Monday, March 31, 2014

Songs in the Key of Yuck

I'm going to to whinge about a couple of pop songs featured on American Idol recently, songs with catchy choruses but questionable lyrics, one especially questionable when sung by a fresh-faced youth aged 17. That song was We Are Young made a hit in 2012 by the band Fun, written by band members, Nate Ruess, Jack Antonoff, Andrew Dost and Jeffrey Bhasker. By the way, Jack Antonoff, one of the co-writers, has a birthday today, 31 March.

Snip from lyric analysis at
“Give me a second, I need to get my story straight,” Fun singer Nate Ruess proclaims in the first line of “We Are Young.” It’s a line that basically summarizes the entire song—a disjointed, semi-coherent tale of an eventful night out with friends at the bar that scampers through its scattered verses to get to its drunk sing-along of the chorus. Musically, the song begins manically, with a drum pounding a pulse-racing beat as Ruess sets the scene—his friends in the bathroom “getting higher than the Empire State,” while his lover waits for him “just across the bar.” The beat picks up even more frenetically as Ruess sings about his lover’s scar, admitting that “I know I gave it to you months ago / I know you’re trying to forget.”

The first verse isn’t even over, and we already have lies, drinking, drugging and domestic abuse—heady stuff for any song, and Ruess races through the verse as if he’s hoping you won’t actually pick up on the words he’s saying. It’s not a bad strategy, since you could hear the song 100 times before picking up on exactly what Ruess is talking about, largely because you’re just waiting for him to get to the chorus. Indeed, the chorus of “We Are Young” is so momentous that the song winds down at the end of the first verse, the drums disappearing, the piano slowing, and the singing getting more dramatic for that fantastic pre-chorus: “So if by the time the bar closes / And you feel like falling down / I’ll carry you home…” Suddenly, all the chaos of the first verse vanishes in favor of straightforward romance, as everyone gears up for the big sing-along.

We Are Young at Youtube with lyrics.

Each older generation complains about the music of the generation(s) who come after. Didn't parents of the early rock and rollers call rock and roll "devil's music"?
Let's see how it lives up to that:
Shake Rattle & Roll:
Now get out in that kitchen and rattle those pots and pans
Now get out in that kitchen and rattle those pots and pans
Roll my breakfast cause I'm a hungry man...........

Yeah - a bit of bossy man-stuff goin' on there I guess, but hardly abusive. The proper response could be "Get out there an' rattle 'em yourself mate!"

Or how about this one - an earlier, and much less dark version of the ideas contained in We Are Young:
Rip it up

Well, it's Saturday night and I just got paid,
Fool about my money, don't try to save,
My heart says go go, have a time,
Saturday night and I'm feelin' fine,
I'm gonna rock it up, I'm gonna rip it up,
I'm gonna shake it up, gonna ball it up,
I'm gonna rock it up, and ball tonight.
Got me a date and I won't be late,
Picked her up in my 88..........

Good and (fairly) clean fun without harming anyone.

Pumped Up Kicks (2011) source of my second complaint, is a song about a bully about to shoot school kids. Both this and We Are Young have catchy choruses, that's what made both songs such huge hits. It could be that the lyrics weren't heard properly nor fully understood by eager audiences...or maybe they were but audiences simply didn't care?

Pumped Up Kicks at YouTube with lyrics

From an article by Steve Johnson in the Chicago Tribune
Dark meaning of bubble-gum Pumped Up Kicks is tough to chew

It is a perky pop ditty with just enough low-fi murkiness to make it hip. And its bright carousel of a chorus gets in your head and spins merrily around.

"Pumped Up Kicks" is also a song about a kid preparing to shoot his classmates at school.

"All the other kids with the pumped up kicks," says the chorus, "you'd better run, better run, outrun my gun … You'd bettter run, better run, faster than my bullet.

