Saturday, November 1, 2014

Song of the Day: Counting Crows - Mr. Jones (1994)

It's amazing how chronological proximity can force labels upon things that simply don't fit. The Alternative Nation of the early-to-mid '90s American music scene allowed a lot of bands to become popular that otherwise wouldn't have, but it also forced the "alternative" descriptor onto a lot of music that was simply not alternative. With hindsight, we can look back and understand that Counting Crows were clearly not part of the same scene as The Smashing Pumpkins, and the mere suggestion feels ludicrous. But in 1994, it all felt the same. Good new rock bands were coming out of the woodwork seemingly every month, MTV made them all fast superstars, and the era made it all feel like part of the same thing. 

Counting Crows' debut album, August and Everything After, was the third of the first three CDs I ever bought, all on the same day. Green Day, STP, and Counting Crows may feel like three tremendously dissimilar bands in 2014, but in late October 1994, they were the three bands that began my long musical journey. 

Back in college, I was at a bar once with my girlfriend at the time when Billy Joel's "Piano Man" started playing, and she commented how amazing it must be to write a song that just ends up transcending all eras/styles/tastes/context, and just gets played and sung along to forever. I think of that point every time I hear "Mr. Jones," which is a song destined to be sung anytime someone breaks out an acoustic guitar and begins taking requests, pretty much until the end of time. It's just that kind of song, the one that permeates into our collective subconscious,  and provokes everyone to sing along even though they only know every third word and have definitely never considered what the lyrics mean or where the hell the "New Amsterdam" might be. 

The actual context for the song is pretty interesting, as it hit #1 in April of '94, just a few weeks after Kurt Cobain died (and knocked R. Kelly's "Bump n' Grind" out of the top spot, no less). For a song ostensibly about wanting the benefits of fame, it was a bizarre time for that sentiment. "When everybody loves you, you can never be lonely," so says the song. I'm sure Kurt, if he heard the song before he died, would have vehemently disagreed. To those who seriously thought about these things at the time, a song with the lyric "We all wanna be big big stars" probably felt immediately dated, and maybe even in bad taste. But to the rest of us, it hasn't spent a single day feeling dated in the 20+ years since it came out, and maybe it's no accident that it hit #1 when it did--A few weeks after the Cobain tragedy, perhaps we were already hoping to wash away the negativity of what happened and find a new star to anoint. 

(The video, on the other hand, definitely feels dated, particularly at the 42 second mark when Adam Duritz starts twerking at the microphone. You can't win 'em all.)

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