This week’s questions comes from reader Kip Mooney:
What song do you wish you—and the world—could hear again for the first time? I’d say Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses.” One of the finest dance floor break-up anthems of all time has forever been associated with Buffalo Bill’s tuck dance from The Silence Of The Lambs, inspiring snickers the second anyone recognizes it. If it was up to me, people would do their own dances to it, free of any connection to crazed serial killers.
Strip away all the bitter band break-ups and passive aggressive sniping. Strip away every college freshman with an acoustic guitar and a foolproof plan to get laid with an “impromptu” dorm room singalong. Strip away 20 years of ham-fisted mixtapes, awful elevator music and lousy, meandering Ryan Adams covers, and just listen to Oasis’ “Wonderwall” again. Just Liam Gallagher’s openly emotional vocals, backed up by his brother Noel’s haunting, insistent guitar. The hush between verses, when Alan White’s drums kickstart the song back to life. In 2016, “Wonderwall” is horrifically overplayed. But it earned that status, by being one of the best Britpop songs of all time, and it deserves a fresh listen, stripped clean of two decades of accumulated cultural crap.
I wish I could hear Michael Jackson’s music free of the context of Michael Jackson. Growing up in the ’90s, I didn’t get to hear the hits so much as I heard about scandal after scandal in the news. Embarrassingly, it was Weird Al’s “Eat It” parody that lead me to listen to “Beat It” for the first time—I blame our culture’s bizarre way of conflating an artist’s output with who they are as a person, all but telling kids like me that when someone does something bad it makes their artistic output bad too, or at least seriously stains it. I’ve come to learn that in order to enjoy a lot of pop culture I have to set aside my personal feelings about the creator of the product. I’ve enjoyed too much Woody Allen and Roman Polanski to be unfamiliar with this ethical dance. It seems that after Jackson’s death, our culture decided it was okay to enjoy his music again, but I wish I could’ve enjoyed “Beat It” like people did in 1982.
I was 13 and a loser. The pluses of excelling in algebra and practicing piano were negated by my utter lack of social cachet. I’m not saying I suddenly became cool, but my mind’s eyes began fluttering awake the moment I heard Weezer’s Blue album. It’s not the hippest record, but for a teenage Chinese immigrant dweeb, it revealed a world beyond Canto-pop and cassette tapes of Rachmaninov concertos. It was track three, the underrated “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here” that introduced me to love and longing, a notion I would understand all too well in years to come. I’d like to listen to that chorus (“I talked for hours to your wallet photograph, and you just listened”) again for the first time as an adult, just for the chance to rediscover anew the lyrics, melody, and chord progressions that replayed in my teenage brain for months on end.
Let’s give “Hallelujah” back to Leonard Cohen. Wipe the Jeff Buckley cover (which is lovely) and the John Cale version (even lovelier), and give Shrek something sappier to hang its ogre-sized emotions on. Let’s soak in the dissonance of a gospel chorus backed by dinky ’80s synths, marveling at the fact that Cohen’s lyrics and detached croak still manage to encompass a wide range of ecstasy and agony, romance and heartbreak. And, as an added bonus: Scores of American Idol contestants will have to put some actual thought into selecting their showstopping ballads, rather than offering up season after season of microwaved Grace leftovers. (Just keep your hands off of “Lilac Wine,” hypothetical Jason Castro.)
As I believed I have written in this particular column, my all-time favorite song is “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” My second favorite song is The Lonely Island’s “Jack Sparrow” a song that I have probably listened to a thousand times, and yet somehow never get sick of. So if I could change the very fabric of time and space so that I, and the rest of the universe, could experience one song anew, it would definitely be “Jack Sparrow.” In the space of little more than three minutes it travels down a crazy, bifurcated path, one devoted to hitting all the trademarks of a hedonistic dance songs, and the other to recounting the plots and characters of hit movies from the last twenty-five years ago or so. Hell, it would be worth making this my choice if only for the surreal pleasure of hearing Michael Bolton croon the holy living fuck out of the lines, “This whole town’s a pussy just waiting to get fucked!”
