What Is “Best” When it Comes to “Best Song”?

If you got a chance to see the Oscars last night, you got the opportunity to witness some great performances of music from the category of Best Song in a Motion Picture. The nominees began with Pharrell Williams’s singing of “Happy,” from Despicable Me 2, an infectious song for sure. He got things rolling.

A nice performance, early on in the show. It got people in the seats moving and it’s clearly a song that is hard to resist. Nice job.

Next was a delicate version of “The Moon Song,” from Her, by Karen O. Again, really nice – sweet and lovely.

Now, “The Moon Song” plays a different function in Her than “Happy” does in Despicable Me 2. It’s more central, as it’s a moment when Theodore sings to Samantha while on a “romantic” trip away – as romantic as one might be able to get when singing to the operating system on your phone, that is. It’s more central to the action than “Happy,” though this notion of centrality has nothing to do per se with the award. The song just has to be from a feature release; there are no specifics about what function the song is supposed to play in that film. In terms of the awards show itself, both very strong – if very different – performances.

Next we heard from U2, with “Ordinary Love,” the song that played over the closing credits for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

I thought this performance was also excellent, with the band in good form and Bono and The Edge singing well. Not necessarily better than Pharrell or Karen O, but very strong and really hitting the notes literally and figuratively. Really, the first three performances were as good as any I can remember as a group on the Oscars.

Mind you, there were other musical performances on the show – Pink did a tribute to The Wizard of Oz, singing “somewhere Over the Rainbow” in honor of the 75th anniversary of the film, and Bette Midler sang a version of her “Wind Beneath My Wings.” Why did she sing this song? To honor “heroes” in films. So she sang this to movie stars sitting in the audience, and thank goodness, because they certainly don’t already get enough appreciation! Moreover, I have no idea why the academy felt compelled to honor the “heroes” in movies – seeing as that’s what the movies themselves pretty much always do anyway. It’s nice for Bette Midler that she got to sing on that stage, I suppose, but it’s kind of an insipid song. She did a fine job with it, but really, it was strange. Pink was fine if not my cup of tea but at least it was less random to honor The Wizard of Oz after 75 years and  there was an understandable reason for the performance.

The last performance of the night, and final nominee for Best Song, was “Let It Go,” from Frozen. The song was performed by Idina Menzel, who also sings the song in the film. This song plays perhaps the most vital role in the film of any of the category’s nominees, as it represents a pivotal moment, as Queen Elsa realizes that she no longer needs to hide her abilities to create and control ice and that she can now use them without worry. The song advances the plot quite importantly. Here is Mendel singing last night at the Oscars:

http://oscar.go.com/video/2014-oscar-music-performances/_m_VDKA0_tsgwsn3k

Menzel is clearly talented with a particularly strong voice, able to hold the stage and an audience’s attention just like the Broadway star she is. But I have to tell you that as I sat listening to this performance I felt something was off – not technically but in some other way. It was loud, brassy even. I recognized that it was a moment of transformation for the character Menzel was embodying, but it felt over the top to a degree, at least in performance outside of the film.

Simply put, I didn’t think much of the song, nor the performance of it. Not that I couldn’t tell it was going to win – Frozen has become a giant hit in the last two months and even Bono in the last week had publicly noted that it was the front-runner. But the win raises some interesting questions. Should the award go to the Best Song in a film? To the song that plays the most important role in a film? To the song that works especially well within the context of the film? I don’t think audience members have any idea how this is decided, and I wonder about voters too.

Based on what I saw last night, “Let It Go” isn’t the best song. Menzel is good; her performance is fine. It’s big, maybe even too big, but that’s the song itself and what it does. That was the issue for me. I found the other three performances and songs to be much stronger, more emotionally true, and more compelling musically – even the relatively simple “The Moon Song.” I’m not surprised the Disney song won: I mean, who could be? But I’m willing to say that I don’t think it should have.

Waiting

I’m not often watching television these days at about 12:20 am, which might explain how I missed the performance of Future Islands on David Letterman’s Late Show in early March. But in looking at some other things today, I came across it. It is AMAZING.

