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February 2014

The Changing, and Not Changing, Language of Pop Songs

Someone has created a fascinating visual depiction of the changes in the language of pop music since 1960 by graphing the occurrence of various words in the Billboard Top 100 songs from 1960 until the present. It's a slide show, including twenty or so words. Each rectangle represents a song, and darker colors represent greater frequency of the word in question. "Baby," shown below, seems to have remained fairly constant. But I think you'll find some very interesting and significant differences in others; interesting, but mostly not surprising to me. Click here to view the entire sequence.


An Urgent Question

Are noodles pasta?

This arose in connection with an incident related on Facebook in which a British-born wife requested that her American-born husband bring her some noodles, and was displeased when he brought her a species of pasta. It turns out there are some significant variations in usage of the term "noodle." As Wikipedia says: "The material composition or geocultural origin must be specified when discussing noodles."

I'm not entirely sure what the wife had in mind, but I think it was some sort of Asian noodle. If you had asked me, I would have said, as several people in the discussion did, that noodles are a subset of pasta, namely pasta in an elongated cylindrical or tubular form--that is to say, recursively, noodle-shaped pasta. Where I'm from, one might refer, for instance, to "spaghetti noodles" when referring to the yellowish-white part of spaghetti, and "spaghetti sauce" when referring to the red part. And fan- or corkscrew-shaped pasta would not be called noodles.

But then there are flat noodles, too...still, they are noodle-shaped in being elongated.

I think "pasta" is a word of relatively recent introduction to middle-class America. At any rate I don't recall it being used when I was growing up. There was spaghetti and there was macaroni, and each had its characteristic noodle, and I don't recall other varieties of pasta, though at some point--in the '70s, maybe, with the advent of the yuppie--the word became widespread.

I'm interested in what the usage is in other parts of the country and the world. Do you think of noodles and pasta as two different things? If you asked for noodles and got pasta, would you be annoyed?


Noodles, and also pasta


Also noodles, but not pasta?


Pasta, but not noodles

Something Wrong and Something Right

This is a followup to that post of a few weeks ago, What's Wrong, about the exclusion of the workers in a corporation from a share in its prosperity.  Having such a share would imply a share in its un-prosperity as well, but in too many cases workers get the latter without the former.

I noted that a major part of the problem is that "The workers are considered no more than a cost of doing business, their wages no different from the price of steel." Apropos that mentality, someone sent me a link to this Washington Post story which rejects the idea that "maximizing shareholder value" is the only thing the managers of a company should worry about it, and calls for a return to a way of thinking in which all the "stakeholders" of an enterprise, a group which includes workers as well as shareholders, should be considered in decisions. Sounds right to me, especially when you consider that the term "shareholders" often, maybe most often, signifies not people who put money into an enterprise in the belief that it will succeed but those who are gambling on short-term fluctuations in the stock price.

And, related: I found out the other day (from a Facebook post) that the Publix supermarket chain is employee-owned, and is doing very well. I was surprised to hear that they are employee-owned, but not that they are doing well. A Publix store opened in my town a year or two ago, and immediately became very popular. Its prices are a little higher than others', but not dramatically higher, and the store is more pleasant than most, within the limits of the fact that it's a supermarket. I don't mind going there (they have Marmite!).The employees are unusually friendly and helpful, which I cynically took to be a manner forced upon them by their corporate masters as part of the justification for higher prices, wider selection, and nicer environment. But knowing that the company is owned by the employees, and that they have a very immediate stake in its success, makes it look a bit different. I believe this is an example of what is know in the business world as "incentive." Maybe there's something to it.


Speaking of The Beatles

And speaking of the role of McCartney's bass playing in their music: in the course of reviewing all my old Sunday Night Journal pieces, I came across this review of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, in which I made the following remark:

The single most striking thing in my revisiting of the album was the brilliance and effectiveness of the rhythm section. McCartney’s bass in particular, prominent because of its bright, rubbery tone and avoidance of the lower range, often seems to be the engine of the music, both supporting and leading.

52 Guitars: Week 8

Week 8? Already? Yes, unless I missed a week.

The obvious next person to feature is Jimmy Page. (For the less pop-music-obsessed: Clapton, Beck, and Page were all members of the Yardbirds, in succession except for a brief overlap of Beck and Page.) But I half-intended to skip him. Why? Because most of his best-known work was with Led Zeppenlin, and I never liked Led Zeppelin.

