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Song #22: Marvin Gaye "Got to Give It Up"

So by this juncture it’s pretty clear that a lot of what we were told about disco was a lie. Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was lively and soulful, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” was ethereal and spooky, and Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” was downright impressive. And here’s a disco song, albeit from someone who didn’t get their start in the genre, that sounds warm and human. Tender, even. Was this really the stuff that was on the stereo while the coke orgies were going on?

The song’s success has a lot to do with Gaye’s supple falsetto, but there’s also that elegant, understated guitar line that sneaks in and out of the song and that rhythm section, whose languorous groove nudges the song along at a comfortable, mid-tempo pace. “Got to Give It Up” is a song that invites you to dance, not a song that demands you surrender to the beat. In a sense, there’s not a whole lot here that would suggest, at first that listen, that “Got to Give It Up” is actually disco: there aren’t any crashing keyboards or cheesy strings, and it takes a while to notice those high hats (or is that a click track?) marking time in the background. What it really sounds like is soul gone static: the bite and crunch that you can hear in singles from the early sixties is absent, as is most of the urgency is. The groove here’s been softened and stretched out to give dancers a comfortable sonic environment in which to get loose. And, well, there are the lyrics, which describe a wallflower pining for the freedom of the dancers he sees at parties. If you actually stop dancing long enough to listen to them, they might strike you as treacly, self-absorbed, and very camp. Like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” “Got to Give It Up” makes a moment of personal discomfort into something earth-shakingly important. Ah, so that’s why the called the seventies the “me decade!” Still, Gaye’s character here never seems anything but likable. His decision to get off the wall and shake it a little really might be a small victory for everyone listening at home, too.

Song #21: Parliament "Flash Light"

Oh, hey, it’s music that sounds the way that Robert Crumb’s sixties-era comics look! Goofy and giggly and filled with pitched-up vocals and helium synthesizers, I still find it hard to believe that stuff that sounded like “Flash Light” was, for a decade or so, the gold standard of authenticity for black American music. Heck, even Rick James, at the height of his muscled cokehead loverman persona, sounded like he’d just taken a few hits off of a circus balloon. Try pulling that off these days if your name isn’t “Andre 3000.” Check out the haircuts and outfits on the CD sleeve and sense the immense conceptual chasm that separates then and now, when “real” is about the highest compliment you can pay a rap track.

At the same time, this is undoubtedly the real thing: its keyboard bassline both bounces joyfully and provides the song with an unshakable foundation: a gold-plated, glitter-dusted bodymoving guarantee. The lyrics, a hazy, squeaky, blissful back-and-forth about the difficulties involved in getting down, also suggest that the P-Funk crew thought of funk as a tangible physical object, real as anything.  And then there’s the sound: compressed and unbelievably rich, Technicolor for your eardrums. Though the outfits on the album cover suggest that this band was half-cartoon, the production work gives this stuff unbelievable presence, dissolving synthesized bass, guitar, vocal chants and handclaps in a marvelous swirl. Check the vocals at the end of the song — a shimmering, sparkling shout of “under the sun!” It sounds like space gospel, at once soulful and otherworldly. It’s sometimes nice to think of rock records as miniature sonic universes, and given George Clinton’s cosmic perspective, it seems appropriate enough to discuss “Flash Light” as a place made by sound. Everything there is shiny, voluptuous, wiggly and shaggy and yet somehow real as the ground under your feet. I wanna go there.  
A small library’s been written about how Michael Jackson challenged cultural definitions during his long, strange, extraordinarily successful career. Thanks to an enormous personal fortune and the adulation of millions, he moonwalked on the lines that separated male from female, black from white, and normal person from batshit-insane weirdburger.