 

 

I love the sound of this song, “Seasons (Waiting on You).” This synth-pop reminds me of some of the grooves of 80s Brit bands, combined with the vocal stylings of some of the best of late 60s-early 70s soul. There is just a great sound to this song. Plus the performance itself is beyond the pale. Samuel Herring, the singer, keeps doing this slide, dip, and gyration thing – along with a faux punch or two, you know, to let us know that he’s “punching it up a notch” – and it is simply mesmerizing, to say the least. It’s impossible to take your eyes off of him, to know what he’ll do next.

 

And I love Herring’s voice. He’s got a touch of the Bronski Beat, a touch of Terence Trent D’Arby, but with an American growl that seems borne of too many nights in a row singing this song and downing shots of Southern Comfort before jumping into the van and heading out to the next small Midwestern city to play another gig. It’s like he slips into monster growl mode, where he’s just spent all his emotions on what he’s giving us but will soldier on. He’s all in on this song from the very first beat, and he insists on pulling him along with us. And I went.

 

Plus he kind of looks like a young Marlon Brando, especially with that black t-shirt. (Marlon didn’t sing like that, though, as you know if you’ve ever seen his performance in Guys and Dolls!) I love how he transitions from tapping his chest earlier in the song to thumping it as he nears the crescendo! I love how he sings, “People change/but some people never do” and he points to himself as he sings the latter part and looks longingly at the audience, begging for our understanding of his steadfastness.

 

It’s a totally arresting combination visually and sonically, one that grabbed not only me, but also Letterman. Check out his enthusiasm at the end of the song, when he says “Oh, buddy, come on! Hey, thank you very much! Nice going! How about that! I’ll take all of that you got!” I hear you, Dave, I hear you.

 

But. Or perhaps, and yet. Here’s something crazy. I checked out YouTube, wondering if there was an official video for the song. And there is. But before you watch it, look again at the performance on Letterman. Keep that in mind. And then click the video below.

 

 

WTF? That might be the very WORST video for a song I have EVER seen! The disjuncture between the lyrics, the synth-pop, and the visuals that the director puts together is probably one of the more shocking things I’ve seen. My God, they have to put out another video – it’s unbelievably horrible! Boring, crazed, stupefying! A rodeo? A RODEO?!?! For this song? Why, dear Lord, why?

 

Please, Future Islands, make another video. We’ll treasure this for just how amazingly bad it is. But put out another video so people can see just how great this song is, a video that will complement the song. Or maybe just call the Letterman performance the video. That’s certainly great. Put the other in storage, though, only to be seen decades from now.

 

Secrets, Confession, and Reconciliation

Unknown

I have been a reader of PostSecret for about seven years now, I think, if not a bit longer. PostSecret, for those of you who do not know, is a website run by Frank Warren, who solicits postcards not only from people across America but also from across the world. Warren asks individuals to write down a secret on a postcard and to send it to him. He takes about twenty of these each week and posts them on the site on Sundays. The posts are moving, amusing, lovely, painful, familiar, shocking, and almost always powerful. Rarely are they banal or mundane. Many people make their perusal part of their weekly rituals, every Sunday or Monday.

The directions that Warren gives for the project are rather simple. He hands out cards that read:

SHARE A SECRET
You are invited to anonymously contribute a secret to a group art project. Your secret can be a regret, fear, betrayal, desire, confession or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything – as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before.

Warren encourages people to send a number of cards, but to always share the secrets anonymously. He began passing these cards out in the Washington, DC area about 10 years ago and soon people began sending the cards in to him and he began publishing them. He now gets tens of millions of hits on his site each year and it has become enormously popular. He has published five books of secrets and the latest went to #1 on the NY Times bestseller list. It’s been an impressive run for him.

In the last few years Warren has begun touring the country – and even overseas – talking to audiences about PostSecret and about secrets and his work. Well, when my friend and colleague Mark Rice asked me to join him in attending one of these events in our local area recently (Mark is also a longtime reader of the site), I felt compelled to agree to attend. It was a fascinating experience, but not in the way that I had expected it to be.

Warren began the event by talking about how he imagines secrets as a box full of postcards that we carry around. The question he has is what to do with that box? He wanted to encourage us to share the contents of that box, suggesting that there is something transformational in the act of sharing.

