Tag Archives: Music

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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The Kings of Leon Effect Part V: Sarah’s Picks

by Sarah Bennett

Ed. Note: This is the maiden post of the lovely Sarah Bennett, who will be joining our team here at Commutes. We’re thrilled to have her on board though Sarah’s prowess and skill will likely give you a dim view of the men of Commutes going forward. Read charitably, reader.

This week, Commutes is discussing the Kings of Leon Effect, where underrated things eventually become overrated. As a new writer for this blog, I figure that a great way to alienate readers upon first impression is by making a list of things I dislike or think are overrated:

1. Sushi. It used to be that outside of major cities, Asian restaurants were limited to places that served only Kung sushiPow chicken in takeout containers and suggesting you go for a bite of raw fish was a gross idea. As we’ve hit our 20s, the default dinner out suggestion with my friends seems to be sushi. I love it, but it’s constant and seems like more of a snack than a meal. I don’t know if this is actually true or it’s all a big show, but everyone else seems stuffed after five pieces of sushi, while I’m ordering my tenth roll and avoiding giving anyone a ride home so I can stop to pick up White Castle with a side of shame on the way home.

2. Liking Things Ironically. There was a time many moons ago when people were earnest and you didn’t always have to parse their sentences for level of sincerity. Irony was still funny, but could be lost on others. Now, it is the default assumption.  I could pretend that my love for 80s and 90s pop is an intellectual statement about high vs. low culture and somehow a reflection of my own intellectual superiority, but that would be a lie, not to mention exhausting. The truth is, I love it when “King of Wishful Thinking” comes on the radio. It’s OK to actually enjoy things, and a waste of time to purposefully spend your time on things you don’t like to prove your sense of irony and wit. Plus, the influx of irony makes for uncomfortable conversations: “I love this song!” “I know! Isn’t it terrible?” Awkward.

3. Johnny from Devil Went Down to Georgia. A bit out there, but it’s the end of the week. devil went down to georgiaThis is a musician who has continually suffered from the Kings of Leon Effect since long before Kings of Leon existed. The devil certainly underestimated Johnny in the beginning; he has talent and the Devil should have considered that.  But there is no way in Hell that Johnny beat the devil. Sure, Johnny is good, but the Devil has a BAND OF DEMONS. His version has a much more badass fiddle part, funky guitar, and an awesome bass line, while Johnny’s is nice, but nothing particularly original. Who would you rather see in concert? The Devil would have a 100-piece demon band behind him with Mephistopheles on drums. There would probably be a laser light show and a mosh pit. All Johnny has going for him is a soul and the ability to rhyme “run” with “sun.” He did not deserve that golden fiddle.

4. Pants. In college, there seemed to be a major pants shortage. People went around in tee-shirts without pants, because leggings are not now nor have they ever been pants, no matter what the occasion. On nights out, it was short skirts and dresses, trading pants in for hypothermia. Guys, too, often eschewed pants for mesh shorts, whether they were actually playing basketball or not. I scoffed at these people then. Now that everyone else seems to have jumped on the wearing pants bandwagon, I‘m beginning to think that they were on to something. While most of my friends are now young professionals with the wardrobes to match, this period of freelancing from home while in between jobs (read: without dental insurance) has made me question my commitment to proper clothing. They all seem to like how they now seem more “put together and appropriate” compared to others in the same age bracket, whereas I’ve begun to resent going in for interviews because they require me to wear real pants. Maybe I’m not a productive member of society, but at least I’m comfy.

5. Ordering Scotch. I would like to preface this by saying that I love whiskey in all its forms. It is by far my favorite drink. But for a long time, scotch was strictly an old man drink. With the advent of Mad Men—a show with characters who would now be old men in real life— young people have taken to ordering scotch on nights out. For me, still being in the “I’ll have a glass of whatever your cheapest beer is, thanks” phase of life, this is problematic because there is no Popov’s equivalent of scotch. But the greater problem with the increase in people ordering scotch is that a lot of people don’t actually like it. Once the first person orders one, though, the gauntlet has been thrown, an d anyone after has to also order a scotch or risk looking like a sissy. Nothing kills the party mood faster than the sudden hush that falls over the room as eight out of nine people try to choke back their drinks without grimacing.

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The Kings of Leon Effect, Part II: Matt’s Picks

Yesterday, Cameron introduced the Kings of Leon Effect, which is essentially the opposite of the John Mayer Effect. The Kings of Leon Effect is the effect whereby something is considered underrated for a long period of time, eventually gains momentum for its underrated status, and thus subsequently becomes overrated. After weeks of thought and exhausting research (okay, I used my lunch break yesterday to read Wikipedia for an hour), I have my top five.

Matt’s Picks

  1. Missouri Valley Conference basketball. For at least the past five or six years, college hoops pundits have raved about the Missouri Valley Conference. Creighton is so good this year! Southern Illinois is great! Wichita State is legit! I’ve even heard it suggested that the Missouri Valley Conference is so deep that it can’t really even be considered a “mid-major” anymore. Granted, the MVC usually has a team or two in the top 25 during the regular season. But when it comes to the NCAA tournament, it’s a different story.

