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Songs We Take for Granted: America’s “A Horse With No Name”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 1, 2010

Last week’s episode of Breaking Bad began, as it pretty much always does, with something unexplained. This is one of the show’s hallmarks, and one fo the things I always liked about it–the way it dropped you into action without preface, trusting you to trust it to unravel at its own pace. In this week, Walt was driving through the Arizona desert, singing along with the radio, when a cop pulls him over for no clear reason. Like Walt, you panickedly start racking your brain for explanations to the cop’s presence–he was speeding, or he was at some sort of checkpoint, or maybe he had finally been ratted out to the police as the meth-dealing criminal that he was. Turns out he just had a busted windshield, which we knew about from previous episodes, but me, I was convinced that the whole thing was just a dream sequence. The reason why? The song Walt was singing along to on the radio: America’s “A Horse With No Name.”

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Songs We Take for Granted: Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 11, 2010

I feel like I’ve been hearing Green Day’s “Time of Your Life” (nee “Good Riddance”) a lot lately. Possibly just a coincidence, or possibly that the decade turning has people feeling nostalgic and sentimental, with “Time of Your Life” still yet to be deposed as the go-to “Nostalgic and Sentimental” song of choice in the pop subconscious. It’s given me light cause to actually give some thought to a song that for the decade-plus since it took over the world in 1998, had registered as little more than white noise–a song I never had particularly strong opinions about one way or the other, and since its omnipotence became downright oppressive, tried to pay as little mind as humanly possible. But when you think about it, it’s a song that occupies a very unique and unusual space in modern music, and one that, with hindsight giving the way to something closer to objectivity, actually might have been a pretty good song once upon a time.

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Songs We Take For Granted / Listeria: The Top Ten Things About Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 21, 2009

Son of a gun…

Usually, if an artist has made three separate songs, years apart, that you would consider classics, close to being among your all-time favorites, it would only tend to follow that you would consider them one of your favorite artists as well. Remarkably, even though I wouldn’t even know to say that I like her as an artist–“Mockingbird” and “Jesse,” at the very least, are among the worst songs I’ve ever heard–Carly Simon has accomplished this feat with me. There’s 1982’s hugely underrated “Why?,” which I’ve already expounded upon at great lengths elsewhere on this blog, 1977’s “Nobody Does It Better,” up there with “A View to a Kill” and “Goldfinger” in the Bond canon, and though it took me forever to realize its greatness, 1973’s “You’re So Vain.” (There’s also a fourth if you count Will Powers’ must-be-heard-to-be-believed lost 1983 classic “Kissing With Confidence,” which featured Simon uncredited on vocals and really deserves to get its own entry on this blog some day).

Lately, I’ve been moderately infatuated with “You’re So Vain.” It’s sort of hard to articulate why, so rather, I’m going to break it down to the ten things that most make it the gloriously bitter, time-stamped, self-loathing, heartbreaking classic I now believe it to be.

10. “You walked into the party / Like you were walking onto a yacht.” As far as opening lines on #1 hits go, I’d say this is a fairly enigmatic one. Besides, never having been on a yacht (or a witness to others on one) myself, I’m not even quite sure I know what one looks like when they walk onto one. Nonetheless, the line perfectly sets up the rest of the song, establishing the setting (the jet set crew of the 70s), the subject matter (an entitled ex of some sort) and the tone (very, very bitter). It also sets up the rhyme use of the word “gavotte” later in the verse (n. 1. A French peasant dance of Baroque origin in moderately quick duple meter, 2. Music for this dance.), quite possibly the only time you’ll hear the word on classic rock radio (outside of KISS’s “Detroit Rock City,” anyway).

9. The acknowledgement of deed in the 2nd verse. It’s not until verse two of “You’re SO Vain” that Simon admits her one-time relation to the subject in question, and even then, only with great reservation (“You had me several years ago/ When I was still quite naive”). It’s a sign of a genuinely spiteful love song when the singer clearly has to admit that hey, yeah, there was a time when I really dug this person, but only does so at the last second and under extreme duress, not wanting to give the ex the satisfaction of admitting to the world that they loved/screwed them at least at one point. With that in mind, the explanation of the split–“You gave awaythe things you loved / and one of them was me”–is even more of a killer.

