All I want for Christmas is [_______]

All I want for Christmas is [_____]
All I want for Christmas is a giant bedazzled green triangle
Five days before Christmas (and one day before the end of the world) I went to The Base, the mega mall on the outskirts of Hamilton that’s played a significant part in sucking the life out of downtown Hamilton, which is such a mid-20th-century thing to do. So retro.

Anyway, it was right in the middle of the pre-Christmas crazy period, when the stress starts with finding a car park and ends with wondering what sort of consolation present makes up for not being able to buy an iPad Mini as they’re all sold out. Not that such issues plagued me, but I like to empathise with the middle-classes, etc.

My issue was the music. As to be expected, Christmas songs were on high rotate. But here’s the thing – I heard four different versions of “All I Want For Christmas Is You”. At one point, I could position myself near the bath bomb selection of Lush and simultaneously hear the Michael Buble version in the store and the original Mariah version in the main mall. It even followed me outside, with a third version playing on the PA in the car park, and another one aurally ruffling me as I passed by a shop.

“All I Want For Christmas Is You” is a great song. As a gift of the ’90s, it’s a far better contribution to Christmas pop than anything the ’60s or ’70s managed. But when it’s coming at me as a quadrophonic retail extravaganza, this does not lead to a pleasing experience.

But here’s the thing. I wasn’t at the mall to buy Christmas presents, but yet I found myself getting a $2 bag of candy canes because it felt like the correct seasonal thing to do. Ach, Mariah – you’ve sucked me into your vortex of glad tidings and good pop.

The passing of time and all of its crimes

A few months ago I learned a new term – heritage rock. It’s the business of old bands who still tour and sell their back catalogue and make a decent sum decades after their initial burst of youthful creativity and success. (I also discovered that heritage rock sounds like a diss, possibly to people who still think Pavement are young, cutting-edge dudes and don’t like the memento mori implications that things have changed.)

So I’ve been thinking about old Morrissey. He’s playing in Auckland tonight. I thought about going because, you know, I really like Morrissey, particularly for the Smiths years. I was thrilled to see Johnny Marr perform as part of Neil Finn’s Seven Worlds rockstravaganza back in ’01, but somehow that enthusiasm hasn’t transferred to 2012. You know what’s changed? I’m older; I’m tireder.

I noticed this in others. The last-minute ticket-for-sale tweets from people who’d excitedly bought Morrissey tickets months ago, but then along comes the week before the concert. It’s December. Work is wrapping up. There are Christmas parties to attend. There’s Christmas stuff to organise. Holidays to plan. Oh God, there’s so much stuff. And then a tweet would appear offering two Morrissey tickets, at face value, because we would love to go but we are so very very tired.

And that’s the terrible thing. When you’re older, you can easily afford the concert tickets, but suddenly going out becomes this ordeal. Tiredness kicks in and even after half an hour, the most uplifting of pop concerts starts to feel like an epic three-hour prog rock torture fest. It’s a lot easier listening to Moz at home, where it’s ok if you doze off mid-miserable.

From the comfort and privacy of my couch, I was looking for some video clips of last night’s Wellington concert. I found a couple, but they had pretty crunchy sound – not what I’ve come to expect from the modern world of concert vids. But instead here’s a rather good quality vid from Moz’s previous New Zealand concert 21 years ago, back in the time where there was youthful energy.

X marks the spot

The X Factor New Zealand has a FAQ. One question asks…

How will The X Factor winner be distinguished from other talent contest winners?

The music industry has changed since the days of shows such as NZ Idol.

Winners of The X Factor have long-running international careers – think Reece Mastin, Stan Walker, One Direction, Guy Sebastian and Chris Rene etc.

Simon Cowell has been developing this talent show format for years; The X Factor is the result of everything he’s learned from earlier formats.

So X Factor NZ is getting it straight: if you win the X Factor, you won’t end up like Michael Murphy, working in road gang, wearing a high-viz vest.

But let’s take a closer look at their hall of fame. Yes, Reece Mastin won his year in Australian X Factor, but One Direction only came third in the UK X Factor. Chris Rene also came third on the US X Factor, but has only enjoyed major chart success in New Zealand (weird, huh?) Guy Sebastian wasn’t even an X Factor contestant – he won the first series of Australian Idol (so ’00s) and was only on the X Factor as a judge. Ditto for Stan Walker – he won the final series of Australian Idol but is on the X Factor NZ as a judge.

For every one of these high-profile success stories, there are the winners who don’t do so well – like Matt Cardle, Random, Leon Jackson, Altiyan Childs and ol’ misery guts Steve Brookstein.

Then there are the ones who don’t win the X Factor still but manage to forge a decent showbiz career from (or in spite of) their X Factor experience, like Olly Murs, Cher Lloyd or my beloved Jedward. And I’m keeping an eye on the extravagant Rylan from the latest UK series.

That’s what makes a series of X Factor work – it’s not just the brilliant singers who deliver every week, it’s also the battlers and the weirdos, the ones who can’t cruise through on talent alone. And that’s why they call it the X Factor.

Euro neuro

It’s hard being a New Zealand fan of Eurovision. I’ve been interested in the annual competitive songstravaganza since 2003 when UK entry Gemini infamously scored nil points for their song “Cry Baby”. But I was born in distant 1974, the year that Swedish Abba won with “Waterloo”, one of the greatest pop songs ever written. And I’ve grown up with snippets of Eurovision filtering through to New Zealand – a bit of “Making Your Mind Up”, some “Hard Rock Hallelujah”, but hopefully not that Cliff Richard song.

The trouble is, Eurovision doesn’t doesn’t screen on the telly here any more. Triangle Stratos did screen it for a while, but since it switched off last year, there is – as far as I can tell – no New Zealand broadcaster for one of the greatest shows in the world. Even Australia does it properly, with a dedicated broadcast on SBS, complete with local commentary and an informal vote for Australia’s favourites.

Fortunately the internet has made it possible for a lone New Zealander to join in the fun. This year the Eurovision experience started for me in around February, with the national selection competitions all around Europe, all of which were available to watch online. The biggest of these is Sweden’s Melodifestivalen, accurately described as a cross between the Olympics and American Idol, only bigger.

Soon the line-up took shape and a couple of weeks ago, the 42 entrants headed to Baku, Azerbaijan to rehearse, rehearse, rehease and reduce that initial group of 42 down to 26 via the semi-finals.

There are serious contenders (Loreen from Sweden with “Euphoria”. Sweden, of course, being to pop what New Zealand is to rugby), the show-stopping novelties (Buranovskiye Babushki, a group of Russian grannies who just wanted to fundraise to rebuild their local church that Stalin knocked down 70 years ago), and of course the Eurovision staple, the OMGWTF songs.

