Saturday, December 16, 2006

Why "Not This Year" Is My Favorite Song of 2006 (Part 2)

Subtitle: Why my previous review significantly underrated Acoustic Hearts of Winter.

Read Part 1 first, or else this won't make too much sense.

Day 10 of the TCR Christmas Extravaganza (this day has at least some relation to Christmas too!)

OK, now I want to explore how my previous statements on the image of Aly & AJ, and the inherent contradictions in their image reflect upon my analysis of their music. And since this is Christmas season, I'm going to apply it to Acoustic Hearts of Winter and, remember, this whole two part post is meant to explain why "Not This Year" is my favorite song of 2006, in what has been in my opinion an incredible year for singles.

OK, before I get into "Not This Year", I need to first get into "Greatest Time of Year", which is the opening track and single on AHOW. First, here are the lyrics to the song:

"It's the greatest time of year, and it's here
Help me celebrate it
With everybody here, friends so dear
Let me simply state it
It's our favourite way to spend the holiday

There's a special kind of feeling in the air
It only happens at this time of year
When everyone is filled with love and cheer
'Cause that's what matters
Pretty paper boxes tied with bows
Walking in the sun or in the snow
We can feel the excitement growing, growing

It's the greatest time of year, and it's here
Help me celebrate it
With everybody here, friends so dear
Let me simply state it
Joy to the world and everyone
Lift up your hearts and feel the love
It's our favourite way, to spend the holiday

We can get all cozy by the fire
Turn the music up a little higher
I don't think that I could ever tire
Of being together
Decorate the tree, hang mistletoe
And stand by me
It's a picture perfect moment captured
Memories that we'll have after"

After this it repeats the chorus a few times and fades out.

Clearly this song is extremely positive about Christmas, but what is it specifically that they love about Christmas? In keeping with the separate personas idea fleshed out in the last post, there is no religious content in this song at all, even though a majority of their covers are religious . Based on these lyrics, the reason why Christmas is "the greatest time of year" is your standard: traditions, being with family and friends, everybody being more living and nicer, etc., etc. But what, specifically is their favorite way to spend the holiday? That line still seems to come out of nowhere in the chorus, but I suppose they mean that they love spending the holiday with loving friends. Anyways, the key section of the song is "There's a special kind of feeling in the air/It only happens at this time of year/When everyone is filled with love and cheer/'Cause that's what matters". THIS is what matters, that everybody is filled with love and cheer. And presumably that's what they mean when they say it's the greatest time of year. Notice that they don't mention presents just "pretty paper boxes tied up in bows". So it's just the aesthetic feel of Christmas and the way it makes other people act that they love about the season so much. Listening to this song, you obviously get the idea that they love the Christmas season. The lyrics are maybe a bit hokey and unoriginal, but they seem to be good to me, and the performance totally sells them.

I'm not sure how this song fits into the overall catalogue of Aly & AJ's work. You have 3 basic categories of Aly & AJ songs: the religious (which play into their public persona, and include songs like "Shine" and "Never Far Behind"), the inspirational/positive, but still serious and not fun ("Rush", "No One") and the sad ("I Am One of Them", "Sticks and Stones"). This song and "Chemicals React" are in categories by themselves, seemingly outside their work as a whole. But, this song does, contrary to part 1 of this post, flow directly from their public image and acting work. It's just a fun song, and certainly the type of song you might expect an evangelical Christian to sing. It's not about the religious aspects of Christmas, but it's not about the materialistic aspects of Christmas either. And unlike the majority of "happy Christmas" songs in modern pop the song IS actually about Christmas and not a veiled love song. Great tune, and I think the only genuinely positive, fun, non-religious song in their catalogue. It's an explosion of joy the likes of which they haven't done before [edit: Other than the covers, the likes of which I usually ignore because they don't fit into their work as a whole. But the covers definitely flow from their acting image]. Still don't know how "Chemicals React" fits into all this.

All of which, I think, serves to give "Not This Year" even more punch. I did my analysis of this song in the previous post, but here's a new & more in depth one. First, the lyrics:

"This Christmas card is so contrived
A mannequin looks more alive
Haven't meant a word I've written here
The page is full not one thing sincere

I can't, I can't
I can't, I can't take it
This is the time to smile,
I can't fake it
Please allow me the chance now
To break it down

It's not snow, It's rain coming down
And the lights are cool,
But they burn out
And I can't pull off the cheer
Not this year
Not this year
Not this year
(end chorus)

When I look into the mirror
No happiness is present here
Not supposed to whine,
Not supposed to cry
Try to hold it in, but not this time


Don't know, don't know
If you can hear me
I will, I will
Speak louder for you

No more whispering
Are you listening
I am pleading
I am pleading


Unlike last time, let's assume this song is intended to be written and sung within the context of their other work, and analyze it based on that. This song does have the same slate of writers as "Greatest Time of Year", so this is not an unreasonable. So here we have some fun loving evangelical Christian girls, but with a really strong serious side. We have two girls who love the Christmas season, and everything that it stands for and all of the ways that it makes people feel. It makes people feel happy! and cheerful! and full of love! That's just who they are. But something is different this year....and what is it? Who knows, because it's never said. Maybe they just broke up with their boyfriend, or a family member died or whatever. I like to think it's just end of the year blues. A tough year, frustration and sadness have set in, you don't like the direction your life is headed in, who knows. The point is, this year they aren't feeling it.

