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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Joyful Noise: Paying Tribute to Hall and Oates

Mary Beth Williams celebrates Hall of Famers Hall and Oates in Salon today. I'm a fan and endorse such a celebration, but I found Williams' tone curiously defensive, and I wondered at the extent to which she seemed to regard their stature a problem to be justified less through their own accomplishments than by locating in relation to less problematically acclaimed work. I honestly didn't quite realize how uncool it is to think Hall and Oates cool until I read Williams' eulogy. She raises the specter of Hall and Oates being "the musical equivalent of mom jeans," for heaven's sake! It seems to me that there is something about the unique induction conjunction of Nirvana and Hall and Oates that makes celebration of the artistry and force of the latter a scene of such agonies. But great music does greatness differently. It's a point Williams gets around to making herself, but she seems unsure of its legitimating force when it comes to Hall and Oates. "[T]he heart wants what it wants," she declares defiantly from the start, consigning the duo to the campy schlock of the guilty pleasure. May I say that I, for one, feel no guilt in the pleasures I take in listening to Hall and Oates? To be honest, guilt spices my pleasures in Nirvana, more like. Oh, well, some things, I guess, are better left unsaid.

I am at best ambivalent about the blunt assignment by Williams of "Blue Eyed Soul" to Hall and Oates (not least because John Oates has brown eyes), especially as an initial framing of the duo. I think the co-construction of categories of race as well as of the popular, the populace, the people at the site of "pop music" through its fraught relations of citation, of appropriation, of mass distribution, and of identification/dis-identification, is simply too complex and too important for such a sledghammer of designation to illuminate much. How insane would it be to designate Sly and the Family Stone "Blue Eyed Soul"? To be reminded by Williams of generations of hip hop sampling from Hall and Oates mega-hits, hell, to hear that "I Can't Go for That" was a key influence on "Billie Jean" is just a preliminary indication of this complexity. On a related note, I am also ambivalent about the proposal that "Rich Girl" is a neglected class warfare anthem (it's a great song, and I agree that its lyrics are very fine), especially when one hears that the inspiration for the song was a rich guy. In this displacement, perhaps, we find an early intimation of the troubled premise of "Maneater" (a song of theirs I happen to dislike on many levels, though ymmv).

Williams is right to say that "[s]mashes like 'Kiss on My List,' 'You Make My Dreams,' 'Out of Touch' and 'Say It Isn’t So' ...are unapologetic pop songs, all shivery vocals and Motown-inflected harmonies and silliness." But I can't agree that the consummate effortlessness of their form "makes it so easy to dismiss them": do we say the same of "She Loves You" and "All You Need Is Love?" Let me make this point plain (and risk my own charge of legitimating Hall and Oates by association with others whose legitimacy is not in doubt): It seems to me that "Kiss On My List" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" are precise correlates, melodically, lyrically, thematically, and that both are brilliant.

Williams is right to say that
music doesn’t have to be broody or tortured or pissed off to be pretty damn great. Happiness is authentic too. And the irrepressible melodies of Hall & Oates endure because they achieve something unique. They nod to the lushness of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound; they riff on traditional soul but refuse to pledge full allegiance to it. They shine. When you hear a song like “One On One,” you get that they’re being playful –- quite literally, it’s a song that uses sex as a sports metaphor –- but they’re doing it with tremendous finesse.
Again, the song's conceit recalls the lyrical and thematic shenanigans of the early Beatles, of say, "Please Please Me" or "A Hard Day's Night." It is fair to say that Hall and Oates haven't made their Revolver, but it is no less fair to say that had the Beatles not gotten round to Revolver and What Came After they would still have been great, and great enough unproblematically to find a home in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Williams says that these songs "don’t challenge you to understand them," but it does seem to me that Hall and Oates riff on worthy if perennial themes and offer up plenty of nice formal puzzles for listeners to resolve -- enjoyment of their melodies and beat and performance doesn't depend on taking on provocation, but that is hardly something I would demand of much of even the greatest music. And when she goes on from denying the songs are challenging to saying "they defy you, Mr. and Ms. Cool, to enjoy them," it seems to me that that sounds like a personal problem. If these songs were charting defiance against popular norms it seems to me they would have, you know, thematized these issues in the songs. To me it seems that Hall and Oates wanted people to like their songs, and despite the neglect of their work over long stretches of their careers, it seems to me they expected people to like their songs, too. Contrary to Williams insistence that millions and millions of people bought their records but none admit to liking them, of course the truth is that people do.

In conclusion, Williams says that "Music has always been full of angry young men kicking over the statues." One could add, this business of angry young men kicking stuff is also true of life, and in life it is all too often a very harmful, tedious, self-indulgent spectacle indeed. Part of the power of the pop music I like best is its evocation of possibilities of connection and joy in a world of angry young men kicking stuff around. It is far from irrelevant that this joy is often enabled or at any rate purchased by a healthy dose of irony. "What’s raw is often granted a respect that what’s polished is not. And true pop, in all its brightly colored, exuberant glory, rarely gets its due," Williams ponders. But I must say I am not certain what such music is due beyond the pleasure of those who take it up and take it in, after all. And it seems to me a new theme emerges when from this conjuration of "brightly colored, exuberant glory" (let's say, flaming) Williams elaborates further: "But the artists who are really good at making pop songs -– the ABBAs and the Elton Johns and the Carpenters –- are a very special lot." Special, indeed, especially to the generations of queer folks who have built a culture out of these figures in particular, among others. These artists, writes Williams, "say it’s okay to be a little corny, because there’s sincere joy in the corny." To those excluded by poverty, by weirdness, by wrongness from corny sincerities, they can seem more than okay, but frankly utopian. More to the point, in pop music iconic figures ironize and italicize the prevailing gestures through which testimonies to history and to hope, to the pain of rejection and to the bliss of connection are made and assumed to be legible, and in so doing they render these gestures more capacious, more available to those who do not yet prevail. Great pop artists "invite you to do something really radical for the space of three and a half or so minutes –- to just shut up and be happy," Williams concludes. In such little deaths can one find the energy and inspiration for big lives, as from a joyful noise we find the fuel from which to make a joyful noise.

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