Monday, September 21, 2009
#45 and #39 Songs of the Decade- "You Are the Generation..." and "Postcards from Italy"
#45- Johnny Boy- "You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve"
#39- Beirut- "Postcards from Italy"
Let's fast-forward eight years. You're my guest at an ironic 2009 party, because that's something I would invite you to. We're friends like that I guess. On the wall I have posters for something period but forgettable--Imagine That or Confessions of a Shopaholic maybe. I'm wearing skinny jeans and a bright hoodie. Maybe I even thought to tape cotton balls onto the door in the shape of a cloud with a tasteful picture of Michael Jackson on top. We share a laugh and maybe I say something inappropriately flirty because I'm already drunk.
The most defining part of such a future-retro party would be the music, right? Before you even get to my delicious seven-layer dip no homo, you would notice the music I chose, and whether or not it correlated with your idea of what the '00s were. Perhaps I picked the unabashedly repetitive pop of "Pokerface" or "Boom Boom Pow." Maybe I'll just soundtrack the entire night with auto-tune, since, for better or worse, it'll be recognizable.
But we all know being recognizable is not the same as being memorable. That's the problem with art that follows trends. People can tell whether or not your heart is in it. When Harry Potter blew up earlier this decade, batches of fiction writers threw together a children's fantasy thinking it would sell. But it was easy to distinguish between the writers who had an affection and comfort for the material and the ones who were looking for a buck. We sustain trends; they don't sustain us.
Some of the music I'll remember the most from this fading decade sounds nothing like our idea of the aughts. These songs I'm profiling, for instance, sound downright old. Johnny Boy's "You Are the Generation..." is an anti-consumerist message in the form of a vociferous mock doo-wop with close-mics, reverbed tambourines, and no brakes. You start by questioning whether or not they ripped off the intro to "Be My Baby" (they did), but you finish stomping along with them and responding "yeah-yeah" to their call of "aww baby." And if I didn't know better, I'd think they play bottle rockets throughout that second verse. It sounds too pure and innocent to be made in 2004.
The same goes for Beirut's "Postcards from Italy," which begins like every other Beirut song: a lonely melody repeats on a dusty peasant-like instrument--in this case a ukelele--until it expands into a wedding march of Eastern European rhythms, swirling away with old world charm until Zach Condon's wistful nasality reminds it where its bread is buttered. At times the formula works so well that it feels calculating. Here it's perfect.
Here's what you have to understand though: these songs don't stick with me just because they have a vintage sound. They last because I experienced the songs in a way I rarely do anymore. In both cases, the tracks were recommended to me by another DJ while I was working at a radio station, and I thought the album covers looked cool. That's it. That throwback word-of-mouth began a relationship with two songs that I'll take along with me for the rest of my life. Not algorithms that predict what I'll like based on other recommendations. Not a streaming radio station tailored to my specifications.
I know nothing about Johnny Boy, and I've kept it that way on purpose. I don't own any of their other music. I don't know who they are or where they're from. Maybe I'm afraid none of their other work lives up to this single and don't want to find out. In my own way, I kind of feel as if I'm keeping pure that experience that people had in the time the band is replicating. Information travels fast in our culture, and it's easy to know so much about an artist that you can't even listen to their music with any objectivity. That experience is automatically tainted with hype and expectations. With Johnny Boy, a friend of mine liked it, and the cover looked cool.
I feel as if I already know too much about Zach Condon, the sixteen-year-old who made Gulag Orkestar in his bedroom and found an audience for his 19th century gypsy music, ironically, through the most modern of means. I could write a whole postmodern essay on that dynamic, but I think I'd like to stick with this future-retro stance.
Future-retro. I like that. Remind me of it in eight years while you're trying the dip.