Pentatonic Ponderings: More of That, Please

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By Allen

Prelude

I watch Almost Famous every year that I get the chance. I’ve been doing this since I was 15 or so, when it was first recommended to me by one of the editors of the now-defunct film website, Screened. If you’ve followed this site for a while, you know I really, REALLY like that movie. On my latest rewatch, I picked up on a whole new theme in the film that’s buried under all the nostalgia and rock music; longing. Specifically, the longing for a particular type of music, and how it feels to let a small clip of sound influence and change your life. Anna Paquin’s character sums this up in the screencap I’m using as the thumbnail; it does hurt, and it can be simultaneously isolating and inviting to feel like you’re the only person that feeds off of a particular piece of music. 2015 has been an incredible year of music, and I’ve easily listened to more full albums this year than ever before. Some of my favorite songs this year have that perfect, enchanting couple of seconds of sound that make me feel like everything is okay, and I’d like to share them with the world, and maybe we can all come to appreciate each other’s “silly little piece of music”.

Track 1: “Celebrate” by Metric (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLg9WUhhhAs&channel=lastofspades)

metric-concert

We’re talking about the synth hit here. If you want my favorite instance of it in the track, it’s at 2:26. Metric’s been my favorite band since I first heard Synthetica in high school, so I started out as a fan of their synth-pop rebranding before going back and exploring their more rock-influenced roots. Shifting genres so drastically is a bold and polarizing decision, but it worked for Metric because they kept the core of what makes them special; an incredible concert sound and personal lyrics that have inspired millions. “Celebrate” is all about grasping at the opportunities in life while they’re still available to you. When Haines hits that synth note, it’s time to dance right then and there. The song almost grinds to a halt every time the synth kicks in, like the rest of the chorus is moving out of the way. It’s a powerful statement: “Here we are, this is what our sound is now.” Nobody wants to sit and wait.

Track 2: “Clearest Blue” by Chvrches (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpFXXPruuqU)

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I have gone on record to the official Chvrches Twitter account saying that I will cry if I ever get to hear “Clearest Blue” live in concert. It’s the type of song that attracts that sort of response, with an emotional buildup that is so intense that it, like Paquin’s character says in Almost Famous, almost hurts. It’s a long, intense two minutes and twelve seconds into “Clearest Blue” before the song stands out from so many other Chvrches songs. Their latest album, Every Open Eye, has been criticized for sticking fairly close to their previous work in terms of song structure, but “Clearest Blue” proves this wrong. Even a minute in, a careful listener can notice the addition of different instrumentation and faster pace. “Holding on tightly to the side/Never quite learning why” is exactly how I felt the first time I heard this song. You feel it coming, you feel your pulse racing. And right as the drop is about to start, we become Mayberry in the song, trying to push this track away as yet another dull, chorus-focused pop song. But then it happens. 2:16 into “Clearest Blue” is the singular where I knew that this was an incredible year for music. I was genuinely shaking the first time I heard it, and it’s quite the fun little game for me to show it to other people and watch their reactions. This is the kind of music that really stings when it’s over.

Track 3: “Seeing Stars” by BØRNS (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2GOGwB4QYU&channel=UCi13pi8_WsPJMpYBqSKwK_Q)

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Known by many as “the guy who wrote the song in that Hulu ad” and “Taylor Swift’s friend”, Garrett Borns established himself this year as an incredible voice in pop music. Although “Electric Love” is probably his most well-known song, “Seeing Stars” delivers much more in terms of the satisfaction we’re looking for in this list. Right from the start, the synth is overpowering and, most importantly, fast. Just when you think that’s just going to be the intro, it becomes the chorus. So simple, just a few notes, and it carries the entire song. I’ve found Borns to be fantastic music for cardio exercise, because rhythm like that keeps you from letting up for even a second.

Track 4: “Sunday Candy” by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4ooH8frBWg&channel=ChanceThaRapper)

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Chance the Rapper refuses to let up after having released Acid Rap, a 2013 mixtape that was so good, so incredibly memorable, that it put him on the map of modern hip-hop. “Sunday Candy” is a song off of Surf, an album he did with his rap/soul music collective The Social Experiment over the summer, and it represents a big step forward in hip-hop. The part we’re going to specifically close read here is the first verse and chorus. Chance raps about his grandmother, and how her cooking, spirituality, and tenacity make her his biggest inspiration. Jamila Woods absolutely makes this track though, and her chanting of “Rain down Zion/It’s gonna rain” layered over a velvety baritone AND Chance’s rapping? It’s awe-inspiring, it brightens up a bad day, it…I’m dancing to it right now, and it’s not even playing. Good music can do that to you, if you meet it halfway.

