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  • Elisabeth de Mariaffi argues that Gord Downie's spirit is tied deeply to exotic rural Ontario.

  • MacLean's looks at Gord Downie's deep connections to a Kingston personally familiar to me.

  • Patrick Finn writes about Gord Downie's contributions to an ever-evolving Canadian culture.

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I am curious, and needing new things to listen to.

Ruts are boring: Help me escape!
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The HMV at Yonge and Dundas, has seen better days. Evan Davies' oral history, published in The Grid in August of last year, gives an idea as to how exciting a store it was at its prime--well-stocked, well-organized--before a combination of ill-judged corporate policies and the growth of downloads of all legalities gutted it. The last time I visited the store it was a bit depressing, full of T-shirts and merchandise being sold at discount prices. The HMV is smaller, too: it used to occupy this entire building, which had the addresses of 333 Yonge Street (to left) and 329 Yonge Street (to right), but 329 Yonge Street was abandoned in a consolidation and is now going to house veteran Toronto comic shop the Silver Snail.

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I wrote about Shakespears Sister, "a British based BRIT Award and Ivor Novello Award-winning synth-pop-rock band", and the duo's signature 1992 hit "Stay", back in 2005. I noted then that the song was a fairly inventive love song, a dialogue between characters played by high-pitched ex-Bananarama singer Siobhan Fahey and the throatier soprano of Marcella Detroit fighting over a man, Fahey's love, who was slipping away.

Sharing the inventive Sophie Muller-directed video is necessary.

Says Wikipedia, "[t]he video starts with a view of a calm night sky. A shooting star passes over a full moon and the song begins. The camera pans back into a large dark room. [Fahey]playing the lover is seen caretaking her man - played by Dave Evans - who is comatose and near death. Detroit sings her verse of the song. At the climax of the song, Fahey, playing a vampish angel of death, appears at the top of a staircase, wearing a sparkling catsuit. She sings her verse of the song and dances around in front a bright light. Detroit tries her best to get the man to wake up, while Death slowly makes her way down the stairs to claim the man's soul. The two women begin fighting over the man, making it literally and figuratively a fight between life (Detroit) and death (Fahey). During their struggle, the man suddenly wakes up. Detroit embraces him. Death - disgusted by this - having failed to do seduce him into her realm, walks back up the staircase to the light, presumably being the stairway to Heaven."

"Stay" is a love song, a well-composed and lyrically inventive song--co-written by Fahey's then-husband, ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart--that's a pleasure to listen to.

It's also a very complex song, with multiple meanings. One thing that I realized about the song last week, though, is that "Stay" is also a song about suicide. Its album Hormonally Yours does explore the theme of suicide, perhaps most clearly with the song "The Trouble With André".

Inside the dresser by the table
Something he keeps beside the bed
Living with Andre can't be easy
Some things are better left unsaid

He remembers a time before
The waters got so deep
When he found it easier to sleep

Compare the opening lines of "Stay".

If this world is wearing thin
And you're thinking of escape
I'll go anywhere with you
Just wrap me up in chains
But if you try to go alone
Don't think I'll understand

And the song's video, crucially, features a man who is on the verge of death, who is caught between life and love and the seductions of death.

I love the lyrical density of "Stay". Shakespears Sister was an inventive duo, Fahey and Detroit recording two brilliant albums together before their split. The world of popular music is all the worse for the duo's fracture.
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Rihanna's 2007 "Umbrella" was a huge song at the time, and by now has entered the popular music vernacular as a standard. In case you forget, listen to/watch the striking official video here, and/or the fan video with the music, at least, below.

The genius of the song--the thing that made "ella ella ella ella" echo around the world from a million speakers and earplugs and karaoke bars--is the potential of the song for ambiguity, especially in the original version. Take the first verse sung by Rihanna.

When the sun shines, we'll shine together
Told you I'll be here forever
Said I'll always be a friend
Took an oath I'ma stick it out till the end
Now that it's raining more than ever
Know that we'll still have each other
You can stand under my umbrella
You can stand under my umbrella

In her live performances, and in most of the covers I've seen, the first verse--and the following--are delivered comfortably, safely, assuredly, confirmingly. The below clip, from a 2007 performance of the song in Manchester, shows the sort of thing I'm talking about.

I've only noticed in the past months that in the original version of the song, the one that got radio and iTunes release and was the source material for remixes like this one, Rihanna's delivery is more complex; I can hear the extent to which the song isn't just a reassurance, but as an attempt to reconfirm the integrity of the relationship with the object of the song, an attempt that won't necessarily succeed. This melancholy, as much as the optimism, is something that I think is responsible for the song's massive popularity. People like complexity in their hits.
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I thought of Donna Summers' 1979 "Bad Girls" a couple of Saturdays ago, when, walking west to the College subway station at about midnight, I ended up walking past some female sex workers standing on the southeastern corner of Church and Carlton.

