July 14, 2003

Sorry-- More on Songs

There have been some great observations about marketing, gimmickry, artwork, "value-added" material, recording budgets, the value of songs, etc., etc. from Layne and Ben along with many of the usual crew of commenters in the comments to the post below.

The question I asked in my own comment was why there seems to be a feeling "out there" that songs qua songs are overvalued. That is, not only that technology and market circumstances have made songs (and recordings of them) less valuable, but also that this is a good thing, that songs ought to be less important, less of a focal point in the general flow of music-related data and product.

As a songwriter, I feel this is quite wrong-headed, but then I would, wouldn't I? Maybe I'm wrong, but I detect a certain amount of relish and glee on the part of some participants in these discussions at the prospect that artists, finding it less "do-able" to make songs and recordings a viable focus of their work, will have to concentrate instead on pushing other merchandise like hats. Bands shouldn't be so hung up on the songs, and focus on the T-Shirts instead, the thinking runs. You really do hear this quite a lot.

Ben says that, for many of these people, "a song is not much different from a can of Pepsi." I have no doubt that he's right. As a song-focused kind of music fan, I, like Ben, have been amazed at how little attention is paid to songs qua songs as a rule in the circles in which I move, physically or cyber-ly. People really don't seem to see songs themselves as a very important part of music. Which I find weird. What, then, do they like about music?

Speaking of which, things got a little sidetracked with my pre-releasing lyrics experiment. Only Bill commented on "She Runs Out when the Money Does." (At the bottom of this post.) Did anyone else have any thoughts, e.g. "it sucks" or "it rules" or even something a bit more detailed?

Posted by Dr. Frank at July 14, 2003 05:50 PM | TrackBack

As a consumer of music I have a lot of respect for Fugazi. Not only because they make great music but also because they don't sell merch. No shirts, stickers, etc. just CDs. Somehow they manage to get by financially and keep their CD's and ticket prices quite inexpensive. It's pretty admirable.

Posted by: Lynn at July 14, 2003 06:01 PM

I think that one reason songs are less important to people - and I agree that this is a rampant truth - is because production and stylish musical trappings are often used to hide a poor song or a bad performance. How can people be expected to care about a song when they have to squint with their ears to know that one exists underneath all the bells and whistles, samples etc? So many of the cool, exciting digital recording developments of the last 10 years or so are great at making something shitty sound sweet.

Posted by: Christopher at July 14, 2003 06:53 PM

It's quite difficult to comment on a 'song' when all you have are the lyrics. As an aside, the lyrics made me more interested in the recording, which is another point to the exercise.
So while I can't comment on it as a song, I'll say that the lyrics are quite effective. The iambic meter is strong and they scan really well. (Given that, why not make the line 'And coincidentally' 'And not coincidentally' - I think it preserves the meter quite well, takes it to eight syllables to match the foot of the first verse. Yes, this is splitting hairs, but you asked). It has the playful, witty style of many of your MTX songs, so that's a plus in my book.

Fugazi didn't sell merch? Damn, who the hell made the money on all them Fugazi t-shirts? They're everywhere. Kind of like Fugazi stickers in that regard. Is this something they actively tried to suppress, or did they just not sell merch at shows?

Posted by: Marc W at July 14, 2003 06:59 PM

Fugazi does not produce any type of merch. I know that stuff exists but it is not produced by the band and they do not profit from it in any way. Hell, they don't even sell CD's at their shows when they play in Canada.

Posted by: Lynn at July 14, 2003 07:06 PM

I agree with Dr. Frank. It's an unfortunate byproduct of file sharing that songs are viewed as commodities. I've always been a big fan of the well-crafted (as opposed to prefabricated) pop song, and I think some people don't realize how difficult one of those is to pull off. Not everyone is capable of pulling off a three to four minute masterpiece like Elvis Costello or Brian Wilson in his prime.

A bit tangential, but it seems to me the album is also a victim of this type of thinking. I've always been someone who thinks sequencing is important to put songs into their context within an album. I guess I see a good album as more than just a bunch of songs, but appreciate the way they are put together conceptually. These days, people download individual songs and burn them to CDs and may not ever hear the album in its entirety.

