It’s funny what can make an impact.
One of the earliest examples I can think of a comment sticking with me, and influencing my sense of a song was a throwaway line by my brother about Ziggy Stardust.
He said, “It’s a great song and he sings the hell out of it.” What more needs to be said?
It took my a while to appreciate that recommendation* but what’s interesting is that, while the phrase says nothing specific about the song, it’s surprisingly apt for the song, and the entire album.
*Here’s my story with Ziggy Stardust. I borrowed the CD from my brother, listened to it a couple of times, but didn’t get into it. Then, as these things can happen, I never returned it and, about a year later I started listening to it a lot, and to this day it’s one of my absolute favorite rock albums.
To elaborate: starting with the first element, of calling it a great song. Like almost every song on that album it has a great, memorable guitar riff, and is well structured musically and lyrically. It is important, at this point to refer to the note on the back of album that I have used for the title of the post. The first thing to pull you in to most of the songs is Mick Ronson’s guitar work. I wouldn’t say it needs to be at maximum volume, but it has to be loud enough that the opening notes of Ziggy Statdust bite, and get your attention. The production is great throughout, and particularly notable for how it balances a careful arrangement with leaving plenty of space around Bowie’s voice, and you need to be able to listen to both. If the arrangement is fading into the background, and the song feels unmemorable, turn it up.
In terms of the performance, I think Bowie really earns the emotions of the song. Like any fiction, music invites a willful suspension of disbelief. Compared to other mediums, it matters less, partially because songs are short. It’s possible for a song to be perfectly good song, and carry you along with energy and drive without you ever entering into an emotional world of the song. There is nothing wrong with a song that just asks you to enjoy the groove for three minutes. What is frustrating is a song that is emotionally manipulative — that deploys emotional cues without constructing an emotional core of the song.
Ziggy Stardust is a song for which it is very easy for me to suspend disbelief. When he sings “Just the Beer Light to guide us / We bitched about his fans and should we crush his sweet hands” It doesn’t feel overstated, it makes me think of the experience of feeling a wave of anger and jealousy towards a friend. The line, “Became the special man, then we were Ziggy’s band” makes me think about just how strange it would be to perform with someone who was truly a star. It earns the emotions.
Finally, in addition to that my brother’s comment also just says that, if the song might sound silly on first listening, give a second chance. Trust that, if you’re willing to look for what’s good in the song, and take the song on its own terms, that you will be rewarded. There is substance beneath the surface. That’s always a useful recommendation.
Update: I realize I should say a little bit more about Bowie, at the risk of going on too long. First, I think of Bowie as one of pop’s great interpreters of songs. He is constantly putting different inflection and emphasis on each word, and doing so in a way that develops the meaning of the songs. In particular listen to the first song on the album “Five Years” and listen to how many different ways he uses his voice on that song.
Secondly, the point at which I really got into Bowie was a period in my life when I was feeling depressed and direction less. The Ziggy Stardust album ended up being surprisingly comforting to listen to on headphones, sitting around and night thinking “what am i doing with my life.” I don’t exactly know why that it, and Bowie has stayed in my affection more than any of the other music I listened to at that point, but that was emotional entry point into Ziggy Stardust.
I will return to both of those points in later posts.