I’m not often watching television these days at about 12:20 am, which might explain how I missed the performance of Future Islands on David Letterman’s Late Show in early March. But in looking at some other things today, I came across it. It is AMAZING.



I love the sound of this song, “Seasons (Waiting on You).” This synth-pop reminds me of some of the grooves of 80s Brit bands, combined with the vocal stylings of some of the best of late 60s-early 70s soul. There is just a great sound to this song. Plus the performance itself is beyond the pale. Samuel Herring, the singer, keeps doing this slide, dip, and gyration thing – along with a faux punch or two, you know, to let us know that he’s “punching it up a notch” – and it is simply mesmerizing, to say the least. It’s impossible to take your eyes off of him, to know what he’ll do next.


And I love Herring’s voice. He’s got a touch of the Bronski Beat, a touch of Terence Trent D’Arby, but with an American growl that seems borne of too many nights in a row singing this song and downing shots of Southern Comfort before jumping into the van and heading out to the next small Midwestern city to play another gig. It’s like he slips into monster growl mode, where he’s just spent all his emotions on what he’s giving us but will soldier on. He’s all in on this song from the very first beat, and he insists on pulling him along with us. And I went.


Plus he kind of looks like a young Marlon Brando, especially with that black t-shirt. (Marlon didn’t sing like that, though, as you know if you’ve ever seen his performance in Guys and Dolls!) I love how he transitions from tapping his chest earlier in the song to thumping it as he nears the crescendo! I love how he sings, “People change/but some people never do” and he points to himself as he sings the latter part and looks longingly at the audience, begging for our understanding of his steadfastness.


It’s a totally arresting combination visually and sonically, one that grabbed not only me, but also Letterman. Check out his enthusiasm at the end of the song, when he says “Oh, buddy, come on! Hey, thank you very much! Nice going! How about that! I’ll take all of that you got!” I hear you, Dave, I hear you.


But. Or perhaps, and yet. Here’s something crazy. I checked out YouTube, wondering if there was an official video for the song. And there is. But before you watch it, look again at the performance on Letterman. Keep that in mind. And then click the video below.



WTF? That might be the very WORST video for a song I have EVER seen! The disjuncture between the lyrics, the synth-pop, and the visuals that the director puts together is probably one of the more shocking things I’ve seen. My God, they have to put out another video – it’s unbelievably horrible! Boring, crazed, stupefying! A rodeo? A RODEO?!?! For this song? Why, dear Lord, why?


Please, Future Islands, make another video. We’ll treasure this for just how amazingly bad it is. But put out another video so people can see just how great this song is, a video that will complement the song. Or maybe just call the Letterman performance the video. That’s certainly great. Put the other in storage, though, only to be seen decades from now.



What Is “Best” When it Comes to “Best Song”?

If you got a chance to see the Oscars last night, you got the opportunity to witness some great performances of music from the category of Best Song in a Motion Picture. The nominees began with Pharrell Williams’s singing of “Happy,” from Despicable Me 2, an infectious song for sure. He got things rolling.

A nice performance, early on in the show. It got people in the seats moving and it’s clearly a song that is hard to resist. Nice job.

Next was a delicate version of “The Moon Song,” from Her, by Karen O. Again, really nice – sweet and lovely.

Now, “The Moon Song” plays a different function in Her than “Happy” does in Despicable Me 2. It’s more central, as it’s a moment when Theodore sings to Samantha while on a “romantic” trip away – as romantic as one might be able to get when singing to the operating system on your phone, that is. It’s more central to the action than “Happy,” though this notion of centrality has nothing to do per se with the award. The song just has to be from a feature release; there are no specifics about what function the song is supposed to play in that film. In terms of the awards show itself, both very strong – if very different – performances.

Next we heard from U2, with “Ordinary Love,” the song that played over the closing credits for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

I thought this performance was also excellent, with the band in good form and Bono and The Edge singing well. Not necessarily better than Pharrell or Karen O, but very strong and really hitting the notes literally and figuratively. Really, the first three performances were as good as any I can remember as a group on the Oscars.