What always struck me most about him, though, was his apparent ability to challenge the idea that pop music was for teens. I’ve always thought of Michael as sort of a kids’ entertainer: Raffi with a white sequined glove.  This may be because I was in nursery school when Thriller was released and in primary school when he was a certified pop deity. At that time, my family lived overseas in something of a low-media environment, so my first-hand memories of the guy’s musical output are pretty thin. But I do remember a Pepsi commercial in which a kid, who might have been all of ten years old, paid a special, Pepsi-infused visit to his dressing room. Of course, after his trial for child abuse and the least convincing acquittal of all time, all of that seems a bit creepy, and maybe it did then, too.  But it’s also weird that anybody from Pepsi or from Michael’s camp thought that putting Michael and a prepubescent boy together would have been a good idea for any reason. What self-respecting pop star would want to hang out with ten-year-olds, anyway? For all of sixties pop’s aspirations to childhood innocence, I can’t imagine anyone suggesting that the Beatles’ and the Stones’ material was aimed at actual kids. Childlike young adults, maybe, but adults nonetheless.

Actually, I’ve sort of suspected that a great deal of Michael’s audience was always made up of pre-teens. I can’t imagine any actual eighties-era teenagers, who got to witness the AIDS and crack cocaine epidemics firsthand, and came of age after the basic stability of the American family had been called into question, take Michael seriously as one of them. Heck, his portrayal of a streetwise kid caught in a rough neighborhood in “Beat It” is laughably unconvincing, and by the end of the decade he was already looking oddly epicene and walking the line between rock-star flamboyant and just plain strange. A friend of mine told me that when she was in primary school, she and her friends basically considered Michael to be one of them, and that he was a frequent imaginary companion during their recess flights-of-fancy. I suppose the fact that a little white girl from the Detroit suburbs could imagine that she was peer to an unimaginably wealthy and popular black dude in his twenties is a testament to the imaginative power of pop music, but she found it effortlessly easy.

I can imagine that Michael would be gratified — for all the wrong reasons — to learn that he used to be my friend’s Peter Pan figure, but I’ve got to admit that it fits. Listen to him babble about a force that’s "got a lot of power” at the beginning of “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” which is actually remembered as one of his more overtly sexual performances. Artists have, of course, resorted to baby talk to tease their listeners, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on here: Michael really does sound like a kid, powerful force notwithstanding. Heck, listen to him  banter with Paul McCartney on “The Girl is Mine.” It isn’t difficult to believe that we’re hearing the voice of a man who has never, ever thought about girls in a sexual manner. I don’t know what Paul, who must’ve been in his forties by then, made of the experience, but I’d be creeped out by having to pretend to fight over a girl with a guy still so obviously stuck in his own childhood.

And so that brings us to “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” which is still the only Michael Jackson song that I’ll admit to liking. For all of Thriller’s socio-cultural significance and record-obliterating popularity, I suspect that I’ve got the same problem with it that a lot of the eighties-era indie/punk types that I grew to revere had with it: it sounds processed to within an inch of its life, a musical product encased in cling film and Styrofoam. “Don’t Stop” has the same problems, though they’re less pronounced. Still, though the baseline is both warm and memorable, and the violins are lush, and Michael’s falsetto is impressive and the “ooooohhh!” he lets loose before he gets into the lyrics is magnificent, the song sounds like it was assembled instead of recorded. It sounds like all of these elements were recorded in different rooms, and even the party noises that come in during the song’s second half, which should lend some human presence to the proceedings, come off as calculated. It was, as Pitchfork suggests, an effect that a lot of big-time musicians would strive for in the eighties, but, debates about artifice in pop music quite aside, I’m not too sure that listeners were really better off for it. Oh, Michael Jackson, look what you’ve done!

Potential First Lines to my Debut Novel #1

"I am scared of strap-ons."

