August 17th, 2010 1:00am
Interview with Rob Sheffield, Part Two
My interview with Rob Sheffield, author of Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, continues here. This is the point where things start to get very fun, as we talk about Michael Jackson, Prince, “hey DJ!” songs, Sonic Youth, and Thurston Moore’s brilliant song “Psychic Hearts.”
Rob Sheffield: Were you a Madonna fan growing up?
Matthew Perpetua: Well, I liked Madonna a lot, but I didn’t own Madonna records, my sister did. It was my sister’s job to buy the Madonna and Janet Jackson tapes. But there was never really a point where I didn’t like Madonna, and I have a lot of really positive memories of Madonna as a kid. She was just hitting her major peak when I was 7 through 11 or so, when I was really becoming aware of pop music, so she defines a lot of what I understand pop stardom and pop music to be.
Rob Sheffield: That’s something about the 80s I was trying to get at in the book — it was a time when everybody liked everything and listened to everything, and there wasn’t this layer of ironic self-consciousness built into it.
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah, my path to music was strictly through the radio. I was really into listening to the top 40 every week. That was more of a mixed bag than it would be now. Also, the quality of hits in the late 80s is insane. If you look at the list of #1 songs in 1987 and 1988, it’s all the same stuff we hear now. Madonna, Prince, George Michael, Guns N Roses, everyone going full blast.
Rob Sheffield: The 80s were a great time for Top 40. A lot of that was just down to Michael Jackson and Prince. 1999 and Thriller came out within a few weeks of each other, which is insane. If you listen to the Purple Rain album now, it’s hilarious how Prince is doing all those Eddie Van Halen guitar solos. He really wanted to do Van Halen. But if you listen to Van Halen’s 1984 album, they’re just trying to be Prince. “Jump” is just the same synth riff as “Dirty Mind,” slowed down a little. The first time I heard “Jump,” it was on the Boston rock station WBCN the day it came out, and the DJ played “Dirty Mind” right after it. He said, “Right, I wonder where they got that riff.” But it was so perfect that Prince and Van Halen could both make such amazing records trying to steal from each other.
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah, I feel like people in the top end of pop had a really healthy and exciting competition going. I really love reading about how much Prince and Michael Jackson saw each other as worthy rivals. And even though the ideas are being lifted, etc, they’re all pretty different. All these big bold totally different personalities.
It always blows my mind that “Thriller” was the seventh single from the album Thriller. That the most iconic single of the guy’s career was put off that long. These days if your first single isn’t a hit, your album is over. There is no third single.
Rob Sheffield: It’s weird if you think of how they sequenced the Thriller singles so that first they would tiptoe in with “The Girl Is Mine” for the old people, then “Billie Jean” for the disco stations, and “Beat It” for the rock stations, then “Wanna Be Starting Something” for R&B stations, and eventually they’d get everybody. But what happened was MJ got EVERYBODY right away! Everybody was able to hear themselves in this record. For me it was a totally new wave record. “Billie Jean” was like a disco “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”
Michael Jackson sure had personality. Iit was a time when musicians on every level had so much personality. You didn’t just listen to Husker Du or the Meat Puppets or Mission of Burma in a vacuum — they come across as personalities, because their music was so original and eccentric and emotionally intense and sonically direct. It wasn’t like we had to go to Husker Du for musical intensity and Cyndi Lauper for personality. They both had both!
Matthew Perpetua: My early memories of Michael Jackson are hazy. The big hits on Thriller were just omnipresent when I was a little kid, so the stuff from Bad has more resonance, I was more aware of those when they came out. Especially “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Man In the Mirror.” I closely associate the latter with when my little brother was born. That was the radio hit at the time.
Rob Sheffield: For me Bad was where Michael lost the spark in his personality–he started to sound like an annoyed adult all the time. Also, “The Way You Make Me Feel” sounded so much like “True Blue,” and it always made me wish I was hearing “True Blue” instead!
Matthew Perpetua: “The Way You Make Me Feel” is my favorite. I wrote about that one right after he died, I find that song charming in part because it’s this impossibly strange man’s fantasy of having a happy, banal life.
