Editor’s Note: Way back in the distant past of my early twenties, I co-ran a pop culture blog similar to this one called the Modern Pea Pod. It was a great experience overall: I got some modicum of exposure for my writing, interviewed people like rock’n’roll pioneer Wanda Jackson and Kid Congo Powers of the Gun Club, and built up a backlog of content that I can now exploit for Throwback Thursdays when I’m too busy and/or lazy to write something new for this blog. Probably my favorite thing about the whole project, though, was our monthly Mixtape: an actual blueprint for making an actual, two-sided, 90-minute cassette tape of songs around a particular theme, complete with timecodes. It was, like most other things related to the Modern Pea Pod, a ludicrously anachronistic and overly complicated exercise (I’m pretty sure we were the only blog ever to advertise via black-and-white flyer, too). But it was also a lot of fun, and a chance to write about music that we loved but that wasn’t necessarily “relevant” for a traditional review.
So, in my ongoing effort to strip the Pea Pod’s corpse of every last bit of its salvageable flesh (ew), I’m pleased to introduce the spiritual successor to the Modern Pea Pod Mixtape: the Dystopian Dance Mix. The main difference this time around is that it’s not meant to be a cassette tape, because this is 2014 and I’m not an insane person. Instead, we’re taking advantage of real live 21st century technology and making the playlists streamable via Spotify. My one concession to the old anachronistic format is that each playlist will come in under 80 minutes, the idea being that you could burn it to a CD if you were so inclined (and if you owned all of the music, of course). I plan on getting these playlists out every month or so; the themes for the first two months are a little clichéd and predictable (Mother’s Day and Father’s Day for May and June, who’da thunk), but you can look forward to more inspired entries after I’ve gotten warmed up. So here it is, folks: my gift to all the mothers and motherfuckers out there reading this. Enjoy! – Z.H.
Mother’s Day is of course an occasion for acknowledging our gratitude to our mothers: the women who brought us into the world and, as they all seem to frequently threaten, can take us back out of it. But if popular music is any indication, mothers are a preoccupation for us far more often than just the second Sunday of May. Moms show up routinely in lyrics as sources of guilt, symbols of strength, uncomfortable sexual objects, and even–sometimes, if we’re lucky–as actual moms. So let’s kill two birds with one stone by celebrating Mother’s Day and putting our favorite musicians on blast for their mommy issues. This is the Mother’s Day Dystopian Dance Mix. Turn it loose, ’cause it’s a mother:
1. Faces: “Bad ‘n’ Ruin”
(from Long Player, 1971)
Plenty of rock songs deal with the contrast between the rollin’-stone rock’n’roll lifestyle and the comfortable but dull existence of dear old mom back home; think, for example, of Aerosmith’s “Mama Kin.” But there aren’t nearly enough rock songs that give us the (arguably more realistic) inverse of that scenario: when the rock’n’roll lifestyle and the bank account both run dry, and our hero comes “back home bad ‘n’ ruin with my tail between my legs.” The Faces’ shambling, sloppier-Stones boogie has never sounded more appropriately dissolute than on this tongue-in-cheek tale of sheepish prodigal sons and maternal disappointment: as Rod Stewart pleads, “Don’t be embarrassed, mother, by your ugly worn-out son.” Don’t worry, Rod, we’ve all been there.
2. Queen: “Tie Your Mother Down”
(from A Day at the Races, 1976)
On the other hand, the mother as obstacle to teenage heavy petting is a rock’n’roll trope older than the genre itself; so leave it to Queen, the masters of arena-sized camp, to take it to its logical extreme and actually recommend mom’s physical restraint. Queen’s harsher critics tend to overlook the band’s ability to simultaneously lampoon and perfect cock-rock clichés: they’re often remembered as self-important pomp rockers, but at their best they channeled a less on-the-nose Mothers of Invention. “Tie Your Mother Down” is the perfect example of this side of Freddie Mercury and company: it rocks hard enough to have inspired a cover version by none other than “Motor City Madman” Ted Nugent and Lemmy from Motörhead, but is also sly and self-aware enough to suggest that such a straightforward adaptation kind of misses the point.
