Toad the Wet Sprocket is back! Listen now, then go see them live

The best jokes contain painful truths. When it comes to music, I joke that the life cycle of bands is (a) starving unknowns, (b) big breakout hit, (c) rehab, (d) lead singer goes solo and band breaks up, then (e) reunion tour 20 years later when they’re all broke, sober, married and need to pay the mortgage.

So it gives me unbridled joy (note: don’t ever try to put a bridle on my joy; I will punch you into next week) to learn one of my favorite bands OF ALL TIME is back together and cranking out new albums.

Toad the Wet Sprocket is the weirdest possible name for a great band.

I say that with love.

Honestly, you can throw together a sweet band name in two seconds using this simple formula: “the” + active adjective + non-threatening animal.

Check it out:

  • The Flaming Squirrels
  • The Angry Hedgehogs
  • The Psychotic Hamsters

However: While the name doesn’t really work on every level, at least you remember because it’s so flipping weird.

Though I take great joy in dissecting terrible music videos, or divining why brilliant ones work, it’s nice to simply share a great bad with people who might not know they exist.

Also: To the punk who broke into my car when I was a starving reporter and stole all my tapes (yes, music once lived on these things called “tapes”), you took every Toad album I owned, and if I ever see you, and figure out you’ve got a closet full of cassette tapes from your criminal past, I think that’s punishment enough, because tapes are a terrible idea. They always get snagged in your car stereo, with the tape spilling out like intestines full of music, and maybe, maybe, you could take a pencil and wind everything back into place after you did some scotch-tape surgery. Tapes sucked.

Back to Toad the Wet Sprocket: Whatever you think of the band name, the music is beautiful.

Toad can play rock or folk, fast songs or slow, electric or acoustic. 

I bet they could even do a medium-paced song that’s neither happy nor sad, if you asked nicely.

Here’s one of their more famous songs:

And here’s a slow burner that still slays me:

Welcome back, Toad the Wet Sprocket–so happy you’re making new music and hitting the road again.

If you want to check them out, here’s a link to the band and their tour schedule. See them live. DO IT NOW.

The Red Pen of Doom digs up the existential dread hidden beneath the BABY SHARK song

baby shark song, baby shark lyrics

Songs for kids like BABY SHARK can be relentlessly repetitive and deceptively deep, if you dig deep enough–or stay up all night writing a term paper about Nietzsche, who is harder to spell than understand.

BABY SHARK is a perfect example of this, a peppy, wholesome song viewed billions of times, and this is perhaps the first time I mean “billions” literally, since I usually say something like “2.84 bazillions” as a joke on the internets. No. People have watched and listened to versions of BABY SHARK more than a billion times.

Have a listen to the original, and if you’re feeling masochistic, or have a tiny one in your secret fortress, go ahead and watch the dance version, too.

Then we’ll dissect every line of lyrics through the eyes of a grown-up who understands the joke behind the Nihilist Arby’s twitter account. (What makes me an expert? I dissect music videos, movies and books on this silly blog. I also watched 5,823 hours of The Wiggles, Thomas the Trains and the Teletubbies when our pookie was small. Come at me, bro.)

Baby Shark doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(Small Shark, you are small now, like the small humans singing this song, doom doom, doom doom doom doom) 

Baby Shark doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(But little shark, you will eat and grow big, just as the tiny humans will grow, doom doom, doom doom doom doom) 

Baby Shark doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(Big enough to become the feared apex predator of the ocean, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Baby Shark

(So all hail the baby shark, future king of the seas, and the tiny humans, future lords of the land)

Mummy Shark doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(Mother Sharks are loving and wise, except when they tear into a school of tuna with their razor teeth, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Mummy Shark doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(Mother Sharks are strong and powerful, and can take away our iPhones when we are bad, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Mummy Shark doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(We thank you for not eating us, which you could easily do, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Mummy Shark

(All hail the Mother Sharks)