And why didn't I like Led Zeppelin? Well, initially because I just didn't care much, in general, for the loud, heavy, aggressively macho brand of hard rock that they helped to pioneer. It was more or less blues-based, and I love the blues, but it took the humor and sense of play out of it, and made it ponderous, with the good-humored sexuality of the blues transformed into something that seemed to have more to do with greed and power than desire. I admit I never listened to Zeppelin much; I lumped them in with bands like Grand Funk Railroad whose music seemed shallow and insignificant, and its popularity indicative of the collapse of the hopes of the mid-'60s.

But there was something else: Zeppelin always seemed somehow sinister to me, not in the manner of, say, the Velvet Underground or the Doors, who were consciously exploring darkness, but in a deeper way: not as if they were looking into darkness, like the Doors, but as if they were of the darkness. I couldn't put my finger on it (not that I listened to them enough to try), but there was a something dark abroad in the last couple of years of the 1960s, and the sound of Led Zeppelin seemed a part of it. I know this is an idiosyncratic reaction, but I was not the only one at the time who felt that way. I remember a friend describing it as "insect music," and I knew what she meant: yes, the sound was heavy, but it also had a shrill quavering element that seemed vaguely unhuman. I don't know what if anything that quality had to do with Page's interest in the occult and in particular the very sinister work of Aleister Crowley, but I wasn't surprised when I learned of it.

Over the years, hearing their music here and there, I've come to realize that I was mistaken about them in many ways, and come to appreciate them. They were superb musicians, and there's much more to their music than I gave them credit for. They deserve their reputation as one of the great bands. And Jimmy Page seems to deserve a lot of the credit, not just as guitarist but as writer and producer.

Still, I just don't care all that much for them. So here are a couple of tracks featuring Page that don't sound much like typical Zeppelin. Page was (is?) a very fine acoustic guitarist, as is sometimes apparent in Zeppelin's work. This has a lot in common with the acoustic tracks that appeared on the last Yardbirds album ("White Summer") and the first Led Zeppelin album ("Black Mountain Side"). The opening melody is from the ballad "She Moves Through the Fair."


I think Page differs from Clapton and Beck in that his playing is more about color and texture and harmony than lightning-fast leads. Here's a track from the 1998 Page-Plant collaboration, Walking Into Clarksdale. I had not heard this before I went searching for Page's music on YouTube. From what I've heard, it's pretty good. This tune isn't a guitar showpiece, exactly, but the guitar is crucial, and that solo that begins around 3:15 is remarkable.


Well, ok, one Zeppelin song. I've heard Led Zeppelin III more than their other albums, because I worked in a record store when it came out. I always liked this very atypical song (no drums!) a lot. Color and texture and harmony.



What They're Saying in 2014

Ok, what I really mean is what I'm saying; I just wanted to tie this post to the one about the contemporary reaction to Meet the Beatles.

I don't think I had ever, until now, sat down and actually listened to this album.  I'm not even sure I ever heard it all the way through as an album. I heard the songs on it many times, so many that they are still very familiar to me, though I can't have heard them very much at all since the mid or late '60s. But it was stuff I heard on the radio, or perhaps at some friend's house, on a cheap stereo. 

So, in hearing this on a good sound system, with nothing else going on, after an interval of several decades, I'm hearing this old music with fresh ears. And I must say I'm very impressed.

The most immediately striking impression is of speed and energy--an almost ferocious energy, which is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the Beatles. The twelve songs are brief, most of them barely passing the two-minute mark, one under that, and none make it to three. The playing time of the whole album is only twenty-seven minutes. And with the exception of the two ballads (the beautiful "This Boy" and "Till There Was You," the only tune not written by the group), the tempo ranges from fast to flat-out.

Likewise with volume: on most of the songs Lennon and McCartney sound like they're singing as  loudly as they possibly can, as if they're trying desperately to be heard over something--their instruments, maybe, in a crowded Hamburg or Liverpool club?

More than in the performance, though, the energy is in the music itself. At the end of the '60s or beginning of the '70s there was a fashion for self-styled "high-energy" music, from groups like the MC5. And punk bands that came along a bit later aspired to be fast and loud above all. In those cases there was a lot of screaming and banging and sweating, but the result was frequently monotonous. Not so with the Beatles. They're loud and fast, yes, but it's the sweep of chord changes and melody that really pulls you in and carries you along, irresistibly. And they're considerably more inventive than most pop songs of their day. We tend to think of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" as a simple song, I suppose because its words are so simple, but in the context of its time it really isn't.

