Thursday, May 31, 2007

Poetry in notion

Some people think rock music is poetry for the modern man while others reckon that trying to understand what a song is all about just by studying the lyrics is a futile and misplaced endeavour. Cultural critic Lawrence Grossberg, with his concept of affect, is one who has argued that the point of music is how it makes you feel (both on your own and in relation to others) and that textual analysis of song lyrics - which cultural theorists had previously concentrated on - is not the main game.

All those baby boomers who thought Dylan was Rimbaud with sunglasses and better hair only had part of the picture. You see, Dylan also had a guitar and harmonica (though it remains true that Rimbaud had bad hair).

I pass my apologies to Lawrence whose life's work I remember haltingly from many years ago and have probably just reduced to travesty. I also admit to making the same mistake myself at times. In grade ten for my English Class poetry recital I read aloud the lyrics to Guns 'n' Roses' Civil War until my exasperated teacher said she couldn't assess my performance and made me resubmit using Poe's The Raven.

Anyway, this morning as I drove to work, my ipod coughed up Bruce Springsteen's Hungry Heart. I began to sing along, I guess, somewhat heartily. I've always loved Hungry Heart, with its jaunty sax and rolling synth lines and its snappy but simple drums. It makes me feel great.

Instantly I was happier to be on my way to work. Outside it was grey and rainy and my wipers weren't working well, increasing the likelihood of a peak-hour crash and some expensive medical or panel repair work. The previous night at rehearsal I'd struggled to learn UT's ripping new song and felt that I was holding the dudes back. I'd woken grumpy but as Hungry Heart kicked in, suddenly I felt fantastic.

Then I thought about the words and realised that although I knew them (I was singing along after all) I'd never really CONSIDERED them.

Springsteen is one of those artists who are inevitably described as some sort of 'street poet' and positioned by many rock critic types as an inheritor of Dylan's status as Rock Poet Laureate. Those who do not follow The Boss as closely as I can find the lyrics here.

They describe a man who abandons his wife and kids, walking out on them and never returning. He takes a wrong turn and he just keeps going.

He begins to frequent seedy bars, meets a floozy and has it off with her for a while. Then she dumps his sorry ass and he finds himself back in the same bar, singing this song, as he looks for another floozy to take her unsatisfying place. Mostly, he just doesn't want to be alone.

This is pretty bleak stuff, I'd have to say.

So why does it make me feel so great? I think this nicely demonstrates Grossberg's point about our overestimation of the importance of lyrics in analysing music. It's also worth noting that a virtually-unknown young Springsteen wrote Hungry Heart for The Ramones in response to a request from his pal Joey Ramone. Then Bruce liked what he'd done so much that he refused to hand it over and kept it for himself. I can't help but feel that the Ramones would've gone all nihilistic on it and part of the song's great charm - the discrepancy between subject matter and style - would have been lost.

In Japan, where they don't really understand the lyrics but love the poppy melody and simple chorus, this is pretty much Bruce's biggest ever hit. The Japanese know that rock 'aint poetry, it's rebellion and noise and mysterious stuff that makes you tap your toes, hate your parents or sing in the car.

There's a big difference, it turns out, between Haiku and fuck you.


Anonymous Mrazzy said...

What we've got here is a failure to communicate...
I have always been an obsessive collector (and singer-along) of lyrics - possibly because I have no muscial skills and therefore a hindered appreciation of the sheer musical genius of my favourite songs. And also it comes in handy at trivia nights.
The most grating music/lyric dissonance for me has always been Norwegian Wood, whose gentle, bouncy tune graces many a Saturday morning in the lifts at Myer, despite the fact that it's about a guy who torches a woman's house because she won't fuck him. Bastard. I can't enjoy it - maybe because, unlike the Boss, I think John Lennon was deliberately going for understated creepiness rather than a rockin' story of gritty American life.

31/5/07 14:42  
Blogger silky-D said...

