Last time on the art of the Villain Song, we learned how beautiful and ennobling music and seemingly innocent lyrics can highlight the essential goodness of an apparent villain; this time we’ll see how those same techniques can be used for straight-up irony, as a horrifying contrast to the actual situation. Sondheim has always been the King of this technique; he’s used it throughout his career, especially in Sweeney Todd, where every time the music reaches its greatest heights of beauty, you know someone is plotting murder, or about to attempt murder, or just straight-up committing murder. The music in this particular musical, a twistedly comic vaudeville about real-life Presidential assassins, is disturbingly light and tuneful almost throughout, but this song is a special case. It’s a gorgeous Pop-Folk ballad, in the vein of acts like the Carpenters, except that because Sondheim is Sondheim, it’s far more beautiful and melodic than even the best songs ever released by those artists. It’s the most beautiful song in the entire show, actually…so naturally, it’s given to John Hinckley, the deranged stalker who tried to kill Ronald Reagan, as he sings of his obsession with actress Jodie Foster, and then to Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, the Charles Manson disciple who tried to shoot Gerald Ford, as a profane hymn to her murderous leader. If that sounds incredibly disturbing, that’s the idea…it’s that kind of musical. Even limiting myself to Sondheim’s oeuvre, I could have chosen any number of songs from Sweeney Todd, or such other items as “Pretty Lady” from Pacific Overtures, as an example of this particular form, but I selected this one because its real-life connections give it a particular resonance. There’s a creeping horror to hearing Hinckley and Fromme sing a beautiful love song that you just don’t get from a purely fictional killer like Sweeney Todd, no matter how well the song in question is written.
Archives for May 2016
So here we come to the second part of my extended series on villain songs. This song is a similar but subtly different phenomenon from the see-it-all-through-the-villain’s-eyes sort of song we discussed last time. This is one of those songs that only qualifies as a ‘Villain Song’ in context, and sounds for all the world like it was written for a heroic character. This can be used for disturbing irony, as is seen in much of Sondheim, or it can be used to drive home that the character isn’t really a bad person, as it is here. The imagery of this song is drawn almost entirely from the work of English poet John Milton, which suggests an interesting potential irony. For those who don’t know, the story of the fall of Lucifer as most Christians understand it is scarcely suggested by the actual Bible, and nearly all of our ideas about it were codified by Milton in his poem Paradise Lost. And given that Les Miserables‘ Inspector Javert is, like Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman, a man whose sin is taking the great lie of his job home with him (in this case, that the law is infallible and all the people he hurts in its name truly deserve it), it makes sense that he would be quoting religious ideas drawn from a popular poet rather than the actual religious texts he thinks he’s referencing. Javert is a vividly tragic character, and while the musical does flatten out some of the nuances he had in the novel (which is inevitable given the novel’s sheer length and complexity), it only highlights the central tragic paradox his character is built on. This is a man who has absolute faith in something that is ultimately not true, and it’s hardly surprising that once he’s forced to realize that fact, he cannot bring himself to go on living.
Of the two Weird Al albums released in the current decade, 2014’s Mandatory Fun seems to generally receive the lion’s share of attention, due to its topping the Billboard 200 for a week and producing Yankovich’s third Top Forty single, the Schoolhouse Rock tribute “Word Crimes”. But of the two albums, this one is actually the better one by a significant margin.
Some have held it against him that he basically repackaged the songs from his Internet Leaks EP, which had made a big deal about its gimmick of being distributed free over the internet, as part of this commercial album, which some saw as hypocritical. But when this album was released in 2011, there was undoubtedly still a significant portion of Yankovich’s fanbase that hadn’t been sufficiently internet-savvy as to have downloaded the EP (I was one of them at the time, so I know), so I can understand why he felt the need to make sure that all of his fans got to hear this material. In any case, apart from perhaps “Skipper Dan”, the most interesting material on this album was all completely new at this time, so there was ample reason to pick it (and ample value in paying for it) up even if you already owned the EP.
The material from the EP is capable enough…a recession-themed parody of a Glam Rap song, and topical technology satires mimicking the styles of Queen (“Ringtone”) and the Doors (“Craiglist”), but it’s very much Yankovich business-as-usual. Even the genuinely amusing “CNR”, which parodies the ‘Chuck Norris facts’ meme by substituting Charles Nelson Reilly for Chuck Norris, doesn’t really break any new ground.
