I talk a lot about the Internet here.
Which is odd, considering I’m an old-fashioned physical-product kind of guy. This week, for example, I bought Radiohead’s The King of Limbs again, just because I had to have it on CD. But there’s no doubting the Internet has changed the whole game. Artists with no chance of being heard only a few years ago now have the same shot as everyone else, the same opportunity to have that viral hit. The only problem is, no one knows what will strike a chord with the Internet audience. It’s completely unpredictable.
Occasionally, I need reminding that the Internet is just a tool. It’s neither good nor evil. The same mechanism that allows for Cee-Lo Green to have the hit of his career with “Fuck You” also allows Rebecca Black’s “Friday” to become the most-discussed and most-circulated song of the year so far. If you haven’t heard it (and what are the odds of that?), “Friday” is perhaps one of the most laughably bad tunes ever written, and it’s gamely sung by a 13-year-old girl with stars in her eyes.
Daniel Tosh was the first to share this, in a blog post titled “Songwriting Isn’t for Everyone,” and now the damn thing has traveled around the world and back. “Friday” is insanely bad – there’s the existential dilemma over which seat to take, the front or the back, when cruising in the car, and the long section wherein Black enumerates the days of the week. But I think people are slinging their derision in the wrong direction here. This isn’t Black’s fault – the song was written by the “professionals” at Ark Music Factory, and Black’s mom paid them $2,000 to record her daughter singing the song and put her in a video.
In short, Black had nothing to do with the sheer unintentional hilarity of “Friday,” nor did she have anything to do with the crazy popularity of the tune, nor did she work for or deserve her instant fame. This is the Internet. Anything you do or say can catch fire at any time, if the faceless masses deem it worthy. Anything you do, no matter how old you are when you do it, can become your online identity. It doesn’t matter what Black grows up to do now. She’s the “Friday” girl, and taunts of “Tomorrow is Saturday, and Sunday comes afterwards” will follow her forever.
But in a way, the Ark Music Factory producers did what they were hired to do. Black is famous – she’s on talk shows now, and serious music critics are writing about her next move – and she became famous in a way that was literally impossible only a handful of years ago. There’s no reason I should know this girl’s name, but I do. Used to be, you had to work hard or do something notable to become famous, or at least have rich and influential people on your side. Now, it’s all down to the whim of Username Nation. And no one knows what will light the Internet on fire.
Just ask Alexandra Wallace. Earlier this month, the UCLA student posted a racist video rant about Asians in the university library. Among her complaints: the Asian students talk on their cell phones while she’s trying to study, and they invite their extended families to her campus apartment building to cook and clean for them. At one point, she does a ghastly impersonation of those students on the phone (“Oooh, ching chong ling long ting tong! Ooooh!”), and chides them for not having “American manners.”
This is harsh stuff, and within hours of its posting, it took off. The reaction was massive and vitriolic, and Wallace, in her apology in the UCLA paper the following week, said she had received email after email, many of them threatening, and had been so ostracized from the campus community that she decided to drop out. This is, sadly, a pretty typical Internet response. (See the Cooks Source controversy of last year.) Wallace’s rant was ill-advised and horrible, no question. But did she deserve what she got? I don’t know.
But here’s what I do know. The same technology that allowed Wallace’s words to travel the globe in hours, and allowed those upset by them to respond with such force, also gave Seattle-based musician Jimmy Wong an opportunity to show us how it’s done. His response to Wallace is the sharp-yet-gentle “Ching Chong (It Means I Love You),” a beautiful piece of work that serves to strip Wallace’s rant of all its power. It’s classy, yet biting when it needs to be – it is, in short, a perfect rejoinder, and it deserves to travel at least as far as the screed that inspired it.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Internet. A one-world community with no rules, that brings out the best and worst in all of us. It can be used to spread hate, and to strike back at that hate with a joke and a hug. Your worst deed can be around the world in minutes, as can your greatest artistic triumph. It can make Rebecca Black an of-the-moment star, but it can do the same for Jimmy Wong. And it’s up to us to make sure the good people get the benefits. I didn’t know Alexandra Wallace’s name two weeks ago, but I didn’t know Jimmy Wong’s either.
Guess which one I’m going to remember.
* * * * *
Three short reviews of three loud records this week. Go!
Every year, there’s at least one new band that knocks me out, that makes me glad I decided to take a chance on an unproven artist. I know it’s early days yet, but there’s a good chance this year’s band is The Joy Formidable.
This Welsh three-piece has entitled their debut album The Big Roar, and that’s very fitting. This is one of the sharpest, loudest and best full-on rock albums I’ve heard in a while. This band’s sound is massive. It’s all drums, bass and guitars (with some textured keys), but it sounds like they hired six or seven people to play each one. Every element of this sound is used to propel it forward – essentially, even though it’s layered and deep as an ocean, the whole thing rocks. Rocks.
Don’t let “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie,” the eight-minute crawl that opens the record, fool you. While that one eventually explodes, the tone is truly set by “The Magnifying Glass,” with its big, dumb, amazing riff. Atop all this din, Ritzy Bryan’s high, clear voice is like shafts of light. Check out “A Heavy Abacus” for a great example – the melody is dynamic, and is all down to Bryan, since the instruments are busy making as much noise as they can behind her. Bryan’s guitar is responsible for a lot of that noise, and she bends it and shapes it into thudding bricks or caressing waves, depending on the song.
