I’ve had it on my list for a while to look into Rufus Wainwright’s music. The time finally came late last week, when Roger Bourland posted a YouTube clip of “Going to a Town,” Wainwright’s new single. Bourland started his blog in connection with a freshman seminar on Wainwright’s music he was giving at UCLA. The blog has diversified, but Wainwright still crops up regularly. Among other things, Bourland sometimes channels composition lessons to Rufus from various dead but still pedagogically-inclined classical composers (Ives, Debussy, and Berlioz, and maybe others I haven’t seen). This strikes me as a fun and clever way to highlight the contrasting musical mindsets and values involved, though I don’t think that’s Bourland’s agenda.
Bourland had only one thing to say about the “Going to a Town,” in reference to its refrain, “I’m so tired of America”:
I guess Rufus is tired of America. Hmm, well I say people act like people no matter where you go.
I completely agree with Bourland about people acting like people wherever. From that point of view, it’s reasonable to wonder why the refrain isn’t “I’m so tired of humanity.” If Wainwright wants to make a statement about religious hypocrisy and homophobia, why not take on the Iranian practice of hanging men thought to have engaged in homosexual acts (the example comes to mind because I recently read about a young opera composer who has done just that)? In comparison it’s hard to see how even the worst hypocrisy of America’s homophobic fundamentalists is much cause for complaint, especially from someone like Wainwright who enjoys a tremendous luxury of choice and of self-expression, including the luxury of being out of the closet. The refrain is nothing if not a complaint, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for finding it to be a pretty egocentric one.
In the context of the song it doesn’t strike me that way, though (and I’m not claiming it strikes Bourland that way, either—the line I quoted leans in that direction, but it’s just an offhand comment). The only problem I have with the lyrics is that the first two verses, especially, are too obscure. I’d like for such a forthright refrain to be backed up by more than vague allusions. But “Going to a Town,” as I hear it, is a falling-out-of-love, gotta-pick-up-the-broken-pieces-and-move-on song about Wainwright’s relationship with a country. I’d call it his motherland if his mother wasn’t Canadian and I’d call it his fatherland if the word didn’t have creepy fascist connotations—the parental metaphor is complicated in his case, but it still applies. He’s writing about being let down in a relationship that is deep and irrational, so of course the song is one-sided and unfair. The trick in this genre is to complain, criticize and caricature without sounding too whiny or self-indulgent.
[I was browsing a few hours after I first posted this entry and came across a post on vilaines filles—the guy attracts high-end fans!—that referred to Wainwright’s MySpace page. Not only is this song up on his player (so listening is free at the moment), there’s a commentary track where he says “it’s like a breakup song from a lover who you once were entralled with and then were somewhat cheated on…” I guess I was stating the obvious.]
It’s obvious, I hope, that the meaning of a song doesn’t necessarily come from the words alone. With different music this particular lyric could be turned into something more cynical, more satirical, more strident, or more equivocal (and the list could go on). If Wainwright is saying something, he’s saying it with both the words and the music, and neither stands on its own. What the music adds in this case is the impression of an experience. Based on how the words are placed in the music, it’s a story of alienation and resignation yielding to insight and resolve—a classic breakup-song trajectory. I’m sure Wainwright is editorializing with the lyric, but he absorbs the complaints and criticisms into the texture of an experience that he conveys quite beautifully. That’s my personal reaction, of course, and there’s nothing definitive about it. I’ve had reactions to America similar to his, so his criticisms don’t get under my skin in the first place. But I think the song makes a good case for itself that’s independent of the politics.
A really odd thing about the song is that after 3 minutes of fine stylish songwriting, Wainwright seems to fall under the spell of an ambitious idea that never quite works out. For all the good things I’ve found in the song, it was the strangeness of the ending that got me to pull out my keyboard and work out what’s going on in the music. At the level of musical technique the song makes a fascinating study from start to finish—in the first part it’s wonderfully communicative in ways that can be analyzed pretty clearly, and in the last part it’s strange and awkward, again in ways that aren’t too hard to articulate. It’s a remarkable package—I haven’t come across anything quite like it before. For anyone inclined to read on, I’ll try point out the musical features, both the effective ones and the strange ones.
I’ll admit right off that dissecting music in order to get at its meaning is highly subjective and probably little more than a parlor game. It’s a game I like to play, though—it’s a great way to get up close and personal with a piece of music, and it helps me clarify and refine what I’m trying to do as a composer. If, by putting it up, I can provoke anyone to respond with their own impressions, or a critique of my analysis, or any other kind of constructive comment, that would be icing on the cake.
After playing the video a few times, I went over to iTunes to get the single—I believe it’s an iTunes “exclusive.” That’s the version I’m writing about—the only significant differences with what’s on that video are the lack of a rhythm section and other instruments and the poorer fidelity. Here are the lyrics.
I’ll try to make my musical points without getting into a lot of specialized lingo, hoping it will make sense even if you don’t have musical training. If you know some music theory, though, you should probably read the more technical, nuts and bolts version of my analysis.