3. The Lonely Island featuring Justin Timberlake: “Motherlover”
(from Turtleneck & Chain, 2011)
Of course, the other side of the anxiety about mom intruding on one’s sex life is the even scarier possibility of mom actually having a sex life of her own. This is the taboo explored by former Saturday Night Live Digital Shorts masterminds the Lonely Island in “Motherlover,” the cringe-jokey sequel to 2006’s holiday classic “Dick in a Box.” In character as their idiot duo of Color Me Badd rejects, the Lonely Island’s Andy Samberg and special guest Justin Timberlake come up with “the perfect plan for the perfect Mother’s Day”: they’ll pull “a switcheroo” and “fuck each other’s moms.” What makes the sketch so funny is how they treat this plan not only as a “cool and thoughtful” Mother’s Day gift, but also as a totally normal thing for two bros to do: “This is the second best idea that we’ve ever had,” Timberlake sings. And yeah, “Dick in a Box” is pretty tough to top. But the indelible image of Samberg and Timberlake standing face to face, solemnly swearing that “it would be my honor to be your new stepfather”–and the inspired move of casting Patricia Clarkson and Susan Sarandon as the mothers in the video–makes this a more than respectable follow-up. Also, I just found out that No I.D. produced this song. It’s a crazy world.
4. Funkadelic: “Cosmic Slop”
(from Cosmic Slop, 1973)
If Samberg and Timberlake approach the issue of maternal sexuality with the musical equivalent of nervous giggling, then P-Funk ringleader George Clinton treats it with sheer existential dread. I’m not necessarily trying to psychoanalyze Brother George here, but mothers are a frequently recurring motif in his work, from Parliament’s ubiquitous Mothership to Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel’s legendary assignment to “play like his mama just died” on the title track of 1971’s Maggot Brain; and, more often than not, the mothers in Clinton’s lyrics have been debased or violated in some way. “Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time,” Clinton intones at the beginning of “Maggot Brain,” “for y’all have knocked her up.” In “Cosmic Slop,” the stakes are less universal but the violation comes a lot closer to home, as Clinton spins the sad tale of an inner-city mother who resorts to turning tricks to feed her five children. The groove is funky, of course–this is P-Funk we’re talking about–but the combination of Clinton’s wailing vocals and Hazel’s tormented guitar solos creates an effect that is more spooky than anything else. “Cosmic Slop” is ghetto melodrama in the form of a bad trip, and it’s much darker stuff than Clinton’s jocular public image might lead to you expect.
5. Vicki Anderson: “Answer to Mother Popcorn (I Got a Mother for You)”
(1969 single; available on James Brown’s Original Funky Divas)
I almost put James Brown’s original 1969 workout “Mother Popcorn” on this mix, but I decided that it was only right to give the ladies a voice instead, so I went with Vicki Anderson’s Brown-produced (and, thanks to backing by the James Brown Revue, equally funky) response song. Anderson–who would later marry Brother James’ longtime collaborator from the Famous Flames days, Bobby Byrd–brings sass and fire to her “Answer to Mother Popcorn,” countering Brown’s leering demand “you’ve got to have a mother for me” with her own defiant self-actualization: “I’m not fat, and I’m not tall / I’m not a girl with skinny legs and all / If you like them boss and you like them proud / Then I’m the girl who’s gonna shout out loud.” It might not be as well-known or well-regarded as “Mother Popcorn” itself, but play both tracks side by side for your mom and I have an inkling she’ll pick up on what Ms. Anderson is puttin’ down.
