Tag Archives: videos

On Stolen Songs, Snowflakes, Fingerprints, and DNA

We’ve all done it—heard a new song that’s clearly inferior to the music we came of age to, and cried foul.  The “ripped off song” even seems to have become its own YouTube genre at this point.  One of my favorites is this one: 

If you didn’t bother to view it, I can sum it up here.  Thirty-four songs—James Blunt, You’re Beautiful; Richard Marx, Waiting for You; Alicia Keyes, No one; Mika, Happy Ending; Amiel, Lovesong; Black Eyed Peas, Where is the Love?; Alex Lloyd, Amazing; The Calling, Wherever You Will Go; Bush, Glycerine;  Thirsty Merc, Twenty Good Reasons; Lighthouse Family, High; Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soul to Squeeze; Bic Runga, Sway; Ben Lee, Cigarettes; Maroon 5, She Will Be Loved; U2, With or Without You; Crowded House, Fall at Your Feet; Casey Chambers, Not Pretty Enough; The Beatles, Let it Be; Red Hot Chili Peppers [again?], Under the Bridge; Michael Jackson, Man in the Mirror; Elton John, Can You Feel the Love Tonight; Men at Work, Down Under; Banjo Patterson, Waltzing Matilda; A-Ha, Take On Me; Eagle Eye Cherry, Save Tonight; Toto, Africa; The Offspring, Self Esteem; Blink 182, Dammit; One Republic, Apologize; Tim Minchin, Canvas Bags; Natalie Imbruglia, Torn; and Missy Higgins, Scar [whew!] are all stealing Journey, Don’t Stop Believing,

Although it’s hard to see how the artists who wrote their songs before 1981 could have stolen anything, it’s smart.  And funny.  And accurate.  And, for YouTube, exceptionally well done. 

Yet Axis of Awesome, the group behind the video, must also understand, since they also included their own song, Birdplane (thirty-five songs, then), in the medley, the following problems:

1) These songs are all using a standard, conventional rock chord progression.  What they’re calling a stolen song is really just called a rock song.  Would anyone create a medley of blues songs and say, “They’re all following the same pattern!”  (Blues songs all follow the same twelve-bar pattern; it’s what makes them recognizably blues songs.)  If we keep the same chords here—in the key of C, it would be C/G/Am/F—and were a little more flexible, we could in fact include all of the blues (C/F/C/G/F/C, with occasional variations),  all 1950s doo wop and adaptations (C/Am/F/G), and, really, most of pop music (C/G/F, which covers everything from Wild Thing to Hang on Sloopy to What’s the Frequency, Kenneth).

 2) In their original and complete forms, these songs sound much less alike then when reworked, restructured, rerecorded, decontextualized, and resung by the same singers over the same tempo accompanied by the same piano.

Yet in fairness, other videos, like this and this, understand a lot less about music.  But at least they leave the original recording, so that you can hear, however briefly, that once the vocal comes in, or the song changes to the next section, all of a sudden, the songs don’t sound that much alike anymore.

My favorite—and, with 10,000,000 hits, clearly other people’s favorite, though, is this one:

Here, comedian Rob Paravonian makes a similar point as Axis of Awesome, about the humorous but relentless similarities between pop songs, here framed as Pachobel’s personal  conspiracy against him. But even he takes some liberties with the songs; again, it’s the same person singing over the same guitar, sometimes as few as a single line to make his point.

This is not to say that any similarities between any songs are OK.  In the 1950s, white artists like The Beach Boys and Pat Boone certainly did rip off black artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, respectively.  (Perhaps more in another post.) And it’s funny that Green Day, in many ways a more interesting and original band than the hipsters give them credit for, seems to wind up on these lists an awful lot.  

