What follows is a column I wrote during the five days of Pop Montreal 2010 as part of the project Daily Print organized by Palimpsest Magazine in association with ArtPop and DHC-ART.
[Please note: this column should not be confused with my recent novel also entitled Polyamorous Love Song.]
The title of this column is Polyamorous Love Song. I will try to write one of these every day. I am worried I might fail. Why such a title? Perhaps because this column will revolve around various gradations of music and speculation and one such speculation has something to do with love songs. That most love songs, mainstream or otherwise, are directed towards one person, the ultimate soul mate or new excitement, and maybe a polyamorous love song, a love song directed towards a few (or many) soul mates, might undermine some of the basic songwriting assumptions. Some such songs must exist in the world already but I’m not sure I know them (one exception: Two Are One by Dri. YouTube it, the video is quite good.) As well, if you are reading this (if anyone is reading this), and can think of further – better, more enticing – examples, please send them along.
Somewhere the American art critic Dave Hickey writes (I believe in the introduction to Air Guitar but my books are all in storage) that he was in Mexico, wondering why there are so many songs about love, about falling in love or being in love, and so few works of visual art or critical texts along the same lines. As he was pondering this question he saw the following scene: two dogs fucking in the middle of the street, and a mother with her young daughter plus her daughters fiancé trying to cross the street, to walk around the copulating animals. The young couple both seemed extremely interested in the dogs, while the mother was of course trying to rush the young couple along, divert their attention.
I believe Hickey draws a sort of lesson from this scene, though I can’t precisely remember what it is. Something like: the dogs don’t need love songs, they just go for it, but the people are in a state of avoidance or embarrassment which expresses itself as courtship and therefore they require a constant stream of love songs to keep the avoidance/courtship in play. I can’t remember, in Hickey’s analogy, if the dogs represented rock n’ roll and the mother plus young couple were the politeness of visual art, or vice versa, if the dogs were art, they didn’t need songs to hook up, and the mother/young couple were the necessity of love songs to deal with the reality of what they were avoiding. I will have to look it up. My memory no longer works nearly as well as I would like. I probably have it completely wrong.
Pop music is the gasoline of monogamy. Love songs are propaganda for monogamy. Writing is another form of loneliness. These are all statements that feel relatively true to me, that feel true in their gestures of empty, highly personal, provocation. Statements whose truth-value is little more than an opening for debate. Songwriting is a strange kind of writing. I remember something I once heard Darren Hayman (from the band Hefner) say in an interview, that people often complimented him on his lyrics, and he was flattered by this, but he had always been more interested in writing tunes. Because a song could have bad lyrics and a great tune and still be a good song. But if a song had great lyrics and a terrible tune, the entire endeavor was kind of doomed. How would we experience love if pop culture did not exist?
Bands exist on the internet. The first time you hear a new band, or hear about a new band, now most often occurs on line. I find it difficult to even remember the experience of going to a record store, buying a record I had never heard and knew almost nothing about, taking it home, placing the needle on the vinyl, and hearing the first notes for the first time. There was a level of anticipation and curiosity that simply no longer exists. Love songs attempt to describe how we feel when we’re in love. But as they’re describing, they are also telling us how we should feel, creating norms we can compare with our own experiences, giving us language that helps us describe a realm of emotion that in some sense is always beyond language. Many of these songs were written in about five minutes.
I love to listen to music alone. When I am at home, there is almost always music playing, and with astonishing frequency I stop whatever I am doing and simply listen. I also love to go to a bar, to drink, to watch and listen to music in a room full of other people. I rarely think about the two experiences as having anything to do with one another. For me, listening to recorded music, alone, over and over again, is somehow the ‘real’ experience of music. Going out to a show is something else, a chance to see people, get a better idea of what the band is about, add some extra information to the very personal experience of listening to my favorite songs. However, if the band really sucks live sometimes it can totally ruin them for me. It can be years before I genuinely listen to them again.