But much of this album is actually quite dark and deep by Yankovich’s usual standards. “Skipper Dan”, the funny-sad lament of a failed actor reduced to working at Disneyland, is actually quite depressing for a Weird Al song, especially on repeat listens. And “TMZ” and “Party In the CIA” are two of most ambitious and serious satires Yankovich has ever released. The former, based on Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me”, is a genuinely biting commentary on our culture’s treatment of celebrities, while the latter, a parody of Miley Cyrus’ “Party In the USA”, is a heavy political satire that actually mentions waterboarding and political assassinations.
The single this time around was “Perform This Way”, and while it may not have charted as high as “Word Crimes”, it is an even more impressive achievement. If you had asked almost anyone before this album came out, they would have said Lady Gaga’s sheer excesses made her utterly impossible to parody, but Weird Al is considered the King of Parody for a reason, and he proved it by creating a hilarious parody of “Born This Way” that perfectly captured the utter absurdity of the whole Lady Gaga phenomenon.
The ubiquitous polka medley of contemporary hits is, like all such medleys on Weird Al albums, something of an acquired taste, but this one is as well-executed as any of them, and will no doubt appeal to that handful of fanatics who buy the albums primarily for those medleys.
Pretty much the only real dud on the album is “If That Isn’t Love”, an uninspired retread of jokes that weren’t even Weird Al’s best work the first time around. But the album more than makes up for that misstep with its magnificent closing track, “Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me”. On the surface, it seems similar to the two aforementioned decent-but-unspectacular songs from the EP; then-current technology jokes set to a pastiche of a Classic Rock act’s overall style. But combining the sheer exaggerated dramatic force of the Jim Steinman-Meat Loaf collaborations with a hyperbolic lyric about unwanted e-mail somehow resulted in a song so gloriously over-the-top that it ranks with the funniest large-scale set pieces of Yankovich’s career.
As I said, this album tends to get overlooked in favor of its successor Mandatory Fun, but it contains some of the most impressive material in the entire Weird Al canon, and it demonstrates how he has outlasted most of the acts he started out parodying and is still as relevant now as he was in the Eighties and Nineties. This album should be required listening for anyone with an interest in Weird Al’s work (yes, even if you already own Internet Leaks), and is also of value to anyone interested in the Pop music of the period, as Yankovich casts a fascinating lens on that pop-culture era and its assorted phenomena.
This is at least arguably a good movie, and is without question enjoyable to watch, which its gloriously gaudy visuals and fast-based, campy mix of farce and operatic melodrama, but there’s a reason virtually no-one today considers it the masterpiece it was hailed as on its initial arrival. The basic problem with it, which has been pointed out before, is its emphasis on style over substance and its complete lack of substance as a result. That said, I also have two other major objections to it.
One is how it appropriates the plot of one of my favorite operas, La Traviata, and then proceeds to make really poor use of it. The original opera had one of the most touching stories in history, and Moulin Rouge manages to obliterate almost everything that worked about it. The opera’s plot set-up made sense in context; the movie kept the plot, but not the set-up. The opera had one of the most beautifully realistic and understated portrayals of relationships in the history of the form; every character in the movie is an over-the-top cartoon. The opera made its heroine’s sacrifice heartrending; in the movie, Satine’s ‘sacrifice’ is so senseless and contrived that it’s impossible to take seriously. In the opera, leading man Alfredo is, like most Italian opera heroes, a genuinely sweet man who thinks with his heart, and who shows genuine remorse for his one impulsive act of cruelty. In the movie, Christian doesn’t even apologize for publicly humiliating Satine—she just takes him back, as if what he did was totally justified. All these changes really bother me because, while La Traviata will assuredly outlast Moulin Rouge, at this particular moment the mediocre hit movie is more widely known to the general populace that the glorious masterpiece opera, so for a lot of people this is their only exposure to the story.