8. The voice tremble on “pretty pair.” Possibly not even intentional, but on that second verse, when Simon sings “Well you said that we made such a pretty pair,” her voice quakes somewhat at the “pretty pair” part, a perfect example of the caustic edge brought on by all the brilliant little details in this song, a deeply-imbued seething that seems completely unforced. That, or it’s just the natural hoarseness of Simon’s voice coming out, but cool either way.

7. The widespread musical influence. “You’re So Vain” is almost unparalleled in the range of artists whose music it has gone on to touch–in terms of covers and direct references, if not in subtler artistic ways. Covered by both showbiz diva Liza Minelli and scuzzy hair metallers Faster Pussycat, interpolated into hits by both Janet Jackson (“Son of a Gun (Betcha Think This Song is About You“), a moderately-successful attempt to recapture the Joni Mitchell magic of “Got Til It’s Gone”) and Nine Inch Nails” (“Starfuckers, Inc.,” you were just a little too a head of your time), even working its way into the ouvres of indie darlings Mountain Goats and Andrew Bird…considering that the song is neither a mainstay of Greatest Song Ever lists or a kitschy piece of retro nostalgia, its endurance has been extremely impressive.

6. “Well I hear you went up to Saratoga / and your horse naturally won / Then you flew your Lear jet up to Nova Scotia / To see the total eclipse of the sun” Dear lord, could you cram any more rich scumbag signifiers into one couplet of pop vocals? It’s all almost too vivid–good thing she saves it for the song’s last verse, or we might be too nauseated to listen to the whole thing.

5. Mick Jagger on backing vocals. I don’t even know how long it took me to notice these, or if I read about them first, or what, but yeah, that’s Mick singing with Carly on the “don’t you, don’t you, dooooon’t yoouuuuuuu???“s that provide the back end of the song’s titanic chorus hook. Would they be as meaningful if it was someone besides the Rolling Stones lead singer–himself rumored at one point to the subject matter of the song–singing the parts? I dunno, but I definitely fixate on them now whenever I listen to it. Oh, and speaking of which…

4. The conspiracy theories. In the annals of rock history, “You’re So Vain” is rivaled only by Alanis Morissette’s far inferior “You Oughta Know” for notoriously mysterious subject matter. Which member of the “Me” decade is it about? Mick? James Taylor? Warren Beaty? You can read about all the clues and theories on the song’s impressively detailed Wikipedia page, but all I know–when you can auction off your musical secrets for up to $50,0o0, you’re probably something of a success in this world.

3. The Intro. I simply can’t get over how amazing the introduction to this song is. Partly, it’s because for the longest time I couldn’t remember its existence. Maybe they used to cut it on the radio when I was a kid, but as recently as a year or two ago, I would hear those creepy opening bass rumbles, disembodied guitar chords and stray piano notes and Simon’s barely audible “Son of a gun!” whisper and think “what the fuck is this song?” (right up until Simon’s wail finally entered and the wave of familiarity hit). Musically, it has virtually nothing to do with the rest of the song, and after Simon comes in, you never hear that rumbling again. But wow, what a cool thirty seconds of weirdy weirdness to just tack on to the beginning of your big pop song–predating Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by almost three decades. You probably don’t even remember what I’m talking about, do you? Listen to it, really.

2. The windup. You can’t just jump into a great chorus–or, you can, but you’re doing your listeners a disservice by just thwacking them over the head with it without giving them any kind of fair warning. That’s why it’s so important that “You’re So Vain” take the time to gear listeners up for the big one, with each verse coming to a close by Simon repeating the same end phrase with increasing intensity as the music crescendoes in the background (“I had some dreams, they were clouds in my coffee, CLOUDS IN MY COFFEE, AANNNND…”) The “and” might ultimately be the most important part of the pre-chorus, as the way her voice slides down on it basically drops her right at the beginning of the hook, making the transition utterly seamless. You have to be careful with these things, folks–leave it up to pros like Carly.

