Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Contenders Series #12: Ellie Goulding - "I'll Hold My Breath"

"Tell me that we're still too young, that we're still too young, and I'll hold my tongue"

I'm 28 now, and it's entirely possible I'm past the age at which I have to worry about someone telling me that I'm too young.  I guess that's good, but, then again, I don't think it was ever really an issue.  No one ever told me I was too young, that I wanted too much, too fast, that I was over-stepping, over-reaching, that I needed to wait my turn.  No one ever put me in my place because of my age, and I would guess that's mostly because I happily stayed right there in my place without any outside pressure.  There was no need for The Man to keep me down.  And now I'm at the point where if I over-step, if I over-reach, if I take it too far … it won't be because of my age, it will just be because of me.

It takes a certain kind of person to be "too young" in this specific sense (the daring, fearless, romantic sense).  It takes a kind of world-conquering youthful energy, and it requires much more than just being young.  You could make the argument that American popular music is driven by the desire to express exactly this kind of feeling.  (I mean, you could.  I'm too tired ... and old.)

I guess punk rock is our typical embodiment of that youthful energy, but this just seems wrong to me.  Punk looks at a broken system and largely gives listeners two choices:  tear it down or drop out.  And those are the choices of the tired, the defeated, people who feel old, if prematurely.  Tearing it all down is what you do when you just want relief, when you just want it to stop.  Building something new in its place, now that requires the youthful energy, but how many punks ever get there?

I don't think I ever felt young, not the way Ellie Goulding does.  Did I ever want it all?  Did I ever want it now?  Did I ever overflow with confidence?  Because that's the feeling I get from Lights.  I get the ultimate act of rebellion - it doesn't come from the combative body art of the gutter punks, or the dangerous ideas of the revolutionaries.  It comes from someone who says "I see that you are tired now.  I see that this world may have been too much for you.  I am not naive.  I know it's tough out there.  I have seen the bad.  But I can do this.  I can do it right now.  It will be hard.  It will be so hard.  I know that everything - relationships, psyches, whole cities - I know that it is so unbelievably fragile.  I know this.  But I can keep it together.  I'm sorry you couldn't.  But I can, and I always will, and you know this as well as I do.  I can get everything right, everything in this ridiculous system, this rigged game - I know there are huge, near-crippling problems out there.  But bring it on.  I am young.  And I am ready.  I do not need irony, or cynicism, or knowing world-weariness.  I will show you immediacy like you have never seen before.  So why shouldn’t I be happy?"

For me, there is a rare strain of unapologetic pop music that is almost defiantly optimistic.  It's so bubblegum that it almost dares you to dismiss it with your world-weariness.  Pop music, to me, is always a mirror.  Since we shape our personalities by what we decide to keep (to listen to, to watch, to follow, etc.), it stands to reason that we also shape our personalities by what we discard (as if to say, "I am not that").  And we discard a huge amount of pop music.  We are right to do this, since so much of it is derivative and formulaic and soulless and created to sell, and ... fine, I hate the Black Eyed Peas, too.  But ... it's easy for me to dismiss pop music because I'm tired.  Because blinding, carefree optimism doesn't really match my worldview.  Because I can't keep up.  And, at least this one time, with Ellie Goulding, I want to keep up.  This album all but bleeds hope.  Or maybe I just want it to.

I know that I am reading myself into this album.  I know that I am hearing exactly what I want to hear, in the context I have chosen.  The critics, I fear, are not going to be too kind to Ellie.  I understand that, on a musical level, this is basically the album Imogen Heap would make in a perfect world, and I understand that no one is claiming that Imogen Heap is breaking new ground artistically.  But Imogen is a nice jumping-off point here, because mentioning her name allows me to go back to my all-time favorite Pitchfork track review, for "Hide and Seek":
Never underestimate the power of the vocoder. It transforms flesh into metal, voice into rubberband, and Imogen Heap-- B-list British alt-pop diva and one-half of Garden State-anointed duo Frou Frou-- into force of nature. "Hide and Seek" is a wind tunnel at zero gravity, a chill in the air on a frozen planet, Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" stripped of its arty and political pretensions. No verse, chorus or instrumentation. No sense or logic. Just Heap's sighs stretched into wails, exhaling cryptographs like "Trains and sewing machines/ All those years/ They were here first."

Hearing "Hide and Seek" at the climax of The O.C.'s second season finale was one of those pull-over-to-the-side-of-the-road moments where space and time collapse and the world holds its breath. We're programmed to think that things like teensploitation TV shows and B-list alt-pop divas couldn't possibly be capable of such tremendous beauty. That stuff exists only to sell cars and soft drinks, right? Wrong. This is shock and awe. [Amy Phillips]
I can't speak for you.  Maybe your days are filled with "pull-over-to-the-side-of-the-road moments where space and time collapse and the world holds its breath."  Mine are not.  I am tired, a lot of the time, and I may get to "disillusioned" before too long.  And I need music that reminds me to take life head-on, reminds me that the obstacles and burdens that we see in our daily lives are absolutely real, oh yes, but that we can overcome them.  That's what I got from Lights, and most unmistakably from "I'll Hold My Breath."  The album left me with the feeling that everything was going to be okay, because we were going to make sure of that.  Sometimes, I need to be told.

Download:  Ellie Goulding - I'll Hold My Breath  (Download already pulled, check Hype Machine)

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