But still, if people are so quick to judge songs as derivative, why are we also so eager to declare people’s uniqueness?  Aside from the occasional Chuck Palahniuk character, most of us heartily believe that we’re special and unique.  Unique like fingerprints, even though fingerprints are all nearly exactly the same and their uniqueness only comes into play if you’ve, say, committed a jewel heist.  Unique as snowflakes, although all snowflakes are all white and all cold and all too small to see the differences and all melt too fast to really compare them anyway and for any practical purposes are all interchangeable.  In sum, Everyone agrees that Everyone is unique. Which is not very unique of Everyone.   Fight Club’s Tyler Durden seems to be unique in his opinion that we’re not unique.  And he’s [spoiler alert! That’s right, I’m giving away the end of Fight Club! Um, you have had thirteen years to see it, people] a figment of the narrator’s psychosis, not a real person at all. And a fictional character on top of that.  

I can already picture a Youtube video montage of random people, scrolling through faces that stole the idea of having two eyes, and one nose, and a mouth with lips AND teeth.  Barring accident or abnormality, it turns out that people are like fingerprints and snowflakes: they’re all mostly the same. 

THE MOST STOLEN FACE IN HISTORY!

But despite the overwhelming similarities, I do believe that we’re really all different, beyond fingerprints, beyond gender, race, color, size, clique, style, and the other ways in which people vary. Because we are all truly unique at the genetic level, our DNA representing the chord progressions of our lives, the similar-yet-a-little-different sequences that make us who we are. 

I’m no biologist, so I know I’m oversimplifying and maybe getting some things wrong, but it seems to me that humans are essentially  structured like a song: our DNA is composed (music/biology overlapping word) of only four different bases (basses? OK, a stretch), abbreviated, like chords, by a letter: adenine (abbreviated A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T).  And DNA also like a song, creates difference through sequence and pattern.  No, there’s no T chord, but if you go with the letter F instead, and make A into A minor, you have the famous progression, C/G/Am/ F—the same one in Don’t Stop Believin’, the Most Stolen Song.  Yes, it’s a stretch (it is T, not F).  And a coincidence, even if you accept the stretch. 

But a song’s uniqueness is very much like each person’s—similarly patterned, generally unsurprising, but also recognizable, the same way in which we instantly greet our friends, family, and loved ones without each time thinking that their faces all form the same boring pattern.  A great example for me is Glen Hansard’s Falling Slowly, from the movie Once.

It’s that same chord progression again—mostly C/F/C/G, with occasional Am, almost a melancholy version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  But like the people most important to us, it also feels like the only one if its kind: heartfelt, occasionally surprising (the falsetto leap on the word “time“), and, as we all aspire toward, unique.  

Time: over again! 70 minutes.

Jesse Kavadlo

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Women and/or Rock

 

Last week I wrote about VH1’s Metal Evolution  and was thrilled to see it linked to Banger Film’s social media.  I never actually expected anyone to see what I wrote, so I wasn’t thinking about readers’ reactions.  Yet of all the possible reasons to balk, the one that jumped out was calling the show on its gender imbalance.  Feminism somehow trumps Marx and Freud on the controversy-meter.

First, I stand corrected: there were not three women interviewed in the eleven hours; there were ten. 

And, of course, there’s the inherent numbers problem: how many women of metal are there?  No one would take Ken Burns to task for leaving women out of his documentary on baseball.

But music is, obviously, very different.  The easy solution to the skew would be a Women in Metal (or Hard Rock) episode.  It was the first thing I thought of.  And it would probably be great.  This has been Rolling Stone magazine’s way around their usual disparity. Yet while it solves one problem—balance and equality—it raises another: wouldn’t it be better to include women throughout the year rather than offer the consolation prize of a separate—and, according to the Supreme Court, by necessity, unequal—issue?  There is something about a special issue reserved for women that smacks of tokenism, as though female musicians didn’t make the real cut but want their Participant ribbon. 

But you know what? The truth is, I’m not going to resolve any of this here.  And that’s OK with me. 

Here’s what I’m really interested in, anyway: how gender works in rock, or whether gender in rock even matters at all. 

And one way for me to create the closest thing to a study of something as defiantly unempirical and unscientific as the meaning in music (evolutionary metaphors to the contrary) is to look at covers of songs where one version is performed by a man and the other by a woman.  What difference—other than obvious vocal tone—does it make?