Rob Sheffield: I loved what you wrote about that! It was the first time I ever heard that kind of dreamy quality in the song. You brought that alive for me.
Matthew Perpetua: Thanks! It’s just a really sweet song, and such a great melody. So much spirit.
Rob Sheffield: It reminded me in an odd way of what you once wrote about the Scissor Sisters’ “Paul McCartney”.
Matthew Perpetua: Oh, that’s one of my favorite songs in the world.
Rob Sheffield: Where you take a familiar song I’d never had any particular interest in, or heard any personality in, and the way you wrote about it made me hear, wow, there is a very complex and loud emotional rescue bursting out of this tune.
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah, I’m a sucker for songs about creativity and communication and loving music, and that’s all three at once: “Here I was a-waitin’, praying for the muse, I’m finally awake and you’ve left me less confused, and maybe now you can hear me now, I’m just in love, in love with your sound!”
Rob Sheffield: In a way it reminds me of Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok,” the part where she’s singing to the DJ. It’s hard not to make a brilliant record when you’re singing about the DJ kicking you around emotionally. She’s so vulnerable and sad, in the bridge where she’s testifying about being lost and lonely and the DJ manipulating her emotions, and then she blinks and says, “Hey, wait a minute, I’m Ke$ha, I’m tough, these people on the floor with me need their wasted night redeemed by a dose of the last word in awesome which is ME” and she goes back into Ke$ha character and says “the party don’t start till I walk in”…like nobody except her and the DJ will ever know they shared this intimate and scary moment.
Matthew Perpetua: It’s funny, I read a thing the other day where someone pointed out how that song lifts a hook from Kylie Minogue’s “Love At First Sight”, which has almost the same lyrical theme.
Rob Sheffield: Another brilliant hey-DJ song!
Matthew Perpetua: The music they were playing really blew my mind! Kylie has a lot of “I just love music!” songs.
Rob Sheffield: It’s really hard to screw up that particular formula. It goes back — for me — to Indeep’s “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life.”
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah, the classic.
Rob Sheffield: Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” has that great part about Bret hearing the DJ playing their favorite song and wondering if the DJ knows about their tragic sad-cowboy story. Man, the 80s had some incredible hey-DJ songs.
Matthew Perpetua: It’s funny to listen to “Radio Radio” or “Radio Song” now because it’s absurd to think of 1) DJs on pop stations choosing their songs 2) radio stations playing sad songs, because no one does that anymore. What was the last super sad song to be a big hit? I mean, negative, mawkish, sure. But actually sad?
I was thinking recently about how there’s this whole strain of pop hit — think “Never Tear Us Apart,” “One More Try,” “Nothing Compares 2 U” — that simply doesn’t exist anymore. People just don’t do songs like that. I wish there was a whole GENRE like that!
Rob Sheffield: True! Beyonce’s “Halo” is like that for me. Totally goth song, like she’s trying to be Robert Smith and Ian Curtis, with all these new wave keyboards, and lyrics oddly similar to Sonic Youth’s “Cotton Crown”!
Matthew Perpetua: The most romantic Sonic Youth song! “New York City is forever kitty, I’m wasted in time and you’re never ready…”
Rob Sheffield: Angels are dreaming of Beyonce, angels are dreaming of Sonic Youth, angels are dreaming of us all as long as the DJ can stay awake.
I always think of “Stereo Sanctity” when I’m walking anywhere near Orchard and Delancey in Manhattan just because of that line “satellites flashing down Orchard and Delancey.”
Matthew Perpetua: Ha, I have the same thing with “Stereo Sanctity” and some other Sonic Youth songs that name-check streets and places in the city. I was obsessed with Sonic Youth as a teen, and they were part of how I came to envision and understand the metropolis an hour away from my suburb.
