While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"...and Grace too" : How Grown Up Songs Make Me Behave Like A Teenager

Today is the final matchup of the Hip64 tournament for 2008.

Emperor PenguinversusGrace Too’.

What exactly is the Hip64 tournament? I hear you ask.

64 songs started out two months ago and rounds of head-to-head voting have whittled them down until there is only two. Tomorrow there will only be one.

Last year (the first year the Hip64 was run) the winner/survivor was ‘Nautical Disaster’, which I blogged about in February.

Sure, it’s geeky, artificial, solipsistic, and probably pointless in the greater scheme of things (though if it makes the Hip play Emperor Penguin live more often, it will have made the world better place)… but it has been fun.

I voted for Grace Too, by the way. It might not be my favourite Hip song at the moment, but it was the first song I heard on the first Hip album I listened to, and I knew after sixty seconds that this would be the beginning of a beautiful thing.

Being marooned in NZ, then Australia, as I discovered the Hip (who themselves are marooned – the only place they are “big” is their native Canada) meant I developed attachments to songs based purely on the songs. I didn’t know which tracks were released as singles, which ones were played to death on Can Rock stations, which ones were mainstays of their live show -- I didn’t even know which of the faces from the album covers actually played which instruments.

Looking back, I could have found all of this out on the internet (as I have subsequently), but back in my first 24 months as a Hip fan, there were still albums to buy off eBay, still new songs to discover and absorb – this other information wasn’t necessary.

And one could argue that it isn’t necessary to ever know anything about who makes the music you like, or what other people think about it. Just as you don’t need to know what an author looks like, or what a politician does behind closed doors.

Those who take the pursuit of secondary information about an artist to the extreme – let’s call them superfans – always seem immature. Adolescent. Even when it’s with obsessing about Chopin or Proust.

But to ignore all the other factors at play and just listen to the music – that too seems like adolescent behaviour. A failure to grasp the whole. It speaks to a more innocent time when all you knew about the Beach Boys was the tape your parents played whenever you went on a long drive.

Somehow I have gone from innocence to superfandom with the Tragically Hip. My response has been, and will remain, adolescent, even when I go ahead and analyse a song with a serious expression on my face...

[I’d actually never seen the video until today. It’s not very interesting, but at least it doesn’t bombard you with unnecessary secondary information, eh?]

As I type this it looks like it will win the Hip64 2008, but to look at the lyrics, the song seems thin and insubstantial. Aside from the epigrammatical “The rules of engagement are hard to endorse / When the appearance of conflict meets the appearance of force,” the song looks like a dialogue between two people.

He said I’m fabulously rich
C’mon just let’s go
She kind of bit her lip
Geez, I don’t know

But when I began my relationship with this song, I was not reading the lyrics, I was listening to the song. The 45 second intro is a great album opener (and live opener) but foremost it leads the listener into the sort of world where someone could say, “I’m fabulously rich. C’mon just let’s go.”

The dialogue is highly stylised (who would ever profess to being armed “with skill and its frustration” in real life), but embedded in this song, in this aural template, it works.

The one area where reading the lyrics mirrors the experience of listening to the song is the confusion of who says what. Just as there are no speech marks on the liner notes, there’s only one voice (Gordon Downie’s) on the track. Downie doesn’t make a point of differentiating the speakers because a) this is mid-nineties rock not Queen at it’s campest and b) it isn’t supposed to be clear cut.

The opaqueness of the lyrics means that it takes several listens for the scene in the song to congeal, but also that you could listen to this song forever and not be entirely sure of your footing.

Here is my reading of the scene. There is a man, probably a pimp or a wannabe pimp, who is trying to coerce a girl into doing something (a life of prostitution or a one off? with the fabulous rich man or one of his clients?).

But, if you attribute everything from, “Geez, I don’t know,” onwards to the girl, the scene is more like: rich guy propositions prostitute, she plays coy for a moment, then talks shop.

Either way, this seedy, cinematic tale is the perfect opener to an album (Day For Night, 1994) which is full of film references (including the album’s title) and dripping with that other cinematic term: noir.

