Category Archives: Music
Tori Amos’ album Little Earthquakes changed my life. There have been wonderful moments in my life where music has done that: I’ve heard something and I knew my life was going to be different after that. Certain albums and artists have marked my life in that way: there’s a B.C./A.D. situation going on where my life was now relative to the moment I heard something — a seismic shift occurs when something really grabs me musically. In 1992, Little Earthquakes came out and that marks my B.T./A.T. delineation.
Some albums just jump through the speakers and the fact that this album was named for a natural disaster is apropos because Tori is an unbridled force of nature on this album. Tori Amos simply pops on this album whether she’s slamming her piano in raucous chaos in the bridge of “Precious Things” or she whispers a capella — haunting, stripped, naked, and raw as she does in “Me and Gun”. The quietest, most somber moments in the album have equal emotional impact as the highest decibal, highest energy moments: there’s no turning away when listening to this album — it consumes you while you consume it.
This album is a painting, a real genuine work of art. Tori uses every color and tone on the palette; every brush stroke is placed perfectly and purposefully to convey and elicit visceral impact. Very few albums are perfect from first to last track, and it is rare that an album is so well crafted that I have to listen front to back every time, but Little Earthquakes not only captured my full attention — it demanded it. It’s that rare album that isn’t just a collection of songs, but a masterpiece that flows front to back in a narrative. It’s not conceptually built in a narrative like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which makes it even more interesting that the album can be seen as a whole, more of a mosaic of the artist’s life and thoughts rather than a linear storyline.
This will be the first in a series of posts where I put on the “cans” and do commentary on an album. I invite you to listen with me. I’m a musician by trade, but music is one of those wonderfully universal subjects where anyone can have a valid opinion. I know some non-musicians who love music, sometimes get a kick out of “hearing” what a musician might hear when they are listening to a song, and in that way, I would love to share my thoughts on this album and others.
Keep in mind, I do not in any way think my commentary is some kind of “expert” opinion because I’m a professional musician, it is just another subjective, albeit somewhat studied, opinion. It’s still an opinion, don’t let anyone tell you differently. While there are objective things to look at when it comes to the craft of music, and production, and song construction, at the end of the day, people like what they like, and I think that’s wonderful. I don’t begrudge anyone their taste in art or music and if you’re one of those that think being educated about the subject matter enhances the experience, then great. If you’re one of those who enjoys just listening and keeping the mystery of the art, that’s great too!
So here goes, listen along with me to the album Little Earthquakes and see if you hear what I hear:
Track 1: “Crucify”.
Here’s the music video. It’s not particularly interesting and actually a little silly. I hadn’t seen it before today. Unfortunate. I don’t know if it was for budgetary reasons or not (I certainly hope it wasn’t for artistic reasons!), but they really dropped the ball with an opportunity to make a wonderful mini-film with the rich themes and content in the song. Oh well, this is a musical analysis, not a video analysis. My recommendation is don’t bother with the video, just listen to the great music, I only put it up here in case you don’t actually have the album.
Tori loves to build tension in her songs and her production. She’s very effective at it. This song starts off with the first verse: sparse with her just her vocals, minimal instrumentation and just a percussive hi-hat and kick drum. Then a beautiful pre-chorus comes in and we hear for the first time her virtuosic piano arpeggiating as everything drops out but the kick drum. This pre-chorus is so beautiful and melodic (“I’ve been looking for a savior…”), it could serve as a chorus. There is nothing superfluous about her writing – the song is rich from front to back.
I don’t really consider Tori a “pop” artist, but she has the natural ability to make everything a “hook”. This song has a half dozen of them. By the time we get to the actual chorus (in two parts – again hook after hook) and the band fully kicks in, the minimalism of the verse and pre-chorus makes the full production of the chorus seem very large: background vocals, added percussion. The chorus as I mentioned is in two parts: part one (“why do we crucify ourselves) and part two (my heart’s sick of being in chains). Again, this is a testament to the richness of this song that there’s an A and a B chorus and both with distinct identities and focus, and yet they flow perfectly.
