long held notes in the chorus. His voice is pop without being cheesy, with a level of depth, maturity and strength that is rarely heard in pop music today.

The idea of “angels” comes from Christianity and there are a couple allusions to the Christian faith in the song. In the first verse, “salvation lets their winds unfold” illustrates the idea of God creating angels to save us. The second verse opens talking about how looking “above” (to God) renews our faith and also talks about creation as angels “breathe flesh to my bones.”

This song does not come across as overtly Christian. Part of this has to do with the facts that the idea of angels has become such a central part of our culture that films like Angels In The Outfield feature angels that are more feel mythical than religious. In addition “Angels “ focuses on faith in love, not Christ or Christianity itself, which is why it appeals to us in such a deep and powerful way.

We all have angels in our lives. For me, it’s not so much a religious thing. I didn’t going to church every Sunday growing up so the angels in my life are people. These are my family and close friends who I can always turn to no matter what life throws at me. However, there’s another angel that we all have in our lives, ourselves.

The love we have for who we are is the most sustaining and empowering love in our lives. When people say, “I love you,” they are telling us not only how they feel but how we should feel about ourselves. It is through this love that angels exist and our souls can take flight.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There is a Season) by The Byrds

I was named after a trash can.

Well that’s the joke but it’s half-true. People often ask me how my parent’s chose my first name, "Kingsley." The short answer is that my dad saw the name on a office product and named me after a company which now specializes in depositories (and well yes, they do make trash cans but mostly they specialize in drops boxes).

The real answer is about the immigrant experience. When people immigrate from Asia, most of the time they chose American first names, use the middle name for their Chinese name (mine is Chin-Jer) and use their original last name. Choosing the American name for immigrants often comes from taking a name that sounds like their Chinese name. For example my dads full Chinese name is “Tang Bing-Yue” (in Chinese the order of names are: last, first then middle). My dad when he came to America took "Bing," (i.e. Bing Crosby) and my dad’s American name is Bing Yue Tang.

Now when my parent were trying to figure out an American names for my me and my borther they didn’t want to use a Christian derived name, since they were not Christian. Most American names have Christian origins except for the British Royal names like "Edward" my brother’s first name and "Kingsley" which is derived the from the Scottish clan name "Kinsella."

My parents played along with the Christian traditions which had made their way into the American culture like Christmas and Easter which we celebrated non-religiously. It seemed to me growing up that Christianity was something for other people that I didn't need to know about.

Growing up listening to the local oldies station with my dad "Turn! Turn! Turn!" was a song that I knew well and even in middle school I fancied myself an expert on popular music. So when one of my friends spoke about his excitement about this song because the lyrics were from the Bible, well, it brought together two worlds: the popular music world that I loved and the Christian world, which I had been ignoring.

Since then I have made an effort to get to know Christianity, not because I wanted to convert or go to church every Sunday, I just didn't want to be left out. I wanted to know about the religion inspired some of the most important and transcendent art in history.

In studying Christianity in American culture, I have seen interpretations of the religion that I strongly disagree with. From Bob Jones universities policy banning interracial marriage on its campus which was in effect until it was taken off the books in 2000, to current arguments citing verses from the Bible to argue homosexuality as being a sinful lifestyle choice. Many people have insidiously distorted Christianity to serve their own agendas. This is not only annoying but infuriating because at its core, at its best Christianity is a hopeful religion and one of the truest expressions of all that is humanity and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” represents all of this in a beautiful and powerful way.

When Pete Seeger, one of the most influential American folk singers, used the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1 from the King James version of the Bible he was responding to his publisher who disliked his protest songs. Seeger responded that what protest songs “were the only songs he knew how to write" as he explains in this interview.

The two musicians at the end of this clip are Roger McGuinn and David Crosby who as members of the band the Bryds recorded “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and transformed it from an obscure folk song to an iconic song of the 1960s.

McGuinn describes how they added a “Beatle beat” and an counter-melody to use as an introduction but the Byrds did so much than that to the song. What is immediately striking about this song is the Roger McGuinn’s guitar. This song is one of the most famous uses of the 12-string Rickebacker guitar. This guitar features 6 pairs of strings, each pair tuned to the same note that corresponds to a stings on regular 6-string guitar. The bottom four pairs have the strings tuned in octaves on the same note while the top two pairs are tuned in the same octave. This creates a bright resonant sound, that sparkles like the light shining through oak trees leaves on a sunny day.

The guitar playing of McGuinn’s 12-string Rickebacker seems to turn and roll into itself enforcing the meaning of the lyrics. Watching McGuinn playing this song solo with his guitar up the creative and understated way that McGuinn moves through the chords and creates the sound of multiple guitars in becomes clear.

On top of this rolling guitar line are the vocals which alternate between unison singing on “to everything” to the gentle harmony behind the words “turn, turn, turn.” David Crosby, who later went on to further fame with Crosby, Stills and Nash provides the gentle high harmony which brings a comforting sense to the melody.

While the chorus has a sense of calmness and acceptance the verses express a feeling of urgency. With the turning of the earth and the cycle of life, thereis inevitable that all the things in the verses, both good and bad are happening and the purpose behind all of this is beyond are understanding.

Seeger added the last two lines of the final verse because he needed them to balance out the verse but in adding “a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late” he breaks the pattern. Every other line describes the good and the bad, a yin/yang relationship. The song mentions peace in the third verse but is preceded by war. However ending the last verse with peace alone is a statement that peace is coming and that we can’t give up.

“Turn! Turn! Turn!” may not be the greatest religious song ever written but it helped me understand what Christianity means to people. It showed me that Christianity is about embracing the human experience. It is knowing that everything, even the bad things, have a purpose and that in the end of all there is always hope because in life it is never to late embrace love over hate and embrace peace over war.

That’s not a bad bunch of ideas to be at the center of a culture, or a life.

Friday, March 20, 2009

My Life Would Suck Without You by Kelly Clarkson

The first entry I posted on this blog was four months ago and it seemed only fitting to celebrate my 60th post to go back to where it started, revisiting our favorite American Idol.

