Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Why I teach

Dear Sarah,

I can’t remember the moment when I decided to be a teacher, but I’ll never forget the moment when you first asked me to be one.

Back when you were one of the drum majors of the Northwestern University Marching Band and I was just a goofy saxophone player you decided to ask me for help. As silly as I was in the band, outside of the band, I was a music composition and conducting double major.

We were acquaintances through the overlapping social groups and you were always friendly to me even though we never had extended conversations. So when you asked me to give you some conducting lessons, I was a little surprised. I had never really taught anyone before and I never really thought of myself as teacher.

I figured why not, this Sarah is a nice girl. It was quite flattering that you thought I was a good conductor and that I was a decent enough teacher that it wouldn’t be a waste of your time to work with me.

Do you remember that first lesson in the hallway in your sorority house? It was the only place we could find a full-length mirror which necessary for the lesson. I didn’t have a lesson plan or much of an idea of what I was going to say to you. You suggested that you would conduct through some songs and that I should give you some suggestions.

At first, I found myself repeating things that my conducting teachers had told me. It felt forced as I tried to be a “teacher” but about halfway through our lesson something started happening. Things that I was telling you were making you a better conductor and more importantly, I got a sense that you were starting to feel better about yourself as a person. I started chasing that feeling wanting to do anything I could to keep you moving in that direction. I stopped trying to be a “teacher” and focused on helping you learn and even though I felt like I had no idea what I was doing, it felt right.

After working with you, I found myself seeking out every opportunity I could to teach. Before I knew it, I was spending more time and energy teaching music that composing music and without realizing it, I had become a teacher.

Graduate school in education to get my teaching certificate seemed like the logical next step. My classes and professors showed me the techniques and skills it took to transform my passion into effective student learning. I found inspiration in the work of Jonathan Kozol and Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers) and as difficult as my first years as a teacher were I never doubted once that I had chosen the right path in becoming a teacher.

Six years after I gave you your that first conducting lesson, there you were, standing up in front of my friends and family doing a toast at my wedding as one of my bridesmaids. You told everyone about being one of my first students, how much you learned from me and how lucky my future students are to have me as a teacher.

Sarah, I was the lucky one to have you as my student. Thanks for taking a chance on me and seeing something in me that I didn’t even see myself. I am sure the that first lesson was a little weird and disorganized but I’m glad that you stuck with me.

You’re may not be the reason that I continue to be an educator, but you are the reason I fell in love with teaching.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Gimme Some Lovin' by The Spencer Davis Group

What was your greatest accomplishment when you were 18 years old?

When Steve Winwood was 18 years old, he helped write one of the greatest rock songs of all time, “Gimme Some Lovin’”. Well, so what when I was 18, I finally beat Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past on my Super Nintendo. Well, I also graduated from high school, but somehow that didn’t seem like a big deal at the time especially since my history teacher told me that the only thing you had to do to graduate from high schools was to breathe in and breathe out.

As a member of the British band, The Spencer Davis Group, Steve Winwood helped define the term blue-eyed soul, responding to the rock music of America with a fresh blues influenced rock.

“Gimme Some Lovin’” is a party song that has simple components that are masterfully arranged to reveal the groove of the song and express the righteous feeling that permeates every note of this song.

“Gimme Some Lovin’” begins with a bass line that has a huge accent on beat four. Four fast notes lead up into beat 4 building momentum throughout the measure to the last beat which abruptly drops down an octave. Your body can’t help but feel this beat four as the main back beat of the groove. It’s primal and in your fact and making you instantly feel the outline of the groove.

As the drums enter the accent on beat two becomes apparent, creating the standard rock groove which accents the off beats (beats 2 and 4). The song seems to speed up at this point as the back beats seem to double in time, going from a strong accent on beat 4 to two accents on beat 2 and 4. This opening propels the song forward into one of the greatest organ lines in rock history.

The organ is a primal call, starting with a simple sustained chord that is to another sustained chord by a simple descending line. The organ is an instrument that was innovated and used mostly in religious settings. It’s hard to hear an organ sound and separate it from its roots, so when is used rock it brings together the joy of religious spirituality with the youthful and liberated spirit of rock. Many have made the argument that this is wrong, but God know it feels right.

Other artists like Ray Charles combined religious and popular music taking Gospel songs and changing the lyrics to talk about sexuality. In a similar way, Steve Winwood, brought the organ, an instrument used for hundreds of years to celebrate the glory of God, to call out to people to get on down.

The sound of the organ in “Gimme Some Lovin’” is raunchy, dirty and full of soul. The sustained sound doesn’t shimmer like light coming through a church strained glass window but rather permeates like a spotlight bathing a crowd of people partying in dark club. There is atmosphere, emotion and style in the sound of that sustained chord, it’s like experiencing something that you know is not good for you but disregarding your conscious and exclaiming to the world “Glory Hallelujah.”

