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March 29, 2004

"solitaire" - clay aiken

#4 this week, first week on chart

I don't think I really like the music on the pop charts, or - at the very least - I don't find so much pleasure in them that I put them on when I'm listening to music outside the time I'm working on this weekly blog. But I've been getting into the idea of pop music as a game, comparing and contrasting these different songs and seeing what moves they're making in terms of the structure and hooks and all the little tricks that go into Top 5 pop (like the way "Good Vibrations" is often revered because it had different sections, used a theremin, etc.). Mike Doughty wrote that music isn't a technology and that it doesn't "progress." Well, perhaps, but try explaining that to genuinely pop songwriters and producers.

The number one record this week is "Solitaire" by Clay Aiken, who I gather was a contestant on American Idol. I'm not sure if this is the recording that's made the charts, but it appears to be taken from a live taping. (Even if it's not the one that's on the chart, it's the one that's circulating on the networks, so that probably says something.) There's a crowd that cheers for half-a-second at the beginning. And, then, the performance. The two things that jump out immediately for me are the fact that it's barely longer than a minute long (which can be explained by the fact that was for a segment of a television show), but also that it's a real performance by one person (a sharp contrast to all of the other songs I've listened to for this project) singing in the traditional image of pop (as opposed to hip-hop).

I've never seen a full episode of American Idol, though I remember reading a commentary somewhere that the contestants on the show essentially present a composite of some subconscious idea about both what talent and pop music should be. I like that argument -- especially because this conception of pop music and virtuosity is nothing at all like the other things that have been in the Top 5 lately. That's not to say that it's an original-sounding song. It's not; precisely because it does seem to represent subconscious ideas about talent and what pop should be. It's a bit of a paradox.

The song is very straightforward: a band backs a singer singing of heartache. But, at the same time, it doesn't really follow the formula because it's boiled down for television. Everything has to be condensed into just over a minute. It just cuts to the chase. Fuck this verse/chorus shit, "Solitaire" is just one big build towards The Big Note at the end. That Big Note is the song's calling card and, even though it's a moment that's not repeated, it serves as the hook. After all, the song was performed to demonstrate Aiken's vocal agility, and The Big Note is the most agile of 'em all. That's all that's important, really. I don't think people really listen to the lyrics on a song like this. Though it appears to be a narrative (there's a "he" and a "she" and some elements of time and a story) there's nothing one could reasonably flesh out without liberal doses of imagination. Key words pop out "solitaire," of course, which comes up in different places (the lyrics of the song are just one extended metaphor). Clearly, the song (or this arrangement of it) is arranged for a showcase performance.

I like, then, how the equation changes. I feel like there could be a cool flow chart made to demonstrate this (like something offa Last Plane to Jakarta, except a little less ironic). The first box is "Idea of Pop Song," with an arrow into two successive boxes, labeled "Television" and "Demonstration of Virtuosity," and a resulting box, labeled "Idea of Pop Song (x)" (where "(x)" represents the transformation). Right. The point is, it's something unique and different than what got fed into it to start.

What's bizarre is that the song begins with applause (to cue the listener into the fact that this is, in fact, live, a real/"real" performance), but there are no applause at the end. You'd think there would be, to underscore the fact that the crowd reacted wildly. But maybe there is a good reason. Presumably this is getting played on the radio. Without that applause, the song would just have to feed instantly into whatever's next. Since the Big Note is also the last note, there's no time for anything but a super-quick crossfade, or the DJ (or robo-DJ) runs the risk of ruining the song (though maybe they do). That's probably gives the song even more visceral impact, leaving one a little dizzy as the next song begins, still trying to assimilate what he just heard. Maybe. That's sort of my conception of it. Some time, next time I'm on a long car trip (a few weeks, actually), maybe I'll put on a pop radio station and see how much I recognize, and how it works in context.

