October 19, 2021

Against The World: Stronger

When Hanson announced Against The World, I committed to writing a blog entry per song. They chose this song-per-month release format to give each song the attention it deserves, and for better or for worse, I signed on to blog in that same format for the duration of the project. At first I kind of liked the idea of challenging myself to dig deeper into every song. There can be no skip songs here, and I was curious to see where that would lead.

While writing an entire blog post about a single song is not new territory for me, I have only ever done it when inspiration struck and I had some grand-feeling epiphany about a song. I have only ever done it when the words were already building up in my head and practically begging to be let out. Making an advanced commitment to write about a song I haven't even heard is a little scary. What if I don't like it? What if I don't "get" it and have nothing to say? What if I love it to death, but we're five songs in, and I'm just kind of over the concept of making myself do this thing that I have only ever done out of desire, and turning it into an obligation makes it not so fun anymore?

That's where I'm at now. "Stronger" is a truly amazing song, and I can already tell you it deserves better than this blog of duty when it might have been a blog of passion if I hadn't turned it into a homework assignment all those months ago. I sucked the fun right out of it, which is a shame because I do believe this is one of those songs that would have demanded my attention and my word count all on its own. I'll do my best to do it justice anyway.

So "Stronger." I want to take this one in a different direction and instead of forcing a close reading of lyrics that are already pretty self-explanatory, I want to take you through my first impression of hearing it. I accidentally watched a few seconds of a clip Taylor posted of his hands playing the piano on Instagram days before "Stronger" was released. When I heard the notes he was playing, I immediately thought "Dear God, PLEASE let this be from the new single, and if not, please don't let this beautiful piece of music stay hidden in the vault."

The first time I listened to "Stronger," I did it alone in my room at midnight with my earbuds in and my eyes closed. I didn't get distracted by all the pretty northern lights in the music video or the dramatic stage lighting (which is actually really cool and very well done). And when I pressed play for the first time and heard those opening piano notes, my grin was instant and involuntary. 

When the harmonies hit about 47 seconds in, I felt giddy. THIS is what good music feels like: adrenaline and butterflies and threats of tears regardless of whether you're experiencing it live in a symphony hall with the best acoustics or sitting alone in your room, completely transported by a pair of cheap headphones and the simple magic of stacked sibling harmonies. 

The 1:03 mark introduced strings, and with it, a subtle connection to String Theory. I found myself wondering if they ever play another String Theory show, would they consider reworking newer songs that fit the story and the style? "Stronger" is exactly the type of powerhouse that deserves to be backed by a symphony orchestra. (This is also the part where I admit that I initially thought this second verse was sung by Zac. It wasn't until I was watching the video for the first time hours later that I realized it was Taylor!)

At 1:16, we get five rapidly ascending notes from a harpsichord, and that was the first moment I went from fully on board and in love to suddenly unsure where this train was heading. Ten seconds before, I'd been imagining String Theory, and then suddenly I was transported to "An Evening At The Big Top," which is not a place I'm sure Hanson meant to take me. That minor introduction of a few notes on a harpsichord was all it took for me to hear the beat of the piano chords in an entirely new way, and I couldn't help but get this sudden cyclical circus-y feeling like someone was slowly turning the handle of a jack-in-the-box, and we're on a carousel inside. I didn't dislike any of it; I just no longer knew what direction this song was about to take. Maybe it wasn't the beautifully safe piano ballad I thought it was going to be.

At 1:47, an electric guitar sneaks in on top of those stacked harmonies, and I for sure no longer knew where we were headed, but man I wanted to go there anyway. The song progressively takes off from there with more guitar, more harmonies, and more Queen vibes before finally crashing back down to a single stripped-down note at the end. It leaves you feeling like that abrupt stop at the end of a great rollercoaster where you're already climbing out of your seat, but your mind and body still haven't caught up from the fact that you were hanging upside down at 80 mph just 20 seconds before.

"Stronger" is not the piano ballad I thought I was signing up for when I pressed play. During that first listen, it felt progressive and even experimental at times, not taking any of the safe, String-Theory-esque turns I expected it to take after such a simple and beautiful opening. After listening a few more times, I accepted the harpsichord and the guitar and the Queeny harmonies, and it no longer feels as "out there" as it did on that first listen. I still can't explain the circus feels and won't try to invent some conspiracy theory level explanation, but I'm curious if it was intentional, and if so, what was the intent?

