Certain kinds of music don’t do it for you.
I can understand, for instance, why you might be primed against a song that comes with a specific dance á la “Achy Breaky Heart” or the “Macarena”. But what about “The Locomotion” or “The Twist”? You have to be a real hard ass not to want to do the Locomotion. You can say you don’t want to do the Twist, but pal, we both know damn well that you did it last summer.
What about scatting, you ask? Scatting really bothers some people. Will I stand up for scatting? You bet I will, because it’s great! I can’t believe there are people who don’t like scatting. It was awesome when Cab Calloway did it. It’s still awesome when Tom Waits does it. Now watch Scatman Crothers and Redd Foxx right here and never disparage scatting again:
As for the once ridiculed category of pure bubblegum, it certainly doesn’t need my defense at this late date, but I’ll make it anyway. Music can be crisp and smart without being deep. “Since You Been Gone” isn’t “Hallelujah” or “What’s Going On.” It doesn’t intend to be, though. It’s just a song about feeling fucking awesome now that the person who didn’t appreciate you is gonzo. It’s a yell. Yes, “Party in the USA” is jejune, a pretty girl’s plea for reassurance: “Welcome to the land of fame excess (whoa)/ Am I gonna fit in?” But surely we all, in our own way, can relate to the fear of being left out. While I like to believe that my adult anxieties are more legitimate than Miley’s, that doesn’t mean that the texture of our feeling isn’t similar. In fact, I think it’s exactly the same. And when you’re worried and you hear that Jay-Z (or Miley Cyrus) song you like, you say, “Yeah!” and it helps.
No, my pop music nemesis is not the novelty dance tune, and it’s not scatting, and it’s definitely not bubblegum. My dealbreaker is whistling. Why? Do I hate birds or something? No, I think birds are tremendous. I like their colors, I like that they fly, I like that they are related to dinosaurs. It’s fine when birds whistle. It’s unadorned and it’s nature.
Pop music whistling, however, is against nature.
1) Pop song whistling is virtually never replicated successfully in a concert setting.
2) If the whistling is not naked – if it has to compete with other instrumentation – it’s just incredibly weird. A whistle shouldn’t be heard against a full-band soundscape. (See, for example, Springsteen’s almost fun song “Working on a Dream.” The whistled passage, plunked down on top of the muscle of the E-Street Band, jars in the worst way.)
3) I can whistle. Musician, you have to perform at a higher level than me. You’re a professional. Come on, if you want a whistle-like sound, pump it up to at least an actual whistle.
4) Speaking of which: What song that incorporates whistling would not be improved if the whistling part was performed by a real whistle or a woodwind or something? Listen to Dawn Landes’s cover of “Young Folks.” The melody, whistled in Peter, Bjorn and John’s, you know, totally fine original, is beautifully carried by a violin in the Landes version. This makes all the difference. What was a moderately pleasing tune becomes multi-faceted, winding and mournful and romantic.
There are quite a few whistling pop songs that I appreciate – but I would appreciate them far better without the whistling.
To the Weeklings’s roster of musician-critics – Timothy Bracy, Elizabeth Nelson Bracy, Greg Olear, and James Toth – I ask: Do you have a pop music red line? Or, will you leave the door open even to the possibility of successful whistling?
Timothy Bracy: Well, Owen, that is quite a long way around to arrive at the claim that you know how to whistle, an assertion that we both recognize is patently untrue. (Intimates of Mr. King are well aware that he was rendered completely unable to whistle following a rafting mishap in 1984. In addition he can no longer wear anklets or dance the Charleston – wellsprings of his crushing social anxiety to this day.) Nevertheless, whatever your motives, your assertion is true: whistling in song almost always represents a felonious assault on the human experience. In fact, the precise breakdown is as follows:
Acceptable instances: “Whistle While You Work,” which gets a pass for the sheer degree of Beefheart-level insanity implicit in its premise, and “The Whistling Song” by the Meat Puppets, because it is upfront about its intentions.