Though I agree with Dr. Frank that the devaluing of the song is not a good thing, I think it's possible that the RIAA has had as much to do with perpetuating this idea as has the song stealing public. (Sorry, didn't set out to reopen this debate.)

Posted by: Greg at July 14, 2003 07:36 PM

I don't think that this is an issue that is specific to music, and I am guessing you would agree that this applies to any art form. The question of the value of a creative piece (song, painting, photograph, novel, film) is really abstract. Is it worth the cost to produce a piece? Or, is it what people are willing to pay? Or, is there some other intangible value?

To me, the single most important part of music is the song. (I never thought I would say something I thought to be so blaringly obvious) That isn't to say concept music pieces can't also include other mediums. I think Bowie's whole Ziggy Stardust bit proved it can be great to incorporate other things to augment the music, but the fact of the matter is the Ziggy Stardust album stands alone as a great piece without which all the other things he did with it would have seemed flat.

If people just want cool t-shirts and posters, they should just go be graphic artist groupies, and leave the musicians out of it.

The idea that because technology has made music easy to create and causes a devaluation of music is just silly. It isn't like we have some flood of great music with the flood of technology.

I think what technology has done it given artists more control over the quality of the music, and in many cases given people with less money an inexpensive way to start making music. That doesn’t effect the value of music, just the process of creation.

Posted by: che at July 14, 2003 07:38 PM

I liked the line "Yesterday rules".

Posted by: Ron at July 14, 2003 07:39 PM

Maybe I'm stating the obvious but it has always seemed to me that the people who want songs to be free and hats/pogs/lunchboxes/action figures to pay the rockstars' rent, hold this view because (drumroll) 1. they want to get the music free and meanwhile 2. they reckon they can survive without buying the hats/pogs/lunchboxes/action figures unlike those other dumb-ass rock kids who slurp that s**t up. Can't someone else pay for the music I wanna enjoy free? Like those dumb-ass kids out there? Yeah, them. Take *their* money, not mine. Then everybody's happy.

It would be dishonorable of me to insist that *everyone* who holds this view, does so for such self-serving reasons however. There are honest and sincere arguments for the view, and I presume that the "Steve" of the preceding post/comments is basing his arguments on them. In particular, a valid argument could perhaps be to say that "while I don't necessarily *like* the idea that the value of The Song is declining, it's something that (because of technology or whatever) is *inevitable* and the market should adjust to this *reality*". I say this *could* be a valid argument because honestly I have no idea whether it is, whether it is so "inevitable". Arguments from "inevitability" do tend to make me suspicious.

In any event, whether "inevitable" or not, I do share Dr. Frank's dismay at the idea that The Song will no longer be the thing, as well as a certain fondness for The Album. In my view mp3s (and CDs before that) have already screwed up The Album quite a bit. It would be a shame to screw it up even more by completely disemboweling it and turning it into a sequence of throwaway T-Shirt Commercials. (Well, unless we're talking about an album of different cover versions of the MTX song by that name... ;-)

Posted by: Name: at July 14, 2003 07:40 PM

Yes, my argument is the inevitability argument. My assumption - one which is not universally shared, of course - is that the CD-selling business is not economically viable going forward. Based on everything I'm reading here, whether that makes you happy or sad is mostly a matter of taste. Phish makes millions without selling many CDs, but some of you don't like Phish. Fair enough. Other people DO like Phish. In the great business model debate, I think it's fair to counter the argument "but Phish sucks" by saying that Britney Spears sucks, too, and she's the queen of the heavily-produced CD business.

I never suggested musicians should sell hats and T-shirts because songs are unimportant - I suggested musicians should sell hats and T-shirts to make money. For that matter, I'm not the one suggesting songs are written primarily for the purpose of making money.

I especially do not understand why it is necessary for some to denigrate live performaces, as if good stage shows are somehow threatening or less "worthy" than studio albums.

Here's the essence of the strange tension I perceive in this discussion: there seems to be a sense that people should appreciate studio albums for their own sake - for the art, not the T-shirts - and ALSO that people should be able to make money off their studio albums. But one does not necessarily flow from the other.

