Hit Wonder

There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community.

~ M. Scott Peck

It’s telling that one of the albums I ordered from Columbia House, back when we used to tape pennies to postcards and mail them in, was Donna Summer’s On the Radio. I entered double digits infatuated with Top 40 radio. Even at that tender age, listening to the hits granted me a sense of belonging, each single a bent corner marking a special moment in the book of life.

Perhaps this is why I love my Whitburn so much. I can flip it open to just about any page and be transported back in time: Boy Scout summer camp, 1983, all-night Euchre-fests, Eddie Grant singing about a place called “Electric Avenue“; living in the double-wide, 1978, that babysitter with the tops that were always one button short of covering everything up, Toto holding the line; Six Flags over Georgia, 1986, a couple new friends, who also happened to be cute girls, annoying the others in each and every queue with our a cappella remake of “That’s What Friends Are For“; freshman year in northern Minnesota, 1988, disagreeing mightily with Joe Elliott’s sentiment that “Love Bites“.

Singers, songwriters, bands . . . they come and go, but, if I may wax a tad bit hyperbolic, hits are forever. Hits have united us in the past, and they can do it again.

Now I admit that I’m a fan of many artists that are considered “niche” entertainers, whose music appeals to a relatively small, but fiercely loyal, base of followers. There is a part of me that takes great pride in having found a connection through such groups with other like-minded people; we share the songs and stories that others just don’t understand or are able to relate to.

But there are songs that are universal. They seep into the pores of the public consciousness and spread like a virus, uniting people from all walks of life in ways that transcend every possible boundary. Such necessary invasions of our precious privacy are rare these days, and lacking are the artists with the skill and charisma capable of pulling it off.

Bands like U2.

Bono and the boys get it. They understand the power and wonder of a hit, as Bono explains in the cover story for the latest issue of Rolling Stone:

We grew up on the rock & roll 45. It is, in an evolutionary way that [producer] Brian [Eno] should, but doesn’t, appreciate, the Darwinian peak of the species. It is by far the most difficult thing to pull off, and it is the very life force of rock & roll: vitality, succinctness and catchiness, whether it’s the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, the Pixies, the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones. When rock music forgets about the 45, it tends toward progressive rock, which is like a mold that grows on old, burned-out artists who’ve run out of ideas. We have a soundtrack/Pink Floyd side of our band, and it has to be balanced by fine songwriting. It’s an infuriating thing for me to see indie rock & roll give up the single to R&B and hip hop. That’s why I love the Kings of Leon album or the Killers album: These are people who have such belief in their musical power that they refuse to ghettoize it.

Bono makes some sense here. Perhaps there is a tendency within many artists to limit their talent, to restrain their reach, to admit that what they do only fits, that it is contained within, this one small part of the entertainment spectrum, and so to become content with creating art that speaks to only one particular audience. I wonder how much of this is due to the narrow-mindedness of the music industry, which seems to enjoy burying artists in musical “ghettos” and never permitting them the resources or the means to escape, in comparison with those artists who just won’t leave their niche, won’t attempt to appeal to the greater concerns of humanity or address issues that resonate on a global scale. Maybe these two extremes, the shortsighted suits on one hand and the reluctant artists on the other, are both responsible for the death of the hit. Bono seems to be aiming his critique scattershot style, for neither side appears willing to see beyond their own horizons.

For more than half of my life, in ways that I recognize anew every day, the music of U2 has taken my horizons and brought them close, allowing me to see past myself and toward the beauty of harmony with others. I haven’t always willingly listened. And not every song has inspired me. But theirs is a vast canvas and there is something for everyone, something to mark this time as one in which we can come together and create something magnificent.

Are all hits created equal? Hardly. Must every hit seek to bridge some perceived gap in our global understanding, between realizing what it means to be a human being living in a shitty world and the bringing to fruition of a sense of harmony among weary travelers? Surely not. But unite we must; we can hash out the details later. For now, a question: who inspires you . . .

[photo credit]

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23 thoughts on “Hit Wonder

  1. I really liked this. I couldn’t help but think of all artists – painters, writers, sculptors, designers – that struggle with creating a piece outside of an audience they know love and accept their work.

    You’ve described U2 perfectly, in my opinion. My experience with their music has been similar to yours.

    Who inspires me now? I just want to be a Fly Girl, Baby. (“In Living Color”)

  2. Who inspires me…there are so many favorites.

    I love Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend” when I’m painting frenetically, or The Cranberries if I’m more introspective. I’ve also been known to be inspired by “The Wall” on those days with rage to vent.

