On Nate Ruess and Being a Cynical Romantic

Yesterday, I listened to a radio interview featuring former fun. frontman Nate Ruess. He’s in the Philippines to perform some of his past hits, along with some songs from his current solo effort, “Grand Romantic.” In line with that, the DJ mentioned that he’s characterized himself as a “cynical romantic,” then asked what that is. Nate responded by basically saying it’s someone who knows he will get hurt, but has a good time anyway.

That’s something I totally get.

The Tension is Clear

I’ve always been kind of pessimistic in my thinking. I never expect the best because I only expect disappointment; I believe in managing expectations more than dreaming big. But at the same time, I enjoy the idea of romance, of having a good time, of being a good person in spite of every crappy thing that can happen.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still maintain the ability to function.” Well, that may be true in the case of cynical romantics. Or maybe to them, that duality is essential: love isn’t true unless it’s tested, and you can’t say someone is good unless that person can be good even at the worst times.

#NoFilter: There’s Beauty in Rawness

Curious about his new album “Grand Romantic,” I listened to a few songs online. The ones that made an impression on me were “Nothing without Love” and “Great Big Storm,” both of which depict a great, beautiful vulnerability. Did a little more research and checked out the Wikipedia entry for the album; apparently critics said that it was overly theatrical in terms of production, lyricism, and vocal delivery.

I could see where they were coming from, but I have to say I don’t totally agree. Sure, a lot of it tends to be really sappy and cheesy. Maybe the lyrics lacked subtlety, and maybe the music was just too inelegant in its presentation of emotions and themes. Still, I find it refreshing. On the radio and online, we hear a lot of music about people owning the club, twerking the night away, grinding, getting wasted, and so on. That’s inelegant, that’s devoid of subtlety, and that’s what a lot of people listen to. So for me, the album is still a worthy contribution to the world of music. It’s a naked, take-me-as-I-am peek into the mind of a true romantic, who I’m sure is not alone in the world. And it fills a niche for an emotion that many people feel but few people have the courage or opportunity to express.

My girlfriend and I will have the chance to see him perform live tonight. I’m really excited to sing along to his familiar hits, and listen to his new ones that will surely uncover a new side for many fans. His new music might alienate some of them. It might be a hit with others.

But when you’re an artist putting your whole self out there, for all the world to see and hear, that’s beside the point.

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Joey McIntyre’s Boilerplate Encouragements

You know the song “Stay the Same” by Joey McIntyre?

I hate it. Hate, hate, hate.

I get that it’s supposed to be uplifting and inspiring, but for me, it smacks of lazy, unexamined, unicorns-and-rainbows positivity. The title suggests that staying the same is the way to go, but the whole song itself doesn’t build on that; in fact, it seems to totally contradict itself. The way the lyrics are written and put together sounds like someone just randomly took a bunch of Hallmark cards, cut them up, and pasted them together to make a rhyme.

The Chorus: A Dangerous Affirmation

Consider the first few lines: “Don’t you ever wish you were someone else; you were meant to be the way you are exactly.” Right there, it sounds like the generic encouragement that a friend who’s only half-interested in your problems would throw at you because he or she tuned out halfway and doesn’t want to bother understanding your issues.

If you’re meant to be the way you are exactly, what’s the point of changing? What’s the point in trying to do anything? Let’s just stay on our comfortable little plains and plateaus built on platitudes, and just take the opportunity to love ourselves. The world doesn’t expect any more, and it doesn’t owe us any less.

Then Joey warbles on: “Don’t you ever say you don’t like the way you are; when you learn to love yourself, you’re better off by far.” The first part, I can get behind because if you let your self-hate cripple you, then it’s all over. I get that. But what I can’t stomach is the sweeping statement that learning to love yourself is better, period. I mean, what if you’re a total jackass or loafer? Are you supposed to be okay with being a pest and a leech, just because you already “love yourself”?

That’s only the first step. You’ve got to love yourself to the point where you realize you can be awesome, you’re not at your best yet, and then work your way up and forward from there. You’re not meant to be the way you are exactly; you’re meant to become.

The chorus ends with “And I hope you’ll always stay the same, ’cause there’s nothin’ ’bout you I would change.” Either that’s a lie, or the singer just isn’t thinking very hard.