In a way, it’s the crazy entries that are the most fun. They don’t tend to make it through the semi-finals, but they get a few moments of fame and subsequent YouTube immortality. One of my faves this year was Rambo Amadeaus, the Montenegrin jazz poet whose song “Euro Neuro” was a direct commentary on the eurozone crisis – “Monetary breakdance! Give me chance to refinance!”. And there’s San Marino songstress Valentina Monetta, with “The Social Network Song (Oh Oh – Uh – Oh Oh)”, originally titled “Facebook Uh, Oh, Oh” until Eurovision rules on commercialism required a rewrite, but fortunately this didn’t affect the lyric “If you wanna come to my house then click me with your mouse.”

In the middle of all this are the quite-good entries. I was delighted to discover Israel’s entry Izabo, with their song “Time”. They’re a cool indie band with ’70s funk, psychedelic rock and Middle-Eastern flavours. “Time”, with its English verses and falsetto Hebrew chorus, wasn’t serious enough to get the serious votes nor weird enough to get the novelty vote and so missed out on the final. But still, I’ve delved into their previous albums and have a new favourite band.

But the talented underachivers of the semi-finals don’t matter. What counts is the 26 finalists, who’ll battle it out for supremecy at the final on Saturday night. I have my faves. There’s Italy’s stylish swing, the highly danceable tune from Cyprus, Ireland’s explosive pop charms, Moldova’s musical romp and Iceland’s dramatic duet.

Eurovision was created in 1956, less than a decade after the end of World War II. Like the Family of Man photography exhibition, it was an attempt to bring people together, to help ensure there’d never be another world war again. Has it worked? Yeah, sort of.

Politics still skims around the edges. It’s doubtful that Eleftheria Eleftheriou will do well for Greece this year, no matter how seductively she sings “You make me want your aphrodisiac.” There are always accusations of political bloc voting, but I figure that’s no more remarkable than how Australian pop does well in New Zealand. Neighbouring countries tend to be more culturally similar than distant countries.

Since the fall of communism, Eastern European countries came flooding into Eurovision. And here’s the interesting thing – due to the policies of their communist governments, a lot of those countries didn’t grow up listening to the same pop music that Western Europe did. No Elvis, no Beatles, no Abba, no Duran Duran. So today, popular music in those countries tends to be a mash-up of current Western trends and more traditional Eastern sounds. Try writing a song that ticks those boxes and will still appeal to Dutch grandmas.

Eurovision is mainly ignored by the New Zeaaland media. If it gets a mention, it’s either of the “Look at these wacky Europeanz!!!” weird news variety, focusing only on the crazy; or – like the BBC report that One News screened on Friday – it’s a sombre look at the impact of the Azerbaijani political situation on hosting Eurovision this year. But coverage of Eurovision never seems to make it in the regular entertainment news section.

So instead I make my own Eurovision experience. I’ve been watching footage of rehearsals in Baku courtesy of Eurovision bloggers, I’ve watched live streams of the thrilling semi-finals from the Eurovision website, and I’ll be waking up far too early for a Sunday to watch the epic live final, ready for some quality televisual entertainment.

Smashed

smash-hits
This is a page from Australian Smash Hits magazine, as reproduced in the book “Pop Life: Inside Smash Hits Australia 1984-2007” along with the “David lies about his age” annotation. I remember this page well. It was published in around 1987, which would have made lying journalist David Nichols about 15 years old, had he really been born in 1972. That made him only a few years older than me, and I thought, “Crap, if it’s normal for 15-year-olds to be features editors at pop magazines, I’d better hurry up and get really good at writing so I don’t miss out.” A while later I realised he was a lying liar and that he was probably closer to 25 than 15, but it actually did me good, inspiring me to delve deeper into the world of pop.

‘N Sync’s “Celebrity” – 10 years later

Hey, you!

What, me?

Yeah, I’m talking to you, sassy girl.”

*blushes*

Need a little achh! in your step? Try this on for size. It’s Pop and it tastes great and it makes you feel kinda funny. Not here [points to head], not down there [points downwards], but all up in this area [gestures to the general chest region]. And coming July 24th 2001, Jumbo Pop!

That’s the intro of ‘N Sync’s “Pop” video, where a Max Headroom-esque Justin Timberlake suddenly appears on the flatscreen TV in a cereal-eating sassy girl’s living room. The Pop in question is an orange fizzy beverage presented in a round-bottom flask. But the pop is also the music on ‘N Sync’s third and final studio album “Celebrity” which was indeed released on Tuesday 24 July 2001.

It went five times platinum in the US. That sounds impressive, but ‘N Sync’s previous album “No Strings Attached” went 11x platinum, and their debut album (which wasn’t even all that good) went 10x platinum.

But it sales aside, it’s a good place to draw a line. It was released only a few months before 9/11, and it also seemed to represent the last gasp of the millennium giddiness, before we all had to settle down and get a bit serious for the next decade. How did this final album of Justin, JC, Joey, Lance and Chris hold up over the passing decade?

And “Celebrity” is one of my fave albums, and it got my through some tough times, man. So as it’s the 10th anniversary of the album, I though it was about time to look back and do a track-by-track.

1. Pop

In which ‘N Sync want some respect.

First, it’s not just pop, it’s dirty pop. ‘N Sync are quick to establish that they aren’t the squeaky clean teen pop idols of 1998. They’re not talking the NKOTB route and dressing up in leather, trying to pretend they’re street hoodlums. No, ‘N Sync still fully own that they are a vocal harmony band with fresh dance moves. But they’d just like a little respect, ok?

The chorus triumphantly unites:

Do you ever wonder why this music gets you high?
It takes you on a ride.
You feel it when your body starts to rock, and, baby, you can’t stop.
When the music’s all you got, this must be pop.

That’s what it is. When you listen to pop because a good pop song feels good. It is better than sex, better than drugs and better than rock ‘n’ roll.

But then the song hits the breaks and Justin says, “Man, I’m tired of singing.” This was originally just the intro for – gasp – Justin’s beatbox solo, but now it takes on another meaning. Because Justin is tired of singing. His last solo album was released in 2006, and he’s now moved on to acting.

If you want to look for other signs of impending doom, they’re there. “The thing you got to realise, what we’re doing is not a trend. We got the gift of melody, we’re gonna bring it till the end.” No, Justin, what you were doing was just a trend. Though it is true that ‘N Sync brought it till the end. “Celebrity” had only a couple of dud tracks, and is a fine album to unintentionally go out with.

And then there’s the other sign of doom – it’s a Justin and JC sung track, written by Justin and his Australian choreographer. It’s produced to let Justin and JC’s voices stand out, with the rest of the group sounding more like session singers brought in for a few oohs.

But here’s the thing, despite all that has happened since, it’s still a great pop track. It’s danceable and uplifting and full of slices of club music and other bits of the late ’90s that didn’t usually make it to the top of the charts. And it’s a great opening track for the album.

2. Celebrity

In which ‘N Sync grow weary of this world.

“Write what you know,” they say. So Robyn writes about ‘N Sync and ‘N Sync write about being celebrities.

It’s hard out there when you’re a famous pop star and your girlfriend isn’t. Although, it’s a Justin-penned track and at the time he was very famously in relationship with Britney Spears, who enjoyed equal levels of celebrity to her fellow ex-Mouseketeer.