The following is a recent phone call I had with my brother Ed:

Me: dude, I’m so hyped for Kelly Clarkson’s new album that’s coming out tomorrow!
Ed: It’s going to be awesome.
Me: Yeah I wasn’t expecting the phrase “My Life Would Suck Without You” to work as a hook
Ed: I didn’t even know that was the name of the song until they said the name of the song on the radio.
Me: I’m totally going to buy this album at the store and not on itunes because I want to hold this thing in my hands.
Ed: I know what you mean, but Laura [Ed’s wife] isn’t too excited about the album
Me: Yeah, neither is Diana [my wife]

Laura and Diana understand that when my brother and I get fascinated with a piece of music they get to enjoy it along with us because my we will without fail play the album/song ad nauseam (well in my opinion ad AWESOME-EAM). For some reason they just aren’t as excited about the return of Kelly Clarkson to her pop music roots as my brother and I are.

What is so exciting is that Kelly is making a returning to what she does best. The album that she released Breakaway, which featured “Since U Been Gone,” was My December. Rolling Stone critic Jody Rosen described this album as a “declaration of independence, released over the reported objections of her label.” Rosen goes on to describe the album, “Its 13 gloomy songs, all co-composed by Clarkson, had scarcely a hook to wrap your ears around.” Clarkson’s new album Breakaway. However feature a couple strong songs with infectious hooks, which recapture the feeling of screaming along with “Since U Been Gone,” and one of those songs is “My Life Would Suck Without You.”

I know, “My Life Would Suck Without You” sounds like an awful title for a song, but it works. Once upon a time using the word “suck” was almost as bad as using a swear word. I remember my mom getting annoyed that my brother and I would use the term “suck” when we were in high school. Now, it’s not proper English but “suck” is used enough in our culture that I can honestly imagine saying “my life would suck without you” but more importantly I can believe it when Kelly singing these words.

With my background in music composition and my knowledge as a music teacher I’m often asked what comes first the melody or the lyrics. The answer is that it depends on the song. Sometimes it’s the words, sometimes it’s the music and other times they are composed simultaneously. “My Life Would Suck With You” started with the music as is explained by the one of the composers, Luke Gottwald in this video clip .

Just because the lyrics were written after the music doesn’t mean the song is any less legit. Paul McCartney wrote the melody for “Yesterday” using the nonsense phrases like “scrambled eggs” before writing the lyrics we know now.

Compared to the lyrics of “Since U Been Gone,” “My Life Would Suck Without You” is much more straightforward. The feelings involved in a break-up are a complex mix of regret, blame, denial and eventually acceptance. While the feeling of being with someone you love is singular, joyful and life-affirming. In some ways happiness is defined by the absence of complexity, a feeling that is free of emotional weight and the simple lyrics of “My Life Would Suck Without You” reflect this feeling.

The general idea of the lyrics is that there was a fight, he came back, she acknowledges that they are both at fault and that even though they are both a little dysfunctional, there lives are forever entwined. This reunion is not about apologies but acceptance. By coming back, making the effort to patch things up, the “you” character accepts the fact that Kelly was trying to pick a fight. Kelly acknowledges the things he said not with anger but with an understanding that they are both equally messed up.

Right after Kelly sings about them both having issues in the second verse, Kelly sings “anyways, I found out I’m nothing without you.” Finding a true friend is not about liking someone despite their faults but because of them. The way that Kelly acknowledges both of their “issues” and goes on to state how they should be together is a honest and heart-warming expression of love.

The musical landscape of this song with the bare guitar introduction, distorted synthesized background beats and almost dance club feeling of the chorus create a fresh and joyous sound. The song paces itself giving a break in the third verse “being with you is so dysfunctional,” letting the music naturally build back up to the chorus. This moment is tender as Kelly quietly sings “I really shouldn’t miss you, but I can’t let go.” She doesn’t know why they are drawn together as she sings in the chorus “forever united here somehow." This is something that she doesn’t understand logically and only feels. In this way, without using the word “love” she describes it perfectly as acceptance, understanding, and joy that feels like an impulse that cannot be denied.

When Kelly Clarkson performed “My Life Would Suck Without You,” on Good Morning America she talked about how much photo manipulation was involved in her cover photo. Moments like these are why I like Kelly Clarkson more than I ever have before. She is one of the most honest and real pop stars out there. Some people have criticized her for being fat, I view her as looking like one of my friend (not that my friends are fat, just that they don’t have ridiculous movie-star, super-model builds). Any criticism of the kind of music that she makes is ridiculous as she has never made any pretension to be anything but a pop star. I feel like if I met some celebrities, I would freak out and now know what to say to them. However, if I met Kelly Clarkson, I would have no problem chilling with her and talking.

Kelly, my life would not suck without you, but it is just a little bit more awesome because of the music you share with the world. I went to two stores to find your new CD, running not walking into the store to find it (part of the running part was that it was 20 degrees Fahrenheit outside and I didn’t feel like putting on my jacket). Running back to my car, ripping the package open sliding the CD into player and hearing your sing “My Life Would Suck Without You," the sun simply shone, just a little bit brighter.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Thank You for Being a Friend by Andrew Gold

I love watching television.

It’s not so much about sitting in front of the T.V. mindlessly zoned out flipping through channels for hours on end (which I have probably spent too much of my life doing). It's about the many moments watching shows with people in my life. Watching the first episode of American Idol from season 1 with a group my fraternity brothers was hilarious fun. Loving the subtle in-jokes and self-referential humor of The Simpsons with my brother is something I always enjoy. Elating in pure joy when Jim and Pam finally got together in The Office was a great moment I shared with my wife.

Then there’s watching television with my mom.

If you ask my mom how she learned to speak English and what American culture was truly about she will credit television shows. When she first came to America in the late 1970s the show that captured her imagination was I Love Lucy. Even though a Cuban with broken English and a red head from Oklahoma weren’t exactly the best examples of how to speak proper English, my mom learned the dynamics of the English language and the themes that define American culture.

I remember many afternoons, especially during the summer when my mom would stop whatever she was doing to watch I Love Lucy . The other show that I have clear memories of watching with my mom is The Golden Girls and oh my God, what a show that was: four old ladies sharing a house in Florida talking about sex (well, there were some other subtleties in the plot, but that was pretty much the main “thrust” of the show).