The Verse: It Gets Worse

The first (and only) verse starts with: “I think that you could be whatever you want to be.” Sounds promising. Sounds similar to “if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything”, the line which makes “Back to the Future” my all-time favorite sci-fi movie.

But then the verse goes on: “…if you just realize all the dreams you have inside.” Big problems with that writing. Like, where else would your dreams be but “inside”? Do you keep them outside, in a jar on top of the refrigerator, or in your back pocket where you might carelessly leave them on laundry day? Is your mind outside your body? And the whole statement, “you could be whatever you want to be if you just realize all the dreams you have” smacks of tautology. Of course you realize your dreams when you are whatever you want to be; why didn’t I think of that? Thanks a lot for giving the most helpful advice ever, late ’90s pop song!

And didn’t the song say earlier (at the very beginning, actually), that you shouldn’t wish you were someone else? So why say anything about becoming whatever you want to be? That’s what wishing you were someone else is. What do you want? I’m so confused!

The next lines (“Don’t be afraid if you’ve got something to say; just open up your heart and let it show you the way”) are pointless and just contradict the idea of “staying the same” for me. If you are honest and expressive, don’t censor yourself, and don’t keep yourself closed in, then you open yourself up to conversations, discussions, and ultimately, opportunities for growth and change; the fact that there’s a “way” that your heart shows you suggests that there’s a journey you must take, and you’re not meant to “stay” anywhere. So while Joey tells us to stay the same, he’s still flip-flopping and advising us to not be stagnant.

The Bridge: Taking Us Nowhere

Then there’s the bridge: “Believe in yourself; reach down inside; the Lord above will set you free.” It might be because of my agnostic, leaning towards atheistic tendencies, but for me, you either believe in yourself or believe in the Lord to set you free. Either work your own way through your own problems, or wait for a divine bailout. Any advice that gives both recommendations sounds like a speaker who’s hedging his motivational bets.

The rest of the bridge (“Believe in yourself; you will come alive. Have faith in what you do; you’ll make it through”) seems to hammer home the same point made earlier about getting through obstacles to get to a goal. But again, for me, it addresses a totally different problem from someone wanting to be different from who they are. It’s the last line in a long, meandering, falls-flat-on-its-face attempt at inspiring people to…

…I don’t know, really.

In Summary…

So basically, that’s why I hate the song “Stay the Same”, and there’s plenty about it I would change. You can still listen to it if you want, but I defy you not to cringe at the message, or lack thereof.

You know what? Just listen to “Man in the Mirror.” Whether you like Michael Jackson’s take or James Morrison’s, it’s a damn good song with a message written right.

The Case for “Sad” Songs

So, still continuing my musings on sadness. I just came from a party this past weekend, where I had the most fun I remember having had in a while. I acted like an idiot for a while out of my week, and it was great. It’s nice to think sometimes that nothing matters, and you can act any way you want, no matter what it looks like. I may act serious, but there are moments when the prospect of just letting go of inhibitions, having fun, and not caring about appearances or formality, is something I fantasize about.

drunk businessmen without inhibitions
Clearly, these are men to be envied.

But not caring how you act or what you look like can go both ways. Sometimes you want to be just really out-of-your-mind happy, but other times, you just want to vent all your frustrations, your sadness, and your worries. You may not be able to find the solutions within your sphere of influence (hence your frustrations), and sometimes the only way to let go of them is to just express them all away, however you can manage it.

drunk businessmen without inhibitions
Again, men to be envied.

Sadness: One mood, multiple coping mechanisms

And that’s the thing about sadness. The cure for it isn’t always to find something else to think about, talk about, write about, or sing about (though that’s a good approach to take a lot of the time; I’m writing this blog post to occupy my thoughts and distract myself from other things for a while). Sometimes, the cure is to create a picture of the problem, make it as clear and definite as possible, so that you can wrap your head around it and see its actual scope. Then you can start to deal.

Now, not all of us have that gift or ability to define our own problems. When you’re in the thick of something, you’re living a moment, it’s not easy to create that picture. Not everything can be captured in selfies or other pictures. So, you have to find a way to express your sadness without expressing it yourself.

That’s where sad songs come in.