Track 5: “Run Away With Me” by Carly Rae Jepsen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeccAtqd5K8&channel=CarlyRaeJepsenVEVO)

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SYNTH HORNS, Y’ALL. Who would’ve thought Carly Rae Jepsen could make such a knockout comback after seemingly peaking with her 2012 summer hit “Call Me Maybe”? Emotion is all-around an amazing album, filled with breezy pop tracks that I’m not ashamed to say I’ll be bumping in the car for months to come. The running thread of the album for me was “Let’s do some pop music you already know and love, and throw something special in there”. That’s the synth horns in “Run Away With Me”. I’ve never heard anything like them, and coupled with the thumping bass running through the whole song and the hollow, almost gunshot-like drum hit before the chorus, you’ve got the formula for an incredibly memorable pop chorus that shows Jepsen’s range and reminds me why I fell in love with pop music.

Epilogue

Honest to goodness, I didn’t plan for all of these tracks to be so synth-heavy, but that’s really just what I’m into these days. The criteria for what sounds and songs fit into this article’s theme is intentionally broad, and different for each person. Listen back specifically to songs that have gotten stuck in your head recently, and try to isolate which part, be it some random instrumentation or a lovely falsetto, you’ll know what you’re listening for. Take that, play it over and over again, and make a playlist out of all the songs that do it for you. Here are some of the songs I added to a playlist for this article that didn’t make the cut, but have the same satisfying feel to them:

“Should Have Known Better” by Sufjan Stevens: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJJT00wqlOo&channel=AsthmaticKitty

“Baby Blue” by Action Bronson and Chance the Rapper: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVP_w1rQweE

“Duct Tape Heart” by Barenaked Ladies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zr23m4q6XoY

“New Americana” by Halsey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-eYbUVZedY&channel=HalseyVEVO

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Pentatonic Ponderings: Depths of Desire

jiggle By Allen

Prelude

As we pack up the Halloween decorations and prepare for frigid winter here on the East Coast, the cold keeps us inside more. It can be a lonely time, but having friends and family around pretty much constantly keeps me from feeling too solitary. However, I know there’s someone out there who can’t say the same. Maybe you’re on vacation alone, maybe you’ve just been single for a bit too long, or maybe you just forgot to turn the heater on. I want that person to know that they’re not alone, and there have been plenty of songs about men pining after women. However, the five that I chose aren’t just about want or lust. There’s something missing in their lives, and only that one special someone can fill the void.

Track 1: “We Can’t Be Beat” by The Walkmen (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xwo8F6H-AxE)

Embracing someone’s flaws is the quickest way to getting to know them on a personal level. Contrary to most love songs, “We Can’t Be Beat” is not about some intense desire to be with someone, or building up the courage to pop the question. Rather, it’s a slow, passionate song for the love of Walkmen lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s wife. It starts with him lamenting his past ideals of being young and ambitious. However, he craves flaws, cracks in the armor, and imperfections. Most people see marriage as an endgame, but he seems to view it more as the beginning of a new game. Marrying someone isn’t the end of the struggles of being young; you still have to get along with another human being and, in some cases, bring another life into the world. The end of the song feels like a story my dad would tell me about how love is “supposed” to work, in that the man slaves over the woman like a sad puppy. “If you want my eyes/Take my eyes/They’re always true” sounds sappy out of context, but it’s a sentiment that resonates more with age.

Track 2: “If You Go Away” by Frank Sinatra (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SUn4JqUTsA)

My first exposure to Frank Sinatra was his 1966 “Sinatra at the Sands” live album, where he performed for a lucky crowd of people in Las Vegas, mixing standup comedy with his classic crooning melodies. “If You Go Away” isn’t on that set list, but I like to imagine Sinatra singing it for someone in the audience who stayed after everyone else. As long as there is someone listening, he can keep going. One person, be they the love of his life or a drunken hotel guest, holds his heart in their hand. Sinatra, more than any other musician today, made his emotions clear in every song. Some consider this a product of the times, but I like to think that
there’s a much more personal touch to songs like this. It’s just so melancholy, you can’t help but feel sad when the violins swell, and the song almost cuts out halfway through. “If you go away, as I know you must/There’ll be nothing left in the world to trust”. Ultimately, we all want happiness. Whether that’s with someone else or not, it’s clear that the “you” in this song, be it a woman or not, is the most important thing to him. The fact that it almost makes me want to leap through time and tell Mr. Sinatra that she won’t go away is a testament to the power of his voice and lyrics.

Track 3: “I Wish It Would Rain Down” by Phil Colins (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcY3FH208l8)

If Frank Sinatra needs love because it provides him life, Phil Collins needs it because it’s the only thing going for him. In the context of this song, he’s a shell of a man, left still desiring the one who left him after so much time apart. He wants the rain to
come down more than anything, and not because he’s thirsty. If the rain had the power to pour down so hard that it washed him away along with the strong emotions that he’s feeling, then he could be truly free of the woman who stole his heart and ran away with it. I still well up with emotion every time I listen to this song, if only for the moment where the angelic chorus chimes in with Collins for the chorus. I’ll bring back the lost puppy metaphor for the line “And I know, it’s eating me through every night and day/ I’m just waiting on your sign”, which just brings to mind a sad man, hat in hand, waiting outside his ex-girlfriend’s door, desperate for them to reconnect.

