Friday, December 31, 2010

The Year In SFCP 2010

One of my resolutions is more frequent posts in 2011. Until then, here is a celebration of the SFCP in 2010 and some of its appearances on Billboard's Year-End Hot 100, which catalogs the 100 most popular songs of the year:

#7: Eminem featuring Rihanna, "Love The Way You Lie"

#10: Taio Cruz featuring Ludacris, "Break Your Heart"

#14: Jason Derulo, "In My Head"

#24: Eminem, "Not Afraid"

#25: Iyaz, "Replay"

#95: Sara Bareilles, "King Of Anything"

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Jewel, "Foolish Games"

Song: "Foolish Games"
Artist: Jewel
Album: Pieces Of You
Written by: Jewel Kilcher
Year: 1995
Key: Dm (E♭m in single version)
Classification: SF2
Lyrical content: the drama you've been craving (is losing its luster); inability to use an umbrella = sexy
Where used: verse

I remember a time in 1995 when Jewel was scheduled to play a very small club in Houston, and the word on the street was that you didn't want to miss this girl if you could help it. If you pointed out that she was only 21 years old with just a guitar and no history of any kind, you were met with the observation that you'd just described Bob Dylan at the time of his first album. Faced with the threat of missing out on the latest Next Dylan, I took the easy way out: I found a conflict and I avoided that whole mess entirely.

Even so, I was quite happy to admit that I thought that Jewel made the radio a better place in 1995-1996. Not, like, a whole lot better, but I certainly smiled a small but measurable amount and stopped flipping around the dial every time I stumbled across one of her songs. When I finally succumbed to the inevitable and purchased Pieces Of You a few years later, I discovered the frustrating truth, which is that the singles that were getting airplay were getting airplay precisely because they were just about the only listenable songs on the album. Everything else was incredibly precious, quasi-poetic and self-consciously "deep."

It had the unfortunate result of casting a pall retroactively on songs that I had previously liked, one of which was "Foolish Games." Previously, I'd been able to dismiss the overwrought drama as an anomaly that was easily counterbalanced with a heart-tugging vocal and melody. I'd eventually realize that they were all intertwined. (I would also learn that the single version was a completely different recording in a completely different key -- bumped up from Dm to E♭m -- which was enough to change the entire thrust of her vocal.) Considering the lyrics -- blagging on about art, rife with self-loathing in the company of a guy who sounds for all the world like a pretentious, narcissistic d-bag -- she almost had no choice but to use the SFCP. Is "Foolish Games" sensitive? Oh, my, yes; not only does the word pop up in the song itself, this is the singer, after all, who included on her debut a song actually called "I'm Sensitive." Everything that the SFCP is can be found right here, right down to the bleeding heart and borderline-tearful delivery. It's the kind of story, and the kind of guy, that can move a 22-year-old to romantic agony and ten years later make the same person hang her head in abashed disbelief that she was ever naive enough to fall for his line. And although she has a very long way to go, if you listen closely enough to the chorus, you can hear Jewel in the process of starting to grow from the former woman in to the latter.

Full song: Jewel, "Foolish Games"
Listen to the SFCP clip for this song

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Postal Service, "Grow Old With Me"

Song: "Grow Old With Me"
Artist: The Postal Service
Album: Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign To Save Darfur
Written by: John Lennon
Year: 2007
Key: Em
Classification: SF2
Lyrical content: let's love each other for as long (or as little) as we have left; vow, interrupted
Where used: verse

Since I started maintaining a year-by-year list of the songs I've been able to identify as using the SFCP in some capacity, a few folks have noticed what seems to be an increase in its popularity in the last few years. I certainly hope so, as that was somewhat at the core of the article that started this mess at the end of 2008. If you're looking for a song emblematic of the sense that the SFCP has been on the rise, you could do a whole lot worse than the Postal Service's "Grow Old With Me."

The reason for that is simple: the song's a cover, and there was no SFCP in John Lennon's version. There didn't need to be. It was already almost unbearably heartbreaking in its original incarnation, which came out in 1984. It wasn't even that Lennon's murder three years earlier altered our perception of the song; outside of his inner circle, there wasn't one single person who wasn't painfully aware from the very first time they ever heard it that the sweet invitation and implicit promise that he was offering to his beloved could never be realized. When it was recorded, the song was a celebration; by the time it reached the public, it was a sad fantasy.

All of that happened without the SFCP. But that was during the early 1980s. By the time the Postal Service took their turn at it in 2007, it was in the thick of a veritable SFCP boom. Whether Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello had that in mind or not, the fact remains that their recording altered the verses to revolve around a SFCP absent in the original, and they did it at a time when the progression was beginning to pick up substantial steam. (If inserting a ubiquitous chord progression into a song written without it isn't reflective of prevailing musical trends, then we are working off of different definitions of "trend.") The resultant version was moody and ominous where Lennon's was warm and open. It's not clear that Lennon himself would have agreed with the darkness that the Postal Service gave to his song, but then, it had already been irrevocably, fundamentally altered before it ever saw the light of day.