Case #1:

No, Joan Jett didn’t write it or even record it first.  But when you listen to The Arrows plod through it—their own song!—after years of hearing Jett, you wonder why she even thought it would be worth recording at all.  When sung by a guy—or maybe, in fairness, THIS guy—it seems a pretty typical homage to the joys of jailbait, and the references to dimes and jukeboxes sound pathetic, nostalgic, and dated, even in the 1970s.

OK, the video does seem a little goofy today.  (See a smokin’ 1980s live version here; I didn’t want to compare studio to live.) But the gender inversion works wonders. Instead of seeming pathetic, like some dude in his 20s (30s?) hanging out by the record machine hoping to pick up a girl about seventeen, Jett seems tough, in control, and able to breathe life into the phrase “I Love Rock & Roll,” a deathly cliché for The Arrows but totally believable and sincere here—even as the butchy jacket and bangs suggest a singer with a wink and wry ironic sensibility. 

Case #2

I know you didn’t need to click on the link—you can hear the whole song in your head at this point just by reading the title.  OK, not rock, exactly, but certainly rockin’, a song that has become synonymous with post-breakup empowerment for a generation of women lip-synch sobbing into their hairbrushes.

Cake did a brave thing by covering a song that women own.  And unlike The Arrows, their version, way after it became iconic, wears well.  But it’s nothing like the original.  Where Gaynor belts it out, Cake plays it cool, except for the one lyrical update, “stupid lock” becomes “fucking lock.” With that shift, and overall laconic, behind-the-beat delivery, the song seems less about getting over an ex than an angry passive-aggressive possible psycho holding a grudge, the mantra of the jilted stalker who protests too much more than the surviving girlfriend. Its cool façade can’t cover the righteous anger. 

Case #3

The famous, the classic, but not the original.

Elvis was hated and feared for his devastating hip swivels and pelvic thrusts in his day, but funnily enough, his Hound Dog is neutered compared to Big Momma’s.  The gender inversion is just weird when you think about it: when sung by a woman, the song is clearly about a cheating man.  You  hear tha anger, but also the passion.  When sung by a man, however beautifully Elvis emotes and growls, it seems to be about… a hound dog. But, you know, 100,000,000,000 fans can’t be wrong.

Case #4

(YouTube won’t let me link to the video, so here is a live version, despite what I said above)

Bias: Possibly the best song on possibly one of the best albums ever.  I vividly remember the first time hearing this when it was released and thinking, “This is like nothing I ever heard.”  It’s like all the heroin in their bodies somehow seeped into the recording, so that between the delay on the guitar riff, the echoing shriek, the modulating keys, and the bouncing beat, it feels like the best nightmare.  The guitar and vocals are somehow so metal yet so blues that it’s no surprise that the song appealed to…

Etta James. [UPDATE 5/30/12: the linked video has since been removed] Too many variables: gender, but also race and age.  Still, James’s version makes the jungle seem like a funhouse, less frantic than Guns and more inevitable: if you’re lucky, and you live, maybe you can enter my jungle.  The thing that’s dangerous in this version of the song isn’t LA, rock, or drugs.  It’s Etta James.

Case #4a: Girls, Girls, Girls, Motley Crue

When feminists want a case-in-point for rock misogyny, they have one-stop shopping with Crue.  “Break her face or take down her legs” in Live Wire; “Use you up, throw you away” in Piece of Your Action, and this.  I hate to get all feminist theory again after last week, but this is a case study of the male gaze, where women exist only as objects.  But the issue isn’t whether anyone agrees with that point, since it’s obvious. The issue is whether you object.

4b: Take it Off, The Donnas

No, this is not, of course, a cover.  But it’s a great flipside and way to wrap after Girls x3.  Taken together, these songs force the listener to consider: What changes when women play and sing a song that objectifies men, where they’re the rockers and the subjects of the sexual chase? The lyrics certainly invert the Crue:

Need your love 1,2,3
Stop starin’ at my D cup
Don’t waste time, just give it to me
C’mon baby, just feel me up
C’mon, just give it up

Go on and take it off
You gotta shake it off baby, for me.

