Cee-Lo Green and the classical style

One of the side benefits of having a seven-year-old daughter is that you can rely on Wii Just Dance to keep you up to date on the pop hits of four years ago. One of these hits, which actually crossed my never very alert pop radar at the time, is Cee-Lo Green’s ‘Forget You’, which is of course the smash hit radio-friendly version of ‘Fuck You’. Since Cee-Lo released no less than three official versions of this song, all sorts of interesting-ish questions are raised about canonicity and which is the ‘real’, ‘authentic’ version, but I’m going to pass them up for another time by confining myself to ‘Fuck You’, because it’s just the most fun.

I’ve been trying to figure out why it’s such fun, and in doing so I keep coming back to the late Charles Rosen‘s discussion of classical style in his oh-so-appropriately-titled book The Classical Style.

‘Fuck You’ is constructed and produced like a classic Motown song, with an arrangement of what at least sounds like classic Motown instrumentation: multiple guitars, piano, bass, drums. Even if it’s all been done in Pro Tools or Logic, which may very well be the case (the piano, for example, is exactly tracked in the lower register by a distorted version of the same part, as if someone had fitted a piano with a vintage fuzzbox), Cee-Lo clearly meant this to say something about ‘classic pop’ in general and Motown in particular. The song sets up its stall with a title drop in the very first line: ‘I see you drivin’ round town with the girl I love, and I’m like, fuck yooo-oo-ou.’

So this is not going to be a song which is uncomplicatedly about being abandoned. Cee-Lo is not going to gnaw on his exclusion and wonder if it’s his fault. The second line appears to build on the first, but it also complicates the matter of who the ‘you’ in this song really is: ‘I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough, and I’m like, fuck you and / fuck her too-oo-oo.’

So the song is sung both to the girl who has rejected the singer for a guy with a better car and more money, and also to the guy with same, but it’s the girl who’s going to get the worst kicking. As the song builds, we find out that it’s not at all a song about being lonely at all. Cee-Lo sings ‘I said “If I was richer, I’d still be wid ya” — ain’t that some shit?’, to which the sassy backing singers agree ‘Ain’t that some shit!’, an effect beautifully amplified in the video by having the singers pop up every so often to throw in their wide-eyed disapproval of the hero’s hopeless pursuit of this girl. In fact, everyone the singer knows is aware that there’s just no point in him going after her: ‘Oh she’s such a gold-digger / Just thought you should know, nigga’, they chorus.

Rosen’s discussion of the classical style in his book is technical and involved, dependent on showing how composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven forged a new style from the musical language of their predecessors that was capable of expressing much more complex emotions than music had been able to show before. It’d be wrong to suggest that Rosen’s classical style can be uncomplicatedly mapped onto Cee-Lo’s deployment of the musical language of Motown, but two elements in Rosen’s argument do chime with Cee-Lo’s recording: the emphases on balance and on wit. ‘Fuck You’ is, at the same time, a bitter rejoinder to the person the singer is singing to, and a joyful dismissal of the same person. It doesn’t wallow. It seeks to make the listener aware of the singer’s pain, but it doesn’t try to pretend that the listener can share it, which would be sentimental. But neither does it try to pull off that cynical Beautiful South trick of cloaking a bitter song in a charming, radio-friendly arrangement. The ‘fuck you!’s are right up front. It makes saying goodbye to someone sound like some of the most fun a person can have. This, too, is in keeping with Rosen’s argument that the classical style is fundamentally, you know, comic. ‘Fuck You’, unlike its radio-censored offspring, is a great recording because its joy and defiance are in exact proportion to its level of abjection; it recognises painful human emotion and makes space for it, while at the same time refusing to give in to it.

Cee-Lo Green and the classical style

Brahms and being misquoted

For years, we had a toy for our daughter’s cot/bed: a chunky lump of yellow plastic shaped like a star which, when turned on, played a variety of lulling tunes and projected a moving image of cuddly cartoon bears onto the ceiling. We’d put it on and play it to help her get to sleep, and one of the tunes, well known to anyone who’s ever watched a vintage Looney Tunes cartoon in which a character has been rendered unconscious, is the melody from Brahms‘ Wiegenlied, a.k.a. ‘Brahms’ Lullaby’.

However, the plastic star thing used to play this tune in a way that used to make me annoyed ever time I heard it, because of what I regarded as the inept coding of whoever had programmed the melodies. Cartoons and TV have always taught us that the opening few bars of the melody go like this:

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 12.19.13

Or, for those who can’t read music, da da dee, da da dee, da da dee deee, deh-dee deee.

The Tomy Lullaby Light Show, on the other hand, played it like this (taken from further on in the same document, hence the absence of 3/4 time signature:

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 12.21.52

In syllabic terms, da da dee, da-daaa dee, da da dee deee, deh-dee deee.

That slight stutter in the second bar, the way the two quavers in the first bar weren’t just repeated but were turned into a quaver and crotchet the second time around, used to drive me nuts as a crass error in programming. I couldn’t believe it had survived the product testing process. It interrupted the rhythm and stopped it from sounding so immaculately lullaby-ish.

However, I was wrong, and the Tomy Lullaby Light Show was right: that’s what Brahms wrote. Cartoons and TV have been misquoting him for years. And not just them: google ‘Brahms Lullaby’ and you’ll find sheet music websites repeating the same error:

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Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 23.28.39http://www.zebrakeys.com/blog/2011/06/brahms-lullaby/

But here it is, scanned in from a copy of the 1868 edition of 5 Lieder Op 49:

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(Musicians among you will also note that this is in a different key, E flat major instead of F.)

