Shelter in Playlist: “Coin-Operated Boy”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the fourth entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Coin-Operated Boy,” The Dresden Dolls

Image courtesy of MySpace.

I positioned Panda Bear’s “Take Pills” next to “Coin-Operated Boy” motivated by both sound and theme. We ended the last song on a train; we open this song with a similar staccato rhythm. After the staticky revelry of a 303 sampler, the dreamy travel of Monster Rally, and the grand hiss of the locomotor carrying us god-knows-where, we are plunked back indoors for a live performance, featuring the unmistakable tink-tink of toy piano. Yes, in this playlist as in life, we are always compelled back inside. Almost nothing is subtle or mysterious about the four walls of our own homes; almost nothing is subtle or mysterious about the instrumentation of this Dresden Dolls song. As the song builds, the percussion can barely keep up to the speed of the singer, crashing down onto the circus melody like a stack of Tupperware from the highest cupboard. Its chord structure plays out dizzy and circular, up and down the stairs like a sea shanty.

Like “Take Pills,” “Coin-Operated Boy” is about using artificial means to find joy. “Sitting on the shelf, he is just a toy,” vocalist and composer Amanda Palmer sings in a wistful, conversational tone, “But I turn him on and he comes to life / Automatic joy / That is why I want a coin-operated boy.” Pardon me while I get NSFW for a second: many listeners wonder if this “automatic joy” is referring to certain machinations of self-pleasure. While I can follow the logic of this reading, the Dresden Dolls themselves refute this in an old, archived FAQ, and I choose to believe them. For the purposes of this playlist, in any case, the coin-operated “automatic joy” is prescient of a much broader force in our current lives, a monetized, ever-ready dopamine-dispenser, the prevalence of which 2007 Amanda Palmer could have never predicted. I am talking, of course, about our devices.

“Made of plastic and elastic, he is rugged and long-lasting…” Though not long-lasting enough not to strategically break so we have to pay to update our models every year, the time we spend with our phones and tablets is likely more continuous than the time we now spend with flesh-and-blood people. Before the pandemic, this was somewhat by choice. Now it’s the forced norm of leisure time, especially for those of us who live alone. Sure, I take walks, have socially distanced picnics, read books, throw things in a pan. But the majority of my connection with others is mediated by screens, the mechanics of which are designed to keep my eyes locked on something or someone while a tax-evading company collects data for targeted ads. When you realize the “coin” of this “coin-operated boy” is paid unwillingly via sleight-of-hand, the dark carnivalesque trilling of the Dresden Doll’s piano becomes all the more appropriate.

The “boy” of the “coin-operated boy” is the promise of love and care behind the tricks. Though I resent my reliance on technology, I still use it to reach people. I feel genuine warmth when I see my friends’ and family’s faces on screen, when I hear their voices on the phone. This kind of technologically-induced joy is real, body and soul, and will endure even after in-person visits are not a risk. New relationships, on the other hand, are a different beast. I admit, on nights when the sitcom on the big screen isn’t enough to keep my attention, I go to the other, smaller screen and root around in the ol’ dating app. The situation for single people during quarantine is a sad kind of funny, or funny kind of sad. For my part, the irony is the worst. Just as I was ready to enjoy my new, post-grad school free time and maybe even find love, it becomes borderline illegal to go on dates.

And yet, there’s a part of me who shares the resignation of the speaker of “Coin-Operated Boy.” Perhaps it’s simpler this way, to keep humans at arm’s length while I enjoy the simple give-and-take of Netflix and The New York Times Tiles game (seriously, Tiles is so fun and relaxing, I highly recommend it). Entertainment on my schedule, according to my whims, adhering to my limits, for mere dollars a month. Nobody else’s dirty dishes in the sink, nobody’s farts to smell, no one’s taste to contend with, no giving up my shows for some organized crime drama, no boring talky podcast blaring from someone’s phone while I’m trying to read. This is lonely, but it’s also “love without complications galore.”

