Song of the Day: My Chemical Romance, "Ambulance"
I have been writing about music as a professional for the better part of 15 years, and before that I wrote about music for myself, crafting year-end lists (my number one album of 1995 was Rancid's ...And Out Come The Wolves) and pretending to be Kurt Loder delivering updates on Scott Weiland's rehab on The Week in Rock. The bulk of the money I earned as a teen went to paying for compact discs, and the vast majority of my memories from that era are associated with musical deep dives: scouring Tower Records in Boston for local band Jiggle the Handle, driving up to Enfield Music Outlet to score Nine Inch Nails bootlegs, getting lost on the way to an audition only to find salvation in a forgotten cassette of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.
Music—particularly analyzing and thinking about it—was so important to me that, once I decided to leave the idea of becoming an actor behind, I tried to make it into a career. And I did! For a long time, people have been paying me to generate thoughts about what Rihanna songs mean and to ask Trent Reznor what his favorite records were while he was making The Downward Spiral. ButIt has remained the greatest job in the world, and I am in no way complaining—after all, it's better than working for a living.
However, there is something that happened somewhere along the way, which I suppose was inevitable: At some point, coming up with insights about songs became something of a bodily function. I suppose that means I got good at it, and in the sped-up version of the pop culture Internet we currently have, it has been valuable for me to be able to react on my feet and turn a surprise appearance by a Drake dis track or a Katy Perry single into something that vaguely resembles valuable content.
But the process takes over eventually, and because efficiency trumps pretty much everything else on Twitter, there was no room left for actually feeling anything. I realized recently that I wasn't getting the same charge out of a great song that I used to, that everything felt different and duller.
Now, I have a few theories about why this has happened to me, and the likely solution lies somewhere in the middle. Allow me some bullet points.
- The music is less good. I don't like to give nostalgists their due (I can't stand that Rolling Stone idea that everything peaked in the '60s), but I have to allow the slight possibility that music made today—and we're talking mass-consumed pop music, which includes anything that might fall under the "rock" category, however ephemeral that idea is—simply isn't make with the same quality as the stuff I grew up with. Now, there are clear markers why this is wrong—I can honestly say that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a hundred million times better than those mid-tier No Limit Records products I banged in my car at 17 (shout out to Silkk the Shocker's Made Man). But less and less time is spent on album curation, and most albums are produced with digital delivery in mind, which means they sound like over-compressed garbage. So it is entirely possible that, sonically, the songs I'm listening to now are fundamentally different—and in many ways worse—than stuff from before the millennium.
- I am old. Science says your taste calcifies some time in your early 20s because your brain becomes more immutable to new stimulus—in essence, it becomes physically impossible to have the same experiences with culture—particularly when it comes to music—once you hit a certain age.
- My life is more diverse. The charge I got out of the excitement of new music was one of the only that I had back in the day, and now I apply those same cultural sensors to television, movies, books, video games, and even sports. I'm more active than I ever been. I have a wife and a series of adult relationships. I no longer need to be vindicated by what's coming through my headphones—I get my pleasures in myriad ways.
Now that I'm no longer required professionally to have deep thoughts about Adele, I'm going to see if going deep still provides me with the thrill it used to. So every day, I'm going to break down one song. It may be something from my deep catalog of stuff I have collected over the years, or something new, or something I ask Spotify to randomly shout at me, but there will be a single track, a single focus, and (hopefully) some form of revelation.
Today's song is by My Chemical Romance, a band I spent a lot of time thinking about professionally when I worked for Spin magazine and they were on the rise as the most important group to a certain large subset of Warped Tour youth. (In fact, I declared them "the last most important band on the planet" when they broke up, and I stand by that assertion.) The song below comes from a project called Conventional Weapons, which was supposed to serve as the follow-up to 2006's sprawling rock opera The Black Parade. At some point in the process, the tracks were abandoned, and MCR ultimately recorded and released 2009's Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys instead. Conventional Weapons was released as a series of singles shortly before the announced break-up, and it stands as a decent link between the theatrical gloom of The Black Parade and the more glam-oriented Danger Days.
Of all the songs on Conventional Weapons, "Ambulance" is my favorite, largely because of the way the chorus swells—everything sounds fantastically multi-tracked, and singer Gerard Way is doing his best to harmonize with the Freddie Mercury version of himself (and largely succeeding). This song is the centerpiece of my running mix, and every time it pops up and reaches that chorus—which finds Way shouting "If you save my life, I will be the one who drives you home tonight," a fantastically suburban take on life and death—I can feel myself getting slightly faster. It's as though that sudden push to get to the song's salvation is also providing the extra boost to my runner's high.
"Ambulance" makes me feel the way music used to make me feel, so it's as good a place to start as any. As always, play it loud.