I’ve always preferred Elton John in his campier mode, but you can’t deny that he’s a master of the weepy ballad. This could be the soundtrack of every breakup montage in every romantic comedy ever, which is generally not a compliment. But it’s Sir Elton, and he always has a way of reaching my buttons, whether he’s all manic in glitter and go-go boots or all earnest and hungover-looking alone at a piano. He speaks the truth too, of course. It’s no newsflash that there’s nothing harder to cough up than an apology, and there’s an infinite number of sad songs to be written about it.
A lot of weird things flourished in the 70’s: communes, fondue, key parties, Queen. It was like a brief window when society decided that rules didn’t matter anymore and anybody could just wig out and do whatever they wanted. Out of all the things that got popular despite being bizarre, Queen was probably among the most weird. I mean, what even were they? They were a guitar band who sang like a barbershop quartet and liked the opera. I think now we just take it for granted that Queen is a cultural treasure and everybody knows their music, and now that they have a movie about them, it’s easy to see them as a tidy Hollywood narrative arc of inevitable and well-deserved success. But really, what a weird fluke that these weird guys became rock stars. It was hardly an inevitable triumph that they caught the breaks they did, and that audiences sparked to it. And I can hardly imagine any cultural moment besides the narrow window of glam rock’s popularity that would allow a man like Freddie Mercury to rise up and become a sensation. It was his luck and all of ours that he didn’t end up being a weird and lonely old man running a tea house somewhere in India like he could have.
Paul McCartney made his reputation on songs like this, and he knew well enough what some people thought of him for it. There’s nothing like a born optimist’s good cheer to grate on the nerves of the cynical. I guess the same people who felt ready to drop-kick Tiny Tim also are also the ones who want to punch Paul McCartney. Who does he think he is, with his unshakable faith in goodness and love? Well, Paul McCartney wasn’t so out to the heart of the country that he didn’t hear his own best friends calling him mawkish and shallow. His response showed that kindness was the best clap-back. (And success.) In his usual mild-mannered tone, he asked, what’s wrong with silly love songs? Really, though, what is it about other people’s happiness that irritates you so much? Obviously, happiness without a heaping downside of misery – even the outward appearance of it – is irritating to us angry cynical people because it’s unattainable to us personally and we think that anyone who says they’ve attained it should get some kind of cosmic comeuppance for their hubris. Paul McCartney irritates the fuck out of cynics because he appears to genuinely be the kind of person who sees sunshine and rainbows wherever he goes. And he makes more money than God rubbing everyone’s noses in positivity. But, as he states, in the most tuneful way possible, there’s nothing wrong with that. Silly love songs make people happy. And even the most cynical bastards among us – the ones who gripe that the idea of romantic love is nothing more than a conspiracy designed to make people tolerate each other’s company just long enough to make a baby and keep it alive until it learns how to walk – sometimes find themselves right in it, and all of their intellectual posturing goes straight out the window, and suddenly it isn’t so silly after all. Paul McCartney is really on to something here, and we should all actually make an effort to follow his lead on it.
I’ve always thought that for all of his fame, Lou Reed remained underrated in many regards. Obviously, there’s the inarguable impact of the Velvet Underground, which makes Reed one of the many godparents of punk; the hit-yielding Transformer phase; the many years of love letters to the metropolis of New York. All great. But what I always come back to when it comes to Lou Reed is his romantic heart. He was a nasty guy who showed a cracked and kind side, and it’s often true that people with nasty outsides have the keenest insight on how precious and hard to find tenderness can be. Love sometimes happens in between the nasty business of living. It’s something you hide beneath your leather jacket. That’s the kind of a love song I can relate to. (In sharp contrast to the kind of love songs written by people who just want to hug all the animals in the world.)
This is Paul McCartney at damn near his most McCartneyish. It’s everything that makes a McCartney a McCartney. It’s a love song that’s trite and daft and sugary and lyrically lazy – and inescapably whistleable. You can’t get this tune out of your head, and you just bob along to it whether you like it or not. Whether you find it heartwarming or nauseating really depends on how devout your faith in love is. Honestly it’s hard not to feel at least a little warm and fuzzy, or at the very least envious at how unabashedly happy one has to be to write a song comparing their loved one to delicious gravy. Paul McCartney, of course, happened to be extremely lucky in love, so he wasn’t dragging around the residual angst of repeated heartbreaks the way most of us do. He just loved being in love, with no trace of irony or self-consciousness. Since most of us see the experience of being in love as a mixed blessing at best, that kind of soppy-eyed optimism can be a little hard to relate to. We fall in love with a little wariness. This is why Paul McCartney’s brand of sentimentality grates on a lot of people. However, McCartney also happens to be the kind of musical wunderkind who snores out bank-breaking hits in his sleep, and even the harshest critics can’t argue about that. You will take your sugar and like it, because it’s such a flawless meringue.
Bryan Ferry does interesting things with cover tunes. It’s kind of one of his main things. Take something completely unexpected and obscure and make it over in campy lounge lizard drag. I don’t think anybody has made unusual covers such a strong career sideline. Who else would take a Jimmy Reed song and turn it into high glam? It takes away everything from the blues that makes it the blues and comes up with… a Bryan Ferry song. And it works, like glitter magic.
When we want to hear songs spilling over with bruised emotion and intimate personal revelations, Bob Dylan is not who we usually turn to. Dylan’s not one of those guys who constantly mines his own inner life for material. Dylan has better things to write about than his stupid feelsies. But even the mighty break down sometimes. Facing an oncoming d.i.v.o.r.c.e. even Bob Dylan finds that his heart is suddenly right there on his sleeve, bleeding all over the place.