I've been listening to a lot of songs from musicals lately. I think a few years ago it might have embarrassed me to say that a little - as part of the general "putting away of childish things" in adulthood, I disdained the musicals that I'd been taken to when I was young.
I think there's still a limit to how much I can put up with - my friend Michael put it best when he used to mock this speaky-singy exchange from Miss Saigon; "I'm gonna buy you a girl" - "No you can buy me a beer". That hammy conversational singing by British actors putting on an American accent didn't, for a long time, appeal to me all that much (memories of going to see Miss Saigon also not helped by getting a migraine and being sick in taxi on way home when I was 11) ...
But saying "I don't like musicals" is, of course, just stupid. You don't like Singin' in the Rain? You don't like Mary Poppins? You don't like Over the Rainbow or Ol' Man River? The songs of Cole Porter or Jerome Kern? West Side Story? Stephen Sondheim?
Sondheim is the prompt for this. Down the years, as I've tried to find out about and listen to popular songs as much as possible, as it's been almost an obsession, there'll have occasionally been people whose view I respect pointing me in a certain direction, and I've kind of "banked" the suggestion for a later point - it happened with Tom Waits, Jacques Brel, Tindersticks amongst others - and it happened a few times with Sondheim. Smart, musical people telling me how brilliant he is, me acknowledging it but just thinking it wasn't for me right now.
But I think I'm there now.
Though there aren't quite as many of his songs in popular culture as other great writers of musicals, obviously I've heard quite a few of them before. But I just had a sudden urge to listen to Being Alive a week or two ago, and I haven't stopped listening to it since - apart from when I've been listening to other Sondheim songs.
I mean, it's still got a lot of that speaky-singing, hasn't it, but it's all rather brilliant.
But, as I said, I've been warming to musicals for a while now. I've had cause to revisit the music of my childhood a fair bit, as we've a tiny dancer to entertain. And there've been quite a few enjoyable film musicals recently.
I wonder if film musicals hit a lull because of how thoroughly pop songs became integrated into modern films. You could have songs in people's heads, songs in the background, bands performing etc without any need for the film to be an actual musical. Songs are central to many of my favourite films, without them being musicals.
But now they've definitely made a comeback - partly film audiences have probably got over the cynicism, and also clever film makers have found ways to make them work without seeming dated.
Lately, I've watched Once, La La Land, Sunshine on Leith, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Into the Woods, Les Miserables, Enchanted, God Help the Girl, Begin Again, Jersey Boys, as well as a few other older ones. They work for me to varying degrees.
I loved La La Land, I must say. I loved Emma Stone's performance of Audition (The Fools Who Dream). I wonder about that, compared to Anne Hathaway's performance of I Dreamed a Dream in Les Miserables, which I found all together too much.
To me, it's about how much artifice we can endure. Pop songs are artificial by their nature, the greatest soul songs and heart-rending ballad, even Nick Drake doing Black-Eyed Dog, even Kurt Cobain doing All Apologies, it's still a performance. But we can, generally, let that go and feel it is "real" if we don't see the strings holding the performers up, just like in a film, our brains are allowed to forget it's acting when it's really good.
But Hathaway acts too hard - her character's dying, she's singing, whispering and roaring, she's retching, she's made up to look wretched, how can you not add that all together and go "That's Anne Hathaway! She's an extremely healthy and radiant young actress trying to win an Oscar!"
Whereas, whether by accident of design, I think they dealt with that artifice rather well in 'La La Land'. Audition (The Fools Who Dream) is thoroughly fake - Emma Stone's character breaks into a big show tune at her breakthrough audition, 3/4 of the way into the film. But we've already dealt with "reality". Right at the start of the film, her character Mia is on the way to another audition, and they show her in it, and she's brilliant, she acts the fuck out of it, only to be rudely interrupted. I feel like we're slyly being told "yes, this is Emma Stone, the excellent actress, playing an aspiring, failing actress, yes, this whole film's fake, go with it, see she's brilliant in real life, and hold on to the idea that she's brilliant in the film, too. It's important".
Then there are scenes of various other cringeworthy auditions, her not getting parts, but you don't forget how good she was in that first audition. So she doesn't have to overact the big setpiece - we know she's brilliant at acting. She can just sing the song without breaking any spells. We can deal with this level of fakeness.
Well, that's my take on it.
Now, moving on to the second (shorter) part of this blog. I remember a line (or rather a misheard line) from a very theatrical favourite of mine, Rufus Wainwright - from his song I Don't Know What It Is, he asks the questions "Is there anyone else who's too in love with beauty?", but for some reason, I've always heard it as "Is there anyone else who's still in love with music?" and I've had that line buzzing around my head for years.