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The verse of “Going to a Town” uses the same chord progression as the durable old standard Autumn Leaves, a French song written in the 40s (you could think of the style as Tin Pan Alley with an accordion and a beret). It’s a pretty generic progression, so the connection could be fortuitous, but I’m inclined to think that it’s not, since the similarities go beyond the chords (just to be clear—there’s nothing wrong with using someone else’s chord progression). In both songs the melody is based on a simple melodic figure that is repeated, but starts one note lower each time (in music theory this is called a sequence). In “Going to a Town,” the sequence is the first 3 lines of the verse, so the repetitive phraseology of the lyric (in most verses to some extent, but especially the first one) goes hand in hand with the melodic repetition. The chords, grouped into pairs, track the melodic sequence as well. The sequence makes the lyrics of each verse seem to march with a kind of clockwork inevitability down to the refrain and the minor chord that supports it—both musically and lyrically, a downhearted conclusion. The way the progression shifts away from major towards minor on the third line gives it some extra poignance. The sense of resignation is especially strong in the first verse, with its passive, gloomy listing of “already beens.”
The chords in the verse are not only strung together in a progression that is typical of jazz standards (i.e., the harmonic world of Tin Pan Alley, more or less), they have a thickness or complexity that is more typical of jazz than of contemporary pop, which in this context gives them a world-weary sheen (it’s especially notable in the second line of each verse). At some level, conscious or unconscious, Wainwright was clearly drawing on this older repertoire—no big surprise coming from a man who’s done a whole show of Judy Garland songs. My sense is that he’s specifically invoking “Autumn Leaves,” which has two layers of wistfulness—one that’s integral to the song and another it gets as a stylistic representative of days gone by.
On the scale of pop-song choruses, this one is pretty subtle, but in comparison to the verse it’s focussed and to the point in the way choruses usually are. It’s faster-moving than the verse and at the same time more static—for the first 2 1/2 lines, the harmony rocks back and forth between two chords, but the chords and lyrics go by twice as fast. The big event, where Wainwright cashes in on the simplicity and predictability of what’s come before, happens on “to lead” in the third line of the chorus. There is a fresh chord, and the harmonic pace slows so he can dwell on a few key words. He diverts the chord progression at the last minute, so the chorus comes to rest in a different harmonic “place” than the verse. On the single there is swell of glacial strings in the background that permeates and transforms the sound. The emotional core of the song is this line, repeated at the end of the chorus—“I’ve got a life to lead”—which comes across as a realization and a moment of clarity.
Aspects of that clarity and resolve carry over into the verses that follow. Where the first pair of verses is vague and passive, the second pair is more engaged and impassioned. Wainwright reaches out with questions, highlighted by repeated rhetorical “tell mes” that introduce an element of call-and-response dialog. It is utterly conventional for the later repetitions of a verse to be more developed or elaborate than the early ones, but in this case it’s not just a matter of musical logic, it conveys something integral to the song. It’s a technique that opera composers use to great effect—nice to see, since Wainwright has apparently been commissioned to write an opera.
The second verse seems to unfold like the first, but in the third line Wainwright tries to pull another rabbit from his hat. He seems in this case not to be a double-rabbit-capable composer. On the word “lead” there is an unexpectedly bright chord and the music suddenly takes on a new character. What happens from this point to the end is, in musical terms, a coda. It starts out well enough. The drawn-out, emphatic feeling of it seems a little excessive to me, but it’s not a bad way to consolidate at the end of a song. The first few chords are fresh and effective, too, but they lead to a cul-de-sac, and it takes some odd chords and awkward phrasing to get back out. It looks just like corners I’ve seen students write themselves into when they’re being too clever, and Lord knows I’ve done it to myself often enough, too, stubbornly developing an idea that’s too brilliant and impressive to let go of, even when it turns into an endless time-sucking labyrinth. One of the odder signs that Wainwright may have been casting about for fancy harmony is the idiosyncratic appearance of a special chord called a Neapolitan sixth that, as far as contemporary forms of music are concerned, crops up in intermediate college-level music theory and nowhere else—I haven’t come across it outside of classical music.
The treatment of the lyric is awkward, too. The words that are most emphasized and drawn-out are “life,” “soul,” “dream” (excellent so far), then “own” (not so great but ok), then “be” (weak, but at least is scans) and finally “to” (really weak). The last line…
I’m going TOOOOOOOO a town thaaat haaaas AAAAL-REAAA-DYYYY,
BEEN BURNED DOWN
is especially strange—oddly parsed and, especially at the very end, oddly grandiose. It’s strange at the level of meaning, too. Suggestive an image as it is, the town that has already been burned down never comes into focus for me—it’s an effective start but a mystifying end. This may just show how dense I am, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the other points I’ve made do the same thing. I do realize that Wainwright has far better pop song instincts that I could ever hope for, and probable better musical instincts across the board.
Still, that’s what I make of it. I’d love to hear about some alternatives.