The Mystery of Ben Folds and Dave Matthews
I don't know much gospel, but I would like officially to sing hallelujah. Thanks to the advice of people on this very blog, I was able to get my iPod working.
And it was all because of the "slam your iPod on the desk" technique (please see comments on this post for more info). Screw Apple tech support and the policy that says, "You only get one free call to us and then we charge you for advice that won't help anyway." Seriously, guys. Apple may like our money, but it hates us all the same. I get better customer service at the DMV. (Thank, Mr. Pritchard! I got my new license in the mail, just like you said.)
Anyway, when I got Watson back to life, the first thing I did was celebrate with a dance party in my room. As I was working up a sweat, I was aware that not everyone in the world agrees with me that Cher and Christina Aguilera are the perfect soundtrack to shaking one's booty. But that's their prerogative. I mean, I feel bad for them, but not everyone can understand the genius of the "Believe"/"Genie in a Bottle" two-pack.
And this got me thinking... what popular music do I not understand?
There are two answers to that question: Dave Matthews Band and Ben Folds (with or without the Five).
I know that people flip for both, but each act has always struck me as belabored and boring. Their music sounds like all thinking and no feeling. Even in the live performances I've heard and/or seen, I cannot detect a trace of spontaneity, yet neither act is willing to embrace their calculation. Madonna doesn't seem spontaneous either, but her work highlights her theatricality. BFF and DMB have the stilted creak of artists who try too hard to seem like they're just tossing off some chords.
Not that each has the same turgidity. Dave Matthews groans under the weight of jam-band boasting, whereas Ben Folds sounds bloated because he's trying to prove how exceptionally clever he can be.
Case in point: a few years a go, I saw a concert that featured Rufus Wainwright, Guster, and Folds. (It could have been called the Self-Seriousness Revue, but that's another post...) I was mostly there for Rufus, but I figured Folds would do me right, too. (I knew Guster was going to be adolescent whining and generic guitar riffs. I was right).
But I noticed that I could not keep my mind on a single Folds song. I'd get into his energetic piano playing or maybe a catchy chorus, but I'd always drift off. Finally I realized I couldn't stay engaged because he never gets to the point. His lyrics are a maze of complicated metahpors, and the melodies are so free-form that there's rarely anything to latch onto. His songs are smart, I guess, but their intelligence is cold. There's no easy pleasure to be gained from listening to his dense production. His convoluted lyrics deny the mindless sing-along.
Not that songs need to be stupid. Sometimes, however, they need to be fun. That's what pop music is. Even when a pop song is upsetting, there's something pleasing about hearing real emotions captured in a four minute vessel. Life feels more manageable because for at least one track, someone else can feel your feelings for you. But for a song to produce that pleasure, it needs to be accessible on a level that doesn't require intellectual investment.
And there are plenty of artists who are just as smart as Folds who also manage to write an easy hook now again. Death Cab For Cutie has "Sound of Settling." Tori Amos has "God." Still intelligent. Still interesting. But also simple enough to reach the gut.
I'd say this problem also applies to Dave Matthews, though his over-work is geared less toward proving he's smart than that he's cool. All those show-offy, playing-seven-
chords-with-one-hand tricks. The sly little references to vaginas in radio singles like "Crash." Dave Matthews is like your older brother's best friend who can't walk out of your driveway without jumping up to grab the rim of your basketball hoop. He doesn't stop the conversation he's having, of course, because he wants it to seem effortless, but he always wants you to notice his jump shot.
And Dave's been jumping for the same basket for years. Really, what difference is there between "Ants Marching" and "So Much to Say" and whatever that last single was? Same horns and stuttering rhythm. Same sweat of effort. Same desire to seem hip. Not what I want on Watson, especially since he's just getting over an illness.