Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Upbeat Downer Songs

There was someone on Twitter a couple years back (Matt Frost, actually) who asked if there was a more "upbeat downer" song that "Pumped Up Kicks". Interesting thing is that I view that song as sounding completely haunting and dark to match the lyrics, but goddamn does it have a beat you can move to. I don't see how "Pumped Up Kicks" is a peppy song. If Hollywood were smart, they'd eventually use it in a movie about a serial killer where the serial killer playfully dances with a knife to the song as they approach their victim in the basement. Set the murderer up in a Bob Fosse styled solo, dancing around the victim before making the first slash. The song is haunting but people still consider it a feel good tune.

Are there more songs like this? Of course there are. One of my favorites is "Kicks" by Paul Revere and the Raiders. This was an American band that blatantly ripped off the drum heavy sound of the Dave Clark Five, channeled the Beatles visually and churned out some hits. "Kicks" is pretty upbeat sounding and the embedded video shows the girls dancing onstage. It's a dark song about a young woman caught up in a hedonistic pursuit that leaves her feeling empty. This is a warning to her to stop with the drugs, booze and sex or else she'll chase the next, greater high to a point of no return. This was 1966. That was a big enough problem for this to become a written song and a message culturally broad enough that people would listen. The rot runs deep.

There are many others and it plays to the human ability to not really pay attention to lyrics with music. What are we listening for? What in the structure of the tune is reaching you? This is a nice trick the R&B and rap world pulled to create fantastic beats and melodies with the worst lyrics in the world... well at least lyrics that would cause a commotion if the rapper or singer was white (ask Eminem why only he was ripped for anti-gay lyrics fifteen years ago). You have had generations of women dance to songs calling them bitches, hoes and freaks for 25 years. Very easily R&B songs could switch to romantic instead of graphic, yet they do not. The message then is important for the listener to hear repeated over and over again on top of that catchy beat. "You are a worthless ho, act like one." If you believe in hypnopaedia at all, there has to be something to listening over and over again to the cultural messaging while awake.

One hit wonder "99 Red Balloons" is about nuclear war, yet how many can even catch the military lines, and that killer '80s dance beat makes you forget. I have heard interpretations of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" to be about Hamlet and Ophelia. Ophelia drowned or purposefully drowned herself in Hamlet (read the dialogue discussing her death). Listen to "Just Like Heaven". Kind of flows, but The Cure were always depressing so I have a hard time seeing their music as upbeat. These depressing but upbeat songs are around and can even drive an album.

Bruce Springsteen's entire "Born in the USA" album is a nostalgia album for Boomers facing their mid-life crisis by echoing the '60s in either the sound or in the subject matter. Billy Joel did this same Boomer nostalgia for the '60s in the '80s as his audience aged. Echoing the sound of the early '60s is easy to spot with "Cover Me", "I'm Goin' Down", "I'm On Fire", "Working on the Highway", and "Darlington County". The depression hits in other songs. "Glory Days" gets fools moving but is depressing nostalgia of divorcees and High School peakers. It rocks like an over-the-hill band at a high school reunion. "Born in the USA" is a Vietnam War protest  and yet an Affirmative Action-Outsourcing protest song. "My Hometown" is straight up depressing and nostalgic for the old days. It might as well be the background track for my Takimag column on heroin in Fishtown.

We all have a favorite though. Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life" is my favorite example as it was a song that even your mom listened to in the '90s, singing along to the "doot-doot-doot" bits. She could even clean the kitchen counters while doot-doot-dooting along to the song. Similar to Georgy Girl where some whistling or doot-dooting can mask depressing lyrics. Semi-Charmed Life was about an empty life of doing meth and sex, highs and lows. Meth addiction sounds so damn happy when you just wrap it in "doot-doot-doot, doot-doot-do-dooooo". You still hear it today. It's on those '80s and '90s flashback stations that always have '80s hits weekends. Don't be alarmed and enjoy those tunes, but your kids call those stations "Mom Rock".


Laguna Beach Fogey said...

Listen to the Beach Boys, instead.

nobody said...

I've been stuck on this old country song that fits the bill

Bob Fryfogle - Six Foot Under

Here's a hilarious libtard conspiracy theory electro song that the internet loves

SPT - Everybody Knows Sh*t's F*cked

Toddy Cat said...

Prior to the beginnings of the Rock Era, in the early 1960's, Bobby Darin made a specialty of this kind of thing; doing Victorian/Edwardian era tearjerker songs as upbeat, ring-a-ding-ding finger snappers. It made for some interesting effects.

