What a very weird year in music for me.
I spent a lot of this year writing or editing. And, when writing or editing, I can’t listen to music that has words. Not even opera, with words in languages I don’t speak. I spent a great deal of the year, therefore, listening to classical music.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and Symphony No. 5
Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, and Pictures at an Exhibition
Prokofiev’s The Gadfly
Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty
There were others, but you see the theme? Russians. Lots and lots of dramatic, swirling music by Russian composers.
I’ve said before that I like my music un-subtle. I think of the Russians as unsubtle in their orchestral works. There are strong, easy-to-hum themes that I can half-listen to while I’m working with text. And if I should happen to wave my hands about at the conclusion of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, or at “The Gates of Kiev,” who is going to blame me? The music is crashingly grand and stirring, uplifting, motivating, full of stern promise and resolve.
This is the year I listened to Robyn’s Bodytalk album a lot. First because I liked it, and second because I played it for my daughter. When I drive the kids places, we have a rotation of who picks the music/podcast/car-noise. K has picked Robyn eighty percent of the time it is her pick since the album came out.
I have listened to a lot of Robyn this year.
I’m okay with that. I like her songs, like the fact that her music is SFnal, science-fictional. She sings about sentient robots and time machines in a completely un-self-conscious way that I like. When my kids finally saw Back to the Future, they got the DeLorean reference in “Time Machine” and were very pleased. I also like the fact that her narrative protagonist, the “I” in the songs who may or may not be Robyn herself, is self-aware and hopeful. She knows her mistakes and is prepared to move on.
I think about this sort of thing when my kids are listening to Call Your Girlfriend for the nine-thousandth time. What are the messages? Do I want my kids emulating this behavior when they get older? I can live with my kids thinking Robyn is giving okay advice — stand up for yourself, apologize when you screw up, leave bad situations, ask for what you want.
Pocketful of Sunshine — Natasha Bedingfield
This song showed up on some playlist I ran across in the early part of 2011. It’s from a few years back, yes. Yet I always liked it, and didn’t hear it enough on the radio or television to get tired of it. It’s a song of sheer yearning. In winter in Minnesota, in January, after the holidays have come and gone and it is always cold and always dark, I treasure this song. Something better will come along, the protagonist says. And while the lyrics seem to be asking someone else for rescue, that’s really not the case. It’s more that she knows that things will become better, she’s just wishing it would happen faster. And who doesn’t wish that from time to time?
White Rabbit — Emilia Torrini
I am one of the, I don’t know, six people world-wide who liked the movie Sucker Punch. I’m not saying it’s a good movie; not at all. But I liked it. Somewhere under the fetishization and the really nonsensical plot I believe there was an honest attempt to tell a story about claiming autonomy.
I would not be the first person to find Deep Meaning in the words to the song “White Rabbit”. Originally made famous by Jefferson Airplane, the song describes a drug experience using Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as a metaphor. But one of the things I adore about the Alice story is how it can so easily be a metaphor for things. In this case the song suits the movie of Sucker Punch quite well. Alice’s story become, when paired with the film, a story of finding and creating one’s own identity in the face of people who are trying to tell you what you are.
The women in Sucker Punch are being told a number of things. That they are crazy. That they are bad. That they are sexual commodities. That they are worthless. That they are powerless. The story that I think was intended, regardless of the poor quality of the execution of that story, is one of refusing to go along with those externally generated definitions. Emilia Torrini’s heavy-handed, throbbing, swaying rendition of “White Rabbit” makes a good narrative frame for the story as I see it in my head. Don’t believe the people who give you the pills, who tell you where to go, instead listen to your self, believe in your self.
This works well in a story like Sucker Punch, when the truth is that they really are out to get you. Yet the thing I love about Alice as a metaphor is, at some point you have to come back to reality. At some point, escape stops helping you and becomes another prison of its own.
I Think She Knows — Kaki King
I think the video for this song is decent, and tells an interesting story about gaze and presentation. However, that’s not why I like this song. If you click the link above, listen to it with your eyes closed. Just listen.
