Category Archives: Everything Else

The Not-So-Odd Couple of Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”

EDM and folk music seem to be on opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. So why does Avicii make it all sound the same?

by Vincent Kwan

If I have one cultural crusade in life, it’s to preach the legitimacy of pop music. It really doesn’t bother me that our Top 40 songs are Frankensteins, focus-grouped tested bits and pieces that are sewn together for maximum brain candy appeal. The only thing I ask is that artists put in a little effort to hide the Dr. Luke algorithm that was designed to play to all of my base desires. I imagine the feeling is similar to (HYPOTHETICALLY) picking up a cross-dresser. You know it’s a dude; you already made peace with your god and whatever other qualms you might have had with that fact on the lonely car ride over. That said, presentation is still important. It’s that smear of lipstick and push-up bra that stops you from falling into complete despair. The cheap perfume allows you to stave off self-loathing, if only for a precious few moments.

If Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” was a cross-dresser, it’s hairy chest would be popping out over a tube top, package clearly protruding from a pair of Daisy Dukes. The song’s carefully calculated appeal sits behind glass walls; it’s pretty clear how the pop sausage is made. There’s an oft-circulated story about how Talladega Nights came into being. Reportedly, the pitch was simply “Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver” and production was greenlit. “Wake Me Up” feels the same way. GUYS: Mumford & Sons…but for the club. Leave it to Jimmy Clausen lookalike Avicii to man the turntables and Aloe Blacc to lend a voice and prepare to Scrooge McDuck in that money.

The remarkable thing about “Wake Me Up” is not how it brazenly jams together Mumford-folk and stadium EDM, but rather, that it highlights just how damn similar its constituent genres are. The cultural perception of the two genres couldn’t be more different. Read Jessica Pressler’s profile of Avicii and you’ll get an image of the Swedish DJ that’s both unsurprising yet flattering. By virtue of being a (allegedly) fakest button twirler in a genre of button twirlers, Avicii is someone’s not too invested in musical integrity. First and foremost, Avicii is there to make the party bump, and at a jaw-dropping $20M a year, there’s considerable financial encouragement for his aesthetic. Yet, man cannot exist on oontz oontz alone. We scream out in the  electro-wilderness for a taste of something real. And after all, what’s realer than a banjo? For the Mumford set, authenticity is the name of the game. You can’t listen to a Mumford/Of Monsters and Men/Edward Sharpe song without thinking that the fucking merry-go-round is going to break if they strain themselves any harder on the choruses. If the pulsing synths of EDM is all about sex and the groin, folk is for body parts of caring: hearts and hands.

So, one half of “Wake Me Up” is defined by commercial excess and the other is almost a conscious rejection of it. How does “Wake Me Up” work so well? Well, because despite cultural framing that suggests otherwise, pop EDM and folk sound nearly identical. As I was writing this post, I remember an old Steven Hyden column on Mumford and Sons’s Tim Tebow-ness that pretty much makes this point but with far more concision. Hyden highlights the Mumford formula: “quiet verse, roaring sing-along chorus, emotionally overpowering climax.” Listen to “Little Lion Man” and see the formula at play:

The Mumford Formula could just as well be applied to EDM. Remember Avicii’s ubiquitous “Levels”?

With a slight alteration to the form – a “quiet verse,” the Etta James sample, is simply cut of the beginning of the song – the formula applies just the same. When the genres are pressed together in “Wake Me Up,” the result is seamless. The verses are the sort of power folk strum you’ve come to expect of the genre. When the beat drops for the chorus, it’s the EDM earworm we’re accustomed to hearing from Avicii. The forms merge on the bridge and the prechorus. The bass drum quarters are equally prevalent in both genres and the transition is made even smoother by synths that have the twang button TURNT UP. The first couple times I heard “Wake Me Up,” I kept looking at it as some sort of mad scientist creation. But the more I think on it, the more natural, and lucrative, of a pairing it seems. To horrifically paraphrase Gertrude Stein, A pop song is a pop song is a pop song is a pop song. It’s been a while since EDM’s given up its shame to wade in the pools of pop success. It’s time to jump in Mumford Folk, the water feels just fine.

