VVP: Art 434 & Engl. 410
Friday, April 10, 2009
Losing Your Bearings
This past Tuesday, for his contribution to the song-of-the-day part of the class, Kevin showed us the video for the Alphabeat song "Fascination." Why? Because, he said, he liked the song. Good enough for me. The song contained all one can hope for in pop music: it was catchy, light, joyous beyond what the material would seem to warrant. This is what makes songs like this so much fun.
After Kevin played us the video, I played a couple of songs by the Beach Boys that were recorded during the rise and collapse of the SMiLE album. You can read the story here. In the first, unfinished version of "Wind Chimes" that we listened to, we could hear some of composer Brian Wilson's optimism, which came from enjoying an already successful career, a record company backing him after a hugely popular (and pretty strange, if you think about it) single, a rock press repeatedly proclaiming his genius, and a band waiting for its next recordings to inspire an even greater wave of fan adoration. This earlier version of "Wind Chimes," like "Good Vibrations," embodies a proto-hippie utopianism: The wind chimes and the wind and me, man, we're all part of the cosmic order. Heavy.
So when, after recording delays and interpersonal squabbling and record company hostility and nascent fan desertion and the press revoking its endorsement, and after one more Brian Wilson psychic collapse, the Beach Boys re-made "Wind Chimes," in this version, which we also listened to in class, the sound has changed: We now hear a person--and group of people--losing their bearings. It is for me the more interesting of the two recordings. There's more going on musically (listen to the amazing acapella ending!) and thematically: the song predicts and evokes the sinister underside of all that hippie utopianism, creepily expressed later in the decade in the movie Gimme Shelter. By losing his way, Brian Wilson temporarily gained a vision.
We'll read later in the semester Flannery O'Connor's persuasive claim that only by keeping your bearings can you truly see. And maybe this is the truer case for Brian Wilson, as well. Music, and not the stuff that came with it, was what rooted him. He had been singing with his brothers (future bandmates) and sister since they were children, with Mom and Dad at the piano, working out the harmonies of hymns and standards. After his world fell apart, he could still sing with his brothers (and cousin, also in the band). That's what makes this song more substantially hopeful than the earlier version: It charts in its trajectory a means of respite. After the unsettling harmonies and insistent organ and sound effects drop away, what's left is the sound of voices working, harmonically, together. For Wilson, after the darkness, he still could make something, and make it well, and within a community who loved making this thing with him.
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