There’s a girl, singing. She’s singing about another girl. Singing softly, probably to herself, in her head. Maybe singing with her head against the cool glass of the car window, her face hot and slightly sweaty after dancing at the club. In the front seat, the passenger seat, the other girl is sitting, talking, laughing, moving her hands through the air as she talks to the driver. They are young, all of them, they shouldn’t have been drinking, but they were, and the taste of cranberry juice is still sweet and tart on our protagonist’s lips.
She licks her lips and the want is so painfully sharp she closes her eyes and presses her face against the window glass. The flashing lights of the nightclub were everywhere, and she could not help staring, staring at the other girl with such painful longing it choked the words in her mouth, stopped her limbs, halted her in place as the world ground to a flashing halt of need. And the other girl glanced over, and saw .., saw what? Did she see desire? Does she know?
And now, on the drive home, lights of the cars and streets flashing and flowing over their faces, the girl sits in the back seat and pretends to be drunker than she is. She cannot look up, cannot dare to meet the eyes of the other girl in the passenger seat vanity mirror.
What will happen if she knows? What will happen if she doesn’t?
I spent a great deal of time this spring listening to about half of the Ladyhawke album. What both of these tracks have in common is an insistence that the protagonist’s perspective is both flawed and valid at the same time. She sees the world in a certain way, sees her relationships in certain ways. Yet she recognizes that the other party in her relationships may not share her views. What I like about these songs is the openness, the invitation. She’s saying “here, this is what I see, what I feel, what I want. Come be a part of it.”
There’s a sadness underneath both of these songs. The protagonist is not certain the answer will be the one she wants. But she’s brave enough to talk about it, reveal it, ask for it anyway.
I am not rational about this album, these songs. I am not rational about these women. They are my age, they were playing punk rock when I was young and listening to punk rock like it was my salvation. And now I am older, and they are older, and they are still playing punk rock. But instead of playing punk rock about being young and angry and ambitious, they are playing punk rock about being wise and older and steady. They sing not about the searing joy of new best friendships, but about the reliable love of relationships that have twisted and changed and grown and unfolded. They sing about not merely regret, but what regret looks like from a distance, when it has become wisdom.
I don’t know if any of you will feel about these songs the way I do. Likely you would have to be me to do so.
Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) — Florence and the Machine
I can’t get over this song. It’s a fairy tale, a myth, it’s a song about being afraid that what you have, what you are, will not be enough.
How does a person talk themself into an act of courage?
How does a woman talk herself into leaving an abusive partner? How does she talk herself into going to see the therapist? How does she talk herself into asking the boss for a raise? How does she talk herself into keeping the pregnancy? How does she talk herself into going back for the Master’s degree? How does she talk herself into moving away for the first time? How do we get that brave, that bold?
I listen to this song over and over again, wondering how we do it. How we move from the Rabbit-Hearted Girl into being the Lion-Hearted Girl.
Rumor Has It/Someone Like You — Glee (Adele)
I am late, very late, to the Adele fanclub. Mostly because I spent the second half of 2011 listening to 19th Century Russians. But I saw people talking about the tv show Glee, which I do not watch, and about Naya Rivera’s heart-breaking performance as Santana, and her relationship issues. And then one week those people were all talking about this song.
I find this mash-up of these two Adele songs to be genius. Rawly emotional, excellently sung. I think the two songs together tell a story about leaving a person who doesn’t want you anymore. Not being left by them — there are lots of songs about being left. No, this is more subtle. It’s about deciding to agree with that other party’s decision. To, in your turn, walk away.
It is, in short, a song about grief, not about loss. Grief is a process. It’s a thing you do, not a thing that happens to you.
I bought Adele’s album, 21. And I like it, a lot. But nothing on the album quite captures the complex sense of pain, fear, anger, hope, and resolve that the Glee mash-up managed to describe.
That, then, seems to be me year in music. What wasn’t bombastic and emotional classical music was pop music about identity, decision, and owning your issues. Music of question and resolve. Music of growth. Which seems like a perfectly fine way to spend a year.