Monday, September 14, 2009

SOUNDS (without actual sounds): Morrissey - "It's not your Birthday Anymore"

I'm presenting on Morrissey's "It's not your Birthday Anymore" in the "Popular Music and Culture" class at Providence College tomorrow morning. I am a bit concerned because I find the song quite mean, not to anyone in the class, but rather to the person in the song. There is a certain air of violence in the song, including some of a sexual nature, it seems. While Morrissey's lyrics have often been mean, I think that this song is downright terrible. This isn't to say that there is no merit to discussing it; actually, it needs to be discussed. I think in terms of a narrative analysis. What is going on? And why is Morrissey yelling?

If one places the song in the context of the singer's other work, within the discourse of his vocal expression, it is extremely striking. Morrissey is never this loud, to be frank. Is it a coincidence that the song precedes another song about death? Is the second half of Years of Refusal darker than once thought, or can the album be thought of as another part of the spectrum of violence begun on Ringleader of the Tormentors and "The Father who must be Killed"?

If you get a chance, take a listen to some of these songs. How do you (or I) think Morrissey is situating himself with these violent lyrics and (frankly) violent vocal expressions?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

SOUNDS: Amber Benson - "Under Your Spell"

What to write about this song? It is all about Amber Benson's voice here. I particularly find pleasure in the way that she slightly shortens the word "right" (at the end of the line "something just isn't right"). I also think that the slightly subdued nature of her voice, and the fact that it is placed at the front of the mix, is particularly striking. Listen:

This is a beautiful song. Something that is particularly interesting is, as the character Tara, Amber speaks with a slight stutter. Of course, while singing, Tara does not stutter. How, then, is this weakness (if you will accept my reading of a stutter as a weakness) expressed?* Her voice is at the front of the mix but still seems somewhat subdued. It is a powerful but delicate voice. Barthes' "grain of the voice" comes to mind here (yes, again). I hear Amber's breath in the voice. Her throat "gets in the way," but it sounds nice. I don't really know how to explain it. Her words are clipped, and much of the singing points to her physical body: her throat, her lips and tongue. If you haven't listened to this song, I encourage you to track down a full version.

Let me know what you think.

* I should mention that Tara's stutter seems to be an indication of her timidity. Her discomfort in being around other people (in particular, Willow, who she loves) is expressed in her stutter. So, perhaps the general example of stuttering as a weakness is not really what I am suggesting.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Beginning a new series here - SOUNDS

I thought that I would attempt to post at least as often as my students, and I'll really try to do this. I may not be able to do this all the time, but I'll try. I thought, if I'm going to try to force myself to do all of this writing, then I should write about something worthwhile. Therefore, I will try to document moments in the music that I listen to that seem to be flashes of pleasure, something which philosopher/semiotician Roland Barthes would suggest is involved in what he calls "cruising."

So you know what I mean, I can try to provide a small sample of the song to which I'm referring.

I think I can identify a kind of “break” that Barthes might talk about, that brings pleasure as I "cruise" a "text," which, in this case, is Bob Dylan's song, "Tangled Up in Blue." At around 32-33 seconds (7-8 seconds in the clip below), just when Bob sings “rain,” his voice ascends in pitch and it kind of squeaks (not the right descriptive, but whatever). This is a moment of breaking, a fragmenting of the voice, and it’s a kind of moment that surprised me. In my “cruising,” I experienced this “turning” which caught me (and continues to catch me). The same feeling now happens for me while he continues singing. Every time he enters this part of the song (the chorus?), I am “flooded” with pleasure. Now, I suppose my language is too flowery, but hopefully you get what I mean.

From an email with Michael J. Gilmour:
Around the time he was writing the album, Dylan was studying with painter Norman Raeben. According to this book, "Raeben brought Dylan to a more fruitful understanding of time, enabling him to view narrative not in such strictly linear terms, but to telescope past, present, and future together to attain a more powerful, unified focus on the matter at hand. ... [in "Tangled Up in Blue"] temporality, location, and viewpoint shift back and forth from verse to verse, rather in the manner of montaged jump cuts in a movie ... allowing him to reveal underlying truths about the song's characters while letting them remain shadowy, secretive figures" (Andy Gill). Not related to "cruising" but a fun observation just the same.
Oh, but it is related to Barthes' "cruising." Barthes talks about cruising being “related to the catch of sentences, citations, turns of phrase, fragments.” This last part, fragments, would seemingly correspond to the “montaged jump cuts” that Gill identifies. I wonder if, also, the text (the song) is put forth like a film, to be “spied-upon,” as Barthes would say.

Also, I read more into “turns of phrase” than simply “a manner of expression,” but rather a kind of contour, either in terms of vocal phrasing or even melodic contour.

Funny how even the quote from Gill seems to talk about desire, as well as this idea of enigma. The enigma of the narrative captures the listener, I think, and Dylan’s voice, I would argue, is part of this.

For more on Barthes' notion of "cruising," see Barthes, Roland. “Twenty Key Words for Roland Barthes.” The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980. Translated by Linda Coverdale. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985. 230-231.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Writing, Writing, Writing

One of the classes I am teaching this term is called "Writing for the Media." One of the things that I will be demanding of my students is that they write, and that they write a lot. One way that they will accomplish this will be through the continual creation of blog entries (every day, except for weekends and holidays). While this can seem a daunting task, it is not unlike writing for media in that there are constant deadlines and constant requirements in terms of columns and there is a constant readership (or a perceived or perhaps potential readership) that is waiting for the next piece to be written.

So, this might seem to be a difficult and unfair assignment. After all, so many words over the term - something like 6000 words or around 24 pages - for a first year class. Crazy! Mean! Just plain silly!

Or extremely practical. And maybe even beneficial. I suspect there might be budding writers in this class, and perhaps it will be a treat reading what they have to write. I look forward to it.