Monday, June 29, 2009

Sexyback by Justin Timberlake

The summer of 2006 was a challenging time in the world. Tension between Israeli and Palestinian forces resulted Israel’s first ground invasion into Gaza since it’s withdrawal a year earlier. The fighting in Darfur between government-backed militias and rebel groups which led to more than 200,000 deaths and forced 2 million from their homes, continued despite a peace agreement that was signed in May of 2006.

More tragic and dire was the fact that there was no “sexy.” No one was quite sure exactly when we lost “sexy” or how it disappeared but the fact was that somehow “sexy” was gone. When it seemed that all hope was lost, Justin Timberlake brought “sexy” back!!

Timberlake’s first single off his second album FutureSex/LoveSounds not only promised to bring “Sexyback” but was itself the “sexy” that was so lacking in our lives. This was such a powerful moment in our culture that them other boy’s simply didn’t know hot to act and as we turned around, Justin picked up the slack.

We first got to know Justin Timberlake as a member ‘N Sync. This group, a manufactured corporate boy band was releasing finely constructed but derivative pop hits like “I Want You Back”

As time when on, it became clear the member of ‘N Sync were not satisfied with swimming in the kiddie pool of popular music and decided to stretch the boundaries of popular music with more adventurous hits like “Gone.”

Now to no one’s surprise in 2002, the members of ‘N Sync went their separate ways. While my money was on a JC Chasez on having the best shot at a solo music career it was Justin Timberlake who most firmly established himself as a solo artist.

After his first album, Justified, Timberlake went into the studio with producer Timberland to try something different. Timberlake describes “Sexyback” as an “experiment gone right.” Not satisfied with how his voice sounded on the record, Timberlake decided to experiment with different ways that he could make his vocals have more a distorted rock sound.

While experimenting with different vocal effects, Timberlake tried sticking a microphone in a guitar amp and found the sound he was looking for. Most distortion and effects are done to vocals after a clean track has been recorded but Justin’s vocals were recorded distorted coming straight out of a guitar amp giving a unique an dirty distorted tone.

The distorted rock vocals against Timbaland’s hip-hop beat was an amalgamation of styles. Rarely in dance music are the vocals distorted in a dark and gravely way and rarely is rock vocals backed with a hip-hop beat. The combination of these two styles combined the driving energy of hip-hop with the intriguing darkness of hard rock music.

The words in “Sexyback” are boastful, and a little kinky. After declaring that he is bringing sexy back, Justin goes on to talk about how he’s a slave and wiling to take punishment if he “misbehaves.” With the distortion the lyrics don’t come across all that clearly and the most apparent words are encouragements to dance and party, which is really what this song is about. Justin isn’t so much bringing sexy back himself but setting up a environment to “get your sexy on.”

We all owe a great debt to Justin Timberlake for bringing the sexy back, now if someone can just bring back the “lower unemployment rate” we’ll be set.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Man In The Mirror by Michael Jackson

It’s hard for me put together words about the passing of Michael Jackson. I’ve talked about what he means to me in a previous post about the Jackson 5 song, “I Want You Back.” In that post, I not only talk about the Jackson 5 but how I feel about Michael Jackson as an adult.

A lot of news stories are talking about how great music was but they aren’t saying what it is about the music that is so great, so I will try to do that here in tribute to Michael Jackson.

“Man In The Mirror” is one of Michael Jackson’s masterpieces and one of the great examples of American pop music. This remarkable song effortlessly melds together different genres of popular music to create a song that is both intimately personal and powerfully universal. Jackson doesn’t so much as sing in this song as he confesses, prays and preaches not only for himself but for all of us. When people complain about everything that is wrong about popular music, the immoral subject matter, and the lack of heart, my counter-argument is “Man In The Mirror” represents everything that is right about popular music.

When you look at the cover of Michael Jackson’s third solo album Bad, it’s a little silly. Michael dressed head to toe in leather putting on his best tough guy expression (the eyeliner really didn’t help). At the time, I remember actually believing that Jackson was tough, but really come on, Michael is the last guy you want backing you up in a bar fight.

The thing was that we bought it at the time but listening back through that album now, the “tougher” songs with the rougher edges like “Bad” and “Dirty Diana” though finely crafted pop songs seem like more of an act then a genuine expression of what was in Michael Jackson’s heart.

In Jackson’s previous two solo albums, there weren’t any songs about Jackson’s world view. It was popular music. There was interesting things that about love and relationships but nothing that truly reflective issues in our society except for “Billie Jean” which dealt a woman accusing Jackson of being the father of his child.

So when Jackson released “Man In the Mirror” as the fourth single from Bad, it was a revealing look into how Michael viewed the world. Now it’s not like we didn’t have artist who dealt with social issues. At the same time that Michael Jackson was singing about zombies with "Thriller," Springsteen was singing about joblessness and the blue-collar struggles. However, there was something different with “Man In The Mirror.”

As I turned up the collar on a favorite winter coat
This wind is blowin' my mind
I see the kids in the street with not enough to eat
Who am I to be blind pretending not to see their needs?

Michael is revealing to us his flaws. He walks by homeless people without doing anything just like most of us do. He’s dealing with feelings that we all share and are ashamed of. By expressing his own feelings he invites us to reflect on the way we interact with the world.

The song opens up in the chorus with a simple message, “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change,” that is reinforced by a gospel choir enters bringing us to church. Combining the synthesized background music with the gospel sound makes the gospel feeling less threatening and unfamiliar while adding a layer of soul that lack in many music of the time.

