One Random Single a Day #114: “Borderline” (1983) by Madonna

Some time ago, I decided to go on a musical journey of sorts by way of Madonna’s entire studio discography. While I can’t exactly pinpoint the definite reasoning of why I chose this task and landed on Madonna of all performers, I can say that it probably has something to do with her instantly huge sphere of influence upon her debut, as well as her longevity and importance in the pop music world as we know it today. Her music spans nearly four decade and she has worked with a number of producers, writers, and other artists to seamlessly assimilate into whatever style or sound was hip in the era of its conception. While the quality of her albums varies as much as pretty much any other pop musician out there, there’s no denying that she’s released a fair share of truly memorable singles, a handful of which stand among the greatest of all time. Needless to say, I look very fondly upon Madonna.

With all this said, though, there really is no Madonna like 80s Madonna. While not all of her singles stuck quite so quickly, others like “Into the Groove”, “Like a Virgin”, “Live To Tell”, “Like a Prayer”, and – yes – “Borderline” had become instant classics through her effortless combination of playfulness and sex appeal. And contrary to the history of female pop performers of her vein, she has been a powerful creative force behind the vast majority of her singles from the very start. I would dare say that the era between her 1983 debut and the release of her 1989 album Like a Prayer has, to this day, remained her absolute creative peak. Her contributions to pop music during this time are totally indispensable. She didn’t just make fun dance music – she created some pretty impressive pieces of art that form an important fraction of what and how the world sees an entire esoteric era in pop culture .

And yet despite all of her peaks and valleys, I dare say that few of her dozens of singles have even come close to matching the synth-laden brilliance of “Borderline”. If anyone is even mildly put off by Madonna due to her public image (and believe me, a lot of those people exist), I’m pretty certain that a quick listen to “Borderline” is sure to shut them up. Hidden among the bubbly keyboards and uptempo, danceable pace, Madonna sings about a romantic relationship that remains unfulfilled, possibly teetering at the edge of total destruction (“Something in the way you love me won’t let me be / I don’t want to be your prisoner, so baby, won’t you set me free”). While this seems like a simple dance-pop song on the surface, the power with which she sings her lines make it evident that something a bit more unseemly lies below this cover. This is further helped by the gorgeous melody, which definitely seem like they would translate just as well – if not better – in a rendition of a slower tempo, with more opportunities to really squeeze out the adversity of the narrative.

There is a famous quote, often attributed to Charlie Chaplin, that states something like, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot”. While the metaphor is referencing cinema and how it connects to real life, perhaps this could apply to pop music as well. Behind every poppy dance song is an individual with even deeper rooted, repressed problems; behind every happy-go-lucky love song is the pained reality that the good times probably will never last forever (take a listen to The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” for a great example of the latter). Here, there are hints of glamor in the situation presented in “Borderline”, but they are often subset by a cynical reality (“When you hold me in your arms, you love me ’til I just can’t see… But then you let me down”). The beauty of this song is just so understated, and I wish there were more people who saw it this way as well. Nonetheless, by lieu of Madonna being a woman in the pop industry, many serious music fans often stop short at completely acknowledging her artistry and importance. As for me – I’ll give this one another two or ten spins.

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One Random Single a Day #113: “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” (1973) by George Harrison

There’s no denying that George Harrison was the most talented member of the Beatles. Everyone has their favorites, but there’s no denying that Harrison’s compositions are some of the most well-crafted additions to the Beatles’ huge catalog of material. This is further emphasized by his offerings presented within his solo career. Although I haven’t listened to much of his solo works besides his most renown singles and his acclaimed 1970 album All Things Must Pass, there’s no denying that he truly was something special. Even within singles as diverse as the calm, contemplative “My Sweet Lord” and the bouncy “Got My Mind Set on You” solidify his stance as one of the truly great songwriters and musicians to come out of the Western music industry’s most thriving time.

In any case, it’s pretty easy to say that George Harrison is a man who warrants no necessary introduction. This makes it all the more easier to fully delve into the song in question today! “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” is the opening track and lead single from Harrison’s 1973 album Living in the Material World. After “My Sweet Lord”, it became Harrison’s second single to reach #1 on the American charts; interestingly enough, it knocked Paul McCartney & Wings’s “My Love” off the top spot in doing so, making this the only occasion that two former Beatles held the top two spots. The writing and recording of this song lies parallel with Harrison’s heightened devotion to Hindu spirituality and continued philanthropy in South Asian countries in war or peril. It continues the path cemented by “My Sweet Lord” of Harrison’s fusion of Hindu devotional music with that of Western religious tradition. Also like “My Sweet Lord”, the lyrics here are relatively sparse and simple (“Give me love / Give me peace on earth / Give me light / Give me life/ Keep me free from birth”), with only the repetition of a single verse and a single bridge making up the bulk of the track’s content.