The other issue I have with the film is the way they put together their jukebox score. There’s a reason most jukebox scores consist of songs by the same songwriter(s) (Singin’ In the Rain, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, The Boy From Oz), the same band (Beatlemania, Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys), or at the very least the same era (Rock of Ages, Bullets Over Broadway, Walking On Sunshine). The importance of having a unified sound to your score is not simply waived because you’re doing a jukebox musical—your songs still need to fit together properly. Moulin Rouge, on the other hand, draws its material from a plethora of totally unconnected sources, and while some of the numbers are enjoyable in themselves (particularly David Bowie’s opening rendition of “Nature Boy”, the love duet for the leads, featuring a gigantic medley of fragments from various songs containing the world ‘love’, the star-studded single version of “Lady Marmalade” recorded for the soundtrack, and the tango version of the Police’s “Roxanne”), the overall score suffers from a serious lack of focus. Frankly, using “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friends” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” not only in the same score, but in the same scene, wouldn’t pass muster on a compilation CD, much less a musical.
This film was hailed like the Second Coming when it came out, simply because what it was doing was so new and innovative, but it has since sunk into a much more deserved status as a campy guilty pleasure, especially after the Chicago film took its stylistic innovations and used them for something with actual story substance.
This was a third-rate regional musical that barely managed to rope in a single big name (movie star Val Kilmer) to play its leading role, mostly on the strength of its subject matter. It would have vanished entirely if it had not left behind a DVD recording, which has led to it becoming a minor home-video curiosity among musical-theater buffs, largely once again on the strength of its subject.
One of the obvious problems with this production is that it is so monumentally heavy and self-important; it doesn’t have the faintest glimmer of humor or self-awareness. In fact, it takes itself so seriously that it often comes across as laughably pompous and unintentionally comic.
The score is also a problem. It does have its moments; some of the pop-style ballads that make up most of the score are pretty or even moving (such as “If I Can Let You Go” or “A Love That Never Was”), and the gospel-influenced choruses are occasionally stirring. There are even a couple of genuinely excellent numbers, such as the anguished “Is Anybody Listening?” for Joshua or the witheringly furious “Can You Do That For Me?” for Queen Nefertari. But the score as a whole is actually rather dull…it lacks emotional variety, the very Pop-heavy sound feels out of place in the setting, and the production numbers are all incredibly embarrassing. “He’s the One” tries to create a Middle-Eastern sound and winds up with something more like bad imitation Bollywood, “We Are Free” is just irritating in its vacuous naivete, and “Golden Calf” just looks bizarre, with some of the most ridiculous choreography seen in a musical film since At Long Last Love. This, combined with some ill-advised and at times hysterically inappropriate post-production effects added to the video version, makes the show’s visual style come off as almost surreal.
In addition, while you would think the plot of the Exodus story would pretty much tell itself at this point, the first act is actually quite poorly plotted, with the series of events that lead up to Moses discovering his identity not making much sense. But perhaps the biggest problem is that the real conflict is wrapped up within the first two scenes of Act Two, and the remaining half-hour or so is tooth-grindingly boring.
As stated, Val Kilmer plays the lead, and, although he did a fine job of voicing the same character in The Prince of Egypt, he comes across as almost absurdly wooden here—at his most emotional, he mostly looks like he’s going to be sick. The other two seminames in the cast, future American Idol alumnus Adam Lambert and musical-theater veteran Lauren Kennedy, actually both do very good work…it helps that they both get generally better material than the other performers. Everyone else is played by nobodies, all of whom are capable but undistinguished.
The show also tries very hard to turn this fairly barbaric tribal myth into an inspirational anti-slavery tract, making Moses into a Martin Luther King-esque progressive visionary and closing the show the saccharinely inspirational anthem “Say a Prayer”, which resembles the Jim Steinman song of the same name but without any of the edge. One moment in particular, where a boy soprano reassembles the tablets and sings a sanitized version of the titular Ten Commandments, is so cloying and unbearably wholesome that even the Song of Norway movie would get to make fun of it. But that was a problem that also plagued the far superior musical adaptation of this story The Prince of Egypt, so I won’t hold their attempt to soften the edges of the story against them too much.
That said, The Prince of Egypt had a sense of humor and self-awareness and vastly more interesting songs, and it managed to get an actual performance out of Val Kilmer, so it pretty much outdoes this version on every possible front. This might have some value if you intend to mock it Mystery Science Theater-style, since its combination of pompous tone and abundant flaws do make it quite easy to laugh at, but I can’t really call it a success at what it was actually attempting to do.
