Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Tiny Dancer”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

Maxine Taupin used to sew patches onto Elton John’s garments and make other repairs to stage costumes, no small tasks. Serving as seamstress for the band was hardly the most prominent or notable role for the once and future Maxine Phyllis Feibelman when John released the album Madman Across the Water, in late 1971. The woman who was a ballerina as a child was now a newlywed, having married music man Bernie Taupin, John’s steadfast lyricist. When Taupin sat down to put words to some of John’s new music, that L.A. lady was on his mind. Actually, the whole experience of being in Los Angeles in the early nineteen-seventies occupied Taupin’s thoughts, and he tried to capture the entirety of the experience, from religious proselytizers roaming the avenues to pirouettes on the beach.

“Tiny Dancer” became the lead track on Madman Across the Water and served as the album’s second single, following “Levon,” which became John’s third Top 40 hit in the U.S. “Tiny Dancer,” though, had some built-in challenges. Stretching to over six minutes, the track was a tough sell for radio programmers who preferred quick and peppy, all the better to make it seem like they were cramming in a lot of tunes between cascades of commercials. John was a known performer, but he wasn’t yet a superstar with the kind of clout required for sprawling singles. “Tiny Dancer” broke John’s streak of placing songs in the Billboard Top 40, peaking at #41.

The middling success initially of the single proved to be an inaccurate forecast of its legacy. Later embraced by both album rock and adult contemporary radio stations, the song soared in popularity, eventually selling over three million copies in the U.S. and cementing a place in pop culture so prominent that arguably exceeds that of any of John’s many other collaborations with Taupin.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

Outside Reading — Model Writing edition

Buying Myself Back by Emily Ratajkowski

Although I haven’t conducted a definitive analysis of the responsive media coverage to Emily Ratajkowski’s piece, written for New York magazine, I’ll wager that most of it focuses on her convincing recounting of sexual assault by a named photographer. If so, I guess that’s understandable. That’s the newsy information contained therein. And yet there is so much more here that merits attention and consideration. With clear eyes and firm reasoning, Ratajkowski details the callous stripping of personhood she experiences working as a model, where assertions of her identity of ownership of her image are met with derision. The same photographer who assaulted her sexually also profits extensively off of photographs of her that are clearly being used beyond the bounds of the initial agreement. If she went into the photographer’s house and stole tens of thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment, she would be arrested and charged with a crime. He’s engaged in equally clear-cut thievery, but justice for Ratajkowski requires a costly, arduous trek through a convoluted court system. And her public protests are met with nasty moralizing about sexy photos she did consent to, the equivalent to “What was she wearing?” blame-shifting. One man committed a crime, but there are a lot of people who are culpable.

People Need to Give Up the Illusion of Bipartisan Friendship by Jessica Valenti

As a matter of spiritual self-preservation, I’ve culled my social media feeds to largely avoid the sort of posts that are likely to draw me into angry digital arguments or keep me up at night fretting that I didn’t forcefully, thoroughly correct an utterly wrongheaded point. This means I’ve seen less of the common meme that declares a willingness to have beer with someone with different political views, or some similarly smug call for camaraderie in the face of division. So it’s pretty clear to me that those particular shares are done disproportionately by people who otherwise fill their feeds with bigotry, fanciful interpretations of the Second Amendment, crackpot COVID theorizing, and other abhorrent opinions. That truth is part of the foundation of Jessica Valenti’s piece, published by GEN. Political views aren’t some benign, inconsequential part of a person, like hair color or a weakness for puns. They speak to the very core of who someone is and how they interact with others. An individual espousing, for example, positions that say transgender people don’t deserve equal rights or Black people should stop complaining about police brutality is an individual who is saying something about what their friendship is worth. Let them drink their beer alone and think about why you’re not excited to sling an arm around their shoulders and sing “The Rare Old Mountain Dew” together.

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How to Save Restaurants by Priya Krishna

Recently, and famously, sprung from Bon Appétit, Priya Krishna heads to The New York Times to write about the state of the restaurant industry during the ongoing bungling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is basically at the point of criminal malfeasance at the White House. As part of her broad diagnosis of the industry at this moment, Krishna shares stories from around the country, highlighting some of the creative, inspiring efforts of chefs and business owners. Among those celebrated is Francesa Hong, pictured above, who runs Morris Ramen, a fantastic restaurant in the city where I live. She responded to this moment in time by helping launch an initiative to address food insecurity in the community and further aligned her money and her mouth by running for the state assembly, a seat she is almost certain to win in November. I was proud to vote for her in the primary, and I’m proud to vote for her again on my next ballot.

