Sitting here staring at a blank page with no idea whatsoever to write about. An old black & white movie is playing on television, and although I haven’t been watching it, I sense it’s near the ending because a guy chauvinistically and needlessly scoops up a lady. She says, “Put me down.” He replies with an infantile, “No.” The lady is holding a camera, saying she wants to take photographs of something for her magazine. The guy rudely takes the camera out of her hands and tosses it over to another guy. Damn, that camera isn’t exactly a pocket camera. It’s one of those old-fashioned 50 lb. box cameras with a big flash bulb on top, so when he tosses it, I can almost imagine his rotator cuff tendons snapping.
The lady laughs and says, “This isn’t the time for romance!” Hey, sweetheart, I’ve got news for you, this ISN’T romance. This is a mugging. Then the dude, still holding her in his arms, plunges his mouth against hers as the music swells and THE END superimposes on the screen. Next is a commercial for an upcoming presentation of the Doris Day musical Calamity Jane.
My first thought was that back in the ’50s, they pretended they’d never heard of lesbians, so movies like Calamity Jane were considered absolutely innocuous and cute. Fifty years later, we’ve admitted that lesbians exist, so a scenario in which a tomboy and a feminine lady decide to move in with each other in a quiet cabin because they’re frustrated with men becomes unintentionally hilarious.
My second thought was that maybe I’d watch the movie and write a humorous, albeit sarcastic, synopsis of Calamity Jane. The material is rife for funny comment. After all, the movie continued the grand ’50s tradition of insisting there is no problem a woman has that can’t be solved with copious amounts of penis.
But then a strange impulse took over, and I found myself shutting off the television and lighting a cigarette. I clicked a few words in a YouTube search line. A song began playing and I slowly swiveled in my desk chair to look outside at the glittering sweep of frozen winter stars.
I can’t tell you how many times I was feeling a little uninspired and empty, and then energized myself by throwing on this great Billy Paul song about an extramarital affair called Me and Mrs. Jones. Okay, it’s not the lyrics of infidelity that fuel me, or that the song is a guaranteed panty-scorcher, if that’s what anyone is thinking.
No, I’m not interested in Mrs. Jones. A lot of dudes have sang about her. She gets around a little too much for me. Maybe Mr. and Mrs. Jones need some therapy.
You see, it was the commercial for Calamity Jane that made me play Me and Mrs. Jones.
The song just takes me back to a time and place, back to a state of thinking, back to being a teenager who once ducked into a bookstore to get out of the pouring rain. The distant memory is a creative spark plug, you might say. It was the 1970’s, and let me tell you, we all make jokes about that decade now, but it really was an era that had inherited the earth in a sense. Those times were simply more adventurous and erotic than they are now.
Clothes were velvet and silk and rainbow-colored and worn absolutely skintight. Hair was long and shaggy, like something you’d see on biblical angels. After decades of a prudish society, sexuality was no longer a matter of superstition and fear. That’s why we went around half naked most of the time. That’s why we celebrated the beauty of the body. That’s why songs like this burned up our airwaves.
It was a great time to come of age, it really was. Historically, the 70’s were a miracle, and no small part of that miracle was the curious innocence of people in the very midst of our new found freedoms. But that’s another subject and not the focus of this blog.
Let’s get back to the point. I was a teenager. And my association with Me and Mrs. Jones is standing in a used bookstore on a rainy afternoon, turning the worn out pages of a book about frontierswoman and badass Calamity Jane. Not a subject I’d normally be interested in, but the night before, I’d watched Doris Day in the musical romance between Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, and that movie had sort of fed my momentary interest in the book. She led a colorful life, that’s for sure, but the real thing definitely had none of the radiant beauty of Doris Day singing Secret Love next to an old tree as she realizes that she’s fallen in love.
Full disclosure, the important thing was that I was at that crucial age when hormones rule everything. Like most teenage boys, I wanted a secret love too. I ached for it. I ached for all the romantic illusions, for a lover’s physical presence on a rainy day, for the deceptively soft sound of a female’s voice whispering in my ear. Doris Day was absorbed into this also somehow, but I‘m pretty sure she‘s been absorbed into a lot of male fantasies.
For the record, not enough people seem to talk about Doris Day anymore. Never mind all her hit songs and Grammy awards, for almost twenty years, she was one of our most popular movie stars. Between 1960 and 1964, she was THE most popular movie star in the world. And to this day, she enjoys a little known statistic of still being the top-ranking female box-office star of all time.
