Sunday, November 24, 2019

"Praying For Time," Settling For A Blank Screen Instead

SERIOUS. This song is so SERIOUS. You've heard of Curious George? Well how about Serious George? And if people didn't like Serious George? Then you know what? Maybe George didn't feel like being their kind of pop star. He didn't need no Man in the Yellow Hat buying his damn music.

My family didn't have MTV in our cable package back in 1990, but somehow I must have caught the "Praying for Time" video on another, less expensive channel. Apparently it was a video so arresting, even those lowly network channels knew they had to broadcast it at some point. You know the video for "One More Try," where George is just standing there in a gothic-looking apartment for six minutes and virtually nothing happens, but it's mesmerizing anyway? The video for "Praying for Time" is like the video for "One More Try," except without the video. Forget George Michael (if you were hoping to catch a glimpse of The Bearded One, pull up a chair 'cause it might be a while); there isn't even any other nice stuff to look at. The entire video consists of the lyrics appearing and disappearing on a black screen. That's it. That's all she wrote. No if's, and's or but's. They say that if you stare long enough at this video, you'll begin to see stubble. Now, plenty of alternative acts, such as The Replacements and the Pixies, had turned their music videos into metaphorical middle fingers, but none of those acts were multi-platinum superstars, were they? With the video for "Praying for Time," George was all but saying to the record-listening public, "You want a video? Here's your fuckin' video."

Ten-year-old me thought this was the most brilliant concept anyone had ever conceived of in the history of popular entertainment.

Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I feel like, by this time, videos had steadily been growing more and more opulent, more and more expensive, more and more indulgent. By 1990, videos were such a "thing." Hell, if I recall correctly, MTV was airing "making of" documentaries about the making of music videos! Suddenly, along came a video that was so bare-bones, so basic, calling it a video was like calling a Hot Pocket a meal, or calling Monaco a country. The media and the gossip columnists and the hoi-polloi were all sitting around, as they did with every other mega-star of the era, wondering what could George Michael possibly be coming up with next? And he gave them ... the total opposite of that. With one simple gesture, he was essentially expressing to the unthinking masses, "Who gives a crap about 'the next George Michael video'? I've had it with all this 'blowing your mind with my next video' shit. Just listen to the fucking song, fer Chrissakes." A gesture which, ironically, blew my mind.

You see, the "Praying for Time" video was, in my tiny pop music world, that rarest of creatures: something I had never seen a recording artist do before. I was also, at that age, entirely unfamiliar with, say, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Metal Machine Music, or Tusk. Every pop singer I'd ever encountered seemed to be desperately trying to give the people exactly what they wanted. As far as I was concerned, this video, and the "content" of the lyrics, meant one of two things: instant career suicide, or a complete reinvention that would take George's success to an entirely new level. It didn't end up being either of those things, but career context aside, I've always thought this was some good shit. "Praying for Time" is serious, all right - seriously awesome.

Now that I have listened (without prejudice) to pre-1980s pop music, I realize that, with its methodical acoustic chug, "Praying for Time" reeks of that solo John Lennon, "Instant Karma!"/"Mind Games"/"Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" vibe. George apparently gave the engineer one solitary instruction: "TREBLE. NEEDZ MOAR TREBLE." Seriously, you could blast this sucker in the next room and I wouldn't even feel it through the walls, that's how little bass there is. And ECHO. An entire Lennon solo album's worth of echo - on one song. George wanted to make it SNAP in your ears, like an infant's wail.

If I were in a less generous mood, I might suggest that the lyrics of "Praying for Time" betray the songwriter's unfamiliarity with a more philosophical or political style of writing. Sure, "One More Try" and "Kissing a Fool" successfully took his post-Wham! music in a more "adult" direction, but if "Praying for Time" had a subtitle, it would be "I Am An Important Artist Now." In places he seems a bit in over his head. "I guess somewhere along the way/He must have let us all out to play"? Let us all out to play? That sounds kind of ... awesome! I love playing! I think what George was trying to say was that, in the words of Trent Reznor, "God is dead/And no one cares/And if there is a hell/I'll see you there," but the lyric makes God sound like the universe's best PE teacher. "Your television takes a stand"? Pretty sure my television doesn't have any thoughts on AIDS or Apartheid, last time I checked. "And what was over there ... is over here"? Holy shit, stuff is there, then it's here, and I just can't handle how stuff keeps moving from there to here! (The surface banality of the lyric is arguably rendered comical by the massive chord change beneath the word "here"). Throughout the song I can practically hear George thinking, "OK, so how can I make this deep?" What rhymes with "yours"? How about "door"? Does "scream from behind your door" sound dramatic, even though it's kind of generic? Like his heroes Stevie Wonder and Bernie Taupin before him, I think he just shrugged and thought, "Eh, close enough." It's the kind of song that, if sung on the school playground, would have been easy to make raspberry noises at.

