Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Pop Songs

I've been enjoying reading Pop Songs 07, and if you like R.E.M. you should check it out. It's Matthew Perpetua of Fluxblog fame attempting to write about every, single R.E.M. song ever recorded. MP is a great music writer, and as with his writing on Fluxblog, he really gets deep into analyzing the songs. Not just the lyrics, but the way the music interacts with the lyrics and gives them context. R.E.M. might be the best band ever to do this with, because their songs are so abstract that they probably mean something different to everyone who hears them. Michael's vocals on the early records are famously difficult to make out, but even on the songs you can hear they seem pretty abstract. In reading Pop Songs, I'm finding lots of lyrics that I've been mishearing for years, including the chorus of their maybe-most-famous song, "The One I Love." Is Michael really singing "Fiiiiiiiiire?" I always thought it was "Cry Ooooout." I'm assuming that Matthew is correct about this stuff--the band never includes a lyric sheet, but I'm sure the lyrics are published somewhere, and a google search could probably turn them up in a matter of seconds. And I assume that many of these interpretations are based on interviews with Stipe.

So, assuming he knows what he's talking about, I never realized how many R.E.M. songs are political. "Welcome to the Occupation" is pretty obvious, although it never occurred to me that it was specifically about "U.S. involvement in Central America," but I never would have guessed that " “Green Grow The Rushes” and “The Flowers Of Guatemala” cover similar ground, though their lyrics are rather vague." I always thought those were just hippy songs about nature or something. I think of both of those as "pastoral" songs (although I'm not sure if I'm using that word correctly)--songs that were designed to be listened to while lying in the grass on a spring day. Even after I read an interview with Michael Stipe in the early 90's where he referred to "Flowers of Guatemala" as a political song, I assumed it must be something to do with environmental issues.

Matthew also refers to "Disturbance at the Heron House" as being overtly political, and I always assumed this was just a story about a party out of bounds in Athens. Maybe R.E.M. were playing at a house party in 1980 and things got out of conrtol, and the cops showed up. I never saw The Heron House while I lived in Athens, but it could easily have been one of those big, antebellum mansions you see all over Georgia, right? Maybe I'm right, and this guy just interprets it as being a "protest ballad loosely based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm."

And as I think about that, I realize that the reason I never considered any of this is because I have very little interest in lyrics. I can't look at music analytically. That's just not how I relate to music. Which I suppose is why I spend so much time writing about movies and so little writing about music, even though I feel a much more intense relationship with music. It's all about whether you respond to a piece of music or not. Nothing to analyze. I don't even really think there's such thing as "good" or "bad" music. With movies, books and other narrative art forms, you can form an argument that something was done "right" or "wrong," but music just is.

This might even explain why I have no particular interest in concept albums, rock operas, prog rock or musical theater. I don't like the idea of music telling a story, at least not through words. I just want it to convey a feeling. Not that I can't think of plenty of exceptions, but as a general rule, that's how I feel. And the result of that is that I rarely pay much attention to lyrics, and in those cases where I do (R.E.M. often being one of the exceptions), I tend to just go with the impressions the bits of words I catch leave me with. Which fits R.E.M.'s music exceptionally well.


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