The Silver Ballroom Fosters Community Among Pinball-Loving St. Louis Punks
By Jaime Lees Wed., Feb. 25 2015
“I want this to be the place where old punk rockers come to die,” says Steve “Doc” Dachroeden of his bar. When Dachroeden and his wife, Shelly, opened the Silver Ballroom nearly five years ago, it was designed around just a couple of key elements: pinball and punk rock. That’s what they liked, so that’s what they provided.
It’s an unlikely business model that has found solid success in south city’s Bevo Mill neighborhood. Since opening in April 2010, the Silver Ballroom has become an internationally renowned destination spot for pinball enthusiasts and a home away from home for St. Louis musicians looking to unwind. Patrons are drawn to the flashing lights of the arcade-style setup and the sounds of the games dinging beneath the blast of classic punk rock provided by a carefully stocked jukebox.
The jukebox selection is a well-earned point of pride for Dachroeden. It’s loaded with classic punk albums and selections from local bands including Nineteen, 7 Shot Screamers and the Humanoids.
“If you’re going to have a real punk-rock bar, there’s no Blink-182 in the jukebox,” he says. “When the jukebox stops, nothing comes on. Not the radio or anything. It’s punk rock or nothing. No Nelly songs on after the Dead Kennedys or anything like that.”
It’s a musical place, and not just because of the jukebox. Dachroeden’s connection to the music scene goes back much further than the existence of the bar. In addition to drumming for the UnMutuals, Dachroeden has played in fifteen or so bands since moving to St. Louis from Australia in 1987. He also spent years as the “artist relations guy” at instrument distributor St. Louis Music, specializing in Ampeg amplifiers and Alvarez guitars.
Doc mentions, almost offhandedly, that he’d “have to do things like fly to AC/DC’s rehearsal and make their practice sound good.”
Tim Jamison, singer of St. Louis’ long-running punk band Ultraman, met Dachroeden many years ago while filming an episode of Critical Mass, a late ’80s public-access show not unlike a smarter, St. Louis-based version of Wayne’s World. His favorite aspect of the Silver Ballroom is the inclusion of historic concert fliers, displayed on the actual bar itself.
“The coolest thing about them is that they’re a totally lost art form,” Jamison explains as he taps a flier near the far corner of the bar.
The flier is for Scream, Dave Grohl’s punk band from the 1980s. It triggers a hilarious story from Jamison, who explains that the show was canceled, rescheduled for a different location and then shut down during sound check, with the bands eventually bailing on the whole thing and hitting a house party instead. A different flier for a Minutemen show at Mississippi Nights has Jamison recalling that the raucous event occurred just a month before the death of Minutemen vocalist D. Boon, with five “hoosier bands” opening the show and fistfights breaking out all night.
The handbills offer a glimpse into St. Louis’ musical past, advertising shows at shuttered venues and one-time performance spaces. Names including the Alley, Animal House, Bernard Pub, Bille Auditorium, Bryan’s, Carriage Bowl, Club 367, Creepy Crawl, Delmar Sports Palace, Frederick’s Music Lounge, the Galaxy, Jefferson Underground, Mississippi Nights, OP-P, Other World, Turner’s Hall, Solid 50’s and Victory Center are all represented in the fliers, and most of them have an accompanying story.
“At Bernard Pub the threat was being mugged,” Jamison explains. “At Turner’s it was getting beat up just for being a punk rocker.”
Punk rockers are still taking hits, as the Silver Ballroom and its patrons found out last month. On January 12 local musician Joe Manwarren was the victim of an attempted robbery as he left the bar and began walking to his car. Manwarren was shot in both the hand and the leg before he was able to run back inside for safety. The bar provided security-camera footage to the police, but so far no arrests have been made.
Manwarren says he feels lucky, not just for surviving the harrowing ordeal, but also because the incident happened near a place where he feels safe and has some “amazing friends.” In addition to installing extra outdoor lights for security, Dachroeden is hosting a pinball tournament on March 1 to assist Manwarren with his medical expenses. He is also in the final stages of inking a deal with the city to purchase a nearby parking lot, providing another well-lit place for patrons to park.
Despite this senseless act of random violence, the Silver Ballroom has a reputation as one of the friendliest, most welcoming establishments in the city. Dachroeden smiles proudly as he boasts that his place hasn’t even had one bar fight in its entire five-year history. And in many ways the Silver Ballroom illustrates how a noisy little corner bar can help to anchor a whole neighborhood. He keeps an eye out for his neighbors, and his neighbors keep an eye out for him.