While we live in a time of reality shows and 24 hour cable channels, the 1980s were the glory days of the situation-comedy. Half-hour shows with a live studio audience which were defined by shows like I Love Lucy had widespread appeal in the 1980s with shows like Cheers and Family Ties.

The Golden Girls, which aired from 1985 to 1992, featured Beatrice Arthur as Dorothy Zbornak; Betty White as Rose Nylund; Rue McClanahan as Blanche Devereaux; and Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo, Dorothy's mother. Each woman had fully developed and intriguing back stories. Dorothy was recently divorced and sarcastic acting as the most reasonable voice in the house. Rose, a widow and my personal favorite character, was often seemed naive but every once in a while displayed a superior intelligence and insight into human heart. Blanche was basically, well, really horny, crass and constantly talked about sex. Then there is Sophia who was old and cranky but sometimes offered motherly guidance to the other woman in the house.

What is genius about this show is that the setting and actresses put across an image of innocents that we sometimes seem to have about the elderly. It is within this illusion that the show talked about topics like homosexuality, gun control, impotence, domestic violence, euthanasia, sexual abuse, senility, AIDs and many other relevant issues. Because of the age of these characters, they often lived these issues and talked about them in a frank and honest way, often resulting in hilarity (check out this scene when they are buying condoms or this great scene when they watch porn). Though, shocking to hear these topics talked about in such an open way, the fact that it was our grandmothers who were talking about this stuff, though disturbing, reflecting a maturity and perspective that comes from living a long life that reveals truths about issues that so often give us pause.

The theme song to The Golden Girls, “Thank You for Being a Friend” like so many great television theme songs became synonymous with the show. In the 1980s the theme song accompanied the opening credits which introduced the main characters and gave glimpses of the content of the episodes. The theme songs acted as emotional capsules, distilling the stories and themes into the show into one clear emotional statement. “Thank You For Being A Friend” really is everything that The Golden Girls is about.

Andrew Gold recorded “Thank You for Being a Friend” for this third album All This and Heaven Too in 1978. The song was a moderate success reaching #25 on the charts but it was when it by Cynthia Fee for The Golden Girls that the theme song got a second life.

The song starts with the hook, “Thank You for Being a Friend.” It works through the chorus until “and if you threw a party” in which the harmony changes to a darker minor feel. This section goes beyond merely thanking the friend but talks about a specific situation. It builds back up to the hook “Thank You for Being a Friend” and then the strings take over to a wrap up the theme song with a beautiful bow.

So that’s the version from the television show and Andrew Gold’s version goes on for another four minutes. The other four minutes are more of the same. The next verse talks about buying a car if needed (rhyming “lack” with Cadillac). The song ends talking about being friends through old age and also seeing each other after death.

All of meaningful relationships in our lives boil down to being friends including our relationships with our spouses, partners, siblings, parent and well of course, friends. “Thank You for Being a Friend” reminds us of how good it feels to have friends in our lives and how much the simple act of friendship really means.

"It's been an experiences I'll always keep close to my heart and that these are memories that I'll wrap myself in when the world gets cold, and I forget that there are people who are warm and loving."
-Dorothy saying goodbye on the final episode

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel

On the journey of life our hearts struggle with questions about our lives. We question our direction and our purpose in an attempt to understand the choices we make and the things that happen to us that are beyond our control. Along with these questions, we ask ourselves what it means to care about each other, to live with each other and at the heart of it all, what it means to be a friend.

When the duo, Simon and Garfunkel released “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in 1970 the relationship between the two artists Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel was strained. They could not agree on the final track of the album as well as who should sing the title track. Paul Simon felt that Garfunkel should sing it as a solo and had to convince Garfunkel to do so. However, Simon has repeatedly said that he regrets this decision as it centered attention on Garfunkel. Simon and Garfunkel broke up later that the same year they released “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and since had a rocky relationship included a failed attempts at recording together and numerous reunion concerts.

It seems ironic that Simon and Garfunkel recorded one of pop music’s greatest tributes to friendship as the duo was breaking up. Even though “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” is a song that has a life of its own, the circumstances of its creation informs our understanding of the work. Maybe during the recording this song Simon and Garfunkel realized that they did not feel for each other what Simon wrote about and Garfunkel sang. The history of the song does give it meaning but makes us look at it in a slightly different light giving us a perspective to work from which adds a layer of depth to our understanding.

The melody of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” is carefully crafted featuring mostly step-wise motion (moving between notes that are right next to each other) feature some well-placed leaps. The melody builds in the first stanza bring motion in the melody into to different parts of the line. In the line “when you’re weary, feeling small” there is a slight drop towards the end of the line. The next line, “when tears are in your eyes” the motion of the melody in the beginning, which builds into the next line which draws out the words with longer note values. There is a jump in the middle of this phrase bringing out the word “your” which foreshadows the wide leaps in the chorus. The last line of this stanza “I will dry them all” mirrors the first line coming to rest, reflecting the meaning of the lyrics.

The next two lines “I’m one your side, when times get rough,” has it’s own rise and fall resting for a moment before the dramatic leap in the next line. The chorus starts with heartfelt leap in the line “and pain is all around,” and then slowly rises. The words “like a bridge over troubled water” slowly descends, which is followed by a descending angular contour reflecting the darkness of“troubled waters.” The words “I will lay me down,” rise slowly with a the determination of a boxer who refuses to stay down.

In the first and second verse the narrator reassures his friend saying how he will help if bad things happens. The lines “when tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all” and “like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down,” is actions we want to do for our friends. We want to be able to fix problems and actively help them when things are difficult. Laying down over troubled waters is a self-sacrificing act. You aren’t helping someone conquer something by themselves but rather giving up someone of yourself so that they can get through their tribulations.

There is a change to optimism in the bridge assuring that the future is bright and that good things will happen, “your time has come to shine, all your dreams are on their way.” He says that in good times he will be “sailing right behind” not leading, not making something happen but supporting. Instead, of promising, “I will lay me down,” he promises, “I will ease your mind.”

