Halftime Entertainment: The Top Twelve Songs at 2:44


12 Feb 2009, 9:14

Originally, this entry was supposed to coincide with Bruce Springsteen's Super Bowl halftime performance, but I am both busy and lazy, which is one hell of a combination for writing timely pieces. If I was a journalist, I'd be fired. Sacked. Shown the door. But, having been thrown out of plenty of places, I have practice on not letting it hit me in the ass on the way out.

Anyway, it struck me that recent Super Bowl halftime shows have most often featured older stars with a lot of mainstream appeal: Paul McCartney, Prince, Springsteen (more about him below), Tom Petty, etc. And I started wondering, who of the current generation of pop stars might be playing at the Super Bowl in five years? Ten years? Leave some guesses if you want.

The Great Super Bowl Halftime Missed Opportunity
If the Ramones were all still alive, they could easily fit eight songs into the 12-minute time limit, and it wouldn't even need to be a medley. Are they mainstream enough, now? Well, kinda yeah, I think. If you can hear it being played in shopping malls (at The Gap, to be specific), then it's probably mainstream enough. Are they popular enough? Sadly, probably not. But let's tread lightly on that issue so we don't muddy up my dream with filthy reality.


The Top Twelve Songs at 2:44

1) Folsom Prison Blues--Johnny Cash
Not only a monumentally great song just as a piece of music, it has given us the iconic lines "I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die," and (in the live version) the simple introduction, "Hello. I'm Johnny Cash."

Back when he was still alive, I used to ask people, "Who is the second coolest living American?" Because there was no question who the coolest was; only second place was debatable.

2) We're Just Friends--Wilco
It is always both wonderful and shocking when a songwriter tells you what you just did, down to the smallest emotional detail. This is Jeff Tweedy's sharp and poignant encapsulation of the horrible thing that guys do when we regret completely fucking up a love affair, and entertain the pathetic and unrealistic hope of getting back together: We pick up the pieces of our heart, clumsily reassemble them so that the thing looks almost right, in low light and at the right angle, and offer it back to our ex-lover with a broken smile. “Look what I made,” we’ll whisper. “It’s for you.”

3) Your Cheatin' Heart--Hank Williams
Hank plays the wronged lover with such conviction, he should be on the face of the "Wronged Lover" Tarot card, if there was one. (Is there one?). The cool thing, and it's cool because it's so emotionally accurate, is that underneath all the pain is a feeling of righteousness in the accusation. Something sick inside him is looking forward to his lover's awakening to guilt and pain, indeed perhaps also to sharing it with her. And yeah, I lived this song too.

Some of you are likely shocked that I have this as low as #3. It's a strong group, what can I say.

4) Jackson--Johnny Cash
When I was about seven years old, I rode with my Uncle Brad up to Jackson, Mississippi to do something or other, and on the drive up, this song came on the radio. I asked, "How did they know that we're going to Jackson?" My Uncle Brad told me that you could only hear this song when you were actually going to Jackson, because it was broadcast on a tight radio beam down that specific highway. I believed him, because after all, how else could you explain it?

5) Gouge Away--Pixies
Black Francis channels Samson in this short dramatic monologue. If they’d used this song as part of the Vacation Bible School curriculum, I might have stayed in the church. Doesn’t someone need to do a full gospel cover of this, like, yesterday?

6) Nowhere Man--The Beatles
When I was little, my mom had Meet the Beatles, but nothing else by them, so I remember hearing the rest of their catalog in bits and pieces on the radio. I suppose it was bizarre to have new-to-me Beatles songs just coming out of nowhere at random intervals, but to me it was the norm: if you just listened to the radio long enough, an old song I'd never heard before by a great band would magically appear.

7) Blank Generation--Richard Hell and the Voidoids
More proto-punk than punk proper, the Voidoids didn't discard the blues template as cleanly as most of the initial punks did. It’s not particularly bluesy by 70s rock standards, but it’s got a swing that most early punk rockers either rejected or couldn’t play. Not to revivify the old canard that "punk rockers can't play their damn instruments," because...well, it was true in some cases. Let's leave it at that.

