Analysis of ‘Salomé’

I: Introduction

Salomé is an opera by Richard Strauss that premiered in 1905, the libretto being Hedwig Lachmann‘s German translation (with some editing by Strauss) of Oscar Wilde‘s 1891 French play. Wilde’s play, of course, was in turn inspired by the Biblical narratives in the Gospels According to Mark and Matthew.

Wilde transformed the brief Biblical story, making what’s implied explicit, namely how Salomé’s dance sexually aroused the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, elaborating on it as The Dance of the Seven Veils, considered by some to be the origin, however unwitting, of the modern striptease. Wilde also altered certain details, such as when, in the Biblical version, Herodias tells her daughter, Salomé, to demand the head of John the Baptist; instead, Wilde has Salome ask for “the head of Iokanaan” of her own accord.

Both Wilde’s play and Strauss’s opera caused scandals on their earliest performances, resulting in performances of them being cancelled or banned, for example in London, for many years. Now, Strauss’s opera is considered a masterwork, a regular part of any orchestral or operatic repertoire.

II: Quotes

Here are some quotes from Wilde’s play (some of which are not in Strauss’s opera), in English translation:

“How beautiful is the Princess Salomé to-night!” –Narraboth, the young Syrian, Captain of the Guard

“You are always looking at her. You look at her too much. It is dangerous to look at people in such fashion. Something terrible may happen.” –Herodias’ page

“How pale the Princess is! Never have I seen her so pale. She is like the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver.” –Narraboth

“The Jews worship a God that one cannot see.” –First Soldier

“After me shall come another mightier than I. I am not worthy so much as to unloose the latchet of his shoes. When he cometh, the solitary places shall be glad. They shall blossom like the rose. The eyes of the blind shall see the day, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened. The suckling child shall put his hand upon the dragon’s lair, he shall lead the lions by their manes.” –the voice of Iokanaan, heard from below, in a cistern

“What a strange voice! I would speak with him.” –Salomé, of Iokanaan

[Approaching the cistern and looking down into it.] “How black it is, down there ! It must be terrible to be in so black a hole ! It is like a tomb. . . . .” [To the soldiers.] “Did you not hear me? Bring out the prophet. I would look on him.” –Salomé

“Thou wilt do this thing for me, Narraboth, and to-morrow when I pass in my litter beneath the gateway of the idol-sellers I will let fall for thee a little flower, a little green flower.” –Salomé

“Oh! How strange the moon looks. Like the hand of a dead woman who is seeking to cover herself with a shroud.” –Herodias’ page

“Where is he whose cup of abominations is now full? Where is he, who in a robe of silver shall one day die in the face of all the people? Bid him come forth, that he may hear the voice of him who hath cried in the waste places and in the houses of kings.” –Iokanaan, having emerged from the underground cistern

“It is his eyes above all that are terrible. They are like black holes burned by torches in a tapestry of Tyre. They are like the black caverns of Egypt in which the dragons make their lairs. They are like black lakes troubled by fantastic moons. . . . Do you think he will speak again?” –Salomé, of Iokanaan

“Who is this woman who is looking at me? I will not have her look at me. Wherefore doth she look at me with her golden eyes, under her gilded eyelids? I know not who she is. I do not desire to know who she is. Bid her begone. It is not to her that I would speak.” –Iokanaan, of Salomé

“Speak again, Iokanaan. Thy voice is as music to mine ear.” –Salomé

“Back! daughter of Babylon! By woman came evil into the world. Speak not to me. I will not listen to thee. I listen but to the voice of the Lord God.” –Iokanaan, to Salomé

“Thy hair is horrible. It is covered with mire and dust. It is like a knot of serpents coiled round thy neck. I love not thy hair. . . . It is thy mouth that I desire, Iokanaan.” […] “There is nothing in the world so red as thy mouth. . . . Suffer me to kiss thy mouth.” –Salomé

IOKANAAN: Never! daughter of Babylon! Daughter of Sodom! Never.

SALOMÉ: I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan. I will kiss thy mouth.

“Cursed be thou! daughter of an incestuous mother, be thou accursed!” –Iokanaan, to Salomé

HEROD: Where is Salomé? Where is the Princess? Why did she not return to the banquet as I commanded her? Ah! there she is!

HERODIAS: You must not look at her! You are always looking at her! […]

HEROD: I am not ill, It is your daughter who is sick to death. Never have I seen her so pale.

HERODIAS: I have told you not to look at her.

HEROD: Pour me forth wine [wine is brought.] Salomé, come drink a little wine with me. I have here a wine that is exquisite. Cæsar himself sent it me. Dip into it thy little red lips, that I may drain the cup.

SALOMÉ: I am not thirsty, Tetrarch.

HEROD: You hear how she answers me, this daughter of yours?

HERODIAS: She does right. Why are you always gazing at her?

HEROD: Bring me ripe fruits [fruits are brought.] Salomé, come and eat fruits with me. I love to see in a fruit the mark of thy little teeth. Bite but a little of this fruit that I may eat what is left.

SALOMÉ: I am not hungry, Tetrarch. […]

THE VOICE OF IOKANAAN: Behold the time is come! That which I foretold has come to pass. The day that I spoke of is at hand.

HERODIAS: Bid him be silent. I will not listen to his voice. This man is for ever hurling insults against me.

HEROD: He has said nothing against you. Besides, he is a very great prophet. […]

A THIRD JEW: God is at no time hidden. He showeth Himself at all times and in all places. God is in what is evil even as He is in what is good.

A FOURTH JEW: Thou shouldst not say that. It is a very dangerous doctrine, it is a doctrine that cometh from Alexandria, where men teach the philosophy of the Greeks. And the Greeks are Gentiles: They are not even circumcised. […]

FIRST NAZARENE, of Jesus: This man worketh true miracles. Thus, at a marriage which took place in a little town of Galilee, a town of some importance, He changed water into wine. Certain persons who were present related it to me. Also He healed two lepers that were seated before the Gate of Capernaum simply by touching them. […]

THE VOICE OF IOKANAAN, of Herodias: Ah! the wanton one! The harlot! Ah! the daughter of Babylon with her golden eyes and her gilded eyelids! Thus saith the Lord God, Let there come up against her a multitude of men. Let the people take stones and stone her. . . .

HERODIAS: Command him to be silent.

THE VOICE OF IOKANAAN: Let the captains of the hosts pierce her with their swords, let them crush her beneath their shields. […]

HEROD: Dance for me, Salomé.

HERODIAS: I will not have her dance.

SALOMÉ: I have no desire to dance, Tetrarch. […]

HEROD: Salomé, Salomé, dance for me. I pray thee dance for me. I am sad to-night. Yes; I am passing sad to-night. When I came hither I slipped in blood, which is an evil omen; also I heard in the air a beating of wings, a beating of giant wings. I cannot tell what they mean . . . I am sad to-night. Therefore dance for me. Dance for me, Salomé, I beseech thee. If thou dancest for me thou mayest ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee, even unto the half of my kingdom.