Track 4: “Araceli” by Nataly Dawn (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i02PvPttBsI)

Enough with the cheesy romance. Sometimes, the quest for love isn’t neat and tragic. If you’ve heard of Nataly Dawn, it’s probably from her YouTube channel “Pomplamoose”, where she covered popular songs in the style of someone like Regina Spektor or Fiona Apple. However, she released a solo album earlier this year, and “Araceli” is by far the breakout hit. Instead of being told from the man’s perspective, Nataly Dawn is the omniscient narrator of this particular song and it focuses on the titular Araceli. She’s the most beautiful woman in the world, and all the men love her. However, what sounds like a peppy love song is actually a Shakespearean tragedy. Araceli gets sick, the doctor sees how beautiful she is and wishes her lover would die, the doctor kills himself out of grief, Araceli drowns herself in regret, and she is desired by the highest power of love, Zeus himself. Finally, she gives up on love, and goes to be with Hades. It’s a cautionary tale, but it’s not clear what for. I don’t think Dawn is suggesting that all men are evil and need to be ignored, or that being beautiful is a sin. Maybe it doesn’t need to have some deeper message. We all think we’re the special someone for our own personal Araceli, but maybe it’s just up to her to find someone that wouldn’t go to great lengths just “behold her perfect face”.

Track 5: “You Make My Dreams Come True” by Hall & Oates (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_I4wtNPv5w)

Remember when this article was about sad love songs? Just because you love someone and want to be with them forever doesn’t mean that you have to mope about it. “You Make My Dreams Come True” feels like a perfect example of mid-80s optimism in America, and you can’t listen to this song without feeling happy and ready to have your own dreams come true. It’s a love song that’s not about craving perfection, or craving flaws, or even craving the sweet release of death. It’s a success story, and if “I Wish It Would Rain Down” is about giving up, “You Make My Dreams Come True” is about reveling in the powerful emotions of love, and how those same emotions can lead to rad guitar riffs.

Epilogue

No matter what these songs tell you, there is no correct way to love someone. Sometimes, it’s an obsession. Sometimes, it’s unrequited. It can make you cry, sing, and truly examine what you want out of someone. Each of these artists has a different view on the ideal relationship, but the recurring theme is definitely desire for something more.

Pentatonic Ponderings: Pick Yourself Back Up

Robyn

By Allen

Prelude

Now that classes have started up again, it’s time to buckle down and do some hard work. And by that, I mean listening to music while nonchalantly flipping through the pages of a chemistry book. It’s quite daunting early on, and this new way of spending my evenings is pretty soul-crushing when I’m just not in the swing of things. But occasionally, for a few hours a week, something clicks. Whether it’s the seed of a good idea being planted, an easy chapter, or, in many cases, a good song, it’s a wonderful feeling. Coincidentally, many of the songs that lift my spirits, make me want to sing along, or just boost my spirits for long enough to progress in my work happen to be sung by young women. Whether that says something about my body’s primal reaction to women’s voices, or if I just love soft voices and powerful backing tracks is up to you to decide.

Track 1: “Recover” by Chvrches (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JyqemIbjcfg)

From the moment that the synthesizer comes in behind Lauren Mayberry’s intro, you know this song is going to be exciting. The juxtaposition of thumping techno beats and an almost tragic narrative starts from the first verse “Carved earth, cold/Hiding from you in this skin, so old”. She’s used to putting on airs for the one she loves, but those same disguises are tearing her apart, which she realizes (“Everyone knows it’s me”).  However, the chorus, which just begs to be heard live and surrounded by fellow fans, is a triumphant comeback for Mayberry in this failing relationship. If she recovers, and if she learns to deal with the hand that fate has dealt her, then she can move on in life. She addresses her lover directly by asking him, “Will you be my comfort/ Or it can be over/Or we can just leave it here”. That uncertainty is what defines this relationship, and Mayberry is ready to move on if he doesn’t want to. Even the clapping between choruses suggests that this song is meant to be a triumph. It’s like leaping off of a sinking ship into freezing water; it’s impulsive, it’s terrifying, but it’s ultimately safer and more satisfying than falling with the captain who sunk that ship. And that repetitive drum line, persevering through every verse, keeps the spirits up. Besides being a good song to bob your head to, “Recover” champions the independent spirit of young people, and their ability to move on from the worst hardship, be it in school or love or just raw emotions.

Track 2: “Lost Kitten” by Metric (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Xw-9OE1j-Y)

If the theme of this article is triumphantly upbeat tunes by female singers, I can’t go any further without mentioning Emily Haines, the lead singer of Metric. In “Lost Kitten”, Haines is yet another forlorn young lover, but she doesn’t lament the relationship itself. Rather, she feels like the titular lost kitten in this relationship. In and out of the house, no place to stay, and always looking for fun and happiness. However, since she’s in this relationship, a lot of hard truths are bubbling to the surface. The most repeated verse in the song, “When you lie, I cover it up/When you hide, I cover it up/When you cry, I cover it up/When you come undone, I cover it up” shows just how committed she is to the one she loves. The hardships go both ways though. When she comes home, “howlin’ at the moon/Sippin’ on a cocktail, drinking in the loo”, we, the listeners, know something might have gone wrong. For a song that paints its lead woman as a lost cat, I can’t get out of my mind the vivid image of Haines, after a long night of partying and making mistakes, just sitting there, drinking a cocktail. Even at her most vulnerable, there’s something beautiful about her coming back to the house and letting it all hang out. As the night winds down and her dress is barely staying on, the two lovers are ready to call it a night. “There’s something about you I hold on to” is sung like a drunken girl in a bar, but not in a shameful way. These two have clearly got their shit together, and after years of hardship, they’re starting to get into the swing of things. I’ve always liked Metric for their combination of rock music styles, ranging from thumping rock music to more soft-spoken, fun songs like “Lost Kitten”, and it’s message rings true.

