Poptimists on Love

March 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

There’s an ironic term coined in the graphic novel series Phonogram with the first volume concerning Britpop called “poptimism”. The definition of such remains somewhat unresolved amongst the context of its usage in the graphic novel, but to say it relates to the term “rockism” is evident. In the absence of convincing, or satisfying pursuits of the spiritual, the religious, the communal or, for a lack of anything more convenient and universal, the masses can turn to pop music. Pop brings people together the way religion wishes it could, and once did. Pop, like religion has its denominations and variations, rock, hip-hop, dance, punk and a myriad of underground ‘cults’, and the disciples of each generally have no qualms about making disparaging comments about ‘the other’. At least this never starts a war–well maybe it does but a different sort. I suppose people like to emphasize and reassure themselves theirs is the correct choice to align with, by dichotomizing the whole matter. Hip-hop fans, please know that many of your favourite artists use samples from other genres, and everyone knows that Elvis, “The King” started with country and blues. This is well-known stuff and unlike most religions, committed Poptimists understand that no song is disconnected from everything that came before its birth. Basically, all religions are influenced and made in part from older ones. Blasphemy.

I believe in the effectiveness of a pop love song. It’s the perfect format for such an emotion, as most feelings of intense love (often mistaken lust) last only a bit longer than the duration of a pop song (maybe not so literally, but many have described how quickly it came about and how quickly it left—a blip). At least the songs can be replayed over and over for a lifetime, whereas you can pull out the stopwatch to see who can go the longest (insert joke here). A good pop song knows when to end or quietly fade out, unlike most love affairs. The love song condenses the best parts of love and amplifies them in the chorus and romanticizes the heartbreak, perhaps, in the verse. That isn’t the formula, by the way. There are four discernable types of love songs, as follows.

-The celebratory love song: characterized by unbridled confessions of how good it feels to be in love.

-The break-up song: describes how awful it feels to be apart, while the actual causes are often ambiguous, there is usually someone at fault.

-The love story song: explains in some kind of narrative the process of how love came to flourish between the individuals featured and sometimes includes the break-up, but it’s almost told like a moral tale.

-The unrequited love song: very often describes feelings of longing, misunderstanding and puts the subject of the song on a pedestal.

What is the appeal of a love song? I dare say that part of the appeal actually lies in the realm of one of the medium’s greatest criticisms: polish. I don’t mean production polish, as I feel that some of the best love songs are quite raw in terms of production, rather, polish as a coverall term for self-censorship and editing. With the exception of a few outstandingly good unpolished gems, most love songs are distilled to the extent of a kind of universality that makes them good contenders to be part of the cultural zeitgeist, in the way that a religious book might be. These songs balance specifics with vagueness to then be applicable to a large variety of people, classes and situations. Think back to a decade and review films involving relationships of love: how many of them use the same songs for completely different settings?

Perhaps a good concrete example is the popular tune “There She Goes” originally penned by The La’s Lee Mavers in 1988, re-released several times and subsequently covered by numerous groups to varying degrees of success. Off-hand I can think of several films over the years using either the original of one of the many covers, such as Disney’s revamp of the classic, The Parent Trap and The Boo Radleys’ version that opens the Mike Myers romantic comedy So I Married an Axe Murderer. By the way, I have memories of being in a Winners clothing department and hearing the Sixpence None The Richer version and being disgusted at the age of 10. The song itself is basically a bunch of choruses and a bridge, without a single verse, so what is usually a formula for a pop song of verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus or verse is changed. The function of a chorus is generally to be the climax of the song and the verse, as the set-up or building tension, the way “There She Goes” works is it is one big chiming climax, after climax, with the bridge acting as the settler and then building up into the chorus again. It’s kind of absurd. Sometimes, I love this song and other times I despise its repetitive nature, and as a fan of pop music, I am prone to like repetition, but this is an extreme example.

If we were to discuss the lyrical content of “There She Goes” it fits my prescription of vague with just enough details. We don’t know who “she” is, and we don’t know whom the person longing for her is, or where “she” is going. Some have even speculated that the lines about the feelings described in the song have to do with the personification of drugs—heroin. Even if they are, Mavers was smart enough not to say whom or what he was singing about, and that’s what makes a song applicable to virtually any situation and easily consumable. If Mavers had specified heroin, then the song would still be catchy, but it wouldn’t have made it into the zeitgeist of the 90s, and it wouldn’t have been featured in romantic comedies.

The unfortunate thing about The La’s is that as a result of the success of “There She Goes”, they were unable to escape the slot of one-hit wonder. A shame, given that The La’s wrote some pretty good songs like “Son of a Gun” that seems to be about the character from Run, Rabbit, Run by John Updike, here’s a live version of both songs.

The Boo Radleys version is a matter of taste, I think.

Horrendous cover by Sixpence None The Richer (embedding disabled by YouTube user): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pj3vXkhqszE

The Wombats version, benefitted by a banjo, but ruined by the singer’s obnoxious singing.


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