[This post is split into two parts, for length. This is part one. Part two is here.]
The Year in Music 2010
This year was the year of the playlist. Many of my favorite songs came to my attention through character-themed playlists given to me by friends. It occurs to me that I don’t know how many of you do this sort of thing, or know what I’m talking about. A character playlist is when you like a character, or a relationship between characters, and you make a playlist to describe that person or relationship. I have found in the last few years that this is the best and easiest way for me to access new songs. The playlist aspect gives me an emotional hook — I listen to the song’s lyrics and apply them to a character I love. I end up feeling that I both know more about the character and also about the song.
This is because the part of music that I most listen to is the emotional story. That story can be in the repeating hook, or it can be in the verses, or the chorus. But I’m not listening to the musical complexity; I’m listening to the story. For a lot of rock tunes the story is … a little bit up to the listener’s discretion. It’s opaque. And for a lot of pop tunes the story is a little generic. In both cases, tying the song to a specific character give me a clearer image of what is happening. (This is also why I like music videos and vids.)
Kelly Clarkson — “Long Shot” Oh dear sweet criminey, I love this song. It’s the opening lines that do it for me —
“I felt it
The wire touched my neck and
Then someone pulled it tighter
I never saw it coming
I started to black out and
Then someone said good morning
I took it as a warning
I should have seen it coming”
And then the intro to the chorus –
“My heart beat, beats me senselessly
Whys everything got to be so intense with me?
I’m trying to handle all this unpredictability
In all probability
It’s a long shot but I say why not”
It’s a fascinating metaphor of being physically assaulted by one’s feelings. Of being choked by the intensity of how one feels. Funny, this is really close to how I experience crushes on people, that first giddy acceleration into suspect decision-making. I, in general, like how I make decisions normally. I like my calm, reasoned, orderly mind. But under the influence of strong emotion that all goes out the window, as it does for EVERYONE as far as I can tell. Some people love that feeling, it feels giddy and whirling and flying and good, and there are plenty of songs that celebrate that. “Long Shot” take a far more ambivalent view. The narrator is, in fact, going to go with her feelings and take the chance. But she thinks it’s going to end badly even before it starts. Ah, yes.
I should also note that the song, while popularized by Kelly Clarkson, was written by Katy Perry, which makes a lot of sense to me. There is a video on YouTube of Katy Perry singing it. It sounds much more raw, much more edgy and ragged, when Perry sings it.
I like the Perry version more.
Metric — “Help I’m Alive”
They’re gonna eat me alive
If I stumble
They’re gonna eat me alive
Can you hear my heart
Beating like a hammer
Beating like a hammer
Help I’m alive
My heart keeps beating like a hammer”
As far as songs about anxiety go, this is one of the good ones. (“Blood Makes Noise” by Suzanne Vega is another.) The beat of the song is relentless but keeps changing. It’s a stuttering throbbing unpredictable mess, jerking the listener around.
This is a song about the moment of decision. The moment before taking action. The narrator is poised on the brink of doing something. Interviewing for a job? Coming out to one’s parents? Defending one’s dissertation? Going on stage? This isn’t about making that decision, it’s not about taking the step forward. It’s not a song about opening your mouth and beginning to speak. It’s a song about the seconds right before that action. The song is about the hammering, racing fear right before you do the thing you mean to do. Right before you do what you came here for.
“I’m still alive
My regrets are few”
You’re still alive, and you’ll still be alive right after you do the thing– no matter how terrifying that is.
Florence and the Machine — “Drumming Song”
Oh my goodness. This is an amazing song that conveys the intensity of infatuation. Speaking as a person who gets infatuated much more easily than I would like, thank you very much I love this song.
Towards your body
It fills my head up and gets louder and louder
It fills my head up and gets louder and louder”
Sometimes as person gets a crush on someone totally unsuitable, you know? Someone married and monogamous, or living far away, or of the wrong sexual orientation to reciprocate. Or sometimes a person gets infatuated with someone that would just be a terrible idea, someone that would take everything you could give and it would never end, and you KNOW this before you say anything, and you KNOW better than to act on it, and instead of a terrible relationship you have … This.
