Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Carly Rae Jepsen, "Call Me Maybe"

If you've been anywhere near a radio this summer, you're probably completely sick of hearing this song.  Either that or you can't stop humming it.  Or quite possibly both.  Come to think of it, a song probably isn't a bona fide megahit if you're not both sick of hearing it and also can't get it out of your head. 

"Call Me Maybe" is the most successful song ever by an "Idol" franchise finalist, and it's really not even close.  Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have sold tens of millions of albums between them, but neither had a true megahit single.  "Before He Cheats" and "Since U Been Gone" were all over the radio and will probably keep earning royalties from airplay for a long time, but they still only reached #8 and #2, respectively, on the US Hot 100.  "Call Me Maybe" has been at #1 for seven weeks and counting.

It might even be the biggest hit ever by a Canadian artist.  Here is the full list of Canadian artists with a hit song that spent seven weeks at number one on the Hot 100 in the past fifty years: Bryan Adams, Snow.  That's it.  (I'm sure you can guess which songs they were, if not, you can look them up here, along with all the rest of the Canadian number ones).  And just to be clear, both spent exactly seven weeks at number one -- Carly Rae Jepsen can break the tie and lay a stronger claim to the biggest ever Canadian pop in just one week's time.

Percy Faith's "Theme From a Summer Place" spent nine weeks at number one in 1960, so Jepsen has a ways to go before breaking the record for most weeks at number one all-time by a Canadian.  In this era of global pop stars, "Call Me Maybe" has been number one in over a dozen countries on four continents, which is something that doesn't translate to 1960.  "Theme From a Summer Place" is as iconic and beloved as songs get though.  So the numbers would indicate that Jepsen has outdone Percy Faith on paper, but the numbers don't tell us much about what makes a song memorable.

And the most amazing thing about Jepsen's success?  She was discovered on a show where borderline talent could "shine" and outlandish praise for total mediocrity was standard operating procedure ... Canadian Idol!  Who could have predicted that that turd of a show would produce an actual pop star? 

I didn't like "Call Me Maybe" at first because the chorus seemed cloying, and it didn't know what kind of song it was trying to be.  This might be because I first heard it when I watched the video.  It starts out like a teen power pop song, then it flips the page suddenly and turns into a dance pop tune, then you see Jepsen and her band trying to rock out in a garage.  On camera they're a bunch of suburban brats playing rock music but the song is pure bubblegum dance pop which doesn't fit the images at all!

This is unusual in pop, I think.  Songs become hits because they're unashamedly something very clear -- unashamedly pop, unashamedly gooey ballads, etc.  But a amateurishly produced track with a flimsy beat from a cheap drum machine mixed with rock sung by a 26-year old trying to act like a teenager?  That's not supposed to work, and yet somehow it does.  It makes perfect sense that this was originally written as a folk song, you can definitely hear that in the intro.  Then they tried to shoehorn what was probably a pretty but forgettable folk tune into a pop mold, and the two genres never properly meshed, you can hear the hybridization of the track as clear as day.  But somehow it all works, probably very much by accident.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Stones turn 50, catalog music sales are booming

Thoughts on a couple of recent articles:

1.  Maura Johnston summarized some of the reasons why sales of catalog music are outpacing those of new music in the Village Voice. If there's one indestructible fact of the digital music age, it's that people will still pay money for music by beloved, established artists.  The extraordinary success of The Beatles "1", which was the best selling album of 2001 (and the 21st century) proved that beyond any doubt.  It didn't matter that Napster was blowing up or that people were re-buying music they already owned on other formats (or on other CD's) or that it would have been simple to burn the same songs onto a mix CD for practically no cost rather than pay $15.99.  

It's never been easier to hear parts of, or even whole catalog albums using any number of internet-based sources.  Previous generations of fans had to have friends whose parents had cool record collections or happen to be listening to the radio when a certain classic song was played.  Now you don't have to spend any time wondering whether such-and-such a famous/notorious 60's band was really any good, you can stream or d/l their music and decide for yourself within seconds.  But catalog sales are driven by nostalgia, and people get nostalgic for things that seem cool and different compared to whatever is available in the present.  Nostalgia revives the star quality of people and music that had been ignored for years because people became bored or burned out by it (or because something newer came along and stole its thunder).  It's amazing that Lionel Richie can go from being an afterthought who hadn't been relevant in the mainstream for twenty years, to being a huge sensation within a few months.  But will people be nostalgic for today's artists in the same way in another twenty years?  My guess is no.  My gut feeling is that you're less likely to be nostalgic for something in the future (= to pay money for it) if you're not paying money for it in the present.  That was less of a problem in the Beatles' time. The multi-media effect (reason #3 in the article) also plays a role in this.  Being a music star used to be enough, now you have to be a music + TV + Youtube + ... star to be truly famous and stand a chance of being remembered.

2. Once in a blue moon, CNN publishes a great commentary or social interest piece, this week featured an excerpt from Hanspeter Kuenzler's mega-ebook/press anthology (2000 pages!) about the Rolling Stones.  Diehard fans already know the story of the band's beginnings, but as a general introduction to how the band got started (complete with the all-important cultural and political context of post-war England), it made for a good read (and made me want to buy the book).

The Beatles, Stones, and Zeppelin were the unquestioned giants of rock up to and including my generation of high schoolers, we all took it as a given that no matter how much we loved Duran Duran or Depeche Mode or whoever, that no band stood a chance of escaping the shadow of those three 60's/70's giants.  They'd rule over rock seemingly forever, and if you wanted to have any music literacy at all (never mind having cred, if you just wanted to have a common denominator discussion about music with a group of people) then you needed to be well versed in the music of those three bands.  Of course this meant all three were overrated by virtue of being inescapable.  It was the stuff you had to like because you were told you needed to like it or else.  Some people kept eating that narrative, some of us got bored a bit earlier and started listening to the Cure or Nine Inch Nails instead.

But the Stones always seemed to be the most overrated and least legendary of the three, possibly because they never went away.  How can we miss them if they never leave, etc.  Many of us remember how the "Steel Wheels" tour was hyped as a major comeback for them, and was arguably the blueprint for the zillion-dollar megatours that every big artists is obligated to undertake these days.  Now a generation has passed, the Beatles, Floyd, Zeppelin, Who, and plenty of others have been lionized and anthologized many times over, and is it possible that the Stones have been relatively overlooked over the past twenty years and might even be a bit underrated?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Music in Bulgaria and Switzerland ...

... is a topic I wish I could write about here at length, but unfortunately I didn't go to any wild Bulgarian techno parties this year.  But I did get to see a Bulgarian fire dancing performance.  It's not uncommon to  and while it might have been tailored for an audience of mostly tourists (and performed by professionals who aren't necessarily connected to the original fire dancing traditions), the music that accompanied the dancing (think shuffling one's way through hot coals, not twirling torches in one's hands) was hypnotic and trance-inducing in a quite literal sense.  According to the story, the dancers enter something of a trance via the music, causing them to feel little to no pain when they dance on the coals.  I finally came to understood why some Bulgarian music resembles Greek and Turkish music, which of course is completely obvious in retrospect.  This video will give you a fairly good idea of what fire dancing is all about.  

I haven't the faintest idea what is popular on Swiss radio, but then again, neither do the foreigners I talked to who are living there.  At the Lausanne city festival, I did see a man doing somersaults while suspended high in the air on ropes while two pantomiming guitarists flanked him on colourful bubble shaped stages, but that's about it.

Not the most fascinating return to posting, I admit.