Anyway, a radio behind the sales counter was feeding soft pop hits through its little speaker, and that’s when it played Me and Mrs. Jones in a way that changed the song forever for me. The music was surrounded by this particular teenage mindset, and the way the lady behind the counter looked up wistfully from her book to watch the rain on the store windows, and the memory of pretty Doris Day singing in Calamity Jane, and then it was surrounded by the sudden shock to recognize during the song’s intro, when the saxophone comes in, that its actually playing the first line of Secret Love.
If you’re in doubt of this fact, I’ve slapped this shameless little video together to illustrate my point. It also illustrates that Billy Paul really loves his cigar.
The 70’s are long gone now, but all these years later, if it’s raining outside, my computer automatically turns on by itself, switches over to YouTube and pulls up Me and Mrs. Jones, and before you know it, I’m standing at my window looking at the rain. It’s weird, but I feel like the rest of the world is doing it too. Michael Buble must have similar feelings because in his video version of the song, he sings it directly against a rainy window.
He covered this soul classic in collaboration with his then-girlfriend, actress Emily Blunt, who appears at the end of the song singing the accompanying role of Mrs. Jones. But then she must have realized her boyfriend was standing at the window, looking at the rain, and probably fantasizing about Doris Day instead of her, so she dumped him for the guy who stars on television’s The Office.
Ah, but its okay, Buble. Me and you, we’re both a little hypnotized by Las Vegas of the early 60’s, and we’re both a little hypnotized by Doris Day in her prime. Okay, I don’t know if he actually likes her or not. I’m just making that up. Hell, I’m not sure if I even like her. I just know that when it rains, I’m fifteen years old again and need to hear this song.
Anyway, there you go. That’s my weird association between Doris Day in Calamity Jane and the sweet slice of 70’s Philly soul that is Me and Mrs. Jones.
I turn back to my computer and surf through some articles. I find one that is sort of horrifying, if you think about it: A recent poll shows that one in four teenage girls thinks she’ll be famous when she grows up.
Let’s do the math. There are about 15 million teenage girls in the United States. Within those girls is a minority, let’s say 20 percent, who have enough talent to earn encouragement and compliments from friends, family and strangers. Each of them has grown up believing her talent is “one in a million,” rather than “one in five.” Then among those girls is a tiny handful who actually have the unique combination of talent, charisma and physical beauty to become a celebrity in some capacity. I suppose a tiny handful of others will achieve fame in the purely accidental reality TV Snooki way. All told, my purely unscientific calculations show that for every one teenage girl who goes on to become famous, there are 100,000 who fully thought they would be, but will have their hopes dashed.
This terrifyingly unrealistic view of fame has created a whole new class of public figure, the LET’S MAKE FUN OF THIS LAUGHABLY UNTALENTED PERSON BECAUSE SHE HAD THE AUDACITY TO THINK SHE DESERVED FAME celebrity. These are random members of the untalented 100,000 who we will drag in front of the spotlight and humiliate in front of millions.
Ah, and just like a cue to prove my point, the article now mentions Rebecca Black.
It turns out there are companies these days that cater to the aspiring fame monsters of the world and their parents. Rebecca Black’s mother, for instance, paid $4,000 to Ark Music Factory to make a pop video starring her 13-year-old daughter. This probably happens every day, and YouTube is chock full of bland and generic performances from autotuned teens, most of them stuck at fewer than 1,000 views.
But whatever paint-by-numbers process this music label uses to produce these songs, has somehow, in the case of Rebecca Black, created something amazing. And something profoundly terrifying.
To call the lyrics of Friday shallow or mindless would miss the point. Most pop music nowadays can be described that way. No, hearing this child enthusiastically celebrate the choice of which car seat she will occupy for the five-minute commute to school, well, it’s something different, something dark and cruel and knowing.
I punch in the dread words on the YouTube search line and suddenly Friday is digging in its claws and ripping the top off my skull like an ape pulling apart an orange, exposing my mind to the cold truth of the universe: that today’s culture is exactly this vapid and meaningless, where a tragically odorous tune like this is hummed by millions on their way to the grave. Friday is nothing more than death holding up a mirror and saying, “This is you, as viewed through the eyes of eternity.”
The article informs me that this video has been viewed 166 million times on YouTube. The one featured now has about 7 million because, apparently, a dispute between Rebecca Black and Ark Music resulted in her getting it taken down. This one was uploaded to her channel later, and the counter restarted. Still, that’s more views than most of the entertainment world’s biggest pop superstars.
In other words, this is the year that the Internet found the act of pointing and laughing at a middle school kid more compelling than the entire collective body of music made by all of mankind’s geniuses throughout history.
Kind of horrifying when I put it like that, eh?
