Five Observations on “Take Five”

In which I honor a jazz classic

To remember the illustrious musical pioneer Dave Brubeck on what would have been his 99th birthday, I present five thoughts on his quirky hit, both my favorite piece of his and my favorite piece across all schools and eras of jazz:

  1. It makes an unconventional time signature sound normal. The piece’s claim to fame is having been written in 5/4 time, but you would hardly notice or give it a second thought if you were not a musician (heck, maybe even if you were). The quartet on the original recording are in such tight sync with one another that the rhythm feels as accessible as any four-on-the-floor or waltz-time number.
  2. Despite the fact that the group’s namesake was the pianist, the piece does not feature a piano solo. This probably owes to the fact that saxophonist Paul Desmond composed the piece; it certainly explains the melodic, infinitely singable saxophone “hook” and subsequent improvisation. But there is also a great drum solo, equally memorable in its own way. The piano serves as anchor, tethering the composition (alongside the bass) to a certain structure to prevent it from running away with itself. If anything, it’s kind of the antithesis to the Vince Guaraldi Trio, whose solos are basically all piano.
  3. It’s pretty short for a jazz number. Given how prone jazz musicians are to long-windedness (not without merit; see John Coltrane), a five-minute piece falls on the brief end of the spectrum. The fact that it achieved massive success speaks to the shadow of pop confines and radio-friendliness rules which stretches across all genres, even jazz. It’s also what’s helped me to memorize the whole thing: I doubt I could have done that if it were twice as long.
  4. It’s got a lot of open, pure chords. Jazz is notorious for its extensive use of diminished, augmented, and otherwise dissonant chordal structures. This one stands out in stark contrast for its generally unadulterated three-voiced chords (mostly vi and V within the key). Again, primarily the piano’s job.
  5. It’s far superior as a stand-alone instrumental. Of course, this is an opinion, but some ambitious tributes take it too far. I’ve come across versions of the song wherein a vocalist layers lyrics (of a suitably breezy bent) over the track; and, while an elite few jazz vocalists have only ever strengthened the outfits they’ve sung with, I’m not sure I would want even Ella to improvise text over this one. I think it’s just better off on its own. The combination of instruments, of planning and freedom, creates all the atmosphere we need. (Okay, I could do with Ella, under the assumption that she would mostly scat, which would be an appropriate contribution to the piece’s ambience. But only her! No one else!)

If you can believe it, “Take Five” is sixty years old this year. Go have another listen if you haven’t already. It won’t cost you much time, I promise.

Image: The Guardian, 17 February 1958

The Best Song Choruses

In which I test the ideological power of a pop chorus

A song is, ultimately, a machine, a collection of cogs with their own functions. Possibly the most conspicuous cog is the chorus, which, by its nature, is an aural focal point where the artist communes with the listener. People who do not know the rest of the lyrics to a song will frequently join in at the chorus. In fact, for a listener who is not musically inclined, the chorus could be the only section they remember—and, if they like it, the odds increase that they will like the song. (Similarly, if a songwriter can write a good chorus, the odds increase that they can write a good…any other part.)

But some choruses transcend the merely likable. A chorus becomes truly great, in my opinion, when it summarizes the spirit of the song. Several choruses have sold me on an artist or band, cementing my status as a fan. They reveal something, a new depth to the song or the creator. They lift up the listener (no, Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up” did not make the list). They can bring you to tears or put an ear-to-ear grin on your face. And, crucially, they are pleasant or fun or moving to sing. Or hum: some choruses make an impression using very few words.

The choruses on my list happen to be attached, on the whole, to pretty strong verses and bridges. That said, a chorus can sometimes be a high point, a redeeming factor, in an otherwise bad song. I also have reasons for seemingly overlooking some artists (for example, nothing of Stevie Wonder’s appears here because I consider his songs such thoroughly integrated statements that their choruses cannot really be separated from their overall craft). At the risk of sounding smug, I would call my taste ‘good,’ if skewed toward pop/rock genres. But ‘good’ is totally subjective anyway. Evaluate the following and decide for yourself.

“Drive My Car,” The Beatles (1965)

Maybe the time I spend around fellow Beatles fans is warping my wider worldview, but I feel like this song has enough clout that people can sing more than just the chorus. But the chorus remains the highlight, for four reasons: the three-part harmonies; the suggestive lyric (they grew up so fast!); the bluesy piano ‘response’ between the phrases; and the “beep-beep-m-beep-beep, yeah,” which would be amazing even if the rest of the song were not.*

*Every Beatles song in ’65 was amazing on some level. But that’s another post.

“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” Arlo Guthrie (1967)

What’s not to love? It tells you where the restaurant is and what you can (or can’t) get there, and it gives you an escape hatch at the shrink. And anyone can sing it. I mean, you have to, if you want to end war and stuff. (I had to include this song given the season, which apparently is the socially acceptable time to play it on the radio, although I quote it once a week at the least.)

“Baby Driver,” Simon & Garfunkel (1970)

On an album full of great choruses (“The Boxer,” “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” and obviously “Cecilia,” to name a few), I went with this one, and not only because it begs to be covered by barbershop quartets. The lyrics are quirky and fun, the dubbed voices harmonize and stagger, and—throwback to the Fab Four—the low “bah-ba-bah-bah” seals the deal. Edgar Wright built a two-hour film around this song. And it had been his dream project for something like seventeen years, so that should communicate what a worthwhile piece of art it is. Is it stuck in your head now?

“Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell (1970)

This chorus is a double threat: there’s the “don’t it always seem to go” part and the “paradise/parking lot” part. A triple threat, if you count Joni’s infallible voice. It’s a good showcase for her (or any singer’s) vocal range, and it centers on the painfully relatable idea of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone. Truly a chorus with integrity. So influential that even Counting Crows’ cover has achieved classic status—and I really like their take on the chorus, too, especially the way they slow it down after the third verse. Bonus: “shooooo-bop-bop-bop-bop.”

“It’s Too Late,” Carole King (1971)

Given what a force she was in a male-dominated industry, I knew Carole King had to have an entry, and it was very hard to choose. I’ve selected this one because it’s rather atypical for a pop song—if anything, it owes more to jazz. For starters, it’s in a different key from the verse, as signaled by the piano immediately preceding it (which is also a great signal that the chorus is coming to begin with). The melody meanders, but it sounds organic, so when people sing along they might not realize the sophistication of what they’re singing. A sneaky byte of genius.

“Poems, Prayers, and Promises,” John Denver (1971)

This one is understated, something Denver excels at unless he is hitting you with full tenor force right out of the gate (incidentally, also something he excels at). As I’ll mention a second time shortly, I’m a big fan of choruses—or entire songs—whose first word is “and.” A continuation of a train of thought, an intimate welcome into a narrator’s mind. To go a step further, the first part of this chorus is technically a sentence fragment, the action of the verse spilling over as our characters commingle “and talk of poems and prayers and promises / and things that we believe in: / how sweet it is to love someone / how right it is to care…” Actually, the fragment might last the whole section, because we segue right into a list. But we don’t notice; we’re too busy being carried along by a mellifluous motion which suits the song just right.

