For the final four, we've invited guest analysts Pam Houston and Rick Moody to give us their expert opinions on the songs in the Final Four and their sadnesses below, following the songs.
First, the game polls (you may also vote via @angermonsoon's Twitter feed). Games are decided by the aggregate scores of both Twitter and blog polls, cast by 9am Tuesday.
Final Four Game 1:
Tracy Chapman vs Joy Division
Final Four Game 2:
Jeff Buckley vs The Cure
Trouble voting? Click here to vote directly.
Songs & expert analysis below.
Trouble voting? Click here to vote directly.
Songs & expert analysis below.
(7) Tracy Chapman, "Fast Car" • Elite 8 • Sweet 16 • 2nd round • 1st round
(1) Joy Division, "Atmosphere" • Elite 8 • Sweet 16 • 2nd round • 1st round
(2) Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujah" • Elite 8 • Sweet 16 • 2d round • 1st round
(1) Cure, "Pictures of You" • Elite 8 • Sweet 16 • 2nd round • 1st round
Voting on both Final Four games ends Tuesday, 3/28 at 9am.
The Championship begins Wednesday, 3/29 at 9am.
(1) Joy Division, "Atmosphere"
(7) Tracy Chapman, "Fast Car"
(2) Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujah"
(1) The Cure, "Pictures of You"
FINAL FOUR ANALYSIS: PAM HOUSTON
FINAL FOUR ANALYSIS: PAM HOUSTON
For a person who was not, in fact, a teenager in the mid 80’s, but a river-guiding, hunting-guiding twenty-something year old who did whatever she could to spend weeks and months in places so remote you couldn’t even get AM, Robert Smith’s eyeliner alone suggests that his gesture at sadness in "Pictures Of You" can’t possibly be more than that. Which is to say nothing of the highly processed guitar. That tinny mechanized effect that puts every measure of the song in the same emotional register suggests many things: slickness, disaffection—irony, certainly—but not sadness. The entire song doesn’t evoke even as much sadness as Buckley’s unhurried, subtle and expressive guitar intro on "Hallelujah"—those several measures of guitar—should Cure fans be willing to sit through them—evoke more real emotion of many kinds than anything in "Pictures of You."
I want to be clear that I like The Cure, and I enjoyed dancing to them in that thrashing straight-limbed Linus and Lucy way we all danced in the mid 80’s. But Buckley’s "Hallelujah", the second-best version of that song in existence (Cohen’s own version edging it out only slightly), rises and falls and swells into sadness, and then falls back again, while The Cure hits a predictable chord progression and stays with it without variation. To compare the lyrics of the two songs seems almost cruel, since the Cure song’s one notable turn of phrase—you were bigger and brighter and wider than snow—is buried in a stanza that is so syntactically inelegant, I am still recovering from the line "As I ran to your heart to be near" when I get to it, and almost miss it. Compare that to "I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch and love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah."
I understand all too well how, for the disaffected, these lyrics seem over the top. Absurd in their grandiosity and sentimentality. And if you don’t like those, you really won’t like "I remember when I moved in you and the holy dove was moving too and every breath we drew was hallelujah." Those lyrics aren’t just sad, they’re sexy, because there is little in the world sexier than a writer who can appear to get sex and God and brokenness and power all mixed up together while remaining completely in control of each line. Every line of the Cohen song is filled with complexity of human nature, how love is about being broken, how brokenness creates the conditions for love and how love’s inevitable failure can do nothing but break a person further, while the Cure song is about looking at a girl’s picture and feeling bad. Buckley’s voice tone is perfect (though so is Cohen’s, in a much different way); he doesn’t try to make the song into anything, because the song is already everything, and he knows it.
