For one reason and another I've been pondering crowds quite a bit over the last week or so. I'm fascinated, actually, by the dynamic, present in various art forms, where a crowd is used not as a symbol of accompaniment but of isolation. Like, check out Will Eisner's iconic cover for his graphic novel Invisible People:
I love everything about this cover. The stark lights and darks, the way everyone is turned away from you... it's a perfect indicator of the isolation and inhumanity present through the rest of the comic.
This is nothing new, of course, but when it's done well it can be a quite powerful effect. In particular, if you can convey the sensation of being a part of a crowd and isolated, rather than simply talking about the sensation of being alone in the crowd... well, that's a powerful effect.
It's hardest to pull off, I think, in music. Oh, it's easy to convey the sensation of being in a crowd--we have a long history of live recordings that are specifically designed to put you in the audience. In rock music, in particular, the goal is to capture the sensation of being in that mass of humanity, galvanized by the performance on the stage.
So how do you take those techniques and use them to make the individual listener feel isolated somehow?
Let's dig into that question and look at the way the roar of the crowd adds to a song's atmosphere and message.
Strapping Young Lad--Hope
Let's start heavy.
Strapping Young Lad's "Hope" only uses the sound of the crowd briefly at the beginning, but the use of the crowd sets the tone for the rest of the song's content. In fact, this is a song where the sonic qualities are far more important to its overall effects than the fairly simple lyrics.
The two things the song hinges upon are that crowd roar at the beginning accompanied by that opening riff, and the long section in the middle of the song of just relentless, repetitive grinding. This is a song of palpable rage and bitterness, and the roar of the crowd highlights that bitterness by highlighting the alienation from that crowd.
The constant binary set up in the song is one of the singer (Devin Townsend, of Ziltoid fame) from an unspecified "you," although the crowd sounds at the beginning suggest that the "you" is meant to be the crowd itself. It's certainly in keeping with other songs on the album--most notably "You Suck," an energetic and catchy song all about, surprisingly, how much you suck (and also how much your band sucks, your girlfriend sucks, SYL sucks, and just about everything else sucks).
There's a kind of all-encompassing fury here at the plight of the speaker, who seems to be at once caged and omnipresent, a thing of compressed, diamond-hard anger. "I am what I am," he screams, "because I have no hope, no faith in your hope!" It's a weird thing to sing after the opening. It feels like a song about isolation, but it's juxtaposed with the crowd noises and the melodic intro that sounds like it was custom made for live shows. The scene seems to be one of a band telling its audience to its face how revolting it is.
There's a real antipathy here. And that antipathy emerges in the grinding midsection of the song. This bit goes on for far too long. It's repetitive, sonically torturous, a musical equivalent of a repetitive stress injury. It's perfect. Like the long outro for The Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" it goes on for an agonizing time frame, abusing its audience, pushing the listener to the breaking point.
The combination of this sensation, completed with the disorderly conclusion of the song juxtaposed with the the earlier crowd-pleasing, singalong melody bits, creates a sense of alienation between band and audience, a codependent, destructive relationship that, paradoxically, you have to be invested in--you have to perceive yourself as fitting somewhere in the dynamic between crowd and band--in order for the song to have the greatest impact.
The sound of the crowd is the vehicle for finding yourself somewhere in the song's logic, precisely so that you can find yourself pushed away by it once more, and away from other humans as well.
The crowd flows throughout "Human" as a kind of backing drone. It is a muted roar, accompanied by muted humming tones that carry the whole piece. The effect is one of constant accompaniment.
This accompaniment has the effect, though, of emphasizing the overriding sense of desolation and emptiness in the song. The constant refrain in the song, the recurring question, is who will fix you when you're broken, who will catch you when you fall?
The oncoming personal crisis is inevitable, a given in the logic of the lyrics. It's not a matter of "if" you fall but "when"--that word choice seems very deliberate. And it's described in universal terms--we're only human, the singer whispers, we're all only human. The crowd responds, bringing to the fore the notion of that unity, the shared experience of isolation.
But to share isolation is a paradox, just like the paradox in "Hope" of being pulled into the dynamic of the song only to be rebuffed. It is to know that others feel what you feel but to find no comfort or consolation in it. There is no answer to the question posed by the song. No one steps forward, offering to mend your broken heart. There is only the acknowledgment of that experience of collapse.