The chorus in this song is where we get the first indication that Tori Amos is really something special with her lyrical phrasing. There are many unique themes to Tori’s musical presentation and one of them that stands out to me is how she places notes and syllables vocally. Tori has her own vocal fingerprint where this is concerned, I’ve never heard an artist phrase like she does and that really separates the great ones. Quincy Jones said that’s how he could separate the great singers from just the good ones: where they placed their notes and how they phrased their syllables. I couldn’t agree more. I think this is one of the reasons I don’t really dig musicals and some theater singing, because the phrasing is usually stock and that simply isn’t as interesting to me.
Tori takes phrasing to its limits at the end of chorus A when she says “my heart’s sick of being in …” simply sounds like “my heart’s been in…” She “crams” all those syllables in that short segment, both melodically and percussively, which then allows Chorus B (“…chains” the end of the phrase and back end of the chorus) for her to run a wonderful melisma using only a single word that completes the lyric of the chorus. Two distinct and opposite approaches to phrasing separating the “two choruses”.
As great as that phrasing is, it’s probably more impressive in the verses (I will be coming back to the brilliance of her phrasing time and time again in this album). Most songwriters really can’t get too far away from couplets (or another simple rhyme scheme) because of the natural rhythm and phrasing that it inherently provides. It takes a shitload of extra creativity to be able to flow and rhythmically place lyrics that aren’t already contained in a stock, rhythmic pattern. This makes her lyric writing much richer because she can engage in a much more impressive narrative and/or stream of consciousness free flow of ideas. Her lyrics are unbounded by her ability to marry her musical phrasing with the poetry of the words.
Speaking of lyrics, let’s talk about the lyrics for a moment. As I said before, Tori is already more creative than most with her lyrics and phrasing, but she also has that wonderful ability to speak in her own unique voice. There is no fourth wall in her music, she is speaking 1st person and giving it to the listener raw. To what degree the narrative exactly reflects the artist is unimportant, the subject matter is profoundly intimate and delivered as not just window into the artist, but as an experience in a moment. It’s like the listener is not only in the room with Tori during her vignettes, but she is also allowing the listener inside her head, so much so that we don’t often know what’s real and what is created by her mind. The listener gets Tori’s inner narrative which goes well beyond the intimacy of just being an observer.
Let’s look at the first verse:
Every finger in the room is pointing at me
I want to spit in their faces then I get afraid of what that could bring
I got a bowling ball in my stomach I got a desert in my mouth
Figures that my courage would choose to sell out now
These are not the inner thoughts of a psychopath (although they could be!), this is the inner dialogue of anyone who has been uncomfortable in a social situation and feels judged. This sets the scene for the theme of the song: why do we feed each other’s most base inner thoughts? Why do we give each other the arsenal to feed and compound our own insecurities? Our inner self is devilish enough to provide self-loathing, knowing we have our own inner-dialogue to contend with, why would we possibly heap that pressure onto another human being with such overbearing criticism and judgment? Why do we crucify ourselves? Ultimately it’s a self-immolation in our mind, but the matches and fuel are given to us by society, moreover, religious society and its vicious self-loathing constructs.
She is asking this question while weaving in both literal and allegorical Christian allusions in the song. Religion will be a recurring theme for Tori. Specifically the outer, systematized, institutional religious persecution that is inherent in organized religion, resulting in the deeper, inner psychological persecution that results. Judgmental religion is rendered even more nefarious when it can control personal thoughts. Orwell knew about the destructive nature of institutions framing our language and our minds to create the horror of horrors: the institution not just being a part of our most intimate inner thoughts but actually manipulating them and controlling them to the full force of destroying any semblance of self.
With full knowledge that I may be projecting in emphasis of this religious-Orwellian theme, I’m certainly not making it up whole cloth. To some degree she equates religion with negative human emotions, “got enough guilt to start my own religion”. It definitely exists as a theme in Tori’s lyrics, but to what degree she is using religion allegorically to represent a mindfuck as opposed to religion actually being the instrument of mental torture, I leave that to each individual listener. I think in the song “Crucify” it’s a little bit of both: I think she is using religion generally (and the crucifixion story specifically) as the ultimate representation of abhorrent judgment working itself from the outside in. This religious institutional judgment (religious and institutional crucifixion of the masses): which then infects the populace — their fingers pointing in constant judgment (social crucifixion); which in turn leaves the individual no choice but to be in a continual state of self-judgment (self-crucifixion).