SALOMÉ: [Rising.] Will you indeed give me whatsoever I shall ask of thee, Tetrarch? […]

HEROD: Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, even unto the half of my kingdom.

SALOMÉ: You swear it, Tetrarch?

HEROD: I swear it, Salomé. […]

SALOMÉ: I am ready, Tetrarch. [Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils.]

HEROD: Ah! wonderful! wonderful! You see that she has danced for me, your daughter. Come near, Salomé, come near, that I may give thee thy fee. Ah! I pay a royal price to those who dance for my pleasure. I will pay thee royally. I will give thee whatsoever thy soul desireth. What wouldst thou have? Speak.

SALOMÉ [Kneeling]: I would that they presently bring me in a silver charger . . .

HEROD [Laughing]: In a silver charger? Surely yes, in a silver charger. She is charming, is she not? What is it thou wouldst have in a silver charger, O sweet and fair Salomé, thou art fairer than all the daughters of Judæa? What wouldst thou have them bring thee in a silver charger? Tell me. Whatsoever it may be, thou shalt receive it. My treasures belong to thee. What is it that thou wouldst have, Salomé?

SALOMÉ [Rising]: The head of Iokanaan.

HERODIAS: Ah! that is well said, my daughter.

HEROD: No, no!

HERODIAS: That is well said, my daughter. […]

“You have sworn an oath, Herod.” –Salomé

“Well, thou hast seen thy God, Iokanaan, but me, me, thou didst never see. If thou hadst seen me thou hadst loved me. I saw thee, and I loved thee. Oh, how I loved thee! I love thee yet, Iokanaan, I love only thee. . . . I am athirst for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body; and neither wine nor apples can appease my desire. What shall I do now, Iokanaan? Neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion. I was a princess, and thou didst scorn me. I was a virgin, and thou didst take my virginity from me. I was chaste, and thou didst fill my veins with fire. . . Ah! ah! wherefore didst thou not look at me? If thou hadst looked at me thou hadst loved me. Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me, and the mystery of love is greater that the mystery of death.” –Salomé, holding and gazing upon the severed head of Iokanaan

“She is monstrous, thy daughter I tell thee she is monstrous.” –Herod, to Herodias

“Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on my lips. Was it the taste of blood ? . . . Nay; but perchance it was the taste of love. . . . They say that love hath a bitter taste. . . . But what matter? what matter? I have kissed thy mouth.” –Salomé, still with Iokanaan’s head

HEROD: [Turning round and seeing Salomé.] Kill that woman! [The soldiers rush forward and crush beneath their shields Salomé, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judæa.]

III: Themes and Beginning

Recurring themes in the play/opera include these: lust, with gazing/leering/staring at the object of desire, hence objectification; the conflict between, and complementarity of, opposites (love/loathing, spirituality/carnality, desire/disgust, white/black, male/female roles, beauty/ugliness, life/death, victim/victimizer, etc.); and the decadence of the ruling classes, as against the assurances for the oppressed that revolution, redemption, and liberation are soon to come.

The story begins at night, just outside a banquet held by Herod, his wife, Herodias (widow of his half-brother, Herod II), and her daughter, Salomé, along with all their guests in Herod’s palace. The moon is shining, silvery-white and bright. Silvery-white because, as Narraboth says, “She [the moon] is like a little princess…whose feet are of silver,” and “who has little white doves for feet.”

Narraboth, a young Syrian and Captain of the Guard, amorously declares how beautiful Salomé looks. The Page of Herodias wishes he wouldn’t always stare at her, for the Page fears that disaster will come of his passion.

The moon is a pale, virgin, silvery white, as is Salomé’s flesh. The moon looks so pale and white, “She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman,” as the page of Herodias observes.

The princess-moon, with her innocent white feet, can drive men lunatic, as can Salomé’s virginal beauty; as, in turn, the holy purity of similarly-pale Iokanaan drives her mad with love for him. In this play, virginal innocence is dialectically related to the deadly sin of lust: the one opposite dissolves into the other.

IV: Enter Salomé

Salomé leaves the banquet area, finding it disturbing how Herod keeps staring at her with lust in his eyes. Of course, Narraboth is eyeing her similarly, but she will soon be an ogler herself, for she hears the voice of Iokanaan from the cistern below.

He has spoken harsh words against her mother, Herodias, as well as against Herod (i.e., his incestuous marriage with his half-brother’s widow); Salomé knows of this, but instead of being offended by Iokanaan’s words, she’s intrigued. It seems evident that Salomé has hardly any less contempt for her mother than she does for her adoptive father: alienation, including that between family members, is a typical symptom in a world of class conflict, in this case, that of the ancient slave vs. master variety.

Thus, any speaker of ill against Salomé’s family is a singer of sweet music to her ears. Small wonder she’d like to take a look at that mysterious man down in that dark, yonic pit. She looks down into it, awed by its darkness. This blackness, of course, is associated with Iokanaan’s mysticism. An ominous, eerie tritone is heard in the musical background when she looks into the cistern and notes its blackness, near the beginning of scene two.

Let’s compare some images used so far. Pale Salomé is consistently associated with the silvery-white, virginal moon, an ominous orb portending imminent evil. The cistern is black, as Salomé observes, but since it houses a holy man, a celibate man, it could be seen as virginal, too, the yoni of a virgin such as Salomé herself. The cistern’s blackness thus has a dialectical relationship with the silvery-white moon, which phases from white full moon to black new moon, and back again. Iokanaan, like the moon, also portends an evil coming too soon for comfort.

She insists on having Iokanaan brought out so she can see him, to have his mysteries revealed…just as Herod will want Salomé to dance a striptease for him, to reveal her anatomic mysteries. The lecherous, decadent tetrarch, of course, also hopes to make the young beauty replace her mother as his new queen, so her virginal yoni‘s dark secrets can be revealed to him…just as she wishes to have Iokanaan, the secret of the dark yoni of the cistern, revealed to her eyes.

The parallels between Iokanaan’s display and that of her nakedness continue, first with Narraboth’s and the soldiers’ insistence that the prophet not be allowed out (by Herod’s orders), on the one hand, and Herodias’ disapproval of her daughter dancing erotically for Herod. Also, Salomé entices Narraboth with suggestions of her favouring him (offering a green flower and a smile) if he’ll allow Iokanaan to come out, and Herod entices her with an oath to give her anything she wants if she’ll dance for him. Both Narraboth and Salomé are persuaded to do what they’d otherwise never do.

V: Enter John the Baptist

Iokanaan emerges from the cistern, pale, hairy, and filthy, but always shouting his imprecations against the decadent kings and queens of the world, especially Herodias. His holiness inspires Salomé’s passion for him, symbolizing the dialectical relationship between the erotic and the ascetic (something also explored in Hindu myth, as Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty observed in Siva: the Erotic Ascetic, pages 33-36).