6. The Dead Weather: “Treat Me Like Your Mother”
(from Horehound, 2009)
Like George Clinton, punk-blues wunderkind and record-cutting speed demon Jack White has something of a maternal fixation in his lyrics, though in his case it’s more of an obsession with being the dutiful son; surely he is the only rocker ever to write a ballad about trying to win over his girlfriend’s mom. So it comes as little surprise that in his collaboration with The Kills lead singer Alison Mosshart, the ideal he proposes for male-female relationships should be to, well, treat her like your mother. But while White’s lyrical presence on the song is all too obvious, it’s Mosshart who ultimately steals the show, spitting out the mother’s/spurned lover’s refrain of “you came home too late” with an intensity that is equal turns sexy and terrifying: she’s the ultimate Oedipal mother. Like the White Stripes before them, much of the Dead Weather’s pleasure comes from the friction engineered between its male and female leads; and as much as I still carry a torch for Stripes drummer Meg White, I have to admit that it’s cool to see Mosshart’s ruthless feminine take the lead in her latest band’s brutal yin and yang.
7. Neil Young: “New Mama”
(from Tonight’s the Night, 1975)
A rare moment of near-joy amidst the linchpin of Neil Young’s legendary drug-soaked, tortured mid-’70s Ditch Trilogy, “New Mama” finds Young contemplating the impending birth of his firstborn son, Zeke, with then-partner, actress Carrie Snodgress. This being a Neil Young song, its lyrics could be evoking surreal alienation as easily as paternal joy; but when all your friends are dropping dead of heroin overdoses, “No clouds are in my changing sky” may just be the sunniest observation you’re capable of mustering. It’s a haunting, beautiful song in any case, driven by Young’s trademark clawhammer-style guitar picking–though it’s also very clearly a song about maternity written by a man: one imagines it’s harder to ruminate about “living in a dreamland” when you’re puking your guts out “each morning when you wake up to rise.”
8. Lenny Kravitz: “Always on the Run”
(from Mama Said, 1991)
I know, I know, I’m not supposed to like Lenny Kravitz. But I have a soft spot for his early-’90s output, and this stealth title track from 1991’s Mama Said finds him doing his whole Hendrix-by-way-of-Prince schtick in fine form. It’s also part of a long tradition of rock songs that enumerate all of the things mom told us when we were growing up, with the tacit underlying admission that we never are quite able to follow her advice. And if you’re a fan of ’70s and ’80s sitcoms, the song takes on a whole new meaning: the “mama” whose admonitions Kravitz fails to heed is none other than Helen Willis from The Jeffersons, while the girl who’s about to break poor Lenny’s heart is Denise Huxtable from The Cosby Show. Plus, Slash plays the guitar solo. Fuckin’ Slash, who can resist that?
9. OutKast: “Ms. Jackson”
(from Stankonia, 2000)
One of the weirdest things about getting married is the way you basically acquire a whole new family in the process, complete with a mother-in-law who is somehow supposed to be a maternal figure despite the fact that she is also a complete and utter stranger. Then, when the marriage ends in divorce–as about half of all marriages do–the relationship becomes even more fraught. This is the territory explored by OutKast in their crossover hit “Ms. Jackson,” a song dedicated to “all the baby’s momma’s mommas.” It’s clearly inspired by André 3000’s then-recent breakup with Erykah Badu, as well as Big Boi’s struggles with…well, I’m not actually sure which of Big Boi’s several baby mamas this is about. But it doesn’t really matter, because the rappers’ respective verses so incisively capture the contradictory feelings of a breakup between parents that it may as well be coming from two sides of the same wounded psyche: André remorseful and introspective, Big Boi bitter and recriminating. Apparently Badu’s mom was won over by the track in real life, and it makes sense why she would be: it’s a mature, sophisticated song, a testament to some of the less-discussed struggles of fatherhood, motherhood, and baby’s-momma’s-momma-hood alike.