So the refrain “why do we crucify ourselves” is rhetorical. The answer is “we shouldn’t” — but we’re stuck. We want to hold on to the spiritual satisfaction we derive from comforting beliefs, but unfortunately we’re stuck with the negative elements that institutionalized religion brings. No fuzzy feelings without the crushing pressure of judgment. Is there good in religion and/or life that we have to suffer to achieve? Is it obtainable in this life, or are we suffering the misery of this existence, only to get salvation after earthly torture. When does the religious promise of salvation come in to relieve the pain?
The protagonist in the song is looking for a savior (looking for them often in the seediest of situations: “in dirty sheets/streets” yet more condemnation, this time through the lens of religion which says sex is not beautiful, but shameful and disgusting) who will release her from the bad elements of religion (salvation cannot possibly be won through religion and all the nastiness that it entails, can it?). So according to the song, you’re stuck with both, “I gotta have my suffering so I can have my cross” and “you’re just an empty cage girl if you kill the bird”. This last line reversing the quixotic spiritual quest of throwing out the bathwater and keeping the baby.
Back to the music. After the initial chorus (in 3 wonderful stages) the song strips back down to it’s most minimalistic form for the second verse. Again, this is a wonderful technique to build tension in a song: build it up musically, and then cut it immediately at its height for full dramatic effect and start over again. This song is a wonderful example of that and a technique that will be used to great effect throughout the album.
After the second chorus a beautiful, soaring bridge shows another excellent hallmark of a good songwriter: writing another movement to the song, that is different enough to change the dynamic of the song, but flows enough to be seamlessly implemented. There are many things about Tori’s songs that I find epic. I love “epic” in music and usually it comes in the form of long song that takes you in many directions musically and emotionally. Tori writes “epic” songs regardless of length. They are so layered and dense vocally, lyrically, musically, and from a production standpoint, that a tight, little 3 or 4 minute song is worthy of having epic status. Just listen to the drums in this song, they are completely minimalistic, and yet that reverb makes them huge sounding, bombastic and, yes… epic!
The song ends with a musical and lyrical refrain which is a staple in many of Tori’s songs. Again, because of her creativity, she is able to free-form these refrains and keep them from sounding repetitive and they are certainly miles from boring.
Okay, Part II later this week when hopefully you will enjoy the rest of the album with me. This initial listening exercise will be longer than most because I’m laying down a foundation of musical and production concepts so I’m putting in two parts. Besides, I broke my headphones — I told you this shit was powerful! I always recommend studio quality headphones when you’re getting down to serious listening of music. No earbuds or wimpy headphones, you need the real deal. They are worth the investment and make the listening experience a million times better. You’ll shell out a little for them, but they pay for themselves ten times over both in sonic and durable quality. Mine broke because I’m an idiot, not because they crapped out. I’d had mine for 20 years and they would have kept going easily another 20 if I hadn’t just sat on them.
Here’s a relatively inexpensive route to get into quality headphones and I think they sound great.
You can probably pick them up at Amazon or elsewhere for around $100.
To be continued…
I think I found something that both an atheist and a fundamentalist Christian can agree on (not that I was looking). That is: wishy-washy, a la carte, hippie-dippie, half-assed Christians throwing around Jesus all the time but not really practically following the tenets of Christianity… well, they’re just annoying. Give me a gool ol’ fashioned Bible literalist any day of the week. At least they’ve usually read the Bible and know what that abomination says. I believe that if the a la carte Christians were actually forced to live by what the Bible says, then we’d very instantly have a whole lot less people calling themselves Christians running around. I say as atheists, we quit playing the “moving target game” that is Christianity. They have plenty to duke it out amongst themselves what they actually believe. None of them can make sense of the Bible and they all believe different things about it. They don’t need us telling them it’s wrong (although that can be fun), let them fight it out and sort it out among themselves. Atheists should start using a divide and conquer method.
So since this blog is somewhat of a popular culture blog, I’m going to call out some popular believers to take a stand for Christianity or not. I suppose they need to dump or get off the proverbial Christian pot. So here goes, since I’m sure the following people read my blog, I’m going to ask for clarification about their beliefs:
Katy Perry: She kissed a girl… and she liked it! But she has a very unfortunate Jesus tattoo on her left wrist. So Katy Perry, which is it? Are you down with Leviticus and think same-sex folk are an abomination to be killed, because Jesus was (you know the whole jot or tittle thing). Katy Perry: shit or get off the Christian pot.
