Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"OMFGG": Sex, Indie Music, and Cable

One of the most interesting things I find about primetime television programming is its use of sophisticated non-mainstream music. Shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” for instance, provide us with soundtracks as musically phenomenal and diverse as the programs themselves are compelling. These soundtracks can even sometimes serve as platforms for rising artists to gain new fan bases and propel them to stardom. Ingrid Michaelson, for instance, was just another struggling singer/songwriter with self released records until one day she recorded the track “Keep Breathing” for the “Grey’s” season three finale, and all of a sudden her first headlining tour found her playing sold out big venues such as New York’s Bowery Ballroom with legions of supporters singing along to every word of her songs, with “Keep Breathing” the clear crowd favorite.

On September 2nd, the newest hot adolescent phenomenon, The CW’s “Gossip Girl,” released their very first soundtrack. Mirroring the controversial posters released this summer for this current season, the album cover features the picture of a fashionista girl holding a pink cell phone with the letters “OMFGG” splattered across it, standing for "Original Music From Gossip Girl." If you’ve grown up in the age of Instant Messenger, you know very well what the first thing you think of is when you see those letters (for those of you not familiar with internet lingo, the term ‘OMFG’ usually refers to an abbreviation of “Oh my fucking god”). Right off the bat, the soundtrack is channeling the border crossing and conformity defying appeal that made the show everybody under 25’s guilty pleasure in the first place.

In the vein of other teen soap operas such as “Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill,” the soundtrack to “Gossip Girl” is composed of all Billboard chart unknown alternative and indie artists. The most popular band on the soundtrack, Phantom Planet, may only be recognized by the average teen listener because ironically they made a name for themselves by singing the theme song to “The OC” a few years ago. This time around, they contribute the track “Do The Panic,” a song heavily influenced by new record label mates Panic! At The Disco and Fall Out Boy. It’s a fun and upbeat track that could easily be played in the late hours of a Williamsburg bar to get the hipsters to push back their bangs, loosen their neck scarves, chug their last Sparks, and create one last ruckus on the dance floor before retreating back to their toilet sized studio lofts.

Setting the precedent of the lively pulse that pumps throughout the entire record, the album opens with The Kills’ “Sour Cherry,” taken from their critically acclaimed album “Midnight Boom.” Much like the majority of the rest of the songs, this track sounds as if lust and repressed teenage sexual energy could be summarized in a three minute bass line. It's electronic and libido inspired beat starts the song off sounding like a series of quick thrusts before breaking into the uniquely trademark vocals of Alison Mosshart. Picture The Velvet Underground was still around and performing at a rave where you could sit and enjoy the show while getting a lap dance from uber-hottie Megan Fox - it’s that same sound and raw energy that experience would give you that The Kills kick off this record with.

Following next is The Kooks’ “Do You Wanna.” With its thumping percussion and sly guitar riffs backing the tantalizing moans and screams of the lead singer, the format of the song stays true to its lyrics about tempting someone into the bedroom to, as they like to put it, “make love.” The song sounds like a mash-up between Cold War Kids and Spoon, creating a gem of alternative indie-rock. The same can be said for The Virgins’ “One Week Of Danger,” one of the sexiest songs you’ll most likely ever hear being played on basic cable. Lyrics such as “Well is there something that you like about her? Yes. I like the way her body bends in half,” or “Well is there something that you wanted from her? Yes. I want her legs, her body, and her cash,” prove that like “Gossip Girl” itself, the song means business and isn’t afraid to expose too much. Its covetousness of promiscuity is most apparent, however, when the lead singer starts to whisper in a trembling voice “Let’s get together and get it on, let’s get these clothes off before I’m gone.”

The album then takes a brief turn towards more club infused music, yet manages to stick to its alternative feel. Songs such as Nadia Oh’s “Got Your Number,” Crystal Castles’ “Crimewave (vs. Health),” and Junkie XL’s “Cities In Dust” paint us vivid pictures of the series’ bad girl Serena Van Der Woodsen out on the New York club scene before resorting back to her hotel room for another quick line of cocaine (yes, that did happen on the show). However, the songs are far from your typical techno infused dance music, and instead sound like if the Chemical Brothers and The Ting Tings (coincidentally another fantastic band featured on this album) got together for a series of collaborations. In other words, these songs would quench the thirsts of both avid club goers as well as those music snobs that can’t listen to anything non-indie.

Nearing the end of the record, The Pierces’ “Three Wishes” slows down the lightning pace the other songs provide. One of the top played songs on my iTunes for over a year now, I’m a little biased when I say this is my favorite track off the album. Upon first hearing it, the song sounds like an old Russian folk song one would expect to hear a head scarf wearing babushka playing on her accordion in an outdoor market at the Red Square in Moscow. Then come in the lavish and crystal cut beautiful harmonies of sisters Catherine and Allison Prince (the band’s two members) that manage to sound so simple and so complex at the same time, that one cannot help but get chills skipping down one’s neck in unison with the fluctuating strings of the violin in the background. As it is one of the last songs on the album, it sounds like the winding down post-sex cuddling track one would listen to before falling asleep. “You want one true lover with a thousand kisses, you want soft and gentle and never vicious,” swoon The Pierces, giving the illusion of holding someone tightly and intimately.

The album closes with the Beatles-esque “Everytime,” performed by Lincoln Hawk (not to be confused with Linkin Park), the fictional band on the show fronted by leading man Dan Humphrey’s father. Even though technically Lincoln Hawk are not real musicians, one would never have known that from just listening to the track. It’s without question one of the record’s highlights, and could easily be a song featured on a Rooney album. It's the 2008 version of The Wonders’ “That Thing You Do,” - a piece of rock and roll influenced pop by a fake band that resulted in real, decent music. Don’t let the initial qualms of it being labeled as a fictional musician deter you from giving this track a chance (hands down the best song on any of the “One Tree Hill” soundtracks was “Halo,” performed by actress Bethany Joy Galeotti, yet on the record itself the artist was marked as Haley Scott, the name of Bethany’s character on the show).