Hat tip to Kt

Saul Bellow "Herzog"

I think that "Herzog" is a fine novel, but I also think that it's a tough book to love, or even to like. I imagine that there are a lot of readers who aren't going to be too interested in exploring the myriad neuroses of a depressed, self-involved nearly broke middle-aged Jewish intellectual with two ex-wives. Herzog is a deeply flawed character, and there's a lot about him, like his abiding grudge against his second ex-wife and her new lover, which might not be redeemable. Also, the book lacks what most people would call a plot: we witness the main character walk around New York, take a trip to Martha's Vineyard, and drive around Chicago, but this one makes "Mrs. Dalloway" look tightly plotted and full of action. As he wanders, Herzog, reminisces, berates himself and others, considers the state of the modern world in knotty paragraphs peppered with five-dollar words, and writes a lot of letters he'll never send. The book even lacks much of an emotional arc. Baggy and formless as it sometimes seems, Bellow resists the urge to tie all of the strands of his character's life together too neatly in the novel's last pages, and I imagine that many readers will find this anticlimactic. "Herzog" is, by turns, boring, spellbinding, exacting and diffuse. It makes Phillip Roth look like beach reading.

Somehow, though, I think that Herzog is a very worthwhile book, perhaps even an essential book, though perhaps not for the reasons its author intended. Bellow is, first of all, a fantastic writer at the sentence level. This isn't to say that his writing is traditionally beautiful or lyrical: these adjectives often don't apply to his prose. But I think it's clear that he managed to develop an absolutely unmistakable voice. There is such a thing as a "Bellow sentence," and maybe saying that a writer's bent the language they work in into an uncontestably unique shape is the highest compliment that you can pay a writer. Not coincidentally, Bellow is also very, very good at what one might call the small stuff: tiny physical details, the often ignored rituals of everyday life, descriptions of buildings and clothes and skylines. It would be easy, I suppose, to call Herzog a pre-feminist troglodyte, and he certainly is a grouch, if a grouch who has certain grandly romantic tendencies. But sixty years or so after it was first written, the novel might be considered a perfectly preserved image of middle-class life in America in the middle years of the twentieth century. It's all extraordinarily vivid, and Bellow takes the same meticulous care in describing his character's attitudes and expectations as he does describing the minutia of his daily life. His intellectual digressions, too, might be taken by some readers to be the products of a disorganized, overeducated mind, and in some sense, they are. But I also think that Bellow took the time to bury this book's themes very deeply indeed. There is, underneath all of this verbiage, a genuine meditation about how, or if, one can remain human in an increasingly dangerous and pitiless modern world. Moses Herzog is full of personality quirks, and not all of these are exactly pleasant, but he is also a man of his era, an iconic character despite himself.

"Herzog" might also be considered as a series of expertly rendered brief interviews with hideous people: during the few days whose events are described here, Herzog spends time with many of the individuals who are most important to him. We meet his stepmother, his brother, some of his friends, his lawyer. Some of these scenes are amusing and others are sad, but, reading them, you might easily come to the conclusion that Bellow's got "it," the gift of making fiction seem real and human. Even as one recognizes many of these characters as Jewish-American "types," one emerges from the book feeling that one has actually met them. That's a rare talent, and one that can't be learned in writing workshops. And maybe that's the best reason to read "Herzog," it proves, as D.H. Lawrence did, that the products of literary genius aren't always neat or admirable. Challenging and often frustrating, but also recommendable.

Song #19: Gloria Gaynor "I Will Survive"

After getting so much enjoyment out of that Thelma Houston track, I thought that maybe the revisionists had it right: maybe the seventies-era backlash against disco should be considered one of popular culture's great injustices, a straight, white, suburban rockist reaction to a music whose values and style mullet-wearing country-rock dudes couldn't understand. And then I revisited Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" and wondered if maybe there wasn't a grain of truth hiding inside every stereotype. I still think "I Will Survive" is an awful tune.