Friendship is born from wanting to fix problems and develops into powerful feeling, a force that connects us to the friends in our lives. “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” challenges us to support our friends, not lead them, help them with problems, not fix them for them and to always be there with our friends in each others heart.

I have many friends who live in different cities and they can’t come by in 5 minutes when something bad happens. We try to see each other as much as we can but it’s hard. As I've grown up, I've realized that friendship is not about what we do for each other. Actions are just a manifestation of what is really important, what truly defines friendship, the feelings that we share.

These feelings sustains us when we are scared, tired and alone. These feelings remind us that over distance and time there is always friendship in our hearts. And these feelings brings us together so that we never face the future alone and have the power to calm the troubled water in our lives.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

November Rain by Guns N’ Roses

What makes a song epic? Is it the length, the instrumentation or is it simply the way the feelings that are expressed? The definition of what is epic is not a technical or an objective idea but rather a term that is thrown around to describe a song that stands out capturing something extraordinary.

Throughout the history of rock music, there have been many songs that people consider “epic.” People often thing of epic songs as being long and containing multiple sections like Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen and Stairway To Heaven by Led Zeppelin. I’m not sure what song I would consider the most epic song but I do know the one song that introduced me to this potential in rock music and that was “November Rain.”

In 1992, when Guns N’ Roses released “November Rain” it blew my mind. At that time I was ten years old and wasn’t interested in rock music. The other songs by Guns N’ Roses seemed too “hard,” too much like “noise” (my opinion has since changed) and I ignored most of their music. However, “November Rain” was different. Maybe it was the piano, or the slow build but the song felt different. Some may have viewed the first section of this song as not rocking as hard as their other music but for me it was exactly that reason which was why it appealed to me.

Coming out of a time when rock stars seemed more concerned with how big they could tease out their hair, Guns N’ Roses rejuvenated the rock scene. Axl Rose’s raspy rock voices, the lead guitar player, Slash’s aggressive sound and mind-blowing technique along with the rest of band created some of the most interesting and refreshing music in rock. “November Rain” was featured on Guns N’ Roses’ third album Use Your Illusion I.

“November Rain” is an insightful and honest contemplation of the hope, doubt and reality of love. The song begins like the sun rising. Synthesized strings grow with the first chord of the electric guitar glistening in the light. Against the back drop of a synthesized flute, Axl’s voice enter which could not be more real.

When rock singers sing they often put a slight edge in their voice as they reach high notes. Axl has that edge in his voice throughout his entire range. There is a maturity in this voice like a man who has lived a life of pain and although the voice is ragged, it has a sort of elegance as it flows through the melody line.

In the first section main section of the song (the first 6 minutes and 45 seconds). Axl slowly builds with a deliberate and contemplative pace.

When I look into your eyes, I can see a love restrained,
But darling when I hold you, don't you know I feel the same.

'Cause nothing lasts forever and we both know hearts can change,
And it's hard to hold a candle in the cold November rain.

The song opens with a request to love in the present. Axl expresses empathy throughout the song as he does in the second line. The theme of destiny are introduced with this idea of change. The words “November rain” appear for the first time symbolizing the inevitability of change and candle is the love that must fight against this. In this next section, Axl reflects on the relationship and elaborates on this idea of destiny.

We've been through this such a long, long time just trying to kill the pain.
But lovers always come and lovers always go
and no one's really sure who's letting go today, walking away.

If we could take the time to lay it on the line,
I could rest my head just knowing that you were mine all mine.
So if you want to love me then darling don't refrain,
Or I'll just end up walking in the cold November rain.

Axl asserts that if we embrace the future, the reality of the fact that things are uncertain and hard then people could love each other. If she doesn’t love him now, he’ll end up walking the November rain which changes from the broad idea of destiny to personal loneliness.

Then the song takes different turn, the song washes out into a mixture of harmonic colors as Axl asks if “you need some time alone.” He comforts his love saying that everyone needs some time alone. These lines have a sense of sadness as we often take it personally when someone we care about says they need to be alone because at these time we often don’t want to be alone. By washing out the sound, the song provides more contrast and drama as it builds into the next section. Guitars explode in broad strokes of musical color as Axl sings reassuring his love in a more assertive and aggressive way.

I know it's hard to keep an open heart, when even friends seem out to harm you.
But if you could heal a broken hear, wouldn't time be out to charm you?

After “harm you” a mourning guitar lick reflects the struggle in the lyrics which foreshadows the end of the song. The song builds to the first guitar solo of the song, which expresses the time alone that Axl previously sings about. Like the music that came before the solo doesn’t feel rushed or hurried. There is not of showing off in the solo and like great Jazz solos, Slash doesn’t try to fill every beat with something but instead sustains notes artfully developing simple melodic ideas.

Axl follows this going back to the “need some time” section flipping it from “you” to “I” which Slash immediately follows by another shorter guitar solo. The guitar is another voice in this song expressing the longing and solitude of the song. Both guitar solos act as subtext creating space for us to reflect on the song and contemplate the feelings within the song. The end of this section pulls together these feelings coming to a conclusion in a powerful statement of destiny.

And when your fears subside and shadows still remain
I know that you can love me when there's no one left to blame
So never mind the darkness we still can find a way
Nothing lasts forever even cold November rain

Axl assures us that we can move past fear in our lives but reminds us that it always leave shadow in our lives, the memory of that fear. He assures that through that darkness, they is a way to love. This section ends with the most powerful line of the song stating that nothing last forever. November rain first symbolizes the destiny of change and then reflects personal loneliness. Axl discounts these things in this section saying that these things don’t last forever. However, in this reassurance saying that “nothing” last forever he is also embracing the idea that their love will not last forever.

After the triumphant ending of the first section, a hurried and frantic piano enters followed by raw guitars and a demonic guitar melody. A distorted and angry voices growls “don't you think that you need somebody, everybody needs somebody
you're not the only one.” Instead of a comforting reassurance of these feeling an angry voice that violently tries to convince that loneliness is universal. Axl expresses a level of optimism in the first section and then shows us the other side, the pessimism, the darkness and the doubt. Does this symbolize the relationship that Axl sings about in the first section ending or is this what Axl believes about the destiny that we all have to face?

