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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Earworm Weekly: “A Different Drum”

Posted By on Tue, Sep 29, 2015 at 9:51 AM

  • Carl Lender at
“You and I travel to the beat of a different drum.” That soaring line is how vocalist Linda Ronstadt introduced herself to the world in 1967. “Different Drum” is an “it's not you, it's me” breakup song of the highest order. Hardly anyone but music cataloguers remembers that this was not a solo turn by Ronstadt but in fact credited to her first band, the Stone Poneys – not that any of the other Poneys actually appeared on the recording; all the players are studio musicians. 

When I was younger, I was enthralled by the gender role reversal of a woman singing to her male lover the line “I ain't saying you ain't pretty” before telling him she's not ready to settle down, thank you very much; you could almost hear the singer's lip curl in scorn around the last word. As a budding poet, I also got a naughty kick from the plethora of near-rhymes. “Drum/run,” “knock it/market,” “thing/reins,” “pretty/ready” — they all felt a little bit like cheating on a test and getting away with it. As I got older, however, I got more suspicious. For one thing, Ronstadt is an interpreter, not a songwriter. And for another, it seemed a little too pat in its gender-flipped script. I had a hunch that this song had not started out as a deliberate counterpoint to the usual “ball and chain” scenario. 
My instincts turned out to be correct. The song was penned by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees. Sung by a man, it would be a bog-standard song about too-clingy girlfriends and the need to sow one's wild oats. With the genders switched, the song has an entirely new context, not to mention both vigor and charm. Because, as just about any woman who has practiced casual sex with menfolk — or even just spent time on Tinder or OK Cupid — knows, they can get just as clingy as women are popularly assumed to be. You might think you're both going in for a no-strings encounter, but you end up with a guy who thinks his happy ending means the beginning of something else. The kind of guy who calls, and texts, and sends flowers, and generally makes himself a bother. If you find yourself with such a suitor, you might daydream of a blunt-talk brushoff the likes of which “A Different Drum” so gleefully delivers. You might even find yourself nursing an earworm of the song as you figure out how to let someone down without earning yourself a stalker.

But the part of the song that really sinks hooks into my ear is the sound of the harpsichord — bright, chiming, and oh so twee, it inadvertently forms the perfect teeter-totter balance to Ronstadt's full-throated lyrical delivery. The inclusion of the harpsichord is a trendy-at-the-time marker of the folk-rock era this song was born into, in much the same way that Casio loops infest 1980s pop or how early-aught hip-hop is rife with borrowed Bollywood beats.

Ironically, Ronstadt herself can't stand hearing this song. What sounds like casual confidence on record turns out to be something else. Ronstadt oversold the song in the studio because she was uncomfortable with it. She sang it unrehearsed and at a different, faster tempo than she expected, and once told The Wall Street Journal: “Everyone hears something in that song — a breakup, the antiwar movement, women's lib. I hear fear and a lack of confidence on my part.” It wouldn't be the first time a woman (or a man) hid their anxiety behind a screen of sass and brass. Who knew that the brittle sound of the harpsichord mirrored the singer's feelings as well?
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Lori Selke


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