“cynical girl” – marshall crenshaw (1982)

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I recently read a powerful and funny book on relationships in the modern world.  Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari was an exploration in how technology has influenced people’s dating habits and impacted how we communicate with each other.  Witty and eye-opening, the data and analysis presented in the book made it abundantly clear that while there are more options for people, we all experience the same issues on the journey.

While I was reading this book, I was reflecting on songs about love and people.  And love is a subject that isn’t scarce in the music world.  There are songs about unrequited love, unconditional love, forbidden love, and just about every form of the feeling that makes the world go round.

I went through my collection of songs that covered the subject.  Since there are so many out there, I didn’t have time to go through them all.  I listened to some tracks that will never escape the public consciousness and are so engrained in our culture after so many years. These are great for a lot of reasons, but can get stale when you want something different. And I listened to the more obscure ones; songs that were once chart-topping but long forgotten, or stories about love that just never got off the ground. During this, I rediscovered one of my favorite LPs in my collection.

Marshall Crenshaw’s 1982 eponymous debut album is certainly one of the best albums of the 1980s. In fact, everything about it screams and exudes the decade of excess and plasticity.  The cover features Crenshaw wearing a strikingly purple suit and sunglasses that can make any face disappear.  He is sitting at a built-in kitchen table that is a relic of the 1970s in all if it’s retro worshipping glory.  And if that wasn’t enough, the colors are deeply saturated and all subtly in tone is lost amongst the exaggeration of the cover art.

Musically, the album sounds a bit dated.  The production style is muted and lacks a lush presentation, while the songs themselves are short and repetitive.  However, the album is charming and bears repeated listens.  Despite it’s flaws, the record, and by extension Crenshaw, show that they don’t have anything to prove by being the best. Completely understated compared to the synth-pop melodies and lavish production styles of it’s top-40 contemporaries, Crenshaw’s debut album is an exercise in musical restraint.  Despite elements of any flashiness or stylistic excess, Crenshaw seems to relish in the opportunity to satirize the music motif of the early 1980s.  And in a decade that felt artificial and all about having more, Crenshaw is a refreshing alternative.

Beyond the single “Someday, Someway” which one of Crenshaw’s more popular singles, the standout track on the album for me is “Cynical Girl.”  This is a love song that embodies Crenshaw’s attitude.  He wants companionship and he wants it in the form of a girl that is tired of all the garbage around them.  There’s nothing good on the radio or on television, and Crenshaw seeks someone who sees the world the way he does.  Interestingly enough, there is some clever imagery in the song.  Crenshaw sings about meeting a girl who has no use for the real world, and that begs the question as to their definition of reality.  I feel that most cynical people see the world as being phony most of the time, so it is interesting to hear Crenshaw sing that he desires to escape out of reality and into his own world.  Does this suggest what he wants isn’t real, or could it mean simply shifting from one perspective to another?  Could he be looking for someone to save him from the monotony and bullshit that surrounds him?

“Cynical Girl” is simply a great pop song that is catchy and spins the love theme on it’s head.  For me, it is a great escape from the bubblegum pop love songs and presents something that feels more real.  Crenshaw is a criminally underrated songwriter.  Crenshaw never became super famous, but he has had a steady career including writing songs for his own albums and for movies such as Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story where he was nominated for several awards.  I had the privilege of meeting him after a performance at the Old Town School of Folk Music and he was incredibly pleasant.  He was a really cool, down to earth guy.  I didn’t bring my record for him to sign but it still stands out as a jewel in my collection.

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