Small Potatoes

Some things just don’t age well.

Take songs, for instance. Have you listened to the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” lately? It starts out with “Well, I’d rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man” and goes downhill from there. I don’t know how well it went over in ’65, but today? Not good at all. Nor is it the worst offender in the “relations between the sexes” category.

Remember “Go Away, Little Girl” (co-written by Carole King, yet!)? If the singer can’t resist her, why is it her responsibility to stay away from him? Is a restraining order appropriate about now?

By comparison, my current pet peeve in the “what was the writer thinking” sweepstakes is small potatoes, but still…

The radio woke me up this morning to “Deacon Blues,” which was, as some of you may remember, a hit for Steely Dan in the late seventies.

Mostly I take issue with the chorus.

“I’ll learn to work the saxophone”. Has anyone in the 173-year history of the instrument used this phrase? Nobody works a sax. They play it, just like any other musical instrument.

Yeah, okay, maybe it’s a regional thing. I’ll let it pass, because that’s not my major complaint about the song.

“Drink Scothc whisky all night long / And die behind the wheel.”

Did we really need a glorification of someone planning on committing suicide by driving drunk? Sure, you can read it other ways: the inevitability of a pathetic death, maybe.

But.

Perhaps it’s arrogance, but I think my interpretation is the likely one in modern ears.

I’m not boycotting my radio station, but I will change the channel or turn off the radio if that song comes on when I’m awake enough to reach the buttons.

Because there are already enough idiots on the road to give me nightmares. Weaving in and out of traffic at high speed, cutting across multiple lanes at the last second, and ignoring all traffic indicators. And that’s before they get on the highway and (probably) before they have a drink.

I know, I know. Not only have you all heard my griping already, but one outdated pop song isn’t going to make any real difference. It’s the attitude that chaps my ass. The song may have been written forty years ago, but the protagonist’s air of entitlement could have come out of today’s newspaper.

“Call me Deacon Blues”? Yeah, you can call yourself whatever you want, but “Call me Traffic Fatality In the Making” seems more appropriate. But I suppose that doesn’t scan. Too bad.

Still, there are signs of hope on the street.

Last night, the traffic lights were out at the foot of the freeway exit ramp we use. This is an ugly intersection: a major on- and off-ramp with dedicated carpool/HOV lanes meets a major commute arterial that connects I-80 and I-580.

In the normal course of things, the lights are all but ignored. Drivers don’t just stretch the yellow, they snap it in half and pee on the pieces in the cause of saving a couple of seconds.

Last night, with not a police officer in sight, everybody stopped at the intersection and politely took turns going through it. I’ve never seen traffic move through there so smoothly.

Nothing wrong with small potatoes.

What Was That Song Again?

I’ve used a huge number of words on this blog complaining about the short attention spans of the American population. Apparently I owe some of the population an apology.

I was browsing through the July browsing trends on Google and was stunned by ten top searches for songs.

The Number One song on the list is Happy Birthday. Let that sink in for a moment… Now let this sink in: It was also the most-searched song last month and has been in the top ten for the past eighteen months. That’s right: for a year and a half–longer than I’ve been writing this blog–Americans have been desperate to find a song they’ve heard at least once a year for their entire lives.

What’s going on here? Can the public not remember the words from year to year? Are they looking for recordings so they don’t have to strain their vocal chords with a fifteen second tribute to their loved ones? Maybe they can’t remember the tune? No, forget that last one; if it were The Star-Spangled Banner I might buy that, but Happy Birthday barely has a melody in the first place.

Speaking of The Star-Spangled Banner, guess what’s in third place? That’s right! The American national anthem. That’s been in the top ten for thirty-nine months, more than three years. Again, this is a song is pounded into every American’s head from childhood on. It’s taught in school*. It’s played at every sporting event (and we’ve seen that Americans are obsessed with sports). Why this strange determination to find it online?

* Well, the first verse is. But since that’s the only verse anyone ever sings, it doesn’t affect the argument any. All those searches aren’t coming from people who want the rest of the lyrics.

I’ll admit it’s damn near impossible to sing if you’re not drunk (the tune is lifted from an Eighteenth Century English song celebrating the pleasures of wine, women, and–amusingly recursively–song). Even so, it seems unlikely that all the searches are coming from people looking for recordings to play at the neighborhood kids’ soccer game. Maybe it’s drunks looking for sheet music? That seems doubtful too. Aside from the fact that alcoholic indulgence increases the drinker’s confidence in his memory, there just aren’t enough Americans who can read printed music to generate those kinds of numbers.

Still, the fact that both songs have remained in the top ten so long does run counter to claims that America’s attention span is declining. The rest of the list also supports the idea that Americans are capable of remembering things beyond a single twenty-four hour news cycle.

At Number Two, we have Let It Go, from Frozen. The song has only been on the list for three months, but the movie came out last year. Apparently people can remember last November if the spectacle is large enough.

Further support from positions Four through Seven: Katy Perry’s Dark Horse was released last September, as does Ylvis’ The Fox. Magic!’s Rude goes back to last October, and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which has racked up twenty-three months in the top ten, dates back to 1984!

This leads me to offer a suggestion to any activists concerned that their causes might get lost after the next news cycle. (Yes, I realize that’s all of them.) The evidence suggests that if you can set out your concerns in a single verse and set it to the tune of a popular song celebrating sex, drugs, and/or rock ‘n’ roll, you can stay in the public’s mind for years.

Just ask Arlo Guthrie