Sunday, October 13, 2013

SUNDAY SPECIAL: Second-hand tunes

I am going to get around to talking about football fandom in this post, eventually, but I am going to start (as I so often manage to do) by talking about being an English major.

In order to graduate in four years with my B.A. in English I needed to take at least two major-track classes every semester. In case I have never made this explicitly clear, I majored in English because I love literature and reading/thinking about/talking about the written word is something I do all the time anyway, and the course requirements for my degree simply gave that general propensity some structure. In many ways it seems like my academic career was the exact opposite of most of my friends, who tended to be government majors or biology majors or (ironically, considering my life today) computer science majors. For them, the classes in their major got progressively harder and harder every year, and by the time we were juniors and seniors they were taking mid-level English classes partly to satisfy the broad-based graduation requirements of a self-respecting liberal arts school and partly as a relaxing change of pace. Whereas I never particularly found 400 level English classes any more difficult than 100 level, and I was taking science classes as my non-major requirements and change of pace, and they would often as not kick my butt. Not that I felt entitled, then or now, to complain about this state of affairs, because I know on balance I got off fairly easy, especially when you factor in the credit I got senior year for my creative writing thesis which to this day seems like a fast one I pulled on the entire English department.

Anyway, at the thoroughly mature age of 18 (bwahaha) I weighed the pros and cons of being employable upon graduation with studying something that would be entertainingly engaging, and therefore wound up taking a multitude of ridiculous classes. In retrospect I sometimes think a very similar calculation was made by the English department chairs, in the sense that all departments need to justify their existence and the easiest way to do so is via enrollment up and down the course offerings, and since the English department wasn't going to woo anyone with promises of lucrative real world careers it might as well entice students with fun classes. So I spent an entire semester digging into fairy tales and folklore, and another semester on Arthurian legends. I took a class on modern literature, which was kind of like using tuition money to go browse the New Releases section at the bookstore. It wasn't all goofball stuff; I took a class on Chaucer, and one on American Lit for which I had to read Moby Dick (and by "had to" I mean "really thoroughly enjoyed").

But a lot of it was goofball stuff! Or at the very least, stuff with no bearing whatsoever on the real world I was allegedly being prepared for. I am of course being self-deprecating in the extreme while in truth I do earnestly believe that reading/analyzing/discussing literature teaches all kinds of valuable life skills (communication, critical thinking, empathy, and good doses of psychology, history, philosophy, &c.) But I'm aware of the scattered grains of truth in the mock-worthy archetypal English major, so when I'm working my way up to talking about the course I took on Restoration drama, I'm inclined to defensively take the first shots at myself.

So, yes, an entire semester studying what happened in England in 1660 when, after 18 years of all public stage performances being banned by the Puritan regime, King Charles re-opened the theaters and there was a vast outpouring of new plays which ranged from sincere treacle to hilariously filthy-minded satire. Most of the focus in the class was on what was or was not shocking back then, implicitly compared to the entertainment culture now (where now = 1995). It was good times. It also introduced me to John Gay's 1728 satirical ballad-drama The Beggar's Opera, which honestly I cannot believe I have never brought up around here over the past four-plus years. The Beggar's Opera (or at least the idea of it) is one of my favorite things in the world.

It's a musical which satirizes both the tropes and the subject matter of its contemporaries of the stage. Most operas of the time were about the cares and concerns of nobility and the upper classes, and their characters were all drawn from that stratum of society. The Beggar's Opera is about the thieves and whores living alongside yet beneath the notice of their social betters. I love (even as I cringe at) a good stick-it-to-The-Man story that lampoons first-world problems, but that's not my favorite thing about the Beggar's Opera. Because it's about poor people who are forced to make do with what they've got, it doesn't feature any original music. The lyrics are all by Gay, but set to tunes written by others, pilfering from a variety of sources: church hymns, folk songs, other operas, &c.

This is such an amazing concept I am continuously gob-struck by the fact that no one has made a modern attempt at something like it. The closest thing we have is the jukebox musical, which combines songs the audience already knows with a simple frame story (which, honestly, the audience already knows as well). Of course that ends up being a limitation where the creators have to either find a pre-existing song that fits the scene they're writing, or write a scene in a certain way to set up the pre-existing song. The Beggar's Opera sidesteps this by changing all the words to the song at will, if not setting words to music that never had lyrics to begin with.

