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All the Empty Things Disguised as Me
379 · 2 May 02
The Goo Goo Dolls: Gutterflower
I claim to pride myself on being an elitist. No, more: I claim to pride myself on being the sort of person who would claim to pride themselves on being an elitist, which I think makes me a meta-elitist. I'd skip a step and simply claim to be a meta-elitist, but then I'd have to explain that to people, and the last thing a dedicated meta-elitist wants to spend their meta-valuable time doing is explaining meta-elitism to meta-peons. Actually, maybe that's backwards: a real meta-elitist might like nothing better than condescendingly explaining their meta-superiority all the time. So perhaps that's the first sign that I'm misrepresenting myself. But I've recently had two indications that are much less convoluted.
The first was that Other Music closed and it really didn't bother me. Other Music is a well-established New York record store that some time ago opened a branch in Harvard Square, somehow purging the grease and pepperoni smell from a space previously occupied by an egregiously awful pizzeria. I don't know exactly when they appeared, but my financial records claim I made my first purchase there on 28 November 2000, and I doubt they'd been open for more than a couple weeks. For an elitist, and an obsessive music elitist in particular, Other Music was basically wish-fulfillment. "A store totally filled with music I've never heard of", my friend David described it as, after wandering in for a few minutes while waiting for me to meet him in front of it. I'd heard of most of it. I'd heard most of it. But I knew what he meant. Newbury Comics, the default source for alternative music in Boston, sells everything. They have the Gerbils and the Microphones, but they also have Britney and Korn. Other Music didn't have Britney or Korn. I can't remember ever seeing a major-label disc in their bins, even by a once-indie artist. I think they carried even Matador and Merge only with misgivings, and only because there's a grade of record-store clerk you simply cannot attract if you cannot provide in-store copies of every Yo La Tengo record. They had several strengths (each genre, naturally, segregated and assigned a cute name), but I spent most of my time in the rock section ("In"), which was effectively a compact census of the American Indie scene, with extremely judicious imported exceptions. They prepared little descriptive cards for many of the key new releases, and often confused my schedule by selling things before they were scheduled to go on sale. Their prices were fine, they were happy to answer questions, and they were only playing music that made me violently angry about every sixth visit, compared to about every third visit for Newbury Comics and three out of four for anywhere else. According to my accounts, I spent about a hundred dollars a month at Other Music for the first nine months of its tenure.
But there, already, is a problem with either Other Music or with me. I'm not going to tell you exactly how much money I spent at Newbury Comics during that period, but it was a lot more than a hundred dollars a month. Other Music seemed like a record store assembled specifically for me, and I seemed like their dream customer, but the dollars supported neither idea. I didn't buy anything there in August, despite going in every Tuesday. In September I spent about forty dollars, in October twenty. November, nothing. December, $13.94. January nothing. February, a $55.61 splurge. It wasn't enough; one day in March, without so much as a closing sale for warning, they were suddenly gone, leaving nothing but dust swirls, a cryptic note on the door, and, I swear, the smell of rancid marinara sauce already beginning to reassert itself. The last time I'd been there, I'd set off the alarms as I came in. "You always set those off", an affably tattooed man commented as I handed him my bag. "It's your competition alarm", I suggested. He looked blank. "Newbury Comics stuff", I explained, pointing at the bag. He snorted, tersely. "I don't think they're our competition." But I came in with a bag full of Newbury Comics CDs, and I left Other Music without buying any Other Music CDs, and four days later Newbury Comics was still open and bustling and Other Music was history. If they couldn't get somebody as predisposed as me to switch allegiances, how could they ever hope to survive?
