Anachronisms in Downton Abbey
Two Old SNJs

Ok, Try This

Yesterday, doing one of my frequent scans of Google News, I saw a headline Anatomy of a Tearjerker. I thought that sounded intriguing and clicked on it, which took me to this analysis of why Adele's song "Someone Like You" makes people cry, or at least get tears in their eyes.

I have not heard much of Adele's music, but on the basis of the bits and pieces I have heard, I don't think it's much to my taste--a great voice, for sure, but just not my cup of tea. So I felt pretty confident that I would not fall victim to the alleged powers of this song, and went over to YouTube to put myself to the test. When it started with the cheesy '70s power-ballad dinkyDONky dinkyDONky piano arpeggios, I was sure that I would be rock-like in my indifference.

But dang if I didn't get a little misty when she hit the chorus. 


Maybe it's just that my defenses were weakened by the video. I am highly susceptible to moody black-and-white videos featuring pretty girls who are very sad.


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Well, I got past the chorus dry-eyed, but then, I don't have your susceptibilities. The idea that she wants to find "someone like you" struck me as being pretty dumb.


That's the thing--"dumb" is almost beside the point. I don't even much like the song, but it does somehow sneak in and affect me. I'm afraid the appeal to the video is just an excuse, because I wasn't even really watching it the first time I played it.

Didn't work for me.

Chewing your tongue vocals bother me.

Well, I'm what might be called a sucker for sentimentality, but this was just irritating.

(Admittedly, it probably didn't help that I was straining to hear it over the sound of the washing machine.)

I was about to say ok, it's just me, but then I remembered the whole reason I was trying it in the first place was that it affects a lot of people. Well, I congratulate you all on your good taste.

In one of his books Roger Scruton does an analysis (musical, not scientific) of why REM's song "Losing My Religion" is so popular among college age folks and young adults. Some of it, he says, has to do with the melancholy or sense of loss of the title and lyrics. The tune itself is catchy, but simple and repetitive. What Scruton says it is is the fact that the tune never resolves itself -- even between verse and chorus, the song is like a loop, or a musical cliffhanger. It keeps setting itself up to fall, but never falls, and it doesn't actually resolve until the very final chord. So it's not that the song has a good hook, but that the hook is repeated numerous times without resolution.

I can lay no claim to good taste, but given the build up I was surprised (given my propensity to tears) to find that this particular song just doesn't grab me that way.

Lucky you.:-)

That's interesting, Rob. I never really gave it any thought but I do remember thinking that the song had a sort of Mobious-strip quality.

I do like the song. Sorry, there is one on every blog! Does it move me, well, not that much, but it is touching. Yes, of course she is dumb that is the point. People in love are not in their best cognitive mode.

I sort of want to claim that my reaction is due to my greater sensitivity etc but am hampered in that effort by the fact that I don't actually think the song is that good. But there must be something to the WSJ description of the musical phenomenon.

Frequently not just dumb but at least mildly insane.

I don't like the song much and it doesn't much affect me, but lots of songs do b/c I'm very sentimental myself - to my annoyance. But I really detest the mash up she does with this song and another one called Rumour Has It. That's b/c in the first song she's singing to her former boyfriend who is now a married man and in the second she's gloating over the fact that he's leaving his new woman and wants to come back to her. Separately they're okay but together they're obnoxious. Thankyou for providing me with the forum to get that off my chest!

Also it sounds to me like she sings a bit flat but it might just be something in the quality of her voice

I only recently heard of Adele. I don't really understand her massive popularity, but I do think she has an unusually good voice. I like the song you link.

I heard that she recently had surgery on her vocal cords, and when she performed that same song at the Grammys last week I notice that she backed off on the intensity. I hope that she can now afford a good voice coach, and that she won't tour too much. She needs to take care of her instrument.

that piece of analysis was very interesting btw

I haven't heard that mashup thing you mention. Don't especially want to.

I'd say that Grammy rendition is noticeably inferior to the one in the official video. She does sound flat at times there, which I didn't really think about in the other one. Whether that's an effect of the surgery or that she wasn't at her best or that she's somewhat dependent on help in the studio, who knows?

I seem to have gotten over my initial reaction, btw.

Another good thing I'll say about her is that she doesn't have the air of extreme narcissism that a lot of female pop stars do. Seems much more genuine and likeable.

"she's somewhat dependent on help in the studio"

Can't speak to Adele in this regard, but it seems to be true of another female vocalist, Florence Welch of "Florence and the Machine." The vocals on the CDs are outstanding, but when you listen to the live performances on You Tube she is often flat and has trouble hitting the high notes. I have a feeling there's a lot of pitch correction going on in the studio there.

Really nowadays they can make literally anyone sound good -- when you hear a song there's no way to know whether you're hearing the real deal or not.

As far as the Adele song goes, I've heard it quite a few times in the mall, in a restaurant, etc. and upon hearing it I had the feeling it was too contrived, too "designed" with the intent of provoking an emotional response in the listener. It reminded me of a lot of contemporary Christian worship music. If it were a song about Jesus you could predict exactly where the congregation's hands would go up.

