Monday, June 25, 2012

Keeping Up With The Kids: Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe"

A series in which I waste time watching current pop-culture junk on YouTube, and then come home to my blog to express my aging-hipster befuddlement with it all.

Call me crazy, but this teeny-bopper tripe is actually artistically significant in its way.  Not on its own mind you, not one teeny tiny bit, but in the grander scheme of things.  A few years from now, when VH-1 is readying I Love the ‘10s, I think you’ll find that “Call Me Maybe” marks the exact moment when Autotune became more important to pop music than a human-performed vocal.  I’m completely serious about this: click PLAY on the embedded video above, and try to listen past all of the vocal processing in an attempt to hear Carly Rae Jepsen’s actual voice.  Having trouble?  That’s because this was a trick assignment: you can’t hear it because it’s not there.  Seriously: given the amount of humanity to be found underneath the production layers of the thing, this song might as well have been sung by R2D2, or Rob the Robot.

It’s a completely different thing than, say, “Friday”.  Rebecca Black gained notoriety because underneath the Autotune her singing was awful, worse even than my own pitch-challenged warbling after the number of drinks it takes to get me to sing in public.  It was compelling (if that’s the word for it) because what was in the middle of Black’s production Tootsie Pop was remarkably sour.  In Carly Rae Jepsen’s case, there is nothing but air at the Tootsie Pop's center.  I’ve watched this video three times now, and I’m not entirely convinced she truly exists; CGI is pretty good these days, ya know?  The voice is robotic, detached, emanating from deep within the void – that is, if it’s even real at all.  She’s the voice that asks me to “please enter your passcode” every time I check my voice mail, tricked out with processing effects, given a weak, tinny beat, some abysmal rhymes and mailed straight to iTunes, postage due.

The lyrics are dopey, in that way that teenagers always need dopey lyrics like these to exist.  There is something profoundly of-the-moment about the way Jepsen keeps referring to the boy she’s crushing on as being “in my way”, and I’ll make you a deal: if I agree to begrudgingly admit to the accidental genius of that, what’s say you agree to bury the thing in a time capsule and that way, with any luck, none of us will have to hear it again for at least fifty years. Deal?  The music is absolutely nothing to write home about: the blaring synth hook is straight out of 1988 – everything old is new again, after all – and it’s exactly the sort of thing that pushed the strong-minded smart kids towards punk or metal back in the day (or, in the case of your humble, ever-conflicted author, both).  The less strong-minded smart kids got stuck with a pile of Smiths records and a life soundtracked by wimp-city alt-rock, but that’s a tangent for another day.

Which leads us to the end of the video, and the BIG SURPRISE contained therein.  I’d throw a spoiler alert up right about now, but let’s be honest with each other: anybody who’s made it this far into this post has either already seen the video, or never intends to.  So the guy that’s (ahem) in Jepsen’s way gives his number to one of the dudes in her band, making it clear that he’d like said dude to call him definitely.  How of the moment!  How with the legal-marriage-in-the-news zeitgeist!  How convenient a way to simultaneously come off as gay-positive and make a gay joke!  And how on Earth did Katy Perry* not beat her to it?!

There are times when I truly dig getting older, and each time I watched this video for this post was one of them.  If any of you out there want to hit up the Early Bird at Golden Corral later this week, call me maybe.

* If, in fact, Katy Perry has done something like this in one of her videos already, please do not hesitate to get in front of your keyboard…and write your congressman or something.  I made one hard ‘n’ fast rule when embarking on this series: NO KATY FRIGGING PERRY.  And just like the best punk rockers, I mean it maaaan.

Dreaming, I Am

If you’ve never heard Bob Mould’s first solo album, Workbook, you really should.  I hadn’t listened to it in a while – maybe a couple of years, even – and I’m not sure just what compelled me to queue it up just now.  It’s not exactly the world’s happiest record: the single “See a Little Light” (embedded above)  is probably the most upbeat thing on the record.  It is an exceptionally gorgeous LP though, and that’s what brings me back to it even though I’m not feeling particularly dark about anything at the moment.  At the time of its 1989 release, no one saw it coming: the first solo album from the guitarist responsible for Hüsker Dü’s gloriously melodic cacophony was not at all supposed to be a meditative, semi-acoustic outing highlighted by its excellent use of the cello in what would normally be a rhythm guitar role.  All these years later, Mould’s never revisited this sound on a grand scale, either; a song or two here or there, but never an entire album.  I kind of like that: it’s hard to imagine him doing a better job at it than he did on Workbook.  There’s something to be said for getting it right the first time and then moving on to something else.

