Friends of mine and I have discussed ‘the most perfect cover.’ That is to say, a cover version of a song that stands on its own as excellent without simply being a better version of the original. There are three that Fox, Jeb and I have forwarded, and I present them here for your viewing pleasure.
Jeb offered Willie Nelson’s Rainbow Connection.
Fox suggested Green Day’s I Fought the Law.
And I posit that it’s this specific take on I’m A Believer by Smash Mouth.
I unironically love all three of these. Willie’s lilting softness and sadness echoes of an older man than Kermit reflecting on things past rather than on things to be. Green Day take a song made for the ultimately commercial rationale and imbue it with their own jangly discord. And I’m a Believer is one of the most famously hollow songs ever, being performed by a band renowned for being hollow, rendered in this slow, dazed, creeping musical intonation.
First, from The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, the narrated piece, The Bells of Notre Dame.
Second, from Moana, Jermaine Clement’s song, Shiny:
Now, these songs don’t have a lot of similarity between one another, really. Shiny is a comedy piece, a sort of mid-stage development point for the characterisation of Maui and Moana, and Bells is the introductory piece for Judge Frollo, Quasimodo, the Priest, and Notre Dame itself.
These two songs, however, show to me a distinct difference in how Disney does things these days versus how they did. First of all, let me clear up that Shiny is a straight-up comedy song. It’s definitely funny – Tamatoa breaks the fourth wall, he tells jokes, he’s very big and exaggerated. It’d be pretty easy to file it as the comedy number with just some details in it.
The thing is, I see these two songs as being startlingly similar and also extremely different. The main thing about them that’s similar is that they’re both songs that tell you about the setting, tell you about the characters involved, incorporate narrative, and reveal a backstory element of a character. Shiny’s a jokey song but it’s a song that does as much as Bells.
The thing they do, however, that’s both songs have a component of the movie’s story happen in the middle of them: In Bells, that component is part of the song, and is implemented as such, but in Shiny, it interrupts the song, and is unrelated to the song: This is particularly interesting because the singing in Disney movies is usually diegetic but also nondiegetic: Nobody really explains that a character is actually singing in any given scene. Moana even uses its diegetic music to convey the transition between languages you saw in We Know The Way:
See that? The way the people of the tribe are singing the song when it’s in their native language, but they’re not shown singing it when the song transitions to English? Wonderful stuff, ingenious.
Now, the thing that prompted this whole idea, though, is something I don’t like that much: These songs are of their space in this story – inextricably. The songs in Moana cannot be easily removed from the movie to listen to as a song, which I think, emperically is kinda harder and more impressive? It means that those songs exist as pieces of the whole, that there’s more work and difficulty involved in constructing the musical.
But at the same time, there’s still something of me that admires and respects the difficulty in the song being the song; that you have 3 minutes to convey what the song’s doing, that it is a discrete piece of media, and the movie implements it – in the same way that a good piece of dialogue can be removed from a scene, and still implies the rest of it.
Anyway, that’s a really minor, aesthetic point and just something I think is interesting, particularly since this habit of breaking structure – of using music to build a structure then breaking out of it by the use of diegesis – is a very hip-hop thing to do.
I said I’d say something about this and I never did, and this sucks and it’s in my head and now I’m going to share it with you. For as there are good things in this world, there are dark and miserable reflections, and with Christian Replacement Media on my mind, let us speak now of some of its worst examples.
In the late 90s there was a ska boom. Ska music got on the radio. There was also the peak era of South Park, as a generation of teenagers tried to convince their parents that they didn’t care about your opinions, dude and they liked edgy, powerful, dangerous media like this thing about children talking to poop.
Two media trends, two chances to capitalise and milk money out of other Christians? Well, of course it was time for the Christian Replacement Media machine to get involved and get involved hard.
“What,” you may be asking, “the fuck was that.”
That, my friend is the evil mirror to Five Iron Frenzy. It is the fundamentalist-enough Christian alternative to South Park’s visual aesthetic branding and opposition point to the radio’s sinful Mighty Mighty Bosstones. It is a musical Waluigi, an entity created entirely in opposition to values rather than expression of values. It is ash. In as much as art can be, it is sin.
