October 21, 2011

Signature Songs: The Bangles

Starting a new series today called "Signature Songs". In it, I'm going to be talking about the songs that are the best examples of the work of individual recording artists. For example, the signature song for Madonna would be "Like a Virgin. Why?... Because in addition to being a major hit, it includes many of the musical elements Madonna is best known for.

Making a determination like this requires me to generalize a bit, because over the course of their careers, Madonna records songs in many different styles (as do many other longstanding artists.) For example, consider Madonna's "Hung Up", which has that ABBA sample and is very "techno-ey"; "Take a Bow", which is a sad ballad replete with violins and other classical instruments; and "Physical Attraction", which is classic synth-ey 80s dance-pop.

But the reason "Like a Virgin" is Madonna's signature song is because it's the best representation of who she is (or at least SEEMS to be) as a person and an artist. In other words, if you were forced to stereotype Madonna music, or choose one song to save in a time capsule so future generations could know what type of artist she was and what type of music she made, the best choice would be "Like a Virgin". And it has less to do with how big a hit "Like a Virgin" was than it does the fact that "Like a Virgin" includes the optimal combination of ingredients that make up the lion's share of Madonna's musical catalog. "Like a Virgin", for example, includes a lot of synthesizers -- as did most of Madonna's early hits ("Everybody", "Borderline", "Lucky Star", "Angel", "Dress You Up", "Into the Groove".) Like many Madonna songs, "Like a Virgin" is danceable, and perhaps most importantly, "Like a Virgin" is overtly sexual, both in title and lyrics -- and we all know that Madonna has certainly put her sexuality at the forefront of much of her music and her life.

Again, I'm generalizing somewhat and I understand that whether it's an individual artist, a singing group or a band, an artist's music will likely evolve over time. Almost invariably, they'll start to explore different genres and musical styles, draw inspiration from new sources, perhaps collaborate with other artists, and otherwise begin to make music that's entirely (sometimes radically) different from what they're most well known for and/or were creating earlier in their careers.

Notice I said, "almost invariably." Mainly because there are artists who don't evolve very much and continue to churn out the same type of music. Their sound never (or barely) changes and they remain pretty much the same from the start of their careers to the finish.

Punk-oriented bands like The Ramones and Green Day come to mind. Certain "heartland" rockers like Springsteen and John Mellencamp also seem to be making pretty much the same type of music they did when they were first starting out. To my point, recent Springsteen tunes like "Radio Nowhere" off 2007's Magic and "The Last Carnival" from 2009's Working On a Dream, would fit in perfectly next to cuts like "Badlands" and "Prove it All Night" on Bruce's 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town. (And judging by the two photos above, it looks like Bruce's wardrobe hasn't changed much either. That shirt looks exactly the same as one he wore during the Darkness on the Edge of Town era!)

My friend Arun and I discussed why heartland-rockers and punk rockers might tend to stay truer to their musical styles. We hypothesized that it's because heartland rock and punk rock are extremely well-defined sub-genres that are closely married to very specific attributes, attitudes and ideals. Heartland-rock, epitomized by Springsteen, Mellencamp, Bob Seger, and even Kid Rock's more recent efforts, is often socially conscious and draws its themes from traditional American values like fairness, hard work, community, and loyalty.
When the music an artist produces is so "rooted" this way, it's understandable how that music might only minimally change -- even over a long haul.

Punk rock is also deeply rooted in very strong and specific ideals. It's stripped-down, fast-paced, angry, and anti-establishment. So as soon as a punk rocker begins making music that moves away from these core themes and attributes, that artist immediately loses their "punk identity" and starts to become something completely different. (They also run the risk of completely alienating their fanbase and the core audience they worked so hard to gain.) This theory may help explain why bands like The Ramones, Social Distortion, and The Offspring made/make the same style music over their 20+ year careers.

Okay, that was quite a digression. I was talking about "signature songs" and the artist I'm going to begin with is The Bangles. Their signature song -- "If She Knew What She Wants".

No, not "Manic Monday", the Bangles first major hit and their most enduring song. And not "Eternal Flame", the band's only #1 record. "If She Knew What She Wants" gets the nod because The Bangles were formed largely based on founding members Susanna Hoffs, Vicki Peterson and Debbie Peterson's shared love of The Beatles, The Byrds, and sixties psychedelia and "If She Knew What She Wants" represents the perfect blend of these three influences.

"If She Knew What She Wants" borrows the "jangly" Rickenbacker guitars found in the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" and the Byrds' "Turn! Turn! Turn! and "Mr. Tambourine Man", but also adds a ton of terrific harmonies, reminiscent of not only the Beatles, but the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas as well. Also, if you listen closely, you'll find "If She Knew What She Wants" is structurally similar to the Beatles' "Nowhere Man" (which also features Rickenbacker guitars by the way.)

I dug through the Pop Culture Fiend Archives and found and posted this performance of The Bangles performing "If She Knew What She Wants" on Late Nite with David Letterman (circa 1987, I believe.)

I've heard the group sing this song many times (including live) and this is arguably their best performance. From Susanna's distinct croon, to their clothes (check out Vicki's 60s-style go-go boots and hairdo) to their impromptu dance moves, this was The Bangles at their peak. The only question is, as an all-girl band that almost certainly had to go through a lot to be taken seriously, why are they not playing their own instruments?...

Oh well, in any case, enjoy!

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Anonymous said...

I always appreciate a great article or piece of writing. Thanks for the contribution.

Arnie said...

Great post. Love the Bangles clip too...

Anonymous said...

Wow, they sounded so great and were spot on in this performance. Susannah could not have sung it better than she did that night. It always seemed like so many artists gave such great performances on Letterman. Being in New York City always brought out the best in them. Susannah as usual, with her lengedary beauty and sexier than thou vocals, has the audience right in the palm of her hand. It's also the best I've ever seen Vicki look. Smokin' hot. It's a real treat watching them at their absolute peak.

The Fiend said...

For as many (YouTube) comments this video has gotten regarding Susannah, there's also a surprising amount of comments about Vicki... Am I missing something?

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