So I took an unexpected vacation. Again. Blame serendipity, blame my own capricious nature, and blame my writer’s block. There are several excuses I could give, but who cares, I get to jump in a lake! And these next few weeks provide an opportunity to look back on what inspires my writing.
Last year, my iPod (yes, I still use one) reached the end of its capacity. I listened to each song in my collection, by artist, and rated each tune, eventually deleting the lower ranking singles. The offerings below come from artists who have 10 or more songs I love. You’ll notice a lot of similarities between songs. What can I say: I’m a scrub, and not a music guru. In any case, let’s work our way down to my favorite song of all time!
“Swimming Pools (Drank),” by Kendrick Lamar
A lot of wonderful artists didn’t make the cut on this list. The Black Keys, Bobby Darin, The Clash, Green Day… they’re obvious choices, sure, but I still grew up with them and love them. Ultimately, I didn’t know which songs of theirs to pick. I’d scan through all my favorites, and for each of these artists, their best songs would elicit a “well maybe not that one” from me.
I made an exception in this case. For Lamar, I could’ve slot in “u” or “i” or “Good Kid” or “The Blacker the Berry” or the classic “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” If “I’m Dying of Thirst” were its own song, it would replace “Swimming Pools (Drank)” on this list and easily move up a few spots. In the end, I chose the first Kendrick song I ever heard, and ever adored.
Plain and simple, this song captures what makes addiction tick. It’s not the lyrics, though you could apply Kendrick’s alcoholism to binge eating and Internet dependence, a.k.a. the addictions I struggle with. It’s the way the song moves, oscillating between a delirious party anthem and its nervous underbelly. How it’s actually enticing to listen to despite its affect on your mood— hey, it’s just like addiction!
Kendrick Lamar doesn’t need more people telling him how great he his. But, for the record, they’re all right.
“Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny),” by Elton John
I’ve racked my brains trying to figure out how to describe this song other than “sad.” Let me be clear: this is the most heartbreaking song I’ve ever heard. And there are a lot of heartbreakers on this list. I’m not even that big a fan of John Lennon, the “Johnny” in this song represented by the missing gardener. But to see anyone’s work ravished by entropy like the garden in the song, it’s just unbearable. The emptiness in the instrumentation’s synth-like elements drive this point in. Everyone, especially artists, thinks they can live on through their legacy. This is a sober reminder that not only will you not come out to play one day, there won’t be anywhere to play. Bernie Taupin’s lyrics may be the best part of the song (and of most Elton John songs), but let’s not forget who co-wrote and sang his guts out about a friend’s death here. Elton John… he… you know, we should move on for now.
“The Promised Land (Live),” by Bruce Springsteen
There are few items on my bucket list. Here’s one of them: See Bruce Springsteen live. I’ve heard his concerts described as 3-hour marathons where he blazes through as many great songs as he can. How long can he keep such energy going? His live stuff is where Springsteen’s best work lies. The live version of “Born to Run” makes the studio version seem like Springsteen recorded on Vicodin.
Like with Kendrick, there are too many options to choose from here. And “Promised Land” is the most Springsteen of all the Boss’ songs. The longing to escape, the blue-collar pride, the searing pain of inaction… all common themes in songs from the E-Street Band, all amplified here by how hopeful Bruce is. He knows he’s chasing illusions and making dumb choices, and yet he’ll keep doing his best each day. When it comes to the music, “The Promised Land” isn’t so different from other Springsteen songs. It’s more accurate if I call “The Promised Land” Springsteen’s best poem.
“Out On the Town,” by Fun.
Fun fact: I hate censored works. I want the version of a work most true to the artist’s intent, even at the (rare) expense of quality. Aside: If you play “Forget You” in my presence in place of the correct “Fuck You,” then be prepared for a long lecture and a broken stereo.
But, sometimes, if you want to get your music cheap, you have to compromise. In 2013, iTunes had two versions of Fun.’s career-defining album “Some Nights.” The censored version had a bonus track. I went with the bonus track, and I discovered it to be their best song.
“Out On the Town” is at the edge of an epiphany. Its sweet-sounding guitar and its big, marching-band-lite chorus make this song sound like the beginning of a reconnection. And it is… it’s a reconnection with one’s self. The singer tries to make amends with his ex, but ends up making a fool of himself, realizing at the end that this isn’t the first time he screwed up bad. And, despite all this sudden self-awareness, he’s still begging for his paramour to accept him. This is more human than any other love song I know. Love transcends logic into something greater, which is why it’s somewhat pointless to analyze song lyrics after a while.
I wouldn’t even call my love for this song logical. For the longest time, I thought this was a happy ending! That after the breakdown of the album’s penultimate song (“Stars”), the bonus track provided catharsis. Then, I look up the lyrics to this song to see it’s more bitter than sweet, and, guess what, I appreciate it even more! I guess that’s what true love is.
“Out On the Town”… so good that I’m willing to suffer censored works, to be by its window.
“The Boxer,” by Simon and Garfunkel
When I was 15, a couple of my friends and I started singing “The Boxer” from start to finish, out of nowhere. That a few millennial teenagers had memorized a 1970s folk song, independent from each other, should prove this song as one of the best in history. But skilled as Paul Simon could be as a wordsmith (sorry Garfunkel), the best part of “The Boxer” comes from its chorus, which has no discernable meaning. I talk about lyrics a lot, because they’re the easiest thing to talk about. Yet a story’s no good if you don’t give an audience time to appreciate it.
People fill their own meaning into “The Boxer.” Let me join in. Genius.com thinks that the song’s narrator, a naïve boy suffering through New York, talks about himself in the third person for no reason when describing the boxer. That makes little sense to me. Here’s how I read it: the narrator literally sees a boxer on the street that looks like he went through hell and forgot his luggage there. So the narrator singing, “I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains,” is not a paradox. It’s him realizing that, for all his troubles, there are people out there with a lot more pain than him, and a lot more stamina for that pain. The only thing worse than an awful condition is an awful condition that you don’t deserve sympathy for.
I’m just here for the great buildup. Everyone remembers the “BANG!”s that pop up in the chorus, but combine them with the strings at the end and each slam becomes a punch to the gut. That artistic choice reinforces the idea that the narrator’s the boxer. In the end, we all are.
To be continued next week, right here!