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No, you are not allowed to dislike Queen!

I experience an unreasonable amount of joy from watching the music-themed editions of the popular “Kids React” videos, where elementary-aged kids are given a pair of headphones and find themselves blasted with classic rock tunes. My favorite is this one:

It’s not surprising, at least not to me, that most of the kids are either Queen fans already, or take only a song or two to be converted. There’s one little girl who remains a holdout, but the results are still overwhelming affirming to those of us who claim the greatness of Mercury and company. I’ll, of course, allow a pass for young children. After all, they think the Easter Bunny is real and that green vegetables come from the garden of Satan himself. However, there are still a few adults who have decided they are too good for one of the greatest bands in the history of the universe.

Luckily for the haters, I’m here to help. It’s really quite simple… you are not allowed to dislike Queen. Allow me to explain with a short, numbered listicle of the British quartet’s selling points. Hopefully you’ll come to see why you’re wrong if you say you don’t like them. And, believe me, you are wrong.

1. Queen is 50 of the best bands in music history

Queen was rarely the same band from song to song, let alone album to album. Until Freddie Mercury’s untimely death, the lineup of Freddie, Brian, John, and Roger remained constant, but WOW, were they a versatile crew! It would be tempting when asked (although I never have been asked) what they sound like, to describe Queen as a hard rock band, and while that wouldn’t be a lie, it would be an incomplete picture. Queen made music that could be identified rightly as proto-metal (“Stone Cold Crazy”, later covered, nearly unchanged, by Metallica), folk rock (Brian May’s underrated “’39”), country (“Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, accepted as canon by many in the Nashville community), pop (all of the “Hot Space” album), and even songs in the style of 1920s English pub singalongs (“Dreamer’s Ball). The list could go on and on, but the point is that, no matter your personal taste, Queen’s prolific, musically diverse catalog has you covered. Particularly during their artistic peak in the 1970s, listeners who put a Queen record on the hi-fi could be delighted by the radical, unexpected genre-bending shifts delivered by each successive track. While the band’s hits, which are many, are a fine place to start, it would be absurdly lazy to claim distaste for Queen as a whole without exploration of their lesser-known gems. For that matter, if you consider yourself a Queen fan, but have never heard “Dragon Attack”, “Leaving Home Ain’t Easy”, or “Rain Must Fall”, do yourself a favor and dig a little deeper into some incredibly good music.

2. Are you really unimpressed?

Aside from the great songs, the musicianship on even the “worst” (relative term) Queen albums is something awesome for your ears to behold. There should be no question that Freddie Mercury is one of the finest singers ever to pick up a microphone. Skipping around the musical spectrum was much easier for a band whose frontman could successfully channel Robert Plant, Rudy Vallee, Elvis, and Pavarotti, sometimes all in the same song! It’s possible Freddie will never be surpassed in his combination of vocal power and versatility. His voice is heavenly and he ranks among the likes of Paganini and Liszt for being one of the greatest showman in music history, to boot.

Similarly, Brian May is an astonishingly brilliant guitarist. Nearly always playing instruments of his own design and construction, the sounds of his guitar are among the most identifiable ever recorded. Listen to the tone in both “Seaside Rendezvous” and “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon”, both from the “A Night at the Opera” album. In each case, Brian May manages to adopt the inflections of clarinets, trombones and anything else he wishes to emulate. Furthermore, I imagine most of the Western World can sing at least a portion of his “Bohemian Rhapsody” solo note for note.

While drummer Roger Taylor and bassist/keyboardist John Deacon played less flashy roles in Queen, and were perhaps less virtuosic than Freddie and Brian, it speaks volumes that they never failed to deliver performances which were complimentary to such levels of excellence. Keep in mind that John Deacon composed and played the B-3 on the flawless single “You’re My Best Friend”, while Roger Taylor wrote and sang the awesome/ridiculous anthem, “I’m in Love with My Car”. (“A Night at the Opera” is an obscenely great album, as if I need to point that out.)

 

3. The lyrics are as funny and original as the music is extraordinary.

While not all Queen lyrics are humorous by any means, the many which are come delivered with a wit and intelligence that is truly a rare thing in the world of popular music. We all know “Bohemian Rhapsody” with its many absurd phrases that reference such obscurities as silent early French cinema, loving/mocking tributes to opera choruses, and of course, the incomparably delirious line, “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me”. “Bicycle Race” is not only one of Queen’s silliest songs, but certainly among their very best. Every line of it is completely insane. “Delilah”, from “Innuendo”, their final studio album is a uniquely comical and touching farewell from Freddie Mercury to his cat, recorded as the singer knew his days ahead were few. From the same record, “I’m Going Slightly Mad” is inconceivably both screwball silly and elegant.

Queen didn’t shy away from serious reflections, either. Love songs like “Love of My Life” and “You Take My Breath Away” show that the band could be devastating even when the instruments were reduced to a single piano (mostly). It’s worth noting that many of Queen’s songs about love mixed humor and tragedy. Think of “Somebody to Love” or “Save Me”. They’re gloriously epic fun, but heartbreaking when you look at the words alone.

4. Are you not convinced at this point?

In addition to all I’ve highlighted so far, Queen is the soundtrack to our very existence. It’s true that stadium anthems “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” have been nearly exhausted. It’s also fair to say (and I have) that “Bohemian Rhapsody” needs a little time away from classic rock radio, just to breathe long enough that we can appreciate its perfection. In many respects, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the Beethoven’s 5th Symphony of rock. Sure, we’ve heard it a ridiculous amount, but we nonetheless never cease being amazed by it.

As a last piece of evidence, if you are of an age where you remember seeing performances of Live-Aid on TV, you don’t need to a reminder to recall which band dominated the star-studded concert.

If none of this is compelling, and you remain convinced that Queen is anything but awesome, I probably have little else to discuss with you. You may need to reflect on your poor life choices that have led to this reality.

 

 

My new favorite project(s)

I haven’t been updating my website as much lately because I’ve been very busy organizing a reunion of my high school choir, complete with a concert sung by nearly 40 years-worth of alumni!

My other recent musical adventure involves the formation of Inversion Ensemble, a brand new choral group that showcases brand new choral music. We especially focus on the works of local Austinites, including Yours Truly!

Check out the website for Inversion Ensemble here:

inversionensemble.com

Update 8/17: The reunion was an unqualified success! A choir of nearly 160 alumni gave a concert of old favorites to a crowd of nearly 600. The lesson I learned was “Always ask for help from people who GET THINGS DONE.” I really hit the jackpot with my team of organizers. Additionally, I’m still, over a month later, overwhelmed by the realization that I received an incredible music education from great teachers all through my public schooling. I suppose I knew that already, but seeing the effect it had on so many people, and in such a tangible way, is something I’ll hold dear forever.