“Tiny Dancer,” Elton John (1971)

A pillar of that golden time when almost everything the Elton John/Bernie Taupin team did hit the mark. (We! Love! Bernie! By the way.) This one and the next essentially inspired this whole post with their perfect union of lyrics and music. Melodically, they also both include peaks and valleys which are oh so satisfying to sing. A standout feature of this particular chorus is that it first appears roughly two minutes into the song, only after two verses and a pre-chorus: a buildup followed by a rich reward. Today’s hooks tend to arrive thirty seconds in, but one of the reasons this song is so dearly loved is that everyone gets to anticipate the chorus and then just go wild on it. It harnesses the power to really bring people together.

“Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time),” Elton John (1972)

Jeez, Bernie was in top form. How do you write a lyric like this? More to the point, how do you write it without a tune already in mind? I can’t imagine a time when these words existed outside of a melody—that goes for the whole song, but especially for the chorus. Sir Elton knew the exact treatment it needed. Again, one of my favorite things about this chorus is that it begins with “and.” This train of thought is, well, not a train at all but a spaceship, and the orchestration matches: it sounds ethereal, simultaneously warm and drafty, inviting and faraway. It’s ironic how utterly natural it feels, given the uniqueness of the narrator’s occupation. (Although, of course, he doesn’t assign it any more importance than that it’s his job five days a week.) You don’t hear this chorus; you don’t learn it; it just becomes a part of you. Isn’t that the definition of great?

“Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels),” Jim Croce (1972)

Within a song about an attempt to achieve closure, this chorus provides a strange (albeit totally familiar) full-circle structure. The narrator begins by asking, “Isn’t that the way they say it goes?”—possibly the single greatest opening line of a chorus—and follows a thought process that is half addressing the titular character and half persuading himself “that it just wasn’t real” before concluding “but that’s not the way it feels.” The melody, like most of Jim Croce’s melodies, makes your soul ache. Gorgeous when he sings it alone, gorgeous when a choir is harmonizing behind him. Gorgeously accented with that finger-picking guitar. The bittersweetness spoke to me even as a romantically ignorant youngster. I came to this song for the guitar; I stayed for the chorus.

“Killer Queen,” Queen (1974)

Let me first establish that this is a damn near perfect song from beginning to end. It was their first hit, and it merited all the attention it got. Not a note is out of place. The arrangement is flawless. Furthermore, the recording process is flawless, and on full display in the chorus. Traveling from left to right channel was revolutionary at the time and honestly still is. The harmonic formation differs from, say, the Beach Boys, as all three singing members of the band overdubbed themselves something like three times apiece, racking up a nine-voice choir. Unbelievably tight. It does create a Beach-Boys-esque singalong problem in that whom do you sing with? Do you go way up high with Roger Taylor?* Can you even isolate any one vocal line? I tell you, I’ve had a bear of a time. But it hardly matters. It’s swoon-worthy. And there’s no other chorus like it—rhyme scheme? meter?? entirely irregular???—so it occupies a class all its own.

*Confession: before seeing Bohemian Rhapsody and bothering to learn the history of the band, I assumed the stratosphere harmonies were Freddie’s work. Turns out Roger provided the high notes (see: the wonderful “Galileo” scene in the film). Can you imagine having the highest voice in Queen?!?

“Rhiannon,” Fleetwood Mac (1975)

“But it’s just her name!” Except it’s so much more. It’s Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar, flaring up and dying down like a candle. It’s Mick Fleetwood’s percussion, altering subtly from measure to measure like the current of a river. It’s the dissonance of the sung triad against John McVie’s bassline, and the shift of that chord from minor to major on the last repetition. It’s the burial of the voices in the mix, how far off they sound, calling like sirens. It casts a spell over the song as powerful as anything Stevie does on her own.

“Blue Bayou,” Linda Ronstadt (1977)

I feel a bit bad defaulting to a cover, as Roy Orbison recorded it in 1963 and he didn’t exactly have an inferior set of pipes, but Linda’s is iconic. The primary distinguishing factor of this chorus is its contrast in range: after a low, contemplative verse, it jumps up an octave (in fact, if you want to get really technical, the space between the last note of the verse and the first note of the chorus is an octave and a perfect fourth, or P4). The verse is a mellow croon, the chorus an impassioned plea. It’s impossible for the listener not to pay attention. The experience is so emotional; you can’t help but feel a personal stake in the singer’s expression. You get to thinking about whatever your own Blue Bayou is. Here is universal appeal.

“Billie Jean,” Michael Jackson (1982)

There probably isn’t much I can say about this one that hasn’t already been said. There’s a hook in every instrument, it’s melodically and rhythmically original, and its relentless layering creates enough material to sustain nearly five minutes of song. Highlight: that descending string riff (first heard on the second chorus) which everybody sings automatically.

“Cherry Bomb,” John Cougar Mellencamp (1987)

Nothing against the Runaways, but this is the first “Cherry Bomb” to come to my mind, and its chorus is a big reason why. From the introduction of the line “that’s when a sport was a sport” I knew I was in for something special. It’s got a bit of the reminiscence of “Operator,” but from a more pleasantly nostalgic perspective: this narrator is looking back on his teen years from age thirty-five. The comforting repetition—“grooving was grooving,” “laughing, laughing with our friends”—suggests that he is trying to luxuriate in these memories. There are great fiddle interjections and harmonica tags. And the whole thing is sung in three-part harmony. Sounds like the glow of a neon sign on a hot night.

“Shiny Happy People,” R.E.M. feat. Kate Pierson (1991)

“Wait, wait, wait,” you cry, “surely you can’t be serious/it’s a dumb song/what about ‘The One I Love’?”* Well, I’ve made my choice, and don’t call me Shirley. Hear me out: I know of no other song whose chorus consists of a single line split into three overlapping-but-successive countermelodies. Or, I guess, a variation of a single line, as the titular people are twice said to be holding hands and then to be laughing. Musically, each segment takes its starting note from the last note of the previous segment; this necessitates not one but three exceedingly capable singers, and they nail it. Shout-out to Peter Buck, coming in clutch with that immaculate guitar.** Plus, there’s clapping (in early demos the line is actually “shiny happy people clapping”). I think people are quick to judge, but it takes planning to coordinate those moving parts. And they fit together in innumerable tessellations, as is heard the last time around. It’s a modern-day Bach chorale. You try it.

*I would like to give an honorable mention to the chorus of “The One I Love,” which, if you think about it, should be illegal, because it is illegal to yell ‘fire’ in a place where there is no fire. Props to them for flouting the law with style.

**I’d even venture to call the guitar hook a fourth countermelody within one chorus. What are you going to do, not sing it?

“What’s Up?”, 4 Non Blondes (1992)

Quintessential effective simplicity. Up the octave from the verse, but not such a total departure as to be disorienting: the pre-chorus prepares you adequately. Comes across as a lyrical misdirect, given the title, but that was only to avoid issues of confusion with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Great for yelling (see next two).

“Undone (The Sweater Song),” Weezer (1994)

I once saw this chorus described on YouTube as the perfect thing to drunkenly yell along to. That about hits the nail on the head, so I won’t belabor the point, but the minimalism of the verses makes the chorus all the more fun to slam into. Highlight: the countermelodies which crop up with increasing intricacy (“as I walk awa-a-aaaay“).

“Ironic,” Alanis Morissette (1995)

Put aside the fact that almost nothing in this song is ironic (isn’t that ironic?) and you’ve still got a fantastic chorus. It’s the absolute ideal in a performance setting because people can really let loose. Her songs are so cathartic, so conducive to anger, that if you aren’t putting your whole self into screaming “It’s like ra-i-aaaaaaaaaain” you’re doing it wrong. The chordal structure is propulsive yet unintrusive. Wail on.

