Monday, September 18, 2006
Wishing to be the friction in your jeans

Taylor Swift - Tim McGraw

We've got Taylor Swift's song up in the Jukebox tomorrow night (check Tuesday's Stylus), and this is a rare instance where the Jukebox introduces me to a track I really quite like. Usually the tracks I give high scores to are ones I am already familiar with; since we work on actual release and charting dates rather than Internet leaks, I'm usually already familiar with the song if it's the sort of thing I'm likely to like. Of course, country is my blindspot, the one area of popular music that I'm always behind the times on, so it shouldn't be surprising that if the Jukebox is going to be giving me something new to listen to, it's going to be a country track.

This track is called "Tim McGraw," but I don't think he's that vital lyrically to the song. The idea is that Swift's favorite singer is Tim McGraw, so when the boy she's had a fling with and moved on from hears a McGraw track, Swift hopes he thinks of her. Really, she could have substituted any artist with a three syllable name - "When you think Eminem"; "When you think Fall Out Boy"; "When you think John Coltrane" - etc.

However, she did choose Tim McGraw, which is something I kind of like. See, Swift is 16 years old (for lazy writers, Wikipedia counts as fact checking), so it makes a neat kind of sense that if she's going to namedrop an artist she likes, it'll be someone recent like Tim McGraw. Namedropping artists is a fairly common theme in pop music since pretty much forever, and if we're not talking about dis tracks or humorous pop cultural references (Eminem, Adam Green, etc.), artists usually like to sing about artists who have meant a lot to them. And because an artist who you've spent much of your life listening to is the type to stick around in your mind for a long time, the artists who get namedropped tend to be a fair bit older than the artist doing the namedropping. Don McLean sung about Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper; Biggie rapped about Salt 'n' Pepa and Heavy D; The Replacements shouted out Alex Chilton. It's the same reason artists cover older songs more often than newer songs.

But when you're only 16 years old, a current artist like Tim McGraw can have been part of your life long enough that it makes sense to sing about him in a song. It would make no sense for Swift to be singing about Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash, or hell, even Garth Brooks. She would have been about two years old when Garth Brooks was at his biggest. So when McGraw is looking for a musical touchstone to color the experience of her summer night with a guy in a broke-down Chevy, she sings what she knows. She sings what was probably on the radio at the time.

The worst thing rock music ever got itself involved in was creating history and heroes to be reverent about. In today's rock environment, you're not allowed to contemplate the idea that you could be better than Bob Dylan, or the Rolling Stones or the Beatles or the Beach Boys, or even Nirvana. Evan McGarvey said something similar about New York hip hop in his Stylus review of T.I.'s King, and suggested that the fertile creativity of the South is somewhat due to that region's music community being not "as fascinated with the dead artists of yore." (He's right - why do you think the most interesting acts in New York are the man who said "if I'm not better than B.I.G., I'm the closest one," and Dipset, who act like people who are better than them don't exist?)

Rock acts are cripplingly fascinated with the dead artists of yore. And when the entire rock culture is built on this idea that there are a certain number of heroes (and there always are, no matter what type of rock you play - indie kids are not alllowed to think they could best the Pixies or Sonic Youth for instance), it's going to shut down an artist's ambition and creativity. That's why I like hearing an artist like Swift, who operates in such a contemporary environment, that her number one historical reference is a guy on the radio right now. With no history to revere, she can do whatever she wants.

Something Corporate - Konstantine

Something Corporate isn't quite so young as Taylor Swift, but they're close. In fact, frontman Andrew McMahon is 11 months older than I am (which makes him 24), but still - that ain't old. And this song, "Konstantine," comes from a 2003 Japanese-only release called Songs For Silent Movies (Something Corporate, as a vaguely emo band, are contractually obliged to make their best tracks only available on obscure EPs.) So he was 20 when this track was recorded, and younger than that when he wrote it, and goddamn, you can tell. Something Corporate are juvenile, and I'm not talking juvenile like Blink-182, I'm saying they have an immature outlook on life. The way they talk about things is quite clearly not anything close to adult.