Each day at the Silver Ballroom a staff member updates a wipe board that hangs inside the front door. On it is a list of shows happening that night. It’s an odd move for a bar to highlight what’s going on at other bars — basically encouraging its customers to walk right back out its door — but it’s that type of spirit and consistent dedication to the community that keeps the patrons coming back. They know that customers will return after the show and tell their tales. They’ll make new connections and form new bands. And then it will cycle again.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 18
Christopher the Conquered
w/ Googolplexia, Patrick Eagan
Wednesday, February 18
Foam Coffee & Beer
8 p.m. | free
By Jaime Lees
As Christopher the Conquered, Chris Ford has a remarkable ability to silence any room as soon as he sings the first word. Ford’s breathy and passionate vocal delivery make comparisons to Jeff Buckley unavoidable but not entirely accurate. Sure, Ford is young and handsome and sings hauntingly beautiful piano songs, but he eschews all of Buckley’s wispy tragic-poet-posing and replaces it with strong, soulful confidence. Even in his lyrics, Ford’s personal despair usually cycles into tentative, but sturdy, optimism. Christopher the Conquered will shoot you right in the heart, and then you’ll pull yourself up off of the floor and thank him for his good aim.
Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt Writes Book, Offers Advice To Bands: “Keep It Fun, You Know?”
By Jaime Lees
Thu., Jan. 22 2015
Pavitt’s devotion, skill and connections fed the early days of this regional music movement that eventually led to a sea change in the entire music industry, but Pavitt is more than just a tastemaker; he’s a hard worker. And over the years he’d built a respected brand under the “Subterranean Pop” name– first as a radio show, then a zine and eventually as the name of the record label that he founded with Seattle DJ Jonathan Poneman that would release some of the most groundbreaking music of our time. Over the course of his life, Pavitt has worked nearly every job in the industry. He’s been a radio DJ, a zine publisher, a rock column writer, a record store founder, a club DJ, a record label founder and now an author and music historian.
Pavitt spoke to us from his home on Orcas Island in northwest Washington State, near the Canadian border. He describes the island as part natural paradise (one fourth of which is a state park) but with modern conveniences, like that all-important Seattleite essential: good coffee.
Pavitt’s new book SUB POP USA: The Subterranean Pop Music Anthology, 1980-1988, available now from Bazillion Points Publishing is a massive, deep collection of all of his written work — including coverage from his own zine and reproductions of his column for Seattle’s Rocket newspaper in the 1980s.
Just as an index of underground bands alone, the book is invaluable. Here, Pavitt tracks small bands from inception to death, celebrating their tiny triumphs and documenting their disasters. He had an eye on it all, and it shows. His words are often the only proper record of many short-lived but amazing bands.
Read on for the full interview:
Jaime Lees: I was really excited to get your book. And I’ve been reading it for a couple of weeks and it’s so great because it’s a book you can never finish reading, because there is so much information in there.
Bruce Pavitt: I’m really glad you think so. That’s awesome.
The book is nice because it’s something that I can pick up ten years from now and find something that I missed the first time through. I really like that in a collection.
Well, thank you. It’s pretty unique in that at the time not a lot of writers were digging in this deep. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that no writer was digging in this deep as far as indie American culture, and I do feel that the book works as kind of the broadest and deepest index of 1980s indie culture out there. I spent eight years writing this stuff and it just kind of sat in a cardboard box for 25 years and I decided to put it back together.
Oh my god, I’m glad that box didn’t get wet or something, you know?
That’s right. [laughs]
Okay, so I’m interviewing you for a St. Louis newspaper and I’ve been there [with the Riverfront Times] for almost a decade, and there are still so many local bands that I want to cover. I could tell how deep your coverage was in the book because I don’t know about most of the bands you’re writing about. So I was like “Oh, the book is not just about the bands that got famous, it’s every local band that was around back then.” Personally, that’s interesting to me because that’s what I do mostly do, too, is write about the non-famous bands.
Cool! Yeah, as you can pick up from the zine, my whole fascination was — I realized that every city had a scene. But that most of those scenes were completely ignored even by everybody at that time in the alternative music media. Which would be like New York Rocker in New York. They might do a quick little scene report from Chicago or somewhere, but for the most part certainly cities like St. Louis, even Seattle, were completely ignored. If you were in New York, you’d have absolutely no idea what was going on in St. Louis or Seattle.
