Monday, April 19, 2010

Playlist of the Week: Deja Vu (Volume One)

Some time ago - I have a sneaky suspicion it was right around the time Rihanna re-released her smash hit third album as Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded - I got to thinking about the nomenclature of pop songs: specifically, the occasions of common nomenclature in terms of song titles that, while not necessarily rampant, were frequent enough to catch my attention. I had encountered confusion several times in the past when contemporary artists released tracks with the same title as, say, a jazz classic I knew well from my Ella Fitzgerald-heavy musical upbringing, or (more amusingly) even as a song from a Tom Chapin, Raffi or other such children's record I'd grown up with. Those instances, once clarified, were understood and deemed justified, for the most part.

Then Rihanna scored her second number one single from just the three BONUS tracks off the re-release of her album (having already earned one from the original track list, the ubiquitous "Umbrella," and later the first single off the bonus album, "Disturbia") with a song called "Take a Bow." As might be predicted when dealing with songwriters, the ballad centered on an underlining metaphor using theatrical imagery - specifically, focusing on the end of a performance - to illustrate a state of a relationship. Hardly groundbreaking, but the solid symbolic foundation on which many a poem and song lies (this is NOT unique to pop music, lest the indie elitists feel an urge to raise their noses at this generalization). Ho-hum.

Only, that metaphor had been used before. Granted, with the staggering amount of creation that has taken place since mankind learned to do things other than mate, eat, sleep and defecate, show me a metaphor that hasn't been used before somewhere and I'll show you Samantha Mumba's recent singing career. Except the metaphor had been used rather famously in another ballad - a pop ballad, mind you - in the not-so-distant-that-you'd-be-excused-for-assuming-people-wouldn't-necessarily-remember-it past. And the similarities pile on: solo female singer, major pop icon, long-running number one hit single...and that's not even getting into the similarities within the songs themselves.

Well, maybe I was the only one a little indignant on Madonna's behalf, because Rihanna's "Take a Bow" leapt from 58 to number one on May 24, 2008, and remained in the top ten for fifteen weeks, the longest stay of any of the artist's previous or subsequent tracks (and, to add insult to injury, the title of the third single from the re-release? "Rehab." More on that later). And so, from now on, if someone were to mention the song "Take a Bow," (why? but that's beside the point) some may think of the forgettable Rihanna ballad, others of one of Madonna's best ballads, others may know enough to ask clarification, and others won't know either way and therefore unsuited to whatever point one may have been trying to make in bringing the song up in the first place. (This problem may be more indicative of a lack of ingenuity on Rihanna's part than anything more broadly relevant, but there you go.)

As I tend to do, I got to thinking about other pop songs with identical titles, and found it surprisingly easy to accrue a sizeable list, although I did find that not all of the pairings had as much in common as the pair of "Take a Bows." In fact, sometimes songs with the same title were so different in all other respects as to make their shared names downright humorous. So I began putting together a playlist to demonstrate my gleeful discovery, and quickly realized I had enough to fill no fewer than four of them. Here, therefore, is the first of an occasional series of playlists on the theme I have just discussed. I encourage you to try and think of some others and submit them in the comments, for while I may already have them on one of the three lists to come (one of which, by the way, is devoted exclusively to Madonna tunes), I also may not...plus it's just fun to play along sometimes, isn't it?

Come on, show me love, and enjoy the playlist.













1. "Push It" Salt N Pepa (Hot, Cool & Vicious, Next Plateau Records, 1986)

2. "Push It" Garbage (Version 2.0, Geffen, 1998)

What's Similar: Subject matter, for one... *ahem*

What's Not: Genre (Salt N Pepa - rap; Garbage - alt/rock); Tempo/Tone (Salt N Pepa - light, uptempo, A minor; Garbage - heavy, midtempo, E minor); Era (Salt N Pepa - mid-80s girl rap; Garbage - mid/late '90s alt/rock)













3. "Girlfriend" N*SYNC featuring Nelly (Celebrity, Jive, 2001)

4. "Girlfriend" Avril Lavigne (The Best Damn Thing, RCA Records, 2007)

What's Similar: Genre (Mainstream Pop)

What's Not: The subject matter differs somewhat, although with this particular title it makes sense that a girl rocker and a band of mooning boytoys would have a slightly different take (this is pre-"Don't Cha," remember); the boy wants the girl to lose her toxic man of the moment in favor of himself, while the girl waxes bitchy on her guy of choice's woman of choice with the idea that a switch in her favor is called for. Obviously a late N*SYNC pop song (during the brief - and, in my opinion, best, for the band at least - period between the band's dissolution and the emergence of Justin Timberlake's solo career where the musical influence of the lead singer was noticeable) and a track from Lavigne's expletive-laced sophomore album (trying largely in vain to distance herself in musical maturity from early, fluffy hits "Complicated" and "Sk8er Boy") have their differences in musical stylings as well.













