The Shangri-Las Week: Day 3 – The Freaky Side of Pop

In Ada Wolin’s third day of her blog takeover, she goes into the dark side of pop music – the frightening aspects of some of the Shangri-Las’ songs, and why spooky music is so much more alluring than bubblegum pop…

In my first memory of hearing the Shangri-Las, I am in a dark car, driving through New Jersey with my parents. I have what feels like an exhaustive supply of memories like this—the trancelike state of being a kid in the backseat, very quiet but not quite asleep, bathed in the gentle glow of the occasional orange streetlight, experiencing a serenity that was always novel to a city kid. My older brother snoozed in the seat next to me, and my parents probably thought I was asleep too, but I was strangely awake. To this day, the Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” brings about a synesthetic wave of nostalgia. I feel the quiet night and see the trees casting monstrous dark shadows through the orange streetlights. Most of all, I hear the ghostly harmonies of lovely songs corrupted by nighttime; beautiful and deeply mysterious. In my mind, I revert to my child-self—I pull my legs up tight to my chest, as if the dark mysteries of love and loneliness and death and longing are monsters lurking under the dark seat ahead of me.

“I Can Never Go Home Anymore” was, truly, frightening to me as a child. It was a pop song, of course, but it had a sinister edge that seemed perverse. Looking back now, I feel somewhat better equipped to understand why that is. On a purely sonic level, it’s a stark, reverberant song—it feels engulfed in a vast emptiness, like swimming alone in the deep end of a dimly lit indoor pool. Mary Weiss whispers along with the song’s creeping bass line and rattling tambourine; the rest is silent air. Satie’s “Gnossiennes” gives me the same unsettled feeling, as though I am surrounded by uncertainty on all sides. I could name a hundred songs that creep me out in this way—many of which seem to pair eerie lyrics with skeletal instrumentation. “Master Song” by Leonard Cohen is one that I can’t listen to alone in my apartment—the heavy reverb on Cohen’s repetitive guitar and deadpan voice seem to evoke a terrifying existential bigness, at once limitless, and claustrophobic.

But ultimately, pop music is uniquely primed for this sonic terror. With their simple, repetitive melodies, pop songs are like nursery rhymes; catchy, insidious, and, sometimes, deeply weird. It’s no wonder that one of my favorite creepy songs, “Sally Go Round the Roses” by the Jaynettes, is a direct play on a common, super freaky nursery rhyme. Some people might name as their favorite scary songs something by Nine Inch Nails or Marilyn Manson. But I prefer the spooky pleading of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” or the trancelike chanting of the Chiffons’ “Nobody Knows What’s Going On (in My Mind But Me).”

Without Further Ado…

Presenting: Freaky Pop Songs

Where Evil Grows- The Poppy Family

Toto Coelo – I Eat Cannibals

Claudine Longet – Wanderlove

Cry Me a River – Julie London

Terry Riley – You’re No Good

Jolene – Dolly Parton

The Jaynettes – Sally Go ‘Round the Roses

Nobody Knows What’s Going On (in My Mind but Me) – The Chiffons

Ode to Billie Joe – Bobbie Gentry

He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)- The Crystals

The Shangri-Las’ Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las is out on April 4th! Pre-order your copy today.

Tomorrow will be Ada’s last blog post of the week, so make sure you don’t miss it!

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