I’m sure the dates have some significance to the band. Many people were born in 1855; logic dictates that some of them were French. And of that generation, more than a few must have died in 1901. 45 is young to kick the bucket, but diphtheria was rampant back then. Now, all we have to do is look through birth and death records in Paris, and cross-check those with history books Thomas Mars might have read during a typical —
Aw, hell, who am I kidding? Guys, this song is totally meaningless. You can tell me that you’ve got a reading of “1901”; I won’t believe you. They might as well be saying papa-oom-mow-mow. At least the Trashmen had the common decency to sing their nonsense words in batshit-nuts voices. Phoenix sounds so smooth and sane. These verses all seem like complete sentences until you bother to riddle them through.
Pop history is littered with nonsense verse. Some of it is downright brilliant; consider Sam The Sham singing about his Ring Dang Doo, or Little Richard’s friend who says Bama Lama Bama Loo when asked for a kiss, or Arlo Guthrie riding around on a pickle. For me, the existence of God is only the second most perplexing existential riddle: “who put the ram in the ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong?” will always be number one. Beyond the sheer puerile glee of singing garbage — something I know all about, thank you — nonsense verse allows to allude to stuff that would otherwise be rude to inscribe in a pop-culture artifact. Sometimes Ebeneezer Goode shows up to smuggle a drug reference past the censors; i.e., if you want some fun, Paul tells us in an unguarded moment, take Obla-Di-Bla-Da. More often it’s an expression of sexual frustration: a placeholder for meaning that can’t be analyzed on paper, but sure as hell can be committed to tape. On the page, “Woolly Bully” means nothing; sung by Sam, it means everything.
By no means is this technique a thing of the past. Britney Spears didn’t mind becoming ungrammatical and incoherent on “If U Seek Amy”, because every third-grader in the country got her drift. The operation called for a stealth F-bombing of Middle America, and Sergeant Spears reported ready for combat. (And then there’s Soulja Boy. ‘Nuf said?)
Is that what’s going on here? Does Thomas Mars use code words that ancient spacemonauts like me don’t get, but the little girls understand? It’s a possible explanation. Something sparked this fire. This year, “1901” became the first song since “Hey Ya” to take the Singles category and Most Overplayed; it didn’t make the playlists on Z100, but who (besides me) listens to commercial radio anymore? No restaurantgoer, party person, or web surfer would ever dispute that Phoenix received a healthy slice of exposure pie in ’09. Voters were excited enough to list it on 29 of the 115 ballots submitted (“Lisztomania” made another 17) — again, the best percentage since “Hey Ya” ate Poll XIV. In ’03, I was chock full of theories about why that happened; I think I even pulled in a quote from Henry Louis Gates. This time around, I’m not so sure. Okay, I’m not sure at all. But you know me — I go down swinging.
Allow me to present some theories, or float some hypotheses, or just screw around and help you waste your workday:
Theory #1: “1901” is full of coded messages that, while mystifying to outsiders, made sense to a certain subculture. Or perhaps “1901”, while incoherent on its surface, communicated something between the lines.
Could be, but it seems unlikely. The date is cryptic, and cries out for interpretation, but there are no chronological clues in the lyrics. The chorus — fall in, fall in, fall in (or is it fold it, fold it, fold it?) — is one that can be fitted to all sorts of psychological uses. It might refer to the sensation of falling in love, or destabilization, or dropping through space; coupled with the big portamento synthesizer, it could suggest the rush of freedom or the thrill of danger. This makes “1901” roughly equivalent (I am not joking) to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'”. But where Petty backed up his chorus with a convincing character sketch and some worthwhile observations about fin-de-siecle California, there’s nothing in the “1901” verses that reinforces this reading. The bit about the girlfriend is intriguing, but it’s never developed. It doesn’t sound like he’s horny, it sounds like he’s doing a phone survey with a telemarketer.
Moreover, while most “leading” nonsense verse is delivered with a nod and a wink — think of Chuck Berry in “My Ding A Ling”, or Pimp C in “Sippin On Some Syrup”, or Holly Johnson telling you when not to relax — Thomas Mars sings “1901” as if everything out of his mouth ought to be transparent to the listener. He could be reading a stock report. It almost makes me want to smack him. Whatever its charms, this song lacks the sense of humor and play that characterizes most songs written to evade the censors. He’s detached, not conversational; there’s very little emphasis placed on particular words. He doesn’t want to call attention to his lyrics. He wants you to forget that there are lyrics.
Theory #2: It’s just a good piece of music, dummy. The album is called Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix for a reason; treat it like a classical piece performed by insanely-talented instrumentalists. “1901” blew up because the band is terrific and the production is tight. End of story.
