Scene by Scene: “The Princess Bride” (1987)

Since its release, Rob Reiner’s fairly tale spoof The Princess Bride has gone from cult classic to one of the most beloved films of its generation. Which scenes make it tick? Rating each section on a scale of 1 to 10:

A Kissing Book (00:00) 7/10 The opening cough and Hardball! video game play with the audience expectations generated by the title card, hinting at the fantasy trope subversions to come. Fred Savage’s jaded kid pre-empts audience criticism by whining about the love story opening so unattractively that the audience feels subconsciously compelled to defend the story, on grounds of its lush cinematography, if not its overwrought, digest-form romance.

Three Lost Circus Performers (7:15) 8/10 Wallace Shawn, publishing scion and occasional character actor, shrieks so broadly as to clue even the youngest viewers in that they are watching a send-up, a Fractured Fairy Tale which one can enjoy in proportion to one’s familiarity with the original material which it parodies. The clear switch from location shooting to soundstage encourages us to see the work as a play.

A Damper on Our Relationship (17:20) 10/10 Is this the greatest swordplay choreography in the history of cinema, or merely the greatest comic swordplay? The Man in Black’s dry wit verbally fences just as spryly with Mandy Patinkin’s unexpectedly laconic sword-for-hire, with a final result somewhere between Buster Keaton and Woody Allen.

I Don’t Even Exercise (25:04) 7/10 Thanks to Andre Roussimoff’s gigantism-induced mushmouth, I couldn’t understand half his lines in the pre-subtitle era, but slapstick comedy comes through in any language.

Never Get involved in a Land War in Asia (29:30) 9/10 Shawn’s improbably confident Sicilian again steals the battle of wits, right up to the moment when, well, you know.

You’re Only Saying That Because No One Ever Has (39:00) 5/10 Despite the stagey perils of the Fire Swamp, the helpless waif and unflappable swashbuckler are less fun alone together than when playing straight man/woman to the zanier characters from whom they are temporarily separated.

If You Haven’t Got Your Health (50:24) 4/10 The films’ emotional nadir is also its least memorable section; torture never makes for entertaining viewing, only for setting up a cathartic rescue.

Mostly Dead (60:30) 9/10
Manic Miracle Max improvs, a compassionately shrewish wife, and a chocolate-covered pill bring the story back up to speed in time for the final act.

Storming the Castle (74:31) 7/10 What’s a holocaust cloak? Who cares? The lisping clergyman and doddering king remind us: all that’s necessary for evil to triumph is for good to be a moron, but thankfully more competent heroes know when and how to threaten dismemberment.

Prepare to Die (81:28) 9/10 Ah yes, I knew we had some catharsis around here somewhere. In fine heroic fashion, the knife in the belly is all but forgotten ten minutes later.

I Knew He Was Bluffing (87:23) 6/10 A quiet denouement; the once-skeptical boy’s shy request for a repeat performance gives voice to the audience’s approval of the film. The sitcom style “greatest hits” closing credits satisfy that wish to see it again.

P.S. I don’t know that the book is better than the movie, but it does help plug some of the “But what about…” questions raised by William Goldman’s Cliff Notes style adaptation of his own novel, which in turn claims to be “the good parts” of a still larger work. Cut, and cut some more: a lesson many recent movies should have learned in the editing suite.

Lyric Theory: “The Boxer,” Simon and Garfunkel (1970)

The poet reads his crooked rhyme…
Thirty dollars pays your rent on Bleecker Street. (Paul Simon)

Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village

Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village

One endearing feature of music trends is their habit of hopping from one local scene to another. Picture 1960s Motown in Detroit, or Prince’s funky 1980s enclave in Minneapolis, or the early 1990s Seattle grunge scene, or the hippies in greater Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon circa 1970. Musicians cross-pollinate in communities that form, flourish for a few years, and then wither into legend. Greenwich Village, NYC hosted one such scene in the mid 1960s. Its cheap rents attracted impoverished artists who collaborated, conspired, and competed in coffeehouses and clubs such as Gerde’s Folk City and The Bitter End. The artsiness of the general Greenwich/SoHo area has been widely celebrated in song by its present, former, and would-be denizens: Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning,” Dar Williams’ “Spring Street,” Paul Simon’s “Bleecker Street,” and the like.