March 22, 2004

"tipsy" - j-kwon

#3 this week, #4 last week, 11 weeks on the chart

I'm constantly reminded how little I actually know about pop music -- real pop music. It's a natural inclination to reach for other songs to make comparisons. Context. But there's so little I can reach for here. I wonder what year it escaped me. What would be the last chart one could put in front of me where I could hum a few bars of even 50% of the songs on there, or identify 75% of the bands? What decade would it even be in? My guess it that it happened sometime around 1992, which is about the year where I started making conscious decisions about what music I wanted to listen to (ironically via listening to Nirvana). That's a 10-year blackout in my cultural memory, which is weird to think about. But it also makes me a relative blank slate when listening to these songs. Go figure. That's kind of nice.

So, here we are with "Tipsy." Or, more accurately, here I am with "Tipsy." It's by J-Kwon, a guy so new that the usually reliable All Music Guide is of no help. Arista's website reveals that this is his debut single. His first full-length won't even be out until next week, and this tune has been on the charts for almost three months already. Here it is at number three. That seems like a pretty well-timed promotional campaign. But, well, that's the kind of cynicism I want to avoid. The song is here, someplace in the public consciousness, regardless of how it arrived. What is it doing?

Even before I read Arista's marketing pitch about J-Kwon as a streetwise 17-year old, the song seemed to have split personalities. The verses of the tune are delivered in a sort of inward mumble, a kid walking down the street (or walking through a club) quietly rapping to himself, working on his flow. The vocals are tight-lipped, and - indeed - the lyrics serve this kind of delivery well, which seems like an internal monologue of sorts ("Now I'm in the back..."). The chorus, then, has J-Kwon (no guests here, even!) busting into a more open-throated delivery ("Everybody in the club get tipsy") and one can imagine the shy kid suddenly on stage, or at the center of attention, and delivering the lyrics. There's a video to this too, I suppose, which I probably now have to watch to see if that seemingly obvious version of the song is how they choose to portray it. I'll check that out later.

The production on this is pretty fresh-sounding to my ears, though not hugely experimental. It's all sterile synthesizers and beats. I imagine the whole beat carved in imperial grays and silvers, the sort of sharp shapes that might decorate the inside of the Empire State Building. It feels very electronic -- like IDM stripped of all its self-qualifying pretensions. The music is very even throughout, and the structure is very simple verse/chorus/verse/chorus, etc.. The episodic structure definitely lends itself to the of guest appearances. It's sort of natural for that. None of that here. I like it. It's definitely a change for the ears. Okay, time to watch the video.

March 14, 2004

"slow jamz" - twista featuring kanye west and jamie foxx

#3 this week, #3 last week, 16 weeks on the chart

Hey, I'm a honky. I like this song. I think it's really clever, and can see how and why it works. For starters, it takes the episodic structure of these pop tunes and not only defines the sections well, but keeps them somehow both varied and intrinsically connected. The basic structure: a slow female-sung slow jam, a pair of verses by producer Kenye West, and (finally) Twista's own contribution. Once each element is introduced, it is free to appear underneath the other ones. The female voice comes back a few times for her own verses, but it also appears underneath Twista's hyperactive rhymes as a counterpoint (a fugue sample?).

The song works, I think, in a very complex way, as far as being genuine social music. For starters, it's sexy. That's obviously important. But what's equally important is that it's playful. It's an icebreaker song, the kind of thing that bridges that void in the conceptual gymnasium that will always exist between guys and girls. So, it's sexy, with all the tension that implies, but it also breaks that tension down with sheer humor. Great lines like West's priceless "Got a light-skinned friend looks just like Michael Jackson / Got a dark-skinned friend looks just like Michael Jackson" are the kinds of things that everybody can just shout along with when they hear it in a bar, and then - bam - back to the sexiness. The first line breaks the ice with humor, and the second keeps it hot.