As Amanda Palmer begins listing the benefits of romance with a robotic boy“Many shapes and weights to choose from / I will never leave my bedroom / I will never cry at night again / Wrap my arms around him and pretend”her declarations begin to reveal the desperation of the speaker’s circumstances; “I will never cry at night again” seems more like a wish than a certainty. Just as the health and wealth and desires of a real boy might change, so, too, do the joy-giving capabilities of technology. Mirroring a stuck record, the song begins to repeat, “…and I’ll never be alone.” I agree with Genius contributor Matthew Durant: “Palmer’s broken record repetition of this line suggests something breaking down, like stuck clockwork. Despite all the benefits of a mechanical boyfriend, he’s still only a machine, easily broken – and she knows it.” Perhaps our pleasure-giving devices are subject to failures both mechanical and existential because, after all, they were invented by humans with their own existential and mechanical failures. 

Though the song’s predictions laid out how seamlessly we can begin to eschew messy, everyday meatspace and instead occupy ourselves with coin-operated systems, the emotional breakdown and general self-convincing tone of Palmer’s lyrics also suggest there will never be a satisfying substitute for loving a real, live person. What Palmer couldn’t account for, however, is the seduction of control in the midst of chaos. Pressing play and swiping left ensure that automation and algorithms stand in for the risk of failure, the vulnerability of choice and consequence. Sure, randomness can sneak in, but when it does, there’s always a back button. Always a back button on the micro level, that is.

Globally, we’d probably all like to press rewind on the last three months. Then we’d know how to prepare. Protect loved ones. Isolate cases. Gather supplies. Pressure our politicians to shut the country down earlier. But we can’t do that. So, I press play and let the four walls of my house disappear into the four sides of a screen. I watch people laugh and hug and fight and kiss. I let my attention drift from one screen to the other, where someone is on the other end, reaching out in the best way they know how. I type something in reply, bracing as I send, knowing I can cut him off at the first sign of anything disagreeable, anything that might interfere with my reality.

Meanwhile, on the other screen, romantic miscommunications are being cleared up. Rivalries turn into allyships. Wounds heal. If I’m worried my attention is too split, there’s no need. When I miss something important, I can always go back.

Shelter in Playlist: “Take Pills”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the third entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Take Pills,” Panda Bear

Image courtesy of Pitchfork.

We’re all hermits now, to a certain degree. I grew up a musical hermit. While the village of my peers went about their errands singing along to Mariah Carey and N’Sync and Ludacris, I lived in a hobbit hole on the edge of town, listening to oldies. (Maybe you can remember the bumper from your local oldies station. Mine is Good times and great oldies: Oldies 95! To-PEE-ka!) Notes and riffs from contemporary tunes drifted past my cave door, and some like OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” and Britney Spears’s “Baby One More Time” drew me out to dance, but for the most part I was busy in the dark, dusting off relics from Motown and psychedelic rock and the British invasion.

Whether my hermitude was a product of actual preference, or simply an effort to be in harmony with my chauffeur, who refused to listen to anything past 1973 without a skeptical grimace (hi, Dad), I don’t know. With this listening partnership came an ear for bricolage. Riding in the front seat along the capillaries of Midwestern interstates, I was taught to appreciate the components of songs just as much as the sum of their parts; the vocal techniques, the chord progressions, the out-of-the-ordinary instruments. At fifteen, the last year before I got my learner’s permit, we had a morning drop-off ritual: two cereal bars to-go, windows down (weather permitting), and George Harrison’s “Apple Scruffs,” one of my favorite songs off tour-de-force solo effort All Things Must Pass, as well as a lesser-known Beatle single called “The Inner Light,” also written by George. My dad always says that among the post-1970 solo efforts of the Fab Four, Harrison took most advantage of what made the Beatles special (the genius sound engineering of Sir George Martin, for one*), and that All Things Must Pass feels like a logical continuation of The Beatles (the White Album) and Abbey Road, with its sweeping orchestral ebbs and flows and an emphasis on instrumentation and quality, like a chef who prioritizes his ingredients over his personality. (It should be noted that The Beatles’ first whiffs of instrumental experimentation on Rubber Soul were partially inspired by the sitar artistry of Ravi Shankar, The Kinks [who we’ll cover later], and Donovan, who, according to my mother, also belongs on this playlist. You’re not wrong, Mom!)

