The Music Club

I’m Just a Big Softie in a Pair of Headphones

Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant in Music & Lyrics


I’m sure as hell not about to go to the mat with the Dean of American Rock Critics over Journey. (REO Speedwagon—now that’s a different story.) Just for the record, I agree with Bob that there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure—and pleasure is what I get from “Don’t Stop Believin’,” from the first keyboard rumble to the last “streetlight-people-whoa-oh-oh.” It is transcendent schlock, and I’ll still know it’s a great song in 2033, regardless of where Journey places, in a cosmic sense, on the Suckiness Matrix. As for Bob’s guilt-free pleasure “Smack That“: I prefer Akon hooting along with a different bottle blonde.

In re: Ann’s question about private musical loves: It happens that mine are of a piece with “Don’t Stop Believin’.” I’ve always been a cheeseball, and more and more, in the quiet of my off-hours, I find myself going for the gooey stuff—big melody, big catharsis. It’s a response, I think, to the rigors of the day job. I’m professionally obligated to bring dispassion and proportion to my listening, to keep track of the new and the now and the next, and my taste and sense of history lead me first and foremost to hip-hop and buzzy dance-pop, hardheaded stuff with strong beats.

So, when I get a spare few minutes, I just want to grab a hankie and cue up something lush. The music is sometimes totally “irrelevant”: According to my iTunes usage stats,the artist I listened to the most over the past several months is French crooner Charles Trenet—one of the great singer-songwriters of all time, by the way—who, in his late 1930s-early 1940s prime, crafted one perfect heart-tugger after another. Closer to home, another high iTunes charter this year was “Way Back Into Love,” a soundtrack tune from the movie Music & Lyrics written by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne. Schlesinger has often shown an aptitude for ironic-but-affectionate power ballads, and “Way Back Into Love” is a doozy. Despite a barely competent vocal and a lyric that (deliberately) hovers just this side of doggerel, it gets to me—the octave leap in the final line of the final chorus invariably chokes me up, and unlike Ann with her Patty Griffin song, I don’t have the excuse of familial associations. I’m just a big softie in a pair of headphones, silently weeping to the theme from a Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore rom-com.

Which in part explains my love of country, a genre as ruthlessly committed to tear-jerking as 19th-century parlor song. Actually, what I admire most about mainstream country—besides the tough, lean sound, the booming kick drums, and guitars ablazing—are the life-sized stories, songs steeped in the enchantments, sorrows, and little details of the workaday. It’s a kind of humanism lacking in mainstream hip-hop, to say nothing of indie rock, with its suffocating poses and whimsies. For certain, Nashville’s small-town “realism” is way sentimental—I have a taste for that cornpone, too. But one of my favorites this year was Lori McKenna’s Unglamorous, a militantly unromanticized look at marriage and motherhood that snuck into the top 20 on the country charts. (McKenna was also one of the year’s feel-good stories: a stay-at-home mother of five from Stoughton, Mass., who at the unlikely age of 38 put out her major label debut—with a helping hand from Faith Hill and Oprah.)

Then there’s comedy, in general woefully undervalued in pop but not on Music Row. The best country songwriters, like the best rappers, are dedicated to the art of the punch line, and I heard some good ones this year from Toby Keith (struggling with romance across class lines: “A high-maintenance woman/ Don’t want no maintenance man“) and Blake Shelton (whose logic was unimpeachable: “The more I drink, the more I drink“). Nashville’s biggest cutup is Brad Paisley, whose 5th Gear has kept me chuckling all the way through, whether Paisley was delivering the jokes himself or playing straight man to his guitar. And the laughs and pathos commingle in songs like “Letter to Me,” a soppy ballad packed with jokes; and “All I Wanted Was a Car,” which begins as a trifle about a teenager’s first set of wheels, but in a touching final-verse U-turn, circles back to home and hearth:

Now when I look outside, sittin’ in the drive
It blows my mind to see
An SUV and a sedan and two kids playing
I can’t believe they all belong to me
When I caught their momma’s eye in that old thing I used to drive
I never dreamed it would take me this far
All I wanted was a car

With 5th Gear, it was love at first listen. Kanye West’s Graduation was a grower. I was disappointed in the rhymes; as poetry, the songs don’t measure up to those on College Dropout or Late Registration. I’ve come to see Graduation mainly as a triumph of beats—although beats is hardly the right word to describe music so steeped in melody and beauty for beauty’s sake, like that long, lilting intro to “I Wonder.” I admire Kanye’s sense of adventure and his refusal—T-Pain’s presence aside—to fall in line with production trends. And if his lyrics are a bit slacker than previous, they still dig deeper than most everyone else’s. He continues to work the soul-tussle-between-God-and-mammon theme—listen to the first verse of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing“—an interior monologue that mirrors a larger existential crisis gripping hip-hop culture. And in the most competitive pop genre ever, has there ever been a more honest airing of approval-craving and anxiety of influence than “Big Brother,” West’s song about his relationship with Jay-Z?

Gotta wrap it up, so I’ll save my thoughts on Wayne and Wino and indie for Round 3. Let me end by saying that, like Ann, I’m fond of that Grinderman record, and I relate to her professional frustration: It’s often impossible to find a way to write about music that breaks no new ground, arrives with little buzz, and is simply plain old good. What’s the angle? To cite one funny example from 2007: I was pleased to see the single “Nod Your Head” on Bob’s list of faves. It’s just one of several fine songs on the latest release by a northern English singer-songwriter who over the last decade has quietly racked up a run of five excellent albums. His name’s McCartney, and he’s one to watch—the kid’s got a way with a tune and he plays a shit-hot bass.