As someone who grew up on classic rock radio, there are many songs that I am so far over my lifetime quota of listening to, I never need to hear them again. But my lifetime love for Queen has been well-established, so if I could go back and hear any song again for the first time, it would be the now-clichéd “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I can’t really blame Mike Myers and Wayne’s World, because who among us has not head-banged in the car when Brian May’s sublime rocking guitar line kicks in? (Well, nobody I want to hang out with, anyway.) The song perfectly sums up Queen’s brashness, its bombastic nature, and its insistence on offering a godddamn rock opera in six glorious minutes, even though nothing on the radio at that time even faintly resembled its four-act epic. And nothing ever will. Even though I probably have heard this song thousands of times, I will likely never stop listening to it, but I wish I could go back to my transformative and stunned amazement when I heard it for the very first time.
I’ve written about songs that flipped switches for me in this column before, but all of the ones I mentioned before came along some time after I started self-identifying with the then-nascent alternative-rock movement. Before then, I listened to what I heard on the radio or MTV, but somewhere around eighth grade I discovered the world that existed beyond them. Right around that time, I encountered “Thieves” by Ministry—it opened The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste, released in November 1989—and it melted my brain. Equal parts thrilling and terrifying, it was a blisteringly paced maelstrom of guitars, pummeling percussion, and ominous samples. I can basically trace my musical evolution back to the moment I heard that song, so I’d love to go back and experience it again.
I have a deep and abiding love for Bloc Party that began with the band’s excellent debut, Silent Alarm. That 2005 album is one of my “complete listens,” i.e., something I listen to it all the way through every time I put it on. The spare strumming at the opening of “Like Eating Glass,” the gloomy synths of album closer “Compliments”—I’m here for all of it. Almost 12 years later, Kele Okereke’s early vocals remain in regular rotation. But it’s not familiarity or boredom that would send me back in time to hear “Modern Love” again for the first time. There’s an optimism and a cautionary tale in Okereke’s lyrics that’s somehow better suited to one’s early 20s. It’s every bit as lovely and danceable now, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt the same chill at hearing “Baby, you’ve got to be more discerning / I’ve never known what’s good for me” as I did upon that first listen.
Seeing Green Day play at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom—as part of the band’s recent “small club” tour—made me wish I could listen to Dookie without all the extra baggage. For one, the album has been played to death over the past 22 years. But beyond that, seeing Green Day perform those songs as if they were arena-rock anthems instead of the whip-smart pop-punk songs makes them forever tainted in my mind. I’d love to be able to hear “When I Come Around” or “Basket Case” without hearing Billie Joe Armstrong’s tired pandering in my head. This is one of the albums that sparked my interest in music and even inspired me to pick up an instrument. I’d love to hear that record again, not the one that makes me groan at its latent excess.
Like many people, I associate certain parts of Ben Gibbard’s discography with nasty breakups. That’s not entirely why I wish I could have a do-over on hearing The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” again for the first time, however. Because the song is now associated with TV commercials—and the band itself assumed mythological status due to its one-album-and-done approach, and Death Cab For Cutie’s rise in popularity—the tune’s bittersweet depth is overlooked. Lyrically, “Such Great Heights” is torn, as it references the deceptive perfection of a long-distance romance, and how difficult it can be to face the real-life, non-idealized version of a relationship. Musically, the simplicity of “Such Great Heights” makes Gibbard’s keening, digital ice-coated vocals even more vulnerable. Jimmy Tamborello’s splotchy, skidding electronic production, which percolates like a drip-coffee machine, has just the right balance of melancholy and optimism.
