May 28, 2014

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3 Songs: “Disney Derived” Edition

I make absolutely no secret that I’m a little bit obsessed with certain aspects of Disney. I grew up during the Renaissance of the 90’s, have read books specifically about the Michael Eisner years at the company, and have spent more than one hike talking about why, despite all the problems and the issues and the nauseating amounts of money they throw around, I still have so much love in my heart for the animated canon. Even when I’m not actually a fan of the film itself, I can usually appreciate the story behind it—and make no mistake, there are lots of stories.

Music has always been a fundamental part of the Disney animated canon. Whether they were Greek chorus-style narration like “Second Star to the Right” or full-blown Broadway-style musicals like Beauty and the Beast, Disney has always recruited some of the best and brightest to write their music—and in this age of remakes and remixes, the original version rarely stands alone. As we emerge, bleary-eyed, from this past winter’s “Let it Go” obsession, here are three Disney covers and derivatives that I personally adore. I’m not counting the pop covers that came standard with every new film release, firstly because this is my site and I make the rules, and secondly because almost every single one of them was awwwwwwwwwwwful. No one ever needs to be reminded of Celine Dion’s butchering of “Beauty and the Beast.”

IM5 and Todrick Hall – “Disney Dudez”

I confess that this post came around entirely because I rewatched this video twice today. I watch it a lot. The ridiculously cute members of IM5 play various Disney princes who are dumped by their lady counterparts (played by each member in drag, which is amazing); the resultant song is a mashup of not only the pertinent Disney songs from each prince’s film, but also samples hits like “My Girl”, “I Want You Back”, and “What Makes You Beautiful”–which, incidentally, shows just how much these guys should be famous instead of OneDirection. This song and video are just a huge joy in every way, and I love it without shame–even if the blonde kid who plays Cinderella’s Prince looks a little too much like Prince Joffrey from GoT. Still, I totally have these guys on my wish list for guest stars on Particles and Waves.

Howard Ashman – “Beauty and the Beast”

Leaping off from that last point I made in the introduction, there is a good cover of the award-winning title song to Disney’s crown jewel film, and it comes from an incredibly humble place: the lyricist himself, singing on an album called, aptly enough, Howard Sings Ashman.

Here I need to go into a little bit of history, and reveal myself as a member of an obscenely tiny group of people who believe that the Disney Renaissance died with Howard Ashman in 1991, barely two and a half films in (SorryNotSorry, Lion King fans). The story goes that, while The Little Mermaid was still being storyboarded, Ashman casually suggested giving the stuffy English butler crab character a Jamaican accent—that way they could incorporate some calypso into the music. The rest is history; when Mermaid catapulted the nearly-bankrupt Disney company back up to the top and “Under the Sea” won an Oscar for Best Song, Ashman and Menken became a key part of the company’s next feature. But as the animation process began, the artists became a little confused as to why they were being flown out to New York to work with Ashman instead of him coming to their Burbank studios. The answer, tragically, was that Ashman had been diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1988, and had progressed to full-blown AIDS.

Ashman was always an extraordinary talented lyricist; give a hard listen to “Under the Sea” or “Belle” and you will find yourself in awe of his ability to twist words so wittily. Beauty and the Beast was his baby; he was the one who suggested that the inanimate objects in the Beast’s castle become anthropomorphic characters (which lead to the show-stopping “Be Our Guest”), amongst other contributions which earned him a producer credit. In March of 1991, producers held a test screening for the half-finished Beauty and the Beast at a New York film festival. While not completely coloured or animated, the print allowed the critics to focus on the musical sequences, and they responded with overwhelming applause. The Disney producers rushed to Ashman’s bedside that night, describing the incredible good press, and said their goodbyes; he died four days later, and never saw the finished release of the work that now carries his dedication in its credits. As a coda to his tale, the Disney execs arranged for Ashman’s life partner, Bill Lauch, to accept Ashman’s Oscar for Best Song posthumously–in 1992. For all that the company has struggled with acknowledging LGBT issues and characters, their work with Ashman was never anything but respectful, professional, and overwhelmingly kind, at a time when the AIDS crisis was still a major point of controversy.