None of that is wrong. Phoenix really is an excellent band. The rhythm guitarists, in particular, have developed a highly characteristic style that involves straight strums that ought to be boring, but somehow never are. Don’t try it at home; trust me, you’ll never get away with it. The bass player gets his big-brontosaurus tone in perfect harmony with the six-string shivers. I don’t think the drummer is a permanent member of the band, but he sure seems acquainted with the guys. We already discussed the synths; overdubs are minimal, and Phoenix can and does play the song live with the same sort of mastery they’ve committed to CD. This is a state-of-the-art modern rock production, and one you can cut a rug to.
So why, then, do I find this theory unconvincing? Maybe it’s because there’s so little correspondence between musical excellence and alterna-pop acclaim. They don’t play Yo-yo Ma in the Mini-Mall. There are virtuosos working the college rock circuit, but their rate of popular acceptance doesn’t seem any better than that of the amateurs who’ve just picked up their instruments. Think of the songs that have made the leap from underground party favorite to mass acclaim: do these seem, in general, like dazzling performances or productions to you? Usually they become hits for the same reason that Plies or Kelis reach the urban audience: they put a novel spin on the story of an age-old itch. Karen O might be sadomasochistic about it, and Tracyanne Campbell might be melancholy about it, and Lovefoxxx from CSS might be foreign-freakazoid about it, but the message is the same. Give us a rubbery beat and a charismatic vocalist with rage in the pants, and you stand a good chance of penetrating mass consciousness.
So, yeah, I don’t think it’s satisfactory to say that Phoenix kicks hot jammies and hot jammies will inevitably carry the day. It’s part of the explanation, but it can’t be the whole thing. Why this piece of slick studio-craft, and not the one designed by you and your cousin last weekend? Especially since you and your cousin composed a lyric about child slavery in North Korea and the hole in the ozone, and this French guy is busy singing about nothing. It’s almost as if you’ve missed a cue, and spaced on a current cultural predilection for bosh. Hence,
Theory #3: Might “1901” satisfy a generally-felt desire for a reprieve from meaning and verbiage? Has lucidity become unfashionable?
Look at it this way: you probably spent much of 2008 shouting yourself hoarse on behalf of a man you never met. Why? Because his long, eloquent speeches seemed to promise a break from irresponsibility and bad manners and War with Everybody. You got him elected, and now what? The speeches continued, but nothing changed. The man who would be Messiah turned into a walking example of the limits of language. As it turned out, all the wind in Washington couldn’t budge the weathervane. Yesterday Dan Purcell reminded us that G-side opened their album with the following couplet: “My president is black/but we still in Iraq”. Kinda sums up 2009 in nine words.
Even if the Obama Show had become a viral hit rather than the tired rerun it turned out to be, we’d still expect a cultural backlash against the values that he represents. He’s the chief, the enforcer, the administrator, the top cop. There’s nothing cool about that. Pop music is still made by young folks for young folks, and even though Barack Obama is more identifiable to college kids than Rudy Giuliani would have been, he’s still up there with a suit and a tie, talking like somebody’s daddy. In the mid-’00s, George W. Bush fought a losing battle against the language, right there in public; every time anybody asked him to put his agenda into language, he looked flustered and irritated. Is it a coincidence that rock got so wordy? When the chief is ostentatiously illiterate, speaking in complete sentences becomes a rebellious act. When the chief is an unceasing, well-constructed paragraph, the speech-act loses much of its power to shock. An oppressively articulate state — a state that uses language and rational argument to grind its opponents into submission — ought to engender resistance through incoherence.
The problem: if this was true, you’d expect to see reverberations far beyond the college rock. Hip-hop retreated into fantasy during ’09, but that’s a different chess move altogether. Meanwhile, pop-punk kids — exactly the people you’d expect to be the most disillusioned with Barack Obama — continued with their desperate attempts to communicate through language. I don’t watch movies or television shows, but if either began tipping into gobbledygook, I didn’t notice. My mimeographed SDS newsletter informs me that college campuses are hotbeds of rebellion, and that subversive acts may initially wear strange masks; when I was at school, the counter-cultural thing to do (apparently) was to spray-paint the word “Nugent” on the walls of the campus center. So, yeah, each generation of college kids probably gets the college rock it deserves, and the typical college student is probably more inclined to prank things up than shake things up. This generation seems to want to bury the words behind reverb, talkbox, sheets of noise; when the batteries run out, they’re just going to sing stuff that signifies nothing. Maybe it’s an act of protest, and maybe it’s the residue of well-targeted marketing campaign. Which leads me to a theory that I really don’t want to float, but my conscience insists I try out:
Theory #4: “1901” became a hit because Apple and General Motors wanted it that way.