Mind you, there were other musical performances on the show – Pink did a tribute to The Wizard of Oz, singing “somewhere Over the Rainbow” in honor of the 75th anniversary of the film, and Bette Midler sang a version of her “Wind Beneath My Wings.” Why did she sing this song? To honor “heroes” in films. So she sang this to movie stars sitting in the audience, and thank goodness, because they certainly don’t already get enough appreciation! Moreover, I have no idea why the academy felt compelled to honor the “heroes” in movies – seeing as that’s what the movies themselves pretty much always do anyway. It’s nice for Bette Midler that she got to sing on that stage, I suppose, but it’s kind of an insipid song. She did a fine job with it, but really, it was strange. Pink was fine if not my cup of tea but at least it was less random to honor The Wizard of Oz after 75 years and  there was an understandable reason for the performance.

The last performance of the night, and final nominee for Best Song, was “Let It Go,” from Frozen. The song was performed by Idina Menzel, who also sings the song in the film. This song plays perhaps the most vital role in the film of any of the category’s nominees, as it represents a pivotal moment, as Queen Elsa realizes that she no longer needs to hide her abilities to create and control ice and that she can now use them without worry. The song advances the plot quite importantly. Here is Mendel singing last night at the Oscars:


Menzel is clearly talented with a particularly strong voice, able to hold the stage and an audience’s attention just like the Broadway star she is. But I have to tell you that as I sat listening to this performance I felt something was off – not technically but in some other way. It was loud, brassy even. I recognized that it was a moment of transformation for the character Menzel was embodying, but it felt over the top to a degree, at least in performance outside of the film.

Simply put, I didn’t think much of the song, nor the performance of it. Not that I couldn’t tell it was going to win – Frozen has become a giant hit in the last two months and even Bono in the last week had publicly noted that it was the front-runner. But the win raises some interesting questions. Should the award go to the Best Song in a film? To the song that plays the most important role in a film? To the song that works especially well within the context of the film? I don’t think audience members have any idea how this is decided, and I wonder about voters too.

Based on what I saw last night, “Let It Go” isn’t the best song. Menzel is good; her performance is fine. It’s big, maybe even too big, but that’s the song itself and what it does. That was the issue for me. I found the other three performances and songs to be much stronger, more emotionally true, and more compelling musically – even the relatively simple “The Moon Song.” I’m not surprised the Disney song won: I mean, who could be? But I’m willing to say that I don’t think it should have.

A Shabby Effort

I first heard Mumford and Sons on the radio, and they were getting airplay because they had a song with the word “fuck” in it. When I heard it, I thought that this was interesting, not because they used the word – God knows I use it often enough – but because cursing had somehow become an emblem of outsider status. The song was “Little Lion Man” and the singer articulates that he had “fucked it up this time,” taking responsibility for a failure that had messed things up but good.

To me, what was interesting was not so much the word “fuck” in a popular song – hiphop has certainly had a stronghold on that for over twenty years – but that “fuck” was presented as an emblem of authenticity by a white band – a British white folk band. I could hear the banjo, I could get the emphasis on stringed instruments. I could tell that there was no Autotuner. It was clear that this was a band that played its own instruments. There was musical talent at work here. I really kind of liked this song, though it was hard to place why. Unfortunately, the more I listened to it, the worse it went. In listening to the song, I was struck by how much emphasis seemed to be on the “Fuck.” It was as if the cursing was somehow supposed to be the mark of street cred. For a British folk band, this seemed a little odd. Why were they trying so hard to be “authentic”? Why the need to try? Why not just “be” authentic without using the word “fuck” to signal your own authenticity?