Modern orchestral composers - including some who will be studied hundreds of years from now - have a hard time getting anybody to play their works at all, never mind getting rich. It is almost axiomatic, from Beethoven to Stravinsky to the present, that the MOST important and groundbreaking music is not commercially viable at the time it is written.

I'm all for the record album as an art form - but this discussion is about cold hard cash.

Two closing notes:

1) I ordered Dr. Frank's CD yesterday - figured it was the least I could do! ;-)

2) I have an old Fugazi T-shirt - never knew it was pirated.

Posted by: Steve at July 14, 2003 08:38 PM

That is weird. How do you hum a T-shirt? I've been carrying "Democracy, Whiskey, Sexy" in my head since I first heard it. Reading the lyrics to "She Runs Out" just makes me want to hear that one, too.

Posted by: Janis Gore at July 14, 2003 08:38 PM

Upon rereading Dr. Frank's post, it occurs to me that a shift in business to live performances (forget the T-shirts for a moment) is directly in line with his view that the song should be "the thing." Gigs are a lot more than hair and dance and baggy shorts. Gigs are nailing licks with no overdubs, the vibe of the room, keeping it tight, pulling it off in real time. Gigs will be increasingly valuable in the future, I think, precisely because the experience cannot be transmitted over the internet, and unless you're Milli Vanilli, an awesome gig cannot be faked with technological trickery.

At any rate - as someone who spends an inordinate amount of time and money attending live shows, I find it strange to be lumped together with people who supposedly don't care about music, or think songs are Pepsi cans, or whatever.

Posted by: Steve at July 14, 2003 08:52 PM

Good response Steve.

"My assumption - one which is not universally shared, of course - is that the CD-selling business is not economically viable going forward."

I think one thing that bothers me is that when people make this assumption, and then come to their conclusions, they all involve doing things which will arguably actively help *cause* the demise of the "CD-selling business". Is it possible you're creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for some reason?

"For that matter, I'm not the one suggesting songs are written primarily for the purpose of making money."

I don't believe anyone here is suggesting that.

"Phish makes millions without selling many CDs, but some of you don't like Phish. Fair enough. Other people DO like Phish."

It is fair to wonder whether Phish would have garnered whatever popularity and concert success it currently has without selling (at least *some*) CDs. I don't know the answer to that though, not being all that familiar with the genesis of Phish.

"Here's the essence of the strange tension I perceive in this discussion: there seems to be a sense that people should appreciate studio albums for their own sake - for the art, not the T-shirts - and ALSO that people should be able to make money off their studio albums. But one does not necessarily flow from the other."

Actually, I think it does. When you appreciate something, you want it to continue to be created to that it can exist. If I want albums to continue to be created, I can see that there probably oughta be an economic incentive for people to create 'em. I think it's nice to hope that musicians would still create Albums for the love, for the fun of it, and because it would help turn them into T-shirt-selling machines. My question though is: what would become of The Album in the process? What would Albums *look like* or *be like* if they no longer mattered, as Albums, per se?

Posted by: Name: at July 14, 2003 08:52 PM

My 2 cents on the lyrics thing: I don't want to read song lyrics without hearing the song. That's a "poem", and my personal (not completely tongue-in-cheek) opinion is that "poetry" is a historical perversion. Songs, disembodied from their melodies due to poor oral transmission? Who needs 'em?

I'll be able to evaluate the lyrics only when I hear the song (lyrics + music) in its complete form. How's that for completely unhelpful ;-)

Posted by: Name: at July 14, 2003 08:56 PM

Name - good points all. I think technology has always played a huge role in the form that music takes. There was no such concept as an "album" before there were wax discs that played music on turntables. Forgive me if I get this wrong, but as I understand it, the "album" concept didn't evolve into its present form until the latter half of the 20th century.

You used to have to flip records over, so you had Side 1 and Side 2. Singles had A Sides and B sides. This format was essentially carried over into the analog tape technology.

Along come CDs, and suddenly albums don't have two sides anymore. Now, albums are 74 minutes long because that's the capacity of a CD. So you see 20-song instead of 12-song albums.

I honestly do not know what albums will look like in the future, but I think they're certain to change along with the technology even if the market for recorded music continues to be strong. Maybe some band will release a 500-song album on DVD...