So I figured that by reviewing these indie records, I’d be able to at least tap into the vibe of these different smaller cities. I had access to probably the world’s best library of independent music because I was a DJ at KAOS radio at Olympia, and KAOS was the only station in the country that prioritized independent releases. So every band who put out a single at that time — in the early ’80s most bands put out a single — knew that if they sent it to KAOS that it would probably get played. And that’s how I had access to these resources.
People in New York wouldn’t know what’s going on in St. Louis, but here we’re forced to know about what’s going on in New York because that’s what is in the news.
So because we have such a sort of unknown but very vibrant scene here, I was like, “Oh, I gotta talk to him about regionalism” because that’s something that really interests me, especially with being from here. It also seems that sometimes here there’s a bit of a drive to keep our music our own.
Which I think is kind of a shame because I think our music is so great. But, like, if I was going to say to friends of mine in a band, “Oh, I asked Bruce Pavitt what he thinks you should do with your band” they’d say, “Well, fuck what he says! We do our own thing!”
[laughs] Yeah, yeah, totally!
Did you have that kind of resistance with your city, too? Because you were the guy who was taking it international — it was sort of in your hands. You did all of these things to get the music out and then it wasn’t local anymore. Did people have a problem with you, specifically, for that?
Some people had a problem with the fact that at a certain point the scene became so hot that, um, yeah it was no longer just friends and family anymore. And the main drive for most of these regional artists is simply to play music and be appreciated, not to make a career out of it. Basically, you’re talking about a network of hobbyists who are simply playing for the fun of it, but [laughs] the Seattle scene became so hot that there was a lot of money that came in and, you know, the culture changed.
There was more competition. Some musicians wound up making a lot of money. There was jealousy. There were people coming in from out of town. So it disrupted the “Hey, let’s just play some music for friends and family” vibe. Talent scouts coming up from LA, and it really did kind of fuck with the vibe of the scene. There was a documentary that came out in the early ’90s called Hype. And that’s the essential premise of that film: that by popularizing Seattle, Jon [Poneman] and I at Sub Pop had kind of destroyed the scene.
So people always have mixed reactions about what happened. But I think on some level a lot of people from Seattle felt a lot of excitement and kind of a sense of pride for what was going on in the city. Having been ignored for decades and then all of a sudden getting the spotlight — people have mixed feelings about that.
Well, you’re from Chicago, so you can probably understand that here there’s sort of an… extra healthy dose of Midwest skepticism for outsiders?
[Laughs] Yes, yes, definitely. Very similar, yeah.
I’m just interested in the potential parallels. You sort of drew the blueprint for what would happen if St. Louis music blew up nationally or internationally.
Yeah, I’ve got to say it’s an interesting story. I’m kind of deviating here, but when I stand back and look at it, this book kind of unveils the unknown story of all of the small, ignored scenes and the small ignored bands that created kind of a tribal network of punk enthusiasts and hobbyists and that network kind of grew over the ’80s and it’s… it’s a pretty fascinating story.
And it sounds weird to say that because it’s kind of my story here. But when I look back and review this book, it just… it’s really kind of almost unbelievable about how you can witness the growth of these small scenes as documented in this book, and then you see this energy kind of coalesce around Seattle and the essential premise of the book was that subterranean pop — underground pop — that any band could be popular if given the opportunity. That’s the essential premise of the book.
So you see all these rich local scenes kind of developing over the ’80s and then Seattle became kind of like the perfect exclamation mark at the end of the premise. Yes, the theory is correct. You know, if a scene gets nurtured and has some support and gets a little attention, then that music can go on to become very popular. Um, I know I’m kind of jumping around here a bit.
No, that totally makes sense because you can shine a light anywhere and find the good stuff there.
You can! And with the right — I would say — nurturing and support, really, any scene can blow up. And I would say in the back of my mind I always kind of thought about Jamaica. How the island of Jamaica and the city of Kingston could create a sound that would effectively influence global music. And it was just a handful of low budget studios in Kingston that created reggae and dub and Marley and affected the world.
So I always kind of had that model in the back of my head, and I would actually look at Washington state almost as an island. Not just Seattle, but Washington state. Because a lot of these bands — Screaming Trees, Nirvana, Melvins — a lot of these bands were coming in from the outlying areas. And I just figured: If they can do it in Jamaica, if they can do it in England — another case in point — then there’s no reason why it couldn’t be done in Washington. And it really came down to sharing information, communication and awareness.