At first, Salomé loves Iokanaan’s white flesh, a parallel of the love Narraboth and Herod have for her pale flesh. The prophet, of course, rejects her wish to touch his body; indeed, he can’t even bear to have this “daughter of Sodom” look at him. She’s angered by his rejection, feeling narcissistic injury, no doubt; but his chastity fascinates her all the same.

Salomé is used to having a train of admiring men following her everywhere, leering at her, lusting after her. Such men bore her, annoy her, inspire her contempt; but Iokanaan is no lecherous pig. With him, the sexes are reversed, and the man is disgusted with the woman’s lechery. She’s hurt by his rejection, but she can only admire him all the more for it. This man’s spiritual willpower is as rare as her physical beauty is, and her desire for him is made all the hotter for this.

As soon as he rejects her, she speaks ill of his whitest of white body, which she’s just finished praising. Now she speaks of loving his blackest of black hair; note the immediate juxtaposition of opposites–loved/loathed, beautiful/ugly, and white/black. When he rejects her wish to touch his hair, she’s now repelled by it and begins loving his red lips.

VI: Baiser

She wants to kiss his mouth, saying in Wilde’s French: “Laisse-moi baiser ta bouche.” Baiser, as a verb, originally meant ‘to kiss,’ but it grew to mean ‘to fuck,’ this new meaning starting as early as the 16th or 17th century, having been used this way in, for example, a few poems by François Maynard. This usage began to grow more common by the beginning of the 20th century, prompting the French to start using embrasser to mean ‘to kiss’ instead.

My point is, given the already shockingly erotic overtones of Wilde’s play, as well as in his choice to write it in French instead of his usual English, did he use baiser as a double entendre? Was he suggesting a secondary meaning, a cunnilingus fantasy of Salomé’s, to get head from Iokanaan?

Now Strauss, in using a German translation for his opera, used the word küssen, which only means ‘to kiss.’ Perhaps he was aware of the growing use of the sexual meaning of baiser, and wanted to mitigate the scandal by eliminating that problematic French word. I’m guessing that my speculations hadn’t been discussed by critics back around the turn of the 20th century, given the-then taboo nature of this subject; but this taboo use of baiser has been discussed more recently.

VII: Lustful Staring

Back to the story. The prophet is so shocked by this “daughter of Babylon” that he curses her and goes back down into the cistern. Salomé’s unfulfillable desire has turned into an obsession; speaking of which, Narraboth’s has caused him to implode with sexual jealousy, since he can see she clearly prefers Iokanaan to him. Thus, he stabs himself and dies, fulfilling Herodias’ page’s dire prediction that his obsessive, mesmerized staring at Salomé would bring evil.

Of course, the young Syrian hasn’t been the only one staring at Salomé to the point of such ogling being dangerous. Herod enters with Herodias; he slips on Narraboth’s spilled blood, an obvious omen.

The tetrarch speaks of the silvery-white moon and Salomé’s pale skin, an evident identifying of the one with the other, just as Salomé has identified the chaste moon with celibate Iokanaan. We see more unions of opposites: virginity and whorish objects of desire, in both her and the prophet.

Herodias is annoyed with Herod’s staring at her daughter, with Iokanaan’s insulting diatribes against her, and Herod’s–to her, absurd–belief in omens and prophecies. She is a purely materialist, decadent queen: the moon is just the moon to her.

She wishes he would just give Iokanaan over to the ever-disputatious Jews, who come out and begin a clamorous storm of debating over whether Iokanaan has seen God, whether he is Elijah having returned, and whether this or that dogma is correct. This is another example of wanting to know mysteries, to see secrets.

In all of this arguing among the Jews, we see dramatized the dialectic of contradictory viewpoints. Added to this is the contradiction between the Jewish point of view and that of the Nazarenes, who now come onstage.

VIII: Revolution

Since the Crucifixion hasn’t happened yet, discussion of how the Messiah will save the Jews from their sins is never in the Pauline notion of a Divine Rescuer dying and resurrecting, so that believing in Him will confer God’s grace for the forgiveness of sins. Instead, salvation for the Jews is understood to come in the form of a revolution against Palestine’s Roman imperialist oppressors. Recall Matthew 10:34.

Revolution! Insurrection! Such words terrify decadent rulers like Herod and Herodias, who naturally don’t want to lose their privileges as members of the ruling class. Thus do we see the dialectic move, from the Hegelian sort we heard among the debating Jews, to the materialist sort that Marx discussed: the contradiction between the rich and poor.

Iokanaan prophesies the downfall of sinful rulers like incestuous Herod and Herodias, as well as the redemption of the downtrodden. As the prophet says at the beginning of Wilde’s play, “the solitary places shall be glad. They shall blossom like the rose. The eyes of the blind shall see the day, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened. The suckling child shall put his hand upon the dragon’s lair, he shall lead the lions by their manes.”

Such welcome changes can be seen to symbolize revolutionary relief given to the suffering. The blind seeing, and the deaf hearing, suggests the enlightenment of the poor, hitherto ignorant of the true causes of their sorrows. The idea of gladdened solitary places suggests the replacement of alienation with communal love. The suckling child, with his hand on the dragon’s lair, and leading the lions, suggests the end of the oppression of the weak by the strong, replacing it with equality.

Marx similarly prophesied the end of the rule of the bourgeois, to be replaced by communist society. The bourgeois today, like threatened Herod and Herodias, are scared of their imminent downfall, for many believe their days are numbered.

My associating Iokanaan with Marx is no idle fancy, for in 1891, the very same year Wilde wrote Salomé, he also wrote The Soul of Man under Socialism, inspired by his reading of Peter Kropotkin, and in which Wilde considered Jesus to be a symbol of the extreme individualist he idealized. Wilde would also have been aware of the short-lived Paris Commune twenty years prior, which Marx joyfully described as being a manifestation of his notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

IX: The Music

It seems apposite, at this belated point, finally to discuss Strauss’s music. Influenced by Wagner’s musical dramas, Strauss used Leitmotivs (“leading motives”) for each character in Salomé, as well as for many key moments or concepts in the story.

There’s the light, dreamy Leitmotiv heard when Narraboth expresses his admiration for Salomé’s beauty at the beginning of the opera. There’s the Leitmotiv when she sings of wanting “den Kopf des Jochanaan,” which gets increasingly dissonant with her every iteration of the demand for it, to ever-reluctant Herod.

And there are Leitmotivs for Iokanaan and his prophetic abilities, the former being a stately, dignified chordal theme heard on the horns; and the latter melody being a trio of fourths, C down to G, then F down to C, then–instead of another, third perfect fourth–there’s a tritone of A down to D-sharp, then up to E, now a perfect fourth (relative to the previous A). These three sets of perfect fourths symbolize Triune, holy, divine perfection; the tritone, though the diabolus in musica, nonetheless resolves to E, symbolizing a prophecy of sinning imperfection soon to be made perfect, redeemed.

