Friday, December 15, 2006

Why "Not This Year" Is My Favorite Song of 2006 (Part 1)

Subtitle: Why Lauren was right and I was wrong.

Day 9 of the TCR Christmas Extravaganza (admittedly, this one is only tangentially related to Christmas and it's gonna be long)

Like I said in the Lohan post, I'm getting bored of writing Christmas album reviews, and I get the distinct impression that you all are getting bored of reading them. So I'm not going to do any more. On the schedule before Christmas is a post or two on some of the original songs from the albums I'm skipping reviewing, a special teen pop Christmas mix CD, and hopefully (if I can come up with any ideas) some non-music content. Then the blog will likely take a break until the new year, when I'll start up with the year-in-review content. More on which later, of course.

Aly & AJ

You know, I've written a lot about Aly & AJ on this blog. I've written a hell of a lot about Alyson Michalka, way more than anybody else (including Kay Panabaker). But yet, I still haven't quite said what I want to say about them, but it's frustrating because I don't really know what I want to say about them. I don't really know what to THINK about them. Anyways, here's a short summary:

On June 5 in the post "Disney Channel Live Action Series - An Overview" I write: "Alyson I think has a really good chance of breaking out to be a star, but she needs to make better decisions as an actress going forward, and it pains me to say it, but just drop the sister thing. She needs to do solo work. I'm excited about their music career based on their first album but unfortunately general pop doesn't really have a huge market now, and I'm not sure what the shelf-life of this is gonna be. I'm abnormally nervous that her career is just gonna crash and burn after Phil but I really really hope that doesn't happen."

On August 28 in the post "Recent Teen Pop: A Non-Comprehensive Guide" I write: "Don't be fooled by their Disney Radio hit cover songs ("Do You Believe In Magic?" and "Walking on Sunshine"), Aly & AJ, in an era of ironic and humorous light-hearted teen pop, probably have the least sense of humor of any of the artists listed here. Take "I Am One of Them", a song about teenage kidnapping, written from the perspective of a kidnapped teen. Probably one of the darkest and most harrowing songs in recent teen pop. But then there's "Rush". This is SUCH A GOOD song, with the explosion in the chorus, and proper uplifting lyrics, quite possibly my favorite song of 2005. It's an absolute classic of teen pop, and some of their other songs are OK too (such as "Chemicals React", "No One", and "Collapsed"), but they really make it mostly on the strength of "Rush". That being said, "Chemicals React" is one of my favorite singles of the year."

On September 11, in the post entitled "Teen Culture: A General Discourse" (which was the first official post of this blog) I write: I'll use Aly Michalka as an example. Aly & AJ have a huge, really rabid fanbase. They absolutely love them. I have to say that, despite my better judgment, I would have to count myself a fan of the group. And it's not all about the music. It's never all about the music, of course, image always sneaks itself into the picture, especially in pop music, and really especially in teen pop music. Aly Michalka is just so warm, so funny, just so downright loveable on Phil of the Future that it's nearly impossible for any POTF watcher to separate out that persona. Dave from Cure For Bedbugs learned this when he made a post that quite correctly pointed out the oddly dark lyrics on the Aly & AJ album. He has been assaulted with e-mails and comments from enraged Aly & AJ fans since. They (and me too!) just associate a certain warmth with Aly the actress that it's impossible to separate from Aly the musician.

On October 4, in my post on the best teenpop songs of the decade, I write: "In all seriousness, I love the inspirational lyrics to this song, the Michalkas have really good singing voices (espeically the one with the low voice, whichever that is), and so catchy! What an apt title this song has, as the rush I get from listening to it (esp. the chorus of course) exceeds maybe any of the other songs on this list. Owes a huge debt to "Everywhere" of course, but it's original enough on its own merits. I also really love the production on this song, especially in the verses. I like their album as well but honestly though there are other good songs, there's nothing else the girls have recorded that really approaches this. Mild bonus for having no connection to Cow Belles whatsoever. Am I rating it too high because I love Aly in Phil of the Future so much? It's possible, but I really did try to separate that stuff out."

On October 12, I write: "Alyson Michalka is a great actress, but a robotic singer. AJ Michalka is a terrible actress but a great singer. So together they are great at both!"

On October 15, I do a long review of the Aly & AJ Christmas album entitled, imaginatively, "Album Review: Aly & AJ - Acoustic Hearts of Winter". Lots of A&A content in there of course, but in particular I write: "It's hard to say what I think about this album. Two excellent originals surrounding a bunch of mediocre cover songs. Much as I love "Greatest Time of Year" and "Not This Year", I'd say to save your money and buy one of those Very Special Christmas albums from the bargain bins, for a better value. Into the Rush was, I think, underrated, but Aly & AJ are in serious danger of becoming a chronic "singles band". THUMBS DOWN."