Jackson’s vocal delivery makes the song. He starts with a quiver in the beginning of the song like someone softly telling you a secret. His voice grows to an elated peak at the chorus and energizes with urgency towards the end of the song.

One of the most misunderstood but effective vocal techniques that Jackson utilizes are
the vocal percussion that Jackson interjects between the phrases and the way he accents certain syllables. If you just took out everything in “Man In The Mirror” except for the syllables that he accents and his interjections you would be left with an incredible rhythmic groove. This combined with his melodic delivery and his wide range of expression is why many consider Jackson one of the greatest pop singers of all time.

In the end of the song, Michael preaches to us that if we look at ourselves and make a change, it will make the world a better place. I don’t know if Michael Jackson truly did this in his life. I want to believe he did. I want to believe that he died a good man. I want to believe that what he sang about in “Man In The Mirror” came straight from his heart.

I’ll never know what kind of man Michael Jackson really was and it doesn’t matter if “Man In The Mirror” was just some attempt to make people believe that he cared about the world because I believe in this song as I believe in Michael Jackson.

Thank you Michael

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I'm On A Boat by The Lonely Island

One of the things I love about my wife Diana is how she has introduced me to new experiences. Often she will suggest that we do activities that I wouldn’t necessarily think of and these experience make up some of my favorite memories. So, when Diana suggested that we go on whale watching, I didn’t think twice about it.

Too bad boat trip ended up being a puke-fest.

One of our best friends got married last weekend in Carmel, California. It’s a small city South of Monterey Bay right next to the legendary Golf Course, Pebble Beach. The wedding was on Friday, so we decided to stay for the whole weekend and spend some quality time by the ocean.

Before we left, Diana and I were in contact with our friend Bonnie, who was also coming to Morgan’s wedding. Bonnie thought up the idea of going whale watching and her and Diana found this company, “Monterey Whale Watching.” The website looked great and there were some good testimonials so we went ahead and got tickets.

On Saturday morning we checked in with Monterey Whale Watching on “Old Fisherman's Wharf” and Bonnie, with her friend Aaron met up with Diana and me. Before we got on the boat, the boat’s naturalist did a little speech to all of the passengers.

The naturalist went over some safety rules on the boat, and explained what to look for to spot a whale. Then she proceeded explain what to do if we got seasick. She explained how if you lost the “good fight” and had to throw up to do it off of the back of the boat, not the sides (because the puke would travel down the side of the boat). She went over the best place to be on the boat to go if you felt seasick and told us if we were feeling seasick, to take deep breaths and keep our eyes on the horizon. In retrospect, it wasn’t a good sign that the naturalist spent more time talking about seasickness then watching whales.

We all piled on to this boat, The Pacific Explorer a 75-foot long and 23-foot wide “wildlife observation vessel.” It had a small cabin in the center bar and space around the outside to walk around.

Diana and I started our boat ride sitting on the side of the boat and as I gazed at the 10 to 20 foot waves, I started to feel queasy. After about ten minutes, we found Bonnie and Aaron who were at the back of the boat leaning on the back railing. As Diana started talking to them, it happened, I made an a-line to the back railing and there went my breakfast.

About five minutes after my first “pukage” Aaron lost it as well, and I saw his Chai-Tea Latte and Cranberry Scone fly out into ocean. The sight of this caused a visceral reaction in my body and I lost whatever was left in my stomach. By this time, both Bonnie and Diana trying to take care of us handing us gobs of paper towels, provided by crew.

In my own haze of seasickness, I began to notice that Aaron and I were not the only people leaning over the back of the boat throwing up. This made me feel a little less embarrassed and not so emasculated. Some people didn’t quite make it over the back so there were puddles of puke around the back area which the shipmates kept cleaning up. Meanwhile people took their turns running to the back of their ship to get better acquainted with the contents of their stomachs.

A little bit more than half of the boat got sick and the various friends and family members approached the crew members about the people who were getting seasick. They did provide paper towels but they didn’t do much else. Diana and Bonnie asked them repeatedly as did many other to turn back early, but they did not. We stayed out for the 2 1/2 hours.

Now I understand that if you have one person sick on a boat ride then it’s not fair to the other paying customers to end the boat ride early. However, if half of your passengers are sick and the other half are not having a good time because there were no whales to be seen (though Bonnie did say she was an otter laughing at the people who were sick) you probably should cut the boat ride short.

As I was leaning against the back rail trying to focus my gaze on the horizon (which didn’t help AT ALL) I was desperately trying to play music in my head to help the time go faster. The only thing I could come up with was marching band music, which didn’t help at all. Later I found out that Aaron had the same idea as I did and had “I’m On A Boat” going on in his head.

We certainly were on a boat and though it wasn’t nearly as glamorous as Andy Samberg described with his “flippy-floppies,” we definitely felt the righteous anger that Samberg inexplicably directs at the good things on the boat. Our anger, however, was focused on this “wildlife observation vessel” that we could not wait to get off of.

Even though the boat ride was one of most miserable experiences of my life, I don’t blame Diana or Bonnie. It’s not their fault. The thing is, I don’t even blame the boat company for the bad weather and the fact that we didn’t see any whales. However, the fact that we didn’t turn around after so many people got seasick . . . yeah, that’s not cool.

I just thank God that I don't have to clean up puke as part of my job.

Monday, June 22, 2009

I heart Richard Simmons

When my wife, Diana was in grade school, she would often go to day camps during the summer. A wife and husband team ran summer art camps my Diana went to. The husband and wife would switch off activities and one of the activities the wife did involved the children exercising. This fairly overweight woman would put in a copy of Richard Simmon’s “Sweatin’ To The Oldies,” sit in a chair in the back of the gym and watch the kids dance around with the tape.

