This new movie song is unbearably manipulative … so why the fuck can’t I stop listening?

“This is Me,” the original song written for the film musical The Greatest Showman by Oscar-winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (of La La Land fame) just won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song, and is probably on track to win Pasek and Paul another Oscar in the same category.

Here’s the video:

 

 

I don’t know why it’s attributed to Kesha – the album track is attributed to Keala Settle, the actress who plays the Bearded Lady in this film about the life of P.T. Barnum, which has received mixed reviews for (among other things) fictionalizing and Hollywood-izing a biography that was fascinating in its own right.

If Kesha really did sing on the album (and it does kind of sound like her), I don’t know why.  Well, I do know why – they wanted a bankable name to sell some downloads – but Settle clearly has the pipes for it.  I’m getting ahead of myself, but observe:

 

 

So … let’s talk about this.  There’s a lot I don’t like about this song.  The obvious: it’s cheesy.  What else is there to say?  Lyrics like “Another round of bullets hits my skin” and “Look out, ’cause here I come” are cliched enough to be groan-worthy.

I guess this is how you make an anthem of empowerment, though.  Be as obvious as possible, add a thumping tribal beat … any fan of Lion King On Broadway or Cool Mint Listerine knows the power of a good Tarzan-style gang vocal … and, of course, the storied “Four Chords of Awesome,” often attributed to Pachelbel’s Canon in D, which finds its way into nearly every pop anthem.  If you want to move someone to tears without them knowing quite why, these are the chords you use.

Let’s flip the script, now … there’s a lot of heart in this song.  There are clever choices in the lyrics, like shortening the cliche “Marching to the beat of my own drum” to “Marching to the beat I drum” to fit the meter.

There’s nothing wrong with the Four Chords of Awesome.  I use them all the time in my own songwriting.  In his classic song “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen refers to the “secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord.”  How does it go?  “The fourth, the fifth; the minor fall and the major lift.”  Those are the Four Chords of Awesome, and “Hallelujah” itself plays them as the lyrics name them.  I don’t know what it is, but they speak to something primal in us, just like that tribal beat.

The movie around the song is clearly cheesy (“Girls … I think I’ve had an idea!”  The idea must have been to run ecstatically down dirt roads while somehow keeping his top hat on.)   Full disclosure – I haven’t seen the movie.  The “C” review by Jesse Hassenger on avclub.com faults the film’s “deliberate musical anachronisms” for being “dependent on the supposedly invigorating spectacle of characters march-dancing toward the camera in brave defiance.”  “This Is Me” is the ultimate march-dance-toward-the-camera song.  As for deliberate musical anachronism, Hamilton has made that all the rage.

Why, also, should “This Is Me” be considered less successful than a song like “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World?  It’s a similar anthem of empowerment and self-love (albeit sung in the second person), uses the Four Chords of Awesome (well, three of them), and oh, hey, did you remember that the music video is set mostly at an underwear party?  It’s maybe the most fun case of needless prurience ever.  Here it is.  You’re welcome.

 

 

I have no easy answers, only this conundrum – I am mostly offended by “This Is Me” and the song’s lowest-common-denominator grab for the heartstrings … and yet I keep coming back to that video I posted above, the second one, taken from the first cast sing-through.  It captures Settle (supposedly) overcoming stage fright to come out from behind the music stand; grip Hugh Jackman’s hand for support at an emotional high point; and then ruin it all with that annoying shrug at the end.  Side note: the male featured vocalist looks like he’s about to explode.

I tear up every time.  It’s maudlin as hell … and it works like gangbusters.  Give this team a trophy.

 

“Lay down your arms, give up the fight.”

This reminds me of a few things.  First, there’s “21 Guns,” the single from 21st Century Breakdown.  This was Green Day’s stab at the impossible task of following up their watershed comeback album, the political rock-opera American Idiot.  

I’ll go ahead and sacrifice all my punk-rock cred right now by saying I prefer American Idiot to the acknowledged classic Dookie.  I love epic, grand gestures, and American Idiot pushed the boundaries of pop-punk to be narrative, political, passionate, confounding, and ultimately heartbreaking.

Like I said, I don’t envy them the task of following up such a masterpiece, whose creation relied on so many storied accidents.  They tried to catch lightning in a bottle twice, though – 21st Century Breakdown follows a similarly epic template, and the ball goes in the dirt with snore-fests like lead single “Know Your Enemy,” the title track, and operatic flights that can’t match “Jesus of Suburbia” or “Homecoming.”

The exception is “21 Guns,” a beautiful ballad that stands alone on the album.  The video won a VMA.  Here it is.  Note the use of the Four Chords of Awesome and a chorus that blatantly rips off “Canon in D.’