Church and Carlton is located just to the south of Church and Wellesley, east of Yonge Street, and shares in the poverty and relative deprivation common to much of downtown Toronto east of Yonge Street. The intersection isn't far at all, actually, from Dundas and Sherbourne, the intersection that anchors the pleasantly-named neighbourhoods of Garden District and Moss Park and that is well-known as Toronto's most violent neighbourhood, "ground-zero in Toronto's drug scene" and (perhaps not coincidentally) a major centre of Toronto's street prostitution. Even though it isn't any more than ten or fifteen minutes' walk from the glittering towers of the downtown where the G20 will be meeting, with presuambly inexpensive land prices and an excellent location, the neighbourhood hasn't been partially gentrified on the model of Cabbagetown. Stay away, the apartment listings explicitly warn.

"Bad Girls" is a humane song, one fitting squarely into the idealized disco tradition of reaching out to the marginalized, recognizing their humanity, and making something lucratively danceable about it all. The women who walk the streets in her song--not only women, not in reality and probably not on that particualr streetcorner at that particular time--are people, less lucky than most but people worthy of respect nonetheless.

See them out on the street at night, walkin'
picking up on all kinds of strangers
if the price is right you can score
if you're pocket's nice
but you want a good time
you ask yourself, who they are?
like everybody else, they come from near and far

[. . .]

Now you and me, we are both the same
but you call yourself by different names
now you mama won't like it when she finds out
her girl is out at night

(And for the record, when I accidentally sent my mother and sister to stay in a bed and breakfast at Dundas and Sherbourne back in 2005--hey, it was very close to the downtown and the prices were great!--they didn't like the neighbourhood but didn't feel threatened by the sex workers that they passed on the street to and fro. Neither did I.)

My [MUSIC] posts tend to be about how I relate music to myself, how it illuminates area of my own life, even influencing my development over time. What got me to write this [MUSIC] post is how, in that free-associating moment, I realized that I might connect music closely to my own life, I might connect it to trends in the culture at large, but I do not connect it nearly enough to others' lives. It is a failing of empathy on my part, likely the product of the way I acquired my own tastes in music: quietly, without much attention for what else was going on or what other people liked, laden with so much personal meaning that it never quite got through that music could have the same strong meanings for others that it did for me, representing their life or communicating hopes or something similarly auto/biographical. "I have issues--he has issues--we have issues together."
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From Wikipedia:

A Place to Stand, A Place to Grow (Ontari-ari-ari-o!) is the unofficial anthem of the Canadian province of Ontario. The song was written as the signature tune for a movie of the same name that was featured at the Expo 67 Ontario pavilion.

The song was written by Dolores Claman, who also wrote the Hockey Night in Canada theme, with lyrics by Richard Morris. Lyrics for a French version were written by Larry Trudel.

It was commissioned by the Progressive Conservative government of John Robarts for the Ontario pavilion at Expo 67, the World's Fair held in Montreal, Quebec in Canada's Centennial year of 1967, and was used again in the following decades.

The song was featured at the Province of Ontario's exhibit in the short film A Place to Stand, which won the 1967 Academy Award for Live Action Short Film.

Leslie Scriverner has an article in The Toronto Star, "Forty years on, a song retains its standing", that goes into more detail about the geneses of this song and its technologically innovative film.

The song was commissioned by the Ontario government to accompany the short documentary film of the same name that was screened at the Ontario Pavilion at Expo. That film was a marvel for its multiple, moving, split-screen images, a technique that had not been used before and astounded all who saw it.

The song sold 50,000 copies. The film, which later toured movie theatres in the United States and Europe, would be seen by 100 million people, be nominated for two Academy Awards, and win an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Subject.

The filmmaker, Christopher Chapman, 80, who lives near Uxbridge, Ont., keeps the statuette as a doorstop. Noticing that the gold had faded, friends recently had it re-plated.

"I hope no one takes offence," he says. "I was honoured to win it."
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The terrifying and eerie pathos of GLAdOS' song "Still Alive," authored by Jonathan Coulton, makes that song a brilliant achievement.

Kudos to Ellen McLain.
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Thanks to P. from Facebook for reminding me Pop Will Eat Itself and that group's very catchy 1989 single "Wise Up! Sucker".

