Friday, May 11, 2007

Guilty Pleasures Await You

Guilty pleasures. Things you shouldn’t like. Things you may never admit to liking. And in truth, you don’t like them. You love them. Oh, you’d never get caught enjoying any of them in public. But in the privacy of your home, when there’s no one else around and all the windows and doors are shut tight, you gladly partake. And as long as no one knows, everything is okay.

The music industry has produced many guilty pleasures. These are songs and recordings that some critics, historians, and other “serious” music connoisseurs like to scoff at. But not me. I am brave enough to admit that I like—nay, love each and every one of these naughty indulgences. And I’m not alone; every one of the following made the Top 40 on at least one major Billboard chart.

“Girlfriend,” Avril Lavigne (2007): Lavigne shouts bitchy lyrics in a cheerleader style over a stomping beat, creating the feeling that a bunch of punk wannabes have infiltrated and commandeered a Gwen Stefani session. But consider the actual lyrical content: “Hey you! I don’t like your girlfriend! I think you need a new one! […] I’m the motherfuckin’ princess!” As if this didn’t already sound less like a song and more like a drunk chick trying to pick up a bar patron who’s clearly on a date, Avril lets you know that you ain’t heard nothin’ yet: “She’s like, so whatever!” But then she drops the line that makes it all worthwhile: “You could do so much better.” And that’s what makes this number so special: Lavigne may be ridiculously self-absorbed, but deep down inside she thinks this guy deserves better than the airhead he settled for. Aww, isn’t that sweet? Well, even if it’s not, the tune is so catchy and the beat so danceable that no one really needs to care. [July 10, 2007 update: Another reason for “Girlfriend” to be a guilty pleasure. According to The Associated Press, Lavigne is being sued by members of the ‘70s band The Rubinoos for ripping off their classic song “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.” My advice is to acknowledge guilt and settle this one out of court.]

“Don’t You (Forget About Me),” Simple Minds (1985): A lot of hits from the ‘80s qualify as guilty pleasures, but usually because they’re so loud and cheesy. Few ‘80s classics are as quietly bizarre as this one. For one thing, it’s a clumsily structured composition. The title line seems to constitute the chorus until it shows up elsewhere in the song, sung with the exact same melody. The lyrics appear to flow in a free-form, stream-of-consciousness manner until the eyebrow-raising statement “I’ll be alone dancin’, you know it baby” reappears out of nowhere. The band’s treatment of this peculiar tune is replete with all the usual ‘80s pop/rock gimmicks: guitar strings plucked frantically so as to sound like teeth chattering, synthesizers chiming in with computerized noises worthy of a low-budget sci-fi flick. But the mix is rather unusual, with everything drowned in echo and compression and the drums pushed so far ahead of the other instruments that the beat nearly knocks a hole in your chest. Lead singer Jim Kerr delivers most of the song in such a creepy, nervous whisper that he sounds like a stalker rather than a desperate lover. After what seems to be a bridge passage in which Kerr pleads and begs, “Will you call my name?” you might think that the song will return to the chorus, but no—in the most un-rock ‘n’ roll moment on any record to score high on the rock charts (#1 on Billboard’s Album Rock listing), Kerr leaps into that unforgettable rideout: “I said laaaaa, la la la laaaaa, la la la laaaaa, la la la la la la la la la laaaaaaa…” The whole record is so strange that it just shouldn’t work. But somehow, it does. Apparently it owes much of its hit status to its inclusion in the movie The Breakfast Club; I don’t even remember that film and yet I fell in love with this song anyway. The truth really is stranger than fiction.

“I Need Somebody,” ? & the Mysterians (1966): In 1966, these guys hit #1 with the amazing “96 Tears,” one of the earliest punk rock records. On the follow-up single, they concoct an R&B-infused stomper which allows them to display their inherent quirks to (almost) the fullest extent. Organist Frank Rodriguez plays a standard R&B riff over and over and over again while his fellow Mysterians attack their instruments with far more attention to volume than, you know, playing the right notes or anything. Lead singer ?—that’s his name, dammit!—shouts across the band’s endless riffing in such an unmelodic style that we might as well just call it rapping, free associating the lyrics to the point that many of them don’t make the least bit of sense (“I have a love that can make love”???). When Rodriguez breaks out into “Mary Had A Little Lamb” mid-song, you know that you just can’t take this record seriously. It’s not supposed to be a joke, but it sure is funny! A lot of people think that “96 Tears” was this band’s only hit, but “I Need Somebody” actually made it to #22 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