Track 3: “Drove Me Wild” by Tegan and Sara (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfNwfgABrX4)

Even though “Drove Me Wild” is one of the faster, more hard-hitting songs in this article, its lyrics are written more as a playful poem. The only duet in this list, it showcases how much harmony can bring up both the pace and emotion in a song. The sense that two voices have combined into a cohesive whole is thrilling in a way. Similar to “Recover”, this song criticizes the other half for collapsing what was once a beautiful partnership. The brilliant thing about it is that it doesn’t even start that way. In the first verse, Tegan and Sara are talking about all the things that they love about someone. “When I think of you I think of your skin, golden brown from the sun”, as if to suggest that the song is being written as a love letter. However, there’s this feeling that maybe the title’s meaning is going to change as we learn more about how this relationship went bad. Initially, their other half’s beauty and idiosyncrasies are what drove them wild. Unfortunately, just as the hook comes in, we realize that it didn’t stay that way. “You clung to self-restraint, you followed the plan/You put the brakes on this/And it drove me and it drove me and it drove me wild”. All of the blame is put on the other half for letting this beautiful love die. In the second verse, they return to referring to being driven wild as a sort of sexual thrill, “Your body inching close” suggesting an intimacy that is now gone. But as it wraps up, it becomes a matter of “What if?” Had he not let her lose control and be a free spirit, their love could have blossomed into something incredible, but it had to end.

Track 4: “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcNo07Xp8aQ)

Another common through-line in these songs is the idea that anyone can bounce back from a bad break-up. Robyn’s melodic club anthem not only serves as a crowd-pleaser, but also as a rebuttal to all of the other sappy loves songs that dominate pop culture today. In her world, being in love is that last thing to worry about. After leaving her ex-boyfriend, Robyn heads to the club to forget the troubles of this person who she cared about so much. Unfortunately, as so many tragedies go, the villain comes back, stronger than ever. He’s with someone else, and Robyn can’t stand it. At first, she’s desperately showing off for him, trying to relight the spark that brought them together. It’s futile, though. “I’m right over here, why can’t you see me” is her plea for him to notice her efforts. She put on some new makeup, she’s dressed to the nines, and yet all she can do is watch him kiss his new girl. And even though the lyrics don’t vary from that initial verse, the tone starts to shift at the end of the song. Instead of watching him kiss her, Robyn just keeps dancing on her own. Surrounded by people, feeling like a million bucks, she is invincible. She’s got the spirit to carry on, and she’s finally gotten over this love that’s tied her down for so long. And just as the rhythm of the music gives her a new life, so does it make the listener feel like they want to jump up and dance along with her.

Track 5: “Prom Night” by Anamanaguchi (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glZB4e6Egwk)

I had originally planned to end this Pentatonic Pondering with the previous song, suggesting that everyone can come back from the worst problems in their life stronger than ever. But ending with “Prom Night” seemed to strengthen that message even more. Ready to move on, Bianca Raquel (doing a one-off collaboration with chiptunes band Anamanaguchi for this song) is in love yet again. Like a dog chasing its tail, we are all always looking for somebody to love. This time, she’s found the right person, and everything is finally going well. He’s the perfect guy for her, and it’s mainly because he lets her be free. There are no rules in this relationship, and the two come out better for it. Even though they have been apart for so long, she still “Can’t set the flame without you”. The two sides of this whole seem to agree that it’s been rough for a while, and all they want to do is be in love like they were so long ago. When you’re an awkward teenager, and all you want to do is feel the touch of that special someone, your love is pure. In their world, all that matters is that moment on prom night, where you first see your date at their best, and everything else falls away. After being so hurt, “Prom Night” shows that love is not only reclaimable, but as simple as the two people are willing to make it.

Epilogue

So there you have it, my first Pentatonic Pondering. What started as me praising a few songs that hit the pleasure center in my brain turned into a love story with a happy ending. I guess that’s just how these things happen sometimes. One day you’re in love, the next you’re not, and then you finally realize it’s all about having fun and being happy with someone else who cares for and understands you. And knowing that the worst separations will always lead to being a stronger person, and a more capable person in the future is both uplifting and empowering, just like all of these songs.