I could find a small apartment
Where a struggling artist died
And pretend, because I pay the rent,
I know that pain inside (Dar Williams)

Simon and his sixth-grade classmate Art Garfunkel had participated in a school play together and performed on and off as “Tom and Jerry” for years in high school and college while Simon studied English and Garfunkel, math and architecture. In 1964, they recorded an album for Columbia Records as “Simon and Garfunkel.” It went nowhere, and Simon decamped for England, where he wrote songs for other artists, including “Red Rubber Ball,” a #2 hit stateside for The Cyrkle. That song, like Simon’s later work with Garfunkel, featured acoustic rock stylings and close harmony singing reminiscent of late 50s country-pop teen idols The Everly Brothers.

Meanwhile, in Simon’s absence, S&G’s producer remixed their sparse folk ballad “The Sounds of Silence” with rock instrumentation. It went to #1, and Simon renewed his partnership with Garfunkel, releasing a string of four huge albums that helped define intelligent late ’60s pop.

Simon wrote all the lyrics, wrote all the melodies, sang, and played the guitar. Garfunkel … sang. He sang very prettily, but Bob Dylan’s nasal twang had rewritten the rules of pop listening expectations on that account. Garfunkel knew he was dispensable, and he attempted to build an acting career with the aid of director Mike Nichols, who had previously used S&G’s repertoire heavily in his film “The Graduate.” Simon, for his part, found the life of S&G so busy that all of his new songs were about their whirlwind pop star lifestyle, and the rising drama of their partnership. By the end of 1970, it was all over, save sporadic reunions for short-term projects.

I’m laying out my winter clothes
And wishing I was gone, going home
Where the New York City winters
Aren’t bleeding me (Paul Simon)

All these influences came together on their final studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water. The title track, a gospel piano-drenched hymn of brotherly comfort, became one of the most recorded songs besides “Happy Birthday.” “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” declared the narrator’s desire to escape the hubbub and quietly “sail away like a swan, here and gone.” “Cecilia,” referencing the Roman Catholic patron saint of musicians, lamented Simon’s bouts of writer’s block, depicting his muse of inspiration as a fickle lover who abandons him mid-coitus. “Keep the Customer Satisfied” re-imagined S&G as a duo of petty criminals, skipping from town to town but concluding, “I’m so tired.” “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” (nodding to Garfunkel’s interest in architecture) and “The Only Living Boy in New York” directly addressed the duo’s imminent dissolution. “Baby Driver” recalls Simon’s musical upbringing, including a bass-playing father. “Bye Bye Love” covered the Everly Brothers while reinforcing the theme of farewells.

I can’t believe your song is gone so soon.
I barely learned the tune.
I remember, “Frank Lloyd Wright,”
All of the nights we harmonized ’til dawn.
I never laughed so long.
So long, so long. (Paul Simon)

"That's OK, Paul. 'Just Like a Woman' is really about you."

“That’s OK, Paul. ‘Just Like a Woman’ is really about you.”

After the celebrated title track, the album’s other cornerstone was the five-plus-minute “The Boxer,” which although produced by Roy Hallee follows good Phil Spector production technique, building from a quiet country guitar lick to a howling banshee finale with choral harmonies, buzzing bass harmonica, fuzzed up bass guitar, and even massive chains slapped against the floor of a vacant warehouse. The lyrics describe a man who tried to make a career in New York City, is weighed down by failure, and leaves for pleasanter climes, insisting nonetheless that he’s not beaten. Simon apologists saw in the song a satire targeting his rival Bob Dylan, allegedly a “poor boy” prone to “lie lie lie lie lie lie” about the circumstances of his past, building a personal mythology to confound the press and his fans.

Such a jab would not have been unprecedented; Simon had already poked fun at Dylan with the parody song “A Simple Desultory Phillipic (Or, How I was Robert McNamara’d into Submission)” back in 1966. But with “The Boxer,” Dylan, who covered the song himself on his “Self Portrait” double album the year it was released, surely knew better. Carly Simon’s (no relation) “You’re So Vain” has been dissected similarly for 40 years. Is it about Warren Beatty? Jack Nicholson? Some other famous beau? Yes, to all. It’s about all the powerful, entitled litterati of the Manhattan publishing industry in which she grew up as part of the Simon & Schuster conglomerate, and all the privileged, preening glitterati she met in Hollywood before and during her marriage to James Taylor.

