Tuesday, 25 October 2011

This can be solved only one way...Manson/Goulding rap battle!

I've been listening to a lot of music recently, thanks to my shiny Android phone, my shiny headphones, and my new habit of listening to music at work (thanks, co-workers with annoyingly loud headphones of their own). This has led me to discover quite a bit of new stuff, and it's also caused me to discover anew a principle that I already knew — namely, don't judge a book by its cover.

That's unnecessarily cryptic, so let me expand a bit. When you're looking around for music (and I'm thinking particularly of people buying music for others, maybe for kids), there's a great temptation to listen to a couple of tracks and get a quick impression based on those. That's not something I can really fault that much, as people are often rushed for time; that said, it can be a pretty bad idea, because what you see on the surface of a track is not what you see underneath. That point was driven home for me recently when listening to a couple of songs whose worth (or otherwise) is not necessarily apparent from a casual listen.

The first is Garbage's track "Sex Is Not The Enemy", off their 2005 album Bleed Like Me. Garbage are possibly the most adolescent band I can think of. I don't mean that in a bad way at all — their music certainly doesn't lack for either skill or sophistication. Rather, I mean that no other band I know can capture the feeling of what it's like to be about 16, knotted up with anger and anxiety and uncertainty, but also knowing that the entire world with all its potential is not far away from you. The energy of their songs, topped off by Shirley Manson's distinctive voice, means it's no surprise that they appeal to the young.

They probably don't appeal much to parents, though, given that Garbage's lyrics tend to be pretty unapologetic in their coverage of sex, violence and politics. And let's be fair, if you were a parent who had just heard their daughter listening to the song below (or worse, seen the video, what with Manson rolling around on a bed and getting her pixelated boobs out), there's a chance you wouldn't be overly happy about it.

Now, there's plenty to criticise about that song, and it would be pretty easy to take a message away from it of "have lots of sex all the time, right on!" But dismissing it entirely on that basis would be a big mistake. Let's have a closer look at some of the lyrics.
I don't feel guilty
No matter what they're telling me
I won't feel dirty and buy into their misery
I won't be shamed cause I believe that love is free
It fuels the heart and sex is not my enemy
Any song that is telling young women not to feel shamed, not to feel dirty, and not to let anyone else use their sexuality to make them miserable instantly puts it miles above a lot of the dreck that gets pumped out into the charts these days. And if you'd avoid the song because you're a Christian...take a look at the third verse.
True love is like gold
There's not enough to go around
But then there's God and doesn't God love everyone?
Give me a choice
Give me a chance to turn the key and find my voice
Sex is not the enemy
Yep, direct appeal to the universal and all-pervading love of God to argue against the horrendous Hollywood concept of "there's one person who is your perfect soulmate and you must search for them alone". The theology is possibly a mite dubious there, but those are still some pretty powerful and thoughtful lyrics. Not bad for a thrashy, provocative teenagers' song, eh?

Now let's go to the other end of the scale, where you might find someone like Ellie Goulding. I should probably mention that I quite like Goulding — she's got a great voice, and her fusion of folk, pop and electronica is pretty unusual and works really rather well. "Starry Eyed" and "Under The Sheets", in particular, are very good and well worth a listen. But then you have something like...well, this:

That's "The Writer", off Goulding's debut Lights. Our hypothetical parent is probably feeling pretty good about this one. It's a gentle, twinkly ballad, with some lovely imagery in a soaring chorus. Frankly, Goulding being an unthreatening, pretty young woman isn't going to hurt matters either. But once again, let's have a closer look at some of the lyrics.
You wait for a silence
I wait for a word
Lie next to your frame
Girl unobserved
You change your position
And you are changing me
Casting these shadows
Where they shouldn't be

We're interrupted by the heat of the sun
Trying to prevent what's already begun
You're just a body
I can smell your skin
And when I feel it, you're wearing thin
Nothing too strange there, right? I suppose there's a couple of slightly ominous hints — what is that's "already begun" that they're "trying to prevent"? What does it mean that he's "wearing thin"? Well, maybe we'll get some more out of the second verse.
Sat on your sofa...it's all broken springs
This isn't the place for those violin strings
I try out a smile and I aim it at you
You must have missed it
You always do
Well, that's even more ominous. In context, "violin strings" are probably a metaphor for romance, which apparently is lacking in this relationship. "You must have missed it / You always do" is more worrying, as that seems to imply that there's not a lot of warmth here; having to "try out a smile" doesn't sound good. This also puts a nasty spin on "girl unobserved" from the first verse — I don't think our unnamed dude is paying Ellie much attention at all, and things are slipping badly. So what's a girl to do in this situation? Hit us with the chorus, Ellie!
But I've got a plan
Why don't you be the artist; and make me out of clay?
Why don't you be the writer and decide the words I say?
Because I'd rather pretend
I'll still be there at the end
Only it's too hard to ask... won't you try to help me
Now, call me paranoid, but that sounds a lot — an awful lot — like Goulding's proposed solution is to allow herself to be changed entirely. The message, in brief, reads very much like "you don't love me any more, so I'm going to let you change me into someone that you do love". I may be misinterpreting it, but if that's the message I took away from it, it wouldn't surprise me if a bunch of Goulding's audience (many of whom will be teenage girls) did the same.

And that message, right there? That is poisonous. Yes, relationships involve give and take, and a certain amount of change on both sides is inevitable. But the idea of handing over complete control of one's character to another person, particularly when it's a girl suggesting this course of action, is worrying on a whole lot of levels. The icing on the horrible, horrible cake is the line "Because I'd rather pretend / I'll still be there at the end", suggesting that Goulding's character in the song is happy to just fake it, being in the relationship for the sake of it while she subsumes her own identity into that of her partner.

If it's a choice between young people listening to that, and having Shirley Manson declaim sexual liberation messages at them with a megaphone? Bring on the Garbage.

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