Unacceptable instances: When Axl ruins “Patience” because he can’t just wait until it’s his turn to sing; anytime a middle-aged white man in a Wes Anderson suit makes it a cornerstone of his “act”; everything else.
So, okay, whistling sucks – but what about yodeling? Sure, I’m a fan of Jimmie Rodgers, “The Blue Yodeler,” but that doesn’t mean that I can imagine sitting down to even one meal in a restaurant with him. What if he just started up? This brings back an unpleasant memory for me. Many years ago, I went to see a performance by Pete Seeger, the great American patriot who for seven decades never wavered in his commitment to see an America where every last citizen is a Marxist boxcar wino. At some point, he was singing a song – I’m pretty sure it was some kind of celebration of tools – when he began inciting the audience to yodel along with him. In keeping with my lifelong deference to charismatic authority, I acceded and began whooping away like an imbecile. This went on for maybe 20 seconds, when suddenly I felt the hot blush of shame color my cheeks. Looking about me, it was totally clear that Pete Seeger had deliberately and with great relish made 2,000 people simultaneously behave like assholes. The point of this now escapes me, except to say it’s no wonder Joe McCarthy hated him.
I think the through line here is whimsy – something which has no acceptable place in popular song. I guess some people like “Yellow Submarine,” though no one with an IQ higher than a Cornish game hen’s. I do not accept that any sentient creature likes “Octopus’s Garden” at all. Few things in life and art are less ingratiating than forced merriment. If you are unfortunate, you will sometimes hear an indie-pop song that shoehorns in kazoos or ukuleles or a bell set in an aggressive attempt to demonstrate what innocent juvenile fun we are all having. It’s the musical equivalent of a hostage tape where everyone is being “well cared for” by their captors, smiling madly while a machine gun waves at them from just off to the side. I wonder if this might be the kind of dissonance Owen experiences when he hears whistling. Nothing is creepier then grown ups self-consciously behaving like children.
Elizabeth Nelson Bracy: Owing to my yoga, Tuinal, and all the other crucial elements responsible for my pitch perfect level of daily sedation, nothing in music ever bothers me. Whistles and yodels? Delightful. Toy pianos and cooing adult adolescents? Experience me! I am an impenetrable fortress of pleasure. Wanna test me? Want to? Ram some George Thorogood into my ear. Go on, do it. I won’t die. BLOOOOOOZZZEEE!
No, no. Whatever is happening is good – I don’t even care what you think – the “rad indie band” Viet Cong are absolutely perfect. Sometimes I even think fondly of Johnny Cougar’s “greasy smile.”
I will tell you what IS currently chapping me though. Why are more popular songs not being turned into commercial jingles?? Some have suggested that the transmogrification of canonical standards into consumer sales pitches represents some kind of artistic compromise. Emphatically, I take the opposing view. Indeed, I would argue that this process represents the very heights to which any composition can be elevated. It goes like this: first you have a song, then you have a hit, then you make a merry people smile and shop with abandon!
Take this classic gem from 1980:
Now, I’ve never been much of a Beach Boys fan – an apostasy to many, I am aware. But who on either side of that argument could dispute that this, and no other, is the very best version ever of Brian Wilson’s 1966 chestnut? Who could deny the cinematic tour-de-force that is this thirty-second spot? Can it be any coincidence that this commercial and Raging Bull were released in the same year? Of course not – both explained more about the American experience to date then maybe we were prepared to know.
Consider the ways that this Sunkist version improves upon the original:
By dispensing with the Beach Boys’ signature multi-part harmonies at the beginning, we cut straight to the point: an agitated narrator intones in spoken voice “Come and join the Sunkist scene/ Good vibrations with no caffeine!” He sounds rattled – perhaps even terrified. The stakes are immediately high. If this narrator does not persuade many to join the “Sunkist scene,” bad things will befall him. Maybe all of us. Maybe he is reflecting the anxiety of the concurrent Iranian hostage crisis. Buff teens are playing an antic game of beach Frisbee, but who knows why? Apocalypse feels plausible – maybe even imminent.