When I heard that "Fast Car" had made it into the Final Four I thought, “Oh no!” because while I knew I could to listen to it, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to actually hear it given how many times I have heard it in the produce section of the Whole Foods, or the elevator at the gynecologist’s on the way to a pap smear, or in the waiting room of the DMV. But when I tried to put all of that out of my mind and focus on the song, the lyrics, the voice tone, I thought, “Hey, this really is sad,” if a bit obvious, if a bit unsubtle, if a bit simplified. What I like best about the song is its narrative impulses, the story it tells in only a few short stanzas. Here the dream is to move out of the shelter and into the suburbs, where the women shoulder the entire economic burden and the drunken men spend more time with their friends then they do with their children, and the only potential way out—the Fast Car of the comparatively upbeat chorus is revealed as illusion before we have even had a chance to believe in it. "Fast Car" is about America, and I think we can all agree that in March 2016, America is one of the sadder places there has ever been.
Suicide is also sad, there is no question about it. And had I been present to the music scene at the time Ian Curtis killed himself, the context of the song might overwhelm me to the point that would make me think the song itself was sad. But I wasn’t, and with all due respect—and I mean this—it is sad to lose someone you love even when you love them at the distance of celebrity—to those who were crushed when Curtis took his own life, I have to say I find nothing sad about the song itself. The lyrics are filled with more abstractions than an undergraduate poetry workshop, and we are back to the relentlessly repetitive and often generic chord progressions that make the 80’s the 80’s, the appeal of which those of us from the 60’s and 70’s never quite understood.
Jeff Buckley, of course, is dead too, by drowning, which makes holding the album cover in one's hands sadder than if we were still alive, but I am not sure it makes the song any sadder. What makes a thing truly sad (or fill in any emotion here) for me, are specifics. The kitchen chair, the baffled king, the minor fall and the major lift, Gabriel himself. What inhibits emotion is abstraction: Your confusion, my illusion, worn like a mask of self-hate. Those words create no feeling in me whatsoever: no images, and therefore no feeling.
Though word on the street is that "Atmosphere" will likely take the tournament, it will win because it reminds us of sad circumstance, and not, because it is, in fact, a sad song.
Pam Houston’s most recent book is Contents May Have Shifted, published by W.W. Norton in 2012. She is also the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, the novel, Sight Hound, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton. Her stories have been selected for volumes of Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The 2013 Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century. She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA award for contemporary fiction, The Evil Companions Literary Award and multiple teaching awards. She directs the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers, is professor of English at UC Davis, teaches in The Institute of American Indian Art’s Low-Rez MFA program, and at writer’s conferences around the country and the world. She lives on a ranch at 9,000 feet in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.
FINAL FOUR ANALYSIS: RICK MOODY
Why do we love the dead guys? And their unfulfilled promise?
In a way you should love anyone but the dead guys, because the ones who stay alive, who continue with the work, there’s something more generous about them. They get on with it, they are dependable, they show up for their families and friends, they send thank you notes and remember birthdays, they go to little league games, or dance recitals.
But the dead guys and all the wreckage they leave behind are somehow alluring; somehow their siren song calls, and the plangent melody of it is very difficult to repel. Often we listen whether it’s the best thing for us or not.
Here you have two examples, each with his particular way of making an exit.
Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, hanged himself, with the band at the acme of its career, on the eve of an American tour, possibly because of difficulties in his marriage, but also because playing live was becoming increasing strenuous, by reason of his seizures. Saying that he suffered from depression, saying that depression caused his self-slaughter, is sort of like saying that an earthquake is cataclysmic, or genocide is traumatic. It may be accurate, but the language renders the impression inert.
Jeff Buckley may have died accidentally, going for a swim in the Mississippi, and everyone will say that it was simply an accidental drowning, but the circumstances were not so tidy as to suggest that it was entirely accidental, and a deep reading of the life of the singer inevitably suggests more tonal colors than those suggested simply by the accidental. Additionally, Jeff Buckley is the son of a dead guy, the singer Tim Buckley, another example of promise unfulfilled, and so Jeff Buckley is a dead guy legacy, a second generation dead guy, whose death seems mandated by the work of fate.
