the leftovers, season two
tv 2015: d's and f's

music friday: creep

On his weekly blog post about music, Tomás Summers Sandoval wrote:

I think the best music is often music geared toward a teen/young adult audience, people experiencing some of the enduring emotions and struggles of life for the first time. That’s because we love music about love, about loss, about struggle, and about pure fun.

Music speaks to this period of our lives so well because of who we are in those years. We are possessed by ourselves, by our discovery of self and the world. That comes with the hubris of thinking that we are the first, the most authentic, or the most real of any generation to have experienced these things. And, if we are lucky, those years come with tremendous possibility and not too much responsibility.

One thing I would add is the unspoken notion that we’re supposed to outgrow a lot of our teenage passions. In his post, Tomás mentions Nirvana, who have avoided this notion (if indeed it exists) ... Nirvana/Kurt Cobain are considered artists, and thus not something to outgrow. But he also mentions “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes. I admit I’ve never been quite sure what this song was about. I also admit I loved it when it came out, for its sing-along chorus, and for its vaguely hippie-ish lyrics. (I’m nothing if not consistent ... I just noticed I wrote only a couple of months ago, “It’s got a catchy sing-along chorus, and the lyrics are vague and hippie-like.”) Still, the time comes when you realize “What’s Up?” is more of the moment than it is a timeless classic, and it becomes a bit embarrassing to admit you liked it. I lived in this zone for many years, until I saw Pink pull it out in concert back in ‘02. Her un-ironic approach, combined with the exuberant singing of the pre-teens in the audience, reminded me that someone is always experiencing something for the first time.

I have always loved “Creep” by Radiohead. Other than that, I confess I never gave Radiohead much thought. I was aware that they were very popular and very highly regarded, but that’s about it. The only reason I didn’t completely lock into Nick Hornby’s infamous review of Kid A was that I hadn’t been paying Radiohead enough attention to get the furor. Hornby, who is of my generation (he’s four years younger than I am), wrote:

[I]t relies heavily on our passionate interest in every twist and turn of the band's career, no matter how trivial or pretentious. You have to work at albums like "Kid A." You have to sit at home night after night and give yourself over to the paranoid millennial atmosphere as you try to decipher elliptical snatches of lyrics and puzzle out how the titles ("Treefinger," "The National Anthem," and so on) might refer to the songs. In other words, you have to be sixteen. Anyone old enough to vote may find that he has competing demands for his time - a relationship, say, or a job, or buying food, or listening to another CD he picked up on the same day.

You have to be sixteen. Experiencing some of the enduring emotions and struggles of life for the first time.

When I was sixteen, I owned maybe a dozen records, tops. I could spend time listening to those same albums over and over again ... I had the time, I had the desire. Nowadays, I’ve lost that ability ... partly because I’ve been Spotified to such an extent that listening to entire albums seems alien to me, but also because I’m not sixteen, I don’t have the desire (I have the time, but I spend it in different ways). I listen to music as much or more as I ever did, but in a less focused way. I don’t become fiercely attached to new things (unless Sleater-Kinney counts as new, which they no longer do).

So now, more than ever, I find that I lock onto certain songs, the way I always did, even before I was sixteen. And if those songs are older, I eventually find that I have “outgrown” them. Or at least I think I am supposed to outgrow them. The truth is, sometimes I still feel the same chill down my spine.

A few years ago, Andrea DenHoed wrote, in the New Yorker:

“Creep,” Radiohead’s 1992 anthem of alienation, is one of those songs that everyone has loved at some point, and no one would admit to loving now. It’s hard to watch the original music video without cringing a little bit. Thom Yorke’s pasty face, with its cavernous cheeks and olive-pit eyes; the other, stringy-haired members of Radiohead looking moody and disaffected behind him; the lurid sherbet-hued lighting—it’s all just too sincerely pathetic. And so nineties. It’s not a song that you want appearing on your Facebook/Spotify feed without a knowing comment to diffuse it.

DenHoed is saying that we outgrew the sentiments in “Creep”, that it’s one thing to identify with the song when we are young, but when we grow up, we understand that the world is bigger than our navel.