By the way, boy, the people on the Mexican border really had a problem that they weren’t getting enough Americans telling them about Jesus. Mexico’s a country with a real problem with Christianity, right? Let’s set aside the Anti-Catholic and patronising probably-Racism of Mission Trip To Mexico and instead examine what I feel is probably their worst song, Homeschool Girl.
Public school is full of drug addicts, boring, and lies to you. But Homeschool girl, well, she’s super great.
Augh I’m listening to it again.
It literally exhorts how good she is at preparing him stuff! It holds up how smart she is by how many grades she is ahead except because she’s homeschooled that doesn’t mean anything, since the person telling you that isn’t a fucking teacher! This is literally propoganda for a lifestyle that I know’s inflicted tremendous harm on people!
Sometimes you can think about the impact of a piece of art in terms of what it made seem normal, what it impacted, who it really influenced. And I am sadly certain that there are people, right now, homeschooling their kids, who are doing it in part because when they were young teens, they heard this song and it helped to form what they thought of as ‘normal.’
Hmm, let’s see, other countries, homeschooling with some overtones of sexism, what about –
Oh yeah, Abstinence!
Fucking hell this fucking group of fucking dickheads.
Okay okay, not going to talk about the lyrics or message of this media – the pain of having had sex? the fuck, you’re doing it very wrong – but I’m going to talk about how boring this ska music is. It’s very competently arranged, but very poorly mixed, and if you listen to all this stuff in a row you’ll be struck by how all BOB songs more or less sound the same.
All their album is up on Youtube, if you give a shit to go listen to it. I think their least obnoxious track is I Saw Pastor Dancing, which is just intensely cringey.
Comparisons between Frozen and Moana are sort of a sign that right now, because they’re only one of a small number of films with the similar premise (woman-centered narrative).
The riff in both Jungle Book and Aladdin feel kinda like the Oriental Riff, aka Aladdin’s Cave that opens a lot of other things like Turning Japanese. Like, the iconic ‘Oriental Sounding’ music isn’t from anywhere in the Orient anywhere.
Cultural Appropriation is a big topic and it’s hard to talk about it in Youtube spaces, and it’s even harder to talk about on Twitter.
The Bulgarian choir music thing is just straight up super interesting.
Is this fusional, using Bulgarian choir style with the Inupiat lyrics?
The thing about Librettists and Operatic Composers amuse me juxtaposed with a Gilbert and Sullivan quote because they hated each other so much by the end, because they couldn’t see it as a synthesis of their work.
English is a fixed-stress language; words have a proper emphasis in them, but words don’t have a proper emphasis in a sentence, or rather, the emphasis tends to indicate the subject.
Vocables! There’s like, a language for singing, in a language? That’s super cool! I wonder if it’s also part of transmission/commonality between cultures, so they can all sing the same songs even if their languages change over time and space.
I really do want to see Moana. It looks really great.
God, Lilo and Stitch was also great.
The question of cultural appropriation between Hawai’i and France and Polynesian narrative.
I really, really love the detail that the characters are singing the song in its original language, and then they stop singing it when the language shifts to English. It becomes nondiegetic, which is really cool.
This form of video isn’t actually so demanding of production values. I can do this. I can do this even with Microsoft Movie Editor.
Hold hard, traveller. For the night is dark, and full of 80s. I give you a warning that below this fold, there be writing about gender and culture and media, and also, 1980s songs. Turn back, turn back while yet you can! Or perhaps you are of sterner stuff.
It used to be that back in the day the way you found new music was kinda amateurish and rotten – if you liked a few defining traits of a song you could often find songs that were like it, but sometimes you’d wind up sinking time and effort into a whole sweep of media that you just plain out didn’t like in hindsight. Now, obviously, my media tastes are a bit different given that I was raised in a bubble where even the most sedate forms of rock were considered smuggled contraband, emphasised further by the fact that my father regarded his status in the church as important enough to threaten us over if there was a risk someone else might see his, I dunno, Moodie Blues records.
This meant that the only really popular music we could listen to in this time of my life was not even pop radio, really – it was country music. And even that was dangerous. After all, there were certainly some good crossover gospel songs being made by country western singers, but there were still women who wore jeans. That was dangerous.