Daddy Shark doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(Father Sharks are the largest and scariest of them all, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Daddy Shark doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(Father Sharks can seem unreadable and mysterious, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Daddy Shark doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(Baby Sharks recognize the size and power of the Fathers, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Daddy Shark

(We also hope to grow as big, strong and silent as Father Shark, like Clint Eastwood in a Spaghetti western, though this will not happen if you eat us when there are no tuna around)

Grandma Shark doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(Grandma Sharks are still big but not scary at all, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Grandma Shark doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(Their age and infirmity is a sign that death comes for us all, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Grandma Shark doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(So their time with us is limited and precious, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Grandma Shark

(We love you, Grandma Shark)

Grandpa Shark doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(Grandpa Shark is no longer a threatening predator, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Grandpa Shark doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(Like Grandma Shark, he is loving and kind, and spends his limited time on us, doom doom, doom doom doom doom))

Grandpa Shark doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(Possibly because there is no Shark Golf Channel, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Grandpa Shark

(You’re a lovable goofball, Grandpa Shark)

Let’s go hunt doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(Though we are small, we know that we must learn to be predators, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Let’s go hunt doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(As it is in the ocean, it is on land, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Let’s go hunt doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(The little fish gets eaten by the bigger fish, who gets munched by the biggest shark, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Let’s go hunt

(This is the real food pyramid, with predators on top, and thankfully we are predators)

Run away doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(But for right now, we are still small, and prey for anything larger, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Run away doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(We can’t stand and fight, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Run away doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(Running is our only option, which is why young animals of all sorts chase each other, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Run away

(Running isn’t just a game, it’s essential practice for survival, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Safe at last doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(Running and hiding can protect you, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Safe at last doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(But not forever, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Safe at last doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(Eventually, you need to grow big enough to chase and eat not just prey, but your competition, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

Safe at last

(Safety is temporary and elusive)

It’s the end doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(There are beginnings, middles and ends, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

It’s the end doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(We are all Baby Sharks, then Daddy Shark and Grandpa Shark–or Mommy Shark and Grandma Shark, you get the idea, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

It’s the end doo doo, doo doo doo doo

(And our existences will end, as everything must, doom doom, doom doom doom doom)

It’s the end

(Eat Arbies)

Music video dance-off: Janet Jackson vs. Dua Lipa

Dance and music videos go together like peanut butter and chocolate, salt and pepper, bacon and eggs, coffee and newspapers.

Janet Jackson has made dance music videos forever, and my fake news version of “forever” includes before Dua Lipa was born. (She’s 23, so yes, no lie.)

Today, we’re looking at the latest from Janet, MADE FOR NOW, versus an interesting twist on the dance video from Dua, IDGAF, and yes, if you’re offended by bad words, Dua has a bad one right up there in the title. Sorry. Didn’t write the song.

First up: Janet, then Dua, before we dissect both videos.

I bet you the title to my car that Janet’s video cost far, far more than Dua’s–it certainly looks slick and expensive.

In this case, money and production values don’t win.

Dua has a better song and a far, far more entertaining video.

The acid test to me is whether (a) you’d have to pay me to rewatch it or (b) I’d happily watch and listen to something again. I’ve happily put IDGAF on loop while you’d have to pay me to hit replay on MADE FOR NOW, a repetitive song and boring video.

And that’s too bad. Janet’s got talent to burn. She’s made iconic music videos for years.

RHYTHM NATION was groundbreaking and still works today.

So I’m disappointed because Janet’s playing it safe with this. So safe that it fails.

Here’s the thing: once you’ve already had crazy success and so much cash you can’t spend it without buying private islands in the South Pacific, playing it safe is a losing strategy. You’re coasting instead of pushing yourself, and the audience feels it.

Though I’m no fan of Madonna’s music, she did a tremendous job of recognizing this and picking a hot new producer for every album to reinvent herself. That was bold and risky. It made her a star for decades instead of a one-hit wonder.

The best music–rock, pop, rap, whatever–attacks the status quo.

Aggressively. Relentlessly. Without mercy.