The [Sub Pop] zine was read by just a small handful of other zine writers and musicians, but by the time I moved to Seattle and started writing for the Rocket… The Rocket was printed up in editions of 50-60,000 and distributed all over the state. So Kurt Cobain down in Aberdeen would go pick up a Rocket, and in my column he could read about Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers and Black Flag. And I know my column very much influenced him and influenced different musicians around the state. They got turned on to this underground culture that was just bubbling under the surface. I hope some of that makes sense. I hope you can edit that in a way where there’s a linear story there.
That doesn’t need editing, that makes complete sense. I just think it’s cool that having done all of these things for so many years, what I think must be nice for you is that if it wasn’t your story, that you could look at your book and be interested in a historical perspective, at least, as a music historian.
Definitely. You know, it’s funny because when I first pieced this book together, it was a little difficult because, you know, imagine putting together writings that you created at the very beginning of your career — it’s kind of a mixed bag. Some of my writing, I think my writing got pretty good by the time of the Rocket — but it’s hit and miss. So, you know, to publish everything that you’ve ever written is a little daunting, you know, because the editor in me just wanted to go in and just cut it up and just put in the best pieces. But I knew that I couldn’t really do that because the power of the book is the volume of information. And that’s part of the story there.
So I do — to answer your question — I can completely appreciate this as a history book. And this is a history book that documents a culture that a lot of this information isn’t even available on the Internet. This is a forgotten history. This is a piecing together of a history that in many ways that has been long-forgotten. You know, band from Oklahoma presses 500 singles, three people buy it, band breaks up two weeks later. Well, guess what? They’re still in the index in my book.
Yeah, there’s still a document of it somewhere. So, to me, you’ve done sort of everything in the industry for the most part. When young bands ask you for advice what do you tell them? Because you’ve seen it from all sides.
I definitely have seen it from all sides. I’ve worked radio and clubs and I had a record store — I pretty much did work every facet of the business. And when the label started, I was art direction, getting the records in production and so forth. But really, the core advice to any artist is: Keep it fun, you know? This is really about a celebration of spirit and creativity.
That’s why most of these bands in this book put out records. They weren’t really thinking in terms of career. And I think the mistake a lot of artists make right now is that they analyze their career moves a little too closely. They’ll get a manager and an attorney after a couple of rehearsals. They’ll start contemplating licensing deals. And a lot of that affects the quality of the music. And I feel that a lot of indie music these days completely lacks the spirit of the music of the ’80s that was more punk-influenced. I find a lot of the music from this period more spirited because these bands, their basic goal was to put out a single and maybe do a regional tour. So they had nothing to lose and they put everything that they had into it. And they were willing to take risks and they were willing to look ridiculous because their aims were not commercial. There was no way that they would ever make money doing stuff, so a lot of these recordings, to me, are a lot more spirited. Whereas a lot of the indie culture these days is kinda cerebral, a little more calculated, lacking in spirit. So my advice is really do it for the fun of it and things will flow from there.
A perfect example from that era would be a band like the B-52’s. They started out as a house band playing parties. Then they went up to New York a few times — I was fortunate enough to catch them at Max’s Kansas City in ’78, maybe 30 people in the audience. And at the time, they were just so original. I’d never seen anything like it. They’d just pressed their first single. I think they might’ve done an edition of 2,000 copies, and that was that. But because they were having fun and not necessarily being careerists, they wound up being very successful. People tapped into that risk-taking and that sense of joy that they had because they were just playing for the fun of it.
Yeah, who could guess that they would’ve gone as far as they did based on what they did?
Yeah. They were just having fun.
It seems like a lot of the bands here — and this is just my stupid little observation — some of my favorite bands that don’t go far locally, even, it’s because they don’t go to other people’s shows. And it’s not that they’re being punished for not going to others shows, it’s just that they miss out on that idle bar chat that eventually turns into, “Hey do you want to get on this show with my band?” It seems like the more everyone communicates around here, the easier things flow.
Absolutely. And this is — that’s actually a really good point. And the number one question I get asked all the time is “Now in the Internet era, does regionalism still matter?” Because people can network on the Internet. And I always say, “Absolutely.” There’s no substitute for going to a show, bumping into another musician or maybe a photographer and sharing ideas and developing a bond. And it’s those bonds that are developed through interpersonal connection that really help gel a scene. Internet communities are no substitute to a great local club that’s open to new artists.
We have a few of those here, so we’re really lucky. They really help to feed the community.
Yep. In Seattle a perfect — just to reflect on this, what happened in Seattle — a key factor in the Seattle success was the fact that a local photographer Charles Peterson was obsessed with documenting these live shows and he had a very unique style– you might be familiar with his work?