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Back in the Game

by Matt Waller


Image courtesy of Flickr user RandsomESHG

After taking a long break from writing on this site, I read a book that made me want to write again. The book, A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley, is about a drifter, booze-loving sports fan who spends a lot of time drinking and thinking about writing, but not much time actually writing. Like Exley’s narrator, I’ve been spending a lot of time drinking and thinking about writing, but not much time—well, none at all—actually writing.

The book’s overall merits are certainly debatable (see Walter Kirn’s analysis of Exley and the book, “Sad Sack Superman,” for a good critique with which I mostly agree), but that’s not the point of this piece. What struck me were Exley’s sharp insights into the life of bar denizens and the state of mind that bar life’s accompanying excess and idleness can engender. The attitude that I noticed and couldn’t help recognizing in myself is the detachment and the smug satisfaction that comes with doing a lot of thinking without doing much… doing.

Reminiscing on his early life, Exley’s narrator remembers being in a bar called Louis’ where “the vibrant, incessant hum of its conversations seem[ed] to whisper of plays, paintings, and novels just short of being realized,” before continuing, “I wonder now if I ever gave thought to how these things were to be accomplished drinking beer in Louis’.”

Obviously, the bars I’ve been frequenting aren’t the bars of Greenwich Village in the 1950s, and there hasn’t been much talk of writing the next great novel or slapping a masterpiece down on canvas. But still, the air was often humming with whispers of business ideas, writing ideas, travel ideas. It didn’t hit me until reading Exley, though, that those ideas wouldn’t be accomplished drinking beer in dive bars. I’ll still be spending my fair share of time in these places, and I do think that experience has its merits, but I think  that after an extended break, it’s time to spend a little more time, to use another of Exley’s phrases, “locked up in a room getting on with the business of life.” Cheers to the return of the Commutes and to getting on with the business of life.

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Weekend Miscellany, Part I: Matt’s Picks (Beatles Edition)

It’s a little late in the day for our usual weekend links post, but I was hungover earlier, and better late than never. I encourage you to look at this stuff with a beer rather than with a cup of coffee. I had a lot of time on my hands this week and came across some Internet gold, which mainly involved the Beatles.


Matt’s Picks

Beatles Stuff

  • “We Buy White Albums”  (from Dust and Grooves). 693 copies of the White Album in one place? It’s as cool as it sounds. Dust and Grooves has a great interview/photo-essay on artist Rutherford Chang’s exhibit of hundreds of copies of the White Album in LA.
  • “Is Jonathan Franzen More like John Lennon or Paul McCartney?” by Benjamin Nugent. A brief but deeply interesting read exposing the underestimated formal complexity in Jonathan Franzen’s writing (drawing a comparison to the underrated sophistication in Paul McCartney’s work). The article also begins with a great comparison of DFW and Franzen to Lennon and McCartney — then uses the rest of its space to explore the accuracy of that comparison. Probably the best thing I’ve read this month.
  • George Martin‘s discussions of the Beatles (available on YouTube). Martin, “the fifth Beatle” and legendary producer/musician/polymath, shares some great insights on Beatles music in a number of videos available on YouTube. This is the guy who played piano on “In My Life,” so just shut up and listen.

The Rest (Louis C.K., the Oscars, and more)

  • “Is Louis C.K. our Gogol?” by Avi Steinberg. An in-depth look at Louis C.K.’s current stand-up material, what makes his comedy great, and what it’s like to experience a Louis C.K. show in person. A great article on one of today’s most influential comics.
  • “Beer Maps: Two Giant Brewers, 210 Brands” by Caitlin Kenney. A really, really interesting infographic depicting the 210 global beer brands owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller. If you’re in Zimbabwe, settle down with a Lion Lager and check this out. 
  • “The Record Books” by Christophe Gowans. Gowans’ experiment here is to imagine “if best-selling albums had been books instead.” The results are great, and often hilarious. Gowans takes on Blood on the TracksAbbey Road, and more. Are You Experienced? is my personal favorite.
  • “‘Zero Dark Thirty’s’ Sharp Turn from Oscar Glory” by Steven Zeitchik and Nicole Sperling. A nice piece on the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty and why it is no longer the Best Picture favorite. Also, I learned from this article that such things as “award consultants” exist.
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What is “Hello, Again”?

