Wednesday, July 2, 2014 Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sam Smith, “How Will I Know”

Getting the purely musical commentary out of the way first: this is a good cover, even beautiful in parts — his navigation of those tender little descending chorus in the pre-chorus @ 2:30ish is sublime — but probably not worthy of the insane hubbub that it’s generated over the last few days. (It cracked Facebook’s inane “trending topics” section for me, which has to mean something.) There’s an instant familiarity at work because the chords that open the song up sound almost exactly like the ones that crack open “Stay With Me,” the song that’s truly broken Smith here in North America. He’s graceful and mealy-mouthed as ever; when I watch him sing I can just imagine notes rising out of his stomach, bubbling up through his throat and fluttering out of the corner of his mouth. But ultimately I resent this take on this song for robbing the original of its joy. Whitney chose to revel in the uncertainty, thumbed her nose at it, chose hope and sought counsel. Smith is never farther than an inch away from utter heartbreak. I get it, I really do, because I was there once too, but as a listener it’s frustrating. You want him to let the light in, if only for a minute or two. 

(An aside, about his physical presence: when the camera takes a moment to capture the whole room you see Smith standing incredibly still, those notes pouring out. He looks statuesque in the most basic sense of the word. A result of his intense and well-documented training, an expression of his extreme control, I don’t know, I find it fascinating. There is so little movement.) 

I’m really torn up about the pronouns thing, I’ll be honest. Smith is resolute in choosing “you” over “he” and “him” when he’s singing about love, which is always, and it’s a choice that says so much about him as a person and a performer: ambitious, unabashedly seeking commercial success, “intensely private,” whatever. I respect him for it, because he’s absolutely right when he says that a straight performer wouldn’t get hounded about the subjects of their songs like this, and I think it’s admirable that he’s trying to write and sing love songs that possess both power and universality. And this sort of anguished hand-wringing over the absence of a simple “he” is probably something he’s been dreading long before coming out to the Fader! But I think his decision is impractical, and working against the widespread appeal he’s fighting so hard to cultivate.

Sam Smith’s biggest problem right now is that he occasionally seems like a machine custom-built to conquer the pop charts: golden voice, classic style, relatively versatile with respect to genre, polished to a fault. In this context, something as simple as neutralizing the pronouns on a Whitney Houston cover can seem like oppressive quality control from an automaton and his team. The whole thing reminds me of the old Michael Jordan adage about sponsorship and politics: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Straight people buy records, too. But is a man singing about his love and lust for another man really going to make them stop? In trying to render his music applicable to any relationship, regardless of sexual orientation, Smith is draining it of the heart and character that rings through many great love songs. (Even the rare Smith songs that doesn’t grapple directly with love are possessed of an ineffable queerness: look at the smash “La La La,” a thinly veiled indictment of hate speech if I’ve ever heard one.)

Smith’s straightwashing stings a bit more for me because I’m intimately familiar with the romantic struggle documented throughout In the Lonely Hour. Smith has talked about the unrequited love that inspired much of the album, but that’s not all I hear: it’s also an unyielding document of a young gay romantic running headfirst into the unfamiliar paradigms that govern sex and dating for gay men. “Stay With Me” is more than just a needy chronicle of an one-night stand that didn’t pan out: it’s the sound of someone who was trained from birth to view monogamous heterosexual relationships as an ideal, violently crashing into something a little more blurred and learning to deal with it. It’s a journey that’s capped off by bonus track “Restart,” where Smith finally figures out how to quickly step in and out of failed flings and broken promises; he finally finds the “restart” button, and it’s one of the best tracks on the album, frothy pop-soul that feels practically weightless compared to the goopy balladry of the album proper. 

I embarked on that same journey, with most of it taking place over the last two or three years; much of it has been chronicled on this Tumblr, in sometimes raw and embarrassing fashion, and more of it has been deleted at 2:00 a.m. or later after getting 1 note’s worth of comfort. That’s why it’s frustrating for me to watch Smith scrub himself clean, diluting his experience and his message and his music: I’ve been there, and I know the feeling, and I’m really rooting for him. His choice could be the difference between creating art that’s successful and art that’s truly resonant.

Saturday, June 21, 2014
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I wrote a piece for TIME about Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith; here’s a picture of said piece, taken within the comfy confines of the Toronto bus terminal. I like being in print!

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I wrote a piece for TIME about Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith; here’s a picture of said piece, taken within the comfy confines of the Toronto bus terminal. I like being in print!