He had a lot of crazy action shots. Anyhow, I came across his photos at a party. I instantly recognized that if I could package the Seattle music with these images and was really consistent about that, then people would be intrigued. There was just no doubt in my mind. And this all happened by going to a party and meeting Charles, and that’s the thing about scenes: One thing leads to another and the next thing you know you have a culture.
Yeah, most of our musicians are artists also. So it’s easy for a musician to work with a photographer or a painter and on and on.
Yeah, one thing leads to the other. Hey, I wanted to mention just in passing that in one of my early zines — I can’t remember which one — but there was a St. Louis band and they were kind of a big deal at the time. I just wanted to drop in their name — that’s a group called Raymilland, named after a B-movie actor.
Ooh, I have that record sitting ten feet away from me.
Fantastic! Let’s see… that was in the third issue of my zine. There’s a quick little one page interview. I thought they were really good. They were championed by Wax Trax Records in Chicago at that time. In 1980 Wax Trax was kind of the center of the Midwest — that was the hub. Again, there was no Internet, so if you’re a music fan and you were in the Midwest, you’d drive to Chicago and go to Wax Trax records, because that’s where all the records were and all the zines. And then with the zines you could do some research and figure stuff out.
There was a publication in Chicago called Praxis which was very high end, kind of an art magazine, that focused on fashion and art and music and was part of the punk culture. And they included a flexi disc of Raymilland in one of their issues — that’s how I found out about them. You know, just a little history there.
That’s so crazy!
Raymilland was definitely seen as very progressive. A very interesting band. They sounded a little more European [laughs] which is why I think Wax Trax was so excited about them. But I think they’re really good.
I actually saw them play a reunion show in Athens, Georgia, a few years ago.
Really? Oh my god!
Yeah, they played in St. Louis and at Popfest in Athens and it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. I love the record but it was amazing live.
Cool! That’s great; I never got a chance to see them.
If you want a copy of the record I can send you one.
Great, that would be really awesome.
So how do you currently find new bands that you’re interested in?
Well, uh, yeah, through word of mouth. I’m actually hanging out at SoundCloud a bit. I like going to SoundCloud and typing stuff in. Having lived on the west coast here for a while I’ve been more tapped into the west coast festival circuit. There are a lot of underground festivals here; music tends to be a little more DJ-oriented and a lot of that music is available on SoundCloud. So I don’t spend a lot of time in urban clubs — just a little bit. So again, word of mouth and doing research through SoundCloud and, you know, Bandcamp as well.
Could I ask you really quickly before I let you go — what’s your opinion on the latest media assertions about Dave Grohl being overexposed?
Oh, interesting. I haven’t seen that but I just saw Dave Grohl a few days ago. He was in Seattle. I think Dave Grohl… Do I think he’s overexposed? No, no I don’t. I think he’s done an incredibly great job with Sonic Highways — it’s a really good series. I think it was a brilliant marketing move, too, to have like an eight hour infomercial supporting your album.
It was actually over-the-top marketing genius. But, you know, he played it well because he went into these cities and was incredibly respectful of the legacies of these cities. He kind of knocked it out of the park with that. I’m very impressed. He’s pretty much the ambassador of rock these days. And I think that he has really good things to say. And that if anybody is going to go out there and you know, network with the president of the U.S. and talk music that it should be Dave. So I’m a big supporter of Dave Grohl. Personally, I liked him maybe a little more as a drummer in Nirvana than as a singer in the Foo Fighters, but aside from that, I think he has a remarkable gift for bringing people together and that’s a good thing.
Yeah, he’s the ultimate networker.
Yeah, I think so. You don’t need the Internet, just talk to Dave Grohl.
Pazz & Jop 2013
42nd Annual Village Voice Critics’ Poll
About Pazz + Jop:
The Pazz & Jop critics’ poll is a highly influential poll of music critics run by The Village Voice newspaper. It is compiled every year from the top ten lists of hundreds of music critics (roughly 800 in the 2004 poll). Albums have been voted upon every year since 1974 (voting also took place in 1971), and votes for singles have been tabulated since 1979.
Since the poll’s inception, critics have been invited to award their ten albums a total of 100 points, with each album receiving a maximum of 30 points and a minimum of 5. Lists submitted without points are given 10 points per album by the poll’s editors. Singles lists have always been unweighted.