by Erick Brown

The typical brand website follows a pretty standard pattern: eye-catching imagery married to well-researched copy, some form of a ‘Product News’ section, a variation on ‘Special Offers’ or a Coupon, possibly a way to learn more about the history of the brand, and, increasingly, an attempt by the brand to participate in social networks. But then some take it one step further and choose to show off something to engage the consumer in order to create a connection to the brand that goes past simple use and awareness.

I highlighted a recent example of this in the last Weekend Miscellany where the Lincoln Motor Company commissioned artist Beck and a 160 person orchestra to remake David Bowie’s Sound and Vision to be performed in front of 300 invited guests in California. The result ranks up there with one of the cooler things I’ve seen in a while. Upon completion, the video points you to a website which Lincoln has devoted to the concept of “Hello, Again”. A logical question about the relationship between the luxury car brand and the eclectic Beck performance is obvious enough to lead Lincoln to pose the question themselves in an obvious location on their site: “What is Hello, Again?”.

The answer is a few paragraphs about fresh ideas from old sources, essentially a tale of how Lincoln is or intends to reinvent themselves while remaining the same. The new from the old, the modern from the classic, the Beck from the David Bowie. It’s nothing new in marketing speak, but I find it fascinating nonetheless.

I think it is fair to say that I do probably think of the Lincoln Motor Company differently than I did just a few weeks ago. But I’m also aware that many people see the cross-links at the end of videos like this and pass right over them in the same way that I disregard many of the brand names associated with various college football bowl games. The difference for me is the effort that it takes to put something like this together compared to slapping the company logo on a billboard or relying simply on Super Bowl ads. Personally, I find it impressive.

Whether David Bowie accurately represents how people viewed Lincoln this time last year is a whole different story, but the idea is certainly interesting. The next step is simply to aim for ‘viral’, but that’s basically a wish and a prayer. I found this video on Slate and I haven’t seen it anywhere but here at The Commutes since. If Slate didn’t decide to post it, I would have never seen it and the campaign may have failed for me. I probably wouldn’t have noticed the new Lincoln ads at my local train station, I certainly wouldn’t have explored the website, and I would be extremely unlikely to view Lincoln any differently than I previously had. Does the fact that I did see it make the campaign a success?

I imagine there is a web analyst and a marketing strategist sitting behind a desk in Detroit somewhere responsible for communicating that ‘fact’. How many people watched the video? How many came to the site? How many clicked to see the explanation of ‘Hello, Again’? How many changed their opinions of Lincoln like I have? And how many of those will allow that change in opinion to affect their buying behavior?

That’s the difficult question that becomes even more difficult in a market like automobiles. A funny Old Spice ad will get consumers to drop a few bucks to when presented with the deodorant aisle, but the product itself keeps them coming back. Can an interesting music video get a consumer to give Lincoln a shot? Maybe a few of us will stop by a dealership if we’re ever in the market. Heck, maybe we’ll give it a test drive. But when it comes down to dropping 5 figures on something, is the product there to support the new interest?

Or will folks like me stick to the Honda Civic that served them so well for so long? I’m not in the market, but it’ll be interesting to see where my head, my heart, and my all-important wallet lead me the next time I’m looking.

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The Sliver Screen: Frank Ocean and the Spurning of the Big Stage


By Vincent Kwan

From what I gather, people didn’t really care for Frank Ocean’s Grammy performance. Trying, and occasionally failing, to contort his voice to meet the requisite pitches of “Forrest Gump,” Ocean’s onstage demeanor was equal parts exhausting and disaffected. It’s rare to see someone put in so much effort to be that distant, and for someone with a star as bright, and unique, as Ocean’s, we might expect a transcendence in both personality and performance. While you’d be hard-pressed to make the argument that Ocean’s performance was a good one (as big of a Frank Ocean/Odd Future fan as I am, I don’t think I have even that in me), I will make an argument that his performance should challenge us to think about the way we evaluate artistic merit. Frank Ocean’s Grammy performance wasn’t a misfire: It was a misfit.