Why the Great Church Music Debate Misses the Point

There’s a joke that’s been told so often as to be cliché, but just in case you haven’t heard it, here is the gist:

A man’s home gets flooded to the point at which he must stand on the roof awaiting rescue. Boats, helicopters, etc. offer him aid, but his response is always, “No need, for I have asked my God to save me and my God shall provide”. Eventually, he drowns, dies, and encounters God upon his arrival in heaven. He asks God why he allowed him to drown and God responds by pointing out the boats and helicopters he had sent to save the man. (Gasp!!)

The only context in which I’ve ever heard this story has been in church. Repeatedly. And yet the irony of the punchline (?) is, to my mind, absurdly overshadowed by the irony that continually allows tellers and hearers alike to escape learning a thing from it. I feel obligated to to point out that my church knowledge is primarily grounded in Mainline Protestantism, so all further insults will be thus directed.

I frequently read articles and see hard data about what churchgoers, especially millennials, are looking for from a prospective house of worship. Since I’m a career music minister, obviously the notes about style and music interest me most. However, as a rule, churches take this data, assume it doesn’t apply to their “incredibly unique” community, and metaphorically flush any potential insights down the toilet.

As we all know, since the birth of Christ, there have existed only two types of music: 4-part English/German hymnody that reminds us of how Grandma used to smell and a vague blend of U2/Keith Urban that constantly reminds us that Jesus is a very attractive man, while reminding God how worthy he is of various things (apparently, he tends to forget). Unfortunately, no other kinds of music exist, so there’s no need to evaluate the dual-style worship model whatsoever.

Successful churches gained their success by addressing what their communities needed. The very stupid interpretation by most U.S. churches goes something like, “We got lots of young people in our town, so let’s get us wunna them rock bands and watch the pews overflow”. The other version is something to the effect of “millennials think the lyrics in praise and worship songs are vapid and creepily sexual, so they must want a full return to Orthodoxy. Prepare the incense”. Just wow…

Part of the overall issue we face, which is absolutely inter generational, is caused by the immediate and overwhelming availability to us of all music at once, all the time. Except in church, that is. Do you like hip-hop? We’ve got none of that, Mister Snoopy Dig-Dog! Enjoy retro-styled Outlaw Country? No, ma’am! I could go on and on, but let’s face it, we’ve created a Coke vs. Pepsi church music culture when people might rather have a Sprite or the occasional iced tea.

The musical trends within organized Christianity are astonishing. Classical music has drastically evolved just in the last few decades to be more listener friendly, for better or worse. With the emergence of rock star composers such as Eric Whitacre, Karl Jenkins and a host of others, classical music in the mainstream may be in trouble financially (please note my other ramblings about the “death” of classical music), but its fan base has great potential for growth. None of that is regularly observed in mainstream church services. Church choral music typically favors anthems compositionally pumped out with little thought given to theology, musical diversity or any effort to offer God the best we have. Instead, the lyrical content strives for simple rhyming and catchiness. Above all, it’s easy to sing with little rehearsal to accommodate the casual, noncommittal choir member. As for hymnody, many of the traditional worship crowd, who regularly blast the lyrics of praise and worship staples, demand of their music team to choose more of “The Old Hymns”. By the way, “Old” refers to Southern Gospel songs from the 1930’s full of non biblical descriptions of heaven and NEVER to hymns of actual antiquity. Offering a beige version of liturgical music when the full spectrum of brilliant, even modern, colors is an option is a travesty.

As for what has been crassly labeled “Contemporary” Christian Music, where to begin? The casual atmosphere it provides is certainly welcoming to newcomers, but frequently at the cost of any significant theology. Of course, let’s not forget the aforementioned bizarre sexualization of Jesus that so often goes along with Praise and Worship lyrics, that ruins the (presumably) intended message. While so-called traditional liturgical finds itself drenched in blandness, CCM continues to be generally derivative of itself. The resulting music is harmonically stagnant, frequently slow enough to send me into a coma and the lyrics border on self- parody. Straying from the formula is punished by the establishment with utter apathy. In 2009, The David Crowder Band released “Church Music”, a musically adventurous album that was fun and surprising, featuring a broad mix of sounds equally reminiscent of Euro-pop and Super Mario. I like to imagine that it challenged the band that created it. The words were nothing to write home about, but there was certainly nothing to cause objection. I first listened to it and thought I’d heard something important and perhaps even transformative to the album’s genre. Six years later, I have yet to hear evidence that it’s had any impact at all on other CCM artists.

It’s imperative to remember that the greats of church music, like Bach, were constantly contributing new music to challenge their congregations with the hopes of genuine enlightenment through sound. As a composer, I suppose a portion of the onus is upon me as much as anybody. I was recently given a pleasant surprise when I learned that the leader of our church’s worship band was writing new songs for the band to lead, a rare thing in a United Methodist church. I originally became a composer in order to contribute something new to worship. In all honesty, I often get cynical and put my liturgical compositions on the shelf, thinking it doesn’t make a difference. In those times I must remind myself of the purpose of giving a true offering, not simply to offer what’s easy to throw together.

I believe it to be necessary to point out the faults of the ways we’ve allowed worship music to settle into a rut. Nowhere in life should complacency be tolerated, least of all in church. I have nothing against any style of music being a part of worship and I treasure many songs from both of the favored, though exhausted, styles. I’m convinced that musical diversity is a reflection of the age, racial and socioeconomic diversity that exists to a larger degree than ever throughout the country. One may think that two styles cover the full spectrum, but it only serves to point out the differences between to very specific demographic groups. If your city or town is known for its jazz clubs, sophisticated community choirs, indie rock scene, whatever – and your church doesn’t offer even a taste of your community’s musical language, you may likely be destined for failure.

Why “Mozart in the Jungle” Makes a Mockery of Classical Music

If you possess an Amazon Prime account, you are likely aware that one of Amazon’s most critically acclaimed original shows is returning, just before Christmas, for a second season. While I won’t tell you not to watch something that you find genuinely entertaining, please understand that watching “Mozart in the Jungle” will teach you as much about the life of a classical musician as “Jurassic World” will teach you about velociraptor behavior, size and general appearance. “Mozart in the Jungle” is utter fiction/fantasy and I’ll be devastated if you tell me it has in any way shaped your understanding of what being a classical musician is really like. Because I am a person with a degree in classical instrumental music, I found that season one was (how shall I say this?…) blasphemously abominable. I will confess I only made it through the first two episodes, but that was enough to bombard me with nonsense.

It’s worthy to note that “Mozart in the Jungle”is rife with serious acting talent. Bernadette Peters plays Gloria, the head of the symphony board, Malcolm McDowell is Thomas, the conductor who is reluctant to retire, and Gael García Bernal is the young, incoming conductor. I have admired all three actors for years. The show’s musical world is often seen through the lens of aspiring orchestral oboist Hailey, played by Lola Kirke. I’m sure she’s not without talent, but here she is guilty from the very first line of the series for delivering the nonsense.