Pentatonic Ponderings: I Was Never Cool in School

I Was Never Cool in SchoolBy Magellan

Prelude

Here at Pop Modern, we occupy ourselves with talk of popular culture and worthwhile media. It’s the mission statement of this site, really, to lay our feelings about movies, television, music, video games, and all that other stuff out in front of ourselves, so that we, as well as our readers, can see it and take stock of it. We choose to bury ourselves in diversions and entertainment in the hopes of finding some sort of connection, speaking to each other through the filters of “what-did-you-think”s and “oh-did-you-see”s. I don’t mean to speak for my co-writers, nor do I mean to disparage nerd subculture, but sometimes it’s valuable to look a step beyond the pop parlance to figure out what drives this modern fascination with geek chic.

Track 1: “Underground” by Ben Folds Five (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqADHn7SWlA)

Right there, the first line: “I was never cool in school/I’m sure you don’t remember me.” Geek culture tends to mythologize high school rejection, turning it into a badge of honor. For us (if you’ll allow me to be so bold as to use that pronoun), the idea that “I got a pain in my heart, that’s all” or “There was a girl that passed me by/She gave a smile but I was shy/I looked down, so down” is an intrinsic part of our identities. I remember forcing that narrative onto my own high school experiences, even if I was never shoved into a locker or laughed at by some toe-headed debutante. When the underlying message of the sub-culture is that “I’m still wondering who to be/But I’d love to mix in circles, cliques, and social coteries, that’s me” it makes you think about what we’re doing here. What’s the point behind perpetuating a social storyline in which we’re the lesser presence, in which we comfort ourselves that “Everything’s happy underground”? See, Ben Folds Five make a deft point in this song. There’s a reason they oscillate between saying that “everything’s heavy” and “everything’s happy.” Playing the “woe is me” card gives you a comfortable spot in pop culture, but it also means that you have to shoulder the burden of that woe, affected as it may be.

Track 2: “Charisma Potion” by MC Frontalot (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RL9afO27Kg)

But there’s another side to this story, this nigh-mythical image of the kid who wasn’t cool in school: power. Not only, as was true in “Underground” is the message “Hey, look us losers now, we found a cool thing of our own!” It’s also “Hey, look at us losers now, we’re much cooler than you dickheads!” Again, I’m not trying to be a wet blanket (I do love this song), but it seems interesting to me that those who were abused are now leveraging their talent as license to abuse in turn. I’m not even talking about Frontalot when I say this, since he’s somebody I deeply admire. Rather, I’m talking about the larger story that he’s having a hand in telling, the story about how “INT increased always and didn’t start low/Now it got so high, I get to fake the flow.” We, as geeks, are convinced that brains and taste are a free pass to gloating, and are proudly saying “To the kids who arbitrated on the topic of cool/Look at my cool hat and fuck you.” It seems like our cultural output is fighting a war that ended at the graduation ceremony.

Track 3: “High School Never Ends” by Bowling for Soup (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrxI_euTX4A)

Then again, perhaps I’m being too harsh and over-analytical. After all, it’s not as if geek culture is the only part of society stuck in the past and mired in stereotypes. There’s truth to the statement that “The whole damn world is just as obsessed/With who’s the best dressed and who’s having sex” as it was in high school. Things don’t really change, they just get different labels, and it “Doesn’t matter if you’re sixteen or thirty-five.” It’s easier that way, really, to have a story and a mold for everybody. All that “woe-is-me” and “we’re-smarter-than-you” crap that I derided earlier is just what we’re doing with the niche that society has asked us to fill. If I may make a blatant Star Wars analogy after so disrespectfully putting Frontalot’s feet to the fire: the stagnant geek culture narrative is not so much Han Solo frozen in carbonite as it is just his left arm. The “I was never cool in school” mantra is a piece of a larger, more rigid whole.

Track 4: “Take It Outside” by Barenaked Ladies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2y9uUWcQCc0)

So what is the essence of geek culture, exactly? After all, there’s got to be something more to it than just superhero movies and 8-bit platformers. I think it has something to do with that other “eek” word: meek. In this larger narrative, geeks are the ones who “watch it all go down/Closed eyes; pretend no one’s around,” who would “Rather say goodbye” than let things come to blows. We’re people that, for one reason or another, cannot effectively deal with confrontation, be that because we are bad at it or we simply choose to avoid it. And, again, I do not by any means speak for everyone; I’m just trying to make a statement about myself and about the pop culture fanatics that I know personally. We’re meek. Not weak, but meek. Because of that, we glom onto the societal role with the least chance of confrontation: the outcast. We build palaces of the mind for ourselves, and we look down from them with the confidence that we will one day inherit the Earth. But, it’s hard to inherit something when you “Leave town and never leave a trace.”

Track 5: “The Underdog” by Spoon (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7v0KCoPMTdU)

We want so desperately to frame the story that society has outlined for us, to say “Sure, you can push us off to the side, but it’s gonna bite you in the ass!” We want to sneer at the people who “don’t talk to the waterboy,” who “got no time for the messenger,” and “got no fear of the underdog.” In this story, we’re unsung heroes given a chorus’s voice. We’re able to stand up and say to everyone who treated us the way we didn’t want to be treated that they “will not survive,” that we’ve got the cure to insignificance. It’s a crutch, that’s all it is. A bedtime story and a placation. We all love a good underdog, but we can’t all be one. At some point, someone has to roll up their sleeves and start running the show; it can’t all be sideline booings and smug satisfaction. Sorry to be blunt, but Spoon’s saying it best here, so I’ll let them speak for me: “The thing that I tell you now/It may not go over well/And it may not be photo-op/In the way that I spell it out.”

