The mystery of pop surrounds us

I realised that amid all the hoo-ha surrounding NZ Idol Michael Murphy’s debut single “So Damn Beautiful,” I hadn’t actually heard the song. So I popped along to my local purveyor of quality music and picked up a copy of the CD.

Evidence:

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I listened to it a few times, and then realised that it wasn’t actually a bad song. Well, it’s not up there with such recent magnificent pop tunes as Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, Rachel Stevens’ “Sweet Dreams My LA Ex” or Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body”, but it’s not complete rubbish either.

“So damn beautiful” is about a guy who wants a picture of his girlfriend so he can remember her when she’s away (Where? The army? On the evening shift at Burger King?).

Thematically it reminds me a little of two top-five singles, The Who’s “Pictures of Lily” and The Vapors’ “Turning Japanese”, but both those songs were more about using the photos as masturbation aids, whereas I think “So damn beautiful” seems to be more about reaffirming the girl’s self-esteem.

She sounds like the kind of chick who doesn’t believe her boyfriend when he tells her that how beautiful she is, and probably doesn’t want her photo taken because she thinks she’s an ugly ho-dog. So the dude is determined to let her see how beautiful he finds her to be. Awww, isn’t that sweet? (Yes, it is.)

The mystery of life, and other hidden depths.

0.00 The song starts with a deep note that quickly fades up, reminiscent of REM’s “Star Me Kitten” or even Bongwater’s “Folk Song”. It’s a somewhat unconventional start for a pop song.

0.03 Some acoustic guitar and rhythm suddenly comes in along with some mid-90s-style guitar, like that in the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Rhinoceros” or Collective Soul’s “Shine”.

0.14 The vocals start, but sound a little muffled. Funnily enough, the pictures of Michael on the CD liner make him look like his mouth is a little swollen, like he’s had recent dental work. How peculiar that he starts out sounding like that too.

0.17 Whoa, suddenly things get a little bit exciting with both double-tracked vocals and a burst of fuzzy electric guitar. Excuse me. It’s time to put my bopping trousers on.

0.21 Some really satisfying cymbal crashes can be heard. Not many pop songs utilise the cymbal. It works here. Giz some treble.

0.24 Things get quiet again (Hey, loudness then quietness – just like the Pixies, or Nirvana).

0.28 Roll over Beethoven, etc. It’s loud and guitarry and double-tracked again!

0.32 It’s time for the bridge and it’s keeping that bad-boy rock vibe going quite nicely, thank you, Vicar.

0.36 At this point a slowly swelling string quartet can be heard bluntly underscoring the emotion of the bridge. There’s something that he wants to tell you, girl, and that violin means he’s serious, dammit.

0.44 “…for yooooooooou-ugh!”

0.45 Behold, the mighty chorus.

0.46 Behold, the American vowels: “I’m takin’ yur picha so I don’t forget cha.”

1.02 “You’re so damn beautiful,” he sings with absolute gusto.

1.06 The Pumpkins guitar is back and things get quieter. This time the title line is repeated, but in quiet, drawn-out tones: “You’re so-o da-amn beautifaaal”

1.16 Suddenly things get really quiet. Yes, that’s right – it’s an a capella bit. This is the special bit where anyone who dares to throw the “glorified karaoke” label at Michael can go and get stuffed. Unfortunately the lyrics showcased in this part are, “the mystery of life surrounds you,” which has to be one of the worst pop lyrics ever. Fortunately the a cappella bit makes up for the awful lyrics.

1.20 But the only a capella pop song to have any level of success in the pop charts was “Don’t Worry Be Happy” back in 1988, so the crunchy guitar (but not big and crunchy, because this is pop, not rock, and we don’t want to scare the grandmas) comes back to gently nudge (not kick) some arse.

1.27 Then it’s time for another quiet moment, but this time Michael is accompanied by a pretty, wistful bit of guitar, not unlike Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” or the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the bridge.”

1.31 The Pumpkiny guitar is back again, as are those double-tracked vocals.

1.35 And it’s time for the second bridge, again with the sincerer-than-thou string accompaniment. When he sings “I’m dying to have you right here” the “right here” part is magically harmonised with his own vocals, just to emphasise that he wants you right here, not some other place in the space-time continuum.

1.48 Behold, the mighty chorus, again.

1.51 Michael sings the line “so I don’t forget you” to sound like “so why don’t forget cha?” Why indeed?

1.59 The second part of this chorus has Michael doing his own backing vocals, and sounding very urgent and/or constipated in the process.

2.06 The chorus ends and suddenly things get very subdued: “You’re so damn beautifuuuuuu-uhl… Yes, you are.” This can only mean one thing: it’s time for the middle-eight. Yes, it is.

2.13 It’s more of the wistful guitar as Michael contemplates what it would be like, “if I were to lose you.”

2.29 Evoking the “Whoa-oh-oh” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s “Don’t dream it, be it” or the “Hey, hey, hey. That’s what I say” from the Rolling Stone’s “Satisfaction, Michael sings that he only needs one one look “to get by-hi-hi-hi.”

2.34 It’s another semi-a capella moment, with the vocals sung over the top of quiet, strummed electric guitar. There’s a curious little Beach Boys quality to the close vocal harmony here.

2.39 Behold the mighty chorus, yet again.

2.55 The song goes up an octave! The crowd goes wild, etc. Jumping up an octave is an old pop production trick and is a cheap, cheesy trick at that. That probably make this the lowest point of the song, but actually, I think it may also be the highest point, too.

3.06 With the strings sounding very urgent and very, “weep, dammit,” Michael sings, “so I can re-me-em-baaa”

3.12 It’s the melancholic chorus end again: “Cos yur so damn beautifuuu-uhl”

3.22 With only quiet piano, like the Carpenter’s “We’ve only just begun” or John Lennon’s “Imagine”, Michael quietly asks, “So don’t you know how pretty you are?” It’s sung in a really sweet voice, but he puts a slight growl on “you”, as if to reassert his rock roots over his pop career.

3.34 It’s said that the perfect pop song is three minutes and 33 seconds long. This one raises a middle finger to convention and clocks in at one second over. How punk is that, huh?

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