Strauss, as a late Romantic/early modern composer, anticipated many of the revolutionary musical ideas soon to be realized in full by such modernists as Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg, and Webern. Strauss was thus a kind of musical Iokanaan. Strauss, through his extreme chromaticism, pushed tonality to its limits, while not quite emancipating the dissonance, as Schoenberg would soon do. Since some have seen the emancipation of the dissonance as linked with the emancipation of society and of humanity, the music of Strauss–as musical Iokanaan–can be seen symbolically as heralding the coming of that social liberation I mentioned above.

The harsh discords in his score symbolize the contradictions not only in the class conflict between the decadent rulers (puppet rulers for imperial Rome) and the oppressed poor, but also in the conflicts between what Narraboth, Salomé, Iokanaan, Herod, and Herodias each wants. Also, the contrast between these dissonant moments and the prettier, more tuneful sections suggests the dialectical relationships between beauty and ugliness, and love and loathing.

Finally, the choice of ‘harsh‘ (at least from the point of view of English speakers), guttural German–instead of Wilde’s erotically lyrical (if a tad idiosyncratic) French–reinforces the dramatic tension, especially when Salomé demands the prophet’s head on a silver charger.

X: Dance for Me, Salomé

Back to the story. Herod is so obviously troubled, on the one hand by the threats Iokanaan is making against his rule, and on the other by his fear of the prophet as a man of God–which means he can’t kill him–that the soldiers note the tetrarch’s sombre look.

Herod hopes that Salomé will dance for him, to take his mind off his troubles. This escape into sensuous pleasure is an example of the manic defence, to avoid facing up to what makes one so unhappy.

Always annoyed that her husband stares lustfully at her daughter, Herodias forbids Salomé to dance for him. But his oath to give her anything she wants, even to half of his kingdom, puts a sly grin on her face and a twinkle in her eye; so Salome agrees to dance.

Wilde‘s brief stage direction, of Salomé dancing in seven veils, has been made so much of. It says nothing explicitly of a striptease, but why else would she dance in those veils, if not to remove them one by one?

Strauss’s exotic, sensuous music certainly makes much of the dance, starting with a slow, erotic, mysterious aura and building up to a fast, frenzied, and dissonant climax, once almost all (or absolutely all, depending on the boldness of the woman playing Salomé) of the veils have been removed.

XI: Getting Naked

As each veil is removed, more of the mysteries of her body are revealed to horny Herod, just as the mystery of Iokanaan was revealed to lascivious Salomé when he emerged from the vaginal cistern. This story is all about the desire to have secrets revealed, including, as the Jews obsess over, the mysteries of God, through such things as prophecies, as the Nazarenes are concerned with. Mysteries thus may be sensual or spiritual: note the dialectical relationship between these two.

While we usually think of men objectifying women, as Herod is doing with Salomé here, in Salomé the objectifying is a two-way street, since she lusts after chaste Iokanaan. And while it is usual and correct to be concerned with the injuries done to female strippers, sex workers, and pornographic models and actresses, consider how pathetic the men are, those addicted to porn, prostitutes, and strippers, using these as a manic defence to avoid facing their own sadness. Consider their shame at knowing what pigs they’re being (or at least seen as being), each a modern Herod, walking guiltily in and out of strip joints, whorehouses, and the porn sections of DVD rentals.

There are two sides to objectification: the view to destroy, as Salomé does to Iokanaan, and as Herod does to Salomé at the end of the opera; and there’s the view to admire, to worship the beautiful object, as any connoisseur of art understands…and as Salomé and Herod also do to their adored objects. Looking to admire and to destroy are, again, dialectically related. This obsessive urge to look, a pagan adoration of divinity that is–in this opera–thematically related to whether or not the Jew or Nazarene has ‘seen’ God, is also a weakness that can be exploited.

Salomé is certainly using her sexuality to take advantage of this weakness of Herod’s. And since, on the one hand, the tetrarch is objectifying and using her for his pleasure, getting her to strip down to a state of nude vulnerability; and on the other hand, she’s turning his lust against him, we have here a male/female variant of Hegel‘s master/slave dialectic, or a dialectic of feminism meeting antifeminism.

XII: Switching Roles

The master (Herod) uses the, so to speak, slave (Salomé) for his own pleasure, but she uses her creativity (her dance) to build up her own mastery over him. Thus, master and slave switch roles, making her especially triumphant, since she’ll cause the doom of two men–decapitated Iokanaan, and the revolutionary toppling of Herod, as it is assumed will happen to him when the Nazarenes (and God!) are so enraged to learn of the execution of their beloved prophet.

Women are perceived to be inspiring of lust and sin (the misogynistic, antifeminist side of the dialectic), yet Salomé and Herodias triumph in thwarting the tetrarch and killing the male religious authority (the feminist side). What’s more, Salomé is all the more feminist in wishing for Iokanaan’s head for her own pleasure, not out of obedience to her mother.

Herod pleads with Salomé to ask for something else. The tetrarch has made himself a slave to his oath, of which she’s the master. He offers her rare jewels, ones even her mother doesn’t know he has; he offers her rare white peacocks. All she does is repeat her demand for “den Kopf des Jochanaan,” each time given more and more aggressively, with increasingly tense music in the background. Finally, he is forced, in all exasperation, to relent.

XIII: The Head

When the executioner is down in the dark cistern, Salomé waits by the hole and listens. Suspense is built when she hears nothing. She grows impatient, thinking she’ll need the soldiers to do the job she imagines the slave who went down with his axe is too incompetent or cowardly to do. Nonetheless, he emerges with Iokanaan’s bloody head. The ruling class’s indulgence of their petty desires always brings about violence of this sort.

Still, there are contradictions even among the desires of the different members of the ruling class. Herod is horrified to see Salomé’s maniacal gazing at the head, but Herodias is pleased to no end. Salomé kisses the mouth, triumphant in having achieved what the living prophet refused to let her do. In her mania, she imagines for the moment that Iokanaan’s eyes should be looking at her, as if the severed head could possibly be alive. She is thus disappointed that the eyes don’t look at her.

She wishes that he could have accepted her love, that if he’d looked at her, that if he’d just let her kiss his mouth, he would have loved her back, for love is a greater mystery than death.

XIV: Decapitation as Symbolic Castration

Since Wilde’s use of baiser has the implied secondary meaning of “to fuck,” and since she says, “Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. Well! I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit. Yes, I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan,” she is implying that she has a symbolic vagina dentata, which will castrate him when they make love. She compares his body to a column of ivory, a column being a phallic symbol. Thus, ‘fucking’ his mouth with the implied vagina dentata means his decapitation is a symbolic castration.