Bill O’Reilly: Has demoted Jesus to simply a philosopher instead of, you know…. God! I’m guessing there are a lot of Christians out there that would take umbrage with that. Like this one here. Pretty sure Aristotle never turned water into wine and I’m almost positive I’ve never heard anywhere that David Hume walked on water. So, Bill O’Reilly, which is it? Did Jesus come to wipe away the sins of mankind, or is he simply another guy sharing some opinions? Bill O’Reilly: shit or get off the Christian pot.
Ke$ha: She’s got “Jesus on her necklace” and she wears cross earrings. Hey! Don’t wear the blingy Christian icons if you are not going to walk the path of righteousness!!! Sayeth the lord. Ke$ha: shit or get off the Christian pot.
Not since Madonna has an artist used such religious symbolism in their music and performance. Lady Gaga seems to pretty much come out against organized religion, but where does she stand against non-organized religion? Is she a believer in belief? Lady Gaga: shit or get off the Christian pot.
I’ve often thought that there isn’t any criticism of Christianity that comes from atheists that doesn’t also come from within the belief itself. I think it has more teeth coming from believers and I think we should separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak. I don’t care to argue with Christians, they don’t even cross the threshold of reasonable discourse for me (although it can be fun sometimes I suppose). I would rather turn Christians on themselves. They have a lot to sort out before any kind of meaningful dialogue can be had with me or other atheists.
Several sites have posted blurbs about Ray Comfort’s new blog taking on a new popular atheist every week, and last week it was Billy Joel. Here’s a link to Pharyngula, because I don’t want to link directly to Comfort’s place.
Basically, Comfort argued that the song “Piano Man” was authored by Joel, all art has an artist, therefore nature has an author and by the way it’s the Christian God. Pardon the ridiculous paraphrasing, but that’s essentially what Ray Comfort said – it’s what Ray Comfort always says. I don’t really find it necessary to go over that old, tired ground with Ray, it’s so played out and beyond futile.
I think what more interests me about this “story” is that Billy Joel seems to be a non-believer and that he might not be the right kind of non-believer. Based on some comments from atheists about the epic Comfort/Joel battle, I infer that a lot of people think Joel doesn’t have the atheist credentials to be taken seriously, or even engaged in a debate by Ray Comfort. PZ’s somewhat dismissive tone of his description of Joel as “that giant of the atheist movement” would be one such dismissive comment. I’m not admonishing PZ and others for this sort of insular atheistic attitude. I actually support it and have defended it to others that say that Freethought Blogs and PZ Myers’ type of atheist “fundamentalism” is hurting the cause.
But there is an enormous “BUT” in there. I think this type of insular attitude is a necessary but not sufficient aspect in non-believers gaining access to the social/political culture at large. Exclude no one. If non-believers are going to have a “voice”, then I believe that voice needs to have the opportunity to be as varied and representative as any other group of people. I don’t think one can categorize any group of people as having 100% overlap in ideology, approach, opinion, etc. Is that kind of not what we want to avoid in society?
This is not an accommodationist argument I’m trying to make here. On the spectrum of “militant atheist” to “accommodationist” I personally and unequivocally fall well on the side that is not-accommodationist in nature. This isn’t even an argument that falls somewhere in between those two groups (the accommodationists and not-accommodatists). The main point I want to make is that coming to the philosophical and/or practical decision to be a non-believer comes in so many varieties, it’s best not to assume anything about anyone and certainly not exclude them from what I see as a process.
I have personally made the very long journey from believer whose life revolved around my Christian beliefs (it wasn’t my fault, I was a poor kid!), to an atheist who believes that religion is intellectually, socially, psychologically, and culturally destructive. But that didn’t happen over night, and I’ve heard atheist testimony after atheist testimony that they had to make a similar journey. All along the way to make that journey, I was in a different place in my thinking. Some people stop short of where I landed, some perhaps go beyond where I landed, and still others may unfortunately retreat back to religion.
