Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Beatles

The space between us all

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In an interview published in the July 12, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone, the rock star David Crosby said: “My time has gotta be devoted to my highest priority projects, which starts with tryin’ to save the human race and then works its way down from there.” The journalist Ben Fong-Torres prompted him gently: “But through your music, if you affect the people you come in contact with in public, that’s your way of saving the human race.” And I’ve never forgotten Crosby’s response:

But somehow operating on that premise for the last couple of years hasn’t done it, see? Somehow Sgt. Pepper’s did not stop the Vietnam War. Somehow it didn’t work. Somebody isn’t listening. I ain’t saying stop trying; I know we’re doing the right thing to live, full on. Get it on and do it good. But the inertia we’re up against, I think everybody’s kind of underestimated it. I would’ve thought Sgt. Pepper’s could’ve stopped the war just by putting too many good vibes in the air for anybody to have a war around.

He was right about one thing—the Beatles didn’t stop the war. And while it might seem as if there’s nothing new left to say about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary today, it’s worth asking what it tells us about the inability of even our greatest works of art to inspire lasting change. It’s probably ridiculous to ask this of any album. But if a test case exists, it’s here.

It seems fair to say that if any piece of music could have changed the world, it would have been Sgt. Pepper. As the academic Langdon Winner famously wrote:

The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released…At the time I happened to be driving across the country on Interstate 80. In each city where I stopped for gas or food—Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend—the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. For a brief while, the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.

The crucial qualifier, of course, is “at least in the minds of the young,” which we’ll revisit later. To the critic Michael Bérubé, it was nothing less than the one week in which there was “a common culture of widely shared values and knowledge in the United States at any point between 1956 and 1976,” which seems to undervalue the moon landing, but never mind. Yet even this transient unity is more apparent than real. By the end of the sixties, the album had sold about three million copies in America alone. It’s a huge number, but even if you multiply it by ten to include those who were profoundly affected by it on the radio or on a friend’s record player, you end up with a tiny fraction of the population. To put it another way, three times as many people voted for George Wallace for president as bought a copy of Sgt. Pepper in those years.

But that’s just how it is. Even our most inescapable works of art seem to fade into insignificance when you consider the sheer number of human lives involved, in which even an apparently ubiquitous phenomenon is statistically unable to reach a majority of adults. (Fewer than one in three Americans paid to see The Force Awakens in theaters, which is as close as we’ve come in recent memory to total cultural saturation.) The art that feels axiomatic to us barely touches the lives of others, and it may leave only the faintest of marks on those who listen to it closely. The Beatles undoubtedly changed lives, but they were more likely to catalyze impulses that were already there, providing a shape and direction for what might otherwise have remained unexpressed. As Roger Ebert wrote in his retrospective review of A Hard Day’s Night:

The film was so influential in its androgynous imagery that untold thousands of young men walked into the theater with short haircuts, and their hair started growing during the movie and didn’t get cut again until the 1970s.

We shouldn’t underestimate this. But if you were eighteen when A Hard Day’s Night came out, it also means that you were born the same year as Donald Trump, who decisively won voters who were old enough to buy Sgt. Pepper on its initial release. Even if you took its message to heart, there’s a difference between the kind of change that marshals you the way that you were going and the sort that realigns society as a whole. It just isn’t what art is built to do. As David Thomson writes in Rosebud, alluding to Trump’s favorite movie: “The world is very large and the greatest films so small.”

If Sgt. Pepper failed to get us out of Vietnam, it was partially because those who were most deeply moved by it were more likely to be drafted and shipped overseas than to affect the policies of their own country. As Winner says, it united our consciousness, “at least in the young,” but all the while, the old men, as George McGovern put it, were dreaming up wars for young men to die in. But it may not have mattered. Wars are the result of forces that care nothing for what art has to say, and their operations are often indistinguishable from random chance. Sgt. Pepper may well have been “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization,” as Kenneth Tynan hyperbolically claimed, but as Harold Bloom reminds us in The Western Canon:

Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything.

