Friday(-ish) Request Line: “Bad Romance,” “NY State of Mind,” “Plateau,” “Go Your Own Way,”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 8, 2010
Reader Dan writes:
Here is my request:
“Bad Romance” – Lady Gaga
“NY State of Mind” – Nas
“Plateau” – The Meat Puppets
“Go Your Own Way” – Fleetwood Mac
Kinda dispensing with the formalities, huh guys? Anyway…
The crazy thing for me with regards to Lady GaGa is that when she first came out, I totally thought she was just another faceless pop chick. (I also thought for months that she was black–not entirely sure why.) “Just Dance” was a good song, sure, but it wasn’t the kind of song that really screams New Horizon–it was just a highly above-average song about loving pop music. I actually liked that song a lot, and “Poker Face” might have been even better–it had a couple really original-sounding, ear-worming hooks that absolutely screamed mega-hit, and it surprised me little when it quickly reached that fate. But by then it was starting to get clear that GaGa had loftier goals in mind. Her videos, her interviews, her wardrobe…it all started to stray off the beaten path a little. Then, the 2009 VMAs happened, and it was clear that there was no going back: GaGa was weirdo performance artist first, disposable pop musician a distant second.
“Bad Romance” represents a lot of what really worries me about Lady GaGa. The music video is great, the production is top-notch, even the title is pretty high-quality. But the song just isn’t there. It’s a quintessential sfollow-up-to-a-smash-album lead single–brimming with megastar confidence and sparkling with the sound of a higher recording budget, but rushed and poorly thought-out in actual songwriting terms. Sometimes that can be charming, but other times, it just sounds lazy. In GaGa’s case, it’s indicative of particularly bad trending. “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” were very good pop songs, but the next two singles off The Fame (“Lovegame” and “Paparazzi”), were messy and unfocused, with weak choruses and largely incoherent lyrics. “Bad Romance” not only has the same issues, but is a complete retread musically of “Poker Face,” which in itself was a tad too reminiscent of “Just Dance.” Given the fact that there was barely a year separating the three songs’ chart reign, and given that all three were monstrously successful, it made for an insane degree of GaGa overkill.
It’s just an empty, empty song. From the nonsense chanting of the intro to the meaninglessness of the chorus to the Sure, Why Not transition to French in the bridge, it’s all style and no substance. That in itself doesn’t have to be a problem, as long as the style is good or interesting enough, but after those first two singles, it seems like GaGa started to put all her creativity into her videos, her fashion, her live performance and her public relations, with the music as something of an afterthought. I read a New York magazine article detailing her incredible rise to power, and about three-quarters of the way through the 10,000 word odyssey, the writer made some comment like “Oddly, for someone as ambitious and creative as Lady GaGa, the music is kind of boring.” It’s true, and it’s only getting truer–minus the ridiculous ten-minute music video, “Telephone” is an almost comically pointless rant about GaGa’s irritation over getting a phone call in a dance club. For all we know, “Bad Romance” might be as good as it gets for GaGa going forward.
It’s tough, because I do like a lot of what GaGa is about. I’m at least mildly interested in her take on fashion, about the nature of celebrity, about gender identity, the music video format, the spectacle of the live performance, all that stuff. But I do wonder if that’s what makes her somewhat dangerous as a pop hero, because she seems to believe that when considering the construction of a pop star, the songs themselves are a relatively low priority–and disturbingly, she seems to be proving herself right. People compare her to Madonna in her style and iconography, but by this point in her career, Madonna already had come out with “Borderline,” “Lucky Star,” “Holiday” and “Burning Up”–and she was barely even getting started. It’s probably not really fair to compare her to Madonna, since she’s on a level pretty much by herself, but it seems to me that GaGa herself has Madonna in her sights. And eventually, if she wants that kind of respect and that kind of longevity, she’s gonna have to produce the songs to go with the image and persona. At least I hope she will.
With every passing year, it becomes clearer that the thing that really sets Illmatic apart–the thing that really cements its classic reputation among hip-hop albums–is its brevity. I don’t mean that to discredit what Nas did with the album–it’s an absolutely fantastic collection of songs, with some of the sharpest rhymes and tightest beats of its era, in an era known for its sharp rhymes and tight beats. But it’s the fact that there’s only ten of them (nine if you discount the intro, which I do) that makes the album timeless, allowing each song the sort of impact generally impossible on a typical 78-minute rap LP. Add in the fact that it featured next to no guest rappers and an all-star lineup of producers (all of whom had different styles, but belonged to roughly the same scene), and you have one of the only major hip-hop albums to really feel like an album. This isn’t a particularly original point I’m making, of course, but it’s one that’s almost essential to talk about when discussing a song like “NY State of Mind.”
