Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Haunting of Paul McCartney

Most songs are pretty straight forward. Their tone, melody, roughly follow their lyrics. Sad songs are slow and long, haunting and melodious. They can often be love songs. On the other end of the spectrum, there are songs that inspire you to get up and dance, or some songs that tell you to tell your parents to fuck off in that semi-subliminal way. Some songs simply tell a straight story. When I talk about the "story" of a song, it is partly because of my only-vague familiarity with music composition. But then, there's that word, "composition". A song shares this terminology with a story, and we see literary theorists talk about the composition of a text or a poem. In this way, I am going to talk about the story of a song; not simply its lyrics, but its melody, tone, the way the instruments work with the lyrics. As I said, some songs are pretty straight forward, the lyrics complimented by and complimenting the music. Some songs have a more subversive composition, one which overturns the usual unity of lyric with music.

Lets take one small example. It is simply one lyric in one Beatles song. On the Sergeant Pepper's track "Getting better", Paul McCartney swoons about how it is "getting better, better all the time," how our narrator (again, a literary term, sorry ...) tells us how he used to be the perpetrator of domestic violence against his "woman", but "Man I was mean, but I'm changing my scene, and I'm doing the best that I can." The track then picks up with the simply modest hope of a man trying to change his ways with a touch of optimism, "I have to admit it's getting better, better all the time."

It is the next line that I am interested in. For, in a kind of echo, after that line John Lennon sings quieter, haunting the optimism of the man trying to change his ways with a pessimistic note, "It can't get much worse." Here, we can see that the narrator has gone through a kind of catharsis. He has hit rock bottom, presumably, and from there the only way is up, as they say. He is like King Lear, who finally sees the error of his ways only after he goes into a terrible rage during a thunder storm. "It can't get much worse," this is when he decides to mend his ways.

What we see here is a richer song, deeper, not simply full of blind optimism, but more psychologically complex. Within the song we also get the impression, through the prominence of McCartney's lyric, and the muted haunting of Lennon's, that McCartney's lyric conveys a certain degree of performance to it, as if this is a speaking act, designed to convey a change in the narrators outlook, but also to hide a doubt. This doubt is the haunting presence of Lennon's lyric, which can be viewed almost as a betrayal of the performance where he tries to convince us of his turn around.

If we are to look at it in a Freudian way, it could be viewed as a Freudian slip, a betrayal of an inner doubt, cemented over by the performance act of McCartney's lyrics. There are many other such subversions, songs that display a similar psychological complexity. These songs seem to hold us in a compromised position. It is perhaps for this reason that we find them so interesting, mysterious, and perhaps even a good deal more realistic than songs that sing and sound of nothing but the darkness or, on the other hand, nothing but the light.

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