But I’ve never outgrown it. I identify with “Creep” just as much today as I did when it first came out:

Whatever makes you happy
Whatever you want
You're so fuckin' special
I wish I was special

But I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo,
What the hell am I doing here?
I don't belong here

“Creep” is back on people’s minds because of a version Prince performed in concert back in 2008. Of course, a video surfaced immediately ... it was a remarkable performance. And, of course, the next day, Prince ordered it taken down ... he doesn’t like his music on YouTube. A month or so later, Thom Yorke said Prince should unblock “our song”. And so things stood until October of this year, when a copy of Prince’s “Creep” was uploaded to YouTube. And this time, Prince has given his OK (at least as of this writing).

The Internet has gone predictably crazy. Prince is the greatest, no doubt about it, and his version of a classic like “Creep” has inherent value. His version also has a couple of great Prince guitar solos, which are always good.

But he gets the song all wrong. He flips the pronouns ... “You wish you were special” is not the same thing as “I wish I was special”. As I said to my son, “Creep” personifies self-loathing. And there is no self-loathing in Prince’s version. Here’s Hornby again:

"Creep" ... gave voice to everyone who has ever felt disconnected, alienated, or geeky - just about anyone who has ever used rock music to get through the day. "I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo," the singer Thom Yorke piped with unnerving sincerity. "What the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here." The genius of the song was its mournful anguish ...

No, I have never outgrown this feeling.

DenHoed led me to something else, however, and I am so glad she did. She had written, “The performance is very Prince and not very “Creep.”” But then she mentioned a new video of the song, by someone I’d never heard of. Apparently this performance was viral for a moment ... I never got on that wagon ... the singer is someone named Carrie Manolakos. Neetzan Zimmerman’s Gawker piece was headlined, “This Cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ Will Make Your Ears Orgasm”. Manolakos had a Broadway background ... she’s got a great voice, but she is also attuned to the possibilities of dramatizing a lyric. There is no telling if she is “acting” or singing with unnerving sincerity. But, for my money, she understands the song in ways Prince does not. DenHoed one more time:

Manolakos, whose background is in musical theatre, performs the song with perfect earnestness, closing her eyes and choking back tears. She floats lightly over the soft notes and reaches up to a stringent wail towards the middle of the song. She takes all the qualities that made “Creep” moving in 1992 ... and repackages them in an old-fashioned night-club singer’s torch song.

Manolakos’s version does what covers ought to do; it picks up a song that has sunken into throwback territory, dusts it off, and treats it like a classic.

I suppose I should get to the videos. First, here is Prince in 2008:

Next, Manolakos in 2012:

And finally, Radiohead’s original:

Comments

Tomas

Flattered, and I love where you went here. Coincidentally, I have the same experience with this song.

Arthur

I found that Prince version somehow hilarious and, yeah, completely wrong. Turning this song, all about being vulnerable, into a kind of vicious chastising of another for harboring any such weakness. I guess it doesn't surprise me that he wouldn't let words leave his mouth that might imply that he isn't flawless, but, then again, I'm really not familiar with the rest of his stuff. Is that accurate? The Chappelle sketch is probably the most Prince content I've ever been exposed to.

Steven Rubio

As I have said many times, Prince is one of the only artists where I can say I got on the bandwagon before one existed ... the first time I saw him in concert was in 1981, and it was one of the greatest shows I ever attended. He is a great singer, a great songwriter, a great guitarist, and a great live performer ... I rank him with Bruce Springsteen and The Clash as my favorite live acts ever. He is also extremely prolific, which means there's a lot of chaff amongst the wheat (is that how the saying goes?). He is pretty weird, but he's not the first artist we can say that about. I don't know what I'd recommend as an introduction ... Purple Rain isn't much of a movie, but the concert scenes are terrific. From the great early period, I'd especially recommend Dirty Mind, Purple Rain, and Sign o the Times. And for his guitar work, the best of all is probably that "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" video I post all the time. In fact, I think I'll post it again!

Arthur

There's a long conversation to be had, perhaps a book very few would read to be written, about the performative differences between virtuosos, actors, and singers/bands. Between prioritizing Exhibition vs. Story vs. Image. There's cross-over in many artists, of course, no performance would fall singularly into one category, but these three videos are pretty much as close as one can get, in my view. And, yeah, that's some amazing guitar work. Genius doesn't apologize for itself, and Prince appears to fit that bill.

Steven Rubio

That is a great paragraph! And the last sentence is perfect. One of the things I like about the "Guitar Gently Weeps" video is the way Prince seems to be playing directly to George's kid, who is having a blast. And then the exit (the eternal question: does the guitar ever come down?) and his walk off, which is both charming and extremely arrogant. You put it perfectly: genius doesn't apologize.

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