Young at Heart Choir, "Fix You"
The Zimmers, "My Generation"
Last year, the Young @ Heart Chorus out of Northampton, Mass., stirred a minor Internet sensation when a performance video was posted to YouTube. Young @ Heart's members are all senior citizens, ages 71 to 93, and their repertoire consists entirely of rock-era songs. The YouTube hit was a version of Coldplay's "Fix You"—the group has sung everything from "You Can't Always Get What You Want" to "Hey Ya." It sounds like a gimmick, and a cheap one at that, but the "Fix You" clip was extraordinary, not least because of the grave, graceful lead vocal performance by chorus member Fred Knittle, who has a heart condition and sang with a breathing tube attached to his nose. Adding to the poignancy was the fact that the song was originally a duet with another Young @ Heart member, Bob Salvini, who died shortly before the performance. But Knittle and company completely transcended kitsch, as well as the insipidities of Chris Martin's lyric. Young @ Heart's "Fix You" is touching and dignified. Most importantly, it's a fine piece of music.
Well, you know the pop music calculus: One hit act begets a thousand lesser imitators. Thus, we find ourselves in the midst of history's first Geriatric Cover Band boomlet. In England, where Young @ Heart has toured extensively and the documentary in which the YouTube clip originated first aired on television, the BBC assembled its own elderly choir, the Zimmers—so named for the Zimmer frame, the British term for a walker. (Har de har har.) That's right, for a documentary, the BBC built the group from scratch: The Zimmers are the Monkees of Codger Rock. The group's first single, currently No. 26 on the U.K. pop charts, is about as cheap as novelty songs get: a version of "My Generation," the "Hope I die before I get old" song. Get it, get it? In the Zimmers' video, we see lingering shots of canes tapping, toothless men singing "People try to put us down/ Just because we get around," a phalanx of elderly women attempting to smash guitars a la Pete Townshend, a geezer kicking over his drum kit. (No Depends cameos or pacemaker montages—gotta save something for the next single.) The video concludes with 100-year-old Buster Martin, the group's oldest member, flipping the bird to the camera, a coup de grâce that must have inspired all sorts of back-clapping hilarity when the thirtysomethings behind the Zimmers dreamt it up over pints in a Notting Hill gastropub.
The Zimmers may strike many as funny precisely because their big, broad joke hits too close to home. Within three years, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry themselves will be senior citizens, and when the Rolling Stones next play Wembley Stadium, there's likely to be a major Zimmer-frame traffic pileup at the turnstiles. Rock-era hits are indeed entering the song standard canon—soon, assisted living facilities across the land will ring with the sound of old folks unironically singing the Who and other songs of their youth. For the time being, my geezers of choice are Young @ Heart, whose rendition of Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia" proves it's possible for octogenarian "rockers" to be funny without humiliating themselves. Then again, Young @ Heart is not above going for cheap yuks: Just check out the wheelchair- and hospital-gurney-packed video for "I Wanna Be Sedated." Pop oldsploitation may well be here to stay. Me, I hope I die before I end up on YouTube.
Shop Boyz, "Party Like a Rockstar"
R. Kelly featuring Ludacris and Kid Rock, "Rock Star"
In 2007, who's a rock star? If Soundscan figures are any guide, Chris Daughtry may be the only one left. But if actual rock stars are scarce, the term hasn't lost its cachet. It's the year's hottest buzzword—in hip-hop. First came "Party Like a Rockstar," the smash hit (currently No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100) by Atlanta rappers Shop Boyz. And now there's "Rock Star," a raucous and (surprise!) debauched song on R. Kelly's new album Double-Up, with guest-rapping by Ludacris and guest-caterwauling by Kid Rock. Shop Boyz offer a vision of rock stardom on the Southern California-Tommy Lee model, with lyrical references to "skull belts," "wallet chains," and having sex with Pamela Anderson, plus a refrain that goes "Tut-tut-tut-totally, dude." R. Kelly is less ethnographically precise: For him, partying like a rock star involves sex, plain and simple, to the accompaniment of menacing electric guitars—the rock part.
