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Microwaving A Tragedy (extended freestyle mix)
Last month I linked the "radio edit" of my decade's end piece, the version that was printed in the Las Vegas Weekly. Here under the cut is the "extended freestyle mix" (a.k.a. director's cut), a full one thousand words longer – that's 60 percent more, for the same price! To put it in brief, I'm suggesting that the musical story of the Web is words, but that this Web word story can be one of distance and isolation.

The marriage of romance and romanticism in '00s pop
by Frank Kogan

"Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind"
--Taylor Swift, "Fifteen"

"Eff love"
--Rihanna, interviewed on 20/20

The Rihanna album had just leaked, and we were trying to figure out the second line of the second verse of "Fire Bomb." That's the song where her car gets shot up and the spilled gas catches fire, so Rihanna turns the car and her in it into a suicide bomb ("best way to make lemonade of the situation," said my friend Dave), aiming it towards the residence of an unnamed "you" – presumably the shooter, whom listeners, for convenience, referred to as "Chris." Someone heard the line as "Like the way that I'm at a tragedy"; another preferred "Microwave and a metal tragedy"; I was leaning towards "I echo within a metal tragedy," though my heart was with "microwave"; meanwhile it was asserted that freshman-year experiments with microwaves and metal objects (e.g., CDs) linked "microwave" to the next line's description of flame, "it's beautiful and it's blue/and it's pitiful" (my friend Erika: "they do burn blue, and it is pretty pitiful when it's over"); others irrelevantly suggested further experiments with sodium and phosphorus; and finally someone came up with "microwaving a metal tragedy," which clinched it. (Turned out to be "microwaving our metal tragedy"; even better, Rihanna turning up the heat on the two of them.)

Think of every song as containing two worlds, the world that produced it and the world that receives it. One world is the past and one world is the future. Focusing on the first world, you can ask yourself: What's the song saying? What does it tell us about the world that made it?

According to Rihanna, interviewed on 20/20, she'd caught Chris in a lie about a girl, and she wouldn't let up about it, and he snapped and began hitting and choking her, trying to bat away words with fists. (If Chris were serious about changing, he'd have called his comeback single "Weak Man," not "Changed Man.")

Kelly Clarkson's album Breakaway really should be called Breakaway... LOL, 'cause as soon as you hit the songs Kelly herself has a hand in writing (starting at Track 3 "Behind These Hazel Eyes," Track 4 "Because Of You") you hear her fiercely and unsuccessfully trying to scratch her way out of herself. Being addicted to someone is a venerable and tattered trope, but in "Addicted" (Track 6) she makes it gut-level and personal, following up on the autobiographical "Hazel" where she's not getting over David Hodges and "Because Of You" where she gives herself the choice of either compulsively repeating her mother's love disaster ("I watched you die, I heard you cry every night in your sleep") or walking a living death alone. By "Hear Me" (Track 11) she's screaming to the void to turn her world upside down. In "Addicted" she fights for her very breath, and the reason that back on Track 2 ("Since U Been Gone," which she didn't write) she sounds so liberated when she announces "I can breathe for the first time" is that these others make that one seem like a desperate fantasy.

Three weeks after Chris beat her up, Rihanna went back to him, resumed the love affair. In the 20/20 interview she recounts her mental state right after the attack: "You want this thing to go away. This is a memory you don't want to have ever again. So the minute the physical wounds go away you put it in the back of your head and start lying to yourself, subconsciously... I just – I didn't talk about it to anyone. To no one... If I feel this depressed, then what is he going though? Again, lying to yourself: 'I had to protect him.' The whole world hates him now. His fans, his career. I just wanted to let him know, 'Don't do anything stupid.'" So in a few quick steps she's deciding to rescue the guy who beat and choked her. But this sort of rescuing is its own weakness, Rihanna imagining herself into a position of strength that's as fake as Chris's (though she did subsequently break up with him for good).

The second world of a song, the one that hears it, that receives it, poses a question too: What can I do with this song? Play it, feel it, hum it, sing it, dance to it, act it out, lip synch it as if I were the star, denounce it, tell jokes about it, wrap it up and give it as a present, impress people with my knowledge of it, wear my allegiance to the song as if it were a T-shirt, sneer at people who like the song, bond with people who also sneer at it, analyze the song, bully the people I discuss the song with, marry a person I discuss the song with, declare I can make music that's better.

This second world has existed as long as music's existed, but mostly it's belonged to small-scale conversations, among friends or in hallways or by letter, or in public spaces such as dancehalls and churches, a few call-ins to radios. But recall the convo between me and my friends about "microwaving our metal tragedy": it took place online. The significance of this isn't just that it connected people in different locations (seven people, five cities, two continents), but that the conversation was immediately visible to anyone who stumbled upon it, so it can belong to history. This world is now on record as soon as someone hits submit.