How Liberals Opened the Door to Libertarian Economics by Kurt Andersen

Also writing for The New York Times, Kurt Andersen explains how Milton Friedman’s economic theories underwent baffling, damaging evolution in the public consciousness, from easily dismissed nonsense to the underpinning of broadly adopted policies that have resulted in devastating — but cleverly disguised — income inequality in the U.S. As usual, Andersen makes his arguments expertly, tempering the outrage with the occasional dollop of caustic wit.

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (2008) by Douglas A. Blackmon

Journalist Douglas A. Blackmon won the Pulitzer Prize for this powerful historical investigation into the ways Black citizens were further subjugated for decades after the Civil War supposedly granted them freedom that never should have been taken away in the first place. With harsh, necessary clarity, Blackmon practically itemizes the institutionalized and court-validated injustice practiced largely — though not exclusively — in the South, selling citizens into unpaid labor, often on the basis of clearly invented criminal charges. It’s a profound piece of scholarship, precisely the sort of necessary reckoning with our nation’s past and the debt still due because those that suffered passed their suffering down to later generations just as assuredly as the exploiters gifted prosperity to their descendants. Forget the Orwellian nomenclature being used for the latest empty gesture from the proud bigots with official White House titles. There’s nothing patriotic about education that isn’t honest about past immorality in an effort to learn and correct, letting everyone move forward to a better, strong tomorrow based in collective good.

Golden Words — Fleabag, “Episode 1”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

A familiar woman stands before one of the sinks of what appears to be a public bathroom in a fairly posh establishment. It’s revealed that she’s cleaning blood off her face, apparently from a blow to her nose. There’s a knock on the door and a man’s voice is heard, asking, “Can I do anything?” She responds, “No, thank you,” and he replies, “They’ve gone.” The familiar woman turns and extends a cloth to another woman, sitting on the ground looking somewhat shell-shocked, with a similar splash of blood across her face. After briefly checking herself in the mirror, trying valiantly to regain her poise, the familiar woman turns to look directly at the camera. “This is a love story,” she states with a slight, satisfied smile.

So goes the perfect beginning to a spectacular season of television. Phoebe Waller-Bridge based the first season of Fleabag on her one-woman stage show of the same name, the confessional aspect of monologuing directly to the audience replicated through expert, inspired breaking of the the fourth wall in the series. For the second season — which she has pledged is also the last season — Waller-Bridge ingeniously deconstructs the conceit. For the opening episode, simply titled “Episode 1,” she hasn’t quite reached that point yet. Instead, her writing reestablishes everything about the series: the characters, their tense relationships, the jovially caustic tone. It also introduces a key new character, a handsome priest (Andrew Scott) who becomes the object of Waller-Bridge’s lead character in the love story she promises. The core of the episode is a family dinner that is a masterpiece of aggression that evolves from passive to right on the edge of active.

“Episode 1,” like every other piece of Fleabag‘s second season, is a thrilling creative feat. It is precisely the sort of work that I expect to be ignored by institutions that dole out entertainment awards. And yet there Waller-Bridge was, standing on a Los Angeles stage with an Emmy in hand, her writing judged the best of the year over competition such as Veep and Barry, established favorites of the Television Academy. It was an early award for the ceremony, and it turned out to be the harbinger of a night where the show cleaned up, nabbing trophy after trophy. The award for Waller-Bridge’s words is perhaps the most satisfying, though. Her script feels like a pure, potent manifestation of Waller-Bridge’s brilliance.

Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.

The Art of the Sell — They Might Be Giants, Lincoln

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

I can assure you that college radio programmers required no heavy-handed promotional coercion when They Might Be Giants release their sophomore album, Lincoln, in the fall of 1988. Even so, it was a fine reassurance that trade publication advertisements for the release from the oddball, wildly creative duo eschewed the usually bland band photo or rote rendering of the album cover. In keeping with the cleverness of the band, Lincoln was touted with a succession of images offering a reminder of other things that had carried the same name over the years, such as the tunnel and the log, and the promise of “18 new songs to rock your world from a couple of guys named John.” It’s an incredibly simple ad. It’s also one of the only ones from my college radio days that I still remember, over thirty years later.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Fifteen

#15 — Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)

If George Miller was going to go back the Wasteland, he was going to get everything he could out the post-apocalyptic landscape. Mad Max: Fury Road was released thirty years after Miller seemingly completed a trilogy with Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and the revival seems like thirty years of idea generation packed into a couple hours of film, with no concept deemed too outlandish for inclusion. If a small army of mutated fellows ravenous for violence go roaring across the desert in a quest for battle that resembles a fever-dream demolition derby, of course they’d bring along a grotesquely masked beastie in a filthy red union suit playing a double-necked guitar that shot flames. Why wouldn’t they, for heaven’s sake?