8) Candy's Room--Bruce Springsteen
I understand how revered Bruce is, and at the risk of offending his true believers, here's my (brief) theory of where he went wrong: he got so famous, and so revered, that he had to struggle mighty hard to stay humble and remember where he came from, except that's almost impossible to do when you have worshippers up your ass 24-7. Already inclined to mythologizing his working-class roots, once he got too far away from them, all he had left was the mythology. It wasn't his fault; he surely tried to stay true-to-life, and in his own manner, I think he did--just not in a way that resonates with me. So, Bruce acolytes, if you want to tell me why I'm wrong, remember two things: I have a CRAZY THEORY and I'm not from New Jersey.

"Candy's Room" is from the Revered Artist before he got full of his reflected reverence, and features a terrific build from understatement to the full-roar Springsteen experience. This would have been a terrific cover for the Pixies (faking the sincerity) or Nirvana (unplugged, slowed down, earnest as hell).

9) I Saw The Light--Hank Williams
In that same Tarot deck I mentioned, this is the card for the Redeemed. Knowing that Hank’s attempts at spiritual redemption didn’t help him much (in this world, anyway) doesn’t detract from the power of hope that you hear: the sound of being on the wagon.

10) Don't Come Close--The Ramones
Unlike most early Ramones tracks, this one has most of the edge sanded down, which is kind of a drawback, but damn this should have been a hit.

11) I'm So Lonesome (I Could Cry)--Atlas Sound
In Hank's original, he is telling the truth as he knows it, in a plainspoken way, but Bradford Cox seems like he is almost relishing the feeling, as if loneliness is a reasonable option, all things considered.

12) E's Navy Blue--Tobin Sprout
Here's another bound-to-be-unpopular opinion: song-for-song, Tobin Sprout is a better pop songwriter than Robert Pollard. Of course, Pollard has volume going for him, as he writes and records hundreds of songs every afternoon; no one can match that, and fecundity can be a virtue. But should Pollard get penalized for all the half-realized crap he's popped out, too? I'm not saying yes or no, just that it's something to consider.

If you lined up each writer's ten best songs and compared them, I'm pretty sure Pollard would win. But if you made an adjustment for volume, and put Sprout's second best against Pollard's 10th best, and Sprout's third best against Pollard's 20th best, and so on, I say Sprout's in that race. Maybe someone should actually try that--someone who is a bigger Guided by Voices fan than I am.

Now pretend I'm Artie Fufkin and kick my ass.


  • jcshepard

    My 2:44 puts JC on top as well with "I Walk the Line", good song for the henpecked prior to Valentine's Day. * Bonnie Raitt, "Papa Come Quick (Jody and Chico)" * Ernest Tubb, "Sad Songs and Waltzes" aren't selling no more * Loretta Lynn, "High On A Mountain Top" * Merle Haggard, "Okie from Muskogee" A good big group to choose from. And god help us all but Kenny Chesney will probably be prancing around on the 50-yard line before long.

    12 Feb 2009, 21:09
  • Auto_Da_Fe

    After much struggle, I had this list down to 12 – then inadvertently deleted it. On a second attempt, it doesn’t seem to squeeze any smaller than 15 (this despite Blank Generation timing at 2:45, She Took a Lot of Pills 2:46 and Down on the Corner 2:48 in my world - they'd have had to be here too). Not sure why, but most of these are from a long time ago... 1) Mott the Hoople - Honaloochie Boogie Between hearing All the Young Dudes in 1971 and the advent of punk, Mott the Hoople were my official number one favourite group. And you know what? I was right! 2) Creedence Clearwater Revival - Up Around the Bend This track opened my eyes to the power of music. I remember a visit to Calgary Zoo in 1969 where some youth walked by with a transistor radio playing this track very loud. The annoyance it caused my parents was a revelation! (Of course nowadays, it’s me who gets annoyed by the youths playing loud music in public places). 3) Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band - Zig Zag Wanderer 4) The Poppy Family - Where Evil Grows So much darkness lurks in the works of the Poppy Family 5) Paul Simon - Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard 6) Crosby, Stills & Nash - Helplessly Hoping 7) Iron & Wine - Muddy Hymnal 8) The Monkees - Last Train to Clarksville 9) Felt - Ballad Of The Band Lawrence at his most world-weary 10) The Buzzcocks - I Don't Know What To Do With My Life 11) Orange Juice - Simply Thrilled Honey 12) Big Maybelle - Gabbin' Blues 13) Secret Affair - Time for Action 14) St. Thomas - mysterious walks 15) I Am Kloot - Sunlight Hits the Snow

