Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Six Song Six-Pack - Sweet Pop, Hold The Saccharin

I went to another wedding this weekend. Besides (hopefully) good company, free food and free booze, dancing is always my favorite part of the wedding celebration. As a large, ill-coordinated white boy, I've come to accept that I am not anywhere close to a good dancer. But at weddings, with an alcoholically-lowered self-consciousness, I'm much more likely to not only dance but to dance uninhibitedly. Admittedly this mostly consists of me singing along and moving my body just enough to please my date, but it's a system that works.

This weekend was no exception, I started dancing to the initial crowd-pleasing oldies ("Shout", "The Twist", etc.) and thoroughly enjoyed embarrassing myself for about a half-hour before taking a break. I intended to keep going but upon my return I decided to wait for a song I didn't hate before jumping in (because, frankly, if I don't have a certain baseline enthusiasm for the song, my dancing quickly becomes a sad sight indeed). However, I was disheartened as the DJ started taking requests and the offerings went from Lynyrd Skynyrd bad (just once, I want to hear "Southrern Man" at a wedding!) to Black-Eyed Peas (and other shitty Top 40) worse. By the time "A Kiss With A Fist" came on, I had officially given up on the evening, save for a slow dance.

My girlfriend criticized me (probably not unfairly) for thinking too much and getting too wrapped up in my own issues during an celebration that in no way was about me. But in my mind I was back in ninth grade, bothered that no one seemed to mind that they were being subjected to songs that were obviously shitty, soulless and the antithesis of what makes music good. I've tried to rise above this proclivity on my part and I didn't let it spoil my evening, but sometimes the righteous anger of the snob is too great to be resisted. On a certain level I know that it's silly to ascribe moral character to one set of rhythms and melodies as opposed to others, especially when the only real goal is to make people dance, but being a policy debater and stubborn Polack, I couldn't entirely conceed the point.

What makes this all the harder for me is that I love pop music and kept thinking of all the better songs that could have been playing. This experience has spurred me to think a lot about what makes me love say, Fountains of Wayne (a poppier band you will not find) but loathe Taylor Swift and this post is meant to elucidate a few of the justifications that I've cobbled together. Pop music is neither inherently good or bad; like all human inventions, pop is what we make it, no more, no less. And while the form, at its best, can be a font of endless joy, at its worst it's just as bad as terrible screamo or nu metal or techno. Jeff Tweedy recently described the Black-Eyed Peas as "evil geniuses" for their ability to write catchy hooks that you can't help but sing and aborh at the same time and this is exactly the problem. Without genuine wit, charm, heart or intelligence, even the most well-constructed song becomes nothing more than an annoying earworm.

It is with this in mind that I present the latest six pack. The sixties have always given me hope because they were a time when great music and popular music were rarely at odds, as opposed to our modern rock charts where Girls new album dominates press coverage but Staind and Bush (yes, both of those are still things) latest cds dominate sales. Here are six pop songs that (hopefully) prove that popularity and quality are, even at this late date, still not necessarily mutually exclusive. May these all be played at your wedding before "I've Got A Feeling" or "Pokerface".

1. Palisades Park - Freddie Cannon  Buy Boom Boom, Rock n' Roll.
My love for pop music began when I was young and I picked it up from my father. He was weaned on pop music from the late fifties and sixties and so, therefore, that was what I grew up with as well. He's from New Jersey, so his listening habits were heavily East Coast, WABC influenced, which I didn't mind one whit. Palisades Park was an amusement park in northern New Jersey and there's nothing more quintessentially bubblegum than the mild teenage thrills of ferris wheels, roller coasters and (gasp!) the tunnel of love. Freddie "Boom Boom" Cannon's song captures all these joys along with sound effects and chintzy organ, all in under two minutes. It's not deep, it's not particularly complex, but it's happy and honest and fun, which is a simple enough formula that you'd think it'd be harder to mess up than it apparently is for Will.I.Am.

