Monday, June 24, 2019

Swede Emotion: The Single-Minded Purity Of Roxette

Oh, to be Roxette.

What a blessing it must have been, what a gift from the gods, to have had one, and only one, ambition in life: to make the proverbial "perfect" pop song. What a psychological load off one's back. So many performers struggle with the weight of social import, or cultural legacy. Roxette just said "Screw all that shit!"

Here is a recording duo that harbored no delusions about their goals, suffered from no misplaced sense of artistic significance, aspired to no heights they could not reach. Roxette once released a compilation titled Don't Bore Us, Get To The Chorus! (a phrase apparently coined by Berry Gordy, a musician also not terribly concerned with the intellectual heft of his work). Has a more inspiring manifesto ever been adopted?

In my old paperback version of the All Music Guide, Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote, in his Roxette bio, "It's tempting to write Roxette off as nothing more than a shallow pop-rock band, but their shameless hooks are precisely what makes them so enjoyable. Roxette has a knack for writing extremely catchy and simple hooks and melodies that are sweet but not saccharine; it's radio-friendly pop, but the hooks don't wear thin with repeated plays." Well, I don't know about the rest of their catalog, but, speaking for myself, I can name you exactly three songs from the duo of Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson whose hooks, I've found, have yet to wear thin. You want to know how thick these hooks are? Let's just say I've licked these particular Tootsie Pops a thousand times, and still haven't reached the center.

In the history of rock, many great lyrics have been composed, but none, I fear, have surpassed the following:
Walking like a man, hitting like a hammer
She's a juvenile scam, never was a quitter
Tasty like a raindrop, she's got the look

Heavenly bound, cause heaven's got her number
When she's spinning me around, kissing is the color
Her loving is a wild dog, she's got the look

Fire in the ice, naked to the t-bone
Is a lover's disguise, banging on the head drum
Shakin' like a mad bull, she's got the look

Swaying to the band, movin' like a hammer
She's a miracle man, lovin' is the ocean
Kissin' is the wet sand, she's got the look
Well, Morrissey, you certainly had a good run, but clearly, by 1989, your time as rock's greatest wordsmith had finally passed. Seriously, what was the concept here? Just string a bunch of evocative phrases together, rap-sing them at a machine gun pace, and pray to Thor (or whatever god the Swedes believe in) that no one notices? Allow me, if I may, to write a few extra verses of Roxette's "The Look":
Itching like a bird, kicking like a cookie
She's a lovable razor, screamin' like a jerky
Fuzzy is a hot dog, she's got the look

Water in the ocean, drinking like a gator
If she moves in time, got to see her later
Heavy like a fire hose, she's got the look
Can I ask you something? How could there possibly be "fire in the ice"? How could "She" be a "miracle man"? Is kissing "the color" or "the wet sand"? Are they "hitting like a hammer" or "movin' like a hammer"? It just doesn't add up people. It just ... doesn't ... add ... up. By the end of the chorus, Roxette have quite obviously cast aside any pretense of effort, the lyrics literally consisting of the phrase, "And I go la la la la la." I want to be angry with them, but they were absolutely right to phone this in. It didn't matter!

The opening guitar lick reminds me of the riff that kicks off the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday"; let's just say that if Roxette were aiming for Bubblegum glory, they couldn't have aimed any higher. The main chord progression is basically "Hey Jude"/"Sympathy for the Devil" but they throw so many rhythmic twists and turns in there that they give that tired progression a fresh new sheen, like a Taco Bell menu item that simply combines the same five familiar ingredients into an unexpectedly arresting shape.

In the liner notes to Don't Bore Us, Get To The Chorus!, Per Gessle describes "Listen to Your Heart" like so: "The Big Bad Ballad. This is us trying to recreate that overblown American FM-rock sound to the point where it almost becomes absurd. We really wanted to see how far we could take it." And just how far could Roxette take it?

Farther than the naked eye can see.

