The sentiment contained in the chorus of Cat Stevens’s “Wild World” is extremely nice and I want to unreservedly like the song, but crikey!, hippies are some of the most passive-aggressive people you’ll ever meet.
There is an evolving technology of the psyche — I don’t know that we’re building a permanent body of knowledge, or that there’s progress, so much as just a random walk. It is an instance of cultural learning that today even a child would see through the crass manipulations of this song — just as whatever shabby sense of superiority the Sartean existentialist may have derived from such categories as “authenticity” and “the examined life” were already superseded for the generation of the late 1960s and 70s.
When I first moved to D.C. I had a roommate who was such a Redskins fan that I almost couldn’t be in the house when a game was on, so loudly did he scream at the television. I didn’t get it. There’s no excuse for getting that emotionally wrapped up in something so alien from one’s own life. Then I discovered Ninja Warrior on G4 (G4 | wikipedia). S. and I scream and wave our hands at the television with an increasing fanaticism as the contestant nears the finish line and the announcer goes ballistic with Japanese excitement.
Last night when they declared David Cook the winner of American Idol I lost it in a way that I never have before over television. From the time it of the final six (Carle, Brook, Castro, Syesha, Archuleta and Cook) it has been apparent to both S. and I that it was going to come down to a contest of the Davids and both of us have pretty much figured that Archuleta had the teenie-bops with their text-dexterous fingers all lined up and thus was going to win. Last week when Syesha was voted off I though Archuleta was going to win. Cook seems burned out and you could see the disappointment he had with himself after many of his performances. Meanwhile Archuleta’s been on the rise. “Stand by Me” couldn’t have been a better choice for him. Then on Tuesday night Archuleta’s rendition of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” was perfect. Meanwhile Mr. Cook’s songs were sufficiently mediocre that after his final performance (“The World I Know“) he too was so certain that he had lost that the moment he finished his song, before Randy Jackson had said his first “Yo,” Mr. Cook started to cry. The judges all gave him consolation complements.
And I had long since made my peace with Mr. Cook coming in second. He has a tendency toward incipient pop rock as it is and being saddled with the obligations of being the American Idol was only going to further hamper him. They were going to hoist a few television commercials and a really marketable, over-produced album on him, when what he needs is to get together with someone edgier, someone who realizes that the explosive, dramatic power ballads are Mr. Cook’s forte. Better that Mr. Archuleta ends up the America Idol. He’s already a one-man boy band.
And so last night when Ryan Seacrest started, “And the winner is … ,” I interjected “Archuleta.” “David”; Seacrest paused having revealed nothing with two finalists both named David. Again I finished his sentence. “Archuleta.” When Mr. Seacrest finally let out “Cook” I leapt off the sofa. “No fucking way!” I shouted in disbelief. After fore explicatives and expressions of disbelief I tuned around in a circle and stared at the television in disbelief. Out of 97.5 million votes, Mr. Cook won 54.75 million to Mr. Archuleta’s 42.75 million, or 56 percent of the vote, a 12 million vote margin of victory. I was sure that David Cook was going to lose, but he won and in the end it wasn’t even close.
And Mr. Cook thought he knew he had lost as well. He seemed resigned to his fate and already congratulatory toward Mr. Archuleta as Mr. Seacrest taunted them with the results. I think it was the shock as much as the adulation and excitement that caused Mr. Cook to become so emotional after the announcement.
This is part justice and part tragedy. Mr. Cook is 25 years old. He got a degree in graphics design, but before settling into the nine-to-fiver he told himself that he was going to give music a few more years to see if he could make it work. One of his friends and a band-mate had already given up on music and gone to real work. Mr. Cook was nearing the end of his experiment and already had his alternative waiting in the wings. He’s been given a new lease on his dream. On the other hand, his older brother, Adam, is dying o brain cancer. I heard, I think it was his mother, say that it’s like heaven and hell: for David to be doing so well while things are going so poorly for Adam. I can’t imagine the survivor’s guilt Mr, Cook must be feeling in front of his brother. It has been an emotional rollercoaster for Mr. Cook and his family.