Steve Winwood, the keyboard player for The Spencer Davis Group sang the incredible lead vocals to this song. At times, he sounds so much like a grizzled old man in his sixties singing about the blues in his life, it’s easy to forget he’s a British kid who is 18 years old. At the edge of yelling with a youthful exuberance, Winwood manages to express the struggle of a hard days work in the verse with the euphoria of partying in the verses. This vocal performance is raw and real, proving that you don’t have either black nor American to have soul.

I don’t know if Winwood considers “Gimme Some Lovin’” one of his greatest accomplishments as an 18 year old. Regardless, “Gimme Some Lovin’” is one of the greatest rock songs of all time.

Really, if Winwood doesn’t consider this song his greatest accomplishments as a 18 year old, I’d really like to what else he did during that year of his life, because it must be something unbelievable.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Buffy forgives and forgets

Back in high school when I was having woman problems my mom explained to me one of the differences between men and woman.

Women are like duct tape. When you put duct tape on something and take it off, it leaves a gluey residue. Women hold on to feelings for long periods and even after woman reach resolutions to problems often there is a little left over emotional residue that never goes away.

Men on the other hand are like scotch tape. Sometimes you have to work at getting a piece of scotch tape off something but when you do it doesn’t leave anything behind. Men don’t hold grudges in the same way that woman do and are more likely to forgive and forget.

Dogs I’ve found on the other hand are like post-it notes. Post-it notes are easy to take off and leave no residue. All it takes to make up with Buffy is a quick pet and before you know it, it’s like she was never mad at you at all.

The other day we decided to give Buffy. You aren’t really supposed to bath Shelties all that much, maybe once a month. If Buffy gets dirty, Diana usually just wipes her down with a wet hand towel. That works pretty well but giving a full bath is far more effective in getting her cleaned up.

So we took Buffy in the bathroom and we let her wander around a little bit. Buffy is not a complete stranger to this room as Diana often lets her wander around when she is getting ready for work. Diana picked up Buffy and placed her a couple inches of warm water in the bathtub and Buffy immediately attempted to jump out of the tub.

After we got soaked and it becomes clear that Buffy was not going to stay in the tub all by herself. Diana decided it might just be easier if she got in the tub with Buffy. To calm Buffy down I offered peanut butter smeared on my hand for Buffy to lick off. This initially helped Buffy calm down and stop struggling but soon she stops wanting the peanut butter or any other treat I offered.

Buffy is a smart enough dog to know that when Diana and I are doing something with her that she doesn't like the fastest way for it to be over is for her to stop fighting it. So eventually Buffy stopped struggling, but started to quietly whines as Diana shampooed her and rinsed her off.

With a towel in my arms, I lifted Buffy from the tub. She struggled and clearly wanted to shake off but I wanted to get as much water off her as possible initially to prevent her from spraying the entire bathroom with water. To Buffy's relief I finally put her down, she immediately darted across the bathroom away from Diana and I and to shake herself off.

Tired, wet and hopefully only slightly traumatized, I expected that would Buffy need some time away from Diana and I, but she comes right up to Diana and I looking up at us, wagging her tail and ready to play. Too bad for Buffy, she needed to spend some quality time with Mr. Blowdryer.

Shetland Sheepdogs have remarkable double coats that keep them warm and dry in cold weather. The problem with the coat is that sometimes the coat traps moisture against the skin. This can cause skin infections and the only way to make sure Buffy was really dry was to use the hair dryer and man did she hate that.

While Diana held Buffy down, I blow dried and brushed her out. She barked, whimpered and tried to bite at the hairdryer. I have never seen her so angry and uncomfortable at something that we were doing to her. The amazing thing is that every time I turned off the hairdryer to give Diana and Buffy a break Buffy would walk around, shake herself off and walk right back up to us. It was as if she had completely forgotten that we were the ones who were making her uncomfortable and forcing her to deal with Mr. Hairdryer.

Maybe Buffy forgot what we were just doing, or maybe she understood that we were doing something for her own good. Or maybe it's the fact that she loves us so much that nothing we could do could change that at this point. I’m not sure. Whatever it is, Buffy’s ability to forgive is the purest example of loving the sinner regardless of the sin, I’ve ever seen. It’s inspiring, amazing and simply heartwarming.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Underneath Your Clothes by Shakira

I have three impressions of singer that I do. One is Barry Gibb the lead singer of the Bee Gees, one is of Kermit the Frog and my favorite one is of Shakira. My wife is convinced that all three of these impressions sounds exactly the same. I disagree. The Barry Gibb one is slightly more nasal, while my Shakira one is a little bit more swallowed.

I love Shakira. Was her dancing the only reason I initially paid attention to her? Yes. Did I watch her music videos regardless of whether or not I like the song that I was hearing? Yeah. Did I buy that first American album, Laundry Service because of the great reviews? Not really, but did I eventually grow to respect her as an artist and have a legitimate interest in her as a musician? Yes.