"Listen to Your Heart" is a power ballad so big, it probably ate twelve other power ballads on its way to school. "Listen to Your Heart" is so big, Jupiter and Saturn have to stand on a stool in order to see over it. You're momma's so fat ... But arguably not even the sight of a massive crowd swaying their arms (and sparklers) back and forth inside the ruins of Borgholm Castle on the Swedish Baltic Sea island of Ă–land is a sight epic enough to capture the grandeur of "Listen to Your Heart." You think the "hair metal meets ABBA" guitar solo is big enough? How about the ascending bridge doused with a wall of "ah!" backing vocals? That big enough for you? How about a TUKC where Marie Fredriksson tries to out-do her double-tracked self through two rounds of the chorus? No, sorry, none of those moments really max out the "epic" meter on a song as epic as "Listen to Your Heart." The moment that does that is the moment I would like to call The Pause. Marie appears to have finally pinched the last loaf from her bowel movement ("I don't know where you're goooooo-innnn"), then takes a breath, chills for a couple of bars ("before .... you tell him goodbye"), apparently gets splashed by a wave from the Baltic Sea, and presumably retires for the evening. A listener could reasonably assume that the track is making its way toward the fade-out, as the piano and conga drums rise in the mix. Great job guys, I'm gonna go check the sports scores. Then BLAM. The song blazes for another 90 seconds, Marie returning for a series of soaring encores, like a poop that just keeps spewing out fiery chunks of waste long past the point of logic.

Like Grease, Say Anything, and Dirty Dancing, Pretty Woman is another one of those movies with a target audience that probably does not include me. I have never seen it. It turns out that "It Must Have Been Love" was merely refurbished for Pretty Woman and not written explicitly for it, so I suppose I don't have to resent it on account of that association? Besides, isn't this a bitter ballad about love lost? Is there an unbearably sad scene in the movie where the spirit of this song serves a genuine purpose, or does it simply play on somebody's car radio for 30 seconds? In the end, it matters not. Quick anecdote about the video from Wikipedia: "According to Fredriksson, shooting this video was a surreal experience, as [director Doug] Freel 'wanted all movements in slow motion, so I had to lip-sync the vocals at double speed. My first lesson in how to sing an emotional ballad Mickey Mouse style.'" Where can I find that version?

So fine, they're not exactly Bjork, OK, but here's why, ironically, I don't find Roxette's brand of "disposable" pop all that disposable: Marie Fredriksson sings with too much genuine passion. I'm not sure how old she was during Roxette's heyday, but unlike so many 21st century pop singers, who sound like high schoolers, Marie sounds like she's been around the block a couple of times. She's slept under an overpass for an evening or two,  if you know what I mean. Listen (with your heart) to the outro of "It Must Have Been Love," starting around the 3:00 mark. I mean, that's some heavy shit right there. Fredriksson suggests rage, sweetness, sincerity, feistiness, and a touch a weariness all at the same time. I think if I walked up to her and called this song "schlock," she would probably spit in my face. She means it, man. And if she's invested in what she's doing, then I'm invested in what she's doing. Sometimes "art" is the last refuge of scoundrels who don't know what the hell they're in it for. Sleep easy, Roxette. After all these years, your juvenile scam still hits like a hammer.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Herbert Walker Memories

Eventually, as all things must, the '80s came to an end.

But despite what a glance at the calendar might indicate, it did not, in fact, end overnight. What I'm trying to say is that there is such a thing as "time," and then there is such a thing as "pop music time." And "pop music time," you see, is slightly more elastic, more elusive, more elliptical. It ignores the clean divisions of astronomy - at least for a year or so. For instance, when people talk about the pop music of "the '60s," aren't they really talking about the era between 1964 and 1970? In a sense, the pop music of 1960-1963 almost belongs more to the '50s. It was that double whammy of the JFK assassination and the British Invasion that truly launched "the '60s," right? What? What's that you say? Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, and several Motown artists had already released significant recordings by then? Doesn't fit the narrative! Shoo! Be gone!

All right, fine. All definitions of eras in art are basically bullshit. And yet.

