On May 22nd, 2016, a clutch of (unfortunately yellow) party balloons floated into the airspace above the White House, causing an immediate lockdown at the residence of the most powerful man in the known universe. That’s a banner day for the Balloon Party’s influence(not a proper name for the party where the balloons were festively used, but for the shadowy political cabal known as the Balloon Party, which was formed twenty seconds ago just to make this joke work. Or so they’d have you believe).
That’s also a banner day for New German Wave’s Nena(that’s Nena the band, not Gabrielle “Nena” Kerner, the lead singer of the band, Nena. Our song was co-written by the band’s guitarist and keyboardist. Man, I bet Kerner and Debbie Harry could just chat and chat and chat…), who totally called that shit during a Rolling Stones concert in 1982 with their uber hit, “99 Luftballoons”.
This being 2016, I thought we need a new version to celebrate Carlos Karges calling his shot in West Berlin thirty-four years ago. But who should do it? I asked some Twitter friends…
Please choose your band/artist to do the 2016 “99 Luftballons” cover
… and here were the results, graded accordingly:
KG: “It’s a tie between Tom Waits (artist) and Mariah Carey”
I understand the Tom Waits choice, and his eventual cover was nearly completely formed in my head when I saw his name pop up… but is that a good thing?
The first theme that developed when I was thinking about the best choice was “stylized”. The eponymous Nena album is a banger, but it was for sure highly stylized to be the mainstream sound of New German Wave. To have any pop sensibility in the New German Wave scene was considered a sellout move; most of the authentic or “underground” New German Wave is random and Dadaist, inaccessible and harsh. I like both! The camp that Nena falls in is obvious, though.
So, the trap that Nena falls into, having the same “style” as many of the other late pop bands still considered New German Wave, applies in my head to a “Tom Waits” version of any song; it’s too obvious what it’ll sound like. I want to be surprised.
At least Waits could pull off the angular German language lyrics, though. Poor Mimi would have to sing the English lyrics, which are fucking awful. Plus, she doesn’t even dance when she sings, which it totally her right, but this is at least gonna take some Breakfast Club-ish retro dancing. Her talents won’t cut it.
Grade: Tom Waits(B-, but must be in German), Mariah Carey(D+, ’cause she can sing tho)
BW: “hmmm Pearl Jam for a live show cover, Lorde for a creepy cover for a soundtrack”
“Stylized” and “produced” are different. Lorde does write her own stuff, which keeps the horrid mechanization of pop music, the camp she clearly lives in, from grinding her individuality into a fine pablum powder. Still, I don’t hear much of the intent that comes with a high execution of style; it just sounds produced by someone with the same palette. Style demands color and shade, brush stroke and perspective. Her one album I’ve heard sounds flat to me.
I get the “creep” factor, watching her reenact the “ghost from The Ring in the throes of orgasm” routine when she sings. Can someone else produce it? ‘Cause if she gets her next album produced in a way that she can mark it with her own style, her next album will be killer. Her “99 Luftballoons” cover would be good, too, with the right backing.
I have SiriusXM radio, and now, at 40, I am more likely to stop and listen to the Greatful Dead channel, band that I don’t necessarily like, than the Pearl Jam channel, a band that I championed along with everyone else, from Temple Of The Dog onward to some point lost on me, which brings me to the next theme and the next suggestion.
Grade: Lorde(B+, produced by Plain Pat tho), Pearl Jam(D, they would just have the audience sing during the live show and frankly I’m sick of that shit)
BN: “I’m going country. Jamey Johnson”
The second theme that came up was how important “stylization” is to both the best and worst that country music has to offer, and a discussion of the country music covers out there in the last couple of years is a shining example.
Here’s Lily Meola, a country musician that Jamey Johnson himself is trying to make famous, doing a cover of Lorde’s big hit, “Royals”. Take a listen, maybe two:
Did you like this? Was it because of its “style”? The wizard behind the curtain of this particular performance is really the arraignment more than anything else; Maui guitarslinger Tom Conway’s use of open chords lets the bass strings drone uninterrupted under the vocals, and it’s prefect sounding. I prefer this version over the original. In general, though, is this version relying of a style that is geared toward country? Is it relying on the sparse, but deliberate, production? Fuck, is it even “country” music?
This week Billboard finally gave up trying to pretend to know what some country music was, turning their old “Folk” charts, mixing in the more head-scratchy country and rock music out there that seems to be on a converging style path in the process, into an “Americana” chart. This is “my” music more often than not, and the chart is a glorious goddamed mess:
- Traveller – Chris Stapleton
- A Good Storm – Sawyer Fredricks
- Cleopatra – The Lumineers
- A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Sturgill Simpson
- Rest in Chaos – Hard Working Americans
- Chaos And The Calm – James Bay
- Self-Titled – Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats
- Dig In Deep – Bonnie Raitt
- The Intro (ep) – Ruth B
- Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes
- The Things That We Are Made Of – Mary Chapin Carpenter
- The Wild Swan – Foy Vance
- Paging Mr. Praust – The Jayhawks
- Hope – The Strumbellas
- Full Circle – Loretta Lynn
This is where we are in the the battle of how “style” affects “country”; Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Loretta Lynn in a chart that can’t call itself country because of the weight of the prevailing, overproduced and shitty, radio-friendly country music that is trying to define the genre. This is where Jamey Johnson will chart next, too.
The best part of this horrible dichotomy is that the purveyors of “good” country music are content to let “bad” country music kill itself. Sturgil Simpson(who I’ll get wordy about eventually) just loved to tell all the people that said he was gonna “save” country music to kiss his ass. To him, every album he makes is “country” music, and if you don’t think so it’s your problem, not his. The difference between “style” and “production” follows the Buddhist adage that “the thing” and “the name of the thing” are two different ideas. Sturgil Simpson understands style well enough to see it in the field: in his recent podcast with Marc Maron, he admitted to not being able to listen to Jason Isbell’s albums, in fear of Isbell’s near-perfectly realized style making him record music too derivative of it. That gives me hope that he, and possibly Jamey Johnson, too, understand the importance of style, not the importance of the label.
Speaking of Sturgill Simpson… he’s the reason that Jamey Johnson probably couldn’t pull off a cover outside of his “style”. Simpson has cornered the market with earnest, stylistically-appropriate covers on his last two albums, both songs that his wife asked him to cover. Jamey Johnson has flexed his cover song chops before, though, but the covers on his albums fall pretty inline with his particular style already. A tiny peek at his cover of “You Are My Sunshine”, with some help from Shooter Jennings and, of all people, Twiggy Ramirez, though, may make you want you to look places other than Lorde for the “creepy” cover:
Grade: B+(but you’ll have to figure out if that’s “going country” or if picking Florida-Georgia Line is)
JC: “The obvious choice is Rick Astley: maximum cringe”
Right in line with our discussion is the phrase, “Rick Astley, soul artist”. He was a soul artist mainly because the production team of Stock Aitken Waterman wanted him to be. It was all production and no style: Astley had been Ringo in a Beatles cover band before.
It won’t be any more cringe worthy than his new gospel-esque single, released in April of this year, which is butt.
Grade:D+(even though “blue-eyed soul” as a phrase, not a music genre, would have probably played out well in West Berlin)