Herod’s unwillingness to have Iokanaan beheaded is thus an example of castration anxiety, especially since loss of the phallus is a symbolic loss of power. Herod’s fear of Iokanaan’s execution provoking a Nazarene revolution, spearheaded by none other than God, reinforces this symbolic fear of castration. Iokanaan’s “Kopf” is a cock.

XV: Conclusion–Who Wins the Sex War (and the Class War)?

Salomé (and by extension Herodias, since she has wanted Iokanaan’s death from the beginning), having the prophet’s head in her arms, is now symbolically the powerful phallic woman. She, especially in her madness and perversity, is a threat to Herod. Regarding her as “monstrous,” he orders all the torches to be put out. He says, “Hide the moon! Hide the stars!” For the whiteness of the moon and stars resemble her pale skin far too much for his comfort.

Finally, the male/female dialectic sways back in the antifeminist direction, and Herod orders his soldiers to “Kill that woman!” The men surround Salomé with their shields, and crush her to death with them, ending the opera with a barrage of discords.

Still, we know that the days of all decadent kings and queens–as well as those of the tetrarch, it seems–are numbered. Herod is still quaking in fear over the consequences of killing a holy man. The Nazarenes believe the tetrarch cannot stop the march of God through history, just as we Marxists believe the bourgeoisie cannot stop the dialectical movement of historical materialism.

Herod can hide the moon and the stars for only so long. Recall Iokanaan’s words: “In that day the sun shall become black like sackcloth of hair, and the moon shall become like blood, and the stars of the heaven shall fall upon the earth like unripe figs that fall from the fig-tree, and the kings of the earth shall be afraid.”

Furthermore, Salomé may be dead, but her double, that pale moon overhead, is still shining. In his poem, ‘Problems of Gender,’ Robert Graves wondered which gender to assign the moon, asking, “who controls the regal powers of night?” In Salomé, I think we know which sex controls them.

Analysis of ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a 1972 rock album by David Bowie. The eleven songs on the album together tell the story of Ziggy Stardust, a messenger who tells of saviour aliens coming to an Earth that has five years left before all life on it must come to an end. He tries to save the Earth in the form of an androgynous, bisexual rock star, but his arrogance, excesses, and decadent lifestyle end up destroying him. The songs were written first, and the story grew around them later.

The album shot Bowie into stardom, and it’s now considered one of the most important albums in rock history. Bowie toured in the Ziggy persona for several years; but his immersion into the character blurred the line between him and Ziggy, almost driving him over the edge. This going-over-the-edge is similar both to that of Vince Taylor, Ziggy’s main inspiration, and that of ‘Maxwell Demon,’ the persona of Brian Slade in the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, inspired by Ziggy Stardust.

Here is a link to the lyrics for all the songs on the album.

Five Years” introduces the problem of the story: it isn’t specified what the cause is, but “we had five years left to cry in.” The end of the world is nigh, apparently. Environmental destruction? Nuclear war between the NATO and Warsaw pact countries? No cause is stated explicitly, if it’s even implied. Bowie paints a vivid verbal picture of the traumatized reaction of everybody, but little more than that.

There are, however, a few hints as to what’s really going on. First of all, consider who the would-be messiah is: an alien whose herald is a bisexual, androgynous rock star? What can such a messenger do beyond entertain? Adults understand this, but the idolizing teenager sees so much more in the heroes he or she worships.

This story is a teenage fantasy, a melodrama in which rock stars are messengers of saviours, and mundane problems are seen as apocalyptic. How often have we heard adolescents over-dramatize whatever upsets them, acting as though their problems are heralding ‘the end of the world’? They do this again, and again, and again…

Consider the chord sequence of almost the whole song: G major, E minor, A major, and C major–four chords, repeated in a cycle throughout the song (save for the fat/skinny, tall/short, nobody/somebody people verse–A minor to C major [twice], G major to C major, D major 7th, and A minor to C major–not much of a variation). Anyone who listens closely to David Bowie songs, especially those of the 1970s, will typically hear many chord changes and variations within each song. “Five Years,” with its repetitive four chords, is symbolic of that adolescent melodrama of, “Mom! Dad! You’re ruining my life! My life is over!” happening again and again, in teenage crisis after teenage crisis.

Those five years are rumoured to have been the result of a dream Bowie had, in which his deceased father told him he would die in five years; but I see the choice of five years ’til ‘Armageddon’ as going from turning 13 to turning 18, or from turning 14 to turning 19…five years of emotional crises; perhaps a teenage fear of not being able to take care of oneself upon reaching the independence of adulthood. This fear of freedom is something Erich Fromm once explored.

The first time I heard this song, back when I was a teen, I was struck by how different Bowie’s voice sounded. It wasn’t his more usual baritone; he sang the song in a more boyish-sounding upper register, suggesting he was telling the story from a teen’s point of view.

Aside from the teen perspective, though, there are other interesting observations. Life is equated with suffering, since “we had five years left to cry in,” rather than live in. The teen narrator is observant in how deceptive the media is, since by his noting of the reporter’s tears, he “knew he was not lying.”

The teen wishes he could escape the pain by distracting himself, thinking of pop culture-oriented things, entertainment, etc.: “opera house, favourite melodies, boys, toys,…and TVs” (he and the other teenagers will be distracted by the pop culture icon, Ziggy Stardust, soon enough), but this manic defence cannot cure his despair.

His head is in pain; it feels “like a warehouse, it had no room to spare.” Now, he’s trying to cram in people, instead of pleasurable things; for as Fairbairn observed, correcting Freud, our libido is object-seeking (that is, seeking relationships with other people–objects are people other than oneself, the subject), not seeking to achieve pleasure, or the gratification of drives.

The boy is cramming “so many people”: fat/skinny, tall/short, nobody/somebody–these pairs of opposites sound like merisms, figures of speech often found in the Bible (heaven/earth, good/evil, as in the first three chapters of Genesis) meant to indicate the whole range from one extreme to the other. In other words, the teen is stuffing the internalized objects of people of all shapes, sizes, social classes, and of everything between the extremes of fame and obscurity, into his head, in a desperate attempt to escape the despair and desolation of loneliness that the imminent destruction of his world would cause for him.

The boy sees child abuse caused by the stress felt from the global crisis: a girl his age hits some children, rather like an elder sibling imitating the abusiveness of his parents. A black person stops her, saving the kids. This vignette suggests a number of the social issues many were especially concerned with at the time: the teen girl’s imitation of parental abuse suggests she isn’t observing the dictum, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” We also see a negation of the stereotype of the black criminal, by making a black man the hero this time. Teens of the early Seventies would have been sensitive to anti-establishment ideas like these.

A soldier stares at a Cadillac: he’s a member of the working class, who often die for the rich during war; he contemplates the luxury he himself can never enjoy, but for which he slaves away, so the ruling class can enjoy it. A cop defers to religious authority, disgusting a gay man who has been persecuted by that very authority.