Maybe we're desensitized by the almost absurdly violent first-person-shooter video games so many kids spend their afternoons playing. Maybe naming the song after fancy sneakers instead of the weaponry creates enough emotional distance.

Or maybe we figure — as I initially did — that it's just pop music, and its ear-candy qualities trump whatever the point of view might be.

But after looking closely at the song's lyrics and listening to it many extra times, I have come to agree that this song is more deserving of a push away than the warm embrace it has mostly received.

There have always been popular songs with less than salubrious lyrics, some bad or naughty enough to have been banned from public broadcast. Look at the long list of songs HERE Auntie Beeb (BBC) wouldn't countenance; and HERE from elsewhere - all songs banned at one time or another. It's hard to see why in most cases. These two songs weren't banned though. Ooooh no! That'd be messing with our freedoms wouldn't it? It would, but it would also be attempting to inject some good taste into the world of pop music, and in the process giving thought to those who have been sexually or physically abused, or grieving parents who have lost their child as a result of a school shooting incident.

Pop music has never been known for its good taste, but I'd expect the producers of American Idol to have some say, and some show of compassion to audiences, about what a 17-year old sings on their show. The judges did comment on the matter of both songs' dark lyrics, but in my opinion it shouldn't have been left to the judges' comments - these songs ought never to have been featured on the show.


LB said...

Twilight ~ Years ago, I knew a young man who appeared several times before the judges, trying to make it into the competition. Though earnest in his attempts (and obviously very psychologically and emotionally vulnerable), his singing made him fodder for ridicule, something the show took full advantage of.

I quit watching after that - it just wasn't my cuppa tea.:( The issues you're describing seem like more of the same.

Vanilla Rose said...

I've heard that some of the Rolling Stones songs had questionable lyrics. I just googled "Brown Sugar" - ew! And I'm not at all sure I like The Beatles' "Maxwell's Silver Hammer".

Twilight said...

LB ~ I've watched Idol from its birth as "Pop Idol" back in Britain in 2001, and each season of the US version since I've been here in the US.

Yes, there have been some many incidences of ridicule at a would-be contestant's expense in the early audition stages in most past seasons. Contestants had to be aware of the danger of this though, if they'd watched the show at all. I didn't like it, but put it down to some characters seeking their 15 minutes/seconds of fame, whatever the price.

I think audience complaints must have reduced this element of the show a lot, there was less of it in recent seasons. There was hardly any of it at all this year, compared to other years. The show now has a new production team - whether for good or ill, I'm not sure yet.

If the inclusion of these two nasty songs in a single episode of the show is a sign of things to come in the show, I'll be giving Idol a miss in future myself.

Twilight said...

Vanilla Rose ~ Sure - there are lots of questionable songs around, always have been. The two you mention, from late '60s, early '70s are good (or should I say bad) examples. Both, though are telling stories of character(s) doing bad deeds, whereas "We Are Young" is a first person song, it's the singer who inflicted the scar on his girlfriend. So when sung with apparent relish by a 17-year old on a talent show, it becomes seriously off-putting and extra nasty, in my opinion.

The other song, "Pumped Up Kicks"
might have been less offensive if such things had never actually happened in real life, and dozens or hundreds of people were not still grieving the loss of their children because of such incidents. This is by far the worse of the two songs I've mentioned.

mike said...

I'm like you, LB...these reality shows are not my thing. I don't have much respect for many of the judges and some of these shows have text-voting to supplement the judges' choices.

Youth = $$$$...plain and simple. Jay Leno was ousted, though he had the highest ratings of late night shows. Jimmy Fallon attracts a younger audience. I am watching the Fallon show, but it is dumbed-down, even from his previous after-Leno eponymous late night show. Now, Fallon has musical guests that are attractive to the late teens through late twenties age bracket. His previous late night show had musical guests that were attractive to a more age-diverse audience.