It’s Catchy because It’s True

“Forget You”. “Some Nights”. “King of Anything”.  “Hey Ya”. What do these have in common? They’re all sad songs. Oh sure, they sound upbeat, but if you look at the lyrics, you’ll see that they’re not purely happy. Don’t believe me? Just Google it for a bit. I can wait. If you can spare a few more minutes (and aren’t squeamish about mature situations or slightly blue language), you can read this article on upbeat but depressing songs while you’re away.

The thing about songs is that they can be very twisted. They describe sad or frustrating situations, and they’re camouflaged in toe-tapping and sometimes downright infectiously dance-inducing beats. Songs can have incredibly multiple layers of meaning, which is just another way of saying that songwriters can mess with people through their songs.

But even if people recognize these songs to be depressing as anything, they still like them. Why? Because they describe pain and frustration, and they describe them in a way that the average human being cannot ever manage by himself or herself… not within five minutes, anyway, which is the time most of us truly have for moping around. No sense in waiting for a thunderstorm or spending hours walking head-down around town. Oh sure, the weekends and Friday nights are there for clubbing, drinking, parties, and such, but until then, how do you cope? By blaring loud music into your listening holes. Heck, even the downright depressing songs can be cathartic. No matter what genre or artist people prefer, everyone gets sad, and music can be surprisingly effective in chasing those blues away.

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Creative rendition only.

Some people may be saying “I don’t need those sad songs in my playlist. I have a perfectly happy life, I’m a happy person, and I have happy relationships that will never be sad, so there’s no need to bring those downers and bad vibes in”. Well, I can’t really contest those people; I can never know about their life for sure. But I think that situation of perfect happiness is highly unlikely. If there are people who claim to live such lives, I suspect they deserve congratulations for living in the most insulated, hermetically sealed emotional bubble ever. Or for being delusional or in some sort of denial.

Pretty trumps Powerful?

So a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I stumbled upon The Voice UK, and how I wanted to follow it as much as I can. Went on YouTube, clicked onto my favorite account for The Voice UK clips, and saw this:

Vince Freeman is a powerhouse, a very strong singer. He has an awesome moustache (had to point that out), and a voice that sounds as solid as an oak tree and as powerful as the hurricane that will be necessary to bring it down. Bo Bruce is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum; to me, she sings as if she’s in tears, and every time I hear her, I feel a tug of something that’s somewhere between sympathy and heartache. Her voice sounds beautiful and hurt, and she has used that to great effect in her performances.

Why Danny set up this match, I’m not sure; it’s always a messy business, comparing apples and oranges. But he did, and what we got was a great duet. Beautiful counterpoint, complementation of totally different flavors, lending different tones to the same lyrics. Vince sounds like indignant, fiery bitterness, but delivers a beautifully tempered performance. Bo sounds like a cracked gem that, in spite of the damage, casts the most beautiful light.

The clip concludes with Danny saying this (I could be wrong, what with Danny’s slight accent):

“I can only put one person through… the harsh reality is, great voices… I think one’s gonna sell more records than the other, and… I’m tonight with Bo.”

A lot of people were angry about that, and said that Vince Freeman was robbed. It sounds certainly like Bo was chosen because she would be an easier sell.

But based on what I saw in the clip, and what I understood, Danny didn’t say that he chose the one that would sell more records; he said he based his decision on that.

With that, I’m choosing to understand it as Danny seeing how awesome Vince is, and how he doesn’t need backing from a talent-show record label to get a following and, hopefully soon, get signed. Vince Freeman can still win, in my opinion. With a voice like his, he doesn’t need a singing contest to win.

Love, Plain and Simple

So last week I bought Jason Mraz’s new album Love Is a Four-Letter Word. Simple album art, simple sleeve. And, sure enough, when I played it, there were simple songs.

What do I mean by simple? Well, let’s take some of the songs for example. I Won’t Give Up is a declaration of a love that will not surrender.