From the title of the song, one could understandably assume that this would fall into tradition of a protest folk song, perhaps one from the likes of Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie. However, lines like “Help me cope with this heavy load… reach you with heart and soul” indicate this to be more of an interpersonal, spiritual longing, rather than a social justice call. The lyrics here aren’t particularly on par with the aching poignancy of “My Sweet Lord”, but they do come pretty close at points, especially when Harrison emits those wordless moans that punctuate his melodies. Musically, this avidly demonstrates his penchant for slide guitar lines, and there’s quite a few great moments of that here. Perhaps more under-appreciated, however, is Nicky Hopkin’s piano work which complements the emotion behind Harrison’s guitar and vocal delivery quite well.

Overall, this is quite a powerful, understated little song that is definitely a warm welcome atop the Billboard charts. I will say, though, that unlike “My Sweet Lord”, multiple listens of this track don’t really result in a deeper understanding of the song itself. While the simplicity of “My Sweet Lord” garners deeper meanings about one’s place in the world and the placement of spirituality in one’s life, “Give Me Love” sounds like its riding off of the atmosphere that the previous single had set up, without much more development than had already been established. Nonetheless, that’s not to say that it isn’t at all an enjoyable listen. For what it’s worth, listening to this makes me all the more sure that Harrison was and always will be the most talented Beatle.

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One Random Single a Day #112: “Wild World” (1993) by Mr. Big

I only really know the American band Mr. Big for one achievement – that being their 1992 chart-topping single “To Be With You”, which would prove to be one of the final hurrahs of the hair metal era. A supergroup formed from members of various bands assembled with help from Shrapnel Records, their second album Lean Into It proved to be a commercial breakthrough for the group. It’s especially remarkable that their two most popular singles at the time, “To Be With You” and “Just Take My Heart” (which reached #16), were distinctly hair metal ballads deep in an era where hair metal was out and grunge was in. For what it’s worth, “To Be With You” wasn’t anything special in its day, and it certainly isn’t much now. Its flimsy premise and ham-fisted lyrics are held together only by a powerful, singalong chorus with a melody line that, admittedly, isn’t too bad. It certainly is a relic of its time – though perhaps maybe a few years too late.

“To Be With You” is Mr. Big’s sole achievement in the world of popular music, and after a few quick listens to some of their other material, it’s clear to see why. Where sparse, shouty ballads would’ve sounded welcoming and refreshing in the 80s, their own material just sounds like every tired power ballad cliché in the book. It’s not totally awful – just painfully boring. Nonetheless, they achieved a string of hits in their time, one of which being a cover of one of Cat Stevens’ most revered songs, “Wild World”. I’ve never been a huge fan of the loose banality of the original, but at least Stevens’s unique vocal delivery brings something at least a little worthwhile to the table.

Much like “To Be With You” is only listenable for that anthemic chorus, “Wild World” is also only held up by the delicate melodies in the verses and chorus, courtesy of Stevens himself. By lieu of this being a cover song of a fairly well-known song, the familiarity factor gives this song an added push for finding an audience, since many might find themselves singing along with only the first listen. Nonetheless, as far as cover songs are concerned, this is one of the dull ones. Cover songs are generally not at all worth recording if the performer doesn’t add some interesting stylistic effects that would have listeners opting for this one over the original, even if only occasionally. Mr. Big’s version of “Wild World”, however, is practically identical to the original, making it practically useful for nothing but to fill up space on an album. There’s nothing in this that makes me want to listen to any more Mr. Big – and certainly nothing that would help me to remember this cover’s existence in the first place.

As I mentioned at the start, I’m not particularly fond of the condescension of the lyrics to “Wild World”, but at least the delicate delivery and decent guitar backdrop prevents me from immediately changing the dial right away. Here, the lyrics remain just as eye-rollingly trite, but with even duller and drabber production. The lead singer here is just so uninteresting, and the rest of the band are simply phoning in through the entirety of the record. At least there’s some semblance of energy present in “To Be With You” – here, it’s completely zapped out. I guess if you have any hankering to give a listen to “Wild World” (but really, why would you?), you should always opt for the Cat Stevens original to play it safe.

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One Random Single a Day #111: “Odyssey Europa” (2009) by Kirlian Camera

Although I am trying as quickly as I can to get through my backlog of reviews that I’ve been putting off for some time, I had to pay a particular amount of attention to this one – though, more for the band itself than for the specific song in question today. I guess I should introduce the artist itself first. Kirlian Camera are an Italian rock band that have been active since around 1979. They have undergone various lineup changes through the years, although the core of their creativity has remained with founder Angelo Bergamini through the group’s entire run. They have recorded and released a number of records, all while staying pretty much fixed in the underground goth electronic darkwave scene. They are described on their Wikipedia page as a “pioneering act of the Italian synthpop scene” and have remained pretty active to this day.

Now, this particular band is probably the most controversial group I’ve covered in this challenge so far. I’ve quickly found out that Kirlian Camera have been guilty of portraying some pretty seedy fascist elements in their music. Namely, they sampled a portion of a speech by nationalist Corneliu Codreanu in one of their songs, along with accusations of performing with Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia as a backdrop and even incorporating the Hitlergruß during concerts onstage. In 1999, they were cited by Alfred Schobert in Der Speigel as an example of a “neo-fascist element” that resided in gothic subcultures, along with contemporaries like Death in June and Sol Invictus.