One thing I noticed almost immediately that had never registered on me before is the extent to which McCartney's bass both anchors and propels the songs. In comparison, the other instrumental work seems fairly ordinary. It's been clear for a long time that in purely musical terms McCartney was the greatest talent in the group, and it's interesting to see that manifested here at the beginning.

 Yes, it's lightweight pop music, and the lyrics are mostly pretty banal even for that genre: "My heart went boom / When she crossed that room"; "When I held you near / You were so sincere"; etc. But they're very singable, well-matched to the music, and the result is almost maddeningly catchy, every bit as much so as it was 50 years ago. It's hard to imagine anyone listening to this album and not having something from it stuck in his head for hours afterward. 

The one disappointment, and it's a fairly big one, is that the sound is terrible: dry, thin, and cramped. I have one of the original mono LPs and although it appears to be in pretty good shape I doubt it was treated gently in its early days. Perhaps the CD re-issues are at least somewhat better. I enjoyed this so much that I'm almost tempted to buy it on CD, which is something I certainly didn't expect to say.

Short Books

Every reader feels a sense of achievement on completing a book, which is why short books please. 

--Anthony Daniels, reviewing a book about W.H. Auden in The New Criterion

 I understand this very well. The other side of it is the intimidating quality of long books. I was halfway through The Brothers Karamazov (800 pages) over a month ago, went a week or so without reading for lack of time, and found myself slightly reluctant to take it up again, though I had been enjoying it. I'm back with it again now. 

Yes, He Can! (2)

Neo-neocon again, on the Obama administration's use of the IRS against its opponents:

So Nixon is convicted in the eyes of the public for what appears to have been largely thoughtcrime, whereas the Obama administration and its handmaidens such as Lois Lerner get off seemingly free (so far) for the actual crime. Obama’s much greater success compared to earlier efforts appears to be due to several factors: greater drive, boldness, and scope; public ignorance/apathy; the coverup attempts by much of the MSM; and the simpatico political persuasion of much of the IRS.

Read the whole thing.

52 Guitars: Week 7 sums up Jeff Beck's relative obscurity nicely:

While he was as innovative as Jimmy Page, as tasteful as Eric Clapton, and nearly as visionary as Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck never achieved the same commercial success as any of those contemporaries, primarily because of the haphazard way he approached his career. After Rod Stewart left the Jeff Beck Group in 1971, Beck never worked with a charismatic lead singer who could have helped sell his music to a wide audience. Furthermore, he was simply too idiosyncratic, moving from heavy metal to jazz fusion within a blink of an eye.  All the while, Beck retained the respect of fellow guitarists....

"Respect" is an understatement, I think.

What little I heard of his brilliant playing over the years was in musical settings that didn't greatly appeal to me, like the jazz-rock fusion of Blow by Blow. But while digging around for material for this post, I found an embarrassment of riches, especially in live performances. There's a live disk called Live at Ronnie Scott's which I think I'll get. I'm not sure whether this clip is exactly the same performance as the one on the CD, but both are knockouts. "Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat," as you may know, is Charles Mingus's elegy for Lester Young.


The baby-faced bassist is the prodigy Tal Wilkenfeld, who was somewhere around 21 years old at the time of this performance. I would have guessed 15.

Here's a fairly recent live version of one of the better tracks from Blow by Blow, "Freeway Jam." I assume it's roughly contemporary with the Ronnie Scott performance, since Tal Wilkenfeld is with him; she seems to have been in his band off and on in the latter part of the last decade.


The funny thing about Jeff Beck is that he looks pretty much the same as he did in 1966. I seriously doubt whether that's his real hair. 

Yes, He Can!

Neo-neocon has come to a sobering realization:

And so if you are audacious enough (and your name is Barack Obama) you can fool most of the people most of the time. And your supporters will defend you for it, as long as you’re not lying to them about some pet issue of theirs.

This is not a discovery that bodes well for the country. It’s one of those things that, once seen, cannot be unseen. With the press behind you and the wind at your back, you can do just about anything.

Yes, he can! Read the whole thing.

(You remember "Yes, we can," don't you?)