Predictions

Let’s tell the future. The more you enumerate the many ways people have tried, the more you’re reminded that it can’t be done. That makes this a very existential song in its own mild way. It’s existential because it’s not existential. Suzanne Vega doesn’t muse on what the future might be, or why anyone would be looking for it; she just enumerates the many ways of divination. Divination is, of course, blind faith and a desperate desire to impose order upon chaos. We all know, deep down inside, that we’ll never know the future – there’s no such thing as the future. But we desperately want some good news about it anyway.

Prairie Rose

An ode to Texas, from one of the least Texan people who’ve ever lived. Bryan Ferry, a former working class stiff who’s made refinement a cornerstone of his image, would hardly set foot in a prairie or consider writing a song about one, were he not in a relationship with a Texan. This is, of course, a tribute to Jerry Hall, one of the most glamorous human beings to have ever come out of the great Lone Star State, and an inspiration for a great many great songs in her time. Bryan Ferry’s concept of country living may have leaned towards well-pruned gardens rather than cowboys and rattlesnakes, but he couldn’t resist the poetic appeal of the lonely desert moon. Never mind that, according to Hall, he was befuddled and embarrassed by her colorful use of southern slang and boisterous country-gal ways, and decidedly not into leg wrasslin’. Unsurprisingly, poetry aside, Ferry didn’t actually want to hang out on a Texas horse ranch, and Hall eventually left him for somebody a little bit less self-consciously urbane. But the poet got some of his best songs and the model some of her most iconic images, and that makes the failed relationship an artistic triumph.

Post World War Two Blues

 

Call this the thinking person’s answer to Don McLean’s American Pie. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a great song, and quite a bit darker than people give it credit for. But. I think we can all agree that there’s nothing more grating than people who lived in the 60’s’ nostalgia for the 60’s, and there’s nothing that defines knee-jerk nostalgia for the 60’s more than American Pie. I’m sure that coming of age in the 60’s was really *wonderful* for everybody who experienced it and I’m right jealous, ok? But also let’s acknowledge the glaringly obvious; it was a very, very different, considerably less rosy coming of age time for everyone literally anyplace else besides the United States. For people coming of age in the UK, the golden age of the Youthquake, the Sexual Revolution, the Age of Aquarius and all of those other neat things was marred by memories of the trauma and deprivation of the war years, in ways that Americans, flush on the fat of the land, couldn’t begin to imagine. (Never even mind what people growing up a little bit further east had to go through.) So when noted songwriter and history buff Al Stewart took a look back on his postwar upbringing and early 60’s young manhood, he wasn’t waxing nostalgic for the old juke joint and Chevy; he was recalling years of rations, shortages, cold and hunger. Though Buddy Holly may have been a shared point of interest, the worlds and viewpoints couldn’t be more different. For the generation of Americans who are still patting themselves on the back for how cool the 60’s were, there’s a generation of Europeans whose lens has considerably less vaseline smeared on it.

Porcelain

Unlike most songs that were iconic of their times, this does not sound dated, despite very nearly pushing 20. That’s because Moby’s influence is still unabated. There were many musical trends in the 90’s, and while nu-metal and boy band pop are remembered as questionable novelties, electronica has grown into one of our most predominant genres. It’s no longer a niche within the culture. It is the culture. Nerds programming songs on their laptops rule the world now, and while purists (aka old people and pretentious adolescents) may cry that that’s not real musicianship, artists like Moby prove that a nerd with a laptop can become a significant cultural figure with an enduring body of work. Of course, that’s something pioneers like Brian Eno and Kraftwerk could have told you decades ago.

Pop Star

In 1977, shortly before retiring from pop music, Cat Stevens would write a song called (I Never Wanted) To Be a Star. His gripes with the music industry were genuine and he took his retirement a lot more seriously than most others who threaten to do so. But for the time being, in 1970, he was happy enough to speculate about stardom. By that point, of course, Stevens had already experienced pop success, and the stress of it nearly killed him. Being a teen idol was decidedly not for him, but he was still willing to pursue the spotlight as long as it was on his own artistic terms. I’m not sure if there’s an element of irony here, but the song paints the game of chasing success in pretty innocuous terms. Nor was Cat Stevens ever much of a one for irony, anyway.

‘Pon a Hill

“His prophecies were you”

One minute and twenty four seconds of Tyrannosaurus Rex. That’s almost not even a full song. No, but trust me, it is an experience. I think that perhaps with the early Tyrannosaurus Rex albums, the songs don’t work so well out of context. The famous T.Rex albums that followed were a parade of hit singles, but this was a very different animal. The early albums need to be taken in as a whole. The songs flow together, and not one of them is anywhere near being a hit single. They may strike you as strange, especially alone like this, but they grow on you. You can’t help being charmed by Marc Bolan’s world, with its light mysticism and fantasy.

Polly

Sometime in the mid-1980’s, Kurt Cobain read a news story about a teenage girl who was kidnapped hitchhiking home from a concert; a pretty typical modern-day horror story, unusual only in that the victim managed to escape and went on to talk about her ordeal. Cobain was disturbed by the incident, which occurred in the Seattle area, and like any poet, dealt by writing a song about it. Obviously, some creative liberties were taken, but that is what makes it an interesting piece of work. The writer sees the relationship between perpetrator and victim as one of sick symbiosis. The condition of a man who would resort to the lowest depravity may just be a very extreme form of loneliness and alienation; he’s isolated and bored, so desperately out of touch with his own or anyone else’s humanity that only meaningful connection he can make is through violence. What about the victim, on the other hand? Here the artist takes a bold liberty, a controversial one. Is it possible that in her 14 years, being tied up and tortured by a filthy old man is the most attention she’s ever gotten? If someone is lonely, alienated, bored and ignored, then being a kidnap victim is the most interesting and important thing that’s ever happened to them. In a perverse way, they form a bond; they’re both experiencing the most intense experience they’ve ever experienced. That doesn’t make it not wrong, and it doesn’t make it worthwhile, but it does make it psychologically complex in a way that we don’t like to talk about.