This song moves through time with a deliberate pace and feels like it’s long without feeling drawn out. The different sections of the songs seamlessly move into each other and the guitar solos come in the perfect place to give us a change in the sound and time to reflect. Even though the song feels epic, it doesn’t tell a grand story but instead is personal and reflective. In this way the epic nature in “November Rain” becomes a personal journey speaking to fears and question that we have in our own lives.

Nothing lasts forever but that is what gives things meanings and makes us cherish the times that we have. This realization may seem to limit us but when we accept it, it frees us from fear and doubt and in that, through our lives, through love that we find ourselves.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I’m Yours by Jason Mraz

As we meet here tonight, our men and women in uniform stand watch abroad and more are readying to deploy. To each and every one of them, and to the families who bear the quiet burden of their absence, Americans are united in sending one message: we honor your service, we are inspired by your sacrifice, and you have our unyielding support.
-Barack Obama

As one of my fellow teacher’s brother, a staff sergeant in the United States Army, answered questions from a group of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders, I saw what Barack Obama described as the “quiet burden” in her eyes.

Home from Afghanistan for two weeks, the staff sargeant visited a group of students to talk to them about his experiences in the army. I’ve never heard someone currently in the military talk about his or her experiences in person. I hear people talk about on television all the time but there was something very different about this presentation.

He talked apolitically and his intentions were simple, to serve his country. This was a job and as he referred to the clothing that the men wore in Afghanistan as “man-jammies,” he reminded me that behind the training and discipline there was a man, not that different than myself or any of my friends.

The staff sergeant opened his presentation by playing a movie montage of pictures and video footage that he and some of his friends had put together for a guy in their unit who got shot in the leg and sent home. The pictures showed the daily life of the soldiers including their living quarter, going out on patrol and the unit’s dog (which seemed to be the most fascinating part of the presentation to the students). The movie had different songs in the background and the first song of the montage was “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz.

Now, without asking Jason Mraz himself, it seems fairly clear by the lyrics of “I’m Yours” were not intended to be a song about soldier fighting in Afghanistan. However, combined with the images in the montage the song became connected in my mind with the thoughts and feelings I experienced watching the images of American soldiers in Afghanistan.

“I’m Your” is a fun bouncy love song. The narrator is telling his love how he will not hesitate any more and give himself completely to the person that he loves. Mraz contrasts the nice lilt in the verses with a contemplative chorus. The funny thing is that as I listened to this song and watching the images of soldiers, my ear pulled out certain lines in the song that seemed to apply to the soldier experience that stuck with me.

“I fell right through the cracks, now I’m trying to get back.”

“And nothing’s going to stop me but divine intervention, I reckon it’s again my turn to win some or learn some.”

“Well open up your mind and see like me.”

“We’re just on big family, and it’s our God-forsaken right to be loved.”

I found myself holding back tears as these lines jumped out of the song to me. I imagined people younger then me looking out at the desert sky trying to get back home. In “divine intervention” we find our purpose but so does the other side and as much as we do win some, I hope we don’t lose any more. I don’t really know if I can see like a soldier but I try to get perspective and well, it’s just too much to think of.

The staff sergeant described the people of Afghanistan as being similar to us but it just seems so much easier to divide. Yes, there is the God-forsaken right to be loved, but by who, and with our concerns, not only with ourselves and our family how far does that love extend out?

After the video, he took some questions and a third grader girl asked “Have you ever been scared?” and without hesitation he answered “yes, I have been.” At that moment, I realized that I was scared as well.

Look, I’m not from military family, and I don’t really understand what it means to have someone that you love overseas fighting. I’m not someone who has a great grasp on worldwide politics or an in depth understanding on world history. I can’t really argue if wars are inevitable or whether we should be spending the amount of money that we do on the military.

All I know is that I can’t imagine my friends, let alone myself running into battle with 90 pounds of gear armed with a rifle and pistol fighting in a land across the world from the people I love. I look at my students and hope that they never have to face the challenges of a war when they grow up. World War II defined the “greatest generation” but part of me can’t help but wonder how much greater that generation would have been with over 400,000 Americans who died fighting for our freedom and the total of over 70 million human lives who died in the conflict worldwide. This lose is too much to comprehend but so is the loss of the brave soldier that I had the honor of meeting.

“I’m Your” last verse ends with “our time is short, this is our fate, I’m yours.” I know on some levels that we don’t really have power over the destiny of worldwide conflicts. Our time is short and if our duty that we take on is our fate, than a soldier’s path is in his or her control.

What we can’t forget is that every person over there is ours, not in the patriotic sense but in the human sense. These are our sons and daughter over there and sometimes I think we need to ignore the politics and convolution of these conflicts and remember that.

As we go about our lives, go to work, love our friends, the silent burden is for all of us to bear and in that, we’re truly are one big family.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Umbrella by Rihanna

In my book, it’s pretty simple. If Chris Brown is proved guilty and convicted of the charges of assault and making criminal threats against his girlfriend Rihanna, then he is less than a man and deserves to rot in prison for the rest of his life.

You don’t hit someone you claim to love. This isn’t just a thing about men, it’s unacceptable for woman as well. We’re not talking about a playing slap or the occasional tickle-war, we’re talking violence born in anger and fed by rage. What Chris Brown is accused of doing is horrifying, shocking and disturbing. It seems so simple. Someone hits you in anger, abuses you, they are scum, you dump them, do everything you can to make sure they get the most severe punishment possible and then you move on with your life.

Well, right now Rihanna and Chris Brown are staying together at Sean “Diddy” Combs’ mansion in Miami Beach. That doesn’t seem right, does it?

It is known statistically that there is a substantial percentage of battered women who return to their partners (something like 1 in 4). Even if that statistic is grossly overstated the fact that any woman would stay with an abusive partner is mind-blowing to me. This is my knee-jerk reaction and after doing some research there are many reasons why a battered woman may stay, some of which are emotional but many of them economic. However, just because there are logical reasons those women to stay, doesn’t mean that it’s right.