"I Will Survive" is part of popular music's lizard brain, one of the songs you have to have heard -- whose lyrics you can more-or-less recite -- even if you've never gone out of your way to listen to it. Songs in this category -- think The Beatles "Yesterday" or, regrettably Smash Mouth's "All Star" -- always get to you. They'll invae your headspace though  movie soundtrack, a commercial, or taxi's radio. They figure prominently among life's most annoying little inevitabilities. I'd bet that people who profess to loathe disco music and won't even dance at weddings know that Gloria's got all her life to live and all her love to give. According to The Pitchfork 500, some gay and black audiences took it as an inspiration, a declaration that they'd make it through life's hardest challenges without giving up their capacity for joy. For most others, it's probably one of those songs you can only appreciate ironically, like the Village People's "YMCA."  And I think I can understand both of these reactions: Ms. Gaynor's performance here is admirably forthright, she asserts her self-worth and her will to make it through without holding anything back, and you can take that either as a rallying cry or as a nugget of overly earnest camp. But the song's determination to go right to the heart of things is also, for me, the song's weakness. In a sense, there's nothing in "I Will Survive" but Gloria and her story: the strings, the obviously programmed beat, the horns that answer her retelling of a breakup gone bad and then overcome, the bassline that merely follows the melody established by the lyrics, are just a less-than interesting backdrop for her brassy declarations. It's a disco song, and probably designed for the dance floor, but "I Will Survive" might not be a dance song in the truest sense: it's probably easier to sing along with Gloria than to actually move to it. It's an all-out diva moment: Gloria and her story are front and center, and I can imagine a lot of people, perhaps the sort of people who identify strongly with the artists they listen to and enjoy play-acting lines from their favorite songs in the privacy of their bedrooms, like that. But I'm not one of them.

I'll admit that most popular music lyrics are bad poetry and that they're "open," meaning that they allow their listeners to identify with the experiences they describe and, ultimately, with the songs themselves. While I appreciate the way that pop music can insinuate itself into its fans' lives in a way that most "high art" doesn't, I'm wary of what might be called "therapy songs," songs so obviously about psychological survival or dealing with life's challenges that they come off as four-minute therapy sessions for people who can't afford to see an actual talk therapist. Ashlee Simpson's execrable "Shadow" is probably the worst offender in this category.  I often wonder if a good percentage of contemporary hip-hop, once you get past all the trap talk and references to sex and gunplay, is a self-esteem building motivational speech for people who wouldn't be caught dead at a weekend seminar. And so "I Will Survive" is just a bit too naked and artless for my taste: I mean, c'mon, the point of the song is right there in the title! And it's the first line of the chorus! Oh, man. Gloria: I'm glad that you made it. But I still think that there there are much better hymns to perseverance out there. Heck, some of them are probably even disco songs. Can't we dance to those instead? 

Amazing Fact #2

Buenos Aires is home to both Club Eros (Uriarte 1609) and a Café Eros (Cabildo 2700), yet neither of these establishments is a sleazy swinger's joint or an unwelcoming, half-abandoned sex shop.

Disco got vilified by rock-and-rollers as music for vapid, party-going cokehead types, but Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way" is the sort of song that could change people's minds. In fact, it makes me wonder exactly where the line between disco and the funk that preceded it really was. The song's hi-hats sound programmed, but the rest of the drumming sounds live enough, and its bassline is, like the best disco dancers, agile and pleasantly fat-bottomed. (If Daft Punk hasn't already copped the walk it takes up and down the fretboard at about 2:49, they should get right on that.)  The gilded strings and the proto-synth that sneaks in during the song's last third sound closer to what the genre is supposed to sound like, but at no point does "Don't Leave Me This Way" come off as robotic dancefloor filler. "Don't Leave Me This Way" is unmistakably human.

A lot of that has to do with Ms. Houston herself, whose vocals complement, but never try to match, the song's tempo, and lending an edge of vulnerability to a performance that is otherwise bursting with enthusiasm and self-confidence. She also gets the opportunity to hit a world-class, backing vocal-assisted money note at 1:09 and handles it like a pro. "Don't Leave Me This Way" is a masterpiece of controlled emotionalism: Thelma sounds both sincere in her lover's plea and completely unruffled. Even if her ex does leave her flat, I'm pretty sure that it wouldn't ruin her party.

Good First Lines #1

"One never knows when the blow may fall."

-- The Third Man by Graham Greene


(n.) frustration, anger, or aggression directed inward, toward oneself and one's way of living

Surce: otherwordly.com