None of this is the girl’s fault, obviously. She was 13. She didn’t write the song. She was told by everyone around her she was really good at singing and so she did the ambitious thing: she recorded a tune. She took what she thought was an opportunity to get a career started. For her efforts, she would get interviewed on TV shows, get death threats, and eventually drop out of school.
Though I have broad musical tastes, I’m also trapped inside the mind of a middle-aged man who has a ridiculously high opinion of himself. That means that I’m a bit of a snob and not totally “in the loop” on who the latest Rihannas and other current popular singers are. Add to that a modifier as restrictive as middle-age, and I’m usually reduced to pawing at my third-generation iPod like some kind of troglodyte caveman to get the music that I do know playing.
For that reason, I have to click a few more featured videos in a tortured pathway through YouTube to find another song. The Honest Truth by a group called Typhoon. Although the song doesn’t really appeal to me musically, it does make me forget Rebecca Black. Something positive, I decide that this song is a better representation of 2011.
The lyrics say “So be kind to all your neighbors, Be kind to all your neighbors, Cuz they’re just like you, They’re just like you, AND YOU’RE NOTHING SPECIAL, Unless they are, too.”
The bold type is my idea.
If there were something I could drill into the hearts and minds of all American teenagers, this would be it. Be nice. You’re not so special. Stop slouching.
And I also love that there’s a whole freakin’ village of people performing this song. All of them on a stage, each playing an instrument that they had to practice years to learn. Watching these young musicians perform this song reminds me that despite all the crap going on in the world right now, good lord, kids are still learning how to play instruments. Horn instruments and stand-up violin instruments and things that look like a toy keyboard. For every hundred flashy videos out there talking about the magic of music and putting cliched text over retro-looking images and calling it art, there’s at least one kid who’s really dedicated to learning a craft that he’s going to one day use on the Letterman show. And then maybe he’ll gather 72 of his friends and perform a song for you.
I dive into more videos, drifting through an impossible spiderweb of tag lines and associations, looking for something else that would define music in the year 2011. You really have to dig to find the source of this bullshit, because there’s just so much shit that it’s actually, physically, concealing the bull.
That’s when I find Katy Perry.
Katy Perry owned popular music this year the way Michael Jackson owned popular music back in 1983 after the Thriller album came out. Think I’m exaggerating? When Katy Perry‘s Last Friday Night hit #1 over the summer, it became the fifth #1 hit off of her album. Thriller is the only other album to do that.
It’s unclear if Last Friday Night inspired Rebecca Black or predicted her, because you can’t pay me enough money to research Rebecca Black’s artistic influences.
It’s probably no surprise that I actually enjoy looking at Katy Perry. She’s sort of like every guy’s fantasy. She was raised Christian by pastor parents. She began her career as a gospel singer. Now, she’s half naked all the time and singing songs about kissing girls. Isn’t that the plot to most porn movies? Plus, she looks like Zoey Deschanel’s twin sister. Guys love Zoey Deschanel. She’s like Zoey Deschanel with big tits and she had this year’s most infectious, catchy, cotton-candy-scented pop song. Here’s her ode to chasing our lost youth, Teenage Dream.
We used to require artists to believably embody their music, but not this year. And maybe that’s a healthy trend in popular culture. The death of authenticity. Rock fans used to stop liking their artists when they got the sense that the star was no longer authentically angry. Tupac was a dancer who went to art school, and yet he wound up dead because we expected him to live the thug life that he rapped about. If you sold out or didn‘t shoot anyone, you were laughed off the charts.
I’m sure there are some confused girls out there who think they idolize Katy Perry, but it’s difficult to idolize someone who never fully occupies a single persona. She’s a pop star, but the meaning of that seems to change, depending on what she finds interesting at any given moment.
Which is a pretty good description of how we listen to music these days. In an era of week-long music libraries on shuffle, worrying about what’s in the heart of the people singing in our earphones is an exhausting pain in the ass. In a weird way, Katy Perry is about the music because she’s about nothing at all.
At my age, I feel a little ridiculous speculating on the career of Katy Perry, but when a pop sensation fights their way into my consciousness, and I don’t immediately hate them, I’m willing to recognize that as an achievement. It’s getting harder for pop sensations to do that.
But still, if I were a teenager today, there’s really no way I could have been inspired by a song like Me and Mrs. Jones. I suppose it’s because with the advent of Pandora and personalized Internet radio, there’s really no reason to listen to terrestrial radio anymore. We’re not getting exposed to what we don’t already know. Our musical preferences are allowed to get so niche and esoteric that, if unchecked, it will result in someone bobbing their head to the rhythm of sad, sustained flatulence in the hopes of uncovering what it means in the historical context of sound.
Well, I think that image is as good a place to end this blog as anything else. It’s on the house, folks, you’re welcome.