Finally, my most recent reference to Aly & AJ is on November 25, when I write: "I will say that "Sweet Temptation (Hollow)", "Don't Cry Your Heart Out", and "Not This Year" are my only 10/10 songs of the year, and that "Not This Year" would seriously contend for number 1 if it were included. A good year for singles, far better than last year in any event."

[Emphasis was added by me now and doesn't appear in the original posts. This leaves out a few immaterial references to Aly & AJ and Alyson Michalka in some other posts.]

Yeah, that's a lot of stuff. TCR reader Lauren calls me out on my Acoustic Hearts of Winter review in my comments: "I think their goal was to show off their pretty voices and guitar skills. You get exactly what you pay for with Acoustic Hearts of Winter. These songs weren't meant to released as singles; it's just a holdover under their next album is released. Fans of Aly and AJ will just like to hear their voices singing Christmas tunes, so it's worth the money if you enjoy their sound."

She also says, in a different comment: "I don't see how Alyson is robotic, unless you're referring to her more limited range than AJ's."

Mea Culpa: First of all Aly's singing is definitely not robotic. I don't know why I wrote that. What I meant to say, was that she seems way more comfortable acting than singing, based on what I've seen from her on Phil of the Future and some of their live performances on YouTube. Second, I've heard a LOT of modern pop Christmas albums since I listened to this Aly & AJ one, and I can say that Acoustic Hearts of Winter is one of the best of them. Lauren's right, you're getting what you pay for out of this, and if you want a pop Christmas album, this is one of the least offensive suggestions for you. The originals are amazing and some of the covers (especially "I'll Be Home for Christmas") are among the best of the covers I've heard during this exercise. So, yes, Lauren was right and I am wrong. Good work Lauren, and I hope you and all my readers continue to call me out on my sloppy prose, if appropriate.

Now to get to the main body of the post. Reading through the posts in chronological order, I think you get a pretty good idea of my historical relationship with Aly & AJ and their music. I liked "Rush" right from the get go, but I immediately fought against liking Aly & AJ. Ultimately, I came to accept liking them more and more, until I stated that "Not This Year" was a contender for the best song of the year. (But still ranked it below "Sweet Temptation" at the time). I always knew that liking Alyson Michalka from Phil of the Future before I even knew of Aly & AJ gave me a different perspective on the band than others who just know their music have. I knew that, but tried to fight against it, trying to be an OBJECTIVE MUSIC CRITIC. That's the story you get from the writing above. And with all that, I still haven't written what I want to say about them. There's no band in 2006 that has made me think half as much as this band has.

There are three components to Aly & AJ's image: There are their lyrics, which are generally serious, either sad or happy, but never fun; there is their evangelical Christian, home-schooled, creationist, etc. image they portray in interviews and seem to be in real life; and there is the cute, fun loving, light-hearted image from their TV appearances. This third aspect to Aly & AJ is an important one that I think people who don't get to see them on TV may be missing. And it's why it is silly for me to try to separate out the music from the TV, because their music is made IN THE CONTEXT of their other two images.

So I have to respectfully disagree with Cure for Bedbugs (and with myself, because I repeated the sentiment a few times above). Aly & AJ are not any more serious, or more sad, or less fun than any other teen pop act out right now. They have a serious side, and they have a very fun and lighthearted side. But the fun and lighthearted side has yet to be reflected in the music. There's no reason for it to be, because they know that kids follow the entire careers of people they love. So most of the kids who are listening to Aly & AJ (and to be honest, that IS the target audience) have seen Phil of the Future and they've seen Cow Belles and whatnot. That's the outlet for their fun side. So viewed from the lens of the entire spectrum of their careers, they have the complete package in their image, of the serious and the fun. Which is why the A&A fans get all up in arms when people say they are too serious, because the music doesn't provide the full picture.

Not that this has or necessarily should have any relevance to criticism of their music specifically. But, this is what makes Aly & AJ really genius and what really separates them from their Disney brethren. In one of the earlier posts (and I didn't quote it because it was too embarrassing), I said what a lot of people have said, that what separates them from their Disney brethren is that they have actual talent: They cowrite their songs, are good singers, play guitar, etc. Eek, the legitimacy argument. But here's what really separates them. If you look at Hilary the singer, Hilary the actress, Hilary the public figure, they have taken great pains to make sure that all gibe with each other. They all represent individually the complete image of Hilary Duff. If you only know her for her music, or only know her for her acting, it's no different, you will get the same impression with her either way. Same with Hannah Montana, all 3 images flow right from each other. The one exception is Lindsay Lohan, who is similar to Aly & AJ in this respect, only not as extreme. And is Dave's EMP proposal trying to say that there IS one cohesive public image to Lohan, reflected in her music and public life? Maybe. But the difference with A&A is NIGHT AND DAY. If you only know Into the Rush or you only know the acting, you have a completely different perspective on them. Which is how, I think, Aly & AJ's image has been intentionally set up. Aly & AJ the singers, Aly & AJ the actresses, and Aly & AJ the public figures cannot and should not be taken apart and viewed and analyzed separately. Because you are missing a significant piece of the pie either way! But yet, they need to be viewed and analyzed separately, because each of the three have no relation at all to the others, and I think that's by design. But kids are obsessive, and by watching and following all 3, only then do you get an idea of the image that Aly & AJ are really trying to put forth. Like I said, I'm not sure what to think about them.

