Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Paul Anka's Gen X&Y Songbook

As my girlfriend pointed out in a recent Metro NY editorial, we have to re-adjust ourselves any time one of our favorite songs gets abducted in a commercial. We have to adjust to the new context and the fact that we're now going to hear and see it again and again to sell some other product now other than the album where it came from. It's no different if we hear an ill-conceived cover that's making the rounds. "You've ruined my song!" many will cry.

While it's easy to draw comparisons to Pat Boone's metal record, another model for Paul Anka's Rock Swings album is Rod Stewart's recent infatuation with classics. While Stewart looked to pre-rock standards, Anka sinks his teeth into 80's-90's rock and pop, including long forgotten bands that only VH1 could resurrect (Spandau Ballet, Survivor), hook-hounds (R.E.M., Oasis), grunge (Soundgarden, Nirvana), Michael Jackson (no doubt in sympathy with his recent trial) and Nicole Ritchie's dad. And for a truly left-field choice, there's the Cure, whose singer knows enough already about over-the-top sentimentalism that Anka puts on display.

While it's easy for hipsters to laugh at such an excursion, at some level, you have to give a crooner in his mid-60's to at least try something like this. Is it any more pathetic to have Jagger or McCartney tour endlessly while they haven't made any albums that people care about for decades now? If they can remain stars by living off their image and past glories, how bad is it for Anka to go out on a limb here? He risks looking ridiculous to the fans who remember and love the original songs and also risks looking pathetic and misguided to any of his old fans who probably don't know these songs.

Still, the song selection does lean towards the overly sentimental and obvious many times. For Van Halen, "Jump" is their best known hit but "I'll Wait" would have been easier (and more logical) for him to tackle. Ditto for Nirvana- "Smells Like Teen Spirit" doesn't even sound funny and "Come As You Are" would have been much easier to cover. As for the sappy stuff, Eric Clapton's "Tears In Heaven" and Lionel Ritchie's "Hello" aren't any better here than in their original form. Also note that Steve and Edie beat him to Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun." And for every time he does lift the veil of a song that we've heard but haven't really heard like "Eye of the Tiger," he more than often doesn't add anything but new arrangements to other songs (i.e. "Everybody Hurts").

Which isn't to say that it's a bad album, especially if you forget the context and just listen to the music. But do any of these "classics" match what Stewart was covering? It's not even close but then again, we're talking about some of the greatest popular music composers of the 20th Century going up against Billy Idol. As such, the idea is an interesting one that's going to raise eyebrows and get attention from the rock crowd as well as the crooner crowd but he could have done better to go for more substantial material rather just surprise people with song choices. If you think that's too harsh, make a mixtape of the original songs and see what you think.

If Anka had say Rick Rubin turning him onto some more exotic choices, who knows how far he could go? Aussie indie-pop like the Go-Betweens and the Chills, malevolent songsmiths like Magnetic Fields and Mountain Goats (who would be naturals), shameless hookmeisters New Pornographers and Pernice Brothers, sad folkies like Devendra Banhart all await.


Blogger IKhider said...

That’s an interesting comment about having to adjust ourselves when a song is sold to the commercial market place. (Can I score a copy?)Bob Dylan sold "The Times they are a-Changin'" To the Bank of Montreal, "Dust in the Wind" by Kansas was used to promote SUV's and Jefferson Airplane sold "Revolution" to a brokerage firm. I daresay that listening to these songs in a (more) commercial context makes me re-think the music and the artist who chose to sell it. While there may be nothing wrong in selling, there is the buyer to consider. What sort of business is the artist furthering? It is likely that the artist who wrote the song would balk when s/he saw what they would become later in life and what their music would ultimately be used for. Is the sold song itself diminished, or is it just held hostage?

Perhaps I am being harsh, but the artists themselves set the standards. They were railing against the system and then turned around later in life and endorsed it.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Scott Soriano said...

Pink Dust would be a nice crooner song...

1:16 AM  

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