Warren was a good speaker, practiced in his anecdotes and his gestures. He clearly had done this a number of times – and by this I don’t mean to put him down in any way. He was a pro and he knew how to hit the right notes in his performance. But that’s part of what was interesting to me: it was a performance and I don’t think I expected that.

He showed us images and shared stories and personal details, including things about his relationship with his mother and even a message she left on his voicemail rejecting the offer of a free copy of one his books, a book she had called “diabolical.” He knew how to work the stage and how to alternate the pitch and tone of his voice, how to exhort us and how to quietly and intimately connect with us. He was selling books and his site, but the profits seemed to go for the good – much of what he does goes to suicide hotline and prevention centers, a cause he has taken up as central to his work on PostSecret and a cause we pretty much can all get behind.

Soon after Warren began, he told us he was going to share secrets that “the lawyers” wouldn’t allow him to put in the PostSecret books. It felt like we were being welcomed into the inner circle. Some of the “outlawed” secrets had potential copyright infringements in terms of their images, others had images or words that the lawyers deemed potentially upsetting or scandalous. The first secret had an image of a woman’s breast. It was a close-up, with a focus on the areola and a pair of tweezers plucking a hair from it. Apparently, this woman does not have perfectly hairless areolae and is admitting to plucking the hairs. Now I’m not sure how scandalous this image was, nor why it might potentially upset anyone – a bare breast? But still, the card was banned from the book. The postcard had one word on it – “Confession.”

During my drive home, as I thought back to the event, I connected that image of the breast and the word “Confession” with how Warren ended the formal part of his presentation. This ending was what Warren called his “testimony.” He spoke about the crucial importance of opening up, not only to others, but to ourselves, about what we keep as secrets. He suggested that secrets can be heavy burdens upon us and that it can be transformational to confess them. This ending had a Fundamentalist feel to it – he even ended it by asking of the audience, “Can I get an Amen?” He was both joking and not. For Warren, there is something deeply spiritual in what he sees as his project and this talks that he gave: even if he understood that this was not a formal church setting, he also recognized that there was something powerful going on in this space, something communal and shared and perhaps transcendent for those of us in the audience. This was also part of the performative aspect of the event, much as church itself is often a performative space – as is a classroom, if I’m going to be completely forthright. (Worth noting: Warren is currently working on something he calls “PostSecret: The Play,” holding auditions in New York.) Warren’s testimony was a performance of sincerity and authenticity, he returned to the story of his mother and gave us more insight into his childhood and his suffering and his path to where he is now and told us that he would not trade anything in what he had experienced. His journey is important to him, suffering and all, in helping him locate himself in this present time. And the rhetoric of suffering only reinforced the religious or at least spiritual undertones of the event and the value of the secrets revealed, confessed and spoken aloud in a moment that leads to transcendence. “Confession,” that early image had offered us as an audience, and confession was now positioned as something deeply valuable and communal for those of us in the room.

This should make some sense for longtime readers of the website. PostSecret is a deeply confessional space where people admit their fears and their weaknesses, their love of others, their shames, their hopes. In sharing these they share something that feels essential about themselves. The readers of the site recognize this and often feel part of something larger – it’s what readers of the site call the PostSecret Community. That community has only gotten larger with the lecture tours and the publication of the books. Visitors to bookstores often leave secrets in the books for others to find, continuing Warren’s project literally beyond the pages of his books.

But my response also led me to a few questions. Warren has called PostSecret “a group art project.” What about it is “art”? I’m not sure. He certainly has an archive of artifacts, though he seems less interested in them as artistic representations or as artifacts as he is about them as secrets that have been revealed. The postcards can certainly be creative, but other than his selection as to which secrets to publish on the site or in the books, we don’t really have a sense of what about their creativity Warren values. The criteria of his subjective preferences remain hidden. Will he unveil these criteria? What will he do with the artifacts that he has collected? What will come of the archive? Finally, and in a somewhat different direction, are the secrets that the public doesn’t see as fully realized as confessions as those published? This last seems important, as Warren goes out of his way to present the secrets and his own stories as “authentic.” That authenticity is part of the performance of PostSecret, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily against it. But the performance of authenticity is something that viewers and listeners and readers should be aware of. There is no way to know whether someone is lying or fabricating a secret. Warren’s acceptance of all the postcards and his publishing of them suggests not only that he takes them all at face value but that they all are somehow equivalent to him.