In Mad Max: Fury Road, the taciturn, weather-beaten hero known as Max is played by Tom Hardy, the modern actor who owns the adjectives taciturn and weatherbeaten. By any reasonable accounting, though, the movie belongs to the women who team with Max to fight off the marauding hooligans of the beast-like Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a warlord who presides over a desperate, cave-dwelling citizenry by withholding scarce resources such as food and water. Five women he’s enslaved to use for forced breeding escape under the guard of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, at peak magnificent fierceness). As a claw swipe against patriarchal villainy that exists here in the pre-apocalyptic society, the messaging isn’t subtle. Arguably, the bluntness of Miller’s thesis makes it more satisfying.

Miller’s haymaker swings extend to the action scenes, and it often feels as if the entire film is an action scene, with a few comparatively quiet moments so the participants can catch their breaths. It’s hard to imagine the kinetic, thunderous battles orchestrated here — mostly conducted in tricked-out vehicles that make the mightiest real-world monster trucks look like tinny Hot Wheels — will ever be matched, at least in any film that doesn’t registered a fatality count that would necessitate charges in some sort of international court. The physicality of the staging and stunt work would be impressive enough if the film were presented as a single static long shot. Instead, Miller and his collaborators deliver a master class in film mechanics. Editor Margaret Sixel won an Academy Award, as did the teams in charge of sound mixing and sound editing. Cinematographer John Seale should have won one, too. And all of them deserve accolades not usually associated with filmmaking. Medals for valor, maybe?

As the U.S. theatrical exhibition business teeters on the precipice, Mad Max: Fury Road is an example of what will be lost if big-movie-big-screen entertainment falls into the abyss. Dreams live on that screen. Legends live there. A production such as Mad Max: Fury Road is recognizably great no matter how it’s seen. I’d wager, though, that it takes movie theater scale — in image, in sound, in everything — to unlock its full power. In that context, it’s staggering.

Laughing Matters — Saturday Night Live, “White Like Me”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

A few years ago, Neal Brennan was interviewed by The A.V. Club about his comedy touchstones, and he recalled watching a certain 1984 Saturday Night Live sketch with a statement that should be absurd, but I suspect holds true for a lot of white people who grew up part of Generation X.

“I think that is probably the first time I thought, “Oh. Being Black is different. That is a totally different experience,” Brennan said.

The sketch was known as “White Like Me,” and it was at the center of the episode that Eddie Murphy came back to host, his first time in that role since leaving the late night comedy program for movie stardom. The premise was that Murphy wanted to conduct an experiment, stirred by curiosity over whether it was true that “there are actually two Americas: one Black and one white.” He worked with the makeup artists up on the eight floor of 30 Rockefeller Center to adopt a convincing guise as a white man, and then he ventured into the world. It was sly satire, building its comic hyperbole without ever tilting Murphy’s experience undercover to pure cartoon. It was exaggerated, but it was clear that it was only by a matter of degrees. Brennan’s epiphany was a reasonable response. But maybe I think that because it was probably the first time I truly landed upon that thought, too.

“White Like Me” can be watched at NBC’s website for Saturday Night Live.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #458 to #456

458. Beat Farmers, Tales of the New West (1985)

Drummer Country Dick Montana and and Jerry Raney kicked around in various San Diego bands for years before they started playing together. They recruited guitarist Buddy Blue and bassist Rolle Dexter to join them, and the quartet holed up in an abandoned warehouse in El Centro, California, rehearsing at every opportunity. By the time to returned to the clubs dotted across their home turf, the band, dubbed the Beat Farmers, had a repertoire of tight rock songs tinged with the influence of old blues and country records.

“We’re not hillbillies,” Montana told Spin. “We’re not old and Black. But we like all that stuff. We just suck it in and spit it out. It’s a natural bastardization.”

It wasn’t long before they were signed by California label Rhino Records, then — as now — largely specialists in reissues and novelty records. In further demonstration of the band’s hybrid vigor, production chores their debut album were shared by Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin and longtime Beach Boys collaborator Mark Linett. All those divergent sensibilities resulted in Tales of the New West, a brusque, raucous blast of rock ‘n’ roll fervor, reminding all who opened their ears to it that the musical genre was supposed to acknowledge rules only to break them.

