Shklovsky, Digression and Coin-Operated Boy - Continuation

Last month I gave a rather dense paper called 'Enstrangement and the Narrative Frame', about, loosely, the shared nature of musical and literary digression, and how the theories of Viktor Shklovsky - the same thinker who inspired Everything in Life Can Be Montaged - helps us to understand this. A pdf of the full paper can be downloaded from the sidebar. Part of it, however, is about popular music, and works better with video, so I thought I'd put that up here directly.

This is sort of in the middle of the paper, but I'm basically trying to demonstrate how music takes on aspects of Narrative at moments where an established frame of musical behaviour is broken by something else - a digression.

The interaction between musical and textual structure in popular music also provides a rich vein of narrative tension that can be interpreted through Shklovskian tools. A broad attempt to apply narrative analysis to 70s and 80s pop song is found in a 2007 article by David Nicholls, and this provides both interesting examples and a helpful taxonomy of text/music narrative inter-relation, without any specific focus on digression. He identifies 5 basic levels of relationship . The first of these is one where neither music nor lyrics have an overall narrative trajectory, and the next where the lyrics articulate a narrative but it isn’t supported by the music. More relevant to the argument here are the other three types. Type ‘3’ is where lyrics and music share the same narrative structure, where specific types of story-telling are supported by musical means. He, in particular, identifies a shift in tense between verse and chorus in Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights with a shift from A to G flat major and back again.

Type ‘4’ relationships are those where musical and lyrical structures work against each other – Nicholls cites The Beatles Norwegian Wood, where a linear story is contradicted by a palindromic musical structure, and narrative suspended by the use of instrumental verses. Type ‘5’ is where the narrative relationship becomes hyper-textual, and expressed through a range of media. For Nicholls, this is found particularly in the programmatic concept album, and he explores this in relation to The Who’s Quadrophenia and Genesis’s The Lamb Lays Down On Broadway. Here he discusses the wide range of materials – including stories and photographs – that were part of the original albums, and how they contribute to the larger narratives that are told by them as entireties. Interesting, Nicholls chooses not to explore the role video plays in these hyper-textual relationships, which, as we will see shortly, can be a very important one.

An extremely clear example of ‘type 3’ narrative structure, in the context of digression, can be found in Ghost Town , a 1981 song by The Specials.

This, like, but still more explicity than, Wuthering Heights, links the time structure of the lyrics to its undermining of harmonic expectation. The song is about the race riots in Coventry during the late 70s, which have emptied the previously multi-racial dance clubs (it is worth noting that The Specials were the first successful ska band with both black and white members). The introduction is a rising chromatic sequence of diminshed 7th chords, which arrives in C minor for the first verse. After the chorus, the introductory diminished chords return, and seem to again prepare C minor. However, instead of resolving as expected, the harmony leaps to a F# major chord, over a C# in the bass. This rather extreme harmonic displacement – entirely unlike anything else in the song – is matched by the lyrics moving into the past tense, and recalling the ‘good old days’ when the town’s communities could all go to the same clubs on a Saturday night. This retrospection is short-lived, however, and after two lines of unchanging harmony, a G7 chord abruptly returns the song both to C minor and the present tense.

What is interesting here is not simply the digression, and the association between the change of time-frame and the change of key, but also how clearly it book-ended by expectation creating gestures. On one end, there are the diminished chords, whose function was so clearly established at the beginning of the song and is broken to begin the digression. At the other end, we leap directly back into C minor with a single chord that cuts the expected four-line verse in half. These sharp edges, which I will term a ‘framing gesture’ – like opening and closing of a book in the inset stories of Don Quixote - serve to amplify the offsetting of musical language in the digressive area, and are a key to understanding how these devices might function in instrumental music.

Another, still more textually aware, digression can be found in the bridge of Coin-Operated Boy, by The Dresden Dolls. Here I will refer to the video , with singer Amanda Palmer basically playing herself and drummer Brian Vigilone the ‘Boy’, which amplifies many of the narrative complexities in what is very much an examples of Nicholls’s ‘type 5’.

The outer parts of the song are about a wind up, artificial, boy who has replaced ‘all the real ones I destroy’. The notion of ‘real’ is one of constant tension in the song, and a punning couplet from near the end uses enjambment in a delightfully Shklovskian manner:

Of course he’s not real
Experienced with girls.

Musically, this mechanistic fantasy is reinforced by hyper-repetitive rhythmic figures mostly moving between G and D chords, which finally get stuck on a - slightly rhythmically displaced – dominant, with ‘I’ll never be alone’ sung over and again. In the video, this state of repetitive neurosis is magnified still further by the extraordinarily unreal, clown-like, makeup and costumes of both the main characters. The perspective switches radically when the bridge begins, however. The most immediately noticeable changes are in the musical texture – which switches to ‘naturalistic’ arpeggiation on the previously minimally used subdominant and loses the endlessly repeated rhythmic figure – and the visual style of the video. In a sudden cut, the fantasy world disappears, Vigilone is seen playing the drums, and Palmer is without make-up and playing the piano. So, this can superficially be read as a change of narrative voice to the ‘real’ world, away from coin-operated escape. However, the text works against this in a way that can only be called a baring of the device. It begins:
This bridge was written
To make you feel smitten
With my sad picture
Of girl getting bitter

Or can you extract me
From my plastic fantasy

In other words, drawing attention to the artificial nature – not least in the sense of artifice – of the bridge, explaining its manipulative intent and its relation to the rest of the song. In doing so it is, of course, ironically undermining its own alleged purpose, and making the return to the mechanical world – which may now be the realistic one - inevitable.

Once again, the boundary points between the song and the digression are given a great deal of emphasis. As the preparation for the bridge involved getting stuck in the first person (I will never be alone), the end of it switches between voices. We again reach a stuck, repetitive harmonic state – here an entirely new progression alternating between A and C major chords. This fixity is mirrored in the self-obsessive lyrics, moving through a lexicon of ‘I wants’ – first ‘I want it’ (her confidence back), then ‘I want to’, before becoming settled on ‘I want you’. In a critical change of voice, this then transforms to ‘I want a’, switching her need from the personal to the objectified, and throwing us back into the mechanical world, which is resumed both rhythmically and harmonically as she sings ‘coin-operated boy’ again. So, similar rhetorical devices, both textual and musical, are used on either side of the digressive bridge.

The paper goes on to look at how digression works in instrumental classical music, in particular Schumann's Op.17 Phantasy, but this bit is the most fun!