On the Subject of Pretty Songs

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: the Stylistics, lookin’ good and singin’ pretty.)

Last week, writing about the 1972 hits “Betcha By Golly Wow,” “Rock and Roll Lullaby,” “Precious and Few,” and “Everything I Own,” the first word I thought of to describe them was “pretty.” But “pretty” is a loaded word. “It can be used to damn with faint praise,” I wrote, “to suggest that something is decent if you like that kind of thing, but not worth serious attention.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary seems to concur. True, “pretty” is defined as “pleasing by delicacy or grace” and “having conventionally accepted elements of beauty,” but the next definition is “appearing or sounding pleasant or nice but lacking strength, force, manliness, purpose, or intensity.” In the section on usage, M-W says “‘Pretty’ often applies to superficial or insubstantial attractiveness.” Even the etymology of the word gets into the act: “pretty” is derived from Old English and Old Norse words for “trick.” In other words, a sort of beauty that may deceive, or be other than it appears.

Regarding the usage of “pretty” and words related to it, there’s an argument that the dictionary sense of “beautiful” could apply to “Rock and Roll Lullaby”—“whatever excites the keenest of pleasure to the senses and stirs emotion through the senses”—because I am still moved by the emotional power of that record. “Everything I Own” moves me along the same scale, but not quite as strongly, or as far.

But what about the other two? Are they “lovely,” maybe? M-W says that “lovely” is “close to ‘beautiful’ but applies to a narrower range of emotional excitation in suggesting the graceful, delicate, or exquisite.” So “lovely” fits “Betcha By Golly Wow,” because the default for any Thom Bell-produced love song is probably “exquisite.” “Precious and Few” doesn’t seem to rise to the “lovely” standard, although it is clearly pleasant, nice, and attractive. That one’s pretty.

Let’s talk about the weirdest, and the most problematic, part of the definition of “pretty”: lacking “manliness.” (The word seems alarmingly retro, and I’m surprised M-W hasn’t modified the definition.) When Dick Clark played “Everything I Own” on American Top 40, he introduced it by saying, “this song in particular appeals to the girls.” Although he did not use the word “pretty,” it has been used by radio types to describe the kind of record that has mainly female appeal. Female appeal has always been important to radio: apart from certain rock and talk formats, most stations make music programming decisions with the intent of attracting women. Even the “classic hits” format, as distinct from male-leaning “classic rock,” is basically an attempt to jigger the music library to attract more female listeners.

But “female appeal” can also be a value judgment: “chicks will like this, but serious people [i.e., male listeners] will like it less.” And that sends us in another direction. In the history of modern pop music, girls and women were the original tastemakers. They swooned over Sinatra, hyperventilated over Elvis, and screamed for the Beatles, and they can take a great deal of the credit for making those acts into superstars. But at some point in the middle of the 1960s, around the time of Rubber Soul and Revolver, when “rock ‘n’ roll” turned to “rock” and first became a fit subject for serious cultural criticism, that changed. Now it was the opinions of men that determined the relative worth of the art. That’s not to say there weren’t female critics or that women stopped buying records. But the economic clout of girls and women buying records, as a judgment of the records’ value, started to matter less than what critics, mostly male, thought of the records.

If we’re going to start interrogating our unconscious biases—and we should—surely we should spend some time on the one that automatically assumes male opinions matter more.

Because it’s OK to be pretty. As I wrote in my earlier essay, “classic AM Top 40 radio was, to a great degree, built on pretty songs, pleasing melodies earnestly performed, for people to sing along with and/or fall in love to.” You can do worse than to listen to a pretty record, or to make one. It’s an aesthetic that’s fallen badly out of fashion in the 21st century, but that’s yet another direction, and one we’re not traveling today.

Here’s Lookin’ at You, Kids

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in a colorized still from the 1946 film The Big Sleep.)