As I mentioned in another review, I went through a bit of a goth phase in high school, though much of this was due to my particular penchant for dark dreary music to match the freshness of my teenage angst. Nowadays, while revisiting much of this music (along with newer stuff), I’ve become a little more skeptical about the connotations that may come along with the gothic subculture, though they usually are implicit and unintentional. It certainly does seem likely that the subculture would seem inviting to neo-Nazis. I read a great article on this particular topic, which notes that the gothic scene shares with nationalism “elements of esotericism, occultism and neo-paganism”, such elements often “exploited for the purposes of far-right propaganda”. It’s entirely true that members of the scene have appropriated Nazi symbols and clothing into their style; although it’s mostly out of pure ignorance, the door these actions opens up to legitimate white supremacists is a very real consequence. I’ve always saw the goth subculture as being more involved in a nihilistic worldview than anything else, but I can easily see how others could skew this ideology into one of cold nationalism and pure, hard fascism.

With that said, I am not accusing members of Kirlian Camera of being white supremacists. Despite accusations made against them, they have outright denounced the suggestion of far-right contexts in their music and have noted themselves as being totally apolitical (which doesn’t exactly fix the dilemma, but I’ll save that for another soapbox…). I listened to a few of their songs, and they all seem relatively fixed in the dreary, melancholy vibe implicit in darkwave. “Odyssey Europa” is particularly boring, with staticky production, predictable synths, and boring lyrics that add nothing new to the subculture that hasn’t already been covered hundreds of times. Given that English is probably not the lead vocalist’s first language, it’s hard to belief that she finds much meaning in incredibly vague lyrics like, “I’m lost to words, lost to everything” and “my identity will be cancelled”. Running under three minutes long, it doesn’t even feel like it’s worthy of a single release – it’s such an obvious example of filler material, it’s actually quite embarrassing.

I actually wish I was covering their much more interesting earlier single “Blue Room”, certainly exemplary of much of the best parts of 80s darkwave. Nevertheless, as I listened through a number of their other songs, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that listeners of the far-right would find some appealing nature in the dark, cold nature of their synth-laden music that lies cleanly across their entire discography. It’s almost as if those buzzing keyboards carry a weight of nationalistic diction of their own – though it’s certainly not the band’s own doing, the connotation is nonetheless present. The real problem comes into play when one’s music, whether or not it contains explicit white supremacist ideologies, is nonetheless welcoming to a large number of fans who adhere to fascist beliefs. In such cases, remaining apolitical isn’t an option – or at least it shouldn’t be. Even though “Odyssey Europa” isn’t necessarily an example of such, the goth subculture nonetheless has a Nazi problem, and one of the best ways to fight back is to make music that revokes the invitation of their presence.

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One Random Single a Day #110: “Darkness” (1997) by Dance Test Dummies

I have no idea what I’m listening to right now, so I’m just going to keep it short. I don’t know very much about all the different forms of dance music there are out there (believe me, I’ve tried!), but I do have a pretty good idea of what sounds I tend to gravitate toward. In general, I enjoy the disco minimalism of house music, as well as the soft, melodic tendencies of trance. What I often veer away from, however, are the harsher sounds of hardcore techno and electronic dance music – while repetition isn’t an immediate turn-off for me in music, it’s often a bit tougher for me to really get into the intense, stabby vibes of much of this type of music. Not to say that it’s bad at all; it’s probably just not for me!

I’ve found out very little about Dance Test Dummies, other than the fact that they hail from Barcelona. They are also members of a very specific subgenre known as Makina, a distinctly Spanish component of the hardcore techno scene as a whole. Like hardcore, it contains elements of influence from EBM and industrial music, including faster tempos, intense atmosphere, and aggressive kicks in its saturated, bass-driven sound. I don’t exactly know how exactly it differs from hardcore, other than the fact that it’s specifically of Spanish origin, which might be an interesting note to consider if only I knew what exactly this entailed.

So, while “Darkness” begins with some intense, jagged handclaps, it only gets even more aggressive from there. Some stuttering vocal samples come into play, before the bass fully kicks in and sets the track into high gear. Later on, some high-octane synth sounds find their way into the mix, adding just another dose of euphoric energy to the mix. I’m not sure if I enjoy this, exactly, but it sure does make me move. I could imagine that this would sound even better when projected into its club atmosphere, which it’s so obviously made for.

As I mentioned earlier, though, this much aggression packed in a record that is supposed to make me dance is a little much for me. I’m really not in the position to dictate whether this is “good” Makina or not – it honestly just sounds like the stereotypical repetitive EDM that I’ve gotten hints of throughout the years. In any case, I’m sure it’s target audience could find some fun in this track that I honestly can’t really pinpoint, no matter how hard I strain my listening mind.

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