The worst music defends the status quo.

Limply. Lamely. Apologetically.

If you’re a famous singer or band, please take your piles of money and try to make something insanely different, new and interesting.

Rebel again.

Because that’s the real point of art, to shock us into seeing the world in a different way.

Video

Okay, fine–let’s admit the brilliance of DON’T GO BREAKING MY HEART by the Backstreet Boys

I come not to bury the Backstreet Boys, but to praise them.

And yes, this is praise from the most unlikely of sources. I don’t personally hate this band, or anybody in it–they’re just not my cup of tea. Now, it’s different with others who are inherently annoying. Justin Bieber could show up at my front door with a suitcase stuffed with $3.75 million dollars while singing original compositions about my virtues and it would STILL rub me wrong.

So you’d expect me to take a scalpel to any one of the Backstreet Boys songs, old or new, or any random song from New Kids on the Block or Nsync, and no, I couldn’t tell these three bands apart except for the fact that one of them included a young Justin Timberlake before he hired Jason Statham to make a daring escape in a black BMW. (Note: Timberlake is one of the dudes wearing a ski mask.)

So why would I go against every instinct in my body and praise a video by the Backstreet Boys?

Here’s why:

(1) Radio is the great equalizer

Since I drive about two hours a day, 99 percent of music comes to me in a blind taste test, like Pepsi versus Coke except there’s no carbonated sugar water involved.

This song hit my radio and honestly, I had no idea it was Backstreet Boys–could’ve been any boy band, whether you’re talking current UK newbies or a Nostalgic Throwback Tour Because Yo, We Got Kids and Need to Pay the Mortgage.

Honestly, for a pop song, this is good. The lyrics are nothing to spend time dissecting, and the song won’t go on my running playlist or anything. But the song isn’t actively annoying, which is better than most of the stuff I hear on the radio. Not once did I rush to change radio stations, skip forward on Pandora or cover my ears in pain. That’s the acid test right there, empirical proof that despite my anti boy-band bias, the song holds up.

(2) Their fans will love it

What’s the purpose of a song like this? It’s not to get people like me to buy their stuff on iTunes or shell out serious money for a concert ticket.

They don’t need to generate name ID or start from scratch. This music video is for their fans, which is people who loved them back when they were on top of the world.

That’s a massive, built-in audience. When you start with an old fan base of millions and millions around the world, you only need to excite a fraction of that audience to pay the bills.

And I bet you all those old fans adored this new song.

(3) The video gets the job done

Music videos these days are expensive, with budgets in the millions not unusual.

Clearly, they spared no expense on this one.

So why do it, aside from letting singers scratch the acting itch?

A good music video adds to the song by (a) telling a story, (b) showing off the dancing skills of the singer/band or (c) giving you a taste of what a live concert might feel and sound like.

The Backstreet Boys are on tour, and these days the music business doesn’t really make money from selling music. The real cash comes from concerts.

If you grew up listening to these guys, and now you’re an adult with some scratch instead of a teenager raiding the change jar, this video probably makes you want to see the band live. Because hey, they clearly put on a good show.

VERDICT: I have to admire the brilliance of this comeback song and video. Fans of the Backstreet Boys will adore this song and video, so congrats on a well-performed comeback.

Hey there

Here’s the deal: I’ve been crazy busy with Other Things, and did not post to this silly blog much lately. And I missed it.

Missed dissecting the first pages of novels, the full three minutes of insane music videos and the reasons why the Series of Tubes will always, always be awash in videos of cats.

Missed talking smack with writers, editors and creative types scattered on every continent.

Missed the whole damn thing.

It’s good to be back here. Am writing a post every day for the month of August (so far, so good) and it’s made writing other things, for work and fun, much easier and faster. A happy snowball.

So: thanks for reading, thanks for commenting or tweeting at me–and thanks to many of you for teaching me a lot.

