Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I've got wheels and you wanna go for a ride

Lately, I've been thinking about power-pop music. Not something I ever had much cause to do before. But then I saw Girlfriend at Berkeley Rep (prev. post), the new musical written around Matthew Sweet's 1991 power-pop album of the same name. And also, I'm slowly working my way through McSweeney's San Francisco Panorama, and just read Michael Chabon's essay about power pop and the 1970s band Big Star.

Chabon writes: "[Power pop] is happy music--eminently "poppy"--which depends for its power on the cryptic presence, in a lyric or a chord change or a bit of upside-down vocal harmony, of sadness, yearning, even despair. [...] True power pop is rueful and celebratory at the same time, glorifying desire and frustration, which is why so many power-pop songs concern themselves with the subject of Tonight, or Tomorrow Night, or Saturday Night, or some other night that will only be perfect for as long as it can be deferred. [...] All the clouds of power pop are worn inside out to show the silver lining."

When I read that, it made me think of my new favorite song, "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" by the Magnetic Fields. (69 Love Songs was one of the things that helped me cope with the busy season at my job.) If you don't know it, here's a fan-created music video:

I guess, strictly speaking, this is not "power pop"--there's no guitars or drums or vocal harmonies in the mix. But it fits Chabon's dictum of "eminently happy/poppy music that is haunted by despair." With its bouncy synthesizers, its wacky spring-like thing twanging away in the background, its sunny title, "Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" sounds like it ought to be a happy love song. But listen to the lyrics--and the purity of yearning contained in that last "wanna go for a riiide"--and it becomes one of the most poignant songs I have ever heard. It makes my heart hurt.


原秋 said...
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Dr.J said...

Now you´ve touched a soft spot, power pop! Once again we stumble upon words, this label means quite different things for american and europeans I am afraid (quite as "liberal"). The chronology is not easy to establish but think there are names none can ignore: Big Star, TV personalities, The dB´s, The Shoes, The Romantics, Blondie, The Cars, Tom Prtty... or Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Graham Parker, The Jam, The Records, The Underones... on the other side and even down under Split Enz, Crowded House, Men at work, Flash and the Pan. Unfortunately techno-pop came too soon and swept them out of Top of the Pops.
Roughly we can divide in two categories, "soft ones" (like softball for girls) and tough ones (like baseball a game I have never understood): The Distractions and The godfathers could represent each tendency. But I am indulging in recollections, all that took place before you were even born, bsack to reality I listened to the link and to The Decemberists in youtube and, well I can cope with them but I still prefer Julian Cope (The teardrop explodes).Do you know if Decemberists are after the 19th century russian revolutionaries?

Marissa said...

Yeah, they're named after the Russian revolutionaries, but spelled a bit differently (Decembrists vs. Decemberists). They're amusing, aren't they? And from my home town!

As you can tell, I really like people who can write clever lyrics--Colin Meloy of the Decemberists or Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields.

Duarnad ElYor said...

I just looked at your link for "Panorama" and in fact in france a magazine is published since 2008 and the idea seems very close. Its name is "XXI" and it is sold like a book, not a newspaper (ie you find it in bookstores). So maybe Panorama could in fact go further than this experiment !
And this song is good (bad luck for my friends who are going to hear my version ...)

Marissa said...

This "Panorama" is actually kind of a magazine too--there is a literary magazine here in the USA called McSweeney's Quarterly which publishes in a different format every time. Sometimes a book, sometimes a magazine, sometimes a newspaper. Really beautiful stuff. The "Panorama" newspaper was the 33rd issue of McSweeney's. Here's a link to other issues:

Thanks for visiting, Duarnad!