If I wasn’t a celebrity would you be so nice to me?
If I didn’t have cheese, like, every day, would you still wanna be with me?

The first time I heard this song, I didn’t know that cheese was slang for money, so I imagined ‘N Sync were talking about actual cheese. I imagine Lance frolicking with a giant wheel of gouda, when suddenly hordes of screaming teens run after him, making him frantically roll the cheese wheel down the street to make getaway.

Like in “Pop”, Justin takes the first verse and JC takes the second one. But JC gets the best bit – “See, it would be different if you had something, maybe like a J-O-B”. Only the “J-O-B” bit is sung a cappella with the full group harmonising on it. Because that is their J-O-B.

The song sounds quite bitter, with the protagonist vowing to leave Ms Golddigger and find someone who will “love me for me”. The song is a little bit of a middle finger to all of ‘N Sync’s nutso fans, who blindly vow their love for the band, but it also reveals a weak point of self-esteem among the lads. What if the girl answered, “Yes, I’d still want to be with you because you’re not a horrible person and I enjoy being with you”?

3. The Game Is Over

In which ‘N Sync do not achieve the high score.

“The Game Is Over” is a JC song, so he also gets to sing lead vocal first. But that’s not the best thing. The song is super cool because it samples bits of the Pacman theme. It’s chipcore years before all the cool kids were into it. (But, ok, Yellow Magic Orchestra fully got there first back in 1978 with “Computer Games“.)

And the video game samples are effective. ‘N Sync are the generation who grew up playing spacies. It makes perfect sense to extend the “game over” of a false-hearted lover’s betrayal into the same sense of loss one feels when the ghosts get Pacman.

“The Game Is Over” also works as a counterpoint to JC’s other technology-themed song “Digital Getdown” from ‘N Sync’s previous album “No Strings Attached”. “Digital Get Down” was a celebration of cyber sex, which was a fairly awesome thing for a pop group to be singing about in 2000.

But “The Game Is Over” is angry. “How could you think that you could do me like that,” JC spits, and his posse is right behind him. “You played yourself!”

If one wants to get Freudian here, one can look at the sexual parallels of the coin in the video game slot. In ‘N Sync’s live tour, they dressed up Tron-style versus an army of fembot types. But in reality, it’s more about a lone dude in a T-shirt and Levis, angrily battling away at a video game cos he’s just found out his girlfriend’s been rooting around.

4. Girlfriend

In which ‘N Sync try to peer pressure you in to being their girlfriend.

Why don’t you be my girlfriend?
I’ll treat you good.
I know you hear your friends when they say you should.

Every girl wants to be wanted, and this song is the voice of a guy who wants a girl. Let’s take a moment to luxuriate in the fantasy of “Girlfriend”. Let’s say you’re a girl and you have a crush on Justin or JC (or Joey, Chris or even Lance). You know realistically there’s no way that Mr Timberlake will be your boyfriend, but maybe if you got to meet him backstage at an ‘N Sync concert you could convince him.

“Girlfriend” turns it around. Rather than you having to seduce/beguile/drug your favourite ‘N Sync into loving you, there he is trying to convince you to be his girlfriend with song.

The song is written by the Neptunes, with plenty of their trademark staccato sound. Kids, that was back when the Neptunes wrote and produced songs, rather than Pharrell making Qream, that weird low-calorie cream liqueur for the ladies.

There’s a slightly sexed-up remix of the song, with Nelly showing up for a guest rap. That and the video (gangs, drag races, go Greased Lightning) show that ‘N Sync were continuing with the slightly toughed-up image.

“Girlfriend” was their final single off “Celebrity”, and it was the first single released after 9/11, five months after the event. It makes sense that in the confused post-9/11 world, they’d want to harden up a little.

But sometimes you just want a boy to want you to be his girlfriend.

5. The Two of Us

In which ‘N Sync just can’t get you out of their head.

Romantic obsession, it’s quite fun, yeah? The song starts with some sweet harpsichord-style keyboard, not unlike that of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, before stuttering to life with some tasty beats.

The song treads a fine line between the romantic and the sexual. The song works as the story of a man waiting for his new girlfriend to come home so they can stay up late watching DVDs and eating chips or he’s waiting for his girl to come home to they can have sex all night long.

“I always wanted to tell you,” Justin sings, “but I was so afraid.” Now he’s made that big step, he’s confessed his feelings and now things are going to get better.

But there’s a little self doubt. “Baby, I wonder if you feel the same as I do.” In the back of his mind, there’s the very real possibility that the girl might not be as into him as he’s into her. She might just be using him for sex. Or chips.

But there is hope in my heart. I think the girl will be into him and will want to do more than just watch DVDs.

6. Gone

In which ‘N Sync struggle with loss.

Was this song, the second single off “Celebrity”, the straw that broke the ‘N Sync camel’s back? (And is there a Backstreet Boys dromedary?) Written by Justin and his Australian choreographer, and with Justin on all the lead vocals, it might as well have been credited to “Justin Timberlake and the ‘N Syncs”.

It’s a sad song, chronicling the aching loss that comes with a breakup. Following the two previous tracks at the hopeful beginning stages of a relationship, the sting of “Gone” is even stronger.

With the girl out of his life, what does Justin miss? “I’ve drove myself insane wishing I could touch your face, but the truth remains – you’re gone”. It’s simple, tender and the lack of face-touching, it hurts so much.

The song functions as a showcase for Justin. As well as the getting all the lead vocals, the song also affords him a bare a cappella break down, just to prove he’s got the skills that pay the bills. This is what it sounds like when a boyband splinters, when a guy goes solo.

And so the song takes on a double meaning. Now it’s not just about a guy missing his girlfriend. Justin is singing the loss that his group will soon feel when he sidesteps away from them, and the group’s theoretical hiatus becomes a permanent breakup.

7. Tell Me, Tell Me…Baby

In which the big guns are brought out.

The Swedes are back. There’s always a moment of tension when one hears that a pop artist has started writing their own songs. Sometimes it works, other times it’s terrible. In the case of ‘N Sync, the songs co-written by Justin and JC were perfectly good pop songs, but it took the Swedish pop production house of Cheiron to really bring the power pop. On this song, it’s Max and Rami from Cheiron.

The first sign that something great is happening is the ellipses in the song title. You know what other song used that? “…Baby One More Time” is what.

The song starts with perfectly adequate beats and “oh ohs”, before one of the ‘N Syncs stops things and says, “Hold it, can we back it up just a little bit?” The song rewinds and starts over with a sonic explosion of shattering glass and snippets of Cheiron’s previous hits with ‘N Sync. Take that, Justin and his choreographer!

The song also features that hallmark of the Cheiron/Jive Records oeuvre – the pronunciation of ‘me’ as ‘maaayyee”, which nicely rhymes with ‘baby’.