It was Hunter S. Thompson, I believe, who coined the term Song Noir, and this is as apt a term as any for ‘Grace Too’ and it’s Day For Night brethren.*

Thompson was actually referring to the songs of Warren Zevon when he came up with song noir, and there is one particular Zevon song with which Grace Too shares some striking similarities.

In ‘French Inhaler’ the woman is a wannabe actress, and the persona Zevon adopts for the song suggests the actress will have to put herself “up for sale” to “make her way in the world.”

Basically: another case of a man trying to cash in on the sexuality of a woman. Or perhaps: a man seeing the cash value of a woman’s sexuality.

In terms of lyrics, ‘French Inhaler’ is a longer, more complete song than ‘Grace Too’. Whereas the Hip’s song is essentially two repeated sections of eleven lines each (the last seven lines of each section being virtually identical), Zevon’s song sets its scene, builds to a climax (“When the lights came up at two / I caught a glimpse of you…”), and even has a kind of dénouement (“She said, ‘So long, Norman’…”).

I am not going to take a (maple) leaf out of the Hip64 tournament’s playbook and vote for which is the better song: ‘Grace Too’ or ‘French Inhaler’. What I’m interested in is this concept of song noir. And that two of my favourite songs feature men trying to turn women into whores - - What does that say about me?

Well, um, back to the song noir thing: the appeal of darker, more twisted songs is in no small way related to the alternative on offer in the mainstream. When Zevon wrote ‘French Inhaler’ the kids were lapping up Abba and Chicago. When the Hip released Day for Night the grunge flare up had already made its way to the mainstream (flannel shirts in JC Penny’s etc) and the two biggest selling singles of the year were from movie soundtracks. As I type about these songs, the video playing on The Hits (UK Freeview Musioc Channel) is September ‘Cry For You’ (I’m not sure if I got the artist and song title the right way around and will be damned if I’m going to look this up).

Sexuality has never been more pronounced in popular music, but it also has never been more adolescent. Music videos are the same kind of ‘You can look but not touch’ as being a geeky kid at high school and ogling the pretty girls. Quote-unquote love songs in popular music rarely strive for more than a memorable hook (2008’s biggest selling example: ‘Bleeding Love’ by Leona Lewis).

It is with all this noise in the background that one stumbles across a ‘Grace Too’ or a ‘French Inhaler’: songs which deal with love, sexuality, or mortality in adult ways. ‘Adult’ here doesn’t mean right, or even clear-cut, just as being an adult doesn’t give you all the answers. Adult just means something you probably weren’t interested in when you had bad acne. I can’t speak from everyone, but when I was fourteen, putting myself in Zevon’s shoes was beyond my ken.

I touched on this distinction between adolescent and adult themes with reference to Monster Magnet, a band whose songs oscillate between the two worlds. As I drill ever deeper into my musical tastes, and their evolution, I always seem to strike this adolescent/adult vein…

Which brings me back to the Hip64. There may be intellectual reasons why I the Tragically Hips’ songs, but the reason I love them, and constantly return to them, goes beyond the intellect - - or more correctly, kicks in before the intellect even gets a chance. The themes of ‘Grace Too’ may resonate because they speak about something that is elsewhere unspoken, but they ultimately lead me back to the form of adolescence that is fandom.

*Appendix: An incomplete list of noir-ish elements in Day For Night

@ The pessimistic coda of Daredevil: “And the real wonder of the world is that we don’t jump too.”

@ “Greasy jungle, metropolis noir,” and the ensuing song about a grieving friend in ‘Greasy Jungle’

@ Again, the whole of ‘Yawning or Snarling’, which features the line “Night time when the shadows cough”

@ “Just then a stripper stopped in a coughing fit / She said sorry I can’t go on with this” (‘So Hard Done By’)

@ “Everyone's got their breaking point / With me it's spiders and with you it's me” – the first lines of ‘Thugs’ which are taken straight from a film called "The People That Time Forgot"

@ The nautical disaster in, uh, ‘Nautical Disaster’, and it’s echo in ‘Scared’: “Defanged destroyer limps into the bay / Down at the beach it's attracting quite a crowd / As kids wade through blood out to it to play.”

@ ‘Emergency’ and its scungy diner scene: “We're sitting in the Baby Bar bereft / at a shadowy table out past the sentence’s end.”

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