I, for one, am glad the atheist and/or skeptical community even has enough people and voices to have such a spectrum and diversity. I’m glad for all the following people (and more!), even if they do sometimes (often) shit on each other: *PZ Myers, John Loftus, Rebecca Watson, Chris Mooney, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Victor Stenger, Chris Rodda, Abbie Smith, Jerry Coyne, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Steven Novella, Hemant Mehta, Paula Kirby, Michael Shermer, Massimo Pigliucci, Reginald Finley, Ophelia Benson, Sam Harris, Jay Novella, D.J. Groethe, Penn Jillette, Bob Novella, Dan Barker, Evan Bernstein, Derek Calunduno, Phil Plait, Daniel Dennett, and yes… Billy Joel also. Especially Billy Joel.
I’m guessing Billy Joel doesn’t have the same flavor of atheism I have, but I think that’s okay. The guy is such a superstar (150 million albums!) and reaches such a broad audience, the fact that someone, anyone of his magnitude is out there even willing to commit to atheism in a public way has value. Yeah, so he may or may not make sophisticated, philosophical atheist arguments (I don’t know that he doesn’t or can’t it’s a preliminary assumption shared by some of us based off these comments in an interview). Guess what? Popular culture isn’t sophisticated and the reality of the situation is atheism needs a deep and wide reach into popular culture if it is eventually going to have an impact on that culture. I’m not concerned if Billy Joel isn’t sophisticated in his atheism we’ve got other folk for that. There are valuable cultural roles to be played by everyone. People live and travel at different times and different places on the belief spectrum and different flavors of atheism can speak to different people at different times.
Again, I’m appreciative of all the voices and all the diversity we offer. No exclusion.
*Note: This list totally quick and off the cuff, apologies for all the omissions. There are dozens and dozens of more names I could have listed off the top of my head, and dozens more if I actually thought about it for awhile. That’s the point! We have people now, we have numbers, we have diversity, that’s something to be celebrated!
I remember being a kid and the passion I had for music. Everything was new to me. I loved pop and rock music of the current time (’80s) and spent countless hours listening to top 40 radio where the diversity was fantastic. To hopefully prove my point, I’m going to right now open up a random page from my Billboard charts from 1984 and give you a list of the diversity of artists you could then find on top 40 radio (before the evil segregationists formatted radio in the 90’s).
Here is a list of artists that were in the top 40 for September 15th, 1984. Notice the diversity in music, not only stylistically, but also the ages, and cultural backgrounds of the artists.
- Tina Turner – R&B singer who reinvented herself for 80’s pop. Showed the world that it wasn’t only men that could be sexy as they aged. Love her!
- Cindy Lauper – At this time no one was going to be sure who would be the top female pop singer, Cindy or Madonna. I think we know who won out, but Cindy Lauper was really popular. She was quirky, wildly accessorized and wrote great pop music with lyrical depth and a lot of heart.
- Lionel Ritchie – He went from the wildly popular Commodores to being even more wildly popular solo artist. A great pop balladeer and songwriter.
- Huey Lewis and the News – I mention them for even more diversity. I rock band in the 80’s, but stylistically they were a throw back to 60’s R&B and Doo Wop. You think they are old-school now, they’ve always been old school!
- The Cars – The Cars are almost a category by themselves, they are new wavy, they are synthy, they hung out with Andy Warhol so I’m sure they had underground pop art cred. They were just different.
- Patty Smyth – Rock singer who happens to be female.
- Bruce Springsteen – Pure rock and roll heart on this guy. Wanted to take the visceral energy of Elvis and mix it with the social conscience of Dylan. If there is anybody who could pull off such a Herculean task, it is possibly the Boss.
- Prince – Holy “power” everything, Power Funk, Power R&B, Rock, Pop. The guy had/has it all and can do anything musically. Needs to drop that Jehovah’s Witness garbage, but other than that this guy is as good as they come.
- Stevie Wonder – Does anything need to be said about this guy? He’s a genius. Again, too bad about the religious thing.
- Chicago – Started as a rock band with great horn arrangements and interesting songs, ended up a tool for Peter Cetera’s schmaltz. Still ads diversity to this collection of artists.
- Julio Iglesias – Don’t know much about Julio other than when I was a kid he seemed like he came from the Barry Manilow School of Boring to me. But if anything proves my point about the musical diversity of pop music back then, I suppose it’s the fact that this guy could crack the top 40.
