Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Ridiculous Rant on Dear Evan Hansen

Note: So... this kind of got away from me as I wrote it. It was intended to be much shorter. But here you go!

Pasek and Paul are musical theatre's favorite people right now after Lin-Manuel Miranda, and I just don't get it. People gush over everything they've done, while I kept listening to individual songs and thinking, "That was... a really boring pop song." They did three songs for the TV show Smash, the songs for La La Land, and the musicals A Christmas Story, Dogfight, and Edges, all of which I have attempted to listen to and then got bored.

Then Dear Evan Hansen came along, and people lost their minds. It was nominated for nine Tonys and won six (including Best Score). Knowing what I did of their work and what the other shows nominated for Best Score were, I was livid about them winning. Then I decided, ya know what, I should try this with an open mind. I should listen to the cast album a couple of times. After all, it's a show about depression and social anxiety. That's an important and personal topic. Surely that's going to connect with me, right?

Listening to the cast album has convinced me of two things:

1. Ben Platt is a national treasure.

2. Nope, these guys still can't write songs with any kind of emotional weight.

This musical and its content were almost guaranteed to make me love it, just for the sole fact that I connect so much to these stories, but the cast album is... a mess. What little works, works because Ben Platt is amazing enough that he can bring depth and characterization to these pretentious, awkward, stilted lyrics.

Their primarily problem is that I constantly feel they are trying really, really, really hard to be deep and provocative in their lyrics. Their use of metaphors is the worst. They repetitively smash them into the audience's head ("Anybody Have a Map?", "Disappear") or they hop around from one clumsy metaphor to the next without thinking about how they connect or what they're actually saying ("Waving Through a Window," "You Will Be Found"). At best, they simply have a character explain plot points that are apparently supposed to make us feel things ("So Big, So Small," "For Forever") but explaining their feelings about them in such cliched language that nothing about it sinks in.

A quick comparison here. Let's look at "Waving Through a Window" and compare it to my favorite song about social anxiety in high school, Joe Iconis' "Michael in the Bathroom."

Notice how few simple personal statements are in "Waving Through a Window." The first verse is probably the most coherent in what it's saying: "I'm afraid to speak because I might screw up so I don't and I run away." It's a little cheesy and heavy-handed but it's OK on its own. The metaphor about sunburn in the bridge is important because it's later repeated in an awkward way.

Then comes the chorus. I. Hate. This. Chorus. Like, I can't follow the character's thought pattern. The first verse makes it clear that he chooses to isolate himself deliberately, while the chorus makes it clear that he feels others isolate him, like he's putting himself out there ("I'm waving," "I'm tap, tap, tapping on the glass," "I try to speak") and they're just ignoring him. I also don't understand even a little bit what "Will I ever be more than I've always been?" is doing in the middle of this line, much less why it's followed by a "'cause" before it goes into "I'm taptaptapping." Is him tapping on the glass what he's always been, or his attempt to be more? THIS SENTENCE DOESN'T MAKE SENSE. And the whole chorus is muddy on whether he's inside or outside, because while he says he's outside, "watching people pass" definitely sounds like he's inside looking out, because who would peek in somebody's window and say "Oh, look at all the people passing?" No. That's something you say about people OUTSIDE.

The second verse is a blissfully clear message as well: "I used to feel normal, but something changed and I don't know where or how." HOWEVER. He ends the verse with "But every sun doesn't rise, and no one tells you where you went wrong." The phrase "every sun doesn't rise" is I think technically correct but it's really awkward phrasing when, of course, some suns do rise and he probably means "not every sun rises"... but the part that really bugs me is that we go right from there into the repeated metaphor about the sun being bad: "Step out, step out of the sun if you keep getting burned." YOU CAN'T HAVE BACK-TO-BACK SUN METAPHORS WHERE IT'S BAD IN ONE AND GOOD IN THE OTHER. They inevitably invite comparison and now I'm not even listening to the second chorus (which is still bad) because I'm just stuck figuring out if the sun that's burning him is from one of the other suns that did rise or what.