The boy sees his love in an ice cream parlour, “looking so fine.” He feels “like an actor”–presumably in a melodramatic love story, or perhaps, in his teenage identity crisis, he doesn’t feel like his True Self. He wants his mother; he wants to regress back to an early childlike state, to an easier, less stressful time.

He thinks of his love, “drinking milkshakes cold and long.” He mentions his love’s “race”: is this person black? Is this the cause of his emotional crisis, the ‘end of the world’ for him? Have his conservative parents rejected his love for being a non-white? (Or is he black, and is his love white?) Is his love a she…or a he?

If he is in an interracial relationship, how does this tie in with the black person stopping the teen girl from beating the kids? His open-mindedness towards other racial groups for lovers is commendable, but is his choice of a (presumably non-white) partner meant as a deliberate act of defiance against his parents’ authority? If so, is his seeing a black person saving kids from a teen girl’s assault actually a wish-fulfilling dream, the girl representing his (immature) mom, the kids representing him (and similarly bullied teens), and the black person representing his love?

Does he want his love “to walk” up to him? “To walk” free from prejudice? Anyway, they have five years that he’s so obsessed with, it’s “stuck on [his] eyes,” and the “surprise” sounds like sarcasm; for he’s been through these brain-hurting crises so many times before, and will again so many times in the future, hence the repetitiveness of the song’s chord progression.

Soul Love” expresses the pitfalls of idolatrous “love” in several different forms. There’s the fake love of patriotism, the “slogan” of fighting for one’s country, leading to a mother’s tears at the sight of her son’s headstone in a cemetery.

Another form of idolatrous love is the puppy love of a teenage boy and girl speaking “new words.” But “love is careless,” descending over “those defenceless.” “Sweeping over, cross a baby,” could mean lovemaking resulting in an unwanted teen pregnancy, or it could mean the Cross that the baby Jesus, another idol, would eventually give His love on. Furthermore, “love is not loving.” The idolized ideal is far from the real thing.

“The flaming dove” could be religious zeal for the Holy Spirit, or the burning destruction of peace when “idiot love will spark the fusion” resulting in nuclear war, that foolish love of conquering an enemy (i.e., those ‘commies’ during the Cold War), instead of the wise love of learning how to coexist with differing ideologies. The “idiot love” could also cause “the fusion” resulting in an unwanted pregnancy.

The “soul love” of a Catholic priest tasting the Host (“the Word” made flesh…and in this case, made bread) is “told of love” of the Most High God as “all love” (1 John 4:8); but Bowie sings that his “loneliness evolves by the blindness that surrounds Him.” Evolutionary theory helps expose the phoney idolatry of religious faith, freeing man from Church authoritarianism, but also leaving us to feel alone and insignificant, in need of a new idol to worship, a new leader to follow blindly, as Fromm observed:

“When one has become an individual, one stands alone and faces the world in all its perilous and overpowering aspects.

“Impulses arise to give up one’s individuality, to overcome the feeling of aloneness and powerlessness by completely submerging oneself in the world outside.” (Fromm, page 29) The teen, rejecting parental or Church authority, nonetheless needs a new leader to follow, someone in whom he can submerge his individuality so he no longer feels alone or insignificant. The stage is set for Ziggy Stardust’s arrival.

Moonage Daydream” is more of a surrealist vignette than a continuation of the album’s narrative. Incoherent imagery (“I’m an alligator. I’m a mama/papa coming for you…a pink monkey-bird…,” etc.) abounds, like the automatic, random ramblings of the unconscious, a teenager’s “moonage daydream” of his coming rock ‘n’ roll messiah-herald, his dream as wish-fulfillment.

The notion of a wish for salvation through rock ‘n’ roll is accentuated with Mick Ronson‘s power chord at the beginning of the song. This “moonage daydream” is a teenage fantasy in which the teen hopes his rock ‘n’ roll idol will “lay the real thing on [him],” and prove that he really cares for the fan.

The daydream could be seen as a surreal dialogue between the rock star and his fan. We keep the “‘lectric eye” (the TV camera) on the star, while he presses his “space face close to” the fan’s. This “church of man,” a secular church of rock ‘n’ roll to replace that of the Bible-thumpers, “is such a holy place to be,” for it frees us of the repressions of the past.

Starman” advances the story with Ziggy Stardust heralding the coming of a saviour from outer space. The message is heard on a rock radio station; then, those Earthlings who hear it hope to learn more “on Channel Two,” on their TVs. Here we see how the media mesmerizes us with pop culture icons, who distract us from our real problems by tempting us to idolize rock stars; but as we learned from “Soul Love,” love (i.e., the idolatry of celebrities, religious figures, or partners who may break our hearts in the future) is not loving (i.e., real, selfless love).

The melody Bowie sings at the beginning of the chorus, with its upward leap of an octave and step down a semitone, reminds us of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” We’re being lured into a fantasy world, the adoration of a rock star, when we should focus on our reality on Earth; Dorothy similarly dreamed of an ideal world to escape from dreary Kansas–she’d want to return home soon enough, though. Little children were charmed by the Land of Oz; teenage “children” will “boogie” to Ziggy’s musical message.

It Ain’t Easy” has fewer chord changes than even “Five Years.” It isn’t a Bowie composition, though: it was written by Ron Davies. Bowie nonetheless did make a few lyrical changes to the song, in particular, this one: “With the help of the good Lord [instead of “patience and understanding”], we can all pull on through.” Such a change reinforces the album’s theme of reliance on religion, a form of idolatrous love that is a drug to distract us from our problems–recall, in this regard, what Marx had to say about religion.

Another contrast is between Davies’s bluesy original and the dainty melancholy of Bowie’s version, accentuated by Rick Wakeman‘s harpsichord playing. The repetition of the song’s few chord changes, like the four of “Five Years,” can be heard to symbolize the mundane normality of our unhappiness: same shit, different day.

“We will all pull on through, get there in the end. Sometimes it’ll take you right up, and sometimes down again.” The idolatrous love that religion and rock stars inspire only temporarily raises our spirits; like the highs and depressing coming-down on drugs, these manic defences aren’t omnipotent.

Side Two of the album establishes the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll prophet Ziggy Stardust. Now, “Lady Stardust” is actually about androgynous Marc Bolan, but the song still fits the narrative, since Ziggy represents glam rock stars like Bolan, Lou Reed, Jobriath, and of course Bowie. The boys and girls gaze on the beautiful star in pagan adoration.

While Ziggy is often confused with the extraterrestrials he’s heralding, it shouldn’t really matter whether he’s merely an earthly messenger or a quasi-divine alien. Rock stardom, here a metaphor for organized religion, shows that the distinction between messenger and message is typically blurred. The Bible is often perceived as infallible, even when its message of love is ignored; rock stars are practically deified by their fans, when it’s really their performances that should be admired. Jesus is God according to Christians; he’s a prophet according to Muslims. Religion on TV is entertainment as distracting as rock ‘n’ roll.