Posted by: Steve at July 14, 2003 09:00 PM

Them's perfectly good lyrical words, Frank! (As is my bad habit when reading melody-less lyrics, I immediately picked up a guitar and put the words to inappropriate music -- a Buck Owens-style honky tonk rocker, in this case. Try it; it works great!)

On the whole copyright/songs thing, I just read this pretty interesting thing in the NYT about the alleged scandal involving Bob Dylan's last record and an English translation of an oral history of Japanese gangsters. In part, it says people are increasingly confused about pop/folk culture, which by nature borrows & steals & remakes whatever is out there. (I laughed at the WSJ story last week. Bob Dylan picking up phrases from books? Noooooo!) Here's the NYT piece by Jon Pareles: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/12/arts/music/12DYLA.html and the WSJ story: http://online.wsj.com/article_email/0,,SB10576176194220600,00.html

Posted by: Ken Layne at July 14, 2003 09:29 PM

My question though is: what would become of The Album in the process? What would Albums *look like* or *be like* if they no longer mattered, as Albums, per se?

That's what I was trying to get at. It's of some concern to me that albums are being sacrificed for downloads. Would Sgt. Pepper's have ever been possible in today's medium? (Or Pleased to Meet Me for that matter.) Sure, the songs are great, but the album collectively is better than the sum of its parts. (That's why I'll never buy any of the many repacked and reissued Beatles Greatest Hits collections.)

On a related note, I was visiting my folks recently and--as I'm wont to do--I dug through their storage looking at the interesting things they had tucked away. I found some old Doris Day, Kingston Trio, and Nat King Cole records. They were made of thick, heavy vinyl, and made me happy just to look at and hold. My daughter (six years old, but plenty bright for her age) asked what they were. I told her they were records. She just looked at me blankly as if I had said "pantaloons" or something.

So, in the end, maybe I'm just a sentimentalist.

Posted by: Greg at July 14, 2003 09:52 PM

Hi, I just wanted to say that Fugazi does not make any merch. at all. Hot topic must bootleg those patches. They also do not play any shows that require an ID(18+shows, you know)and they will not play any show that cost more than $5. I love those guys. Dr. Frank, I love you too.

Posted by: Patrick at July 14, 2003 10:40 PM

All the Fugazi/merch talk reminds me of the story of the guy whose car bumper bore two and only two stickers: "Keep Your Politics Out Of My Music," and "Fugazi."


Posted by: geoff at July 14, 2003 10:44 PM

I'm a proponent of supporting bands by going to live shows, but I don't know how viable making live music the main bread-and-butter for artists is for the consumer. There are bands who tour 9 months out of the year and are making very little in touring alone. Touring, like recording, does cost money. So considering that these bands who tour for the better part of a year on a regular basis can hardly play out more without killing themselves, ticket prices would have to skyrocket. You have to respect a band like Fugazi, but thousands of Fugazis could not support the industry if it were economically centered on live shows - it would be thousands (more) of Britneys. Likewise, a thousand "Phishes" couldn't sustain it, because their success relies on a large number of people who will go anywhere to see them play - not average fans. The avaerage fan has to be worked in there. Are they going to be willing to see a band play in a club for $75 instead of $15 or $20 in exchange for getting the recordings for free? As has been said before, the money has to come from somewhere.

Posted by: Holly at July 14, 2003 11:44 PM

Okay, I think I need some background. What do you mean (Frank, Greg, Ben) when you say that songs are slighted by consumers? "there seems to be a feeling "out there" that songs qua songs are overvalued."
That may be, though I don't know to what degree that sentiment is as much a philosophical position; it seems more like a justification.
But what I really don't understand is this: "Ben says that, for many of these people, "a song is not much different from a can of Pepsi." I have no doubt that he's right. As a song-focused kind of music fan, I, like Ben, have been amazed at how little attention is paid to songs qua songs as a rule in the circles in which I move, physically or cyber-ly. People really don't seem to see songs themselves as a very important part of music."
Frank, I'll rely on you here: were the 70s typified by intelligent discourse on song architecture, persona issues and meter? How much of this was chemically induced? I think Ben's right, but I think that characterization would work in any time. What should people *do* with songs? Many people just consume them, like Pepsi, because that's all they require from them - they don't demand much from music. And hey, that's great. You get out of it what you put into it, and if you're happy with what you're getting, cool. But is this new?
Fewer people these days have any sort of musical education, so fewer people have the tools to evaluate songs in a 'traditional' way (like me; musically illiterate, but I still love music). On the other hand, the availability of music or music information on places from interpunk to amazon.com means that 15 year old kids have a grasp on the influences on and from say, Operation Ivy. It goes both ways.
I think people care deeply about songs, but that the process is almost spiritual in nature; it's not something people can or care to rationalize.