You have the drumming.
You have the endless noise of that person in your head, every thought turning back around to the object of your thwarted fascination. It seems it will never end, that it will never freaking end and everything you try just winds your throbbing head tighter around them.
“Louder than sirens louder than bells
Sweeter than heaven and hotter than hell”
God, yes. That. Just like that. Sweeter than heaven and hotter than hell.
t.A.T.u. — “All the Things She Said”
If you’ve ever fallen in love with your best friend and then lived in terror of what would happen if anyone found out, this song is for you.
Pink — “Bad Influence”
Sometimes we pick our friends because they make us better than we are. But sometimes we choose friends who let us indulge our worse instincts. And sometimes we want to be friends with someone we can corrupt down to our level.
What I love about this song is that the narrator is not especially proud of herself. Sure, she sounds cocky and sure. But
“Lordy lordy lordy
I can’t help it I like to party
Makes it sound as if the narrator is not entirely in control. It’s electrifying, yes, and fun, and wild and full of adventure, but it also seems like it might be a bit too much.
I think that’s why the narrator is looking for someone to be a bad influence on. I think she wants — needs — someone to be with her in this. Someone at her level. Because if she’s not alone, she’s still fine. If there are others partying with her and behaving like an idiot then she’s still normal, still okay. If she’s not alone she can’t possibly have a problem.
MIA — “Xxxo”
I just love the chorus of this.
“You want me be somebody that I’m really not”
I don’t find myself in this position much these days. I have the life I want and I don’t spend time with people who want me to be something else. And when I do stumble across someone who feels that way, well, I just shrug and move on. But a lot of the characters I like have this problem. So this song was in heavy rotation this year as I contemplated the characters I like and the problems in their lives.
Florence and the Machine — “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)”
It took a while for this song to grow on me. I’m not the best at hearing song lyrics the first time through, or even the second or fifth. And it doesn’t help that the singer doesn’t always enunciate. But eventually I caught the first line — “The looking glass so shiny and new.”
Looking glass? Was this, I wondered, an Alice song? Alice, of the Lewis Carroll stories, is one of those fictional characters who have metastized in my head into metaphors. No, into METAPHORS. (Her and Red Riding Hood, among others.) The story of a willful girl/woman who looks for adventure and finds herself in a world that makes no sense, and in trouble that might be beyond her skills to handle, is a story I like very much. In the Alice stories Alice wins through at the end, but she doesn’t always make the right choices along the way.
The protagonist of “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)” has set out on some task. And now, now the time has come for the consequences of her actions to come to roost. Now she has to complete the sacrifice she offered in the beginning and the question is — can she do it? And if she does, will it be enough?
It’s another song of decision. We see the protagonist at the moment where she must do the promised thing and we are with her as she fears for the consequences. She calls herself a rabbit-hearted girl and pines to become lion-hearted, to be brave and strong enough to follow through. To be enough for the sacrifice to succeed.
“We raise it up
We raise it up
This is a gift
It comes with a price
Who is the lamb and who is the knife”
This is not just an Alice story, it’s a fairytale story, a myth story. The song questions the actions of all those heroines who volunteer to face the beast, to go into the woods, to kiss the frog. It’s the song for all the girls who have decided, determined, to trust in their own power. Because even when you trust yourself and your strength there is doubt and fear. What if you are not enough?
Is not sacrifice a form of power itself? Our culture, western culture, certainly thinks so. The price willingly paid, the life traded willingly for another’s, is a power that shows up in everything from The Bible to Harry Potter. Who is the lamb, and who is the knife? The protagonist of the song is, possibly, both. Once she becomes the lamb she also takes up the knife. Starting the journey is one kind of power; making the offer, the deal, is another. And following through with the sacrifice — whatever it may be — is a third.
The song does not make clear what the sacrifice is, what the consequences of it are, or what happens next. That’s not what the song is about. It’s about trembling on the moment of following through. It’s about doubt and strength. It’s about seeing yourself in a new light. Both lamb and knife.
[Continuesin part two.]