I suspect you are correct, JL was going for deliberate effect and he certainly achieved it. An additional point. Hungry Heart was released in 1980, the same year that Lennon was shot dead in New York. In an interview he gave shortly before his death Lennon remarked that Hungry Heart was his favourite song at the time.

31/5/07 14:48  
Blogger Unrelenting Tedium said...

Where possible I like to drag conversation back to Richard Thompson and, in this case, his song Persuasion (lyrics by the Dannii Minogue of NZ, Tim Finn...the music was written for an Australian film, Green Keeping, and Timbo heard it an penned hear we have an example of complete disconnect between librettist and composer...I think they had not even met prioir to this occuring but could be wrong). Anyway this lovely melody has lyrics that on first pass appear to be about devotion and as such has been used for weddings I have attended and I know of several couples for whom it is "their song". All this is made slightly banal by the fact that the lyrics are about mid-life divorce and the possibility that the protagonist could be persuaded to stay but why try to "re-build what was never there". In fact, in a fan Q and A I read someone asked about some aspect of playing the song as they wanted to use it as their bridal waltz and Thommo, whilst obliging as always with the info, did suggest that it was perhaps not the ideal song for the purpose.

The hackneyed and not even slightly obscure example of this (as Alex the Seal is to lyrical misunderstanding) is the popular bridal waltz Every Breath You Take...don't these people ever listen to the middle 8 and wonder?

However! A song that matches music to lyrical content perfectly is the Kiss use of Beethoven to propel the Gene sung masterpiece Great Expectations. The thrust being that groupies have great expectations of his sexual prowess when, after watching all he can do on stage("You watch me playing guitar and you see what my fingers can do"), they make it back stage and what a crushing weight this is for Gene to bear (he doesn't say he's not up to it mind you).

31/5/07 15:26  
Blogger silky-D said...

I am familiar with Persuasion via Tim Finn, though I was not aware the tune came from RT. Does he perform it with Tim's lyrics? I also distantly recall Green Keeping - did it not star Joe Scully from Neighbours?

As for bridal waltzes, as somebody who 'waltzed' to Cheap Trick I can hardly comment. Though it is true that my sister wanted to do her bridal waltz to Nick Cave's The Ship Song but was banned by my mother who felt it was 'too depressing'.
In the end they plumped for U2's All I Want is You, which (if the film clip is to be believed) was actually a haunting tale of a circus midget's unrequited love for a trapeze artist (I think she favoured the strong-man instead, pushing him to suicide. But then again, the relationship between song and clip is even more mysterious than that between lyrics and music and is not, as the theorists would say, a stable site for the construction of meaning (or somesuch)

31/5/07 15:40  
Blogger Unrelenting Tedium said...

He does perform it with Tim's lyrics. I don't think he has recorded it other than on mail order live albums (and I think one of these versions appears on the recent Box Set RT). Commonly it is with "son" Teddy (I am considering paying for a DNA paternity test as I can find nothing of the father in the son).

31/5/07 15:52  
Blogger silky-D said...

Tedium. Finally we get to see what you look like!
My, what big ears you have...

31/5/07 16:01  
Anonymous Jimbo said...

UT... there is truth in the suggestion you "go well with any curry" after all

31/5/07 16:27  
Anonymous mrazzy said...

I find a notable parallel between people's poor choice of bridal walz and their poor choice of Chinese language tattoo. If only it was because people enjoyed the complexities and contradictions of multiple layers of meaning (e.g. Silky's presumed continued enjoyment of Hungry Heart), instead of the fact that people are idiots.

31/5/07 17:00  
Blogger Unrelenting Tedium said...

Aha! A Favourite of mine. "Um yeah, I got it becuase it means noble tiger...and I have always really liked tigers...but it turns out it also means parsnip". For to just write noble tiger in english would be tacky...quite.

I should be careful here. You never know who has one and the poor people can't get rid of them. They may be making lamb shanks for a dinner party the following night to boot.