I won’t give up on us
Even if the skies get rough
I’m giving you all my love
I’m still looking up

Even though the imagery of skies evokes a sense of grandness, and there’s an absolute declaration there (“I’m giving you all my love”), the words are simple in that it feels like they’ve been sung by so many other singers. Consider also the lyrics from The Woman I Love:

We don’t have to hurry
You can take as long as you want
I’m holdin’ steady
My heart’s at home
With my hand behind you
I will catch you if you fall
Yeah I’m gonna love you like the woman I love

Again, simple words that sound like they should be familiar. Sometimes I feel sorry for singers and songwriters; it’s difficult to touch on new artistic ground when so many other musicians have lived, played, and died before you were even born. But Jason’s voice, which I think will always sound like a boy’s, makes me listen as if they were new and more sincere.

But the song that spoke straight to my heart was the eighth track, called Frank D. Fixer:

Frank D. Fixer was a handyman
He could handle everything; he was my granddad
He grew his own food and fixed his own car
I watched it all happen in our backyard
He’d reinvent the part to fix the broken home
He restored the heart

The first verse sets the tone for the entire song, in which he wishes that he could express love the same way his grandfather could. This is a form of love that is rarely sung about; forget about buying things, or fighting a world that won’t let you be together, or being so attracted to the cutest guy/girl in your school. What this song extols is a man who was steady, level-headed, and able to set things right for his family.

This is a sincere, basic form of love, free from abstract concepts like “forever” and “soul.” Though the lyrics referred to gestures like “restoring the heart” or “building a town if the world came down,” those are just flourishes of artistic license. What I think of when I hear the song is a love that is as good and honest as a bar of soap. It may sound boring to some, but to me, it’s something that’s sorely under-represented in music nowadays.

The album isn’t restricted to romantic love, either. There are also songs about love of the world (93 Million Miles), love of life (Living in the Moment), and even a song expressing his love of expression (Everything is Sound), but they’re sung in the same effortless, bombast-free way.

A simple album with simple songs. And quite simply, I loved it.

Voices from across the Pond (Assuming You Live in the US)

So lately, I’ve been watching different singing competitions; I still can’t follow them as religiously as I could, but thanks to the wonder of video streaming, I can watch them online.

As I finished watching a video for The Voice, I saw a suggestion for a related video; it looked like The Voice, but why was Danny O’Donoghue, lead vocalist of The Script there? I clicked, and I realized that it was a clip from The Voice UK, which apparently recently started its first season.

There are quite a few clips from The Voice UK on YouTube right now; I learned that the four judges competing are Danny, Jessie J, will.i.am (apparent nemesis of punctuation and capitalization), and Tom Jones.

Wanting to give the UK singing contest a fair shake, I watched on, jumping from one clip to another, and was happy to find some admirable talents, comparable to their American counterparts.

There are genuine artists and performers–those who want to give songs their own spin and style:

Then there are those who have simply fantastic or sick singing ability:

And there are the ones with really pretty voices:

And there are, of course, mystifying decisions by the judges. The ones that have you asking “why did they turn around?” or “why didn’t they turn around?”

I’d like to come up with a full taxonomy of the contestants, but I have no time. Just follow them online, and get goosebumps when you can. Infinite thanks to YouTube user Matenohoru!

Waiting to Hear the Four-Letter Word

So the new album “Love is A Four-Letter Word” is set to hit record bars on April 17, 2012. Not sure if it’s the same in my country, but I certainly hope so. I’ll be checking out some record shops on the said date just in case, after which I’ll listen in earnest.

Sure, the album has been available online for days now. In a bold move, the regular album in its entirety has been uploaded onto Soundcloud, where people can simply listen to all the tracks (although not in my country; perhaps Atlantic Records restricted access to US and European fans or something).

Image
The cloud's there, but sadly, it doesn't cover the whole world. Bet lots of fans are just dying for access.

There’s even an interactive puzzle on his site that lets fans unblock exclusive content, though to say it’s exclusive is a bit much; all you have to do is work for a few minutes on tangram-like puzzles, and you can see hidden songs and videos.

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Screenshot of the interactive game for exclusive Mraz content. "Easy" is a four-letter word!

It was a very bold move to upload the album, though. Not everyone would be inclined to purchase music that’s available for listening online. In fact, people are already sharing copies of his deluxe edition procured from the iTunes store, and there are downloads popping up in different places on the web. I am resisting temptation, and will buy a copy of my very own.

What do I expect? The same smooth singing, catchy easy-to-sing-to melodies, and the feel-good vibe of one of the best vocalists in the world today!