Howard Ashman’s final story never fails to bring me to tears, and so to hear him singing the title track from Beauty and the Beast—my favourite animated film of all time—is both haunting and comforting. This is the man whose lyrics I eventually got tattooed on my ribs; they have permeated my childhood and remain tremendously important to me to this day.


Marilyn Manson – This is Halloween

I want to meet the person who went to Manson and successfully got him to cover a Disney song. I further want to shake his or her hand, because this is the most flawless pairing of song and singer I have ever heard in my entire life.

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May 13, 2014

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3 Songs: “Evil Little Ditty” Edition

WIN_20140513_113648I’m writing this 3 Songs post at my parents’ house, where I’m visiting for a few days because they got a brand new kitten named Solomon and he’s the cutest thing on the goddamn planet. He is a big ball of fearless, funny energy, and as I write this he’s currently exploring the basement furniture and attacking all the shoes he can find. Every so often he gets lost and sorta screech-chirp-cries until I go find him.

But I digress. If you want more kitten photos and video, my twitter feed is stuffed with Vine videos and pictures because I am obnoxious that way. This post is meant to discuss a different type of obnoxiousness: the type that occurs when an artist crafts a song that has an incredibly catchy tune, but is paired with abhorrent or offensive or nasty or just uncomfortable lyrics. We had a particularly virulent case of this sort of thing last year, with the incredible popularity of Robin Thicke’s rape-culture-happy “Blurred Lines”; all my friends agreed that the lyrics were disgusting, but they just couldn’t help but love the beat and the rhythm. It may have been the most recent case, but it’s definitely not the first.

Rooney – I Should’ve Been After You

Rooney is a group of California rockers who look and sound uncannily like they should have come from the British Invasion era, right down to the bowl cuts and long eyelashes and crooning vocals. When I first came upon this song, I loved it; it’s catchy and fun, with a lot of energy and a fantastic chorus that I assumed was about a man realizing that the true woman for him was right in front of his eyes the entire time—it’s one of the oldest tropes in the book.
But as I listened more closely, I found that the narrator of the song sounded more and more entitled, until I realized with a start: this dude is a Nice Guy. He’s straight out of a “Worst of OkCupid” Tumblr. This song is about a dude who’s been friendzoned (ugh, that word, it’s nauseating); he goes through all the classic steps. He expresses his frustrations that “It makes no difference / what I do, think, or say / There’s no way to convince you girls / That just ain’t how you play”. He pushes that the girl needs to choose between him or her friends, and then when she rejects he admonishes “Go along with your new boy, / go be a sex toy / I could have been after you.”
It’s sad, because it’s still a very catchy song and I like it a lot for the melody. But I wish the subject matter wasn’t such a mess of male privilege; it hurts my feminist heart.

Scissor Sisters – I Can’t Decide

Is it a metaphor for a breakup? A piece of American Psycho-esque black sitire? It might be. But as it stands, this incredibly catchy fun song is nonetheless about brutally murdering someone in a variety of different ways. It’s darkly funny, sure, but it still makes me a little uncomfortable when I want to sing along out loud.

Meat Loaf – Paradise By the Dashboard Light

I’m frankly surprised I haven’t written about Meat Loaf sooner; Bat Out of Hell is, without shame, one of my favourite rock albums of the 70’s. He taps into my love of theatrical music, forming a nice counterbalance to the low-key indie rock that I usually listen to. And “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” is one of the true masterpieces of Bat Out of Hell, an eight-and-a-half minute ode to the classic American experience of losing one’s virginity in a car. The first part of the song is mostly Loaf, convincing his lady love to go all the way, and after an extended and brilliant baseball commentary interlude, just before the “home run” (as it were) Ellen Foley screeches “Stop right there!” and demands eternal and undying love, or else no sex. Meat Loaf gives in, because he’s horny, and the song concludes with both parties “praying for the end of time” because now they’re stuck together in a relationship and miserable.

I love this song, but god, its views on women and sex are fucked right the hell up. Young women in North America are fed tons of lies, half-truths, whispers and warnings about sex, and losing one’s virginity is a big fucking deal for a girl; it’s implied that if you don’t choose the right man then you’re ruined forever. Many girls feel they can only ever have the one partner, and since teenage hormones often override the intention to wait until marriage, these sorts of situations are all too common. The perspective of the song paints the female voice as a shrewish, demanding, unrealistic bitch who uses sex as a bargaining chip to get what she wants. It paints the man as the victim, emasculated by the mysterious powers of vagina. It’s a reductive viewpoint that does no one any favors when it comes to having a healthy sex life, which should instead be founded on mutual communication, trust, respect, and education.