How did it happen? Always the political blogger — can’t avoid analyzing election returns. A few episodes ago I saw a sign waving in the audience: “Cougars for Cook.” The average age of an American Idol viewer is significantly up — witness moi. I guess the cougars overruled the teenie-bops. The other factor was his trio of performances early in the season: Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” the Beatles’s “Eleanor Rigby” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” I think he never did anything so spectacular as “Billie Jean” and he tired as the season wound to its climax, but on those three he built a winning reputation.
I took a little walk this afternoon to go buy lunch and some coffee. I found my pace brisk and my thoughts buoyant. In the background of my mind, David Cook had won, and it has caused the slightest uplift in my mood all day long. It’s stupid I know, to be such a fan-boy. But I can’t help it: I really like David Cook.
Weird Al Yankovic exists somewhere on that thin line between being a complete doofus and a genius. His spoof of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (YouTube | Wikipedia) is firmly ensconced on the side of genius. In Weird Al’s version, all the lyrics are palindromes and as a method for generating Bob Dylan-like lyrics, palindromes seem to work surprisingly well.
For the original Dylan film — what we now call a music video — the person who helped Dylan make the cue cards: Allan Ginsberg.
I sometimes feel at a disadvantage in defending the nonsensical, sort of Da-Da poetry lyrics of Nirvana. Or at least merely in the vicinity of sense, insofar as one gets the sense that there is some meaning or narrative to a Nirvana song, it’s just not a sense that stands up once one begins to look closer or try to impose any sense. In this regard Nirvana seems to be well within the tradition of Dylan.
After years of the right-wing version of the history, there is a tendency to think of the late 1960s and early 1970s as a period of decadence and decline. But thankfully in recent years we have pulled back from the precipice. Or we think of the 60s from a post 1980s and 90s capitalist triumphalist perspective: as colorful and quixotic kitsch denude of any ethical or political import.
Last night I spent a few hours listening to Ginsberg’s Howl, watching Joe Crocker concerts on YouTube and whatnot and I challenge anyone to listen to Nina Simone’s 1969 Harlem Festival (Central Park, New York) performance of “Ain’t Got No…I’ve Got Life” and tell me we’re not a civilization that’s put an additional forty solid years of decline under out belt. To hear a song so simply constructed — it’s just two lists of commonplace items — but so evocative and watch that face like a statue but with the pathos of the entire human condition! Compared to our contemporary world of rampant materialism, status-seeking, vanity, cynicism, cleverness, conformity, vapid luxury, triviality and selflessness (by which I don’t mean generosity), the 60s and 70s look like a golden age of humanist assertion.
I would love to read a systematic comparison of the various romanticist periods of history.
On the other hand, people — at least people my age — tend to think of the period as still historically close, relevant, but when I was watching Joe Crocker last night, it occurred to me that the performances that I was watching are as far removed from us today as the Second World War was when I was a kid. 1968 was forty years ago. When I was ten, the Second World War had ended forty years ago as well and I thought of that as ancient history. The greatest generation are about to disappear, but notice that Bill Clinton, a baby boomer, is a bumbling old greyhair who’s had a stroke for crissake.
Okay, okay … dawg … I’ve become obsessed with American Idol.
I know, it’s an embarrassing shame and I tried to resist, just like I tried to resist Sex and the City, but the siren song of popular culture proved too powerful. S. spent a few weekdays with her parents who have been fans for a number of seasons and she came back transformed. The damn show is two nights a week and they draw it out like Who Wants to be a Millionaire and there are way too many chirpy and inspirational types breathlessly disgorging their fame-whore dreams to Ryan Seacrest. But it’s on and our apartment is small.
But that wouldn’t be enough to turn me into the crazy fanatic that I have become. For that, what was required was contestant David Cook (American Idol | Wikipedia). At numerous points in my life I have been aware that some local talent — a fellow college student playing around the venues of the college town, that ensemble band playing at the dark, crumbling and sticky performance spaces — was more than just an amateur like the rest, but something totally amazing. I think that Mr. Cook is such an act and somewhere in Tulsa is a cadre of small time fans lamenting that they are about to lose their intimate treasure to mass popularity.