 

 

The lyrics are affecting, but choke a little on Billie Joe Armstrong’s propensity for cliche and deep-sounding nonsense.  Mostly, it’s a simple ballad that works (with a guitar solo that sounds suspiciously like the theme for Full House).

The song is so good that it was one of a handful of 21CB cuts to make it into the Broadway musical version of American Idiot.  Maybe this musical was inevitable, given the operatic nature of the album and its breakthrough success.  The musical was a hit; it won two Tony Awards, ran for 422 performances at the St. James, and Armstrong himself memorably played St. Jimmy in numerous performances, to predictable standing ovations.

A hit Broadway musical needs an Original Cast Recording to help cash in.  “21 Guns” was picked as a single from the OCR, with an accompanying music video.  Here’s where we loop back to “This Is Me” and emotional manipulation.  The “This Is Me” sing-through video and the “21 Guns” OCR video are both intentionally weepy.  Take a look:

 

 

The soloists turn their dewy eyes up to the heavens, the ensemble bobs and dances as they sing their hearts out, faces contorted like an ugly-cry, summoning the emotion necessary for a professional ballad vocal performance, all the while looking slightly ridiculous and overblown as they try and hang all that emotion on Billie Joe’s thin lyrics.  The cutaways are to the good-looking cast snuggling, bursting into laughter and tears, hugging, goofing off, and celebrating in the studio with a decidedly Hooray-we-get-to-hang-out-with-Green-Day vibe.  The close-ups of Green Day band members Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool looking like they are near tears really are a bit much.

Do my thoughts on this stupid video seem remarkably well thought-out?  That’s because I’ve watched it fifty fucking times as well.  It does the same thing as the “This Is Me” videos – locate the beat and … well, as Third-Eye Blind put it, “the four right chords that make me cry.”

I can put myself on a high horse of criticism, and show that I know a little music theory and see the connective tissue of pop culture (or at least pop punk) and pretend that makes me smarter, or better.  But the galling thing about these emotionally manipulative motherfuckers is that they have me, hook line and sinker.  I may see through it, but I’m not immune.

 

“To being an ‘us’ for once, instead of a ‘them.'”

So let’s talk about Rent.  Jonathan Larson’s stage musical Rent was the Hamilton of its day – a pop-culture, Tony- and Pulitzer-winning phenomenon that the high school theater nerds (like myself) went apeshit over.  Rent also had the intriguing (albeit heartbreaking) narrative of Larson’s sudden and unexpected death, mere days before opening night and the stratospheric breakthrough Rent would have been in his career.   (Interestingly, Pasek and Paul were the recipients of the 2007 Jonathan Larson Award from the foundation set up in his name.)

I remember many a rehearsal break in my high school choir room where someone would sit down at the piano and we would sing our hearts out to Rent’s defining anthem “Seasons of Love,” locating those chorus harmonies on the fly and loving ourselves for it.   I think the lyrics of “Seasons of Love” hold up better than “This Is Me” ultimately will.  It’s not Proust, but there’s depth to breaking down our lives to the finite number of minutes and meditating on how we spend them.

A film version was nine years in the making, a long time to wait for a property so of-its-time, but I got to see it in New York on opening weekend in a crowded theater.  The way we all cheered when the film kicked off with the familiar title graphic and that so-well-loved “Seasons Of Love” piano intro (Hey!  Recognize those chords???) made me knew that I was with my people.  After all, as original cast member Anthony Rapp (retained for the film, and now in the news for accusing Kevin Spacey of molesting him as a teen) makes it clear in act-break song “La Vie Boheme,” you could be an “us” or a “them.”  Who wouldn’t want to be part of this “us?”

 

 

The “Greatest Showman” sing-through looks like quite the “us.”  It must have been something to be there.  Watch Justin Paul geek out on the piano like a freaking boss.  Look at the transported joy on the face of the chorus singer in front who can’t stop raising her hands like she’s in church.  During a pregnant pause before the climactic chorus, Jackman can be heard exhaling heavily, overcome with the emotion of the moment.  Seconds later he’s on his feet dancing, unable to contain himself.  (And who’s that pretty lady next to him who follows suit getting to her feet, clapping slightly off-time?)

In interviews, Jackman has spoken of “This Is Me” as a song that “really teaches people to love themselves.”  Does it?  Really?  I think that’s a little self-aggrandizing, and I don’t blame him.  The Greatest Showman is Jackman’s passion project seven years in the making.  Middling reviews or not, it’s clearly the film he wanted it to be, and …. well, just look at him in that video.

FML, I think I need to go watch it again.

What do you think of “This Is Me?”

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One Reply to “This new movie song is unbearably manipulative … so why the fuck can’t I stop listening?”

  1. Wow! Great review and analysis. I watched all the videos and the GSOE rehearsal twice! Made me tear up twice! There is so much passion in that woman and everyone feels it! Amazing! It’s like a catharsis for her! Well done!

    Like

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