The bridge is just an endlessly repeated, ever so slightly varied use of the "a tree falls in a forest and there's no one around, does it make noise" phrase as a metaphor. Because we didn't have enough disconnected metaphors in this song yet. This part is boring but at least the music builds and Ben Platt sings it like it means something.

Then we finish with our awful chorus again.

Aside from the second half of the first verse, everything in this song is either an awkward metaphor or a generic "This is what happens to people" statement. So little of it feels real or true. It certainly doesn't feel like something anybody would ever say, it feels like Pasek and Paul made a list of metaphors and cliches that had to do with feeling isolated and said, "Sure, yeah, let's just make it rhyme and sing that." It tells us so little about the character.

Compare this to "Michael in the Bathroom," one of my all-time favorite songs. Immediately, from line one, we are in the character's mind and viewpoint. No metaphors to climb over, no generalizations to weed through. We learn in two lines what it takes Pasek and Paul four minutes to kinda sorta get around to.

These lyrics are so simple but so honest. Incidentally, this chorus would be a much better place to insert PasekPaul's awkward "Will I ever be more than I've always been?" line -- like look at how much better it fits with the ending of chorus one: "I'm just Michael who you don't know / Michael flying solo / Michael in the bathroom by himself." We get an actual sense of how Michael's (deliberate self-) isolation feeds into the grander view of himself as a person capable of doing and being things. He's just "Michael who you don't know." Will he ever be more than that? That thought works there.

The second verse, just like in "Waving Through a Window," is about how things used to be okay and now things aren't. But compare them! One is vague and generic and applied to the whole human race ("We start with stars in our eyes, we start believing that we belong") while the other is clearly about this one individual person while still inviting us into the feeling ("Memories get erased and I'll get replaced with a newer, cooler version of me").

The penultimate line is, "All you know about me is my name." That's true about Evan Hansen. But I'm pretty sure Michael and I are best friends now.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

"Moussolou" by Oumou Sangaré (150 Albums by Women #145)

NPR compiled a list of the 150 greatest albums created by women. I've decided to listen to these albums, from #150 all the way up to #1. But to give myself a bit of forward momentum and have a sense of when I was "done" with each album, my method is to listen to the album one time all the way through, then with each subsequent listen, I'd remove my least favorite. This lets me listen to the best ones most frequently without having to sit through too many that didn't work for me at all.

Album #145 was "Moussolou" by Oumou Sangaré. I had never heard of her before, so in case you hadn't either, she's a hugely important figure in the West African music genre Wassoulou. To quote Wikipedia on this, "Wassoulou music is performed mostly by women. Some recurring themes in the lyrics are childbearing, fertility, and polygamy. Instrumentation includes soku (a traditional fiddle sometimes replaced with modern imported instruments), djembe drum, kamalen n'goni (a six-stringed harp), karinyan (metal tube percussion) and bolon (a four-stringed harp). The vocals are often passionate and emphatic, and delivered in a call-and-response pattern."

The album only had six songs, so I knew right away I wasn't going to have a top five, most likely a top three. And then I ran into difficulty.

You remember when I kicked out all those instrumental pieces in the Terri Lyne Carrington album right away? Well, I've always known I have real trouble connecting to a song without lyrics, and it turns out that's true as well for lyrics that are in a language I don't speak. With fairly similar instrumentation and vocal sounds on all six tracks, I found myself unable to differentiate between them without lyrical content helping me out. I liked listening to all six -- especially as a huge change from the previous album -- but none of them particularly rose to the top and I ended up eliminating them almost randomly as I listened.

Giving this kind of review of this album is kind of awkward because I feel like I should have been able to pick out a favorite or two. Part of me wishes I'd done more research -- found lyrics for these songs, found some translations, and learned what they were saying. Maybe then I'd have connected to them more on an individual level. As it is, we'll just call it a six-way tie and move on to the next album, though I would like to revisit this one some day.