I absolutely adore “Paradise”, and it’s part of an album that’s full of pubescent sexual mentality and the whole thing is rockin’ awesome. But each time I listen I feel like I need to donate to Planned Parenthood or something. “Paradise By the Dashboard Light”’s sexual viewpoints should be considered historical and not contemporary, and considering the abysmal state of sex ed in certain parts of the U.S., we’ve got a very long way to go before that becomes a reality.

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May 1, 2014

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3 Songs: “5-Car Pileup On the Failway” Edition

For the past two posts, I’ve crossed over from my usual obscure fare and talked about mainstream pop music; first with the stuff I legitimately felt guilty about liking, and then the stuff I love without shame. I was going to go back to my planned schedule for 3 Songs, but it turns out I have even more to say about the stuff I will never ever make you guys sit through on my show.

See, pop songs fall along a continuum of stupidity, and my reaction towards them follows a similar path. There’s the popular-but-well-made stuff, like Adele; there’s a brand new grouping of artists who get called “indie” (to the snobbish amusement of assholes like me), like Imagine Dragons or Fun. There’s the mainstream stuff that everyone likes, and then on the other side of the bell curve things start to get interesting. Pop music is traditionally some of the simplest stuff to write and record, and its stars are more product than person. But the increasingly outrageous celebrity culture in America has caused desperate, deluded, or otherwise deranged musicians to release songs that are almost dadaesque in their atrocity. When pop music goes bad, it goes bad with spectacular insanity.

I’ve been meditating on the notion of these irresistibly awful songs ever since Avril Lavigne released her new music video for “Hello Kitty” last week. I won’t link it here, but if you haven’t heard it, go find it. See how long you can last. I can’t continuously bear that train wreck for more than 45 seconds, but I’ve gone back to the music video a handful of times since my initial viewing. Why? Because despite the fact that I am mortified on Lavigne’s behalf, I’m fascinated by just how much of a clusterfuck the entire venture is, from start to finish.

So today’s 3 songs are more examples of that schedenfreude-driven rubbernecking that I can’t seem to tamp down. I loathe all three of these songs, and I’m sure you will too. It’s not even like “Blurred Lines” was for some people, where they liked the melody but hated the lyrics; I hate everything about these songs, but they repulse me in such a way that I can’t not look at them.

Courtney Stodden – Reality

I’m not usually a reality TV or tabloid fan, but I’ve been a little bit obsessed with Courtney Stodden ever since she burst onto the scene a few years ago. She wasn’t a Laguna Beach alum or even a Teen Mom; Stodden was famous because she married a 51-year-old D-list actor while she was only sixteen. Courtney and her hubby Doug Hutchinson were the best sort of tabloid train wrecks: absolute lunatics with no connection to reality, convinced of their own importance and totally incapable of feeling shame. The oversexed Courtney celebrated her eighteenth birthday by getting several plastic surgery procedures, creating this music video for “Reality”, and then filing for divorce—and trying to get into porn (hilariously, porn said thanks but no thanks). “Reality” isn’t as offensive musically as the other two songs in this post, but it entrances me as the nadir of a girl’s delusions, fueled by money and sex and the promise of fame. It’s almost profound in its shallowness—but then she starts writhing around in pigtails against a backdrop of candy.

Cher Lloyd – Swagger Jagger

This Brit X Factor contestant is just something else. Words genuinely fail. She samples motherfucking “O My Darling Clementine”. I watch this video and feel like I have to challenge this whippersnapper to a cool-music-walkoff or something. I feel better because it reaffirms that I’m an adult with adult tastes. I just…goddamn watch this, it’s like a day at the circus for free.