“Wannabe,” Spice Girls (1996)

I mean, clearly. I guess I could nitpick by saying the context of the title within the chorus doesn’t quite match up (it’s “if you wanna be my lover,” not someone who is a wannabe), but it probably wouldn’t be wise to mess with what I believe is the all-time bestselling single by a female group. Totally apt. If you only ever heard this chorus once you would know it forever. Call-and-response, singalong quality to spare. As a matter of fact, the “Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want” section could count as a bonus chorus because it also repeats. There you go. Choose your chorus. Either way it’s unimpeachable. But I’ll bet if you’re of a certain generation you could sing through the whole song right here on the spot.*

*Fun fact: I was born a few months before they recorded it—before the song even existed! I get to say things like that now!

“Believe,” Cher (1998)

There’s nothing like a great dance track, and this is the dance-track chorus to rule them all. It makes glorious use of reverb and vocoder, both of which would go on to exert huge influence over popular genres; it’s a pure high to sing; and the guitar line—which consists of only four notes—is the perfect complement. This chorus pulls you in like a magnet. It energizes you and gives you life. It makes a feminist out of you if you weren’t one already. Which, really, epitomizes Cher herself.

“All Star,” Smash Mouth (2001)

Shrek gave it the platform it deserved, but even without it I like to think this one would have conquered the world anyway. It’s one of those songs where everything that isn’t the chorus is just building up to it. And, as we all know, it delivers. The rhythm is the most contagious part—this one is proof that you don’t need a lot of lyrics to make your mark. It never disappoints. Highlight: “Hey now.”

“Complicated,” Avril Lavigne (2002)

Once again, a lyrically familiar song from start to finish–in fact, the chorus might be harder to follow than the verses (you fall and you crawl and you break* and what’s the order of these words??), but we’re willing to give it a go every time because it’s that enjoyable. Melodically it’s hooks left and right, and if you’re not won over by now, the “no, no, no” at the end will sucker you.

*Fun fact: I hear this lyrical sequence inspired the section of the song “Wait For It,” sung by Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton. which goes “we rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes.” And Lavigne is Canadian, so hey, immigrants: they get the job done!

“Why Not,” Hilary Duff (2003)

Another generational thing, among the more indelible of my generation’s things. This gem is bound up with The Lizzie McGuire Movie and its oeuvre. The chorus is so radiantly affirmative, from the lyrics to the instrumentation, that it leaves you no excuse not to get on the back of some Roman guy’s Vespa and go sightseeing (even if his motives turn out to be ulterior, but you couldn’t have known that at the time). It also appears as a bonus track on 2003’s Metamorphosis and manages to summarize that vibe as succinctly as you could hope for. All in all, a snapshot of Duff’s defining moment.

“Soul Meets Body,” Death Cab for Cutie (2005)

This chorus personifies the song’s ghostly mood, first appearing as only a shadow of itself in “ba-ba-ba” form before later returning with lyrics. And when said lyrics speak of “a melody softly soaring through my atmosphere,” this is exactly the kind of melody we would envision: one which takes us along for a fluid ride, alternating major and minor with almost every chord, creating a limbo between the physical and the spiritual. The constancy of the drum track (a fixture throughout the song as a whole) is also really special.

“I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” Panic! at the Disco (2005)

Is there a punchier phrase than “haven’t you people ever heard of / closing the goddamn door?” Except it’s even better, because the beginning of the line is “I chime in with a”—meaning we’ve been placed in a scene with a narrator and an addressee (presumably the first verse’s bridesmaid and waiter), only for the narrator to segue into internal monologue: “no, it’s much better to face these kinds of things / with a sense of poise and rationality.” Or, as I originally heard it, “poisoned rationality”—which brings me to how fascinating it is to try to parse apart these lyrics. What does it mean to adopt this kind of philosophy? Is our narrator advocating for the left brain over the right brain even in the face of a disintegrating marriage? This is one of those bytes we’ll be analyzing decades from now.

“Oh! Pandora,” John Wesley Harding (2010)

The multifaceted artist now known as Wesley Stace—a longtime favorite in my family—boasts a history of classical references in his work. This song is one of the finest examples overall. It’s just as well that the chorus discusses Pandora’s box, because it opens up a world of possibilities. (*high-fives self*) The melody is interesting, spanning almost an octave and rife with arpeggiation; and the lyrics further the narrator’s relationship to Pandora, each recurrence heightening his frustration with her reluctance to open the box. Plus, the arrangement is peppered with horns and violins as the song goes on. To be sure, a chorus more people should know.

“Pumped Up Kicks,” Foster the People (2011)

Laid-back, terrifying, catchy as hell—this one’s got it all. The bridge even includes a whistled reiteration. The reverb on the harmonized vocals is haunting. Need I say more?

“Love On Top,” Beyoncé (2011)

This is one of those rare choruses that correspond to their song titles. It invites you to sing along until it doesn’t: Bey really goes for the ‘top’ by the end, stepping up half a key with each repetition so that some of her notes eventually hit the stratosphere. There’s a reason she’s the queen. Still, regardless of one’s own vocal prowess, one feels empowered enough to have a go, and is guaranteed a good time just by grooving along.

“Somebody That I Used to Know,” Gotye feat. Kimbra (2011)

You didn’t think I’d let this one slide under the radar, did you? At its height, the song was so pervasive on the radio that many Americans wanted to drive straight into traffic all the time. But now, several years removed, I think we can look at it for the magnum opus it is. The instrumentation is famously sparse—all the better, as it directs us toward the main attraction. The chorus is stellar, with a soaring melody and tag, and it’s somehow only improved the second time around by a heavenly layering of harmonies. What’s more, in the tradition of “Tiny Dancer,” it doesn’t show its face until a minute and a half in. In a musical environment where delayed gratification is practically unheard of, this refrain is every inch worth the wait.

“Call Me Maybe,” Carly Rae Jepsen (2011)

I have been heard (on Twitter) to call this the best pop song the new millennium has produced thus far, but irrespective of the whole the chorus has an unshakable grip on the collective psyche. It’s a meme, it’s a joke, it’s a state of mind. No one can ever say “hey, I just met you” again. If it lends itself perhaps too well to parody (I myself rewrote it for a project on Hamlet), it’s only because everyone can understand it. The orchestration is superb; those string accents mesh so well with the lyrical frame, you can’t extricate the two. Despite my recent discovery that Jepsen has a much longer and stronger songwriting record than I realized, this will always be the jewel in her crown.

“Shape of You,” Ed Sheeran (2017)

Arguably the most influential contemporary songwriter, arguably his most irresistible chorus. Begging to be danced to as well as sung. The beat practically bounces, but in case that shouldn’t be enough, the recurring phrase “I’m in love with your body” keeps the listener hooked. Also, it’s easily construed as a body-positivity anthem, since he never mentions what shape his girl is—thereby opening it to whatever you find beautiful.

It probably goes without saying that I expect some masterful choruses in the 2020s. Singalongs, power chords, earworm beats, psychological freedom—who’s to say where we go from here? To what future point the hallmarks of the past?

