Let Us Be Tender, Too

Sunrise-Detail2

“Sunrise” (detail) by Laura Grey

You never know what’s truly going on in the hearts of the people around you, or how much trouble or sadness they may be carrying. They may smile or joke, they may look happy or appear productive, but we all carry our burdens around with us, and some of these are much heavier than they appear. We may be private or shy or feel unsafe letting the world see how fragile, hopeless or sad we feel. Life can play horrible tricks on us, and our lives can be turned upside-down in a heartbeat, yet often we walk on, trying not to let others see the extent of our wounds. So let us be gentle with each other and ourselves. Let us give each other the benefit of the doubt. Assume that others’ lives are tougher than we know, and try not to judge others too harshly when they respond to us with more upset and sadness than seems reasonable. Life is unreasonable; hearts get broken; people are tender. Let us be tender, too.

Regina Spektor, My Personal Pop Star

Way back in 2006, before YouTube ruled the world, I had a year’s subscription to Paste, a magazine that arrived each month with a new CD full of indie songs and music videos created mostly by people I’d never heard of. I popped the CD into my laptop and half-watched a few forgettable videos while doing other things. Then I found myself captivated by a charming video made on a shoestring for a musician I’d never heard of before: Regina Spektor.

The song, “Us,” from her 2004 album “Soviet Kitsch,” became an instant favorite for my daughter and me, and we became immediate fans. We enthused about and shared her music with friends before anyone we knew had heard of her, and when she came to Seattle we got bought tickets to her show as quickly as we could. Her concert was wonderful, and shortly thereafter we began hearing her voice in cafes, trendy boutiques, then on the radio.

Since then she’s become so well known that you can even hear her voice in television ads or singing “You’ve Got Time,” the theme to the exceptional Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” Now she’s everyone’s darling, and for so many reasons: her wit, her joy, her quirks, the occasional Russian phrase that rolls out of her mouth, the frequent classical Russian influence on her beautiful piano playing, and the endless surprises in her lyrics, her vocal fillips and her expressive playing.

Regina was born in the USSR and moved to New York with her family as a child to escape Communism and antisemitism. The influence of her heritage is never far from her playing, but it’s wonderfully intermingled with her Manhattan upbringing. My daughter and I feel like Regina is our old friend, our discovery, our pal, and the warm, funny, sweet way she has of engaging with fans during her concerts and on her Facebook page makes us feel even more like she is our own personal star. But you know what? We’re willing to share her with the rest of the world, too.

Harry Nilsson, The Disciplined Wildman

In the early 1970s, Harry Nilsson’s pure, beautiful voice was everywhere. He had a great way with a popular song and he composed tunes that were alternately heartbreaking (“Without You”),  intense (“Jump Into the Fire“), bubble-gum sweet (“Me and My Arrow,” and the theme to “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father“), tender (“The Moonbeam Song“), silly (“Coconut“) and generally wonderful. One of his biggest hits was a song he didn’t compose but which he turned into an international hit with the plaintive simplicity of his voice: “Everybody’s Talkin‘,”  the theme to the 1969 movie “Midnight Cowboy,” turned him from a composer  into a huge star. Nilsson was a famously rowdy and seemingly totally undisciplined mess, a huge drinker and taker of drugs who stayed up for days on end carousing with friends like John Lennon and Ringo Starr. But then he could stumble into a recording studio after having been up all night shouting and smoking and filling his body with poisons and pour out a pitch-perfect performance of a song like “Without You” in a single take. When you listen to this song, pay attention to his extraordinary phrasing: each line unspools in one long, beautiful phrase without a single breath: “No I can’t forget this evening / or your face as you were leaving / but I guess that’s just the way the story goes” is so heartbreakingly effective when delivered as one single, aching, perfect thought. Nowadays it’s rare to hear even the most athletic 20-year-old having enough breath control to hold a phrase that long without breathing between words, and sometimes even breathing between the syllables of a single word, losing continuity, feeling and the meaning along the way. Nilsson always had a soft spot in his heart for pop standards sung by trained musicians, and while he lived like a rock star, he sang with the warmth, control and sweetness of a midcentury balladeer. His story is beautifully told in the 2006 documentary “Who Is Harry Nilsson . . . And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?