5. "I Kissed a Girl" Katy Perry (One of the Boys, Capitol, 2008)

6. "I Kissed a Girl" Jill Sobule (Jill Sobule, Lava, 1994)

What's Similar: Veracity: yes, they both did kiss a girl. And they both liked it, actually.

What's Not: One is a teasing, boy-baiting female homoerotic come-on that has nothing to do with any girl-girl curiosity (but rather just another way to attract the mens), and the other is, well, exactly what the title suggest. Don't get me wrong; I'm not dismissing either one as an effective and even evocative piece of pop ingenuity - Perry's track was the surprise summer hit of 2008, and Sobule maintains a smaller but rabidly loyal following. The Perry femme-smooch anthem is, in fact, a product of the Max Martin/Cathy Dennis pop machine that brings us Britney Spears, Pink, and Kelly Clarkson (Martin) and many of the best dance tracks of the last decade from the likes of Spears, Kylie Minogue, and Sugababes (Dennis); Sobule's is the product of her own good, wholesome, Pitchfork-friendly singer-songwriter self.













7. "Rehab" Amy Winehouse (Back to Black, Universal, 2006)

8. "Rehab" Rihanna (Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded, Def Jam, 2008)

What's Similar: Besides the fact that Rihanna's track debuted a mere two years after Winehouse's (and barely a year after the latter hit the U.S. market and swept Grammy Awards), not much, besides the title.

What's Not: First, Winehouse is actually singing about rehab. There are, in fact, times in songwriting that a tree is just a tree. Rihanna (by the pen of Timberlake and others) uses it as an ultimately stale and untidy metaphor for the whole "I should leave you but I can't but I must but I don't wanna" that is even less palatable given her well-publicized personal relationship troubles that followed shortly after (which in turn produced another entire album of such songs, like the aptly titled "Stupid in Love"). Winehouse's is a brilliant up-tempo throwback jazzy soul masterpiece; Rihanna's is one of the dearth of Timberlake tracks (along with Madonna's "Voices" and "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You" and Timberlake's own "What Goes Around/Comes Around") that play like a set of studies done by a visual artist on the same eventual painting, only the last of which is meant, or suited, for publication. Or maybe that's all Timberlake's got? And, I should add, Winehouse's is fantastic; Rihanna's is not.













9. "Whatever" Jill Scott (Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2, Hidden Beach Records, 2004)

10. "Whatever" En Vogue (EV3, Atlantic Records, 1997)

What's Similar: Both songs can be broadly categorized in the R&B genre.

What's Not: The subject matter could hardly be more opposing: the funky divas of En Vogue riff on love's difficulties while Scott makes a point of adoring and welcoming her love in every way. Scott's is a down-tempo, slinky, sensual declaration of love, while En Vogue's mid-tempo groove is a perfect example of the unique way the group managed to mix throwback soul with very modern R&B sounds. Also, I really can't see any of those three ladies offering to run out and grab their lover some chicken wings.













11. "Walk Away" Christina Aguilera (Stripped, RCA Records, 2002)

12. "Walk Away" Kelly Clarkson (Breakaway, RCA Records, 2004)

What's Similar: Title, record label, genre, type of artist, era... on paper these two songs suggest a whole mess of Rihanna-style deja vu.

What's Not: Yet somehow, the two tracks are in execution completely unalike. Clarkson's, which unlike Aguilera's was released as a single, fits the theme of her sophomore (or as I call it, "peace out, Idol") album Breakaway of separation, growth, and renewed or newly discovered strength on one's own (see "peace out, Idol"), and is a passable girl power-light anthem that might not seem as insipid were it not on the same album as the fantastic kiss-off gem "Since U Been Gone." Aguilera's is, on the other hand, a down-tempo, slow-jazz piano ballad that suggests the far more polished jazz infusions the chanteuse explored on her third album Back to Basics several years later, and is one of the better tracks on her awkwardly uneven sophomore fracas, Stripped that got overlooked in favor of disasters like "Dirrty" and diamonds in the rough like "Beautiful."













