Sunday, November 25, 2018

"The Way It Is": Yuppie Rock Even A West Coast Gangsta Could Love

Though they certainly tried, when it came to '80s Guilt Rock, I don't know if Phil Collins, Bono, Don Henley et al. ever topped Bruce Hornsby & the Range's "The Way It Is."

In December of 1986, two weeks after Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name" peaked at #1 on the US Billboard charts, and one week after Peter Cetera and Amy Grant hit the pole position with "The Next Time I Fall," Bruce Hornsby & the Range topped that very same chart with "The Way It Is." If I may, allow me to share with you the extremely fun, sexy, feel-good, party 'til you drop lyrics  of "The Way It Is":
Standing in line, marking time
Waiting for the welfare dime
'Cause they can't buy a job
The man in a silk suit hurries by
And as he catches a poor old lady's eye
Just for fun he says
"Get a job"

That's just the way it is
Some things will never change
That's just the way it is
Ah, but don't you believe them

Said hey little boy
You can't go where the others go
'Cuz you don't look like they do
Said hey old man
How can you stand to think that way
And did you really think about it
Before you made the rules
He said, son

That's just the way it is
Some things will never change
That's just the way it is
Ah, but don't you believe them

Well they passed a law in '64
To give those who ain't got a little more
But it only goes so far
Because the law don't change another's mind
When all it sees at the hiring time
Is the line on the color bar
Geez. Can you say "buzzkill"? Somebody wasn't doing enough coke at the strip club that week.

I love cracking jokes about vapid hair metal and pre-packaged dance-pop as much as the next '80s music blogger, but every once in a while, you know, I've got to give the '80s listening public a little bit of credit. Because how did this song become a #1 hit? There's not a single deployment of the word "baby" in it, let alone "babe," "girl," or even "honey." Here's a word that should have automatically disqualified it from receiving significant radio play: "welfare." He says "welfare." On a hit single! The label should have, like, bleeped it out or something. Oh, and on top of that, he's sprinkling these absurdly jazzy piano solos all over the place. It's like if Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett decided to go electro-pop. I'll give Hornsby this much: if his goal was to scale the charts, he sure didn't make it easy on himself.

On the other hand, I can see why the song became a hit. It became a hit ... because good lord, it's catchy. Who gives a crap about all the depressing socio-political mumbo jumbo he's singing about? Listen to that piano riff! I was six years old when the song came out, and even though most of the subject matter undoubtedly flew right over my brilliant (for six) little head, you better believe I was singing along. Talk about a toe-tapping groove. And Hornsby's voice doesn't croak and wheeze like Dylan or Leonard Cohen or somebody who obviously only got a record deal on the strength of their lyricism. He sounds like yer average soft rock crooner. It's a death trap.

In fact, "The Way It Is" sounds for all the world like an '80s "comeback" hit from a former '60s superstar, not the second single from an artist's debut album. Granted, Hornsby was roughly 30 years old at the time, but he somehow managed to come across as if he'd already released fifteen records and was still recovering from the bad acid he'd dropped at Watkins Glen. It's a little unclear to me exactly who the "Range" were, as the instrumentation seems to consist of Hornsby's fluttering piano and eight brand new synthesizers. (Side note: who names their band "the Range"? People cannot be a "range." Range, as in open countryside, where the deer and the antelope play, right? And doesn't your band have to be plural? You can't be "Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker." Or maybe he meant the kitchen appliance. Maybe their original name was "Bruce Hornsby and the Hot Plate.")

