This song received a lot of backlash from jingoistic native New Yorkers who didn’t like a recently arrived newcomer being given a largely ceremonial position with a fancy title like “Goodwill Ambassador”, but sometimes you’ve gotta stick to your convictions—“Welcome To New York” by Taylor Swift is one of the all-time great songs written about the city, a masterpiece of understatement and honest emotion, and if you disagree you’re wrong and probably biased. As a naturalized New Yorker myself (I grew up in Memphis), I recognize that she perfectly captured the experience of coming to the city and feeling like you’ve come home for the first time in your life. People have accused the song’s construction of being lazy, but what clearly happened is that Swift realized she’d come up with an epically evocative chorus and decided not to complicate it. The song is about 80% chorus, and the verses are rather minimal and understated, but the simplicity works to its advantage because the entire song is meant to have the effect of a beckoning motion, and it pulls that effect off as well as anything since Webber’s Phantom of the Opera has. Some have made ridiculous complaints that the song should have brought up the ugly realities of the city like the rats and the homeless, but common sense dictates that no-one brings that up in an anthem, and certainly none of the other New York anthems people love to compare it to brought up those elements…even the one by an actual Gangsta rapper dwelt on a far more idealized plane than Swift does. The native New Yorkers who resent being reminded that there is ultimately no such thing as a ‘native New Yorker’ (and if there is, it doesn’t matter) can dispute this song’s validity all they want; I’ll just sit back and watch history vindicate it. Give it a few years, and I predict it’ll become one of those ubiquitous New York anthems that you can never escape, because it captures exactly the same thing that both Leonard Bernstein and Kander and Ebb’s iconic “New York, New York” songs were all about…the magic of arriving in the cultural capital of the Western World and suddenly feeling that you’ve belonged there all along.
Archives for October 2015
Charity Singles have a bad reputation for a reason, but it’s pretty hard to come up with any real complaints about this one. It features a ravishing melody by acclaimed British Classical composer Paul Mealor, set to lyrics taken directly from real letters written by army wives to their husbands overseas, all sung by an absolutely superb old-fashioned women’s choir. This ranks right up there with Taylor Swift’s “Ronan” as one of the best Charity Singles of recent years.
This song is just as lovely and gloriously sung as the choir’s last hit, but this one is of special interest to me as a Musical Theater aficionado, because it was composed by legendary Andrew Lloyd-Webber himself. Yes, Lloyd-Webber has another pop hit, and while the song isn’t as strong lyrically as “Wherever You Are”, the melody is vintage Webber and shows that despite his recent run of disappointing shows he hasn’t lost his gifts as a composer.
Wiley, along with Dizzee Rascal, was one of the pioneers of the Grime Music genre, but this song was, by his own admission, nothing more than a blatant and cynical attempt to grab another crossover hit. For a song called “Heatwave”, this song is surprisingly lukewarm, with its earthbound beat and dull chorus. It sounds like a perfunctory attempt to write a party song with little real celebratory feeling behind it.
Verdict: Not exactly horrible, but not particularly interesting, either.
Given that they were strictly fifth runner up (behind Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Alice In Chains) in the Grunge world, it’s surprising to note that Soundgarden are the only classic-era Grunge Band to still be producing top-quality work. Nirvana died with Kurt Cobain, Pearl Jam have been acting like pretentious twits since halfway through their third album, Alice In Chains are currently being dragged down by a terrible replacement lead singer, and Billy Corgan now spends more time slinging very public insults at his own bandmates and every other band in sight than he does actually making music. But Soundgarden, after being broken up for over a decade, reunited in 2012 and sounded about as good as they did in their prime, making them sort of like the Megadeth of Grunge, always a step behind their direct contemporaries in their heyday but utterly outclassing them in staying power. As for this song, while The Avengers was one of the more respectable of the recent crop of superhero movies, its accompanying soundtrack was a disappointing collection that epitomized everything wrong with Hard Rock today, and the only reason for the fanfare it got as an album was because of this particular track, which was easily the best thing on it. Its anthemic, devil-may-care sound captured the feel of a superhero movie far better than the sludgy post-Grunge tracks normally featured on those films’ soundtracks.
Five Finger Death Punch are usually a laughably overblown caricature of a band, but this particular song is in deadly earnest. Its subject of raising awareness of bullying and teen suicides is a laudable one, and most of the attention it received went to the apparently very moving music video, but the actual song itself isn’t nearly as bad as their usual stuff. It’s more in the anguished Korn/Linkin Park vein of Nu-Metal rather than the band’s usual Limp Bizkit influences, and while it still isn’t nearly as good as, say, the material on Korn’s first album, at least it has some sincere emotion to justify its melodramatic bluster.