Then came “The Cave,” the follow-up song that became even more a barnstormer hit. This song is likewise propelled by the acoustic instrumentation of the band. It’s propulsive, passionate, insistent. The music moves up to a stirring crescendo that is hard to resist. Again, the acoustic instrumentation builds to a crescendo that is impossible to follow. It’s powerful musically. The problem with it? The amazing banality of the lyrics:

It’s empty in the valley of your heart
The sun, it rises slowly as you walk
Away from all the fears
And all the faults you’ve left behind

The harvest left no food for you to eat
You cannibal, you meat-eater, you see
But I have seen the same
I know the shame in your defeat

But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

Cause I have other things to fill my time
You take what is yours and I’ll take mine
Now let me at the truth
Which will refresh my broken mind

So tie me to a post and block my ears
I can see widows and orphans through my tears
I know my call despite my faults
And despite my growing fears

But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

So come out of your cave walking on your hands
And see the world hanging upside down
You can understand dependence
When you know the maker’s land

So make your siren’s call
And sing all you want
I will not hear what you have to say

Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it’s meant to be

And I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

Sigh. It’s stunning just how many cliches one writer can work into a text, isn’t it? “Refresh my broken mind”? Sheesh. When I first heard this, I was excited that a lyricist for a popular band had read Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” They allude to the “sirens”? Someone’s read the Greeks! But it’s never that simple, is it? What has driven me crazy for a while now about this song is the image (or the notion) of someone choking on a noose around his neck. I’m pretty sure that “choke” isn’t the right word here. “Strangle” would work quite well. “Choking” refers to something inside the throat, but a noose isn’t on the inside of the throat, it’s something that goes around the neck. Why’s it matter to me? Because the value in good writing, in worthwhile writing, lies in how hard you strive to make it work, how hard you work to make it make sense. This band just plain didn’t. It aspires to profundity – my God, the first couple of verses of the song are amazingly overwritten! – but ultimately the lyrics are just plain lazy.

If you take much time at all to look at the lines of the song, most of them don’t make much sense. It’s rather frustrating. Just take a look at the first two or three verses. What’s actually going on there? I’d be curious to know, and I just can’t tell. The video doesn’t help, by the way. The band – clearly more commercially successful now that “Little Lion Man” has become a hit – rides around on scooters while a second band plays their instruments. This second band is comprised of four men who are of a different nationality – which nationality isn’t made clear. They are colored, third-worldish, imagined as downtrodden. (Part of the Arab Spring? Not sure.) They wear the clothes of a marching band and play the instruments full throttle while the boys in the actual band ride around on their scooters and lipsynch the lyrics.

It’s not really a proud moment. The band looks like a bunch of dilettantes into something vaguely international while celebrating their own commercial success. And while the video as a whole has the sense of being politically engaged, it never actually goes into politics and remains only allusive, and therefore toothless.

All in all a rather shabby effort. To be authentic is to be yourself, no matter the cost. That’s not my sense of this band, nor these songs.

Defining Horrible Songs

It’s time to define the “Songs that are Horrible” series a little better.

Back in the day one of my brothers put together a cd called “Songs You Love to Hate.” He wasn’t the first to do this, nor certainly the last. But it contained some gems – like “Brandy” and “Seasons in the Sun” and “The Pina Colada Song.” All classically bad, bad in a way that is virtually unique. At the same time, there is something catchy about these songs, something that gets into your head and you can’t get out. I’m ready to sing “Brandy” right now – “Brandy, you’re a fine girl (what a fine girl)/What a good wife you would be/But my life, my love and my lady/Is the sea.” (By the way, I’ve sung this song in karoake and it’s harder to sing than you’d think. I don’t recommend it.)

The thing about these songs, though, is that they don’t really aspire to be anything more than what they are. They’re pop songs, with nothing deep, nothing particularly interesting. They don’t speak to a larger experience, not really. They’re meant to be catchy, to be popular, to sell. And they were. But they’re not horrible, because they don’t fail at what they’re trying to be. They aim low and clear that wall.

Songs that are horrible aren’t merely pop songs, they’re songs that seem to have a higher ambition, to say something meaningful to listeners, even though they don’t. They’re catchy, sure, but writingwise they’re strikingly inept. They fold in on themselves in that they want to be profound but end up as baffling, dopey, just plain confusing. This, then, is how I’m defining horrible for this series. These are songs that fail (often spectacularly) to be what the band wants them to be. They’re popular but embarassing.

