Andrew W.K.’s Not Totally Stupid (Essays and a Thank You)

Dear listener,

As my life crescendos — a Portugal residency, moving cities, applying to grad school, getting married — the podcast has been preempted.  There remain thinkers to interview and records to reassess, sometime.  You’re not forgotten.

Someone asked if I would post an analysis of Andrew W.K.’s “Totally Stupid” from five years ago.  Sure.  So I used to maintain a blog called An Objective Listen, where the goal was to discuss songs in as objective a voice as possible, given my limited theory knowledge.  Scroll down and you’ll find that piece,  plus a few others, as a thank you for the support.

Grant

Analysis #1

totally-stupid-title-card-2

Listen to or buy the song.

screen-shot-2014-05-02-at-12-36-22-pm

 

Like this 2013 tour graphic, “Totally Stupid” merges a Baphometian aesthetic — metal — with a Christian one.  The metal element is obvious enough.  We’ll uncover the piece’s almost subliminal resemblance to a prayer service.

Both organ and a choir feature prominently.  The secondary vocals resemble a choir more than a mere grouping of overdubs by means of a distant production style suggestive of a cathedral setting (heavy reverb; little stereo separation), the presence of both men and women, and the way the vocals interact with the lead vocal part.  Section A:

Vespers, evening prayer services, are structured musical events as much as religious rites.  They open with a chant (“O God, come to my assistance…”), which is echoed in section A.  There is a reading from the Bible.  Note the semi-spoken nature of section C’s vocals:

Vespers feature several antiphons, or call-and-response sections between the officiant and the choir or congregation.  These sections are much simpler than dedicated musical portions of the service, presumably to encourage the participation of a musically untrained congregation (i.e. “Peace be with you;” “And also with you.”).  The choir returns in section D for a brief call-and-response with the lead vocalist:

Hymns figure prominently in Christian services, often underlining the significant ideas in a preceding Biblical passage.  Here we find another parallel.  It may seem unlikely that a piece of music could contain a distinctly “musical section,” but as you will hear, in its second half, “Totally Stupid” becomes strikingly more elaborate and melodic:

We now have the full participation of the congregation.  Such an evolution draws in the listener who has subconsciously identified with the choir (which is now “on board with” the officiant, who was previously shouting messages at it).

While the piece’s lyrics resemble a sermon, their philosophy is notably un-Christian.  First, an English translation of the Magnificat, a musical portion of Vespers:

Holy his name!

His mercy is from age to age,

on those who fear him.

He puts forth his arm in strength

and scatters the proud-hearted.

He casts the mighty from their thrones

and raises the lowly.

In the Magnificat, the “lowly” listener is encouraged to experience fear.  By contrast, our officiant says, “here we have to face our fear” (pointedly, with a drawn out “fear” landing on the concluding beat of section E.  [The song itself seems to “face its fear” at this moment, barreling forward through subsequent sections without looking back]).  The unmistakably proud-hearted lyrics insist that “you” (the listener, the congregation) should “do what you want,” though “people will laugh.”  This acknowledgment that fearless individualism will lead to derision casts light on the piece’s title:  One gains a sort of immunity by declaring oneself “totally stupid.”

Though its message may diverge from the Bible’s, the rhetorical style is familiar:

When we look into the future
To the place we haven’t gone
See what we haven’t done
We have known it all along

If we wait until tomorrow
Will tomorrow ever come?
This is where we’re coming from
And we’re not the only ones

When we find ourselves in trouble
We can find outselves a way
You can find a place to stay
And the place is always safe

If you have a heart that’s in pain
Don’t be afraid
You’re not to blame
There’s a better world inside of us
Where we always thought it was
You don’t need to hide
You can open up your eyes

