Thursday, July 26, 2012

Top 5 Songs I Love Unironically

My friend Rob just posted this piece about Bruce Springsteen on his Facebook page. It blew my mind. Do kids today really listen to The Boss ironically? Has our post Gen-X pop-cultural dependence on irony really stunted our emotional core to the point where we can't just listen to a song that is beautiful, heartfelt and earnest without sneering at it? Am I really so old now that I don't get this?

The article got me thinking about my own relationship to irony, and I have admit it made me realize that I'm no better than the rest of you. I tend to fall into the same trap. Irony as we currently understand it is , I think, a defense mechanism we all share. It protects us from having to actually feel something real, to be moved by something in a way that might conceivably bring derision. It's safer to stand back and smirk than to open our hearts, let something in and maybe hit a real nerve.

 So, in that spirit, here is my list of my top 5 favorite songs that I absolutely love, and love unironically.  Go ahead.  Mock away.

1 . Bruce Springsteen - "Youngstown"

Since it was an article on Springsteen that started this, I'll go ahead and start with my favorite Springsteen song.  It has become a bit of a joke that Bruce sees himself as the self-appointed voice of disenfranchised America.  But this song from his 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad shows why we shouldn't laugh that idea off so easily.  Springsteen -- a real master of narrative -- uses Youngstown, Ohio, to tell the a haunting and elegiac story of the rustbelt and, by extension, the story of the rise and fall of the American working class.  His portrait of a city in crisis -- whose Heartland denizens want nothing more than to work hard and provide for their families but who have been abused and neglected by a nation that has used them and thrown them away -- would be ripe for parody if it wasn't so damn true.  The images Springsteen creates are indelible -- "Them smokestacks reachin' like the arms of God/into a beautiful sky of soot and clay" may be my single favorite lyric ever.  And when he sings "we sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam/Now we're wondering what they were dying for," it still cuts deep.  How many sons and daughters of Youngstown fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan, I wonder?

2. Jim Croce - "Operator (That's Not The Way It Feels)"

The plaintive guitar, the swelling strings, the heart-tugging jilted boyfriend sentiment...all these make this one of those songs that seems destined for a snarky, tongue-in-cheek Karaoke rendition at a hipster party somewhere in Silverlake.  But stop and think about it for a many times have you (yeah, YOU) been compelled to reach out to an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/etc. just so you could prove to them how OK you were, now that the dust has settled and your broken heart has been crudely stitched back together?  How well did that go for you?  Croce so perfectly captures that ache of trying to let go of something that you know you have to and failing.

3. Louis Armstrong - "What A Wonderful World"

This one is almost impossible to separate from all our ironic associations with it.  It's just so hopeful and naive, most people can't help but snicker.  I'm guilty of this, too: when I was a college radio DJ, I remember playing this over audio of the zombies eating all the Army guys in the bunker at the end of Day of the Dead.

But there is something genuinely touching about its hopefulness and naivete.  It's a call for us to see the world as we might want it to be, rather than as it is.  When I need to remind myself what this really song is, I just think back to what it meant to Bruce Willis's character in 12 Monkeys (yeah, I referenced 12 Monkeys, shut up).

4. Styx - "Come Sail Away"

I don't really know that I can mount a truly articulate defense for this one other than to say, beyond all its goofball charm, I just this find this song to be the sound of pure, unfettered joy. When angels fly, I think this is what the beat of their wings against the clouds sounds like.  And no, I'm not being ironic.

5. Johnny Cash - "Hurt"

This one gets all sort of hipster cred, probably, because its a mashup of Johnny Cash and Nine Inch Nails.  Or maybe that just provokes a backlash.  I don't know.  I don't really get what hipsters like.  Regardless, put all the iconographic meta stuff ("it's JOHNNY CASH...singing NINE INCH NAILS!") out of your head and really listen to it.  Has any song ever more fully captured the sting of grief, regret, and encroaching mortality than this one?  Cash was nearing the end of his life here and was busy taking stock of a lot of things.  The soul his broken voice infuses into this song elevates it way past the frankly sad-eyed Gothboy nonsense it was and turns it into something bare, raw, and utterly truthful.

For another late-era Cash song that makes me want to cry, check out this one.