10. Pink Floyd: “Mother”
(from The Wall, 1979)
Pink Floyd’s The Wall is basically Freudian Psychoanalysis, The Album: four vinyl sides chronicling the failed Oedipal struggle of protagonist Pink as he grows up fatherless and becomes an alienated rock star in postwar England (any similarities to the biography of lead writer Roger Waters are, of course, entirely coincidental). So it should come as no surprise that the album has a whole song dedicated to the damage an overbearing mother can wreak on our fragile childhood psyches. Like most of The Wall, it’s bleak, more than a little nasty, and not a terribly pleasant listen: Waters is at his emotionally rawest singing in character as a scared little boy, while guitarist Dave Gilmour plays the titular mother with a sardonic detachment that threatens to teeter into misogyny. “Mamma’s gonna make all of your nightmares come true / Mamma’s gonna put all her fears into you,” Gilmour croons, and the primal-scream bitterness is palpable. But whether you’re a woman or a man, if you’ve ever had children, the themes explored in this song have probably kept you up at night. Let’s just hope that if we screw our kids up, they’ll at least be like Waters and make a platinum-selling rock opera out of it.
11. Etta James: “Tell Mama”
(from Tell Mama, 1968)
At the same time, though, even a “successful” Oedipal struggle is pretty damn weird when you get right down to it. Fortunately, Etta James is here to make our mommy issues more palatable by belting them out over the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. James herself, it is worth noting, wasn’t a fan of the song: she wrote in her 1995 memoir, Rage to Survive, “Maybe it’s just that I didn’t like being cast in the role of the Great Earth Mother, the gal you come to for comfort and easy sex.” And yeah, the whole thing’s a little bit skeevy. But Etta’s vocals are so characteristically majestic that you probably won’t think about it until after the song is over.
12. Jimi Hendrix: “Angel”
(1970 outtake; available on First Rays of the New Rising Sun)
Given its stylistic similarities to 1967’s psychedelic soul ballad “Little Wing,” it would be understandable to assume that “Angel” is just another one of Hendrix’s mystical-groupie songs about one of the many denizens of Electric Ladyland. But actually, like 1968’s “Gypsy Eyes,” it’s inspired by the loss of Jimi’s hard-living mother Lucille, who died of cirrhosis of the liver when he was 15. Much like the work of his contemporary John Lennon, who lost his own mother at 17, many of Hendrix’s songs are haunted by this traumatic experience; unlike Lennon, however, Hendrix tended to channel his loss into hopeful, spiritually-inflected dreams of reunion. The refrain of “Angel” expresses as much: “Fly on, my sweet angel / Tomorrow I’m gonna be by your side.” It is of course a tragic coda to the song that Hendrix himself would die less than two months after recording this version. Rather than try to force some meaning onto a premature and senseless death, though, let’s just say that this is easily one of the greatest songs of Hendrix’s later career; a song that turns the loss of a mother–something we all eventually experience, though thankfully not always as suddenly or as early as Jimi did–into an image of beauty and optimism.
13. Kanye West: “Hey Mama”
(from Late Registration, 2005)
I mean it in the best possible way when I say that Kanye West may be the biggest mama’s boy in the history of pop music. West’s close relationship with and debt of gratitude to his mother has been a central theme of his work since the release of his 2004 debut The College Dropout, and her presence in his lyrics has continued to lend a much-needed undertone of humility and humanity to his music since her death in 2007. “Hey Mama,” as the title suggests, is Kanye’s most direct tribute to his mom, and though it sometimes steps over the line into saccharine territory–really, Ye, “homemade chicken soup?”–it’s also a genuinely moving and heartfelt tribute, a Mother’s Day card you can dance to. And I don’t care how tough you think you are; just try to get through his version from the 2008 Grammy Awards–the first time he’d performed the song since Donda West’s death–without shedding a tear.
14. Clipse: “Momma I’m So Sorry”
(from Hell Hath No Fury, 2006)
Though most street rappers aren’t as upfront about their emotions as Kanye, mothers are frequently employed in hip-hop lyrics as symbols of innocence to contrast with the hustler’s guilty lifestyle. Clipse’s “Momma I’m So Sorry” captures the conflicts inherent in this idea especially well, as brothers Terrence and Gene Thornton, a.k.a. Pusha T and Malice, apologize to their mother over a vintage Neptunes beat for the “two hot rocks” in their pockets, while showing no indication of changing their ways–and what with the “big home, palm trees, and watches,” how could they? In Malice’s final verse, he extends the apology to the mother of his own children as well: “Even my baby mama, I can’t look you in the face / Cuz I can’t do enough, you’re a symbol of God’s grace / So I place you in the flower bed, porcelain shower heads / Throughout the house and keep the young’uns’ mouths fed / And when I’m gone, I hope it is said / I gave structure to the youth by the example I led.” In Clipse’s world, maternal love and crack dealing aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.
