April 3, 2011

NT's greatest hits, No. 26 (of 35)

Two years ago, casting about for a new blog topic, I decided to use this space to do what most bloggers do: talk about my own interests. And make teenage desires of self-indulgence real. So, remembering my long-ago dreams of splendid-isolation pop-music musing for an adoring audience, I embarked upon a project: to document every song on my iTunes playlist of my favorite songs ever (seriously, it's labeled "MY FAVORITE SONGS EVER"), one by one, in this space. And I began, with a nice little double post on my No. 1 song ever and a more recent curiosity that got my blood pumping.

And I continued. For a little over a year, self-indulgent as expected. March 2010, I wrote about Television's "Venus" (referring to it as a "tight musical fantasia"). And then, I stopped. Not sure why, but I'd hardly be the first person in history to to flake on an ambitious blog project, because…you know, it's a blog. If you want to pay me, my PayPal account is waiting.

But today, in recovery mode from a heavy, heavy week of BQT private parties—and mostly set for the doubleheader this week in the East Village and Boston—I have returned. In the interim, the song list has expanded to 36, but I'm going to finish out these last 11, by gum. I owe it to you, my readers! (By which I mean mainly me.) Thus…

"American Girl" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Pop music is often criticized, and occasionally celebrated, as a victory of style over substance. Anyone can play it, all you need to be able to do is strike the right pose, look good in a leather jacket, drive the kids crazy without giving them anything worth really remembering. This is usually not true. Despite the depressing degeneration in the standards of our popular culture, very few truly talentless hacks enjoy sustained success (Britney Spears being an exception). Perhaps many pop legends lack the kind of talents that, say, a music-theory professor would consider talent, but almost all of them have something. I'll praise Lady Gaga to the skies even though I find her actual music to be completely uninteresting.

This is not a roundabout way of pointing out the often-pointed-out observation that Tom Petty is ugly. Besides the fact that I don't consider him particularly ugly—he's no John Taylor, but who is, my older sister would ask?—it's more about the sheer fact that this guy is a thousand times more talented as a songwriter and musician than, oh, 99% of people who've ever strapped on a guitar. Sure, he struck a good pose, and always had an excellent understanding of the art of the music video, but Tom Petty joined the classic-rock-radio pantheon lacking virtually all of the obvious attributes of his peers: He's not an inspiring figure like Springsteen, not recklessly bombastic like the Who, not particularly sexual like Led Zeppelin, and—okay, fine—not cute like the Beatles. (Relax, I'm not saying the Beatles made it big just because they were cute, but you better believe that got their foot in the door with millions of Beatlemaniacs, even those who didn't see pictures of them; their music was a 14-year-old girl's wet dream, brilliantly.)

What Tom Petty is is a decent vocalist, an amazing band leader, and an excellent, excellent songwriter. He's got at least half a dozen songs I considered for my greatest-hits list (all with the Heartbreakers; yes, I'm the one guy who thought Into the Great Wide Open was an improvement over Full Moon Fever), but I'm positive I'm not alone in singling out "American Girl." Listen:



The lyrics might seem a little mushy and vague ("raised on promises"), but I don't know how anyone can argue with their effect, the aching appeal to the dreams of American youth ("God, it's so painful when something that's so close is still so far out of reach!"). Above I said Petty's not an inspirational figure like Springsteen, and while that's mostly true—he prefers small frustrations to big dreams—I think this song is a notable exception, along with the nearly equally brilliant "Learning to Fly." The point is, while he can write a song that appeals to the human desire to escape to a better tomorrow, he's not reliant on the trope, the way Bruce can be in his weaker moments, the way so many Boss imitators are ad infinitum. When Petty does aim for the heart, he strikes an uncanny bull's-eye.

So I do find "American Girl"potently inspiring, but I think it's its soaring, unique sound that earns it legendary status. Its perfect re-creation of the Byrds' magical jangle, its loping, extended fade-out solo (incidentally, the reason this makes a terrible karaoke song), its shifting rhythms. Most people have never listened to TP and the Heartbreakers' debut self-titled album—it's a slight record of not-bad-but-half-formed rock songs—but it completely takes off when it gets to "American Girl," the final track, signaling to the world that this guy knew exactly what he was doing, even if he hadn't done it yet. You can't argue with talent.

More of NT's greatest hits: "Venus," "Dead Man's Curve," "Message in a Bottle," "Emily Kane," "Born to Run," "Shake Some Action," "Chips Ahoy!," "Radio, Radio," "Could You Be the One?," "Summer in the City," "Teenage Kicks," "Strawberry Fields Forever, " "Tunnel of Love," "I Get Around," "Local Girls," "Don't Let's Start," "Suffragette City," "See-Saw," "My Name Is Jonas," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Reelin' in the Years," "Objects of My Affection" and "Crimson and Clover," "OK Apartment" and "Just What I Needed"

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