In many ways, it’s less a tribute to MCrue than it is to Joan Jett, decades later.  Reversing the gaze doesn’t seem demeaning to them, or, really, to men.

And the video, playing on viewers’ latent biases and sexpectations of what women in rock are supposed to look and act like, is worth more than a mountain of Rolling Stone’s Women in Rock issues.

Commenters: Got more examples of songs covered by both men and women? Post and discuss.     

Time: I’d love to keep going, but even rushing and trying to keep it short I’m at 60 minutes.

Jesse Kavadlo

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VH1’s Metal Evolution as Interpreted by Theorists other than Charles Darwin

[Previous blog on VH1 and heavy metal]

VH1 concluded the first season, eleven episodes, of Sam Dunn’s documentary on heavy metal, Metal Evolution.  The thing that impresses me most, even more than the obvious time, money, energy, thought, and love that went into it, is the thesis: Dunn is actually true to the title, reading the history of metal as a gradual process by which the music changed into different forms and subgenres over four decades.  The introduction (excerpted in the clip below) shows Dunn hard at work constructing his diagram of categories and hand-lettered band-name logos, using architect-grade pens, an X-acto knife, pushpins, and string, so that the resultant chart is a meticulous assemblage worthy of a lepidopterist,  cartographer, or serial killer. As he works, the camera flashes to a bust of Charles Darwin, and then later to a bookshelf highlighting The Origin of the Species.  Dunn clearly sees metal as deserving of a hagiographic, Ken Burns-style documentary, even as metal, unlike Burns’s jazz and baseball, is not a simple slice of Americana; like an anthropologist, Dunn traverses the globe, frequenting Britain but also hitting Germany, Denmark, Canada, Brazil, and more, all to catalogue the comprehensive metal diaspora.

[Clip: Ad for Metal Evolution series; about 1 minute in, turns into clip of anti-metal diatribe for some reason. Ah, Youtube]

Yet [channeling Carrie Bradshaw] I couldn’t help but wonder: what if the series went on beyond Darwin? [Smiling for not saying “evolve.”] 

Metal Materialism

 

I'm a Marxist. A Groucho Marxist.

Dunn uses the image of evolution to suggest change, but it’s clear that it’s not natural selection as much as the unnatural, invisible hand of the marketplace:  the 1960s and early 1970s are presented as a golden age of metal, only to lead to a bloated, decadent phase of arena rock in the late 70s. Which then led to the energized, revitalized New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWoBHM) 🙂  Which led to late 1980s glam excess and languor 😦  Which led to deeper, darker thrash 🙂  Which led to back-to-basics, punk-influenced grunge (:S [confused face]) Which led to Nu Metal (first 🙂, with Korn, then 😦, with Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, with spelling 😦 the whole time).  In each case, it’s not exactly that the music got old as much as the target market did—record companies were always on the lookout to find the next big seller for the next generation, happy to dump last year’s act in favor of a new flavor, only to dump them, ad infinitum.

But it’s not just market fluctuation as much as a deliberate assimilation of subversion.  Hard rock, then metal, then thrash, then grunge, are systematically stripmined of their rebelliousness; the very thing that in one year makes it dangerous in the next makes it a hot commodity.  Venture vulture capitalism not only absorbs the marginal into its mainstream; it profits from packaging and selling rebellion right back to the teens who invented it, until it’s all gone.  Then it moves on to the next form. This is not evolution as much as a business cycle, or, if you’re thinking generously Hegalian, a series of dialectical movements between conservatism and creativity, reformations and counter-reformations.  

Metal Poststructuralism

Don't be so Saussure

But what about the episodes I didn’t mention above, on Shock Metal, Power Metal, and Progressive Metal? They fall outside—or maybe side by side—Dunn’s partially chronological approach, a kind of concurrent evolution, so that each of these three episodes starts over again in the 60s, even as the first eight episodes were working their way closer to the present.  We can think of metal, then, in Roman Jakobson’s terms: syntagmatic—linear, forward moving, evolving, chronological, narrative—as well as paradigmatic—vertical, categorical, thematic, metaphorical.  Seeing metal as moving from roots to early metal to NWoBHM to glam to thrash to grunge to Nu metal is syntagmatic; seeing the previous episodes as representing the traditional narrative of metal with outliers in Shock, Power, and Prog is paradigmatic.   