Welcome to another edition of Short Attention Span Theater, with bits that never made it into a full post. Last summer I started writing about an American Top 40 show that played the Drifters’ “On Broadway” as an extra, and I went off on a tangent about shared popular culture that I ended up cutting. Here’s a bit of it: 

Nowadays we actively hunt for something to watch on TV, and in a universe with so many channels, we almost always find something. In the three-channel days, we watched whatever was on. Your show got over and you stuck around for what was next because there wasn’t much else (and if you wanted to change the channel, you’d have to walk across the room to do it). Each of us who grew up in that time can remember how, late at night or on a weekend afternoon, we’d find ourselves engrossed in some old movie. And as the years went by, we all saw Casablanca and Double Indemnity and Rebel Without a Cause and The Maltese Falcon and Singing in the Rain, film noir and screwball comedy, Bogart and Bacall, the Hope and Crosby Road pictures,  the Universal movie monsters—we engaged with one of the 20th century’s richest pop-culture texts, the films of classic Hollywood. Nobody gets that education passively nowadays—you gotta go and look for it, if you can find it, and most people won’t. Something like 80 percent of the movies on Netflix have been made since 2010, and I’ve actually heard people under the age of 40 say they simply cannot watch black-and-white.

But does a person need to be conversant with old-school Hollywood today? Probably not. If you want to appreciate modern Hollywood, you’re better off boning up on the DC and Marvel Comics universes, which have swallowed the movie industry whole. 

There’s another fragment on the flip. 

Continue reading “Here’s Lookin’ at You, Kids”

I Don’t Love a Rainy Night

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Eddie Rabbitt, 1981.)

Forty years ago this week, Eddie Rabbitt hit #1 on the Hot 100 with “I Love a Rainy Night.” It’s got to be one of the more unlikely #1 hits ever. Why it resonated with people is hard for me to explain: it’s just one of those records that caught a particular updraft at a particular moment. Similarly hard for me to explain is why I dislike “I Love a Rainy Night.” It’s super-catchy and it sounds good on the radio. I like Eddie Rabbitt fine on his other big pop crossovers like “Suspicions” and “Drivin’ My Life Away.” But I don’t like “I Love a Rainy Night” and I never have, and it’s just one of those things about myself that I (and you) have to accept.

Last weekend, I asked people on Twitter to name a record for which they have an irrational dislike. While I didn’t go viral or anything, I got a few responses, which I will annotate below.

“Lady”/Kenny Rogers
“Endless Love”/Diana Ross and Lionel Richie
“Lady” is one of those songs you played on the air for the first time and thought, “Oh, god, we’re going to be playing this every two hours for the next six months,” and that’s pretty much how it happened. I don’t think my own dislike for “Endless Love” is especially irrational. It’s terminally bland, and while the label says it runs 4:36, it feels like 10 minutes to me.

“You Light Up My Life”/Debby Boone. Lots of people would tell you that disliking “You Light Up My Life” isn’t irrational at all—that it’s one of the most hate-worthy hits of all time. But it barely seems worth the effort now, considering how it’s been disappeared from pop-music history, as if we’ve repressed just how popular it was at the end of 1977.

“That’s All”/Genesis. I have never minded this myself, but I can see how somebody might. It takes four minutes to not do very much.

“Fields of Gold”/Sting
“Don’t Stand So Close to Me”/Police
Music history is full of artists who needed the leavening influence of collaborators to keep them from getting lost up their own external orifice: Lennon/McCartney and Henley/Frey are merely the most famous. To the extent that the Police were ever punk, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland must have been responsible. Sting’s solo work is as punk-opposite as the Captain and Tennille. A lot of it sounds like it was produced in a biologically secure lab; some of it sounds like it was made with no human involvement at all.

Somebody chimed in to defend “Fields of Gold” as “noble and nostalgic.” I can understand how a person might hear it that way. But when I listen to it,  I feel nothing one way or the other.

“Stand”/R.E.M. There are handful of critically acclaimed performers whose work moves me not at all, to the point at which friends who are fans cannot imagine how it could be so. Elvis Costello is the biggest, but R.E.M. is another. That doesn’t make critics and fans wrong. It’s just don’t hear it.

