Skool’s back in session, so my Sundays are now all about prep. I spent much of today re-designing the parts of my pop music history course that might have gone into general circulation, in order to prevent cheating. Sometimes I feel like I spend more time preventing (or proving) cheating than actually teaching.
I have a pretty hard pedagogical problem with this course. I have to teach all of North American pop music history in a space of 11 weeks. Needless to say, there’s a lot that doesn’t get covered. To deal with this problem, I’ve started assigning group analysis assignments to the students, a solution that has two benefits: 1) they cover artists/songs (like David Bowie or Elton John) that I either don’t like or don’t have time for, but are still relevant to the course; and 2) I can stop lecturing and they can stop listening to me. I’m not so interesting to listen to after 9 pm...and I start to really hate the sound of my own voice.
In coming up with this semester’s list of songs they can present on, I tried to go for the usual reqs: song should be interesting enough to analyze; artist should be relevant in pop history; song should have some kind of significance. For example, I assign Isaac Hayes’s “Walk on By” to see if they uncover the Dionne Warwick version. Or “Smoke on the Water” so they go find the back story, and talk about its...current status in guitar stores. You get the idea.
In a self-indulgent moment, today I put “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind)” by New Kids on the Block on the list. I distinctly remember going to the community dance when I was in grade six, and spent most of the night squealing and running away from boys who asked me and my friends to dance, but when “Hangin’ Tough” came on, everyone erupted into a singalong that included this crazy arm swing. I had no idea what was happening: this was the first moment I knew I was a nerd. The confirmation of that came fast and furious from this point on.
Nevertheless, I got on the NKOTB bandwagon, though my enthusiasm was not in short supply. I never did buy the Hangin’ Tough album, but got the others, including their debut, on which “Didn’t I” appeared. Through the next three years, I talked on my pink phone with friends about which one was the cutest; bought Tiger Beat and 16 to rip out pictures of Joe MacIntyre and plaster them on my wall; my NKOTB sheet set conveniently provided me with a picture of Joe right beside my head as I fell asleep.
When the videocassette for Step By Step came out, I bought that too, and watched it relentlessly. I put it on in the basement of my aunt’s house during the annual family garage sale and practiced my dance moves. I sang along with all the songs when I was supposed to be babysitting my brothers and they were probably eating grass in the backyard. What I loved best about the Step By Step video was all the B-sides and covers. I got to know songs like “I’ll Be There” and “Didn’t I” far better than any of the singles that I hated, like “Right Stuff”. (To be fair, “Didn’t I” was later released as a single, but wasn’t intended as one at first.)
At whatever point in later life that I watched Jackie Brown, I thought, whaaat, when I realized the song that plays again and again on cassette in the car was an earlier version of “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind” by the Delfonics. And although I had stopped listening to NKOTB at that point, I realized that if nothing else, those dudes educated me on songs I wouldn’t have otherwise found on my own. As such, I consider myself a true NKOTB fan, having found those “hidden” gems.
The problem is, unless you’re pretty fully into a band, you tend to like what you know and hear all the time. In other words, the singles. But when you’re a full-fledged fan, those songs are often the last ones you want to hear.
Case in point: on Tuesday, Tim Hus’s new album, Western Star, comes out. I’m a big fan; he’s one of my favourite people. But every time I’m tuned into an outlet that might play his music, I hear the same single again and again. I’m going to assume this is the first single, and it’s a totally great song, but I want to hear others!
Similarly, if you don’t have time to sit down and listen to those places where new albums are streaming, chances are you might not get to hear the “other” songs on a new release for a long time. The Neko Case album is another example of that for me. I haven’t had a chance to buy or listen to her album yet. In both of these situations, I have absolutely no objection to the singles released by these artists; I just want to hear more when I catch them in passing. This extends beyond radio play; the Case performances that came up in my newsfeed this week were live versions of “Night Still Comes” (a great song...I might be in love with her. I think this song made me fall in love with her.)
As always I gots a bigger question: why do hardcore fans of any given band shy away from the singles? I know that’s not always the case, but I’ve often found the fans who believe they are the true, dedicated fans, tend to appreciate the hidden/underplayed tracks far more than what’s readily available. Is it a case of overexposure? Do we get sick of a song if we hear it too many times? I don’t buy that fully, because there are some songs I could (and do) listen to every day and never tire of. Is it simply the cultural capital that accompanies being a “true” fan? “Oh, I don’t like ‘_____’; if there was a moment when they sold out, it was that one. Give me their first, now unavailable, 34-year-old album over that song any day. I have a copy, you know. Found it on ebay.”
Is it that we have gone to see them 20 times in concert, and it’s basically the same playlist, targeted at an audience largely unfamiliar with their catalogue and we don’t want to waste money on the show unless they play the secret songs we adore?
I don’t buy any of these explanations as the only reasons, nor do I think we as fans are always dismissive of our faves’ most popular songs. Might be a question to pose to yourself, though, as you skip past the tracks you consider dull or overplayed.
Meantime, I’ll leave off with another NC song. Because, uh, it’s a good song. Not because she’s beautiful or anything...