But the more I thought about it, the less sure I was that I was the kind of buyer they hoped to live on, after all. Other Music carried tons of things that Newbury Comics doesn't, but they were rarely the things I wanted to buy. I turn around and scan my shelves, tonight, and am hard-pressed to point to anything I definitely must have bought at Other Music. In my rapidly-morphing revisionist mental image of their premises, the pop inventory consists of the complete works of the Fall, one Notwist EP, and two thousand crappy Elephant 6 records somebody made in an hour after eating a psychoactive mushroom omelet and watching Yellow Submarine on a black-and-white TV. The truth is, I wasn't alternative enough for Other Music. They didn't carry major-label records, but if I didn't realize that was the theme I might easily have concluded that their line was drawn at bands who aren't afraid to try to be good. I hate Pavement and the Apples in Stereo and Badly Drawn Boy, and if you took out those bands, and all the bands who sound like them, and all the side projects of the side projects, you would have been left with me standing in front of a long row of nearly-empty bins, with a few Belle and Sebastian singles at one end, some Low records in the middle, and a beleaguered copy of Awful Mess Mystery at the other. Other Music was the wish-fulfillment record store for the person I thought, when I was fifteen, I was going to grow up to be. The me I am now prefers more ambition and sparkle. If I'd told them my favorite bands are Roxette, Runrig and Tori Amos, they'd never have let me in the store. If I'd realized that sooner, I'd have stopped going before they closed. I buy imported Alanis Morissette singles and spent my ride home from work today listening to Candlemass talk about what great guys Motörhead are; I don't deserve a record store any better than Newbury Comics. And now I don't have one.
And Other Music's particular biases weren't the only ones around which you could have organized a selective record store, but I think the suggested conclusion is still probably true. My musical tastes aren't all that esoteric. No, that's not quite the right way to say it. I like a lot of music that would qualify as esoteric under most definitions, but I like enough patently non-esoteric music for us to theorize that esotericism and my tastes aren't strongly correlated. Yes, I hate the vast majority of what's popular at any given time, but it's my guess that I hate the same vast majority of what's unpopular, it's just much harder to get those numbers. With movies and books I feel fairly confident that the things I like will necessarily have limited audiences, and vice versa. With music, I don't know. I happen to hate Britney and Christina and the Backstreet Boys and NSync, but I wouldn't be that surprised if I turn out to adore the next one. I like IQ and Pallas, but I also like Rush and Yes. I like Melissa Ferrick, but also Melissa Etheridge. Lucinda Williams and Shania Twain, the Lucksmiths and the Knack, the Faint and Orgy. My tastes follow no pattern, at least not along these dimensions, and if you follow me in these journeys, I hope it's not under any illusion that I'm negotiating a fire swamp, with peril awaiting any misstep. My random paths are, at best, the finest drunkard's walk a sober person can manage.
And if we needed a second sign that I'm a shoddy excuse for a musical elitist, I love the new Goo Goo Dolls album. I don't mean that I like it in some sort of ironic way, or that I'm supporting them because I saw them play in Buffalo bowling alleys before they had a record deal, or that I've descried some philosophical depth in their lyrics that the average mall lurker would never parse. I like their hits, I like their album tracks. I'm pretty sure I like them for exactly the same visceral, shallow reasons they're popular. They write the pop-song equivalents of that over-affectionate red children's-book sheep-dog the size of a house. They have no qualms about stuffing each measure of their music with the context's most obvious, overblown and swooningly sentimental pop hook. They sound like a cross between the Replacements, Del Amitri, Bon Jovi and Extreme. I wouldn't necessarily say that I like them better than Hypocrisy or Mecca Normal or Aube, but I like them plenty.
And if you hate them on principle, or in practice, I can't really argue. You may get these feelings from something else. I think the squawky guitar sound on "Big Machine" is as magnificent a rock production accomplishment as anything on Boston, but Tullycraft and the Reputation make guitar noises just as cool with much less ado. "Think About Me" sounds to me like the boisterous youth Del Amitri never had, but maybe you'll whip yourself into a rage cataloguing all the Replacements riffs it steals. I love the soaring chorus rising out of the muted acoustic jangle of "Here Is Gone", but you can certainly see it coming a hundred miles away, so maybe by the time we get to it you'll be tired of life in its shadow. I love the raspy, Buffalo Tom-ish mannerisms of bassist Robby Takac's "You Never Know", but maybe for you he's half the Goo Goo Dolls' George Huntley and half a mutant Bryan Adams. I forgive the lumbering verses of "What a Scene" when the chorus surges in, but maybe for you it won't be enough. "Up, Up, Up" bulges like the Connells after a year of mind-numbing weight training, and I can readily imagine that disgusting you as much as I think I'd hate seeing Cameron Diaz and Nicholas Cage remake Surviving Desire. You could get more sophisticated lyrics than "It's Over"'s out of a Babelfish translation of a Portuguese hospital bill. Surely the plinky quasi-mandolin on "Sympathy" fools nobody. "What Do You Need?" is about as menacing as a second-evolution Pokémon that runs on Pudding Energy. You can put off hating "Smash" until later, because I suspect you're going to have daily chances to resent it all summer. The fragile textures in the background of "Truth Is a Whisper" may not change your mind, nor the thwacking snare in the foreground, and I'm not saying either should.
