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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

The three-part artistic origin of "50 Ways to Say Goodbye"

I discuss a trio influences that lie behind one of my favorite songs from nearly a decade ago.


In yesterday's post — which I consider one of my best yet — I mentioned that I certainly wasn't seeking out Taylor Swift's music when Red was released. Sure, I heard it a lot in public and on the radio, but I didn't put it into the YouTube search bar myself.


So what did I listen to back then? To answer that question, I took a look back at the first Billboard Hot 100 chart to be compiled after Red's release, dated November 3, 2012. I was surprised by just how much of the chart I could remember as I went down it, as well as how many of the songs hold up more than nine years later.


From that chart, one song stood out above the rest as being memorable for me: number 20, Train's "50 Ways to Say Goodbye." Its horn-flavored alt/pop-rock is right up my alley.

In listening to "50 Ways to Say Goodbye," I hear three distinct strains of influence on the song, each of which I'm sure Train were aware:


1) Mariachi. This one is pretty easy to hear, and it's also overtly nodded to in the official video, with the mariachi trio playing in the aisles of the supermarket to mark the song's opening — and what an ear-catching opening it is. It's rare to hear real brass instruments in a 21st-century pop song these days, so when I do hear it I tend to latch onto that sound and those songs very quickly (yes, I'm a trombonist, but I'll take what I can get). The mariachi influence is retained throughout the track by the guitar laying a bed for each verse and by the trumpet recurring in each chorus as well as the second verse and bridge.


I hear the mariachi influence as a reflection of Train's San Francisco origins. Not only has the Bay Area been a hotbed for Latin music for over a half-century, but it's also an area with a sizable population of Mexican and Central American immigrants and their families, many of whom value their native music as a way they can connect to their homeland.


2) The Phantom of the Opera. You might not have heard this one on first listen, but trust me when I say you'll definitely hear it from now on. Listen again to the first two lines of the song and tell me you don't hear the title song from Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. Honestly, I'm shocked Lloyd Webber never sued Train for credit, as he isn't listed among the songwriters. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Whereas the melody is mysterious in its original context, Pat Monahan's rendition is more plaintive and regretful, fitting given the song's lyrical context of its male narrator trying to process a breakup in the moment.


3) Paul Simon. I mean, it says it on the tin: "50 Ways to Say Goodbye" is of course derived from Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," another song dealing with the end of a relationship. Like Simon's track, Train's "50 Ways" also features a rapid-fire chorus which goes through some of the titular "ways." However, Pat Monahan's narrator is on the opposite side of the relationship from Simon's was; whereas Simon's narrator is being told how he might want to break up with his girlfriend, Monahan sings from the perspective of trying to cope with being dumped. Maybe one could consider the Train song a sequel to Simon's in this way.


Speaking of that rocking chorus, what a stylistic switch into it from the mariachi-based verse. I wouldn't say it's entirely abrupt, given the lead-in line of "That's cool but if my friends ask where you are I'm gonna say," but it is quick. Sometimes a shift like that makes a song feel too disjointed, but Train make sure theirs doesn't not just by continuing with their narrative into all the different "ways," but also by bringing back the trumpet to tie the chorus' sound to that of the verse.


I'm fairly certain I'd heard the above three strands of influence going back to 2012, but I also believe they didn't damage how I thought of the song. Even though I couldn't articulate it nearly as cleanly back then, I understood how music builds on prior forms and traditions, and how artists (whether intentionally or unintentionally) tend to take from some of their favorite songs and sounds when they write and produce themselves. Looking back now as I begin to experiment with writing and composing, I find myself following the same trends as Train and other acts, and I only gain further appreciation for their artistry as I continue in my own musical endeavors.

 

Postscript: I also happen to have a little bit of a personal connection to "50 Ways to Say Goodbye," making the song even more memorable for me — I know the trumpeter who played it live with Train. Brian Switzer served as Train's touring trumpet player during their California 37 era, and I know him through his being a former student and friend of my middle and high school conductors. He occasionally came in to critique and help out our jazz bands zero period, before he himself became a jazz instructor at a nearby high school (Carlmont). The world just gets smaller every day...

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