In HateSong, we ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world.
The hater: Part of the fun of being a Yo La Tengo fan is the group’s penchant for obscure cover songs, revealing a deep love for a wide variety of genres. YLT’s eight-night charity Hanukkah shows at the dearly departed Maxwell’s were a veritable live shuffle, running the gamut from Carole King and Al Johnson, to Neil Diamond and KISS. YLT’s new record, Stuff Like That There, is an unofficial sequel to 1990’s Fakebook, a collection of covers, covers of previous YLT songs, and new originals. With his encyclopedic musical knowledge and eclectic taste, it’s hard to imagine the famously unflappable Ira Kaplan truly despising anything. However, he proves no match for his pick, a Satan-spawned jingle from hell.
The hated: The 1-877-Kars4Kids jingle
The A.V. Club: First off, apologies for implanting this earworm into your week.
Ira Kaplan: I can never forget it because they continue to advertise during baseball games. You might end up forgetting about it until someone else mentions it.
AVC: Does it haunt your subconscious and pop into your head at inopportune times?
IK: I have a memory of when The Birds was first broadcast on TV. I was so not a horror movie watcher. I’m so old that this was like dial TV. If I was going from Channel 5 to Channel 2 I would go the long way around. I think similarly with this song that it goes without saying that the second you hear it start you dive for the volume control in the car to mute it. We tend to mute commercials in our house anyway, but just seeing the image on the TV and knowing what they’re doing, or having the dial turned down, you still know it’s there and can’t get it out of your head.
AVC: Via the Kars4Kids website, the song originally aired on a local New Jersey radio station in 2001. As a Hoboken resident, do you remember when you first heard it?
IK: No. I do think the hatred of it came on slowly. I’m not bad at tuning things out, but there came a point where it was just like, “This thing again?! This really is annoying.” Once it had hit my consciousness it became impossible to ignore. I don’t think it was hate at first exposure.
AVC: There’s a whole history to this supposed charity. Can I break it down for you?
IK: I couldn’t be happier to hear about it.
AVC: It went nationwide in 2007. Imus grumbled and cursed it, not knowing his mic was on, and later apologized.
Charity watchdogs investigated the organization in 2009, claiming it failed to disclose the beneficiaries of the car donations. Kars4Kids also offered free vacation vouchers for donations, which were actually timeshares that contained hidden costs.
The company also gives the majority of its junked car revenue to an organization called Oorah, which supposedly pays for Jewish children to attend school. In 2013, of the $28 million raised by Kars, $12 million went to advertising and promotion. It seems they could be giving that directly to the kids. As a band that supports numerous charities, does this piss you off even more?
IK: I think it’s great! I’d feel guilty for hating their jingle so much if they were a worthwhile charity. It couldn’t be more appropriate. The thing you mentioned about the amount of money they made from the donations, that’s something we’ve had to deal with during our Hanukkah shows. We’ve used various charity evaluating sites to make sure the money is going to the right place.
AVC: How do you pick your charities, and how much research is involved?
IK: It varies. We do different things because the people who join us aren’t getting paid, so we always ask people if they have a specific charity they would like us to support in lieu of payment. Our fans write to us with ideas, and one year we decided to actively solicit ideas, and that year all the charities came from our audience suggestions. The biggest guideline we had, which we didn’t always follow but did a lot, was that we were always looking for organizations that were small enough that the check for $5,000 would seem exciting. We’re always more pleased when the organization is smaller, where that kind of check didn’t routinely roll in.
AVC: Musically, how does the Kars4Kids jingle affect you? Is it the simplistic melody, the out-of-tune child, or the faux-Johnny Cash male lead that sets you off?
IK: None of those things that you mention bother me by definition. We had kids sing on “Nuclear War.” I loved it. One of the things that really bothers me about Kars4Kids is that it’s debasing the Irving Cohen “bouncy C.” How dare they corrupt the bouncy C!