Epilogue

I know that this has been a rambling, hypocritical piece of writing, but such delicate points usually are. And, really, this as much an exercise in self-reprimanding as it is in cultural observation. What I’m trying to say here is that, as pretty as the image of the wedgied nerd who grows up to be Bill Gates may be, it’s nothing more than an empty fantasy that helps perpetuate “the cool divide,” if you’ll allow me that term. Geek culture and pop culture are slowly becoming synonymous, and for that I’m simultaneously thankful and apprehensive. We here at Pop Modern, myself included, love all sorts of media, but it troubles me that so often the success of someone who wasn’t “cool in school” is tinged with retribution and self-satisfaction. More than anything, discussions of geek culture should be about inclusion and humility. Nobody gets to be the “underdog” anymore. It’s time everybody, and I mean everybody, got out from underground.

Pentatonic Ponderings: Dark Words, Joyous Songs

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By James

Prelude

For my first Pentatonic Pondering, I’m going to start with a series of sad songs. I like sad songs with mournful melodies, so I figured I would start with something that I knew.  Then I started to think; What if I was to use the upbeat happy songs that I like? The following is the list of a few of my favorite happy, definitely not depressing, songs.

Track 1: “Stray Cat Blues” by the Rolling Stones (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiMMGC706SU)

The song begins with a languid guitar solo and a series of mutters. However, the rhythmic feeling of the beginning belies the true focus of the song. The heavy emphasis of the hi-hats and the piano chords give the song a more melodic, less rhythmic feeling. The yowling chorus complements the shift in tone to give rise to a more guttural feeling , evoking the image of the titular stray cat. The song describes a man who sees a girl, and tries  to convince her to come upstairs with him. Even though the man can see that she is just fifteen, he reasons that it is fine, because inviting her upstairs is “no capital crime”.  The vocals match the lechery, adding to the sense of uneasiness, with the man having to explain that he isn’t going to attack her because he is “no mad brained bear.” The man then asks the girl to bring her friend upstairs to “join in too.” The audience is supplied with details of the incident and the description of the claw marks that the girl left on the man’s back. The statutory rape in this piece isn’t judged within the context of the song, but is given a rather subjective view, with a hungry tone from the song imparting the lust and raw sexuality emanating from the thought process of this man trying to justify his crime.

Track 2: “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDTZ7iX4vTQ)

This song sports a cheery lackadaisical tone. The whistling and the catchy tune seem like typical summer fare. The synthesizer and bass combination provide a smooth transition into the song, a somewhat klaxon-like tone. The refrains, though muffled, give a somewhat melodic quality to the otherwise rhythmic tone provided by the constancy of the drum beats. During the chorus, the ambiguity of words fades, rendering the chorus relatively easy to understand. Meanwhile, the light, mellow tone remains haunting, with the glass, harmonica-like purity in the background. The chorus, which is repeated eight times, contains two phrases that repeat over and over again. While this seems to add to the fatuous nature of the song, the happy pop-song  vibe fades in light of the lyrics. The lyrics detail the story of a kid pretending to be a cowboy who finds his dad’s gun. The chorus turns out to be a haunting message to outrun the gun, a message that is sung so casually that it is almost overlooked as it is an almost playful take on the lyrics. The kid then waits for his dad, to give him a “dark surprise,” so this seemingly innocuous song provides a very dark look at the issue of gun violence with children.

Track 3: “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” by the Beatles (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpCV2wgoxC8)

What could ever be wrong with a Beatles song? They are either love songs about a girl or acid trips involving some sort of demon walrus. The beginning to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” starts off with a bang, lacking any sort of formalized introduction. The repetition of piano chords and Paul’s traditional singing give it a feeling reminiscent of another, more innocuous song by the Beatles “When I’m 64.” A similarly repetitive set of words at the end of each phrase (“Oh,oh,oh,oh,”  “so,so,so,so”) adds a familiarity that coincides with the feeling of “When I’m 64.” The simple rhyme scheme adds to the innocence of the lyrics, and the set up-a man asking a woman on a date- sounds perfectly normal for a Beatles song. However, instead of enjoying a nice cup of tea, the titular Maxwell sneaks up behind Joan and kills her with a hammer. The murder rests in the Beatles’ style, exaggerated with a clanging noise to mimic the sound of the hammer, and replete with a rhyming scheme. This style continues through the remainder of the song, including the killing of his teacher, and the killing of the judge who has sentenced him to prison. The vocal backups, including harmony, are all part of the Beatles’ repertoire, making this shocking crime even more startlingly infused with the essence of the Beatles.

