April 10, 2008

Noses Up: Long Songs and Ivy League Rock Stars

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Death Cab For Cutie recently released the first single of off their new album, Narrow Stairs, and the song, predictably titled “I Will Possess Your Heart,” is a pretty normal pop hit in every way but one — lead singer Ben Gibbard begins the first verse over four minutes into the song (which stretches out to a whopping eight and a half minutes). The music builds slowly, with vibraphones and a meditative bass-and-drums cycle, in a gloriously self-indulgent fashion. Gibbard’s lyrics are a little melodramatic, as the title suggests, but in the end they are swallowed by the wash of orchestrated drama.
At first I was surprised by the idea that this band, known for innocent three-minute gems, would release such an epic piece. In light of recent trends though, including Sufjan Steven’s orchestral dabbling and the ambitious projects of Joanna Newsom and the Decemberists, this large scale drama is perhaps becoming the norm.
The inclusion of instruments normally associated with classical music and the extreme length of tracks are only two in a larger group of markers of ambition and intellect that seem to be increasingly popular in recent pop music. Under this umbrella are also Vampire Weekend’s Ivy League sweaters and Columbia University degrees, Modest Mouse’s rants about Bukowski and Girl Talk’s nearly encyclopedic knowledge of pop music history. True, these groups don’t mess with orchestras and epic song lengths (though Vampire Weekend did have a string quartet on Saturday Night Live), but they still have these markers of intelligence, brains, intellect, etc., or, depending how you look at it, markers of elitism and pretension. I would even say this trend goes beyond the mid-level indie rock bands I’ve been mentioning — VH1 keeps putting string sections behind big name bands in order to “class it up” on specials and award shows.
It is also not a totally new phenomenon. Metallica dabbled with symphonies, Rage Against the Machine referenced tricky political topics and, even farther back, the Beatles were seeing how far they could push impenetrable lyrics. Perhaps now we are just seeing a self-conscious resurgence of what has been coursing through pop and rock music all along.
This trend is, of course, the foil to the old rock ‘n’ roll cliché of grungy, traveling rock stars who definitely did not get a B.A. at Columbia. Crystallized in image by the Rolling Stones and 1980s hair metal, these bands could care less about intellect. The emphasis was on doing, or acting out, rock ‘n’ roll, and thinking about the music was hardly a concern.
The importance of fast, impressive riffs, hasty costumes made-up of leather and ripped shirts and the image attached to not knowing whose floor one was going to sleep on all coalesced in the focus on doing over thinking, rocking over orchestrating.
These two visions of popular music create an interesting tension, as rock ‘n’ roll is still arguably, at its heart, simplistic. So many songs still have only a few chords, regardless of how many violinists and harpists you include, and the music still happens (mostly) in the dingy clubs and alcohol-induced reverie totally foreign to Mozart and Beethoven. The best example of this may have been when Joanna Newsom performed with a major symphony and was not allowed to drink a bottle of Jack Daniels onstage. It is hard to know whether or not the performance lacked a certain excitement with a totally sober Newsom (who always loosens up with liquor at a performance), but I’m guessing that the possibility was totally lost on the organizers, who saw drinking onstage as unbecoming of a “serious musician.”
Perhaps the divide is not so strict. Beethoven was famously an alcoholic, Liszt had a reputation for a piano prowess that preceded guitar heroes like Hendrix and the famous film Amadeus, regardless of its fidelity to the actual Mozart, portrays the composer of serious music as anything but serious.
Classical influences in rock music are even less of a new thing. The Beatles and countless other bands throughout history have dabbled with bits and pieces of classical music, and the sometimes-fun-and-sometimes-awful String Quartet Tributes to famous bands suggest even more cross-pollination.
The question is not so much about how these musicians live (or whether they read dense books), but rather about how they appear to the public. This becomes especially clear when we wonder who writes those String Quartet arrangements if not Kanye himself.
I think that artists like Newsom and Stevens are the bridges that remind us that these two worlds, of noses held high and noses to the rock ‘n’ roll grindstone, are not only compatible, but deeply connected.