Now that’s physical education.

Richard Simmons in a hilarious personality. Sometimes he goes on “The Late Show With David Letterman.” David and Richard had a love/hate relationship, well more hate then love. For example in this clip when Richard to trying to promote his steamer.

The tray underneath the steamer was planted by Letterman. I love how David is poking holes in everything Richard is saying and how indignant Richard’s response is to Dave. Now this is all is in good fun. That's one of the things about Richard Simmons. He has always had a sense of humor about himself, which is evident in this classic clip from the improv show “Whose Line Is It Anyways.”

This show IS broadcasted on ABC Family network. Now, there’s a lot going on here. I’m not really going to get into. I’m going this one alone. If you don't understand what is so funny about the clip it's best that you just figure it out on their own.

I got introduced to Richard Simmons through his infomercials. I love infomercials, QVC and the Home Shopping Network. Every night as I’m getting ready to go to bed I flip on the television in our bedroom and watch some quality television advertising before I go to bed. I’ve never bought anything off of an infomercial however, I just find the internal logic and advertising techniques of these commercials hilarious. Like this commercial for the “comfort wipe.”

Now, this is actually a great idea. Many older people with limited range of motion could use a device like this. And seriously, this is the greatest innovation to toilet paper since the 1880s!! I like how “following the contours of your body” is a slight curve. If they were just selling this to people with a limited range of motion that would be one thing but they advertise this product for “someone who just doesn’t want to touch dirty toilet paper.” Wow.

One of the kings of infomercials is Richard Simmons. He’s had his workout tapes, his “Deal-A-Meal” program and his current “Food Mover” program. Yes, he is selling a product, but his message is one of the most genuine that you hear on television. Richard Simmons bases his program around the idea of cutting down caloric intake while exercising more to burn calories, resulting in losing weight.

This is how to lose weight, pure and simple and it’s amazing how many weight loss programs, diets, pills and devices don’t work off of this idea. I’m not saying that understanding the relationship between caloric intake and exercising more makes weight-loss any easier, but it does make it clear the fallacy of other weight-loss programs.

Surfing around the web for hilarious Richard Simmons moments, I came across “Richard Simmons on Capitol Hill”

Once you get over the initial shock of seeing Simmons in a suit, it’s hard to not take his personal and passionate speech seriously. I don’t know a lot about the program that he is talking about, but his message is right on. With the “No Child Left Behind” program federal funding for schools is based on tests score. If a school gets tests scores that do not meet, their “Adequate Yearly Progress” funding is reduced. These tests are in reading and math, so educators feel pressured to spend more time preparing for these tests, which often results in cutting arts and physical education classes in to spen more time on reading and math.

This combined with our fast-food culture and archaic physical education classes that focus more on sports then teaching students about their bodies has created a nation-wide health crisis. There needs to be someone waving the flag for this thing and I thank God that Richard Simmons is out there trying to make something happen.

I’ve always found Richard Simmons entertaining, but after watching his speech to congress I truly respect and admire him. Simmons has a huge heart and a beautiful message that just makes me feel happy to be alive.

Love you too Richard.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Mack The Knife by Bobby Darin

Not all lyrics are created equal.

Some lyrics are trite and are just there to serve the melody, other times lyrics play an equal importance in the song and with artist like Bob Dylan, the lyrics are the most important expressive and artistic aspect of a song.

Regardless of the level of the lyrical artistry, I like knowing the lyrics and what they are about. Often when I’m talking to friends and they a mention and I casually mention what they lyrics are about they are often shocked especially when the lyrics seems to say express something different then the words. One of the most striking examples of this is “Mack The Knife” from The Threepenny Opera

Between World War I and World War II, life for Germans was so bad that all artist could do was make jokes about life’s misfortune. This type of “black humor” was the only way people could cope with life. Two of the most important artists of this time in Germany who used dark humor to comment on life were the composer Kurt Weill and the playwright Bertolt Brecht. In 1928, these two legendary artist combined forces to compose the musical The Threepenny Opera.

The Threepenny Opera is the story of Macheath. He falls in love with a girl named Polly and wants to marry her against her father’s wishes. The father, Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, who controls the beggars in London, successfully gets Macheath arrested and sentenced to death. Luckily Macheath is pardoned right before he is executed. Our hero is released and we are made to feel happy that Macheath has escaped such an unjust and cruel fate.

Before this story begins, we are told about this person, our hero, Macheath, otherwise known as “Mack the Knife.” The musical opens with a “moritat” a story of murder performed strolling musician. The moritat singer bookends the show singing about hos exploits.

Macheath is bad man even though it’s not clear what exactly he has done. The police have arrested him numerous times for crimes but Macheath always gets released because he served in the military with the Chief of Police. Even though Macheath has done some horrible things, we cheer him on in this story as he fights for his love and freedom, with the warnings of “Mack the Knife” echoing in our memory.

What people originally heard was not a big band arrangement with a swinging jazz vocalist out front, instead they heard this:

This recording of Brecht singing “Mack the Knife” in German is kind of creepy isn’t it? Listening to this song feels like I’m wearing a shirt that doesn’t quite fit right but I just can’t get it off. . ick.

That’s the original “Mack the Knife.” It’s eerie and just a tad disturbing. It’s like someone telling a group of people a joke about a girl being raped and laughing at his own joke while everyone else in the room is just sickened.

When Bobby Darin told his management that he wanted to record “Mack the Knife,” after he had just scored with the hits “Splish Splah” and “Dream Lover,” they argued against it. Darin recorded it anyways and it became his biggest hit. Many people recorded this song after Darin brought it into our cultural consciousness. My personal favorite is this Robbie William’s cover.