The narrator begins singing – or rather tunelessly wailing – some of the words to the original, comingled with the awkward but oddly affecting turn “Sunkist orange cola taste sensation.” The onscreen action becomes increasingly frantic and insane. All of the teens (and now there are some 30-somethings?) begin guzzling orange drink with the abandon of Coleridge at an opium den. Now we begin to wonder if the singer/narrator is indeed Sergeant Slaughter. Who else could render this so bereft of melody? But what would be the motive on either end?
More voice over. Listen people: NO CAFFEINE.
Jesus! Okay. Bubbly taste sensation. We get it. Still and even, like a great Raymond Carver story, this spot trims away the fat from the original and gets to the beating heart of the matter: any time not spent frolicking insanely on the beach while ingesting poison is time wasted. This is a lesson Brian Wilson knows well and has articulated with mixed results for the better part of five decades. It took Sunkist to truly lay his vision bare.
Look – I’m not saying every well rendered popular song should be turned into a commercial jingle. OR AM I? Of course I am. I fantasy-book these things constantly.
Like the other day, I was at the grocery store shopping for everything I can’t live without, when I came upon a frozen food called “Any’tizers”. I’m a sucker for a pun, so the amalgam of “appetizer” and “downsize” was immediately appealing to me. I took a look at the product: mostly breaded meats of some kind – and then my mind split open. It occurred so suddenly and with such great effect that I immediately had to lie down in the comfort station, which is what I call Aisle 6. This was the bolt that burst through my brain: “They have to license ‘Anytime At All’ by the Beatles.” Why???
Deep breath. Sing it to yourself. Here we go: “Any’tize at all/ Any’tize at all!/ Any’tize at all/ All you have to do is (not sure)/ (not sure)/ then we’ll be there!’
WHY HAS THIS NOT HAPPENED YET?
Best I can surmise is that the good people at Tyson Foods – Any’tizers’ parent company –are probably reluctant to part with the 60 billion dollars necessary to license a Beatles song. And that, to me, is the real tragedy here. Can’t we find some government subsidy or well-meaning philanthropist to underwrite the art of the jingle? Would that be too much to ask? I would be inclined to call this my crusade, if that didn’t sound so time consuming. Instead lets call it my revolution- you know what I mean:
(Greg Olear): I think the most successful pop songs don’t need to be turned into jingles, Elizabeth, because they already are. “Animals” was in a car commercial the day it was released, wasn’t it, and that track makes me wanna drive fast more than anything in the Beatles catalogue. Acts like Maroon 5 and the Black-Eyed Peas put the commercial in commercial pop.
I can’t quibble with drawing the line at whimsy/forced merriment, although the preponderance of so many songs like that is what makes genuinely joyous tunes like “Jackie Wilson Says” or “Sir Duke” so sublime. As for whistling, that’s something best left to schoolyards in Corona.
Not to get all Anthony Comstock here, but my musical pet peeve—and it’s especially relevant if you listen to Top 40 radio stations, as my kids insist I do—is unnecessarily raunchy and literal song lyrics. Remember in This is Spinal Tap, when Nigel is playing that gorgeous saddest-of-all-keys piano number and then reveals that its title is “Lick My Love Pump?” That is de rigeur nowadays.
By way of example, take the Usher song “I Don’t Mind.” It’s a really gorgeous song, a slow tune with sparse arrangement…achingly beautiful. I mean, I really like the song a lot. The lyrics begin: Shawty, I don’t mind / If you dance on a pole / That don’t make you a ho. And that’s what the song is about: Usher gallantly proclaiming that even though his girlfriend is a stripper, it’s fine by him. It’s at once this incredibly moving show of grace by Usher, and at the same time male chauvinism of the highest order. As our hero puts it, “I’m proud to call you my bitch.” Again, this is a great song—and I realize I’m going to sound like an old fuddy-duddy here—but why must he sully it with such crass lyrics? Now I can’t play it for my eight-year-old daughter, which defeats the purpose of pop music existing to begin with.