Like “Gone”, it’s a cry for a relationship that’s fallen apart. But unlike “Gone”, there’s hope that things can be mended. It’s more of a group song, with a united boyband sound. It’s the hope that ‘N Sync can stay together, forever. Maybe they just need Cheiron to work some more magic.

At this point I was going to come to the defence of professional songwriters and pop production houses. But if it’s not Cheiron (which closed in 2001), it’s Tamla Motown or the Brill Building. And it’s the same old criticism that come up again and again, only to go away when the songs are a few decades old and are recognised as gems. Really, if a single sounds amazing, why is it a bad thing that the person who wrote it is different to the person who sings it?

8. Up Against the Wall

In which ‘N Sync enjoy a good humping.

I love this song because it’s about humping. It’s a collaboration between Justin and JC (hot), and is self-consciously full of two-step beats. Yeah, take that, Craig David.

She took my hand.
We never said a word at all.
We starting grinding.
Shorty had me up against the wall.

You could choose to think of it as a dance style like jacking or daggering, but there’s also the possibility that it’s just about an attractive young couple, high on who knows what, who’ve spotted each other across a crowded room but just don’t have time to deal with the hassle of removing clothes.

The action takes place in a disco, where the protagonist spots a fine young lady who then proceeds to come over and hump him. This is top quality humping, because it takes the fellow away from all his cares. “Ask me about tomorrow – you know that I don’t care at all. I just got caught up when she had me up against the wall.”

But what happens tomorrow? Does he wake up with the fly honey in bed with him, realising he has to go through an awkward morning-after conversation? Or does he wake up alone, wondering what happened to his leather trousers at the club?

9. See Right Through You

In which ‘N Sync shed an angry tear.

Things are bitter. A moment of clarity hits ‘N Sync. That girl, the one they loved, she ain’t nothing but a cheating ho.

Covering similar territory to Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know”, the song is the voice of cheated-on lover angrily dealing with the aftermath of that discovery. But where as Alanis bluntly asks, “Would she go down on you in a theatre,” ‘N Sync get more euphemistic, asking, “Does he freak you the way that I do?”

‘N Sync move into slightly sweary territory with the line “These games they’ve gotta stop. About to get pissed off.” It’s also remarkable that it’s “pissed off”, which is more British than the American “pissed”. I think this may be a contribution of Justin’s Australian choreographer.

The song is angry, but it doesn’t quite seem to have the real anger of being dicked over. Later, when Justin’s girlfriend rooted his Australian choreographer, he wrote the bitter epic “Cry Me a River“.

Yeah, write what you know.

10. Selfish

In which ‘N Sync cater to the all-important newlyweds demographic.

There are two dud songs on “Celebrity”, which was the same miss rate on “No Strings Attached”. But while the two songs on ‘N Sync’s previous album were written by Richard Marx and Diane Warren (yeah….), this time around the lads managed to write the songs themselves. The first is a JC song.

I used to tolerate this song, but now it annoys me. “Selfish” sounds like an ’80s slow jam, with strings, mellow keyboard and key changes. Lyrically it’s a boring declaration of love. It’s a mature grown-up boring kind of love, not the fun sexy kind of love.

I have this idea that every ‘N Sync album has to have a “wedding song” – a slow-dance declaration of love for the bride and groom to take their first steps as husband and wife. But this song makes me feel ill. It makes me not want to get married, ever, if that means avoiding ever having to hear this song again.

11. Just Don’t Tell Me That

In which ‘N Sync ain’t sayin’ she’s a golddigger.

Another Cheiron production, this time by songwriters Andreas, Kristian and Jack. “Just Don’t Tell Me That” works on the same theme as “Celebrity” – a fame-hungry, gold-digging girl is given her marching orders.

Predicting the popular rise of Playboy in the coming decade, the song opens with, “You’ve got to be seen at every party at the Playboy Mansion”. The girl is revealed to be camera whore, who enjoys the lifestyle to which ‘N Sync have treated her. But, of course, she’s a fake so she needs to hit the road.

This song is a bit of a litmus test for the listener. Either the girl thinks, “Well, I deserve the fancy car and to be seen on your arm at the VIP events, so if you can’t treat me right and give me what I need, then I will find someone who can, like Hef.” Or she thinks, “Yay! JC is ditching his no-good girlfriend. I am pure-hearted so now we can be together!”

But neither of these types have a place in the real world of ‘N Sync.

12. Something Like You

In which ‘N Sync pray just to make it today.

The second dud song is a Justin song, co-written with his old vocal coach Robin Wiley. But what makes it even worse – it features guest harmonica from Stevie Wonder. No! What? Stevie?! Yes, further evidence that everything Stevie Wonder has done since the ’80s has been a bit rubbish.

It’s not quite a wedding song, with the relationship in its early stages. It’s the blossoming of a serious, adult relationship. This is a song to be sung dressed in baggy white linen suits, seated on stools.

It’s the most religious song, with Justin’s prayers to “the Lord above” and asking, “Is this what God has meant for me?” The next step after this is not to get involved in some sweaty humping in a crowded night club. It’s to don a chastity ring and wait until marriage before doing anything else.

I also think songs like this exist to give the lads a bit of a breather during their hectic live shows. But for the listener, it’s much more enjoyable to skip to the next track.

13. That Girl (Will Never Be Mine)

In which ‘N Sync reach for the top.

The trio of Swedish power pop is rounded out with “That Girl (Will Never Be Mine)”, which was also the theme song of Lance and Joey’s romantic comedy movie “On The Line”, back when Lance was heterosexual.

Like other Cheiron productions, there’s a unified group vibe, Justin and JC’s lead vocals supported by the rest.

The song starts with a very brief burst of 1950s-style vocal harmony, before bursting into some fresh ’00s pop. The lyrics examine a case of unrequited love. Sometimes in the world of ‘N Sync a crush suggests it will lead to a lifetime of happiness, but in this case, it’s nothing put trouble.

The girl in question is some sort of celebrity, “tearing up the big screen”, but “she’s in a different league.” A reminder that while ‘N Sync are famous enough to write about the perils of fame, there are others who are more famous, who might sneer at these pop wannabes.

There is determination in the lyrics, “She will be mine!” I like to think this song is about Madonna, the culmination of which was the epic, next-level “4 Minutes“.

14. Falling

In which ‘N Sync let the short one have a go.

This song comes close to making it a trilogy of songs that I don’t like (it has a ‘truck driver’s gear change’ key change!), but there’s something strangely appealing about this cheesy ballad.

It’s the only song on the album written by ‘N Sync member Chris, who sings the high parts. It starts with some moody electric guitar, not unlike that of Bryan Adam’s “Run to You”, and expertly builds to a dramatic chorus. It feels like a really well constructed song. It’s nothing amazing, but has a nice comfortable feeling to it.

Like the Cheiron songs, “Falling” also feels like a good group song. ‘N Sync’s strength as a vocal harmony group is put to good use, with lush layers of harmony. And Chris has even thrown in a few high bits for himself.