I agree with Craig - it is her voice. It is not a catchy tune. I have no way of knowing whether she is flat or not (so should not be expressing an opinion). But the way she conveys emotion with her voice is touching.

"not a catchy tune". I wouldn't say it's "catchy" exactly, but it does have some power to me. I'm very susceptible to "earworms"--tunes that get stuck in my head. And this one was sort of trying to do that, but it didn't quite make it. It keeps turning into Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe", which has a chorus that begins with the words "Someone like you." (I don't know if it can be technically called a chorus in this version, since he only sings it once...whatever.)

Interesting about Florence + the Machine (as they insist on writing it), Rob, as I happened to catch them on Austin City Limits a week or two ago. I was curious because they seem to be highly regarded by the critics. I didn't really note specific problems with her singing, but did have a general impression of...trying to think of a word...unevenness or patchiness, I guess. One of those big strong but brittle, almost metallic, female voices that appear from time to time. Trying to think back on it, I believe it was the quieter and more subtle passages that seemed sort of shaky. I much prefer Adele's voice.

"...exactly where the congregation's hands would go up." Heh. I suppose "contrived" is natural, in a sense, but we aren't supposed to notice it. What's interesting to me, and really was my main point, is that the contriving (whether conscious or not) used specific analyzable ingredients, and that it worked on a lot of people, including me. However, I don't think it was *only* the musical structure--I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have responded if it had been some mediocre voice like Madonna's or Britney Spears'.

I had not heard of her before Mac mentioned her on his blog last night. Today of course she is in the DT. She does seem to have bad taste in men...

Wow, that's bad even for a pop star. What a dirtbag! "rubbish relationship" is clinically accurate in this case. But the story seems to say it only lasted four hours?! I guess, though, these are modern folks so the "relationship" could have been going on for some time before she mentioned love.

That's quite an armload of Grammys she has there.

"she backed off on the intensity." I think that would be good. The original is overblown. I prefer understatement and subtlety, especially in female singers. Like Miss Peggy Lee in "Fever."

Or smooth and clear, like the early Karen Carpenter.

In general I'd agree with that. I'm trying to think of a really all-out loud female singer whom I like a lot, and nobody is coming to mind...I may be overlooking someone. Kate Bush belts it out sometimes but she just has a huge range, not only in pitch but in dynamics. Personally I never found Karen C's voice to my taste but that's just my taste--it was certainly a good one.

Oh wait, Tarja what's-her-name of Nightwish and Vibeke Stene of Tristania...but that's a whole different kind of music.

Just read the story about the fake sex tapes.

Looks like the story is saying she made the mistake of telling him she was falling in love with him and he was so freaked out he ran off with a man!

Anyway, he's a dirtbag alright, if he organised the fake tapes.

I think Florence has captured some of the vibe of the early Kate Bush when it comes to overall sound. The 'Ceremonials' album, the most recent one, is very good indeed. But she seems unable to match the vocal quality on the recordings in her live performances. She's an engaging performer, however, and I imagine that to her fans this more than makes up for the vocal shortcomings.

Compare, for instance, the studio version of "Shake It Out" with the live performance on SNL:

Now it could be that she was just having a bad night on that SNL occasion, but other live performances I've watched have been disappointing as well. Which is a shame, because I really do love the album!

The SNL performance definitely isn't as good, but it doesn't seem bad, really. I guess I have low expectations of pop performers live, though--I never expect them to sound as good as their recordings. Here's the first song from the ACL I mentioned:

I wasn't much taken with it. I didn't too much like the song, or the hippie diva air. The vocal is impressive at times but ragged at others. She sometimes does a sort of low vibrating bellow that I liked the first few times I heard Grace Slick do it, but which soon began to get on my nerves.

Thing is, you don't get that drop-off in Kate, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, or even Dolores from the Cranberries (who doesn't have half the voice that the others do, but who does sound live like she does on record.) I don't expect much from live pop either, but when a pop act is built around vocal quality and then that quality doesn't live up...don't like that.

I think my expectations were set in the late '60s when almost everybody sounded fairly ragged live, or at least when recorded live, maybe partly because the volume of live performance had outstripped the ability to mix and control it. I haven't heard any of those others you mention live.

My student wrote about this empirical analysis of Adele in his essay today!

Nice. Did he or she connect it to theology somehow?

Heard this song on the piped-in music in a store today and it caught my ear. I was surprised to see it was from an album I was familiar with, having borrowed it from a friend when it came out in 1999(!) The song must not have made much of an impression on me back then, as I didn't remember it at all, but now it strikes me as a pretty nifty little pop number.

On one hearing it didn't especially grab me, but I'll give it another listen later. Grandchildren Day going on here.

Yeah, I found it catchy, esp. the little bridge bit before each chorus, and the style is interesting. It flirts with a sort of "new country" sound at times, but never actually makes the move, so to speak.

I like that wordless thing she repeats at the end.

Yes - he connected it to theology

Heh. When I saw that pseudonym, but before I read the comment, I was pretty sure I knew who it was.

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