Thematically, the lyrics are straight-forward and I won't bother with an analysis, but I will say that I like the overall sense that it's about someone striving to be better, and the song itself gets progressively "stronger" by adding in more voices, more instruments, and ultimately more support from others. Taylor also talked about this some in a speech he gave the first time they performed this song live back in September. He mentioned a special music teacher, Ron Anderson, who helped him at a time when he was struggling vocally to be strong enough to perform all over the world as a young band. It was a touching moment and I think one of my biggest takeaways from this song and from that bit of insight is that we are ultimately stronger when we work together and when we accept help from those who are willing to give it. 

I think if I had not roped myself into this series of ATW blogs, the blog I would have naturally written about "Stronger" would have been tying it to the themes in "All I Know" (and maybe also "Believe"). I would've talked about how "Stronger" feels like a progression of that utterly defeated person in "All I Know" waking up and feeling the slightest bit more hopeful that maybe he's not about to reach an end, maybe he can find his way, but all he knows is that he needs to be stronger to get out of that place. Maybe one day I'll feel like writing it, or maybe giving it one paragraph here is all it really needs anyway.

So final thoughts? Falling victim to the unavoidable wordplay opportunity here, I have to say that "Stronger" is the "strongest" song yet from ATW. The piano is breathtaking, the lyrics are powerful and full of raw emotion, and I never stood a chance against those harmonies. Despite its theme about not feeling adequate and striving to be stronger, "Stronger" itself is certainly not suffering from any of those shortcomings.

Hanson: *writes song about feeling weak and inadequate*
Song: *is the strongest, most impressive release of the entire project so far*

October 10, 2021

Listener's Choice: ATW + Concert Series

When You Have No Flight To Guide You

Welcome to the trip that almost didn't happen. I'd like to start by giving a shoutout to American Airlines for having more cancellations in one day than Hanson had in all of 2020. What a truly remarkable accomplishment.

I started out with a flight to Tulsa the night before the first show. As in, about 24 hours early. As in, if anything goes wrong there should be a multitude of other options and plenty of time to get me there. Wrong.

First, my flight from my home airport was delayed. No big deal; I go to the counter and they're able to switch me to a later connection that still gets me to Tulsa about 1.5 hours after my original flight. I'm all set...until the flight from my home airport gets "delayed" until 6am the next morning due to maintenance. My first thought is okay this sucks, but that's still plenty of time to get in tomorrow afternoon, and if I'm going to be stuck overnight somewhere, I might as well be stuck at home.

Then things get crazy. First, I get an email saying I've been automatically rebooked on a new flight and telling me there are other rebooking options if what they gave me didn't work. What they gave me was a flight that landed during the first show...in a city in Arkansas? So apparently that's a thing now, canceling your flight and sending you to an adjacent city. When I speak with an agent they tell me that the news is grim and that even looking at all options from their partnerships with other airlines, there are no flights that can get me to Tulsa until 11:30pm the following night. AFTER the first show. I tell them I'm willing to drive a few hours to a different airport if needed, but the results are the same. There's nothing in a 200 mile radius from home that can get me to Tulsa before that first show. I even check outside airlines, well aware that I'd just have to pay for another flight out of pocket, but the results are no better. The universe does not want me in Tulsa on October 1st.

Thankfully, my friend that lives in Tulsa is a part-time superhero and offers to pick me up in a different city if I can get to another airport in the vicinity of Tulsa. I have the agent check the next closest airport to her. Still nothing. So after four hours in the airport, I give up and let them rebook me on the 11:30pm flight the following night and walk out close to tears, resigned to accept the fact that if I'm lucky, I'll get ONE show.

I'm in my car about a block from the airport when I get a call from my friend telling me that she found a flight to Kansas City that she can drive to that would get me in that same night. The kicker: the flight is at 8pm. I look at my clock and it is 7:20 and I'm no longer in the airport. I activate illegal U-turn mode. I call customer service and by some miracle, someone answers on the first ring and confirms that there are seats on both flights if I want it. I tell her YES, put me on that flight, and explain that I am running back into the airport as we speak. She goes "Wait, you’re not in the airport? What time is it in your time zone?", and when I tell her, she tries to talk me out of it and says that the flight is already boarding and I still have to make it through security and they might not let me board. She tells me that if she changes my flight and I don't make it, then I've also lost the other flight for the following night. I tell her to do it anyway, she reluctantly listens, and I sprint through security and thank God for southern hospitality as I dash past the few people in line, asking their permission while I'm already ahead of them. They all give me encouragement and tell me "GO! You're going to make it!"

I'm the last person on the flight, but I do make it. I message my friends that the crisis is averted, sorry for the long drive ahead, but see you tonight after all, etc. I go to put my phone in airplane mode at the same time I get a notification from my airline app: flight number whatever to Kansas City has been canceled. We're taking off and I'm now on a plane to nowhere useful because I no longer have a connection and it's too late to deplane. I desperately message my friends and tell them please look for anything else while I fly.