1. If You Have a Teacher Who Tells You This, Find a New Teacher

The series begins with Kirke’s Hailey giving an oboe lesson to an adolescent boy who clearly has a crush on her. Okay, that’s fine, except the first thing she tells him is to breathe in through his nose and out his mouth, “Just like I taught you”. Here’s a free music lesson for anyone wanting to take up playing a wind instrument: THAT IS BAD ADVICE. Almost every new voice student I take on tells me in their first lesson that they have “breathing problems”. Seeing as not a one of them was dragging along a ventilator when they said that, the problem usually gets fixed the moment I encourage them to breathe in and out of their mouth. Your body isn’t actually designed to mix and match breathing locations. We generally choose, perhaps unknowingly, either our noses or our mouths. Observe your breathing as you read this and you’ll likely find that to be true. Because the “wrong”way is slightly more complicated, I’m sure the writers thought it sounded real smart and stuff.

2. Clearly, No One Researched Anything in Preparation for His/Her Role

Serious actors are known for engulfing themselves in the study of whatever craft they’re representing on stage or in film. That’s part of why “Rocky” is so good. Sylvester Stallone trained to be a boxer in order to portray a boxer – makes sense to me. However, it is clear (or at least presumable from the results) that neither Bernal nor McDowell spent any time whatsoever researching how to conduct and it is possible neither man has ever been to a symphonic concert. If you don’t already know, there are basic time-based patterns which every conductor uses to indicate the beat. The expressiveness that comes from the conductor is generally within the context of those patterns. The men who play conductors in “ Mozart in the Jungle” must have been told to wave their arms around in reckless abandonment, for that is all they do and they look like complete idiots doing so. I remember my first college conducting class, when I was reminded that my ictus was much too high. An ictus is the imaginary plane upon which a conductor’s hands hit beat one in any time signature. Obviously, these guys never took that class, seeing as their respective hands are always above their shoulders and they have no ictus whatsoever. They would both fail college conducting class. There is a montage early on of Bernal’s singularly-named “Rodrigo” conducting wildly, apparently to show how amazing he is. The only thing he does amazingly is give his impression of a clown having a seizure in the middle of an interpretive dance routine.

3. No, We Don’t Do That

At one point in the show, Hailey is at a lively music nerd party where she is in a drinking game face-off with a flautist. The idea is that they spin a dial and have to play whichever orchestral woodwind excerpt is indicated and take a shot if their performance is not up to snuff. Dozens of other classical music nerds watch them with bated breath. Let me clear something up once and for all. I am a classical music nerd and I have been to countless music nerd parties. If this game had ever broken out at any of them, I would have swiftly taken my leave. That was never necessary, since no one I have ever met thinks this sounds like a fun party. No one. At all.

On a side note, I can’t think of a single woodwind player who cleans his or her instrument with a wet wipe, the way Hailey “cleans” her oboe. Come to think of it, I can’t think of any instrument of an kind that should be cleaned that way. So no, we don’t do that, either.

4. That’s Not How Auditions Work

Perhaps the most egregious misconception perpetuated by “Mozart in the Jungle” is the method by which the writers and producers think section players are hired to play in an orchestra. Let’s first consider the reality that virtually all major American orchestras are made up of union musicians, which is mentioned when Peters’s board chair, Gloria discusses the struggle to play the musicians more under the modern financial constraints an orchestra faces. The existence of that union means that they would typically be protected from some imbecile, who learned how to conduct from Bugs Bunny, declaring he’s going to overhaul the various sections of the orchestra in one fell swoop. The vast majority of the time, when new players are auditioned, they are selected for the spot based on factors such as how well they blend in with the current section. It’s frequently considered how much he or she sounds like the principal player, so that if said principal were to be ill for a performance, the assistant can be promoted for the night with little impact. In the show, Hailey auditions to be an auxiliary oboist for the season (in this case, an additional player needed for one Mahler symphony). Now let me tell you about the greatest work of fiction on this show. If you were to show up late for an orchestral audition, especially one to which you were not formally invited, you will not be awarded with the job. But that’s exactly what happens on “Mozart in the Jungle”. Hailey arrives too late to audition (because she wasn’t asked to be there), but whips out the old double-reed and plays to the empty room, just ‘cuz. Rodrigo conveniently hears her from the wings and is blown away by her passion as a soloist. Keep in mind, she is not auditioning to be a soloist and sticking out as an over-emoter in the oboe section would be a great detriment as an auxiliary player.

It’s true that passion, even reckless passion, plays a part in creating great music. Music is an art form and, as with all art forms, requires great creativity. That doesn’t mean that all musicians are extroverted volcanos of emotion with no regard for anything else. Many orchestral musicians have multiple degrees, often doctorates, in music and are experts in the expanse of their field. They are well versed not just in the technical mastery of their instruments, but also in music theory, pedagogy, music history and an array of other things. Shows like “Mozart in the Jungle” diminish what it truly means to be a classical musician and it is a shame that everyone involved is critically applauded for the unintentional parody they’ve produced.

Five Composers Who Prove We’re Living in an Age of Musical Greatness

I have to admit I have been guilty of falling into the trap where I foolishly think, “If only Mozart and Beethoven had been born in the twentieth century; our musical culture would be so much the better!”, but then I realize I’ve given that lament no genuine thought at all. While it may be true that the popular music which currently infects the radio is at an all time low in terms of harmonic structure and sonic diversity, just casually explore iTunes and you’ll find a wealth of great stuff. Beyond that, I was easily able to think of six living/working composers whose output has earned them a place in the immortal echelon alongside the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. I’ll add another installment of this kind of list soon.

1. Arvo Pärt

It would be hard to deny the genius of Arvo Pärt. His music is paradoxically both simple and profound to the ears of the musically educated, while exquisitely beautiful (or deliberately harsh) to even the most casual listener. Born in Estonia, Pärt began his career as a disciple of Schoenberg and the twelve-tone school of composition, but later in life developed his iconic “tintinnabuli” style, notably using voices to accomplish the sounds made when striking a bell. While that may sound simple (it is), his signature sound is overwhelming and is designed to get out of the way of his often religious texts. Arvo Pärt’s modern compositions sound unlike those of anyone else. Whether he is the greatest living composer is certainly fair game for debate, but his place among the greats is undeniable. If you’ve never seen an interview with him, do yourself a favor and watch this delightful discussion between Pärt and Bjork. You’ll like him even more.

2. Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock is a superstar by any standard in multiple genres. His early mastery of the piano earned him a place in the Miles Davis Quintet, and led to a brilliant career as a solo pianist. However, it’s when Hancock embraced the synthesizer and the fusion movement in general (can you embrace something you helped create??) that he became the Godfather of both. His album “HeadHunters” is the very sound of a masterpiece. Its songs are played by jazz musicians so often as to borderline on cliché, but the album itself is infinitely listenable. Listening to Hancock’s sequence-laden solo on “Chameleon” still blows my mind every time I hear it. The album “Thrust” is every bit the equal of “HeadHunters”, featuring the exquisite “Butterfly”. It’s so beautiful that if it had been the only song Herbie Hancock ever wrote, there would still be a reason to consider him a genius. His faults are virtually a strength: he possesses a fearlessness that allows him to make an occasional misstep (“Feet”, his disco album) on the way to something even better through the process. His music covers the range from jazz to pop to film scores. What else needs to be said?