The good news is, growing up, some of this stuff has served to ground me in appreciating other music forms more. Country music has a lot to offer in theory, but as for the time of my life where it was the only new, reinvigorating form of media? There was some messed up stuff being played, and looking back on it, I remember learning some bad lessons about people from that.
Here, without any real structure beyond the first and last tracks, then, are five country songs that have really fucked up ideas about what’s okay.
I’ve joked more than a few times on Twitter that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote songs about Twitter but that’s really just selling short that they wrote songs about people, and Twitter has, for all its much vaunted revolution, not really changed or improved anything about how people are, it’s just added ways for us to keep doing what we were already doing. In this case, we’re talking about a particular class of people – entitled shitheads.
The singer in this piece, King Gama is, without a doubt, a shithead. He’s a king, and he’s convinced that what people need in their life is to hear him volunteering information. What’s more, he does so volunteering information that may not be relevant to the conversation. He’s convinced that his contributions are fascinating and people want to experience him, even if they’ve never asked – and all his efforts to consider this fail at the fence of trying to address just why people might not like him. That is to say he’s aware enough to know that he’s hated, but not aware enough of the things he’s doing that are hateable.
So don’t be an entitled shithead. We could work that out centuries ago, but clearly we’re not teaching that lesson enough.
I didn’t listen to sermons very often. My dad preached a lot, but what knowledge I gleaned from the sermons tended to be while I was trying to distract myself, gleaning tiny notes I could add to conversations later on to avoid an ass kicking. But I did pay attention to the one my dad gave with his hand on the pulpit, his voice loud and terrifying, when he began THE ROCK IS GOING TO FALL ON US.
He quoted the whole song.
Not as a song, not as this tale of back and forth. He recited it as poetry, without pitch and timbre, and with the building, frothing cadence of a preacher. From the timid lurking fear of the beginning to the crashing, potent terror of the last segment, this song was turned to the Christ metaphor. He closed a sermon that was laden with eschatalogical terror as it was with exhortation to do better in our own lives, with the line the rock slips a little bit.
The story of the original song, when expressed by Harry Chapin didn’t seem to have that same religious potency. It was about people. It was about listening to the outsider in our midst. It was about a person who respected what could go wrong so well they worked and struggled and strived and used what they had, even to their last, to try and save people from worse fates.
It’s a scary fucking song.
But the thing about the song that I’m reminded of today is of a friend, dear and kind, who is up on the hillside, building barricades. They’re fighting against something that doesn’t have to happen again. They’re striving and struggling and they are doing their work in part with poetry and with music, things that scored this message into my mind in the first place.
You do not believe it right now, so I have written it down and you can come back and check:
You are beautiful.
You are wonderful.
You deserve to be heard, respected, and loved.
And anything that tells you otherwise wants to lie to you to control you.
I’ve loved the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ work for many a year now, and just like with all the other things I love, I tend to over-examine them. I like to tell myself that their work is heavily narrative, telling snatches of stories in very approachable, memorable ways. Music conveys things the words don’t, and repetition helps underscore and emphasise things within this space. It’s all very interesting to me for a band that is fronted by a man who sounds like he gargles hammers.
Today, I was struck, as I listened to an old favourite, about why a song felt strange to me.
Don’t Worry Desmond Dekker is a piece about, as best as I can tell, a platonic breakup. It’s a song about two people – not even necessarily two men, though Dickie Barrett’s voice does help kinda pull it towards the idea of at least one dude being involved, and I’m inclined of late to examine the male platonic relationship thanks to Jeb – who had a relationship, which at some incident, ended. But the song isn’t a wistful, mourning story, like Adele’s Somebody Like You, it’s about the wistful distance you feel from your experiences and your anger. It’s about how what’s left of the friendship, what’s at the end of it, and oh, it did end, is memories of shared interests, of laughter and joy, and, of course, those precious items, given or loaned, and never returned: The Desmond Dekker and Clash records.
The ouvre of Gilbert and Sullivan is one which typically runs in a cynical path against classism and structure. Of course, being white guys getting paid to write, in the 1870s, they were bound up with the society at the time that was racist and sexist as we are all now, still, and it reflected in the values they wrote.