Recently, in asking for some suggestions, I received a few nominations for songs that are pretty bad, but not necessarily horrible in the way that I’m thinking about in this series. For instance, one friend nominated “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats, a truly bad song from 1982 that has gotten stuck at least once in the head of most everyone who has ever heard it.  The lead singer of the band has claimed that the song is a protest against bouncers who were stopping people from pogo dancing to New Wave music and therefore a song proclaiming freedom of expression. Listening to it and thinking about the words, I have to tell you that this is something of a stretch. I guess it could be about freedom of expression, if I worked hard at the interpretation, but that’s giving the song a LOT of slack. The video is ridiculous, of course. The setting in medieval England makes no sense whatsoever, though it does seem to give license to the desire to include a midget in the cast, but at the same time the setting and its randomness is kind of the best thing about it. It’s not horrible, it’s kind of wonderfully bad.

Then there’s “Karma Chameleon,” by Culture Club. Another friend nominated this one and, again, understandably so. It’s bad. “Loving would be if your colors were like my dreams/Red, gold and green. Red, gold and green.” Umm, huh? Why would loving be “easy” if this was the case? Does Boy George have no blue, or brown, or orange, in his dreams? I sense a metaphor, but one that’s hard to pick out. Again, it’s a song that can get into your head, it’s got a harmonica part that gives it a Merseybeat feel, and it proved a winner commercially, going to #1 for three weeks. But that’s all it is – a very good pop song. Boy George has suggested that it’s a song about being “true” and  acting “like you feel,” but as with “Safety Dance,” this entails a bit of a stretch really. And again we have a fantabulously crazy video, with another setting that has nothing at all to do with the song! This time we’re in Mississippi in 1870, which allows the band members – who are both black and white – to interact together with a sense of brotherhood and community. Because we’re in Reconstruction? That’s not anachronistic AT ALL! I suspect that the setting was determined so that they could get everyone to dress up in costume and Boy George’s “costume” would not stand out so much. The funniest part of this? Other than some elaborate necklace around his neck, Boy George actually isn’t in period costume! He’s wearing a sweater vest over a button-down shirt. That’s just so unbelievably greatly bad that you kind of have to love it. So again, no this song isn’t horrible, because it doesn’t aspire to be actually good.

As I go forward, I will continue to look for songs that don’t work, songs that are meant to be “serious statements” but are little more than gobbledygook, songs that take themselves way too seriously. Those are the songs that are truly horrible. Pop songs can drive you crazy, but all they really want to do is to be popular. “99 Red Balloons“? Bad. Toto’s “Africa“? Horrible. Really horrible. At least Nena has a sense of humor. Toto is unbelievably insufferable. That and kind of casually racist. I’m all for bad pop songs. Ones that aim higher? That almost always leads to trouble.

Songs that are Horrible #3

It’s perhaps too easy a target, but the subject of this latest in the series of the “Songs that are Horrible” is “Photograph,” by Nickelback.

What do you mean, you might say, too easy a target? Well, it’s Nickelback. Pop rock band, from Canada, that has enjoyed huge commercial success. But good Lord, they are pretty terrible. I can’t really think of a single song of theirs that I would feel good about telling a friend I like, or was listening to, or that somehow got stuck in my head – which would mean either I was purposely listening to it or passively doing so and not resisting in some crucial way to keep away from my brain. They just come across as so very derivative of everything else you’ve already heard before. So I guess I feel as if picking on them is like picking low-hanging fruit. Not that this is going to stop me!

Let’s take a listen to the song, and see the video.

Ahh, literalism, that’s what we have here in this video. Often a risky move for setting too much of a limitation on what a director can do, and often a risky move because so many song lyrics are so amazingly bad. In this case, the band takes us back to the town they grew up in back in Canada and film the video there and try to match up the visuals of the video with the lyrics of the song. I’m not so sure in this case that this was a wise move. (Nor is deciding that in the video the band should play in the old school gym – it evokes Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the comparison isn’t going to go in Nickelback’s favor.) Let’s take a gander at the opening lyrics:

Look at this photograph. Every time I do it makes me laugh

How did our eyes get so red? And what the hell is on Joey’s head?