The song opens talking about a shark as a metaphor for Macheath. The “scarlet billows” is blood flowing while Macheath’s fancy gloves never show “a trace of red.” The next verse talks about a body “oozing life” as the singer wonders if he just saw Macheath around the corner. The singers takes us down by the river, where a cement bag is weighing someone down to the bottom of the river which the singers sees as a sign that Macheath is back in town. The last part of the song lists off people who Macheath killed. It’s kind of odd how this is the part of the song when it kicks into a joyful shout chorus.

I’ve always loved “Mack the Knife” but ever since I found out the history behind the song and what the lyrics are about, I feel a little guilty enjoying hearing about this sadistic man, Macheath. The thing is, I like the song even more knowing what it’s about, and the feeling that I shouldn’t is what makes it all the more fun.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Landslide by Fleetwood Mac

I didn’t really fit in when I was in high school. I spent most of my time practicing piano and violin and composing music preparing to be a music major in college. I was perfectly happy staying in on Saturday night watching a movie or reading a book. I think I only went to one party during high school. I never had a group of friends I hung out with but I did have a couple close friends who I would hang out with.

I guess the main reason I didn't fit in with the people in high school was that I didn’t understand them. People would talk about being on sports teams or the crazy things they did on the weekend and I just didn’t get why these things were so important. This probably would not have bothered me as much if I felt that more people understood me better. Only a few people seemed to understand my love of music and how I viewed the world. For some reason, I just didn’t see things the same way that my peers did in high school.

When I graduated Mercer Island High School, there was a tradition of interspersing music performances within the graduation exercises. We had a pretty musical class with a lot of people who wanted to perform at graduation so what the administration decided was that some people would perform during graduation and others would perform during the senior assembly.

I auditioned and performed a couple times in graduation. I opened the ceremony with an arrangement that I made of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on piano (which has a story attached to it for later post), I accompanied some girls from choir singing “In My Life” by the Beatles, accompanied a flute player and I got together a band to play “Ants Marching” by Dave Matthews Band.

One of the people who auditioned was a girl I knew from orchestra. She wanted to perform “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac at graduation. When I heard this, I scoffed at the idea because it didn’t make much sense to me why that song would be appropriate for a graduation ceremony unlike the musical performances I was involved in. In retrospect, “Ants Marching” doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense in a graduation ceremony either but who knows what was really going on in my head back then. The administration did not choose her to perform at graduation but instead she performed at the senior assembly.

I’ve listened to “Landslide” periodically over the years but it’s never brought me back to that performance at the senior assembly until a couple days ago when I heard this song playing in the background at a store. The night before I heard the song at the store my wife and I were talking about our lives and it hit me how much change was in our futures. I know life isn’t really a life worth living if there is not some kind of change that is constantly happening, but knowing that doesn’t make change any less scary.

Stevie sings that she’s afraid of change because what she’s built her life around is changing as well. Though Stevie is reflective and a little sad hearing Stevie sing about her feelings is comforting. "Landslide" reminds me that there is someone out who shares my fears. This doesn’t make my feelings go away, but it makes me feel less alone.

I guess this is what she was singing about at the senior assembly. Just because I wasn’t feeling that at the time doesn’t mean that she wasn't and that our peers weren’t feeling this as well. Even though I may not have understood how what this meant to you at the time I get it now. At least in this small way I understand a little better the people I went to high school with and that means a lot.

The weird thing is, while I don’t remember any of the musical performances from the graduation ceremony but I can clearly remember how her voice sounded singing “Landslide,” vulnerable and pure, a little sad, but mostly happy, fighting back tears through a smile that shined like the stars.

Monday, June 15, 2009


I have shingles.

No, not the stuff you put on your roof, rather the adult form of chicken pox.

God has a weird sense of humor. I got through a whole year of working in an elementary school full of children who see daily hand washing as optional. In addition, my school had at least one confirmed case of the H1N1 flu, otherwise known as “swine flu” but hilariously known as “Hamthrax.”

Here’s the deal with shingles:

When you have the chicken pox or any other virus, the virus doesn’t completely leave the body. For one reason or another (probably for me the stress of the last couple days of school) the chicken pox virus comes raging back in the form of shingles otherwise known (well only to doctors) as the “varicella zoster virus.”

So, I technically didn’t “get” shingles from anyone. Everyone who has had the chicken pox or the chicken pox vaccine has the virus inside of them laying dormant. In my body, the virus got bored and decided to have a party. I can’t give anyone else shingles unless they haven’t had chicken pox. So if you are an adult who hasn’t had chicken pox steer clear away from me (not that you need another excuse to avoid me) and go get yourself a chicken pox vaccine.

According to over 90% of American over the age of 15 have had the chicken pox. The chances of someone who has had chicken pox getting shingles is 1% for people age 80 to 90 years old, .5% for people age 50 to 60 years and .25% for people ages 20 to 50 years old.

WOAH. .25%?!? Are you kidding? 1 out of 400 people, and I was the lucky winner!?!?

This wouldn’t frustrate me so much except for the fact that I NEVER beat the odds when it comes to playing games, gambling or in general living life (I’m kidding. I’ve actually been incredible lucky throughout my life, that’s just the shingles talking).

Those are pretty slim chances. What’s even weirder is that my brother had shingles a couple years ago and one of his best friends is working through shingles right now. The chances of me not only having shingles but also knowing two other people who have had shingles at my age is . . . um. . . . I think I just multiple the chance of getting shingles by the chances of me knowing someone who has shingles twice. . . ok so that’s 1/64,000,000. Either I can’t do math at all (which is a possibility) or those chances are pretty slim.