“Anything by Yes, but especially The Yes Album and Tales of a Boring Ocean.” I love that the original 70s Yes existed, as a testimonial to the combined power of virtuoso musicianship, esoteric philosophy, and recreational drugs. And I love that Tales From Topographic Oceans exists for the same reason, although I don’t think I’ve ever heard a single second of it. The Yes Album strikes me as fine, though. I will always crank the opening of “Yours Is No Disgrace,” and “Starship Trooper” scratches the same itch in me that Emerson Lake and Palmer did. But yeah, I never need to hear “I’ve Seen All Good People” again.

“Anything with Michael McDonald singing lead.” Welp, that’s certainly an opinion all right.

Your irrational dislikes are welcome below. Not hatred with the red-hot fire of a thousand suns, but just dislike, with extra points if you don’t have a reason. The readership has done a fabulous job of elevating the level of the discourse here in the last few months. I am expecting big things outta you guys this time.

Programming Note: 1991 seems to me like it should be maybe six or seven years ago, but I’m told it’s been longer than that. We’ll spend all of next week in 1991, so stop back.

First, Last, Best, Worst, Loudest, Most, Next

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs, and Donald Fagen take a bow in 2010.)

I have friends who seem to spend most of their disposable income going to concerts. I am not one of those people, although I’ve seen my share, and some absolute legends, too, including Ray Charles, Bob Marley, Merle Haggard, Al Green, and B. B. King. The following concert meme has been going around on social media, but since I have a website, you get to read it here.

First concert: For years I told people it was Emerson Lake and Palmer on the Works tour with the orchestra, in 1977. It was actually Tony Orlando and Dawn at the Wisconsin State Fair circa 1974.

Last concert: Steve Forbert in 2019, at the fabulously funky Cafe Carpe in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, unless we’re counting streaming shows. Then it’s Wisconsin legend Pat McCurdy several times last summer and fall.

Best concert: I have always considered it to be Robert Palmer at the Orpheum Theater in Madison in 1979, but that show long ago ascended to the realm of folklore in my life, so maybe there have been some that were better. For example, it should be hard to beat Paul McCartney at Cyclone Stadium in Ames, Iowa, in 1990, or Billy Joel on the 52nd Street tour in 1979. Also in the semifinals: the Dukes of September (Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs, and Michael McDonald) in 2012, Peter Wolf at Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in Milwaukee in 2016, or Booker T. Jones at a free outdoor show in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, in 2019. Honorable mention to Tift Merritt, who opened for Mary Chapin Carpenter at the Barrymore in Madison in 2012. As I wrote after that show, “She was so endearing that by the time her part of the show was over, everybody in the theater was in love with her. (Or maybe it was just me.)”

Worst concert: This one probably isn’t fair because musically it was fine, but the most disappointing show I’ve ever attended was James Taylor in Milwaukee in 2009. I did a podcast episode about it.

Loudest concert: A better choice for worst concert might be the Electric Light Orchestra at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison in 1978, on the tour with the spaceship stage. They were so loud that we literally could not identify most of the songs. But you know who else was devastatingly loud the night we saw them, in 1982? Air Supply.

Seen the most: This would be the much-missed Iowa City band Big Wooden Radio by a lot. Among national touring acts, it’s probably Boz Scaggs, with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Rosanne Cash close behind. But since the band backing the Dukes of September is the Steely Dan touring band and the Dukes do some Steely Dan and McD songs, maybe the Dan and the Doobie Brothers should be in there too.

Most surprising: the acapella group Home Free. The Mrs., who is an acapella singer, had seen them on the TV show The Sing Off and wanted to go; I never expected them to be as entertaining, and as musically impressive, as they were.

Wish I’d seen: In 1980, a bunch of us from college were planning to see Led Zeppelin in Chicago when John Bonham died. The Mrs. and I had tickets to see Tony Bennett a couple of years ago, but the show was mysteriously canceled. We believe now that it had something to do with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. We considered seeing Aretha Franklin the last time she played Milwaukee, in 2016, but the state of our fun budget that summer didn’t permit it.