Still, there’s gems in their writing, if you look through the facets that aren’t quite so, y’know, then.
Now, this song is basically a parlour trick. You’ll find a range of versions of it, though I like this one a lot. Partly because it isn’t in the Pirates of Penzance, which is cute, but unnecessary. Still, singing this song is one of those things that you do to show off more than you do to advance the plot – even though the song has plot advancement and summary in it.
I like the plot of Ruddigore. Without big spoilers, Ruddigore is a play about a man living under a family rule, bullied by literally the ghosts of his family, eventually coming up with a logical trick that lets him remove the power those ghosts have. It’s about a character who struggles with what he’s been told he is by his family, and instead chooses to be something else. He didn’t commit the sin that dragged his family into the position they’re in, but none of his ancestors tried to fix it either.
The thing that’s great about this song to me, though, is that the first verse, the easiest to listen to, is plot. “I’m going to go do this thing.” The singer is telling the audience that he’s going to – well, okay, literally, he’s going to go tell the ghosts that haunt him he’d rather die than surrender his ideals.
The second verse is basically a shorthand slap at the story trope of The Mad Woman, which unfortunately, modern renditions seem to miss. The Mad Woman doesn’t show up in other G&S stuff, not often. their women tended to either be wide-eyed ingenues whose naivete was a source of comedy (to the most ridiculous levels, like in Patience). The song points out that because Margaret’s been in all the narrative places she needs to be, she is easily the most aware person in the story, and she could solve it all… but it doesn’t matter, because she’s The Mad Woman.
And the third verse…?
The third verse is just saying, in essence patter songs suck.
The Shrek soundtrack is an amazing cultural artifact.
Don’t let’s sell it short, though. The Shrek soundtrack is just like the rest of Shrek – a piece of media whose quality and whose success only function in relation to a particular environment around them. With a media landscape defined by a struggling, glurge-driven Disney, the rise of early computer graphics that both looked bad but were hideously over-used, a product like Shrek could only really succeed in spite of its qualities, not because of it. I mean, it’s a kid’s movie featuring Eddie Murphy, John Lithgow and Michael Myers – not exactly star names to headline young media.
The soundtrack is weird too. If you looked at it in a store you’d assume it was full of crossover pop songs, things that were designed to sell a brand and vice versa, rather than focusing on songs from the actual movie. But, unbelievably, yes, indeed, all these chintzy pop songs are in the movie.
That’s part of what makes them so strange to me – and the songs show some elements of the time in which they sprang up.
Part of growing up under a rock is learning about top 100 songs and all that pop music I missed. Fox and I recently started looking at the Triple J Hottest 100 Of The Year, starting in 1997. After some laughing, we noticed that Fox’s music collection is mostly these songs. This showed us that amazingly, back then, Fox was one of the cool kids and we just didn’t know it.
Hey kids, wanna talk about some CHRISTIAN ROCK AND ROLL?
What hey wait where you going.
Look, the religious subjective experience of an artist may inform or illuminate their work but that doesn’t taint it. As an atheist there are plenty of musicians whose music I love who I am pretty sure think I’m going to hell, or at least shouldn’t be trusted around kids (and I shouldn’t, but that’s its own rant).
Reading Jonny Scaramanga‘s article on Bunch Of Believers (who are every bit as awful as you’d think), he namedrops Five Iron Frenzy. FiF are one of the few lasting spurs of Christian culture I grew up with that has endured, because I found songs of theirs legitimately stuck with me, songs I liked even when they weren’t being artificially favoured by social regulation.
A few years ago I was doing a course on computer hardware to try and improve my employability. It was split between a number of teachers – some talking about systemic structures, some talking about linux devices, and one teacher talking about physical hardware and cabling. This teacher was a tiny American ex-naval man with a brustly walrus mustache and a host of interesting stories. Broadly speaking, I thought of him as an okay guy, the first time I met him. I mean, okay, yes, I know full well I say some damn Anti-American things like maybe millionaires have too much influence on important political process or I’m not sure being #37 in health care counts as really being number one, but I’ve met some other Americans and they were okay and didn’t invade any of my unrelated countries.