But if it's worth 3:13 to you to have a fleeting chance to fall in love with these big, dumb, happy songs the way I have, then get one of your music-ignorant friends with taste as bad as mine to play track 11 for you, and make them lend you the lyrics while you listen. I don't think this one is going to be a single, so you can't be totally sick of it yet. It's shaped pretty much like the others, but they must have finished it late in the recording session, because it hasn't been airbrushed and re-distressed anywhere near as assiduously as the others, and clatters along on not much more than chugging rhythm guitar, a few spiraling lead hooks, gruff bass, square drums and hoarse singing. "Mama just called and said she's tucked away", goes the chorus, which is a little odd but hardly the first rock song about Mom. Except read it closer. The "she" in that sentence isn't Mom, and the mother is the girl's, not the singer's. "Well I saw you once, / Then I blew it for the next ten thousand days". Ten thousand days is more than twenty-seven years, and Takac is old enough for that to mean the girl was eleven when he fell in love with her, back when eleven meant something. The girl I fell in love with when I was eleven was a burned-out mess by eighteen, but I wonder what's become of her in the seventeen years since. I don't think I ever met her mother, so my phone isn't going to ring and tell me. Takac doesn't have any startling insights into the subject, either, if indeed he even knows he's writing about the subject I say he is. If she's curled up in the corner of a room she should have moved out of years ago, "she's extra sad today" probably doesn't do her mental state justice, and a short, bouncy rock song is probably not going to change her life. But this is the universe's fault, not the Goo Goo Dolls'. In a better world, a song is enough, and nobody is ever truly out of reach.
Vanessa Carlton: Be Not Nobody
And if the Goo Goo Dolls aren't quite mainstream enough to stress your tolerance, I also love Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles". The single has been out for months, and has probably appeared on every WB drama at least twice. The video, which is on the CD-single just in case you don't have a sister to watch TRL and tell you about it, features her playing a piano mounted on the back of an unseen flatbed truck, meandering around the city for a few compressed hours. The song makes the Goo Goo Dolls sound restrained, Vanessa's pinging piano underscored by phalanxes of strings and the finest purchasable personality-less studio players. She's way too young for the chorus' romantic yearning to have any depth, and although she might grow up to be a distinctive singer, so far she's well-trained to no particular artistic end. I don't know if she picked the distance by deliberately interpolating into the series from the Proclaimers' "I'm Gonna Be" to the Pretenders' "2000 Miles" to Mary Chapin Carpenter's "10,000 Miles", but that's the company into which it enters, for me. It's dripping with cliches and groaning under a metric ton of artificial lightness, but I adore the song underneath for all its banal, chiming simplicity, and I no more mind having it exaggerated than I resent beautiful days in a city I already love when it's raining. Careers have been built on far less; this is, by my calculations, seven times the song Lisa Loeb's "Stay" or Edie Brickell's "What I Am" ever was. I listened to it on a repeat loop several times, back when all I had was the single, and every time it started up again it felt like taking the first bite of another piece of peanut-butter-fudge cheesecake and discovering, against all digestive odds, that I wasn't full yet. I believed this song deserved to be a massive world-wide hit, and I begrudgingly admired everybody who'd obviously spent so much energy polishing it for trying to giving it the best possible chance.
But the single had only one other song on it, and it was a breathtakingly blatant Tori Amos rip-off, so I've also spent the last two months wondering whether Vanessa and/or her handlers really had more than one good idea. Not that, at nineteen or twenty, one song this great isn't already a stunning accomplishment, but this album has ten other songs on it, and if they're all this good, she's a prodigy, but if they aren't she's another should-have-gone-to-college-first tragedy unfolding.
