I have the first of my two or three class meetings for British Popular Culture planned out: a powerpoint giving a basic “crash course” in British popular culture, followed by an episode (probably episode 1, or else the Pub Quiz episode) of The Office, with some discussion interspersed.
For the second lecture, I’m thinking we could discuss sport culture, and I have a great episode of the TV program Life on Mars which deals with soccer, hooliganism, and all kinds of 70s pop culture.
The third (maybe, probably) meeting, I’m thinking we could watch some of Brassed Off, and I could discuss the 80s… the economic recession, the Thatcherite government, coal mines shutting down and all of that… Since one of the student presentations already touched upon the Beatles and the British Invasion, and I’m not so interested in lecturing about that, I thought we could start at a time within living memory of the students. But I was thinking I might also have students listen to/discuss tunes like Marillion’s “Sugar Mice” and, well, I’m not sure what else. But tonight, anyway, I was flipping through my MP3 player for stuff I hadn’t yet listened to, especially anything British, and I happened to find Sting’s 1994 album Ten Summoners’ Tales. I’d actually sort-of listened to it before, long ago… a pianist I knew named Jamie Shupena had copied it for me and given it to me while we worked up one of my (rather forgettable) compositions for saxophone, piano, and electronics called “When She Dreams of Moonlight” or some crap like that.
Anyway, I gave that first track a listen, and my god, what anomie pop the first track is. Have you actually listened to it, closely? Sting’s a master of these kinds of tricky, what’s-going-on-here? songs… all those songs he did with The Police, like, “I’ll Be Watching You” sound romantic till you figure out it’s about a stalker; “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” is about a teacher warding off an amorous student… he’s got a twisty, wicked head. Anyway, that first track, “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” is pretending to be a love song, and maybe it is, but it’s a song about Love In The Time of Anomie, to cop a page from Marquez. Look at the lyrics, after all. And then listen to the background, the musical textures used. It’s fascinating.
If you listen closely, you hear the musical pun on “faith” building and building… this man has given up on idealistic scientism as a cure-all; he’s given up on religion when more and more people are being sucked into fundamentalism around the world; he’s given up on politicians because, as he says (and I agree), “they all look like game show hosts to me…” And what is his refuge? What is his shield against the collapse of the world, against the reality of massive social, cultural, and general failure of meaning in the modern world? Oh yeah… it’s that most tenuous, dangerous, unstable, fragile of things… love.
Not to diss love. Love is important, wonderful, great. I believe the invention of the idea of love as a significant part of life has, above anything else, fueled the growth in individualism that made what we think of as “freedom” possible, and when we really, truly process what that means as a global civilization, sometime in the future when we’re equipped to think all of that through, we will really owe a great deal to the concept — and the experience — of love.
But really, outside of that one relationship, the world that the narrator is living in is a mess. No miracles of science. No military solutions. Nothing really works. And I think, in an era where divorce rates was climbing, he was singing about something else — the absence in the song, after all, is something bigger to grab onto, to trust, to devote energy to. There is no Church for the atheist, there is no Science for the Layman (says Sting, and though I disagree I see what he means in terms of others around me), and there is no real alternative for faith except the desperately personal, the desperately private. And in the background of his song, a choir — a choir mostly made up of his very own voice, overdubbed, sings angelically, and an organ kicks in, and you know now that he’s a devotee… he hasn’t freed himself from bondage by casting off religion or scientism or political partisanism. He’s not free at all, because he hasn’t freed himself from an addiction to Faith.
And so, he puts it in Love, and the choir sings, and organ booms, and you feel moved hearing it, and then it cuts out, and the wry musical bits curl around it, repeating that simply drum beat, that simple harmony line, and you wonder, what comes next, once everyone has retreated into their chapels of love, their desperate private sancutaries where they’re free to pray until spousal death or infidelity comes, and then they shall be cast into desperate anomie again.
Fascinating song. Might have the students listen to it, though I won’t go into the analysis as deeply as I did here. That would just make their heads explode. (I may distribute a very simplified write-up of this post, however, as an example of a final project idea… the analysis of a pop song that reveals something about the culture from which it comes. I’d have to do some digging to tie the anomie to late 80s/early 90s British politics/culture, but I doubt it’d be too hard.) But the song is a fascinating study. Much more interesting, I think, than that “Fields of Gold” ditty.