P.S. Just shout if you have suggestions for posts, such as which novels, music videos or movies (a) desperately deserve to get bled on with a red pen, (b) need to be taken apart to see why they work so well or (c) are so godawfully bad they circle back to good. I may open this thing up for guest posts, even. YOU NEVER KNOW.

SOBER UP by AJR is a true beauty, except for this itty bitty fatal flaw

So, what did you notice?

I loved this song, and the video–especially the strings. A nice touch, and so well done.

Then it goes completely sideways at the one minute, 54-second mark, when we get the clunkiest lyrics since Train sang, “Just a shy guy looking for a two ply / Hefty bag to hold my love.”

Here’s the damage: “My favorite color is you / You’re vibrating out my frequency.”

And that’s when I run screaming from the room.

Because that line put the A in Awkward.

It killed the song for me, especially when that same terrible line came up again and again.

This answers the question: Can one bad lyrical choice kill an otherwise beautiful song?

And now we know: Yes, yes it can.

One bad line can be a nasty shotgun blast to the heart of a sweet, sweet song.

VERDICT: Man in a furry hat and friends with stringed instruments, please consider recutting this song after changing that terrible line in the chorus. I would send you monies.

This one chart cuts through the heart of EVERY MUSICAL GENRE

So on Mondays, when the mood is right and the coffee is hot, I dissect music videos on this silly blog–half because it’s fun and half because you can learn a lot from taking apart a 3-minute video.

This chart does a beautiful job of taking a scalpel and slicing right through the heart every major musical genre. It is merciless, it is brutal and there is no escape. Even better: there’s a lot of truth in here. Because the secret of humor is revealing painful truths.

every music genre

Great job, John the Atkinson of Wrong Hands–please give us more charts like this.

As a bonus, here’s a music video that we’re looping endlessly: NO ROOTS by Alice Martin, a great song in part because it’s completely different. I can’t shoe-horn her song into pop, blues or punk. And that’s a good thing.

Taking apart the expensive disaster of LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO by Taylor Swift

I come here to praise Taylor Swift, not to bury her CGI zombie corpse.

Though I’m neither superfan nor hater, I have to say she did some great music videos early in her career. YOU BELONG TO ME is excellent. BACK TO DECEMBER is pretty good.

This music video is a step backward, an expensive mess that shows T-Swift has fully evolved from a Scrappy Young Talent Who Just Hit It Big all the way to a Establishment Megastar With More Mansions Than She Can Remember.

Yes, the production values are great. Fans will watch the heck out of this just for the spectacle.

HOWEVER: It doesn’t make you feel anything.

At all.

And that’s the acid test for a music video.

Do you laugh?

Do you feel joy, or anger?

Do you cry?

That’s because whether you intend to or not, every song tells a story. A music video is supposed to help tell that story.

Songs don’t give you a lot of words to do the job. It takes discipline and talent to do it right. 

The Dixie Chicks can spend 200 words to tell a full story that makes you full of sorrow (TRAVELING SOLDIER) or righteously angry (GOODBYE, EARL).

Taylor can do this, too. She has the talent to tell a story and make you feel. One of her first big hits did this perfectly. It’s even in the title.

Here’s where this new video goes wrong, despite all the money spent–reportedly, $12 million in diamonds was used for that bath scene.

What story is she telling, and how does it make us feel?

In her best songs and videos, Taylor’s telling a story about somebody else, somebody we can all relate to, and that makes us feel for the protag. YOU BELONG TO ME is about a high school girl, something of a loser, with a crush on a neighbor boy. People get that. Whether you’re male or female, we’ve all been through awkward years in junior high or high school. It’s easy to feel for the girl she’s singing about, and to root for that underdog. You want her to get the boy and it’s a great moment when they both show up to the dance together.

In this video, Taylor’s clearly talking about herself, and the point of the song is to strike back at perceived rivals.

It’s hard for non-billionaires to feel sympathy for celebrities with hurt feelings. No matter how good the song is (and it’s not that good compared to her best) and how much they spent making this video, you can’t force people to feel sorry for a young, pretty woman who makes more money in a week than most people will make in their lifetime.