I can't help but think of the years 1989 and 1990 as an era of its own - a transitional phase in pop music, a period that, like the reign of our recently departed former president, was not quite fully '80s and not quite fully '90s. On a Venn diagram, it would register as that grayed-out crap in the middle. That said, it was definitely more '80s than '90s. In the Little Earl History of Popular Music, the '90s didn't truly evolve into the '90s until 1991. I look back at the artists who were dominating the charts in 1990, and they were either holdover acts from the '80s, or acts who, for the most part, would wither and crumble to dust in a year or so (Wilson Phillips, anybody?). But when I look back at the artists who were dominating the charts in 1991, I see the '90s. Let me amend that slightly. When I look back at the artists who were dominating the album charts in 1991, I see the '90s. Several albums from the more "alternative" end of the spectrum came out in 1991 and managed to top the charts, or come very close to it: NevermindMetallicaAchtung BabyOut Of TimeTen, Blood Sugar Sex MagikThis, as far as I'm concerned, was the true start of the '90s.

As for the Billboard Hot 100, I don't know what I see. Lots of Amy Grant and Cathy Dennis. But honestly, that was just another element of the transition: I don't know what byzantine methodology Billboard was employing at this point, but I feel like, in the '90s, the Hot 100 ceased to be an accurate reflection of the music that people in the '90s were actually listening to. Radio began fragmenting into subcategories like hip-hop, modern rock, and ... whatever the hell Amy Grant and Cathy Dennis were. There really was no true "Top 40 radio" any longer. There are several rap and alternative rock singles from the '90s that those who were following music at the time might remember as having been "huge" hits (such as "C.R.E.A.M." or "Closer"), but if you go look up their actual chart positions, you'll see that they barely dented the Hot 100 (#60 and #41, respectively). Sure, they were huge hits on the Rap chart, or the Modern Rock chart, but not on what had apparently become the Suburban Housewives' Chart. Whereas when I look at the Hot 100 charts from the '80s, I think to myself, "Yeah! That's exactly all the cheesy shit that was being played to death on the radio!"

There's a bit more at play here. In terms of my own biography, the period of 1989-1990 was the last period of pop music I actively followed and devoted actual attention to as it was occurring. Here, if you will, is what happened. In March of 1991, my favorite Top 40 station, 99.7 X100, suddenly, decisively, without warning, became 99.7 KFRC - an oldies station. "Oldies"? You mean there was music that came out ... before the '80s? I was shocked, stunned, aghast, appalled. Up to this point in my existence, unlike many of my peers, I had received virtually no exposure to oldies. So it turned out that oldies and me were meant to be. I became an instant convert and never looked back. For some reason, I decided I preferred this band called the Beatles to acts such as Milli Vanilli and Paula Abdul. Sure, I lingered around for a couple of months or so - I vividly remember a school mate lustily crooning "I Want to Sex You Up" on the playground, to the consternation of the yard attendant - but all I know is that, by about September of 1991, I had checked out of contemporary pop music entirely. Split the scene, flew the coop. When I recall that period, I could almost swear that I had literally traveled back in time to England circa 1967. You know that pastoral, vaguely Victorian landscape that the Beatles are seen frolicking around in while sporting their new and yet strangely ageless mustaches in the "Strawberry Fields" promotional film? I think that is literally where I spent the early '90s.

In other words, I missed it. Flat-out missed it. I missed all the moments that my peers tend to discuss these days as universally-experienced early '90s cultural touchstones. The "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video? Missed it. Kurt Cobain's suicide? Missed it. I mean yeah, I vaguely remember somebody mentioning that Kurt Cobain had killed himself, but it meant absolutely squat to me at the time. "Guy was probably an asshole anyway," is what I'm guessing I thought. Frankly, I didn't even know the difference between Nirvana and Metallica. As far as I was concerned, they were both really loud, angry, guitar-heavy bands that had just released albums that consisted of 12 tracks each, with the first song on each album being the big "hit" song with the catchy guitar riff. Grunge? Metal? Same diff.

