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Pop Songs.

The meaning of the earworm.By ALAN WALL.

IN THE PALEOLITHIC cave paintings, humanity only appears in small stick figures, usually with animal headdresses on. So, the first time we make our appearance, in our grand scheme of representation, we are pretending to be animals. Mimicry and mimesis share an early cradle. 1

Mimicry seeks an advantage over an adversary or predator.  When Orpheus appears with his lyre and his songs, he beguiles the animals around him.

Mimicry seeks an advantage over an adversary or predator.  When Orpheus appears with his lyre and his songs, he beguiles the animals around him. His song starts as mimicry, thus quelling their hostile questions, then it takes on a life of its own, in a mimesis so complete it fills the gap between the animals and humanity. Mimesis here ceases to be a mere copy, and starts to invent as well as reproducing; it becomes the source it started copying. The birds are aware that this form of song does not merely reply to their own communications; it completes them. So potent is his song that when the Maenads behead him, his head continues singing as it floats down the river. We’ve all been trying to imitate him ever since. And we’ve learnt from him that mimesis does not have to be mechanical; it can reciprocate and complete. It can be organic and symbiotic. Even as the dark river continues to flow.

Whether it’s Caruso or Robeson, Presley or Dylan, the Orphic head bobs along, on the endless tide of fashion and forgetfulness. Until the bobby-soxers’ yelling turns once more into Maenads yelling, before they behead another poor star, and there’s a consequent shift in the hit parade. The phenomenon is exemplified on the cover of the vinyl album With the Beatles, where the heads of John, Paul, George and Ringo float eerily above a sea of liquid tarmac. They have emerged from the darkness as Orpheus emerged from Hades on his return to earth. On that album many of the songs are about a cruel or indifferent lover who pays no attention to the singer’s finer feelings. They are, in that sense, exemplary songs. This is what we so often do when we stand up and sing: explain that our brain has been effectively voided by a usurping passion that still fixates us. My darling has made a halfwit out of me…

Songs, in any case, are seldom about unrestricted happiness. In musicals there are instances where a man or a woman blasts off about how singularly fortunate they are: ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, ‘I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy’, etc. etc. But we need longing and sexual catastrophe to provide the minor chords, and the yearning passages that so beguile us in the wee small hours of the morning. One example is ‘He’ll Have to Go’, a song written by Joe and Audrey Alison, that very rare thing, a husband-and-wife songwriting team. It was recorded and made into a hit by Gentleman Jim Reeves in 1959, and re-recorded by Elvis Presley in 1976. In the same year, Ry Cooder laid down his reprise in Mexican style on Chicken Skin Music.

As songs go, it is a hardy perennial. In the classic format, there is a man whom a woman is outwitting. She cheats on him, but he can’t keep her out of his heart. The heart is the usual metonymic device for the popular song. It is, though it’s never quite put that way, the seat of the affections. At an earlier time this would have been the bowels, hence Cromwell’s ‘I beseech you in the bowels of Christ…’ but one can see how this might have presented some problems for the modern songwriter. So the heart is where I hold you, where I feel you, where I pine for you, and it is what you can break if you are untrue (which you all too frequently are, my darling, let’s be honest). Curiously enough, the heart is never mentioned in ‘He’ll Have to Go’, but otherwise the song is the quintessential unhappy lament, despite a lack of minor chords.

The man is phoning the woman from a bar (flighty women tend to drive poor fellows to drink). He is about to ask the barman to turn the juke box way down low, so he can hear the velvet tones of his beloved’s voice better. Only problem is, he knows his poppet is not alone. So his main request is ‘And you can tell your friend there with you he’ll have to go.’ This fellow is so punctilious he does not even want her to upset the miscreant on the other end of the line: ‘If you like just answer yes or no; Darlin’ I will understand.’ Love has made him a witless sap. He has, as the phrase has it, a heart where his brain should be. Or as Janis Joplin put it: ‘Take it, take another little piece of my heart now, darlin’.’ The heart gets paid overtime when it is employed by the popular song. It is endlessly multi-tasking.

Our man is in a hopeless situation. He cannot tell the lovely lady that she is in truth a meretricious and fraudulent bitch who should probably have her license revoked. Instead, he simpers and grovels away in a corner of the bar, and probably keeps clutching his drink. He is desperately trying, by bat-like echolocation, to find her heart. But one has a hunch she falls about laughing as soon as she comes off the phone and falls into the other fellow’s arms. The singer’s dimbulbery is surely part of her amusement. It is not even as if she is trying to gaslight him. She is not exactly labouring to conceal the presence of the man presently pawing and unbuttoning her in her apartment. Who is probably a hoodlum, whereas our man is so fastidious and diplomatic he could even be a university lecturer.