What are the stakes?

 

Just like books and movies, songs can have low stakes or high stakes, personal stakes and public stakes.

They can be about whether love rules the day or love forever lost. War or peace, injustice or redemption.

The stakes here are extremely low. Oh, Taylor is so upset (at Katy Perry or whoever, I honestly don’t care and neither should you) that she crashed a car that costs more than your house while a a cheetah served as her copilot. With her car trashed, will she be unable to get to work in the morning and lose her job? Does it matter in the slightest? No. She may have to tell her staff to gas up the Ferrari, or the Bentley, or one of however many dozen cars she owns. People will clean up the mess while she goes off and trashes one of her jets and rounds up an army of cloned robots or whatever to assault the compound of P-Diddy or whoever she’s mad at this week.

Basically, I can’t make myself care, and yes, I tried. Really hard.

What’s the impact of the song and video?

The best songs and music videos stick with you. AMERICAN PIE was about an entire era, and half the fun was trying to decipher the lyrics. Even if you didn’t get every line, you got the message about how America was changing. It sticks with you.

EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE is about love turning into obsession, and the video is stark black-and-white. I wouldn’t change a thing.

When I first heard LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO on the radio, I swore it was Britney Spears.

Not kidding. Feels like mid-stage Britney, after she’d made it big, and started doing over-the-top stuff like this:

Verdict: Sure, the production values and budget is sky high, but the entertainment value is meh and the feels generated are zero. 10/10 would not watch again.

If the old Taylor Swift is dead, and the new T-Swift is busy being obsessed with her hurt feelings and celebrity beefs, let’s resurrect the old Taylor Swift–the one focused on songs that aren’t about her. I’d happily listen and watch that singer.

HALLELUJAH by Kate McKinnon, who is just killing it

I’m not alone in adoring Kate McKinnon’s impression of Hillary Clinton during the campaign, though Alec Baldwin’s job as Trump got more attention.

This song, though, hit me hard. Who knew she could play piano and sing? (If you don’t know the song, it’s by Leonard Cohen, who just died.)

Capping it off? Her lines after the song is over, when you can she’s choked up. Appropriate for our times.

Though she does a great Clinton (below), she also does spot-on impressions of Justin Bieber, Ellen DeGeneres and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

So she can act and sing. If she could dance, McKinnon would be a triple threat.

Yeah, she can dance.

Kate the McKinnon, please keep on doing what you do and we won’t give up.

Why MELANIANADE is peak SNL and brilliant comedy

Music has never been more competitive. A good music video adds another layer of difficulty–and when you add comedy–the hardest thing of all–then it’s no wonder that truly funny music videos are rare.

Your typical parody video looks cheap and takes easy shots at the artist who made it. Weird Al Yancovic has been the king of parody videos for precisely the opposite reason: he knows poking fun of the singer or band will only go so far, so he takes a song and twists it to make fun of something entirely different, like when he used American Pie to rip on Star Wars.

Comedy is hard because it speaks to painful truths. Cheap, easy laughs aren’t deep. The deeper the pain, the more truth gets revealed.

This video works because the cast of SNL clearly put a lot of time and effort into it. They committed, absolutely, and didn’t hold back.

James Corden did something similar with his Lemonjames video. Take a look:

Corden is making fun of himself, and his industry, more than he’s taking shots at Beyoncé.

The quality of both these videos, in how well they’re shot and edited, may seem like an irrelevant point for comedians. Why waste so much time and effort making the lighting, costumes and settings so perfect.?

Except it’s not a waste of time. Chances are, most people have seen the original video. A cheap knock-off that’s badly shot and uses thrown-together sets and locations will keep dragging you out of it. Instead of noticing the jokes, you’ll get distracting with how amateurish things look compared to the real video–and these days, music videos are expensive affairs, often shot by moonlighting Hollywood professionals. So the bar is high.

These two videos leap over that bar of quality, letting you focus entirely on the comedy.

Well done, SNL and James the Corden–give us more, more, more.