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In which I assess one of the most fascinating reads of 2019


Over the summer, a grad school friend and longtime fan of Taylor Jenkins Reid suggested I read the author’s newest novel. Reid, she waxed, had made a name for herself evoking specific time periods and environments and creating dynamic characters to clash with them.

She needn’t have bothered telling me anything about the brain behind the book. What sold me was that its heroes were a fictional ’70s rock band.

The novel’s action occurs over a series of interviews with the seven titular performers and their families, friends, handlers, and helpers. According to my own sources, it lends itself extremely well to audiobook format; it practically sounds like a podcast. So many personalities appear—and vie for dominance—that one gets distinct Fleetwood Mac vibes. (Apparently Reid conceived the project as an excuse to listen to Rumours on repeat, as if one needs an excuse to do that.) The band history is marked by groundbreaking events, of which accounts vary, and the relationships between the people build up and break down over the course of several turbulent years. Some characters are meant to be sympathetic, some less so.

To be fair, I think it is extremely ambitious to try to pull off the story of a seven-member band. And Reid, on the whole, succeeds: her cast engages us, guiding us through a richly realized period in a collective life. In retrospect, the character I consider most central is Camila, girlfriend-turned-wife and constant muse of lead singer Billy Dunne. She supports him in his career, holds him accountable for his actions, raises a family largely in his absence, and gives him probably more chances than he deserves. Billy suffers bouts of alcoholism, particularly at the beginning of the band’s success, and proceeds to chase sobriety with fluctuating consistency. Camila endures the infidelities which accompany this excess, then the intrigue and press surrounding Billy’s creative partnership with the indomitable Daisy Jones. These days the idea of admiring a woman for her tolerance of a man’s misbehavior is being recognized as problematic; but in the context of a time when women were expected to stick by their men, she comes across as a strong, well-rounded figure. She also makes her expectations clear from the start: it is her ultimatum which pushes Billy into rehab, and her insistence that he can be a better version of himself which causes him to eventually believe it. For all his drive, he would be nothing without Camila. She becomes (as she probably always should have been) his raison d’être.

My major issues lie with Daisy herself. (I have a history of disliking characters named Daisy, so I might have seen this coming.) Evidently she is the daughter of a British painter and a French model, and yet her Southern California upbringing overshadows her entire person, including her speech patterns. It seems to me that her European heritage would show up just a little in the way she talks and the language she uses, though I suppose it depends on how long her parents had spent stateside prior to having her.

But all that is quibbling, as Daisy goes on to reflect far more glaring incongruities in a world notorious for its permissive philosophy. Historically, this was an environment in which people succeeded who were oftentimes not conventionally attractive or even necessarily talented—there was certainly an abundance and diversity of gifts, but the industry was also so saturated that it was as much a matter of who you knew as what you could do (the reverberations of which we still feel in the contemporary industry). Daisy is portrayed as possessing extraordinary beauty, to the extent that she garners arguably undue attention (“the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things”); but she also possesses a remarkable singing voice, one which multiple characters state has no formal training and needs no formal training, in fact cannot conform to any training (the keyboardist, Karen, says that if Daisy can’t do a number in her natural voice “then you have to take her off the song”). Unsurprisingly, the privileges Daisy takes advantage of results in a longstanding dependence on drugs, specifically pills, and a destructive self-loathing. And her longing for a stable nuclear unit leads her to fall for a man in the middle of a public struggle with his own demons.

My thesis, if you will, is that Daisy has it all when she should not. She is physically and vocally blessed, and she lives to tell the tale. If her existence alone were going to be that compelling, then she should have flamed out, like so many of the shining stars of the era. She should have made it to twenty-seven, or thirty-two, or forty, like Janis Joplin or Karen Carpenter or John Lennon, and then died. Or she should have been slightly less remarkable, should have had to fight for recognition, and then lived long enough to reminisce and be part of the whole interview process decades down the line. She should not get both, and yet she does.

I side with the death theory. Daisy’s indulgences (and illnesses) really ought to kill her in the end. But then, Keith Richards’s should have done the same long ago, and yet here he is telling his own story. I can only guess that he was the sort of model Reid used, that this was the trajectory she was going for. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense.

In the meantime there is the question of Daisy’s voice. At the beginning it sounds too good to be true, this young woman who can enrapture a crowd with her magnetic rendition of “Son of a Preacher Man.” This is admittedly tempered by the fact that her writing is not up to snuff (as her first boyfriend, a musician, tells her, “‘The biggest thing you have going for your songs is that you might sing them'”). And it is gratifying to watch her grow into a bona-fide songwriter over the course of her partnership with Billy. All that said, different characters give differing accounts of her vocal personality, and I doubt this is due to it being difficult to pin down. I think we are meant to understand categorically that her voice has a gravelly quality, a rockiness, a grit, setting her apart from other chanteuses. If that’s the case, whence comes her friend Simone’s comment that “‘hell, she could have been Joni Mitchell'”? I can’t name a less gravelly voice, at the time anyway. Besides, Simone is a singer herself; one would think she of all people would have a better sense of whose voice Daisy’s recalls. My favorite perspective from which to look at Daisy is Karen’s, because she doesn’t idolize Daisy, or deify her, or objectify her. She respects Daisy as a fellow artist, but sees her for what she is and doesn’t let her off the hook. Karen : Daisy as Camila : Billy.

Speaking of Joni, my other objection is that these artists obviously exist in the “real” music world and yet never interact with any “real” artists. “Son of a Preacher Man” is a perfect setup: I would have loved to see a later scene in which Daisy’s recording enters Dusty Springfield’s orbit (maybe they even meet?), but this never materializes. Whom do the Six encounter as they adjust to life in L.A.? The city was a folk-rock mecca. Reid could have had her pick of the sheer volume of singer-songwriters populating Laurel Canyon. Perhaps some loose collaboration/mentorship/jam-session-meetup could occur? All missed opportunities, in my opinion.

I do consider Daisy Jones & the Six an exceedingly worthy read: I couldn’t put it down for two days until I was done. If my expectations come across as unreasonable or perfectionistic, it is only because I spend so much time immersed in this milieu myself and have a thorough concept of how I would go about such a project. And don’t worry that I’ve given it all away; there are other reasons Camila is the heroine of this story, which you won’t find out until you pick up a copy. If nothing else, read it for the songs. The band’s seminal album is chock-full of lyrics which ring chillingly true. I don’t know if Reid visualized melodies or arrangements to accompany them, but I’m already on it.

Image: Cover from the Ballantine Books edition (2019)

Mauerfall 30

In which I get a little philosophical about my new home and its un-division

Last Saturday marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The day was cold, rainy, and miserable—not a day I’d have chosen to cross a newly-opened wall unless I really had to—but the week has featured commemorations and celebrations galore. In that spirit, as that week draws to a close, here is a reflection on a historical turning point from someone who wasn’t alive at the time and isn’t deeply familiar with the details and is new to the country:

Division, in my experience, is always contrived; unity is the natural order of things. Division is voluntary; unity is involuntary. In order to have social division, certain individuals must decide that they cannot abide the presence of other individuals or are unwilling to accept various qualities in other individuals. People can come from an array of backgrounds and belief systems, but are predisposed to find commonalities and coexist peacefully unless or until someone deems this coexistence intolerable and perpetrates an act of violence against another group. Division is active—it can only be fulfilled through action. It must be conscious. Left purely to our own devices, in an ideal world without any prejudices or preconceived notions to skew our opinions, we would live passively, as a unified entity.

