Monday, February 21, 2005

Small sonic greatnesses. In 2003 I was really into the genealogy of the pirate aesthetic through history, literature, film and fashion, and I proposed a book chapter on the topic for an edited collection on 19th-century pirates, tweaking it so it was mainly talking about Treasure Island. The editor wrote back and said they already had a chapter about Treasure Island, so could I perhaps concentrate on The Corsair (Byron, 1814) and The Pirate (Scott, 1822), two texts I'd mentioned in my abstract?

Any academic can tell you about the black art of abstract-bluffing - giving the impression in the abstract that the paper is completely conceived and written when you thought of the idea at the pub after a few drinks, or in a throwaway line over lunch one time, and don't actually intend to start writing it until the deadline is at least two days away. Well, having been caught out in the 'pretending I know shit about British Romantic literature' crime, I was forced to do the time - going to the library and getting out a lot of books on Romanticism, which I had never, ever studied before. In fact, I had not done any literary criticism since high school. But I reasoned desperately that I would bring a kind of cross-disciplinary 'hybrid vigour' to the project. To use a vulgar Romanticist metaphor, I was a noble savage, shameless in my daggy lack of engagement with critical theory.

In my previous impostures in the English department, I had picked up some of the rudiments of Romanticism, but one idea that intrigued me was Edmund Burke's theory of the sublime. I had always thought of the sublime as something blissful and transcendent, but apparently it refers to aesthetic pursuits aiming to stimulate a kind of existential terror in their audiences. Appropriately, I found this revelation sublime in itself.

I came to understand Romantic aesthetics on a kind of continuum: from the sublime, which was coded as masculine, to the beautiful, characterised by stillness and composure, which was coded as feminine. In the middle was the picturesque, which encapsulated a tension between opposites that was intriguing and dynamic rather than terrifying or soothing.

Anyway, lately I've been thinking about those little moments in pop songs where a burst of excitement temporarily intrudes through the song structure before sliding away again. It's only for a moment, but that moment makes the song great in a small way. I was thinking that perhaps this might be a picturesque quality: a rupture of the composure (and composition!) of the song that enriches and invigorates the pop formula used to create it. For example, Shane loves the opening of "Flipside" by Freeway, in which Freeway goes "Oooooooooohh!", although my own favourite part is the line that follows: "Just cut for me mami!"

I'm particularly interested in the way the breakdown section functions in this way: as a foil to the rest of the song. Like in "Funky Cold Medina", it just falls away to a sinuous cabasa sound, then kicks back in with some spasmodic drums, and Tone Loc just underlines the song's rejuvenation with his punchy opening, "Back! in the saddle, lookin' for a little affection"... And who could forget one of the greatest pop songs of the last few years, Justin Timberlake's "Like I Love You"? That song not only has Justin's falsetto squeal of "I just wanna love you baby, yeah yeah yeah!", which he injects with cheesy longing, but an unspeakably wonderful breakdown:
You know, I used to dream about this when I was a little boy
I never thought it'd end up this way
Maybe it's the call-and-response tradition, but I also love a moment in "Boy Meets Girl" by Junior Senior:
But just for one night
And that was all right
(background) Yeah baby!
(chick screams) Yeah babyyy!

It's the kind of screaming I used to really like from the Young Professionals. I ran into Gill the other day sticking up posters. They are really getting a name for themselves, despite a few lineup changes since they lived with me. But anyway, another song that intrigues me is Evermore's "It's Too Late", which irritates me but I don't change the station right away when it comes on because I'm listening out for my favourite moment:
Running from the city lights
Running from this empty life
I'm running out of time tonight
I'm screaming out for help!

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