The opening two lines to me are fine and hold potential for something more than sentimentality of the worst kind, but the next two signal an inability to think interestingly or critically about the act of looking at a photograph from one’s past. Doing so always holds the possibility of becoming an exercise in nostalgia and this song falls deeply into that rather quickly. How do we know this is the direction it’s going? The only one who might know the answer to the two questions posed in this opening stanza is the one asking the questions. These don’t invite us in, or make us laugh, they actually distance us from the photograph and the song – first because we don’t know the answer to either one and second because in a song we can’t actually see the photograph! (And hence the literalism of the video, where the singer holds up the photo to the camera, but of course it’s too brief to allow us to get a good look at it and to answer the question of what is indeed on Joey’s head. Sigh…)

And then the song goes deeper into the establishment of details that the writer apparently believes will signal place, setting, location – presumably in such a way that will engender an emotional connection (looking for empathy, perchance?) between the listener/viewer and the singer.

And this is where I grew up. I think the present owner fixed it up

I never knew we’d ever went without. The second floor is hard for sneaking out

And this is where I went to school. Most of the time had better things to do

Criminal record says I broke in twice. I must have done it half a dozen times

Yes, indeed, the home and the school, the two staples of the childhood existence. The band has established its foundation here in these lyrics, its home, its point of origin. The lyrics bespeak of modest circumstances at home and a daredevil attitude of sneaking out at night, blowing off school, and yet curiously breaking in to school at other times. (Why break into the school that you’re always skipping? What psychological issue with authority are you dealing with there when you both need to establish that you need not bow to the wishes of “the man” to go to school and yet also feel the impulse to “invade” the man’s fortress. Oh, and by the way, nice detail about how you weren’t caught at least four times – you’re a rebel dude!) In the next stanza he wonders “if it’s too late/Should I go back and try to graduate.” Why would he want to now? What’s his impulse? And I like how he ends this musing with the line, “If I was them I wouldn’t let me in.” No, me neither.

And so we come to the refrain:

Oh, oh, oh. Oh, God, I

Every memory of looking out the back door

I had the photo album spread out on my bedroom floor

It’s hard to say it, time to say it. Goodbye, goodbye.

Every memory of walking out the front door

I found the photo of the friend that I was looking for

It’s hard to say it, time to say it. Goodbye, goodbye.

I don’t have much to say about these lines actually. They just don’t make much sense. There is a bunch of verb tense switches between the present, the past, and the past perfect that are confounding. And why is it hard to say “goodbye” for him? Where does that come from – it’s not like he’s been sharing the happiest of memories with him.

Please don’t make me comment on the “Oh, oh, oh/Oh, God, I” lines. They leave me speechless. Instead let’s go back to the details of the singer’s youth. In the next stanzas he mentions “the old arcade” that burned down, listening to the radio and the promises they made to one another they see “how it feels/To sing to more than just the steering wheel,” and the Kim, the first girl he kissed, who he hasn’t seen “since God knows when.” Again, these details seem designed to establish the particularity of place while at the same time allowing for identification with the details on the part of listeners/viewers who might see in them something familiar with their own experience. This is an old and valuable writing trick, and I shouldn’t denigrate it totally. Lots of writers have used it as a strategy. Truth be told, though, it’s lazy. The band would be better off not worrying about the identification and instead just sticking to the particularity, the specificity of their own experience. The bridge then takes us as deeply into the nostalgia that has been threatening to erupt from the beginning:

I miss that town. I miss the faces

You can’t erase. You can’t replace it

I miss it now. I can’t believe it

So hard to stay. Too hard to leave it

But you did leave it, I want to scream back at him!  That’s why you’re RETURNING! Silly me, perhaps, trying to follow him literally through the song. It’s not like he has shown any allegiance to literalism…sigh. The bridge concludes with these lines: “If I could I relive those days/I know the one thing that would never change” and then the song goes back to the refrain. What is that one thing, that one thing would never change? Not sure. Never articulated. Instead the song goes back to the memory of looking out the back door and getting caught up in the photo album and the difficulty – if necessity – of saying goodbye.