The deconstructed ingredients of Beatles songs, the drop-off rituals and highway music lessons, the hermit’s cave echoing with the rotation from Oldies 95: all led me to a deep love I didn’t know I had of repetition, of song structure and production. Following the breadcrumbs of the familiar, I began to creep out of the 1960s cave. It started with The Grey Album, the hip hop masterpiece by Danger Mouse, combining samples from Jay-Z’s Black Album (itself a sample-heavy work) with the White Album. Then there were the beats of De La Soul, Danger Doom and Madvillain, Gorillaz, and even Girl Talk, an understandably divisive mash-up artist who combined contemporary hip hop and dance tracks with classic rock. This would soon expand into a general enthusiasm for sampling and electronica, indie psychedelia, and atmospheric albums, anything with some sense of patchwork patterns, anything where the sound is recognizable but slightly estranged. Like the acoustic guitar, beat looping, and clandestine recordings of The Books, or the distorted synth, Beach-Boy-harmonies, handclaps, and off-kilter rhythms of Animal Collective. These artists poked windows in the hobbit hole, letting the air of the moment in, swirling the dust motes of past and present, blurring memories and genre.

Now, in a different kind of hermitude, I try to remember to open my doors and windows every once in a while to avoid stale air and malaise. Those of us with depressive or anxious brains might find the refrain of “Take Pills” familiar. “Surely there’s no substitute for company,” Animal Collective member Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) sings, and advises himself, “Take one day at a time / Everything else you can leave behind / Only one thing at a time / Anything more really hurts your mind.” Inspired by his difficult relationship with the dull blade of anti-depressants, Lennox used a 303 sampler to make Person Pitch, “inspired by hip-hop producer Madlib’s work under the Quasimoto moniker… which eventually birthed the swirling, chromatic hues.

The sampled percussion is also a vivid, echo-y slice of the mundanity of being inside. The song opens with what sounds like a fuzzy recording of some sort of machinery, a whispering hiss and click that resembles the quiet chorus of appliances in a still house, the hums of fridges and gurgling of coffee makers. Eventually the hushed clicks build and break, morphing into an upbeat, layered menagerie of cowboy backbeats, staggered choruses, muted explosions.

As “Take Pills” fades, we hear a train leave the station. Like anyone struggling with their mental health, and all of us uncertain of the future, we might try to “take one day at a time,” to not let the weeks slide so quickly past our windows. From some distant corner of my musical cave, George begins to sing with the sarodshehnai and pakhavaj: “Without going out of my door, I can know all things of earth. The farther one travels, the less one knows.” And Panda Bear’s train plods on into the next song, its sounds muddying the difference between inside and out. We’re invited to wonder where we’re going, and if we’ll ever find the familiar again.

*A reader (…okay, it was my dad) pointed out that this makes it sound like George Martin produced All Things Must Pass, and he’s not wrong. I meant to say that George Harrison kept up the multi-layered, cross-category feel of Martin’s production style though, yes, it was Phil Spector who produced All Things Must Pass. 



Shelter in Playlist: “Cherry Blossom”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the second entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Cherry Blossom,” Monster Rally

Image courtesy of Monster Rally’s Bandcamp page.

From the beaches of California, we travel to the non-place of exotica. Adjacent to Mike Love’s longing for escape through suggestive nostalgia, the nostalgia of Monster Rally is quite literal, constructed through producer Ted Feighen’s sampling of his “collection of [old] records, combining his interests in Hip-hop, Exotica, Tropicalia, and Soul.” From this combination, exotica has always stood out to me. Birthed from a 1957 album by Martin Denny, virtual record store Hip Wax calls exotica “a narrow slice of popular music or mood jazz, means very specifically tropical ersatz: the non-native, inauthentic experience of Oceania (Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Southeast Asia).” Inauthentic is a key word here. Musicologist Phil Ford says exotica “sounds like movie music without the movie,” and without the the movie, there are no images to anchor the imagination, no real setting or people through which to trace the sounds. Now, we can look up the sites of appropriation, finding the roots of exotica’s “variety of instruments: congabongosvibes, Indonesian and Burmese gongs, boo bams (bamboo sticks), Tahitian log, Chinese bell tree and Japanese kotos.” When first produced, however, Ford poses exotica as an invitation into the colonial white imagination, a place that can “conspire to make a kind of ethnographic pulp fiction” if not checked. It is the poison of vagueness when speaking of cultures with real people with real histories. It is the power of self-soothing delusion in music form. All brightly colored and warm as a bottle of spray-tan.

