Power Pop Ain't Noise Pollution
? POP MUSIC AS FOOD; FOOD AS PORN: To prove my devotion to you, the hungry pop fan, I went ahead and test-drove the new Elvis-based Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup (“The King Size”!). It’s a huge Reese’s cup containing an improbable layer of banana-flavored rhinestone-studded white polyester sugar butter cream cellulite.
At first, it sounded gross — and a bit crass, even for the Elvis merchandising empire. I mean, we all know Elvis ate a lot of freaky junk food, much to his eventual discomfort. But should we really be celebrating that? He also ate a lot of pills; that doesn’t mean a line of Elvis-brand pharmaceuticals is a great concept. Or maybe that’s exactly what it means.
In any case, after tasting the damn thing, and finding it to be scarily, poetically satisfying, I have fallen under its creamy-dreamy man-booby hypnotic spell. I’m now prepared to argue, if necessary, that the Elvis Big Cup is a fully loaded, entirely appropriate salute to the fat buttery crass weirdness of Elvis himself. I have a “gut” feeling he would approve. It’s definitely the kind of food item the Nutrition Action newsletter would define as “Food Porn.”
? “THE LOUDNESS WAR” AT HOME: I have a really old stereo with a tube receiver and wooden speakers. I got it at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store downtown. The radio dial glows green, and has an old “KMET 94.7” sticker on it, placed squarely over the spot at 96.9 FM. (Apparently, whoever owned it back in the day was a true KMET fan, and way too high to worry about details.)
Overall, my stereo is awesome. The only trouble with this stereo is that new CDs don’t sound very good on it. Give me an old vinyl album and we’re golden — or even an older CD. But new CDs present an odd sense of aural frustration. I play a new CD, and though I can hear the music, I can’t hear it. I can’t get really close to it. I can’t quite get inside it. It doesn’t jump out from the speakers to shake my hand. It sits back in the corner smoking like a loner.
Inevitably, I turn up the volume, and then feel suddenly assaulted. In order to hear the music properly, I have to crank it so loudly my dog gets sad.
I’d always assumed this was a sign of age — my stereo’s and my ears’ — after years of musical abuse. But turns out, it’s more likely a result of the “loudness war” waged by record labels over the past 20 years or so. Basically, records have gotten louder and louder — precipitously so after the dawn of CDs — with the idea that this would provide the listener with greater rock satisfaction. It’s precisely what Spinal Tap foretold in its “This one goes to 11!” scene. Rather than relying on dynamic contrasts between quiet and loud parts — and allowing the listener to control the volume knob — recording engineers have been pumping up the total volume of music. The cost of that admittedly impressive volume is detail, intimacy and nuance. And it presents a confounding paradox to ears such as mine: I am overwhelmed by sound, yet I can’t really hear much of it.
The strange converse to this problem is that older recordings sound much quieter when you buy them on iTunes, assumably because iTunes is geared toward music that has already been super overly compressed and loud-ified. (I ain’t hatin’ on compression per se. I love me some compression. But, like banana cream butter, it’s got to be strategically employed.)
Another odd effect is that this highly overly compressed music doesn’t sound like real music, if you will. It doesn’t sound like anything that was actually played in a studio in the real world. And while that may seem cool in theory, the reality is that in practice — as an industry standard of practice — it sucks a bit. Who would want to live in a world where all the music sounded fake?
? CASE IN POINT: AVRIL. Not only does Avril Lavigne’s music sound like it’s not real music, it may be fraudulent in more legally actionable ways. I mean, you can’t really sue someone for making non-music; there is no law against Sound Masquerading as Song — just as there is no law against lip-synching, auto-tuning or any number of techniques for making fake music.
There is, however, a law against plagiarism, as Lavigne learned a few days ago. It seems her hit single “Girlfriend” — which I had somehow managed to avoid since its release last spring — rips off a song I like very much: “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” an obscure 1979 power-pop gem by a group called the Rubinoos.
Despite the title, and the band name, the Rubinoos’ song is entirely different from that other (magical) “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” — it’s more Bay City Rollers than Ramones. Mostly, it’s adorably romantic. I challenge you to dislike this song. I pity you if you dislike this li’l song.
Hey! (Hey!) You! (You!)
I wanna be your boyfriend!
I’m trying to say I wanna be your
Number one . . .
The only fault of the song is that it was released by a power-pop band in the late ’70s. If it had been sung by some teen idol — or a girl — it might have been huge. (This seems to be the curse of pure, full-on wussy power pop: The mainstream American listener is uncomfortable with a group of grown men playing sugary, romantic rock & roll. It’s too challenging to American instincts about masculinity and rock & roll. In a different way, glam rock suffers the same fate here.)
Interestingly, power pop does very well when served up by girls. So maybe it’s fitting that the Rubinoos should be ripped off by a Canadian chick. She probably does “rock” harder than them, after all — in her way. And I’m not saying her big dumb “Girlfriend” isn’t catchy. It’s crazy catchy. It’s got the chorus from the Rubinoos’ song going for it, after all. But it’s also bad catchy. “Girlfriend” — co-written by Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald — is an example of pop smarts and bubblegum skillz used toward dark, nefarious ends. It’s not a positive, life- and love-affirming pop song. It’s also not a stylishly bitchy song. Instead, “Girlfriend” is a scary pop Frankenstein. It takes the tough-girl trappings of the girl group era — and even multitracks Avril’s voice to suggest a girl gang — then adds a dash of twisted faux–“riot grrrl” fake-feminist messaging: essentially, “I rock, but other girls suck!” All this is poured into old-fashioned, catchy-ass pop structures to make what seems like a girl-power summer anthem, but is actually an anti-girlish stone drag. And talk about hyper super compression. Play Avril’s “Girlfriend” on iTunes against the Rubinoos’ “Boyfriend,” and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Oh, power pop. When will you ever win?
? HAIL THE CONQUERING BANGLES: Like I said, girls do better selling power pop to the masses. Witness the Bangles, the wonderful Bangles, who embraced and channeled the spirit of power pop in a fabulously unique — and uniquely commercial — way. Oh, the harmonies, the wistful minors, the hopeful key changes, the knowing, ever-romantic lyrics. The Bangles, who were (and are) a real band, and wrote most of their music, represent the real power of girls together. Even on their earliest recordings, they presented a kind of feminine dignity and pop sophistication that may have been appreciated less than their good looks and radio-friendly hooks (I was certainly too young to grasp the fullness of what they were doing in the early ’80s). But as a grown woman, I find a world of inspiration in their work (and I also appreciate the way they carried the torch of SoCal harmony — inherited from the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Fleetwood Mac, et al. — with such panache). Good news: The Bangles will be performing live at House of Blues tonight (Thursday, July 26). Then in August, they’ll release a concert DVD — which promises to feature candid band interviews and suchlike. It’s good to know they’re together and happy — and still rocking.?
The Bangles perform Thurs., July 26, at House of Blues.
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