You’re where you should be, all the time,
And when you’re not, you’re with
Some underworld spy,
Or the wife of a close friend. (Carly Simon)

Joe Frazier vs Muhammad Ali, Madison Square Garden, 1971

Joe Frazier vs Muhammad Ali, Madison Square Garden, 1971

In the same way, “The Boxer” is about Dylan, but also about Paul Simon, and every street corner busker in Greenwich Village. They come to town seeking a music career but find only “a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue,” probably a reference to Columbia Records’ Studio C (701 Seventh Avenue) or Studio A (799 Seventh Avenue), or perhaps to Madison Square Garden, which opened in 1968 at its new Pennsylvania Plaza location on the block contained by 7th and 8th Avenues, and 31st through 33rd Streets, or to Carnegie Hall (881 7th Avenue). The promises of concert promoters and music industry executives are eventually recognized as “a pocketful of mumbles… all lies and jest.”

Hustle's the name of the game, and nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain

Hustle’s the name of the game, and nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain

The “musician as prostitute” theme has been mined by other stars through the years. In 1975, Glen Cambell recorded Larry Weiss’ “Rhinestone Cowboy,” which depicts a man endlessly treading “the dirty sidewalks of Broadway” in hopes of gaudy glory (rhinestones, not real diamonds) with “the lights shining on me… and offers coming over the phone.” The cowboy image likely came from “Midnight Cowboy,” the 1965 book made into an Oscar-winning 1969 film starring Dustin Hoffman (post -“The Graduate”) as a pimp attempting to help Texan Jon Voight  make his way as a gigolo in NYC. Weiss, like Paul Simon, had grown up in New Jersey and Queens and knew the musician’s career frustration of “riding a train that’s taking the long way.” North Carolina-based singer-songwriter David Wilcox’s 1999 album track “Sex and Music,” in an extended metaphor, also ruminates on the uncomfortable parallels between his career and the oldest profession:

“At first you say you do it for love
But then you do it with friends
As soon as you do it for money
Right there’s where the innocence ends…
And it leads you to strange addictions
like image and marketing spin
You’re just trying to get them to like you,
and how could that be such a sin?” (David Wilcox)

Many’s the musician with misgivings about the intersection of art and commerce. As for Paul Simon, his fortunes undulated from peaks in 1976 (Grammies for Album of the Year and Best Male Pop Performance) and 1981 (rejoining Garfunkel for a Concert in Central Park before an awed hometown crowd of half a million New Yorkers)  to a subsequent nadir followed by a triumphant comeback on 1986’s “Graceland” album, which won Album and Record (i.e. recorded song) of the year awards. He has finally settled comfortably into the role of musical elder statesman in the thirty years since then, but still puts out new records. The fighter still remains.

(Don’t) FFWD To the Best Part: “Take a Chance on Me,” ABBA, 1977

Til the one day when the ladies met these fellows

Til the one day when these ladies met these fellows

How long does a song have to stay awesome to be an awesome song? Some pop songs offer their best moment right out of the gate, no fast forwarding required or even recommended. A great opening hook gives a song huge momentum, as in today’s song from ABBA. The song as a whole presages the transition from disco to New Wave, with prominent synths instead of strings or horns. But the chugging, “take-a-chance, take-a-chance, take-a-take-a-chance-chance” fifth interval bassline from Bjorn and Bennie, switching to an open octave on the dominant for the second chord, makes such a terrific counterpoint to Agnetha’s and Anni-Frid’s melody that I’m actually disappointed when the “real song” kicks in halfway through the chorus.

If you understand the relevance of this picture, you are officially old.

If you understand the relevance of this picture, you are officially old.

I seem to be a sucker for those cold acapella openings; I love them from Fun., and The Eagles, and Larry Gatlin too. Even Blue Swede’s bizarre “Ooga Chocka” version of “Hooked on a Feeling” gets the blood pumping far more than the pedestrian 70s rock-pop instrumentation comprising the bulk of the song. Music requires tonal movement, and there are so many directions to go after a sparse-yet-arresting beginning.