3. Danny Elfman

Danny Elfman’s orchestral scores have become as iconic to American culture as monster trucks and obesity. His music can be heard at the opening of “The Simpsons”, in every Tim Burton film, every album made by 80’s radio staple Oingo Boingo and “The Avengers” movies. His omnipresence is not why he’s great, though. His distinct sound, tonal, yet adventurous, is often characterized by pedal notes for the tubas, a mixed choral/orchestral texture and plentiful solo lines for reeds and strings. Elfman is a perfect match for Tim Burton, whose eerie movies would be far less effective with a different composer involved. “Nightmare Before Christmas” is essentially a Danny Elfman film (featuring his exceptional singing voice), visualized by Burton. In the tradition of Wagner’s leitmotif, Elfman uses music to describe characters and signal their presence. Although Burton’s most iconic film may be the first “Batman”, listen to the soundtrack of “Batman Returns” and you’ll discover what a musical triumph it is. Elfman’s music is unique and absolutely complete when listening to it out of film context.

4. Bjork

It’s beyond me how and why Bjork became known as a pop artist. Perhaps it’s only because the Icelandic singer/songwriter has had a couple of hits and doesn’t fit into any other category. Her love of music is itself diverse. She and Arvo Pärt have declared mutual respect for one another (see above) and her jazz influence can be heard throughout her career in songs such as “It’s Oh So Quiet” and the entire album “Glin Glo”, from her early years. Complicated and somewhat of a personal enigma when interviewed, she is truly the picture of the classic frustrated genius. Her unclassifiable music sets her voice against synth beats, big bands, orchestras and even pipe organs. The latter, heard prominently on her 2011 release, “Biophelia” is so elegant and sparse that it completely gives away her admiration for Pärt. It’s endearing and obvious that she hears her music as simple sing-alongs, and they’re full of girlish joy, but the brilliance of her compositions leave us too spellbound to do anything but listen. Her greatest album may be “Post”, but don’t miss her many hidden gems, including the soundtrack to her outstanding (and disturbing) film, “Dancer in the Dark”.

5. Michael League

I’m ridiculously biased when it comes to Mike League and his music, because he’s the world’s nicest guy, a friend, and we were in a (metal!) band together many years ago. However, I’m convinced that anyone who’s ever worked with him is equally impressed by his spirit and incredible enthusiasm for great music. I first heard him play when I gave his quartet a venue to perform at a Methodist Student Center at the University of North Texas, where I worked, at least ten years ago. His playing was terrific even when he was eighteen. Around the same time we started playing in our metal band, he was forming his own group, Snarky Puppy. I remember having a discussion with some teachers and friends who were saying, “Have you heard the new charts Mike a League is writing? – Because you need to!” Michael has performed something amazing. He’s taken the jazz/fusion sounds of thirty years ago and breathed new life into them. It’s almost like a rewriting of jazz history, where an alternate path was taken in the 1980’s, branching off of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and this is where we ended up. It’s a great place to be. Snarky Puppy is a collective effort, but Michael has always been the genius driving the wheel. Beginning with 2006’s “the only constant”, curious attention quickly turned into critical accolades and awards, including a Grammy win. I always think that if a musician who makes the best music he or she can receives the respect they deserve, then maybe the world isn’t such a crappy place after all.

Why So Many People Love Faux-Classical Artists

I’ve often discussed with other singers the proper response when someone at church, or anywhere else for that matter, rushes up to me after I’ve sung a solo to tell me how much my singing reminds them of Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli or any other “Pop Classical” artist they can name.  (By the way, the correct response is ALWAYS “thank you”.)  It’s not their fault.  How can I hope for comparisons to Franco Corelli or Carlo Bergonzi if my audience has never heard of them? 100 years ago, Enrico Caruso was considered both the best and the most popular singer in the world.  At the end the 1980’s and into the 90’s, Pavarotti was a household name, even to those who knew nothing of classical music.  But check out this list of the highest classical music sellers on iTunes for 2016 thus far, and the landscape is quite different.  What changed?  There’s a lot to chew on here, so I’ll try to stay focused and avoid getting too far off on tangents.

 

  1. The Three Tenors Problem

 

After Jose Carreras recovered from leukemia, his colleagues Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo (along with some very savvy producers) decided to celebrate with a highly-publicized outdoor concert in Rome in 1990.  The concert featured the three legendary tenors singing opera arias, Neapolitan songs and a flourish of more popular fare (“Memories” from Cats, “La Vie en Rose”, etc.) backed by an absurdly large orchestra led by conductor Zubin Mehta.  The audio recording of the concert went on to be the biggest-selling (mostly) classical album ever up to that time.  The PBS video broadcast had a huge impact as well and so the concert, album and TV-broadcast were recreated. Two more times.  While there were much lesser things that 90’s classical audiences could have been obsessed with, the Three Tenors concerts painted a very narrow picture of opera while the producers proudly claimed to be bringing new converts to the art form in droves.  The actual operatic repertoire of all three concerts was limited to the same crop of light arias from composers such as Puccini and even the barely-tolerable Meyerbeer, with most of the arias traded to the next guy for the following go-round.  Naturally, every concert was capped off with Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot, twice by Pavarotti and once with all three men together. I adore Puccini, but some Verdi, Massenet or Mozart would have been quite welcome in the mix.  It was immediately obvious that the concerts were designed to be fun, and there’s not a thing wrong with that.  The problem was the prevailing notion that we had broadened our musical horizons by purchasing the albums, while the second and third concerts really only served to chronicle the deterioration of three rapidly aging voices.  Nevertheless, the classical and pop elements were equally easy to digest, which traces back to the fact that…

 

  1. Puccini and Caruso Set Modern Composers up for Failure (or Success)

 

If you pay attention, you may notice that as Puccini’s career as composer developed, his arias, particularly those for tenor, started to take on a uniform length.  That’s not a coincidence.  By the time Puccini had made it as the world’s foremost opera composer of his day, it became understood that his tenor roles would be premiered, and even written specifically for, the most prominent opera singer alive at the time.  Enrico Caruso possessed an unusual, but captivating voice.  He was arguably a true baritone, given away by his exceptionally dark timbre and relatively limited upper range. (His “high C” was typically a falsetto/full voice hybrid of sorts.)  The darkness of his voice lent itself beautifully to the newly emerging industry of recorded sound.  Where other tenor voices sounded tinny and thin when transferred to records, Caruso sounded warm and commanding.  The producers of those early records realized that the ideal arias for recording would last about three minutes; one aria per side.  Edits to the orchestral scores were made to accommodate those time constraints and Caruso became a prolific recording artist.  Puccini was wise enough to realize that if he wrote his tenor arias to last just the right length, no edits would be necessary and the appeal for Caruso to record them would be irresistible. The 3:00 duration of early 78’s dictated what would be the standard length for most popular songs to this day. What it did to classical music was devastating.  While Puccini’s strategy was public knowledge and an obvious stroke of brilliantly mixing business with legitimate artwork, surprisingly few classical composers have paid it any heed.  In fact, many modern operas are through-composed and the text is set to music more conversationally. For easy proof, look at the output of the Barber/Menotti operas of 60-ish years ago.  The narrative of the dialogue is more compelling than the melodicism of the lines.  This is a commercial, as opposed to artistic criticism.  The cherry-picking of opera’s “Greatest Hits” was reinforced in the 50’s and 60’s to yet a greater degree with the popularity of Italian-American Mario Lanza, who ironically rose to fame for portraying Enrico Caruso on screen.  Lanza greatly helped to establish the concept of the opera singer who never appears in an opera production.