And you’ll discover
That there is another world

The setting of the above-quoted text is remarkably complex for party music, which is how Wilkes-Krier’s output has been marketed.  New, unexpected colors emerge in melancholy vi’s and ii’s.  These aren’t spice added to a middle eight, they figure centrally in a winding chord change that becomes more and more removed from the tonic (section G:  ii-vi-V-IV-ii-iii-IV-IV; for contrast, section C drones on the I, and section D drones on the V).  Section G arguably represents a key change to the relative minor of C#, a proposition supported by the melody’s emphasis of the C#4-E4-G#4 triad.  The tension escalates with section H (“If you have a heart that’s in pain…”), as the chord pattern opens on the dominant, creating the expectation of a grand return to the tonic, which does happen, but not after a return to section G (which opens on the ii).  By now, the astute listener realizes that this he is not in the hands of a “stupid” composer.  In section I, a VI-V-I coda is finally delivered, punctuated by a triumphant guitar fanfare (perhaps for those living in this “better world”).  Choices in the song that may have initially seemed pastiche (the choir in section A) or meandering (the guitar-led section F, which tonally frames the rest of the song by keeping the V-centered section E from falling back to the I, and provides a sense of proportion to what proves to be an unusually long finale) prove justified.  Climaxes aren’t just written; they are written towards.

Postscript:

The distinctive tonal character of Wilkes-Krier’s work should be remarked upon.  In his melodies and guitar arrangements, one generally hears familiar pop intervals such as octaves, 5ths, and 3rds, boldly, loudly delivered.  However, these notes do not chime as clearly as they otherwise would, because of a hyper-dense arrangement style.  Reviews of The Wolf accessible through Metacritic, if they mention the music, almost universally use descriptors like “huge,” “lush,” “army of singers,” “grandiose sounds,” and “overloaded with noise,” whether approvingly or disparagingly.  What sounds alien here?  In such an arrangement, one may unconsciously miss the presence of overtones, subtle harmonics most plainly audible in acoustic instruments like the violin, sitar, and Jew’s harp.  When one hears four electric guitars, a synthesizer, and a

overtones-eg.jpg

synthesized piano in unison, overtones that would otherwise be audible become submerged (heavy compression can also have the effect of flattening the high end, where overtones reside).  Add crashing cymbals, growled vocals, and other non-diatonic elements, and we find and only the note itself cuts though.  Even that note is given a chorused, slightly out-of-tune quality by its duplication and re-duplication in the arrangement.  Elements conspire against the note, while others, such as heavy use of unisons and octaves, help the note cut through the denseness.  There is a crude physicality to the effect that is consonant with Wilkes-Krier’s public image.

This layering process is laid bare in the eponymous, instrumental b-side “A.W.K.”  In it, one Zarathustrian theme is repeated thirteen times.  With each repetition, new elements are added to the arrangement, until the simple melodic content becomes almost indiscernible.  Most listeners will have their “Goldilocks moment,” a point in the song where the arrangement is powerful and rich without yet sacrificing intelligibility.   The composer indicates that he is aware that this layering can be taken too far, as the piece finally collapses into a cavernous silence.  An excerpt of “A.W.K.” (repetitions 1-3 ; 13):

 

Analysis #2

ludlow-st-title-card 2.jpgListen to or buy the song.

The theme, in a word: gentrification.

Intro [section A]:

The song’s intro contrasts strikingly with every other section, having entirely different instruments, a slower tempo, and a different rhythmic logic than the rest of the song (here, the drum hits coincide with the lower synth voice, instead of falling into a “grid” pattern).  Elements converge to give it an ambiguously Eastern arrangement, including a spare, tonal, synthesized hand drum, slightly warbling synths that seem to replicate a fretless instrument, and a faintly bubbling water pipe.