For my money, an even better line - albeit swallowed in the mix - "Imma play this Vandross / You gonna take your pants off." Hilarious. And it's made even better 'cause it's a relevant reference (just like, say, the Tom Tom Club shout-out to funk heroes in "Genius of Love") and because West's base for the song is a sped-up Luther Vandross sample (which, despite being chipmunked still retains its fundamental qualities). After the brief two-line interval from Jamie Foxx, in comes Twista -- a full two minutes into the song. On one hand, that's kinda cheesy, being that it's his single and all. But, on the other hand, I can dig it. Every goddamn single these days is driven by guest appearances, to the point where the marquee name really begins to disappear. Twista's entrance, in some sense, is dramatic.

And his vocal part is cool, too, I think. It's frenzied as fuck, but it's never obnoxious. While it's obviously virtuoustic, it's never at the expense of the song. The words just tumble out, and Twista's voice never sounds strained (also a little ironic titling the song "Slow Jamz" when Twista's main gimmick is being a motormouth). The rhythms, too, are cool, and the arrangement works around the machine-gun vocals well. There are some cool drum fills behind Twista. Likewise, the samples sound neat behind him too -- the Vandross, the female voice. In places, Twista's rhythms are so weird that they remind one (or, at least, me) of some of the crazy vibraphone breaks on Ruth Underwood-era Frank Zappa.

This is not fulfilling music to me, and - as always - it's a bit odd taking it out of context and pointing out all the stupid/silly tricks that exist within it. But, on the other hand, it's still fun to try to figure all that out. For what it is - music designed to be consumed by a lot of people, probably in a public place - it's extremely satisfying music, and very well done

March 8, 2004

"one call away" - chingy featuring j. weav

#2 this week, #4 last week, 7 weeks on the chart

The last time I wrote about Chingy, I wondered about the existence of regionalism in his music. It was maybe, I posited, detectable in the singer's accent and the lyrics, but not necessarily in the beats and production itself. But, listening to his latest chart-topper, I'm having a stupid revelation: just how can one detect the existence of regionalism, anyway? I mean, it's real obvious in music from the '40s and '50s. There is a marked existence between the Texas swing of Bob Wills and the Kentucky high and lonesome of Bill Monroe, and I'm inclined to believe - on some level - that difference is at least as much about the difference between what it's like to live and write music in Texas and what it's like to live and write music in Kentucky as it is about the difference between Wills and Monroe as human beings -- mostly based on the evidence that similar differences can be derived between the various bands that followed in Wills' and Monroe's wake.

So, Chingy. Is this what the Dirty South sounds like? Sure, I can picture it, though perhaps not as unconsciously as I might be able to if I had never been to Atlanta, and not had it defined by other musical associations. There's a warmly airy quality to the guitar part, underscored by the strings that blend nicely with the guitar. On top of that is a distorted beat. It feels like a warm night in an urban environment -- the strings creating the quality of the air, the tone of the beat carving out a closed-in space (though one with wide streets and low buildings, as opposed to cluttered with tall buildings). I mean, more or less, I'm imagining Atlanta. Am I projecting because of what I know about both Chingy and the city of Atlanta? Most probably, but I think that's how it's supposed to work. By mentioning it with such frequency in their songs (though not here), Chingy and others of the Dirty South certainly do their best to create it as a place for the listener to imagine. Given music's ambiguity, every listener will imagine something different.

I like the different vocal parts on the chorus. There are two or three vocal parts floating around, not to mention the guitar and the handclaps (which morph neatly into the beat). The drums all throughout the opening (a non-repeated element that leads into the chorus) are cool, methodically accelerating into the main groove (a cool rhythmic hook to pull the listener in). The first verse has strings, but no guitar. The second verse has guitar, but no strings. They meet back up again in the chorus. The third verse has both, but - at first - they don't play at the same time, alternating snugly, before overlapping as the verse transitions into the chorus.

Of the songs I've listened to for this project, this one seems to have the closest to the verse/chorus/verse that I ignorantly figured would be prevalent on nearly all the tracks (preconceptions of pop?). Oddly, I also find this to be one of the most unexciting tunes I've listened to for it. Meh.