Sadly, the other ten are uniformly dreadful. It is not my place to make your judgments for you, obviously, but if you don't trust me, this once, you're going to wish you did. This album is a meticulous demonstration of how you can wreck a perfectly good formula in ten ingeniously different ways. "Ordinary Day" has the exact same grandiloquent arrangement as "A Thousand Miles", but a bare, pale patch on the wall where the hook should be. "Unsung" has a heroically spare piano hook, but the vocal melody goes nowhere. The maudlin, awkward "Pretty Baby" is the filler people mean when they complain about CDs with one good song and a bunch of filler. "Rinse" is a good demonstration of why you should never attempt to write a torch song before you are old enough to legally purchase fireworks. "Sway" is a case study in a song drowned under so much crap that it's impossible to discern whether there's a song at the bottom of it at all (but my guess: no; and one of the adults involved should have told her that the phrase "can't stop the rain" was retired from lyrical use when she was four). In "Paradise" the vocal follows the aimlessly lurching piano line around like its tongue has been frozen to it. "Prince" is both what happens when you hire a really great bass player to come by for one song, but neglect to write a song for him to play on, and why, if the really great bass player you've hired can only stick around for one song, you shouldn't put a long bass-less digression in the middle or it, nor intone the same grating lines over his playing when he's playing. Please do not ask me to explain in detail what's wrong with a nineteen-year-old and her expensive production team yelping through a version of the Stones' "Paint It Black" that she's seems to think was originally a histrionically stilted Ginsberg rant, because if I have to listen to it again I will snap this sad little disc in half. "Wanted" alternates between being nasal and grating and being breathy and grating, as if they know the one discordant syllable Tori stops on in the live version of "Precious Things" is brilliant, but don't understand that making all the syllables sound like that kind of ruins the effect. And "Twilight", which was the Tori rip-off in live form on the single, here is a dreary studio reworking that tries to disguise the resemblance by transposing the giveaway piano line into a ludicrous twittering array of flutes and violas, and in doing so also relieves the song of any sense of pace or purpose.
But I don't blame Vanessa for any of this. Look at her, she's just a kid. You fuckers at A&M, you're the ones I blame. Look what you've done to this poor child. She learned to play piano and sing, and she wrote her first world-class pop song when she was still in her teens, and what do you do? Do you leave her alone and let her mature into the real artist she might (might) have the potential to become? Are you patient enough to find out? Did you learn anything at all from Alanis' two horrible dance records? No. No, you didn't. You look at a child, and you see a sweet back-loaded puppet and you have meal-ticket taste. You find a piano player and you give her Christina Aguilera's producer. (And let her take an executive producer credit on her own debut album.) You surround her with people who give bad advice and can't leave a simple good thing alone, and when they're done with her, you have a shitty record that bears her name and nobody's soul. You make records like this, and then you wonder why kids would rather download the single than buy the album? You're pleased with yourself, because you think there's going to be a backlash in favor of Authenticity soon, and she doesn't dance in her videos (a crowning irony: your Authentic non-dancer is a trained dancer), but a) there's not going to be, and b) if there is, this manufactured garbage won't spare you from the mob for a second. What? You care about her as a person and an artist? Fuck yourselves, look at the shoes she's wearing in the picture on the back cover. Look at the photo on the second-to-last page, in which she's huddled in a corner while an orchestra full of adults works on something she's barely needed for. Would you have done this to a grown-up, or a boy? Maybe you would. You should be flopping around on the soft floors of your miserable offices, choking slowly towards death on your own regurgitated shame.
Will Vanessa Carlton survive? I don't have a guess. Alanis survived. Would some of these songs have been OK if they were just Vanessa and her piano? I don't know. I don't know if she's ready. Maybe she really doesn't have a second good song yet, as no caring person would insist she should. We shouldn't even be debating it. This record should not exist, and the question should remain safely unanswerable, until she's old enough to assess her own work, and know the difference between "her own" work and a corporate placebo marketed under her name. (If she's really smart, "Vanessa Carlton" isn't her name.) I love "A Thousand Miles" helplessly and deeply, but if there was a way for me to give it back, I would. I have so many other songs, and this young musician has so few; she needs it more than I do. And you, who helped her realize what you helped her think was her dream, when she was far too young to be having her dreams suffocatingly realized, you're the ones that should have to live with the rest of this terrible, gutless, lifeless record, and with whatever it means she might suffer, whether she actually ends up suffering it or not. If I give this one beautiful song back, I'm not giving it back to you. You made it, but you don't deserve it. You made it without considering the cost. You are bad parents, and in your old age your ruined children will leave you to die alone.