The albums I've listened to thus far in this project, in order:
1. The Roches - The Roches
2. Patty Griffin - Flaming Red
3. Alicia Keys - Songs in A Minor
4. Oumou Sangaré - Moussolou
5. Terri Lyne Carrington - The Mosaic Project

Next up on the NPR list is #144, "Last Splash" by The Breeders.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Most Useless Part of My NaNo

NaNoWriMo is over, and I made it! I actually stayed more on top of it than I usually do, mostly thanks to the word crawls on the NaNo forums and the amazing Fighters' Block website which I cannot recommend enough. But I wanted to share the absolute most ridiculous part of my NaNo with you.

So I had just begun a 600-word sprint and was about 100 words into it when Jacob announced dinner was ready. I didn't want to pause my sprint but I didn't want to keep him waiting. Or the food. I was hungry. What followed was me trying to finish up the remaining 500 words as quickly as possible. Here you go. Enjoy.


They waited... and waited... and waited. Parkson kept anxiously climbing out of his hiding spot to peek into the enormous cave, until finally Junia said, "Would you PLEASE stop doing that? That's obviously going to attract the attention of Jacques and Marli if they're anywhere near the mouth of the cave. We just got rescued, I'm not about to be kidnapped again just because you could not be patient enough."

"Sorry," Parkson said, climbing back down into a crevice next to Junia. "I'm just anxious."

"I am anxious as well," Junia said irritably, "but I am not behaving like an idiot because of it. You could learn something from me and my immense soldier calm."

My husband just told me food is ready so I'm going to race to get to the end of this word sprint by writing some nonsense. Parkson decided to think of colors. Colors were nice to think of and they were a good thing to list. And they would be a good way to pass the time until Lucas came back with Jacques and Marli and Parkson's mother Elizabeth and any of the other things they hoped he returned with.

So, colors. What were some good colors? Blue was a good color, like the sky and the ocean and some people's eyes. Sometimes tears were drawn blue but they didn't have to be, they were just water. Water in general seemed to be blue but not always.

Green was a color. Bright green was the color of some creepy bugs and Parkson didn't like those, but dark green was the color of some trees and some people's eyes and also sludge. Parkson didn't know where sludge came from, but it occasionally sat outside his work place and he tried to cover it up with a cloak so nobody would walk by and think, "Oh, I don't want to buy vegetables from the sludge man!" Vegetables were green, too, all sorts of wonderful vegetables -- but not tomatoes, of course -- vegetables like broccoli and kale and spinach and brussel sprouts and asparagus and cucumber and zucchini and pickles. The broccoli was named Steven, or at least it would have been if they had actual names and not just names like "broccoli." Parkson liked dreaming about naming his vegetables. It made it so much sadder, though, when they would ultimately be eaten. Instead of eating a delicious salad of lettuce and cucumbers and spinach, they'd be eating a bowl full of Steves and Michaels and Marissas and Louises and Luises and Larissas and Lourisesasas even though that wasn't a name that anybody had ever made up.

Other colors? Red. Red was a color. Red was the color of tomatoes, which was of course his favorite vegetable. But it was also the color of things like blood, which were less pleasant. Of course, on the plus side, if he bled all over the tomatoes, nobody would ever know because it would blend in and it would be great. He didn't plan to bleed all over the tomatoes, but you never could tell what would happen on the street. A crow could bite his fingers off and then all the blow in his fingers would go flying out and get all over the tomatoes, and you couldn't exactly give the tomatoes back so he'd still have to try to sell them.

Ok, on to other colors. Brown. Brown was the color of the dirt. Darker brown was mud, lighter brown was... sand? He didn't know. He pooped brown sometimes. And tree bark was brown, and some people had brown eyes. Lots of people had lots of different color eyes. He had never thought about this before, and he was surprised by how interesting it was. It at least kept him busy, letting these bizarre thoughts fly before he could be reunited with his mother again.