It’s often been observed that while Nick Jonas’ solo career was stylistically modeled on Justin Timberlake, Joe Jonas and his new band DNCE have made the much more unwise move of modelling their sound after the worst band currently around, post-sellout Maroon 5. The composition itself has something to be said for it, and has the potential to be a genuinely enjoyable upbeat dance tune, but the Maroon 5-esque arrangement and vocals just make it sound annoying, and the excessive profanity in the lyrics just seems gratuitous, as well as rather contradictory for a song where the chorus is built around a fairly tasteful double-entendre. The song’s potential was realized, however, in the version performed by DNCE during the Grease Live! broadcast, with a Fifties Rock’n’Roll arrangement that vastly surpasses the original one, and a lyric cleaned up for television that actually works much better than the explicit version. So I can’t completely dismiss this song, but the version that actually became a hit doesn’t remotely fulfill its full potential, and if you really want to appreciate its good qualities, I strongly suggest you pick up the version on the Grease Live! soundtrack.
Verdict: The Grease Live! version proves that this song can be good, but the actual hit version is still pretty bad.
This was an additional song written by the team of Bock and Harnick for the 2004 Broadway revival of their most famous show, Fiddler on the Roof. And while that production certainly had no shortage of other problems, this one was probably the most baffling. The most obvious problem with this song is that it doesn’t remotely live up to the rest of the score. Even with one of Broadway funniest comediennes, Nancy Opel, on hand to perform it, it’s still a thoroughly mediocre song, and when you surround a mediocre song with one of the great theater scores of all time, you make it sound even worse than it actually is. The song it replaced, “The Rumor”, wasn’t one of the Fiddler score’s highlights to begin with, but it was a genuinely amusing comedy number that made an insightful (if well-worn) point about the way gossip travels, and it was certainly a Hell of a lot more interesting than this. But even more annoying than this song’s mere presence in the show is the rationale for why it was added; Bock and Harnick’s statement on the matter is that this song was added ‘to clarify the show’s themes’. Please note that this is Fiddler on the Roof, the show that had been an international smash hit for forty years when this song was added, the show that, although its creators expected it to appeal primarily to the Jewish culture that was its subject matter, has wound up resonating just as deeply with virtually every culture on the planet. This is the show of which the producer of the first Japanese production famously asked, “Do they understand this show in America? It’s so Japanese!”. I think it’s pretty obvious that everyone already understands the show’s themes pretty well, and this is thus one of the most unnecessary additions to a classic show since the Annie Get Your Gun revival reinserted “Who Do You Love, I Hope?”. Granted, a lot of aging theatrical legends have unnecessarily tinkered with their past masterpieces in revivals, but even when, say, Sondheim got Lin-Manuel Miranda to translate half of West Side Story into Spanish, we could at least understand the theoretical logic behind his bad decision. This, on the other hand, is an attempt to fix a problem literally no-one had, and I’m just grateful that, like most of these dithering revisions of classic shows, it has vanished without a trace from any future productions.
Verdict: This is one of the most profoundly pointless additions to a score I have ever heard, and it doesn’t even have the redeeming feature of being an interesting song in its own right.
Now, believe me, I get why Britney Spears’ success is so frustrating. She had no talent whatsoever in her own right…she couldn’t sing to save her life, she didn’t have any songwriting talent to compensate for that fact, and while she did have a distinct personality, it wasn’t exactly one that made you want to spend time around her. That said, as much as I hate to admit it, she did have access to the best producers in the industry for much of her career, and, like her successor in that field Katy Perry, she would occasionally luck into a decent song through no particular merit of her own. Granted, she never had a run anywhere near as good as most of the early Katy Perry singles, but this song is proof that not all of her singles are on the rock-bottom level of “3” or “Work Bitch”. As sleazy club-bangers in this vein go, this song is actually fairly respectable work. The beat is strong enough to back up the raunchy tone, and the pun the lyric is built around is actually a fairly clever one (for those who haven’t figured it out, the phrase “If you seek Amy”, when sung, sounds almost exactly like “F.U.C.K. me”). I wouldn’t call this a masterpiece by any distant stretch, but by the standards of Spears’ usual output, it might well be one of the best things she ever recorded.
Verdict: I don’t give Spears herself much credit for it, but this is actually pretty good.