Hello and this is my new column, Zoo Story. It will be appearing bi-weekly on Aux.Out.
The title is taken from a 1959 Edward Albee one-act play called The Zoo Story, about a character named Jerry who approaches a character named Peter on a park bench and proceeds to tell him a very long story, “The Story of Jerry and the Dog.” The play’s not really about the story. Well, like most good things it is and it isn’t about the story that Jerry tells.
I won’t ruin it for you in case you decide read it, but it really doesn’t end well for either Jerry or Peter.
This below is the story of three radio edits. One of them is curious, one of them is awful, and one of them recasts a bizarre pop song as a hit.
I can’t remember a radio edit that I enjoy more than the original cut. Radio edit, single edit, clean version — whatever the nomenclature — it’s the version I never click on. Unless I’m feeling smug: Like wanting to hear Kanye talk about how she ain’t messing with no “broke, broke”, or Dre describe how he’s “Mobbin’ with the dog pound (bow wow wow)”. But I shouldn’t be so presumptuous because these radio edits may be the only versions you know, or prefer. Hey, it took about three years for me to realize Warren G and Nate Dogg broke the fourth wall and waxed philosophical in a denouement for “Regulators”.
There’s been some egregious edits in radio history. “Piano Man” and “Heroes”, two frequently spun and recognizable gems, rarely got their fair shake when they were being played as new hit singles. While the Billy Joel standard is mostly all stitched up again on radio stations today, rarely does Bowie get his full six minutes.
In one of those “Is it old in here or is it just me?” moments, I heard Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on classic radio last year, and something felt just a little off about it. A song I’d heard hundreds of times before had me doing double takes. Then I realized this was the radio edit.
The idiosyncrasies of the radio are what keep me coming back to the dial. Certain patterns are comforting: I never expect to hear a song’s intro, I’m 73% positive that songs are played 2% faster on the radio, and I don’t think there’s ever been a time where a rock DJ has been able to keep his mouth shut during the final piano notes of Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer”. These are things I can count on. However, the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” I heard on the radio threw me.
In the radio edit, five seconds are shaved off Intro 2, and about 15 seconds are cut from Cobain’s guitar solo. This version of the song, the version Nirvana didn’t write, is the one that has racked up nearly 100 million views on YouTube. I’m no purist, but I also know some people who would argue that the 15 seconds of repetition in the guitar solo are crucial to the song’s plot and emotional tenor — and I’m one of them. Okay, I may be the only one.
For a band that bore through to above-ground, it’s not exactly a minor oversight to go ahead and let Universal play cut and paste with their song, especially since it’s now galactically lauded as one of the greatest cultural touchstones of the ‘90s. Think: there are whole swaths of people who have never heard 10% of one of the most iconic songs ever written. They probably don’t even care — but I do! I don’t think people were ever tapping their Timex Indiglo wrist-watches in 1992 saying, “Let’s GO this song goes on for-FUCKING-ever.” And what’s ironic is that, to many, Nirvana was supposed to be the band that killed the guitar solo, when, in fact, it was the record company that cut the guitar solo in Nirvana’s song.
(N.b. The 5:10 “Jeremy” is reduced to 4:40 by cutting the (awesome) 12-string bass outro, and the 5:18 “Black Hole Sun” is chopped all the way down to 4:30 by removing most of Kim Thayil’s solos. I really want to do the Pepsi Challenge with these and see if people — the swathes — would be able to tell the difference. I’m just saying if rock stations are playing all seven minutes of Tool’s “Vicarious”, then they could afford to put the arms back on to some of these grungy Venus de Milo’s).
Can you even compare a grungy guitar solo to an entire pivotal verse to a song? The all-time worst radio edit goes to TLC’s “Waterfalls”.
If you were born in the ‘80s, Crazy, Sexy, Cool was de rigueur on your CD shelf, so this edit may only be familiar for people who venture into karaoke halls only to find that, “What in the hell happened to Left Eye’s rap?” Left Eye’s rap on the third verse of “Waterfalls” trumps not only the entire song, but I would put it up there with, say, “Shook Ones Pt 2” and “Brooklyn Zoo” and anything off Liquid Swords as one of the better verses of 1995. The way she handles the cadence of “Clear, blue, unconditional skies have dried the tears from my eyes / no more lonely cries” is essentially the pretense for Nicki Minaj’s whole career.
