Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dream Pop: "Be My Baby" & "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

The other morning while having breakfast, I put my Mp3 player on shuffle because I always enjoy the element of surprise. After all, you never know what to expect from song to song. As I was preparing my coffee and cereal, I was first treated to an excerpt from Anton Webern's beautifully spacious Symphony op. 21, which was followed by The Channels' elegiac 1956 doo-wop song, "The Closer You Are," and then the LA punk band, X, with their propulsive 1982 track "Blue Spark." While it's always enjoyable to create a virtual time machine out of music, where you can be dropped any place in time, these three tracks didn't pull me out of the moment of making my breakfast. They instead added something new to the daily routine, an incongruent and appealing soundtrack which roused me from slumber. Once the brittle harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka stopped their song cold, though, the next track to follow was The Ronettes' "Be My Baby." At which point, I forgot what I was doing and breakfast went into suspended animation for a little over two minutes.

Produced by Phil Spector, “Be My Baby” was a huge hit single in 1963 for The Ronettes. But more than the other previous pieces of music, "Be My Baby" has the ability to jolt you out of the moment. With one of the most seductive drum openings (with considerations of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" and The Four Seasons' "Walk Like a Man" aside), "Be My Baby" has an opening pop hook that takes you immediately to dreamland, an imagined world that makes definitive claims on what your idea of desire is. The other day, in reviewing Small Sins' new CD, Pot Calls Kettle Black, Critics at Large's John Corcelli talked about the seduction of pop hooks and how that album was full of them - enough, in fact, to transport John to pop heaven. So does "Be My Baby."

Usually, at the core of pop music, is a quest for a sound which touches a nerve, something that strikes a pleasurable chord in the listener. The best pop tends to unify the incompatible world around it, even answer a subliminal calling. For instance, when Elvis cut loose in the fifties, he shook up a generation clearly ready to be shook. He uncorked a bottle filled with a frustrated generation's desire to stand apart from the herd. But Elvis not only transcended what came before him, he validated everything good to come later. In general, pop music is basically about the celebration and sharing of good times. When The Ronettes sang "Be My Baby," you shared the intense joy in their voices. It was overwhelming to immerse yourself in such pleasure and still not lose yourself. You could melt into their sound and still be set apart from the herd.

The Ronettes offered a kinship, a spiritual bond so rich, so generous, that they quenched a longing, a craving for something impenetrably beautiful to experience. Be my baby, NOW! they demanded - with a desire that made you feel a fool to resist it. In Mean Streets (1973), Martin Scorsese used “Be My Baby” over the opening credits of his fevered thriller about a petty hoodlum who gets seduced by both the Church and the Mob. The Ronettes here get turned into sirens on the shore luring the protagonist (Harvey Keitel) into sin and guilt. What other song could have the potency to make moral rot look so seductive?

Of course, The Beatles also scaled those peaks - even elaborated on them - by building greater expectations on each song they left behind. With "Eight Days a Week," John Lennon easily convinced you that his love had the power to extend the calender beyond the expected seven days. He did it, too, in a voice that asked - no, demanded - that those deeply expressed sentiments, be shared and requited. But all of this was a long time ago, when pop music was in its infancy and artists dreamed of romantic ideals and possibilities.

By the nineties, to invert John Sebastian's idyllic plea, no one believed in magic anymore. Pop artists still reached for a sound that could bond them with the listener and sum up an epoch, but the epoch no longer held the promises it once did. It was long after The Beatles' hurricane of love subsided, and the punk storm of the seventies blew over, that Kurt Cobain of Nirvana created his own pop tempest in "Smells Like Teen Spirit." And it came right out of the dissipation of an era. For Cobain, honest feeling was being replaced by vague cynicism and glib hipness. You could hear the recoil in his voice under the rage of the clanging guitars and Dave Grohl's cannon-shot drumbeat. His aside of "Oh well...whatever...nevermind" (which echoed Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac in his "Oh Well" resignation from the vagaries of the pop world two decades earlier) was the sound of defiance being bled dry in an emotional vacuum. Yet the urgency of the music still ripped through the radio with the force of The Who. Cobain's voice was a drone of impacted rage, exploding only on the chorus. That explosion, though, brought listeners together as one.

However, Cobain didn't stand in front of the song, as Elvis did in "Hound Dog," or the way John Lennon could in "Eight Days a Week." He also didn't have the dynamism of Ronnie Spector in "Be My Baby." Cobain chased the song instead of riding it out. His sound was the exigency of emotional exhaustion, a man in dire straits to catch a runaway bus. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" collected the ennui of its time and blasted its contents with such vigour that it may be the most joyful song ever written about joylessness. Paradoxically, the song was often misunderstood as an expression of lethargic apathy, when it was actually a wince in the face of feelings that were too painful to consider.

Whatever mood these varied pop songs (from The Ronettes to Nirvana) conveyed of their time, the largeness of their vision encompassed something already rumbling in the culture, if not already desired in the audience they reached out to. In their songs, these artists built foundations for people to dream on. Which is why when The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" finally faded into Morrissey's "The Never Played Symphonies," I immediately woke up to finally drink my coffee.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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