15. PJ Harvey: “Down by the Water”
(from To Bring You My Love, 1995)
PJ Harvey has always had a knack for exploring the darker corridors of feminine power, which makes her eminently qualified to write a song about a woman drowning her own daughter to death. Over a growling overdriven organ, driving percussion, and a dissonant string arrangement, Harvey weaves a Gothic murder ballad where remorse intertwines with anger: “I had to lose her,” she sings, “to do her harm.” Most mothers will tell you that beneath even the most loving maternal instinct can sometimes arise a primal urge to kill their offspring; it’s precisely this kind of unsettling territory that PJ Harvey seems to inhabit best.
16. Chromeo: “Momma’s Boy”
(from Fancy Footwork, 2007)
Chromeo frontman Dave 1 has a Ph.D. in French literature, which is probably why this song sounds like Hall and Oates after overloading on psychoanalytic theory. “Momma’s Boy” explores the Freudian truism that we’re all just looking to replace our parents in romantic relationships, but with a knowing wryness that is genuinely funny: I especially like the part where Dave’s girl confronts him during a date, rightly arguing, “You’re thinking ’bout your mother way too much.” The rotoscoped music video is pretty cool, too.
17. Mott the Hoople: “I Wish I Was Your Mother”
(from Mott, 1973)
Speaking of Freud, this Dylanesque ballad by Herefordshire roots-turned-glam-rockers Mott the Hoople digs into some of the less comfortable psychological undercurrents of relationships between men and women, parents and children. Lead singer/songwriter Ian Hunter paints a picture of a bitter and abusive lover who can only envision redemption by projecting himself into the whole of his partner’s life, including her childhood: “I wish I was your mother / I wish I’d been your father / ‘N then I would have seen you / Would have been you as a child.” It’s a deceptively dark commentary on how control, or the desire for it, can often masquerade as love; a lesson, as Hunter’s invocation of mothers and fathers indicates, that we learn from our parents. After all, why do you think we tend to get so mad when our partners say we remind us of their mom?
18. 2Pac: “Dear Mama”
(from Me Against the World, 1995)
Tupac Shakur wasn’t the first rapper to memorialize his mama: that would be A-Team star/Original Gangsta Mr. T, who spat hot fire on the song “Treat Your Mother Right” from his 1984 motivational video Be Somebody…or Be Somebody’s Fool! (Sample lyric: “Mother / There is no other / Like mother / So treat her right.”) But, well, there’s a reason why 2Pac is the one who makes it onto all the “great songs about mothers” list. One of the things that make this song so powerful is the way Pac thanks and acknowledges his mother, Afeni Shakur, without shrinking away from the rough patches in their lives and relationship, including her addiction to crack cocaine, his father’s abandonment, and, most recently, his 1995 imprisonment on sexual assault charges. Even “through the drama,” Shakur reflects, “I can always depend on my mama.” It’s a valuable commentary on the way the love between a parent and child can endure through the hardest of struggles.
19. Kelis: “Song for the Baby”
(from Flesh Tone, 2010)
Few mainstream R&B artists would choose to commemorate the birth of their first child with an album of full-on club music. Fortunately, however, Kelis isn’t like most mainstream R&B artists, and “Song for the Baby”–dedicated to her son Knight, born in 2009–is as tender and emotional as it is danceable, with heartfelt sentiments that any parent can relate to: “See I’ll never sugarcoat any life lessons for you / ‘Cause I wanna make you equipped for the best / And I can’t always be here to rescue you when life gets crazy / But I love you more than you’ll ever know.” It’s a worthy policy to raise a child by, and the perfect note on which to end this Mother’s Day dance mix. Now go hug your mom or something.