Shakira’s voice is all of the map. She goes from doing the nasal pop singer thing, to singing from the back of the her throat (which sounds like someone singing when they are yawning) and throws in some adolescent girly tone. Similar to Michael Jackson, Shakira is able to do things with her voice that nobody else is able to get away with and makes it work. Also, similar to Michael, sometimes her lyrics are incomprehensible.

One of my favorite Shakira songs is “Your Embrace.” Listen through the chorus and you’ll clearly hear “Hope it isn’t too late to say, ‘I love you.’” It's a really cute line, and she repeats “hope it isn’t too late to say” setting you us up for a deeper description of her love however what comes next is indecipherable. Try to figured it out, my best guess for a while was “That without you this place looks clouds, and it rains every day.” This was what my wife and I figured out after listening to this line repeatedly for about 20 minutes one time in the car.

Now usually when I don’t understand the lyrics to a song, and I look them up, the phrase makes more sense, but that wasn't the case with Shakira. The line is: “That without you this place looks like London, it rains every day.” First off, I know that Shakira has a heavy accent but how did she manage a “c” sound in front of the word “London” and seriously, could you come up with a more awkward way to describe love?

As much fun as it is to make fun of Shakira and do my impression, my wife pointed what really works with Shakira, her voice matches her songs perfectly. In “Underneath Your Clothes” the melodies give her time to sail through the different colors in her voice. The nasal sounds come across as strength, her swallowed sounds are joyous, and her girlish voice, sounds intimate and personal.

When someone expresses emotion with their voice in a deep and personal way, people don’t really care about the technique of the singer or the quality of their voice. While singing technique helps singers breaking down the barriers between the heart and the voice, some singers like Janis Joplin and Shakira manage to do this in a pure and unconventional way.

Listen to her sing "Underneath Your Clothes" in this live performance and you'll know what I mean.

Even if I sometimes have no idea what she’s saying or can't make sense of the way she sings, there is something undeniably powerful, personal and beautiful in her voice.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of by U2

Love is painful.
Love is impatient.
Love is frustrating.

Sometimes love requires us to be insistent, forceful and painfully honest. When we care about people, sometimes love can’t afford to be patient. In Bono’s case, his love may came too late. In reaction to the suicide of his friend, Michael Hutchence, Bono, wrote “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” describing the fight that he was never able to have with his friend.

"It's a row between mates. You're kinda trying to wake them up out of an idea. In my case it's a row I didn't have while he was alive. I feel the biggest respect I could pay to him was not to write some stupid soppy fucking song, so I wrote a really tough, nasty little number, slapping him around the head. And I'm sorry, but that's how it came out of me."

Bono may had felt that “Stuck in a Moment. . .” may have come out as “tough” but to this song sounds like pure love.

When U2 released, All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000, most people including myself weren’t really thinking about U2. I had a copy of The Joshua Tree and their greatest hits album and I figured I was set.

U2’s albums in the 1990s didn’t reach the heights of their masterpieces Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree considered by critics and fans of two of the best albums recorded in popular music history. Though exploratory with a number of stand out songs, the albums of the 1990s did not resonate in popular culture like their previous albums which was reflected in their album sales.

When “Elevation” the first single from All That You Can’t Leave behind was released it was a refreshing reminder of not only how glorious pop music could be but how awesome it should be. In the midst of a resurgence in boy band-style pop music, the return of U2 reminded the world why many in the 1980s considered them the greatest rock band of all time.

As awesome as “Elevation” was, it didn’t convince me to dive into U2’s new album, and neither did the album reviews which called this album a masterpiece. What did it for me was hearing the last minute of “Stuck in a Moment. . .” on the radio.

What first caught my attention was The Edge’s light falsetto, soaring above the landscape of sound that was instantly recognizable as U2, but with a modern freshness. As The Edge lists of bad things that may happen, Bono’s masterful improvisatory vocal lines call out like preacher to a church, accenting the lines that The Edge was singing. At the end of the song, Bono, responds to these worries simply stating that they will all pass. Never in my life has a simple statement felt so powerful. After hearing the end of "Stuck in a Moment. . ." I felt like I needed to experience this whole song. There was something important in this song, I didn't know what, but I knew, I couldn't live without it.

Musically “Stuck in a Moment. . .” is the one of the best examples of U2's artistry and musical technique. Through this song, U2 saying to the pop music world: “I see all of you are really interested in ‘pop’ music right now, well let me show you how it’s done. We’re not going to play with the form at all, like we did in 'With Or Without You.’ The Edge is going to simplify his guitar sounds and play licks any of you could reproduce. We’re not going to do anything funny with our chord progressions. We don’t need any of that to prove that we are one of the greatest rock bands of all time.”