If anyone is unaware of the David Beckham tattoo story I am happy to relate it hear.

1/6/07 08:07  
Blogger Unrelenting Tedium said...


1/6/07 08:11  
Anonymous mrazzy said...

Some of my favourite people have unfortunate tattoos. I apologise for calling them idiots.
I am unaware of the David Beckham tattoo story...

1/6/07 09:43  
Blogger Unrelenting Tedium said...

That is all the encouragement I need. Paddy must have heard this a million times by now.

It invloves one of my favourite retorts (and is nice dig at proponents of cultural relativism). So, Dave wants to get Victoria written in Hindi on his foreaerm (he is responsible for my quote above when he said to the press that to write Victoria on his arm in English would be tacky). So far as I can tell Davo has no special relationship with the Hindi script but I could be wrong. He does not come across as an Indianophile or Ghandianist (surely Gujarati would have been the way to go in that case).
Our hero heads to his fav tattooist with the request, who in turns heads to the library to look up how to spell it. A fine tattoo is made and press conferences are held.
At this point the Indian embassy chips in with "this is all well and good but by the way you have misspelled Victoria".
Tattooist responds the following day with "No we didn't. It's not a Hindi word anyway so who is to say how to spell it."

The embassy retort "Ummm, well as Queen Victoria was Empress of India for 24 years we thought we had come to some agreement as to how to spell it".

1/6/07 10:19  
Anonymous mrazzy said...

Taken down a notch by the iron fist of your own political history...nice one.

1/6/07 11:05  
Blogger silky-D said...

spelling is an imperialist disciplinary construct that should not be imposed on the brown man, or on rich footballers from Essex with girly voices. I have no tattoos. Carry on.

1/6/07 11:18  
Anonymous Jimbo said...

My feeling is that Becks would struggle to spell Victoria in the "tacky" way let so a Hindi misspelling is an honest representation.

1/6/07 14:43  
Blogger gigglewick said...

When I was 12 I developed the capacity to hate my parents, tap my toes AND sing in the car, all at once.

Oh, those were the heady days.....

...which I would have spent listening to Rick Astley....

...if not for my dad's insistence on Springsteen, Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, Cream and the Yardbirds.

He won, as it turns out (my dad, not Rick Astley).

7/6/07 16:52  
Blogger silky-D said...

It sounds like you had some traumatic car trips GW. Silky-d's childhood car trips were accompanied by a soundtrack including The Travelling Wilburys first album and Phil Bailey's Walking on a Chinese Wall (which featured the smash hit duet with Phil Collins: Easy Lover). So much did we love Easy Lover that we would rewind and re-play it over and over until the tape wore out. In the interests of not making the Pater look too bad it should also be pointed out that he also likes the Yardbirds, Cream and Fleetwood Mac (though strictly only the Peter Green stuff) and is not just a Wilbury's/Phil Bailey guy. My dad is becoming quite the regular topic on this blog. My, he would be embarrassed if he knew how to look up blogs on the interweb.

7/6/07 17:34  
Blogger silky-D said...

A correction. Greenkeeping did not star Joe Scully from Neighbours, it starred Joe Mangle from Neighbours (they were virtually the same character it must be said). My memory was jogged on this matter when I went to watch the Melbourne Victory the other night and saw, gasp, Joe Scully from Neighbours standing behind me. (He is no longer with Neighbours after leaving in acrimonious circumstances regarding an alleged drug habit that may or may not have been diminishing his performance.)
Interestingly he appeared to be accompanied at the soccer by former Big Brother contestant and wannabe lipstick entrepeneur Gemma. Or perhaps they were strangers who just happened to be standing next to each other. Perhaps I should stop watching so much bad television, take UT's advice and get a life.

8/6/07 10:54  
Blogger gigglewick said...

No, we had the Travelling Wilburys too....

Like any self-respecting 60s hipster could turn their back on that supergroup....

13/6/07 11:57  

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