Rap music probably has some of the grossest lyrics...extreme egoism and violence...not all, but most. Many of the movies geared for the slightly-more-than-pubescent are peculiarly violent ("Vampire" series, "Hunger Games", et al). It's now considered OK to be exploited and to exploit your friends via social networking and YouTube (PBS Frontline "Generation Like"

We seem to be in an era where youth is even more attractive and lucrative than previous generations. Older people appear to be emulating their youthful counterparts through looks, styles, and mannerisms in a vain attempt to deceive the years. Plastic surgery has younger and younger clientele renouncing their true age under the knife. Our youth of today lack many social and emotional skills, because of, and manipulated by, the digital feeds upon itself. Yet, at no other past time that I can recall, have the older generations fawned over, vied for, and respected their attention as if they are demigods.

The digital era has created many services and apps geared for the youth that were conceived by young company founders. Here's a lengthy, but interesting article regarding Silicon Valley:

"The Brutal Ageism of Tech Years of experience, plenty of talent, completely obsolete

"As I write, the website of ServiceNow, a large Santa Clara–based I.T. services company, features the following advisory in large letters atop its 'careers' page: 'We Want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of Them, Not Behind Them.'

... And then there is the question of what purpose our economic growth actually serves. The most common advice V.C.s give entrepreneurs is to solve a problem they encounter in their daily lives. Unfortunately, the problems the average 22-year-old male programmer has experienced are all about being an affluent single guy in Northern California. That’s how we’ve ended up with so many games (Angry Birds, Flappy Bird, Crappy Bird) and all those apps for what one start-up founder described to me as cooler ways to hang out with friends on a Saturday night."

LB said...

I think it's become more socially acceptable -even glamorous in some cases- to dehumanize one another.

It's not always achieved through physical violence, sometimes it's reflected in the other choices we make, including what we choose to consume and how we choose to communicate. Our music, art, government and industry - all of our choices speak to what it is we value most as a culture.

LB said...

Correcting my last comment: I think it's become more socially acceptable to ***openly*** dehumanize one another - ***and on a much wider scale***.

We're living during a period when a lot of us are experiencing for the very first time what other folks have always experienced. Or we're getting a taste of it.

Twilight said...

mike ~ I knew I'd be the odd one out here as a watcher of musical talent shows, always have been. I began calling it my "guilty pleasure", but really I don't feel guilty about it. I've loved talent shows from the first one I ever saw heard on radio, or saw on early TV, long before the Idol series, or even its creators were around, maybe not even born. These shows may be somewhat "infra-dig" for some, but....I'm not proud. ;-)

I agree with everything else you've written about youth culture of today. It has become more and more all-pervading in the last decade or so, driven harder and faster by internet and social networking I suppose.
Ageism is rampant - it's a hobby horse of mine, mentioned before on this blog.

The Service Now advert you mention would not be allowed in Britain (unless things have changed and I'm mistaken).
Sickening! We'll soon be outcasts.

It makes the scenarios in Logan's Run seem that much nearer doesn't it?

Twilight said...

LB ~ It's one sad result of the internet and social networking, and evidence of the darker side of our human nature, clearly on view.

mike (again) said...

LB - Maybe I'm nit-picking semantics. We are in an era of self-importance, egoism, it's-all-about-me. Perhaps this results in the dehumanizing of others. We only care about "out there", if there is something to be gained and, in essence, using others to attain it. The desire to be important and rich with minimal effort seems rampant in today's younger set.

mike (again) said...

Oh, Twilight, you're not the odd one out, at least for enjoying talent shows. I enjoy that aspect. Many viewers WANT to see Simon Cowell get testy, nasty, and condescending...belittle some nervous start-up talent to tears or rage...a tiny nuclear melt-down on stage of some sort. That's what these shows are about and what makes viewers tune-in week after week, getting the audience to love and-or hate the judges and-or the performers.

I do remember TV talent shows from my adolescence...they were respectful and sincere...straight forward. Wouldn't work today!

