Thursday, March 12, 2015

My Favorite Singles: A Self-examination

Why are my favorite singles my favorite singles? I can list the attributes of what I consider a great single: shtick, novelty, irritating repetitions, sound effects, a desire to force your ear's undivided attention, an overall obnoxiousness, and, sure, a rhythm that mates ants with pants. But that value system is as arbitrary as any other. So where exactly did it come from? Thanks to Albin J. Zak's I Don't Sound Like Nobody: Remaking Music in 1950s America (University of Michigan Press, 2010), I now have an inkling.

Bucking the Marcus, Guralnick, etc. tradition of writing history through a pantheon of geniuses, Zak contends that the very nature of rock and roll depends more on its status as recordings that swept away the Tin Pan Alley industrial model centered on sheet music. Rock and roll records were voracious, inauthentic things that tried anything once and many times more if it hit.

“Rock and roll songs happily bore vestigial features of their sonic influences – R&B, country, pop ballad, novelty, blues, and so forth – but in the hands of rock and roll songwriters the sources were deconstructed and their elements recycled as pastiches of found objects. If stylistic integrity was sacrificed, vitality and freshness were at the fore, as was an implicit understanding that a song need only suggest an expressive direction. For ultimately a rock and roll’s spirit and sense relied on the material form of a sound recording. Rock and roll songwriting was a reimaging of pop song style that recognized the transformative effects of both crossover and recording technology” (192).

"By the standards of transparent sonic representation and stylistic authenticity, all rock and roll records were contrivances. They flaunted a bargain with the recording machine and a disregard for boundaries of style or idiom. A certain number of appalling hit records was simply a sign that the process was working properly" (209).
And rock and roll records had to hit hard and fast. A Tin Pan Alley song was a template inviting infinite interpretation. But a rock and roll record was a world unto itself, one whose thunder could be stolen by a cover. So the architects of rock and roll adopted a vivid pragmatism to juice as much longevity as possible from the evanescent Top 40. Shtick, novelty, irritation, sound effects, all that comprised a mode of survival as much as the backbeat you can't lose it that has provided the focus for most rock historians.

“As Johnny Otis summed it up, rock and roll ‘took over all the things that made R&B different from big band swing: the after-beat on a steady four; the influence of boogie woogie; the triplets on piano; eight-to-the-bar on the top-hat cymbal; and the shuffle pattern of dotted eighth and sixteenth notes.’ But young people’s fascination was not limited to the big beat or R&B and country borrowings. What the first descriptions of rock and roll usually omitted was how much it also owed to mainstream pop. Commentators failed to grasp that what made the new music so unpredictable, for many unbearable, yet ultimately revolutionary was its indiscriminate merging of all existing idioms regardless of provenance or aesthetic tradition. It remained in a continuous state of novelty, an evolutionary process in which repertory and stylistic habits were intermingled freely” (176).

And so it remains today all the way up to A. G. Cook's remix of How To Dress Well's "Repeat Pleasure," my favorite single of 2014 and maybe even of all time. But while shtick, novelty, etc. is the essence of the single, if not rock and roll (if not pop), that's certainly not the case with rock and all its well-meaning, album-centered offshoots. In service to the album's gestalt, an individual song has to keep its more subtle place in the narrative rather than announce itself as vividly as a single would. That's why it's so infuriating when critics list obvious album cuts on their top ten singles lists - they're memories of the albums on their top ten lists rather than worlds unto themselves.

These distinctions came to the fore when I was having difficulty ranking the songs on Exile on Main St. As an album about getting up and going despite an enormous sense of fatigue, my favorite cut has always been "Soul Survivor" simply by virtue of it coming last. From the woozy, in medias res opening that sounds like a blow to the head to the fade out where they're still rocking out like dogs, it's the epitome of getting knocked down and getting back up again. Had it been released as a single, there's no way it could have competed with something as exquisite as "Wig Wam Bam." But after an hour of breakdowns, it's the most energetic thing in the universe.



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