Speaking of something else: more frequent new content is heading your way in the next couple of weeks: lots of summer concerts and related hijinks planned.  Hold tight, and thanks for reading as always.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Queensryche at Rocklahoma: Rage, then Disorder

It’s always interesting to me to observe how performers, particularly veteran ones, deal with an unresponsive audience.  While I’m sure that there’s no one “right” way to handle such a situation, there is certainly a very wrong one: ladies and gentlemen, let’s have a rousing lack of applause for Queensrÿche frontman Geoff Tate, appearing at this year’s Rocklahoma festival…

Watching that video is bound to raise a few questions for any viewer.  In a post like this, it’s my job as blogger to anticipate at least some of those questions and answer them for you, at least to the best of my ability and/or snark capability.  Without further ado, then:

1)      Queensrÿche are still together?  Indeed they are, although you are almost certainly better off if you lost track of them somewhere in the early-to-mid ‘90s.  Founding guitarist and prolific songwriter Chris DeGarmo left the band in 1997, and they have struggled creatively ever since, bouncing from bad imitation grunge to ham-fisted “return to form” concept records to covers albums to tours featuring cabaret dancers.  Their best album (relatively speaking) since their heyday is the self-explanatorily titled Operation: Mindcrime II, a sequel every bit as disappointing and unnecessary as it sounds.  Their latest, Dedicated to Chaos, was released last year to a nearly unanimous reaction of vitriol and mockery, and it is every bit as bad as the criticism on the intertubes would have you believe.

2)      That all sounds pretty awful.  Were these guys ever any good?  Indeed they were: for a five album-plus-one EP run between 1983 and 1994, they were responsible for some of the most intelligent and challenging music of their era and scene.  For a teenager of the time like me, stuck with metal as pop and sick of the more vapid hairball bands, they were a godsend.  In particular, 1986’s Rage for Order (my personal favorite) and 1988’s Operation: Mindcrime (my pick for their artistic peak) were as good as non-thrash ‘80s metal got, and remain well worth investigating.

3)      So what happened?  With DeGarmo out of the picture, Tate took creative control of the band.  Judging by some of his remarks in interviews, he’s no longer much of a fan of heavy metal as a genre, a shift in musical preference that his recent work under the Queensrÿche banner certainly bears out.  There’s nothing wrong with that per se – all of our tastes grow and evolve as we do – but it does get thorny when your audience wants something you no longer have any interest in giving them.

4)      So why doesn’t he just go solo?  He tried that, releasing a self-titled solo disc a few years back that was as mellow (and decidedly non-metal) as it was uninvolving.  Its failure likely left Tate between a rock and a hard place: his audience was only interested in Queensrÿche's earlier sound, and creative restlessness/ambition doesn’t necessarily keep the bills paid.  So it seems that Tate more or less began selling his solo ideas as Queensrÿche, sandwiching them between the old hits that actually attracted a crowd during live performances.  Unfortunately, it didn’t take the crowd too long to catch on, and the audience for all of this has been steadily dwindling along with, rumor has it, the enthusiasm of his bandmates.

5)      Did the crowd really suck at Rocklahoma?  Wasn’t there, couldn’t tell ya, although most eyewitness reports I’ve stumbled across seem to describe the band’s performance up to the point of Tate’s rant as “lackluster”, or some synonym thereof.  On the one hand, all bands have off nights.  On the other, an audience is frequently only as “good” as the entertainment they are witnessing.  Surely, a thirty-year veteran like Tate has had to convince an indifferent crowd at some other point in his career, and surely he has done so by proving his mettle to an audience, rather than demanding their unbridled enthusiasm simply by showing up on stage.  Insulting the audience as Tate did is a mistake made by newbies with chips on their shoulders; for a man with his experience to do so is downright bizarre at best.

6)      And, lastly, how do I feel about it as a onetime fan?  Not much different than I did before I read about all of this, actually.  Their early music meant a lot to me as a kid, and I still enjoy that era of their work now.  If anything, all it’s done is force me to face facts: in my opinion, they’ve been mostly useless post-DeGarmo, and I need to stop forcing myself to try to like uninspired dreck just because a certain band name is printed on the cover.  So I opened up my music folder, deleted Dedicated to Chaos and a few other lame, latter-day albums that I’ll never actually listen to again anyway – and queued up Rage for Order, which still sounds great to my ears.  Friends, there is too much great music and too little free time available in my life.  If I waste any more than I need to of that time on mediocrity, particularly out of some intertwined sense of nostalgia and obligation, then the joke is well and truly on me.

There has been a bit of an interesting post-script to all of this.  Since word and video of the “you suck” incident went viral, it has been announced that Geoff Tate will spent the rest of the summer pursuing his “solo acoustic performances”.  Meanwhile, the rest of the band have drafted a new singer and will tour under the name Rising West (derived from a lyric on The Warning, Queensrÿche’s first full length album), performing material solely from the early, good years; they will also be recording new material, presumably in the same artistic vein.  I sincerely wish all of them the best of luck: Tate with getting to make the music he really wants to make, and his (former?) bandmates with getting back to where they once belonged.  Few things must really suck more than feeling obligated to perform music that your heart isn’t really in.

Addendum: this guy’s YouTube Video sums up the band’s career arc accurately, hilariously, and in a grand total of two minutes and twenty seconds.