cartwheels into your heart

Sunday, July 27, 2003

One of the nice things about listening to pop music more regularly is that I’ve been able to develop more of a critical faculty for it, instead of dismissing it all out of hand or only liking it ironically. An example:

For Squeezed, I made a mix CD of songs from last summer, to play in between performers. I had some indie stuff, obviously, but I also wanted to include more pop radio hits, to make it more zeitgeisty for the crowd. So, with the help of Brooke D. and Matt P. and Ryan R., I was able to mash together some hip-hop, modern rock, and dance-pop, and though I’m still annoyed that I couldn’t find anyone who had Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” (the defining single of last summer!), I like how the CD turned out. (Full track listing below.)

The song I probably like the least is Pink’s “Just Like a Pill”: the verse is muddled and unmemorable, and the chorus is anthemic in a pretty tired way (Before “you’re just like a pill,” she sings this pick-up, “and I swear,” with the exact same notes as Medley/Warnes use for that phrase in “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” and All-4-One uses in “I Swear.”) But while listening to all of Missundaztood, I realized that her previous single, “Let’s Get This Party Started,” is sleek and sexy and a lot more fun. In the past, I might’ve heard “Just Like a Pill” and thought, “Typical bland radio shit.” But in context now, I think: “Not one of her better singles; maybe she should stick to a dancier style.”

Or, last summer, I jumped on the Jimmy-Eat-World-are-sellouts bandwagon out of some stupid indie instinct. I hadn’t even really heard the band much, apart from one night in Kalamazoo a few years ago, when Chris S. blared them from Mike D.’s truck, and I wasn’t even into emo then, so they barely made an impression. But now they were all over Q101, and they sounded so slick and produced, it made me unable to take them seriously. A year later, I put “The Middle” on this CD, and Jesus, it’s actually hard to stop listening to it: the song, after all, is super-tight and incredibly catchy. On the radio, next to sludge-metal, the band is easy to mock; when their sound suddenly seems more immediate and affirming than Sonic Youth (whom they precede on the mix), you have to give them some props.


1. Eminem, “Without Me”
2. Queens of the Stone Age, “No One Knows”
3. Ludacris, “Move B****”
4. Moby, “We Are All Made of Stars”
5. Wilco, “Heavy Metal Drummer”
6. Kylie Minogue, “Love at First Sight”
7. Flaming Lips, “Do You Realize??”
8. Avril Lavigne, “Complicated”
9. Jimmy Eat World, “The Middle”
10. Sonic Youth, “The Empty Page”
11. Pink, “Just Like a Pill”
12. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “By the Way”
13. DJ Shadow, “Six Days”

Thursday, July 24, 2003

I read this on Tuesday night at Squeezed, the new monthly variety show sponsored by Tangerine Arts Group. The fact that I played each of these songs on CD to accompany my words was a big reason, I think, that it went over so well. Apologies I can’t do the same here.

“Tennessee”: Arrested Development (4:32)

Hip-hop leaves the urban streets and throws a family reunion down south, a barbecue with cornbread and watermelon, climbing trees and tossing horseshoes. To a 13-year-old white kid from the suburbs, what’s fresh is the down-home earthiness of it all, with funky horns and church wails you can wallow in. It also doesn’t hurt that its Afrocentrism is the right kind of racial sentiment for a young liberal like me, who only has crushes on black girls: it’s political but positive. And so I bring it to a backyard birthday party this summer -- a summer I spend playing driveway basketball with my dorky best friend, watching Dominique Dawes do flips at the Olympics, memorizing the words to the real hot-weather hit, “Baby Got Back.” I’m happy-go-lucky. And I begin high school in a month.

“Maiden Voyage”: Herbie Hancock (7:58)

Jazz in no hurry. You don’t even hear the trade-off between the solos: those light piano clusters and brushed cymbals give it a flow that feels dreamy and timeless. The open sea. At the age of fourteen, I like to lie on the sofa, by the window lighting up the living-room dust, and close my eyes to this tune. I’m attracted to its sophistication in the same way I saw Howard’s End by myself, but I’m beginning to feel something, too. Just barely. Tomorrow, I’ll do a crossword puzzle in record time and ride my bike to Downers Grove. The next day, I’ll write a short play marked by pop culture and in-jokes. But three years later, this incredibly cute girl I know tells me she likes me, only a week before I leave for college. I’m ecstatic and ruined, all at once. The last time I see her, on a breezy late-summer afternoon, we lie on her bed listening to her favorite musician, Benny Goodman. When I go home, all I want to hear is this.

