Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Anti-Pop playlist.

If rock 'n' roll were to be reduced to a hand gesture, it would be the middle finger. Rock is meant to be contrarian. Think of the great blues, rhythm & blues, rockabilly, rock, soul, funk, punk, disco, new wave, hip-hop, etc. songs and you hear pain, stories of the Not and, well, the blues. Rock's tendency is to grow up and fall back into the fold. But its puberty phase is always a beast of hormonal rage.

In this sense, LINER NOTES: Anti-Pop honors a long-standing tradition in rock: biting the hand. Why wonder whether a rocker's successful debut of angst, anger and agitation will be followed by more AAA? There's always something there to annoy a pop star -- even said success. Elvis had the foresight to freely admit this in "Radio, Radio." But a wedding and Joni Mitchell actually sparked this theme.

While putting together music for a wedding, a couple requested Mitchell's "You Turn Me On I'm A Radio." It's a peculiar song in that it's one of Mitchell's certifiable hits, but not one of her more characteristic. It is un-romantic, choppy and, well, "a little bit corny." I had never paid the song much attention, and a closer listen paid in funky dividends. Several stories behind the song point to Mitchell's frustration over being pressured to write a hit. The resulting image of being likened to a passive radio is so evocative of the time, it could actually be accused of being overly romantic. And for some reason reminds me of Radiohead's gruesome analogy of "Creep" feeling like an iron lung to the band. And so we are off to the races.

The Nevermind anniversary undoubtedly suggested I should revisit Nirvana's catalog, but the band is perhaps the preeminent tortured stars of my teen years. While that album has its share of pop snark, I still marvel at the bile in In Utero. Talk about golden handcuffs.

Fiona Apple came to mind, but another (tonally contrasting) wedding introduced me to Sara Bareilles, a pop singer-songwriter with a dull edge (i.e., she says "shit"). "Bottle It Up"'s swooping melody and incessant incantation of "Love" is mind-numbingly boring, but she front-ends the lobotomy with a hint of cynicism -- "There'll be girls across the nation that will eat this up." You're a fool to sing along to this. See how much better it is when the plan doesn't come together?

Admittedly, not every song here is certified pop. The Undertones are underground. They Might Be Giants' "Hey, Mr. DJ I Thought You Said We Had A Deal" dates to its Dial-A-Song period. And who really pressured LCD Soundsystem to write a hit? However, The Kinks' Lola Vs Powerman And The Moneygoround and De la Soul's Buhloone Mind State may lack placards, but they are seminal records outlining the pains of going pop.

The relative lack of cash success behind all these records perhaps make writing these sorts of songs less appealing. However, so long as success can be measured in rock, count on a rocker to call bullshit on it.

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