I like Lucy Glib’s subtitle for this blog: “My secret shame goes public.” Musical preferences certainly give plenty of opportunity to steel oneself for embarrassment. People are allowed to eat fancy food, quickie food, healthy food, and junk food without fear of criticism. But when it comes to music, all sorts of drama erupts as to whether it’s good music or bad music, as if listening to a song that someone else doesn’t enjoy is some sort of insult. (Or, conversely, not liking a song that someone else loves.) I try to tell myself that I’m above caring, but in reality when an acquaintance talked about having a music listening party, the first two thoughts in my head were, “That would be cool,” and, “But what if they didn’t like the songs I chose?”
Most people have had the experience of seeing something once, and then realizing that it’s actually quite commonplace but just never noticed before. This year I had that experience with today’s song. I first encountered it courtesy of Mandy Moore earlier this year and, once I knew its origins, was surprised I hadn’t noticed it before. It dates from Elton John’s fertile early ’70s period; in a four-year span he released six albums (one double length) which included Your Song, Tiny Dancer, Rocket Man, Crocodile Rock, Daniel, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, among others. In such illustrious company, a simple song like Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters could easily get lost in the shuffle.
Mandy Moore noticed it, though. Epic Records released her first album in 1999 when she was fifteen, an attempt to replicate the bubblegum sounds of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera (both then eighteen). Unlike them, she hadn’t been through the Disney grooming machine, and her dancing skills were, well, minimal. Worse yet, as her career gestated, she realized that she didn’t actually enjoy frothy pop music. She liked singer-songwriters, and as soon as she could (which turned out to be 2003), she released a whole album full of her 1970s favorites: Not only big hitmakers like Blondie, Cat Stevens, and the Lady Trinity of Carly Simon, Carole King, and Joni Mitchell, but less well known artists like Joan Armatrading, John Hiatt, Todd Rundgren, Joe Jackson, XTC, and Michael Scott of the Waterboys. Oh, and Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.” Moore went on to make an album with indie pop darlings The Weepies and then to polish her own singer-songwriter credentials on her Amanda Moore album before joining the Disney coterie for “Tangled” and acting in some adequate films.
I know I’m supposed to like Elton John better than Mandy Moore, just as a matter of principle. Sorry. Elton’s version is pretty, with various acoustic flavors. But it’s five minutes long, and he delivers it exactly the same way, the whole way through. The only hint of modulation is that the mandolin and guitar sit out the first verse and chorus. Moore on the other hand offers a clear “Best Part,” which once again is a moment of change, as the drums join in at 1:34– not at the start of the second verse as usually happens for a rhythm modulation, but one line later, just to mix up an otherwise pedestrian build.
Having once appreciated the song, suddenly I found it all around me. On the Indigo Girls rarities album I ordered. On Elton’s Live in Barcelona DVD. Even when writing recently about Santana’s 1999 mega-hit “Smooth” on another website, light dawned when I re-considered its lyrics about a “Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa.” (For the uninitiated, the Elton John song is about the different sorts of people one might see on a visit to NYC, and Spanish Harlem gets a namecheck.)
I’ve often suspected that our musical preferences are largely a matter of circumstance rather than the intrinsic value of the work. Did I really just luck out to grow up in the ’80s, when music was much more awesome than today? More likely, I find ’80s music awesome because it’s what I heard growing up. (… and I am awesome, and share my awesomeness with my childhood music? Must investigate further.) My favorite album of any artist is likely to be the first one I hear, whichever one that might be. Apparently I’m not alone in this; the sales chart of most pop stars typically contains a single peak as wide as one or two albums. Once the decline begins, it rarely reverses. I seem to imprint music, like the freshly hatched duckling who decides a passing cat must be his mother.
Probably I’d prefer Elton John’s version of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” if I’d heard it first, even though I have no idea what “Best Part” I’d choose in an arrangement with so little variation. But I heard Moore first, and I prefer her version. I prefer her version of “Senses Working Overtime” to XTC’s original too, perhaps for the same exact reason, or perhaps because I have no taste, or perhaps because her vocals don’t sound like a wounded frog. I take solace in Sufjan Stevens’ comment that his indie fans would be deeply disappointed if they knew that he sits around at home listening to Pat Benatar and Heart. Hmm, Heart … Yep, thought so.