If this was all ‘N Sync were capable of, they’d have been a perfectly adequate footnote in the history of late ’90s, early ’00s pop, but the fact that there are so many better song on the album make it just all that much more thrilling.

15. Do Your Thing

In which ‘N Sync are doing their thing and doing it well.

The album ends with a question: Are you doing your thing and doing it well? It’s a simple song about pursuing one’s goals, about staying focused on being the best.

If ‘N Sync were to ask themselves that question, the answer would be yes, and the song amply demonstrates their talent. But then where do you go? If all your dreams have come true, what is there left to achieve?

So it seems inevitable that ‘N Sync broke up. They could have easily made another album, but instead they took the hard road. Joey became a father, Lance came out, Chris went on a reality TV show, JC put out a bunch of killer singles that didn’t get enough attention, and Justin had a very successfully solo career that he put on hold to move into the harder world of acting.

Are you doing your thing and doing it well? Yes? So then what? You move on to the next thing.

Key learnings from watching every Madonna video

Last year I set myself the challenge of watching every Madonna video – all 68 of them. I generally enjoy Madge’s oeuvre, and she is indeed noteworthy not just as a pop singer but also as a video artist. She helped shape the emerging art of the music video.

But yet I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen every one of her music videos, particularly that period in the late ’90s when I’d sort of gone off her for a bit. Details of my Madonna-watching journey can be found over on Tumblr, but here I present my key findings.

Madonna has a reputation as a constant reinventor of her look, but when it comes to fashion, she’s actually a bit more conservative than you’d think. Madonna knows that certain shapes flatter her more than others, and she largely sticks with those.

1990s screen saver styles in "Love Profusion"
1990s screen saver styles in "Love Profusion"

1940s-style dresses and suits pop up a lot. One first appeared in “Live to Tell”, and I can’t help get the feeling that this was the start of Madonna’s campaign to be cast as Eva Peron in “Evita”. In fact, the video to “Take a Bow” was especially styled like that as an unsolicited audition. But even after “Evita”, Madonna stuck with the look, donning a 1940s floral frock in “Love Profusion”, which seemed to attract a swarm of popstar-eating CGI fairies.

Toned arms and boofy hair in "Papa Don't Preach"
Toned arms and boofy hair in "Papa Don't Preach"

The corset top is another fave. When it first appeared in “Papa Don’t Preach”, Madonna had been working out and had ditched the baggier boytoy-era clothes. The corset top was perfect for showing off her toned arms and leaner figure. Sometimes it’s part of a dress, like in “Like a Prayer”, and it fit right in with her pervy Madonna phase. And the biggest advantage – after having a couple of kids and getting older, a corset top is just right for holding everything in, like when she’s prancing about with Justin Timberlake in “4 Seconds”.

A monocle, a mansuit and a crotch-grab in "Express Yourself"
A monocle, a mansuit and a crotch-grab in "Express Yourself"

Then there’s the mansuit. You know Madonna – she’s so confident with her sexuality as a woman that she can dress like a man. Madonna dressed liked a boy in “Open Your Heart” and “Who’s That Girl”, but it wasn’t until the power video of “Express Yourself” where she got in full mansuit mode. But it’s a mansuit that always has a bra underneath it, as if to prove she’s still got the lady skills under that big old suit.

Madonna appears in cartoon form in three music videos. In “Who’s That Girl”, Human Madonna (dressed as a boy) sees a fortune teller who shows her Cartoon Madonna, a likeness of Madonna’s “Who’s That Girl” film character, Nikki Finn. Wait, what? It seems a elaborate way for Madonna-the-popstar to distance herself from Madonna-the-actress.

Gap-toothed cartoon Madge in "Music"
Gap-toothed cartoon Madge in "Music"

“Dear Jessie” was only released as a single in Europe and Australasia, so Madonna didn’t participate in the music video. Instead she’s animated as a twee fairy, flying about, being all delightful and shit.

And animated Madonna appears for the third time in “Music”. Human Madge is out on the town with her girls, when Cartoon Madge appears on a TV. A superhero, she flies around a city, kicking arse, knocking about neon signs of her old song titles, hits the dancefloor, before falling to earth. Why is that part done as a cartoon? Did the video’s CGI budget not stretch that far?

Madonna has done a lot of songs for film soundtracks. She had a small role as a nightclub singer in “Vision Quest”, a romantic drama which also explores the serious issue of manorexia. She contributed two songs to the soundtrack – “Crazy For You” and “Gambler”. Unfortunately “Gambler” is not a cover of the Kenny Rodgers classic.

Madonna makes a poor lifestyle choice in "Into The Groove"
Madonna makes a poor lifestyle choice in "Into The Groove"

Madonna’s feature debut is the ace feminist caper flick “Desperately Seeking Susan”, for which she also contributed the perfect pop of “Into The Groove”. The video of this solely consists of footage from the film, but cleverly edited to thematically match the lyrics.

There’s also “Vogue”, which was on the “Dick Tracy” soundtrack but didn’t actually feature in the film. The music video only vaguely alludes to 1930s style. Nonetheless, it’s one of her strongest, most evocative songs and is great to dance to.

Madonna gives Madonna the bash in "Die Another Day"
Madonna gives Madonna the bash in "Die Another Day"

What, you think achievement hound Madonna would pass up the opportunity to sing the theme tune for a James Bond film? With the legendary John Barry long retired from Bond composing duties, Madonna teamed up with a French progressive-electronica producer and made something that sounds like a battle between a robot and ’80s Madonna. The video is bombastic, with Good Madonna battling Evil Madonna. “Sigmund Freud,” she murmurs, “analyse this.” Better than the actual Bond film? Take that, Lee Tamahori.

And you know what else has to be mentioned? Evita. The only original music video is for “You Must Love Me”, probably because the film performance was sung live with Eva on her deathbed. That video features Madonna singing the song behind a grand piano, trying to not look heavy with child. The other two videos – “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” and “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” were montages from the film, most likely due to Madonna having just given birth to babby Lourdes.

Well ahead of the furry trend in "Like a Virgin"
Well ahead of the furry trend in "Like a Virgin"

Rewatching all the old Madonna videos reminded me of the period when Madonna was controversial. Moral groups and the Vatican seemed to perpetually condemn her for all the sensual writhing she did in videos, and the power combo of religious icons with lady bits. Not the mention the alarming “Like a Virgin” video, in which Madonna is far ahead of the curve with furry love.

I was at exactly the right (wrong) age when parents were concerned that Madonna smoking in “Desperately Seeking Susan” (and indeed the “Into the Groove” video) would influence young girls. But it didn’t make me want to smoke. It made me want to live in a grungy Manhattan loft with a boyfriend who looked like Aidan Quinn. Neither of these futures happened.

I was surprised to discover the very clear distinction made between Madonna and the characters she plays in the videos. In “Material Girl”, the Marilyn Monroe-esque Madonna is set up as a character played by the down-to-earth Actor Madonna. In “Like a Prayer”, the video ends with the cast taking a bow as the curtain falls on their dramatic performance. Yeah, that time when Madonna kissed the black Jesus? That was just a character she was playing.