Oddly enough, when Dave Barry published his famous compendium of bad songs, he equated Julie London with people like William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as actors who dabbled disastrously in singing, apparently completely unaware of her large and distinguished body of work as a singer. Granted, a work like Barry’s can’t be expected to entail large amounts of research (he’s a comedian, not a critic, after all), but I’m genuinely surprised he didn’t already know about her singing career on the basis of this song alone. This is the prototypical ‘kiss-off single’, and forms the basis for every angry breakup song that came after it, from “I Will Survive” to “You Oughta Know” to “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”; some of the most popular acts in modern music, including Beyonce, Pink and Kelly Clarkson, owe their careers to the trail this song blazed. And London’s very background as an actress is why this still remains arguably the definitive rendition of this song in spite of all the interpretations it’s received, a potent combination of withering sarcasm and deep-seated anger.
There are many genres that are generally reviled by critics and ‘serious’ music fans (and in some cases even by the general listening public), from Easy Listening and Soft Rock to Nu-Metal and Post-Grunge. Many of these genres are not entirely deserving of this treatment, and nearly all of them have at least a few good artists working in them, but of all the typical music critic’s favorite targets, none is so inexplicable or so unjustified as the hatred received by a genre commonly known as ‘Lounge Music’.
Now the thing is, this is actually a real and accurately-defined genre that happens to have been named by its detractors. And it’s certainly it is a category that it would be useful to have a catch-all term for, which is why some compilations of music from the era have latched onto it out of a kind of desperation, as it is the only universally recognizable term for the genre. But if you look past the negative associations that the name has picked up thanks to those detractors and take a look at what it actually describes, I think you’ll see that all this disrespect is completely unwarranted, and that the derogatory name should be retired in favor of one worthy of a genre like this one.
For those unfamiliar with the term or (more likely) its actual meaning, ‘Lounge Music’ is generally applied to the era of Great American Songbook Jazz-Pop that started in the late Forties and early Fifties and remained a reasonably strong commercial force until about the end of the Sixties, after which it trailed off into a niche genre that would occasionally produce a hit here or there as late as the late Seventies. This category includes the Capitol- and Reprise-era work by Frank Sinatra, as well as the work of Nat ‘King’ Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett and Perry Como, plus female singers like Peggy Lee, Doris Day and early Barbra Streisand (Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, and Ella Fitzgerald, like Sinatra, predated the era in question, but their later work as pop singers has been lumped into the category too). The term also encompasses the compositions of Burt Bacharach and Hal David and most of the stable of singers who perform them, as well as the less experimental and more accessible Jazz acts of the era, such as Stan Getz, Louis Prima or Herb Alpert, and a few true Easy Listening acts like Les Baxter, Percy Faith, or Mantovani. It is clear, then, that this is essentially a general term for the ‘traditional’ (read: non-Rock) music that was popular with the older and more traditional crowd before and during the early days of Rock’n’Roll.
Of course, any rational person would look at the preceding list of artists in this ‘genre’ and ask why anyone would ever hold it in contempt or give it a derogatory nickname in the first place. It’s especially odd given that the era immediately preceding this one (generally referred to as the ‘Swing’ era) is something most of the smarter Rock critics don’t feel qualified to complain about. You know the era I’m talking about…the one marked not only by the great Jazz and Swing bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller, but also by several equally legendary singers (particularly Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald) who were associated with them. And while this era was admittedly a bit harder-edged and less self-indulgent that the one that came after it, the two periods have an enormous amount in common and were based on essentially the same musical influences. If you applied the modern manner of labeling genres to the music of the period, you could very well term the era of Jazz-Pop commonly labelled as ‘Lounge Music’ ‘post-Swing’.
The initial explanation for this comes when you remember that Rock as a genre was founded by young, rebellious counterculturalists who needed for emotional reasons to believe that everything their parents liked was automatically worthless. They can perhaps be forgiven in their youth and ignorance, especially since many of them did in fact create some wonderful music and break new ground that honestly needed to be broken. Less understandable is the completely irrational need of many Rock critics and fans today to convince themselves that their idols of that era were right, and that Rock somehow ‘saved’ music. In reality, it did no such thing; music was just as good and arguably better immediately before the Rock era began, especially in the period between 1958 and 1963 when close to the only good music on the charts was coming from these ‘Lounge’ acts. Even Rock’s own supposed experts often fail to see how much the genres owes to earlier musical innovations, including some from the very genre it thought it was rebelling against.
The musical Memphis tried to make this argument, too, portraying ‘White music’ as stuffy Easy Listening and ‘Black music’ (that is, R&B and early Rock) as some kind of revitalizing subversive force, but the truth is that those genres were based on the same basic influences as the Jazz that had provisioned the popular music of the previous two generations. Granted, the majority of ‘Lounge Singers’ were White, but so were Elvis, Buddy Holly, and the Beatles, so the race card Memphis tries to draw is irrelevant here since both genres were essentially the same thing…Black musical influences that would be largely co-opted by Whites; just because one was in an earlier stage in that process at that point doesn’t really make them any different.
The fact that the term ‘Lounge Music’ still proliferates, and in fact has become so ubiquitous than even fans of the style have started using it to describe the genre, tells you how deeply rooted the pet myths of Rock really are, and I await they day when Rock music finally grows up and realizes how much its parents really knew back when it took them for nothing but old fools.