Before all of this news broke about Chris and Rihanna there was only one thing that popped in my head when I heard the name Rihanna: Is the “-ella, -ella, -a, -a –a, under my umb-er-ell-a” one of the stupidest ways of playing around with lyrics or is it pure po song genius (and since when did “umbrella’ become a four-syllable word)? I still haven’t settled the merits of the use of “-ella” but since I first heard, “Umbrella” it has grown in my mind as a beautiful statement of devotion but with all that has happened there is something in the meaning of this song that has changed.

The version of this song that appeared on radio and the music video is a mid-tempo dance track. It features Jay-Z in the beginning adding some star power to the song. The background instrumentals are a throwback to 1980s synthesized music with an added sense of musical vitality. The drum track is more dynamic then the drum machine tracks in the 1980s and the variety of synthesized sounds and their arrangement give a level of depth song.

What is at the core of “Umbrella” comes through clearer on the acoustic version. Other sounds in the original version add to the overall texture but also pull the ear away from the melody and words, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After listening to the acoustic version, it becomes clear that what is most important in this song is not the drums or the synthesized backgrounds of even Jay-Z’s rap but the melody and the words.

Alone with a guitar Rihanna’s voice seems intimate and almost delicate. She displays a range in her voice from the opening slightly breathy tone, expressive flourish of notes on “magazines” and slight aching on the word “because.” The guitar and strings in the background perfectly support Rihanns’s performance, bringing a sense of solitude and sadness to this song, almost like she is singing this to herself.

In the first verse, Rihanna sings that in the dark you can’t see shiny cars. She is saying that when things are dark and painful, when you need someone the most, material things will not be there and she states that she will be there and share in the darkness.

The chorus is a statement of commitment through all circumstances. The words are simple and direct. The metaphor of sharing the umbrella in the “rain” is immediate. Sometimes it’s the most clear and present imagery that is the most powerful. The “-ella, -a” thing is a sung echo. Rihanna deconstructs the word “umbrella” giving us pause to let us ponder what the “umbrella” symbolizes. Musically it sounds stilted and unexpressive but at the same time it captures the way that words sometimes stay in our minds and circle around our feelings.

As the song builds through the bridge to the chorus, something changes in the song. When Rihanna sings “I’ll be all you need and more because” the music builds becoming more desperate and after this line builds the chorus sounds different. Instead of reassuring, the chorus seems to try to convince. The voicing (the way the harmonic notes are arranged) are more tense and Rihanna’s voice has a sense of heartbreaking desperation.

I don’t think that end of “Umbrella” sounded like this to me before all of news broke out about Chris Brown and Rihanna. We don’t know if she was suffering from abuse when she recorded “Umbrella.” Regardless, the sadness in all that we know about Rihanna now has overshadowed any other meaning in the song “Umbrella” not in bad way but a challenging way, forcing us to reconsider how we feel about the way we treat the people we love.

I don’t know what I’d do if one of my friends told me that they abused their partner or if one of my friends told me that their partner abused them. Honestly my first thought, my first reaction is that I would cut any friend who abused their partner out of my life and I would want to beat up any person who abused someone that I love. I know the violent reaction isn’t right and I probably wouldn’t do that, I’m not a violent man and I’m not sure if I would really cut out a friend out who has sinned in such a grievous way. I don’t know if that’s right.

The future of the relationship of Rihanna and Chris Brown are in their hands. No one knows exactly what they’ve been through or how they feel about each other. I don’t know if a relationship can come back from something like this. It’s hard for me to imagine that it could but I’m not a expert on spousal abuse, I honestly don’t know. I hope that Chris is held accountable for whatever he actually did and that he can get help to keep him from every hurting anyone ever again.

Even more, I hope for Rihanna what I hope for all people that she always has someone in her life that shares the she love she sings about providing shelter from the storms in life.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Total Eclipse Of The Heart by Bonnie Tyler

In the film Old School, there is a wedding reception towards the beginning of the film which features a band playing “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” with some “colorful” language inserted in the song. This band is the Dan Band, a comedic rock band that covers songs by female singers.

I find this performance hilarious. I don’t know if its so much the swear words or the way that the lead singer commits to this song with such exuberant passion. He isn’t so much expressing the deeper meaning in the song but grooving in the awesome-ness of this epic ballad. Moreover, the Dan Band is rocking out to this song in the exactly same way that my friends and I do when we hear this song.

The question hear is for those of us who love all that is “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” is do we love this song to mock it or because it offers a significant musical experience.

“Total Eclipse Of The Heart” was written by Jim Steinman who is responsible for other epic pop songs like Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me,” Air Supply’s “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All” and any Meat Loaf song that you know including “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” (I’ll save you the time of listening to all seven and a half minutes of this song, what he “won’t do” for love is sleep with someone else, i.e. cheat on his lover).

If you listen to these three songs you will have used up the greater part of an hour, but what is more significant is the kind of drama that Steinman brings to his music, expressing each emotion with a majestic and sweeping feeling. These songs feature themes of love, loss, desperation and devotion, romantic ideas that through Steinman’s music are pumped up on steroids.

The “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” sounds great, but what does it really mean? It’s one of the most memorable pop titles but within the songs internal logic it doesn’t really make all that much sense. The song starts with narrator doubting the future saying that sometimes she feels like she is falling apart. A haunting background voice beckons her to “turn around” which is later extended to “turn around bright eyes.”

As the chorus begins she describes what love means to her not in a romantic and loving way but in a desperate plea. What follows is where the internal logic of the songs breaks down. The narrator earlier in the chorus describes love like a “shadow.” So, is the eclipse of the heart the shadow of her lover? It clearly is not her love as she is now falling apart. Whose love is the “love in the dark”? Is it her own or her lovers. Maybe it’s the fact that she wants this person in her life, and that it’s a destructive relationship. She desperately begs for him and once she gets it, it tears her apart. Or maybe, just maybe, this song doesn’t really have any internal logic at all and that the lyrics do is serve the broad strokes of emotion and drama throughout the songs. I like this idea better, it makes my head hurt less and seems to fit more with what the composer was going for.