1. “You’re so vain / You probably think this song is about you.” You’ve heard it so many times, in so many different settings, now, that you probably never take the time to actually think about what a fucking ingenious line this really is. I mean, yeah, on the surface, it might be a bad joke–of course, the song is about “you,” so how can Carly call “you” for thinking that–but the implications of that are fairly vast. Truth of the matter is, when you hate a person–especially when you used to like, or even love them–you spend way too much time thinking about them, thus likely continuing to feed the very things about them (arrogance, namely) that so turned you off. And when you rant about how terrible they are, generally, it makes you look a lot worse–hung up, deluded, sad–than them.  It’s a bad joke, but it’s one that Simon as a songwriter is almost definitely in on, and one that encapsulates the entire song in its bitterness, obsession and patheticness. And hey, it earned her 50 grand, at least.

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Songs We Take For Granted: Squeeze – “Tempted” (1981)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 23, 2008

The truth is discovered

If “Tempted” is the only, or one of the only two or three Squeeze songs you know, you’ve probably heard it from people more reliable than me–it’s not Squeeze’s best song, nor is it even particularly representative of the band’s catalogue at large. But what you might not know already is that “Tempted,” despite being the song that is by far the most associated with the band, was not the band’s biggest hit upon its original release–in fact, it topped out at a paltry #49 on the US pop charts, and was far outclassed by later hits “Hourglass” and “853-5937.” If you’ve never even heard of those two songs, don’t feel too bad–“Hourglass” was mostly a hit due to its nifty trompe l’oeil video, Squeeze masterminds Glen Tilbrook and Chris Difford loathe “853-5937,” and neither is featured on the band’s most popular hits comp, Singles (.45s and Under). But it shows that the continued pop culture presence of “Tempted” isn’t chalkable to simple 80s nostalgia–more people really like the song than you might think.

That said, it’s true that “Tempted” is not Squeeze’s best song–“Cool for Cats,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Up the Junction” and even second-most-well-remembered Squeeze song “Black Coffee in Bed” are all much better and much more interesting. Nor is it particularly represenative of the band on the whole–Squeeze were never the edgiest of new wave bands, but “Tempted” practically puts them in Michael McDonald territory, which while not a bad thing in itself, does discredit to the quirky, nervy energy of the majority of their singles discography. But I also don’t think it deserves to be relegated to “stupid hit that the band’s real fans can’t stand” status, either–it’s a simple, immaculate little pop song that deserves exactly the place in pop history that it currently occupies.

I guess what was the stumbling block with me and “Tempted” for so long is how un-new wave (and really, un-80s) it sounds. Because it’s not a new wave song, it’s a blue-eyed soul song to the very core, and a beaut of one at that. Squeeze are such a bunch of goofy white guys by nature (seriously, check that “Hourglass” vid if you have any doubt) that I didn’t realize until very recently just how close to Stax/Volt “Tempted” and “Black Coffee” are. But if you slowed ’em down a bit, put a little grit in the rhythm section and got someone not quite so British to sing the lead vocal, you’d have an Otis Redding record on your hands. The rest of the ingredients are there–the grooving organ lines, the heavenly backing vocals, and the simple, plaintive melodies. Think Al Green doing “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” and you’re pretty much all the way there.

And the lyrics, which I previously thought were kind of banal–well, yeah, they are sort of banal, but in a much more charming way than I realized. The song was written in the least ambitious of circumstances–Tilbrook jotted down the main ideas based on what he saw passing in a cab once–and it’s reflected in the mundanity of the lyrics, which provide a perfect base for straying once the song gets to the more satisfying Temptation of the chorus. Plus, there are certainly clever lines to be had (“I said to my reflection, ‘let’s get out of this place'” is a wonderfully basic and imagistic way to express a feeling everyone has had in a place they didn’t belong), and hearing producer Elvis Costello (who, possibly inspired, would suit up for a similar crossover soul excursion a few years later with “Every Day I Write The Book”) baritone his part of the second verse is a definite treat.