Science fiction imaginings of a computerized world always assumed disembodied blips and hums and robots and calculating machines, attended by humans wearing lab coats (for some reason) in a slate-gray environment. But the actual impact of 1's and 0's is altogether different: the primacy in our computer land of WORDS. True, the words sometimes get accompanied by cat pics, and of course there are videos, and robots walking on Mars, and the illegal sharing of music files, but still, mostly words. Words in posts, words on comment threads, words in news flashes, words in text messages, words in tweets.

Nowadays, any song that travels widely is attended by a swarm of words. But online, where these words flourish, the world is perilous. Whether they're on the page or onscreen, when words and sentences are separated from the bodies and voices that made them, they need to create their own gait and stance and timbre and tone, to wear their own verbal dresses and T-shirts and hairstyles. On the receiving end, though, words come like ghosts, separated from the world that produced them, and this gets vicious: the readers are willing to project clinical material from their own psyche onto those ghosts, lightning quick imaginings of meanings and intent, projecting wrong bodies onto words, and slashing back at old enemies with new names – the strikebacks instantly visible and available on the 'Net.

But words that are sung thrive online too, words with music. There's the subliminal persuasiveness of beats and rhymes and cadence and chord changes – music gives you the illusion of deep speech, commits you in your mood to what a good song's saying even before you've noticed what the words are saying.

Ashlee Simpson sings "I'm the one who's crawling on the ground, when you say love makes the world go 'round," a lyric she wrote without frequent collaborator Kara DioGuardi. Kara, without Ashlee in the credits, sings "My greatest gift is falling down and taking it" for her own group Platinum Weird, though the two women seem to have photocopied each other's brain. In "Better Off" (a collaboration), Ashlee starts by implying that her bad days are as good as her good days ("I spilled my coffee/It went all over your clothes/I gotta wear mine now"; she's in love, an easy sharing, including the sharing of mishaps), but then a few deceptively confident lines later she's confidentially informing us that she's hiding the boy from her friends, doesn't want to lose so soon what she's got now. That's Ashlee: a pensive, exuberant live-wire with a bomb of pain and uncertainty inside.

In the '00s, teenpop married romance to romanticism. One meaning of "romantic" is, e.g., a candlelight dinner, more generally a quest for love and commitment but also for risk and excitement: a love you'll put yourself on the line for, that can take you where you wouldn't go otherwise. Another meaning, though, is the Romantic Spirit; Byron, Rousseau and such: the world we've got isn't the world we want, let's glimpse something else, let's be something else ("Different doesn't feel so different," sings teen Disney TV star Hilary Duff, and then in the chorus, "Let the rain fall down and wake my dreams/Let it wash away my sanity," the kiddie-pop version of the Romantic Sublime, co-written by former Duke poli sci major Kara DioGuardi), either go back to when the world was really real, or go forward to the world we invent.

But in pop songs, the romantic quest is a quest for self, it being a quest because the self isn't simply there: it's attained through an overthrow of previous selves, consecutive startings over. "Cuz I wanna feel the thunder, I wanna scream/Let the rain fall down I'm coming clean." You're thrown out of your self, you begin anew.

In pop music this is usually a world of easy platitudes, of spreading wings and learning to fly, stepping off the edge, soaring, breaking free (though Avril Lavigne, co-writer of "Breakaway," has a nice image in "Mobile" where she's an Alexander Calder mobile, suspended and floating out-of-control). Lyricists make the quest smart by dragging it down to the ground. The great romantics of my adolescence – Dylan, Lou, Iggy – were plenty adolescent in their glorification of freak-outs and drugs and self-destruction, a full-scale attempt to get out of one's body and one's mind. But I don't mean that as criticism. They made their suicide watch vivid and funny, while underlying the show-off agony was young men's faith that alienation was more an opportunity than a catastrophe. Bob Dylan stripped his heroine Miss Lonely of everything – scorched earth, but a new beginning.

In "Like A Rolling Stone" Dylan had made the romantic hero – who was a stand-in for himself, really – a female. David Bowie and the New York Dolls dressed up as her, and maybe Grace Slick and Patti Smith were her. But it took people like Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks to move her into mainstream femininity, to give her lace and frills and menstrual cycles and moods, a girl's past with unicorns on the wall and teen years of acoustic guitars and flowing hair and hidden poetry in secret diaries, the romantic quest becoming the search for the female self by way of a series of busted love affairs. This is carried into the '90s by Sheryl, Tori, Alanis, et al., with Courtney Love combining the mood girl and the punk girl – and finally in the early '00s this hero takes over teenpop: Michelle Branch's "Everywhere" and Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" and Pink's "Don't Let Me Get Me" and Avril Lavigne's "Complicated" hitting in quick succession.