Music critic Robert Christgau was in charge of the poll for 33 years, and wrote an essay every year that accompanied and framed the list. Christgau was dismissed from the Village Voice in August 2006, but the paper intends to continue the feature. Christgau continues to submit his Top Ten list and to encourage other eligible critics to do so.
The poll was jokingly given the spoonerism name “Pazz & Jop” rather than the more obvious “Jazz & Pop” because, inevitably, some detractor will claim that a nominated work is ineligible or undeserving on the grounds that it isn’t “really” jazz or pop. Since there are no formal definitions for the made-up terms “pazz” and “jop”, voters will concentrate on the actual merits of a work rather than arguing over whether it fits into this or that genre.
I Love Taylor Swift, But Her New Album Sounds Terrible and I Might Hate It
By Jaime Lees
Thu., Nov. 6 2014
Taylor Swift and I go way back. She doesn’t know this, but we’ve had a relationship since the beginning of 2007 when I caught the second half of “Teardrops on My Guitar” while flipping through radio stations one day in my car. The song sounded so good so immediately that I stopped the scan button to listen to the whole thing. I hummed the chorus for the next few hours, and when it wouldn’t get out of my head, I gave in and looked up the artist. Taylor Swift, said the Internet. Never heard of her.
Because I’m a curious type, I called up my friend Kelly who is into country music and was like, “Who is this singer, Taylor Swift?” and she told me that Swift was some new teenage singer/songwriter who had been blowing up the country charts. I had no idea. Modern country isn’t usually my thing, but the song kind of floated around in my head for the next few weeks. Then I poked around online and found some streams of other songs on that album including “Our Song” and “Should’ve Said No.” Holy crap, they were good. Then I bought the album and was like, “Jesus Christ, all of these songs are so damn perfect. How is this person only sixteen years old? It must be some kind of trick.”
Some time later I was home sick on a weekday and I happened to catch a Taylor Swift appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. It was our first proper (stalker/stalkee) introduction. Before I saw this appearance, I assumed that she was just a generic blond country singer; I had no idea that she was so adorable and funny. She played a killer version of “Our Song” on a sparkly acoustic guitar, and in the interview portion she dissed her famous ex-boyfriend. On international TV! I was all, “Oh, burn! You go, girl!” And I think that’s when I officially fell in love.
And suddenly, to my great surprise, I became a loud, obnoxious champion for this little country star. I’d tell anybody who would listen about how great her songs were and how much I was shocked by it myself. (This phenomenon later became so commonplace that it was referenced just a few days ago in a Saturday Night Live skit.) Most of my friends who liked modern country thought that she was a flash-in-the-pan obnoxious Nashville consumer product, but I had arguments against all that too.
I’d dug into her history and found out many impressive facts about her life, like how she was hired by Sony/ATV at age fourteen as a staff songwriter. And then she took her teenage self and managed to market the shit out of her product until she became one of the most successful, top-selling Grammy-winning performers in recent memory. (And so far, she’s done it all without taking off her clothes.) So I decided that Taylor Swift was punk-fucking-rock and a badass feminist, actually, and I felt bad for any of my too-cool-for-school fellow music journalists who wouldn’t give her a chance.
Soon after, she released her sophomore album, Fearless. I loved it. It showcased her amazing songwriting ability and stealthy lyrical trickery. It still sounded kind of country, but it embraced her exceptional ability to write a flat-out anthem. The best single off of that album, “You Belong With Me” zoomed up every music chart, and rightfully so. It was a modern day hat tip to characters like Duckie Dale from Pretty In Pink — Swift cast herself as the geeky (yet secretly cool) outcast who had a crush on an unattainable. She embraced other styles and attitudes, too. For example, “White Horse” was a “More Than Words“-esque sing-along ballad, and while she still dabbled in dependable fairy-tale set-ups for her lyrical romances, none of it was too over the top or annoying. “You’re Not Sorry” and “Forever and Always” showcased her often-criticized forever-jilted side, but the growth exposed in those songs was necessary to those following along with her story. Almost everything about the songs on that album was endearing, and none if it required any specialized musical tastes. It was pop. It was for everybody.
By the time Speak Now was released in 2010, I was a bona fide Swifty. I believed in this woman and was eager to hear whatever came next. At this point, any disparaging reviews that I read about her no longer focused on her being a former “country” act; they were all about her being young and female and how she wrote about her failed relationships. Even major outlets focused on these points more than necessary, and I read some of the most sexist mainstream coverage that I’d seen in a long while. (Which is saying something, really, since this type of thing is so common that it’s considered the norm.)