Jason Derulo is another one. “Talk Dirty to Me” would be orders of magnitude cooler if he instead sang “Talk Farsi To Me” (sidenote: if you’re curious why the trumper riff is so earwormy, it’s because it’s lifted almost note for note from Fiddler on the Roof). In “Trumpets”—again, a fantastic, catchy, top-drawer pop song—he sings, “Is it weird that your ass reminds me of a Kanye West song?” Yes, Jason, it kind of is.
It didn’t used to be this way. There used to be cleverness, innuendo, double entendre. She blew my nose and then she blew my mind. I really love your peaches wanna shake your tree. There’s a lion in my pocket and baby it’s ready to roar. She told me to come, but I was already there. Heck, even being down with O.P.P. required some sliver of intellect, if you wanted to know what that abbreviation stood for. That was part of the pleasure—to be in on the hidden meaning. Then Nelly had that song about how it’s getting hot in here, let’s take off all our clothes, and from then on, literality has won the day.
I swear, if they did a remake of “Mony Mony,” they’d get Iggy Azalea to shout out Get laid get fucked at the appropriate times.
(James Toth): You’ve each made strong cases against the usual suspects: ukuleles, whistling, yodeling, Iggy Azalea. But there is something more loathsome than these things: popular music’s continued preoccupation with shelves.
The role that shelves play in pop music lyrics is wildly disproportionate to their role in our quotidian existence. I have begun to suspect that the preponderance of mantle-themed song lyrics has less to do with horizontal slabs of material used to display or support objects and more to do with unimaginative attempts to rhyme something with a variation on the word “self.” An example, from the Eagles’ 1974 hit “Already Gone,” written by Jack Tempchin and Robb Strandlund:
Well, I heard some people talking just the other day
And they said you were gonna put me on a shelf
Does there exist any cultural vernacular, any lingo or jargon or slang, in which the phrase “put on a shelf” is used as a euphemism for “spurned?” Consider: “Hey, Travis, are you and Sally Jane still going steady?” “Naw, man, she, err, put me on a shelf.” “Oh, wow, man, tough break.” That conversation has never occurred.
If we assume, for the sake of argument, that this is a legitimate real-life phrase I’ve somehow never heard, then just once I’d like to hear a lyric that offers some slight variation on it, which would go a long way to legitimizing the “shelf” idiom beyond its current role as merely a set-up for the word “self.” Imagine a singer lamenting that her love has been cruelly placed on the nightstand, or inside the armoire. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be on a shelf—unhidden, accessible—than locked in a musty old armoire. Any amount of time inside an armoire would be intolerable.
It may benefit us to observe some history. The first shelf-themed lyric can be traced back to Fats Waller’s 1929 tune of faithfulness and fidelity, now a standard, “Ain’t Misbehavin:’” “No one to talk with, but I’m happy on the shelf,” goes the lyric. (We will leave “Like Jack Horner in his corner” for another day’s discussion). Here, unlike in the Eagles song, the shelf is temporary, purgatorial. There is a sense of agency here, as if the singer has opted for the shelf, viewing it as both respite and sanctuary.