So we should be clear about something here: it is precisely the certainty of betrayal that makes the lyric. There is a moral purity in failure that helps the music thrum along. And it can all be expressed in three to four minutes. It is this quality of portability that defines the popular song. Songs are what most of us have in our heads, without trying too hard to get them there. They are the universal mnemonic device. The rhymes, the rhythms, the pulsing percussion: you can memorise these without trying, and many of us do. The short lyric poem is the nearest equivalent in the world of straight literature. Mandelstam in exile wrote the poems in his head, it being too dangerous even to write them down. Then his wife Nadezhda memorised them, and later penned them into exercise books, which were hidden. He could not have done that with a novel. The nearest type of novel-writing to this was Bulgakov in The Master and Margherita, but drafts of this had to be written down. Bulgakov was not in a camp at the time, and hardly anybody has that large a verbal memory.

Popular songs are cradles of yielding. Even the birds stop singing at the sound of the tears. Orpheus is back.

The musical equivalent of those poems was song. They are short, memorable and compulsive. They were often the one thing sailors would take away from a port of call, apart from the occasional social disease. We can carry them, as the phrase would have it, in our hearts. Mentally speaking, they are a refugee’s luggage. We have learnt them by heart. They can even be heartrending. And the person who sang them best of all was a heartthrob. We should halt the gender stereotypes here for a moment. Women were just as good at playing the sap to a professional wounder as men, as the history of popular music shows. Billie Holiday sang about her endless mistreatment at the hands of ne’er-do-wells, who in life might easily have been laid low by her formidable right hook. But in the song they are yielded to. Popular songs are cradles of yielding. Even the birds stop singing at the sound of the tears. Orpheus is back. He has been freshly endowed with an electric lyre, dressed in a disco suit. He’s in the groove, and ready to bop till he drops.

Something changed forever in the ‘60s. For one thing, Bob Dylan wrote songs of a sort no one had ever heard before. They fractured the form — but didn’t destroy it; the form carried on merrily as before, as it still does now. In terms of the chanson, this is Marx’s law of combined and uneven development. You carry on making bows and arrows, even though you recently took possession of a Winchester rifle. Joni Mitchell answered back all those songs that assumed a woman was only good for one thing, or maybe two. She sings:

Just before our love turned cold you said
I am as constant as the Northern Star
And I said, Constantly in the darkness
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar…

This is a different species of woman. She is streetwise, sassy, and enormously articulate. She’s not taken in by the usual blather. And she’s happy to go and sit in a bar alone. Doris Day could not have sung those lyrics. Bessie Smith might just have done, perhaps…

Joni Mitchell was a singer-songwriter, so she sang her own words. She told her own story rather than having it told to her by professional songwriters. So in her masterpiece, Blue, she controls her own narrative. Not that this brings her happiness. Most of the songs are about busted relationships and her missing daughter. Control of a narrative does not mean control of a life: it often simply permits you to see how hopeless your life is. At the end of the album she is once more drinking alone, in her ‘dark café days’. She is awaiting a miraculous mutation, like the butterfly, but she sounds doubtful she’ll ever get it.

Gillian Welsh picked up as chanteuse where Joni Mitchell left off. She sometimes sings about her old lovers, and she tends to be singularly dry-eyed about them. They do sound like a pretty insalubrious bunch, but Gillian as songwriter has turned herself into a match for the lot of them anyway. Her beautiful, fluting voice insists upon harmony over distress, though sometimes the contest is closely fought. In ‘Morphine’ she morphs into a First World War veteran, whose medical treatment brought about his morphine addiction. He sings the song to morphine, as though she were his lover:

Morphine, morphine, what made you so mean?
Why do you do me like you do?
Where’s that sweet gal I knew?

Part of what impresses is the simplicity of the arrangements. Usually it is just Gillian Welsh and Dave Rawlings, who is a brilliant acoustic guitarist, whose singing voice perfectly matches hers in performance. You know they can play every note just like that. No need for gadgets and the long room of reverb. Extensive reverb in a recording studio is the echo-chamber of the tasteless.

It is extremely hard to write a good song. All my life I have heard people disparaging the Beatles. These are people who cannot themselves blow doh-re-me on a kazoo. Leave them for a hundred years in the Abbey Road Studios, and they would not manage a single song as good as ‘Love Me Do’. Good songs are breathtakingly versatile. They can migrate from one context to another. Their essential quality can be travestied, but never lost. John Coltrane lifted ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound of Music, played it on a soprano sax, and re-scheduled it in waltz time. It becomes a modal meditation, leaning eastwards. It sounds utterly different, and yet it is the same song. Bob Dylan sang ‘Frog Went A’Courtin’’, and a million tiresome classroom renditions suddenly fired into life. Nina Simone took a rambunctious song from a 1960’s musical by Anthony Newley and turned it into ‘Feeling Good’, which is a type of modern spiritual. It sounds like a song of black liberation. Aretha Franklin sang ‘Amazing Grace’ in a manner John Newton could not have even contemplated. One of the slaves had escaped from steerage and had made direct contact with heaven.