2. Daydreaming (feat. Cee-Lo Green) - Kid Sister  Buy Ultraviolet.
First of all, let me just say, "South Suburbs represent!" Kid Sister, aka Melissa Young grew up in lovely Markham, Illinois, in the heart of the old south suburbs where I spent much of my youth and whenever I hear her I can't help but hear a lot of the inflections and preoccupations that surrounded me as I grew up. But beyond her proud birthplace, Kid Sis is known for her ability to fuse club juke anthems with more mainstrem pop hooks, as seen on her 2009 album, Ultraviolet. She was touted by and snagged none other than 'Yeezy himself for her single "Pro Nails" but I always land on "Daydreaming" when I go back to the album. It's a song about that wonderful new love period when you can't get your crush out of your heard. It features and airy production value, memorable vocal hook from Cee-Lo and a classic four-on-the-floor breakdown. Young's plaintive but upbeat vocals and puppy love lyrics carry the day and it's one of those songs that you'll probably start singing along to in the car after the second or third listen - especially if you're alone.

3. Hey Now Girl - Phantom Planet  Buy The Guest.
First of all and for the record, let me just say that, O.C. connections be damned, "California" is a great pop song that I will go to bat for. But Phantom Planet is a band that deserves to be known from more than just a TV theme and having Jason Schwartzman as a drummer. They had a classic pop sensibility and the ability to get weird and noisy when they wanted while still retaining a genius for songcraft and melody. "Hey Now Girl" is a "The Little Girl I Once Knew"-style song about a boy seeing a girl he's known for a a long time with fresh eyes and not being able to help himself. It's got bouncy acoustic guitars, fun synths and lines like "let me tell you I have seen / the monster age of seventeen" that will resonate in teenage bedrooms across the land. Add in light tambourine, infectious falsetto and universally appreciable lyrics and you've got yourself so-cal white boy pop of the best kind.

4. Call Your Girlfriend - Robyn  Buy Body Talk.
Robyn is hipster-approved pop of the first degree, I know I'm not breaking any stories here. But I enjoy her because she's one of the few artists who've managed to employ the modern Top 40 pop cliches without making brain-meltingly bad music. "Call Your Girlfriend" has most of the ingredients of a terrible Lady Gaga track but is good enough to enjoy without that face-saving "ironically" added in. It's got the thudding drums, splashy synths, massive hooks, glossy production values and other girl story line that's splashed all over modern radio but it manages to make you like, rather than slowly grow to hate it over repeated lessons. Robyn manages to broad-minded and sympathetic without being pandering or generic. She's dancy without being reductive and sounds big without trading in personality. Pop music needs more or her and needs them to be much bigger. I just know everyone would be happier that way.

5. Brandy (You're A Find Girl) - The Looking Glass  Buy Looking Glass.
I was slower to come around on seventies pop than that of the fifties and sixties because it always seemed so fluffy and backwards looking after the upheavals of the previous decade. There are a lot of soft spots in this armor of pretentiousness, however and The Looking Glass proves to me that even the most stereo typically seventies throwaway can have great value. First of all, "Brandy" has an old-school awesome storyline of unrequited love that not only tugs deeply at my old Romantic heart strings but it's phrased that the perfect last-call singalong couplets. "My life, my love and my lady, is the sea"? Too good. Let's be honest, we all need songs like this on our iPods for late-night drives home with friend or aural comfort food after a rough week. Plus, in case you need any added escapism, the soft keys make it possible to almost smell the warm sea air every time you play it.

6. Good Life (feat. T-Pain) - Kanye West  Buy Graduation.
Finally, I'll end with a track by the man who manages to both prove and disprove all the stereotypes about pop that I've been spouting. Kanye West is unabashedly good at reaching large numbers of people but he also knows how to play the Pitchfork crowd like a cheap banjo. He samples Daft Punk for his singles and retains his street cred while also grabbing T-Pain and losing no love among the artier set. "Good Life" is, on it's face, nothing more than a make-hay-while-the-sun-shines, radio-ready anthem and, if that's all you need it to be, you couldn't have done better. But if you're looking for more, Kanye's got the chirped-up soul samples and clever twists that take the song from mindless fun to pop heaven. His mouthy rhyme, almost too over-the-top rhyme schemes carry the song perfectly, along with little productions changes like the time signature change at the beginning of the second verse and codeine-inspired vocal sound when he compliments "the girls who ain't on tv / 'cause they got more ass than the models". And there are few verses more fun the combination of his rhymes and shit-eating world play in the second verse. Combine that with a not too-tricky beat and this one'll be guaranteed to have people dancing at the next wedding. And as long as Grandma doesn't pay too much attention to the lyrics, everyone will be happy you played it.

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