Kesha Deconstructed

Why am I featuring a video by Kesha (formerly styled Ke$ha), the pop star who famously brushes her teeth with a bottle of Jack Daniels?

She cultivated a wasted party-girl persona when she first made it big, so you could be forgiven for thinking that she’s just a trashy, yodeling Valley Girl, or a rapping, adenoidal lightweight, or that her songs are indeed catchy but too full of drunken, sneering bad-girl behavior to merit much attention.

But don’t underestimate her talent or her power; Kesha has sold over 60 million albums around the world, and she began her music career as a back-up singer and pop song composer in her teens. She earned her first recording contract at 18 after growing up in a Nashville suburb learning about the business from her mother, a country music songwriter. Kesha cowrote every song on her first two albums and has written for other artists including Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears.

For several years I thought of her music as a bit of dumb fun providing bouncy background beats on my car radio when I need a mindless dance club-style lift, and I still see much of her music that way. No harm in that. But then I heard the spare, dark and moody version of her nightclub anthem “Blow” from her “Deconstructed” EP and gained a whole new respect for her.

Kesha usually relies on dirty sass and frequent vocal fry crackles along with a sort of grubby, drunken energy to make her songs stand out. In the deconstructed version of “Blow,” Kesha’s intense, breathy vocals are front and center and backed up by keyboard riffs brimming with tension and delicious dissonance. The song begins with a muffled, distorted piano and the layers of vibrating echo build menacingly behind her anxious, slightly frantic soft vocals. I think it’s a beautiful surprise from a totally unexpected source. Give it a listen.

How Normal is “Normal” Drinking?

Drink

Image source: Washington Post/Wonkblog, “Paying the Tab” by Philip J. Cook

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attributes 9.8% of all U.S. deaths among adults aged 20 to 64 to excessive drinking, and alcohol is involved in 5% of all U.S. deaths of people under the age of 21. the U.S. alcohol-consumption average is 556 drinks per year (under 11 drinks per week, or 1-1/2 drinks per day), those figures are misleading. Almost 30% of the U.S. population never touches alcohol, and another 30% only drinks on special occasions—once every two weeks at most. That means the other 40% of the population is downing all that liquor.

While the number of alcohol-attributable deaths (AADs) in the U.S. is lower than rates across most of Europe and in much of Central and South America, it is significantly higher than the rate of AADs reported by the United Kingdom and Ireland, despite the high incidence of binge drinking in the UK. This is likely to reflect a difference in the definitions of “alcohol-related” deaths among nations. While rates of binge-drinking vary widely across the U.S., the overall prevalence of binge-drinking among U.S. adults in 2011 was 18.4%. Britain’s National Health Service estimates that over 50% of Britons binge-drink regularly, though official estimates are in the 28% range. In Ireland binge-drinking is a weekly event for 21.1% of the population, and 39% engage in it at least once a month according to official estimates, but underreporting of alcohol use is standard and expected in self-reported surveys. One would expect the number of AADs in these countries to similar to or greater than those in the U.S., but their definitions may vary from that of the CDC, which says, “These deaths were due to health effects from drinking too much over time, such as breast cancer, liver disease, and heart disease, and health effects from consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time, such as violence, alcohol poisoning, and motor vehicle crashes.”

While many people have a genetic predisposition to become alcoholics,  the amount of liquor people consume is strongly influenced by social situations and peer behavior: people tend to see their friends’ behavior as the norm and assume that consuming anything less than their most inebriated friends makes them moderate drinkers. According to the CDC, heavy drinking constitutes 8 or more drinks per week for women (just over one drink per day) and 15 or more drinks per week for men (just over two drinks per day). Binge drinking corresponds to four or more drinks on a single occasion for women (which is equal to just under one bottle of wine) or five or more drinks on a single occasion for men (just under a six-pack of beer). Even moderate drinking (one drink per day for women, two for men) significantly increases risk of breast cancer as well as liver, colon and esophageal cancers and cancers of the mouth and throat. Moderate alcohol use also aggravates mental health disorders (including depression) and increases injury risk. About 70% of drinking-related deaths involved men.