Again, the songs contained enough skills to hush any naysayers. Yes, she was still dressed like a pretty, pretty princess on the album cover, but the tunes inside were phenomenal. Some of tracks took a few listens to grow on me, but I’d learned to expect that from Swift’s ace-up-her-sleeve songwriting style. Songs like “Back to December” and “Dear John” struck me as overly sappy, and at first I thought “Mean” was juvenile, but now I love them all. On this album, Swift took the personal and made it universal. Yeah, she continued to slam her ex-boyfriends, but it was in a more broad, relatable way. The lyrics were storytelling, very visual. The title track begged for a cutesy slow-motion-hopping-into-a-convertible-and-speeding-away accompanying video. That never materialized, but the songs stood strong on their own. “The Story of Us” was fast and powerful, and I thought that “Better Than Revenge” was the best “fuck you” pop song I’d heard since Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around.” (And that sly little “You deserve it” at 2:47 still gets me every time — it adds so much extra dimension to that story with just those three words.)
And then came Red in 2012. It was her first truly grownup album, and for the most part it just slayed. It contained just a hint of country and instead embraced a very modern pop sound. It was fresh as hell, really, and prompted critics (including me) to declare Taylor Swift Just Took Her Pop Queen Throne. All Hail! Red felt like she’d finally narrowed everything down and found her own signature thing. It displayed her songwriting in the perfect way while still experimenting with different musical styles. Swift famously flirted with her dark side in the delicious “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and she elegantly exploited the plight of privileged twentysomethings with “22.” But it was “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and its “piston-powered cheerleader chant” chorus that took it to the next level. On the whole, these songs painted Swift as fully evolved, even if slightly personally confused. She had finally found her own, strong adult voice. (And she gave us pizza.)
So as you could guess, I was majorly pumped for the release of her latest album, 1989. I loved the first single, “Shake It Off,” but thought it sounded bad when played from my crappy old iPhone. (These kids liked it, too.) And for the past month or so, I’ve been eagerly devouring all things Swift in the press. I’ve enjoyed reading tons of articles about how she was set to be the first platinum-selling artist of the year, how she removed her music from Spotify, and my favorite: Taylor Swift Sells White Noise In Canada. I’d also read that 1989 was advertised as being “Mastered for iTunes,” but I had no problem with this because I love iTunes and use it daily without issue.
In anticipation of the release, I cleared away part of my schedule so that I’d have more time to dig into the new album. For real. I was ready for this album to be so amazingly great that I could give a copy to a non-fan and win them over. I was ready to tell the whole of the Swift-hating world to S my D all day.
So imagine my surprise when I first listened to Swift’s 1989 and I freakin’ hated it.
Here’s the deal: I can hardly even get to the songwriting or the lyrics because my ears are rejecting the actual sound of the album. If I try to play it at normal volume, my ears — I swear — literally hurt and feel like they are physically clamping shut. It just sounds way too…high? Shrill? Screechy? I tried it on my home stereo. I tried it in my car. I tried it on my phone. I tried it with earbuds. I tried it with my amazing-sounding fancy vintage headphones. Nope. Every single time I tried to play it, I caught myself wincing and reaching for the volume button to make it go away.
How in the heck is this possible? At first, I reasoned that this album was mixed for ears quite a few years younger (and less rock & roll-damaged) than mine, but upon deeper reflection that didn’t make any sense. Aren’t kids supposed to hear higher sounds better than adults? That’s how they use those secret ringtones and whatnot, right? So by that logic, this album should hurt their ears even more than mine. And I’m not cruel enough to play 1989 around a dog or other animal with exceptional hearing, but I’d be interested in knowing their reaction.
As one does, I took my whining to Facebook, hoping that someone could explain to me what my problem was with this damn album. My many musician friends had their theories, and a friend linked me a to an article where another writer had the same problem. Other Googling led to many blog posts and complaints that were similar to mine. And still others were unsure about her new pop sound. Thank you! You’re never alone when you have the Internet, friends.
My searching led me to something called the “acoustic reflex.” I think that’s my problem. It’s “an involuntary muscle contraction that occurs in the middle ear of mammals in response to high-intensity sound stimuli.” Yep. Exactly.
As it turns out, there are a bunch of possible scientific explanations for what feels like my ears screaming, clamping down and then going dull. Further research brought me to topics like listener fatigue (“thought to be an extension of the quantifiable psychological perception of sound”) and I even have some high-tech theories related to something called “Fletcher-Munson curves.”