The melody of the intro begins on an F, which is a b2 relative to the tonic of E.  The b2 and b6 are both found in section A and are both characteristic of what is known variously in the West as the Middle-Eastern/Arabic/Turkish/Gypsy scale.  Though F is diatonically adjacent to E, it is sonically very remote.  It is through a clever sequence of six four-measure, downward-moving figures that Casablancas helps the intro melody find its way there.  Note how the cramped G clef figure avoids falling or rising to the tonic E, thereby keeping the listener in suspense:

ludlow-st

Motif α:  The jarring new

The narrator sings of Manhattan’s Ludlow Street and its drastic, seemingly never-ending cultural turnovers:

It started back in 1624
The Lenape tribes would soon get forced from their home
Soon we’ll all get pushed out

….

On Ludlow Street, faces are changing
On Ludlow Street,yuppies invading

On Ludlow Street, Chinatown’s coming
On Ludlow Street, Puerto Ricans are running
On Ludlow Street, soon musicians will haunt it
On Ludlow Street, where Indians once hunted

Echoing the fate of the Lenape, the intro section is Westernized out of existence through the entrance of a traditional folk guitar pattern.  Like the Ludlow Street of 2009, this piece has predominantly Western elements:

The chords cycle through the standard folk/pop I-IV-V progression with only slight variations (for some indication of the commonness of this change, see the last piece analyzed on this blog, which happens to have a IV-V-I-IV chorus [which sounds to the ear when repeated like IV-V-I-IV-IV-V-I-IV]);  a banjo solo constitutes section E; and, more subtly, the narrator invokes slang of the Old West when he concludes the chorus with, with a slight affected twang:

It’s hard to just move along

Once this Western arrangement has been established, a jarring new element is again introduced:

The handclaps and deep, inorganic kick drums suggest rap.  With its steady 8th note hi-hat and stuttering triplets, this beat doesn’t mesh with most of the rest of the arrangement, but that is consistent with the churning cultural milieu being portrayed.  Additionally, a Latino influence may be audible in section D.  While it’s difficult to say that this was intentional, because the melody in question was never idiosyncratic, the following recalls a famous mariachi tune:

Just where in this scene does the narrator place himself?  Casablancas musically underlines one part of each chorus, where the lyrics mention a certain type of denizen:

Trumpets’ fanfare, a stop in the beat, and belted vocals imply that the narrator has strong positive affect for “musicians” and those whose “nightlife is raging.”

Motif β:  The faint, continuous soul of a place

While unabashedly disjointed, this piece still achieves a kind of unity of form and content, because its subject matter is itself heterogeneous.  Casablancas goes further, however, inserting a melodic motif that recurs in different guises.  This suggests some continuous essence to the centuries-old Manhattan location.  We find the eight-note pattern at the beginning of section A:

And in brighter, conventional form as the song’s chorus (set to the call, not the response):

The song concludes with a truncated version of section A, including elements of the rap, Western, and Eastern arrangements.  The Motif β melody now closely resembles the Western chorus iteration, reinforcing the “Westernization” concept:

The narrator muses on what survives after death:

The only thing to last will be my bones

History’s fading

Will their souls be at ease when you get yours?

In this context, the following refrain takes on a new light:
It’s hard to just move along
In all, there is no musical evidence that the narrator is morbidly preoccupied with the fact that he, too, will have to “move along.”  Just as the piece unceremoniously welcomes and leaves behind its sections, the narrator, who has “surrendered [his] ego,”  seems accepting of change.  The listener may wonder how long this peace can last, however, given somewhat foreboding lines about drinking, including this fragment of a thought:
I remember why I drank it all away
Why did the narrator drink it away, and what is it?  The surrounding lyrics don’t make it clear.

Analysis #3

dontjustdo-title-card.jpgListen to or buy the song.

How does Jason Piece musically convey contemplative inaction without losing the listener’s interest?

