You Gotta Believe

A couple of weeks ago, when I bought the new Hold Steady album, I also picked up Sam's Town by the Killers. I bought it in spite of some pretty harsh reviews, but in the end, I think that The Onion's AV Club got it right:

The Killers have created a batch of easily digestible pop songs that would be disposable if they weren't so catchy; in other words, they've more or less done their job. Sure, it would be nice if the hooks were sharper, and if songs other than "When You Were Young" could approach "Mr. Brightside"-like enormity, but overall, Sam's Town stays the course the way a sophomore-album-after-a-surprise-hit-debut should.

What's really sort of baffling to me about the whole thing is the form of the critical pans. They've gotten slammed for trying to do synth-pop Springsteen, for attempting to write over-the-top songs, and piling on the grandiose instrumentation and effects. This is treated as if it's some sort of huge departure for them, which leads me to believe the the critics writing those reviews have somehow expunged Hot Fuss from their memories, because when I think of "Mr. Brightside" and "All These Things That I Have Done," the words "ironic distance" are not likely to come up.

Even more baffling is the fact that some of the same publications are currently falling over themselves to praise the new album from My Chemical Romance, The Black Parade, which is basically a Queen record with less showy guitar. Or possibly a pop-punk Quadrophenia. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, by the way-- I haven't listened to it all that much, but the album has its moments-- just that it's a little weird to blast one band for writing big heart-on-the-sleeve songs, and then turn around and praise a different band for doing the same thing. It's enough to drive you to the mafia theory of music criticism.

Part of the problem is the hype that the Killers attempted to generate for their record, by talking about how Important it was going to be, which probably backfired. But, really, many of the songs on Sam's Town really belong in the same category as The Black Parade and, well, Queen and Jim Steinman. They're songs that demand a total committment from the performer-- in order to go out and sing this stuff, you have to be convinced that it's total genius, otherwise the songs collapse under their own weight.

(More below the fold.)

The problem with Total Committment songs is that they also sort of demand a committment from the listener. You don't necessarily have to believe that "Bohemian Rhapsody" is the greatest song ever written, but you have to be willing to humor Freddie Mercury while he's singing it, because it doesn't work otherwise. If you look at the lyrics, or think too much about the concept, it's one of the silliest songs of all time. But if you're in the right mood when it come son the radio, it sounds brilliant, because the band believe it's brilliant.

There are artists who have built entire careers on recording just this sort of song-- Queen and Meat Loaf would be the most obvious examples. Jim Steinman has built a career on writing this sort of song, including not just every Meat Loaf song you've ever heard (the Loaf recorded some non-Steinman songs, and believe me, you're glad you haven't heard them), but also "Total Eclipse of the Heart", and some other choice bits of cheese.

Lots of other artists dip into this area from time to time. A lot of Spingsteen's E Street Band songs go in this category-- "Rosalita," pretty much the whole Born to Run album-- but some of his other stuff doesn't really fit. I'm sure he was convinced that some of the songs on The Ghost of Tom Joad were brilliant stuff, but it's not the same kind of over-the-top, in-your-face rock that I'm talking about here.

Led Zeppelin is another band I'd put in this category, at least some of the time. Some of their tunes are just hyper-charged blues songs, but when Robert Plant starts screeching about Tolkien, you either buy it or you don't. If you're willing to run with him when he starts trying to be cosmic, then that's great, but if you're not that into it... Well, the live version of "Stairway to Heaven" isn't all that far from Spinal Tap.

This sort of music is also readily parodied-- think Spinal Tap, and more recently Tenacious D and the Darkness-- but not easily copied. A good rule of thumb for deciding whether something counts as a Total Committment song is to ask whether you could imagine a successful cover version of it ("successful" in an artistic sense, that is-- bad covers of good songs have sold millions of records, so commercial success isn't a useful guide). There wouldn't be any point to doing an ironic cover version of "Paradise By the Dashboard Light," because the only way the song works is if you completely commit to it, and sing the hell out of it. At which point, you've exactly reproduced the Meat Loaf version, and accomplished nothing unless your life goal is to be a Borges story.

This isn't foolproof-- I wouldn't've thought that an ironic cover of "I Will Survive" would work, but I actually kind of like the Cake version-- but it works pretty well. "Bohemian Rhapsody" is a Total Committment song, as is "Born to Run." "Total Eclipse of the Heart" is another-- it's absolutely true that Bonnie Tyler oversings that song, but it wouldn't work any other way. It's a song that absolutely demands crashing percussion and howling vocals, though I'm not sure about the dancing ninjas.

As you might've guessed, I have a certain weakness for this sort of stuff. It's the kind of thing that doesn't always fare wel with critics, though. Every now and then, some of them will buy into it, and you get effusive praise for things like The Black Parade (because, really, the title track is "Bohemian Rhapsody" with black eyeliner. Well, more black eyeliner, anyway...). More often, though, you end up with critical pans like those given to Sam's Town. Which is a shame, because if you're willing to buy into it, "When You Were Young" really is a terrific song. But you have to believe in it, at least for a little while.