A figure alone on a stage, face picked out of the darkness by a spotlight, confesses his or her idiocy, catastrophic judgment or cosmic bad luck. The crooner yearns, and the music yearns too. The audience, if the performance is any good, collectively yearns along.  There’s a whole lot of yearning going on. When Elvis sings ‘You ain’t nothing but a hound dog’ he explains in a tasty little litany how utterly worthless the woman at the other end of the song is. So why is he still howling on about her, and to her? Logic dictates emotional erasure and a new beginning – just put it all behind you, Elvis – have a drive in the Cadillac. But the heart (here it is again) won’t let go. One curious thing about the heart in all these songs: it has no gender; it is neutral. And see how frequently the song employs the conative mode: the I-Thou relation. The rest of you can listen in, but you are not included in my address. The audience eavesdrops.

Bob Dylan busted the format of the popular song from the inside…[and] whacked the popular song format up from three minutes to five, and then to ten.

Bob Dylan busted the format of the popular song from the inside. Jazz musicians had fretted for years about their constriction into three minutes’ air time. When they broke out they made free-form jazz, which often exemplified how liberating the three minute format had been. Dylan whacked the popular song format up from three minutes to five, and then to ten. On his latest album there is a fifteen minute song meditating on the significance of the assassination of JFK. Its most frequent references are to movies and songs. They constituted a world in 1963. Still do, for many.

A blues singer sits on the stage. He has a guitar on his knee. He thumps out the percussive rhythm. He is singing ‘Sittin’ On Top of the World’. This is a quintessential blues song. The man has been deserted by the woman. He laments the fact, yet insists in the chorus line of each verse: ‘Cos I’m sittin’ on top of the world’. This might be the greatest example of sour grapes ever recorded. She’s gone, but he doesn’t worry – after all, he’s sitting on top of the world. He even spells it out: ‘Gonna find me a woman, Quick as you can find another man’. One suspects he won’t, but full marks for keeping your pecker up, bluesman. No point wallowing, after all. The blues are essentially stoical. Life’s so awful anyway, why sit around bellyaching about it?

When Billie Holiday sang ‘Am I Blue’ her singing was pure velvet, not like the gravelly ruined voice that came later. Add Lester Young on the saxophone, and you have a winner: the blues don’t get any better than this. When Frank Sinatra subsequently covered the song, he doubled the tempo. Suddenly he seems positively cheerful, which is not a blues mode. You can be stoical, but not breezy. Otherwise you lose hold of the identity of blues. You simply haven’t suffered enough before our eyes (or ears) to be authentic. Whereas when Frankie sings ‘It Was a Very Good Year’ he is entirely authentic. His voice, as has been noted, is a cello. A vintage one.

The modern intimate song is dependent on the microphone. Harry Lauder could belt out ‘Keep Right on to the End of the Road’, and it was magnificent, but it could never be intimate. Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra both understood that the microphone permitted a closeness in the voicing. You could half-whisper into a mike, and you were instantly in a bedroom, disrobing. Leonard Cohen was very close to the mike. There was a reason for this: in any orthodox sense, he couldn’t sing. He was endearingly aware of the fact. Asked once why he’d made it as a rock star he replied that he was (a) indisputably Jewish (b) still had acne in his forties and (c) couldn’t hold a note. At his most impressive on the album I’m Your Man, he whispered and murmured brilliantly shaped lyrics, whose drollery perfectly matched his pitch. Here the ethic of the blues is complemented with urbanity and irony: ‘Everybody knows that you were discreet/There were just so many people that you had to meet/Without your clothes/But everybody knows.’ That’s about as philosophical as a love song can get. Cohen understood the strategies of the song, one of which is ‘I can change, darling, please believe me.’ Cohen twists it around, until it becomes a trope of knowingness:  ‘If you want a lover/I’ll do anything you ask me to/And if you want another kind of love/I’ll wear a mask for you.’ The mask in the apology song is the promise of future virtue. In the great country western song ‘Take Me Back and Try Me One More Time’, the singer acknowledges his adultery – and it doesn’t sound like the first one – but pleads that he’ll be true in future. Honest. It’s hard to believe him, and he evidently does not believe himself. It’s a great song, all the same. We often prefer sinners to saints.

Cohen in his early days issued a kind of melancholy drone, soft and downy, which filled many bedsits. Some young women regarded the liking of Cohen as a test; a quiz that established whether or not you had the necessary tremulous sensibilities. No one enters this room (and certainly not this bed) who is not right there, travelling with Suzanne down to the river. His final albums were his best in terms of vocal delivery. He had learnt not to try to sing at all, but simply to talk in tune. In the posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance, he opens proceedings up with this line: ‘I got my shit together/Meeting Christ and reading Marx.’ Hard to imagine Ole Blue Eyes intoning that one to a rapt crowd in the city that never sleeps. The album is black with a portrait of Cohen gold-embossed on it. A head is still floating over that ole man river.

In the extraordinary performance of  ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, John Lennon howls and pleads and petitions. It is meant to be a song of fulfilment – ‘I’m in love for the first time’ – but it is actually a cry of desperate rage and fear. Even if she doesn’t let him down, we can’t help thinking, the world surely will. She stood by him, in fact, and the world shot and killed him a few years later. His songs continue to assail us, from several directions, just as those of Orpheus did. The dark river flows on. And not even the Maenads can shut the singer up.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.


  1. q.v. The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, by Steven Mithin, 2005.

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