What's fascinating in these songs aren't the "texts" (such as they are), but the subtext. It's impossible to miss the note of triumphalism, the idea that rappers and R&B singers are today's real rock stars. (Over the opening bars of the "Party Like a Rockstar" remix, producer Lil Jon crows: "Now, ladies and gentlemen, we are no longer rap stars. We are rock stars.") But the deeper impulse may be a desire to break free of hip-hop's own stylistic conventions—musical (loud guitars instead of blippy beats), sartorial (skull belts instead of bling), gesticular (metal horns instead of gang signs). Are rappers and R&B singers wearying of hip-hop's cult of cool, and longing to "rock out," like the goofy white folks slam-dancing in the "Party Like a Rockstar" video? (C.f. hyphy.) Both Shop Boyz and R. Kelly fantasize about hurling their bodies into heaving mosh pits. "I'm jumpin' in the crowd just to see if they would carry me," Shop Boyz rap. Kelly sings, "Rockin' to this guitar's about to have me crowd-surfin'"—a line which, being R. Kelly, he rhymes with "I'm tellin' you now, the way we fuck gon' lead to childbirthin'."
Manu Chao, "Rainin' in Paradize"
It's been a long wait for fans of Manu Chao, the globe-trotting, polylingual, politically engagé French-Spanish singer-songwriter who is one of planet Earth's biggest and most reliably exciting pop stars. Chao's last official studio album was released three months before the Sept. 11 attacks; this summer, we're told, will bring a new album, La Radiolina. In the meantime, there's a single, "Rainin' in Paradize," streaming and available for free download at Chao's Web site. Predictably, the song surveys the chaos of the 9/11 world, zipping between global flashpoints ("In Fallujah/ Too much calamity … In Monrovia/ This no good place to be"), with a cryptic (to me, at least) refrain: "Go Maasai, go Maasai/ Be mellow/ Go Maasai, go Maasai/ Be sharp." "Rainin' in Paradize" opens with a wailing siren, a typical move for the sample-happy Chao, but the song kicks in with a surprising sound: A rock downbeat has replaced the airy reggae pulse heard in almost all of Chao's solo work, and languid guitar strumming has given way to scrabbling solos. It's a return to roots—Chao began his career fronting the fierce Paris punk band Mano Negra—and it's thematically appropriate: Chao's state of emergency declaration requires a more insistent beat. There must be an agenda behind Chao's use of English, in the past the least favored of his several tongues (Spanish, French, Portuguese): to reach the Anglophone audience that has, for the most part, eluded him, and to bend certain ears in Washington, D.C. Don't miss the "Rainin' in Paradize" video, with beautiful, day-glo-bright animation by Polish artist Wozniak.
Miranda Lambert, "Famous in a Small Town"
"I was born in a small town/ And I can breathe in a small town," sang John Cougar Mellencamp in 1985. But country singer Miranda Lambert knows you can't breathe in a small town, or do much of anything, without your in-laws blabbing about it to the neighbors. Lambert is the toughest-minded country star to emerge in a long time, and her latest single, "Famous in a Small Town," is a funny, demythologizing look at life in the sticks—an antidote to the mushy odes to Palookaville that pour out of Nashville. Like all the music on Lambert's second album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, "Famous" sounds great, with a rugged, ringing lead vocal and an arrangement that tilts toward rock, as electric guitars bash out minor chords atop some very loud drumming. The lyric is slippery. Lambert sings: "Who needs their faces in a magazine?/ Me and you, we've been stars of the town since we were 17." But is that a good thing? "Whether you're late for church or you're stuck in jail/ Hey, word's gonna get around," she sings. In Lambert's claustrophobic small town, all eyes are on you, and all eyes are prying.