Unfulfilled bucket list (a personal addition to the meme list): a full Springsteen show (we saw him do a couple of songs at a John Kerry rally in 2004); also Willie Nelson and Ringo Starr.

Next concert: that is a question we’re all trying to answer. Although some acts are starting to announce summer shows, I think that’s overly optimistic. We are assuming that we will, in the near-to-intermediate future, achieve a happy immunity from the coronavirus, with all of us kissing each other on the mouth in crowded bars from coast to coast. However, given America’s oft-demonstrated ability to fk up a one-car funeral, a critical national mobilization like the vaccination program is likely to contain snags that we cannot foresee. I wouldn’t bet on anything close to normalcy before the fall, and if we were still hunkered down in our houses come next Christmas, it wouldn’t be a shock to me. But let’s hope we find ourselves at a show long before that.


Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Morgan Wallen, on stage in Nashville last month.)

If you do not A) live most of your life online and B) listen to country music, you might not know who Morgan Wallen is, or why he’s been Topic A among online country music people the last few days. Last week, a video of an intoxicated Wallen shouting a racial slur at a companion went viral, which prompted radio stations, streaming services, and websites to yank his music, and his record label to “suspend” his contract. This is notable for a couple of reasons: first, Wallen’s album Dangerous has been #1 on the Billboard 200 for the last four weeks, making him quite literally the #1 star in country right now; and second, it’s not the first time he’s been in embarrassing public trouble.

I am not going to rehash the whole case here, nor am I going to link you to much stuff that other people have written. I refer you to the Twitter feeds of Marissa R. Moss, Andrea Williams, and WOMAN Nashville, all of whom have been writing and thinking about and discussing what happened, and the controversy that has followed. Here’s what I think I think.

Friday morning, a couple of days after the scandal broke, I logged onto Facebook to see white fans defending Wallen. “Other people have done worse and they didn’t get canceled.” These same folks are unlikely to agree that two wrongs make a right, however. They also say, “What about all the rappers who use that word?” First: whatabout-ism is the lowest form of argument. And second, the word in question hasn’t been normalized in rap and hip-hop in the way white folks think. There are Black critics of the word, and there are questions of context and ownership to consider regarding its use. It wasn’t like The Weeknd was gonna casually launch it during the Super Bowl halftime show.

Some defenders pointed to Wallen’s iTunes sales figures—Dangerous increased over 1200 percent after the scandal broke—as vindication. (They didn’t say how it vindicated him, exactly; they just pointed out the numbers as if they made a sufficient argument for … something.) But right and wrong isn’t decided by a vote, in the marketplace or anywhere else. And also, thinking “Morgan Wallen is in trouble for using a word a lot of people find abhorrent. I need to go to iTunes and get some of his music” doesn’t vindicate anybody of anything. Journalist Bill Werde wrote, in a thread highly worth your time, “Those are protest buys. And it’s upsetting to think about what’s being protested.”

Corporate country did what it had to by removing Wallen from the air and “suspending” his contract. (Interesting word, “suspended.” Will they refuse to pay royalties on everything sold since the “suspension”? If you think so, perhaps I can interest you in this bridge I own in Brooklyn.) But Wallen’s fellow artists haven’t exactly gone along. Many have chimed in with expressions of support, as if the racial-slur incident is something that happened to him, and not something he did to someone else. Meanwhile, many of country’s black artists stand gobsmacked at the spectacle of their fellow performers dismissing the significance of casual racism, something they deal with every day.

Nashville will declare its intent to do better by people of color, but let’s not confuse declarations of intent with action. “Raising awareness” only serves to take the heat off unless it’s followed by concrete steps to address specifics. Canadian country artist Donovan Woods tweeted over the weekend, “Nashville is a corporate town, top to bottom. They’d rehabilitate Ted Bundy if it meant they’d all make $50.” So I worry that this is what will happen: at some awards show in the intermediate future, Morgan Wallen will come onstage with a guitar, sit on a stool, sing a ballad that mentions regret, smile ruefully, get a standing ovation … and it’ll be like nothing ever happened.