While many of the musical factors above are conventional, what is not is the lyrics and emotional complexity in this song. Sometimes the words are boastful, “I’m not afraid of anything in this world,” sometimes they are harsh “You are such fool” and other times they are insistent “you’ve got to get yourself together.” There is a sense of frustrating, but there’s also understanding, “I know it’s tough but you can never get enough of what you don’t really need.” Through all of these dark emotions, Bono reassures that the darkness will pass in end when we realize that at the center of all of these emotions is love.

When I first heard this song, I needed to be reassured that things would be okay and "Stuck in a Moment. . ." said it in a way that made the sun shine just a little bit brighter. Now that I’m older, I relate more to the person giving advice, the need to sometimes be tough with the ones you love.

It scares me to think I could lose someone the way Bono did and when I hear "Stuck in a Moment. . ." sometimes it feels like a warning to not take my friends for granted. More often, this song sounds like a celebration of the power of friendship, the glory of love and how great it feels to be alive.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Walking On Broken Glass by Annie Lennox

When popular music was first introduced to Annie Lennox as part of the New Wave duo, the Eurhythmics, Lennox was a shocking symbol of androgyny. Dressed in a suit with hair dyed orange that was cut short in a buzz cut, Lennox’s image in the video for the Eurhythmics’ most famous song, “Sweet Dreams” was cold and unfeeling. Her vocal performance over plodding synthesized beats was cold and robotic. However. in the depth of her tone, you could only hear hints of the blue-eyed soul that lied beneath the cold corporate image.

In 1992, Lennox released her first solo album Diva. Lennox lived up to the pretension of the album title and proved herself to be one of the most unique and powerful voices in popular music. While her first single “Why” was a powerful ballad, mournful, desperate and intimate, it was her third single “Walking on Broken Glass” that caught my attention.

Maybe it was music video based with 118th century costumes feature John Malkovich and Hugh Laurie or maybe it was the fact that the song sounded like nothing I had heard before.

The opening of the song starts with a piano line that is quickly joined with a string section. The piano and strings are not only used as a harmonic basis but provide and rhythmic momentum like in Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida.” The pattern starts on the beat but is quickly thrown off the beat hopping around like someone dancing gingerly through broken glass. The acoustic sound of the piano is layered on top of a pulsing dance beat that adds more vitality to the song creating an organic fusion between classical instruments and modern pop music sounds.

Female singers are divided into two main groups, sopranos and altos. Almost every single female pop star is a soprano. Sopranos in general sing higher than altos but it’s the tone that they sing with that defines the different types of voices. Sopranos have higher lighter voices while altos sing with a darker depth to the sound. Alto’s aren’t as popular as sopranos because often their voices are heavy and not as easy to sing along with because of the range that they sing in. However, Lennox’s voice has the depth of the alto voice but the lightness of soprano resulting in a sultry mix of soul.

Where other sopranos belt and force out higher notes (like Kelly Clarkson), Lennox flips into a light head voice during the bridge of the song. This is a gutsy move exposes a thinner tone in her voice but only adds to the vulnerable feelings expressed in the words.

If one Annie Lennox wasn’t enough, she builds up into the final chorus with cascading overdubs breaking up the phrase “can’t keep walking on broken glass” into a chaotic chorus that erupts into a beautiful celebration musical euphoria.

The lyircs of the song are dark and full of pain but the music is joyful foreshadowing the feeling the protagonist will feel when she finally lets go of this man that is hurting her. It's a powerful statement of optimism through pain, a little desperate but more than anything a lot of fun.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Buffy is scared of a lot more than vampires . . .

We didn't get home until almost 10:00pm the first night we got Buffy. As we got out of the car I volunteered to take Buffy downstairs to relieve herself.

I carefully slipped on her harness and carried her into the elevator of our condo. I placed her down on the ground right outside of the front door and she sat there trembling in the warm summer night. Buffy took a couple steps, relieved herself and as I crouched down to praise her she walked over to me and curled up in the den created by my legs.

She looked out into the darkness and while she trembled with fear in that moment I realized how much there was for her to be afraid of. It wasn't just the cars or the commuter trains, but it was being away from her siblings, not knowing these two people who have just adopted her and not having a place to call home.

Diana and I spent a lot of time bonding with Buffy and helping her get to know her surroundings. She made great progress and before we knew it she was walking around, running up to people on the street and didn't seem to mind the sounds of the city. There were moments of fear like when she first met a neighborhood dog and started to pee as she ran away in (and continued to urinate all over me when I picker her up. However, in general she was a brave little puppy. Sometimes she would take a moment to observe before going to explore but she never ceased to be curious and adventurous.

One morning about a week ago, when I took her out for her 6am walk, instead of walking around at her normal pace she sat in the sidewalk trembling with fear. She had heard the same commuter train, garbage trucks and cars every morning but for some reason this morning, they petrified her. I couldn't coax her to move with treats or her favorite toy. Nothing seemed to work and as I carried her back upstairs I realized that she had entered a new stage in her life.