There’s nothing by definition that’s wrong with it. The other thing that is disturbing is that, as I referenced my age before with the TV dial, there were so many jingles when I was growing up that I feel strongly pro. I think of the Polaroid Swinger and “Music To Watch Girls By.”
It’s been a conscious thought I’ve had over the years, being sorry there aren’t as many jingles anymore. Then along comes this one, and it’s like, “Ugh, that’s not what I meant.” Go back to no jingles. Now I understand why that’s necessary.
AVC: Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle,” a Yo La Tengo staple, is a fairly simple song.
IK: I don’t think simple is an insult. Something that’s really simple and great is probably harder to do than something more complex. That’s what I’m saying. The descriptors of the Kars4Kids jingle I don’t think are necessarily bad things. They just somehow fell into the wrong hands of this jingle’s creators.
AVC: For Yo La Tengo to cover a song, is it always a totally democratic process, or are there in-jokes where you, Georgia, or James don’t like a song, and it’s played to get under someone’s skin?
IK: No. We don’t necessarily feel equally about specific songs, but there have been times during the Hanukkah shows where people had a song they wanted to sing and we were very open to that. We didn’t always love those choices. We always try and be accommodating hosts and appreciative of the people donating their time for the shows. We’ve done songs that we would probably have preferred not to do. By and large, they’re songs that we have some affection for, or a reason for doing. We wouldn’t do a song just to get under someone’s skin.
AVC: As a rock critic in your younger years, were you quicker to anger, or have you grown more forgiving of a bad song with age?
IK: I think I have grown more forgiving. I accept that not everything is for me. I’ve changed my mind about things over time. I’m not as in love with my own opinions as I used to be. In fact, when this interview came up and it was proposed to me, I felt like, “Ugh, I’ve got to come up with something I hate.” For the most part, I’d rather just ignore a lot of things. Then this song came to me, and I was like, “Oh wow. I actually hate this. I can talk about this without feigning indignation.” But anger is not something that comes to me as quickly as it once did.
AVC: Are you quicker to forgive a bad indie song versus a bad pop song?
IK: No. It’s probably the other way around. Pop songs that have accomplished something and reached an audience, it’s kind of like, how is it my business to tell people your song isn’t good? My parents didn’t like the songs I liked. These are songs that are meaningful to millions of people and I respect that.
AVC: The marriage of film to music can be really moving. Jackson Browne’s “Late For The Sky” in Taxi Driver. Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” in Natural Born Killers. As a soundtrack composer and film buff, are you similarly moved?
IK: I wish there were less songs in movies. I like scores more than songs. In terms of songs in movies, you mentioned Scorsese. I do like his wall-to-wall use of rock songs as a kind of collage. I love the way those songs work. “Toad” by Cream was such a revelatory use of that song. It’s not like I don’t think it can work, but it’s not my favorite device.
AVC: What current bands or songwriters are fighting the good fight?
IK: I always love Lambchop and Kurt Wagner every time they have something new. I do tend to listen to mostly older stuff. I just finished reading the biography of Bert Berns. It got me thinking and listening to a lot of those records.
Similarly I read a novelization on Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, where he’s hanging out with radical German left wingers. I realized I had never heard the music he made after he left Fleetwood Mac. I listened to that, and some of it is amazing.
AVC: Are there songs you never tire of hearing?
IK: Probably lots of them. There’s a lot of Motown songs that I think, “God, I never need to hear this song again. Why do I ever need to listen to ‘Dancing In The Streets’ again?” But if it comes on the radio, I love it. I wouldn’t think to play it in the house, but it sounds great every time I hear it. That’s part of the attraction of these massive reissues, where there’s a Kinks song that has a mono mix instead of a stereo mix, which is the one you’ve listened to all your life. It sounds almost exactly the same but there’s a slight variance. It’s like the princess and the pea, where you’ve got this tiny thing, but it feels gigantic.
AVC: If anyone from Kars4Kids happens to read this, would you like to leave them a message?
IK: Yes. I look forward to them no longer advertising during Mets games. They can do whatever they want, but just drop the Mets as a client. That’s a personal plea.