Only since moving here have I absorbed the full story of the Wall. Its raising in 1961 was a premeditated, orchestrated, and covert operation, requiring extensive thought and action. From what I can tell, its fall in 1989 essentially came about by accident. A series of miscommunications from high-ranking officials alerted the city that portions of the border would be opened. By the time the people responsible realized their error, hordes of people had descended upon the site to shout at the guards, and taming these crowds would have shed too much civilian blood. So the Wall was opened and the border dissolved. It was the most momentous announcement to come out of Europe since the end of World War II, and it was totally unintentional.

Today the remnants of the Wall stand overlooking the River Spree just between the districts of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg as the East Side Gallery. Local and international artists have been commissioned to turn each section into a canvas, and if you walk from one end to the other you can see an impressive breadth of work. Each artist’s style is distinct, but they all express a desire for unity.

I pass the Gallery at least once a week en route to different activities. I suspect its meaning will change for me the longer I live here. The shadow of this division will always remain with Berlin. And there are obviously divisive forces working with great intensity to keep people apart all over the world. Families are separated. People pledge themselves to terrorist organizations with genocidal agendas. While unity itself may be the natural order, passivity is not enough in the world we live in. It will not bring peace. We need to take active steps toward defeating and eradicating these divisive forces and creating unifying forces in their stead.

What is left of the Wall, a hallmark of Cold War hostility, has been repurposed to propagate the polar-opposite message. May we all continue to learn from the Wall.

Image: my own, of a special memorial ad on Warschauer Strasse near the Gallery. The banner wraps around the corner of the building. Full top text: “Die Welt braucht mehr Menschen, die keine Mauern wollen,” or “The world needs more people who do not want walls.” Bottom text: “Zusammen eins,” or “Together, one.” #30JahreMauerfall

Write Your Own Eagles Song

In which I record a recipe of sorts

You will need:

A healthy dose of ennui

A thorough knowledge of California

Access to incomprehensible amounts of cocaine (think enough to have to scrape out of a mixing board post-session)


Begin on the topic of a female—specifically a “woman,” never a “girl.” Create as many women as desired, but exercise mindfulness: they must exist for the purposes of sexual gratification, spiritual enlightenment, or both. Augment the cast with at least one male character who shall be entangled with said woman/women. The male perspective is the narrative engine; first, second, or third person will do. Add a highway: the 405, maybe, or the PCH. Take care to mention the freeway at least once. Describe everything, but romanticize nothing: you don’t want to be confused with America. While certain substances must be part of the creative process, they do not necessarily have to appear in the lyric, although it never hurts to allude to the characters’ physical and/or emotional self-erosion. Make your lyric just semi-autobiographical enough to arouse suspicion, accusation, or resentment. Take shots at fellow artists if you wish; the degree of tastefulness is up to you. Funnel your hatred of human interaction into the song—that will be what gives it its punch. Women, men, it doesn’t matter whom you hate, as long as it’s someone. Once you have completed these steps, if still alive, reap the fruits of your labor. Bask in the glory. And when the toll of the lifestyle ultimately kills you, take comfort in the fact that generations to come will draw inspiration from you. Kind of like a shimmering light up ahead in the distance.

Happy birthday to the late great Glenn Frey, who would have turned 71 last Wednesday.

Image: from Pinterest

My Favorite Musical Theatre Opening Numbers

In which I lay out some cherished expository songs and scene-setters

The opening number of a musical carries by far the most responsibility. It is the means by which the audience is familiarized with the world onstage (and arguably vice versa, as the performers have to judge the sort of crowd they’ve got). It is the show’s first impression, and as such it behooves the composer(s)/lyricist(s) to put their best foot forward.

An opening number’s varying functions have long been analyzed: to introduce characters and their motivations/desires; to establish an environment; to describe the primary problem; and so forth. For the roughly hundred years since musical theatre became a widely recognized and legitimate art form, its creators and writers have experimented with different types of introductions. From the pull-out-all-the-stops ensemble dance number to the intimate soliloquy of a single character, there are countless successful examples. But a few, for as often as I see or hear them, stick in my memory and welcome me into their respective worlds to striking effect.

Here they are, in chronological order of Broadway/West End premiere:

“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” Oklahoma! (1943)

What can I say about this one that hasn’t already been said? It’s a classic. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote it (separately) in about ten minutes, and it gives us as an audience everything we need. The singer and hero, Curly, literally paints a picture of the landscape for us: I’m not sure theatre technology at that time was advanced enough to put an actual bright golden haze on the meadow. But we can visualize it perfectly well because the tune is so beautiful. It’s got bluesy notes, it’s got peaks and valleys. In context it introduces us to the environment of the show; out of context it’s got stand-alone integrity. Any performer worth their salt in a certain time period recorded this song. (Honestly, I think we should bring that back; imagine the glorious rendition Lana Del Rey could offer us.) Between the relative passivity of the female characters and the insinuation that it’s okay to kill a lonely old guy and go right back to your wedding, I’ve got some issues with Oklahoma! overall, but damn if this song didn’t set the golden standard. (See what I did there?)

“Another Openin’, Another Show,” Kiss Me Kate (1948)

This one impresses me because it walks a line and survives; it achieves what lesser numbers from lesser shows can’t. I guess if I’d expect that from anyone, I’d expect it from Cole Porter. But let me elaborate. I consider it a dangerous game to write a show about a show, or make a movie about making a movie. (I won’t even go into what I think of songwriters who include lyrics about writing songs. Unless you’re Paul Simon, get over yourself.) But this opening number about an opening number—a play within a play, which is made even more meta by the fact that it’s a reimagination of Shakespeare—captures everything an opening number ought to. Excitement, nerves, rehearsal-induced stress…it hits the nail on the head. I sing it whenever I prepare for a show. Even if it isn’t a musical. Even if it’s a concert. Basically anytime I’m about to go onstage. It’s a good-luck charm.

“Fugue for Tinhorns,” Guys and Dolls (1950)

I must disclaim that the only version of this one I’ll accept is sung by Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra on the Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre cast recording, as I have found all other versions to be inferior. Notwithstanding that, here’s a prime example of an introductory song that has little to do with the rest of the action. It’s just three anonymous guys talking about the horses they’ve bet on. Of course, this glimpse of the gambling atmosphere foreshadows the involvement of our hero Sky Masterson, but otherwise it’s a jaunty entrée into another place and time—or, I suppose, if you see it in New York, just another time. More than gets the job done. And you can sing along to any of the three vocal lines. Also, great horse names: Epitaph, Valentine, Paul Revere. (I got the horse right heeeeeere!)

“Comedy Tonight,” A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962)

This show was Stephen Sondheim’s first solo foray into Broadway: after he’d made his mark as a lyricist in the late ‘50s by collaborating with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story and Jule Styne on Gypsy, he felt ready to debut his own melodies too. And a number like this is clear proof that he was, in fact, ready. This song is very much in the welcoming camp, calling attention to the gravity of the gathering of actors and spectators. Per the ancient tradition, it begins with an invocation of the thespian gods, and then proceeds to introduce us to the players, principally Pseudolus, our slave-hero (not to be confused with Hero, who is someone else entirely). A reprise of the number ends the show, bringing the increasingly convoluted plot to a well-rounded conclusion. It’s a funny number which puts an audience in the mood for the titular funny things. The takeaway being “tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight”—gotta appease all those Muses!