And there they are writing Christmas cards, writing your standard platitudes about what a great year it's been, how happy they are, how they hope you have a happy Christmas, when suddenly they realize: I'm not feeling the Christmas cheer! They are just going through the motions and pretending to be happy. And all of this pretending is giving them stress, plus seeing everybody else so happy is just making them spiral further and further into depression. They've hit the breaking point. They're ready to break down and they can't handle putting up a front any more, they just want to scream out and cry. The pre-chorus states this excellently: "I can't, I can't I can't, I can't take it This is the time to smile, I can't fake it Please allow me the chance now To break it down". They just can't keep it up. And they can still appreciate all of the great beauty of Christmas that they sang so joyfully about in "Greatest Time of Year": "And the lights are cool," but they still have the knowledge in them deep inside that after Christmas, after all the joy and the beauty and the peace, they are still back in their misery. They can't put this off forever, and the pain will return: "But they burn out". The knowledge and dread of which can be worse than the actual feeling! This is somebody who desparately WANTS to be caught up in the Christmas season but just can't do it because of the knowledge of the sad things in their life. They are looking in the mirror, trying to salvage any semblance of happiness to exploit upon. Any nugget they can build on.

The real question is, who is this song spoken to. They only break into the "you" one time in the whole song (well three times, but they are all in the same part): "Don't know, don't know If you can hear me I will, I will Speak louder for you No more whispering Are you listening I am pleading I am pleading". This is a heartbreaking part of the song. And I think one of the things that really makes it extra affecting is that despite oblique references throughout the song to people who are forcing them or expecting them to be happy, this is the one time the person is directly referenced. I normally don't like "you" heavy songs, but "Are YOU listening" is just great. But seriously, they've tried pretending and beating around the bush but the "you" just isn't getting it. They need to just scream it out "I'M NOT HAPPY AND REFUSE TO PRETEND TO BE JUST BECAUSE IT'S CHRISTMAS. PRETENDING JUST MAKES IT ALL THAT HARD WHEN I REMEMBER THE SADNESS WILL RETURN POST CHRISTMAS." And I don't interpret the pleading as literal begging, but just the silent desparation that seems to characterize this song. This is somebody who really doesn't want to rock the boat. Who doesn't want to ruin everybody's Christmas by saying that she can't get into this year. It's a quiet pain that she's been suffering, and she's just begging to be let free of it. But she can't just sit down and cry and scream, she just needs to silently beg, through her feelings and actions for her to be let off the hook. So when this part of the song seems to imply there's been some sort of resistance to her sadness at Christmas time, I interpret the resistance as being primarily internal, projected out to whoever is the subject of the song. Because nowhere else in the song is it stated anybody is giving her grief.

So let's return to the question of who "you" is. It's pretty clearly not God, despite the girl's other Christian output, based on the lyrics. At least not by the interpretation that I'm choosing here. This is somebody who is forcing them or pressuring them or otherwise expecting them to be happy at Christmas time. My first thought was their parents, but this kind of rebellion seems unbecoming of Aly & AJ and anyways I don't find that intepretation particularly satisfying. I would like to submit that the "you" is not any one person in particular but is society as a whole and the pro-Christmas season. You can hardly watch TV without seeing a commercial for some saccharine Christmas special, listen to the radio without hearing stations dedicated to Christmas music (we're up to at least 4 stations in Atlanta) or go shopping without seeing Christmas decorations and hearing that sappy Christmas music piped over the store speakers. It's a bombardment of forced joy, the likes of which can magnify any sadness, and which is obviously unstoppable. Society expects you to be happy at Christmas and there's nothing you can do but put up your front until you just completely break down.

This is a song about the self-perpetuating cycle of sadness at Christmas, sung from the perspective of somebody who has a deep love for the holiday. It's an inherently Christmas song, but an inherently human song too. I know I've been there before. Aly & AJ songs can have great lyrics, and this one has the best, but I think that when you view it kaleidoscopically through the lens of all the various contradictions of their public image, it brings a lot more depth to the sadder songs. The sad songs are given an extra punch by the evangelical Christianity, and the fun persona they put on by acting, and the inspirational rah-rah songs. These are people who desparately want to be good role models for kids, and who desparately want to have a good time, but who are also attuned to the sadness in the world. Compared to this song, the other songs I've loved this year seem shallow and silly. It has an amazing, catchy melody, good music, and a GREAT singing performance by the girls. Their performance is what really sells the lyrics. Anybody who thinks that pop music is incapable of the kind of depth that rock and indie can have needs to listen to the recorded output of this band (and Ashlee too of course).

I find myself agreeing with Frank Kogan that these are the best artist of 2006 by far. I was wrong, Aly & AJ ARE great singers, both of them, at least on their recorded output. Still unsure about the live stuff I've heard. Aly & AJ released a grand total of 4 new original songs this year: "Greatest Time of Year", "Not This Year", "Chemicals React", and "Shine". They put out one album which isn't in my top 20 of the year, though it is better than I originally gave it credit for and isn't too far away. But I can't think of anybody else, not even Ashlee or Lindsay in my opinion, who have done more in a 12 month period to demonstrate and legitimize that teen pop can have just as much depth as any other genre of music. And not just hrough their lyrics, but through their acting, their interviews, their overall public image. Like I said, they are a mess of contradictions, but I love them.

And THAT's why "Not This Year" is my favorite song of 2006.

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