The Muppets and cheap music

This is the second of these posts that hinges on an anecdote about putting my daughter to bed.

My wife and I take it in turns to do what we’ve by default called ‘the snuggle’, which is the rather embarrassing name for a fairly humdrum activity, in which whosever turn it is gets into bed with our seven-year-old daughter and lies there after goodnight for about 20 minutes, just chatting with her quietly about the day but basically doing nothing, the point being to help her wind down and ease into a good night’s sleep while the other parent goes off and prepares dinner/finds something to watch/attends to our newborn son. Tonight, for some reason, Lena made me activate our Kermit the Frog glove puppet. It’s a very typical Kermit puppet, in which you stick your hand inside and you can make Kermit’s mouth move. Lena has had tonsillitis lately and has been watching The Muppets on the sofa, so her love for Kermit is strong right now. I can do a passable imitation of Kermit’s voice, as created by Jim Henson and carried on by Steve Whitmire, so I’m the Kermit operator of choice.

Towards the end of tonight’s . . . damn, the word looks so icky when you type it . . . ‘snuggle’, Lena rolled onto one side, hugged the Kermit glove puppet (with my hand inside it) to herself, and quietly sang to it a few lines of the song “Rainbow Connection”, originally from 1979’s The Muppet Movie but heard by her in the 2011 film:

Some day we’ll find it,
The rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers and meeee . . .

I damn near burst out crying when I heard this.

My throat tightened, and I was filled with an immense sense of something or other which impressed me with the transience of this and the fragility of that.

The weird thing is that I was immediately aware of the mediated, second-hand nature of this experience. It was, essentially, a cliché, for a forty-something dad to be moved almost to tears by his daughter singing a silly song to a glove puppet. I mean, even a greeting card company copywriter might be tossing that particular notion into the bin. But I knew that, and as I lay there in the semi-darkened room — because it’s not actually dark at 8.30pm in Edinburgh in May — I tried to identify what exactly was so moving about hearing this.

It was only partly Lena’s voice. Nobody would say that she’s exactly a child prodigy of a singer. Her pitching is extremely erratic, but her rhythm is good. But it wasn’t that she sang it so well that that’s what moved me, the way I would have been moved by a great singer. Her voice has that blurry, unguarded quality that little kids have when they’re untrained singers. She pronounced the word ‘rainbow’ as ‘raimbo’.

It was only partly the song. It’s not a song I have any history with, and I don’t much like the work of Paul Williams, who wrote it (with Kenneth Ascher.)

After a hug and a last goodnight, I had to go out to the supermarket to get some essentials and I put on my coat and headed downstairs and out into the damp, grey Edinburgh twilight. In the supermarket, a song came on from a band that was once my favourite: “Near Wild Heaven”, by R.E.M. “Near Wild Heaven”, for all the sheen of its production and Mike Mills’ obvious sincerity and the guileless homage to the Beach Boys that it is, didn’t move me at all, whereas my daughter’s casual rendition of three lines of a cheesy song by a chronically MOR songwriter had only minutes earlier been one of the most profound musical experiences of my life.

The late Dennis Potter, in more than one interview, said that even the cheapest song has something of the same quality as a Psalm of David, and Potter knew what he was talking about; he became the greatest master of re-contextualising popular song that TV drama has ever known. My experience with Lena and “Rainbow Connection” sealed for me the notion that the context in which a song is presented can account for its impact to a degree which is embarrassing to those of us who take music seriously, and who have spent any time working hard at being good at performing it. Surely it’s only worth putting in all those hours of practice if our performances can transcend mere circumstance.

Ioanna had good old plain common sense on the topic: her view was that I found the song moving because Lena is my daughter. But that’s not an explanation that works for me. When other family members attempt to perform music around me, their familial proximity does not gain precedence over my critical ear, which is a bit shit for them, really, but there you go.

As ever, context is all. The immediate context is that Lena has a three-week-old little brother, Dexter, whose ability to make noises when he wants food or a clean nappy has already soured slightly her early delight in his presence, which is a nice way of putting it. We tell her that Dexter will start smiling soon and will go on to welcome her presence, but in the meantime, she is still waiting for him to respond to her, which being only three weeks old, he has not yet done. Perhaps this is the “rainbow connection”, for her. Or perhaps it’s just that she liked the sound of the song. When I was seven, I didn’t like sappy songs like “Rainbow Connection”. I liked stomping songs, like (to choose another one by Paul Williams) “So You Wanna Be a Boxer”, from Bugsy Malone. But that brings me into my whole notion of the links between music and aggression, of which more later.

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The Muppets and cheap music

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