His command of the physical and emotional repertoire of rock and roll is as developed as any presence I have ever seen. He knows how to make out with the mic, he knows the seductive tough guy expressions and he knows all the dramatic gestures designed to leave you with the impression that rock and roll is an elemental force and the performer some sort of conjurer (hence the concert special effect of the pillar of fire). Taking his queues, I remember his performances as bigger than they were (wasn’t the wind blowing in the performance of “Eleanor Rigby“? Did he pull some Neo maneuver?).
The outstanding thing about Mr. Cook is that he’s doing covers and even then his arrangements are lifted from someone else — his version of “Day Tripper” is lifted from White Snake. His arrangement of “Billie Jean” is Chris Cornell’s. But almost without exception, he does a way better version of the song than either the original or the cover he is using. As Lionel Richie said of Mr. Cook’s performance of “Hello” — a creepy song rendered acceptable — “David just played it as if it was his song from the beginning — there was no Lionel Richie involved.”
I have been going through an anti-Beetles phase for some years now — too much of the sock-hop sound that preceded them, too trite of subject matter, guess I’m a Stones man — but in Mr. Cook’s versions of “Day Tripper” and especially “Eleanor Rigby” instead of a whining barbershop quartet, I hear the darkness of the lyrics of Paul McCartney and John Lennon, but sung in a style that maps it into the field of such songs by Depeche Mode or Nine Inch Nails or stuff from the dark side of the singer-song-writer tradition, songs about foundering and folly.
I have always thought that Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean was one of the best dance songs ever recorded, but I have also had to overlook the sleazy lyrics. In Michael Jackson’s hands it’s a song about a man trying to avoid the responsibility of parenthood, an effect magnified by the video. In Jackson’s version “the kid is not my son” is a lie told to a paternity inquest.
In Mr. Cook’s version (I have bought the complete studio version from iTunes) the drama of the love affair comes to the fore and the issue of paternity becomes a subordinate part of the narrative. It’s a song about the irresistibility of desire and that old cliché, the femme fatal. The narrator wakes to his senses from the intoxication of sexuality too late, with his future having receded from his grasp. The pregnancy and the child aren’t shirked responsibility, so much as the crushing consequences of fate and the inescapable demands of animality and the body. “The kid is not my son” becomes the primal psychological denial of a man who knows the truth (“My baby cried / his eyes were like mine”) contending with his powerlessness before the forces of his own nature.
Mr. Cook emphasized the ambiguity of having been designated “the one” under vastly different circumstances and plays with the timeline. The second line of the song he asks “What do you mean ‘I am the one?'” The first time it is disbelief at having been singled out by someone desirable beyond his attainability. The second time around it means he is the father of Billie Jean’s child. Possibilities open, possibilities are foreclosed. And the song plays with the chronology, one time leading the listener to believe that they met at the dance, had a brief affair and now she has caught up to him with the baby in tow. In a second telling is seems more as if she seduces him on the dance floor and there confronts him that she is no stranger, but someone with whom he has a past. In the face of seduction and desire and our wildest emotions, how tenuous is our grasp on reality? The absurdity of the song’s admonition to “Always think twice” is underscored by Rashomon, confusion and the loss of a linear, fixed point of reference in any sort of timeline.
Al this was always in the song, but in Michael Jackson’s version it is lost amidst the dance beat. By making it a ballad and adding his cataclysmic voice to it, Mr. Cook has exposed the previously obscured aspects of the song.
It’s not all great. He botches the performance of “Innocent,” but the studio version has become a favorite of mine. And nothing is as good as his rendition of “Billie Jean.” S. and I have investigated some of his pre-Idol stuff and it’s pretty pedestrian. Too much typical harlequin romance songs. Hopefully after his run on American Idol he has the good sense to find his way to a decent producer (may I suggest Trent Reznor) and avoid signing a contract to do a Ford commercial.
This week is going to be Neal Diamond. If only they were taking requests. Actually, nevermind, I wouldn’t know where to start.
Ryan Seacrest’s little trick during week eight of initially sending Mr. Cook to the bottom three only to correct himself later and swap Mr. Cook into the safe group almost killed me. It’s driving me so crazy that I may have to text “vote” to whatever number they throw up on the screen. I just hope they don’t start dispensing commands to run off a cliff because with my case of the screaming meemies I just might do that too.