Here's how I know that all those albums from 1991 I listed above represent the "real" start of the '90s: I have almost no recollection of hearing them. I remember my classmates talking about them. I remember feeling that this new music was "not my thing," in the same sense that dating girls was "not my thing." I did not feel "cool" enough or "hip" enough to relate to this new music. In retrospect, '80s music, overall, was quite dorky. Really dorky. I had no trouble relating to '80s music. But in March of 1991, I fell down the oldies rabbit hole and didn't claw my way out for years. I think in September of 1993, the cable company in my town accidentally included MTV and VH1 in my family's cable package for roughly two weeks. It was like a glimpse into another era - one far removed from my own. What was this "Blind Melon" and "Soul Asylum"? You mean Janet Jackson was still making music? So confusing. I didn't genuinely listen to those big "alternative" albums from 1991 until about 1998, toward the end of high school and the beginning of college. (Long story short: I'm all caught up now!) My point is, maybe this shift between 1990 and 1991 wasn't much of a shift at all. But when I hear a song from 1989 or 1990, as opposed to a song from slightly later, all sorts of associations from that era fill my spherical ol' cranium, whereas when I hear a song that came out after 1990, I associate it with some guy in college telling me how "awesome this video was when it first premiered on MTV!" I could not blog about the pop music of 1991. I simply wasn't there. Herbert Walker Memories is the end of the line.

So, 1989-1990. In retrospect, this period was whack. Alternative music genuinely began peaking through the layers of Top 40 gauze, but only here and there, and only the more palatable, streamlined strands. Maybe mainstream radio could handle the Cure and Depeche Mode at this juncture, but it wasn't quite ready for, say, the Pixies or the Jesus and Mary Chain (wouldn't have been prudent). Still, as I reflect on the era with my increased level of rock scholarliness, I can't help but be impressed by how many artists with a vague whiff of "alternative" about them managed to score hits so massive that even nine-year-old me could get caught up in the buzz. Did I, at that tender age, pick up on the difference between, say, Roxette and the B-52's? Did I realize that one act was an unapologetically chart-humping duo from Sweden, and the other act a queer-friendly outgrowth of the Athens, GA scene? How about the difference between Paula Abdul and the Fine Young Cannibals? Did I realize that one artist was a choreographer with a whiny voice who decided to give dance-pop a shot because why the fuck not, and that the other artist was a Northern soul-flavored splinter group of the English Beat (with origins stretching back to the British ska revival of 1979)?

Oh heyyyyyll no.

And that is precisely my point. Sitting here in 2019, I have to ask myself, "What the fuck kind of an era was this?" But see, at the time, these were just the hits on the radio. There wasn't anything odd about it. Only now can I pick out all the strange cross-currents and unexpected artistic bedfellows. For example, it's interesting to observe the manner in which rap began its lengthy trickle into the upper reaches of the charts during these years - but not the Public Enemy, N.W.A., Slick Rick kind of rap. Oh no. It was more like the Technotronic, Snap!, Young MC, Tone Loc, Biz Markie, "We Didn't Start the Fire" kind of rap. There were non-rap songs that would suddenly feature a verse of rap without warning. Artists would use a dash of rap as flavoring, not serve it up as the main course. People couldn't handle that yet.

I'm tempted to say that the 1989-1990 era of mainstream pop has been "critically underappreciated" or "overlooked," but let me clarify. About eight years ago, as my obsession with '80s music grew to a borderline unhealthy degree, I downloaded every Billboard Year-End Top 100 list from 1980 through 1990, and then proceeded to listen to those lists straight through, from the #1 song of the year down to the #100 song. As far as I was concerned, the year-end lists from 1980 through 1988 offered up some fairly solid listening, even toward the back end of each year. But when I got to 1989 and 1990, I noticed an interesting trend. Each list contained, I would say, about 25 to 30 tracks that I was inclined to categorize as first-rate, artistically inventive, melodically arresting songs that have held up well and still sound great today, and then about 70 to 75 songs that may have been popular at the time but, in my opinion, do not really merit repeat listening and might even be songs that I actively dislike. I'm talking about the soggy residue of hair metal, adult contemporary pop, and new jack R&B. What I'm saying is that if you separate the wheat from the chaff and only listen to the wheat (suddenly I'm in the mood to play a Bread album), you would think that this was an incredibly rich and rewarding era of pop music! But a comprehensive analysis of the era does not, I think, bear this view out. I feel like, in that 1989-1990 period, the great songs were great, and the crappy songs were crappy. There was no in-between.

But boy, that minority of excellence sure paints an evocative picture. Follow me, now, on a journey I would like to dub "Herbert Walker Memories."