It happened over the weekend I was fooling around on the computer, while occasionally looking out the office door at whatever football game my wife (aka the Supermodel) was watching on TV. (I’m no longer much of a football fan, but she most certainly is.) And they kept running the new Apple iPod Nano ad …
I won’t link to it here, because I don’t really want to do anything to promote Apple Computer. (Long story.) But you know the ad — it’s the one where somebody kepps taking the Nano from one place while clipping it in another place, all to the tune of the Cake song “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”. The upshot is that I get that Cake tune stuck in my head, and it won’t leave.
Thankfully, there’s an app for that. Or more correctly, a website: UnhearIt. The way it works is that if you have a song that keeps running around in your brain and want to get rid of it, you go to UnhearIt and it plays a different but equally catchy song to supplant the first tune. If you don’t like the one UnhearIt throws at you, just click a button and it’ll try a different one, until you find one you want. Simple premise; genius move to build a website around it!
And I told you all that to tell you this: it was there, while trying to throw up Cake, that I discovered “Single Ladies (In Mayberry)” …
There’s a San Francisco-based producer/DJ who calls himself Party Ben, whose specialty is mashups — taking two dissimilar songs that nonetheless share some key characteristics, and combining them into one catchy mix. In this case, Ben took the vocal track and beats from Beyonce’s hit “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” and backed them up with …
(wait for it ….)
(waaaaaaaait for it …)
… a loop of the “Andy Griffith Show” theme.
No, I am NOT making this up! You can listen to it here, even download it if you want. Ben’s even knocked out a video for it. It’s apparently been out almost two years now, but I’ve just discovered it. And I think it’s absolute genius.
Because, think about it. You’re not going to find two English-speaking cultural icons that on the surface are more different than Beyonce Knowles and Sheriff Andy Taylor. Can you imagine the two of them running into each other on a street corner? What could they possibly have in common? And the musical styles of the two songs don’t, at first blush, seem to dovetail — a 21st-century tech-heavy urban dance track, and a 1960-vintage backwoods country theme song made up entirely of someone whistling, backed only by bass and snare drum.
And yet, you put the two together, and despite all expectations, they mesh! Largely because the two songs’ rhythms are almost dead ringers for each other. And both songs are minimally orchestrated (especially once you strip the synths and effects out of the Beyonce tune) so there’s nothing that actually clashes. It works like a Reuben sandwich — if someone suggested combining pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut (sauerkraut?!?) and Thousand Island dressing in one sandwich, you might be tempted to make retching noises in response, but when you take that first bite you discover that all the flavors blend into a delicious union. Same with the Andy Griffith theme and “Single Ladies.”
But that’s the funny thing about music pieces — at some level, they all have something in common with many of their peers, regardless of the genre. There are only so many ways you can arrange beats, or chords, or notes, or combinations thereof, so that they will appeal to human ears. The choices are finite. Which means that eventually, you have to start re-using previous rhythms or progressions. And that, in turn, means that often you’ll find two very different pieces that share some portion of musical DNA. (My favorite example: Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” and a Talking Heads song from the same era, mid-1980s — I forget which one — both use the same bass line as the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself.”)
And once in a while, that similarity can create magic. Remember the scene in Mr. Holland’s Opus when Glen Holland decides to take a new tack in teaching music appreciation to a bunch of bobby soxers that don’t know anything about music pre-Elvis? He sits at the piano and starts playing a piece, asking the class to identify it. About eight of them do: “Lover’s Concerto” by the Toys. Only it turns out (and he plays it again, this time without the syncopation) that what they know as “Lover’s Concerto” is only a modernized version of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Minuet in G. (If you don’t recall it, it starts at about the 8:10 mark in this clip.) The tune is the same, only the rhythm has changed. And as Richard Dreyfuss’ character demonstrates the similarities between the two — and then the similarity between both of them and a tasty bit of barrelhouse blues piano — a whole world of music is opened up to his students.
That isn’t the only example of this — think of (back to the mid-’80s here) Sting’s song “Russians,” which borrows a theme from the Lieutenant Kije Suite by Sergei Prokofiev. I could probably cite a hundred more, if I had time to research them. But they all demonstrate that all types of music share a common heritage, common traits, a common ability to touch the human soul. There is no style of music that is separate from any other style. They are all attached to a single thread that connects the Black Eyed Peas and Roy Orbison, Philip Glass and Glenn Miller, Sandi Patti and Scott Joplin, Eddie Vedder and Georg Friedrich Handel — and connects all of these with Cheb Khaled, Nasrut Fateh Ali Khan, Astor Piazzolla … and the first prehistoric man or woman who found he could make a pleasing sound by striking a gourd or strumming a piece of sinew.
So I find it ridiculous when someone claims that such-and-such musical style is “the devil’s music” or something like that. It’s as silly as saying that one nationality of humans is better than another (i.e., racism), and for the same reason — both Homo sapiens and their music come from a single source way back in prehistory, so all forms of it are related to each other. Music can be used for good or for evil, just as people can — but that’s a matter of choice and intention, not of genre or pigmentation. You can’t be a racist without condemning yourself; you can’t slam one kind of music without trashing your favorite kind at the same time.
Because when you get down to it, Duke Ellington was right when he said, “there’s only two kinds of music: good and bad. I like both.” Me too, Duke.
Now, though, I need to go back to UnhearIt, or I’ll be whistling the Andy Griffith theme in my sleep …