Researchers note that the data on alcohol consumption used to calculate alcohol-attributable deaths  were based on self-reporting, which means it’s quite likely that U.S. alcohol consumers underestimated their consumption. Britain’s National Health Service says that people around the world tend to underestimate their drinking by about 40-60%. Also missing from the estimates were data on the deaths of former drinkers. Since former drinkers may have stopped drinking because of alcohol-related health issues that ultimately cause their deaths, it is likely that their absence from the study artificially lowers the number of deaths caused by alcohol, which brings the number of U.S. deaths alcohol-related deaths to well above one out of ten adults and one out of twenty minors.

One for My Baby

Here’s one of the 20th century’s most influential interpreters of popular song, Frank Sinatra, glamorizing smoking, drinking, and leaving a bar drunk right after last call. So much of what I hate most about midcentury popular culture is wrapped up in this piece, yet I love this song. Why? Because it brings together three legendary musical talents in one perfect moment to tell a familiar story in a style so compelling that you have to lean in and pay attention.

Composer Harold Arlen wrote many of the greatest tunes of the last century, from “Over the Rainbow” to “Blues in the Night” to “The Man that Got Away,” and, of course, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” Lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote 1500 pop tunes from “Laura” to “Moon River,” and was nominated for 19 Academy Awards for his songs, winning four of those Oscars. Some of the duo’s finest compositions were the songs they wrote together during the 1940s. Arlen wrote several of Judy Garland’s greatest hits, and Mercer, though married to someone else, was Garland’s lover for a time in the early 1940s, and he considered her the love of his life. His beautiful song “Skylark,” written with Hoagy Carmichael and brimming with unfulfilled longing, was written for her.

Garland’s great friend Frank Sinatra was one of the key interpreters of both Arlen and Mercer, and when Frank gets a slow, melancholy song about lost love, he’s hard to beat. His styling here is impeccable: pained and haunted, dreamy and hopeless. The song seems simple and straightforward, but it’s full of surprising intervals and clever internal rhymes—it’s one of those sophisticated compositions that begs for a clean, spare performance, and that’s exactly what Frank gives here.

The Birth of the Monkees

In 1965 Americans Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork and Englishman Davy Jones were chosen to star in a TV show about an imaginary rock band inspired by the Beatles: they became The Monkees. Micky Dolenz came from a show-biz family, Mike Nesmith’s mother invented Liquid Paper (no kidding) and Davy Jones had earned a Tony nomination for his role as the Artful Dodger in the original Broadway cast of the musical “Oliver!” (He originated the role in the London cast.) Talented musician Stephen Stills (who later earned fame with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash) had auditioned for the show but was turned down because his hair and teeth were deemed unsuitable during his screen test. When asked if he knew of another musician with a good “open, Nordic look,” he recommended his friend Peter Tork. From 1966 to 1968 the popular show featured the four young men in endless ridiculous scenarios and scores of musical performances. While considered by many to be a lightweight, manufactured ripoff of actual rock groups, the Monkees’ were actually talented musicians with real charm and their music was hugely popular: they sold more than 75 million records worldwide. After their show was canceled in 1968 they went on to release music for two more years and they had numerous successful reunion tours. At their peak in 1967, the band outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined. This compilation of their screen tests shows how fresh and young, boyish and goofy they were, but also shows the confidence and charisma each one displayed well before becoming big TV stars.

Mary Lambert Has No Secrets

Seattle singer and poet Mary Lambert is best known for writing and singing the musical element of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s gay rights anthem “Same Love,” a beautiful paean to marriage equality overlaid with Macklemore’s spoken word performance. She performed the song alongside Madonna at this year’s Grammy awards ceremony while Queen Latifah presided over a mass gay wedding. Lambert has also recorded an expanded version of the song without Macklemore’s spoken voiceover called “She Keeps Me Warm.”

Before becoming a singer, Lambert had some success as a spoken-word artist and poetry-slam regular in the late 2000s, and much of her music has that same sort of coiled, hurting, on-the-verge-of-tears feeling to it that is an important element of the poetry slam tradition. Her latest hit song, “Secrets,” is significantly more bouncy than “Same Love,” but no less heartfelt. She begins by listing personal traits that others might be ashamed to own, including her bipolar disorder, her emotionalism, her weight and her lesbianism. But she then embraces these labels, refuses to hide who she is anymore and says she doesn’t care if the world knows what her secrets are. “So what?” she asks with repeated, cheerful defiance. It’s such a positive, openhearted celebration of self-acceptance and tolerance. Shame? Self-loathing? Denial? We’re so over it.