Elliott Smith – XO
One, two, three, the drumbeat counts. The chords cry out. The crowd breathes in. Ashtrays full and glasses empty. Buzzing neon, buzzing hearts. (In your story, this is true.) It’s a waltz, without a dance. It’s a prayer, without a god. The singer stands there, bathed in blue. Knuckles white and eyelids black. (In your dreams, he never dies.) The singer starts to whisper now. You cup your ears to understand: “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow.” Songs, singers, love itself. (Infinity plus one.) Drumbeat, chords, the crowd fade out, counting down to zero.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Wicked Little Town
Hedwig gets it: We’re all alone. Male or female, gay or straight, transgendered or even fictional, we’re strange, confused, and incomplete, searching for our missing halves. We run away from little towns. We follow strangers’ promises. In cities, in the world, we find and lose: our halves, ourselves, our voices. We seldom dare expose our scars, to risk, to chance, to sunshine. Clothed, bewigged, made-up, we hide. Our words, our songs, are silenced. But Hedwig wants and needs and loves. She hopes and fears and chases. She dares to sing, to find her voice, to fill the sky with wishes.
Rufus Wainwright – 14th Street
4) This song is best classified as…
a) Tin Pan Alley pop/rock/opera.
b) a show tune for which you imagine the show.
c) a timeless standard no one’s heard.
d) a trick question. It’s unclassifiable.
5) The piano is…
c) lost in a reverie.
d) shooting at your two left feet, commanding you to dance.
6) His voice, here and always, is…
c) devil’s food cake.
d) purposefully left blank by the instructor. Just listen.
7) Tear this test into confetti and toss it. A ticker-tape parade for champion heartbreak.
Garth Brooks – The Dance
8) With its sentimental lyrics (the refrain, “I could’ve missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance,” could easily fit in a card or on a bumper sticker), treacly piano (the outro is a goddamn never-ending story), and overall vibe of cornpone complacency (life sure sucks, but it’s also kinda wonderful, and gosh almighty that piano is purdy!), you’ve often dismissed this song as schlock (probably because it totally is). Why do you know all the words then, huh? Why do you let it breach your defenses? Can’t you just admit it works?
Don McLean – American Pie
A long, long time ago
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile…
Music class. Car rides. Band practice. Prom. The days the music lived forever. And not so long ago, just this week, the history of rock ‘n’ roll, those syllables, that melody, this song that belongs to America, to anyone, hurtling through my ear canal and tumbling out my mouth. It still makes me smile, from headphone to headphone. Yes, it touches me deep inside. Yes, I believe in rock ‘n’ roll. Yes, I’m unoriginal, but aren’t we all? Haven’t I caught you singing?
The Beach Boys – God Only Knows
I wish I could sing this, and mean this, for someone, free of doubt and dissonance: How do I love thee? God only knows. The message is simple, sincere, and disarming, never sentimental, sappy, or dumb. It’s heartfelt, honest, and head over heels. It doesn’t need gimmicks (like I do) to grab you, mostly because of how gentle it is. The melody soars, the sleigh bells ring out, but the soft, plaintive voice is the star of the show. It’s naked and beautiful, true love embodied. I wish I had someone to harmonize with. God only knows where she is.
Jon Brion – Here We Go
For years, I’ve explained my aloneness away. For years, I’ve made excuses: I’m shy, I’m busy, I’m picky, I’m happy… I’m not bitter. I’m not lonely. I’m not lying. I’m not sad. When does quirky become eccentric? When does solitude become isolation? How can an artist get me completely, even though we’ve never met, when no one I’ve met in years has tried, or maybe I haven’t let them in? Alone or lonely, I play this song, a lullaby, a lozenge: “You gotta hope that there’s someone for you, as strange as you are.” My throat and heart unclench themselves…
Aimee Mann – Guys Like Me
…And then I play another song, and damn near choke on hopelessness. “Guys like me,” this woman sings, this woman who speaks both to and about me, are “numb,” “chilly,” and “absentee.” We can’t be trusted, we’ll let you down, we’ll be our own worst enemies. Somehow this woman understands. She feels and sings so deeply, so truly, the things I’m scared to even think, let alone write or share or give, she comforts me completely. Solitude? Solace? Strangeness? Strength? The spaces between are shrinking, screaming. I open my throat and find the strength to sing my lonely heart out.
Liz Phair – Why Can’t I?
The jilted bloggers nailed it: Indie princess sells her soul. Old woman rips off Avril Lavigne. That’s why, when the chorus hit, I recognized it instantly. The song felt mildly subversive, but sticky, a kiss-off song delivered with an open-mouthed kiss. A spoonful of power chords made the vitriol go down. What the bloggers didn’t know is how much it would hammer me, one woman saying what another would not (or maybe I was hearing what I couldn’t before): It’s over, really over, since she’s seeing someone else. (“The best part of breaking up!”) Jilted, I couldn’t breathe or speak.
2Pac and Dr. Dre – California Love
9) In high school, I denounced this song (and the entire rap genre) for its excessive violence, rampant misogyny, and unrepentant privileging of rhythm over melody, sampling over live instrumentation, and killing other people over killing oneself.
10) I didn’t know what “misogyny” meant, much less how to say it.
11) Meanwhile, I cited the lyrics of nonviolence advocate Axl Rose and feminist scholar David Lee Roth as poetry.
12) Jesus, I was fucking dumb.
13) Tupac wrote more meaningful songs, but this is the one that rattles my windows.
14) Inglewood always up to no good.