“Sporting Life”: The Sea and Cake (4:54)

Sam Prekop keeps it soft like a pillow, and the synthesizers sigh underneath. But listen to those bubbling rhythms, the restless bass. The first time I spend the night at a girl’s house, I’m eighteen and this is on the stereo. There’s a full moon outside her bedroom, crickets buzzing to the slow hot haze of summer nights. At twenty, I’m painting dorm rooms for money, getting sweaty with sawdust, and I spend nights with a different girl. We mix gin-and-tonics and wrap ourselves in sheets. But this is what I sleep in. After midnight, I turn over in bed and slip into these sounds.

Monday, July 07, 2003

The first CD I ever bought, in early 1992, when I was not yet thirteen, was P.M. Dawn’s Of the Heart, of the Cross and of the Soul: The Utopian Experience. It was also the first record I owned that I actually felt protective of. Though the single (the willowy “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss”) hit the top ten, the record wasn’t multi-platinum like the cassettes I had by Boyz II Men and C+C Music Factory and Paula Abdul. And my friend Steve was the only other person I knew that I’d heard praise the laid-back rap duo (he’d bought me the “Set Adrift” cassingle for Christmas ‘91). So there was something private about my fandom: I considered them my group.

Months later, after picking up Arrested Development’s 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days in the Life of... and (especially) Digable Planets’ Reachin’: A New Refutation of Time and Space (dig those long album titles!), I figured that what I was into was “alternative hip-hop.” And so that -- a natural coinage at the start of the alt-rock phenomenon -- became the first musical subgenre, music beyond the radio, that I actively sought out.

It’s hard to remember what was specifically appealing about alt-rap. Critics usually pitted fluffy rap acts like P.M. Dawn against the obviously harder-edged Public Enemy or N.W.A. But it’s not like I had much experience with that music to reject it: I was still by and large listening to Top 40.

The cynical take would be that I had found a way to apply my interest in African-American culture (which in seventh grade English class meant essays about Jesse Owens and Josh Gibson, and a short story based on the Watts riots) to something sufficiently “safe” -- i.e., not so in-your-face with its blackness. But that both denies the genuine Afrocentrism of an act like Arrested Development (“Okay, the way kids are livin’ is 100% European / African boys and girls, set down your Nintendo joysticks right now.”) and paints 13-year-old me as being far more concerned about what-I’m-supposed-to-like than I probably was. I mean, at the same time, I had fun with the bump-and-grind anthem “Doo Doo Brown.”

What I’d like to believe, in retrospect, is that I gravitated toward artists that simply seemed more musically adventurous than most. It didn’t always work out: Us3 sampled Blue Note, like Digable Planets, but had none of the Planets’ clever rhymes and chill vibe; I barely remember the acoustic-guitar-led rap (yes, before Beck!) of Me Phi Me. But I liked the idea of these cross-pollinations: before I was any kind of expert in hip-hop, I couldn’t wait to see it mix with jazz, merge with folk.

I’m thinking about this now as I find myself more interested in hip-hop than I have been in ten years. In high school and college, I listened mostly to indie rock and electronic music, and basically shut hip-hop out of my life (it lingered only in boho kitchen-sink acts like Cibo Matto and Soul Coughing). But last year I heard Prefuse 73’s (mostly) instrumental hip-hop record, Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, and started to marvel at the thickness of the beats, the lush assembly of sounds, how compact it all felt, and I wondered why I’d turned my back in the first place. Lately, it’s all I’ve been wanting to hear: some of my favorite post-rock albums suddenly sound thin, and so I replay Aesop Rock’s catchy, flute-looped “Daylight,” Blackalicious’s hypnotic “First in Flight” (feat. Gil Scott-Heron), and Cherrywine’s pervy electro-funk “Girlcrazy.” Of course, I like the circularity there: back in the day, Cherrywine was known as Butterfly, of Digable Planets, and in the summer of 1993 I was replaying “Where I’m From” and “Femme Fetale.”