As nonsensical as the lyrics are Bonnie Taylor’s performance of “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” makes perfect emotional sense. She commits completely to the drama in the song. She doesn’t sing with great singing technique but that doesn’t keep her from giving this song her all. This “Rudy-esque” performance (wow, I didn’t know that Samwise could play football) is inspiring not so much for the sound of her voice the expression she brings to the song.

“Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” feeds our innate need to feel alive through drama. Even though in life we feel the highs and the lows of the human experience and in art we can have a taste of this in a controlled way. As bad as the tragedy and the glory at the end of film, we can unplug from it, share in the emotion but not the consequences of the situation.

Yes, on some level “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” is a ridiculous song, but sometimes if we let ourselves get caught up in the drama, not the logic (I already tried that) we can go on a journey and it’s awesome. I don’t think when I sing along to this song, I’m really mocking it. It’s fun, it’s dramatic and like a good summer movie, it can be a great experience without having profound levels of emotional development.

On some level rocking out to this song is like looking forward to emotional wrenching scenes in a sad movie, which we do. We love to revel emotional peaks and hearing Bonnie Taylor hit that high note and scream “I really need you tonight.” She rocks out in such a melodramatic way that we can’t help but feel like we are part of the journey in this song.

Maybe we are mocking this song, maybe not but for me it’s a combination of both, but regardless this song brings a smile to my face.

Now the music video is a different issue. Alone in mansion, ok, ahh creepy guy with lights in his eyes! Ok, calm down there are students sitting in class, um now one of them has a dove and then someone just threw water on guys with goggles, dancing ninjas?!?! She’s running, um fencers, dinner table, wait a sec, the bright kids are choirboys? Now why is there an angel?!? No way, she’s a teacher in a boys school and it was dream, I get it.

OMG!! One of the students has bright eyes!!!!!!!!!

Seriously, how can you not love this song?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Piece Of My Heart by Erma Franklin/Janis Joplin/Melissa Etheridge

Erma Franklin, the older sister of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin who never made it big.

Janis Joplin, whose one of the most influential singers in popular music who died tragically from a drug overdoes.

Melissa Etheridge, a powerful singer-songwriter who inspired the world through her music, her voice and her courage as a breast cancer survivor.

These three artists are linked together by one song, “Piece Of My Heart.” Written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns, this first recording of this song was by Erma Franklin the older sister of Aretha Franklin, one of the most influential singer in American pop music and ranked number one as the greatest singer of all time. While Aretha had great critical and commercial success, Erma and her other sister Carolyn struggled in the music business. Erma had a darker and less vibrant voice than Aretha. She faced other misfortunes in her singing career and in the mid-1970s left the business. Erma passed away in 2002 from throat cancer, never fulfilling her dream of making it in the music business while her younger sisters legendary status as the Queen of Soul continues to grow.

Erma’s biggest success was with “Piece Of My Heart” in 1967 which peaked at number sixty-two on the billboard hot 100 list. “Piece Of My Heart” expresses a unique struggle in which the narrator feels that she is giving all that she can to the relationship but wants to stick it out, even though it is causing her pain. Erma sings soulfully pulling back on “didn’t I give you nearly everything that a woman possibly could?” and later effortlessly moving across the range of her voice in the second verse “and you never hear me when I cry at night.” The background is classic Atlantic Soul with a laid-back gospel feeling in the background instruments and vocalists. Erma’s expresses the pain and struggle in the song but there is a sense of restraint not fully acknowledging the innate conflict within the song. In contrast, Janis Joplin mercilessly expresses inner turmoil like few other singers have ever done before.

In 1968, Janis Joplin with her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company covered “Piece Of My Heart.” Janis Joplin proved to the world that “a woman can be tough” performing and partying just as hard as her male contemporaries. Her attitude and style stood out against conventions of not only how people thought a woman should look but also how a woman should act. Even in our day and age, her scraggly appearance and raw voice stand out as a unique challenge to the way that people view the woman in popular culture.

After listening to Erma’s recording of “Piece Of My Heart” almost everything about Janis Joplin’s seems different. Instead of a clean blues band introduction, a dirty, raunchy and aggressive guitar with the rest of the band builds to Janis entrance. Though the bands sound completely different they both share a sense of bluesy expression leaning hard on notes that color the chords and pulling the tempo back creating different but expressive grooves.

Janis takes the blues convention and blows it apart. Her voice is raspy, untrained and has a tone that is both undesirable somewhat painful to listen to, However there is something so open and desperate in her expression that it not only intrigues but also engages the listener.

Janis starts the verse gently is after screaming out “come on.” Her tone cleans up on the word “feel” and then later on the next high note on “yeah” she howls leading up to the chorus. She sings the course with a chorus with a combination of anger, frustration and exacerbation. When she sings “you know you got it, if it makes you feel good, there’s almost a sense of servitude.

In the second verse, she adds layers to the lyrics repeating the word “never.” When children can’t find ways to express themselves sometimes they just repeat a word “I really, really, really, REALLY want this toy” this same kind of desperation and fixations is expressed when Janis repeats “never.” This is followed by Janis sobbing through the word “crying” before pulling herself together: “each time I tell myself that I, well I can't stand the pain, but when you hold me in your arms, I'll sing it once again.”

When Janis sings the out the loud high note after “you know you got it” in the second to last iteration of the verse, she shows us the most raw of emotion. There is nothing holding her back. It’s concentrated emotion with all the impurities left in the mixture. The amazing thing is how good hearing Janis’ pain feels to us as listeners. Unfortunately Janis’ demons were all too real and she died at the age of 27, from a heroin overdoes.

Melissa Etheridge is one of those artists that even though you may not love her music, you still hope for her success. Working her way up thought he music business she rejected the images that people suggested that she adopt working as an uncompromising singer and songwriter. Her breakout hit was “Come To My Window” and has released a total of ten albums, three of which have gone multi-platinum. One of the greatest female rock singers she is thought of as being the female Bruce Springsteen matching him in her musicianship and uncompromising devotion to her fans.

In October 2004, Etheridge was diagnosed with breast cancer and in the following month, she underwent chemotherapy. Etheridge did not perform the next year and was rarely seen in the public eye. Then in February of 2005, she performed with Joss Stone in a tribute to Janis Joplin. Joss started the performance singing another Janis Joplin song “Cry Baby” and then Melissa Etheridge came out on stage, head bald from the side effects of chemotherapy and showed the world that she was back.