What does this mean? That people are stupid and/or careless? Or is it that they automatically ‘correct’ complexities because they feel things ought to be simple? Brahms had a low tolerance for stupidity and, it could be argued, for people in general, but he knew what he was doing. More on Brahms later.

Brahms and being misquoted

Morrissey has a cold

So Morrissey has cancelled his remaining tour dates on account of a ‘cold’ he claims to have caught from his support act.

I have never been a fan of the Mancunian self-dramatist, ever since the days of the Smiths, when his idea of a melody was to rock back and forth in the narrow gap of a minor third. I mean, I see why Morrissey is interesting. He’s fey, he’s literary, he’s pulling all sorts of cultural bell-ropes, he endorses his fans’ collective passive-aggression in a way that they clearly find immensely soothing. He had to come along sooner or later, right? He’s like Michael Stipe for people from Britain, only less kind, less collegiate, less cuddly, less interested in showing solidarity with humans than with animals. He is the living embodiment of Yeats’ quip that out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry. The big problem with Morrissey’s memoir, the reason why it was kind of embarrassing that it was a Penguin Classic, is that on reading it, it was all too clear that he no longer found anything in himself to disagree with.

But now he’s cancelled a tour. Again. He cancelled 22 US gigs last year, apparently. For all the lip-service the man pays to figures from English showbiz history, and it’s all over his album covers and general presentation, the man does not appear to have learned the basic lesson of showbiz: you make the gig. Morrissey has money. He can get medication. He’s not Paul McCartney, who’s also ill, who is over 70, and who has not cancelled his gigs, merely postponed them.

By contrast, here is an extract from Get In The Van, the memoirs of Morrissey’s testosterone-fuelled and altogether more dedicated American counterpart, Henry Rollins:

2.21.83 SOMEWHERE Last night in Vienna was real bad for me. A guy took the microphone from me, called me a pig and bashed me in the mouth with it. People spat at me, hit me in the face. One guy burned me a few times with a cigar. I got these big burns on my leg. Some big guy got onstage and the bouncers were trying to hit him. I got between them to try and save the guy and for my trouble, the guy hauled off and punched me in the jaw. After that, it got wild.[. . .]

This is show business. I have war stories of my own, which I won’t tell here. Unless you are actually dying, you make the gig.

Morrissey is a pussy.

Morrissey has a cold

William Byrd and the uses of consolation

We have a new baby in the house, my son Dexter, seven weeks old tomorrow, and although he seems to be a pretty mellow kid, he’s been giving us the usual sleepless nights of a new baby. I say ‘us’. I mean mostly Ioanna my wife, who’s been breastfeeding him. Breastfeeding can be exhausting and unsatisfying for everyone involved, to put it mildly, and although I am the one to put little Dexter to bed in the small hours of the morning, there have been some sleep-deprived late-night and small-hours and early-morning arguments about whether this or that ought to have been done better or more wisely, all of which could be viewed as nature’s way of telling you that you really don’t want to have any more kids. But in any case, strains are put on bonds of affection; you forget how to look past the moment’s enormous stresses, you forget that they’re transient, and you forget why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place because it all seems to be too much of a struggle, and you’re tired and you just want to sleep and you fear that you’re weak.

So this morning I took our daughter off, leaving my wife in charge of our baby, and having dropped Lena off at school with a kiss and a brief hug, as the grey early summer skies began to spit rain down I started walking to work.

Whenever I drop my daughter off to school I have a great walk to work. It’s a walk that always makes me late, but that’s less important than the fact that I get to traverse one of the great pieces of inner urban green spaces in Europe, the Meadows, a large former deer park in the southern part of Edinburgh city centre. As I left the streets and headed into the park, I put on some music. Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices.

I don’t know exactly why, but the music hit me especially strongly. If we have any brains or moral sense whatever, we rightly resist easy consolation in music; I mean, music that tells us that it’s all okay, that we just need to shut up and let it go. Stephen Deusner’s brilliant Salon article on the Eagles is a good example of why quietistic music — like the Eagles’! — is so hateful; it preserves privilege and pats the listener on the back and refuses to engage in anything. (My worst single musical experience ever was playing bass on an extended jam of ‘Hotel California’ in my secondary school years, one dismal weekend afternoon.)

But that’s not to say that we never deserve consolation for anything. Even after the inequalities in society have been remedied, even after we’ve fixed the whole food-air deal, as Bill Hicks called it, we will still be faced with the problems of how to love and live with each other, how to reconcile ourselves to the things that we can’t change, such as ageing and the waning of our powers and energies, and those are problems that art is optimised for. Byrd’s music is good at that; it’s one of the reasons why he is not just the first great English composer but maybe the first great composer of the modern era. Byrd wrote his masses at a time when the English Catholic community was having to conduct its services in secret, because of Protestant paranoia about a Catholic conspiracy to bring down the country. Maybe it’s the awareness of panic and dread, together with the forceful insistence that they need to be overcome, that makes Byrd’s music speak to us now, five centuries later.

It’s good to despise music that just wants to shut us up, but not all consolations should be rejected. It’s when you think that political change will fix everything that you are doomed to tragic disappointment. The blues can help us to live with the unfixable nature of certain aspects of the world. So can [insert your music of choice here]. And so can William Byrd.

William Byrd and the uses of consolation