Track 4: “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59K2kF6o9Tk)

A more classic rock and roll song, and another Rolling Stones song, the feel of “Brown Sugar” is completely different from that of “Stray Cat Blues”. A heavier song, the opening of “Brown Sugar” includes a drum line and guitar solo that sets the mood for the remainder of the tune. The story details the slave route in which young women were sold to be put on a sugar plantation. There they were whipped and raped to the slaver’s content. Later, the master and his sons decide to join in on the rape. The song then continues to narrate the life of the mother of a modern day black woman, with the thought that she is still sexually maladjusted as all of her boyfriends are still “sweet sixteen.” The chorus is fairly degrading, detailing the role of a black woman, and more specifically calling out the sexual misconduct still permissible within today’s culture, more specifically the line “I said yeah, I said yeah, I said yeah, I said/Oh just like a black girl should.” The  upbeat rhythm and swinging tempo gives a happy tone to the piece, even while the lyrics expand upon the plight of Black Americans through the era of slavery to modern day tones of sexual racism.

Track 5: “Up Up Down Down” by Kirby Krackle (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xg2kDtJZos8)

This song looks at a glance to be a deceptively simple nerd romance song. The upbeat tempo paired with an immediate reference to the Konami code points out something happy, and something nerdy, respectively. The music video shows butterflies and anime characters. A simple, repeating pattern of melody and rhythm gives a comfortable familiarity to the song. The references to video games (“and when Hyrule falls,”) and comics (“I should take a risk, and like Wilson Fisk be the Kingpin of this day”) further pushes the song into the niche of “nerd songs.” When the music does change to a soulful, single-brass instrument, the shown conflict is brief and ends happily, with the boy going on a date with the girl he likes. The ensuing date follows the upbeat jaunty tempo. And then comes the shift. This time, the brass instrument is followed by a flood of words, words which overwrite the previous tone. Murder and cannibalism are on the menu, so to speak, and finally the song ends with the death of the main character. Hardly the expected outcome at the beginning of the song.

Epilogue

Most of the time, we only listen to what we think we hear.  Whether it is in life or a song, we sometimes tune out and hear only what is expected. When we listen to a happy song, we expect the subject matter to be happy. When we listen to a song with different lyrics that don’t fit the tone of the song, we are being asked to change our perspective and actually listen to what is really happening for once. Rather than trying to mask our inner violence, we should expose the emotions rather than putting on a happy layer, and trying to cover up what really lies in our hearts.

Pentatonic Ponderings: Don’t Even Look at My Girl on a Slow Jam

Don't Even Look at My Girl on a Slow JamBy Magellan

Prelude

Last week I may have said something in my introduction about slowing down on the whole new columns thing. Whoops. In all seriousness, though, this is the last new column I’m going to throw at you all for a while. Originally, I was going to write something about Annie Hall (stay tuned for next week if that’s your cup of neurotic tea), but I’ve had this concept for a music article gnawing at me for a few days now, and I just watched Ruby Sparks (you may see a piece on that eventually, too), which lines up so perfectly theme-wise with what I was planning on writing that I have to go for it. Better to strike while the iron’s hot, so to speak. As for what “Pentatonic Ponderings” is in general, I’m going to think at you, using five songs as my guideposts. Bear with me, it’ll make sense.

Track 1: “Step to My Girl” by Souls of Mischief (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvBmr_b-Rpg)

A surprisingly smooth song for the amount of angst and animosity driving the lyrics. That’s what makes this the perfect insecurity anthem, a song that takes a core of fractured, vulnerable love (the sample is from the Bread song “Aubrey,” a ballad about melancholy, unrequited love) and layers on top of it dense, macho verses. The narrator of this song is in love with a girl who’s reportedly flyer than all the rest, his “sweet señorita,” but he’s unable to enjoy spending time with her because other men try to step to his girl. And, even though at the beginning of the song he claims that his “insecurity turned into maturity,” he admits that he “find[s] it hard to be monogamous.” The narrator tells himself that he isn’t afraid of his girlfriend running off anymore, but now he seems to be afraid that that’s what he’s going to do, that he won’t be able to stay faithful. He masks this failure of self-control by trying to assert control over the other men around him, elevating himself through primal violence (and sick flow). There’s another thread here, though, and that’s one of exasperation (“But ask yourself homeboy—Why is that?”). This song isn’t so much an assertive threat as it is a warning that trying to interfere with one man’s sense of control in a relationship will force him to lash out in violence, and by doing so maintain that control. Of course, control is a hard thing to maintain.