Pop Will Eat Itself always reminded me of the KLF, perhaps because it shares in the KLF's grandly-conceived and -produced semantic emptiness (1, 2). Still, what fine songs they both have.
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I've just read Australian writer Margo Lanagan's "Singing My Sister Down", from the collection Black Juice, and the tears are still in my eyes. My God but that Lanagan can write.
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I'm disappointed in Garbage. 1998's Version 2.0 was fun, with songs like "Special" and "Trick Is to Keep Breathing." Both 2001's Beautifulgarbage and this year'sBleed Like Me left me cold, unmoved by their too-perfect electronica-enhanced alternative rock spectacle.

I do still like Garbage. Even on their later albums, they have some authentically moving songs. Version 2.0, though showing signs of the fatigue that would overtake them later, is still fun seven years later. Their self-titled debut of 1995 remains a brilliant production. "Only Happy When It Rains"? It, too, is a classic.

I'm only happy when it rains
I'm only happy when it's complicated
And though I know you can't appreciate it
I'm only happy when it rains

You know I love it when the news is bad
And why it feels so good to feel so sad
I'm only happy when it rains

Pour your misery down, pour your misery down on me
Pour your misery down, pour your misery down on me

Garbage was assembled in the aftermath of the grunge/alternative explosion of the early 1990s, just one year after Kurt Cobain's suicide. Producer Butch Vig joined together with fellow producers Steve Marker and Duke Erikson to form a band. Looking for a singer, they saw--played for the first time on MTV--the video for Angelfish's "Suffocate Me" and were caught by the lead singer, Shirley Manson. They contacted her, brought her over to their studio and Minneapolis, and began recording.

The band produced a massive hit album and multiple hit singles. "Stupid Girl" was apparently the biggest single off of Garbage, and I do like it, right down to the catchy if depressing chorus ("You stupid girl/You stupid girl/All you had you wasted/All you had you wasted"). "Only Happy When It Rains," though, is distinctive. I remember catching the video for "Only Happy When It Rains" on Muchmusic, seeing Shirley Manson vamping in a decrepit warehouse/art installation as her bandmates smashed instruments, segueing before it cut to her trying to hide from a circle of children dressed, crouching and hiding as the almost-tactile guitars wound the song down. The visuals were spectacular; the song, thankfully, was up to the video's standards.

I'm only happy when it rains
I feel good when things are going wrong
I only listen to the sad, sad songs
I'm only happy when it rains

I only smile in the dark
My only comfort is the night gone black
I didn't accidentally tell you that
I'm only happy when it rains

You'll get the message by the time I'm through
When I complain about me and you
I'm only happy when it rains

I've skimmed bits of Break, Blow, Burn already. I'd heard about her chapter on Sylvia Plath's incendiary "Daddy", and I wasn't disappointed. Paglia starts her analysis by calling the poem "garish, sarcastic, and profane," marrying the "personal to the political against the violent backdrop of modern history," a "rollicking nursery rhyme recast as a horror movie" (167). She ends her analysis by suggesting that Plath's peers lie not in the realm of modern poetry but rather in the realm of popular music, with Plath as the "first female rocker" with her "sneering sardonicism and piercing propulsiveness" (176).

Would I claim Shirley Manson as one of Plath's successors? Why not? Apart from the coincidence noted by The Independent that many of Manson's early songs, including "Only Happy When It Rains," were inspired by her own struggle with depression, and noting that in the song's performance Shirley Manson sets into her lyrics just two or three seconds after the song begins, her lyrics are poetic in their wordplay, exaggerating as they do the gloom commonly held to be an integral part of the alternative music scene. It's impossible to avoid the contradictions involved in "I'm only happy when it rains/I'm only happy when it's complicated/And though I know you can't appreciate it/I'm only happy when it rains." Too, the passive-aggressiveness of "I didn't accidentally tell you that/I'm only happy when it rains"--Manson's insistence that she wants the listener to know this, that she isn't telling just anyone--is delivered in the form of a confidence to someone who's concerned and, perhaps, is now too deeply implicated to save himself.

Pour your misery down (Pour your misery down) x 8

You can keep me company
As long as you don't care

I'm only happy when it rains
You wanna hear about my new obsession?
I'm riding high upon a deep depression
I'm only happy when it rains (Pour some misery down on me)

I'm only happy when it rains (Pour some misery down on me) x 4

The lyrics of "Only Happy When It Rains" aren't as conscious as the Plath's "Daddy." They don't offer up any kind of solution to the crisis, and while there's a suggestion that the singer is seeking out causes for depression ("Pour some misery down on me") her motives aren't expounded upon. There is, in Manson's lyrics, only the certainty that she'll continue to despair and that the listener won't be able to avoid hearing all about her "new obsession." But then, it's a four-minute pop song: It doesn't have to do that. It just has to exist and please the listener with its hummable melodies and enjoyably complex lyrics. And it does.
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