As if to emphasize the uniqueness of the mold they were making, the Beat Farmers front-load a couple of covers on the album, truly emphasizing the sly, saucy innovation of their sound. Following album opener “Bigger Stones,” with a lean, homespun sound, the Beat Farmers the the Velvet Undergound’s “There She Goes Again” and turn it into a twangy paean to yearning. That’s followed by “Reason to Believe,” nicked from Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, which becomes a burbling, dirty-blues grinder.

After establishing that could make distinctive, entertaining tracks from material by two of the more venerated songwriters then toiling in rock music, the Beat Farmers spent the rest of the record showing that their stuff wasn’t so bad either. “Lost Weekend” makes hay from the misery of waking up from another blackout drunk, and “Selfish Heart” is a crisply brisk confession of romantic infatuation. The requisite tracks featuring Montana’s rumbling vocals bring the Old West saga “California Kid,” and the ludicrously amusing “Happy Boy,” the latter undoubtedly the band’s most enduring legacy.

Their raggedy flag properly planted with Tales of the New West, the Beat Farmers sought out new business partners for their next record. They left Rhino and signed with Curb Records, a label that was starting to have respectable success with fairly iconoclastic country acts, and started work on their sophomore album, Van Go.

457. Minutemen, 3 Way Tie (For Last) (1985)

3 Way Tie (For Last), the fourth full-length album from Minutemen, included a thank you to some labelmates in the liner notes. A tip of the battered, sweat-stained hat was extended to the Meat Puppets, citing the “obvious inspiration” to be found on the album. Going into recording on the album, Minutemen co-leader D. Boom wanted to emulate the loose, lolling, crunchy rock music Meat Puppets were delivering at the time. Mike Watt, the other driving force behind Minutemen, preferred their typical collection of tight, fierce, smash-and-grab punk numbers. Representing the divide between the collaborators, the album in labeled with two clearly delineated halves: Side D. and Side Mike.

Adding to the sense that 3-Way Tie (For Last) was a little more slapdash than previous efforts, the record is strewn with covers, including a pass at the Meat Puppets’ “Lost.” Extensive touring (and Boon’s increasing proclivity for hard partying) meant there was a shortage of new material, a surprising change in creative for the band that just one year earlier release the monumental Double Nickels on the Dime, a double album stuffed full with forty-five songs. This time, Minutemen had to fill out the track list with versions of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, “The Red and the Black” by Blue Oyster Cult, “Ack Ack Ack” by the Urinals, and “Bermuda” by Roky Erickson. All are fine tracks, marked by the downbeat musical personality of Minutemen, but it’s hard to deny that they feel like filler.

It’s more satisfying when Minutemen do their thing, playing pointed, smartly spare, tough-as-galvanized-nails songs. The protest songs “The Price of Paradise,” “Big Stick,” and “Just Another Soldier” are angry and easy-going at the same time, as if by the influence of a mystical spell toiled and troubles from a punk club toilet bowl. Funky “No One” and trippy “Situations at Hand” demonstrate the range Minutemen could find within their established sound, and “Courage,” the band’s version of a big rock song, is so pristine in its polish that it practically gleams.

Even in a slightly compromised, ramshackle mode, Minutemen offered great, precisely personal music that was comfortingly familiar and yet like nothing anyone else was making at the time. And it would be effectively the last time Minutemen worked together on an album. Less than a month after the release of 3-Way Tie (For Last), Boon was killed in a freak automobile accident. Watt and George Hurley, the drummer of Minutemen, pulled together enough stray material for Ballot Result, an album promised on a flyer included with 3-Way Tie (For Last), and then dissolved the band for good.

456. Go-Go’s, Talk Show (1984)

Weighed down and wearied by the sort of personal woes endemic to a rock band that experienced sudden, overwhelming success, Go-Go’s wanted to go far from home to make their third album. After the smash success of their debut, Beauty and the Beast, the band saw their popularity soften with their sophomore effort, Vacation. They hoped to regain their mojo by recording in London with producer Martin Rushent, who’d had recent success with the Human League and former Buzzcock Pete Shelley.

Any hopes that the change of venue would help unify a splintering band were dashed, in part because Rushent preferred to work with the musicians individually. And personal ambitions were sometimes at odds with the preferences of other band members, most notably Jane Wiedlin’s stated and denied desire to take over some of the lead vocal duties from Belinda Carlisle. The band left the recording sessions feeling less together than when they went in.