“NY State of Mind” is probably one of the most famous non-singles in hip-hop history, a song that just about everyone with more than a passing interest in hip-hop knows, even though it’s never gotten any kind of considerable radio airplay and doesn’t even have a music video. That’s important, just because “NY State of Mind” wouldn’t have been even moderately successful as a single–it’s not catchy, it doesn’t have a chorus, its beat is almost a little bit draggy. Its appeal is almost all within the context of the album, as a table-setter, as a contextual piece of fabric woven into the Illmatic cloth. The street-scene lyrics are the perfect introduction for the vignettes to follow, its verses sounding more like a protagonist’s opening monologue than a mere 16 or 32-bar freestyle. Without the eight other songs coming after it, I’m not sure that we view “NY” in nearly the light that we currently do. It’s a good song, but it’s a great opener.
Of course, there is another reason why “NY State of Mind” is held in the regard it is: the line. You know the one I’m talking about–hell, even Greg Dulli quoted it on an Afghan Whigs song once. “I never sleep / ‘coz sleep is the cousin of death.” Even if Nas never wrote another memorable quote in his career, he’d have a guaranteed spot in 90s hip-hop history for that one line alone. It tells you everything you need to know about Nas’s mentality, or at least of the mentality he puts forth on Illmatic–smart, observant, troubled to the point of paranoia, and of course, eternally restless. It’s a line so worthy of Shakespeare that I had to Google it just now to make sure it wasn’t actually pilfered from A Winter’s Tale or something.
Not too much to say about this one, to be honest. Like any self-respecting child of the 90s, I can’t think of “Plateau” without picturing and hearing a wincing Kurt Cobain in my head, and I’m always a little pleasantly surprised to listen to the Meat Puppets’ version and get a revived sense of what a kind of quirky and warped song the original was (nice outro, too–always forget about that part). That’s generally about it, though–like the majority of Meat Puppets II, I’ll listen to it once every couple of years, think to myself “Hey, this is kind of cool, wonder why I don’t listen to this more often”–and then I won’t listen to it for another couple of years. Nothing against the Meat Puppets–they were a nifty little band that occupied a relatively singular place in 80s alternative rock–but they’re just not a band that inspires any particularly wonderful sort of pontificating on my end.
I will say that I just listened to “We Don’t Exist” (their non-“Backwater” semi-hit off of mainstream breakout Too Tough to Die) for the first time, and that was kind of cool. I look forward to re-discovering it in 2012 or so.
I love Fleetwood Mac, but I’m always going to be a Stevie guy. I know a lot of people champion Lindsey Buckingham as the group’s mastermind and true talent, and I even heard a critic suggest once that the way to fix Tusk was to eliminate all the non-Lindsey songs (we can maybe talk about cutting out some Christine), and to an extent, I understand. But to me, Stevie Nicks’s voice is the one that’s pure magic, up there with Chrissie Hynde and Kim Deal in terms of my all-time favorite female rock vocalists. I couldn’t buy more wholeheartedly into her whole mysterious gypsy woman thing, and all my favorite Fleetwood Mac songs–“Rhiannon,” “Dreams,” “Gold Dust Woman,” “Sara”–are the ones that are almost entirely Stevie. I get Lindsey as a great songwriter and a perfectionist producer, but as much as I love “Trouble,” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his solo career had just a fraction of the success that Stevie’s did.
This is a very obvious lead-in to me saying that while I greatly enjoy “Go Your Own Way,” it’s not really one of the songs I turn to when explaining my love for the Mac. Lindsey’s voice just isn’t striking to me–it’s practically buried in the mix for the most of the verses, and for most of my life, I thought the chorus was meant as sort of an inspirational message–like “Hey man, you don’t have to do what everyone tells you, you can go your own way!!!” It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I realized, like pretty much every song on Rumours, that it was about the singer getting romantically fucked over by one of the other band members. Fine, but I maintain that “You can go your own way / You can call it another lonely day” is pretty damn weak as far as big sing-along kiss-off choruses go. No surprise, I prefer the bruised disappointment of “Well there you go again, you say you want your freedom / Well who am I to keep you down?”
Not to say that there isn’t a lot to like about “Go Your Own Way.” I always liked the way Lindsey kind of sneaks the first verse in to what should still be the song’s intro–it’s a pretty stealth way to get the song going. And the lyrics in that verse, once I finally paid attention to them, are pretty good and memorable as far as end-of-relationship confusion go. “If I could, maybe I’d give you my world / How can I, when you won’t take it from me?” Hard to argue with that. Plus, the solo at the end is rippin’, and the drum part is a whole lot of fun to play on Rock Band. Good song, certainly, and above-par for the course on classic rock radio. Just not my Mac of choice.