If Morgan Wallen truly repents and changes his behavior, good for him. (Good too if the Nashville power structure commits to real change.) If the incident prompts some of Wallen’s white fans to interrogate their own unconscious racism, good for them. But if all it does is to make the general run of white people clutch tighter to the phrase, “This is not who we are,” we’ll end up no better off.

I submit that unless you’re a person of color in America, you don’t really know who “we” are, as least as far as race is concerned. And if you can’t see why Wallen’s slur should be a problem . . . that’s a problem.

Chili Bowl

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Emerson Boozer, #32, takes a handoff from Joe Namath on January 12, 1969.)

I have referred to the record charts as the calendar of my life. Super Bowls can serve a similar function. Each of the games I can recall directly has flashes of memory attached, carrying me along from the second grade to geezerhood. Here are a few.

SB2: I went to a friend’s birthday party that day, and I think I recall a football game on TV in another room of his house. I remember coming home so jazzed about the party that I asked if I could have one for my upcoming eighth birthday. My party remains a vivid memory even now, although part of the reason may be that there’s a home movie of it—which I should digitize for your amusement, and mine.

SB3: After the Jets beat the invincible Colts, there was universal agreement among the third-grade boys that Emerson Boozer was the coolest name we’d ever heard.

SB5: In the week following the game, my fifth-grade reading class did a media unit, which included groups of us doing a “broadcast” in front of the class. I was a sportscaster, I read a story about the Colts’ last-second win, and I remember throwing ad-libs into my copy. I was not yet 11, but I’d already heard my calling.

SB14: Before the game, a friend who was a Rams fan invited us for celebratory old fashioneds in his dorm room. I missed the game itself because I had to be on the radio. I think it’s the only Super Bowl other than the first two that I didn’t see a single minute of.

SB18: Ann’s parents had given us a microwave oven as a wedding present. It came with a small cookbook, and on a whim, I decided to make the chili recipe it contained for the game. We have had chili of various sorts on Super Sunday every year since—almost.

SB21: The elevator-music station gave away a one-day rental of a big-screen TV for the game. It was a common promotion, back when big screens were unwieldy, bargelike appliances and very expensive to buy. I recall that the winner was angry she would have it only for Sunday, apparently unfamiliar with the concept of “one-day rental.”

SB31: The Packers beat the Patriots, and I sat on my couch in tears, although the tears may have had a little to do with the fact that I was to start student teaching the next day, and I was petrified. I honestly didn’t know if I was capable of doing it. As it turned out, I was. But when the job I found that summer was in publishing and not a conventional classroom teaching job, I was not unhappy.

SB32: My team simply didn’t lose championship games (not since 1960, the year I was born), and nearly 25 years later, I’m still not completely over it.

SB35/36: If you want to pay attention to the game and the associated hoopla, you need to watch at home, on your couch, no distractions. In each of these years, friends invited us to watch this game with them. I told ’em that no matter what else was on their menu, I was bringing chili. I don’t remember anything about the games, because of the distractions.

SB45: The Packers beat the Steelers, and I think I tried a new chili recipe, which was a bust.

SB51: I was on the air during the first half, and I never felt more alone. If I’m ever going to say “fuck” on the air, that would have been the day to do it. There were more people listening in reading class.

SB53: The chili streak was broken because I had to drive to Michigan, and we didn’t want to eat it for breakfast before I left. I watched the game in a dingy Baymont Inn not knowing it would be my home for five days, as the class I’d been sent there to teach was postponed four times by weather.

What will stick in memory from SB55 on Sunday won’t be revealed to us for years. Not until the game, and the day, and this whole dumb and deadly era, are firmly part of history. The fullness of time reveals what matters most. As Drew Magary wrote this week at Defector, in “Life Is Measured in Super Bowls,” “The game never changes. But you will.”

I’ll probably remember we had chili.