Once I'm in the air long enough to get wifi, I see that my friends have miraculously found a flight into Oklahoma City, which is even closer to Tulsa than my canceled Kansas City flight. I spend the whole short flight terrified that there won't be a free seat for me, but my luck takes a positive turn and I manage to get a seat on this savior of a flight. Suddenly I'm back on track to get to Tulsa the same night, and my friends get to cut their drive in half. It's a win-win. I get to the Oklahoma City gate with plenty of time...only to see another message that says "Delayed" with no new ETA for takeoff. We wait 30 minutes, then an hour past takeoff time while maintenance tries to figure out what's wrong. Finally somebody comes to the counter and tells us the plane won't be able to take off until 7am the following morning, BUT, they have us a new plane in another terminal, we just have to get over there and wait for them to do safety checks and we'll be on our way. THANK GOD.

We all make the trek across the airport and wait. And wait. And then we're being told that maintenance will have an updated boarding time for us soon because of course there’s some maintenance issue with this new plane too, and then I'm cackling out loud by myself in a crowd of people because literally what else is there left for me to do? I've just spent a combined 8 hours in two airports and I'm only 150 miles from home. I could have driven to this airport in less than half that time.

We finally, FINALLY take off, everyone around me grumbling at the super late arrival time, and I'm just discreetly grinning under my mask because I really had resigned myself to not seeing the first show. My friends pick me up and we find ourselves eating gas station hot dogs and taquitos at 3am, get to our hotel at 4am, and don't actually go to bed until 5. It's the most obnoxiously real "tour" thing that has happened since 2017, and I love it.

Here We Go Round Again

We all bent over backwards to get me there, so the only thing left to do is gush over how worth it all that effort was. Right? The truth is I had a lot of fun, but I was also a little disappointed by the setlists being the exact same songs both nights, and it reminded me a lot of how I felt after the first BTTI: happy to be there, underwhelmed by the setlist repeats, and then guilty for not just being happy. My expectations were probably too high for these shows because I really loved the January Listener's Choice series and the fact that Hanson snuck a few surprises into those sets. I had no real reason to think this would be the same, but I was expecting at least a little deviation from the voting and was definitely not expecting all of the same songs twice. I can’t help but wonder if maybe it was a case of Hanson knowing we all loved the January Listener’s Choice shows but not really understanding why we loved them so much and missing the mark while trying to replicate it. I can’t speak for the class, but I think the positive reaction to the first Listener's Choice overall had less to do with us getting to vote and more to do with what we got to vote on, the extras Hanson brought on their own, and the fact that the shows weren’t identical.

Only Love

Rest assured, despite the disappointments, I can still muster up some of my usual cheesy praise: The mere existence of the piano in “Crazy Beautiful” is a work of art in itself. “If Only” acoustic feels a little bit like trying to feed myself ice cream with my non-dominant hand while wearing my shoes on the wrong feet because it’s so foreign not to be jumping, but I love it despite the innate feeling of wrongness. I'm considering converting to the church of Isaac every time I hear “Only Love.” I'm pretty sure the guitar part of "Don't Ever Change" actually changes every time, but I love the feel of that song and the ridiculous strobe lights it's necessary to switch on my light up mask when it gets played. Also, “Stronger” is the best song of 2021 so far and is so gorgeous and raw that I may be at risk for salmonella.

Just As Long As I Get To Go

In conclusion, attending an underwhelming Hanson show is still better than attending no Hanson show, and I had fun regardless of the setlist, I just wish I could be writing a different blog about how I had fun because of the setlist and not despite it. In the grand scheme of things it's an absurdly first-world problem, and sometimes you have to actively choose to get over yourself and have a good time and turn down the tempting option to have a pity party instead. Poor me, getting to attend multiple shows and having to hear a bunch of songs I like TWICE. I think I'll survive.

On a happy note, one of my favorite moments was getting to hear “Carry You There” at the end of the first night, partly because I was so happy it beat WYIYD, and partly because it felt like an anthem for this trip that almost didn’t happen. I found myself giggling during “You don’t need a Cadillac,” because after my flight experience, I SO needed a Cadillac. I’m grateful to have friends that are caring and crazy enough to drop everything and drive to carry me there in the middle of the night just to make sure I don’t have any FOMO and miss something epic during the first show (#irony). Now let’s pretend I’m just as grateful to have a favorite band considerate enough to play the same show twice in case I really did have to miss the first one.