24 September 2006

When the Listening's Easy

Remember a few years ago when Five For Fighting released a song called "Superman (It's Not Easy)" that explained how hard it is to live up to the expectations placed on white, aging men from middle class backgrounds? "It may sound absurd, but don't be naive," crooned John Ondrasik (who uses FFF as a stage name), "Even heroes have the right to bleed... And it's not easy to be me."

I remember being in the car with my friend Amy when this song was on the radio. She said something like, "Oh, please, motherfucker. It's totally easy to be you. Quit whining."

And... really. Just like I don't have any sympathy for corporate executives who have to acknowledge their humanity in the form of a Viagra prescription, I don't feel pangs for a man who majored in math at UCLA before heading off on his successful music career.

And I'm not saying I've had it so tough that I can be judgmental. My life has been pretty terrific across the board. But I'm not writing songs pretending otherwise.

I'll be damned, though, if I don't enjoy the sound of Five For Fighting. Those gentle piano chords and softly crooned vocals can be awfully soothing. If they weren't, we wouldn't know names like Christopher Cross, Hall & Oates, and Kenny Loggins. (We all know those names, right? It's not just me and this guy?)

But is it possible to get my adult contemporary groove on without choking on sentimentality? FFF isn't the answer. And neither is Clay-freaking-Aiken. Even if I could get past the new bangs, I could not accept an album in which his freckled highness covers songs by Richard Marx, Bryan Adams, and, God help us all, Celine Dion.

However, that album exists... and thus pulls loose another thread from the tapestry of my sanity.

(On a side note: In checking facts for this blog, I often look up albums on Amazon, even if I have no interest in buying them. (Like Clay Aiken's album! Seriously!) The website, though, doesn't know which searches are for informational purposes only, so it uses all of them to make recommendations for things I might like. As a result, I am being nudged toward both the DVD of The Little Mermaid and a paperback edition of Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Surivival.)

With regard to adult contemporary, where can I turn? Where can I go for light rock that doesn't make me want to throw up? I can hear some of you whispering, "Snow Patrol will do! Or how about Coldplay? Or Ryan Adams?" I agree with you, of course, that all those artists make pleasing music, but their ilk asks a bit more of a listener than your basic Huey Lewis (right, Laura?)

There's so much anger and despondency in Snow Patrol's lyrics, for instance, that they create a fascinating conflict with the band's power-pop music.

In cases like that, I want to think about the songs while I'm hearing them, and that's not what I'm talking about here. When I say "adult contemporary," I mean music that goes down smoother than Yoo-Hoo. I mean background tunes I can listen to while I'm flipping through Entertainment Weekly's Fall TV Preview for the fortieth time, making sure I've got the DVR set to record "Ugly Betty."

And not everyone who appears on A.C. stations will do. Just like intriguing rock, overly schmaltzy crap pulls me right out of my magazine. I get so disgusted by the histrionics on "My Heart Will Go On" or the soulless bombast of "This is The Night" that I can't pay attention to anything else.

Fortunately, I think The Fray can provide the wallpaper sounds I need. I've already mentioned that I like their first hit, "Over My Head (Cable Car)", and I'm equally fond of their latest top ten single, "How to Save a Life." On the latter, singer Isaac Slade sounds just like Ryan Adams, which means his voice is husky and emotive without being overwrought. And both songs' mid-tempo pace recalls your average episode of "Dawson's Creek." You know... intelligent and earnest, but not especially groundbreaking.

And when I do The Fray my full attention, I'm greeted by clever-enough lyrics like "I never knew... that everyone I knew/ was waiting on a queue/ to turn and run when all I needed was the truth."

Not Death Cab for Cutie, but not insipid either.

"Not inspid" may sound like snide praise, but it's all I need from adult contemporary ditties. When I want to relax with music for middle class white people, it's nice to have a go-to band.

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