Nothing gets me down, except requests for sensible lyrics.

Nothing gets me down, except requests for sensible lyrics.

Some songs put a great instrumental riff at the beginning and then spend the rest of the song on autopilot: Axel F and Jump come to mind. (These were also the first two that my wife independently suggested when I mentioned this theme.) Does anyone really care about any part of “Gonna Make You Sweat” after the first ten seconds? Often the opening riff recurs again under the vocals later (The Power of Love, Sweet Dreams Are Made of This, Orinoco Flow, Layla, Every Breath You Take) or between verses (Nine to Five, Land of Confusion). Occasionally it never rears its head again, as in the Go-Go’s Head Over Heels. All these songs have decent middles and endings that still don’t live up to the full promise of their iconic openings. Often, one good riff is all it takes.

FFWDing To the Best Part: “Eternal Flame,” The Bangles (1989)

Just as the Baby Boomer generation of kids birthed a demographic “echo boom” when they grew up and started families at the same time, so also musical styles birth progeny songs when aging teens start making music inspired by their earlier youth. I previously noted this “twenty year rule” while discussing the reverence of Billy Joel and Huey Lewisfor music of the late 50s in the late 70s and early 80s, and Dream Academy’s homage to early 60s doo wop a little later. Apart from doo wop, the pre-Beatles era was the playground of folkies like Joan Baez, but also of a zillion interchangeable Girl Groups. The Chiffons, the Crystals, the Pixies Three, the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Marvelettes, the Angels, the Vandellas, the Supremes, and others sang works pounded out by Carole King and her associates in NYC’s famous Brill Building, or by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team in Detroit.

Hoffs

The echo twenty years later included some girl groups that wrote and performed their own music (The Go-Gos), and some that did neither (Bananarama, the Pointer Sisters). The Bangles, like Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, split the difference, playing their own instruments but working with talent like Prince, Jules Shear, Paul Simon, and Billy Sternberg to generate their tunes. “Eternal Flame” was controversial within the band. Lead singer Susannah Hoffs brought this 1989 song to the band, who correctly smelled Hoff’s incipient departure and initially resisted what proved to be their second Number One and final Top Twenty hit. Sure enough, the video showcased a short-skirted Hoffs, alone on the beach, and within a year the band was on hiatus while Hoffs made her unsuccessful shot for solo stardom.

The track starts off with a calliope synth and drum machine. A brief string pad gives way to acoustic guitar arpeggios and bass and, beginning on the second verse, some very Girl Groupish “ooooh” background harmonies. The I-vi-IV-V chord progression from many late 50s songs (the songs “Duke of Earl” or “Stand By Me,” or half the songs in Grease, which homages that era) reinforces the classic pop direction. But then after those two brisk verses (no chorus) comes The Best Part when the bridge kicks in at the 1:03 mark. First, tympani signal a dramatic change of direction, and the placid background oooohs plunge repeatedly, just as the synth strings reappear on top of them, and piano underneath. As we’ve seen before, a change of instrumentation provides a great way to spice up a song partway through.

But the coolest change is the bridge’s surprising modulation from the original key of G major into D minor and then C major, then a totally different instrumental section in E minor before mirroring the D minor/C major section on the way back to G major for layered repetitions of the first verse on a prolonged fadeout that finally adds a full drum kit, as the backup Bangles take the melody while Hoffs performs a descant over the top. This AABCBAA song structure, with a modulation to the dominant for the middle section, like the sonata form in classical music, can be compared to a trip across someone’s face: ear, eye, nose, eye, ear. I can’t think of anything else quite like it on Top Forty, either before or since.

Lyric Theory: “Life in a Northern Town,” The Dream Academy (1985)

Yorkshire, 1985: As the train rolled out of sight

Yorkshire, 1985: As the train rolled out of sight

Is it better to have hit only once than never to have hit at all? British one-hit wonders comprise a class all their own. You’ve got your Soft Cells (1981), who had several more hits in their homeland. Occasionally someone like Donna Lewis (1996) whose hit was even bigger “over here” than in Britain. But bands like the Dream Academy got their one-hitness just right everywhere, with broad acclaim for exactly one song, forever and ever, amen.

