All posts by Jeremy Beck

TRACK MARKS 2019: “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” by Taylor Swift

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. As usual, we’re closing out the year by talking about a bunch of songs that we loved over the past 12 months.

Given that she’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world, it should be difficult for Taylor Swift to don the cloak of the underdog. But among her many gifts as a songwriter is a knack for immersion, the way she can use a sharp hook or a snappy phrase to instantly pull you into her filigreed worlds. Lover is a massive album (18 tracks!) that was massively successful (double platinum!), but when “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” kicks off, Swift is just another shattered teenage girl again; she effortlessly conjures a familiar high-school dystopia, the modest drums combining with her slightly breathy vocals to yank you back to a time of adolescent heartache. The lyrics are characteristically simple but evocative: She’s ripped up her prom dress, she’s running through rose thorns, she’s fending off whispers from judgmental classmates about how she’s a bad, bad girl. It’s The Scarlet Letter by way of Mean Girls.

Of course, “Miss Americana” is more than just another of Swift’s teen-centric fairy tales, like “White Horse” or “Love Story”; it’s also a cri de coeur in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. “Boys will be boys, then where are the wise men?” she asks rhetorically while staring helplessly at “American glory faded before me,” and her despair is palpable. There’s even a whiff of gerrymandering/voter suppression (“The whole school is rolling fake dice”), but mostly she’s just left helpless and depressed, learning of the election results (via a football scoreboard, naturally) and then running for her life. When the bad guys are exchanging high fives, all that’s left to do is paint the town blue.

Here’s the thing, though: None of that political metaphor is essential to appreciating “Miss Americana” as a kickass song, a finely constructed ballad that builds to a soaring conclusion. Swift is such a phenom, it’s easy to overlook just how skilled she is, how she approaches her work with sincerity and craft. It’s there in the spondaic shouts of “OH-KAY!” that punctuate several lines, and in the light piano that pops up in the chorus, meshing with the throbbing synths. My favorite part of the song is the bridge, where backup singers shout the last word of each line: “And I don’t want you to GO! / I don’t really wanna FIGHT! / ‘Cause nobody’s gonna WIN!” That sounds like surrender, but listen closer; after three crushing repetitions, Swift suddenly inverts the lyrics, promising that she’ll never go, that she’s staying to fight, that she’s determined to win. It’s a lightning-quick flip—from compliance to defiance, from desolation to resolution—and it turns this once-despondent ditty into a roaring battle cry. So sure, maybe it’s tough to accept Taylor Swift as the underdog, but only because—as this intricate, ecstatic song proves—she doesn’t know how to lose.

TRACK MARKS 2019: “Cheerleader” by Sir Babygirl

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. As usual, we’re closing out the year by talking about a bunch of songs that we loved over the past 12 months.

Everyone hates cheerleaders. They’re the popular crowd, the mean girls, the queen bees who date the star quarterback and occupy the prime real estate in the cafeteria. If you’ve ever felt remotely marginalized or uncool, you’ve probably wished them harm or misfortune at some point, if only idly. Of course, this conception of pom-pom-wielders as bimbos, tramps, or both is an ugly and outdated stereotype. But on the power-pop anthem “Cheerleader,” rising artist Kelsie Hogue (aka Sir Babygirl) nevertheless gives voice to those dark and disgruntled thoughts, confessing to scribbling graffiti in the bathroom stall about how “everybody wants to watch the cheerleader fall.” She’s on the outside looking in, and when she asks for your complicity—”I’ll kill my reputation if you promise not to tell / I’ll kill my reputation if you come with me to hell”—it’s as though she’s concocting some sort of dastardly scheme, grist for a made-for-TV movie.

But is Hogue devious, or just envious? As “Cheerleader” progresses, its light notes of electronica gathering a propulsive energy with a heavy bass and thumping drums, it turns into a kind of empowerment ballad, and not just about the extra in the background who inadvertently drops the prom queen. As Hogue imagines climbing to the top of the pyramid—wearing a skirt so tight it makes her bleed, and festooned with friendship bracelets that double as handcuffs—the song transforms from an angsty lament of isolation into a glorious fantasy of belonging. Hogue doesn’t want to kill the cheerleader, she wants to be the cheerleader; the bridge is a plea for your support, exhorting you in a howling crescendo to “Come on, cheer me on.” It’s so noisy and catchy, it’s easy to miss the intricacy of the mix: the snap of the snare, the snaking guitar line, the way the precisely timed rat-a-tat barks of “C’mon-c’mon-c’mon” sit alongside the classic chant, “Be aggressive, B-E aggressive!” (Yo Grimes, you hearing this?) It’s simultaneously shameless and triumphant, and as Hogue’s immaculate shrieks grow higher and higher, you have no choice but to join her cause. After all, everyone loves cheerleaders.