“Willkommen,” Cabaret (1966)

Another classic by now, and particularly potent for me since I moved to Berlin. (Fun fact: I used to work down the street from the Kit Kat Klub. Suffice it to say it’s been…reincarnated since the ‘30s.) Like some of its forebears, it is heavy on spectacle, although a Fosse-envisioned spectacle takes spectacle to new heights. There is relatively sparse instrumentation—the number as a whole is understated—presumably to draw attention to the appearance and movement of the actors. But what we can say of the actors’ appearance we can essentially also say of the song: scant and seductive. The MC’s act transforms the audience into the audience at the club itself; we feel ourselves being drawn into a world where it is hard to tell what’s real, because everything is shadowy and everyone is a performer. It’s playful, but there’s obviously something happening beneath the surface—behind the curtain, as it were. And the shadows go on to become much darker, so the first song becomes a fleeting moment of levity that we must hang on to. Plus, it’ll make you trilingual.

“Heaven On Their Minds,” Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)

Anyone who knows me knows my borderline-destructive attachment to Superstar. I’ll have more to say on it over time, but it all begins with this number. This number alone is probably half the reason I’m so attached—it’s certainly the reason Judas Iscariot is my dream role in the show. It’s the pinnacle of intelligent craftsmanship, incredibly difficult to sing well. Andrew Lloyd Webber knew that in order to write a rock opera he needed strong Leitmotifs to attribute to each principal character; and the guitar riff running through this song—the ostinato which the show perpetually returns to—is the greatest Leitmotif since anything of Wagner’s.* (Not to mention it helps me to locate the key of D minor out of thin air.) Add in Tim Rice’s lyrics—which are not always stellar, but here they really are—and the experiment is complete. In four minutes, Judas is identified as narrator, anti-hero, and odd man out. The depth and complexity of his relationship to his surroundings, especially to Jesus, comes across with searing intensity. Probably the best thing about it is its urgency: we who are versed in Christianity go in with a gist of the ‘story,’ but the song informs even the least religious viewer that we are on a fixed timeline and that the stakes are very high, And it provides the first of many glimpses into the mind of the show’s most compelling and dynamic character, the one we think we know as the villain. As Rachel Bloom once said, the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that—and this song is an early hint. Gives me chills every single time.

*I don’t often compliment Wagner because I don’t think much of proto-white-nationalists, so this is kind of a big deal.

“All That Jazz,” Chicago (1975)

Again, no less than iconic. Like the opener of its predecessor Cabaret, it invites the audience into a strange, seductive, and specific world and introduces them to the people who operate on the fringes of society. Velma Kelly is established as the narrator, more or less, though she also quite literally has skin in the game; and Roxie Hart is established as the person whose story Velma is telling. Everything we see in the action during the number—the exposition—happens to Roxie, but we interpret it through Velma’s lens. In essence, the narrator and the protagonist are two separate entities, which doesn’t occur often (at least in my experience), so for a song to strike that balance so well, setting the tone for the rest of the show, is admirable. And there are choral countermelodies and punchy lines of dialogue and fantastic choreography and…well, you know, all that jazz.

“I Hope I Get It,” A Chorus Line (1975)

This is another show I’ll meditate on at length somewhere down the line (hehe), but the main thing about the number is that it is a textbook ensemble piece. Whom are we rooting for? Who knows? Who cares?? They’re all giving one hundred percent to a legendary—and legendarily tricky—dance combination in the hopes of being cast in a Broadway chorus. Interspersed between prolonged choreography sequences are sung snatches, some by characters who are cut from the final round ten minutes later (spoiler). But the fact that minor people can participate in such a major number is a testament to the inclusivity of the staging. And they sing just as intensely as they dance. By the end of the number, the characters vying for spots hit their now-famous positions on ‘the line,’ and we as the audience understand that we’re in for something we’ve never seen before. Stunning to behold. Even more stunning to be part of.

“Little Shop of Horrors,” Little Shop of Horrors (1982)

I learned only recently that Alan Menken and Howard Ashman ran this show through several musical genres, none of them really fitting—until someone suggested doo-wop. That turned out to be the Midas touch, creating a narrative thread for the show (a Chiffons-style Greek chorus) and transforming this song into one of the catchiest tunes in the theatrical canon. For my first high school show, I got to sing it as part of the Greek trio, which I still count among my dearest stage memories. It sets an appropriate, darkly comedic tone, but mostly it’s just great fun.

“Prologue/Into the Woods,” Into the Woods (1987)

Sondheim had really grown into a, uh, giant by now, and it shows. Although this number is roughly twelve minutes long, it can be summarized in the first sung line—“I wish”—as articulated by Cinderella (a role I have played twice, and will once again describe in greater detail in a later post). Over the course of the next three (three) hours, the plot gets layered and complex like no plot had dared to do before, so the cast and their various backstories need to be laid out immediately. Sondheim wastes no time, familiarizing us with Cinderella, Jack (of Beanstalk notoriety), Little Red Riding Hood, and the catalysts of action—a baker and his wife, known only by those titles, and the witch who is their neighbor and tormentor. This show takes the idea of the ostinato to a whole new level: the main theme, a march, returns at least three times throughout the course of the show and evokes from the outset a feeling of propulsion, of constant motion. We are going into the woods, ready or not, even if these characters have to drag us there. Like I mentioned, it’s a whopper, but once you’ve done the show you can recite all twelve minutes word-for-word for the rest of your life.

“Too Much Exposition,” Urinetown (2001)

This one tells us right off the bat how break-the-fourth-wall funny the show is going to be. It allows our two narrators, Officer Lockstock and Little Sally, to become reacquainted with each other: they’ve met before, and the implication is that they will meet again, under the premise of telling the story of a musical. It mocks the very concept of an opening number: Lockstock explains to Little Sally that “nothing kills a show like too much exposition.” But it simultaneously manages to introduce most of the major players and the strange, though not entirely unthinkable, “central conceit of the show” (the water shortage that has led to large corporations’ privatization of toilets). Lockstock and Little Sally make no secret of their status as interpreters of a work of fiction, foreshadowing the self-awareness many characters project at some point in the action. And we all know what a trustworthy comedic device self-awareness can be. In the background of the first half of the number, the non-narrating actors are seen coming out of the woodwork and ‘putting on’ their roles, so that by the end the entire ensemble participates in the music. An entertaining and informative entrée to an entertaining and informative—and, in my opinion, criminally underappreciated—show.*

*It’s worth noting that the show had its Broadway premiere nine days after the 9/11 attacks, so a New York audience would have been starved for bleak humor. This song, not to mention everything following it, supplies that in spades.