That works out wonderfully and disastrously for them in about a 50/50 ratio. Seriously, I like some Something Corporate tracks, but they have recorded some terrible, terrible shit. On their first record they have a track called "If U C Jordan," which is not only a nauseatingly horrible exuberant take on midtempo pop, it has quite possibly the dumbest lyrics ever commited to tape. The sort of thing where you can't wait for the singer to get the shit smacked out of him, as he almost undoubtedly will. McMahon tells us that "Jordan" is about "this kid who just don't like [him]/And that's a solid fact." Check this verse and ask yourself how a human being who's been on this earth for two decades could write something like it:

You tried to fight me down at Tyler's beach/And man I think that's great/You nearly cried and said/to yell at you like I did at all the girls/You drove home real quick, did you make it in time to masturbate?/There's one too many of you in this world

Damn, a guy who's been on this earth one decade shouldn't be writing that shit.

But the flipside is, McMahon has a knack of pulling some brilliant stuff out at times, to the extent that you wonder how this could be the same guy who penned a track called "If I Was A Terrorist (I'd Bomb Your Graduation)." "Konstantine" is a perfect example of the talent he apparently has hiding somewhere. It's just as immature, but in that great irrational, impassioned, limitless opportunity type way. "Konstantine" is about... shit, everything. It's about McMahon, and his girl Konstantine ("why I can spell confusion with a "K" and I can like it") and him disappointing Konstantine, and the two of them talking about the future, and McMahon's dreams of becoming a rock star, and drinking and nudity. And McMahon is so struck by the importance of all this stuff that he makes "Konstantine" nine minutes long! And we're not talking about big proggy instrumental interludes; the whole thing is McMahon singing, at first solo with a piano, then over a gorgeous throbbing bass and then the whole band comes in, but they stay somewhat restrained. Only McMahon's vocal goes over the top. It's a stupid idea, terribly audacious, but it works, simply because McMahon believes that this track is his masterpiece, and he delivers it as if it is the greatest and most meaningful song ever released. Maybe it's not, that but it's still pretty fantastic.

And somewhere in the middle of the thing, he sings "it's to Jimmy Eat World and those nights in my car/When the first star you see may not be a star," a reference to Jimmy Eat World's track "For Me This Is Heaven," from the 1999 album Clarity. Like Taylor Swift, Andrew McMahon is so young that his musical reference points don't extend back much beyond who he's listening to right now. In this case, Jimmy Eat World. He has heard older music of course - the band does a truly horrible cover of Bob Dylan's "Just Like A Woman," - but the fact remains, when the emotional big guns had to come out, McMahon drew on Jim Adkins, not Robert Zimmerman.

When other artists have a similar lack or reverence for people like Dylan, maybe we'll start getting somewhere.

Buy Something Corporate's Songs For Silent Movies from Insound

Posted by Jonathan on Monday, September 18, 2006 at 11:13 AM |

Man, good point - I doubt very much I'd like either song, but I think the gist of this post is very, very true.

I think musicians are like writers, or any other creative people; you have to simultaneously be deeply pessimistic and suspicious of your own bullshit (it keeps you honest) and yet also seriously think you're the best thing ever, that you actually can compete on a level with the great. When it comes to hallowed forebears this plays out pretty closely - you have to think you have somrthing to prove, but also that you're absolutely capable of proving it. It's the latter bands seem to be having trouble with - look at the disaster it's made of Coldplay's career!

Oh, damn straight with Coldplay. Never has there been a band that's so relentlessly pursued mediocrity. Chris Martin, even when he does pen a good song seems to see a ceiling just over his head mandating that he can never be better than his influences. He can be in the biggest band in the world, and he'll never try to write records as good as U2's or Radiohead's.

Omg Jonathan. You're like the only other person in the world who appreciates Something Corporate's Konstantine. Among the sea of shit that SC puts out, Konstantine is amazing.

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