I couldn’t help but notice that our single of the year also caught the ear of TV licensing people. For me, it is now forever linked with Cadillac’s effort to get me to purchase one of their sleek automobiles. Not just a car, mind you, but a gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle; you know, exactly the sort of rolling climate-wrecker that the French are supposed to loathe Americans for driving. If you were privy to any televised sporting events during 2009, you heard Thomas Mars singing while the hot chick drove her SRX through the tunnel. Many times. In this case, the meaning was clear: you were meant to be fallin’, fallin’, fall-in’ down to your auto dealership to drop thirty grand or so.
Hey, I’m a loyal American; I know our automobile industry is on the ropes. If Lafayette wants to land at Yorktown to lend us a hand, that’s okay with me. I’m just glad we all got over the “freedom fries” episode. But I hope hope hope that Critics Poll voters did not put a glorified jingle atop our list. If “1901” took off because of Thomas Mars’s singing, or Laurent Brancowitz’s rhythm guitar, or the strange psychic connotations of the chorus, or because we’ve developed a taste for abstract-expressionist lyrics, that’s great. I can work with that. But if Phoenix became popular because we were all numbed by the repetitive logic of Madison Avenue (not to mention prominent placement in those iPod spots that played on every high-profile music website this summer), then the walls really are caving in. It’s bad enough that we all sat at the monitor and watched those reconstituted Slap Chop commercials for their alleged entertainment value. The hypnotic quality of the television screen was always a myth perpetrated by those who wanted a supernatural excuse for tuning in and staying that way; YouTube has exposed the ugly truth that we really do like to be pitched.
I don’t believe it. I am sure the Cadillac ads (and the iPod ads, and the trailer placements) helped “1901” get traction. But I think it is easy to overstate our susceptibility to marketing suggestion. Advertising people still chase after pop music because of its power, and, it bears repeating, its anti-establishment glamor; if it ever gets tethered to the production wagon for good, it’ll lose its status as rebel art, and the car salesmen will have to go find other things to stick in their commercials. Cadillac chased after Phoenix for a reason, and I doubt that reason is all that different from the reason it topped this chart. I think there’s something to theory number three, and something to theory number two. And as for theory number one, we dirty-minded “Ding-A-Ling” fans can always hold out hope. As Tom Lehrer put it, when correctly viewed/everything is lewd. The apparent sexlessness of Phoenix’s music may put that axiom to the test, but knee-deep in the filth-rock and booty-rhyme era, I appreciate the challenge.
Top thirty singles, 2009:
1. Phoenix — “1901” (193)
2. Jay-Z & Alicia Keys — “Empire State Of Mind” (175)
3. Lady Gaga — “Bad Romance” (174)
4. Phoenix — “Lisztomania” (165)
5. Girls — “Lust For Life” (155)
6. Owl City — “Fireflies” (144)
7. Grizzly Bear — “Two Weeks” (131)
8. Yeah Yeah Yeahs — “Zero” (111)
9. Dirty Projectors — “Stillness Is The Move” (109)
10. Kid Cudi — “Day ‘N’ Nite” (108)
10. Animal Collective — “My Girls” (108)
12. Jamie Foxx & T-Pain — “Blame It” (102)
13. Kanye West & Young Jeezy — “Amazing” (95)
14. Morrissey — “Something Is Squeezing My Skull” (90)
15. God Help The Girl — “Come Monday Night” (87)
15. Metric — “Help, I’m Alive” (87)
17. Lily Allen — “The Fear” (84)
18. Lady Gaga — “Poker Face” (83)
18. Metric — “Sick Muse” (83)
20. Ke$ha — “TiK ToK” (79)
21. Passion Pit — “Little Secrets” (77)
22. Julian Casablancas — “11th Dimension” (75)
22. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart — “Young Adult Friction” (75)
22. Girls — “Hellhole Ratrace” (75)
25. Taylor Swift — “Fifteen” (71)
26. Owl City — “Hello Seattle” (69)
27. Big Boi & Gucci Mane — “Shine Blockas” (66)
28. Tori Amos — “Welcome To England” (64)
29. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros — “Home” (62)
30. YACHT — “The Afterlife” (59)
30. Peter, Bjorn & John — “Nothing To Worry About” (59)
Okay, tune in tomorrow for the miscellany. Yesterday we ran down the top albums, Thursday I’ll post the answer key, and Friday’s my closing thoughts. Thanks for reading.