    I listen to Natalie Merchant, Peter Case, CSN, B52s, Indigo Girls, Mozart (he’s a hip dude, man!), Pete Seeger, Elton John, Feist, Fiona Apple, U2, Van Morrison, The Chieftains, The Goo Goo Dolls, Counting Crows, Allison Krause, Pete Townshend, Bob Marley, and the list is endless.

    But bottom line, I love Kate Bush the very most, because she never fits into any genre, really, and she is timeless, in her own bizarre little way.

    That said, people either love her or absolutely loathe her – she’s not a middle of the road taste. (Ooo, “Middle of The Road” – Chrissie Hynd and The Pretenders – how could I forget them?)

      • Her first album, “The Kick Inside” is fairly accessible, as is “The Dreaming”, but for something with a little more rock-n-roll (and David Gilmour on bass) “Hounds of Love” is sublime. Also, “The Sensual World” is fairly easy to listen to (for her, mind you).

        Too many?

        (Psst! The first album I recommended is very sensual and good for fooling around – I’m just saying…!)

  3. Maybe it’s a geographical thing, but nothing gets me out of my seat like hard-core Southern rock — Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, Alman Brothers.

    Jimmy Buffett for tele-transportation to Key West.

    But for inspiration? That’s tricky…but I have to go with Dolly Parton. That woman can flat out tell a story.

  4. Journey was the first band I fell in love with. I can still get lost in memories when I listen to them. I’ve been to two of their concerts, once with Steve Perry and once without…loved it both times.

    • Was it recently, with that new guy, Arnel Pineda? I’ve heard he’s a live wire. Watching the DVD that came with their recent release, he seems to run circles around Schon and company, and they seem to be loving every minute of it . . .

    • I checked out her latest, Siren Song, on Amazon, and I can see why you like her. Smooth vocals and very nostalgic arrangements make for a pleasing and relaxing listening experience. I may just have to pick this one up . . .

  5. If I have a choice of reading a book, going to a museum or listening to music…music always comes last. That is why it is HUGE when any musical artist bursts through my bubble. That makes it double, tripple huge that I have been a U2 fan since ’78 when their first album came out. I have not been impressed with everything they have done while I HAVE been impressed with everything they have done.

  6. There are some songs, like, say all the ones on Guitar Hero that I wonder about. They’ve been compelling people forever. How long will that last? I’m curious to see how long the shelf life is on those,

  7. Let music be the food of love….

    I’m going to be a U2 basher here, and probably find the blogosphere outside my door with pickaxe handles.

    Early U2 was amazing. Some of the songs from that era are simply mind blowing. Especially when you consider their relatively simplicity, musically speaking. However….

    Current U2 I find to be a constant disappointment, for two reasons. First up, Bono’s voice is not what it was. Although it reaches teh same notes, time seems to have stripped away a lot of the layers from it, so that instead of filling the music, it sits there with a huge space on either side where the rest of it used to be. I don’t think much can be done it, but I also can’t help noticing it.

    Second up, I find Bono disappearing up his own butt with depressing regularity. A friend of mine is convinced that the last pope faked his own death just to stop Bono bothering him. I understand the sentiment. But then I seem to prefer my musicians degenerate, young, and dead in unpleasant circumstances.

    Which is probably why I like Motley Cru, and an awful lot of other loud angry musicians that are just brimming with angst. Yay for angst! πŸ™‚

    • Just the other day, I was thinking about this very thing, how their music tends to be less “Man, life is just getting worse,” and more silver-lining. While the band has never sought a false hope or quick, easy answers, they refuse to get lost in the dregs. Every time I pop one of their CDs in is a time when I need that reminder, that life can be shitty but it we can rise above it.

  8. On the Radio is so good…the way it builds. A great singing-outloud-in-the-car or get-up-and-dance song.

    I have to admit, though, that I while I liked U2 enough to buy their CDs in the past, I heard them recently on Good Morning America. I had this sudden thing happen where every song seemed to sound the same. I don’t know if it was just that day or what, but it just sounded screechy to me. It was weird.

  9. I was just enjoying some of the new U2, considering the dynamic nature of their music that flexes with the times and changes in culture yet retains a signature sound.

    U2’s message, as you said, finds hope and order in bad situations.

    What inspires me???

    I dig Arcade Fire. I never seem to have a list ready to fire off when asked that question.

  10. I’ve been thinking about those old Columbia House deals. They were really fantastic. As long as you remembered to cancel…

    U2. I get U2. I know they’re great, but they always leave me wanting more. I’ve never been able to become a true fan. I’m OK with that.

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