And this idea of equivalency is my last point. On the site, all the secrets are posted by themselves, with no commentary from Warren, though with an occasional comment from a reader that he has placed as an accompaniment. For the most part, each secret stands alone, all equal in importance and potentially in impact. I thought of this aspect of the site when Warren told us the story of how he was approached by the band, The All-American Rejects, about using postcards from PostSecret in the video for their song, “Dirty Little Secret.”

At first Warren rejected their request before eventually agreeing to share thirty of them. In the video, though, Warren told us, the band ended up adding three secrets of their own, all of them anonymous like the ones Warren had provided. He then showed us one of these three. It read, “I cheated on the SAT and got a scholarship.” Many people in the audience laughed, perhaps because they found the idea of cheating familiar, perhaps because they found it shocking or ironic or funny. I had a different response, however. I found the secret deeply upsetting. By cheating and getting a scholarship, this young man was certainly angling for something better for himself, but he didn’t seem to understand that there was a cost for someone else. Colleges and foundations do not have an endless supply of scholarship money or opportunities. When someone gets one, another person does not. That scholarship that went to him was refused to someone else, someone who may have needed it to attend college, someone who may then have had to go to a different school and may have had a painful or difficult experience. I’m not claiming to know, but I am claiming that his cheating had consequences, and consequences beyond himself. And I’m claiming that his secret is not the equivalent of others, like “I’m a virgin” and “I’m afraid that no one will ever love me as much as my dog does” that show up in the video and on the site. Those secrets reveal something powerful about the individuals who wrote them, elements of their lives that they have chosen to share. The band member’s confession of cheating is not the moral equivalent of these.

This isn’t to say that there might not be value in the confession – value for the confessor. The testimony might be healing and cleansing for him; it might make him feel better to get it out there. But I don’t feel closer to him for the confession. I don’t feel something communal or transcendent. I feel angry and frustrated at his selfishness. The confession doesn’t allay that; in fact, it seems to me to be rather a continuation of the same selfishness. He feels better. Great for him. Wonder what he’d say to the kid who he blocked from getting that scholarship, the one who didn’t cheat? Make THAT confession to THAT person and maybe I’ll start to feel something for you and not just about you.

Warren started a PostSecret app last year and it was enormously successful for a number of months, but then he had to shut it down. His insistence on anonymity for the users of the app – similar to how he advises submissions to be anonymous – actually led to abuse and bullying and other sorts of behavior on the part of users, which got so bad that he decided that he needed to stop it. I can understand the anonymity – it’s somewhat freeing, after all, and allows for some to feel comfortable sharing. At the same time, it also operates as a permission to say whatever you want knowing there will be no punishment, no consequences. Warren wants the project to be about community and about forgiveness and about transcendence and these are honorable goals. But he needs to think harder about how this operates. Not all secrets are equivalent, at least not morally or ethically, and not all experiences are either. That’s okay, actually, and really only a problem when you present them as such. And when you offer whoever confesses absolute reconciliation, which maybe isn’t your place to do.

I’ll keep reading PostSecret and I’m sure I will continue to laugh at some of the cards, and tear up, and stare in amazement, and wonder about the things that connect us. But I’d be lying if I told you it’s ever really going to be the same for me. The secret is out.

Home is Where?

A cross-posting: please go check out Invisible Culture, which is hosting a blog on Season Five of Mad Men in relation to their latest issue, which has a number of articles on the show (including one on Frank O’Hara, a topic near and dear to my heart).

The good people at Invisible Culture have asked me to contribute something on the show and I was happy to say yes.

My latest piece is entitled, “Home is Where?” and looks at the way space is operating this season on the show, especially as is related to home vs. the office and especially as connected to Pete, Peggy, and Don. Go take a look!