Full song: The Postal Service, "Grow Old With Me"
Listen to the SFCP clip for this song

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Kelly Clarkson, "Behind These Hazel Eyes"

Song: "Behind These Hazel Eyes"
Artist: Kelly Clarkson
Album: Breakaway
Written by: Kelly Clarkson/Martin Sandberg/Lukasz Gottwald
Year: 2004
Key: F#m
Classification: SF1
Lyrical content: it's none of your business what a wreck I currently am because of you; since u been gone, I've been struggling, actually
Where used: verse, chorus

I like Kelly Clarkson. It took me a good long while to come to grips with this fact. The only time I watched American Idol during the first season was the final performance episode out of sheer curiosity, and just about the only thing I took from it was how much I loathed "A Moment Like This" and "Before Your Love." (Little did I know that those would be the high water marks of Idol coronation songs.) So I more or less missed the entire first wave of Clarksonmania, which meant that by the time I'd finally succumbed to the numbing opiate of Idol and came across her performance of "Since U Been Gone" on the Kelly, Ruben & Fantasia: Home for Christmas special (which was, if not the debut of the song, at least very, very close to it), I wasn't quite prepared for the shock of realizing that I... I liked this song. A song by an American Idol winner. It was so unthinkable that I actually had a conversation months later with a friend where I laid out my internal struggle – my genuine struggle – over the fact that I really wanted to buy Breakaway despite the fact that I could never, ever allow myself to do so. She rightly told me to get over myself, and I broke down and purchased the thing, at which point I cursed the snobbery that had kept me at arm's length from a terrific pop album by someone who has proven herself to be a terrific pop singer.

I don't think there's any disputing that point these days. When even a die-hard indie DIYer like Ted Leo unapologetically (and unironically) covers Clarkson in concert, you know that the old knee-jerk rules stating that Idol and all it touches is anathema to art (or at least quality pop) no longer apply. "Behind These Hazel Eyes" covers the same theme as "Since U Been Gone" – she was in love, she was wronged, her independence is her vindication – but there's a rawness just underneath her defiance. Unlike in "Since U Been Gone," she's been shattered by the experience and is trying to put herself back together again, though she'll be damned if she lets him see that.

The difference is evident in the music, too. While "Since U Been Gone" pings, chugs and ultimately explodes in triumph, "Behind These Hazel Eyes" slams and grinds. When Clarkson howls, it's not out of liberation (she may have let the guy go, but she's far from free) but out of frustration: she's insisting on controlling the narrative of the breakup even as her own roiling emotions threaten to undermine what she's desperately trying to present to her ex and the world. (Both lyrically and musically, the song is the clearest anticipation of the emotional exorcism of My December, Clarkson's fatally flawed but still unfairly maligned followup.) Her anguish is supported not only by the SFCP but by the way it's used. The verse is ambiguous, hinting at the SFCP but never quite offering enough information to be sure until the bass comes in and locks it down, and the bulk of the chorus is a cathartic rush of power chords, a tough but measured glare that seems to lay Clarkson's cards on the table. Then comes the hook at end of the chorus, where the SFCP remains but the rhythm fractures, pouring out at an unfettered skip as she reveals the one thing that she's been trying so hard to keep hidden.

Full song: Kelly Clarkson, "Behind These Hazel Eyes"
Listen to the SFCP clip for this song

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Superdrag, "The Staggering Genius"

Song: "The Staggering Genius"
Artist: Superdrag
Album: Last Call For Vitriol
Written by: Don Coffey, Jr./John Davis/Sam Powers
Year: 2002
Key: Bm
Classification: SF1
Lyrical content: maybe your brilliance can keep you warm; there but for the grace of indie labels go I
Where used: verse

Superdrag was like a secret passed around among fans of power pop in the 1990s. Granted, pretty much every power pop act was like a secret passed around fans of power pop in the 1990s, but Superdrag was one of those bands that everyone at that particular lunch table seemed to know about. Thanks to its stance against corporate radio, folks had an opinion on "Sucked Out" whether they'd heard it or not. Unsurprisingly, that got Superdrag a burst of attention followed by a big old cold shoulder from the industry, which only seemed to fuel the band's contrariness on that particular front, and they ultimately fell victim to a fatal case of bitterness after raging against the machine a little too long. (It wasn't their sole lyrical concern by a long shot, but it was a continuing one, and it stopped looking good on them after a while.) The fact that Superdrag's fourth proper album was titled Last Call For Vitriol wasn't much of a surprise. Nor was its decision (later overturned) to call it quits not long after.

It's a nice little cautionary tale about getting so blinkered by the "industry" component of the music industry that it seeps into the songs themselves, with a spoonful of glorious tuneage helping the medicine go down a little easier. "The Staggering Genius" is a perfect example: its sarcastic bile would be a harsh pill to swallow if it weren't for the way the band is tight and economical, with the guitars slamming hard against the agitated drums as John Davis spits out poison at someone for whom he has not an ounce of respect. The song is all fierce conviction. Superdrag means business here.

What's great about "The Staggering Genius" is the way the band constantly toys with the SFCP. The opening/chorus riff isn't quite it, shifting from the I to the II instead of the V. The verse seems to hit the SFCP square, but it gets skewed in a couple directions at once: the rhythm is a bit trickier than usual, holding off on that final V for an extra breath and then throwing in a ♭VI in passing on the way back to the beginning. Unlike many, many SFCPs, the chords don't just coast from one to the other in a simple, uniform rhythm; instead, each stumbles with its own specific weight, transforming the whole into something compellingly lopsided. And the above ignores the fact that the B minor at the top of the progression is in fact no such thing, abandoned in favor of a streamlined B5 power chord that only heavily implies a minor tonality. In other words, there's a lot going on in a warhorse chord progression that's been used a hundred times without the slightest hint of creativity, and if only for that, Superdrag earns its self-righteousness for once.

Full song: Superdrag, "The Staggering Genius"
Listen to the SFCP clip for this song