 

  1. Movies and Television Have Skewed Our View of Classical Music

 

While I’m guilty of many a tirade towards Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle”, with its absurd notion that orchestras are populated by reckless artists that favor a sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, inaccurate Hollywood depictions of  classical musicians have been a mainstay for the better chunk of a century.  All the way back in 1939, the great Jascha Heifetz played himself in the film “They Shall Have Music”.  In the film, Heifetz becomes convinced to play at a free concert to support a school for the boys who stole his near-priceless violin.  In relatively modern times, our culture has been infiltrated by the idea that Mozart was a hilarious ne’er do well with a penchant for pink wigs.  Mozart may very well have been a funny guy and was indeed known for overspending his money in pursuit of the lifestyle to which he’d grown accustomed, but make no mistake, “Amadeus” is a great movie because it is great entertainment (soundtrack included!), not because of any historical grounding of its subject matter.  Of course, there’s “Mr. Holland’s Opus”, a movie about a band director who instantly transforms a teenager who can barely play the clarinet into Benny Goodman by telling her to “Play a sunset!” (Gasp! Mind blown!!!)  The non-musical media shows classical music to us as simple, often silly and something that can be expertly performed by anyone with enough of a free spirit to bring us to tears.  Never is there a glimpse of the endless hours in the practice room, the frustration of losing an orchestra spot to a lesser player who sounds like the principal chair.  Because pop stars and classical musicians are shown in the same light, we’ve been taught to believe the process toward success is identical.  Pop Classical exists partly because it looks and sounds the way we’ve come to expect: smiles and good looks, arenas instead of concert halls and sounds (particularly from vocalists) which are just ever-so-slightly better than the girl who won your local VFW’s karaoke night.  It’s widely accessible for the same reason your redneck uncle looks at an Andy Warhol picture of soup cans and says, “I could do that!” The difference is that you uncle will never grasp the actual meaning of that picture, whereas the best singer from your high school really could be the next Katherine Jenkins if she has the looks for it.  If there’s any substance beneath the surface, it takes no effort to comprehend.

 

  1. The Decline of Music Education (And the Obvious Solution)

 

If our audiences are coming to concerts or turning on the radio with no depth of musical background, we shouldn’t be surprised if they collectively think André Rieu is the pinnacle of classical music and believe Yo Yo Ma is a character on Sesame Street.  Anytime we cut music education out of public schools we ensure that opera is how the masses describe their Josh Groban Spotify playlists, instead of the music of Verdi, Puccinni, and Massenet. If you live someplace where the school district is about threatening to cut the music program, throw a fit! Send angry emails, make phone calls, organize a protest and run for the school board if you have to.  If it’s too late for any of that, enroll your kid (or yourself) in some private lessons, be it for voice or an instrument. You won’t be sorry.

 

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with mixing popular music with classical music, but if we wholly replace the vast depths of great music that exist with whatever we’ve been manipulated to accept as good enough, we’ve truly lost something priceless.

 

 

 

 

My 5 Favorite English Anthems

I could easily have spent the next year compiling a seemingly endless list for this entry, but I’ve limited myself to my five favorite anthems from among the great English cathedral literature.  I may kick myself tomorrow for a crucial omission, but here are my selections as of this moment:

 

  1. “Like as the Hart” by Herbert Howells

 

“Like as the Hart” is easily my all-time favorite anthem, even beyond English church music, written by my favorite choral composer.  Although I realize my own music may not (ostensibly) sound much like Howells, he has had a profound influence on me as a composer.  Taken from his collection of four anthems, which are all terrific in their own rights, his adaption of the 42nd Psalm is supreme.  Its E Minor framework is merely a loose guideline; much of Howells’s work is tonal only in the sense that Wagner is tonal.  Each line is defined by its temporary tonality.  In many ways, chord progressions within the anthem follow the nonbinding rules of jazz. For example, an F# minor chord may have its bass note “walked down” from its root to E, followed by D, with occasional 9ths thrown in merely for linear movement, as opposed to chordal expansion.  The melody is positively haunting, constantly manipulating his love for pentatonic scales.  The dynamic peak of the song is the phrase “Where is now thy God”, but the true musical climax, “When shall I come and kneel before the presence of God”, is surprisingly understated, even reducing its volume until the end of the piece.  The only embellishment at that point is the subtle soprano descant, which lasts a mere four measures of ethereality.  A large portion of the anthem is made up of soli lines of either unison men or sopranos alone.  While this may not make for the most engaging score for the altos, it is irresistible to the listener’s ears. The final phrase which shifts from quiet A Minor 9 to D Major 9 to E Major (although Howells surely would not have viewed the chords in those terms) is heaven.

 

  1. “I Was Glad” by Charles Hubert Parry

 

Sometimes used as a coronation anthem, though not often for obvious reasons, “I Was Glad” is a rousing, spectacular piece of music.  While the excellent orchestral accompaniment is standard for larger-scale performances, the organ score is even better.  I should say it’s better to listen to. The entire orchestral score is crammed into a two-handed accompaniment, which may be an unnecessary challenge, but creates a fullness that is rarely paralleled in church music.  A good choral director knows that the dynamics are meant to be extreme in the sense that crescendos are to be sung with a drastic brilliance and that the middle section, “O pray for the peace…” should be delivered with adoring sweetness.  I should mention that my love for this anthem excludes the coronation-themed, optional section, “Viva regina…”, which is needlessly shocking to the ear and doesn’t match the rest of the piece whatsoever, so let’s pretend it’s simply not there (insert smiley-winky emoticon).  The dynamic build out of the Gb-based middle section into the final return to Bb is the thing that great movie scores are made of.  Despite the radical leanings of Parry in his personal life (he believed composers should be politically inclined activists), his work here is tonal in every sense. That being said, it’s an indulgent joy.  Leading this anthem is a job for directors who occasionally prefer a little recklessness with their abandonment.  Others need not apply.