The Grammy committee showed it was a step and a half too cute for itself, giving Ocean the go-ahead and forgoing someone like, say, Carly Rae Jepsen. As mentioned on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, a favorite of mine and Erick Brown’s, the gap between critical acclaim and Grammy success is slowly closing. With the legitimacy and viability of its industry in mind, the Grammys has recently heaped praise on what might be termed as “real music,” leaving slick, saccharine pop tunes (i.e. Ms. Jepsen) increasingly by the wayside. The show has had a recent track record of anointing of real instruments (see Mumford and Sons) and real voices (see Adele), even if these real things are wrung through the same musical formula that their “fake,” synthetic counterparts are. But cynicism now meets all things autotuned, while the banjo has ascended to the throne of cultural praise. Toward this end, the Grammy live performances find a renewed importance, showcasing the industry as it desperately wishes to see itself: that behind its layers of veneer, there still exists a core of actual, talented musicians.  You might notice that the Grammys frequently goes out of its way to present artists outside of their natural context, creating bizarre artist mash-ups and interesting instrumentation as if to prove that, yes, these people can perform their songs outside of the artifice of the studio.

As someone who has carved out a niche for himself in the realms of sincerity and sensitivity, Frank Ocean might seem an appropriate choice for a winning Grammys performance. Problem is, he’s has never been what you would traditionally consider a good live performer, or at the very least, not a very consistent one. The moments he connects on live television are something to behold , but even then, there’s miles of emotional distance between him and his audience. Given the nature of his music, the remove can be an asset to his performance, but the stars of performer and audience need to align carefully. For entertainers who are known for their charisma and power, good performances are largely a matter of personal effort. For someone like Ocean, a special alchemy of artist and space are required in order for the whole thing to achieve intimacy, rather than reek of disinterest. For this reason, the model of the “sensitive” live performer is far less scalable than the exuberant one, as external considerations matter as much as the performer-driven ones.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Frank didn’t seem very comfortable on stage, and despite news that he wasn’t able to hear his monitors, the larger issue, at least to someone who’s trying to make an argument about it, is that there’s a greater incompatibility between Ocean’s music and the big stage of the Grammys. The first time I heard Frank Ocean was a Youtube clip of “Thinkin’ ‘bout You,” his breakthrough ballad that still has me simping to this day. His falsetto is every bit as piercing, but unlike his live performances, there’s an effortlessness to his voice. Ocean’s lyrics pierce through the digital wilderness, and with the same whirring organs, it leaves as nonchalantly as it comes. “White,” off of the OF Tape, Vol. 2, hits in the same way: a few verses on impermenance delivered by Frank, followed by an instrumental outro that lingers long enough to tease you into thinking he might deliver another verse. Through an electronic medium, Ocean’s songs find a new layer of meaning that doesn’t make the translation to the stage. It’s done as soon as it’s here. In real life, I may feel cheated. On Youtube, I’ll simply click repeat.

The Frank Ocean sound, perfectly packaged into clips that never stay as long or commit as intensely as you may want, is built for the Youtube video, much like that of his associates, Odd Future. It reminds me of when Lana Del Rey’s aimless SNL performance earned her the criticism of everyone from Hipster Runoff to Brian Williams. Neither Del Rey’s persona or her music was ever designed for the television, it was made for you to listen to it through your laptop speakers, over your morning coffee, eventually making you realize you had some shit to think about. For Frank Ocean, Lana Del Rey, and many other artists who’ll grow their celebrity through the internet, we shouldn’t assume their talents will carry over to other mediums, nor should we assume that it was ever meant to be. Given that we consume so much of our music through the internet now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that musicians would tailor their music toward the medium. For all of the criticism Frank Ocean got for the strange monitor of disembodied legs that obscured half his body at the Grammys, it forces us to remember that watching Ocean perform is always done by peering through screens. The music adapts to its distribution, and how it translates to the stages of auditoriums and theaters should not dictate its contained beauty in other, more small mediums.