To a Yank like me, “life in a Northern town” (the concept, not the song) doesn’t conjure a specific image. British readers, feel free to chime in. Apparently the North of England, i.e. just south of Scotland, is somewhat like the South of America: less urbane (London is in southern Britain, my droogs), worse health, more poverty, less education, fatter, under-represented culturally. The writers of “Doctor Who” considered the distinction worth noting when Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation of the non-human title character had a Northern accent, leading him to quip to his companion, “Lots of planets have a North!” For a point of reference, Americanos, consider Darth Vader or Superman with a sudden deep Georgia accent.

Dream Theater surfaced in 1985, as the tides of culture were pulling the original MTV-fueled New Wave of British pop back out to sea. Stalwarts like Duran Duran, Eurythmics, and Culture Club had presented their career-defining hits. Minimalism was out around then; baroque density was back, in hits from The Moody Blues, Tears for Fears, and Mr. Mister. Also, early 1960s nostalgia was starting to overtake the late-1950s homages of Billy Joel and Huey Lewis. “Life in a Northern Town” presents an idyllic time when,

The Salvation Army band played
And the children drank lemonade
And the morning lasted all day
And through an open window came
Like Sinatra in a younger day
Pushing the clouds away:
“Ah hey ma ma mommy doo-din-nie-ya…”

The lyrics eulogize the glossolalia of the doo-wop tradition, found in the backing vocals of a zillion songs from The Silhouettes’ “Get a Job” (1957) to The Marcels’ “Blue Moon” (1961). That scene had been fêted in its own latter days by Barry Mann’s “Who Put the Bomp” (1961) and Johnny Cymbal’s “Mr. Bassman” (1963), among others. Even in 1973, The Carpenters were still pining to re-experience the “shing-a-ling” music of “Yesterday Once More.” Wordless vocalizing had long been part of the cowboy tradition, as practiced “way back when” by Jimmie Rodgers, a.k.a. “The Blue Yodeler,” and more recently by Dolly Parton and Jewel Kilcher. Scat singing predated commercially available recordings such as Louis Armstrong’s faux-trumpet solo on “Heebie Jeebies” (1926). Nonsense singing is silly and fun, often showing up in novelty hits like the Oak Ridge Boys’ cover of First Edition’s hit “Elvira” (1981 and 1970, respectively), or even the big pop hits from Crash Test Dummies (1993), Hanson (1997), and Kid Rock (1998).

Na Na Na

He said, “In winter 1963
It felt like the world would freeze
With John F. Kennedy and The Beatles”
Heya… Life in a Northern town
Heya… All the work shut down.

Dream Academy’s songwriter Nick Laird-Clowes (b. 1957) links three sad turning points of his childhood. First, the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy (November 22, 1963) was big news in Britain, getting nonstop news coverage for 24 hours. (Trivia: When the Kennedy news coverage ended, everyone turned off their TVs in shock, thereby missing the very first episode of Doctor Who. It was re-broadcast the following week as a result.) Even for those of us not around back then, it’s easy to imagine how upsetting the assassination was for Europeans, many of whom would have remembered the time that an assassination triggered a World War.

The second disaster hit closer to home and thus is even easier to understand: “All the work shut down.” North England was coal and industrial country, and the second half of the twentieth century was no kinder to it than to Rust Belt America. Many a pop song has chronicled these painful economic transitions: Billy Joel’s “Allentown” (1982) and “The Downeaster Alexa” (1989), U2’s “Red Hill Mining Town” (1987), Cowboy Junkies’ “The Last Spike” (1992) among others. Bruce Springsteen made a career out of songs like this.

