Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Same as it Ever Was

Here's a very specific example of how a setting can paint a mental image, or expectation, or prejudice, of what you might be hearing:

In the final days of August, 2008, I was on what I felt to be a slightly impulsive last-minute vacation in San Diego, California. It was my first time in the United States, and I didn't particularly want to be there (not really, even if it was the Sunshine state). On our first afternoon, we walked over to a nearby mall.

Malls in southern California aren't exactly the same as malls in the nation's capital of a northern country. This was a huge complex that was half-outside; escalators went from indoor to outdoor plazas. There was a McDonalds, but the food there tasted largely the same as any McDonalds here in Ottawa. Maybe slightly more seasoning on the burger?

Eventually my mother led the way into a clothing department store. Not a fun place to hang out or be, not for a teenage boy anyway. Out of the speakers came this song:

I must stress that I only realized this was Talking Heads a few months ago, when I heard it on my car radio. When I heard this in the department store, I had a very different idea.

Byrne's vocals - in the chorus, particularly - sounded at first like several men. Hearing it that afternoon in 2008, I immediately connected it directly to my specific place and location. This was southern California, where you had places like "Fashion Park" and models walking around. I was in a clothing department store, a place of fashion. Therefore, the vocals (and simplicity of the song's progression) gave me the image of several male models singing, men who may look somewhat like Freddie Mercury and be flamboyant, if not in a fashion model-like way. And as a result this was a 'California song' or at least something I would only likely ever hear there. I placed it in the same style and category as 'Vogue' by Madonna - something you might hear as girls strut down a catwalk at a high-end, publicized show.

The song left my mind very quickly. Fashion and modelling weren't my thing in the least. I forgot about it until I heard it on an episode of Chuck, a show my mother watched. I didn't expect that; wasn't that some local California band-type thing? I could never hear it up here in a serious, level-headed place like Ottawa. That's absurd.

When I then heard it on my own car radio and saw it was by the Talking Heads, I was extremely surprised, but it made sense.

The song has absolutely nothing to do with fashion, nor does it sound like or mean to be similar to a song like 'Vogue.' It's more of an existential song, a wonder at how things came to be as they are while fitting into social ideals and constantly referencing water. It's funny how those male models coalesced into one David Byrne, a figure I've always known as the singer of 'And She Was' and 'Burning Down The House.' Incidentally, when I first heard 'And She Was,' I found the voice singing sounded like my eighth grade math teacher. That's a long leap from math teacher to male model, all because of where I first heard a song or who I knew at the time.

The sound of this song is unusual. It makes me think of both keyboards, computer noises and phone dial sounds. It was produced by Brian Eno, which on its own might as well explain nearly everything considering his widely experimental recording techniques. Byrne took a bunch of cliched preachy-like phrases starting with "and you may ask yourself," etc. and molded them together into a questioning song. It could make you anxious or calm you down. "Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down."

The video has Byrne dressed smartly against a digital background. The somewhat random scene near the end of him looking serene as he sits on a black background looks kind of hopeful and pointless at the same time.

Music: A-. I like the result of Eno's experimentation. In the department store I thought it was a current song.
Lyrics: A. I almost want to give it an A+ just for its intriguing, questioning nature, the seeming glance at typical life it gives. The whole song sounds unconventional, different, experimental and absolutely relevant. And I thought this was some male model fashion thing when I first heard it.

Red Cloud

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