Donny and Marie Osmond’s minor disco hit “On The Shelf,” written by Peter Yellowstone and Steve Voice, supports the more contemporary, Eagleist view of shelving:
I’m so lonely, lonely without you
Back on the shelf am I, baby
But by now the Waller / Eagleist School was in danger of becoming passé; someone needed to take it further. The Village People answered the bell by boldly re-contextualizing the role of the shelf by having it accommodate not the shunned or rejected lover, but human emotions themselves:
No man does it all by himself
I said young man, put your pride on the shelf
The die was cast. Henceforth, singers were free to evoke shelves for any number of figurative and ephemeral reasons. The protagonist of Georgia Satellites’ hit song “Keep Your Hands To Yourself,” begs his girl “don’t put my love upon no shelf.” [Emphasis added]. The Jonas Brothers, whose audaciously titled “Shelf” doubles as a sort of manifesto for pop music’s shelf-centric New Objectivists, plead “don’t take my heart and put it on the shelf.” [Emphasis added]. Kasey Musgraves, in her shelving song “Keep It To Yourself,” traffics in ambiguity, choosing to not even name the object being shelved: “Keep it to yourself / if you think that you still love me / put it on a shelf.”
But what, cried the pedants, if the shelf is a place of honor, like a trophy case? Then, by gum, you want your love on that shelf. You might even view the absence of your love on this shelf as cause for concern!
Not long after The Village People’s pivotal shelving-song innovation, a fissure began to take shape between these new, revolutionary upstarts and a growing number of Shelving Literalists. When noted anti-Eagleist Bob Seger refers, mundanely, in “Old Time Rock and Roll,” to taking old records “off the shelf,” he provides the Realist antidote to the Village People’s Romantic elegance; gauntlet thrown. But precedents for this new Shelving Literalism were far fewer in number, and, on the whole, far less convincing than the Wallers and the Village Peoples of the opposition: Brenda Lee, in her rendition of Irving Berlin’s “All By Myself,” sings “All by myself I get lonely / Watching the clock on the shelf.” I suppose a clock can go on a shelf, but, with nothing less than revolution at stake, this seems a woefully inadequate star to which the Shelving Literalists might choose to hitch their wagon. Even less convincing is Weezer’s 1994 song “No One Else,” often regarded as something of a Shelving Literalist anthem despite imperfect rhymes. In it, singer and songwriter Rivers Cuomo romanticizes a girl who “puts her makeup on the shelf” whenever he is away. Seems like a good way to ensure that a makeup bag falls into the toilet.
The schism between Shelving Eagleists and Shelving Literalists would continue unabated, with few, if any, victors. It is often said that wherever a crappy metaphor can be heard, so too can the scoffing of a Shelving Literalist. The following lines open “Help Yourself,” written by Carlo Donita and Mogol, and made famous by Tom Jones:
Love is like candy on a shelf
You want to taste, then help yourself
If nothing else, this proves that every movement will inevitably produce its lunatic fringe. Love is like candy on a shelf? It is terrible writing and terrible advice.
In addition to shelves used for the aforementioned people, makeup, hearts, candy, pride, and love, there are songs in which songs, wallflowers, clocks, and alcohol, too, sit on shelves. Could such a queer menagerie of items have possibly been imagined by whatever primitive hominid first affixed a horizontal slab of stone to a vertical slab of stone? The shelf has even served as a metaphor for existence itself, as a thing one can be unceremoniously “pushed” from, by Jesus, when it is deemed time to shuffle off this mortal coil.
I will concede that unless you are writing songs about elves, “self” can prove a very difficult word to rhyme, and given pop music’s tradition of solipsism, the privileging of and preoccupation with the “self” is likely to continue as long as there are songs. And look, I’m no zealot; I think it is acceptable to rhyme “self” with, say, “health” (good for shoehorning into songs about drugs or alcoholism or shingles). I believe it is reasonable to use comparatively mundane ‘set-up’ lines to roll out the red carpet for the punch-line; great lyricists from John Prine to Earl Sweatshirt have been using this device for over half a century. But part of the magic, if you will, is in the element of surprise. When I hear the word “shelf,” I know what’s coming next, and so do you. This is my “red line”; I simply cannot enjoy a song if a lyric is preceded by anything about a shelf, unless that song is about Ikea. If “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” had anything in it about shelves, I’d hate it. I mean, “love is like candy on a shelf?” I’ve heard of furniture music, but that’s just outrageous.