Monday, April 18, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 103 - The Bangles

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

I'm still not exactly sure what train of thought led me to listen to the Bangles all of this week. There was a number of groups that friends had recommended to me, and I decided that April was going to be the month in which I took care of this list. So I listened first to the Streets and then to the Indigo Girls, both of which I enjoyed quite a bit. With this good track record, I welcomed new recommendations.

Then someone suggested that I listen to the Bangles. I think it was meant as sort of a joke - at least, by the end of the week, I hoped it was a joke. The Bangles also had that whole girl power thing going for them, so I thought it would be a nice thematic follow-up to the Indigo Girls. 

Unfortunately, this was my least favorite week since I covered Mannheim Steamroller as a quasi-joke back in December. And it's not even that the Bangles are that bad of a band, but they are insidiously mediocre. By the end of the week, I had come to view the group as the worst form of commercialized, synthesized, aesthetically-anesthetized eighties power pop. If the Indigo Girls were catchy in all the right ways, the Bangles represent the flip side of the coin - catchiness without any depth to back it up, annoying riffs that get stuck in your head all day (or week), appealing enough that your subconscious latches onto it even while whatever part of the brain controls your actual musical taste is recoiling in protest. 

Rest assured, a week's worth of the Bangles has cured me of the need to take my friends' musical tastes seriously. "Yeah, the Bangles do kind of suck," my friend and recommender admitted to me on Friday. Heh. I learned that unfortunate fact the hard way. I'm not hard to please; I like most music the first time I hear it. But an important part of becoming a music snob, I suppose, is developing vendettas against certain groups. If I had heard the Bangles in passing, I might have been okay with them. But seven days is far, far too much.

WEEK 103


WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: "Walk Like An Egyptian" is always on those inescapable VH1 lists - "Best One Hit Wonders," or "Best of the 80s" or whatever. I also remember at one point the Bangles sued Avril Lavigne for stealing their melodies, though I'm not quite sure how all that litigation eventually resolved itself.

MY LISTENING: I listened to All Over the Place (1984) every day this week. I also listened to Different Light (1986) three times, and Everything (1988) twice. 

WHAT I LIKED: As much as I bitched above, the first Bangles album actually has a lot to like. All Over The Place comes across as fun record that's not trying to invade the radio waves with legions of bland tunes. The songwriting is a little sharper, the music is a bit more energetic, and, most importantly, the guitar is the primary instrument. I'm speaking as someone who likes synthesizers, but the Bangles completely overused the synth on their later stuff. 

On All Over The Place we get some fun girl pop with jangling guitars that occasionally crosses the line into actual rock and roll. Most of the songs clock in at under three minutes, and there's a nice taste of the do-it-yourself garage rock aesthetic that the sheer commercialism of the later albums would wash away entirely. "Silent Treatment" shows that the Bangles know how to rock, "Hero Takes A Fall" and "Going Down To Liverpool" demonstrate some catchy choruses, and "James" and "All About You" show off the group's vocal harmonies before they started to get grating. 

By the end of the week, I was sick of All Over the Place. But it's still a pretty fun ride, and I can acknowledge that the Bangles were moderately good songwriters who made one catchy album. All of the songs sound sort of the same, and the incessant harmonizing by the back-up singers gets old real fast, but it sounds like the group is having a good time on this one. 

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: Just listen to the strains of the synthesized harpsichord at the beginning of "Manic Monday" - it demonstrates everything wrong with the Bangles' later albums. The guitars are gone. The energy is gone. The backing harmonies sound cold and calculated rather than spontaneous. The lyrics (written by Prince, supposedly in exchange for sex) are both annoyingly catchy and just annoying (who considers Sunday their "fun-day"?). 

Of course, the song was a big hit, which was totally what the Bangles were going for. But in order to conquer the airwaves, the group sold their soul. The joy and exuberance of All Over The Place is gone on Different Light, and all those elements that were mildly annoying are now insufferable. The hooks of songs like "Standing in the Hallway" sound like they were mathematically configured in a laboratory to sell the most records possible. Most of the songs are at a slower tempo. "Walk Like An Egyptian" is a blatant grab at the novelty-song-dance-craze market. And those vocal harmonies are relentless, to the point that every song sounds smothered in consonant intervals, and the lead singer sounds like she's singing through a tunnel (see: "September Gurls," where they take the Big Star song and sugarcoat it until it sounds sickening). 

If Different Light brought the Bangles increased success and dwindling artistic sensibilities, Everything continued further down that path. One time in college I made a playlist of sixty cheesy power ballads, but for some reason even I couldn't stand "Eternal Flame" this week. It was a song I might have liked on its own, but at this point I was too far into Bangles Hell to appreciate it. At this point, the synthesizers have become self-aware and run amok all over the songs - "Be With You" uses an electronic glockenspiel sound that should be limited to science-fiction films, and even then should only be used sparingly. 

Bangles, what happened? You started out as somewhat catchy pop with a feminine twist, and ended up playing music for the lowest common denominator, throwing out all the guitars and energy for cheese and schmaltz and an incredibly dated sound. RIP. 


BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: Sigh. I guess by default I have to say "Walk Like An Egyptian," because I'm averse to "Eternal Flame" and am currently in open warfare with "Manic Monday."


One of the bigger hits from their first album. It's not that the warning signs aren't there, but the song is still fun to listen to. 

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Joni Mitchell. I'm going to stick with the female artists, but going with someone a bit more critically acclaimed.