Twilight said...

mike (again) ~ It's the talent aspect that's of interest to me, judges are an irritant for the most part. Thankfully Cowell is no longer a judge - and his other show, The X-Factor, has not been renewed, so his face and nastiness are gone, for now. Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick jnr are a relatively civilised and musically knowledgeable bench of judges, best they've had for a long time, in fact.

But, but, you say the old talent shows were far more genuine, sincere. Modern versions are manipulated - more so each season too, and it has become more and more obvious.

The Voice, running alongside Idol at present, is a tad better on the age front. We do see the occasional vocalist in their 50s or even older - though they seldom get near the winning post.
The show is more diverse and the contestants are (I think) head-hunted semi-professionals rather than raw amateurs, so it's a different animal from Idol, really.

LB said...

Twilight and mike ~ One of my "guilty pleasures used to be watching "The Real Housewives of New York", and later, "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills". Nothing like a dose of someone else's reality to make me appreciate my own! These days I can't handle either of them for very long (and can't spare the brain cells), although I still enjoy shows like "Hoarders" or a few of the others.

I don't know why, but for some reason "Dancing With the Stars" doesn't appeal to me much anymore either.

mike (again) said...

Well, I'm a prude...LOL. Wiki defines "American Idol" and "The Voice" as reality singing competitions. I would agree that "The Voice" is a far gentler version...more palatable. TV programming, in general, is fairly pitiful and not too brain-enriching, so maybe it doesn't matter what anyone views.

"Reality television has faced significant criticism since its rise in popularity. Much of the criticism has centered around the use of the word "reality", and such shows' attempt to present themselves as a straightforward recounting of events that have occurred. Critics have argued that reality television shows do not present reality in ways both implicit (participants being placed in artificial situations) and deceptive or even fraudulent, such as misleading editing, participants being coached in what to say or how to behave, storylines generated ahead of time, and scenes being staged or re-staged for the cameras. Other criticisms of reality television shows include that they are intended to humiliate or exploit participants (particularly on competition shows), that they make celebrities out of untalented people who do not deserve fame, and that they glamorize vulgarity and materialism."

“Reality television gave me an amazing feeling of moral and intellectual superiority without actually requiring any effort past moving the dogs to find the remote.” Jen Lancaster

R J Adams said...

Maybe I'm just getting old, but frankly with each generation I see us devolving back into the primordial mud from which we originated. I'm with Mike. I can't tolerate these TV talent shows. They're more about the judges than the competitors.

Twilight said...

mike (again) ~ Nothing's real anymore, I agree. Most things are scripted, staged, manipulated to produce "a good show", keep ratings up. More corporate biz, making $$$$$$$$$ from commercials.
We could say much the same about most sporting events too.

For my sins I still am keen , though not as much as in the past, on talent shows. But I do still retain interest in what's going on in the world outside of TV shows and films. It IS possible to be interested in both. Though these shows are there primarily to make money, they do afford opportunity for those few ordinary people with talent who wouldn't otherwise have found a stage and an audience to make good (or at least better)....the shows are really huge audition opportunities, and that's not to be sniffed at if you're a struggling vocalist.

Twilight said...

RJ Adams ~ Yep, I can see the descent, not only in songs but in other spheres too.

The TV talent shows are there to make money, which wouldn't happen without a few "big celeb. names" attached, and these have been pains in the ass in the past - some improvement this year.

The shows still afford opportunity for ordinary people to present their talent to a wide audience. That's my take and my reason for watching, and my eyes are wide open on the matter of manipulation, staging etc. It's still an opportunity for ordinary people that otherwise wouldn't exist. I'm always, always on the side of ordinary people.

Vanilla Rose said...

Love the list of things banned by the BBC ... going to google some of them ...

... this is why censorship is almost invariably a bad idea. It makes things seem more interesting than they usually are. "Lady Chatterley's Lover" - snooze-fest to many modern readers.

Twilight said...

Vanilla Rose ~ Agreed! Never did think much of Lady C! :-)