We had in this class, a South African student. She was first-generation Australian. She was also quite, quite black. Not ‘light skinned dark’ that you might be able to confuse for, say, a middle eastern heritage or a mixed-race part-Aboriginal but outrightly African skin tone, very dark. She didn’t attend all her classes – I think she got a job during the course and had to leave.
The first class we had with this teacher, that student wasn’t in the class. While we were talking about proper hardware usage and the protocols used for cables in different countries, he off-handedly mentioned to my classmates that Apartheid was actually pretty necessary to sustain South Africa. And then without really pausing he went on to mention that the savages in the jungles with bones through their noses were deliberately trying to destroy ‘the white economy.’
That set the tone.
After the class, myself and about five other students all walked away very, very carefully and talked about it. Did he really do that? Did he mean that? What the hell- and such like that. What ensued around that teacher was a class that was an equal mix between useful tips on operating hardware, and bouts of conspiracy theories, racism, anti-‘liberal’ sentiment and plain out misinformation. I learned so much from this teacher. I learned that for example, the penny was necessary to keep the US government from stealing money from them. I learned that every country that instated socialised healthcare had collapsed into barbarism ‘within twenty years,’ which was news to me in Australia. At one point, he drew a Glenn Beck diagram on the board to describe how ‘anarchist’ Barack Obama was. I still think back on this and wonder how the hell this actually happened.
Every time I was in this class, I couldn’t shake the song in my head. It was always the same song, Your Racist Friend by They Might Be Giants. It was always that echo in the back of my mind that while he had authority over me, I couldn’t be rude to the guy – or I’d risk being cut off from the course, and cut off from the unemployment benefits that were at the time feeding me. When we were in his class, I actually became more active and engaged, trying to make sure our conversations were always about things. I asked really, really stupid questions about objects, or asked him about boats he’d been on, because at least he could discuss those without usually saying something horrible.
It was this strange, strange situation. I was at that point, an unemployed person with no actual redress against this teacher. I remember reporting his behaviour to other teachers, but I don’t know if anything came of it.
But when we finished up the course and left, I didn’t shake his hand.
The 90s ska revival hit at just the time in my life when I was being given freedom to choose my own music, and it also coincided with the rise of mp3 technology. Mp3s were perfectly suited for the short windows of internet access I had, where I could log on for maybe 20 minutes, and make sure that whatever I did could be entertaining for the rest of the day. During this time, I would have long, rambly internet conversations with people on newsgroups, download fanfiction, and grab single songs via random ftp hookups. This music is the music that makes me feel young.
The revival itself is one of the weird things of the 90s where for about two years, we just tried out a different thing in pop. You remember Ricky Martin? He was in the middle of a storm of generic Latin Menudo-Derived pop that lasted about two years and then vanished. The Ska revival was mostly connected to three bands releasing really good, pop-radio quality albums at around the same time. There was Reel Big Fish’s Turn The Radio Off, The Mighty Mighty Bosstone’s Let’s Face It, and Less Than Jake’s Hello Rockview.
Hello Rockview was an album I bought, with actual money, and recorded the CD onto tapes so I could listen to the tracks while I walked around at school on my knock-off brand Walkman. The song off that album that became big was called All My Best Friends Are Metalheads, which is not a bad song, by any means. The thing is, on the same album, we have this:
Nervous in the Alley is one of my favourite songs. It’s a song that expresses a feeling that I genuinely struggled with. If you’re not inclined to listen to the song, or don’t quite get them, the scenario is the narrator standing in an alleyway, during the rain, and witnessing a crime – the liner notes make it more clear that it’s witnessing a mugging. The moment where our narrator has to decide whether they’re going to act, or if they’re too frightened to.
Let me talk about something pointless that bothers me. Two different pop songs have been put in my radar recently by conspiring forces, and I can’t express the way I feel about them in a single tweet.
The first song is Talk Dirty by Jason Derulo. It’s got a great saxaphone hook, really addictive and raunchy, and that’s about all I can say about this song that’s good. Talk Dirty is a song about how Derulo travels all over the world and has sex with women who cannot communicate with him. Then there’s broken English saying Jason’s name. This picture is actually the less raunchy example of what you’ll find if you watch the clip or google “Jason Derulo Talk Dirty.” It’s a video clip full of people wearing ‘exotic’ dress and Jason singing about how great it is to have sex with a whole variety of women without ever having to talk to them.
