Monday, September 15, 2014

The Best Pleases in Popular Music (That I Know Of)

Laid up this weekend with the flu (no chance of taking a day off with my students' exams so close) so I thought I would feel productive by jotting down this listicle that's been stuck on three measly items for far too long. Perhaps it's the cough syrup slowing me down to a treacly crawl, but I can't think of anything else to add to it.

I think the best 'pleases' in music should send a chill down your spine - not necessarily in a howl-from-the-damned way, but in an unexpected-religious-moment way. Why 'please'? What else can you say? What other word lends itself so well to an animalistic yawp, a feverish begging, a left-for-dead resignation? The only criteria I had was that it should stand alone within the song, not hastily tripped over to make room for the rest of the lyrics. A 'please' should be memorable.

(In making the list I was actively looking for female musicians, but then I realised that 'please' doesn't necessarily lend itself well to women's voices. You hear a man saying 'please' with a sob in his voice, you might assume he's pining for a lost love. You hear a woman saying 'please', on the other hand - I don't know about you, but I always worry it'll be followed up with 'don't hit me'.)

1. Chris Isaak - Somebody's Crying

This is pretty obvious - "pleeeeeeeaaase, let me know if it can't be me/I know when, somebody's lying" is burned into the brain of anyone listening to the radio in 1995. According to the song's Wiki page Chris Isaak wrote the lyrics based on kids in a playground teasing each other ("I know somebody and they cry for you") and while reeling from the aftermath of a bad break-up.

I like the song's rockabilly vibe, the faint whiff (quiff?) of Elvis in the background, even the wholesome music video that an astute YouTube commenter called the 'best J.Crew ad ever'. (It can't get more 1995 than that video, for sure.) I like the vowel-heavy ache in 'pleeeeeeease' that reaches out for understanding, like a despairing late-night call made from a pay-phone booth. This song featured heavily in the broken-heart playlists my friends and I made as teenagers, but now it's just a catchy bit of nostalgia for an analog decade. Still good.

2. New Radicals - Flowers 

In contrast to the ABC-rhyming, puppyish sentiment of Somebody's Crying ('I know somebody and they called your name/a million times and still you never came/they go on loving you just the same'), Gregg Alexander spreads a thick layer of irony over this pop ode to a confused 22-year-old 'flower child' who likes drugs and suffers from debilitating trust issues. (A real keeper, huh.)

He's fed up that she doesn't believe him when he says that his love 'is real, as real as the flowers you smoke to get high', but the real genius of the song comes towards the end when he points out that 'I love you, you hate me, I took math class that ain't a fair exchange/I call you, you hang up, don't be a bitch get your number changed - I'm sorry, forgive me, I never meant to call you those names - but I'm lonely, so lonely, please."

That was the bit that made me sit up and take notice, on my first listen of his 1998 album Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too. It's witty, telling and wonderfully self-aware. You begin to understand why the mythical 22-year-old has a fear of commitment, if that's what she's expected to commit to. After the shock of 'bitch' comes a very angry and defeated 'please', punctuated with a Jacksonesque yelp of (sexual?) frustration. This raw honesty is more compelling than the empty yearning in the rest of the lyrics.

(I see that Gregg Alexander's latest track is 'Lost Stars', which he co-wrote for that shot-on-Instagram hipster date night movie Begin Again. Um... I'll blame Adam Levine. Unlistenable.)

3. Stealers Wheel - Stuck In The Middle With You

I stupidly used this as the ringtone for my old Nokia phone during my short, stressful stint in PR. Even today when I hear the jaunty opening bit, my heart jolts in fear, like a deer alerted by a hunting bugle. But the rest of it is super fun to sing along with.

Of course my first exposure to this 1972 track came from Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (the ear-slicing torture scene, more specifically). The song was supposedly inspired by a restaurant meeting between the band, its record label and producers: 'Well you started out with nothing and/now that you're a self-made man/your friends they all come crawling, slap you on the back and say/please, please.'

It's a sly dig at these big, insecure men who puff out their chests and feel only as good as their last multi-million dollar deal - a very cool, knowing 'please'. The narrator knows that the desperation of their 'friends' reveals the true nature of these self-made men, who desire the constant adulation and pleading far more than they pretend to. In the end, who's the one who's really begging for something?

In retrospect the ringtone was a bad idea in more ways than one, seeing as in the world of corporate and finance PR, these big men obviously run the whole show. How can you pitch an idea to Bloomberg when you're hearing 'I don't know why I came here tonight/I got the feeling that something ain't right', or try to make nice with business journalists at a media luncheon without thinking 'Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right/here I am, stuck in the middle with you'? I still do some business writing these days, but I've learnt that it's not a universe I can stand being in for more than two or three hours. Any longer, and I might be tempted to slice some ears off.

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