The song ends with a return to its beginning – a structural reprisal of the very actions detailed in the song! How sophisticated! “Look at this photograph/Every time I do it makes me laugh/Every time I do it makes me…” This is in some ways the most interesting part of the song. It echoes the beginning but also maintains the open-endedness of the end of the bridge. Every time it makes you what? And what is the thing you would change? These things aren’t made clear. Maybe this is what moves this song into particularity in the end, and gets it out of the rut of shared nostalgia with every single listener who has ever moved away from home and is feeling a little homesick for his family and his friends and his running buddies from back in the day. But I don’t know. The lyrics are bad. The music is even worse – it’s a frightening amalgam of power ballad/corporate-rock/mope rock/contemporary country that is as off-putting as can be. It denotes anything BUT authenticity, anything BUT sincerity, anything BUT the pain, the reality, of particular experience. This is why I called them “derivative” at the beginning of this post. Listening to it, I just have the terrible feeling that this song went in front of a focus group at some point before it was released and then tweaked to try to appeal to the widest possible market.

So that’s why this song feels like easy pickings for the ongoing series “Songs that are Horrible.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not a deserving member.

The Dearth of Common Sense and the Dead Heart

Just last week, a federal judge in Virginia overturned the ban on corporations making political contributions. This was a natural extension of the ruling last year from the United States Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. The justices in that case declared that the government may not ban political spending by corporations on candidates seeking political election. The decision did not address whether corporations can give directly to candidates – that’s what the federal judge in Virginia has now said is a natural extension of the logic of the Supreme Court.

The ruling in the Citizens United case was that the government did not have the right to impede on ability of or limit the amount of corporate funding that could go toward independent political broadcasts in candidate elections. The conservative group Citizens United sought to overturn the law that had limited their ability to show a documentary about Hillary Clinton close to the Democratic primaries in 2008. This law was part of the McCain-Feingold Act, passed by Congress in 2002 as part of the campaign finance reform undertaken in Congress at the beginning of the last decade.

The disturbing thing for me, as for many others, was the logic that the Supreme Court applied in its ruling in the case, where it ruled in favor of Citizens United because it found the limit to be a violation of the First Amendment. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued, “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” This might seem fine at the heart of it, but that’s simply a facile reading of the First Amendment, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Is Kennedy suggesting that Citizen United’s wish to put out a documentary on Hillary Clinton and to influence an election is somehow tantamount to “the right of people…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”? The documentary isn’t a petition TO the government – it’s a petition (if you want to stretch your definition of the term) to citizens. Or is Kennedy arguing that Citizen United has a right to free speech? I find that curious, to say the least, in that Citizen United is an entity and not an individual. How does a corporation have free speech? Corporations themselves do not speak; individuals do.

I know I’m not the only person who finds it difficult to fathom how a corporation has the right to free speech. This is certainly stretching things further than common sense would allow. I don’t really want to get into a liberal/conservative argument here, or even debate just what “strict constructionist” might actually mean (though it seems to mean one thing in Bush v. Gore and something undeniably different in the Citizens United case). I’m more interested in the lack of common sense applied in the case and how it will have a strong and clear impact on elections and on the country. I understand the need to protect free speech, but I’m not sure corporations actually “have” speech; I’m also a bit unclear on what exactly corporations need to be protected from. From individuals? From other corporations? From the government? It seems that Kennedy and his associates believe the latter, but this seems asinine to me and actually besides the point of the case.

Justice John Paul Stevens, in his dissent in the Citizens United case, argued that the decision in the case did not need to reference the First Amendment at all. The attorneys for Citizens United had actually abandoned their challenge to the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold Act. The Court pressed on, however, and used the case to overturn McCain-Feingold. In his dissent, Stevens argued that the Court had ruled on a question not actually brought before it and had “changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.” He went on to argue, referring to rather plain-old common sense, “few outside the majority of this Court would have thought [American democracy’s] flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Funny yes. Sad, even more so.