Motif α:  What goes up…

Lyrically, melodically, and structurally, this “Don’t Just Do Something” presents an argument that “what goes up must come down.”  First, we can look to the lyrics.  Recalling the hubris of Icarus:

I get to fly so high
that the sun burns my wings but I will fly

These lines more subtly suggest a rising and a falling:

I can say with pride
hold my head up high
that I had a great idea
but never mind

Some thoughts, like the one above, seem to cancel themselves out midway through.  The narrator’s weary confusion is apparent as he contemplates a paradox of his existence:  He can neither avoid becoming engaged…

I don’t wanna live
but I can’t resist

…nor truly get somewhere in life, as all flight seems to end in a comedown.  He sings of lying in bed and sitting around, natural behavior when all action seems to bring one back to where one began:

Oh babe, I’m going nowhere

The section B vocal melody traces a symmetrical low-high-low arc, ending where it began on “sometime”:

dontjustdo-melody

Similar arcs of briefer duration can be heard in these section C guitar arpeggios and in this section D string figure:

The song’s overall structure presents a symmetrical arc.  Sections C and D can be taken as one long midsection, as they are separated from the rest of the piece by a tempo shift, and united by a number of compositional traits (a V turnaround at the end of each repetition; legato vocals with long pauses; a single drum pattern).  If one takes them as such, the piece looks like this:

Intro · Verse · Midsection · Verse · Outro

Symmetrical.  Five sections.  Unusually for the pop genre, where sections are usually divisible into units of four, this song’s verses, midsection, and outro are each comprised of five vocal “statements.”  If the piece as a whole were to reflect the down-up-down motif, one would expect an overall upward motion to the intro, and an overall downward motion to the outro.  This is indeed the case.  The ascending section A (it’s in the mid-range of the orchestra):

The descending section E (it’s in the backing vocals):

One would also expect the second verse to have some new, descending quality to it, and it does.  Notice how the melody falls instead of rising on “slow,” and how the harmonies have a consistently downward motion:

Unlike in the first verse, here the tempo accelerates, as if to illustrate Icarus’ fall.

Might the motif α arc be visible in the album cover?

let-it-come-down-e28093-september-2001-in-cd-covers-by.jpeg

Motif β:  Sitting ’round

Various aspects of this piece seem to make the metaphysical argument that “what goes up must come down.”  How does our narrator feel about this reality?  In the words of the album title, Let It Come Down.  There is a calm, fatalistic acceptance of life’s ups and downs, expressed in a kind of flatness.

Pierce’s vocal style refrains from ornament, histrionics, and even vibrato, however much orchestrated drama surrounds him:

The closest thing to a completely flat melody is one that oscillates between two neighboring notes.  We hear this in a number of places (below:  the top string parts; the woodwinds; the twangy guitar):

While its arrangement is varied and lush, “Don’t Just Do Something” essentially drones on the tonic A major for the first 1:55, until the entrance of section C.  The subsequent iteration of section B, though enlivened by sprightly drums, also maintains an underlying tonic drone, as does the outro.  While popular music is often simple at the chord-progression level, the radically static, meditative quality found in this and other Jason Pierce compositions is unusual and characteristic of his style.

 

Analysis #4

fix-you-title-card4.jpg
Listen to or buy the song.

With No More Mr. Nice Guy, marriage therapist Dr. Robert A. Glover popularized Nice Guy Syndrome, a life-sabotaging cluster of approval-seeking, perfectionistic, conflict-avoidant behaviors that stem from a man being unable to accept his own inherent worth.  Listening to Chris Martin’s “Fix You,” it seems to me that its narrator is not just offering a shoulder to cry on, but is a deeply pained Nice Guy.  I will consider the piece in light of Dr. Glover’s thesis.