The tendency in this situation is to want to read the work, the songs, as though the songs are premonitory, or as though the songs comment on the autobiographical narratives of the singers. In the cultural expanses of the world, this is a frequent tendency. “Riders On the Storm” somehow looks like Jim Morrison knew about his death; “All Apologies” somehow looks like Kurt Cobain knew about his death; Oblivion, by my colleague David Foster Wallace, seemed haunted by foreknowledge; all of those late paintings by Mark Rothko; Richard Farina’s novel is haunted; “Blues Run the Game” seems to prefigure another thirty or forty years of Jackson C. Frank’s life, “Stuck Inside a Cloud,” by George Harrison seems to describe his lung cancer from years before it felled him, “If Six Was Nine,” by Jimi Hendrix, actually contains that spoken section in the middle: “I’m the one who’s gonna have to die when it’s my time to die, so let me live my life, the . . . way . . . I . . . want . . . to,” and there is the recent example of David Bowie’s “Lazarus,” and on and on.
This interpretive action—in which the life is read backward as an effect of the artwork is natural, or, at least, it must be judged natural by virtue of its frequency, and is part of human consciousness as it attempts to reckon with art, as it tries to make art lasting and meaningful. By why always with the sad songs? Why always so sad? Why isn’t “Happy” by Pharrell Williams so premonitory, so luminously predictive in the same way?
In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud tries to boil the two titular conditions down to a single description, and it looks like this: “Reality-testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that libido shall be withdrawn from its attachment to that object. This demand arouses understandable opposition.” So much awareness, so much sensation, so much drama flows from this simple condition that Freud describes. You have only, for example, to watch a couple of videos of Ian Curtis performing (there’s a very moving and challenging live performance of “She’s Lost Control” on YouTube) to find the telltale signs of this very real ache. Watch Ian Curtis dance. It’s the mourning that is at the very heart of being. In this way loss and mourning are at the advent of understanding that self is different from, e.g., one’s mother.
And perhaps what is at stake then is that the elucidation of mourning and melancholia, the capturing of it in song, or in some other artistic medium, somehow enables an audience to complete its own separation from the lost beloved thing. Maybe the condition of being estranged from the “loved object” is best purged by the explication of it in artistic products. Loss calls to loss, grief calls to grief, across expanses of time and space, and finds its audience, finds its welcoming committee. The arrow hits the target, and the audience calls out its hallelujahs. The maker of the art, who after all is only expressing a feeling, somehow cannot appreciate how clearly he or she has hit the bullseye, and the redemption can take generations, and thus the martyrdom of the maker of the work, the sacrifice, is required for the interpretation to be complete.
Milton’s “Lycidas” immortalizes this, from the mourner’s perspective:
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his wat'ry bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.
And Shelley’s “Adonais,” which memorializes Keats' death, so similar to Jeff Buckley’s, takes up the same strain:
I weep for Adonais—he is dead!
Oh, weep for Adonais! though our tears
Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!
And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years
To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers,
And teach them thine own sorrow, say: "With me
Died Adonais; till the Future dares
Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light unto eternity!"
The melodious tear is that very sound: loss calling unto loss, of grief calling unto grief.
When I was an undergraduate, I knew a guy, I think he was a med student, who took up with a young and ambitious and attractive gay man who was studying in the sort of art/film/semiotics ghetto where a lot of my friends were knights of higher education, and these two, the med student and the painter/filmmaker guy, were lovers for a year or so. Then the med student, who by then was painting mainly, did the unthinkable. He went back over the fence, and took up with a woman. It would have been, in those days, politically incorrect, but he seemed happy, having gone back over the fence, and who was going to talk him out of being happy. Life went on for some months, and we argued about Mao and Derrida and Bakhtin, but then the med student, now a painter, went missing, just went missing, and soon it appeared that the most dreadful thing had happened, that he had been murdered, in a park, late at night, not far from campus, a location known for gay cruising. I mean exactly what it appears I mean: O weep, for he is dead.
This was about the time that I would have been listening to Joy Division, and the very first singles of New Order. I remember Ian Curtis’s death, which happened at the exact moment that I became aware of “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the single that cemented the gravity and importance of Joy Division. I didn’t get the song at first. The kind of peppy synth melody that drove it didn’t make sense to me, or rather the mismatch of stridently sad lyrics and uptempo music somehow didn’t call to that feeling. But the b side of the single “These Days,” with the weird synth phasing thing that runs throughout, did it, and that led to “Decades,” the last song from Closer, which became sort of an anthem.