One of the decade's great stories is country going hard rock and funk, fierce rhythmic music from Brooks & Dunn and Montgomery Gentry and Miranda Lambert and Big & Rich among many others. Though cowboys are still invoked, the frontier has long since moved indoors, to bars and motels and diners. But country's also gone girly, gone folkie, with singer-songwriters like Michelle Branch and Jewel moving in from pop, and teen Taylor Swift becoming the genre's breakout commercial success. For Taylor the wild frontier is high schools and hallways and English classes and lover's lane, her adventure being to survive teasing and to avoid going numb when the boys inevitably let her down. She's a virtuoso of the thin, naked nasal quaver, and she chooses words with pinpoint precision. Critic Jonathan Bradley points out that "You Belong With Me" starts on a typical Tuesday night (and what night is more typical than Tuesday?). And "we both cried" in "Fifteen" nails exactly how a teenage friendship feels, one girl's heartbreak directly transmitted to another.

Today on the Web: My friend Lex is aghast at a critique of Taylor Swift where girls in a comment thread claim that, when Taylor sings "Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind, and we both cried," Taylor is slut-shaming Abigail. I steel myself not to click the link; I'm curious if the commenters can really be so stupid and ugly as to say this, but I know they can and that I'll get upset if I look.

Unlike the rock heroes of the '60s, the great angst girls of the '00s – Pink, Kelly C., Ashlee, Lindsay – are desperate for reconciliation. So liberation never feels liberating, even if it's what's longed for. Ashlee's romanticism is eight times more complex than anyone else's because it exists within an embrace of mundanity and a resort to half measures. As Dave Moore says about "Shadow," it's about "everything being OK now. Y'know. Better than it used to be. Every day isn't worse than the last, thank god."

Neither Taylor nor Rihanna are natural born romantics (in the Byron sense) in the way that an Ashlee or a Dylan is. But each absorbs romanticism simply by breathing the air of the culture. In Taylor there's the singer-songwriter's insistence that the story be her story. But almost all her songs are love stories, good love and bad love, the latter predominating. That can't be her story forever, even if pop music insists it be. So, what stories exist beyond these?

For Rihanna – accidental angst girl – I'd think this question would be urgent. She had a predilection and talent for darkness even before Chris hit her, and not surprisingly the darkness of her new album comes across as way more than cliché. But it's still very much the aftermath of Chris.

A friend of mine once said, "Frank, if it's all about the other guy, you're dead." He didn't mean that literally, but I got the point. Of course, song and life don't have to match, but Rihanna is someone with a powerful reason to be estranged from the romance cycle that dominates pop songwriting, to make alienation an opportunity and decide that the world of love and romance can't be accepted as given.

But sometimes if it's not about the other guy, you're also dead. The Web isn't just a ghost version of our world. It's also the invention of new worlds, people creating web monikers and web personalities, alter egos, role playing, fanfic, styles, new shapes and bodies and characters. But it's also a world of incomprehension and scapegoating, and not just from bullies and trolls, but from people with ideas to discharge like weapons, looking for someone to work them on, projecting stupid thoughts onto others and then mocking them for their stupidity. This is a kind of death too because it puts the world at bay – conversations and ideas as bulwarks against life, isolation that doesn't understand itself as such.

Like every song, every utterance also has two worlds, the world that created it and the world that receives it. But if you're on the receiving end and can't genuinely move your imagination back to the world that spoke to you, can't understand it, you've narrowed the world down to yourself.

In the 20/20 interview, Diane Sawyer told Rihanna that to many people she'd always seemed strong; Rihanna cut her off and said, "I am strong. This happened to me. I didn't cause this, I didn't do it. This happened to me and it can happen to anybody."

But for the weeks immediately after Chris beat her up, Rihanna wasn't strong at all. She was alone.

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Links to my old Las Vegas Weekly column are here, if you're interested.

This version makes much more sense to me (to be ttly honest the first one didn't ^^;), in that it's more clearly a story of the conversation about the music, on top of the story about the music, and that these two stories are different things/progressions although they overlap at points (lyrics, isolation romantic or otherwise) like sine curves. ...If I have understood that wrong then it needs to be longer still, clearly. XDD

You have understood correctly. In effect what I wrote was a prose poem rather than an argument or a thesis, though it's a poem that contains arguments and theses. Of course, there's nothing mutually exclusive about poems and theses, but I would say that I didn't have the space to develop or support my theses (and strangely enough, I'd say that "romanticism," which is generally my strong point, comes through least effectively). Also, Chris and Rihanna act as a major metaphor for the abuse and isolation that can cripple our word world.

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