Monday, June 06, 2005

It's not the note I sent you that you quickly burned

It's silly that it has taken me several months to get to Irving Berlin, a songwriter intensely admired by Merritt. The similarities between the two are apparent - both are incredibly prolific (Berlin wrote well over a thousand songs) and both have an affinity for simple, catchy melodies. Heck, Stephin even named his chihuahua "Irving." As a Russian immigrant on the Lower East Side, Berlin faced a "sing or starve" situation while growing up, singing in saloons as a teen for spare change. After his teen years, he worked as a lyricist on Tin Pan Alley, and his breakthrough hit was the song "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911. From Broadway songs (like "There's No Business Like Show Business" from Annie Get Your Gun) to Hollywood film scores (like "White Christmas" from Holiday Inn) to insufferable patriotic tunes (like "God Bless America"), Berlin covered the gamut during the first half of the 20th century, and his work has been canonized into jazz standards (like "Blue Skies"), too.

Merritt has made it clear that he would like lots of people covering his songs. Readers of his music criticism know him to sometimes be harsh and unforgiving; however as a rule, he (mostly) refuses to comment on renditions of his own songs, because he doesn't want interpreters to be discouraged by the possibility of receiving a critical drubbing from him. When asked by Chickfactor what song he wished he had written, his response was, "Happy Birthday to You." Why? "It's the song in the entire world that is sung the most; everyone knows it." Today, although the "standard" is a quaint idea, Merritt is using Berlin's career as a model for re-vitalizing this lost notion. Also, Merritt said that he identifies with Berlin, "...for being an artistic hack, but making a show of hackdom."

One of the grandest of the 69, "A Pretty Girl Is Like...," is a deconstructive answer song to Irving Berlin's "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody." Merritt had been reading Ulysses, and considering how writers objectify women in metaphors. In the lyrics ("A pretty girl is like a violent crime / If you do it wrong, you could do time"), he celebrates, mocks, and critiques song similes, adopting "an exaggeratedly sexist, male point of view. It's a lot of baggage for one song," he acknowledges, "but that's part of why it's funny."
(from an article/interview by Rob Tannenbaum in Village Voice)

"Be Careful, It's My Heart" was cited by Merritt in this interview with Terry Gross (start listening at the 8 min 26 sec mark) as being one of his favorite love songs. Merritt's own "Epitaph for My Heart" seems to be a sort of epilogue for the Berlin track, describing the consequences of improper handling.


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