So there is good news. I did catch the shingles early, so my outbreak is mild. We live in the day and age where we actually have effective anti-viral medications so my doctor put me on Valtrex. Ok. . . time for the Valtrex jokes. . . If you don’t’ know what I’m talking about watch this commercial. . .

From the prescription information: This medicine [Valtrex] is an antiviral used for treating shingles, cold sores, and treating, suppressing or reducing the transmission of genital herpes in patients with normal immune systems. It is also used to treat chickenpox in children and teenagers. It is also used to suppress genital herpes in patients with HIV infection.

Note how shingles is the first use for Valtrex and genital herpes is the last one listed. Don’t you love how herpes is more marketable in our society then shingles?

Not that I feel the need to defend my um. . . “cleanliness,” but NO Kathleen, when I found out I had shingles I didn’t just up my prescription of Valtrex. Seriously Kathleen, YOU’RE A DOCTOR, let’s be a little bit more sensitive here. Well, your comment was not nearly as bad as the reaction I got from Elizabeth, who is a med students . Immediately after I told her she retreated about six feet away from me like she just realized I had leprosy.

I guess that’s why Elizabeth is still in medical school.

I’m not really in that much pain, I just really crotchety. My left chest and back feel sore and there’s pain that comes in waves, enough to make my twinge but not enough to debilitate me. I can sleep just fine especially after taking a couple Advil’s. I’m kind of tired, which makes sense as my body tries to fight this thing off but not so bad that I can’t do stuff, I’m just moving at a slower speed.

To my knowledge songs about shingles. If there is, I don’t want really want to hear them. So let’s just chill out, relax, and enjoy, a little “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate.

Nothing says “You Sexy Thing” like a suit with black and white vertical stripes.

Hope y’all are having a great shingle-free start to your summers.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Summer Nights (from Grease) by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John

In 2007, NBC produced the reality television series, “Grease: You’re The One That I Want” to pick the two leads of a Broadway revival of Grease. The show a moderate success and a incredible promotion tool for the revival which had enormous ticket sales. Now, I actually never watched this show, but I’ll never forget this music video that was produced to promote the show.

This “medley” of songs from Grease stared Device van Outen one of the co-host of the NBC show. When I first saw this video on television, it just left me speechless. The medley is put together in a rather unorthodox way splicing different songs together, leading off with “Sandra Dee” one of the less well-known songs from the show. However, what most people were thinking about when they watched this video were the girls in black lingerie doing a not-so-subtle striptease dance.

After I saw this video on television I went to the official show website where it was posted and sent the link to a couple of friends. A couple days I noticed that the video was no longer on the website. Apparently, people complained and thought that this was an inappropriate way to promote a family-orientated television show about casting a family-orientated Broadway show.

I got to agree here, some of the moves on the chairs are a little racy and if NBC really wanted “Grease: You’re The One That I Want” to be a family show, this was a little much. The ironic thing is that the originators of Grease never intended to be a family show.

Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s 1972 musical, Grease was a show filled with expletives including a line when Sandy says “f--- it” to Danny when he asks if she is still mad at him. The original show more openly dealt the issues of teenage sexuality including Sandy’s abstinence, Rizzo’s promiscuity and the differences between the way that males and females view sexuality.

Then in 1978, Randal Kleiser directed the film version of the musical, which cleaned up the language in the musical and dealt with the sexuality of the show in a more subtle and light-hearted way. The film, which is the highest grossing musical of all time has become so popular that revivals of the Broadway show take more after the film then the original stage production. Like most people, the film version of Grease is the one that I know and love.

What makes Grease great goes beyond whether or not there are swear words used in the musical or even the way that sexuality the story deals with sexuality. Grease displays synergy between the music and plot that develops the characters and expresses the emotions in a real and convincing way.

And honestly who doesn’t love “Summer Nights.”

What a way to start a musical. Let’s have the two main characters reminisces about their summer romance but at the same time set across the school from each other. A lesser musical would have had the Sandy and Danny sing separate songs but in Grease they sing about their romance as a duet juxtaposing not only their own perspectives on the romance but the viewpoint of their friends.

The song starts out as Danny responds to his friend questions about his summer romance. Danny boasts while Sandy sheepishly recalls how it felt. The first verse builds to a chorus as Danny and Sandy innocently sing “summer days drifting away to oh, oh those summer nights.”

I clearly remember laughing out loud the first time I watched this film when I was a kid when the boys abruptly enter prodding for details. What’s even better is how the girls are just as nosy as the boys are. This song plays to the stereotypes that guys are more interested in things like “Did you get very far?” while the girls are interested in the romance, “Was it love at first site?” “Summer Nights” doesn’t so much perpetuate stereotypes as much as the song provides insight by comparing the ideas we have about the way girls and boys view sexually.

The form of “Summer Nights” is very simple, the duet builds to a chorus and then the response from the back-ground singers. This is repeated four times without a bridge. You don’t really notice the repetitive nature of the from because of the evolving background vocals which are a throw back to the doo-wop music of the late 1950s.

As the song builds Danny and Sandy provide more details because of the prodding of their friends. Danny gets more explicit, “well she was good, you know what I mean” while Sandy swoons “He got friendly, holdin’ my hand.” Danny’s bragging comes off more as funny then chauvinistic because he’s singing the same melody with Sandy in the same joyful musical space.

In researching “Summer Nights” I found this parody title “Ghetto Nights.”

What struck me about this version is that is still has the same warm-fuzzy teenage romance feeling at the end of the song.