When she first approached the microphone and sang “c’mon” with her energetic and powerful voice it was clear that this was a special moment in popular music. After the huge opening of the song, the whole band quieted down and Melissa drew the crowd in. With her eyes closed Melissa quietly sang “didn’t I make you feel” and then opened her eyes and flashed a joyous smile and her face with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Her voice, a unique blend of soul and rock, sensuously snaked around the notes of the melody. The camera panned back for a long view with Janis looking on from above the band approvingly when Melissa sang, “well, I’m going to show you.” When the camera came back to her face as Melissa sang “a woman can be tough.”

With this performance, this song became not only a tribute of Janis’ legacy but also a glorious celebration of the spirit in woman all over the world who have courageously faced breast cancer. If Melissa Etheridge’s scream at the end of the performance and her whole performance doesn’t prove that a woman can be tough, I don’t know what does.

The legacy of “Piece Of My Heart” lies in Erma Franklin’s dreams, Janis Joplin’s tragic life and Melissa Etheridge’s triumphant performance. With each artist, layers of expression are added to “Piece Of My Heart reminding us of the power of music to express the spirit and soul of its artists. Through the artists we understand not only what this songs means to the artist but what it means to ourselves pulling us closer to a piece of our hearts.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Heart of the Matter by Don Henley/India.Arie

I would like to think that I’m a person who is above holding grudges however one person comes to mind that I have yet to forgive for something she did over four years ago.

Maybe it’s because of how she not only disrespected me but also my wife, and maybe it’s because she let me down as a friend. If forgiveness is not only an act of excusing mistakes but also an act of renouncing our anger than in forgiveness we are not only acting to change the way other people feel but also to effect our own feelings.

Our popular culture has thoroughly examined almost every facet of love including the first kiss, falling in love, the sexual expression of love and the circumstances and aftermath of break-ups. However, few songs examine forgiveness, the final step in the break-up that in many ways is the hardest. Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter” examines forgiveness in a personal and meaningful way that challenges us to reexamine the feelings in our hearts arguing that though it’s impossible to forget, forgiveness lies within ourselves.

Don Henley became popular as a member of the Eagles, the most successful recording artists of the 1970s maintaining two albums in the top 10 selling albums of all time. With their mix of rock, folk and country the Eagles reflected the joy of the American experience with songs like “Take It Easy” and darkness of the American soul with “Hotel California.” Henley with the momentum of the Eagles started a solo career and along with writing partners, Mike Campbell and J. D. Souther wrote “The Heart of the Matter” for Henley’s third solo album The End of the Innocence in 1989.

“The Heart of the Matter” is a monologue with Henley speaking to himself about his feelings about a love that he has lost. The first verse starts with a phone call from a friend that informs Henley that his passed love has found someone new. The lyrics unfold poetically describing the break-up.

And how I lost me and you lost you
What are these voices outside love's open door
Make us throw off our contentment
And beg for something more?

Something inside of them made them look beyond each other’s contentment and “beg” for something more. He doesn’t know why they sought something more in other people and there isn’t a sense that this is one person’s fault.

The chorus starts with a rising line with long notes that draw strength to the words “I’m leaning to live with out you now,” but the words “I miss you sometimes” are sung closer to speaking, a honest statement through a tough facade. The next two lines speak to the idea the through the pursuit of knowledge we only gain more questions. It is from this perspective that Henley acknowledges how little he really understands and how he has to relearn what it means to love.

People use the phrase” the heart of the matter” to get to the truth of a situation. Don Henley utilizes this phrase to examine a relationship not only getting to the core of the situation but also the emotional truth. This requires strength and honesty and sometimes the will gives in. “Thoughts scatter” because we are trying to understand something that we can’t on a logical level, which is exactly what the depths of the human heart show us.

The rhythms of melody speed up through “and my thoughts seem to scatter but I think it’s about. . .” He’s working through this ideas in his head and what comes out is after a slight hesitation is that it’s about forgiveness. When Henley sings “even if you don’t love me anymore” he is recognizing that “forgiveness” isn’t going to get his love back, but is the key to understanding what happened and moving on with his life.

The second verse takes a broader look at love. Henley contemplates the harshness of the world and how love can exist despite all the harm, we do to each other. He follows stating that it is trust that leads to happiness and not pride. This not only speaks in a broader sense but also to Henley himself as forgiveness requires him to put aside his pride to trust himself and his own feelings.

Every word in this song is meaningful. Each turn in the melody pulls at feelings and speaks to a place deep within us. In popular music, men rarely express their feelings like in “The Heart of the Matter.” Through wise words and honestly, Henley reminds us that a man is not defined by acts of physicality strength but by his emotional maturity and character.

India.Arie covered “The Heart of the Matter” for her third solo album Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship in 2006. One of my high school students introduced me to this soulful interpretation. India.Arie rich tone across her entire range and elegant interpretation brings an optimistic sheen to this song with a level of strengths and resolves.

When we forgive people we no only excuse the mistakes of others but we renounce our anger and make a pledge to start anew. Forgiveness is one of the most powerful ideas in our morality. It allows penance for our sins and rehabilitation for our crimes. However, forgiveness is one of the most difficult things for us as humans.

In the bridge Henley states that even though people let us down and hurt our pride we need to out it aside because the anger we carry will eat us up inside. Yes, the anger I feel for this person is a dark place in my heart and I’m not ready to excuse her mistake because I don’t feel that she even thinks she did anything wrong. I’m not ready to renounce my anger because she’s never apologized to me.

Can I forgive her without her apologizing to me? I wish I could, and maybe it’s just going to take time. It is about forgiveness. Not about anything, I can get back from her or even her feelings. What angers us the most about people are exactly the things that we dislike and feel insecure about ourselves. Forgiving others is really more about forgiving ourselves, accepting our own mistakes and maybe that is what is at the heart of the matter.

“When you forgive you love and when you love, God's light shines upon you”
-dialogue from the film Into The Wild