The album that resulted, Talk Show, is a solid chunk of mid–nineteen-eighties pop rock, though. Led by the absolutely splendid “Head Over Heels,” which is the last Go-Go’s song that could reasonably termed a hit, the album moves through a set of cuts that have some connection to the bright, slightly retro charms of their debut while simultaneously trying to set a more modern stance. “Turn to You” and “Yes or No,” both released, are sweet without becoming cloying, catchy without becoming overly reliant on the hook. “I’m the Only One” is built on a slick groove, and “Beneath the Blue Sky” comes admirably close to the cooled-down, maturing style of the Pretenders in the same era. “Mercenary” is a lovely, affecting pop ballad.

Even so, there’s not quite enough material — or maybe confidence in the material they have — to make the album wholly satisfying. Given that Wiedlin later delivered the best solo work of any of the Go-Go’s, it’s somewhat surprising that the weakest songs are those with her as the sole credited songwriter. “Forget That Day” is slack, and “Capture the Light” has a punchy pop sound marred by unbearably cheesy lyrics (“I’m gonna capture the light/ And keep it in my heart”).

It was Wiedlin who pulled the thread that led to Go-Go’s unraveling entirely, announcing to her bandmates that she intended to quit the group at the end of the tour in support of Talk Show. Paula Jean Brown, of the band Giant Sand, was briefly brought in to replace Wiedlin, but the change didn’t take. Go-Go’s ended as a going concern in May 1985, though many, many reunions — and a few lawsuits — were still to come.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

Outside Reading — The Brain Likes Crazy edition

How Conspiracy Theories Are Shaping the 2020 Election—and Shaking the Foundation of American Democracy by Charlotte Alter

Admitting that there is no shortage of social-breakdown symptoms to fret about right now, I’m beginning to believe that the mainstreaming of nonsensical conspiracy theories is the direst turn with the most wide-ranging disastrous ramifications. Reporting for Time magazine — largely from Southeastern Wisconsin, so it hits a little too close to home for my taste — Charlotte Alter details the alarming prevalence of absolutely batshit speculation among the citizenry. It exists on all spots of the political spectrum, but it is most dominant on the right, where a not insignificant number of people believe the amoral grifter in the White House is some stealth crusader against organized child predation with a vampiric twist. The most extreme grim fantasizing is bad, but tempting to dismiss as the product of crackpots who can be safely ignored. It’s the mildly more plausible fictions a couple more concentric circles out that are the real threat, in part because online algorithms send the curious whirlpooling down to the greater absurdities and mostly because they significantly complicate the ability for responsible citizens and organizations to deal with genuine problems. A news story in today’s New York Times about officials in Oregon needing to divert time away from helping the community through the tragic wildfires in order to confront rumormongering about antifa invaders rampaging through cities is a prime example.

The Mars Room (2018) by Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner’s most recent novel is a marvel of terse complexity. Set largely in a women’s prison, the book is a compelling, fiercely committed cataloging of the many ways society reinforced to certain people that their value as human beings is disregarded. The prose has the jabbing certainty of well-crafted poetry, carrying the narrative forward — and occasionally back and forth or sideways — with an undulating, intoxicating rhythm. What might be interpreted as false avenues in the plot’s path are instead fascinating contributions to the overall texture of the storytelling.

This Week’s Model — Janelle Monáe, “Turntables”

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Janelle Monáe does not stand down. Throughout this tumultuous year, she has taken her prominent platform as a responsibility. She may be on the entertainment talk circuit to promote an Amazon series or a psychological horror film, but she takes her turn at the microphone to talk about police brutality, to talk about the disproportionate harm the COVID pandemic has delivered to the Black community because of prejudices embedded in the country’s healthcare system, to talk about all the ways in which our society defaults into discrimination against many communities she in a part of, including the Black community and the LGBTQIA community. She started her music career by veiling her protest anthems in the metaphors of Afrofuturism, androids and sci-fi cities. Now, she speaks her rage plainly.

“Turntables” was written and recorded for All In: The Fight for Democracy, a documentary about historic and ongoing efforts at voter disenfranchisement with special attention paid to the activism of Stacy Abrams, the duly elected governor of Georgia who was denied the office by the corrupt manipulations of her opponent, then presiding over the election process in his role as Secretary of State. In the song, Monáe records her frustration and makes a promise of change. Because she and her compatriots aren’t going to stop fighting for their owed place in the culture, I believe that change is going to come. But hope isn’t enough, Monáe would say. The moment requires action.

Liberation.

Elevation.

Education.