Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Bad news

This is the redonkulously musicological essay I warned you about some time back. I actually have time to post it now. If you get through this, treat yourself to a cookie:

Rilo Kiley's "Portions for Foxes" is incredible. it reminds me of Elvis Costello's "Allison" or maybe even the tender moments of Cheap Trick, the Cars and even the Go-Gos. But the bad girl Go-Gos when they were perfectly equal parts bad and good girls-- "Beauty and the Beat"-era. If Belinda Carlsile was the beat, Jane Weidlin would have to be the beat (even though she was the guitarist, not the drummer). To me, the dichotomy of the Go-Gos, but particularly of "Portions for Foxes," embody the duality independent women face their entire lives: are you the fair, innocent girl or do you just do what you want, when you feel like it? It's a simple matter of female superego and Id, really, but to me the absolute best music, the best art, ever created displays inner conflict. The Go-Gos had it with their band (just a tad) and sometimes it showed up a litle in their songs, as relatively few as they released for such a revered band. "Allison" seems to portray this dual female consciousness in a sing song, only Costello comes at it from a male point of view, trying to understand a woman's point of view. While this may seem clueless on his part, "Allison" presents a fresh pair of eyes. It's a starting point for many men (read: music geeks who overthink romantic relationships with women).

Now, I may be wrong, but I think "Portions for Foxes," Rilo Kiley's first single off of 2004's "More Adventurous," follows closely in this tradition. However, in this song, lead singer/lyricist/cutie pie Jenny Lewis airs out not only her dirty laundry, but her unmentionables as well. She's exceedingly vulnerable, yet spunky. Her vocal delivery is a dead giveaway of all this: a passionate song filled with feminine, but not shrinking and instead strong, emotional nakedness. It's like a female singing "Allison." Costello, after all, sings with a masculine, but still vulnerable, strength. It goes without saying, then, that traditional gender roles are blurred and even challenged a little bit here with songs like "Portions for Foxes."

The song in question has two particularly memorable verses and approximately three-and-a-half memorable moments. Starting with its more tangible properties, one verse goes: "There's blood in my mouth / 'Cause I've been biting my tounge all week / I keep on talking trash / But I never say anything." Right here an immeadiate, inter-couplet (that is, take the first two lines together and compare them to the last two lines together) contradiction is established. Lewis, assuming she's speaking of herself and not from someone else's point of view (I'll speak on the first- or third-person narration of the song later) has been a silent, obedient female for at least five to seven consecutive days, and no doubt longer than that, intermittently disbursed with moments of welled-up emotion or expression. No doubt, a "week" seems like years for her. Her spunk in her vocal delivery is palpable, and to hold such a force back would take considerable self-discipline. Here, subtextually, a narrative tension is established all with very few words spoken.

Second couplet: "I keep on talking trash," a more aggressive and arguably masculine trait, "but I never say anything." This line can be taken either as another contrast as to how she thinks on the inside and acts on the outside, of course, but there's a double (maybe triple or quadruple) entendre at work here. Maybe she does display these aggressive (read: for the purposes of this essay, "masculine") characteristics of her personality, she at a loss of how to focus it all. Maybe she "never say(s) anything" worthwhile. Maybe its not worthwhile in her mind. Maybe she's deluding herself. Maybe she has an inferiority complex, or maybe she's just a little insecure. There's no way to really know.

Analyze the preceding verse intra-couplet and its meaning becomes a bit clearer. The verse's first couplet shows causality (the word "because" being key here) whereas the verse's second couplet either (both?) subtle causality or blatant contradiction. Certainly, it keeps with Lewis' overall aesthetic and lyrical poise to side with the former and not the latter.

The song's other notable verse is: "...And the talking leads to touching / And the touching leads to sex / And then there is no mystery left." While there's certainly some unknown ether to be inferred between all of the "and"s (and not to mention the drift between "talking," "touching" and, finally, fucking) the final declarative statement of this verse isn't up for debate: There is no mystery left. The listener can only interpret one immutable thing about this regarding Ms. Lewis: sex is something that's very, very meaningful to her, as with most romantic types. It could also be drawn from this statement that actually consummating a relationship takes a lot, if most or all, of the fun (or mystery, same difference) from a relationship. To pull even further, the idealized abstraction of what lover John (or Jane) Doe truly is slowly but surely peeled away, unraveled into the imperfect being that, deep down, she knew (s)he was all along. "I do the same thing, I get lonely, too" is not just a lament of physical neglect (a masturbation reference?) or romantic loneliness (though there's a good chance it could be this, too), but new depth to "Portions for Foxes" is revealed when the listener realizes that Lewis' desperation in this song borders on an existential crisis-- a lament and contemplation on the existence of love and self; the ether between. Where do you stop and your lover begin? Lewis wants to know she's not alone in her disgusting betrayal of ideal, her own (and the partner's) ugly imperfections. She desperately wants to make sure its not just her.