Alternately, we can see all of heavy metal as a language system—the langue of heavy metal always consisting of loud, distorted guitars, hard-hitting drums, extreme vocals (whether screaming, high-range, guttural, or Cookie Monster), and rebellious attitude; the parole of metal comes from the specific utterances and subgenres.  The reason your grandma (or a nonfan) can’t tell the difference between any of these episodes is because they’re not native speakers of metal—they recognize only the langue but cannot decipher the particulars of the parole.

Metal Patriarchy

I would not even think about putting a funny caption here

Dunn in general is not looking at metal’s faults.  Fair enough. It’s his show.  Yet the glaring fact is that, over eleven hours and interviews with hundreds of musicians, producers, journalists, and academics, I counted only three women: a manager, a professor, and Melissa Auf der Maur, bassist with Hole and other groups. (I may have missed someone, I suppose). 

Maybe it’s just a numbers game—metal bands are mostly male.  But consider one of Dunn’s very un-anthropological forays into complaint: he is very clear about his dislike of glam metal and seems only to include it out of some fanatical completist’s OCD.  And why does he dislike glam?  It seems, in part, because he sees the groups as feminine, wearing makeup and spandex, although, again, Grandma would see most of these groups as effeminate.  Ugly androgyny and makeup a la Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson, who even assume women’s names, is OK, but not stage makeup or names like Rikki Rockett.  And beyond looking like women—or, arguably, caring about their looks at all—what is glam’s other serious violation? It appealed to—GIRLS!  In fact, the one thing that all of Dunn’s defective eras in metal share—including his open disdain of Linkin Park—is that they had a significant number of female fans.  Dunn’s metal shop is a boy’s club.

(Not that glam isn’t also, paradoxically, a low point in lyrical misogyny.  Dunn is not particularly interested in lyrics anyway.  And unlike the other metal genres, glam has at least discovered girls in the first place.) 

Metal Heliocentrism

Revolution Number 9

Dunn seems to see the 60s as the Big Bang of metal creativity.  And the cosmological model may be better than the evolutionary one, as evolution implies not just change but change into a better form.  For Dunn, it’s clear that the subjects of his previous documentaries, Iron Maiden and Rush, represent the sun around which the other bands and genres revolve.  The introduction plays Maiden’s The Trooper, and these two groups still seem absolutely central to Dunn’s metal universe, rather than mere transitional stages in a larger evolutionary process of species improvement. 

Metal Psychoanalysis

Sometimes a circular saw codpiece is just a circular saw codpiece. Oh, wait. No it's not.

If Dunn can use Darwin and I include Marx and Copernicus, it’s only fitting that I end with the other world-changing thinker, Freud.  The introduction also flashes briefly to photos of Dunn’s childhood and his college degrees on the wall.  It’s hard to wonder whether this whole documentary filmmaker gig isn’t a chance to meet the idols of his youth—and, in some oedipal sense, surpass them.  Many of the former stars are now aging, overweight, bald, and way, way past their era of fame.  Dunn is in charge now, calling the shots and asking the questions, controlling—creating—the metal narrative.  And at what must be a height of about 6’5”, Dunn again and again towers over the rock stars.  The star-struck child returns, and this time he is the symbolic adult.   Power metal indeed. 

Forget metal evolution—Dunn has crafted himself as metal’s Intelligent Designer.

Time: Yeah, I’m over an hour on this one. Yeah.

 

Jesse Kavadlo

UPDATE 2/15/12: Read the follow-up to the part that got people talking: Women and/or Rock.

