Let’s set the WABAC Machine for the halcyon days of 2008, with one of the biggest pop hits of the decade. I think this song should bring it all flooding back nicely. It was one of the last pop hurrahs of the slutty, plastic crystal crusted, Adderal-manic 2000’s. Times sure were different back then – there was this thing called ‘optimism’ and everyone was spending buttloads of money to look like a drag strip hooker. I always thought that the singer P!nk was pretty much the worst of 2000’s pop music: she combined some of the most bombastically generic production with a mawkish earnestness untroubled by irony, all while having the aesthetics of a teenager trying to dress ‘punk’ in a suburban outlet mall. I wouldn’t say that she was the nadir of lowest-common-denominator pop music, because she is, at least, a pretty decent vocalist, but she’s pretty close to it. Even a stopped clock, however, is sometimes on point, and P!nk’s combination of trashy-white-girl posturing and insecure-white-girl vulnerability served her well at least once. She pulled the inspiration for this song from the breakup of her marriage, and although it turned out to be a false alarm and they got back together, the angst is real, and it provided fodder for one of the best defiantly crying-only-on-the-inside breakup anthems. It’s an exact, specific feeling that everyone knows: when you loudly insist, to anyone at the bar who will listen, that you’re still a rock star, while your makeup runs down your face and most of your drink is on your shoes, and you know you’re probably going to wake up with a black eye. Yep, you know you’ve had nights like that, and this is your song for nights like that.
Marianne Faithfull’s entire career is built on songs about being sad, starting when she was a teenager with very little to be sad about. She’s gained plenty of sorrows in the meantime, though, making her a perfect traveling companion for people who love to be sad. I’m not saying that I love to be sad, or that anyone should wallow in sadness just for the sake of being contrary, but… But it’s healthy to accept that sadness is part of life, and it’s something that you, a human being, are going to cycle in and out of, sometimes for years, so learn to take it for whatever beauty or inspiration you can find. It’s accepted wisdom, anyway, that there’s been more, better art created by people trying to navigate their way through sadness than by happy people. Happy people like to just sit there and smell the daisies or whatever. When you’re happy you don’t need to justify or explain it or somehow hammer it into something more meaningful. It’s sadness that needs to justify itself by being creativity juice or forming into pearls of wisdom or providing that big breakthrough in therapy that makes everything else make sense all of a sudden. Therefore we treasure sad music for making our sadness sound more like a state of grace and not so much senseless and overwhelming.
Bob Marley got that right. Marley got a lot of things right and a few things wrong, actually. Lamenting the troubles of the world is eternally on-target; no matter how much change and progress mankind achieves, the world continues to be cloaked in sorrow. It just shifts and moves and takes on new forms to match the times. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the fighting; everyone should do the work of standing up and making their own times a little better.
This might feel fragmentary, but maybe you should listen to the entire album. Bombay Bicycle Club are more of a sustained atmosphere band than a stand-alone singles band. That makes them a little old-fashioned, now that playlists have trumped albums as units of musical consumption. Nowadays, every song has to be a potential stand-alone single, in hopes of being picked for someone’s #MOOD playlist. I’m as guilty as anyone with this mentality; I’ve been trying break songs out of their original context since before platforms like Spotify made it so easy. I’m from the mixtape generation, I understand the urge to curate your own experience. However, there are still some artists who aren’t trying to be playlist friendly. Artists whose songs are best appreciated when you play 10 or 12 of them all in a row. What, ten songs in a row by the same artist? Now that’s a curated listening experience.
Just as there have been books written about Leonard Cohen’s best known song, there are movies being made about his best known love. Cohen had the archetypal artist-and-muse relationship with a real person named Marianne, a relationship we see as so anachronistic and exotic that we keep wanting to examine it and pick it apart, even though Marianne, unlike other famous modern-day muses, was a private citizen with no aspirations of being a celebrity in her own right. It’s a relationship dynamic we can’t quite wrap our heads around anymore, now that women are very rarely likely to settle for a life of making sandwiches in the warm glow of their partner’s genius. We even ask if it’s somehow unethical for an artist to leech inspiration not only from his own life but from the life of his partner. But we still find it romantic, because poetry. Who doesn’t want to be remembered forever in the flattering glow of love? That feeling when you’re in love that everything is more special, more beautiful and imbued with deeper meaning? It’s a feeling most of us can’t articulate, and may not even be able to hold on to in our memory. But poetry keeps that glow burning forever, and it serves as a proxy for people who don’t have the ability to set their feelings down in words and images.We may be uncomfortable, now, with the implications of articulating love and desire too well. It makes us think about objectification, possession, jealousy, control, all the things that can turn beautiful experiences into ugly ones. To be in love is to be subsumed, on some level, by another person’s view of ourselves, and it’s terrifying, especially now that the social rules of courtship have changed and we’re all fighting so hard to nail down the boundaries of our identities. How do you allow yourself to be another person’s object of love and desire, and yet still remain yourself? Well, don’t fall in love with an artist, I guess. Fall in love with someone who will take their vision of you to their grave with them. I guess that love songs and art will always be a little bit unethical, because they drag the most private feelings out into the open, and the artist opens themselves up because that’s what the artist does, but the muse is opened up, with or without consent, and on the artist’s terms. And the reward is to be loved by the world, not as you were, but as your loved one saw you.
Devendra Banhart somehow manages to evoke visions of proper English gardens and South American exoticism in one take. It’s his mixed heritage, of course, and polyglot interests. This is exactly the kind of blissed-out openness that sounds like it wafted down from the Summer of Love. People back then weren’t afraid to be twee or sentimental, or childishly delighted by the world around them. That was the drugs talking, of course. Or maybe the air was just headier. Anyway, I miss the popularity of psychedelic music. It feels at-home to me.
I feel a childlike sense of delight watching Sparks videos from the 80’s. They’re really 80’s but at the same time really tongue-in-cheek about being really 80’s. When I was listening to this music when I was a kid, I had no idea how satirical it was, I just knew that it didn’t have all the seriousness that made most grown-up music so hard to relate to. And, of course, it actually was the 80’s and nobody had the benefit of hindsight to parse how the nuances of the decade’s pop culture lent themselves to parody. The nature of 80’s pop culture was such that many parts of it have aged better as parody than they did in their straight-faced iterations. That very much applies to music videos, because it’s impossible to take anyone’s earnesty at face value when they look… the way that they do. But with a nod and a wink, everything becomes fun again. At least a few people knew they were being silly, and now they look a lot less stupid than the ones who didn’t.