The existential emptiness of the world answers nothing but the inverse of what her lover has no doubt told her: "It's not me, it's you."

A brief note on the song's title, which Ms. Lewis makes mention of in the song's bridge. "Portions for Foxes" is, possibly, what non-ideals or semi-ideals people settle for, are forced to settle for, in their everyday lives. If they're lucky, they grow to be happy with them (hence the "I don't care, I like you" at the end of the song)-- its the leftovers, the portions, from what was the main course everybody wants. "Bad news," which is repeated in the song at least 20 times (often times, Lewis says she is "bad news," doesn't necessarily mean Lewis is a bad girl, but that she has some bad news for her lover-- "bad news" over and over again; the betrayal of ideals. The bad news is about her, she is, therefore, a bad person for not living up to her lover's and her own expectations. This leads to self doubt, self deprecation and even self loathing. With this in mind, "portions for foxes" could also be a lamentation of the singer's, and/or the lover's, fragile mortality. Are we the foxes, or are the foxes our impending, inescapable doom?

To end, and on a lighter, non-lyrical note, the song's less tangible moments come in some typical "big rock," new wave sort of musical archetypes: big guitar hits, brief guitar melodies (hard to call them "solos," really) and your requisite key changes and intros/outros of rock music. "Portions for Foxes"'s special moment that qualifies as half a moment deserves attention. There's a moment about two minutes, 10 seconds into the song where she yelps two indecipherable syllables. Something like "cut it" or "come here." Even the most expert linguist could only decipher a sharp, cutting consonant, then a breathy vowel. This moment occurs, it should be noted, after another causality-obsessed verse: "When the lonliness leads me to bade dreams / And the bad dreams lead me to calling you / And I call you and say..." then the exclamation. "Cut it," or "cut it (out)" maybe, could be a rejection of her lover. However, that makes little sense due to the confessional, vulnerable context of the song so far. Its more likely Lewis means "come here." "I don't care, I like you," she says. "I like you." She "doesn't care" because of her reckless abandon of all ideal, her reckless compromise. She may as well be saying: "Oh Allison, my aim is true," or, "oh lover, how have I hurt you?"

The narration, and therefore framing, of the song's lyrical message is an entirely different matter. Like "Allison," its unclear (and this is perhaps purposefully so) whether the subject is the person singing (the songwriter talking to one's self) or the lover in question that's being discussed. In fact, to really mix things up, the singer might be singing from the perspective of his/her lover, as in the case of "Allison."

This begs the question(s): Whose doing who wrong? Whose doing the bad things and whose doing the good thing? Is anyone a saint here, or are they both unsavory characters? If so, whose really in control of the situation? Is this relationship about to fall apart or are they on the brink of salvaging it? The safest conclusion to draw, of course, is that both probably have a lot to answer for and maybe a lot to make up. Maybe they re-learn their ideals, and re-learn about themselves, through each other again like its the first time, through love. Maybe we do, too. Or maybe its this compromise with someone you love that ultimately kills us, and leaves our remains to the foxes. Maybe Lewis is really saying that we should never settle for anything less than perfection, lest we die without it-- or maybe she's saying that if you find something really great, try to be happy with that, too.

That's something to sing about.

I was going to say that I applaud you for getting all the way through this, but, really, I've read it so many times (and, hey, I wrote it) that now its just not that big a deal to me. If it seriously is to you, though, thanks a lot. I mean it. Really.


Blogger Matt Gilmour said...

I skimmed through it. It looked good to me, I just wanted to comment that that Rilo Kiley song is beautiful

5/31/2006 10:56 PM  
Blogger LinnTate said...

I was happy to read through the entire essay. It's thoughtful and well-written. Subjecting a single track to a careful meditation of this sort is a much more valuable means of approaching music than the volumes of snarks and name-dropping that characterize the overwhelming majority of online discourse. Personally, I tend to gravitate to writing on music that approaches the subject from a purely musical standpoint, so I appreciate being reminded of the value of what amounts to a close reading of a song.

In short, thanks for the good work.

And matt's right. It's a beautiful song.

6/01/2006 9:57 AM  
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7/21/2006 2:00 AM  
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7/22/2006 8:15 PM  

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