Back in the 1980s, the Australian band Midnight Oil put out a song entitled “The Dead Heart” about aboriginal rights in Australia and about the limited power aborigines had in that country. Essentially it was about money and the manipulation of the law to benefit the few who had the power. Near the end of the song, the lyrics grow as simple and as clear as the band could put it:

Mining companies, pastoral companies
Uranium companies
Collected companies
Got more rights than people
Got more say than people

In Australia, the rights of corporations are weighed above the rights of the aborigines, all because of the vast financial potential of the land – for mining, for uranium, for raising livestock. (If you don’t know the song, take a listen. This description of it sounds rather dry and academic. Actually it rocks out and is incredibly catchy – the acoustic guitars and Peter Garrett’s growl are unstoppable!) The context is different in America, of course, but  it seems we are moving in that same direction. The Supreme Court has decided it needs to protect the rights of corporations. The notion that corporate entities have the right to free speech, which protects their ability to influence elections and lawmakers, belies all common sense.

The potential for corporations to have a huge influence on elections is now there and justified. That began with Citizens United. It will grow even larger now that we are moving toward overturning the ban on corporations being able to give money directly to candidates. How many shell companies will be formed to provide cover for corporations to shovel money toward the candidates they will be able to influence once in office – all of which will now be protected? The limitations on individual spending allow the financial contributions of those of us who are not rich to have as much potential influence as those of wealthy individuals. But the wealthy will be much more ready to devise ways to spend their money through corporate shells to candidates, and of course, have more money to spend in the first place. Their influence will only increase, and at a time when the division of wealth in this country is only growing worse and worse.

Well I’ve Been Your Fool Before and I Probably Will Again

There are times when I’m walking, or more likely driving, and all of a sudden I have a flash of a lyric enter my head that hasn’t been there in many, many years:

Honey why you always smile
When you see me hurt so bad
Tell me what I did to you babe
That could make you act like that

It hits me hard every time – bam! I’m eighteen again and I’m dying to hear the song, dying to hear the voice, dying to get a glimpse of the singer, with those blue eyes and that blonde hair. To get the full effect of you probably need to hear the voice yourself – sharp, cutting to the bone, tough, and always steady. And it would help to have a picture to go with that voice as well:

Maria McKee. Singer for Lone Justice and in 1985 certainly sexier than Madonna, who was working her own blonde tendrils at the exact same time on “Like a Virgin.” But while Madonna came across as a manufactured pop star, the amalgam of virgin/whore that had a certain sex appeal but that you knew was never actually authentic, Maria McKee always just came across to me as herself: strong-voiced, individualistic, adult – but not corrupted by compromises. To the eighteen-year-old that I was at that time, the opening lines of “Ways to Be Wicked” held the allure of sex, of a broken heart, of a woman who wasn’t afraid of what she might want, even if it might not be the best thing for her.

To hear the voice and to get a fuller glimpse of McKee and why I responded at eighteen to her and especially to the song, I want to show the video for it (I apologize for the lousy quality of it, though the audio is fine. I couldn’t find a better copy, but you do get a sense of the band):

Whether she’s riding her board or strumming her guitar, McKee commands the screen. She’s young, she’s got the varsity letter jacket  with the skirt and black boots, she’s on the mike, she’s the center of the show. It’s not a great video by any stretch of the imagination – hey, the band is playing on the rooftop! – but it’s a great showcase for the band and not a surprise that they highlight McKee in it. She works the camera, staring into middle distance and then directly into the lens, inviting the viewer in, keeping him at bay.

The lyrics are worth checking out, for the slyness of the come-on to the audience and the basic wordplay that McKee is selling:

Honey why you always smile
When you see me hurt so bad?
Tell me what I did to you babe
That could make you act like that?