Of course, it’s the chorus that keeps the people coming back. You remember all the commercials, of course–Burger King, Fruit of the Loom (especially bad with the punniness) and most recently, Heineken, all trading on the fact that the song is probably the pop song most simply associated with the casual joy and guilt of temptation. And that’s the key–the song doesn’t pass any sort of judgement on the act of temptation, with temp singer Paul Carrack (who is something like the Forrest Gump of MOR British pop) sounding equally excited, conscience-racked and bored by the concept (and none too much of each). It’s a relatively blank slate of a pop song, allowing listeners to project what tone they will on it.

It doesn’t make it the most scintillating of listens, which is why it’s at least understandable for Squeeze fans to be somewhat resentful of the song’s overinflated place in the band’s catalogue. But really, the travesty isn’t that “Tempted” remains as popular as it does, it’s that the rest of the band’s singles don’t. Viewed instead in the context of all of 80s pop music, “Tempted” doesn’t pretend to be any more or less than it is–a sweet, transmutable little song with a hell of a chorus. May it be used in Levi’s and Dairy Queen commercials for the next 20 years to come.

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Songs We Take for Granted: “New York, New York”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 15, 2008

Ryan Adams, you fucking hack

I didn’t get to do much to commemorate the MLB All-Star Game being in New York this week–the game and the HR Derby were prohibitively expensive, and I couldn’t drum up enough enthusiasm among my friends to go to the Club Fest or whatever. But it’d be somewhat remiss of me to not at least do something about it on this blog, and since I don’t have much to say about the game itself, I figured I could say a thing or two about the song unofficially adopted as the game’s theme–the Chairman of the Board’s version of “New York, New York,” possibly the most beloved song about an American city outside of Public Image Ltd.’s “Seattle” and the Drew Carey theme. The song has been used in numerous commercials and pre-game ceremonies for the game, most notably in a city-wide singalong, in which ex-Yanks like David Wells and Yogi Berra trade lines with local firemen, police, and other conerned citizens.

Now I don’t know if I’d say “New York, New York” is my favorite song about the Big Apple–the loner in me has a soft spot for both Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York,” and as I’ve previously written about, the Trade Winds’ “New York’s a Lonely Town,” while in terms of civic pride it’s hard to top Cam’Ron, Jay-Z and Juelz Santana’s “Welcome to New York City,” and for general ambiance I gotta give it to both Billy Joel and Nas’s “New York State of Mind.” But there’s no question that “New York, New York” is a classic, from those instantly can-can-inducing opening horns through to the final modulation. It’s the kind of song that feels like it’s been around for as long as the city itself, even though in reality it first hit the top 40 around the same time as Christopher Cross’s “Sailing” and Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu,” and was originally written for the Martin Scorsese mega-flop of the same name three years prior.

There’s all sorts of great stuff going on with the song’s lyrics. There’s the classic opening line, one of the all-time great song-starting pronouncements. There’s the punny wonder of the “I wanna wake up / in the city that never sleeps” line, whose irony I didn’t even realize until remarkably recently. And I really dig the song’s rhyme scheme, which remains consistent throughout multiple verses (“I wanna be a part of it” / “I’ll make a brand new start of it,” etc), a device I feel was used far more in Sinatra’s era than is currently, but which creates a neat little string of continuity throughout the whole song. And it’s one of the many songs that Frankie was born to sing–frankly, I’ve never even heard Liza’s version, but could it possibly compare to the sheer authority of Sinatra’s belting? (Yankees execs certainly didn’t think so, as old Blue Eyes’s rendition muscled out Lucille #2’s when the latter put the team to an ultimatum between versions).

Most interestingly to me, though, is how weirdly foreign the song sounds. For a song New York has so adopted as its go-to anthem, it’s written from a pointedly outsider perspective. It’s not the kind of song that reflects a great deal of knowledge about its subejct matter, as it doesn’t do the normal city-song trick of naming specific things or locations in the city that enamors it so to the singer–in fact, not only is it obvious that the singer doesn’t come from New York, it basically sounds like he’s never even been there before. New York is used more as an ideal than as an actual city, more of a point of contrast from “those little town blues” than an actual electoral district. And as such, it becomes almost a song more about American Manifest Destiny than an ode to any particular city–the idea of anyone being able to “make a brand new start of it,” and of it being just as much up to “New York, New York” as the person itself to do so.