Perfectionism:

For Nice Guys, these survival mechanisms take the form of the following life paradigm: If I can hide my flaws and become what I think others want me to be then I will be loved, get my needs met, and have a problem-free life.” [1]

The production is flawless. Here and in the rest of Coldplay’s oeuvre, there are no rattling drum sticks in the background, no coughs, no excessive reverb, no damaged tape artifacts, no ugly bent notes. Groups just as world-beating have humanized their sound through such moments (e.g. the coughing in “In My Time of Dying” and “Taxman”), but Martin & co. try hard not to.

original-1

The arrangement is exceedingly orderly.  With each new section, an element enters squarely on the one: piano for the first chorus, acoustic guitar for the second verse, strings for the second chorus, electric guitar and drums for the finale. Even within sections, introduced elements expand with a comforting predictability:  the organ’s high register enters for the second half of the first verse; a vocal overdub enters for section B; the drums jump from a soft ride to booming snare and crashes halfway through the first iteration of section C. There is nowhere to expand to from section C‘s climax, so every element but piano falls away, again on the one beat, for a chorus reprisal.  It could not be more sensible.

Coldplay utilizes pre-recorded backing tracks when performing “Fix You” live. This is presumably to recreate the layered X&Y sound and forestall moments of stark imperfection onstage.

While the PA plays organ, Chris Martin’s hands hover over piano keys. If he were to render the opening verse on piano, the live “Fix You” would differ substantially from the X&Y version, which might divide audience opinion. That scenario has been avoided. The sight of a hired keyboardist onstage might disenchant members of the audience as well (those attached to an image of Coldplay as the four guys from Coldplay).

Unfortunately, Dr. Glover believes that perfectionistic measures lead to isolation:

Humans connect with humans. Hiding one’s humanity and trying to project an image of perfection makes a person vague, slippery, lifeless, and uninteresting. Teflon Men… work so hard to be smooth, nothing can stick to them. Unfortunately, his Teflon coating also makes it difficult for people to get close. [2]

There is a contingent of listeners who cannot get into Mr. Martin’s work.  Writing for All Music, Stephen Erlewine deems X&Y to be “deliberate and sleek… well scrubbed and well behaved… professional.” But he cannot love what will not risk itself: “terminal politeness does cripple their music.” In a piece called “Why Coldplay Sucks,” a blogger describes how he enjoyed Parachutes but finds the follow-up A Rush of Blood to the Head “too boring… ultimately flat and lifeless…. without anything to say.” In a three-star review for Rolling Stone, Kelefa Sanneh praises “the most casual thing on [X&Y],” bonus track “Till Kingdom Come,” calling out the bungled count-in: “It’s an unexpected delight to hear [Martin] sound so small again.”  

Manipulation:

Nice Guys are manipulative. Nice Guys tend to have a hard time making their needs a priority and have difficulty asking for what they want in clear and direct ways. This creates a sense of powerlessness. Therefore, they frequently resort to manipulation when trying to get their needs met. [3]

Please. If you stand up we’ll buy you all ice cream. [4]

Excepting the case of highly abstract works, music is going to manipulate the listener. We love musicians for it. It is a give-and-take, however, with works often pulling back in places, allowing listeners to explore their semiotic crannies, holding discovered ambiguities to the light, savoring their prismatic beauty, etc.

“Fix You” falls towards the manipulative end of the spectrum, meaning it offers little leeway as to how it should be experienced. The lyrics serve a double-function, both narrating the song and slyly suggesting how we are to respond to it.   We are invited at the outset to reflect on our disappointments:

When you lose something you can’t replace / When you love someone and it goes to waste

That such losses are painful is underlined:

 Could it be worse?

We are primed in the first verse to the idea of crying. Then in the finale:

Tears stream down your face

That is the suggested program for listening to “Fix You.” This popular fan video picks up on the cues, with the actress weeping during section C.