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VH1’s Metal Fatigue

A typical '80s metal image

In 1985, when I loved heavy metal, the only time I could hear it on the radio was once a week at midnight on Metal Shop ( “M-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-metal shop”), and the only place to watch the videos were the UHF station U68 and the occasional clip in Friday Night Videos.  Both late at night.  This was all pre-cable in Brooklyn, New York, and obviously pre-DVR.  To hear new metal, I’d often chance a record based on the cover alone.  I first heard Metallica that way, which remains my major coup. Savatage, not so much.   Yet now, far, far past the point when I need it, everything on VH1 is coming up metal: Metal Mania, That Metal Show, the million-part documentary Metal Evolution, the preponderance of Iron Maiden and Metallica and miscellaneous metal movies, and Megadeth et al Behind the Music episodes. 

It’s all too much, too late.

Nevertheless, I’m watching it, and more often than not I’m surprised by what I’m seeing, despite my vague, dream-like glimpses of memories of having seen them before.  The majority of the 1980s metal videos, it turns out, featured futuristic apocalyptic Road Warrior sets—sometimes, oddly enough, accompanied by laser guns and flying saucers; at other times, also oddly enough, accompanied by faux-Renaissance Faire swords and scepters—where the only remnants of the present-day to survive are guitars and, apparently, Aquanet.  Crucially, most videos also feature some kind of bondage, chains, cages, or imprisonment scenario, usually with the band itself incarcerated, although sometimes hot chicks in strategically ripped clothing are, apparently, detained for questioning as well.  The best worst example is Queensryche’s “Queen of the Reich” video, which gets everything right.  Which is to say everything wrong.  “LOL” has become a cliché, but just try not to laugh out loud.

I get the end of the world angle.  This was the ’80s, with the endgame of the Cold War (which of course we didn’t know at the time), The Day After and the trauma dramas on TV, Mad Max and War Games at the movies, the official red carpet entrance of crack, AIDS, eating disorders, and drive-by shootings into the public lexicon and consciousness.  The videos?  Mere trickle down dystopia.  Metal was anti-authority, and no civilization just meant no rules and less clothing.  Let college rock feel fine about the end of the world as we know it; to metal bands and fans, it was fuckin’ awesome.

But this bondage business nags me. Dokken’s Breakin’ the Chains (above image) pretty much sums it up, but Def Leppard’s quasi-crucifixion in Foolin’, The Scorpions’ cages and containers in Rock You Like a Hurricane, Quiet Riot’s and Megadeth’s straightjackets and padded cells, Metallica’s electric chairs and hospital beds, and too many more to name: everyone is trapped, confined, restricted, or in somebody else’s power.  I suppose it’s the oldest and most reliable story in existence, the Master Plot of master plots: tension, release; rising action, climax; loss, regain; conflict, resolution.  But the song does not remain the same.  The images—the chains—do.  Yes, they all break free by the end of the clip.  But first they need to be tied up or tied down. 

I guess there were some now-obvious but at the time (to me) unconscious fetishes at work, but the emotional metaphors trump the sexual ones.  In retrospect, there is the inescapable sense of the inescapable, despite that they—we—were white, and straight, and male, and socially unconstrained, irresponsible in the best sense, and at the height of youth, strength, and beauty.  Yet in the metal videos, all anyone felt were the metal restraints; all they saw were the bars of their metal cages.

The images seem funny and maybe ironic now, even though I felt and identified with the music at the time in a visceral, animal way.  And I’d say that they were funny, except for commercials that punctuate them as they air on VH1 now: a steady stream of Technicolor desperation, ad after ad for credit checks, mortgage and bankruptcy help, baldness cures and hair restoration, and something ominously called the PosTVac, which aims to restore losses of, um, other kinds. 

Popular culture to the contrary, the world didn’t end in the 1980s after all, as it turned out.  For metal fans, something much worse happened: it went on.   And life had much heavier things in store.  If you thought you were in chains and cages then, twenty plus years later, you’ve got another thing coming.

But I get to watch all the metal I want now.

Time: fifty-five goddamn depressing minutes. 

Coming soon:  Darwin, Hegel, Francis Fukiyama, PBS, Ken Burns, and Ozzy Osborne: welcome to the unlikely mash-up that is the documentary Metal Evolution.

UPDATE 2/8/12: Read the Metal Evolution post: VH1’s Metal Evolution as Interpreted by Theorists other than Charles Darwin

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