The Pop Metaphor: Part 2

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The paradoxical entrapment in an accelerating metaphor is no better expressed than in the lyrics of the heavy-hitting hit-maker, Sia.

 

I’m bulletproof, nothing to lose

Fire away, fire away

Ricochet, you take your aim

Fire away, fire away

You shoot me down but I won’t fall

I am titanium

You shoot me down but I won’t fall

I am titanium

 

I wonder what it feels like to make art that doesn’t drift off-point. Contemporary pop is not a flaneur form – I feel like the people that either create or consume pop would like to think of themselves as diligent, hard workers. People you can count on to get the job done. Of course, successful singer-songwriters like Sia are not just workhorses. They’re also, and mainly, incredibly gifted, and there’s a lovely predestined aspect to Sia’s songs that make the lyrical choices seem obvious, nearly facile; it’s as if the songs have always existed. There’s making it look easy, and there’s making it look like you didn’t even do anything at all – the sprezzatura ease that comes to very few. True knack for metaphor – abstraction with clarity and reach – is incredibly rare.

 

‘Titanium’ exemplifies the privileged place that themes of resilience and survival take in contemporary pop songs. Why do metaphors to do with survival resonate with the collective consciousness? What are we surviving? Survival itself (and the scene of destruction the word implies) is not a trope unique to our times (see ‘I Will Survive’) but it’s certainly a trope that dominates current music that arguably no other trope does. From the media judo of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Survivor’ (written in response to a journalist’s likening of the ever-changing membership of the pop outfit to an episode of Survivor) to recent number ones including ‘Titanium,’ ‘Roar’ and ‘Chandelier,’ survival has grown to occupy much space in the global soundscape. Everywhere: a sonic stamp of aural affirmation. In spite of everything, we are going to make it through this slog. But what is this slog? What is the vague, unmentioned force, which is apparently putting us all through hell? Often, because the conveyers of the message of survival are generally women, female audience members seem emboldened by the music, to take away something in the spirit of personal and sisterly empowerment.

 

I sometimes feel pop’s a little bit like opera, where the soprano always dies. Pop is a little like how Marilyn Monroe must die. She kind of did have to – I can’t really think of how else her story could have ended. As much as her death is the height of something truly awful, as much as it saddens me to think of, – well, that’s narrative logic. The beautiful soprano, the magical starlet, the female icon can’t survive the narrative. To die beautifully in Puccini is to have succeeded . If you are Mimi or Ciocio-san, you have achieved the height of beauty – and at the height of this beauty you face and embrace ultimate destruction. Is feminine destruction the ultimate patriarchal success story? What’s so awful about being in a success story? Laterally, in pop young women are constantly renewed – the older stars blow out in Vegas, the younger ones morph out of Disney confection – fixing a blurred, eternal image of fecundity and desire somehow emptied of any specific icon.

 

What does pop music’s voicing of survival have to do with this narrative of destruction? Telling the world ‘I’m a survivor,’ or ‘you’re gonna hear me roar,’ or ‘you shoot me down, but I won’t fall,’ certainly draws attention to a plight. These women are under attack. Really! Listen to them! You don’t even need to listen to the words – listen to the music. The rhythm splits into smaller and smaller subdivisions. Filter sweeps. Pumping synths. Forceful kick drums. Compressed vocals. No human stands a chance. I have no trouble being convinced that this music, while not quite a cry for help, is absolutely a drawing attention to a scene of destruction. An Act 3 scene – the woman is on the edge. I’m not sure that the announcement of triumph in ‘I got the eye of the tiger’ should be taken at literally. Well, of course I don’t mean literally literally – unless Katy Perry gouges feline eyeballs in her free time. But at face value, the representation that these pop figures are actually surviving anything doesn’t convince me.

 

(The opposite of a crash landing is a smooth take off.)

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The Pop Metaphor: Part 1

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I think most types of music sound good in cars, but some work better than others. And some excellent genres make no sense in there nearly all the time. Vervy, that time you made me play that gospel house mix as we drove to Northcote Aquatic centre during the day? On a Tuesday? That made no sense. That really sucked.

 

During my week-long binge of pop I discovered that this kind of music sounds perfect in an automobile. I have a really bass-heavy stereo system in my car. This is not a boon; it’s that crappy bass that makes the car sound like a rattling sunglasses case. Most of the time it’s turned on -2. Maybe all new car stereos are heavy in the bass, attenuated to pop’s soundscape, which like the body of any proper pop star has a big, non-threatening bottom, and always wears a glossy, shimmering top.

