Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Albums You Need: 100% Fun

Time for a new feature here at PowerPop: Albums You Need.

I was thinking about this on my long and dull commute, dwelling on the question Phila raised in the Brian Wilson thread: should pop have a canon? Gardner, being a geek like me, thinks so. But though I'm not insistent on canonization per se, I do think there are albums which are, in Thers's inimitable teenage slang, "crucial."

And so we begin.

Matthew Sweet: 100% Fun (1994).

This isn't a usual selection for Sweet. Most people would identify his inaugural 1991 album Girlfriend, which is, admittedly, a classic (and "Holy War" seems to be something of a staple on my ipod these days). But I like this one a lot. Here are some reasons why.

"Sick of Myself": Had a great moment once with this tune. Once upon a time, Thers and I inherited a troubled teen. In two years of attempting to parent her, we only had a few months of peace, when she hooked up with another sort of misfit kid. They were tight for a while, and their psychoses seemed to fit together, which is all you can really ask for an adolescent relationship, it seems to me. One day, she was very excited, said their whole relationship had been caught in a song, and she hadn't gotten all of it, but had part of it off the radio. Could she play it for me? Please? I'd like it, she swore I would. Okay, I replied. Imagine how put out she was when the song came on and I knew all the words. But she was somewhat assuaged when I told her we had a much better copy on CD and she wasn't actually stuck with her off-the-radio version.

"We're the Same": I think every relationship probably has this phase, the initial blurring of boundaries, the sense that you share more than there's any reason to believe that you do. Generally, you outgrow it until such time as you've lived together long enough to really be that much alike. (Ex: Nothing infuriates Thers more than when I ask him to do, as a favor, something he's just begun to do as a surprise. I know this has happened when I ask him to do something and he howls my surname in wounded outrage: I've just taken away all the good-guy points he was going to earn by doing something nice for me by actually asking for it. But how weird is it that we think of such tasks at pretty much the same moment?) I also really like the video for this song, which features Sweet as a 70's svengali producer taking a beautiful girl band and squeezing them into a common (and less attractive) mold: they all end up looking like Tricia Nixon or something. But the video was directed by the same people who did the pretty funny film Spirit of '76, starring Redd Kross, and it has a lot of that same look and vibe.

"Walk Out": Like REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It," had been for the eighties, this was the song for the ninteties that everyone I know seemed to hear just at the moment they needed to, some moment when it was resonant and important, possibly out of all proportion. But if you're in a relationship and depressed, it's not too uncommon, I think, to assume that getting out of the relationship will lift the fog. It even works sometimes.
When you look into a mirror
The reflection that you see
Is a shell of what you were
It's not who you want to be
But you're gonna change
You've just about made up your mind
(You're gonna change)
You're gonna change
And when you leave it all behind
What will the past remember?
What will the future bring?
When you walk out?


"SuperBaby": Glam-rock guitar. What else is there to say?

"Get Older": This is one of those songs that points up to me that my kid and I are different. Watching her struggle through adolescence, I often want to share with her the lyrics to this song, which strike me as peculiarly apropos for those struggles.
Who cares if they don't think you're cool?
They make everything about rules
And you're older than that now
Get older
The world will fall into its place

But how geeky would it be to get such a sentiment from your mom? I think I'll wait for her to find it herself. (Maybe I'll pretend not to know it....)

Matthew Sweet is one of those artists who really doesn't seem to care much what the world thinks of him: a mutual acquaintance tells me he's a really nice guy, and his good-natured presence on pretty much every tribute compilation album ever made suggests that he has a sense of humor (though Thers always points out that they can't make a Matthew Sweet tribute album, because he couldn't appear on it. Snarky bastard). I like how he indulges his own interests in glam, in powerpop, in J-pop, in folk, without worrying about how it'll be taken. That's so cool.


watertiger said...

I dig Matthew Sweet.

just sayin.

Gardner said...

I love this stuff. I also think very highly of this album, but even more so the idea of "albums you need" or "crucial albums." This is what I don't understand about the canonization debate. We all have albums, books, authors, whatever, that we consider crucial in just this way. They're not just albums we happen to like, they're albums that we believe have some kind of intrinsic greatness, not just greatness we assign to them. Sure, we'll disagree about the nature and extent of that intrinsic greatness, and who has it and who doesn't, and sure sometimes the debate isn't fair because "greatness" means some variety of cultural privilege. But the abuse of an idea doesn't invalidate the idea. And if all greatness is merely the greatness we assign (by means of our culture's hypnotizing us into the evaluation), then we have nothing at all to talk about and we're simply prisoners of our own consciousness. I don't think we can build a just world out of that. And I don't think any artist aspires to that kind of recognition....

Great choice, by the way....

ina said...

Funny, I was just raising this topic on my local music forum...

Entry 9310. 1-10...

(I don't know how to post a "live" link, I'm still learning all this stuff)

Robert G. said...

Rock/pop music can't have a canon 'cos there are no established or even remotely generally accepted criteria for evaluation.

Look at the field of music criticism: it's comprised of sociologists, cultural theorists, "pop culture" experts, New Left camp followers...and only occasionally, musicologists. There are things to be learned from all, but they're obviously not going to have the same emphases.

preznit giv me turkee said...

how about the (English) Beat's "Special Beat Service" as a part of the canon? great pop album IMHO

Thersites said...

This is a neat pop album. But alarmingly partisan!

Gardner said...

Look to the artists themselves for the canon....

Anonymous said...

I thought Sweet was good on Girlfriend, although less so on Altered Beast, and 100% Fun. A few years after 100% Fun was released, I listened to it again and began to suspect that the character having far less than 100% fun on the record might be a gay who realized that he should give up the chirade. A possible "identity struggle" may best explain his lyrical evolution in the Girlfriend-Altered Beast-100% Fun recordings. I got the hunch first when listening again to "You Walk Out," right after listening to "Come to Love." Note the lyics in the two songs: 1. Come to Love--"when you discover who you really are inside/follow any other reason and you won't be satisfied;" 2. You Walk Out--"the person you became, you just couldn't be for real. . .what will the future bring when you walk out?" Is "You Walk Out" really about walking out of a relationship or stopping pretending to be straight? If it was about breaking up with a woman, one would suspect some mention of the woman, but there is no explicit sexual or romantic reference to a female on either Altered Beast or 100% Fun. Also consider the fact that "the person you became, you just couldn't be for real" line in "You Walk Out" is foreshadowed by the "What are you gonna do now? You're tired of faking it," line from "Devil w/ the Green Eyes" on Altered Beast. Most of the songs on Girlfriend are ostensibly about romantic turmoil with a woman, but even on that disk, there's the explicit, sardonic "Does She Talk" ("I can **** up the, you can **** me up the all right") and this more subtle line from "I've Been Waiting": "The secret on your lips that nobody knows/gentle in your eyes/you can wear my clothes." "Secret," combined with "can wear my clothes" (i.e., same size, same gender-appropriate attire). Who Matthew is--not the characters he may assume--does not interest me. It is possible that Sweet is straight and is throwing such lines in to generate multiple interpretations that would be consistent with different types of lyrical confusion & chaos, sexual and otherwise,ironically tossed in with the power pop. One must not assume that the lyricist = the character sung in first person (Remember Randy Newman's "Short People"--Newman does a great bigot ("short people got no reason to live/don't want no short people around me")--as a satirical protest song).