Shareef Ali hands down judgment of millenium anthems nearly a decade late

It seems that a common rite of passage in blogging is to tip someone’s dozing sacred cow, and this may be my first blaspheme. Thanks to Melissa Gira for our conversation last month, in which we determined that Pulp’s “Disco 2000” was a far superior end-of-millenium anthem than Prince’s “1999“.

Here’s the video to the former, a bit different than the version on the album, but an entertaining watch anyway:

Now I know, these are apples and oranges; Pulp’s tune is a bleak tale of unrequited love with a chance of redemption at the end, while Prince’s is a doomsday party song; I can’t help it if I categorically value the best of the former genre over the best of the latter. Still, let’s consider them side-by-side. “1999” of course is a far more widely canonized work; we’re all familiar with its basic sentiment of ‘getting one’s kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames’. The notion of end times gets no play in “Disco 2000”, penned some twelve years nearer to the close of the century. Most of the song is spent reflecting on times past; the year 2000 is only relevant in contrasting the childhood wonder and hope for the future with the dreary reality of the present. (Side note: I was introduced to this song late in high school, and so tend to associate it with Chris Rock’s disillusioned opening monologue at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards, around 2:18 in the clip).

The really lovely bit of “Disco 2000” is the very end, where, despite the past filled with shyness and shame, years of desperation, and the indignities of growing up, the speaker dares to look for a spark with his old crush. So while Prince is all, “Shit’s almost over, but this is gonna be awesome,” Jarvis Cocker and company shrug and say, “It’s not awesome. It’s never been awesome; it’s been quite rubbish. But it’s not over, we’re still here, so let’s try this.” There’s something brave to me about that small, glum hope.

“The Rose” and the oft-attempted, rarely well-executed ‘message’ song

Lately I’ve been really into “The Rose”, penned by Amanda McBroom but made famous by Bette Midler. For a long time, this song carried an aura for me of something that was closely associated with childhood and at one time quite familiar but hadn’t been brought into my consciousness for over half a lifetime, like a lullaby or old family photos in storage. I was reminded of it last month at the Starry Plough open mic, when Cortnee Rose did a chilling version of it.

Some say love it is a river
that drowns the tender reed
Some say love it is a razor
that leaves your soul to bleed
Some say love it is a hunger
an endless aching need
I say love it is a flower
and you its only seed

It’s the heart afraid of breaking
that never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking
that never takes the chance
It’s the one who won’t be taken
who cannot seem to give
and the soul afraid of dying
that never learns to live

When the night has been too lonely
and the road has been too long
and you think that love is only
for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter
far beneath the bitter snows
lies the seed that with the sun’s love
in the spring becomes the rose

In thinking about what tags I will be using in this blog, I have the notion that it may come to resemble an amateurish taxonomy of songs. This song is definitely what I would call a ‘message’ song, a generic speaker urging a generic listener to embrace a particular lifestyle or belief that will ostensibly lead to a happier, more ethical, or more enlightened existence. I feel it’s safe to say that I think most message songs convey some pretty terribly contrived and dumbed-down ‘messages’ (e.g. “Let Love Rule” by Lenny Kravitz): the songwriter, entertaining no small degree of narcissism, wants to pen something that will be universally recognized as a beautiful rendition of a central truth in our human experience, but from fear that their own song won’t be celebrated similarly, makes certain that the gospel imparted is something that the listeners already know, or think they know. (Super important note: “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five is amazing, but not a message song by my criteria, despite its name).

One of the challenges about writing a message song that’s actually good, besides having to actually possess some wisdom about life, is that for the tone to be right, it almost requires that no personal experience, trial or struggle, whether first- or third-person, be related. In “The Rose”, the speaker only enters the song once (“I say love, it is a flower”), but this declaration could easily be that of a detached commentator; there’s no admission of vulnerability or of her own experience of heartbreak (female songwriter + female performer = feminine pronoun). Far more intimate and disarming is when the second-person enters the song in the third verse: “And you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong”. By using the second-person, we are pulled into the song and made vulnerable: it is not Amanda’s or Bette’s but our faith that has been shaken.

There are a number of other elements here that makes this song deeply moving to me. I love the characterizations in the first verse of love as an amoral, unconcerned agent of nature (not unlike my own “Plant Food”, although somewhat less apocalyptic). Maybe even more effective to me is the repetition of “Some say love…” because it gives me a pretty tragic image, of dreary, jaded masses of a society brusquely rumoring about love, like it’s a mythical creature or a fugitive like Emmanuel Goldstein. I’m not sure if it’s known whether there are more of these types of people than the other kind, that is, those who have been drinking the kool-aid since at least adolescence (count me among their numbers). But by portraying a world populated mostly by the latter, the speaker creates an environment where her message is especially dire and perhaps even a bit radical (as opposed to the well-worn saw that it often is). And certainly when considering the scared, hurt soul of the third verse, who believes on some gut level that they are not worthy of loving and being loved (and there are many of these), the message does seem quite urgent.

Finally, the central metaphor of the song, love as a blossom, is quite beautiful, and not just because flowers are purdy. What she is saying, in essence, is that each of us is empowered to let beauty spring forth from ourselves, for our sake, for the sake of others, for its own sake. And while the song is quite gentle and kind to the damaged heart, there is to me a sort of an imperative call-to-action (“you, its only seed”). As if to say, ‘You must sacrifice and make yourself vulnerable so that beauty may flourish.’