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Thursday, September 02, 2004
Re-reading the "Chris Michaels" post, I'm struck by the degree to which the Iago comparison is useful, in that it brings out various parallels with Elizabethan/pre-Romantic dramatic techniques. I'm not saying it's necessarily as good as Willy S., or even I dunno Spenser, but the mode of expression is similar, and I wonder, if it's still in wide circulation in a few hundred years, what future teenagers will think of the particular half-ellipticalism outside of the present context which somehow makes it make sense. I'm particularly concerned with those pop lyrics that traffic in a kind of literary cubism, halfway between abstraction and archetypical literalism, between Pavement and Creed, or between Atmosphere and 50 Cent, if you prefer. Song that have retained the idea of narrative and character (i.e., not just poetic expressions of imagery) while discarding concern with motivation and justification.

For instance, in "Chris Michaels," there are certain self-expressed reasons for Melinda to be mean to Jessica, but there aren't any particular reasons for the vice versa, and there's definitely no justification for Melinda's general craziness. Sure, I can construct justifications, but just like with Othello, you could come up with three or four other explanations that were just as plausible if not more so, and the one offered in the text doesn't necessarily stand up to real-world standards. Same thing, for that reason, with murder ballads, which make a certain kind of contextual sense, but are really fairly inexplicable outside of that environment. Set a murder ballad to chart-pop and you have something that's far more grotesque, because you disallow the suspension of disbelief. I don't think that's necessarily the case with the Furnaces' lyrics, any more than it is with, say, Leonard Cohen or some of the more character-driven Sonic Youth songs (what's up with Goo, anyway?), or some Jay-Z stuff, and so forth. But that's musical context. How will they sound out of a historical context?

I very distinctly remember being in classes with kids who were really incredulous as to the motivations of Shakespearean characters, or Oedipus, or people in Chekhov's short stories. But while those motivations would seem to be stupid, they nevertheless did not need to be explained to contemporary audiences, which is why there's no explanation there, and why modern adaptations both high- and low-brow of historical texts or stories often insert justifications more palatable to the modern sensibility--Medea was driven by sexism, for instance, or Hesther Prynne by...OK, sexism again, but if I was less logey I could think up more varied examples.

What I'm asking, I guess, is: given that pop music, which I'm talking about in a very broad sense, is based on adolescent attitudes and experiences, to what degree does that experience and set of attitudes change over time, and to what extent will those changes make the songs unintelligable?

Of course, a better question might be whether or not anyone would notice incongruity in songs. It's easy to pick out in a play or story because you're focused on the text and the characters, whereas in a song you have a bunch of other things (melody, rhythm, the usual) to focus on. But will things change? Will we develop an interest in looking more closely at pop songs? I guess I sort of hope so, but I also sort of hope not. Well, I'll be dead, anyway. Unless that cloning thing works out and I can harvest organs to my, uh, heart's content.