As for albums dying, I'll believe it when I see it. Frank, you've probably seen this: in England, CD singles are commonplace. I hardly ever see them here. You'd think this would be a trend filesharing would encourage, what with all the talk about not wanting to pay for filler. But the US, with the huge internet penetration and good broadband infrastructure sees comparably fewer singles and England buys thousands. Why? For whatever reason, the album is an extraordinarily durable means of distributing music. I don't really know why, but I'm pretty happy about it (I still buy tons of vinyl singles, but I love getting full-length cds/lps).

Posted by: Marc W at July 15, 2003 12:31 AM

The music vs. merchandise discussion going on reminds me of another of my favorite bands. The Misfits' music was EXTREMELY popular 25+ years ago and they had little merchandise, save for a few T-shirts. Now that the only member of the original band left is Jerry Only, the music is not that popular but the merchadising is going CRAZY!!!! This is an example of the old band being young and naive and the new incarnation of the band not being an excellent band that is selling merchandise for extra cash, but a marketing MASTERMIND (Jerry Only) keeping the band alive for the purpose of reaping the merchandising rewards. Don't get me wrong, the music is still great, but the music isn't the point anymore. Luckily, for the fans, MTX will probably never be this.

Posted by: Channon at July 15, 2003 01:13 AM

She Runs Out When The Money Does.
Frank, this song is a bit perplexing in the same manner that "Bitter Homes and Gardens" was. The sound could have a country "sound", but in the end it turns out to be way too poetic and intelligent to be a "country" song. I haven't listened much to alt-country, so I can't compare it to that genre. Don't get me wrong, I love "Bitter Homes and Gardens", and it did have a country "sound" but it was way too complex and intelligent even though a few "country" words were used i.e. "a thousand pardons". In the end, I say "if you think the song will work and believe that it will sound cool, then go for it. I probably couldn't imagine the sound of Bitter Homes and Gardens, but it turned out sounding pretty damn good."

Posted by: Channon at July 15, 2003 01:20 AM

Since many of you are speaking favorably of Fugazi, I thought you might be interested to know what they think of internet file-sharing.

From this interview with Guy Picciotto:


ST: Now that Napster's dead, I think that the RIAA is going after a bunch of other peer-to-peer sharing networks. What are your thoughts on file sharing and piracy?
GP: We have completely no problem with file sharing. We just consider it the exchanging of tapes. And we've always had a really open policy about our stuff -- when people come to our shows, we tell them to bring cameras, bring tape recorders, bring video recorders, we don't care. People can come in and tape our gigs and they can trade them. We're not into when people sell our shit as bootlegs and try to make a profit off of it. We think that's a different line that's being crossed.

But when it's just the music being shared, that's what it's about to us. It's not like we get a lot of radio airplay. File sharing is our radio; that's the way people hear our stuff. I think people underestimate the enthusiasm of people who dig music -- they dig it because they want to hear it, not because they want to steal it. It's not like there's this vicarious thieving thrill; they're into the music; it's an enthusiasm for the sound.

ST: They just want to get the word out.
GP: Yeah, exactly. They download your stuff, they dig it, they go out and buy the record. We never shared in the industry freakout about it because it's not important to us. Our main thing has always been access to our music, making it as easy as possible, making it as cheap as possible, so why would we have any problem with file sharing? It's redundant.