There’s nothing subtle here, nothing that doesn’t scream for the skies and spread its wings to the fullest. This is high drama in song form. But it’s also an astonishingly self-assured first record – they let single “Whirring” go on for nearly seven blissful minutes of dissonant, powerful musical interplay, certain that you’ll want to hear all of it. And you will. Underneath it all, The Joy Formidable plays pop music, but they do it on such a grand stage, with such piledriver force, that even their sweetest songs will bowl you over. There’s nothing about The Big Roar I don’t like.
* * * * *
So here’s the thing about Swedish trio Peter Bjorn and John. For one, they don’t use a comma between Peter and Bjorn, which drives me nuts. For another, they will never again have a fluke hit like “Young Folks,” the whistle-tastic ditty from 2006. Never. So we should stop expecting that they will, and holding them to that standard.
If you release them from those expectations, and just go with it, their fifth album, Gimme Some, is actually a lot of fun. I don’t think it’s particularly good, but it’s miles better than Living Thing, the 2008 follow-up to their big hit. That one felt crushed under the weight of “Young Folks,” while the new one sounds free and joyous. It’s simple, garage-y pop music, but there’s an energy to it that sets it apart somehow.
You won’t hear anything innovative, or even particularly memorable, on Gimme Some. “Second Chance” is the closest thing I hear to a hit, its Bachman-Turner Overdrive riff hitting home more often than not. (You may be thinking, a few minutes in, that it could use more cowbell, and the band is happy to oblige.) But while this whole thing should bore me silly, it doesn’t. It sounds alive, in a strange way that has nothing to do with the quality of the songs.
My favorites here, in fact, are the ones that sound the most tossed-off. The 1:37 punk eruption “Breaker Breaker,” for example, and the screamalicious “Lies.” The Three Swedes are never going to top the song for which they will always be known, but for the first time, they seem all right with that. Gimme Some is light and danceable and full of weird joy, and for a simplistic little rock record, I like it much more than I feel like I should.
* * * * *
Speaking of things I like more than I should, there’s Panic! at the Disco.
I have rarely heard such an enormous difference between a first and second album as I did with this band. Their debut, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, was Fall Out Boy-style pop-punk, but their second, Pretty, Odd, took on a Beatlesque dimension, with Merseybeat tunes and horn sections. I really like Pretty, Odd. I really don’t like A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out.
So when the Panic! boys promised a mix of the two styles on their third album, Vices and Virtues, I didn’t know quite what to expect. Adding to my concern: half the band has walked out the door, including main songwriter Ryan Ross. He and bassist John Walker now go by The Young Veins, and all it takes is one listen to their album to know where the ‘60s influences came from.
So with just Spencer Smith and Brandon Urie left, what would Panic! give us? Turns out, it’s just as advertised – it’s a poppy hard rock record, with more melody than the first album and more sharp edges than the second. In a way, I guess, they’ve found their sound, and it’s an enjoyable and interesting one. But it isn’t one that’s going to make me go out of my way to recommend it. I like this, but I was secretly hoping for more Paul McCartney, and less Pete Wentz.
That’s not to say this isn’t fun, though. Opener “The Ballad of Mona Lisa” has a charming chime part, and a nice melody. “Hurricane” is eminently danceable, and “Trade Mistakes” makes fine use of a string quartet. “Always” is a pretty acoustic piece, probably the most immediately memorable thing here, although “The Calendar” is a fine little pop song too. And “Sarah Smiles” is a genuine surprise, a shuffling delight that elevates the record’s final third.
You’ll notice that Panic! has reinserted the exclamation point into their name. It was removed for Pretty, Odd, as a symbol of the drastic change that album represented. The fact that it’s back now should be all you need to know. Urie and Smith have tried to be all things to all Panic! fans here, and they’ve done a decent job of it. While the album is certainly rooted in the band’s punky origins, it has enough melody and diversity to appeal to pop lovers like me. This is definitely worth a listen. Whether it’s worth more than one will depend on which side of that spectrum you come down.
* * * * *
So it’s the end of March already, which means it’s time for my First Quarter Report. Essentially, this is what my 2011 top 10 list would look like, if I were forced to print it now. Thankfully, I’m not, because it doesn’t include upcoming records from Elbow, Paul Simon, Fleet Foxes, Sloan, the Antlers, and Death Cab for Cutie, all of which I have high hopes for. It also doesn’t include the new triple album from the Violet Burning, which will most likely be in the final list. I’m still absorbing and digesting that one.
But if I were held at gunpoint and asked for the 10 best albums of 2011 right now, this is what I’d say:
#10. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes.
#9. The Decemberists, The King is Dead.
#8. White Lies, Ritual.
#7. Radiohead, The King of Limbs.
#6. The Joy Formidable, The Big Roar.
#5. Iron and Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean.
#4. The Dears, Degeneration Street.
#3. R.E.M., Collapse Into Now.
#2. Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender.
#1. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake.
It’s gonna take a lot to get Harvey out of that top spot. We’ll see if anything does.
Before I go, I have to thank Marissa Amoni for writing the first ever news story about Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. It appeared in my former paper, the Beacon-News, last week. It was jarring to see that quote from 11 years ago – I’d like to think I’m not so melodramatic now – but the story was very kind, and I appreciate it.
Next week, the old guys strike back, with new things from Robbie Robertson, Ray Davies, the Smithereens and Bob Geldof. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.