“I Likes To Do It,” The People’s Choice (1971): The most obscure number in this roundup, “I Likes To Do It” broke into the Top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100 (the main pop chart at the time) and the Top 10 of that publication’s R&B listing in the summer of ’71. It was the first hit for the Philly funk band that would later score with the disco-ish “Do It Any Way You Wanna,” and like much funky music before and since, “I Likes To Do It” broke away from the traditional patterns of song structure. But this one was pretty extreme. I have friends who toil for hours, days, even weeks writing songs that have, um, melodies and, uh, you know, lyrics. These guys were too smart for that. Just some simple, primitive keyboard riffing, a shuffling drumbeat, syncopated basslines, and some scatting. Oh, and somebody beating the living daylight out of a tambourine. That’s it. “I likes to do it, y’all, hey hey! [scatting] I likes to DO IT, Y’ALL, hey hey! [more scatting]” On some level, it’s wrong that I am such a big fan of this record. And on that same level, it’s even worse that this record became a hit. But I guarantee you, once you’ve heard it, you won’t be able to get it out of your head. Even if you hate it.

“…Baby One More Time,” Britney Spears (1998): I don’t know what it is about the Swedish, but they have long had a knack for making attention-grabbing pop music. Producer Max Martin continued that tradition here, building on the in-your-face character of his memorable productions for Robyn (“Do You Know What It Takes,” “Show Me Love”) simply by adding more clutter to the basic formula. Layer upon layer of vocals, instruments and sound effects popping out everywhere, a two-note piano riff applied in such a dramatic fashion as to sound profound—“overproduced splendor,” I used to call it. But then there was the star of our show, Ms. Spears herself. Any suspicions that Britney was poised to become the next great American singer were laid to rest as soon as she opened her mouth and let out a trashy “Oh, baybay baybay” in that piercing teenaged voice of hers. Her performance throughout this debut hit set the stage for her entire music career thus far: delightfully overblown, proudly sleazy, struggling to hit the right notes but not always succeeding, and often substituting panting or moaning for actual singing. With this record, she established herself as an unmistakably manufactured popstar, relying on creative production and infectious material rather than any noticeable talent of her own. Martin, with his keen ear and a finger constantly placed on the pulse of the market, delivered the goods. And as a slightly smitten 17-year-old who fell head over heels with this recording during his senior year of high school, I had no idea that Spears would someday become a total wreck, with all the sad, sordid details of her personal life on display for the world to see. Normally such a development would make an artist’s music harder to enjoy; in Britney’s case, it has merely increased the “guilty pleasure” quotient.

“24 Hours From Tulsa,” Gene Pitney (1963): Imagine your sweetie writing you a letter to say, “Sorry, honey, but I was on my way home when I met this real hottie at a cheap motel and damn, we hooked up big time! And let me tell you exactly how it happened in excruciating detail!” And then your now-ex does just that. Yes, you can get the play-by-play of how the love of your life cheated on you while you waited patiently at home, and you can live with the satisfaction of knowing that your sugar dumpling broke up with you in a letter! Oh, there’s nothing wrong with “Tulsa” if you remove the lyrics. It has an engaging melody (courtesy of Burt Bacharach), and Pitney’s record features a stylish vocal performance and a spicy Latin-flavored arrangement (Bacharach again). But Hal David—who tended to be a thoughtful, sensitive lyricist—came up with some pretty mean-spirited material this time around. If it weren’t so deliciously salacious, it would be garbage. And again, that melody!

“Intuition,” Jewel (2003): The gentle guitar-strumming singer/songwriter belts out an aggressive dance-pop tune in which she drops names like Sheryl Crow, paying tribute to J Lo’s ass in the process. If it weren’t so cleverly written, beguilingly arranged, and well-performed, it would be laughable.