There’s a time in puppy’s development when there is an active “fear imprint.” During this time traumatic situations are more likely to have lasting effects and the puppy becomes more fearful in general. This transformed Buffy's walks from trying to keep her from eating everything that was on the ground to patiently coaxing her down the street as she tries to run away, afraid of the world around her. When she tries to bolt off, we wait for her to come back to us, reward her for her attention and help her calm down until she's ready to walk again. Buffy is getting a lot better and even though she’s not exactly a fearless puppy, she’s doing a lot better.

When people told Diana and I that raising a puppy takes a lot of patience they must have been talking about this. Sometimes I understand why Buffy is afraid of things like when ambulances come by but other times she baffles me like when we discovered that she is petrified of the American flag waving on a flag poll.

Fear is a difficult thing to witness is the ones we care about. I hate watching Buffy tremble in fear and look up at me with her sad eyes. Part of me wants to just pick her up and help her escape her fear but I know that the only way that she will get over her fears is by facing them.

Even if it means that walks take longer, or that we have to listen to audio recordings of city sounds in our condominium to help desensitize you, Diana and I are committed to working through this stage with our little girl.

Buffy, I know that the world is scary but it’s also a place of endless possibilities. It’s okay to afraid of things, fear is one of those things in life that protects us, but we can’t let fear overrides our sense of adventure. We can't let fear prevent us from experiencing the wonders of the world.

I know sometimes it’s difficult but don't forget, we’ll be right there with you every step of the way.

I Want to Know What Love Is by Foreigner

I am perfectly willing to admit that there is a lot of music I don't know.

While I believe I have a high level of musical literacy, I am constantly reminded of music in our culture that I’m not familiar with. When one of my co-workers who reads my blog was surprised that I wasn’t familiar with Foreigner, I told her honestly that I just never got around to getting to know this group.

My only exposure to Foreigner songs are through television commercials. There’s this awesome Old Spice ad:

Then there’s that Grand Theft Auto commercial:

These commercials seem to bring out what is silly about Foreigner’s music. “Hot Blooded” which is a catchy tune is kind of a silly declaration of love and “I Want to Know What Love Is” initially seems like just another 1980s power ballad. However, after listening to No End In Sight: The Very Best of Foreigner, it becomes clear that there is something much more to this band than meets the eye.

While Foreigner can be criticized as being overly commercial, one needs to keep in mind the that they were most active. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a boom in record sales and an understanding of the potential for the mass-marketing and mass-appeal of music. The first platinum album, Their Greatest Hits by the Eagles in 1975, changed not only the business but the art of popular music.

Foreigner reflected the time around them with music that was radio friendly, familiar but also forward thinking in its sound and production. Early songs like “Feels Like The First Time” in 1977 were a solid representation of the late 1970s rock sound, driven by guitars with characteristic harmony.

What you find four years later in “I Want to Know What Love Is” is a synthesized reaction to New Wave music which came to characterize music of the early 1980s. While it may not seem significant to evolve from 1970s rock to `1980s synthesized rock, it’s a change that reflects an awareness of trends in popular culture that few band exhibit.

“Power Ballad” is a term that is thrown around to describe slower songs of 1980s rock groups. It has a negative connotation as many ballads in the 1980s were trite and a manufactured attempt at commercial success, but “I Want to Know What Love Is” is something very different.

Most songs have phrases that are structured around measures of 4 beats (4/4 meter) grouped into 8 measure phrases, making a total of 32 beats per phrase. Foreigner broke this pattern with “I Want to Know What Love Is,”creating a varied structure that reflects the wondering and longing in the lyrics.

28 beats (4+4+2+4+4+4)

I gotta take a little time, a little time to think things over:
18 beats (4+4+2+4+4)

I better read between the lines, in case I need it when I’m older:
18 beats (4+4+2+4+4)

[vocal break]:
16 beats (4+4+4)

Now this mountain I must climb, feels like a world upon my shoulders:
16 beats (4+4+2+4)

Through the clouds I see love shine, it keeps me warm as life grows colder:
12 beats (4+4+4+4)

Many of the phrase have unusual two-beat interjections that play with the listeners expectations, while the overall shortening of each phrase builds a subtle sense of momentum. When the phrase lengths become more consistent in the lines right before the chorus, this level of predictability is reflected in the strength expressed the lyrics.

“I Want to Know What Love Is” is not boastful. It’s honest and revealing. In the second verse we understand that this is someone who truly doesn’t know how to handle love, “it looks like love has finally found me.” Though the lyrics are simple, that reflects a depth of thought. Straight-forward lyrics often have more power that symbolic and technical poetry because they speak in voice of the audience. The use of the choir may seem cliché but at the time it was a fresh idea and it reminds us that there is a connection between love and spirituality.

After spending the past week listening to Foreigner for the past week, I got to know a lot of great songs, but there’s more. Whenever someone gives me music that they love, they are trusting you with something that is dear to them, something that is meaningful and real. It's not only getting to know a song but a person.