Posted by: Steve at July 15, 2003 03:13 AM

I plan to make an intelligent arguement somewhere... even though I agree with a lot of what people say.... I just feel that someone needs to play devil's advocate: Fugazi? ugh. Let me tell you a little fugazi story. And after the fact lots of people seem to defend fugazi... I think they are just becoming senile hippies... They threatened to stop playing if they didn't shut the doors at this music conference i was at at JMU a couple years ago. I wondered why, since the crowd of probably three hundred were roasting and the doors being opened cooled people off. I was not in the depth of the crowd, i was next to the door where the cold air came in, and it felt nice. I was gracious. But grandaddy Mckaye said no. I'm just bitter cause i roasted for a while, but then we left... I had a point. Oh yeah, Fugazi is not always the voice of reason... and someone had to say it. I also live very close to DC and frequent many of the same hipster spots... if I don't post on here again you'll know that I was lynched by a bunch of well dressed, mop topped indie rockers... Ian Svenonius is their hitman i think.

Posted by: chach at July 15, 2003 05:15 AM


I quite like the lyrics of "She Runs Out". Reading them sparked a question in my mind, please answer if you think it's worth responding.

"She Runs Out When the Money Does" appears to be different than alot of your other songs because it is discussing a girl and a (less than perfect) relationship that you are NOT in. I'm very familar with all of your work and thinking off the top of my head it seems that most (or all?) of your previous songs concerning a specific girl or relationship included you (or at least the 'I'/'Me' singing) as one of the participants. "Psycho Girl", "Velveta", "We Hate All the Same Things". etc. etc. are you (or once again the persona of you singing the song) telling the tale of the relationship. "She Runs Out When the Money Does" has you addressing the participant of the relationship in a "Let me tell you how it really is" kind of way. Any reason for this switch from "this is my relationship" to "this is your relationship" in the storytelling? Just curious.

In other news I once baked and decorated a cake for MTX in the shape of a heart with the "And the Women Who Love Them" cover drawn on it (during the tour with the Ghoulies). If MTX or Frank ever come to Texas again they (or he) can count on another cake.

Posted by: Josh Maxwell at July 15, 2003 07:00 AM

I would hate it if the "album" didn't matter any more. Sure, I hung out with the "cool, alternative" crowd in college, but that was over 15 years ago. Now I'm a normal, suburban mother who just happens to listen to MTX, Screeching Weasel, the Queers, etc. while I mop my kitchen floor and workout at the gym. My life would be far less enjoyable if I couldn't listen to music I love while doing the things I don't especially like. Shows just don't fit into my life right now. The horrible thing is my kids have decided to rebel against punk (which they call "mommy music") by listening to Britney Spears.

Posted by: kristine at July 15, 2003 08:06 AM

That's an interesting observation Josh. There are different sorts of "you" songs, if you really think about it. The most straightforward is the one where the singer/narrator is addressing the "object" pretty much as one would in "real life," or a stylized kind of real life (like "I Wanna Hold Your Hand"). Then there's the type where it's phrased as though it's in a real conversation, but it's really not: it's a description or "character study" in the form of a speech addressed to a person, but it's not something you would ever say. Most of my "you" songs are in this category-- "Swallow Everything," "Naomi," "Lawnmower of Love" (that's a "relationship character study" which is similar but slightly different), etc., etc. You could replace the yous with shes and hers in a song like "Naomi" and it wouldn't change much. Personalizing it makes it more immediate, but part of the reason it "works" is also because our song-consciousness is attuned to it because of the long tradition of this kind second person song in pop music, especially from musicals, when it's used as a dramatic as well as a musical device. It's so familiar that we hardly notice that there's a difference. My "I Believe in You" is the first type; Frank Loesser's "I Believe in You" is (pretty much) the second type.

Then there's the other, trickier type (which also seems kind of "drama-y") that can be read as either the first or second type, but can also be read (and is often "really") a sort of internal monologue, a discourse directed at oneself, as though the narrator is looking into a mirror. Quite a lot of my "you" songs are like this: "Self-Pity," "Leave the Thinking to the Smart People," (though perhaps not perfectly), "Sackcloth and Ashes," and more recently "The Boyfriend Box." "She Runs Out when the Money Does" could have been one of those (and, in fact, started out that way.) I put in the lines distinguishing and distancing the narrator from the protagonist (saying "let me guess," "we go way back," "I feel the same way," etc.) because I wanted to suggest but not spell out a "backstory" of a sort: the narrator is addressing the "you," but also alluding to a previous relationship of that kind of his own. And there's a hint that it even may have been a previous relationship with the same girl. I don't know why: I just liked the idea of a story within a story, and a potentially untrustworthy narrator (as he might well be "projecting" his experiences on to the scenario) expressed in the barest, simplest terms. Hence the (also well-worn) form of the "advice song." Is it really true that I don't have any others of this type? Amazing if so. I can't think of one off the top of my head. Maybe not, at that.

