A week and a half ago I stumbled on a phenomenon that pretty much every music insider has been over and over again lately: Lana Del Rey, whose image and story will grace the cover of Billboard magazine's upcoming issue (21 Jan 2012), and who performed on Saturday Night Live this past weekend.
I stumbled on Del Rey's single Video Games ten days ago, when a DJ queued it up on the radio station I had playing on a drive north from Santa Cruz. I'd just gotten off the freeway in Oakland, I was nearly home.
song first went viral as a YouTube video (embedded below) before its strong release as a
single in October. That first time I heard it, in the car, I was blown
away by the plaintive melancholy of the artist's vocals set against the
swells and ebbs of a partly-synthesized wall of sound, all in the
service of some serious romantic longing -- for a fellow she had? had
and lost? had and feared losing? never really had at all? (I've made no
secret of the fact that I'm a lyrics person,
so, yes, I was listening to the words). In any case, I couldn't get the
song out of my head. When I got home I found it on YouTube and watched,
more than a few times.
I'm not convinced that Video Games
is about a whole lot more than adolescent mood swing (Del Rey is 25
years old, FWIW). But even though my adolescence is long past
(chronologically speaking, anyway), the song is just cryptic enough to
encourage even an actively curious listener. Meanwhile the music insists one put aside curiosity and just
The Billboard cover story (or maybe that's just an on-line story about the cover story? dunno) is all about stuff that doesn't
move me much: authenticity, the artist's identity, what recordings she
released when and where, the label that signed her, how well or poorly
she performs live, blah blah blah.
Bottom line, the song pulled me right in when I heard it. As Kathy Iandoli, a contributor to the Village Voice blogs, wrote last month, "The comment-board fights and blog posts don't detract from the fact that she can actually sing."
(And neither, I would add, am I put off by her much-criticized and, honestly, well-below-expectations performance on SNL the night before last. I saw the performance on video the morning after. Del
Rey was clearly nervous as all get out, but ... so what? She can still
sing, even if not in a live television performance on the eve of an
album debut, her first.)
Listening to Video Games has
me thinking about melancholy popular music in general. One song
that's more-or-less recent and falls into this melancholy category, as I
categorize anyway, is Lost in My Mind, written and performed by The Head and the Heart.
It's another song whose topic
and meaning is a bit opaque. It moves from a clearly melancholic mood at
the start to something almost rolicking at the finish, but it stays
grounded in a mournful emotional key (I love the burning piano at the
end of the video).
Thinking about songs I would categorize with these
two, the ones that come to mind are mostly from way-back-when, but share
a quality with both Video Games and Lost in My Mind: they
sound sad, no doubt of that ... but they also express deep and muscular
passion. They're not depressed. Depressed is something different, and not
what I mean by melancholy music in the sense I find compelling.
I'm thinking of songs from yesteryear like Who Knows Where the Time Goes (Sandy Denny, performed with Fairport Convention, 1969); Don't Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young, 1970); Everything I Own (Bread, 1972); Angel from Mongomery (John Prine, performed by Bonnie Rait, 1974); Sara (Bob Dylan, 1976); Fast Car (Tracy Chapman, 1988); She Talks to Angels (The Black Crowes, 1990); Guess I'm Doing Fine (Beck, 2002). The list could be endless, of course, but each of these qualifies for my iPod's "Melancholia" playlist.
One of the first songs of this type to which I was drawn was Crystal Blue Persuasion,
performed by Tommy James and the Shondells. I must have been nine or
ten when I first heard it on the radio. Ah, bubble gum... From the same
band, an even better example of passion wrapped in mournful sound is Crimson and Clover:
When I listened to Crimson and Clover
the other day on YouTube it was hard to stay in a teary mood.
Why, you ask? Well, look at the ad Google decided to serve alongside it:
Is it Christianity? Or is it a porn site? I didn't click to find out....
Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Taking the coast road north from Santa Cruz
Take a sad song
Are you a lyrics person?