Next time one of your friends is raving about a song you've never heard, ask to borrow a copy, and take some time to get to know the song. Your friend will be really appreciate you for taking interest in something they love and you will get to know your better through the experience.

Sharing what we is meaningful to us to the people around us, maybe that's what love is.

Friday, September 11, 2009

My Humps by Black Eyed Peas

One of my favorite assignments that I gave my high school music theory was the "mix CD." I asked all of my students to make a mix CD or 9 songs that they loved and one song they hated. This was a way I could get to know my students better and use musical examples they were familiar with to teach about music. The one song they hated provided a great way to discuss how we analyze the quality of music.

One semester almost every one one of my students had “My Humps” by The Black Eye Peas as the song they hated.

How could so many of my student dislike “My Humps?” It’s a popular song. It was a top ten song on the charts, and sold double platinum. That means two million copies of this song sold and “My Humps” won a Grammy for “Best Pop Performance by A Duo or Group with Vocal.” Now granted their competition wasn’t exactly fierce, (The Pussycat Dolls), but “My Humps” technically won a Grammy.

Often things that are popular are of a high quality, but sometimes they aren’t and the bottom line is that “My Humps” is a pretty mediocre song and I’m not quite sure why so many people seem to like it. I haven’t met any of these people personally, but two million people couldn’t have possibly bought this song ironically, someone out there most honestly liked this song.

There is nothing, sexy, erotic or appealing about describing your body using the words “hump” or “lump.” When I hear hump I think of the Quasimodo, the hunchback or Notre Dame and when I hear lump, I think of breast cancer.

“My Humps” sits at mid-tempo beat that is not fast enough to really dance too but not slow enough to groove too. Sometimes if a song is fast enough and has a great groove you can ignore the lyrics all together but the slower tempo and Fergie’s “performance” makes sure we understood every syllable.

Fergie doesn’t really sing or rap the words. She seems to recite them with the emotional expression found in a middle school play. Part of the issue is what she is saying. The lyrics include describing her own body in the least sexy way possible and then proceeding to drop as many brand names as possible. She claims that guys just keep buying her stuff and she doesn’t know why.The guys answer asking what is she going to do “with all that junk insider her trunk” and then talks about how the girl is making him buy her stuff. These lyrics are trite but at least they make sense unlike other words in the song.

Let’s spend time not money,
I mix you milk with my cocoa puff,
Milky, milk cocoa,

What?!? Are you serious?!? If someone can explain to me what he is talking about, please tell, I’d really like to know. I like to think of myself as being pretty good at explicating lyrics, but I can’t come up with anything meaningful out of those words.

Maybe, that’s just the thing, maybe the Black Eye Peas aren’t being serious. I mean their break out song “Let’s Get It Started,” was originally released “Let’s Get Retarded.” Any group that would think try to work up the phrase “let’s get retarded” as a phrase to mean partying clearly can't be serious. It’s so much that it’s offensive, it’s just not cool.

Maybe Alanis Morissette can help us out.

What you begin to understand watching Alanis’ interpretation of “My Humps” is how preposterous this song really is and how that is exactly what makes it appealing. Experiencing this stilted creativity is like watching the first couple episodes of American Idol to watch people who don’t know how bad they are. For me that's really not all that entertaining.

Maybe it's a little bit more simple. Maybe there is nothing appealing about the song and it's popularity is be due to the fact that people just simply saw the video enough and heard it on the radio to the point where they began to like it.

Or maybe The Black Eyed Peas created a referential piece of art to comment popular music's warning over-objectifying of the female form in popular music.

Somehow I think not.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Online by Brad Paisley

Have you ever pretended to be someone that you are not online ir slightly stretched the truth, to convince someone of something that isn’t necessarily 100% true? While most of you are may be thinking “Oh Gosh I would never do that,” I'm sure most of you have thought about the possibility.

The Internet is a beautiful thing. It’s a pivotal technological advances like electricity and the telephone that has changed society. Like every major advance in technology there are things that develop that we are not so proud of. The innovation of industrialization led to kids working in factories in unsafe working conditions, advances in medicine have inadvertently helped create illegal drugs. And the sense of anonymity on the internet has enabled people to misrepresent themselves that have led to heinous crimes (have you ever watched those pedophiles trying to lure kids in on “To Catch A Predator” it doesn’t get more disgusting than that).

But it’s all not that bad.

Brad Paisley’s “Online” celebrates this feeling freedom that the internet provides. Is it a little sad and pathetic to spend time in your parents’ basement having a “three-way chat with two girls at the same time”? But if everyone involved in enjoying the interaction and living out a fantasy through each other, is it really all that bad?

Country music isn’t all about cowboys, drinking booze and being on a farm. Brad Paisley continues to lead country music into the 21st century commenting on the realities on modern life, sometimes with a serious tone but more often than note with his quick wit and a mischievous smile.

