Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Offspring, "The Kids Aren't Alright"

Song: "The Kids Aren't Alright"
Artist: The Offspring
Album: Americana
Written by: Dexter Holland
Year: 1998
Key: B♭m
Classification: SF2
Lyrical content: the streets claim another victim; pretty heavy (for a joke band)
Where used: verse, chorus

I was rolling my eyes at the Offspring by the time "The Kids Aren't Alright" came around. The first two singles from Americana had squandered just about any goodwill I'd developed towards the band in the five years since they had become a big deal. "Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)" wallowed in all of the dumbest clich├ęs of casual racism while convincing itself that it was mocking them, and the appeal of "Why Don't You Get A Job?" seemed to rest entirely on the fact that the first line was "My friend's got a girlfriend and he hates that bitch." So feel free to toss some casual sexism onto that pile, too. Both songs relied on the audience's stupidity. As punishment, they ended up being the Offspring's first entries into the Billboard Hot 100.

"The Kids Aren't Alright" was the followup single, and its impact lay partly in the fact that you're waiting for a punchline that never comes. These aren't happy-go-lucky fuckups that Dexter Holland's singing about. They had the same optimistic hopes for the future as most, only things didn't quite turn out that way. At least two of the characters turn to drugs, but instead of offering blissful withdrawal from the frustrations of the world, they put both Brandon and Mark in holes from which they won't escape. (The fact that Mark's is metaphorical doesn't make it less of a waste.) Meanwhile, the person with the best prospects fails to avoid the same fate as everybody else -- "Jenny had a chance, well, she really did/Instead she dropped out and had a couple of kids" -- and is just as stuck.

To be honest, it's all kind of a bummer, like if you front-loaded every discussion of your high school graduating class with the four biggest burnouts while conveniently ignoring everybody who achieved satisfactory mediocrity and better. And it's not as if Holland points to any root cause for these kids' dead-end lives or offers any sort of solution; he might as well be frantic and wide-eyed, shouting "This street's evil, I tells ya! Eeeeeeeeevil!" But even if lines like "The cruelest dream [is] reality" are maybe a little more overwrought than they need to be, there's something bracing about its fierce earnestness coming so close on the heels of the puerility of the Offspring's two previous singles.

Too bad it turned out nobody cared. Despite the band's track record and the song's reliance on the otherwise-charmed SFCP, "The Kids Aren't Alright" didn't make it to the Hot 100. Maybe it was just too relentlessly breakneck for the SFCP to settle in and turn the song into a proper hit. (To be fair, it did just as well on the Modern Rock and Mainstream Rock charts as "Gotta Get Away," one of the Offspring's two previous SFCP singles.) Maybe it was too serious to hook the folks who listen to pop radio. Whatever the reason, the Offspring learned their lesson and returned to sophomoric jokes and the glamorization of the clueless with their next single, "Original Prankster." It hit #70 on the Hot 100.

Full song: The Offspring, "The Kids Aren't Alright"
Listen to the SFCP clip for this song

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Boston, "Peace Of Mind"

Song: "Peace Of Mind"
Artist: Boston
Album: Boston
Written by: Tom Scholz
Year: 1976
Key: C#m
Classification: SF1
Lyrical content: work sorta sucks; the '60s aren't dead, they just got plugged into a Rockman
Where used: chorus

Boston is a strange case, as far as classic rock albums go. It's an arena-rock record that's largely the product of one man alone in a studio, a peculiar contradiction except to those who would argue that both sides of that particular coin tend towards equally clinical coldness. I'm one of those who doesn't see that as a problem. Yes, Tom Scholz spent more time and energy on surface sheen than anybody in music history not named Corgan, and Boston's typically held up as the zenith of corporate rock, something akin to the final straw before punk had to come in to make things right. Maybe that's true. After all, one of the songs was a rose-tinted remembrance of the nonexistent woodshedding days of the band, which was itself still nonexistent at the time the song was recorded.

But it was indeed the zenith, a delirious triumph of style over substance so complete that substance became irrelevant, which is precisely why people still decry it to this day. With the exception of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, I can't think of a single other album that has managed to put every single one of its songs into at least moderate rotation on classic rock radio. (Even the otherwise dominant Led Zeppelin IV has "Four Sticks" to screw things up in that regard, since it takes an uncharacteristically bold program director -- and I'm not saying it hasn't happened on occasion -- to decide, "I think it's time for a relentlessly circular art-blues dirge in 5/8 time, followed by 'The Long Run.'" Which is ironic, since it was one of the few Zeppelin tunes to actually make it onto either side of a single.)

For "Peace Of Mind," Scholz seems to rewrite the lyrics to Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care Of Business" in a slightly less ham-handed fashion and glue them to a gloss on the Doobie Brothers' "China Grove." (Maybe less a gloss than a blinding, super-industrial gleam.) He also managed to grab hold of the SFCP in one of its earliest appearances, thus becoming one of the few to be able to legitimately claim that he wasn't simply pulling it out of a toolbox of standard chord progressions to serve as a pre-established shorthand for the mood he wanted to create. Scholz clearly recognized that there was something special about the SFCP, though: he not only based his chorus around it, he put the thing right up front (acoustically, even, which would be notable if that weren't simply a part of the trusty formula he'd return to time and again) to ensure that it grabbed the listener right away. Scholz not only knew that the SFCP was its own hook, he knew it before just about everybody else.

Full song: Boston, "Peace Of Mind"
Listen to the SFCP clip for this song