Now I'm as sharp as they come, but I have to admit that the last verse has never made complete sense to me, and it seems like it was intended to be this powerful, emotionally affecting verse, so the fact that I've never understood it ... has always irked me. What, precisely, is a "color bar"? Aren't those the blocky graphics you see when your TV isn't working right? That's probably not what he's talking about. Maybe he's referring to a line on a job application where the applicant is asked to state his or her "color"? Now, I don't know what job applications looked like in the '80s, but I'm fairly certain this is illegal in 2018 (applications might ask for "ethnicity" but not "color" - if even that). I think his point is that bias still persists among employers even though the law has rendered "explicit" bias illegal, but if so, I'm not sure he made it terribly clear. AMG's William Ruhlmann describes the song as "a brave if somewhat clumsily written attack on the heartless right-wing politics of the mid-'80s ... The boldness of the statement and the lovely piano theme more than compensate for the awkward writing ..." OK, cool, so it's not just me then!

One line I think I do understand is the last line of the chorus. In the verses, Hornsby lists several socio-economic situations that sound bleak and hopeless, and then, in the chorus, at first he seems to suggest apathy, but it turns out that he's merely been parroting other people's apathy, because his own stance is, "Ah, but don't you believe them." That line really turns the whole song around. You know what? I'm with Hornsby on this one. Change is slow, change is stubborn, but that doesn't mean that "some things never change." In fact, a sure-fire way to guarantee that something unpleasant will never change is to declare that "it'll never change." Let me whip out a little MLK here: "The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. Bee-otch."

He probably didn't say that last part.

But I know who probably thought he did. Before I explored rap in earnest, I would always come across writers who described Tupac as some sort of "socially conscious" gangsta rapper. When I eventually sat down and listened to Me Against the World and All Eyez On Me, well ... if I squinted and tilted my head, I could sorta kinda see two or three songs that seemed to address "social issues," but compared to, say, Public Enemy or Ice Cube, he seemed like weak tea to me. I guess Death Row was merely waiting 'til he croaked (the dead no longer needing to constantly maintain a "bad ass thug incapable of sensitive introspection" image) to release some of his more thoughtful work.

Wait a second, is that a sample of ...? Oh yeah. That's right. Tupac took Bruce Hornsby to the ghetto. Can I see the members of the Range put their hands in the air and wave 'em like they just don't care? One, two, three and to the f'oh, Bruce Hornsby & the Range is at the d'oh, ready to make an entrance so back on up, 'cause you know they 'bout to ... rip that piano up? Notice how, when a '90s rapper chose to sample a political song from the '80s, he didn't sample a track from some polemical indie band like the Minutemen or Minor Threat that rock critics were drooling over; he sampled Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is." Because hey, that was the kind of white "political" rock that actually made its way to his neighborhood! Black inner city kids probably weren't listening to SST Records.

One "change" I never quite understood about "Changes" is why Pac (or his posthumous production team) altered the chorus of "The Way It Is" from "Some things'll never change" to "Things'll never be the same." Isn't Tupac's whole point that, actually, so many things (the War on Drugs, black-on-black crime, the disproportionate amount of black men in prison) are still the same? What does Tupac's disembodied ghost have to say about this thematic inconsistency? Of course, there are those who claim he's been dead for 20 years. Ah, but don't you believe them.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

"One More Try"? More Like "Let's Film This Video In Only One Try"

Minimalism. It worked for Hemingway. It worked for Beckett. It worked for every cross-legged Japanese monk who ever jotted down a haiku in a bucolic spring garden. But what their brands of minimalism were clearly lacking ... was stubble.

"One More Try" is '80s pop music stripped to its barren, brutal core. There is nowhere to hide, no relief from the endless onslaught of Michaelian passion. All must bow to the unadorned intensity of the piece. "One More Try" is like George Michael's version of "In the Air Tonight" ... but sexier. It's George, an organ, a drum machine, and God, alone in a room, face to face, battling it out for the sanctity of one man's soul. And the drum machine is arguably winning.

Imagine the conversation at the record company when George handed this one in. "Nice George, it's really lovely, killer demo, so ... what's the final version going to sound like?"

"This is the final version."

Jaw, meet floor.