Meanwhile, though–how about this fucking game? Bottom of the 13th right now, and if Brad Lidge is robbed of a chance to close this sucker out, I’m gonna fly down to Florida and harpoon Dan Uggla.

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Songs We Take for Granted: Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men – “One Sweet Day” (1995)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 9, 2008

Sorry, I never told you…

As you may or may not have heard (and due to the chart-slacking at this end, I’m ashamed to say you certainly haven’t heard it here), Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body” leapfrogged to #1 on the Hot 100 last week. This is notable both for being the first #1 single for Jack McBrayer and the 18th #1 single for Miss Mariah, thus surpassing Elvis’s 17 and giving her the second-highest tally of chart-toppers of the Rock era. Carey is now a mere two singles away from tying the Beatles’ record of an even 20 gold medals, which she could theoretically be looking at taking before the year is up.

Of course, Mariah’s place in chart history is assured even if she never releases another single, thanks to a little single called “One Sweet Day”. Her duet with Boyz II Men topped the charts in December of 1995 and stayed at pole position until March of the next year, a 16-week reign in total that easily snapped the rock-era record for length spent on top the top 100. It’s a run that has proven to be almost as unassailable as the ’72 Dolphins’, as such chart-busters as Los Del Rio’s “Maccarena,” Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997” and indeed, Mariah’s own “We Belong Together” all tapped out at 14 weeks, the previous record and a seeming cap on the American public’s tolerance for a totalitarian pop regime. Especially with new iTunes-influenced chart trends favoring shorter runs at the top (though not quite short enough, as evidenced by the ’08-starting hydra of “No One” and “Low”), it’s unlikely that “One Sweet Day” will see its record toppled any time soon, if it ever conceeds it at all.

Yet for all this chart history–“One Sweet Day” remains an oddly anonymous song in the greater scheme of pop music. No doubt, it was a mega-hit–about a half-year before I really started paying attention to pop music, but residual enough throughout the next year or so that I certainly am no stranger to it. But I doubt it would rank as the best-remembered song by either artist, and it’s a song you barely ever hear on the radio (OK, admittedly, I don’t listen to enough soft-rock or AC top 40 to really vouch for that, but I’ve listened to the XM 90s station a ton, and skipped around plenty elsewhere, and can’t remember the last time I heard it). I was even listening to it on a mix I had made recently, and I couldn’t recognize it until the dulcet opening tones of That Guy From Boyz II Men dawned the revelation on me. Can you name a single movie, TV show or other song to reference it? It just doesn’t seem to happen much.

To explain why this is, it’s important first to address why “One Sweet Day” was such a chart smash to begin with, and the biggest reason for that is simple math. Individually, to say that Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men were the two biggest pop powerhouses that Billboard saw in the 90s would be an egregious understatement. Mariah notched a #1 hit in every year that decade, another chart feat she can claim as solely her own, while with “One Sweet Day,” Boyz II Men eclipsed a chart-topping record that they themselves had achieved with the 14-week run of “I’ll Make Love to You,” which only beat by one week the record they had set earlier that decade with “End of the Road”‘s 13 weeks on top. Mariah and the Boyz had already lodged 69 weeks on top of the charts by the time of “One Sweet Day,” or roughly 30% of the decade thusfar. For these two super-powers to team up at the respective peaks of their chart successes…frankly, 16 weeks practically seems like a lowball estimate.

But to say that starpower was the only reason for this song’s success would be to sell it incredibly short, especially when considering the underwhelming #15 peak of “When You Believe,” Mariah’s 1998 duet with Whitney Houston that the pro chart analysts (assuming such a profession exists) expected to be “One Sweet Day” redux in chart terms. To me, serendipity has a lot to do with it as well. The story behind “Day” is that supposedly Mariah was writing a song devoted to late deceased collaborator David Cole (of C&C Music Factory fame) while the Boyz were also writing a tribute to their recently murdered manager, and the songs happened to be similar enough to be combined into “One Sweet Day.” It seems like the kind of song to me that couldn’t really be planned, that it just had to come about as a sort of miraculous confluence of circumstances and talents–watch the video, which essentially portrays the song as the product of a bunch of friends hanging out and becoming overcome with the power of song.

