I’m not a musician, despite working in the music industry, and my grasp of even the simplest terms and concepts of music theory is shamefully lacking. I am what is described in industry parlance, a ‘hummer’. Not because I’m an overweight, environmentally catastrophic, puke-inducingly vulgar example of the USA’s automotive sector’s head-burying reaction to global warming – but because I have to resort to making noises with my clamp-lipped mouth on the occasions I need to illustrate something musical to the musicians I work with. As you can imagine, they find this amusing, but they do, bless them, manage not to laugh at me too much. So this post, if you are a musician, will have a similar effect on you as reading an attempt at structuralist literary criticism by someone who can’t tell the difference between syntagmatic and diachronic modularity in a narrative would have on me. That last sentence wouldn’t have appeared in this post were it not for the fact that my ignorance of musical terminology shames me so much that I do have to resort to the most pretentious means to assert the notion that I’m not stupid, like.
The reason I’m getting into this is because, like anyone else (anywhere in the world) who happened to be within eyeshot of a television screen over the weekend, I happened to see the Lady GaGa video about ten times. Everyone’s said their piece about this video over the last month. Whether it’s the unattractively high-cut bikini bottoms that cause you to splutter, or the Bond-style product placement, everyone’s got an opinion about something or other. If you read my posts regularly you’ll probably guess that the idea of using product placement and artist-branding/value-added marketing approaches to the musical form leave me a bit cold in general. However, GaGa is what she is, it’s cabaret and theatre as much as it is music, and she’ll probably do us a lot of good by making it so abundantly clear to the public that music has reached a point where it needs to be adulterated with all this peripheral rubbish to secure any sort of success in the popular marketplace. Even the most media unaware punter can tell that surrounding the GaGA is a massive juggernaut of a publicity-creating mechanism and that, although it’s quite fun, it might be nice occasionally to sit back and listen to some music that was made simply to be listened to. I don’t really have a problem with GaGa, which is just as well, because it’s pretty unlikely I’d be able to escape her if I did.
Thing is, though, that ‘Telephone’ has about twenty seconds in it where it just becomes the most astounding piece of pop music perfection that I can recall having heard in all my thirty-six years. Maybe I’m getting over-excited here, I know that happens to me a lot, but the Beyonce cameo on the vocal of the song, I think, is mind-bogglingly good. I may be a hummer, but I have noticed a couple of things from having a cousin who is a concert pianist (and hence, having been to more classical piano recitals by the age of 16 than most people go to in a lifetime) and from having a near classical-level pianist practise for six hours a day in the same room as I write these posts. One, is that a descending series of notes, or better again, chords, ending on a flat – makes for a very uncomfortable, unsettling reaction in the listener. This, followed by a series of ascending sharps, played quickly, affords the listener a sense of joy and hope. I think Beethoven does this in the opening moments of his fifth symphony. When GaGa croaks her way through her ‘I’m kinda busy’ lines, on the descent, her voice metallised by auto-tune to an inhuman, pseudo-stereo parody of vocal ability, there’s a dirgelike quality to the sound that is just ripe for somebody with a good ear to jump in and make herself sparkle by contrast. This is what I love about the Beyonce bit – it’s not just that she has a good voice (and seriously, the few words she sings are done in a sassy gospel voice that belongs on a much bigger lady), but that she comes in at just that point and absolutely steals the track. I would just love to know how the decision was made for her to sing that part. I’d love to believe it was the disarmingly sweet-appearing Beyonce that just batted her eyelashes and suggested nicely ‘why don’t I come in, say, here? I’ll just make it up as I go, shall I?’, whilst thinking to herself ‘You’re going to sound like a seagull with a strep throat in comparison, loser’. That’s how I like to imagine it anyway!
Apologies to all who have read this and cringed. I do need to learn some terminology, I know. Just seems like there’s just too much to catch up on though, so I’ll have to remain a hummer for the foreseeable.