Star” begins with references to men who tried to improve their world through methods more down-to-earth than Ziggy’s. “Tony” is involved in the troubles in Northern Ireland, with the conflict between Britain and the IRA. Nye Bevan, as the UK Minister of Health from 1945 to 1951, tried to improve health care in England by socializing it. Some try to make things better, others fail and suffer.

Ziggy, however, imagines he can save the world by announcing the alien saviour “as a rock ‘n’ roll star.” He finds it “so enticing to play the part.” While Bowie himself had been without a major hit since “Space Oddity,” and therefore “could do with the money”; this preoccupation with cashing in on selling salvation through the media is chillingly redolent of the TV evangelists.

Hang On to Yourself” focuses on Ziggy’s party lifestyle with the groupies who idolize him. I’m reminded once again of the sons of God descending on the daughters of men in Genesis 6:1-4. The Starman has descended on Earth, and his mingling with us has resulted in the heroic Nephilim of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Yet since, as I argued in my examination of “Lady Stardust,” it doesn’t matter all that much whether Ziggy’s the alien himself of just an Earthly messenger of the Starman (because the religious tend to revere prophets almost on the same level as gods), then Ziggy and his band could themselves be the sons of God enjoying the daughters of men in their hotels every night. ‘Sons of God’ could be angels, gods, or otherwise quasi-divine beings, or they could be the descendants of Seth; therefore, Ziggy et al could be terrestrial or extraterrestrial, actual spiders from Mars.

In spite of the light-hearted attitude towards screwing groupies, though, they’d still “better hang on to [themselves].” For all of this freewheeling partying will ultimately lead to Ziggy’s self-destruction, just as the mating of the sons of God with the daughters of men led to the Deluge and destruction of the Earth, this latter already something expected to happen in five years.

Ziggy Stardust” tells the whole story in brief, but from the point of view of the envious Spiders from Mars. Ziggy’s an amazing talent on the guitar, but “he took it all too far.” Ziggy lets his talent and fame go to his head, “making love with his ego.” He imagines himself as godlike, “jiving us that we were voodoo.” The fans recognize that, in his growing egotism, Ziggy isn’t the saviour they’ve thought he is, so they kill him, and that’s the end of the band. The idolatrous always suffer bitter disappointment when reality hits them in the face.

Suffragette City” is about Ziggy’s relationship with a woman who’s great in bed, but has him so wrapped around her finger that she won’t let him hang out with his male friends. The power-based relationship is given a tongue-in-cheek comparison to men’s relationship with feminism, since Manchester, England was a major city for the growth of the Suffragette movement.

One of the hurdles in the fight for equality of the sexes is the perception that it involves one sex trying to dominate the other. Accordingly, feminists are perceived as ruling over their boyfriends/husbands in exchange for sex. On the other hand, a young man without a girlfriend or wife is seen as a freewheeling “droogie” running around partying, doing drugs, destroying property, beating people up, and even engaging in sexual impropriety (as Bowie himself was apparently guilty of with then-underage Lori Maddox).

What’s interesting, from the point of view of this song, though, is how rock star and groupie have changed roles: the idol has become the idolater, and vice versa. A son of the gods, having mated with a daughter of men, has become a son of men mating with a daughter of the gods. The dominant and submissive have swapped positions.

So, part of Ziggy’s self-destruction as a rock star is his ‘domestication’ by his girlfriend, thus losing his power and status as a rock-and-roll demigod; part of it is his having disappointed his fans by not delivering the salvation he’s promised; and most importantly, part of it is the drinking and drugs he’s overindulged in.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” focuses on that self-destructiveness through the excess partying. You can smoke the cigarette of time quickly, or you can savour it; live life in the fast lane, or take life with a relaxed attitude. Teenagers are stuck at a time of life of being “too old” and “too young” at the same time, too young to be partying to excess, but too old to be overprotected as children.

Early in the morning, one may “stumble across the road” drunk and stoned after a night of partying, which is a manic defence against all that is depressing to a teen…the “five years left to cry in.” Ziggy knows that kind of pain, for he’s “had [his] share.”

Even in his dying, Ziggy tries to comfort all the teens that he’s disappointed with his “religiously unkind” posturing as a prophet (making him no better than the priests and televangelists). Still, his advice is worth hearing: “Oh, no, love, you’re not alone!”

One of Bowie’s musical influences was Jacques Brel, whose “Jef” has been echoed in this song: “Non, Jef, t’es pas tout seul.” Brel comforts his friend Jef, after his girlfriend has dumped him and broken his heart; Ziggy comforts his teen fans after he himself has disappointed them, breaking their hearts. “You’re not alone!” Don’t let alienation get you down! “You’re wonderful!” You don’t need to identify with a rock star to feel worthy, teens. You’re already wonderful, just as you are.

The song climaxes with a whirlwind of chord changes and modulations suggesting the complicated emotions teens go through during those turbulent years. After the C major to A major sequence beginning with “Oh, no, love, you’re not alone,” we hear those words again with a chord progression of C-sharp minor, G-sharp minor, B major, D-sharp minor, B-flat minor, C-sharp major, B major, D-sharp minor, B-flat minor, and C-sharp major. Then, repeated chromatic ascents from B-flat major to C-sharp major are heard as Bowie sings, “Just turn on with me, and you’re not alone!…Give me your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful!” etc.

The lesson to be learned from this album is that, no matter what ‘apocalypse’ of “Five Years” we’re about to suffer, “No matter what or who you’ve been, no matter when or where you’ve seen, all the knives seem to lacerate your brain,” we don’t need an idol to “get there in the end.” No messengers of such idols, as the media likes to distract us with–be they priests, televangelists, or rock stars–are going to help us “all pull on through.”

It’s knowing that we’re not alone, that is, we’re all sharing the same sorrows and alienation of one form or another, that will comfort us, through our mutual empathy (that is, through Ron Davies’s “patience and understanding”). And if we give each other our hands in that empathic attitude, to help each other in solidarity, we’ll realize we have a lot more than just five years to live in.

Analysis of ‘Velvet Goldmine’

Velvet Goldmine is a 1998 musical drama film directed by Todd Haynes and written by him and James Lyons. It stars Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christian Bale, and Toni Collette; it costars Eddie Izzard, Emily Woof, and Michael Feast. It has music by Roxy Music, Brian Eno, and Lou Reed (though these are often covered by other musicians), among others, as well as original songs. Though the film’s title is inspired by the David Bowie song, that song isn’t used in the movie.

The story is about a glam rock star from the 1970s named Brian Slade (Rhys Meyers), who fakes his own assassination and ‘disappears.’ What’s happened to him? Journalist Arthur Stuart (Bale) must find out, in a manner reminiscent of the search for the meaning of ‘Rosebud’ in Citizen Kane.