Grammy Week Track Marks: “The Stove and the Toaster” by the Hold Steady

The Grammys are happening this Sunday, and in celebration (?!), a few SportsAlcohol.com folks will be offering up some words about some of our favorite songs of 2018.

Music purists of a certain age and disposition are currently frustrated with The Hold Steady, given that they’ve spent the past five years dribbling out a couple of songs at a time rather than holing up in the studio and releasing, you know, an album. But as desperate as I am to finally unwrap the band’s seventh LP and see what Holly and Charlemagne are up to, I can’t be too mad at The Hold Steady, not when they’re releasing songs as spectacular as “The Stove and the Toaster,” another of Craig Finn’s propulsive adventures in sleazy criminality. At just three-and-a-half minutes, it’s a remarkably dense song, packing in the usual torrent of verbiage and somehow still finding room for an epic guitar solo. Finn’s lyrics are as sharp and flavorful as ever, but it’s important not to overlook the band’s musical flourishes, like the sudden squalls of piano, or the horns that punctuate each line of the chorus, a sort of subliminal reminder that declares, “Hey folks, we aren’t just talk-singing poets; we’re a goddamn rock band.”

But Finn’s storytelling will always be the heart of The Hold Steady, the way he weaves tales of extraordinary specificity—geographic, personal, architectural—and spins them into music. “The Stove and the Toaster” is so teeming with detail and suspense, it could practically double as an episode of Breaking Bad, and not just because of the southwestern locations. The premise is simple: Finn wants to rip off some drug dealers, and his girlfriend has inside info that will allow them to pull off the perfect heist. (In some characteristically piquant Hold Steady minutiae, the stash is in the stove, the cash is in the toaster.) The problem is that they’re in over their heads; their marks are “earpiece dudes in a fortified fortress / A wholesale crew that does pretty big business.” This makes their fates a foregone conclusion—“We came to the kitchen and we knew it was over / I didn’t see any stove, no sign of the toaster”—but it also makes their recklessness oddly tragic. Finn just wanted to show his girl a good time, but he never stood a chance. Only a songwriting pro could conjure such a clueless amateur.

Grammy Week Track Marks: “Mistake” by Middle Kids

The Grammys are happening this Sunday, and in celebration (?!), a few SportsAlcohol.com folks will be offering up some words about some of our favorite songs of 2018.

As lousy as 2018 may have been for America, it was quite the year for Australia, or at least for Australian three-pieces. Not only did Camp Cope deliver a blistering sophomore album, but the little-known outfit Middle Kids arrived onto the scene with Lost Friends, a ferociously catchy debut full of taut, intricately composed bangers. There’s nothing especially revolutionary about this trio’s music; they write straightforward songs that bounce from verses to choruses and back. But art doesn’t need to be original to be great, and “Mistake,” the record’s second single, weaponizes your familiarity against you. You think you’ve heard it before, and all of a sudden you’re tapping your foot, banging your head, and belting out its refrain at the top of your lungs.

Naturally, the pet trick of lead singer Hannah Joy is an oldie but a goodie: She loves to draw out single syllables for seconds at a time, right from the “Ooooh darling” that opens the song. Joy’s lyrics aren’t fancy—she repeatedly rhymes “back” with “back”—but they’re evocative, efficiently revealing a woman crippled by confusion regret (“Thought I was healthy but I’m choking / It must be catching up, my smoking”); she also drops in some sly bits of Swiftian pronoun-switching. But the sound is the key here, the way the drums and guitars seem perfectly unified, propelling Joy forward as she pushes toward each electric chorus. The band knows exactly when to crescendo and when to downshift, resulting in a song that snakes and curls before finally erupting with euphoria. It’s perfectly constructed, yet it doesn’t feel engineered or excessively polished. It’s a hell of a thing: Musicians have been banging on drums and strumming on guitars for decades, and without altering any of that basic technique, Middle Kids have somehow produced something fresh and exciting. Maybe it’s telling that the word “mistake” never actually appears in “Mistake”. On multiple levels, it’s nowhere to be found.