A two note pattern, Eb and D back and forth, sounds over each chord in the I – iii – vi – V progression of section A. This sequence, equally major and minor, looping back on itself with a V – I cadence, bound by the Eb – D figure, suits the subject matter: feeling “stuck.” The gauzy lone organ of verse one is prayerful, contemplative. Chris Martin enters sweetly, in his highest register. (Dr. Glover remarks that Nice Guys “try to get approval by… having a pleasant, non-threatening voice.”) It’s a fitting setting for the line

When you feel so tired but you can’t sleep

though it’s perhaps too tight a fit, leaving the listener with little wiggle room on how to take it. Section B foreshadows that

lights… will ignite your bones

and the billowing finale, section C, delivers. After the soothing tenor of the first two minutes, one’s pulse can’t but race at the sudden introduction of pounding drums, electric guitar, and an overdubbed choir of Mr. Martin hollering from the top of his head voice. It is effective. I find it enjoyable. And manipulative.

Fixing:

Nice Guys are often attracted to people and situations that need fixing.  Nice Guys try to fix situations by doing whatever it takes to get the other person to stop being upset. [5]

I will try to fix you.

That narrator’s sincerity cannot be doubted.  In the verses, he enumerates the subject’s sorrows, showing that he’s empathetic. In the choruses, he promises that things will improve, and that he will play a role in the turnaround. This promise is stated three times. The propulsive, impassioned finale seals it.

Many Nice Guys report that they are only happy if their partner is happy. Therefore, they will often focus tremendous energy on their intimate relationships.” [6]

What is interesting about the dynamic in “Fix You,” and what makes it suggestive of Nice Guy Syndrome, is the narrator’s lack of boundaries. He desperately wants the subject to feel happier, and in fact, seems to need it to happen before his own happiness can return. Nowhere can we find reference to his own situation, mental state, or desires without reference to his loved one’s. The apex of the song comes in section C, when Mr. Martin sings

Tears stream down your face / and I…

Drawing out that last word, unable to articulate the rest of the thought. It is evocative. Firstly, in a literal way, it shows an unwillingness to assert himself. Secondly, it suggests that he is crying alongside her. The distance between his and her mental spaces is become nil, and he likes it, as suggested by the ecstatic, arcing harmonies. Thirdly, it illustrates why Nice Guys leave those around them dissatisfied. Does she need him, when she’s feeling put-upon by life, to be so distraught? To have drawn her into this moment of catharsis alongside him? It is contextually implied that the rest of the sentence would be

and I will try to fix you

He will try to fix her, but can he, in fact? Was it ever his duty to do so? Dr. Glover might warn her:

When these projects don’t polish up as expected, Nice Guys tend to blame their partner for standing in the way of their happiness. [7]

A Nice Guy reformed?

With all disclaimers about conflating an artist with his work…

The Chris Martin lyrical persona was fixing things as recently as 2013’s “Atlas” (“I’ll carry your world / and all your hurt”).  But these are trying days for the songwriter, and he may change his approach.  Reflecting with the BBC on how his personality contributed to the dissolution of his marriage to Gweneth Paltrow:

This was more a realization about trying to grow up… if you can’t open yourself up, you can’t appreciate the wonder inside. So you can be with someone very wonderful, but because of your own issues you cannot let that be celebrated in the right way.

It would seem that he is coming to terms with himself as a flawed but still lovable individual. Dr. Glover writes that this is key to the rehabilitation of a Nice Guy:

An integrated man is able to embrace everything that makes him unique: his power, his assertiveness, his courage, and his passion as well as his imperfections, his mistakes, and his dark side. [8]

Such realizations could lead to a creative renaissance for Mr. Martin. The world may yet hear from his dark side. Alternatively, he may feel less driven to compose, if creating pleasing music has been one of the “attachments” he has relied on to gain the approval of others. Whatever happens next, by crafting a piece that so well conveys the subjective dramas of Nice Guy Syndrome, Chris Martin has already contributed much with “Fix You.”


[1] Robert A. Glover, No More Mr. Nice Guy.  (Running Press, 2000), 29. [2] Ibid, 48. [3] Ibid, 8. [4] Chris Martin to the audience, before performing “Yellow” on the album Live 2003. [5] No More Mr. Nice Guy, 45. [6] Ibid, 6.  [7] Ibid, 9.  [8] Ibid, 11.

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