Do you have a favorite Total Committment song? Talk it up in the comments.


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Jim Steinman was exactly who came to mind when listening to "Sam's Town". I'm a sucker for bombast. I'm not ashamed of it. There's nothing on this album as good as "All these Things that I have Done" or "Mr. Brightside", but, as you say, "When You Were Young" is a pretty damn good song and "The River is Wild" and "Sam's Town" (other than the awful coda) aren't too shabby either.

The album for me is really exemplified by "Why do I Keep Counting?", though. By any measure, it ought to be an awful song. It's trite, repetitive, overwrought and all that stuff. But when I listen to it, I get into it. I can't help it. And, somehow, in the car with the volume turned up, the only songs that get skipped are "Bling (Confessions of a King)" and "Uncle Johnny".

On the other hand, Brandon Flowers should never be allowed to write lyrics again after this album.

By Aaron Bergman (not verified) on 31 Oct 2006 #permalink

I always thought of these types of songs as theatrical. That is you are more aware of the fact that this is a performance trying to get you to feel something, rather than somehow being "real", a real emotional outburst, etc.. This means, in a sense, that songs like this are perhaps more real than down and dirty songs like some of the grunge rock stuff, since all deliberately recorded songs are a performance. Anyway, don't know if I got that across correctly...

Actually, the thing that distinguishes the songs you've listed is bombast--but bombast in a good way. In other words, it's bombast where the songs build to a satisfying, hook-laden, crescendo with lots of layers of instrumentation and vocals that gets you singing along with them. Bohemian Rhapsody has that. Under Pressure has that. Heck, David Bowie's Absolute Beginners has that, and The Who's Love Reign O'er me comes to mind as well. And Welcome to the Black Parade has it as well. It's like opera. Somehow all the bombast and builds to crescendoes crank up the emotions to the point where we forget about what is often the silliness of it all.

There's nothing wrong with these songs at all, for the most part. My problem with The Killers is that there is more than the usual sameness and calculation about their songs than there is for this type of genre. Worse, they tend to start out cranked up to 11 without any building to 11. I saw this tendency in Hot Fuss, which I rarely listen to anymore. I haven't bothered to buy their second CD.

Another band that really used to be good at this sort of bombast is Suede (known in the U.S. as the London Suede). Their first album two albums are chock full of songs like that, songs like:

Pantomime Horse
Sleeping Pills
This Hollywood Life
Asphalt World

Indefinitely by The Old 97's.

I'd say "Idioteque" by Radiohead is a Total Committment (TM) song.

Actually, the thing that distinguishes the songs you've listed is bombast--but bombast in a good way. In other words, it's bombast where the songs build to a satisfying, hook-laden, crescendo with lots of layers of instrumentation and vocals that gets you singing along with them.

I wouldn't say that the build is a defining characteristic, because a lot of the best examples don't exactly start out soft-- I'd call "Born to Run" a Total Committment song, and it comes crashing in on the very first note. They may turn it to eleven by the end, but it starts at about nine and a half.

But "bombast in a good way" isn't a bad desription.

Generally agreed -- but I note that Nikki French did manage to add a new facet to "Total Eclipse Of The Heart"!

By David Harmon (not verified) on 31 Oct 2006 #permalink

"Theatrical" covers that period of Springsteen's career though, doesn't it? I mean, Darkness on the Edge of Town is about as theatrical as albums come this side of Queen, and it's not like "Thunder Road" appeals to the casual listener. I suspect, though, that what we mean by "theatrical" is actually closer to "narrative." I say this because albums like Bowie's Station to Station are plenty "theatrical," but don't seem to fit in this category.

But that's just a hunch. To back it up, though, how about Nick Cave's entire corpus? My favorite's "I Had a Dream, Joe," but almost anything suffices.

I would say that "theatrical" is a necessary condition for the songs I'm talking about, but not a sufficient one. That is, most of the songs I'm thinking of are theatrical in their own way, but there are plenty of theatrical songs that don't quite fit. Freddie Mercury never had a waking moment when he wasn't theatrical, but I wouldn't put "Killer Queen" or "Keep Yourself Alive" in the same category as "Bohemian Rhapsody." ("Bicycle Race," on the other hand, probably does go there, but even Freddie Mercury's deep committment to the tune can't save that from being ridiculous...)

The songs I'm thinking over not only have a theatrical element, but also a sort of in-your-face, amps-turned-to-eleven sensibility, at least at their peak. They're the sort of songs where you check the liner notes to see if they were dragging in musicians from other studios, just to make it louder.

I'm not that familiar with Nick Cave, so I couldn't really say where he fits.

Also known as anything produced by Phil Spector?

By Aaron Bergman (not verified) on 01 Nov 2006 #permalink

I wonder how much of Sufjan Stevens' (and Danielson or My Brightest Diamond) would fall into this category. I wouldn't quite call it fantastic, but it takes a fair amount of self-confidence to write a song called "They are Night Zombies! They Are Neighbors!! They have come back from the dead!! Ahhhh!" that comes complete with a cheerleader chorus... and the stage performance... wow, the stage performance...