For now, let's talk about something that's a little less bleak than Zuko's impotence, the hopelessness of war, and the way we are forced to empathize with characters, and then crushed when those characters are made to suffer.
Instead, let's talk about what a dick the lead singer of The Verve is:
My favorite part of that video is when he just sort of bowls that one woman over.
I saw this video a few years ago, and it always really stuck with me, despite how simple it is. I mean, when you get right down to it, it's just one long walk down a city street--kinda unremarkable, all things considered. It's practically a single shot, even, although they deliberately switch up the camera angle at key points.
But there's something so bizarrely random about the whole thing. For a song that for many is deeply poignant, this video of some asshole bumping into people must seem pretty bizarre.
The other day, though, I happened to hear this song on the radio, and I was telling my girlfriend about the bizarre video... and it hit me that maybe it wasn't so random after all.
Let's look at the lyrics, shall we?
'Cause it's a bittersweet symphony, this life
Try to make ends meet
You're a slave to money then you die
I'll take you down the only road I've ever been down
You know the one that takes you to the places
where all the veins meet yeah
So, alright, this is pretty fatalistic, right? You're born, you live, you die. There's no escaping the basic drudgery of existence. There's not a whole lot of sweet here, actually--it's all pretty bitter. Hm, and he's going to take us down the only road he's ever been down... which sounds like a solid enough metaphor, right? It's the path you walk in life--pretty standard stuff.
Then we get to the chorus:
No change, I can't change
I can't change, I can't change
But I'm here in my mold
I am here in my mold
But I'm a million different people
from one day to the next
I can't change my mold
No, no, no, no, no
There's some fun contradictions here, actually--he can be a million different people, but still can't change his mold. No matter what role you take on, you're still stuck as who you are. There's that fatalism again--you are who you are, then you die. What a drag.
Well I never pray
But tonight I'm on my knees yeah
I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me, yeah
I let the melody shine, let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now
But the airways are clean and there's nobody singing to me now
Or, as Morrisey would put it, burn down the disco, hang the blessed DJ, because the music that they constantly play says nothing to The Verve about the bittersweet symphony that's their life, right?
Hm, alright, so our singer is fatalistic, he's stuck in one role with nothing he can really do to change himself, he doesn't hear anyone around him addressing him--there's no one singing to him, basically...
In essence, he's walking down one path and refusing to deviate from it, because he feels there's no hope or point.
Wait a minute.
The video is just a literal interpretation of the metaphors from the song!
He's taking us, the viewer, down the only road he's ever been down, not deviating from his path, not changing what he's doing no matter who happens to be in his way. He is, in short, behaving like an absolute prick, but when you get right down to it, he's not contradicting anything in the song. In fact, he's literally adhering to what the song describes.
Could it be that the video is basically making fun of the song itself?
I mean, watch how the character mournfully declares his inability to change while barreling into people. It's just flat out absurd--all he has to do is move a few inches to one side to avoid a collision, but instead he simply walks along singing about how hopelessly predetermined and inescapable his path in life is. And, what's more, the lyrics often serve as a perfect ironic counterpoint to what's happening in the video. Check out the sequence again where he just sort of casually walks onto the hood of someone's car and then proceeds to walk on oblivious to the woman walking in front of him, screaming at him. You hear what he's saying?
"I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me."
Yeah, he's singing about not being able to hear things while ignoring the person yelling at him. That's just beautiful.
What's more, it's kind of a logical extension of the fatalism of the song. Fatalism is, let's be honest, kind of a juvenile philosophy. I'm sure you've heard teenagers groan about how they just don't have any choice in what they do, because it's just who they are, man. Hell, you've probably said that yourself a few times, right? Basically, this kind of fatalism can often be used as a license to be a jerk to people. That's basically what the video is driving at.
All this might seem pretty incredible. I mean, why would a band put out a song as poignant as Bittersweet Symphony only to make a totally ironic video that satirizes the song itself? Why would they undercut themselves that way?
Well, I think it seems a bit less strange when you consider some of the other bands from this period. Check out the video for Blur's Song 2, for example:
Now, I don't think there's any way around it: this video is hipster before hipster was a thing. So, it's double hipster, I guess. You've got a bunch of kinda dorky looking guys who are playing music that really can't be described as anything other than ironic. In fact, they're pretty clearly lampooning the hell out of the entire Grunge genre.
Compare that video to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit":
They're actually doing a lot of the same things--there's the dirty set, the writhing around, the emphasis on just totally dropping out of society... hell, just look at the lyrics side by side. Here's Nirvana:
With the lights out, it's less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
And here's Blur:
I got my head checked
By a jumbo jet
It wasn't easy
But nothing is
When I feel heavy-metal
And I'm pins and I'm needles
Well, I lie and I'm easy
All the time but I am never sure
Why I need you
Pleased to meet you
Blur's song is basically gibberish--it's totally meaningless, profound-sounding nonsense. And really, when you get right down to it, Nirvana isn't that far away from "Song 2" on the gibberish scale. Do you have any idea what that chorus is supposed to mean? Because I sure don't, and I'm the guy that reads T. S. Eliot poems for fun, for goodness sake.
But what I think is really interesting here is the purpose the gibberish has. For Nirvana, the gibberish is all part of a general sense of decay, corrosion, and nihilistic bleakness. Why make sense when, like, the world doesn't make sense, man? Blur is just taking that to its ultimate extreme and, simply by being who they are, showing how goofy the philosophy sounds when you're not Kurt Cobaine and can surround yourself with anarchy cheerleaders. Coming from a bunch of spectacle-wearing, skinny dorks, who are flying around and bouncing off the walls of the studio while paper plates and napkins fly around them... well, it just sounds ridiculous.
I think the funniest part of Blur's song is the repeated "It's not my problem!" What a great response to grunge in general. Can't understand what the lyrics mean? Not my problem! Can't even understand what words I'm mumbling? Also not my problem! Annoyed at how captivated I am by my own navel? It's not my problem! WOO-HOO!
These are only two bands, of course, but it really seems like irony was a staple rather than a weird deviation for brit pop artists--and some of the more forward thinking artists in other genres during this period as well. I've already talked about how Orgy managed to deconstruct two decade's worth of industrial videos with their video for Stitches.
But what I really like about Song 2 and Bittersweet Symphony is that the irony is genuinely funny. That's something I think a lot of people miss about irony, and it's part of why I'm getting more and more weary of people tossing the term Hipster around like it's some sort of critical argument in and of itself. I mean, I like the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit, but that thing is just begging to be lampooned, and Blur manages to pull it off simply through the ironic juxtaposition of Nirvana-like overblown, set-wrecking nihilism sung by guys that look kinda like the people I play Magic: The Gathering with.
The Verve, though, have the courage to take the irony and turn it back on their own damn song, undermining the poignancy of the lyrics quite literally every step of the way. And once you get the joke, it's hilarious stuff. I think that's why they would undercut their song that way--they realized how easy it is to take fatalism to a ridiculous extreme. Basically, they're self aware enough to make fun of themselves. That's something I think is worth respecting. It's not that they're afraid of being sincere--one criticism I sometimes see of this nebulously defined "hipsterism"--they just know not to be so deadly serious about their music. I'll take that kind of relaxed, self-effacing humor over Nietsche-wannabe posturing any day.
So, next time a video seems really random, listen to the lyrics and how they mesh up with the video, and keep in mind that what might seem totally straight forward could be the exact opposite of what you expect. Irony is a powerful tool. And, more importantly, it makes for some really funny videos.
Thanks for reading. We'll return to your scheduled Avatar: The Last Airbender analysis on Monday.
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