 

  1. “Audivi Vocem de Caelo” by Thomas Tallis

 

The counterpoint throughout “Audivi” is simple, and the SATB part writing is very singable, but there is something exceptional about this motet. To say that any piece of music stands out among Tallis’s amazing repertory is really something to its credit.  Perhaps what brings me such pleasure are the two chants (which I prefer to hear sung by women), one in the center of the piece and the shorter chant at the end. The first chant is broken into two sections, the first in Aeolian mode and the latter half in contrasting Dorian, creating a mystique of the Major IV of VII.  The text is apocalyptic, but is really an abbreviated Revelatory passage, excluding the angels bringing vengeance upon the wicked earth. I suppose this allows for the beauty and complete lack of aggression in the naturally sung dynamics (Of course, any dynamics written into the score are editorial and not historically substantiated.).  The mysterious dorian mode does show up in the polyphony at the end of the last 4-part passage, which leads perfectly into the smaller chant at the end.  The last chant, though shorter than the other, reverses the modes, placing the dorian first and only implying the aeolian in the final statement.  This is mandatory Tudor Era listening.

 

  1. “Prevent Us, O Lord” by William Byrd

 

Much like the Tallis entry, I could have chosen so many individual motets from the masterful William Byrd.  Belonging to an elite echelon of Tudor composers that consists of Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons and (rightfully) William Mundy, William Byrd is musically sublime.  “Prevent Us, O Lord” can be seen, perhaps with equal frequency, in both four parts and five.  While the 4-part version is justified by the fact that it is “harmonically complete”, I’ve always felt that the sacrifice of the 2nd alto line wasn’t worth the loss in texture.  Particularly delightful here is the contrast of chorale-style movement and counterpoint, observed easily from the beginning statement as it develops.  The 5-part original version is also essential because there are multiple times when four parts move together and one moves independently (the tenors go rogue on “continued and ended” and sopranos throughout the last phrase).  Again, while this predates notated dynamics, the linear movement makes expressive dynamics a natural instinct.  Every choral singer needs to sing this motet at least once.

 

  1. “I Sat Down under His Shadow” by Sir Edward Bairstow

 

The shortest anthem on the list, “I Sat Down” is perhaps a historical precursor to Eric Whitacre’s “This Marriage”, both in theme and even a little in style.  The text is more romantic than religious, taken from the semi-secular Biblical book, Song of Solomon.  Honestly, this is the “Tenor Show”, and as a tenor, there are few anthems I enjoy singing more.  I also realize as a director that the soprano line begins in an exceptionally low register and that both the beginning and the ending are essentially tenor soli with the other parts acting as veritable backup singers. That’s still not what makes this one of my absolute favorite anthems.  The musical peak of the song may be brief, as is the entirety of the anthem, but it is exhilarating.  As the music director of York Minster, Bairstow wrote many choral anthems (he also wrote some much underrated vocal solos and orchestral literature), but none of them sound much at all like “I Sat Down”.  It’s not very difficult, even for many church choirs, but it is a true gem.

 

4 Reasons Why Judas Priest Is Objectively the Ultimate Metal Band

I want to preface this by saying I absolutely love Black Sabbath.  They are the inventors of heavy metal without any question.  I’m sure I’ll draw the wrath of a few purists out there, but my point is to demonstrate why Judas Priest is the band that should be held up to define heavy metal above all others, even over the great Sabbath.  Because Black Sabbath (we’re speaking mainly of the Ozzy and Dio years,) is so iconic, and the only rival for my claim, I’ll be focusing a lot on comparison between the two bands.

 

  1. They Defined the “Look” of Heavy Metal

 

It would be hard to deny that when Priest showed up for the “Stained Class” tour in leather and diamond studs, they realigned not only the notion of how heavy metal musicians dressed, but also how rock stars in general would appear from then on, assuming they wanted any appearance of edginess. Iron Maiden, and much of the rest of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands, cloned their image from Judas Priest, despite the fact that everyone was too stupid to notice how much they looked like a certain member of the Village People.  (Rob Halford has said repeatedly that the VP and gay club-culture were the sole inspirations for his stage outfits.)  Even the mid-80’s version of Black Sabbath had adaptations of the Priest look going on.  When you think of how a metal band should look, you think of Priest.

 

  1. Judas Priest Has the Best 4-Album Run of Any Band in Rock and Roll

 

The Beatles aside, Judas Priest may well have the best four consecutive albums in rock: “Sad Wings of Destiny” – “Sin after Sin” – “Stained Class” – “Killing Machine (Hell Bent for Leather)”.  While there’s no doubt that those first six Sabbath albums are fantastic, with the exception of “Paranoid” and perhaps “Sabotage”, we tend to listen to them through rose-colored earplugs.  Remember that on “Vol. 4”, between great metal tracks “Tomorrow’s Dream” and “Supernaut”, lie the almost unbearable “Changes” and “FX”.  The early Sabbath albums are full of flower-power nonsense.  Even if you get defensive and feel that those are great tracks, the fact that they’re so un-metal proves my original point, simply because Judas Priest has so much less of it.  Those four Priest albums contain the beginnings of speed metal, power metal, progressive metal, the operatic metal singing style, dual guitar leads, and a heaviness that was unmatched by anyone making music during the late 1970’s.

 

“Stained Class” is arguably a flawless album.  Every song is great. Some are blisteringly furious for the time.  The only “silly” song on the album, “Invader” is actually outstanding.  Every solo on every song is terrific.  All four of the aforementioned albums contain hidden gems alongside their more famous counterparts.  Songs such as “Savage”, “Raw Deal”, “Starbreaker”, “Island of Domination” and the incomparable “Delivering the Goods” are amazing, but the well-known tracks ain’t too shabby, either.  Have you listened to the opening of the studio version of “The Ripper” lately? Case closed on this point.

 

  1. Consistency

 

Although, as stated before, Black Sabbath made six great albums with Ozzy and two equally great albums with Dio, they made plenty of terrible music.  Dio haters like to forget that Ozzy’s last two 70’s-era Sabbath albums pretty much suck and the most radical Dio fanatics have to whitewash the truth about his lackluster reunion with the band for ‘92’s “Dehumanizer”. Meh.  None of this is even to say anything of the varied decent-to-awful Sabbath (a.k.a. Tony Iommi and a bunch of other dudes) albums of the mid-80’s.

 

Judas Priest only had an interruption of two studio albums and one live album without the great Rob Halford and the rest of their catalog has only found greater critical favor over the decades.  “Point of Entry” was once thought a disappointing diversion between the very metal “British Steel” and “Screaming for Vengeance”, but thirty-plus years later, it’s held up very well when listened to on its own.  Without it, we’d lose serious metal staples such as “Desert Plains” (a personal favorite) and “Solar Angels”.  Even “Turbo”, once derided as a sellout, catering to the non-metal masses, has proven itself worthy with live performances that defend its metal qualities. In fact, those who have seen Priest live know that the title track, “Turbo Lover” is one of the heaviest in their set.  Additionally, if you’ve heard their latest album, “Redeemer of Souls”, you’ll know that the band still has fire in them enough to keep making great music.  “Halls of Valhalla” is one of the best Judas Priest songs, period.

