Sunday, August 09, 2009

Why The Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me" May Be My Favorite Song of All Time

Right up front, I'm posting this here because I don't really have anywhere else for it to go. Also, I should note that I feel super-lame being the only one who's posted anything here so often, but...oh well. I like this piece and it has no home. And by the way, if this does anything for you, know that (PLUG!) I write regularly (and increasingly) about movies at the new Rail of Tomorrow. Anyway, here we go.

A week or so ago, a friend asked if I had a favorite song of all time. My stock answer for that question used to be Don McClean's "American Pie," and while it's still a thoroughly great song (and it's one of those songs that sort of bothers me just how good it is), it doesn't hold a special place in my heart the way it used to. And while I don't exactly have some other answer to that question, the song that keeps springing to mind is "Then He Kissed Me" by The Crystals.

One of the great myths of popular music, constantly debunked and resurrected over and over again, is that pop music is the lowest form of musical expression, and that those who really have something to say, say it with rock, folk, rap, or some other "real, expressive" form. In the back of everyone's mind, though, they know that's bullshit. The same way that film critics eventually realized that some of the greatest achievements in the art form that is cinema were taking place at the medium's lowest rungs (crime thrillers, technicolor melodramas and musicals, westerns...essentially, genre pictures), people who think seriously about music know that many of the great formal achievements in popular music have been the workmanship pieces we've come to know as "pop."

And yet, I have a hard time convincing people that in twenty years, Britney Spears' music will matter. I used to hold many of the prejudices against her that are all too common to pop. Doesn't write her own songs or play her own instruments? And with the gamut of filters and adjustments and tweaking her voice goes through, she barely even SINGS, does she? Doesn't matter. One of the great myths of art is that it needs to come from a single source, and while the process does undermine Britney Spears' contributions to musical history, it in no way undermines the music. It took me a long time to come to be okay with this.

Because, of course, The Crystals didn't write their own songs. Or play their own instruments. And with the revolutionary production process Phil Spector (who is, if anyone, the true artist at work here) put all his work through, their vocals went through something comparable to the amount of adjustment that goes into every second of Britney Spears "singing." The process isn't what's important. Or it is. Either way, the result is what matters (ironically, I would be downright evangelical about the latest Britney Spears album if it weren't for her vocals and the processing they went through).

It's because of everything working against it - pop single, built to sell, girl group, pretty much everything that the term "commercial music" encompasses and usually means "bad" - I really know that "Then He Kissed Me" is probably my favorite song of all time (at least one of them), and one of the greatest songs ever created. The idea that anyone could find it an empty pop concoction is repulsive to me. "Then He Kissed Me" is magic. It's redemptive. It achieves everything music was created to achieve. It's hopeful and romantic. It makes you feel things you'd be too embarrassed to tell anybody. It feels like dreaming while you're awake.

Its deceptively simple lyrics (just as those who know nothing of screenwriting comment only on the dialogue when discussing a film's screenplay, lyrics are the refuge under which the musically illiterate shelter themselves to attempt to discuss songwriting) give way to a melody so wonderful that it, to this day, has never been more accurately described than as a "wall of sound." The two combined make it as though a simple recitation of facts is enough to make the narrator fall completely and totally in love again. The Crystals sing together as though it takes a chorus to create the depth of feeling within one person (and when life it at its most fulfilling, doesn't it?), and The Wrecking Crew find a way, as they always did, to give voice to a feeling, that trait so essential to great music.

From the moment it kicks in after the initial "don, da da don, don, da da don," just keeps getting bigger and bigger until it must simply explode into melody just past the emotional peak, when there is simply nothing left for the narrator to revel in, and she must simply recite what she said before, just as so many people do themselves, lying awake late at night going over a romantic moment in their mind again and again and again. "And then he kissed me....and then he kissed me....and then he kissed me...."

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Portland...Great City, or Greatest City?

From KGW (July 30th)...

PORTLAND, Ore. -- It's happened across the country -- traffic signs getting hijacked by computer hackers, and now it's happened in Portland.

A contractor’s traffic sign on the Powell just east of the Ross Island Bridge overnight Wednesday read “Caution zombie strippers."

The sign had been switched off by Thursday morning.