When did bands start playing along to backing tracks? Suddenly I’m seeing it all the time. I wonder if it has anything to do with hip hop, with being part of a generation that was raised on hip hop and how common it is to rap over pre-recorded beats. It is very strange for me to watch musicians struggle to remain in sync with a backing track, like they’re trying to ace an exam and rock out at the same time. What is the sexual equivalent to playing along with a backing track? Fucking with the assistance of sex toys? Hanging from a full body harness as you go at it? (I’m going for the cheap laughs here.) But music often reminds me of sex, and thinking about sex often makes me wonder if there’s any choice other than monogamy.
I often send songs to friends and lovers over the internet. I have a file of mp3’s on my desktop for that very purpose. But sometimes I get confused. I can’t remember which songs I’ve sent to which people, and worry that I’m going to send someone the same song twice. I wonder what it would feel like to receive a song you have already received from me, if you would sense my confusion, if it would make you feel less special. I believe this anecdote has something to do with being non-monogamous.
I am writing this at Club Social (where, in the past, I have regularly noticed the staff of Pop Montreal.) It is raining outside. Over the sound system I have just heard The Thompson Twins (Hold Me Now), Prince (Purple Rain) and M.J. (Beat It, really not his best song.) None of these artists have anything to do with any of the artists I will see, think about or write about during the five days of this column. (Well, maybe Prince.)
I am reading The Drug of Art: Selected Poems of Ivan Blatny. The book arrived in the mail two days ago. Blatny was a Czech poet who in 1948 defected to England and spent most of his life in various mental hospitals until his death in 1990. He also has (almost) nothing to do with anything. However, I particularly like these lines: “To carry the world around, / like the stone of Sisyphus, in my head, / this was all I knew how to do and that is very little, / just as in Chinese poetry / there is sometimes very little / nothing more than the sky and a bird flying across it, / a bird flying across it; a bird, but a real one.” When did bands start playing along to backing tracks?
Yesterday, in a poem by Ivan Blatney, I read the following lines: “The number of ringlets on the wasp means the number of its marriages / they don’t have a queen they mate freely.” Reading these lines felt like a pleasurable coincidence. (See title of this column.) Coincidences are one of my favourite things. During the last song of the first band I saw (Tu Fawning), the chorus was “sex is all it is” over an over again. (At least I think that’s what she was singing, I might have it completely wrong.) But this heard, or mis-heard, lyric is only partly a coincidence, because Polyamorous Love Song isn’t about ‘sex being all it is,’ but about love, about love not having to be with just one person, and why are there no (or few) songs that try to explain what this feels like.
And then I’m somewhere completely different, from love to war, watching a documentary about the Tuareg – nomadic people of the Sahara desert – fighting a rebel war against a government hell-bent on protecting the uranium-rich areas being profitably exploited by various multi-nationals. The Tuareg continuously speak of wanting to be free, and theirs is a kind of freedom I find it difficult to imagine, what the physical experience of it would actually be (so far from the suggestive, innuendo-drenched freedom of rock n’ roll.) The footage that struck me most intensely was of uranium processing, the most artificial shade of yellow I’ve ever seen, the exact opposite of the desert from which the Tuareg eek out their existence. And a scene with the female-led group Tilwat, where a man reads out a text extolling how much they all desire peace and on his final words of peace the women are meant to begin their song, but instead get into an argument about who gets to start playing first.
Where else but in a pop song can one repeat the same phrase over and over again and not have it be completely annoying. A bunch of twenty year olds blasting through some fairly compelling power pop. But I can’t help imaging them as middle aged men, rolling through the exact same set twenty or thirty years down the line. As you might imagine, this image is not particularly inspiring, or inspiring only in its sadness and pathos. And yet later the same night Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens make middle age seem like the best fucking thing that ever happened to anyone. There’s no arguing with flair. Then again, maybe all there is to do is wait for middle age to pass. Aim for that second, exponential, level of nostalgia.