There is something pure and joyful about Grease. The original Broadway show had it, the film had it, the over-sexualized promotion video had and the ghettoized version had it. It’s that feeling of summer nights, falling in love and a simpler time in our lives which is why we keep coming back to Grease.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Girls In Their Summer Clothes by Bruce Springsteen

“Girls In Their Summer Clothes” is one of the reasons I love music. Springsteen brings together in a single song nostalgia, pain, hope and most of all beauty. The single most important quality of music is how it makes us feels. You know that quiet smile to yourself as you remember happy memory from your childhood? That is how “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” feels.

After seven albums with the E Street Band that cemented Springsteen as one of the most important forces in rock music he decided to disband the band and do some solo work. Critics had good things to say about Springsteen’s solo work but never reached the popularity of his work with the E Street Band.

Then came the attack on the World Trade Centers on September 11th, 2001. In response to this tragedy, Springsteen recorded his first album with the E Street Band in 18 years, The Rising. One of the few albums in popular music to directly respond to the 9/11. After two successful tours, the E Street Band disbanded again, until their triumphant return in 2007 with Magic, While The Rising received good reviews, critics and fans viewed Magic as an even greater musical accomplishment and “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” is one of the best reasons why.

“Girls In Their Summer Clothes” is symphony of color and light. Springsteen and producer Brenda O’Brien emulated the Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” production techniques featured in “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” creating a depth in the sound that surrounds the listeners. Within this world of sound Springsteen takes the listener on a journey through a summer night and into the hopes of the brokenhearted.

“Girls in their Summer Clothes” begins with a sentimental reflection on a small town during a summer night. The narrator has a certain sense of peace and reflection as he watches girls walk by. There is wonder and glory in the simple beauty of life that continues in the second verse. Springsteen does refer to economic struggle with money being “tight” which is a common theme in his music but this is followed by the hope: “but I know their gonna turn my way.”

The bridge tells a vignette of a small town diner on the edge of town. Springsteen builds the intensity as the waitress, Shaniqua questions what is on Bill’s mind. Like a musical time warp, we enter the bridge as an observer and exit with Bill answering Shaniqua’s concerns.

In the last verse Bill recounts a lost love to Shaniqua “she went away, she cut me like a knife” but is quick to comment how Shaniqua’s presence makes him, “Hello beautiful thing, maybe you could save my life.” In these words, we can feel Shaniqua smiling back to Bill as he explains: “Love's a fool's dance I ain't got much sense but I still got my feet.”

Springsteen adds fascinating musical illustrations throughout this song. In the beginning of the song in the line “well, the street lights shine. . . ” a guitar enders on the word “shine” reverberating like light shining through the darkness. In the second verse the drums enter leading up to a drum hit on the word “smack” supporting the line “A kid’s rubber ball smacks.” Small touches like these though not all always noticed add a level of depth to the song as Springsteen utilizes every musical opportunity to add meaning to the song.

Part of the wonder of the song is in its simplicity. Each phrase of the melody gently rises and falls while the harmony progressing without any surprises. It’s not the complexity of the music but how the simple pieces are arranged that capture the feeling of a summer night.

I can’t really explain why “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” takes me away like it does and that is why I love music so much. I can explain every lyric and note in a song but at the end of every analysis you are left with the way the song makes you feel, which is something that can never be completely understood. Like faith and love, the fact that music is something that we cannot completely explain is why music is so personal, so meaningful, and so magical.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Summer of ‘69 by Bryan Adams

Once upon a time there was no such thing as summer vacation.

Before the Civil War there were two school calendars, one for students in rural communities that gave time off in the spring to help plant crops and in the fall to harvest and one for urban students who had as many as 48 weeks of school a year (compared to the average of 36 weeks students currently have).

In the 1840s education reformers wanted make sure that rural children got more schooling. People also thought that the urban school schedule was too long as medical theories of the times warned that over-stimulation of young minds would lead to nervous disorders and insanity. The compromise extended the rural calendar, while the urban calendar was cut down. The break that was settled on was during the summer. Having time off in the summer allowed children to help with crops and got students out of the classroom during the hottest time of the year.

Summer vacation has come into question with many schools trying out year-round schedules. Since most children do not help out on farms and because of the glory of air conditioning the original reasons to keep children out of the classroom for summer vacation are no longer valid. With the worth of summer vacation coming into the question, I can’t help but wonder if there is something intangible about the days of summer that are worth preserving?

When I think about summer the first song that I think of is Bryan Adam’s 1984 hit, “Summer of ’69.” Throughout his career Adams produced non-offensive pop rock music and one of his biggest hits was his ode to one special summer. What is powerful about this song is that it captures how it felt during that summer while providing perspective that doesn’t over-romanticize the events in the song.

The song starts talking about starting a band. They try hard with dreams of becoming a great rock band but it falls apart. Even though it doesn’t go anywhere, Adams reflects in the chorus that those were the best days in his life. Sometimes things fall apart, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t great when they lasted.

One of the major themes in “Summer of ‘69” the feeling that things last forever. In the chorus Adams, states that the “summer seemed to last forever.” In later choruses, his love interest says that she would wait forever and that “it’d [there love] last forever.” One of the things about being younger is that you think that things truly do last forever and one of the hard things about adulthood is realizing how finite everything is in life.

When Adams thinks back on all of these events, he knows that they have sad endings but he maintains a sense of nostalgia, which is perfectly captured in the chord progression in the song. The verses stay feature primarily major chords but then the first chords of the chorus is a minor chord which adds a darker color to the song before resolving back to a major chord in the end of the chorus.