13. "The Climb" Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana the Movie, Walt Disney, 2009)

14. "The Climb" No Doubt (Tragic Kingdom, Interscope, 1995)

What's Similar: Climbing metaphors about life (hint: it's a climb, but it's worth it, according to the teenage Disney product and the rebellious Orange County twenty-somethings).

What's Not: Cyrus' is a country pop power ballad; No Doubt's is a nearly seven minute long...um, ska ballad? Screw it, it's just a nice mid-tempo jam session by some kids in the garage, and it's fascinated me since the album first dropped. Back then, of course, I was not much on parsing metaphors, and I remember excitedly explaining the song to my parents with an entirely fabricated story that the song told the tale of a mountain climber scaling Everest...literally, not figuratively, mind you. Then again, I also thought Alanis Morissette was asking if her ex's new girl would make out with him in a theater, so my naivete was widespread at the time. Of course, personally, there's also the difference that I'd gladly listen to Gwen Stefani riff for seven minutes on the price of fertilizer in Mumbai, whereas I'm entirely content with relegating my intake of Cyrus to the two or three singles of hers I find minor guilty pleasures.













15. "Take It Off" The Donnas (Spend the Night, Atlantic Records, 2002)

16. "Take It Off" Ke$ha (Animal, RCA Records, 2010)

What's Similar: The removal of clothing from one's body; both artists are/were minor female pop personalities in their debut round.

What's Not: The Donnas tried to rock, bless their hearts, and they had a witty little premise; too bad it had been done before by every girl group from the Shirelles to the Supremes in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and much, much better, too. Their "Take It Off" is still a fun, light rockout, like something you might play at an all-girls slumber party (especially with Katy Perry in attendance) rather than in an effort to encourage a male companion to take the song's salacious suggestion. Ke$ha's pounding love song to sexual debauchery (the nightclub kind, not the bedroom kind) sings praises to a mystical "place downtown" inhabited by freaks, dirty free-for-alls, and lots of glitter (by the way, thought Ke$ha and I share a city, I have NO idea what place she means in this song, and am dying to find out), and also happens to spell out her philosophy and her entirely valid justification of it all in one song: she's just out to have fun (of this we are aware), but she's not the designated driver tonight, and therefore free to enjoy, for now, her party as she so chooses - with the subtle but present admission that things are not always, nor will always be, that way.












17. "Work It" Nelly featuring Justin Timberlake (Nellyville, Universal, 2002)

18. "Work It" Missy Elliott (Under Construction, Atlantic Records/ATG, 2002)

What's Similar: This is one of the more egregious instances of what I call the "Summer Sci-Fi" effect, named for the curious tendency for there to be each summer, like clockwork, at least two or three major sci-fi films with the same general theme (e.g. Armageddon/Deep Impact; Volcano/Dante's Peak; Comic Book adaptations). In this case, two of the biggest rap stars of the early 2000s came out with singles with the exact same title in the same year. Say whaaa?

What's Not: Nelly's, of course, featured the soon-to-be ubiquitous guest vocals of one J. Timberlake (seriously, he's like the Dakota Fanning of pop music: are there no other young male pop singers out there?) and was a far more dance-rhythmed club thumper than the St. Louis rapper's typical fare. Meanwhile, Misdemeanor worked a killer beat, filthy lyrics she somehow made sound clean, and, of course, a chorus of absolute gibberish to create what is commonly selected as one of the best singles of the decade. Timberlake's influence made the "working it" in Nelly's track less boudoir and more ballroom, but no one had any question of for what activity Elliot needed time to shave her cho-cha.

Actually, I chose this pairing to wrap up this first volume of Deja Vu playlists because today is Monday, and I know there are a lot of folks out there who could use a little pep talk from the gadunk-a-dunk dunk of Missy Elliot to rev them up for a productive and survivable work week ahead. Enjoy!

DJ please, pick up yo' phone, up on the request line!

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