Against this lyrical backdrop, the crowd emphasizes not the unity between singer, crowd, and individual, but the isolation between the three members of the trinity. This divide is most apparent halfway through the song, as the singer melodically moans, drawing the last word out at length: "Say goodbye, human." As her voice fades, you are left hearing only the muted hum of the crowd. The rhetorical "you" of the earlier lines has been, by the admonition to say goodbye, transformed to a very personal, and more than a little threatening, "you." By rhetorical I mean that replacing the "you" of the first few lines with "one"--i.e. who's gonna catch one when one falls--makes for... well admittedly an extremely awkward sentence, for sure. But it still makes sense as a thing to say as an abstract consideration of the human condition.
But there's no way to transform the imperative language of that last line into an abstraction. It is directed at the individual listener. The creepiness of that line is emphasized by the slightly metallic, inhuman sound of the vocals. Collide's music is often on the verge of the inhuman, filtered, manipulated, and sometimes overwhelmed by digital stylings. It is music that seems to be on the threshold of a radical break with the biological. In the context of "Human," that break feels deeply alienating, because it suggests that you have been abandoned not just in personal life but in the course of human evolution.
You are "only human."
And you have been left behind.
Pink Floyd--In the Flesh
Really two songs, "In the Flesh" is the logical predecessor to both the previous examples. For Collide, the influence is tangible in their other homages to Pink Floyd's work (covers of "Breathe" and "Comfortably Numb," references in song titles like "Tongue Tied and Twisted"); for SYL the shared preoccupations are obvious. The same antipathy for the audience that drives "Hope" drives these songs. For Pink Floyd, however, there's a deeper political and philosophical statement being made about rock music itself.
"In the Flesh" roughly bookends the narrative of Pink Floyd's ambitious concept album The Wall. The first version introduces the central conceit of the album (and film). The story is of the rockstar Pink, and the album follows his slow descent into alienation from his audience and everyone else around him. Ultimately, this dramatic pulling away from humanity results in him adopting a sociopathic, fascist fantasy persona--the disguise that the audience must claw through if they want to find the genuine, wounded individual locked beneath a mask of authoritarian posturing.
The second version of the song represents the emergence of this new persona and the beginning of the violence the newly minted Hammer Army--his fans, now reenvisioned as a mob of violent authoritarian thugs--all too eagerly unleashes upon the world. The use of the roar of the crowd here is obvious. It is at once galvanizing and repulsive, echoing some of the latent contempt of SYL but still drawing the listener in via the draw of the roaring mass of humanity. It is all too easy--especially after an album's worth of misery for the lead character--to find the omnicidal rage on display here darkly alluring, even while being repelled by the fascist message.
And that's largely the point of the song and the point of the album. It's widely accepted that certain works can deconstruct the genre of which they are a part, exposing its dark underbelly and taking the logic of the genre to horrifying conclusions. The Wall is, among other things, a deconstruction of the entire rock genre, exposing the way in which the roar of the crowd and the charismatic figure of the rock star can combine to form a noxious, authoritarian dynamic.
The song must be engaging in its overblown theatricality for it to work. We might compare it to, say, "Be Prepared:"
I mean, I'm sure I'm going to horrify both Disney and Pink Floyd fans with this comparison, but I think it's important to recognize that both songs only function because they're at once horrifying in their violence and compelling in their actual musicality. They must be engaging for their threat to seem real, for the draw of the despot to seem believable.
And that's the fascinating line that the use of the roar of the crowd in the beginning of "In the Flesh" walks. The song invites us at once to feel the alienation that drives Pink's tortured psyche, the internal revolt against the logic of the crowd, and the draw of that roar, the seductive sensation of being swept away by something vaster than oneself. By using the same sounds as live concert recordings (not to mention actual live concerts!) Pink Floyd here deconstructs the entire scene, exposing the dark potentiality within.
Each of these pieces, then, makes use of the roar of the crowd in subtly different ways, but each uses the sound to highlight gaps of association between individuals and masses. None of them are particularly optimistic about the ways in which those gaps might be filled--one fills the gap with rage, another simply languishes in despair, and the last fills the void with a destructive, self-absorbed fantasy of autocratic power. Oh well. Not all narratives have happy endings, and this is just as true of music as any other medium.
But what these examples demonstrate is that any effect that can be introduced into a medium or genre can be modulated and manipulated by the savvy artist, precisely because these effects gain particular connotations that can be, with some work, upset and even reversed completely. When these games of reversal and overthrown expectations are played well, the results are deeply engaging.
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