    13 Feb 2009, 19:16
  • jcshepard

    Illustrating previous discussions, I have Folsom Prison at 2:43 & 2:49. Considering it later, I do have to defer. There's just no other line that runs thru my head like "Shot a man in Reno / Just to see him die". Seared into my mind with that damned old train.

    13 Feb 2009, 19:52
  • rockrobster23

    I mean no disrespect to country music when I say that Cash is bigger than country, and I don't mean that in terms of his late-career fashionable popularity. He would still be bigger than country if he had died in 1985. Gotta go to work soon, more later.

    13 Feb 2009, 20:20
  • rockrobster23

    No, I didn't mean that country isn't important enough to bring forth such a talent--that's why the preface "I mean no disrespect..." I meant that Cash transcends country. It's not an exact analogy (because I'm substituting a place for a genre), but in the same way, Faulkner transcends and is bigger than the American South. Obviously not literally, in either case, but in both cases the artist goes well beyond the constraints of the idiom or place that they come from. They're talking about people everywhere, not just country people or Southern people. Shorter: the very finest artists are all bigger than the genre conventions through which they express themselves.

    14 Feb 2009, 6:45
  • rockrobster23

    JC--Is Kenny Chesney a big enough star for that sort of thing (comment 1, Super Bowl halftime)? I am not at all current with who is big in commercial country; I know of him more as Peyton Manning's buddy than anything else. James, your lists often contain an artist completely new to me that I find it worthwhile to explore: this time it's St. Thomas. Norwegian! Really! But for the slightly accented vocals, I would have guessed Arizona or some other sun-baked desert state. I'd put it in the same category as AmAnSet or Calexico.

    17 Feb 2009, 5:54
  • rockrobster23

    I've settled on 6:50-6:59 as the next one. It will take a while (those are long songs!).

    18 Feb 2009, 19:20
  • jcshepard

    I feel fully justified diss'n Kenny Chesney! There are people who find a niche and exploit it. And there are people who explore and grow their art. Cash was both (sometimes at the same time). Chesney et al are exploiters--maybe they'll ride the next wave, but if they went away tomorrow who would really notice? yeah.

    24 Feb 2009, 16:34
  • rockrobster23

    Well, *I* wouldn't notice, but I haven't noticed in the first place, so I'm a poor judge. Wilco is an interesting possibility; if they get even bigger without compromising much, they'd maybe be in the same class Radiohead is now. That is, hugely popular but not really mainstream, which begs the question: what's the difference between popular and mainstream? Juicy topic.

    24 Feb 2009, 18:44
  • rockrobster23

    That's a pretty good example, although just being recognized isn't (by itself) a determiner of mainstream-ness. For a while, everybody knew who Marilyn Manson was, but he wasn't really mainstream. It's also possible to be mainstream but not popular: every town has local bands whose artistic goal is to be as mainstream as possible. If they're good at that, they often get popular locally, but that's usually where it ends. There's a semantic discussion lurking here. Someone's about to ask me for my definition of "mainstream," and I'm not prepared to give you a rigorous one. You can measure popularity, but mainstream-ness depends on subjective distinctions that I haven't thought about enough.

    25 Feb 2009, 18:36
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