But it's the swapping of one set of verses and choruses for another that really intrigues me. Because Gay chose the songs he used very deliberately for their own inherent satirical impact as well. Or so the professor taught us, and we took him at his word, because by and large it's all entirely out of our modern frame of reference. Gay was able to draw on the associations the audience would make with the music as counterpoint to the ideas his lyrics were expressing, e.g. a prostitute's lament set to the tune of a song about virtuous maidenhood. It would be as if a modern musical had a politician character break into song enumerating the planks his election platform, and the melody was the Oscar Mayer jingle. First the audience has the "hey, I know that song!" reaction, then they get the "heh, that's a ridiculous incongruity, a blowhard stuffed shirt singing the Oscar Mayer song" humor factor and then they get the "ahh, whatever the politician says, he's really just selling something, and also is a wiener" satire. Granted, this may all be happening only subconsciously in all but the most industrious overthinkers (hellooooo!), but it is happening.

And that's just such a great, nuanced, multi-layered way of communicating and entertaining. It's certainly not easy, to sustain the conceit at all through an entire show, let alone to do it really well. But of course I would love to see it done, at all. I'm well aware of the modern existence of parody songs, from the ouevre of Weird Al to the blunted political barbs of acts like the Capitol Steps, but in general I find those lack the same texture. With all due respect to Mr. Yankovic (seriously, he's a national treasure) there's almost no connection between "Beat It" and "Eat It" except that they rhyme, and yet are incongruous concepts. Which is sometimes all you need to be funny! But there's no intertextual dialogue, no meta-commenting on Michael Jackson or gang violence achieved by changing the words to address a picky eater, nor vice versa. It's just silly for silliness's sake, which again is fine. Just not what I'm talking about.

I can think of only one shining example of recent vintage in which a song was re-recorded with completely different words, and the choice of original song was bang-on perfect not just because it fit the meter or rhyme scheme but because of the tension in the interplay between old lyrics and new. Remember when I said I was going to bring this around to football? Congratulations, you made it! I am of course referring to NBC's theme song for NFL Sunday Night Football, "Waiting All Day For Sunday Night" which borrowed the instrumental tracks from Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself For Loving You".

The lyrics for "Waiting All Day For Sunday Night" are pretty terrible, but of course they are utterly superfluous. NBC decided its game-of-the-week broadcast needed an opening theme and so somebody crapped out some passable lines about how awesome football is in prime time. Honestly, I'm struggling to come up with another sentence with which to describe the song which isn't totally redundant. It's all about the broadcast of the game itself, it does what it says on the tin!

But the source material? I mean, yes, it's a killer riff, with that tough-but-not-too-tough edge that appeals to the masses of Americans the show is aimed at. And it was originally sung by a woman, which means having the new one sung by a woman is no stretch of cognitive dissonance, and that allows for some man-pandering eye candy in the opening as well. Still, is there any reason why they couldn't have taken the Blackhearts' arguably better known "I Love Rock-n-Roll" and changed it to "I Love Sunday Night" or something?

I would like to believe (and please, if anyone ever gets definitive proof that I am wrong, don't ever tell me about it) that whoever was tasked with putting together the Sunday Night Football theme chose "I Hate Myself For Loving You" very deliberately because it is a song about giving your heart to someone and having it broken by disappointment over and over again. It is a song about being let down and being self-loathing about it because you really should know better. And if there is a better way to describe the relationship that many NFL fans have with their sub-.500, never-contender teams, I have yet to stumble across it. This is of course especially poignant to me this season as the Giants are going from bad to worse to the root of all misery and suffering on Earth. But I noted the connection between the two contexts, the original song and the NFL's re-purposing of it, almost as soon as they rolled it out however many years ago. I thought it was GENIUS.

It took a few weeks this season before my wife and I actually made the effort to get the kids to bed on time and get ourselves onto the couch before Sunday Night Football. We finally did, though, and I got to see the newly revamped (pun intended) version, with Carrie Underwood singing "Waiting All Day For Sunday Night", taking over for Faith Hill. That in and of itself feels like a noteworthy passing of the generational torch; I think of Faith Hill as belonging to my cohort (she's older than me and broke big on the scene when I was in college) and Carrie Underwood (who's almost a decade younger than me) as obviously being owned by the American Idol generation, which is Not My Thing (man, I'm really slagging on the singing competition shows this month). But way, way more significant than which blonde pop-country starlet is singing the song is, of course, the song itself. AND THEY'VE CHANGED IT. THOSE FOOLS.

It's subtle, but it's unmistakable: "Waiting All Day For Sunday Night" is no longer sung to the tune of "I Hate Myself For Loving You". The guitars and drums haven't been tweaked very much, but the vocal melody is altered just enough to make it more of a rip-off analogue than a straight borrowing. I'm sure this has at least something to do with Carrie Underwood's artistic ego, and wanting to make her version of the song more hers (whatever that means) but the end result is that the connection between the two songs has been severed, at least as far as I'm concerned, and all the undercutting subtext is lost. Pity. The intro to televised national sports was a weird place for a successor to John Gay to be hiding out anyway, but the world's a poorer place without it.

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