Track 2: “Fuck You” by Cee Lo Green (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pc0mxOXbWIU)

Here’s another smooth song with venomous overtones (the title alone is pretty clear). This expands on the notion of machismo as a way to shield romantic wounds and insecurities, though the specific wounds are clearer in this song than the previous one. Here, it’s obvious that the narrator’s ex-girlfriend was a gold digger (“I guess the change in my pocket/Wasn’t enough”), and that she’s only with a new guy because of that (“I guess he’s an Xbox and I’m more Atari”). This song also echoes the interesting tone that “Step to My Girl” takes towards the “other guy” in this situation: sure, it’s openly hostile, but it also seems vaguely cautionary. Cee Lo is making it very clear to this other guy that this girl is only in it for the money, which is a gentlemanly gesture. Also, the fact that he “tried to tell my momma but she told me/’This is one for your dad,’” creates the expectation that men are the ones who wield control in a relationship, and that “the girl I love” is an object that is meant to be hoarded to protect it from the influence of other men and their money. Although, this song does do something that the last didn’t: it addresses the girl and the narrator’s insecurities directly. He outright asks “Now baby, baby, baby why you wanna wanna hurt me so bad?” openly showing his weaknesses in the hopes of communicating with the person who injured him. Here we see the narrator on his hands and knees, begging to understand why things didn’t go his way. But then again, do they ever?

Track 3: “Jane” by Barenaked Ladies (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvDp3LjN7fM)

My favorite song of all time. Here we see the macho sheen that has been coating the lyrics thus far stripped away to lay bare the struggle underneath. This song takes the question of “why you wanna wanna hurt me so bad?” and turns it into a story of a man falling for a woman who doesn’t want to follow the rules that he has set for the world. The titular Jane “doesn’t think a man could ever be faithful,” and really can’t bring herself to trust anyone, thinking that “only cowards stay, while traitors run.” This is the first time in the playlist that we see the woman given emotion, and it becomes clear that insecurity is present on both sides of the issue. Still, our narrator feels a lack of control and a sense of desperation (“I’d bring her gold and frankincense and myrrh/She thought that I was making fun of her”), and with that the same sense of entitlement we’ve been seeing this whole time (“That life could be better by being together/Is what I cannot explain to Jane”). He feels that he has all the answers, that he knows what’s best and that Jane is being irrational. But it’s this assertion of his own opinions and worldview over her emotions that makes him one of the “lovesick jerks” that Jane knows every man turns into. By the end of the song, he’s become bitter, going from “shopping” at the store to “shoplifting.” He hasn’t gotten his way, so he’s lashing out, which is the flaw of all of our narrators thus far. They’re all lovesick jerks.

Track 4: “Talk 2 You” by Kids These Days (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pjDvpnNGS4)

Framed like a man’s phone call to an old high school sweetheart, this song is a softening of the sentiment expressed in “Fuck You” in that it takes that same insecure core and self-assured exterior, but ends up being much more affectionate and nostalgic. The narrator, despite his moderate success with his band, is feeling the pressure of being “all out, graduated and grown,” and is looking for something to fill up his life. He’s “going places, wanna take you with me.” It’s a sweet sentiment, but it has the same possessive undertones (or overtones, in the case of “Step to My Girl”) that have dominated this playlist. He doesn’t ask if he can talk to the girl, he commands “Lemme talk to you,” hopeful that what he has to say will win her back, despite how well he knows her life is going. She’s in an Ivy League school, her siblings are straightening up and doing well for themselves, and, of course, “the word around town is you got a new best friend.” That’s information that the narrator knows from the very beginning of the song, that this girl he’s trying to woo and remind of old times has already moved on and has a new boyfriend. She doesn’t have any interest in digging up the past when she has everything figured out. And yet, the narrator is convinced that they should “kick it like it’s way back when,” as if a few alcohol-addled memories are worth her totally rearranging her life. Maybe the narrator is afraid that his band won’t find the “diamond in the rough” that they’re looking for, and he’s reaching back into the past to grasp at something he used to have control over. Time, unfortunately, waits for no man.

Track 5: “Step” by Vampire Weekend (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mDxcDjg9P4)

Just as “Talk 2 You” is a softening of “Fuck You,” “Step” is a softening of “Step to My Girl,” which inspired it. It begins the same way as its predecessor, concerned about a time “Back, back, way back” when the narrator was haunted by insecurities and immaturities that he feels he has since shed. As the song develops, though, it seems that the narrator has moved beyond the notion of just trying to control one girl, and is instead using that idea of romantic control as a way to talk more broadly about artistic control and one’s relationship with music (“Mine was entombed within boombox and walkmen”). The narrator here is acknowledging his worries more clearly than those in previous songs, seeing talk of whose girl is better as “stale conversation” that “deserves but a bread knife,” instead becoming more concerned with the feeling that he’s aging more quickly than he thought. He says that “Wisdom’s a gift, but you’d trade it for youth,” expressing the idea that even though he has a more complete knowledge of what life is like, he would give that up to go back to the relationship he used to have with this girl and with music. As opposed to “Step to My Girl,” this song uses the line “Every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl” as a defeated refrain, the narrator having given up on youthful struggles and wanting nothing more than to be left alone with memories and self-satisfaction about how things used to be.

Epilogue

What I’m driving at here is that so often in life we suppress our weaknesses and worries, grasping for some form of control. Maybe we’re afraid of our own darker urges, afraid of somebody else’s proclivities, afraid of being alone, afraid of failure, or afraid of growing older. Whatever the case, trying to cure that fear by exerting ourselves over other people only leads to more heartbreak, and turns us all into lovesick jerks.