Power, Politics, and Negotiating Allegiances

In my last post on Mad Men, I ended with a series of questions: “Who will best be able to negotiate the liminal, the in-between? And where will allegiances lie as things become better defined? When we put this in its historical context of 1966 and 1967, which when this season seems set, big things seem to be on the horizon.” The last two episodes have taken us further into these issues.

First and foremost, we have the issue of race that were percolating in the mid- to late-1960s. The Civil Rights Movement is taking hold and we see the characters on the show trying to cope with these changes, most of which seem centered around Dawn, Don’s new secretary. She is a very sympathetic character first in her articulation of her horror at the photos of Richard Speck’s victims and rejection of them as titillation and later in her anxiety about traveling to Harlem late at night and her brother’s concern for her safety. Peggy demonstrates a willingness to put Dawn up at her home, but she has a moment of concern about leaving Dawn to sleep in a room with Peggy’s purse. This dual reaction seems a useful embodiment of the desire to adopt a liberal attitude within a context of white anxiety about African-Americans. It certainly carries the flavor of the liminal, as Peggy tries to determine not only what feels right but what feels appropriate, safe, smart.

Then there is gender. Women dominated the last episode – Peggy takes Roger Sterling for $400, Joan kicks out her creep of a husband, and Don runs into an old lover, Andrea, who he dreams about, in the throes of a fever, as a kind of succubus figure who he eventually kills. Much of the episode saw them assert their will in different contexts and often to great effect: Joan enforces her will over her home and her family, Peggy negotiates successfully with Roger, and Andrea demonstrates that Don’s old lovers and his past pose a potential threat to his marriage to Megan. Don’s murder of Andrea seemed to be a symbolic assertion of male authority over female encroachment, manifested in his dream. All of these various scenes added up to women either gaining greater agency or “engendering” greater anxiety for men. How interesting that Ginsberg’s ad pitch features Cinderella trying to escape from danger only to realize that she enjoyed it and sought it out. It’s a different spin on Don’s dream reaction to Andrea – a man representing a woman as ultimately in the thrall of male power.

Again, I think with both race and gender, it will make for interesting viewing to see how the characters negotiate the shifting ideological allegiances that the 1960s created.

Finally, I’d like to note the business shift going on in terms of the power struggle between Pete and Roger. Roger is desperately seeking to maintain his position and his authority in the office and in the company itself. Pete is asserting himself as at least Roger’s equal. How will this play out? It’s becoming overt, and Pete’s announcement to the office that he got Mohawk Airlines back and taking all the credit is a clear attempt to assert his dominance on the account side. Pete seems an up-an-comer. Many will go with him. But Don noticed Roger’s reaction to Pete’s announcement and sought to allay his fears. Peggy was also aware of it. Still, Peggy happily took advantage of Roger when he needed help of the weekend and she does have lots in common with Pete, especially as the comparative up-and-comer on the creative side. It’s not clear that she will choose Roger should she have to choose between them. Nor is it clear what Don will do. He is closer to Roger and sees himself as more of Roger’s generation than Pete’s. Roger was a mentor of his and he is friends with him. But Don is also sympathetic to Pete and recognizes what he does for the company. He has again demonstrated that this season. Negotiating the delicate balance between the two seems to be one of the central tasks he has this season.

Race and gender. Politics on the national level and in the office. Power and allegiances. Mad Men continues, following much of the same elements that it always has, allowing for differences, cultural contexts, and individual characters to move the story forward and outward.

 

Neither This nor That/Both This and That

Liminal (adj.) – on the margins or the threshold; neither this nor that or both this and that.

The first episode of Mad Men, “A Little Kiss,” this year had many elements of the liminal that I haven’t seen many people speaking about, but which I found vital to the structure of the episode. (The first two episodes were presented together in a two-hour episode, with tonight’s labeled episode 3.) Liminality is the state of being in between, on the margins. It’s often associated with a particular space, but it can also refer to characters within narratives as well.

The episode begins with Sally waking up in an apartment wandering down the hallway, soon mistaking the door to the master bedroom for the door to the bathroom. As she speaks to her father, Don, who is dressed in pajama pants but not wearing a shirt, Sally looks past him to the bed, where Megan sleeps naked, facing away from the door, her back and buttocks exposed to Sally’s eyes. Megan is the woman sleeping with Sally’s father, but not Sally’s mother. She is Don’s wife, but in Sally’s eyes not fully family. She is something in between.