If you were to plot the moral tone of Madonna’s videos on a graph, it would look like a sine wave, a gentle flow between moral and immoral and back again.

Madonna is also ahead of the loldogs trend in "Human Nature"
Madonna is also ahead of the loldogs trend in "Human Nature"

This is how to seems to work – Madonna pushes the envelope as far as she can go, but as soon as things start to get too outrageous, she’ll bring out something sweet and lovely. When I say outrageous, it’s not just stuff like the Vatican condemning a particular song, but when album sales suffer from songs being a bit too pervy.

So you’ve got the race-and-religion shocker of “Like a Prayer” and the in-your-faceness of “Express Yourself” followed by the sweet, mermaidy “Cherish” and the maternal “Dear Jessie”. And the sexual fantasies of “Justify My Love” and whips-n-chains seriousness of “Erotica” are followed by the repentant “Bad Girl” (“I’m not happy when I act this way”). But pervy Madonna keeps surfacing. Even the real-life phase of being a nice English mum was soon enough followed by 51-year-old divorced Madonna grinding up against Jesus, her hot 23-year-old model boyfriend in the “Celebration” video, and look – Madonna’s doing some freaky yoga moves in the “Sorry” vid. You can’t keep the old girl down.

Madonna still has it in "Sorry"
Madonna still has it in "Sorry"

My top 10 fave Madonna videos

  • Burning Up (1983) – Crazy postmodern imagery and Madonna’s clearly in charge.
  • Material Girl (1985) – The boytoy look takes a break for Hollywood glam and, why, hello Mr Carradine.
  • Papa Don’t Preach (1986) – The first 16 seconds are perfect, the rest is a swell melodrama.
  • Express Yourself (1989) – Inspired by the groundbreaking “Metropolis”, directed by David Fincher, it’s a stylish masterwork.
  • Justify My Love (1990) – Madonna at her perviest, but keeping it cool by bursting out with laughter at the nutsness of it all.
  • Deeper and Deeper (1992) – A bangin’ house track given an arty video with Madonna playing a rather young woman with a thing for older men.
  • Rain (1993) – Directed by Mark Romanek and starring Marc Newson’s Lockheed Lounge chair, every frame is beautiful.
  • Don’t Tell Me (2000) – Cowgirl Madonna kicks up her heels with some cowboys, subverting the cheapie greenscreen video.
  • Hung Up (2005) – Madonna dances, the kids on the street dance, then she goes to a club and shows the DDR game how to dance.
  • 4 Minutes (2008) – Giant black screen terrorises Madge and Mr JT!

I need a new tape

Happy Record Store Day! Perhaps there should be a question mark after that. Real Groovy Wellington has recently announced that it will be closing – despite trying really hard to keep going.

In Wellington central, this leaves Slow Boat Records, a Marbecks and Parsons for the oldies, along with JB Hifi and The Warehouse (if you’re the sort of person who’d seriously buy music from The Warehouse, other than rooting around in the bargain bins for hidden gems).

It’s strange how record shops have suddenly dried up and gone away, because for years and years they were such a big part of my life.

Electric City Music – Hamilton

Electric City Music was a generic record store in Hamilton’s Centreplace mall and I have a very specific memory of it.

It was 1987 and I was 12, looking through the new releases bin. I came across the Beastie Boys’ debut LP “Licensed To Ill” and I got really excited. I think my appreciation for the Beastie Boys was based around 1) “Fight For Your Right” being quite a fun song with a cool video and 2) Ad-Rock being quite cute. I opened the gatefold sleeve and payed close attention to the smashed-up jet. What did it mean?

I didn’t buy “Licensed To Ill”. It probably cost about $11 and I just didn’t have that sort of money in those days.

Licensed to Ill

Tracs – Hamilton

Tracs ate so much of my money. It was in a basement building on the corner of Ward St and Victoria St in Hamilton. I’d descend the wide stairs and be in musical joyland.

My default bit of wall was the “Alternative” cassette section. I’d usually come there with specific titles in mind, but sometimes I’d pick something on a whim (and usually regret it). And no matter when I went there, there always seemed to be Mercury Rev’s tape “Boces” and the Barenaked Ladies “Gordon” sitting on the shelves, unsold.

Cassettes were my format of choice because they were – for no good reason – about $10 cheaper than CDs. I even had a Tracs card, giving me 15% of all purchases. In fact, I went there so often the guy behind the counter gave me the discount without even checking my card.

But the best thing about tapes – as soon as I left the store, I could put my new purchase in my Walkman and instantly listen to it. Some things can’t wait.

Tower Records – Sunset Strip

Los Angeles 1993. It was, as I described to my friends on returning to New Zealand, like if Real Groovy Records in Auckland was totally filled with new music and not all the other stuff they stocked.

Not only did it have huge quantities of music, but it stocked stuff that I’d only read about in New Zealand, that would have only been available on order. I gathered up a stash of CDs – The Breeders’ “Last Splash“, Luscious Jackson’s “In Search of Manny“, and a bunch of Henry Rollins spoken word CDs.

This was the moment when I switched to CDs. Tower stocked tapes, but unlike in New Zealand, it definitely felt like the CD was the dominant format and tapes were on the way out.

That Weird Little Second-Hand Record Shop on Alexander St in Hamilton

In the mid-’90s I went through a vinyl phase. I bought Camper Van Beethoven’s album “Key Lime Pie“, possibly because I was into David Lowery’s new band, Cracker. The guy at the counter picked up the record and slowly turned it over a few times. “Camper Van Beethoven, eh,” he slowly said. “Key Lime Pie”. He looked at me as if he was waiting for some sort of explanation. I had none to offer. I paid for it, took the record home and never played it.

Sounds – Hamilton

Sounds was my auxiliary record shop when I was bored with Tracs. It had pretty decent bargain bins, and one fruitful haul produced David Hasselhoff’s “Close To Heaven” CD; “102% Sex”, a remarkably unsexy soundalike compilation of dance music themed around safe sex; and a $1 MC Hammer baseball cap from the time he called himself Hammer.

Buying cheap hilarious records doesn’t work digitally. There’s no unsold stock to discount, and no reason to buy crazy cheap stuff, other than out of curiosity.

Free things

Record shops used to give away free stuff to entice people to buy popular albums from their shop.

In 1991 I bought the tape of MC Hammer’s “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em“, which came with a free six-pack of Pepsi cos Hammer was doing Pepsi ads. Somehow I was really embarrassed when the store guy handed me the six-pack, and was annoyed to have to schlep it around for the rest of the day.

Sounds stores around New Zealand gave away a free t-shirt with Soundgarden’s “Superunknown“. I gave my t-shirt to a friend, and for years after I’d see bogans around New Zealand wearing their “Superunknown” t-shirt. I didn’t even like the album.

When The Prodigy’s “Fat of the Land” album was about to be released, it seemed that every record shop had a different freebie or discount to entice shoppers. I checked out the offering of the Newmarket record shops and settled on one that offered a free poster and a free Prodigy lighter. Both eventually ended up in the bin.