How to handle the pleasure I get when listening to Monster Rally, or even one of the original exotica offenders like Les Baxter, I do not know. How to curb the need to escape into fantasy when it feels as if the world is getting smaller. The saccharine siren song of this particular exotica is cut with actual tropicalia and hip hop beats, so at least it’s pulled from its original othering context, distorted, dressed up new. At least its collage is visible, I tell myself, and it doesn’t pretend to be a singular truth about the non-Western world. Those who needed no erzatz for tropical places made exotica music, too. Take the work of Yma Sumac, born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo, a Peruvian colorotura soprano.

I was once in love with a man who was obsessed with the music of Les Baxter. Seems fitting the love was unrequited. Now whenever I play “Cherry Blossoms” or anything other exotica-inspired tunes, I try to stay put, let the track weave through where I am. Let us repurpose and make the world out of the ceiling. This is the soundtrack for drifting and touching things absently, not being afraid to turn a carpeted floor into a dance floor. My friend told me that lately she realized she hasn’t stared off into space so much since she was a child. Me either, I told her. Newness can be achieved through stillness. I never knew how many things in my very own house have a texture. A smell. A sound.

Shelter in Playlist: “Do It Again”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the first entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” Hope you enjoy.

“Do It Again – A Cappella,” The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys performing in Central Park, 1971. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

We open with a track from I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 Sessions, a collection of demos and backing tracks from 1968, re-released in 2018. When I found it I knew immediately it would set the tone for this playlist. Regardless of how much a listener knows about the Beach Boys, “Do It Again” would strike anyone as inspired by nostalgia. The speaker mentions “old friends” in the first line, and is immediately overpowered by memories of “girls we knew,” when “the beach was the place to go.” It’s “automatic,” he says, this longing for the past, triggered by conversation.

On the Beach Boys’ real timeline, these were the words of Wilson cousin and bassist Mike Love, harkening back to innocent, sunkissed hits like “Surfin’ USA” and the charmed life from which these songs were inspired. Like their Brit-rock counterparts, 1968 rolled off the wake of a period of experimentation and failure for the Beach Boys, their most creative members weathering difficult public transformations, romances, and substance abuse issues. For our country, 1968 meant a spike of US-led aggression in Vietnam, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and the violent battle between police and protesters in Chicago. The optimism of post-war America was fading and twisting, dissolving the utility of “peace and love” as a viable safety net against racism, corruption, war-mongering, and greed. Like other 1968 hits like “People Got to Be Free” and “Those Were the Days,” the plea of “Do It Again” is tragic because it is futile. You can’t go back, Brian and Mike. No matter how much the song resembles the hits and of the early 60s, the band would leave the studio and walk into a chaotic 1968 world. The desperation for the past as utopia is palpable. It wasn’t even the end of the decade and already the culture was looking back, longing. Reminds me of the evolution of 2000s hipster culture, with their centerpieces of vinyl and vintage; a nostalgia that felt to many to be unearned, too quick.

Now, our nostalgia is compressed into a matter of months. In “Do It Again,” I couldn’t help but recognize my own futile plea for the not-so-distant past of public life before quarantine. The song references the hazy, youthful freedom of simple pleasures of the California outdoorssurfing, warm weather, moonlight, bodies (and here the gentle misogyny of the Beach Boys ethos, placing female bodies as part of the landscape, springing from the sand fully formed with “long hair” and sun-bronzed skin rather than human beings in and of themselves)not unlike the longing I feel for my own simple joys. The smell of a coffee shop. Chatter and laughter. Hugging a friend. The harmonies of this acapella version are both haunting and delicious in their simplicity, like the sharp, sweet whiff of honeysuckle on a summer breeze, but a bit lonely without back-up instruments. And yet this arrangment of voices, especially in this stripped down version, also conjures what we long for, past and present: companionship, a sense of people being in the room together, making something beautiful.