September 3, 2008

Into Television Shows: The Problem With Olympic Pump-Up Jams

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For me, “Sex on Fire” is the best single of this summer. I listen to it while I drive my car; while I tie my shoes; while I’m at the beach; while I’m at the gym. It amps me up and gets me in the zone.
If the song affects me so much and — for the purpose of this transition — is universally amazing and inspiring (that is, it affects others similarly), why didn’t every Olympian listen to it before competing?
Why didn’t Michael Phelps listen to the song before he swam?
My point: Kings of Leon wrote an amazing pump-up jam, and Michael Phelps was basically the most pumped-up dude this summer, so why didn’t Phelps rock out to Kings of Leon?
Well, obviously, there are a million reasons why Phelps didn’t listen to Kings of Leon before racing. The entire world, however, did see Phelps tuned into his little white ear-buds before every single race, listening to something. According to an NBC interview, that something was Lil Wayne. Lil Wayne’s “I’m Me.” … Really? Lil Wayne! Come on!
Why did Phelps choose Lil Wayne’s “I’m Me”?
The song simply stinks. As a song, yes, it’s not very good, but as a pre-race jam, it really, really fails. Here’s the thing: Regardless of whether or not it would be good in a club, it’s just way too annoying to listen to before a race.
Wayne begins by ranting, chanting as synthesized organ swells and thin high piano notes bounce around. Then thick hi-hats begin to rattle in a 16-note pattern and a rattling snare cracks far too often. Soon comes the chorus: A gang of men chant, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” on the up-beat as Wayne sings: “Bitch, I’m me. / I’m me. / I’m me. / I’m me. / Baby, I’m me. / So, who you? / You’re not me. / You’re not me. / And I know that ain’t fair. / But I don’t care. / I’m a muthafuckin’ cash-money millionaire. / I know that ain’t fair. / But I don’t care. / I’m a muthafuckin’ cash-money millionaire.”
In a way, these lyrics do make sense for Phelps. He certainly is one of a kind. To me, though, Wayne sounds far too whiney and too headstrong. There’s none of that focused, nearly hypnotic, temperament exhibited by Phelps and which is also part of Kings of Leon’s single.
Let’s just say Phelps is really into hip-hop and won’t even consider a rock group like Kings of Leon. In this case, nonetheless, there is plenty of great hip-hop that shines with both confidence and flow that destroys Lil Wayne’s “I’m Me.”
One example that comes straight to mind is Nas’ “N.Y. State of Mind.” Nas’ masterpiece boasts a firm heavy bass and the artist raps urgently yet never gets whiney — he’s relaxed but one step ahead. Kind of like Phelps.
Another great hip-hop song, with a similar sentiment, is Big L’s “Da Graveyard.” Similar to Nas’ song, Big L’s track sprints forward while still maintaining a hypnotic groove. Fast and urgent but certainly in a groove. Just like Phelps.
Although I am clearly not Michael Phelps, I still have opinions on great pump-up jams. Granted, I’m not an Olympic champion and I’m not a swimmer. Frankly, I’m not even a real athlete! Despite these minor details, I decided to give it a try: To set out and find the perfect pre-race song.
What song will get me in the winning zone before my daily jog?
Now, keep in mind, this is different from a song that I actually run to. I’ve often contemplated the myriad of minute complexities involved in selecting the perfect running music. Will a fast song make me run faster? Will a slow song help me to relax?
The answers I have found, however, are elusive and enigmatic. For example, I love jogging to “Ghost Repeater” by Jeffery Foucault, a twangy acoustic folk song, a “slow song.” Weirdly, on the other hand, I tried listening to some slow Beck, off “Sea Change” for example, and I had to change it. Two “slow songs” yielded different results.
The same holds true for “fast songs.” For example, almost every song on Arctic Monkeys’ first album proves to be excellent jogging music while songs by the White Stripes don’t seem to work. I’m sort of perplexed.
Alas, what I am searching for today is not a good running song, but a good pre-run song, a pump-up jam. Like Lil Wayne’s “I’m Me,” only better. Way, way better.
Choice 1: “Who Loves the Sun” by the Velvet Underground. A pretty song drenched in light while still being totally sad. Result? Worked decently for a jog, but I couldn’t get the darn tune out of my head and I ran slowly. So this one’s no good.
Choice 2: “Can I Kick It?” by A Tribe Called Quest. A groovy and infectious hip-hop jam. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get Q-Tip’s rhymes out of my head and was way out of breath from rapping under my breath while jogging. Bottom line: unsuccessful.
Choice 3: “A-Punk” by Vampire Weekend. Fresh, afro-pop that’s catchy and fine. Result? It actually worked so well! And why did it work so well? Because the music shifted me into a positive mood, but when I went out running I forgot about the song and could focus on my run.
Wait a second — the song worked because I forgot about it? A moderately good, very simple, and — most importantly — easily forgettable song was the best thing to listen to. Does this mean I like simple music? Forgettable music? Bad music?!
Well, actually, yes. Yes, I do … I think. But so what? I really don’t like complicated, convoluted, convulsive, confusing (etc., etc.) music. For example, I really dislike Rush, an inarguably complex and masterful band. Likewise, I can’t stand Phish. And even within bands I like, there are discrepancies such as how I think Jeff Tweedy is a better guitarist than Nels Cline, the new Wilco guitarist who solos like Jeff Beck, whom I find absolutely repulsive.
Anyway, what’s so wrong with simplicity?
Nothing. In my opinion, simple is almost always better. Case in point: Chet Baker singing “But Not For Me.” There are no Phrygian-augmented, minor ninths suspended to the major third in the Dorian-eighths … or anything like that, on that baby. Just simple singing in the key of fucking amazing.
But let me backtrack for a quick moment. If I like simple music, shouldn’t I like Lil Wayne? It’s basically the simplest music ever: A drum machine, straight forward beat, sound effects and words that don’t even rhyme.
Hmm … maybe Lil Wayne isn’t so bad. I guess it’s just a matter of taste.
That’s sort of the thing about music: You can’t try to rationalize it. And that’s probably the reason why finding the perfect song to run to proved such a confusing and elusive task. Each song stands alone and must be appreciated, critiqued and valued on its own terms.
But in the end, I like what I like and I know I don’t like Lil Wayne’s “I’m Me.” But if Phelps won eight gold medals and got all these world records listening to Lil Wayne then it has to be good in some way.
It’s like when people tell me that a doughnut is unhealthy. It just can’t be. If it tastes that good, it has to be healthy in some way. Doesn’t it?