 

  1. Black Sabbath Has Never Been Interested in Being the Ultimate Metal Band

 

I certainly wouldn’t say that Sabbath has avoided being called metal at all costs, such as bands like Def Leppard (Congratulations, Def Leppard, you’ve succeeded in being one of the least-metal metal bands, just as you wished!)  Even though the phrase “heavy metal” was purportedly born in reference to Black Sabbath, they were really just trying to make ominous-sounding music, mixed with a splash of their folk/jazz backgrounds.  It just happened to be pretty heavy in the process.  Judas Priest didn’t take long to figure out that Sabbath had accidentally created a new genre and couldn’t wait to be labeled accordingly.  Every Judas Priest album beyond “Rocka Rolla” was intentionally written and recorded to be “metallic”.  The Tim “Ripper” Owens albums might suck, but it’s partly because the band went so far overboard to prove their metal credentials in the years when “Drop D” tuning just wasn’t dropped enough.  Good luck chastising them for it; Judas Priest has always reveled in the absurdity and the joke is probably on us as far as they’re concerned.

 

I can’t stress enough that Black Sabbath is one of my favorite bands ever, and they deserve credit for just about everything related to metal, but the band that will always define the genre in terms of sound, appearance, and album output is the great Judas Priest.

 

Check out the Judas Priest YouTube Channel for your listening pleasure…

Awesome Classic Hard Rock Songs We Need to Retire (At Least for Awhile)

There are some songs that are so iconic that we can sing along to every recorded note, right down to the background vocals and guitar solos.  If not a sign of a genuine masterpiece, it’s unquestionably a quality of music so catchy that it boggles the mind.  It’s important to note that catchiness does not automatically equate to greatness, but all the songs here are both catchy and (arguably) great.  Just to be sure I’ve sufficiently stirred the pot; I’d like to point out the absence of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird”.  Undeniably catchy and singable by all the drunks at the pre-Nascar race tailgate party, “Freebird” is overly long, harmonically boring and severely overrated.

Now that we’ve gotten that business out of the way, here are a few of the great hard rock tracks that need to be shelved just long enough so that in a few years time, we can relearn to appreciate them and their once radical sounds.  I’m sure you’ll come up with dozens more on your own.

*Note – if I need to explain why I have not included links to the songs mentioned in this particular article, well…never mind.

 

  1. Queen: Bohemian Rhapsody

Why it’s great:

Arguably the greatest song on my list, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the apex of “A Night at the Opera” the greatest album by one of the greatest bands in rock and roll.  Freddie Mercury’s voice was a force to be reckoned with and he used that voice to its fullest potential here, both with the expressive solo singing he performs throughout the very long track, as well as the phenomenally (and infinitely) overdubbed backing vocals.  The mock-operatic aspects of the song aside, Brian May played his most memorable guitar solo ever on BR, and that’s saying a lot in regard to a guitarist whose career is full of memorable solos.  It is worth noting for the young ‘uns that “Bohemian Rhapsody” topped the charts twice, sixteen years apart, reaching number one (number 9 and later number 2 in the US) both in 1975 and 1991, thanks to its use in “Wayne’s World”.

Why it needs to be retired:

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is so good, it’s impossible to call it overrated, but it’s played on classic rock radio so often that we’ve generally become desensitized to how distinctive, original and remarkable it really is.  Nothing, even in Queen’s diverse and consistently excellent catalog even resembles this.  Give it some time to breathe and allow your ears to be shocked once again.

 

  1. Van Halen: Eruption

Why it’s great:

Van Halen’s “Eruption” comes from their 1978 debut album.  That first album had a mix that sounded like you were listening in on the world’s greatest dress rehearsal.  It was as if you heard Van Halen playing a concert that only lacked a screaming audience.  That same album is also approximately 400 times heavier than anything else in the band’s catalog (alas).  “Eruption” is only a “song” in that it is a track you can listen to, but in reality, it began as Eddie Van Halen’s warmup before his gigs.  It’s impressive for Eddie’s electric guitar virtuosity and for just how metallic it sounds without any additional instruments, with the exception of the drum hits in the first few seconds.  This song and this album introduced the world to “tapping” during solos and technique that was radically different from what had been heard by rock fans up until that point.

Why it needs to be retired:

“Eruption” needs time away from the rest of Van Halen’s radio staples, especially the ballad-drenched “Van Hagar” years.  To a degree, the same could be wished for Van Halen’s entire first album, which was an essential step in the evolution of early heavy metal.  Unfortunately, Van Halen drastically tamed down their distortion with their very next album release, “Van Halen II”, but the original “Van Halen” explodes with guitar fire, perhaps most of all on Eddie’s legendary (almost) solo track.  Let’s wait and reintroduce it as what it is: metal.

 

  1. Led Zeppelin: Stairway to Heaven

Why it’s great:

See nearly every single above comment about “Bohemian Rhapsody”. (Sigh…)  Seriously, it’s “Stairway to Heaven”.  You know why this is an awesome classic rock song.  This is one of the few hard rock songs valued for its lyrics as much as its musical strengths, which are legion.  Robert Plant’s proto-metal wailing and Jimmy Page’s adventurous (particularly for the time) guitar playing were at a high point on Zeppelin IV, which came out a year after the emergence of Black Sabbath.  It’s fair to assume that there must have been a feeling in the air that something very special was happening in the world of hard rock in the early seventies.  Iconic metal albums by Judas Priest, Rainbow and a host of other early metal bands were just off the horizon and drew inspiration heavily from Zeppelin IV and “Stairway”.  We’ll try to ignore for the moment that after the four number-titled Zeppelin albums, the quartet that helped to bring on the birth heavy metal swiftly abandoned it for the rest of the band’s career.

Why it needs to be retired:

“Stairway to Heaven” has been a punchline for years.  Wayne’s World (which I can’t believe I’m referencing twice in one article) even made fun of how often hack guitarists love to play the intro in their local Guitar Center with the amp cranked.  The song deserves better.

 

  1. Boston: More Than a Feeling

Why it’s great:

Boston’s eponymous debut album is still one of the biggest selling albums of all-time.  Period.  That’s not surprising since it’s full of hits and, honestly, doesn’t have a bad track on it from beginning to end.  “More Than a Feeling” is the song we listen to when we want to feel exhilarated.  When the world gets you down, you can make a pathetic attempt to match the late Brad Delp note for note as he does that falsetto/scream thing on the words “she slipped awayyyy-ayy-aaaaah”.  The singing is equally spectacular and hilarious.  Guitarist/producer Tom Scholz has now become almost as famous for his neurotic obsession over the mix as he is for his guitar playing.  This album showcases the results of his laborious attention to detail in ways that the two long-awaited follow ups did not.  The balance is fantastic and it’s one of the most effectively-produced hard rock albums ever.

Why it needs to be retired:

“More than a Feeling” is a victim of being overplayed, plain and simple.  While its constant radio playlist rotation is undoubtedly still making a lot of people absurdly rich, it’s too good a song to dismiss the advantage of reviving it to fresh ears after a nice little break from the airwaves.