Best freebie ever – a poster of the album art of The 3Ds’ album “The Venus Trail“. Drawn by David Mitchell (with his left hand, because drawing with his right was too easy), it portrayed a chaotic Dunedin, perfectly fitting with the wiry rock of the album.

The Venus Trail

Virgin Megastore – Paris

I visited the Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysees in 2003. It was a proper megastore with many floors of music. Nothing in New Zealand ever came close to Virgin Megastores, in fact most large record shops of major chains were still pretty modest in size.

I wanted to buy something French as a souvenir. It was rock ‘n’ roll legend Johnny Hallyday’s 60th birthday, so there was a huge display of his entire back catalogue. But that wasn’t quite what I wanted.

I picked holiday pop over Hallyday, and settled on two CD singles – DJ Bobo’s club novelty hit “Chihuahua” – one of those infectious songs that was being played all over Paris; and “Laissons Entrer Le Soleil” (a French version of “Flesh Failures/Let the Sunshine In”) by the final 10 contestants of A La Recherche De La Nouvelle Star (the French version of Pop Idol).

Real Groovy – Auckland

I’d go through periods of liking and disliking Real Groovy. All it would take is a bit of surliness from one of the counter staff and I’d avoid Real Groovy for a year.

It was a good shop for its massive selection of second-hand music. It was easy to get acquainted with the back catalogue of a previously overlooked artist via someone else’s unloved CDs. Oh, you don’t want those Smiths CDs? Here, I’ll have them.

And Real Groovy would pay cash (or store credit) for my unloved CDs, which was a bit of a lifesaver at times. Best payout – I got $8 for Ganksta N-I-P’s “Psychotic Genius” CD that I’d only paid $3 for in a bargain bin at The Warehouse (which I’d bought because the album cover was hilariously awful).

It’s strange to think that until recently CDs were once so valuable that people would break into cars and steal CDs to sell for cash.

Sticky vinyl

The digital

I’m not exactly sure when I stopped buying CDs. I guess it started when the iTunes store opened in New Zealand. But I do know that I’d still find myself wandering through record shops, looking for stuff, but noticing that something didn’t quite feel right any more.

Even if I buy a CD, I won’t play it on a CD player. The first step is ripping it into iTunes so I can listen to it on my iPod. I think the last time I played a CD was in the ’00s.

A few years ago, I transfered all my CDs into disc storage folders. It freed up a lot of space, but it’s occurred to me that as I haven’t played any of the discs since then, is it even worth keeping the CDs?

I feel a little conflicted about the fate of record shops. I want them to survive purely because record shops used to be fun places to go, and they probably still are for some people. But for me, they’re not much fun any more – like browsing in a fishing supplies store.

I wander around thinking, “Oh, I could get that cheaper online.” And every physical recording – no matter the format – is a physical object that has to go somewhere. Online is cheaper and takes up no physical space.

One argument for patronising record stores is that the staff can guide you. But when I was younger, I was generally too scared to talk to record store staff to get recommendations. I’d figure out stuff for myself, and online that’s even easier to do. Online, the recommendations are usually separate from the retailers, but those music websites are run by the same sort of nerdy music lovers that worked in record shops.

I bought a couple of CDs from Real Groovy Wellington’s closing down sale. Despite being tempted by a 50c copy of The Go-Go’s’ “Talk Show” on tape, I picked “Straight Answer Machine” by Samuel F Scott and the BOP, and “Crude Futures” by So So Modern. “Straight Answer Machine” was $20, discounted from $29.95, but I could have bought it on iTunes for $18.99. While “Crude Futures” was an undiscounted $21.95 that I could have bought on Bandcamp for only $12. But on the other hand, both of those albums have really good artwork and it’s nice to be able to get a good look at that.

It seems that record shops have split into either “High Fidelity”-style shops for serious lovers of physical music format; or popular shops for people wanting the Susan Boyle CD, who haven’t figured out MP3s yet.

Meanwhile, I’m in this other place – buying music on iTunes or Bandcamp. I’ll miss the fun of the old record shop experience, but I’ve still got what it was always all about – the music.

Postscript

After I wrote this I went along to both Slow Boat and Real Groovy. They were both full of people enjoying themselves, though still plenty of lone male types.

I ended up buying the Beastie Boys’ “Licensed to Ill”. It was $12.95 – almost $2 more than the iTunes price. It’s crazy to consider that it’s almost what the LP would have cost 25 years ago.

I think I’ll miss that home-away-from-home feeling that good record stores had.

From C to shining C

Home away from home

Homegrown is an annual New Zealand music festival that takes places on the Wellington waterfront. A couple of years ago, I’d walked past and seen pissed-as teens herded into fenced-off areas, and I decided it wasn’t particularly appealing.

Caged

But this year a friend had a spare ticket and I found myself on the other side of the temporary fencing.

Coco Solid

The first act I saw was Coco Solid, performing in the vaguely indie-themed Studio Live stage. A line of teen girls took their place along the front of the stage, but they didn’t quite seem to be massive Coco Solid fans. The penny dropped when I noticed one of them was wearing a handmade Kids of 88 T-shirt. They were preemptively positioning themselves to be up the front to swoon when it was time for the electro-popsters to play their electro-pop.

By the way, I have a theory that on one level, Kids of 88 exist to make Generation X-ers feel old and irrelevant. Yes, seniors – people who were born in 1988 are old enough to be in bands.

Ms Coco Solid, though, was ace. There was something a little weird with the vocal mic on that stage – it seemed a little quiet or distant for all acts – but her sassy hip hop came over just fine.

Nesians, are you with me

Eschewing the aforementioned Kids, we headed over to the Pop & RnB stage to catch Nesian Mystik. It appears that the lads are calling it a day soon, but the audience was full of love for them.

New Zealand never managed to have its own version of a ’00s boy band. There was the ill-fated En Masse, but no direct counterpart to Nsync or Blue. I’ve always thought New Zealand audiences are quite picky. We like people who can play musical instruments and who write their own songs, and who are top blokes.

Well, Nesian Mystik fill that gap – six really nice guys who write their own songs, play guitar, and with plenty of rap among the melody. They are New Zealand’s stealth ’00s boy band.

They played their hits and the audience loved it, with an amazing moment in “Nesian Style” where the audience sang out the line “Polynesians all around”. I realised that 10 years ago, for a young Polynesian-New Zealand audience, Nesian Mystik would have been one of the few chances they’d have to hear Polynesian pop on the mainstream airwaves. (By the way, I still reckon “It’s On” is one of the best New Zealand pop songs ever written.)

Misty Phoenix

Next I caught the Phoenix Foundation, and I’m not quite sure how I felt about them. It just all seemed a bit low-key, but maybe that’s just their thing now.