Avril Lavigne – Girlfriend

Yeah, this isn’t the first time that Avril’s pulled this shit. After her relatively mature sophomore album Under My Skin (which I genuinely don’t mind), Lavigne seemed to be growing out of her punk-princess Sk8erboi phase. Then came 2007’s Best Damn Thing, in which she ran right back into her immature high school rebel role, slammed the door, and never ever came back out. Best Damn Thing‘s lead single, “Girlfriend”, was just a cavalcade of tired cliches, by a woman who was already too old to be singing about it. But nonetheless I’ve watched the music video a whole bunch of times, because, like Cher Lloyd above, I look at Avril and think man, she is trying so hard to be cool, it’s a little adorable. I am so glad that people like Stars, The New Pornographers, and Emily Haines came around, because it proved that Canadian women could make amazing music. The world moved on, Canada moved on, and Avril Lavigne has stayed exactly where she was when she debuted at eighteen. One of us is winning at life, and it isn’t the girl dancing in a school bathroom set.

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Apr 30, 2014

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3 Songs: “Guilty Pleasures I’m Not Really Guilty About” edition

In my last post, I talked about some of the songs I’m legitimately embarrassed to love. This post has no such pretensions of shame; these three songs are just freakin’ fantastic.

Christina Aguilera – Candyman

Christina Aguilera has worn a lot of hats in her time—bubblegum pop princess, sultry vixen, robot, reality show host—but it was extraordinarily refreshing to see her transformation from Dirty to Back to Basics in 2006. The Xtina who humped a water hose during an (ostensibly) pro-woman anthem was gone, replaced by a jazzy, classy lady perfectly suited to wield that belt-happy voice. “Candyman” was a huge hit, and with good reason. I love it because it uses the aesthetics of WWII-era girl-group pop, which is such a rare and refreshing nostalgic throwback. That particular Boogie-Woogie-Bugle-Boy thing always gets points with me, and Aguilera absolutely nailed it at every turn—the Andrews Sisters-style harmonizing, the horn section, the scat-solo vocal bridge, the military cadence backing track, and especially the music video.

Mika – Grace Kelly

Okay, so picture this: you’re at the movies, at the IMAX to be exact, sometime in 2007. After the onslaught of ads and pre-film filler (Guess the actor! It’s always Tom Hanks!), the lights go dark and the screen comes to life with images of a whimsical party, driven by an infectiously energetic piano hook. A young man with tousled brown hair and a supermodel pout steps up to the microphone and begins to sing a catchy pop tune—and then, as the song shifts into its chorus, he opens up his mouth and belts in a falsetto that sounds e-fucking-xactly like Freddie Mercury.

Such was my initial experience of British pop star Mika: the music video for “Grace Kelly”, randomly tossed on the IMAX pre-film reel. I went out and bought the entire album, and it remains in my collection to this day. Listening to Mika’s music feels like being bombarded by a bunch of very excited 10-year-old rainbows; he’s not subtle in the slightest, but he’s also a shameless and earnest embodiment of everything pop music should be. I still listen to “Grace Kelly” because it’s a reminder that, despite what every understated indie folk group would have you think—music is supposed to be joyously, simply, unironically fun.

P!nk – Funhouse

P!nk (fuck it, Pink) has managed to maintain a fairly consistent level of rebelliousness throughout her decade-plus career and still make pretty damn good music. Where Avril Lavigne’s teenage look-at-me-I’m-wearing-a-tie angle got ridiculous as soon as she became old enough to rent a car, Pink has graduated successfully from teenage quasi-punk to your cool Harley-riding aunt, and maintains a sense of humor about herself that allows her to recover more easily from her failures. The title track from her 2008 release, which came after her separation from husband Cory Hart, was full of anger and woman-scorned wrath as only our lady of Missundaztood can do. It’s got energy and bounce while still being emotionally honest, and it’s accompanied by a pitch-perfect music video featuring a piano-playing cameo by No Doubt’s Tony Kanal. Can’t go wrong with a burned-out house crawling with creepy masked weirdos; it’s the very definition of catharsis.

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Apr 24, 2014

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3 Songs: “Cheesecake Brownie” Edition

There are some guilty pleasures that I’ll cop to without shame. I’ve seen every episode of American Dad, for instance. Or—here’s a good one—somewhere in my CD files, I still own the ska-filled soundtrack to the Digimon Movie. With the digi-rap. I’m not even kidding.

But there are also guilty pleasures I actually feel guilty about. I call these cheesecake brownies, because while you know they’re awful in every conceivable way, you just can’t say no. And because I apparently do not worry about ruining my reputation as a credible music snob, here are three of my truly guilty pleasure songs.