And Left Eye wrote the song, so to leave T-Boz the verses and Chile those sparse harmonies is just unreasonable. It’s more than just (in retrospect) a hair-too-long guitar solo, it’s the counterpoint to all the (in retrospect) heavy-handed verses in “Waterfalls”, something that bucks the norm of what we’ve come to expect from the song right up until we hear the percussive Left Eye go in. Plus without her motivational speech, “Waterfalls” is just a cautionary tale about drug dealing and AIDS and how they will straight up kill you dead unless you stick to the comfort of rivers and lakes like the ones that killed Jeff Buckely and Otis Redding. I’d rather believe in myself and leave the rest of up to Ms Lopez, wherever she is.
Which brings us to this last Sunday — Jean-Ralphio’s favorite day of the year so far.
This past week, in addition the resurgence of pop’s true mystics, David Bowie and Destiny’s Child, Justin Timberlake reappeared as well. As Usher retreats into episodes of The Voice, Timberlake drops his first song in six years, “Suit & Tie” (feat. Jay-Z), which will appear on his first album in six years, The 20/20 Experience.
I was puttering about on social networks Sunday night when it leaked, and along with hundreds of other people, hurried over to the iTunes store and bought it. I really thought it would be like when Frank Ocean released channelORANGE last year — like a virtual/ESP listening party. One nation, under Timberlake. This could have been “our song” that comes on suddenly over the speakers at the bar and all the bickering turns to smiles and we just know that: Darling, this is it.
Well that didn’t happen at all, and I put the blame squarely on the first 30 seconds of the track.
Imagine if “Niggas In Paris” kicked off with the “Zone” breakdown. That might be cool, right? Like kind of a noisy, EDM-referencing thing to start it off. But then what if it went back into it again? That’s my main problem with “Suit & Tie” — it shows its hand right up front. I love the Future-lounge feel, the Chic redux meets “Feeling Single” meets Timbaland appropriating Pharrell. Put your right foot over your left foot, spin around, and when you wink, you will hear a little ding.
But that first Children’s Robitussin intro ruins the whole thing, Timb. I don’t mean to come down to where you work and slap the Pro Tools out of your hands, but I’m with Rich Juzwiak: Your work in the last decade has been scattershot at best. But no worries…
The album version of “Suit & Tie” is 5:27, the radio edit is 4:31. Just listen to how much better it is (via Ultimate Music):
Infinite improvement. Now JT’s back.
Note that RCA did not Left-Eye this song. Jay-Z’s verse remains fully intact, much to the chagrin of some critics. Could you even imagine calling Jay-Z and saying, “Hello, I know this is only your 10th feature you’ve done in six years but it’s going to stay off the radio. Hold on there’s someone tapping on my window I th– ”
The consensus that Hov phoned-in his verse is bogus. It isn’t any better than his spot on “Clique”, but just like he sounded breathless on the dangerous Hit-Boy beat, he sounds relaxed on the cloudy Timbaland breakdown. His patient delivery is in concert with the dampened production. and no one goes H.A.M., it’s no “Can I Live” or the third verse on “Thank You” because it’s a two-step Soulacoaster song, and Jay’s verse fits snugly around Timb-aland/erlake like some Tom Ford wingtips.
He announces that, “It’s truffle season / time for tuxedos for no reason” then shouts out Beyoncé’s parents at the end. Those are some bespoke Justin Timberlake lines.
As I already start to compile my “Best Songs of 2013” list in a spreadsheet, I’m throwing in the radio edit — not the album version — of “Suit & Tie” in there because, as any director or writer knows, sometimes you have to divorce yourself from what you thought was something crucial. Music differs from other mediums: its edits are done solely for commercial purposes. In film and writing, editing is mostly for clarity an attention span. In fact, a 500-word interpolation about the music industry being a metaphor for a zoo was rightfully cut from this column so I guess you’ll never know what “The uakaris are acting like little bitches today” really means. We’re both going to have to deal.
The album version of “Suit & Tie” just came out overcooked and overstuffed. The intro is the French plantation scene of pop music: What does it mean, why are we here, and let’s GO this goes on for-FUCKING-ever. Against all odds, the commercial radio format actually made a song better.
Go with the extended version if you want, but for once in my life I’m going to bump the radio edit. It actually sounds like a reason to break out a tux.