I’d love to erase the decades of scrubbing and sanitizing that’s been applied to Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life,” a song about drug-fueled hedonism and ear-fucking that’s lost much of its grubby brilliance over the years thanks to its appearances in commercials and Rugrats movies. That means you’d probably have to cut it from Trainspotting as well, thus creating a paradox where teenaged me runs the risk of missing out on it for at least a few more years. Still, it might be worth it to sidestep the mainstream exposure of its (perfectly appropriate) use there, which led so many unimaginative music supervisors to say, “Hey, let’s also grab that song about the awesomeness of heroin to plug our cruise line. Dig that crazy beat!”
I don’t remember the first time I heard “Night Moves” by Bob Seger, and I question if I would love it immediately, or if it would require a few listens to warm up to. Currently—and for some time now—”Night Moves” is my go-to jukebox jam and constant request almost anywhere music is played. A live version from some guy at a bar with a guitar? Sure, let’s duet this. I’m even actively pestering Josh Modell to add it to the A.V. Undercover short-list for next season. To hear the song for the first time, lyrics unknown, I wonder if it would grab my attention in the same way it does now. But by the time Seger belts out “Thundaaaaah,” I have a feeling I would be hooked all over again.
I’d like to wipe the slate clean on “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, but not particularly for the pleasure of re-experiencing the first time I heard it; only a few songs have grabbed me immediately on my very first listen and none of them are by Journey. If we started over with the world first hearing that Journey song right now, that means I might be afforded a solid 20-plus years before it grew to a point of over-saturation elsewhere in pop culture, where the song’s cravenly and sometimes nonsensically anthemic qualities are often treated, for some reason, as conduits for genuine emotion. I know we’re past peak Journey appreciation because Glee is off the air, but its circa-2010 ubiquity bought it many more years of exposure otherwise unlikely to happen with a hit song from 1981. I just need a break, guys. Maybe during that slow rebuilding process I could even learn to better appreciate it, because I do admire how long it holds out before getting to its big stupid chorus.
Keeping true to my theater nerd nature, I’m going to say that I wish I could hear Hamilton again for the first time. I was lucky enough to see the musical Off-Broadway before the hype grew deafening. Seeing it for the first time rendered me dumbfounded: How could one show pack in this much information and emotion? It’s gotten so ubiquitous, though that I feel almost—dare I say—jaded. Now when I listen to the cast album I’m hearing songs I already love, but I want to be be overwhelmed by the sheer accomplishment of it once again.
There are more urgent cases for rehabilitation, but one that I’ve been thinking about lately is tainted with some serious stink. What the world deserves to hear anew is The Shins’ “New Slang,” free from Garden State‘s simple twee in general and the earnest “This will change your life” invocation in particular. It’s not the most auspicious way to highlight a song on-screen: sentimental Sundance quirk, a sadly iconic manic pixie dream girl, horny dog humor. As I understand it, the relationship between “New Slang” and Garden State has been rewarding for both parties, and I wouldn’t want to undo those gains. Imagine how many more Kickstarters we’d have to suffer. But over the past decade, Garden State has become a laughing stock, and poster song “New Slang” is right there, center stage, in rotten tomato range. When I zap its memory out of existence so we can all hear it again for the first time, I can say with no poetic license whatsoever, it will change your life.
People will think I’m kidding here, but I could not be more serious: The eight-and-a-half-minute “Salieri Mix” of “Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco is a fucking masterpiece. The ubiquitous single-length version was a huge novelty hit in 1986 and thereafter became a staple on lists of the dumbest/worst/cheesiest songs of all time. But I think it came out in an era before music experts learned to appreciate the charms of robotic, totally artificial pop. Imagine an alternate timeline in which Falco never existed, but this song idea had occurred to the members of Daft Punk. If that group had released this same record, note for note, discerning listeners would be much more welcoming to it. There were several, wildly different “Amadeus” mixes back then, but the “Salieri Mix” is the real deal. The high point arrives at about 5:44, with a refrain by a female vocalist: “Baby, baby, do it to me, rock me.” I get chills, imagining a coked-up Mozart strolling through the club.