We Are Young
Once upon a time I actually owned 3OH!3’s first album, mostly because a guy I had a crush on liked them and I was 20 and that’s what 20-year-olds do. The two dudebros behind 3OH!3 are almost pathologically stupid—for proof, just look at how many times they’ve collaborated with Ke$ha, never mind the fact that their biggest hit is both sexist and ableist—but “We Are Young,” the first single from their sophomore release, has just the right drum beat to appeal to the part of me that still thinks like a dance choreographer. That’s actually a common theme in a lot of my guilty pleasures, including the next one:

Safety Dance (Glee Version)
Oh, gawd, I KNOW. I know. Believe me. I’m a music critic, a pop culture scholar, and have been a member of actual choirs since the tenth grade; I know Glee is fucking ridiculous. But the first season was a legitimately fun little exercise in jukebox musicals, and I downloaded the songs from each week’s show just like everyone else. While I eventually abandoned the majority of those homogenized kidz-bop covers, the Kevin McHale-helmed version of The Safety Dance remained. I love the original—who doesn’t?—but the Glee take on it is snappier, less minimalistic, and just a little bit quicker in tempo, and conveys a truly joyful sense of energy. I still plan to choreograph a dance piece to this version, and I don’t care what anyone says; it may be Glee, but they did this one right.

Rockin’ the Suburbs (Over the Hedge version)
The original Rockin’ the Suburbs is a scathing and on-point criticism of privileged white guys, because Ben Folds is actually a pretty talented lyricist. It calls out the hypocrisy of the misery bemoaned by the upper-middle class, who have so much more going for them but are always the first (and loudest) to complain when things don’t go their way. Then Folds rewrote it, and several of his other songs, for a shitty Dreamworks movie that starred William Shatner.

The new version of Rockin’ the Suburbs is just as homogenized as you’d expect; instead of blistering social commentary on privilege (ya’ll don’t know what it’s like / being male, middle class and white) it’s far cutesier in precisely that Dreamworks way, where it’s not offensively stupid but can’t possibly be intelligent (Don’t freak about the smoke alarm / Mom left the TV dinner on).

Then, at around 2:15, something magical happens. Because that’s when The Shatner Himself appears on the track, and segues into an absolutely brilliant monologue that perfectly captures the passive-aggressiveness of suburban neighbourhood life. For over a minute and a half we get to listen to Captain Kirk talk about house plans, mowing the lawn, and anger management classes, and it’s just fucking amazing, I can’t even. It’s worth every second of pop blandness that surrounds it.

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Apr 22, 2014

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3 Songs: “We Came From the Internet” Edition

I, like most people, get a lot of my music from the internet. This was especially true before I became a radio host; nowadays I’m able to access an overwhelming amount of fantastic new albums thanks to CFUV’s library, but before that my music discovery process usually involved an internet radio site and the Shuffle button. The quality of suggestions varied depending on the sites; Grooveshark, Last.FM, and 8Tracks are all okay, but usually not much more than that. I maintain that Spotify has the best radio algorithm out of every possible service, but it’s tough to access in Canada.

The point is that I’ve found a lot of music via our beloved series of tubes. Here’s three of them.

Nebulullaby – Sean Lennon and Charlotte Muhl
This song comes from a collaboration project by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his hitRECord site. I joined up hoping to work with some people and instead ended up incredibly intimidated. But I found this gorgeous, gorgeous song, with its equally twee music video, and I’ve loved it ever since. How can you not? The astronomy subject alone is outstanding, but the fact that the video references Georges Melies just catapults it into favourite song territory.

One of my first Spotify finds. It’s a peppy, fun little song that’s completely pretentious, but in the best way. It was available on the Suicide Kitteh karaoke listings when I went to Seattle, so you know it’s Hipster certified. And I say that with all the love in the world.

Walter Reed – Michael Penn
In my first year of university I used a music streaming/discovery service that had a minimalist interface and pink lettering. I have no recollection of what it’s called—-it’s not Hype Machine, it’s not, it’s not I really don’t know—but I remember that my username was ‘Elphaba’ and that I discovered this song there. It was one of the first I put exclusively on my brand-new iPod, and was never burned to a mix CD. It’s not the most memorable of songs, necessarily, but I like the flow of the melody.

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