I worry sometimes that children these days are too busy to have the kinds of memories that Adams sings about to look back on. Maybe it’s not about summer vacation but about our attitude about childhood. Is it important that children have time in their lives where they believe against reality that dreams can happen and that things can last forever? There’s growing pains in which we learn the truth about life but maybe we should spare children that pain and give them reality earlier on.

That's not right.

We have it backwards, we think that learning the realities of life means that things that we believed as children need to be shattered. Instead, these beliefs need to evolve. Our dreams can become reality if we realize the emotional center of our dreams and not material trappings that we so often wish for. Sometimes things do last forever, people die, memories are forgotten but humanity that we all share truly does last forever.

Summer vacation is worth preserving. It's as American as baseball, it's an integral part of growing up and it's reminds us all of the spirit of childhood that lies deep within our hearts.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Suite: Judy Blue Eyes by Crosby, Stills & Nash

When I was in elementary school and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” would come on the radio I eager anticipate the “doodoodoodoo DOOT! Doot doot doo Doodoodoo” at the end. I could always recognize this song because of the incredible harmonies, beautiful melodies and poetic lyrics, but I just wanted to get to the end section. Part of what I annoyed me back then was that I couldn’t really predict when that section was going to come. I’d expect it after a certain phrase, but I would be mistaken. After being mistaken a couple times, I woudl become more impatient with the song. When the ending finally came, I felt like I had been through an ordeal like the way Peter from “Family Guy” felt after watching the extended version of the “Maude” theme song.

Actually, this's EXACTLY how I felt.

What I didn’t appreciate back then is also one of the most amazing things about Crosby, Stills & Nash’s most famous song. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” takes the classical form of the suite into popular music creating a set of four related songs to create a singular music experience.

“Form” in music is a used to describe how the different sections in a piece of music and how the composer arranges these sections. Form is a musical device like melody, harmony and lyrics, which add to the overall expression of a song. The way a composer arranges different sections and the overall length of a song have a significant effect on the way that we understand music.

Crosby Stills and & Nash is one most and enduring supergroup in Rock. The collaboration of these three musicians has been so successful that many know them more for their work as a supergroup than their previous work that made them famous.

David Crosby as a founding member of the Byrds helped create the sound of the 1960s, contributing his songwriting skills and adding vocal harmony to songs like, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Stephen Stills along with Neil Young formed Buffalo Springfield, a band responsible for one of the most important protest song "For What It's Worth."

Graham Nash as a member of The Hollies was part of the “British Invasion,” a movement of British band onto the American popular music scene started by the Beatles. Nash, contributed to many of The Hollies hits helping create their unique vocal harmony heard in their hits like “Bus Stop.”

The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Hollies may not seem like a big deal to us now, but they were important bands of the 1960s and it truly was a momentous thing to for the strongest creative forces of these three bands to come together.

In classical music, a suite is a piece of music that consists of several shorter pieces. During the baroque era, suite usually contained dance music. As classical music developed, the suite form expanded to included different kinds of music.

Crosby, Stills & Nash stick to this classical definition of suite including four shorter pieces that all have a dance feel to them. Each of these sections contrast but also work together to create a unique musical journey.

The first section feels like a standard 1960s mid-tempo rock song. It has some folk flavor to it and predictably follows a verse-chorus song form. This up-beat song contemplates the difficulties in the relationship but is also reaffirming in the challenges. This section is like the beginning of a movie setting up the status-quo with hints of the journey to come.

The second section starts with “Friday evening, Sunday in the afternoon, what have you got to lose?” This section is slower and more contemplative reflecting on suffering and despair in the lyrics. He thinks about leaving concluding “what have I got to lose?” while still wondering if she will come see him after he ahs left.

After the second section slows down the song, the energy in the song seems to dissipate like train coming to rest. However, right when song feels like it’s about to end the song starts up with a Indian influenced raga-like section. The rising voices look outwards in contrast to the second section pondering the beauty in nature. The rising melodies conclude with one of the most beautiful uses of alliteration in popular music “lacy, lilting, leery, losing love, lamenting, change my life, make it right, be my baby.” This conclusion leads directly into the last section a pure expression of joy.

The ending of this song used to feel like a pay-off to me because it finally came, but now that I’m older I enjoy the journey leading up more. Sometimes it takes more effort to focus on the journey and not rush ahead to the ending. There are times when I read a book quickly just to get to the ending, but I’m always left feeling a little hollow. The journey is what makes the ending more meaningful.

It’s not the fact that Peter finally hears “and then there’s Maude” that makes the joke so funny, it’s the fact that we see his smile slowly fade as the song continues to string him along transforming his anticipation into rage.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sunshine Of Your Love by Cream

"Sunshine Of Your Love" live performance
"Sunshine Of Your Love" Clapton solo acoustic performance

If you’re going to form a band and name it Cream, you had better be good and the rock supergroup Cream was better than good, they were unbelievable. Before becoming Mr. “Tears In Heaven,” Eric Clapton had earned a reputation in the 1960s as one of the best blues guitarists alive. His virtuosic playing inspired the graffiti “Clapton is God” on the wall of an underground train station. Formed with Jack Bruce on bass and Ginger Backer on drum critics and musicians alike truly considered these three musicians the cream of the crop.

Cream’s best-selling song in their brief three-years as a band was “Sunshine Of Your Love” a showcase of the skills of all three musicians that set them apart from music at the time and from anything that has produced since.

What was amazing and unique about Cream’s style of rock music was the how grounded the songs were in the blues and jazz tradition. This fusion of these styles influenced bands like Led Zeppelin all the way to Aerosmith adding a dirty primal soul to the rock voice.