- Madonna – She was still building her empire in September of 1984, but I think even back then everyone had some idea about her power to thrill, entertain, create controversy, and make great music wasn’t really just a flash in the pan. She had it all.
- Ratt (L.A.) and Twisted Sister (Long Island) – Hard rock with screaming electric guitars. If you can find anything less than 12 degrees of separation between bands like Ratt and Twisted Sister on one side and Lionel Ritchie and Julio Iglesias on the other, you’re a better mind than me. And as I point out these two bands couldn’t be from farther parts of the country from each other, making the diversity of music back then not only different stylistically, but also regionally.
- Donna Summer – 70’s disco queen was still able to chart at a time when the country hated disco.
- Rick Springfield – Contrary to popular belief this guy was not a one-hit wonder, pretty-boy, soap star. He could actually rock and had a fistful of top 40 hits. And he wrote them all too (I think with the exception of “I’ve Done Everything For You” which was written by Sammy Hagar).
- Rod Stewart – Rod kept up with the ’80’s and scored a lot of hits. The guy was kind of like a musical chameleon and was able to keep his pulse of the musical times from the Faces counter-culture folkish rock, to his skin-tight disco pants of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”, to his skinny tie days of the 80’s. Amazingly the one constant for Rod was the spiky hair.
- Billy Joel – One of the great American songwriters in my opinion. But aside from my opinion he adds diversity to the list. When a lot of rock was guitar driven, he and Elton were sitting down rocking (much like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis bucked the trend in the 50’s).
- Elton John – Speaking of Elton John, ironically he happens to be right next to Billy Joel on the charts in September of 1984.
That list does not even include the diversity of hits that week from second tier stars and one-hit wonders. Here’s a short list of honorable mentions: John Waite (quasi-rock guy, power ballad singer); Sheila E. (80’s funk rock and lead singer/percussionist who added some Latin stylings to the music); Corey Hart (Canadian one-hit wonder rocker); Peter Wolf (lead singer of the J. Geils Band that started as a blues-based combo); Bananarama (British? girl group); Billy Squier (thought he was a rocker, but danced around in his underwear for a video and lost all cred); Night Ranger (rock); Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac guitarist); Spandau Ballet (British, New Romantic perhaps?); Billy Idol (punk-pop).
That is from one random week from 1984 in the top 40 (well random insofar as I picked 1984 to look into because I knew it would prove my point, but it’s random within that year 😉 ). When I was a kid listening to top 40 radio, I didn’t really make a distinction between the music of Lionel Ritchie, Tina Turner, Huey Lewis, or Bruce Springsteen. They were just all great artists making great music.
While, I’m not trying to make some grand statement how music could be the elixir for all complex social issues and race relations, I do believe there is a universal component about music that has the ability to shed some discrimination. Musicians have a long, proud history of desegregation, well before the rest of the country caught up (i.e. Jazz combos, big bands, Alan Freed mixed race events, etc.).
Perhaps also, there is a Universal Law of Diversity, where diversity is a necessary component to the health of an organism. Genetic diversity certainly is an important component to the health of species; as I hopefully have shown, diversity makes music at least more interesting and I would claim “better” (one example is that rock and roll comes from the blend of several genre influences and has continually evolved since its inception); I believe there is some evidence that diversity in work environments create more for more creative, effective results; and finally culturally diverse environments I believe are healthier, more interesting environments. I know that for me personally, I grew up in a relatively diverse suburb of Chicago and my white suburban boy life was made far richer from the multi-cultural interactions I had. So there, my personal anecdote proves it!
Luckily the top 40 these days is simply musically segregated and not racially segregated, but it continues to disappoint me that the richness and depth that comes from musical diversity is nowhere to be found in popular music these days. And that is coming from a guy who actually is enjoying pop music again for the first time in 20 years – an idea I will explore in my post Belief in Belief Part II: Jesus as an accessory.
So my hope is that popular music becomes more diverse and people playing music from all genres and backgrounds once again have a chance to make the big time. This hope is also a little selfish to my agenda with Skeptical Music, because perhaps if popular music regained some diversity, then there’d be room for some skeptical and maybe (gasp!) even some atheistic songs to gain mass popularity.