My son, Rafa, seven years old. And such taste in music.
It might have been a year ago that he fell in love with the Hamilton cast album. Went to sleep to it every night. Had his favorite songs, and some he didn’t like.
And before that, Michael Jackson, especially “Thriller.”
But now he blows me away. A recent favorite was “Feel It Still,” by Portugal. The Man (the group’s name punctuated just that way, and with no period after Man). New to me, and I loved the song from the moment he started going to sleep to it, putting it on repeat (him, not me) while he drifted off.
I find it deft and intriguing. With a marvelous ending, which seemed abrupt until I realized how carefully it’s constructed (with, for instance, the relaxed emergence of the longest notes in the melody, and then a small rosette of extra sound after what I didn’t know was going to be the final statement of the song’s refrain).
Plus the lyrics, evoking things not quite said, like references to 1966 and 1986 (which turn out to be significant years for the band, reminding them of the civil rights movement in the US and the year they first heard hiphop).
Then I found out the song won a Grammy last year (for best pop duo or group performance), which seemed to ratify Rafa’s taste.
A few nights ago he put something new on repeat. A strange, ingenious, surprising little song, with a clearly very young woman’s voice, multiplied on itself with software, so it sounds feathered.
So intriguing! When the closing section doesn’t follow on any linear way from what came before, Rafa called my attention to it, saying (in case I didn’t hear what was going on) “That’s part of the song.”
And when the singer stops the music to say — simply, deadpan — “Duh!” (in a normal speaking voice), Rafa called my attention to that, too. And we both burst out laughing.
I wondered what this song was, who the singer was. “Bad Guy,” by Billie Eilish. Whom the New York Times called “the fastest-rising pop star of the moment… part of a new generation of unlikely pop acts with D.I.Y. in their DNA…has amassed a powerful teen following by adhering only to her most specific, and often strangest, musical whims.”
A teen herself, 17 years old, writes her songs with her 21 year-old brother, records then with him in their parents’ home. They do everything you hear in the song.
I’d been eager to hear her. Rafa got to her before I did, and we both loved her song.
“How’d you find this?” I asked him. ”I used Explore,” he said, meaning that he used a browse function on my streaming service (Tidal), to find music he might like.
As I said, I’m blown away. Discerning taste! And developing ears.
Something else about “Feel It Still”: How it pushes forward harmonically.
It’s in C sharp minor. Or rather in the aeolian mode on C sharp, like a minor scale without a leading tone. (Many pop and rock songs are modal.)
No leading tone, no dominant chord. And yet one crucial part of the melody goes up from the root of the scale to the fifth degree, and back down again.
So how is that harmonized? There’s a repeated bass line, going from C sharp to E to F sharp and back to C sharp. If you look up the chords of the song on the Internet, they’re given as C sharp minor, E, and F sharp minor.
But in most of the song I don’t hear chords. Just the melody and bass, Plus drums, and other instruments and sounds, all alive with resonance, so what we hear is anything but skeletal.
Still, the melody and bass do give us a skeleton of harmony. And what makes it move is the bass line, and above all the clash of F sharp in the bass with G sharp in the melody.
Can’t have a dominant chord, and F sharp minor against the G sharp arc of the melody would be lame. But the pointed dissonance between G sharp and F sharp in the bass propels the song forward. Very deft musicmaking.
DOUGLAS TRAPASSO says
Warning: This is kind of long and rambling. If you have to cut it down, that’s fine.
First up: Rasa is so cute! I hope he maintains his curiosity and can discover some performers who will inspire and challenge him for ten, fifteen, maybe twenty plus years ahead of him. Also, I hope he finds some acts who exist for no other purpose than to piss off his parents. Because that’s an important part of the mix, too.
I’m writing cause I’m a little jealous. When I was a teenager, I kinda -was- Rasa. Music was my center. My tastes were pathologically mainstream, but I would read Billboard and Rolling Stone religiously, try to predict how well certain songs would do, etc. Every record (later CD) purchase was an event for me.
Today with so many options so easily accessible (thank you Spotify), ironically it’s easier to take new stuff for granted. When it’s not your own money buying one record at a time, somehow music doesn’t seem as, well, -necessary-.
And, not to get all Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, but overall I feel the “old stuff” (stop around, 1990), -was- better. Blame producers, blame Auto-Tune, blame writers who have forgotten what a “bridge” is, etc.
My Q to you then is, how do I get some of that teenage passion back? Where should I start? Could I baby sit Rasa for an afternoon (I’m sure he could teach me a lot!)
Greg Sandow says
Hi, Douglas. Thanks for these thoughts, which warm my heart in many ways. I’m stuck for time today, but shortly I’ll give you a longer answer, with some ideas of where to find interesting music. There’s a lot of it, in my experience. I have some thoughts about where to look!
Greg Sandow says
Sorry I didn’t give you more info sooner!
I don’t have any system for finding new music. I just browse music coverage in newspapers I already read, especially the NY Times and best of all the Guardian.
If someone seems interesting, I check them out. Often these papers have links directly to the music. Though I’m glad I have a streaming service, where I can find anything currently available.
When I read that a country singer won the best album award at the Grammys, I perked up. Figured she had to be something special to do that, and then when I read she was gay-friendly and sang about LSD trips, I was even more curious. Listened to her winning album. That’s how I fell in love with Kacey Musgraves.
The Times has a regular feature about how particular songs are written and recorded. Worth checking out. One on Musgraves was delicious. They’ve also done roundups of 25 songs that tell you where music is now.
I’ve gotten a lot from Guardian pieces on music from the past. David Mitchell, one of my favorite novelists, did one on his favorite Kate Bush songs. I got a lot from that.
When the drummer Hal Blaine died, the Guardian did a roundup of songs he did great drumming on, and I was transfixed. Be My Baby, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Good Vibrations…I guess I took the drumming on those tracks for granted. Realizing the drumming was by the same person, doing strikingly different work on each track, and now paying close attention to exactly what he did — that was such a pleasure, and taught me volumes about the power a drummer’s choices can have.
Those are my not so secret secrets. As long as I pay moderate attention to what those papers write, I can find at least a little new music.
And yes, I do realize I’m getting a mainstreamish view of new music, and that there are off-center choices I’d likely love. Like Josephine Foster, whom I first heard of when someone commenting here told me that she’d made what you might call a folksinger’s album of German lieder. With, as I found out, added electronics.
Album is called A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, and when my assigning one of its tracks to my Juilliard students led Foster to email me, I ended up writing liner notes for the album’s reissue.
One Foster song I recommend with all my heart is The Garden of Earthly Delights, from her album This Coming Gladness. Such heartstopping beauty.
Best wishes for your son’s continued musical development.
Regarding that song, went and listened with keen interest, unfortunately finding it derivative and banal, brimming with tired cliches.
Much of what is touted in the publication mentioned is based upon commerce, not quality.
Graham Spice says
Your recent post highlights how critical music discovery continues to be to the past & future of music. Follow the money to who controls this process. Note the posh way they describe this $ grab: “tastemaker”, “curated playlists”, etc.