“Good Morning, Baltimore,” Hairspray (2002)

This one is possibly the consummate opening number, given that it is one uninterrupted survey of the protagonist’s world through the protagonist’s eyes. We, as the audience, ‘wake up’ with Tracy Turnblad and move through her hometown alongside her on her way to school. The mood of the instrumentation reflects both her unquenchable optimism and her proclivity for dancing, and it infects us. Stagings of the number vary, at least to my knowledge—I freely admit my partiality to the 2007 film, which hit me at an impressionable age—but the fluid motion between sights and situations and people invites us to see all the possibility of a new day in the city that Tracy sees. (If you’ve ever watched The Wire, that’s a hard thing to come back from, but just bear with me.) What’s more, it is the first in a series of musical numbers among which there is hardly a weak one. As my sister pointed out recently, some of them go on a bit too long for their own good (think “I Can Hear the Bells”), but this isn’t one of those. It’s a shiny happy introduction to a person and her place, with an instantly singalong-able melody and darn good choral parts.*

*Only downside: Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton, does not appear in this number, quite a disappointment to me when I played Penny in junior year of high school. That said, she is still my most fun role to date, which vouches for the strength of the show across the board.

“Omigod You Guys,” Legally Blonde (2007)

If you’re at all familiar with the movie, you will instantly recognize this song for the brilliant piece that it is. The show premiered right as the idea of the long contemporary opening number was starting to take root, but it doesn’t stretch to the offensive lengths that some do, and it achieves an impressive amount. In six minutes it rolls out the upbeat world of the Delta Nu sisterhood, the sweeping romance of Elle Woods and Warner Huntington (the third), Elle’s shrewd shopping sensibility, and the undeniable influence she exerts over everyone she meets. There are several movements, and the main theme is insanely catchy. Do not underestimate the song—it’s actually a hint not to underestimate the show. Or the protagonist, who is routinely reduced to her hair color and sorority ways! I wonder if they did that on purpose…??

“Hello!”, The Book of Mormon (2011)

The best—and I do dare say the best—opener to emerge from 2010s Broadway. When I finally got to see it in New York in March 2015, I could tell from the first moment that everyone was in top form. It’s one of those numbers that tells you all you need to know about the performers. An extended introduction to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints via their doorbell-ringing greeting script. The first soon-to-be missionary we meet is one of our two heroes, Elder Kevin Price, as clean-cut and promising as can be; the last is our other hero, Elder Arnold Cunningham, equally disheveled and out of sorts. The fragments of speech, and the way they intertwine, have me singing along for days after each listen. And, in the grand opening-number tradition, it supplies a taste of what’s to come, which in this case is outrageous humor and irreverence. You’ll never hear a doorbell the same way.

As I hope I’ve made apparent, the musical opening number is capable of anything, and the vast catalogue has something for everyone. What are your favorites?

Image: Legally Blonde on Broadway

A Few Choice Italian Words

In which I reflect on a recent viaggio with my parole preferite

I spent last weekend in Florence with my sister, who is studying there, and my dad, who took a transatlantic getaway. A smaller city than I remembered, but hey, I’ve done some growing and traveling since my last visit. Over those 8½ years (a happy accidental film reference??), I’ve become just about fluent in the language and fallen in love with the culture.

My own family hail from the south, Calabria and Puglia, which have their own linguistic and dialectical idiosyncrasies; but until I get there I’m content to immerse myself in the northern vocabulary and manner of speaking.

What I should have been expecting was to come away with new and exciting bytes of that vocabulary—that’s what happens when the world becomes your classroom, baby!

With that said, here follows a list of some of my favorite Italian words, whether for their sound, their meaning, the memories attached to them, or a combination:

abbigliamento: n. clothing

aggiungere: v. to gather, to accumulate

Biancaneve: n. Snow White (of Seven Dwarfs fame)

briganti: n. pl. thieves

carabinieri: n. pl. the cops, yo (fun fact: I originally came upon this word in Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord, translated from—what?—German! #FullCircle)

Cenerentola: n. Cinderella (are you sensing a pattern?)

cipolla: n. onion (as in “looking through a glass…”)

degno/a: adj. worthy (like “to deign” to do something, to think that something is worthy of your attention)

doppia vu: n. the letter W (strange how such a wonderful-sounding phrase should be wasted on a letter which is basically nonexistent in Italian)

frattempo: adv. meanwhile (literally fra + tempo, “between time”)

frigorifero: n. refrigerator (so much better, right?)

innamorato/a: adj. in love (as in “sono innamorata della lingua italiana”)

lontano/a: adj. faraway

meraviglioso/a: adj. wonderful (pro tip: use this word in front of a native and they’ll ask if you speak the language fluently; real self-esteem booster)

orecchini: n. pl. earrings (sing. orecchino)

pellegrinaggio: n. pilgrimage (cooler than its relative, pellegrino, which is “pilgrim”)

pesca: n. peach (the fruit; pesco is the peach tree)

poltrona: n. armchair (aaaahhhh)

pomodoro: n. tomato (from pomo d’oro, literally “apple of gold”)

rimpiangere: v. to experience nostalgia (piangere is “to cry,” so this is literally “to cry again”)

Ringraziamento: n. Thanksgiving (mostly useful for Italian-Americans)

schiavo: n. slave (only because the phrase sono suo schiavo, or “I am your slave,” evolved into the greeting—ciao—that we know and love today)

sciarpa: n. scarf (not to be confused with scarpa, which is “shoe”)

sfortunato/a: adj. unlucky (but it sounds more romantic than that)

speranza: n. hope

statunitense: adj. of or pertaining to the United States (a really interesting one because we have no English equivalent—we’ve only got “American,” which technically pertains to two whole continents)

tedesco/a: adj. German (nothing whatsoever to do with the country name, “Germania,” and it just sounds so cool, which is good because I say it a lot in my current location)

So this is your second-rate Elizabeth Gilbert reminding you that it’s never too late to appreciate Italy or its language. Learn to roll your r and you’re halfway there.

Forse ci vediamo

Image: my own, taken from the Palazzo Vecchio overlooking a side street

An Ode to Shostakovich

In which I ignore the current political climate and argue how great Russians are

Today marks the 92nd anniversary of Symphony No. 2, a.k.a. “To October,” by Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich. If that name alone isn’t sufficient to convince you of the inherent nobility of the Russian people, I don’t know what I can do for you. (At least, they haven’t always tried to hack us…)

Shostakovich composed “classical” music (part of the school of modernism, if you want to get technical) under the long arm of Soviet law. Occasionally his work conflicted with Stalin’s own opinions, so it’s a wonder he didn’t wind up “disappeared” like many of his contemporaries and friends. His memoir, Testimony, an extended interview with a young journalist in the ‘70s, is widely regarded as unreliable because he knew he was still being watched. The post-Stalin government had even coerced him into joining the Socialist Party. And the book was only published because the journalist smuggled it into the United States. So that paints a picture for you.

My first exposure to Shostakovich came in the form of Disney’s Fantasia 2000. Whenever I hear the first movement of Piano Concerto No. 2, I see a little tin soldier, his ballerina partner, and an evil jack-in-the-box. (I’ve never trusted those things.) My formal education happened in college, starting in sophomore year on a ride home for vacation. A junior friend, one hand on the wheel and one year of music history under her belt, described his subversive efforts to rebel against the regime by filling his orchestration with coded themes. I didn’t consciously store this information for future use, but it came back two years later as I read about him in a twentieth-century-music history course.

I won’t mince words: music is a highly emotional experience for me, and the more I learned about his valiant creative struggle, the more attracted I was to him. Also, the glasses. I love a man with a sharp pair of specs. We visually impaired folks need to stick together, you know?

In any event, I signed out every biographical and historical source in the library and set to work on a master paper shedding light on said valiant creative struggle. I couldn’t believe I’d gone so long without stumbling upon his story: the way he fell into and out of favor with power, his seemingly endless spring of inspiration, his tumultuous relationships with an array of colorful characters. I was really and wholly taken.