Well I’ve been your fool before honey
And I probably will again
Cause you ain’t afraid to let me have it
No, you ain’t afraid to stick it in

Well he knows so many ways to be wicked
But he don’t know one little thing about love

I can take a little pain
Yeah I can hold it pretty well
I can watch your little eyes light up
While you’re walkin’ me through hell

Well I’ve been your fool before, honey
Yeah and I probably will again
Cause he ain’t afraid to let me have it
No, he ain’t afraid to stick it in

Yeah he knows so many ways to be wicked
But he don’t know one little thing about love

Yeah those cobra eyes
Lie with a smile
Baby you take pride
In that devil down inside

Well, I can take a little pain
Yeah, I can hold it pretty well
I can watch your little eyes light up
While you’re walkin’ me through hell

Well I’ve been your fool before honey
Yeah and I probably will again
He ain’t afraid to let me have it
No he ain’t afraid to stick it in

Well he knows so many ways to be wicked
But he don’t know one little thing about love

In those opening four lines McKee poses herself as a victim – someone “hurt so bad”  – and we immediately feel for her and wonder who would do this to her. But I love the next four lines and what they do to this opening in how they twist our expectations: she recognizes how she’s been his fool before and that she will be again, because he ain’t afraid to “let her have it,” a great line that leads into the double image of intercourse and masochistic pleasure. We recognize, by the end of the first verse, that the woman singing this song wants a little pain, she wants him to give it to her, to stick it in, but we also realize that while this has obviously to do with sex it also has to do with pain, and not just the physical kind.

She “can take a little pain,” she can “hold it pretty well.” And there’s something in her that enjoys it, that keeps her attached to him.  Part of it is might be what she gets out of it, but another part is the recognition that he is someone who enjoys it, “his eyes light up/while [he’s] walking [her] through hell,” and it’s clear that she doesn’t sing this with regret or fear or anything other than an enjoyment of his sadism. But there’s something in those opening four lines that I want to return to, now that we’ve gone through all of the lyrics.

The song has in it something of a paean to sadomasochism, to her pleasure at receiving pain and his at giving it. Still, when we hear it a second time, and every time after, we hear something slightly slippery in those opening two questions, about why he always smiles when he sees her hurt so badly and what she did to make him do it. She’s asked him to hurt her, and he enjoys it. And yet there’s something else here too. After all, while he knows so many ways to be wicked, to have fun, to have great sex, he doesn’t know one little thing about love. In the end, the song isn’t just one big come-on, there is actually some regret. The regret, though, isn’t about the pain, or the type of sexual relationship that they have.  The regret is that she recognizes that he will not be the one for her in the long run, in the ways of the world outside of this sexual relationship.

What she realizes in those opening four lines, what she’s told us from the very beginning, is that this guy ultimately isn’t the one for her, that he’s not ultimately good for her. It’s what we first think when we hear the opening verse, but it comes back to us in ways we don’t expect. He isn’t good for her, though he is in ways we at first don’t imagine! She may get off on the pain, on all the wicked things they do together, but ultimately she understands the circumscribed way that this sex operates in this relationship, and that life goes on beyond it.

It’s a sophisticated lyrical scheme at play, and the band’s rockabilly/country rock/cowpunk sound complements it well. And although we might expect that McKee had to write the song, considering how well she sells it vocally, in fact it was written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell (guitarist for the Heartbreakers). McKee, you see, had been dating Benmont Tench, keyboardist for the Heartbreakers, and Petty and Campbell had been sitting in on some of Lone Justice’s live dates around LA in the mid-80s. It turns out that McKee and Lone Justice were quite the hot ticket at that time in LA and that a lot people liked working with them. Campbell and Tench play on the album, along with Steven Van Zandt (you might remember him as Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist in the E street Band!). Jimmy Iovine was the band’s manager and actually produced the album.

There was a lot of juice behind Lone Justice, and I can remember seeing them when U2 toured and how I insisted that we get to the show early enough to see Maria McKee because I dug her so. She was a sexy rocker, good looking with a killer voice that hit you hard, above and below the belt. But the band never did take off. I thought this song was great, and really like “Sweet Sweet Baby” too, but they never had the commercial success one might have predicted from all the talent involved. Somehow they just didn’t click with audiences, who seemed to want the manufactured virgin/whore that Madonna represented rather than the complexity of a woman like Maria McKee.

To me, she was genuinely gold. Loved the voice, loved the look, loved the song. I was eighteen and wanted, as much as anything else, for her to do wicked things with me. I guess that’s pretty much rock and roll.