Paisley’s lyrics tell the story of a guy who lives a fantasy life online that is a stark contrast to his own reality living in his parents basement. His rhyme are smooth and clever, “I drive a Maserati, I’m a black-belt in karate.” Like the great lyrics of Motown, the rhymes don’t draw attention to themselves but rather add to the cohesiveness of the song.

Paisley’s sing with a unpretentious everyman voice while his other voice, his guitar is just out of this world. The solo after the bridge in which he trades off with the violin, oh good lord, it’s just wrong how effortless that sounds.

The music video for “Online” is a hilarious as the song featuring Jason Alexander and William Shatner. Itadds an ending that’s not in the song. The protagonist realizes that the girl across the street is better than any fantasy that he could have online encouraging us to get out of our basements.

We all have fantasy worlds we escape into whether its in books, sports, films or playing online games. These fantasies allow us to live a different life, experience drama in a more immediate and safe way but they are just fantasies. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that even though in life it can be more difficult reach out and connect with others, it its that face to face human connection that is the most meaningful connections of all.

Monday, September 7, 2009

It’s All Coming Back to Me Now by Celine Dion

The DJ for my wedding asked me to put together a play list and a do not play list for my wedding reception. While there was a wide variety of great music on my play list there was only one thing I wrote on the do not play list:

Celine Dion.

Man I really hate Celine Dion.

Celine Dion is responsible for one of the biggest holes in my cultural literacy. I can’t bring myself to watch Titanic or listen to “My Heart Will Go On” all the way through. How I managed to do this took a lot of effort, but I still hold strong.

I admit that my dislike of her is irrational but I just can’t help it. Everything she does just bugs me: the way that she holds her consonants a little bit too long on her sustained notes, the presumptuous way she talks about her own singing like it’s some deep revelatory expression of her soul, oh Lord and then there’s the way that she talks about her own life like we’re suppose to care.

And seriously, that baby album and book Celine Dion Miracle: A Celebration of New Life. You are happy that you have your first baby. Great, that’s fantastic, make a CD and book about it, but pose your kid with a cabbage leaf on her head? I guess it goes with your whole tomato skirt and cabbage top you are wearing, but really is that your idea of cute? Comparing your kid to vegetable?!? Maybe that was fun in the 1980s with Cabbage Patch Kids but thinking that’s cute now. . . really? Look at that poor kid’s pose, I know little babies are limber and all, but what is her leg turned all the way up to her leg, that doesn’t look right.

Now this blog is not about bashing artists but celebrating music in our popular culture as much as I dislike Celine Dion, man I LOVE “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” Leave it Jim Steinman, the same composer who brought us “Total Eclipse of The Heart” to convince me of the musical worth of Celine.

Celine Dion has a powerful voice but she often sings her sustained note with a straight tone that lacks any vibrato. There’s drama in the making a high note sound like its high and hard to sing, but it’s not necessarily the most pleasing sound. “It’s All Coming Back To Me” plays at the edge of Celine’s range but doesn’t require her to sustain her high notes for very long which plays to her strengths of enormous range without revealing her lack of control in her higher notes.

Steinman’s works are the musical equivalent of a soap opera and Celine’s musical overacting fits perfectly well in this song when in other songs it songs comical. Frankly she sounds (and looks) preposterous when she does things like sings “You Shook Me All Night Long.”
However in the world of Jim Steinman, she couldn’t fit in any better.

My favorite part of this song is in middle of the second verse when Celine sings, “You were history with the slamming of the door” and the orchestra answers with a drum flourish to represent the door slamming. While this may have sounded silly in any other song, it is awesome in this one. It all makes sense in this melodramatic world that Steinman has created.

The theme in this song about memories coming back to us resonates with feelings of loss and regret that we hold in our lives. This seven and a half minute song has an incredible dramatic arc and I’ll give credit when it’s due, Celine absolutely nails this song and sells it better than any other singer could.

I have no shame to admit that I play this in my car and sing along to this song, and absolutely love it. But even my love for "It's All Coming Back to Me Now" can't make me forgive Celine for her album cover for Taking Chances.


That jacket that you are wearing is a chance your really shouldn’t have taken. This image makes me wish I had the ability to “unsee” things.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Day In The Life by The Beatles

Critics and fans alike consider "A Day In The Life" one of the greatest songs in the popular music canon. To end their legendary album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles created "A Day In The Life," a musical expression of what it means to be alive.

What is instantly apparent in "A Day In The Life" is that it is longer than most rock songs, doesn't follow the traditional verse/chorus form and utilizes a wide arrange of musical instruments not normally used popular music. What is revealed with further listening is that power in this song is not in its musical innovation but its meaning.

“A Day In The Life” has three main sections. The opening sung by John Lennon, the second faster tempo section sung by Paul McCartney and the last section, which is a return to the first part of the song. Lennon’s protagonist is a man who is depressed from reading the news every morning. This feeling is the monotony of doing the same thing every day with a lack of energy that reflects a deeper loss of faith.