I decided to bring in an audio expert. (And obvious full disclosure here: a friend.) I’d been engaged in a years-long conversation with Mario Viele (of St. Louis band Sex Robots) about Taylor Swift. He’s a highly skilled engineer, mix engineer and producer currently based in New York, but he’s also a Swift fan, too, and therefore uniquely qualified to speak on the subject. We’d been texting each other for days about the new album and I asked him to go on the record to explain the problem with my ears.
For the most part, these songs sound weirdly like ’90s club hits to me. Reminiscent of, like, Danity Kane or those boys bands or something. It’s an unexpected observation that was backed up by Viele’s musical knowledge. His smart (and fun) answers to my confused questions are below.
Jaime Lees: Why does the new Taylor Swift album hurt my ears? And what does “Mastered for iTunes” mean, exactly? Explain it to me like I don’t know anything about audio production– because I don’t.
Mario Viele: You don’t need to know anything about production to get the vibe here; the neon all over the artwork says it all. It’s mixed bright and hyped like a Hollywood nightclub, with full intent to pop and buzz and shine.
Mastered for iTunes — which is a process — is different than mixing and mastering for the iTunes age, which is more of a concept. Now, a separate master is often made from the source mixes direct to iTunes quality, skipping the CD master stage and resulting in a “better” inferior format. It’s not exactly ideal, nor is it a terrible thing. It’s kinda like sonic sex ed — don’t tell the kids not to when they’re just gonna anyway.
The “Mastered for iTunes” that you will see tagged on this album in the iTunes store means that instead of having a middle man in the mastering stage — the CD master — a master was encoded direct to the iTunes AAC format from the source mixes, retaining higher bit rates and sampling rates than CDs contain, yet AAC is a less desirable and more compressed format than CD audio. It’s controversial for these basic reasons.
What is bugging you is probably more the production technique — what I’d call mixing and mastering for the iTunes age — which is an aesthetic choice by the team that you as a listener are being objective about. There are moments on the record (notably: the hooks) where compression is used as a tool to excite the track.
Think of a pipe: There is only so much water pressure that can go through it. Imagine that pipe pushed to it’s fullest limit, shaking and spurting water from its valves. That’s kind of the sentiment, but done in a deliberate way with a high grade pipe that can handle the pressure. So it’s more implied than it is literally ready to explode. It’s a lot coming at you, which may be why your ears are going, “AHH!!” a little bit.
Is there any way to fix this problem on my own when listening to the album? Like, what if I crank the bass or wear my headphones over decibel-canceling ear plugs?
The record isn’t just named 1989 for Taylor’s year of birth; it’s also filled with ’80s style production… drum machine samples, keyboards, etc. Sure, you can crank the bass, but you might be better off busting out your Pizza Hut Back To The Future II sunglasses and strapping on some Air Mags for the dance floor.
As an engineer, your ears are already stressed all day, but how did the album sound to you? What would you have done differently?
I think she achieved what she set out to. It’s full of synth and vocal-heavy tracks influenced by both ’80s/’90s arena-pop and current mainstream pop alike. There is a big difference between error and intent, if I could change anything I’d invent a time machine and try and get “This Love” on the Heathers soundtrack.
Who do I blame for this? One of the dozen producers on 1989? All of the producers on 1989? The engineer? The mixer-person? “The current state of pop music”? John Mayer?
The “executive producer,” Max Martin, is responsible for big ’90s hits by the likes of Britney, N*SYNC, and the Backstreet Boys. if you’re gonna blame anyone, BLAME THAT GUY. Seriously though, he was around for Red and is no doubt a big part of the path to 1989, right behind Debbie Gibson, Paula Abdul and that cartoon rap cat, Mc Skat Kat. If there’s truly anything to blame here it’s most definitely the lack of cat raps!
As far as I can gather from attempting to listen to the songs, they sound like the future, but it might not be a future that I am ready for just yet. As with some of her other tunes, maybe repeated listenings will somehow force it all into order in my brain, and also make my ears calm down. Generally, the more you listen the better she gets. This has always been true of all of her other albums. It’s been a week since 1989 dropped and I already like the album (what I’ve heard of it) way more than I did last week.
As a good student of history, I’m already interested in what I’ll think of it six weeks or six months from now. I suspect that I will have adjusted and that it will somehow become my new favorite thing ever. She has some kind of creepy and creeping magic, I think, and I’m still a believer. Bring it on, Swift.
– link: Riverfront Times / RFT Music