The death of my friend in the last semester of my college years became the end of college, the end of college was the end of my friend, and the collapse was located in the fact that the story was never followed by some idea of justice. My idea of justice was that justice was a thing that never quite came to pass (“Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders”), never quite delivered its goods and services. Justice was where there was no real causal link between events and events that came after. The incredible resignation of “Decades,” which is very like the loss and resignation of “Atmosphere,” dirge, threnody, drone, was like the abjection of grief and the end of undergraduate years. We wept for the guy, our friend, and the weeping didn’t palliate, and there was nothing to express to his family, except that he had been loved once, and there were things in life that were inexplicable. Another guy, known to all of us, become psychotic, and moved into deeper and deeper stages of privation, until he was living on the street.
To me, there is no music sadder than Joy Division, and even when the music is angry or occasionally kind of loud and fast, it doesn’t disguise that the basic orientation of the songs is to express that the relationships of daily life are power relationships in which disaffiliation and rejection are the inevitable outcome, in which every daily interaction has the risk of rejection and isolation liminal within it.
However poetical and Keatsian Jeff Buckley’s death is, it’s an unavoidable fact that “Hallelujah” was written by someone else, and that someone else, at this point, is a man in his eighties, of remarkable constitution and wit and unparalleled self-definition, whose unmatched songbook is not simply about loss and grief, but about a whole gradient of feelings and perceptions that skitter across loss and grief, a gradient of feelings in which there is laughter, joy, serenity, and transcendence. “Hallelujah” is such a great song, and so often interpreted (for good or ill) that even the author of the song has called for a moratorium on new recordings, lest its power should be fully depleted.
Incredibly, Buckley’s interpretation does nothing to diminish the song. In fact, his incredibly naked recording, which consists entirely of guitar and voice, is an able, free, and ambitious recasting of the song. The vocal rises through a whispered understated performance to something much more majestic and powerful. Considering that Leonard Cohen’s voice is nothing to write home about, technically speaking, Buckley somehow manages to find an opportunity in what is frankly a masterpiece, a song that any songwriter would wish to have composed, and that opportunity has to do with sheer interpretive capability. Buckley was a great singer. He was not as singular and idiosyncratic as his dad was (listen to Starsailor, if you have not), or perhaps not as willing to go out on a limb, but he was a very powerful and moving singer. You can ogle a hundred singers on any of those televised singing contests, and not hear one of them, not even one, sing a syllable with the poise and emotive power of Jeff Buckley.
But he didn’t write the song. Which means that “Hallelujah” is more about his considerable gift for selling the composition, than it is about self-expression. Interpretive singing is about being the audience and the composer at the same moment, it’s about trying to inhabit, perform the composition, but from a distance in which one first knows the song as a listener (as a mourner, in search of articulations of mourning). The lasting effect of Grace, therefore, so many years after its release, is in part not about the singer-songwriter model, the confessional model of music, but about the performative model of music. As such, the sadness of the album, an album which is not so sad as it is about desire, is about Jeff Buckley’s death, and if there’s a premonitory aspect to the album, it has to do with its coincidental preoccupation with images of the hereafter in the title song and “Hallelujah.” To think of “Hallelujah,” that is, as willfully about sadness and death in the same way as “Atmosphere,” or, indeed, any song by Joy Division is to confuse historical moments, is to put the cart several horse lengths ahead of the horse.
In summary, we love the dead guys, for the same disturbing reason that we love the dead girls, and that is that the living breathing person, the guy who is incredibly complex, who remembers the birthdays, and goes to the dance recitals, but who drives like an asshole sometimes, or who is just incredibly awkward in some social situations, this guy gets in the way of our own articulation of loss, in song, and novel, and painting, and film, because he’s not dead yet. And it’s awful that in some cases we need our artists to be dead, when to have them around would be so much better. I feel that way about them now, almost every day, that I would rather have them around, and maybe in that we can let the songs loose to tell their one emblematic story.
Rick Moody's most recent novel is Hotels of North America. He writes about music at The Rumpus.*
Now you decide.