Monday, June 16, 2014

A few quick bits from last week:

  • I wrote two reviews for Pitchfork, covering Shamir’s debut EP Northtown (idiosyncratic, battered house) and Tomas Barfod’s new full-length Love Me (polite, rhythmically driven Danish synth-pop).
  • I also have a new piece in last Friday’s issue of TIME, on rising Brits Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith. You can read the first paragraph or so here, though the remainder is behind a paywall for subscribers — hope you’ll consider picking up the magazine and giving it a read! (I’ll have a copy sometime next week.) 
  • I had my convocation this weekend, meaning I’m officially a Real Adult, or something like that. A picture of my diploma is below. It’s scary, trying to define yourself without being able to use the word “student”; it’s been a nice crutch for the last five years. There’s a solid Tumblr post in me somewhere about the way things have changed even in the six weeks between finishing exams and getting my degree, how a half-decade’s worth of maturation and slow growth just clicked into place. It feels like levelling up. But anyway! I somehow have a degree in chemical engineering and management science that I’ll almost surely never use in any traditional sense, and it feels great, and I can’t believe it’s over.

Hope you’re all well, and thank you for reading. 

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Colbie Caillat, “Fallin’ for You” 

This is one of my favourite songs ever. It comes into my life every year or two, like a comet: I’ll hear a verse or even just the guitar melody, shopping in a drug store or walking through a mall or beside someone’s open car window, and then I’m obsessed with it for a week before putting it in my back pocket until next year. I never have any trouble finding something new to love about this song. There’s the sound: the guitars cast in that late summer afternoon light, Caillat’s broad, warm voice, a melody that’s somehow always falling the way you do when you’re just on the edge of falling asleep. There are the words: this is a very simple song, but one that grasps on a basic level that love is defined by fear. Right now I just keep thinking about how approachable this song is, how easy it is to pretend it just came into your life organically, a pure thought you had or a string of notes rattling around your brain. Caillat is not an especially distinctive or powerful singer, but that works in her favour here. In the hands of Whitney Houston or Sam Smith, love songs are feats of strength: they give voice to feelings in a way almost all of us could never accomplish, blowing them up to their greatest possible size. “Fallin’ for You” is not like that. He could be singing it to you as you wake up in the morning, legs folded and clad in old boxers, brushing your hair and grinning. She could be on the other side of the campfire running through the chords, hair smelling like smoke. You could catch him half-humming the melody in the shower when you’ve never heard him sing before. It’s not hard to fold this song into your plain little life, and I love it for that. 

(I’ve included a Walmart Soundcheck (!) live performance because the official video isn’t available on YouTube, and I feel like that somehow says more than I ever could.)

Friday, June 6, 2014 Tuesday, June 3, 2014 Monday, June 2, 2014 Saturday, May 31, 2014 Thursday, May 29, 2014

Mariah Carey, “Shake It Off”

I’ve been spending much of my free time listening to Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse, Mariah Carey’s new record. I like it because it sounds like the product of someone who’s very comfortable with their identity and incredibly self-aware: warm, worn in, frequently funny, relaxed, every song a subtle variation or a slight rearranging of some very enjoyable basic elements. I think about the people I know who have one finely honed skill, runners and swimmers and artists (including writers), who all have the ability to make small changes to their technique or approach and assess the impact of those changes in real-time. Mariah is like that, albeit operating on a much larger scale than those weekend warriors or keyboard jockeys, and when she takes tiny steps left and right on The Elusive Chanteuse (my chosen truncation) you can almost hear her in the studio, headphones half off, remarking on a infinitesimal adjustment or a beat or genre excursion. Her mastery of her craft is remarkable. 

Anyway, this post is not about The Elusive Chanteuse, not really — I wanted to share a funny mondegreen — at least I think this could be considered a mondegreen? I might be using the term wrong, maybe this should just be considered a standard error, feel free to correct me — I uncovered the other day. Vulture recently published a ranking of Mariah’s 25 best singles, which included “Shake It Off” at #17. Lindsey Weber writes: 

As far as Mariah’s diss tracks go, “Shake It Off” is perhaps her finest. Sure, it’s arguably jacking Usher’s Confessions style, but would Usher lyrically reference a 1980s Calgon ad? Nope.

That linked Calgon ad is tied to a line in the chorus where Mariah sings, “Just like the Calgon commercial, I / really gotta get / up outta here / and go somewhere.” I found myself shocked by this, because I had no idea she was singing “Calgon”; I thought she was singing “Cal Klein,” as in the fashion designer.

I’ve probably heard this song several dozen times, and I never thought to interrogate exactly what she was saying in that line. It wasn’t until I learned that I was wrong that I began to think about why “Cal Klein” made sense: something about Mariah being one of the quintessential American divas, and Calvin Klein occupying a similar space in American fashion, and the way their periods of cultural prominence mostly aligned. It made sense to me that Mariah would just drop a Calvin Klein reference into one of her songs; hell, she probably knows Calvin Klein, thus the use of the short form “Cal.” And hey, Mariah’s a bit older than I am, there was probably some Calvin Klein ad that features Marky Mark gallivanting on a beach as a means of escaping the drudgery of his day-to-day routine playing on repeat during the early ’90s. Just like the Cal Klein commercial! But I was very wrong, and I’ve been laughing about the truth for a few days now. I’m glad it hasn’t ruined a very good Mariah song for me.