    Since 2000, 35 teams from mid-major conferences have made the Sweet 16, and MVC teams have accounted for a mere six of those appearances. More importantly, in that same span, mid-major teams have made it to the Elite 8 or further fourteen times (when you take out Memphis and Xavier, which are relative powerhouses, there are still eight mid-major appearances in the Elite 8 or further). No MVC team has made it to the Elite 8 in that span — not Creighton, not Southern Illinois, not Wichita State, not Northern Iowa, not Bradley. That’s less Elite 8 appearances than the MAC (Kent State ‘02), Conference USA (Memphis multiple times, Tulsa ‘00), the Horizon League (Butler ‘10 and ‘11), the Colonial Athletic Association (VCU ‘11, George Mason ‘06), the Atlantic 10 (Xavier multiple times, Temple ‘01, St. Joe’s ‘04), and the Southern Conference (Davidson ‘08).

    In today’s diluted college hoops landscape, that doesn’t cut it. Butler, VCU, and others have proven that true top-tier mid-majors can make serious postseason runs, and the MVC simply hasn’t reached that level. The MVC is the Houston Texans of college basketball — perennially impressive in the regular season, and a dud when it counts.

  1. acousticAcoustic/unplugged performances. Live acoustic music certainly has its virtues, and “unplugged” performances have continued to grow in popularity for good reason. In an age where a decent-sounding finished musical product does not necessarily imply a talented musician, acoustic performances strip away the artifice and reveal the talent (or lack thereof) of the artist at a song’s core. But with the increasing popularity of these performances, an attitude — both spoken and unspoken — has emerged among some that a live acoustic performance is automatically superior to a fine studio recording.

    Take the Beatles’ “Yesterday” for example. After all, it is the most covered song in rock and roll history. I’m not a huge fan of the song, but I think it’d be hard to argue that a live acoustic performance by Paul McCartney would be automatically superior to the complex, richly textured recording on Help!. Acoustic music has its place, and there are countless instances where an acoustic performance surpasses a recording, but an appreciation for acoustic performances should not automatically override an appreciation for great studio work.

  1. Craft beer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan. Living in Madison and Chicago for the past two years, I’ve had easy access to some of the best microbrews in the country (shoutout to New Glarus, Ale Asylum, and Half Acre). The rise of craft breweries has supported local economies and driven mass producers to diversify their offerings, both unqualified good things (except in the case of Blue Moon).

    However, the popularity of craft beer has given rise to — or at least brought completely out of the woodwork — a new class of annoying pseudo-beer-snobs, many of whom have no idea what they’re talking about. It’s now pretty much impossible to order a Miller Lite without justifying yourself, which is just kind of strange. Sometimes, you’d rather pay $3 than $6, and that’s not the end of the world. But it’s now pretty difficult to do that without an eye-roll from the bartender or the hipster on the barstool next to you. So, I guess this isn’t a knock on craft beer at all — in fact, I universally prefer it to mass-produced alternatives. Rather, this is a rant about the assholes whom the craft beer scene has unfortunately but inevitably provided with an air of superiority. Sorry, craft beer, but I hope you can understand. You hate these people too, right?

  1. Image courtesy of Flickr user stevendepolo.

    Image courtesy of Flickr user stevendepolo.

    Soccer. I get it. For decades, America ignored the most globally popular sport, one with its own unique aesthetic and distinct culture. In the states, soccer is finally getting the attention and respect it deserves. In my opinion, it’s also become really annoying. Of all the people I know who now “follow” soccer, I’d say about half actually give a shit. The rest are in love with the idea of soccer. You get to wear a scarf, drink Guinness, and avoid the type of drunks you’d find at an SEC tailgate. Call me old-fashioned, narrow-minded, and the archetypal Ugly American, but I’ll continue to pretty much ignore soccer and hang out with the raving idiots at the tailgates.

  1. Horse meat. For years, it was an edgy food popular in remote villages. But, sadly, Ikea and Burger King have taken horse meat into the mainstream. I’ll reminisce about the golden days, but you can now count me out of the horse meat scene. Enjoy it on your Whoppers, posers!
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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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Weekend Miscellany, Part II: Vincent and Matt’s Picks

For Part II of our of this week’s Weekend Miscellany, Vincent and Matt prove that they were indeed English majors — their picks are all articles and essays, no podcasts.

Vincent’s Picks

  • “Mister Lytle: An Essay” by John Jeremiah Sullivan. I read this essay as a part of writer John Jeremiah Sullivan’s excellent collection Pulphead, and among many stars, this one shone the brightest to me.
  • “The White Album” by Chuck Klosterman. Chuck Klosterman’s profile of the Rockets’ Royce White, unlike the 30 for 30 short released around the time of the NBA draft, is not overly sympathetic to White. Instead, after reading the essay, you get a sense of just how weird the entire situation is, something Klosterman does well without being dismissive of White’s illness.
  • “Kitty Enters the Real World on ‘D.A.I.S.Y. Rage’ – EP Premiere” by RJ Cubarrubia. Teenage white girl rapper Kitty’s (formerly Pryde) new EP D.A.I.S.Y. Rage is out for stream and, I’ve gotta say, I’m hooked. Kitty’s codeine teenage flow is divisive in its reception, but, for better or worse, few artists better exemplify the new minimal,  deadpan face of hip-hop.

Matt’s Picks

  • “Requiem for a Dreamliner?” by  James Surowiecki, on the Boeing Dreamliner saga. Focusing on what led to the battery issue, rather than what needs to be done to resolve it, this piece offers more insight than most on the topic. 
  • “Liberal Arts Majors Didn’t Kill the Economy” by Matthew O’Brien. Because every now and then (okay, every day), liberal arts grads need to be reminded that everything is going to be okay.
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