Great works of art exist despite, not because of, the impersonal machine of history. It’s only fitting that the anniversary of Sgt. Pepper happens to coincide with a day on which our civilization’s response to climate change will be decided in a public ceremony with overtones of reality television—a more authentic reflection of our culture, as well as a more profound moment of global unity, willing or otherwise. If the opinions of rock stars or novelists counted for anything, we’d be in a very different situation right now. In “Within You Without You,” George Harrison laments “the people who gain the world and lose their soul,” which neatly elides the accurate observation that they, not the artists, are the ones who do in fact tend to gain the world. (They’re also “the people who hide themselves behind a wall.”) All that art can provide is private consolation, and joy, and the reminder that there are times when we just have to laugh, even when the news is rather sad.

The slow fade

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Pet Shop Boys

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 16, 2014.

A while back, William Weir wrote an excellent piece in Slate about the decline of the fade-out in pop music, once ubiquitous, now nearly impossible to find. Of the top ten songs of 1985, every single one ended with a fade; in the three years before the article was written, there was only one, “Blurred Lines,” which in itself is a conscious homage to—or an outright plagiarism of—a much earlier model. Weir points to various possible causes for the fade’s disappearance, from the impatience of radio and iTunes listeners to advances in technology that allow producers to easily splice in a cold ending, and he laments the loss of the technique, which at its best produces an impression that a song never ends, but imperceptibly embeds itself into the fabric of the world beyond. (He also notes that a fade-out, more prosaically, can be used to conceal a joke or hidden message. One of my favorites, which he doesn’t mention, occurs in “Always On My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys, which undermines itself with a nearly inaudible aside at the very end: “Maybe I didn’t love you…”)

The slow fade is a special case of what I’ve elsewhere called the Layla effect, in which a song creates an impression of transcendence or an extension into the infinite by the juxtaposition of two unrelated parts—although one of the few songs on that list that doesn’t end with a fade, interestingly, is “Layla” itself. As Weir points out, a proper fade involves more than just turning down the volume knob: it’s a miniature movement in its own right, complete with its own beginning, middle, and end, and it produces a corresponding shift in the listener’s mental state. He cites a fascinating study by the Hanover University of Music in Germany, which measured how long students tapped along to the rhythm of the same song in two different versions. When the song was given a cold ending, subjects stopped tapping an average of 1.4 seconds before the song was over, but with a fade-out, they continued to tap 1.04 seconds after the song ended, as if the song had somehow managed to extend itself beyond its own physical limits. As the Pet Shop Boys say elsewhere on Introspective, the music plays forever.

Joe Mantell and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

In some ways, then, a fade-out is the musical equivalent of the denouement in fiction, and it’s easy to draw parallels to different narrative strategies. A cold ending is the equivalent of the kind of abrupt close we see in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which rarely go on for long after the demise of the central character. (This may be due in part to the logistics of theatrical production: a scene change so close to the end would only sow confusion, and in the meantime, the leading actor is doing his best to lie motionless on the stage.) The false fade, in which a song like “Helter Skelter” pretends to wind down before abruptly ramping up again, has its counterpart in the false denouement, which we see in so many thrillers, perhaps most memorably in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. And the endless slow fade, which needs a long song like “Hey Jude” or “Dry the Rain” to sustain it, is reminiscent of the extended denouements in epic novels from War and Peace to The Lord of the Rings. The events of the epic wrench both the protagonist and reader out of everyday life, and after a thousand crowded pages, it takes time to settle us back into Bag End.