At work, Megan is likewise on the margins. She is Don’s wife but also an employee. She’s dabbling in the creative side of the ad business, but doesn’t have any real experience in it. Peggy is mentoring her and overseeing her work, but because she is Don’s wife, Megan holds a certain power over Peggy that Peggy is well aware of, even if Megan knows little about the work that they do. Megan arrives with Don and leaves with him. She is not exactly autonomous there, but she does have the authority of being the wife of one of the partners of the firm.

Back to the apartment. This apartment and what transpires in it is central liminal space in “A Little Kiss.” It’s a modern, up-to-date, 1960s apartment with a showcase living room with built-in shelving, a sunken floor, and a fabulous white rug. It’s their home that they’ve made, and as such it’s the space where they entertain. And the surprise party for Don’s 40th birthday is the centerpiece of the two-hour episode. But as a home space, during this party it is populated pretty much solely with people who work with and for Don. We might well ask, “Who are their other friends? Do they have other friends?” With this party, it’s hard to see any. So the party operates as a liminal space between work and home and the challenge of the party for the guests is how to negotiate the in-betweeness of SCDP and Don’s home. With her overt mention of the effort she is putting into a current ad campaign, Peggy struggles with this. Her boyfriend asks, “What are you doing?” and she answers, exasperated with herself but also confused as to what she was supposed to say, “I don’t know.” Harry Crane, not surprisingly, doesn’t bring his wife, allowing himself to act the creep in front of his colleagues. Lane Pryce and Ken Cosgrove are much more at ease and more readily blend in.

And while Don is able to negotiate the liminality of his home/work – and it shouldn’t surprise us that he can, since he is the master of being able to do just this sort of thing, Megan isn’t as proficient with it. Her song-and-dance routine to “Zou Bisou Bisou” is so sexualized that few if any of the men know how to handle it. There’s something about it that might be a little inappropriate, though it shouldn’t be. This sort of thing goes on at parties, and is clearly what Megan has in mind when she tells Peggy that everyone will leave the party and “go home and have sex.” The element that makes the routine risqué is that the witnesses to it are all colleagues from work.  This is what leads to the discomfort.

Of course, for Don, the discomfort is that it isn’t actually his birthday. It’s Don Draper’s birthday, but Dick Whitman’s was a few months ago. This leads back to one of the main themes of Season 4 (and the series as a whole) – “who is Don Draper?” Is he Don or Dick? Neither or both? His unhappiness at the party, he says, isn’t because he doesn’t like surprise parties but because he doesn’t like birthdays. And this is a big one – 40. He’s aging. Megan calls him old a number of times, sometimes teasingly, sometimes less so. And as a 40-year-old, he seems to identify with the older generation of Roger Sterling, Lane Price, and the other “grown-ups.” He sees the others as more akin to kids. Their interest in marijuana and new music doesn’t interest him. (Not that he isn’t familiar with them.  Do recall his first-season affair with Midge and attendance at West Village Bohemian nightclubs. But he’s done all that already.) And he is married to one of these kids. Megan is clearly of the new generation. Her version of “Zou Bisou Bisou” is evidence of her comfort with a new overt sexuality that is fully new to Don and the men of the older generation.

The other figure we should take note of at the party is Pete Campbell, dressed more formally than many of the others, with what I would call a country-club plaid sportcoat. Pete wants no part of all the things that the others of his actual generation want. He wants what the older men want – money and power. At work he is in a figurative liminal space – neither a full partner, nor a regular employee. Not treated by the big boys as equal, but actually the one bringing in the most business. Pete wants to be seen as the equal of the other partners, though he isn’t. Curiously, it’s Don who is most sympathetic to Pete. Does he recognize something of his own situation in Pete’s?

All this hints at what may be one of the main themes of the year – Who will best be able to negotiate the liminal, the in-between? And where will allegiances lie as things become better defined? When we put this in its historical context of 1966 and 1967, which when this season seems set, big things seem to be on the horizon.