Yet given George's untimely passing, I think the song plays a bit differently now than it did in 1990, or even in 2015. Before, one was tempted to chuckle at our dear Georgios Kyriacos's sudden attempt to become Billy Bragg. But now, he sounds like an omniscient prophet of doom, howling from beyond the grave, damning us mere mortals for the foolishness of our ways. Now the lyrics come off as poignant, pointed, bitter, and uncompromising. "Charity is a coat you wear twice a year"? See, that's why I never give to charity at all: because at least no one can accuse me of pretending to care for appearance's sake. Frankly, it's hard not to love a US chart-topping single that suggests God has disowned all of humanity, as if he were the strict cantor father in The Jazz Singer ("I have no son!"). The YouTube comments section is littered with a thousand variations of "George was so ahead of his time," "This song could have been written today," and "Sadly this is still relevant." "Praying For Time" is like George Michael's own "Imagine": good before, but even better now that he's dead.

I think the chorus is what keeps the song from becoming a preachy diatribe from some rich pop star who has suddenly realized that he "cares." George doesn't pretend to have any answers other than to, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, "behave decently in an indecent world." "It's hard to love," he sings, but that doesn't mean you should cease doing it. God may have stopped keeping score, but to George, that isn't permission to suddenly become an eager member of the "What's mine is mine and not yours" crowd. God may have stopped keeping score, you rich Yuppie tightwad, but George Michael certainly hasn't. "Wounded skies above": now there's an image for you. Notice how George doesn't himself say that "it's much, much too late," but that the wounded skies above are saying it, which suggests that he personally might disagree with the skies and that he still believes the human race can be saved. It takes some guts to disagree with the wounded sky, you know what I'm saying? I'm inclined to interpret the final line as George proposing a legal loophole to God's judgment, like the knight in The Seventh Seal trying to cheat death via a board game. "Hmm, so if the skies are saying that it's too late, maybe what we should be praying for isn't 'peace' or 'wisdom' or 'love' or any of that crap, but 'time.'" Whoa. Professor Higglediggle writes:
"Praying For Time" resituates the temporal intransigence of the cosmos in a post-Nietzschean framework, proposing the elasticity of human experience without undermining the value of what Heidegger referred to as "Dasien," or the "being for whom being is a question." Michael's declaration that "God's stopped keeping score" suggests an embrace of Schopenhauer's philosophical pessimism, but this tendency is immediately countered by the concept of "play," which (re)purposes Sartre's notion of man as "being condemned to be free" as a jest by a parental agent whose indifference renders the universe absurd, a concept promulgated by the track's music video which, in the words of Camus, illustrates "the confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world" with its intermittent flashes of language divorced from further visual embellishment, forcing the viewer to negate any inherent meaning and create his/her own ethical values in response to the confrontational void.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Sure, Man, Write A Blog Post About "What I Am," Whatever, No Big Deal

I'm not aware of too many hits by Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians, but I know what I know about this one, if you know what I mean.

In retrospect, a better name for Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians might have been Edie Brickell & the Proto-Slackers. "What I Am" is like the inaugural salvo of  '90s slacker rock. If there existed a Mount Rushmore of slacker rock, Edie Brickell's face would surely be on it, alongside Alex Chilton's, Gordon Gano's, and Paul Westerberg's. I've heard it said that if one smokes a little too much pot, and if one is not listening too closely to "What I Am," one might literally hear her sing the lyrics "Oh well, whatever, nevermind." Its potent aura of detached apathy would rapidly become ubiquitous, but must have seemed novel in 1989, when this peaked at #7. I feel like no piece of news, no matter how significant, could have punctured Edie's veneer of coffee house cool. "Edie, the Berlin Wall just came down!" "I dig it, man." "Edie, Hitler just exterminated 6 million Jews!" "Whatever man, religion is a smile on a dog." "Edie, aliens just landed on the White House lawn!" "Hey, cool, do they wanna come to my poetry reading tomorrow night?" It takes a lot to rile Edie up.

My guess is that roughly the same amount of people only know of "What I Am" because they've asked themselves the question, "Hey, what is Paul Simon's wife famous for?" as the amount of people who know that Edie Brickell ended up marrying Paul Simon because they asked themselves the question, "Hey, whatever happened to that singer who did 'What I Am'?" If you crunched the numbers, I swear it would break about even. I'll bet many casual music fans know this song but are still unaware that the singer ended up marrying Paul Simon. I mean let's face it, on the celebrity couple totem pole, they're not exactly John and Yoko, or Madonna and Sean Penn. They don't perform together. They don't pose naked on album covers together. They seem like normal people. At least she doesn't owe her fame to her husband - unlike her husband, of course, who owes his fame entirely to Art Garfunkel.

But back to the song. Seriously, I don't hear a shred of '80s here. If you told me that "What I Am" came out in 1993, I would, without hesitation, believe you. At a quick glance, it appears to be in the folk-based, Suzanne Vega/Tracy Chapman vein, but upon closer inspection, it's got more than a hint of funk to it. The wah-wah guitar solo wouldn't have been out of place on a Spin Doctors record. Here is the blend that Sheryl, Alanis, Sophie B. Hawkins and company would take to the bank, my friends.

Just look at 'em! She's got hippie chick hair, jeans, a beaded necklace, and she spends 80% of the video not giving a fuck where the camera is. The bassist is wearing a tie-dye t-shirt and has a goatee, for crying out loud. They look like they just returned from an exhausting round of hackey sack outside the local Peace Corp. office. Are you positive they never toured with Blues Traveler and Phish at some point during the OJ trial? The ultimate irony of Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians is that Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians hardly benefited from the apathetic, flannel-drenched wave they helped usher in. Not that they would have cared anyway.