But I had a bit of a moment during “Nest Egg”, their ode to broken dreams. I wrote this in my notebook: “Nest Egg’ is Gen-X raising its middle finger to the Baby Boomers. You told us we needed to strive for things, but the truth is, you only value the things you could easily achieve due to your golden demographic fluke. Our nest egg may be rotten, but we’re not going bankrupt chasing your old dreams. The rules have been rewritten.

I think I was channelling my 18-year-old self.

God save the Clean

Next on the indie stage was The Clean. Have I seen them perform live before? I’m not sure – possibly in the ’90s.

They weren’t what I expected. I was expecting the band to sound like they did on their old singles, but that didn’t happen. Instead the tight three did a lot of semi-structured jamming, and I swear their first song was about 15 minutes long. It was thoroughly enjoyable.

The audience was full of both old-timer fanboys and whippersnappers who were there because they’d heard the Clean were legends. Side of stage, the night’s previous bands stood watching in awe.

The Clean didn’t feel like some old band rehashing their greatest hits to shift some CDs (or worse – the track-by-track playing of a “classic” album). It felt like they were giving the audience a fresh, original performance that could never be duplicated.

Blindspott

Finally I headed over to the arena for the reformed Blindspott.

I’d seen New Zealand’s lords of nu metal perform once before – when I won tickets to X-Air in 2002. They were barely known back then, performing during the day to a crowd of teenage boys who were more interested in the extreme sports action happening all around the Claudelands Showgrounds.

This time, Blindspott were in full control. I wouldn’t consider myself a Blindspott fan, but I think they do what they do well. Damian Alexander is a confident frontman and knows how to perform to an arena crowd.

The band have always been ruthless self-promoters and pushed not only their new single, but cleverly had the crowd baying for blood around their current legal wrangle.

There’s one thing that was on everyone’s mind: Christchurch. With temporary fencing and portaloos around the Homegrown site, it was hard not to be reminded of those who are forced to live amongst such things every day.

Mr Alexander asked any Cantabrians in the audience to raise their hands (and there were quite a few). He then asked that other audience members give them a pat on the back, but it turned into a hand-shaking, fist-bumping, full-contact-hugging, love fest. Aw, guys.

This led into their lighters/cellphones-in-the-air song “Phlex”, the intro of which had been overlaid with the Prime Minister’s post-quake speech. The trouble is, while the speech John Key read was good, he’s not such a great public speaker and so it ended up sounding like a corporate team-building event. Hey guys – fantastic sales results for this quarter. Now the Blind Spots band are going to perform. Great stuff!

Blindspott finished with “Nil By Mouth”, which is a song that seems destined to be performed in an arena full of dudes yelling along “Stop and stare! What the fuck! You don’t know me!”, followed by the screamy bit that no one seems to actually know the words to.

And with that, I made my way out into the damp Wellington streets, surrounded by pissed-as bros who wanted the world to know what a great day they’d had.

Going out and staying in

Oh hey – NZmusic.com. Remember that site?

NZmusic.com was a community-based website about New Zealand music. It was created as a side project by Wellington-based web design house Morse Media. I think it just came down to the Morse founders Dust and Teina being massive New Zealand music fans and wanting to have a little side project to experiment on.

I logged into NZmusic.com for the first time in ages. It told me I’ve been a member for 10 years and 4 weeks. That’s ancient in internet years.

I first joined in December 2000, and I had one very specific reason for joining: I wanted to watch an MC OJ and the Rhythm Slave video, which in turn led me to write this piece on their album a few months later.

In the days before Wikipedia, in the days before YouTube, in the days before Myspace, NZmusic.com was a place you could go to find out information about local bands, and watch a few of their music videos, even though they were low-quality and took ages to download on dial-up.

If the world wouldn’t listen to your favourite band, who didn’t even have a record deal and had barely toured outside of their hometown, you could find a handful of genuine fans of this band who’d be quite happy to discuss how, yeah, this band were musical geniuses and if there was any justice in the world, they’d be huge.

NZmusic.com was also a refuge for small-town teens who’d never have the chance to see their favourite bands play live, and probably didn’t have many, if any, friends who liked the same music that they did. A 14-year-old and a 28-year-old could equally argue about who was the best New Zealand drummer of all time, and no one really cared about (or noticed) the other’s age.

After I moved back to Auckland in 2002, NZmusic.com was the gentle hand that guided me out of the house. I’d go out to gigs at tiny bars like the now-closed Temple bar on Queen Street (and see Paselode blow the roof off), or to more populated gigs at the good old King’s Arse.

“The Shrugs are my new favourite band,” I declared on Sunday 17 November 2002 at the outrageous time of 3.41am “Anyone who can add in a bit of that Gwen Stefani/Eve song into a slow rock song is surely deserving of my adoration.” This was not overtiredness. The Shrugs are still one of my favourite bands, though they don’t play that particular song these days.

And it wasn’t just fans – actual proper band members were forum regulars too. In a discussion of music videos, I reckoned that Shihad’s “Pacifier” video didn’t really work because it was a direct copy of “A Clockwork Orange” and didn’t add anything new to the mix. Then along came Shihad’s drummer Tom, who commented “I’m alone on the issue within the band but I think the use of Clockwork Orange was trite at best – Lots of people love it though.” Whoa!

There’s an idea that any successful online community will eventually go offline. That is, with all the forum posts being made, eventually someone will say, “Hey, let’s meet up.” And that’s what happened with NZmusic.com. I eventually came to know some of the regulars from the forums, meeting up at gigs. There were also rumours of secret hook-ups, but also good friendships formed from it.

But then I stopped posting. It seems to have happened at some point in 2006, giving me at least five solid years of NZmusic.com before the decline.

The site started to fade when the New Zealand music area of the forum changed from discussions of New Zealand music to bands promoting their gigs. “hey we’re playing at shaykz on saturday come along and support nz music!!!!” No. We never went to gigs to “support New Zealand music”. We went out to see good bands play and to have fun.

So the site filled with boring posts and somehow NZmusic.com lost its heart. People noticed and made a few requests for something to be done (what?), but the Morse team were busy working hard with their paying jobs.

Rather than any sort of dramatic flouncy departure (“That’s it! I’m never posting here again! Hmph!”) I accidentally stopped posting, stopped visiting the site, until one day I realised it had been well over a year since I’d last visited.

NZmusic.com still exists, but it’s significantly pared down from its glory days. The forum is still there, but it’s filled with comment spam and doesn’t seem to have any regular users anymore. None of the older content remains – all the information about bands, the videos, the hilarious press releases is all gone.

It’s easy to blame Facebook for the decline of a community-based website, but there are now sites to pick up the slack, like Cheese On Toast, and A Low Hum‘s glorious celebrations of music, both run by old NZmusic.com regulars. And that’s not to mention the whippersnappers behind sites like The Corner, keeping the music love going.

Sometimes I find myself feeling a little nostalgic for the old NZmusic.com, but realistically, it’s gone and it’s never coming back, just as surely as 2002 can’t come back again. Instead NZmusic.com has left a legacy, a fragmented but staunch community of New Zealand music fans who continue to share the love.