Merseybeat killed the Doo Wop Star

Merseybeat killed the Doo Wop Star

But the real kicker is the third catastrophe: “The Beatles.” Woah! Talk about trampling on a national treasure! We can understand how a “lonely teenage broncin’ buck” American like Don Mclean might seethe with envy over the apparent ease with which the British Invasion of the mid-1960s supplanted homegrown rock-n-roll singers. But it would appear the John Lennon is not the only one who doesn’t believe in Beatles. Within the few lines of this song (three stanzas, virtually wordless chorus, no bridge), Laird-Clowes doesn’t elaborate on his disdain for the Fab Four, but he’s deeply attached to the songs of his early childhood, as opposed to later music. Musicians who love music itself, as opposed to the perquisites of fame and fortune that come with music stardom, write songs about music: Rush, Boston, U2, even Eric Carmen. One can imagine how a music-loving child might see a change in the musical climate as a threat on the order of massive unemployment or political unrest, and seek refuge in the old songs.

Not that he tries to emulate the sound of those songs; “Life in a Northern Town” sounds as mid-80s as a song could, and the tribal beat underlying the chorus chant has less in common with The Marcels and more with the world beat sounds being popularized by Talking Heads’ “I Zimbra” (1979), Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” (1986), and Paul Simon’s Grammy-riffic “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” (1986). Laird-Clowes was also shooting for the langurous mood of Nick Drake, a late 1960s British singer-songwriter who enjoyed posthumous success in the States after his songs began appearing in advertisements. Kate St. John adds an oboe line at least as pretty as the one in Madonna’s “Crazy for You” (1985), and producer David Gilmour washes the whole thing in echoes of his Pink Floyd days. “Mellow tribal” sums up the results; “dream pop” sounds more like one of those pseudo-genres dreamed up by a publicist.

These days, the Dream Academy themselves suffer from frequent confusion with the more enduring prog metal band Dream Theater, but “Life in a Northern Town” goes on, even getting a cover at the 2007 CMT Awards of all places, by Sugarland et al. That live performance, nominated for both a Grammy and a CMA award, doesn’t sound the same without the massive studio production on the original chorus, but still, not a bad way to commemorate great music of the past, which is what Dream Academy were shooting for themselves.

Lyric Theory: “Thriller” and more, Michael Jackson (1982)

They’re out to get you
There’s demons closing in on every side
They will possess you
(from “Thriller”)

A chance conversation can shape a career trajectory and a life. Nichelle Nichols almost jumped ship from struggling TV series Star Trek long before it ended its original three-year mission in the bottom half of the Nielsens, but Martin Luther King, Jr. advised her to stay on board, as an example of a black woman enjoying a successful career. Granted, she was basically a space receptionist whose jobs were answering the phone and sitting on a platform in a dangerously short miniskirt. Seriously, her costume is on display at the Science Fiction museum in Seattle, and if I tried to put it on, it wouldn’t cover my navel. Tiny person! But as Mad Men reminds us, “secretary/eye candy” passed for female professional advancement in the 1960s, so Nichols stuck with Star Trek not only through the failed TV show, but through its remarkable syndicated resurrection into a pop culture phenomenon.

MLK knew that when a group wants acceptance by the broader society, one can be seen as normal simply by doing normal stuff: having a job, raising a family, going shopping, brushing teeth, whatever. Though Star Trek addressed  racism memorably and explicitly,  it never raised the issue of Uhura’s race, and the show’s team of seasoned Sci-Fi authors protected her from the era’s stereotypically black character tropes, except perhaps her penchant to burst into song.

Tired of injustice
Tired of the schemes
The lies are disgusting
So what does it mean?
(from “Scream”)

Elsewhere in the popcultureverse, the Motown record label advanced civil rights not by marching or sitting in, but by singing. Berry Gordy’s studio crew offered a revolving door of fresh-faced, dapper young men and women with songs of love and optimism during a time of national stresses. Diana Ross broke out of the Supremes as the runaway favorite of the mid 1960s, but the end of the decade brought a family of twelve from Gary, Indiana to the fore. The Jackson 5 thrived as part of the bubblegum pop scene, charting four consecutive #1 singles in 1969 and 1970. They appeared on Saturday Morning cartoons, on lunchboxes, on board games.

Little brother Michael’s endearing and precocious renditions of R&B hits made him the media darling on both group and solo projects, and a wave of competing “family bands” fronted by kids sprung up: real ones like the Osmonds (six Top Twenty hits 1970-4, including one trip to #1), and fake ones like The Partridge Family (five Top Twenty hits in the same time period, one #1). Others like Keith Green tried to cash in on the kids’ music craze but would have to wait until adulthood to hit their professional strides.

