Notes on Nicks

There’s some okay stuff in this Amanda Petrusich piece on Stevie Nicks. Her comments on Nicks’ “girlishness,” for one. Long before Lady Gaga wore a mantle of bunched Kermit dolls, Nicks was dressing with the corny exuberance of a girl who’d just raided her grandma’s attic. And Nicks has a knack for writing lyrics that sound both deeply personal and mushily vague, like a fourteen year-old scribbling thoughts in her diary:

And the days go by
Like a strand in the wind
In the web that is my own
I begin again
Said to my friend, baby
Nothin’ else matters

Do you know what that means? I’m not sure I do. But I know how it feels. In a rock song, that’s what matters.

Even when Stevie Nicks was coked to the gills–no, especially when she was coked to the gills–she had an air of wispy self-sufficiency. Her songs are mostly about vulnerability–not only the heartache of women in love, but the unease of men surprised by intimacy. What a contrast with our own day’s pop superstars, always shouting in the Whitney Houston mode about how proud they are to be themselves. I like the contrast Petrusich draws between Nicks’s soft romanticism and today’s bombastic arena anthems. Whatever happened to wistful pop?

The trouble is that profiles like this always scant the songcraft. They give you a performer’s image, her aura, her legacy, her clothes. They linger over lyrics and stray quotations, which tend to sound dumb when removed from their songs of origin, like fragments of high school poetry. But what about the tunes, the instruments, the arrangements? What about the music that actually makes pop stars famous?

It’s especially frustrating here, because Nicks, unlike many of today’s superstars, actually wrote most of her own material. And her recordings, especially her classic records, have a characteristic sound. It’s worth giving a little attention to that sound and how she created it.

The Nicks formula starts with a steady drumbeat at a moderate tempo, usually playing standard, unadorned pop-rock accents. One-TWO-three-FOUR. Instruments come in gradually: a subdued bass, maybe a muted electric guitar. Keyboards or an organ lay down basic chords, nothing adventurous, often broken up over several beats. A lead guitar adds tremulous coloring. The arrangement makes heavy use of vocal harmonies and backing singers. Often the songs are outright duets. Although synthesizers feature prominently, fancy production effects are kept to a minimum.

The result can be schmaltzy, especially with those woozy synths and lounge-like backing vocals. But it does evoke a distinctive mood. As a compositional approach, the method relies on empty space, the lonely plodding of the drums, the mournful bent notes of the lead guitar. The instrument parts, stripped down to a few simple accents, figure like distant sounds in a desolate area, horns at sea, sirens on a dark street. Mood intensifies through a slow accumulation of simple harmonies: guitar, keyboard, vocals, weaving together.

It’s not music you dance to. It’s music you drive to, singing along in the solitude of your car, the thrum of the highway doubled by those steady rhythm sections. Music you put on at evening, alone, with a dark mass of rain pushing up the valley, a few headlights curving by on the county road. At the whiskey hour.

“Nightbird,” “Sable on Blonde,” “Bella Donna,” “Kind of Woman,” “Outside the Rain,” “Wild Heart”: these are good examples of the signature Nicks style. Her upbeat songs have faster tempos, happier chords, busier arrangements, but still make use of the same basic elements: strong quarter-note accents, prominent backing vocals, layered instrumentation, plaintive guitar and keyboard riffs trading places in the bridge and post-chorus. I don’t know exactly how much of the credit for this sound goes to Nicks’ producer, Jimmy Iovine, but it’s worth noting that many of the hits she recorded with Fleetwood Mac–“Dreams,” “Rhiannon,” “Sara,” “Gypsy”–have the same distinguishing marks. Even some of her later tracks, which all too frequently collapse under pileups of eighties-tastic synth effects, have vestiges of the style; check out “Some Become Strangers” or “Nightmare.”

For an illuminating contrast, try listening to some of the fluffy, boppy hits written by Nicks’ bandmates in Fleetwood Mac: “Don’t Stop,” “Go Your Own Way,” “You Make Loving Fun,” “Hold Me,” “Little Lies,” “Over My Head.” Rhythm guitars and bouncy keyboards fill out the verses. Backing vocals are present but not prominent. We hear no interweaving of doleful synths and haunting electric guitar, just little bursts of radio-friendly licks. The tempo is quick but not urgent. Musical gimmicks and production effects cue shifts in mood, which generally ranges from mellow to buoyant.

Some of these are decent pop songs. But they sound different from Stevie Nicks songs.

This helps explain, I think, why Stevie Nicks is remembered for being Stevie Nicks, while Fleetwood Mac are remembered for being a groovy old Boomer band that gets dredged up for national campaign events. Nicks did something tricky. She made popular music about unpopular feelings: mournfulness, fragility, sorrow, regret. Everything about her public presence–the ethereal clothes, the brooding lyrics, the air of wounded innocence–and the songs themselves, with their hollow spaces, wistful vocals, and keening instrumentation–reinforced that image.

That kind of personal mystique can get you a reputation as a poetess, a witch, a visionary, a genius. I’m not sure we need to go that far. Maybe Stevie Nicks is something less mysterious. Maybe she’s just a talented musician.

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