30 Day Song Challenge, Day 21: A Song That Is Best Heard Live
So, for me, the point of seeing live music is social–listening and dancing with other people. This is probably because the music I like most generally sounds better when recorded: there’s a lot of subtle details that just don’t always translate to “live” performance. Even clubs with very carefully arranged speakers design the ‘live’ experience of recorded music spun by DJs. That said, the song that is best heard live is the one that makes the most fun and meaningful social experience…and that really depends on who you’re with and what the mood is.
So for this challenge, I’m going to pick out a few superb live performances of songs, ones that really transcend their recorded version and exemplify live performance at its best.
Depeche Mode, “Everything Counts”
This is from Depeche Mode’s “101” collection. This is a recording from, as you’ll see, their 1989 Rose Bowl show. “Everything Counts” is, by itself, a pretty fantastic song, and maybe the best song about 80s Thatcherite/Reganomics-style neoliberalism. I mean, “it’s a competitive world/everything counts in large amounts”–that’s like, Foucault’s description of the neoliberal conception of the market + big data in two lines of refrain. This live performance ups the melodica in the mix, and adds some extra background vocals to the second verse. Here, Gore and the rest of the band repeat, in traditional alto monotony, “the graph, the graph, the graph.” That repetition is like the musical embodiment of spreadsheets, reports, bureaucrats, the managed society, all that. There’s also an octave jump in the background vocals on “grab all they CA-an” that isn’t in the recorded version. (Also, for the record, the Dave Gahan/Shia LaBoeuf resemblance is strooooong in this video.)
The Clash, “Complete Control”
This is off the “From Here To Eternity” live album. It’s late-era Clash doing material from their debut album. It’s not fast, as far as performances of this song go (or as the songs on the debut album go), but it crackles with energy. The tension/release structures in this performance are turned all the way up. For example, the guitar solo at 1:30ish pulls and pulls us back as we anticipate the release on the downbeat of the second verse. The four dotted-quarter + two quarter riff in the guitar at the end of the guitar solo, in the bridge, and then repeated throughout the end? Those are great hooks that are in the original but pulled up in the mix in the live version. The bridge is probably the best part of this performance: there’s Strummer’s added “Huh?”s and “Whhhhaaaaaaa!”s, and the band is just energetically together, driving and driving toward the end. It’s just a band at peak performance.
Rihanna, “American Oxygen (SNL 2015)”
This song, about the rhythm of breath (“breathe out/breathe in”) is really rhythmically irregular in a lot of ways–phrase length, the nearly polymetric instrumentals (that ‘yu-yu-yu’ sound appears to be almost unmetered, or at least not snapped to grid in any clear way), harmonic rhythm, you name it, it’s irregular as any pop song in recent memory. This SNL performance amplifies the metric instability–in part because of turning the “yu-yu-yu” up in the mix, but also the venue and the acoustics of that contribute (and, uh, NBC’s sound mixing…). Rihanna’s clearly moving her body to the beat she hears, but at times her movements seem difficult to correlate to the what we hear, thus drawing further attention to the metric and rhythmic instability of the track. This instability is what clues us into the song’s critical message: if the American dream is about breathing out and breathing in rhythmically, about being able to catch your breath (remember the Eric Garner footage in the video), this song makes it really, really difficult to do that.
Runner Up: Madonna, “Future Lovers (Confessions Tour)“