The fade, in short, is a narrative tool like any other, complete with its own rules and tricks of the trade. Weir quotes the sound engineer Jeff Rothschild, who says that in order for the fade to sound natural to a listener’s ear, the volume must “go down a little quicker at first, and then it’s a longer fade”—which is a strategy often employed in fiction, in which an abrupt conclusion to the central conflict is followed by a more gradual withdrawal. There are times, of course, when a sudden ending is what you want: Robert Towne himself admits that the original dying close of Chinatown isn’t as effective as the “simple severing of the knot” that Roman Polanski imposed. But it’s a mistake to neglect a tool both so simple and so insinuating. (A fade-in, which allows the song to edge gradually into our circle of consciousness, can create an equally haunting impression, as in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and one of my favorite deep cuts by the Beatles, George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You.”) These days, we have a way of seeing songs as discrete items on a playlist, but they often work best if they’re allowed to spill over a bit to either side. An ending draws a line in the world, but sometimes it’s nice if it’s a little blurred.

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2016 at 9:00 am

The dancer from the dance

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The Voyager golden record

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What one piece of pop culture would you use to teach an artificial intelligence what it means to be human?”

When I was growing up, one of the books I browsed through endlessly was Murmurs of Earth by Carl Sagan, which told the story behind the Voyager golden records. Attached to the two Voyager spacecraft and engraved with instructions for playback, each record was packed with greetings in multiple languages, sounds, encoded images of life on earth, and, most famously, music. The musical selection opens with the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, which is about as solid a choice as it gets, and the remaining tracks are eclectic and inspired, ranging from a Pygmy girls’ initiation song to Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” (The inclusion of “Johnny B. Goode” led to a legendary joke on Saturday Night Live, purporting to predict the first message from an alien civilization: “Send more Chuck Berry.”) Not included, alas, was “Here Comes the Sun,” which the Beatles were happy to contribute, only to be vetoed by their record company. Evidently, EMI was concerned about the distribution of royalties from any commercial release of the disc—which says more about our society than we’d like any alien culture to know.

Of course, the odds of either record ever being found and played are infinitesimal, but it was still a valuable exercise. What, exactly, does it mean to be us, and how can we convey this to a nonhuman intelligence? Other solutions have been proposed, some simpler and more elegant than others. In The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas writes:

Perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.

If such thought experiments so often center on music, it’s because we intuitively see it as our most timeless, universal production, even if that’s as much a cultural construct as anything else. All art, Walter Pater says, aspires to the condition of music, in which form and content can’t be separated, so it’s natural to regard it as the best we have to offer.

Ballets Russes

Yet music, for all its merits, only hints at a crucial aspect of human existence: its transience. It’s true that every work of music has a beginning and an end, but once written, it potentially exists forever—if not as a single performance, then as an act of crystalized thought—and it can be experienced in pretty much the form that Bach or Beethoven intended. In that sense, it’s an idealized, aspirational, and not particularly accurate representation of human life, in which so much of what matters is ephemeral and irreproducible. We may never have a chance to explain this to an alien civilization, but it’s likely that we’ll have to convey it sooner or later to another form of nonhuman consciousness that arises closer to home. Assuming we’re not convinced, like John Searle, of the philosophical impossibility of artificial intelligence, it’s only a matter of time before we have to take this problem seriously. And when we do, it’s our sense of mortality and impermanence that might pose the greatest obstacle to mutual comprehension. Unless its existence is directly threatened, as with HAL in 2001, an A.I., which is theoretically immortal, might have trouble understanding how we continue to find meaning in a life that is defined largely by the fact that it ends.

When I ask myself what form of art expresses this fact the most vividly, it has to be dance. And although I’d be tempted to start with The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, there’s an even better candidate: the extraordinary documentary Ballets Russes, available now for streaming on Hulu, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. (I didn’t even realize this until I looked up its release date shortly before typing this sentence, which is just another reminder of how quickly time slips away.) Just as the Voyager record was a kind of exercise to determine what art we find most worthy of preservation, the question of what to show a nonhuman intelligence is really more about what works can teach us something about what it means to be human. Ballets Russes qualifies as few other movies do: I welled up with tears within the first minute, which juxtaposes archival footage of dancers in their prime with the same men and women sixty years later. In the space of a cut, we see the full mystery of human existence, and it’s all the more powerful when we reflect that these artists have devoted their lives to creating a string of moments that can’t be recaptured—as we all do, in our different ways. An artificial intelligence might wonder if there was any point. I don’t have an answer to that. But if one exists at all, it’s here.

Altered states of conscientiousness

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Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What pop culture is best consumed in an altered state?”

When Bob Dylan first met the Beatles, the story goes, he was astonished to learn that they’d never used drugs. (Apparently, the confusion was all caused by a mondegreen: Dylan misheard a crucial lyric from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as “I get high” instead of “I can’t hide.”) This was back in the early days, of course, and later, the Beatles would become part of the psychedelic culture in ways that can’t be separated from their greatest achievements. Still, it’s revealing that their initial triumphs emerged from a period of clean living. Drugs can encourage certain qualities, but musicianship and disciplined invention aren’t among them, and I find it hard to believe that Lennon and McCartney would have gained much, if anything, from controlled substances without that essential foundation—certainly not to the point where Dylan would have wanted to meet them in the first place. For artists, drugs are a kind of force multiplier, an ingredient that can enhance elements that are already there, but can’t generate something from nothing. As Norman Mailer, who was notably ambivalent about his own drug use, liked to say, drugs are a way of borrowing on the future, but those seeds can wither and die if they don’t fall on soil that has been prepared beforehand.

Over the years, I’ve read a lot written by or about figures in the drug culture, from Carlos Castaneda to Daniel Pinchbeck to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and I’m struck by a common pattern: if drugs lead to a state of perceived insight, it usually takes the form of little more than a conviction that everyone should try drugs. Drug use has been a transformative experience for exceptional individuals as different as Aldous Huxley, Robert Anton Wilson, and Steve Jobs, but it tends to be private, subjective, and uncommunicable. As such, it doesn’t have much to do with art, which is founded on its functional objectivity—that is, on its capacity to be conveyed more or less intact from one mind to the next. And it creates a lack of critical discrimination that can be dangerous to artists when extended over time. If marijuana, as South Park memorably pointed out, makes you fine with being bored, it’s the last thing artists need, since art boils down to nothing but a series of deliberate strategies for dealing with, confronting, or eradicating boredom. When you’re high, you’re easily amused, which makes you less likely to produce anything that can sustain the interest of someone who isn’t in the same state of chemical receptivity.

2001: A Space Odyssey

And the same principle applies to the artistic experience from the opposite direction. When someone says that 2001 is better on pot, that isn’t saying much, since every movie seems better on pot. Again, however, this has a way of smoothing out and trivializing a movie’s real merits. Kubrick’s film comes as close as any ever made to encouraging a transcendent state without the need of mind-altering substances, and his own thoughts on the subject are worth remembering:

[Drug use] tranquilizes the creative personality, which thrives on conflict and on the clash and ferment of ideas…One of the things that’s turned me against LSD is that all the people I know who use it have a peculiar inability to distinguish between things that are really interesting and stimulating and things that appear so in the state of universal bliss the drug induces on a good trip. They seem to completely lose their critical faculties and disengage themselves from some of the most stimulating areas of life.

Which isn’t to say that a temporary relaxation of the faculties doesn’t have its place. I’ll often have a beer while watching a movie or television show, and my philosophy here is similar to that of chef David Chang, who explains his preference for “the lightest, crappiest beer”:

Let me make one ironclad argument for shitty beer: It pairs really well with food. All food. Think about how well champagne pairs with almost anything. Champagne is not a flavor bomb! It’s bubbly and has a little hint of acid and is cool and crisp and refreshing. Cheap beer is, no joke, the champagne of beers.

And a Miller Lite—which I’m not embarrassed to proclaim as my beer of choice—pairs well with almost any kind of entertainment, since it both gives and demands so little. At minimum, it makes me the tiniest bit more receptive to whatever I’m being shown, not enough to forgive its flaws, but enough to encourage me to meet it halfway. For much the same reason, I no longer drink while working: even that little extra nudge can be fatal when it comes to evaluating whether something I’ve written is any good. Because Kubrick, as usual, deserves the last word: “Perhaps when everything is beautiful, nothing is beautiful.”

Written by nevalalee

March 20, 2015 at 9:16 am

The slow fade

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Pet Shop Boys

William Weir has an excellent piece in today’s Slate about the decline of the fade-out in pop music, once ubiquitous, now nearly impossible to find. Of the top ten songs of 1985, every single one ended with a fade; over the last three years, there has been only one, “Blurred Lines,” which in itself is a conscious homage to a much earlier model. Weir points to various possible causes for the fade’s disappearance, from the impatience of radio and iTunes listeners to advances in technology that allow producers to easily splice in a cold ending, and he laments the loss of the technique, which at its best produces an impression that a song never ends, but imperceptibly embeds itself into the fabric of the world beyond. (He also notes that a fade-out, more prosaically, can be used to conceal a joke or hidden message. One of my favorites, which he doesn’t mention, occurs in “Always On My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys, which undermines itself with a nearly inaudible aside at the very end: “Maybe I didn’t love you…”)

The slow fade is a special case of what I’ve elsewhere called the Layla effect, in which a song creates an impression of transcendence or an extension into the infinite by the juxtaposition of two unrelated parts—although one of the few songs on that list that doesn’t end with a fade, interestingly, is “Layla” itself. As Weir points out, a proper fade involves more than just turning down the volume knob: it’s a miniature movement in its own right, complete with its own beginning, middle, and end, and it produces a corresponding shift in the listener’s mental state. He cites a fascinating study by the Hanover University of Music in Germany, which measured how long students tapped along to the rhythm of the same song in two different versions. When the song was given a cold ending, subjects stopped tapping an average of 1.4 seconds before the song was over, but with a fade-out, they continued to tap 1.04 seconds after the song ended, as if the song had somehow managed to extend itself beyond its own physical limits. As the Pet Shop Boys say elsewhere on Introspective, the music plays forever.

Joe Mantell and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

In some ways, then, a fade-out is the musical equivalent of the denouement in fiction, and it’s easy to draw parallels to different narrative strategies. A cold ending is the equivalent of the kind of abrupt close we see in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which rarely go on for long after the demise of the central character. (This may be due in part to the logistics of theatrical production: a scene change so close to the end would only sow confusion, and in the meantime, the leading actor is doing his best to lie motionless on the stage.) The false fade, in which a song like “Helter Skelter” pretends to wind down before abruptly ramping up again, has its counterpart in the false denouement, which we see in so many thrillers, perhaps most memorably in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. And the endless slow fade, which needs a long song like “Hey Jude” or “Dry the Rain” to sustain it, is reminiscent of the extended denouements in epic novels from War and Peace to The Lord of the Rings. The events of the epic wrench both the protagonist and reader out of everyday life, and after a thousand crowded pages, it takes time to settle us back into Bag End.

The fade, in short, is a narrative tool like any other, complete with its own rules and tricks of the trade. Weir quotes the sound engineer Jeff Rothschild, who says that in order for the fade to sound natural to a listener’s ear, the volume must “go down a little quicker at first, and then it’s a longer fade”—which is a strategy often employed in fiction, in which an abrupt conclusion to the central conflict is followed by a more gradual withdrawal. There are times, of course, when a sudden ending is what you want: Robert Towne himself admits that the original dying close of Chinatown isn’t as effective as the “simple severing of the knot” that Roman Polanski imposed. But it’s a mistake to neglect a tool both so simple and so insinuating. (A fade-in, which allows the song to edge gradually into our circle of consciousness, can create an equally haunting impression, as in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and one of my favorite deep cuts by the Beatles, George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You.”) These days, we have a way of seeing songs as discrete items on a playlist, but they often work best if they’re allowed to spill over a bit to either side. An ending draws a line in the world, but sometimes it’s nice if it’s a little blurred.

Written by nevalalee

September 16, 2014 at 9:34 am

We are the walrus

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Paul McCartney

Being a parent sometimes feels like an endless series of compromises and workarounds, but I know I’ve done at least one thing right: my daughter may be less than two years old, but she already loves the Beatles. And this has much less to do with me than with Lennon and McCartney themselves. After I picked up a record player for Christmas last year, I gradually came to realize that the turntable I’d gotten for myself could be just as important for Beatrix: it’s easy for me to put on a record at breakfast and play it to the end, and the physical albums and sleeves, which are more interesting to a baby than an iTunes playlist, help lock in the idea of what music really is. Ever since, I’ve been buying records partially with her in mind. At the center of my collection these days are The Beatles 1962-1966 and 1967-1970, otherwise known as as The Red and Blue Albums, and even I’ve been astonished by the effects they’ve had. I’ve caught Beatrix humming along to “Hey Jude” at coffee shops and rounding off the last line of the chorus to “Magical Mystery Tour,” and maybe my proudest moment as a father so far has been when she pointed to a picture of a walrus and said “Goo goo goo joob.”

But what strikes me the most about these songs is how neatly they dovetail with the vocabulary my daughter already has. Take “Hello, Goodbye,” for instance. Beatrix likes to sing the last word of each line, so it starts to sound like a miniature lexicon of baby’s first words: “yes,” “no,” “stop,” “go,” “goodbye,” “hello.” The same is true of her favorite songs by other artists: I don’t think she would have latched on so strongly to “Let it Go” if the chorus hadn’t given her a chance to shout “go,” “more,” and “door.” As a result, I’ve found myself listening to old songs in a new way. Like any Beatles fan, I’ve always been floored by the lyrical complexity on display there, but I’m even more impressed by how even their most extravagant inventions are grounded in an almost primal simplicity. Hearing them now, I can’t help noticing how often the same words and rhymes recur, or how half of the lines seem to end with “you.” (“Love, love me do / You know I love you,” “I’ll send it along / With love from me to you,” “Please please me, oh yeah / Like I please you”—and that’s just from the first side of 1962-1966.)

Stephen Sondheim

Which is really just a reflection of basic songwriting craft. When you’re listening to a pop song on the radio—whether it’s “Happy,” “Wrecking Ball,” “Fancy,” or the summer earworm of your choice—you know exactly what the title is once you’ve heard the first verse, even if you’ve never heard the song before. That isn’t an accident: in the standard AABA structure, there’s a title spot, a moment within the dominant melodic phrase that tells you what the song is called. As Sheila Davis writes in The Craft of Lyric Writing:

Traditionally, there are two title spots in the AABA: in either the first line or the last line of the verse. Skilled lyricists intuitively pinpoint the music’s most identifiable phrase, drop in the title, and work from there, forward or backward.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t important exceptions, and the overreliance on such formulas can lead to boring, interchangeable music. But songwriters have come a long way by relying on similar rules of thumb, and like most creative rules, they serve as a kind of safety net when you’re putting a song together for the first time.

Not surprisingly, it’s all too easy to focus on the formula, as many skeptical early listeners of the Beatles did, and assume that there’s nothing else there. (Which, frankly, is often the case with the Top 40, and that’s just fine.) But what Lennon and McCartney grasped from the beginning, then refined and developed in the full sight of the world, is how a simple hook can be an entry point that allows a song to burrow much deeper. Lyric writing can sometimes feel like the leading edge of writing in general, if only because it’s so linear and transient: once a lyric has been sung, it’s gone, which is why smart writers have developed so many tricks to keep their words and images alive in the listener’s mind. After spending enough time in the crucible of pop songwriting, most lyricists come to conclude, as Stephen Sondheim does, that the paramount virtue is clarity, without which nothing else matters. The “rules” of songwriting are really just a series of tactics for enforcing clarity in a medium that can’t survive without it. And the mark of a great song that it can convey complex ideas and emotions—or even inspired nonsense—while still allowing a baby to sing along.

Written by nevalalee

August 4, 2014 at 9:54 am

Speeding it up, slowing it down

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Dolly Parton

By now, many of you have probably heard “Slow Ass Jolene,” the viral version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” slowed down by twenty-five percent, which transforms it from a polished crossover country track to a haunting, soulful gay love song. It’s a reminder, first of all, of how great the original is—it’s probably my second-favorite country song of all time, second only to “Wichita Lineman”—and, more subtly, of how powerful a change in tempo can be. Recording artists have been aware of this, of course, for almost as long as they’ve been in the studio. Offhand, I know that the piano coda to “Layla,” a song to which I’ve devoted a lot of thought, was sped up slightly during the mixing session, changing its key from C major to somewhere between C and C sharp. The Beatles made great use of this, too: “When I’m Sixty-Four” was sped up in the studio to give the vocals a more bouncy feel, and a similar trick was used on the piano in “In My Life,” which was recorded with the tape playing at half speed and restored to normal in the mix.

Occasionally, you’ll see a similar approach taken in other media. David Mirkin, the showrunner responsible for what are arguably the greatest seasons of The Simpsons, would often speed up an entire episode very slightly rather than cut material to fit the show into its time slot, which is why the dialogue in episodes like “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” seems to zip along so quickly. Less successfully, during the editing of Terminator 2, James Cameron was having trouble getting the movie down to its contractual length when he was hit by a bright idea: why not just remove one frame of film from every second of the movie? The result, unfortunately, was unwatchable, but I at least give Cameron credit for ingenuity. (Cameron began his career as a screenwriter, and I’d like to think that this brainstorm was the result of the sort of fudging that most writers do to get their scripts down to an acceptable page count. Terry Rossio has a wonderful rundown of all these tricks—from changing the line spacing to physically shrinking the page on a photocopier—in a hilarious post on his blog.)

Marlon Brando and Francis Ford Coppola on the set of The Godfather

Nearly all these examples involve compressing the underlying material to be faster and shorter, which is generally a good impulse to follow. I’ve gone on record as saying that every rough draft ought to be cut by ten percent, and sometimes it’s the pressure of an arbitrary constraint—a television time slot, a contractual length—that forces you to make these tough choices. Their absence can lead to results like the fourth season of Arrested Development, in which nearly every episode is allowed to run ten minutes too long, often with unfortunate consequences. Yet as “Slow Ass Jolene” reminds us, it can also be good to take things more slowly. Just as the tone of “Jolene” is radically altered by a slower tempo, a slow book or movie can draw us in when a faster approach would have left us untouched. The author Colin Wilson, in his essay “Fantasy and Faculty X,” argues that the slow openings of a writer like Thomas Mann force the two halves of the brain to come into sync, allowing us to imagine the action more vividly, and I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in writers as dissimilar as Marcel Proust and John Crowley.

As for movies, I don’t know any examples of films that were physically slowed down in the editing room, but the same issues of tempo and pacing guide an editor’s selection of footage, and there are times when slower is better. There’s no better example than the first cut of The Godfather. After watching the cut, which was slightly over two hours long, producer Robert Evans reportedly said to Coppola:

The picture stinks. Got it? The Untouchables is better. You shot a great film. Where the fuck is it—in the kitchen with your spaghetti? It sure ain’t on the screen. Where’s the family, the heart, the feeling—left in the kitchen too?…What studio head tells a director to make a picture longer? Only a nut like me. You shot a saga, and you turned in a trailer. Now give me a movie.

Now, this is Evans’s version of events, and he’s nothing if not self-serving. But it’s a matter of record that the initial cut of The Godfather lost much of the material, especially in the first hour, that drew us into that movie’s world, and if it hadn’t been restored, the history of cinema would be different. Knowing when to speed things up and when to slow things down is one of the trickiest questions in an artist’s life, and only time and experience can teach us the difference.

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