And it's nearly six minutes long! He practically dares the listener to lose patience. But I'm with you Georgie Boy, I'm with you to the bitter end. Frankly, when I was a kid, I probably did find this song a bit boring, but when I was a kid I also ate uncooked Top Ramen noodles with the MSG-laden flavor mix sprinkled in between the crevices, so what the fuck did I know? I'll tell you what I didn't know: I didn't know what true heartbreak was. Actually, even now I'm not sure I know what true heartbreak is. But what I know is that George knows.

I also know this: "One More Try" couldn't have skated by on such a sparse arrangement if it hadn't been, at its core, a fundamentally well-structured composition. Sure, production-wise, it sounds like a hit from 1988, but compositionally, this sucker could have been a hit in 1968. Think of what Otis Redding or Etta James might have done with it on a muggy summer night at Muscle Shoals. Do I even detect a little Pachelbel's "Canon In D" in the chord progression? Screw 1968; it could've even been a hit in 1688. Like the never-ending "Canon," "One More Try" circles and circles and circles without ever seeming capable of resolving its underlying tension, as a wary, bruised George pleads desperately with a potential new lover that he just isn't ready to love again, damn it, oh, fine, what the hell. Indeed, when the backing slows to an agonizing crawl in those last few seconds and George finally finds it within himself to open his wounded heart to humanity once more, it's like one of those moments at the end of a Bresson film; as with Michel in his jail cell at the end of Pickpocket, or the donkey in the field at the end of Au Hasard Balthazar, one senses all discord finally turning to harmony, and the work reaches an unexpected but entirely logical state of grace (sheesh, I'm starting to sound like Professor Higglediggle here). Note, also, that the very last lines are the only time George even sings the title of the song. He could have called it "Ain't No Joy For An Uptown Boy," but that wouldn't have quite captured the mood of the piece, I suppose.

Of course, Pachelbel and Bresson don't exactly ooze sultry R&B vibes. I can sit here and tell you how soulful "One More Try" is, but don't take my word for it: in addition to hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, it also, somehow, some way, topped the Billboard R&B chart. And George Michael was many things, but one of those many things was not black. Look out, Hall & Oates.

I guess George was feeling cocky at this point, because when it came time to shoot the video, he decided to make it even more minimalist than the song itself. As the camera fades up, we find George sitting pensively in a dusty room, obscured in shadow, with a ghostly light pouring in through two stained glass windows behind him. And then the camera holds that shot. And holds it. And holds it.

And it's mesmerizing.

You can't turn away! There's not a single cut, and yet one feels an entire narrative of longing, doubt, regret, and hesitation unfolding before one's eyes. The viewer doesn't even get treated to a close-up of his singing, bearded visage until the 2:47 mark. Now that's balls. It probably took them about twenty minutes to film the video, and about ten minutes to edit it. I'll bet half the budget simply went to George's makeup. And why is there so much dust in the room? Did they think about vacuuming? Or maybe they could have just opened up one of those stained glass windows, you know, let a little air in. Wait. Maybe that grey haze is supposed to be George's aura. And why are the love seat and the floor covered with sheets? Is George squatting in someone else's posh London apartment? No, I've got it: they were trying to protect the upholstery from his continually dripping sexiness. Professor Higglediggle's analysis:
The boldly static image that opens the piece attempts to confront the psychologically dormant and/or sociologically neutered viewer with a (re)contextualized (re)creation of that very dormancy and impotence, partially echoing Warhol's antagonistic, neo-subversive Empire and Sleep, only lacking those works' intangible post-Brakhage elan. The artist's failure/refusal to properly decorate, light, or heat ("I'm so cold inside") his dwelling suggests his nominal inability to live within the capitalist framework of Thatcherite England, although the income generated by his music ironically further propagated the system he sought to oppose. Furthermore, Michael's toothless plea, "Cause teacher, there are things/That I don't want to learn" may be read as ineffective anti-authoritarian posturing, what Barthes referred to as Doxa, as opposed to the preferred Para-Doxa. However, his pseudo-rejection of this educational figure may be refer, in a Lacanian sense, to buried childhood trauma, given that the "last teacher [he] had made [him] cry."