A few of my favorite popular artists have mentioned him among their influences, and he seems to get the recognition and the performance time he deserves. As I unearthed more and more of his compositions, I discovered the Second Piano Concerto—my oldest association with him—to be rather out of character. A majority of his catalogue is not cheerful or even pleasant, but dissonant, menacing, sometimes downright frightening. (Other pieces compensate; the waltz from his Second Suite for Variety Orchestra never fails to make me swoon.) Which only goes to show how accurately it reflects its time. And how you need not like an artist’s entire canon, or agree with his politics, to appreciate and respect him.

Shostakovich died in 1975 at age sixty-eight. He is buried in Moscow, but my first ambition is to get to St. Petersburg, his hometown and the dedicatee of at least one of his symphonies and probably plenty more works. Every culture has got ugliness in its past, and I think representatives like Shostakovich remind us how much beauty there is also.

That said, maybe I’ll hold my visit until 2021, or until things quiet down.

Here’s to a fellow September baby! We do get all the good ones, don’t we?

Image: Sovfoto/UIG, via Getty Images

What is a Culture Slut?

In which I define the descriptor of the blog persona

n. A member of a very particular subspecies of Homo sapiens wh develops a regular, periodic, and intense fascination with different cultural works (e.g., specific songs, books, plays, films, television shows) and their creators, thereby amassing a collection of heroes and pop “things” over their lifetime. In certain cases, the culture slut’s affinity for the artist exceeds their affinity for the art; but they usually strike a balance depending on the artist or art in mind. For example, whereas 30 Rock constitutes a large part of my admiration for Tina Fey, I prefer studying Dmitri Shostakovich’s life to almost any single composition of his.

The culture slut’s degree of fascination with any such cultural tidbit can range as follows:


Whatever the level, their attention is concentrated on that subject, and they will reference it, subtly or not, for as long as their attention lasts. At the mild end of the spectrum, they entertain their companions with witty allusions; at the intense end, they quote lines/melodies/whole passages until their companions want to die. The amount of references is directly proportional to the presence of the subject in the culture slut’s mind. Thus, when the references peter out, you may assume the subject has crossed into the culture slut’s subconscious. However, similar to the normal human being, the culture slut is liable to experience a flare-up, or “phase,” at a later point.

The exact number of living culture sluts is unknown. Experts suspect that many more exist than will identify themselves due to embarrassment; but they have determined that those who do embrace the identity tend to congregate in cities, and they have not given up hope of pinpointing the major loci of culture slut social life worldwide.

(Culture sluts can and do survive and thrive in various socioeconomic environments.)

One of the consummate culture sluts of our day is Abed Nadir from Community, who interprets life almost exclusively through quotations of film, television, and comics. The fact that I am using a culture-obsessed sitcom character to delineate and diagnose cultural obsession should tell you all you need to know about my own condition.

Every social circle has at least one culture slut. If you don’t know who it is, it’s you.

Treat the culture slut in your life with care. Underneath all the enthusiasm, their quickness to form attachments can be a source of sensitivity, even self-consciousness. “What’s wrong with me,” they may ask, silently or aloud, “that I whore myself out to a new band or writer or Netflix show all the time?”

Listen with compassion. Reassure them that they are not a whore, even though they are. Don’t give them a hard time about it. Let them pour their heart out over the flavor of the week or month or year, and should it reach a point that you deem unreasonable or you just can’t take it anymore, gently ask them to shut up.

Image: Abed (Danny Pudi), in one of those paintball episodes that ended season 1 or 2

#ThrowbackThursday: A Tribute to International Pepper Day

In which I reflect on a gathering in Central Park to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper

With the “Beatles 50” decade (that is, a series of Beatles-related 50th anniversaries) fast coming to a close, I sit listening to the special remaster of Abbey Road, which is everything I could want and more. But as this is Throwback Thursday, I’d like to commemorate an exciting event at which I was present: New York City’s Pepper Day 2017, a celebration to honor the release of the seminal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

1 June marked half a century since Rolling Stone’s Greatest Rock Album hit the market on both sides of the Atlantic. I and my musically-inclined friends and associates anticipated the anniversary well in advance. Various ideas crossed my mind for a proverbial tip of the hat, including a joint graduation party (college for me, high school for my sister) requiring guests to dress as personalities found on the sleeve—and featuring my sister, me, and our parents as the militarily-clad Fab Four.

Like that was going to happen. The closer the big day came, the clearer the need for a more definitive plan became to me.

Halfway through the spring semester, a Beatles-scholar professor lent me his copy of Beatleness, a book by sociologist Candy Leonard which catalogues the unique cultural experience of fans growing up alongside the band in the sixties. Among many fascinating facts, I learned of the biannual Fest for Beatles Fans—and of International Pepper Day, a celebratory listening party organized by the man behind the Fest, taking place at the Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park on the day in question.

What more definitive plan could there be? My father and I set out for the city the morning of, navigating the serpentine Upper West Side in the opposite of our usual route. We arrived with plenty of time to spare before the official noon commemoration, so we strolled across the expanse of the park, soaking in its early-summer glory under leafy brush and nearly cloudless sky, until finally we settled in for the big event. Said event consisted of…about a hundred people. Colorfully clad, florally bedecked, and peacefully minded people, no doubt, but a small group. I couldn’t help wondering if this was the place.

Then a girl in long tie-dye pants and crowned with a wreath of flowers handed me a button—a LOVE button—and I knew it was.

The lot of us clustered around the marble IMAGINE circle in the center of the memorial, in a reverent hush, and more or less stayed there for the next hour as the organizer played the new remaster on a small speaker connected to his phone. I found it almost unfathomable that the technology of music production and consumption could have come so far in half a century. Every so often we swapped positions to provide everyone with a closer listen. And I won’t say it felt like hearing the album for the first time—not least because we’d listened to the original and two different cover versions on the trip down—but to be surrounded by people whose passion vibrated as palpably as mine did was something else. The energy in that circle electrified me. I spoke with total strangers, a feat for someone with her share of social hang-ups, and felt understood. It was an atmosphere of goodwill and camaraderie that I imagined resembled Woodstock, albeit on a smaller (and less muddy) scale.

That atmosphere was sustained as the album ended and we segued into what the organizer, a beneficent older gentleman, called “the jam session.” This consisted of several musicians in the crowd bringing out their instruments and playing through the album in their own style.

Of course, they needed singers. No rendition of the album could be complete without those fantastic lyrics.

Enter me. Alongside the organizer and the guitarist of a local band, I took a tambourine and sang my way through every song without missing a word. We harmonized brilliantly on “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Eventually I was at the helm of the singing group, and a man I later understood to be the producer Mark Hudson joined me on “Getting Better.” He had tie-dyed his beard. I couldn’t remember the last time I had smiled so continuously; it had been hours on end.

That afternoon was proof that it is getting better all the time. And although I missed the recent Fests in Chicago and New York, despite encouragement from the people I met that day, the event is now on my radar permanently. (Let’s see when I get there, or when an outpost comes to Europe.)

I acquired Sgt. Pepper on CD one Christmas when I was very young and unable to appreciate its genius. Sometimes things take a while to percolate. Don’t ever dismiss a piece of work: it might never mean anything to you, but it might.