Here's one of his best, a Rat-Pack Era Vegas version of the ultimate Victorian weeper, "Artificial Flowers";

Suburban_elk said...

Pumped Up Kicks is a sad song. Sad to me in that how the video, unless it is a made-up bullshit fantasy, attests to a scene out there, and a market, for people having and dancing, good music - and that scene is a long-ass ways from here, both in time and place.

People coming together and having fun and dancing is a part of a healthy culture but when was that last time that happened around here. There was a party out in the field in 1975 that was the last time a foot stompin’. After that “rockin’ out” and what exactly, was that about?

A Simpsons episode had that phrase for a punchline. As i recall Homer was flashing back and some of the more well adjusted cool kids had a party van and Homer tried to get in but they were too busy for him, they were “rocking out”. Later that morphed into head-banging which is even less aesthetic and stupider but hey it at least high-T right? or is it not high-T and just gay.

The deeper question is what is the role of music in culture, and that question is pretty much the same question as, what rituals exist and are in effect. In the old days, music wasn’t just a thing that was written for young people to hook up to. Of course that was always a part of it, but not the whole thing. But now music is for teenage girls mostly, and for players and ghetto people to drive around in their cars with. If the culture were more even-handed encompassing and serious, it would be part of rituals for marriage and some other joyous occasions, and also of course death and mourning.

Life just used to be more serious. It was closer to “the edge” (no not that edge, what kind of faggot ass pretense is The Edge for a nom de plume anywaze?). Cormac has a book called Blood Meridian and it describes how the Comanches would ride around in giant war parties and slaughter the unwanted interlopers - which was all of them - and sodomize them white they were dying. It wasn’t enough to scalp, they had to sodomize them too. Apparently erections frequently occur in battle; i would have thought they would be diminished but apparently not. But after the bloodletting they would sing and it just might be curious what those songs were like. At this point who can imagine. Spooky ghost ridden stuff on the endlessness of death and gore.

罗臻 said...

Bottom of the Rain - Buffalo Tom

stuck here at the bottom of the well
looking for that beacon on the hill
been down so long that gravity's my final friend
at the bottom of the well

all the questions that
I never got to ask you, like

Where'd they go, where are all those golden years?

PA said...

This video counts down "top 10" songs that are happy but sound sad. Your picks are on that list.

Son of Brock Landers said...

PA - I dont think Jump or Rock The Casbah are downers. Good list + definitely overlap with ones I cited. My mom would sing along to Semicharmed Life and my sister and I were stunned how she never put 2+2 on the lyrics.

Magus Janus said...

"Ya Hey"

[Verse 1:]
Oh, sweet thing
Zion doesn't love you
And Babylon don't love you
But you love everything
Oh, you saint
America don't love you
So I could never love you
In spite of everything

In the dark of this place
There's the glow of your face
There's the dust on the screen
Of this broken machine
And I can't help but feel
That I've made some mistake
But I let it go
Ya Hey [x3]

Through the fire and through the flames
(Ya hey [x2], Ut Deo, ya hey [x2])
You won't even say your name
(Ya hey [x2], Ut Deo, ya hey [x2])
Through the fire and through the flames
You won't even say your name
Only "I am that I am"
But who could ever live that way?
(Ya Hey [x2])
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo

[Verse 2:]
Oh, the motherland don't love you
The fatherland don't love you
So why love anything?
Oh, good God
The faithless they don't love you
The zealous hearts don't love you
And that's not gonna change

All the cameras and files
All the paranoid styles
All the tension and fear
Of a secret career
And I think in your heart
That you've seen the mistake
But you let it go
Ya Hey [x3]


Outside the tents, on the festival grounds
As the air began to cool, and the sun went down
My soul swooned, as I faintly heard the sound
Of you spinning "Israelites"
Into "19th Nervous Breakdown"


Through the fire and through the flames
You won't even say your name
Only "I am that I am"
But who could ever live that way?
(Ya Hey [x2])
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo

PA said...

SOBL, just make sure you don't get sucked into the time-waste vortex of those WatchMojo Top Ten list videos. Don't ask why I'm warning you of this.

professorastro said...

I always thought The Girl from Ipanema was one of the most depressing songs ever written.

Anonymous said...

A lot of songs by Hanson fit this category. Their one hit "MMMBop" is about the transient nature of friendship. Here's a more recent one: