May 2009

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I was recently listening to this song (which I included on mix a while back). I remember liking the song for Gordon Lightfoot’s performance, and for how it plays with narrative.

It opens as if it will be a conventional narrative song, telling a story about a shipwreck. Then, as the verses go on, the narrative becomes more and more abstract, and the lyrics feel more allusive and, in the second verse, even bawdy (“Of all the men who sailed on her, in truth I sailed her best”). By the end of the song, who knows exactly what has happened, except the ship does not appear have crashed, as it sounded like it would in the first verse. It may still be a song about a shipwreck, but the wreck does not occur within the narrative of the song.

A good example of the fact that, however songs relates to literary narrative, there is still plenty of room for narrative play.

Complete lyrics after the jump.
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The discussion in the previous post has been quite interesting. Let me try to recap the major points, as I see them and hopefully we can keep the conversation going.

As I understand, Ben was making three basic arguments:

1) That the terms “narrative”, “narrator”, and, in particular, the phrase “unreliable narrator” are all terms that have originate in, and only have clear definitions within, literary criticism. That any application of those sorts of terms to music is always going to imprecise, and somewhat poorly fitting.

He also points out, specifically, that the use of the phrase “unreliable narrator” that I quoted is not accurate, even allowing for imprecision.

2) If we want to use those terms in talking about music then it’s worth figuring out what we think they should mean.

The distinction that Ben found most helpful as a way to think about possible analogies to music was that of storytelling vs. theater. A storyteller is, practically by definition, a narrator. They directly address the audience and present a story. The storyteller can, and probably will, adopt a persona for the telling of the story. Based on the note in literary criticism that the narrator of a written work exists within the fictional world of the work, Ben would take the adopted persona as the “narrator” of a story, not the real world storyteller.

In theater, the actors are not narrators. they do not address the audience directly, and they do not present the fictional world. They play a character within the fictional world and, in character, they have no awareness of the audience or of the story being told. The character is just representing themselves within their own world.

3) From this Ben takes the important point that it’s possible for an audience to watch a story, without the telling of the story involving a narrator, with theater as an example.

The question he then asks is whether, as an audience, you feel like listening to music is more like watching a play or a storyteller.

RS asks the related question of whether the performer feels more like an actor or a storyteller.

In both cases, the answer will obviously vary based on the given performance. One can easily think of examples that clearly fall closer to one end of the spectrum or the other.

But the question then becomes which end of the spectrum feels more descriptive of pop music in general. Do we believe that pop music is paradigmaticly closer to theater or storytelling?

I’m still considering this, but hopefully that is a reasonable summary of the question.

I was glancing through a not-very-interesting book on pop music, a while back, and thought that it did have a reasonably good summary description of Randy Newman.

It called him the “master of the unreliable narrator” and pointed out that essentially every Randy Newman song is in the voice of someone other than him.

Some of his songs are sympathetic (“Rednecks”, surprisingly), others are satirical (“Political Science”), but they almost always create a fictional character for the purpose of the song.

It then talked about how, when people get Randy Newman wrong it is usually by taking his songs to literally, e.g., “Short People.” Finally it gave, as another example, Old Man saying that it was a satire of prejudice, like “Short People,” about “ageism.”

That seems obviously crazy. “Old Man” is one of my favorite Randy Newman songs because it is so emotionally direct, a remarkably tender song about comforting a dying relative.

I am curious, however, if you think the voice of the song is Randy Newman’s? I have always assumed that it is, but if so it is a remarkably intimate song by a singer who is almost never revealing.

Won’t be no God to comfort you
You taught me not to believe that lie
You don’t need anybody
Nobody needs you
Don’t cry, old man, don’t cry
Everybody dies

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