While Lennon’s sections faces outwards observing the world, McCartney’s sections is about himself, doing things for his own benefit: getting dressed, getting coffee and making his way to work. Lennon’s tragedy is not thinking about oneself while, McCartney reminds us to slow down and experience the world.

The sections that Lennon and McCartney sing are who we are and the way that we move through the world while the grand ending is the majesty and wonder, the drama and meaning that we are missing in our lives.

The ending orchestras statement utilizes aleatoric composition techniques, which were being experimented in classical music of the 1960s. People often describe aleatoric music as chance music, but that is not quite accurate. What aleatoric music does is give musicians choices within certain parameters, which all composers have done throughout history. The difference in aleatoric music the choices that musicians can make have a more drastic effect on the outcome of the music.

When Bach wrote music he put in very few dynamics (how loud or soft to play), he left those decisions up to the musicians. What Brian Martin, the Beatles producer was give the orchestra a piece of music that had a starting note and an ending note and he left it up the musician to fill in the notes at their own discretion.

The ending of the song is the argument for how life should be lived. The rising orchestra is the frustration, the pain, and the fear that builds inside of us every day. These are the consequences of taking chances, reaching out to others and trying to change. The height of the cacophony before the last chord is the times when it seems to be almost too much to take and the struggle of life doesn’t seem worth it.

This song reminds us that if we push through the hard times at the end of it all there is a light. In that last chord, the brilliance of the light shatters away any doubts that the struggle is worth it. In that moment, the Beatles answer the question, “what is the meaning of life” not through a statement of logic, but in an expression of feeling, indescribable in it’s power, and transcendent in its beauty.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tumbling Dice by The Rolling Stones

Starting in with a laid back guitar lick that drips with sweat and grit, “Tumbling Dice” slowly comes to life like a man getting out of bed after a hard night of drinking. Mick Jagger softly hums letting the groove settled. Back-up singers straight out of a gospel choir respond to Jagger with a soulful exclamation like a congregation saying amen.

While “Tumbling Dice” is a sinful statement where a man blames women for his promiscuity, it is also a righteous example of the transcendent beauty that comes from the marriage of blues and rock. While other rock bands were influenced by the blues the Rolling Stones played the blues and reminded the world how good pain could feel when it was put to music.

“Tumbling Dice” was recorded along with the many of the song on the album, Exile On Main St. in France near Nice. Many of the songs were written in various places over a period of four years, however the most potent songs were recorded in France in the hot summer nights of 1971. Exile On Main St. originally called ragged by critics has been recognized as one of the Rolling Stones best albums. Rolling Stone ranked it number seven on their list of 500 greatest albums calling it “definitive songwriting statement of outlaw pride and dedication to grit.”

Mick Jagger for all his bravado and style, isn’t necessarily the easiest singer to understand. When I first heard “Tumbling Dice” I was instantly drawn in by the groove but had no idea what Jagger was saying. I decided to listen to this song a couple more days to figure out the words and after a week, I gave up. After listening to “Tumbling Dice” with the lyrics right in front of me, I realized that it would have been nigh impossible for me to decipher the words from Jagger’s performance.

At first I was annoyed at how unintelligible the lyrics were but after figuring out what the song was about it began to make sense. This is not a song about a Shakespearean actor declaring his love. This is a low down drunk gambler, hard on his luck trying to rationalize his immoral behavior and this is exactly what Jagger sounds like.

The form of this song outlines this gambler rationalization which deteriorates as the song goes on. In the first verse, he explains how “woman think I’m tasty but they’re always trying to waste me.” He calls woman “low down gamblers” and claims that they cheat. He explains that their complaining and all of their games is the reason he can’t stay, so they might as well call him the tumbling dice.

In the second verse, he tries to explain himself. He’s got places to go but no money left. Identifying himself as a “rank outsider” he sings that “you can be my partner in crime” jokingly. However, he concludes again that he can’t stay. In the last verse, the gambler simply states that he’s a “lone crap shooter, playing the field ever night.”

The most unusual thing about “Tumbling Dice” is how each verse gets progressively shorter. The first verse is eight lines long, the second verse is six lines and the last verse is only two lines long. This is a beautiful example of the form serving the story of this song. He tries in the first to blame other woman, which is easy for him. In the second verse when he looks at himself it’s harder so he doesn’t have as much to say. By the time he gets to the last verse he’s given up making excuses for himself and arguing his case so he just states the truth in his reality.

Like “Under My Thumb,” “Tumbling Dice” is a statement of masculine bravado, both cool and pathetic, brave and desperate. When we are hurt it’s easy to blame other, harder to blame ourselves and sometimes it’s easier to simply villainies ourselves.

There’s one more way to handle feeling pain in our lives. Turn down the lights, throw away your inhibitions and rock out to “Tumbling Dice.”

Feeling bad never felt so good.