I will confess that I do not follow, and seldom even recognize, current trends in popular music. Some years ago, I did observe the increased use of auto-tune, and in recent years I have noticed that many songs are about “da club”. But that’s all pretty superficial, and so is most contemporary music. Or so I thought.
I don’t listen to top-forty radio, and I never see music videos, so whatever exposure I have had to current pop music has been on late-night television. The current season of Saturday Night Live has had its share of disposable “musical” guests, but it has also had some (to me) surprises – performers I had never heard of, whose music intrigued me.
The first was Bon Iver. When I saw the performance, I immediately thought, Steve Winwood lives! And that’s a compliment, since I am not used to many artists today going to the effort to make such elaborate arrangements. Multiple guitars, keyboards, horns, and a host of percussion make for a very rich sound. At a time when, it seems to me, what passes for a song is little more than an electronic drumbeat and a musical hook lifted wholly from another, superior song, I am comforted to hear something so sophisticated. Watch the clip (probably available for only a short time), and see if you can spot the Winwood.
The second performance that pleased me was by Gotye, who played a song called “Somebody I Used to Know”. Much more compelling than the typical break-up song, “Somebody I Used to Know” seems to be about guy whose ex-girlfriend has shunned him, which would not be so unusual absent his surprisingly self-aware observations, notably, “I told myself that you were right for me, but felt so lonely in your company”. Indeed, listening closely to the lyrics, I was taken by the complexity of the emotions. On one hand, the song claims that “you can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness, / Like resignation to the end, always the end”. Nevertheless, the speaker is hurt by his former lover’s coldness: “But you didn’t have to cut me off; / Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing. / And I don’t even need your love, / But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough”. Next, in a clever but lifelike twist, we hear the ex-lover’s perspective, and it contradicts his own. He is not, it seems, the innocent victim of her callousness, but the oblivious saboteur of their relationship. And in a brilliant turn, she turns his own phrasing against him: “You said that you could let it go / And I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know”.
The arrangement is also compelling, particularly given the simplicty of the song itself, and so far from what I would have imagined had I written it, that I have to smile at its efficiency. Watch this video (probably only available for a short time) to see what I mean. Pay attention, too, to the visual performance, especially after the female singer appears. Both singers seem to be acting their roles, and the cameras do a good job framing the confrontation, notably by showing her in the foreground facing away from him. (Also, he looks and dresses just like my grad school adviser.)