The second song is Green Light by John Legend. It’s not all that fun to listen to, being a sort of party song you can play on a piano. It’s a song about a guy talking to a girl he’s interested in and how he’d like to advance things, but he’d like permission.
At the moment, Green Light‘s official clip has 16 million hits; Talk Dirty has 150 million. Green Light vanished under the waves in 2008; Talk Dirty is supposedly the most popular song in Australia.
The greatest accomplishment I have found of transformative artists is to draw out of me an emotional attachment to a thing I didn’t care about, or didn’t like. I had no true love in me for Gears of War, but thanks to Gavin Dunne’s work on songs like The Grind, I have come to have an affection for the universe. I know about the story, I know who Clay Carmine is, and the significance of his story. I actively dislike the world of Grand Theft Auto, but I find the tailspinning escapism of Hard Cash really endearing.
It’s not just Gavin, but he’s a great example of someone who has taught me how to love things I hated.
This is the last Bioshock song he’ll make, I expect. I used to personally identify with the song that he first wrote on that world, Little Sister. There are four lines that resonated with me as I realised how easily I could hurt the gentle people around me:
A lumbering hulk beside a delicate flower A gentle leviathan of terrible power
You may know that I was very unhappy with Burial At Sea, and really, very upset with Bioshock Infinite. But still, there are things in it that I love… and I feel a strange, wistful sadness that Gavin’s final song for this strange world and stranger set of ideas wasn’t able to kindle in me that same feeling. It seems fitting that my last hope to love this story, the last chance I had to enjoy a story about Elizabeth, a story for Elizabeth, fell flat, and felt strangely disjointed, misplaced… and just mournful.
I don’t know if that’s what he was trying to do, but here we are.
I think the thing that blows me out about this clip, which is pretty interesting with the whole static/changing outfits camera stuff? Is that this is a song explicitly called Booty Bounce, and talks about wanting to see her booty bounce, but, somehow the clip never shows up this young woman from behind.
I don’t know, it betrays some lack of confidence in the bouncing of her booty. Especially when you consider the question – “Don’t you want to see this booty bounce?”
Well… well, don’t you?
This transforms this pop song from a tale of debauchery swaddled in the garb of an advertisement-driven sales promotion for a clothing line, into a frantic tale of the masks and personae we wear. She speaks to the audience, giving rise to that persistent scar in our communal consciousness and metaculture of poor self-esteem. Even in the throes of party culture, embracing music and alcohol, there is still the young woman there, standing there, before you, projecting her attitude and opinion as she reaches out and asks you to pay attention to her, to her, the person she really is, with this subtle request.
(Pfft, no, it’s probably just a shallow piece of shit performed by an artist who simply doesn’t want to show her ass.)
It lay before the sorcerer as he stood on his fixed point of nothing, seeming still but knowing that he stood in a swirling place that whorled onwards through space at millions of miles per hour, momentum of a galaxy behind him while he hesitated, for now, before his dive, plunging headlong into the mists and grey spaces of the galaxy before him, at speeds literally impossible.
This is music that bends itself impossibly tight in my mind to the concept of space. It’s the song of the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s the music of the spheres, it’s eternal and it’s strangely isolated. I used to listen to it sitting in the car while my dad and mum talked and socialised after church, and I spun stories about sharks that punched and bears that sang, in a little dark space, with no lights, to nobody.
One of the most iconically Australian songs known to the popular culture is the Cold Chisel rock anthem Khe Sanh. The song is a disaffected, angry, lost shout from the throat of a PTSD-addled Vitenam veteran, sung in classic pub-brawl yell by… well, honestly, by pretty much everyone.