Rob Sheffield: I went down recently just to see what that corner looked like. I mostly was impressed by the huge sign for Sol Moscot Eyewear, with those giant eyeglasses. Kind of like the billboard in The Great Gatsby. It made me wonder if that’s why they sang about having mystic space visions about Orchard and Delancey. But the funny thing is, it’s just a totally ordinary street corner, and now it’s a block away from the local Starbucks. But I still walk blocks out of my way just to pass by that corner, because of that song.
Matthew Perpetua: Is Sister your favorite Sonic Youth? It’s my favorite, that and Washing Machine. I think of them as being totally different eras of New York City rendered in music.
Rob Sheffield: Sister and Daydream Nation are my favorites, or used to be, but in the past few years I find that A Thousand Leaves is the one I play most often.
Matthew Perpetua: Oh man, that one is so underrated.
Rob Sheffield: It has a lot of filler, but you just have to program it. I picture it as an old-school one-disc vinyl album.
Side 1: Sunday, Wildflower Soul, Hoarfrost
Side 2: Hits of Sunshine, Karen Koltrane, Snare Girl
46 minutes, 6 songs. That’s my imaginary favorite Sonic Youth album!
Matthew Perpetua: I actually had an edited playlist of A Thousand Leaves on my site a couple years ago. Mine was a bit different! I guess you didn’t like the Kim stuff as much.
Rob Sheffield: I remember that awesome A Thousand Leaves playlist! But yeah, to me that’s the album where Lee Ranaldo’s songwriting just took off in this incredible direction.
Matthew Perpetua: Meditative. My favorite album for Lee is Washing Machine. “Skip Tracer” and “Saucer-Like” always blow my mind. The guitar sound and the implied weight of Washing Machine is so distinct, it’s unreal. Part of it is the tunings, part of it is that there’s almost no bass. The album floats around.
Rob Sheffield: I haven’t listened to Washing Machine in a while, I’ll have to go back to that.
Rob Sheffield: A couple of years ago saw Thurston Moore do that Psychic Hearts show at All Tomorrow’s Parties. One of my all-time top 10 shows. It was just incredible.
Matthew Perpetua: Oh man, that song “Psychic Hearts” is a big favorite. I identify with that song in a huge huge way, it reminds me of specific girls I’ve known.
Rob Sheffield: I identify with the “Psychic Hearts” song too. A very 90s song, and in retrospect one of the key 90s songs, in terms of something I’d play for somebody to give them a sense of what the mood was like back then.
Matthew Perpetua: How would you describe the mood? I know what you mean, but I was a lot younger.
Rob Sheffield: It’s that empathy with the teen, the all-American teen, and the fact that the all-American teen was a girl, and there was nothing sexualized about that, just the idea that an ordinary lonely teenage girl in a nowhere town could be this epic rock hero, and that the cool rock star could sing to her and tell her to hold on and be brave. There was this incredible empathy and compassion in that song.
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah. Empathy and compassion are always such amazing things to convey in music.
Rob Sheffield: Totally. In that song he’s like a punk rock Tim Gunn. The 90s was when everybody wanted to be a cool girl. Like Lil Kim said back then, “inside every man is a BAAAAD girl.”
Matthew Perpetua: I don’t really get how that feeling slipped away. By the end of the 90s it had just sorta evaporated.
Rob Sheffield: It really did.
Matthew Perpetua: The mood really shifts to that sensitive boy zone, what I guess people would just shorthand as “emo” and “Zach Braff.” I don’t really know where it is now. Transitional era.
Rob Sheffield: Let’s hope it’s transitional.
Matthew Perpetua: That’s the exciting thing about the turn of the decade, you never really know where things are going. I was kinda obsessing on cultural artifacts from 1990-1991 recently. Really odd era!
Rob Sheffield: Very odd era! A good era to be a bunch of dudes wearing matching jackets with piano keys up the sleeve!
Matthew Perpetua: I remember the phrase “welcome to the 90s” being a thing, which maybe says a lot about how eager people were to get on the other side of the 80s.
Rob Sheffield: In many ways, the 1990-1991 era was a bad hangover from the 80s. I have to say, I remember the mood being sour and paranoid back then. The Gulf War. The S&Ls. The fact that even in late 1991, Bush seemed unbeatable.