A Shabby Effort

I first heard Mumford and Sons on the radio, and they were getting airplay because they had a song with the word “fuck” in it. When I heard it, I thought that this was interesting, not because they used the word – God knows I use it often enough – but because cursing had somehow become an emblem of outsider status. The song was “Little Lion Man” and the singer articulates that he had “fucked it up this time,” taking responsibility for a failure that had messed things up but good.

To me, what was interesting was not so much the word “fuck” in a popular song – hiphop has certainly had a stronghold on that for over twenty years – but that “fuck” was presented as an emblem of authenticity by a white band – a British white folk band. I could hear the banjo, I could get the emphasis on stringed instruments. I could tell that there was no Autotuner. It was clear that this was a band that played its own instruments. There was musical talent at work here. I really kind of liked this song, though it was hard to place why. Unfortunately, the more I listened to it, the worse it went. In listening to the song, I was struck by how much emphasis seemed to be on the “Fuck.” It was as if the cursing was somehow supposed to be the mark of street cred. For a British folk band, this seemed a little odd. Why were they trying so hard to be “authentic”? Why the need to try? Why not just “be” authentic without using the word “fuck” to signal your own authenticity?

Then came “The Cave,” the follow-up song that became even more a barnstormer hit. This song is likewise propelled by the acoustic instrumentation of the band. It’s propulsive, passionate, insistent. The music moves up to a stirring crescendo that is hard to resist. Again, the acoustic instrumentation builds to a crescendo that is impossible to follow. It’s powerful musically. The problem with it? The amazing banality of the lyrics:

It’s empty in the valley of your heart
The sun, it rises slowly as you walk
Away from all the fears
And all the faults you’ve left behind

The harvest left no food for you to eat
You cannibal, you meat-eater, you see
But I have seen the same
I know the shame in your defeat

But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

Cause I have other things to fill my time
You take what is yours and I’ll take mine
Now let me at the truth
Which will refresh my broken mind

So tie me to a post and block my ears
I can see widows and orphans through my tears
I know my call despite my faults
And despite my growing fears

But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

So come out of your cave walking on your hands
And see the world hanging upside down
You can understand dependence
When you know the maker’s land

So make your siren’s call
And sing all you want
I will not hear what you have to say

Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it’s meant to be

And I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

Sigh. It’s stunning just how many cliches one writer can work into a text, isn’t it? “Refresh my broken mind”? Sheesh. When I first heard this, I was excited that a lyricist for a popular band had read Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” They allude to the “sirens”? Someone’s read the Greeks! But it’s never that simple, is it? What has driven me crazy for a while now about this song is the image (or the notion) of someone choking on a noose around his neck. I’m pretty sure that “choke” isn’t the right word here. “Strangle” would work quite well. “Choking” refers to something inside the throat, but a noose isn’t on the inside of the throat, it’s something that goes around the neck. Why’s it matter to me? Because the value in good writing, in worthwhile writing, lies in how hard you strive to make it work, how hard you work to make it make sense. This band just plain didn’t. It aspires to profundity – my God, the first couple of verses of the song are amazingly overwritten! – but ultimately the lyrics are just plain lazy.

If you take much time at all to look at the lines of the song, most of them don’t make much sense. It’s rather frustrating. Just take a look at the first two or three verses. What’s actually going on there? I’d be curious to know, and I just can’t tell. The video doesn’t help, by the way. The band – clearly more commercially successful now that “Little Lion Man” has become a hit – rides around on scooters while a second band plays their instruments. This second band is comprised of four men who are of a different nationality – which nationality isn’t made clear. They are colored, third-worldish, imagined as downtrodden. (Part of the Arab Spring? Not sure.) They wear the clothes of a marching band and play the instruments full throttle while the boys in the actual band ride around on their scooters and lipsynch the lyrics.

It’s not really a proud moment. The band looks like a bunch of dilettantes into something vaguely international while celebrating their own commercial success. And while the video as a whole has the sense of being politically engaged, it never actually goes into politics and remains only allusive, and therefore toothless.

All in all a rather shabby effort. To be authentic is to be yourself, no matter the cost. That’s not my sense of this band, nor these songs.

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