Though there are only three musicians playing on “Sunshine Of Your Love,” there are many more musical voices that make up musical landscape of the song. There is Bruce’s voice, Bruce’s bass, Clapton’s guitar, Clapton’s voice and Ginger’s drum set. With many rock groups there are guys playing guitar and singing and really if you just listened to the guitar playing it wouldn’t be that interesting. What is awesome about Cream is that each individual musical voice is a masterpiece in of itself.

The song opens with Bruce’s aggressive blues voice fueled by desperation is answered by Clapton’s more subdued voice filled with regret and heartbreak. When these voices combine in the chorus there is a powerful energy that builds through “I’ve been waiting so long” that reaches a euphoric release on when they moan the words, “sunshine of your love.”

Most of the time in jazz and rock the bass line is the foundation of the groove outlining the strong beats of each measure. Bruce’s descending bass line spends more time on the off-beats than on the beat. Though it may seem simple to play notes on the beat, it takes a years or practice for a bass player to master playing on the beat. Now to have the audacity to create a groove with a bass line that is centered off the beat is insanity. What is unbelievable is not only that he can keep the time playing mostly off the beat but that he plays with the time relaxing the time against the driving drums. This tension creates the truly magical groove in this song.

What is Ginger Backer doing in this song? Nowhere in this song do we hear a regular rock beat, jazz pattern or blues beat on the drum-set. Instead of accenting the off-beats which is typical of rock and jazz drum beats Backer pounds on the on-beats with an almost cave-man like intensity.

In Backer’s hands the drum set becomes much more then a way to keep time but to express emotion. The primal beat pattern he uses may go against convention but as an expressive device is pure genius adding to the dirty torn-down desperate feeling of the song. His fills between phrases which are just plain sick, perfectly in time adding to the line of the melody while keeping the momentum of the song moving forward.

Then there’s Clapton’s guitar solo. It starts with a quote from “Blue Moon” contrasting the idea of the sun and the moon. Like a human voice singing, Clapton creates phrases within his guitar solos. The phrases have breaks like a person taking a breath. The genius of Clapton, it’s not about how fast he can play but how he uses his technique to tell a story through his solos.

What’s inspiring about watching masters artists at work is that everything they do seems effortless. It’s making the difficult seem easy so that we forget how hard something is for a moment and simply enjoy the beauty of what is created. Sometime I listen to “Sunshine Of Your Love” and I’m in awe of the musical virtuosity but more often I’d let it wash over me and feel the primal groove and perfect expression of blues that really is the cream of the crop.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Handle Me With Care by The Traveling Wilburys

In a magical ten day period, rock legends George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan came together to form the rock supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys. All five of these legends were friends and had worked together previously but this was the first time they came together as a band.

George Harrison known to the world as the “quiet” Beatle by 1988 had established himself as a solo artist. Jeff Lynne, famous for his work with Electric Light Orchestra, had solidified his importance in pop musicians a composer, singer, guitarist and record producer. Musicians and critics alike respected Roy Orbison a true rock legend for his inventive song writing and his angelic voice. Tom Petty, the youngest of the group was continuing to come into his own when the Wilburys formed as a rock artist while Bob Dylan continued to add to his legend as one of the most important artist not only in music but in American culture.

“Supergroup” is a term used popular music to refer to a band that is made up of previously established musician. This dream team of sorts is often short-lived and doesn’t always come up with fantastic results. However every so often, these groups create great music like “Handle Me With Care.”

No, the Traveling Wilburys did not reach the heights that Harrison did with the Beatles or the legendary songs of Dylan but what the Traveling Wilburys did was capture a group of musicians enjoying the music that made them famous.

“Handle With Care” started as a an additional track for a George Harrison album that he was recording with Orbison, and Lynne at Bob Dylan’s home studio. Tom Petty happened to leave his guitar there and came by when they were working on the song to pick it up. After working on “Handle With Care” together, they decided the song was too good to just be filler track.

“Handle With Care” takes the warning on mail packages and applies it to a well-lived and a heart well-loved. George Harrison starts the song singing out the tribulations in his life with small descending arcs but reflects on how “you’re the best things that I’ve ever found” with a gentle rise in the melody that warms the words like a smile. Harrison continues to contemplate his reputation and life situations but concludes that “baby you’re adorable” focusing on what is truly important before beckoning “handle me with care.”

To many people “Roy Orbison” is a one hit wonder, with his 1964 hit “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Because his voice is so often emulated, it’s easy to forget how importance of Roy Orbison. However when you hear his voice rising through the words “I’m so tired of feeling lonely,” in “Handle With Care” the transcendent nature of his voice is instantly felt. In his light tenor, there is aching and loneliness that for some magicalreasons feels so good to listen to.

In an almost a humorous contrast, Dylan and Petty enter in the next sections reassuring Orbison that “everybody needs somebody to lean on.” Both Dylan and Petty has a similar folk inspired gravel in their voice and without hearing them sing together it’s hard to imagine that you would even be able to understand the words at all if these two singers sang together, but it works. Dylan’s and Petty’s duet reassure like an old man at a bar stool philosophizing to his beer.

Harrison continues to reflect on his long career being “sent to meetings hypnotized” and “overexposed, commercialized.” Orbison continues to long for love while Dylan and Petty reassure. There is a sense of nostalgia and warmth comes through as these elder statesmen of rock ponder their lives.

Sometimes in a song, you can feel things beyond the music. In “Handle With Care” you can hear warmth of these five men not as legends but friends enjoying the simplicity of a song.