The wisdom of pop songs – Heartbroken

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

The world is full of sad songs, because sadness is an emotion that makes people want to write, to pour it all out. And as listeners, consumers, we have an insatiable appetite for hearing about it.

But what makes a great sad song stand out is the raw, painful, avert-your-eyes reaction it evokes in us. When Neil Diamond said something to the effect that his best songs were embarrassing for him  to listen to because they were so real, he was talking about You Don’t Bring me Flowers, his duet with Barbra Streisand, which deals with taking a partner for granted.

A real heartbreak song takes it one step further as the writer and singer reveal insecurities, fears, inadequacies and all the rotten infrastructure of our character that we would rather people didn’t see.

Amy Winehouse’s problems were public knowledge long before she died, her susceptibility to alcohol and drugs compounded by her relationship with an equally vulnerable man, a classic bad influence who not only caused her emotional distress and encouraged her substance abuse but accompanied her down the dark roads to which that led.

Back to Black is a typical piece of Winehouse bravado, making light of situations before revealing the damage they did her.

Unlike many people, I don’t claim she had the greatest soul voice, but she did have a way of wearing her heart on her sleeve that leaves us smeared in the blood it sheds.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJAfLE39ZZ8https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJAfLE39ZZ8

In the early 1960s Roy Orbison produced some very affecting, very real material, his rich timbre and mountainous range taking us over the edge of melodrama and into the real stuff.

It’s Over and Crying both hit us like a policeman’s early morning knock at the door which can only mean bad news.

While these seem completely genuine, there is also room here for products of the songwriter’s and singer’s craft, and the dream team of  writer Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, to whom he entrusted the song, make Until You Come Back To Me a chillingly beautiful experience. Aretha seems almost unfairly gifted with her voice; she hasn’t suffered more than everyone else, it  just sounds like that. Her sublime talent is as an interpreter of songs, and when Stevie Wonder called her one night and said he had a song for her, she said “I’ll take it,” without even hearing it. When the author of My Cherie Amour offers you a peach, you have no doubt that it’s going to be sweet.

Compare and contrast Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, in which, whatever the title might suggest, he plainly isn’t that bothered. Irish songstress Mary Coughlan  (see pic at top), whom fame has passed by, took the song, slowed it down and injected some emotion, but it still really just talks the talk rather than walking the walk.

Rickie Lee Jones is an interesting character, her early tomboy front masking a fragility that exists for real in her character as well as her work. Company is an achingly intimate account of the loneliness she knows is about to envelop her as this man leaves her for good. She’s not suicidal, but she is looking forward to seeing him again on the other side.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nG0zxxzvyYEhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nG0zxxzvyYE

Prince and Sinead O’Connor might have seemed an unlikely pairing until she took on Nothing Compares 2 U, but his ability to write direct from the tatters of his heart combined perfectly with her willingness to wash her dirty laundry in public to produce a timeless piece of heartache. Seven hours and fifteen days has now grown to more than 27 years, but it still feels like a kick in the guts from someone you’ve  given your heart to.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BB1TKw8_b1shttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BB1TKw8_b1s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The wisdom of pop songs – violence

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
hey joe
Check the lyrics: “I’m going down to shoot my old lady”.

It’s a thin line between love and hate. We know that because the song of that name says so.

In 1934 Cole Porter, the composer of countless classic songs, brought us the sad tale Miss Otis Regrets, in which the lady in question got so upset when a man had his wicked way with her and didn’t love her afterwards that she shot him. Killed him.

So much for the misty-eyed notion of the past: “Ah, more innocent times”. This was an era when Al Capone was in prison and sufferering from syphilis-induced dementia, and John Dillinger breathed his last in a hail of bullets.

Perhaps that is why there seems to have been no furore about Porter creating a bad role model and inciting people to violence. When you can’t see across the street for flying lead, what is one more seducer in the graveyard?

In today’s politically correct world, such a story of mayhem would probably be banned. That the world of rap music has largely escaped such censure for its litany of bitter diatribes and stories of drive-by shootings can only be due to the fact that the people who would like to have that sort of thing banned can’t understand the words because of da way dem muthas sing.

Confessions account for several notable pop violence ditties. When Jimi Hendrix made an international hit out of a song, Hey Joe, that had been kicking around for a few years (and we’re not even sure who wrote it), he wasn’t expressing murderous thoughts, but explaining why he had shot his girlfriend. It wouldn’t get him very far in front of a real judge and jury (ask Oscar Pistorius), but somehow Hendrix came over as a nice guy in spite of what he was telling us.

On a completely different note, Bessie Smith once sang about domestic violence and apparently excused her man for hitting her. “I’d rather my man would hit me, than for him to jump up and quit me,” and “I swear I won’t call no copper if I get beat up by my papa” must have raised eyebrows in the 1920s, but nothing like they would today. They are not her lyrics, in fact, because the song was written by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins, but even so, she was delivering the message. When Mary Coughlan recorded it in 1985, the strong-minded Irish singer switched “hit” and “quit” in the first of those lines, making her disapproval clear, and changed the second to “I swear I would call a copper…”

otis
And yes, I have a load of spare ammunition under there too

Messing around with a lyric in that way wouldn’t always work (Hey Joe, where you going with those heavy thoughts in your mind? I’m going to have a word with my old lady…), but then some songs are obviously just youthful rock’n’roll bravado while others seem relevant in reality.

A more modern take on domestic violence came in Suzanne Vega’s 1980s song Luka, which drew attention to the fact, even though the Luka character seems resigned to her fate, urging her neighbor to ignore anything that sounds like violence late at night. It is not pop music’s job to offer solutions, but it can draw our attention to things.

luka
No laughing matter: Suzanne Vega gets serious

Quite what Bob Marley thought he was doing when he admitted he shot the sheriff but denied shooting the deputy is not clear. Was shooting sheriffs okay in Jamaica at that time? Although his work is streaked with trouble with the police, Marley’s general message was that he and his fellows should be left alone to smoke ganja as and when they wanted, because they weren’t doing anyone any harm.

All of these songs, though, are from the fringes of pop: blues, rock, rap and reggae. In the simpler, more peaceful world of true pop music, from Doris Day to One Direction, no such skullduggery lurks. And anyway, it’s only rock’n’roll, so we can’t take it too seriously.