 

Firstly: it’s all very big. Fisher writes about ‘feeling as loud as the music … as though my skin is the only thing that keeps me from going everywhere all at once.’ The passage is unclear, or rather purposely indirect about whether the narrator is describing the effect of the music upon her as she drives, or the peaks of bipolar (one of Fisher’s famous afflictions), or, at a stretch, the affect plateau. The affect plateau is the banal but nonetheless beatific pleasure of everyday happiness. Ecstatic normality – an ecstatic realisation of an unremarkable reality. A woman drives her car. I remember wanting to kiss the dirty ground of Maylands at the tail end of a bad acid trip when I realised, looking at the clouds, that they no longer wanted to kill me. It was sunset. Later, friends would tell me that the problem was that we’d gone day tripping (and sure, maybe day tripping can be too much), but I still think that stuff we’d taken was poison, something not LSD. In any case, I was coming down – an inevitable process that up until then I’d anticipated with sadness because it meant the nice drugs were going away. But from this time I always felt secretly grateful for the come down, even at its most jaw-grinding and psychically brutal. Because a come down is a return to reality. Beautiful, sweet, normal normality. Humble, dear normality. Fragile, contingent, improvised reality. How do we do it, find what we all want to do and feel, agree on it, and proceed?

 

Is the car designed for pop or is pop designed for the car? Anyone who thinks of the synchrony between the two as modern forgets that this is a site of ghosts and dreams, both of which are profoundly unmodern. This brings me to my second point: big metaphor. To paraphrase Fisher – while listening to pop music in my car it struck me that this is the form for people that want to feel as loud as their music. The production and arrangements of contemporary pop are so expansive that turned up, it’s like your skin is all that keeps you from going everywhere immediately. The arrangements in contemporary pop have become increasingly abstract, as near to contextlessness as anything I can think over. Whatever the watered-down influences were – reggae, hip hop, house, rock, blues – all these referents are buried within their prior invocations, in pre-existing pop of years gone by. The form has truly eaten itself, spewing sonic cues that seem to come only from other pop songs. I listen and just think, this sounds so big, cavernous. Like a new mansion in an outer suburb, this doesn’t seem like anything but its size. All the while the lyrical tropes have become increasingly tight, controlled, and condensed. On one hand the bigness of the sound and metaphor make a grand space, a vast sound-scape for its listener. Arguably this bigness attracts those who otherwise feel small – this might explain the appeal of pop to young girls. On the other hand the lyrical condensation – caught around the one big metaphor – feels constrictive, imprisoned. The single signifier dangles in the rhythmic space (a telephone, a halo, a chandelier, diamonds, titanium) and then gets milked for all its worth. The pop star with her cascading synths is like someone stuck in an out of control elevator, soaring to the highest heights at immense speed. But she is soaring along in a box she can’t leave.

 

The Pop Metaphor: A Preamble

rihanna-diamonds-music-video

 

Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge begins with a crash landing and ends with a – hmmm. What’s the opposite of a crash landing? In the epistolary epilogue Suzanne Vale – a character very closely based on Fisher herself – describes the experience of driving in her car. Thinking back on the novel I realise that Suzanne’s happiest moments occur in that car, top down, music up, driving around LA in a free-motion suspension between origin and destination.

 

I still don’t think I feel the way I perceive other people to feel. I don’t know if the problem lies in my perception or my comfort. Either way I come out fighting, wrestling with my natures, as it were. Sometimes, though, I’ll be driving, listening to loud music with the day spreading out all over, and I’ll feel something so big and great – a feeling as loud as the music. It’s as though my skin is the only thing that keeps me from going everywhere at once.

 

Writing to the doctor that pumped her stomach prior to her admission to rehab, the point at which the novel begins, Suzanne continues, ‘If all of this doesn’t tell you exactly what I’m doing, it should tell you how I’m feeling when I’m doing whatever it is.’

 

A little while ago I spent a week or so listening to a shitload of pop music. There was no one to stop me. It was like being ten years old and home alone. Fuck it, it was like being Kevin in Home Alone, my ears and psyche feasting on nothing but auditory ice cream. Only for the most part I wasn’t in my home, but in my car. Cars are a great place to listen to music. You sit in concentration, with only your responses to driving conditions to distract you from the listening experience. And the responses you need to make distract minimally, being largely automated and intuitive. And – the sensation of listening to music seems to enhance your intuitive faculties while driving. You knew that sedan was going to change lanes. You stayed in second as you approach a red light because you knew it was going to turn green as you entered the intersection. On you go. All the decisions you make are correct. You flow with the collective.

 

If you’re like me – someone who can’t move their body with much certainty but loves music – the car helps you express, in motion, the way music makes you feel. The car is not only an instrument of pleasure, it is instrumental in the expression of pleasure. The feeling is one of integration. I’m least likely to tell you a lie in my car. The distraction represented by the task of driving is a fairly positive distraction when it comes to listening to music. You must sit still and listen – which helps become and stay in tune. But you are in motion, sailing along with the strings and synths. Also, steering wheels are excellent for tapping along with cowbells. Dance floors would be so much better if they had something for me to tap on.