I love that question - sometimes it feels pertinent - when I'm moving from album to album, song to song, in love with music and song, and it feels hard to convey that joy to the world, it feels like my generation loses that obsessive love for music a bit (I certainly feel it when running quizzes, where people's lack of musical knowledge sometimes can shock me).
Anyway, I thought about the songs, in the last two or three years, I've utterly loved, not just liked or appreciated. I try and stay on top of everything, listen to all the new stuff from the cool new bands and the hip-hop and all that, but falling in love with a song is a little different. I like the new Vince Staples album, but there's nothing I'm in love with on it. Or the Fleet Foxes album.
Perhaps there will be on time, but actually the small number I've really obsessed over, which I haven't been able to get out of my head, in recent times, reveal a more sentiment edge than I'd always care to admit.
Here they are:
Being Alive - Company
Girl in Amber - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Audition (The Fools Who Dream) - La La Land
Lean on Me - Bill Withers
Gimme Some Lovin' - Spencer Davis Group
A Whole Lot Better - Brendan Benson
Maria - West Side Story
King Kunta - Kendrick Lamar
Moon Song - Karen O and Ezra Koenig
Fourth of July - Sufjan Stevens
Dollar Days - David Bowie
Night 52 - Christine and the Queens
Angela Surf City - The Walkmen
Sign of the Times - Jamie T
Hey Darling - Sleater-Kinney
Love Love Love - Mountain Goats
Love Anyway - The Waterboys
Trellick Tower - Emmy the Great
Severed Crossed Fingers - St Vincent
Rise to Me - The Decemberists
Marry Me Archie - Alvvays
My Baby Don't Understand Me - Natalie Prass
Pa'lante - Hurray for the Riff-Raff
There's no particular dividing line, I think those are the songs which have buzzed around my head and not removed themselves for ages, for the first time in the last two or three years. I guess not all are that sentimental!
But, anyway, I have one final thing to say. I know this whole blog is all about putting music into lists and categories and setting limits sometimes, but actually, hopefully, it's overall purpose is the opposite.
Don't fall out of love with music. Don't draw lines (though I know that sometimes it is the people who draw lines that love music the most). There's no upper limit to how many bands you can love, and there's no upper limit to how many great songs they've done.
I don't count Mountain Goats, or Girls Aloud, or Katy Perry, or Barry Manilow, or Bill Withers, or Mark Kozelek amongst my very favourite artists - I've never seen any of them live - but they've all got at least five songs, if not more, I could listen to over and over again.
Whether it's show tunes, futuristic hip-hop, indie rock, whatever, stay with the music. Don't waste time not listening to music.
Somewhere in my head is some idea of how the song can be everything. I wrote this long poem a couple of years ago about all manner of things (sometimes I'm not sure what), and I like the last few lines - something about the power of the song:
This is how it ends:
Redemption last was mentioned as a choice
On Christmas Day after Joe Strummer died -
Two ancient cultures held each other’s gaze
Just long enough for monsters creeping past.
Now, all the guys on t-shirts must be dead,
Can we recall their names? Erm, No We Can’t!
Can hope and change survive unspecified
Unrealistic, self-destructive cloud-
high expectation? Hell, no! No, it can’t.
Is music still impossible to tame?
Do songs still burst beyond all vain attempts
To break them into pieces and to chain
Them to campaigns and then to list all their
Devices and to judge precise demand,
To number them and edit them and tell
Them they’re not good enough, to playlist them
And subjugate them, wed them to a cause
Unwanted - one nation under a groove,
And two turntables and a microphone
And three chords and the truth, and four young men
From Liverpool who went and shook the world?
What was the last folk song? The last elite
Liberal folk song to take the world to task …
The last great anthem wide-eyed youths collect
To sing in protest at injustice? You might
Have missed it, look it up online. Alright,
So what, it’s not your music anymore –
These summer children scowling in defiance,
These skills you never learnt nor ever would.
This folk age may come to a bitter end;
Young punks are more alive than first assumed.
Fierce independence is now prized above
Those other values wasted on the age –
The most compelling hangover from hope
Might yet renew what looked to be expired.
So how did we get here? Someone explain,
Someone who’s not been two giant steps behind
At every turn, who saw it all the way
And welcomed progress out of more than fear,
Eventually, of being left in the dark.
My friend, it is, again, a numbers game,
A game that shifts one second to the next –
A sequence ever changing far beyond
a commentator’s poetry by rote.
I learnt a song when I was still a child,
Not quite a folk song, whatever they say,
I’m happy with its answers even now.