 

  1. KISS: “Rock and Roll All Nite”

Why it’s great:

Believe it or not, before Gene Simmons was best known for his constant barrage of word vomit, he was the bassist/co-lead singer for the rock band KISS.  In the seventies, KISS pumped out a bunch of fun, catchy and occasionally heavy rock songs.  Although their biggest chart success was with the horrendously awful ballad, “Beth”, “Rock and Roll All Nite” has become the song most associated with the band (sorry, Peter Criss).  While it’s not exactly sophisticated, “Rock and Roll All Nite” is so much fun and so very catchy as to qualify for legitimate greatness.  The story of the production goes that everyone in sight was invited into the studio to shout-sing the famous chorus.  The effect is one of a party in the studio, and KISS realized quickly that the presence of their fans was as important to their performance as the music itself.  That’s probably why “Alive” and “Alive II”, both soaked in constant crowd noise, are easily the band’s best albums.  It’s just a part of the full experience.

Why it needs to be retired:

As I said, “Rock and Roll All Nite” is a great song, but that’s not because it is a masterful piece of music.  Hearing it too much is like overdosing on dessert.  It’s delicious, but after awhile, the shame will kick in.

Disturbing Christmas Songs with Inexplicably Amounts of Popularity

Maybe ignorance truly is bliss (and boy, do we like a helping of ignorant bliss along with our Christmas), but it’s past time we call out these creepy holiday song staples as the weird, awkward and inappropriate messes they are.

 

  1. Baby, It’s Cold Outside

 

Frank Loesser may now be best known for writing the great musical “Guys and Dolls”, but not everything he wrote was quite so terrific. One of his most successful pre-“G&D” songs was a little ditty called “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”, a huge wartime hit in the early ‘forties that was unspeakably awful.  Several years later he pumped out “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, a song that explores the absolute hilarity of a woman escaping a sexual predator.  That’s not just a modern misinterpretation by an oversensitive feminist culture. The original published sheet music had the staves of this famous duet labeled as “Wolf” and “Mouse”.  The Mouse keeps saying it’s time to go, but the Wolf keeps giving her reasons to stay.  Here are some examples:

 

I simply must go

(But baby, it’s cold outside)

The answer is no

(But baby, it’s cold outside)

 

There’s bound to be talk tomorrow

(Think of my life long sorrow)

At least there will be plenty implied

(If you caught pneumonia and died)

 

You know…”Don’t leave, because it’s dangerous and I’m just looking out for you.  Wait, that didn’t convince you? I’ve got another idea…”

 

The neighbors might think

(Baby, it’s bad out there)

Say, what’s in this drink?

(No cabs to be had out there)

 

“What’s in this drink?” Are you $%@*ing serious?? Remember guys, when she can’t be charmed, just slip her a roofie and tell her that taxi service is unavailable in your neighborhood.   Brilliant! This song is so wrong and pathetically outdated, but that doesn’t stop an A-list of celebrities from rerecording it over and over again.

 

 

  1. Santa Baby

 

Although the title and the traditional vampish delivery from divas such as Eartha Kitt may lead one to recall “Santa Baby” as a creepy sexualization of Saint Nick, that’s not really the theme of the song.  In fact, the singer even refers to her chaste behavior, particularly the men she “hasn’t kissed”. However, the true crime of this song’s lyrics is derived from a far greater sin.  It’s no secret that Yuletide materialism has long been a blot on the birthday of our Lord and Savior.  While many people at least politely pretend that receiving presents is just a byproduct of a season dedicated to altruism and giving, “Santa Baby” ignores any such polity and rides the bull of capitalism straight into the blazes of hell.

 

Sung in a seductive voice, the singer urges Santa to hurry with the delivery of her extravagant gift requests.  If there’s one thing worse than a selfish brat, it’s a selfish brat with no patience.  She starts small enough, asking for a Sable (wrap), but the demands escalate rapidly.  The singer goes on to ask for a blue ’54 convertible, a yacht (“It’s not a lot”), the deed to a platinum mine (!) and jewelry from Tiffany’s.  Eventually, she drops the pretense and straight up asks for some nice, cashable checks.

 

The message of this song is wholly awful and represents the worst of how we’ve taken a noble and purely religious celebration and flushed it down the toilet with our greed.

 

 

  1. Christmas Shoes

 

NewSong’s “Christmas Shoes” is a shameless exercise in emotional manipulation.  It doesn’t take much to see through the veneer, which makes it’s popularity all the more baffling. I’m not a parent, but I feel authoritative in calling out some of the most neglectful parenting in human history, painted oh-so elegantly here.  Let’s say you’re a father.  Your wife is dying in a hospital bed (from what isn’t clear) before your eyes on Christmas Eve. Although any amount of common sense tells you the family should rally together in these final hours, you send your little boy on an errand, out into the night, unsupervised, to hit up a random shoe store and buy a pair of shoes to cheer your mom up before she dies.  And no, you do not give the child enough money to pay for a pair of women’s shoes.  Why? Because you are a terrible parent! Let’s just give the songwriters a pass on the fact that the mother wouldn’t be able to wear shoes in a hospital bed as well as the realization that no woman allows a man to buy her shoes she hasn’t tried on. I’m sure their wives love them, despite their profound male ineptitude.  The bigger issue is the ongoing irresponsibility of the adults in this town. Once the kid gets to the counter at the local Payless, the man behind him (the song’s “narrator”, if you will) sees that “His clothes were worn and old; He was dirty from head to toe”.  Again, the Father of the Year Award goes to…  Anyhow, the “narrator”, who is presumably also a male inept enough to believe he should buy his wife a pair of shoes she’s never tried on, takes pity on the little boy who had the savvy to invoke his sick mother and Jesus in the hopes of a discount.  He gives the cashier the amount the boy was short in paying for the shoes and pats himself on the back for his good deed as the boy runs off, unchaperoned into the cold, dark night.  The boy’s mother may have passed away during this kid’s ill-advised excursion, but hey, she needs to look good when she meets Jesus, who is absolutely going to judge her footwear.

 

 

  1. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

 

Remember when I said “Santa Baby” wasn’t really about sexualizing Santa?  This song has that horrifying, unnecessary topic amply covered. The lyrics of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” are brief, but they’re no less traumatizing.  Here’s the gist: A child “creeps” out of bed and down the stairs to find his mother kissing and tickling Santa Claus.  (We’ll assume Santa does not object; this song is creepy enough.)  Just in case you thought that Dad was out of the picture, we’re treated to this line:

 

Oh, what a laugh it would have been

If Daddy had only seen

Mommy kissing Santa Claus last night

 

What a laugh?? Most children do not find catching their cheating mother in the act and facing their parents’ inevitable divorce hilarious.  Especially because the cheating involved Saint Nicholas, this scenario would likely make some child psychiatrist a very wealthy person.  Any normal child would follow such sights with lying on the ground in the fetal position, sobbing uncontrollably.  I’ve hated this song my whole life, probably because I am not a horrible person who thrives on the misery of others.