This song is a classic, and I love it. It’s full of fascinating little references, too, to the time in history it references, not just in brand names like Telex, the ‘Vietnam Cold Turkey,’ as a loss of access to drugs, or the talk of casual helicopter work for oil rigs and refineries. There’s one little line that has particularly taken on a new cast in recent years:
Carparks Make Me Jumpy
The voice of the song has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which back in those days was typically called being Gunshy or Shellshocked. PTSD is a really frightful condition for people to labour under, but for those of you who don’t know it, the necessary detail is that experiencing something that reminds you of a powerful, traumatising memory, makes you re-live it. Carparks, during the 1970s, were where a person might hear a car backfire, a bellowing yell of combustion that sounds like a gunshot. You haven’t heard one? Well, that’s because they don’t really happen any more, in Australia – thanks to modern standards of car safety and environmental impact, since the 1980s, cars have been phased out that backfire.
Because it’s something fun, you might not be surprised to learn that I had a hard time coming to terms with enjoying Christmas. As much as I enjoy anything, really – but Christmas at home was an anxious time when I had to borrow money from my parents to buy them presents – money they didn’t really have. When I left home, it was an additional expense we didn’t have room or time to celebrate – when you work in hotels, unsurprisingly, other peoples’ travel overwhelms your holiday plans and there isn’t much you can do about that.
Sometime between then and now, as I’ve gone up and down, it’s strangely been this song that shakes me when I feel the holidays creeping in. They sing about a Christmas totally unlike my own, but it’s that line in the chorus: it never lets me act like I don’t care.
It’s very, very easy to act like I don’t care about things. So much so I do it by default.
Christmas… well, I can care about Christmas. Let’s start there.
There’s this principle very happily espoused in writing and literary circles known as the Death of the Author which, super-summarised, states that Whatever the author meant to say isn’t as important as what you heard. Even more stringently, There’s no such thing as the author; there is only what you draw from the work. This ideal is not one I take that far, because I think there’s a rich context you can derive from knowing what a person does – and does not – see as important in their work, but I do think of it as a useful, interesting mental mode to enter, a set of critical tools that can either give you fresh perspective on good works, insights into authors (who are dead or don’t exist or whatever). In my personal interests – speculative, fantastic, or unreal fiction, – I find there’s an area where this tool can yield fascinating results.
As a child I was so convinced that telling the truth was a universally important value that I assumed it in all media surrounding me. Nobody ever created a misleading advertisement, nobody ever made a story ‘based on a true story’ that wasn’t true, and nobody ever, ever made something up for a song. I imagined there was a very clever authority group that oversaw the release of songs onto the radio that I was allowed to listen to, the songs that my parents would let me hear, and that they were all, in some basic way, true. I believed because of Indian Outlaw that Tim McGraw was actually part-Cherokee, and that Alan Jackson once was married for no good reason to a waitress (who he probably divorced, and was probably a sinful, filthy adulterer, unless he’d asked Jesus for forgiveness, not to be too sure either way).
Raised on this diet of hymns and country music, you can imagine how shocked I was when I finally pieced together the narrative in The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia.
Basically every single storyteller can benefit from looking at how other people tell their stories. In videogames, there’s a poor reference pool for most consumers, where games are being produced for an audience that Warren Specter once said ‘has read one book and seen one movie‘ and then further clarified the book was some variant of Lord of the Rings, the movie some variant of Alien. People who write books often don’t have a strong opinion of people who write theatre, or radio, or god help them both, television. Hearing my poet teacher referring disdainfully to narrative on television was amusing, to say the least.
People who tell stories – narratives – in songs have a remarkable challenge in how quickly they have to convey character. Consider this wonderful little piece, made by Tom Walts (full version here), where we learn about two people, only while talking about one. The speaker asserts things, assuming things. He – I think it’s reasonable in this context, to assume the speaking character is male – talks about this neighbour, this person who has some project, he talks about details about that person’s life.
In so doing, you realise that he’s watching this guy’s mail; he’s paying attention to his lawn, watching for changes in his life and yard, and thinking of himself as somehow representative of the rest of the neighbourhood, that he has some responsibility. Paranoia fuels him, but his actions feel to him justified. Is his neighbour a bad guy? Is he the bad guy?
The story is only three minutes long. You don’t know. You don’t get to know. You don’t know if it’s gossip or if it’s real, if the speaker is justified or not. Those narratives are left for the listener to imagine.
This creepiness, this two-for-one narrative tool, fascinates me. I have to study this.