“Getcha Back,” The Beach Boys (1985): You know from the heavily processed drums—with every fourth beat sounding like somebody opening and abruptly closing the door to the world’s biggest echo chamber—that this is an ‘80s pop record. The corny synthesized saxophone sounds merely drive that point home. And it’s simultaneously pleasing and disconcerting to hear The Beach Boys—a band that had one of the most distinctive vocal sounds of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s—doing a near-perfect impersonation of The 4 Seasons. The nasal lead vocals and falsetto refrain bear a striking similarity to Frankie Valli, while the band’s clipped chant of “get-cha back, bay-bay” makes one wonder whether Mr. Valli’s fellow “Jersey Boys” sat in on this session. This case of vocal identity disorder, in the context of a quintessentially ‘80s pop sound, would be enough to qualify “Getcha Back” as a guilty pleasure, but the lyrics take the cake: “Took me back, darling, to that time in my car/When you cried all night ‘cause we’d gone too far.” Amazing how these guys were in their 40s and it was 1985, yet they were singing lyrics that would have been more fitting for a bunch of 20-somethings in 1965. Or were they? When Mike Love asks, “If I leave her and you leave him/Can we ever get it back again?” he genuinely sounds like a middle-aged loser who regrets his youthful indiscretions and wants to reach way back in time to regain his past glories. We know she won’t let him, but again, the melody is infectious, the vocal hooks are addictive, and Steve Levine’s production is so unabashedly flamboyant that it’s hard to walk away from this recording once it has started playing.

“Rama Lama Ding Dong,” The Edsels (1958, 1961): So nice they released it twice, but it didn’t become a hit until the second time around. There were a lot of novelty songs in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, but this one is—here comes that word again—extreme: “I’ve got a girl named Rama Lama Lama Lama Ding Dong! She’s everything to me, Rama Lama Lama Lama Ding Dong!” Even the arrangement is pretty goofy, almost an overwrought parody of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll bands and doo-wop conventions. An archly deep-voiced, mumbling bass singer babbles and stutters the title and offers some barbershop quartet-like bom-bom’s in a split second or two before noticeably taking a breath so that he can continue singing on the bridge. The lead singer wails oooh’s and ooooweee’s in an equally over-the-top falsetto and jumps into an emphatic tone in the most bizarre places: “I’ve got a GIRL named…rama lama LAMA lama ding dong…” All of this while the backup band chugs along in perpetual double-time, the obligatory sax solo sounding much too forceful considering the extremely fluffy lyrics. Simply put, the whole affair is absurd, and that’s what makes it so fascinating. Those who made it a hit were probably not thinking in such terms, however. Indeed, the best way to enjoy this oddity is to stop analyzing it and apply an old American Bandstand adage: “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”

“Telephone Line,” Electric Light Orchestra (1976): Some of ELO’s work is truly brilliant, but some of it is so campy and/or derivative that I have to enjoy it with a certain sense of self-consciousness. I really shouldn’t like such a shameless pastiche as “Telephone Line.” The opening lines (“Hello. How are you? Have you been alright?”) are a little too reminiscent of The Easybeats’ “Hello, How Are You” (“Hello. How are you? It’s good to see you here.”) and are sung in a remarkably similar melody. The phrase “blue days, black nights” is the title of a Buddy Holly song, which can’t be a coincidence considering ELO leader Jeff Lynne’s love of early rock ‘n’ roll. Meanwhile, how did a string of doo-wop and girl-group nonsense syllables such as “doo-wop, doo be doo-doo-wop, doo-wah-doo-lay-ya-yang” end up in a tender love ballad from the ‘70s? Lynne has always had a tendency to wear his influences on his sleeve, but here he goes a tad overboard. No matter. He sings the song with so much emotion, and the orchestration and harmonies are so superb that when all is said and done, this is a great record. A shameless pastiche, but an exemplary one.

“Ain’t Got No Home,” Clarence “Frogman” Henry (1956): “I love to sing,” he proclaims, adding, “I’ll sing like a girl, and I’ll sing like a frog.” And so he proceeds to sing like a girl. And sing like a frog. Enough said.

[Note: At the time of this writing, all of these tracks can be downloaded from iTunes. In the case of “Ain’t Got No Home,” beware of latter-day re-recordings. The original version is on the album Ain’t Got No Home: The Best of Clarence “Frogman” Henry.]

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

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