Anyway, Josh, you had to ask. And thanks for the once and future cake.

There's a lot of other really interesting stuff in this thread, and I'll try to comment on some of it tomorrow. Thanks, and keep 'em coming.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at July 15, 2003 08:40 AM


You don't like the country? Even old stuff? A lot of the things Loretta Lynn recorded are very intelligent, though not intellectual, masterfully crafted, in my opinion...if you haven't, check it out!

I agree that Dr. Frank's stuff is much too smart/self-reflexive to fit a genre very well though. Cole Porter and the Ramones watch the Simpsons and complain about their love lives...

Posted by: spacetoast at July 15, 2003 10:22 AM

I think that the only thing it can come down to is that songs are the essence of music. It seems like a really simple concept as I type it out, but surprisingly enough, a lot of bands today are strangers to the idea. I think that being in a band walks a thin line between marketing/merchandising and writing good songs, the latter being the most important. If you're trying to make as many people know about you as possible (this would be marketing) then you're probably going to be a band that sticks their name or logo on every piece of merchandise worth selling. I don't really see anything wrong with that, but I think that when merchandising becomes a higher priority than songwriting, that's when it strays outside of my general concept of music- and that's where I stop paying attention. The bottom line is that songwriting is the most important thing MUSICALLY, and that's what it's all about.

Posted by: Will at July 15, 2003 10:52 AM


You should really listen to a bit of alt-country if you don't think country songs can be poetic and intelligent. Try some Whiskeytown, some Uncle Tupelo, Old 97's or Slobberbone. Even some Jayhawks.

Of course, about the time you start to realize that alt-country is pretty darn good, you'll probably also realize that most of those bands aren't making music any more, or have morphed into something else (see Wilco, South San Gabriel, Pleasant Grove).

Alt-country is dead, long live alt-country.

Posted by: Greg at July 15, 2003 03:19 PM

"Cole Porter and the Ramones watch the Simpsons and complain about their love lives..."

Heh, that's probably my favorite one-line description I've ever heard. Or it's a close second to "just plain tricky," which I once found in a zine review.

As for country music, most people who like songs qua songs, and songwriting for its own sake, eventually realize that the best country songs are in most of the ways that matter the best songs there are. It is very, very hard to write a good one and pull it off. The great ones are masterpieces of economy, cleverness, emotion, and construction. I would give half my catalog and one of my limbs (even one of the important ones) to have written "He Stopped Loving Her Today" or "The Race is On." I have to disagree, in fact, that "alt-country" represents some kind of qualitative improvement in that regard over the models it's aping or derived from. (Though the charts are full of dreck, but complaining about that is like complaining about the weather.) Channon, I'm pretty sure if you were to listen to a Best of George Jones album, you'd see the beauty, the intelligence, the complexity, the cleverness, and soul of it all. Anyway, I think "She Runs Out..." is a bit better than "Bitter Homes and Gardens" which was a nice but rather ham-handed attempt, compositionally.

Ken, man, I'd love to hear your Buck Owens-ish tune to my lyrics. It's probably a bit similar to mine-- mine begins like a folk song, then veers towards a country rock arrangement about halfway through, and has little Cheap Trick/Queen parts on the hey hey yeah yeah segments. If you can believe that.

Ron, "Yesterday Rules" is at this point one of the top contenders for the album title, in fact. (If the song doesn't end up on the album, that would really continue a grand MTX tradition.)

But Kristine, "Mommy Music" is pretty great, too.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at July 15, 2003 04:48 PM

I just have to say that I lost all interest in Fugazi after discovering that the lyric from Styrofoam was not, as I had hitherto thought, the delightfully Dadaist "we are all midgets filled with hatred," but in fact the quotidian, and frankly preachy, "we are all bigots filled with hatred"...the latter was certainly in better keeping with the placenta of gloom experience of listening to them. I join Chach in regarding them as puritanical twits.