The Osmonds and Jacksons both came from separatist religious sects, Mormon and Jehovah’s Witnesses, respectively. Both groups had begun generations before with sharp “us vs the world” rhetoric, but by the 1970s, the Osmonds formed the vanguard of a Mormon gambit to be accepted into the crazy quilt of American popular culture, so that by 2012, a Mormon running for president could garner 47% of the vote.

They’re out to get you
Better leave while you can
Don’t want to be a boy
You want to be a man
You want to stay alive
Better do what you can
So beat it
(from “Beat It”)

In case anyone was wondering.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in contrast remained aloof – no military service, no pledge of allegiance, no holidays, a creed so exclusive that only 144,000 of their own members hope for heaven. Michael Jackson’s pop stardom posed challenges for his JW obligations such as frequent door-to-door proselytizing, and his standing within the organization became even tenser when the centerpiece title track of his “Thriller” album extolled the escapist fun of 1950s sci-fi B-movies about aliens and monsters. The music video depicted Jackson transforming into a werewolf and running from, then becoming, a zombie. Under pressure from JW leadership, Jackson added a needless disclaimer to the front of the video, in case anybody thought that making a zombie movie meant one was a witch doctor.

No one understands me
They view it as such strange eccentricities…
People say I’m not okay
‘Cause I love such elementary things.
It’s been my fate to compensate
For the childhood I’ve never known.
(from “Childhood”)

Amidst the whirlwind of the touring and recording, Jackson can’t have had much time to develop peer skills. He was a superstar on stage but just a little brother behind the curtain. A USA Today reporter embedded on Jackson’s “Bad” tour told me that when the entourage rented out two floors of a hotel in the city du jour, Jackson would wander the halls, looking for someone to talk to. Painfully shy, he preferred the company of animals and kids.

Here abandoned in my fame
Armageddon of the brain
KGB was dogging me
Take my name and just let me be
(from “Stranger in Moscow”)

Jackson’s music began to reflect the pressures he felt from family, faith, paparazzi, music industry, fans. His musical persona changed from smiles to scowls. Instead of the torch songs, love songs, and life celebrations of his late ’70s disco days, the ’80s saw Jackson chased by Thriller’s monsters, conniving groupies (twice) , gangsters, gang-bangers (twice). Even when he did release a song of infatuation, the video derailed it into stalker territory, casting Jackson as the leader of a street gang blocking the path of a lone club-bound woman on dark streets.

She waits at backstage doors
For those who have prestige,
Who promise fortune and fame,
A life that’s so carefree
(from “Dirty Diana”)

In the ’90s, amidst murmurings about vitiligo therapy and collapsed nose jobs, his songs protested the inescapable gaze of the media, of racists, of life in general, and particularly of “Dom Sheldon,” a thinly veiled version of Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon, who twice investigated allegations of child sexual abuse among the young visitors to Jackson’s Neverland ranch/amusement park. Even the thrilling, morphalicious “Black and White” video undercut itself in the original extended ending in which a were-panther Jackson vandalizes racist cars while stroking his crotch. Jackson’s composite message came through clearly: “Leave Me Alone!”

1979

1979

1987

1987

Tell me, what has become of my life? I have a wife and two children who love me. I am the victim of police brutality, now. I’m tired of being the victim of hate. (from “They Don’t Care About Us”)

Life imitated art imitated life. Is it still paranoia if people really are out to get you because your paranoia makes you a target? The “Thriller” video also added ambiguity to the situation by casting Jackson as the victim in the middle section, but as the monster at its beginning and end. None of this fit well with the MLK/Berry Gordy strategy of success through normalcy, which Jackson seemed not to need after amassing enough power in his own right to become the first black artist heavily played on then-New Wave-centric MTV, which in turn ensured his further hegemony. But the stress of ultra-fame and its thrills proved too much, and the most famous man in the world joined the sad ranks of celebrities who over-medicated their pain first into a stupor, and then into a casket.

Though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the thriller

FFWDing to the Best Part: “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” Mandy Moore (2003)

MooreI 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.