So yes, Aly & AJ are all about contrasts and contradictions. You've got fun and not fun. Super Christian, and just a normal teen wanting a boy. Nervous and uncomfortable, and completely confident in who they are and what they are doing. Deeply thoughtful, and just ready to party. Inspirational, and yet telling kids it's OK to be unhappy & sad. Joyful and sad. In some senses all 3 aspects of their careers are completely unconnected, and in other senses they are intimately connected. And that's how they want to be. So who are they anyways? I have no idea, they are complete enigmas, and that's what fascinates me about them so much. So how does this realization impact my thoughts/analysis on Acoustic Hearts of Winter and "Not This Year" in particular? I'm saving that for part 2, which will be posted later today or tomorrow.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there was some confusion about that EMP post -- the abstract I posted was by someone at last year's conference who didn't show. I was saying that mine is very much NOT like that.

I think you bring up a good point about the fan relationship to Aly being an integral part of their experience with it (as opposed to its zero influence on my experience), and I definitely think they have a light side -- and at least there's this postitivism running through almost all of their songs, even when that aspect stands in pretty stark contrast to the darker stuff. As far as them having a sense of humor...well, I (shortsightedly) thought of "Chemicals React" as a bad PUN ("make me feel outta my element," HAW) and didn't take it very seriously at all. And I still don't really connect to that song, especially compared to some of their other ones.

But I think they do have a unique strength in how they convey such a way that when they go positive, there's something ironic about it. Whereas I don't think their uniquely strong with more positive material, although there are exceptions, like "Greatest Time of Year" and "Shine."

I really want more Aly&AJ fans to comment on my blog for some back-and-forth. Lots of them have really interesting things to say about the group, usually coming from a perspective (Disney kid, Christian, etc.) that I don't really bring to the music.

5:21 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

I'm really glad to hear you say that re: the proposal because I was having a hard time understanding how anything good was going to come out of that.

Agree partially re: "Chemicals React" in that, while I do like the musicality of the song, the lyrics don't seem to fit into their persona/image in any meaningful context. Acc. to Wikipedia the song was written entirely by Aly and AJ though which is why the whole thing is so confusing to me.

As to their darkness v. lightness that will be explored more in pt 2. Though I disagree that there's anything ironic to their positive songs. Once again, I am naturally predisposed to seeing them in a positive light, due to POTF. Agreed re: the comments from Aly & AJ fans, which is almost what was the impetus for this post in the first place (vis a vis Lauren, whoa actually had intelligent comments on a lot more than just Aly & AJ).

8:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I think there's irony in the positive aspects of their darker songs, though I couldn't say whether or not it was intended (my guess is it wasn't).

12:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that there are three images to Aly and Aj. I also agree that there is definitely no way you can remove Keely’s personality from Aly. I think that Keely is the other side of Aly in real life. I agree that they both are awesome singers, but Aj is not an absolutely terrible actress; I just think she needs her big sis to give her some tips. I agree that Aly and Aj are the only singers that make you think about reality. I know that I can relate to some of their songs. I agree with what you said about the fans getting upset, and for this generation of kids I think that they songs might get them to stop and think about what is going on in life now. I understand “I Am One of Them” to its fullest understanding; it makes me think why do adults kidnap kids/teens? I mean they were their age to. I mean, yeah, of course their music can be a little depressing at times, but any singer can.
I just wish they did say a little more about Christianity if they say they are Christians. I don’t mean sing stuff like totally making it sound like they are shoving it into peoples faces but singing stuff like Relient K. I mean I always listen to that cd, and I never feel like I having a Bible thrown at my head. I mean I picked a brio magazine (Christian magazine for girls) up some place and they were on the front cover. They had a very interesting column. Then, a couple months later I picked up another one and it had a column of what the members thought of it. Three out of the five said that they were disappointed when they saw them on the cover. One said that her and her sister were disappointed to see them on the cover because they didn’t want to see two “Disney” girls on the cover of a Christian magazine. I, of course, disagreed with it.
I agree about “Chemicals React” that was not one of their best songs. I think they did an excellent job on “Collapsed”, “Something More”, “Shine”, and a couple of others. I couldn’t get their Christmas album so I can’t say anything about that cd, but I am sure it is worth your money. I mean even if it wasn’t; it would be to a fan.

7:29 PM  

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