Posted by: spacetoast at July 15, 2003 08:18 PM

Good call Spacetoast, though didn't the whole straight-edge thing give you a clue about their puritanical nature?

Posted by: Marc W at July 15, 2003 09:54 PM

I think that my comments may have been taken out of context. I am a big country fan! I just haven't listened to any alt-country aside from Dwight Yokum perhaps. You're right about George Jones, Frank. I own his Super-Hits CD and "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is indeed a very touching and sad song while "the race" is fun because after all "the winner, loses all". I'm just sauying that you're lyrics are a little complex for regular country. I doubt one would ever hear a song from Alan Jackson, Hank Williams, Roy Clark or Bill Monroe etc... with words like misogyny or other words that the "average Joe" would have to consult Webster in order to find the meaning of. Oh, also, Spacetoast, I LOVE the old coutry Merle Haggard, George Jones, Charlie Daniels, Waylon Jennings etc... and I find it strange that you mention Loretta Lynn because she is my second cousin (by marriage). I've only met her once or twice.

Posted by: Channon at July 16, 2003 12:34 AM

Sorry for my grammar problems above. I try to type as fast as I think and with my thinking, sometimes I have more ideas and thoughts streaming through my synapses than can be processed at once.

Posted by: Channon at July 16, 2003 12:39 AM


I only have an ancestor who fired the first shot at some civil war battle or other, so I'm very envious of your genealogical claim to fame. Maybe we could team up and persuade Dr. Frank to cover something...some of Loretta's stuff could work at mtx tempos and I can imagine Dr. Frank coming up with clever he/she twists of perspective...an "mtx-ing" of "(The night I let you hang) My wings upon your horns" would be simply to die for!

Posted by: spacetoast at July 16, 2003 02:00 AM

I last saw her when I was maybe 12 yeas old and embarrasingly probably wouldn't know one of her songs if I heard it. Her hay-day was before my time. The only real connection we had (an uncle) has been deceased for over 10 years now. I'd love to be able to help but she wouldn't know me from Adam and I'd have to go through finding her and saying I'm the great nephew of your husband's mother's uncle... so I really wouldn't call it a claim to fame. It's a nice thought though. I would be willing to give it a try if Frank made the request. Anyway, I think Frank is too talented to be doing cover songs any more unless it's just something stupid fun like when the band did "Speed Racer", "Spider-Man" or "Flying Jelly Attack".

Posted by: Channon at July 16, 2003 04:13 AM

You're just prejudiced because it's not School House Rocks. ;-)

Posted by: spacetoast at July 16, 2003 06:22 AM

Gotcha, Channon. It's true that my country songs (more properly, I have to admit -ish, -y, -esque, or faux-) often don't quite make it. I actually write quite few of them, and some are not so bad. They rarely get recorded and released in the end because they're so hard to play.

I've often heard the observation (usually presented as though it's some kind of counter-intuitive revelation) that punk rock and country music are similar musical genres, distant identical cousins. If there's something in that, it's that both genres have been, for the most part, very conservative, relentlessly clinging to The Song as the primary focus. But what people usually mean is that they are similarly simple: "nothing too fancy going on here" has certainly been a common line in reviews of my stuff, especially when the purportedly off-the-wall country comparison is raised.

Well, there's simplicity and there's simplicity. And few punk bands would ever have a prayer of playing a convincing country song. (Exceptions, yeah, there are. Maybe. But I think cow-punk and much alt-country proves rather than disproves the point.) Country music's simplicity (both in the compositions and the arranging and performance) is a deceptive simplicity, and requires a considerable amount of bravery and self-mastery. Punk rock's minimalism has a hifalutin theory behind it, perhaps, but the theory is inextricably tied to the practical consideration: if you turn the guitar up loud enough, it can sometimes cover up the fact that no one really knows how to play.

Don't get me wrong: I love that aesthetic, too. But it sure is a different kind of "nothing too fancy going on here."

Posted by: Dr. Frank at July 16, 2003 03:03 PM