Listening to it, you wouldn’t doubt it for a second. In all this talk about chart statistics, you forget there’s a reason why Mariah & the Boyz were as big as they were in the mid-90s–vocally, both were almost completely without peer in the pop and R&B world. Both occasionally recorded middling material, but when they were given great songs to work with–Boyz with “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” and “End of the Road,” Mariah with “Vision of Love” and “Emotions” (and countless others, really)–the results were simply staggering. “One Sweet Day” is that rare collaboration between powerhouse artists that not only compromises neither, but actually enhances the appeal of both. Listening to the Boyz twisting their gorgeous harmonies around Mariah’s high-register belting, especially in the song’s climax…it’s every bit as awe-inspiring as it should be.

And lest we forget, they got a great song to work with. It was almost destined not to age well, for several reasons, not the least of which is the super-90s production (which is starting to make stuff like Phil Collins and Mr. Mister sound timeless by comparison)–the lite piano, reverbed and echoed drums, airy synths…all that’s missing in the Definitive 90s Big Ballad checklist is the “Un-Break My Heart”-style flamenco guitar seasoning. But perhaps more detrimental to the song’s legacy is the subject matter, which kind of gets it stuck in a thematic pop music black hole. Generally, huge big-name ballads like this best endure in one of three forms–graduations, slow dances and choirs. Graduations can’t really touch it because it’s not that inspirational or blankly nostalgic, slow dances can’t go anywhere near it because generally eulogies make for lousy make-out music, and choirs…well, if you’re gonna even consider rolling the dice on “One Sweet Day,” you better make sure you got a world class fucking group of singers behind you, because otherwise it’ll sound unbelievably embarrassing.

But even though it’s not gonna be a daddy-daughter wedding dance anytime soon (or at least it definitely, definitely shouldn’t be), it’s definitely one of the more powerful ballad hits of the decade. When it comes to conveying hurt, there is really no competing with Mariah Carey (in fact, the only decent criticism I ever heard of “We Belong Together” was someone essentially complaining that she can’t honestly expect us to believe that her love was really good enough to deserve a song that emotional) and the Boyz can certainly hold their own, so they can take a line like the opening (and closing as well–underused tactic) “Sorry I never told you / All I wanted to say” and make it sound not only unbelievably heartfelt but completely personal and even sort of surprising. This isn’t an eye-roller Whitney Houston ballad, it’s a song where the lyrics actually have the potential to help the song’s appeal.

Really, though, “One Sweet Day” is your classic GTTC (Get To The Chorus) song. And boy, is it a doozy, kicking off immediately in full gear (“AANNNNDDDD IIIIIII KNOW YOU’RE SHINING DOWN ON ME FROM HEA-VUHN!!!”) and doing a shockingly satisfactory job of being weighty enough to anchor a song with aspirations this huge. It strikes a tone both extremely saddening and impressively life-affirming, which was probably the point of the song all along, so good on them for that. The fact that it modulates up (goes to a higher key–y’know, like in “Living on a Prayer”) for the end as the song goes into overdrive, Mariah and the Boyz’s vocal calisthenics becoming almost physically exhausting in their emotional outpouring, is too perfect–this isn’t a song worried about shying away from cliche and sentimentality, and it’s all the more powerful (and was all the more successful) for it.

It’s not my favorite song by either artist by any means–for me, that’s quite a distinction to begin with, and the song’s occasionally cringe-worthy production hurts it too much in the end when compared to superior productions like “Fantasy” and “Water Runs Dry”. But it still sounds to me today how it always has–an almost magical one-off collaboration that does indeed sound like it was blessed from beyond, and an entirely worthy record chart-topper that has, against all odds, become severely underappreciated.

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