I’ll play it ’til the whole damn tape runs out.

March 12, 2010

To quote John Cusack’s Rob Gordon in “High Fidelity”:

“What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

It’s a question for the ages and one that, unsurprisingly, pop musicians seem to ask themselves in their own songs. Lord knows relationships have enough going for them to soundtrack not only albums, but entire periods of an artist’s career, so it’s no surprise that the differences in musical tastes is going to be a subject ripe for the picking in artists’ music.

For this month’s Friday Five we look at five songs built on musical tastes being disconnected.

It's only gonna break your heart, kids.

The Friday Five
Listening to music about listening to music

Electric Light Orchestra – Rockaria!
Ah, who among us hasn’t been there? You love rock and roll, your girl loves classical music and never the twain shall meet. I haven’t really bothered to check, but I’m pretty sure this is the only rock and roll song to name check Wagner, Beethoven, Puccini and Verdi in the course of one bridge. This song always makes me chuckle though, because it never really explains how the disconnect brings the two together. The protagonist keeps insisting his classical-loving, opera singing muse accompany him on a night of proper rockin’, despite her not being ready. Then all the sudden she’s all up for it, and the orchestra’s playing Chuck Berry hits, choir singers are singing blues, christ, even the mayor gets involved. It seems like there’s a really interesting middle to that story that we’re not privy to. And in my life, I’m not sure that I’ve ever run into such an easily-remedied situation when music tastes are a gulf apart. But hey, as long as ELO says it can be, I’ll hold out hope. From 1976’s A New World Record.

Elliott Smith – Waltz #2 (XO)
Not quite as peachy keen a story as Jeff Lynne & Co. offered, but then, could we have really ever expected a “Rockaria!” from Elliott? A much more dismal look at post breakup misery from his 1998 LP XO, and centered around songs that take on added meaning post-relationship: a new beau doing a likely terrible version of “Cathy’s Clown,” and a self-penned revenge to the female rallying anthem, “You’re No Good.” Is it bitter in here? To be sure. But at the same time, he vows to continue loving the woman anyhow. Men are kind of stupid like that. I personally respond to the bitterness the singer feels when he now hears “Cathy’s Clown” or “You’re No Good.” In breaking up with a girl, she once compared my behavior to that of the antagonist in Duffy’s “Warwick Avenue.” The drag was I once thought “Warwick Avenue” was a decent enough song. Now it leaves me seething. Cos you know… I’m nothing like that dude.

The Kinks – To the Bone
I always knew this was about getting all misty listening to good old tunes, but I never got the depth of the backstory until Ray Davies explained it in the liner notes for the Kinks’ 1996 album of the same name: “The song is about a broken relationship. This guy arrives home after a long tour to discover that his woman has not only left but taken all the best pieces of furniture. All she has left behind is a copy of a Kinks record. The guy is obviously broken up about this, particularly as the record was a gift from her to him in the first place and all the songs remind him of the time when the two of them were in love. As he plays the record, he discovers that the songs on the record served as a soundtrack to their relationship.” Er… OK. I like the shameless self promotion — it would have to be a Kinks record, wouldn’t it? And it’s a kickass little song, but I still have no idea where the bit about taking all the good furniture is.

Old 97’s – Ray Charles
Ah, some prime mid-1990s alt-country courtesy of Bloodshot Records. The very young and fire-bellied Old 97’s lay down a hot Tex-Mex backing track while the still-bespectacled Rhett Miller ruminates on a Ray Charles record soundtracks a breakup (and given that “Georgia On My Mind” is referenced, I’m guessing they’re listening to The Genius Hits the Road… which I’d never really figured for one, but it makes one hell of an appropriate breakup album). The result? Prostitutes fill the void, as does alcohol, and there’s a go-for-broke attempt to reunite to the same Ray Charles record. It’s nice and circular, but we never really do find out if Rosemary obliges.

Steely Dan – Hey Nineteen
Be it “Hey Nineteen” or “Cousin Dupree” or a few other songs in their oeuvre, Steely Dan have always been particularly adept at portraying the creepy old man pursuing possible jailbait. “Hey Nineteen,” from 1980’s Gaucho, isn’t so much a song about breaking up or getting together because of a particular record — it’s more of a soundtrack to a midlife-crisis — the protagonist is more than a decade beyond his days as fraternity stud, ogling girls on rollerskates and imbibing tequila and cocaine and wondering what the hell happened to his youth. Surprisingly, it sounds rather glorious, but I still feel the crux of the song lies with the girl he’s after not even knowing who Aretha Franklin is. If that’s not grounds for heartbreak, well, what is? No wonder they can’t dance together…

Have a good weekend, all.


  1. I always enjoy your little insights to the songs you’ve chosen. Don’t stop.
    Good stuff!

  2. Much appreciated, I realize I need more frequent updates, but life… you know…

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