It makes a lot of sense that the accompanying soundtrack to “Gossip Girl” would attempt to push the same envelope musically that the show does visually. Yes, this album feels like it was hand picked to be played in the background of an orgy at a convention for nymphomaniacs, but essentially that is what the show is, and that’s why we love it and tune in every Monday at 8:00 to watch it. It's a compilation of up-and-coming indie and alternative artists without a single bad track in the mix. Kudos to whoever does the music for these shows because it would be so easy to plug in whatever Top 40 music was around at the time of a given episode to match teenagers’ radio stations and television sets. Instead, they opt to go different routes in attempts to broaden musical horizons and give different genres and musicians a chance. Thereby, even if you disagree with everything “Gossip Girl” stands for, you can’t help but respect it for what it is.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Far From 'GaGa' About "The Fame"

When desperately aspiring “artist” Lady GaGa first registered on the mainstream radar earlier this summer with her visually stimulating music video for “Just Dance,” she completely raised the bar for dance-infused pop. She immediately caught the eye of people such as celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton, who compared GaGa to an “old school Madonna.” She then went on to be recruited by record labels executives who were drooling over her status as the hot new “it” girl about to take the music scene by storm. They wanted her to write and produce tracks for such industry heavy hitters as The Pussycat Dolls and New Kids On The Block, as well as for Britney Spears’ heavily anticipated second attempt at a comeback album, “Circus,” set to be released on December 2nd. If only they had waited a little bit longer to hear the end result of GaGa’s debut album, “The Fame,” perhaps they would have reconsidered their decision to entrust her with the fate of some of their top selling artists.

Let’s get straight to the point: GaGa fails to deliver any of the hype stimulated by “Just Dance.” And she makes you, the listener, feel dumb for listening. As the track listing went from one song to the next, I literally felt my IQ dropping. This reaction is a product of the horrendous lyrics and the entirely way too over-produced album as a whole. I found it almost insulting that I, as a listener, was expected to listen to this and consider it to be real music. The truth is that this is no more than a vocally challenged girl’s voice that has been completely manipulated with a pitch modulator over synthesized beats.

Yet GaGa actually considers herself to be quite a talented musician and songwriter. On her official MySpace page, she writes: “Consider the artist: GaGa is the girl who at age 4 learned piano by ear. By age 13, she had written her first piano ballad. At 14, she played open mike nights at clubs such as New York’s the Bitter End by night and was teased for her quirky, eccentric style by her Convent of the Sacred Heart School classmates by day. At age 17, she became one of 20 kids in the world to get early admission to Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.” Newsflash: If poorly sung lyrics such as “boys, boys, boys, we like boys in cars, boys, boys, boys, buy us drinks in bars, boys, boys, boys, with hairspray and denim, boys, boys, boys, we love them!” could get me into a top-notch arts school like Tisch, then clearly I applied to the wrong program.

The album opens with “Just Dance,” the only song worth listening to on the entire record. Despite its degrading depiction of young women, the track is the only one that you will remember after hearing them all. The horrible lyrics essentially tell the story of an ignorant girl who had “a little bit too much” to drink and is just going to dance it off before she passes out, despite the fact that she can’t remember where she is, has lost her cell phone, keys, and dignity. Putting my feminist beliefs aside, this again is the only song that is worth keeping on your iPod because it will do precisely as the title promises: once you hear it, you will just dance.

Following right after is “Love Game,” the worst attempt at making techno cross over to mainstream pop that I’ve ever heard. It’s so off the charts ridiculous and tries so hard to be Cascada that it almost sounds like it’s mocking the genre. The song begins with the lyrics “Let’s have some fun, this beat is sick, I want to take a ride on your disco stick.” Do I really need to say more?

The tracks “Paparazzi,” “Eh Eh (Nothing I Can Say)” and “Poker Face” come soon after, again making my ears bleed (surprise, surprise!). With their electronically manipulated beats, they try everything possible to make the listener want to dance. You can think of these songs as Big Macs labeling themselves as health food. They can try all they want, but, alas, there’s no way they can pull this off. You can get rid of the extra piece of bread in the middle, but overall you’re still eating a Big Mac and it’s still going to clog your arteries. Similarly, you can add as many layers of digital instrumentation to the bass line of these songs, but you’re still not going to want to hit a dance floor when they come on, let alone listen to them again.

Thrown in the midst of this electronic pop mess of a record is “Again Again,” a track in which GaGa gives the illusion of stripping down the enhanced vocals and bares her soul. Unfortunately for her, there is nothing in this soul that’s worth listening to, even for a brief second. She channels her inner Fiona Apple wannabe (an artist she cites as a heavy personal influence) and “sings” over a poorly constructed melody. In comparison to the rest of the album, yes, the song is rawer and comes off completely acoustic when put next to a horribly digitally enhanced song such as “Summerboy.” Nice try, GaGa, but there’s a better chance that Heath Ledger will rise from the dead to attend a DVD release party for “The Dark Knight” than that you will ever sound like a real musician, especially someone as talented as Ms. Apple.

In case you missed my drift, let me repeat: Lady GaGa’s “The Fame” is one of the most over produced and atrocious albums of recent memory. Her lyrics are beyond pitiful and even with a vocal enhancer, she has as much a claim to singing ability as Sarah Palin does to having enough experience to be a heartbeat away from becoming the leader of the free world. Listen to this record just once and you will be scrambling your pockets hoping to find your FYE receipt so you can run back to the store and return it as fast as possible.

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