The film also includes a number of quotes from Oscar Wilde: those from The Picture of Dorian Gray interest me in particular, since Slade, like Gray, is a beautiful boy whose homoerotic, narcissistic charm and false public image leads to the suffering of many, especially his female love interest (Mandy Slade, played by Collette).

Brian Slade, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Here are quotes of Wilde’s used in the movie, all from The Picture of Dorian Gray, unless otherwise specified (the quotes aren’t letter perfect in the movie):

“I knew I should create a sensation, gasped the Rocket, and he went out.” –“The Remarkable Rocket,” the end

“An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them.” (Chapter 1, page 18) [In the film, Curt Wild says, “A real artist creates beautiful things and…puts nothing of his own life into them.”]

“Women defend themselves by attacking, just as they attack with sudden and strange surrenders.” (Chapter 5, page 76)

“Nothing makes one so vain as being told that one is a sinner.” (Chapter 8, page 119)

“There were times when it appeared to Dorian Gray that the whole of history was merely the record of his own life, not as he had lived it in act and circumstance, but as his imagination had created it for him, as it had been in his brain and in his passions. He felt that he had known them all, those strange terrible figures that had passed across the stage of the world and made sin so marvellous, and evil so full of subtlety. It seemed to him that in some mysterious way their lives had been his own.” (Chapter 11, page 166)

“The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold. The curves of your lips rewrite history.” (Chapter 20, page 252)

Slade and Curt Wild (McGregor)

Here are some quotes from the movie:

Opening text: Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should never the less be played at maximum volume.

“Histories like ancient ruins are the fictions of empires. While everything forgotten hangs in dark dreams of the past, ever threatening to return.” –female narrator

“I want to be a pop idol.” –young Oscar Wilde

“Childhood, adults always say, is the happiest time in life. But as long as he could remember, Jack Fairy knew better.” –female narrator

“Rock music has always been a reaction against accepted standards. And homosexuality has been going on for centuries. At the moment having a ‘gay’ image is the ‘in’ thing, just like a few years ago it was trendy to wear a long grey coat with a Led Zeppelin record under your arm.” –Trevor (Slade’s guitarist)

“Everyone’s into this scene because it’s supposedly the thing to do right now. But you just can’t fake being gay. You know, if you’re gonna claim that you’re gay you’re gonna have to make love in gay style, and most of these kids…just aren’t going to make it. That line, ‘Everybody’s bisexual’, that’s a very popular thing to say right now. Personally, I think it’s meaningless.” –Curt Wild

“He thought he fucking was Maxwell Demon in the end – you know? And Maxwell Demon…he thought he was God.” –Curt Wild

“I want you because you remember.” –Lou

“He was elegance, walking arm in arm with a lie.” –Cecil, of Slade

“The doctors guaranteed the treatment would fry the fairy clean out of him. But all it did was make him bonkers every time he heard electric guitar.” –Cecil, of Curt Wild

“Heroin used to be my main man. You could be my main man.” –Curt Wild, to Brian Slade

“You all know me – subtlety’s my middle name. It’s as subtle as the piece of skin between my vagina and my anus – ooh la! la! Now what’s that called, I can never quite remember…No man’s land? Oh gosh – my geesh, dah-ling!” –Mandy Slade

“It’s funny how beautiful people look when they’re walking out the door.” –Mandy Slade

“Time, places, people,… they’re all speeding up. So, to cope with this evolutionary paranoia, strange people are chosen who, through their art, can move progress more quickly.” –Mandy Slade

Mandy Slade, played by Toni Collette.

While the film received only mixed reviews and was not a box office success, it has since become a cult classic, as it should be at the very least, for it is a superb film, visually and sonically gorgeous.

Brian Slade is a rock star reminiscent of David Bowie (during his Ziggy Stardust years) and Jobriath. He’s also bisexual, as is Curt Wild (McGregor), who’s based on Iggy Pop; and the two glam icons have a gay affair during the time they’re musically collaborating.

The film begins with a spaceship delivering a baby (Oscar Wilde), with an emerald pin clasped to his blanket, on the doorstep of the Wilde family in Dublin in 1854. This pin symbolizes the special talents of those who wear it, in particular the artistic gifts of LGBT people, whose suffering from the prejudice of mainstream society shapes the expression of those talents.

Genius is pain: the goodness of the one dialectically phases out from the evil of its opposite; the ouroboros‘s bitten tail of pain leads to the biting head of talent. I’ve discussed elsewhere how the ouroboros symbolizes the dialectical unity of opposites.

The ouroboros: I’d have the biting head and bitten tail represent the dialectical relationship between extreme opposites, while the length of its coiled body symbolizes a circular continuum of every intermediate point between those opposite extremes.

The next person to own the pin is gender-bending Jack Fairy, whom we see as a child being bullied by his male classmates in the schoolyard, all for such effeminate tendencies as wearing lipstick. As an adult, he will be admired by the glam rock community for his daring androgyny. He is a true original.

The glam rock fans of the 1970s like to put their ‘bisexuality’ on display…but are they really bisexual, or do they merely posture as such because of bisexual chic? Curt Wild, speaking to a TV reporter, thinks many of them are faking being gay. This notion of posturing, of having a narcissistic False Self, is a major theme in the movie…artificialityimage.

Slade’s identification with his persona, “Maxwell Demon” (paralleling Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust,’ an alien who comes to Earth, saves it, and becomes a rock-and-roll star, only to be destroyed in the end), goes to the point of almost driving him mad; he fakes his murder to be freed from the persona (a liberating from one’s False Self that is comparable to Dorian Gray’s stabbing his portrait with a knife, only to end up killing himself). Then, Slade becomes…someone else…

This escaping from reality, and from its pain, to build up a false self-image, is a manic defence, a mask to hide behind. Be a performer, and forget the pain that comes from the alienating bigotry and social rejection of the ‘freaks’ of the world: gays, transwomen, etc. Only through the flamboyant lie of being a rock star can we ever accept society’s deviants.

If you aren’t a star, though, then you’re just a lonely, sensitive fellow like journalist Arthur Stuart.

Journalist Arthur Stuart, played by Christian Bale.

As a member of the largely closeted LGBT community, a closeting resulting from the AIDS scare of the mid-1980s that revived much of the homophobia that had been tamed somewhat in the 1970s, Stuart has little to smile about. The partying years of the glam rock era are no more; his hero–Slade–turned out to be a phoney to all his former fans; and so all Stuart has are the painful memories of a once-hopeful time (hopeful for gay liberation) long since dead.

And now he has to research those painful years for Lou, his newspaper editor.

He sits on the subway, moping and brooding over those years, while a few seats over from him, a child is wearing a mask of Tommy Stone, the current pop idol. That mask is symbolic, because in the end we learn that Stone is who Slade has become! Slade has replaced one mask for another; he’s gone from the fake image of a glam rock star to that of an 80s pop star.

As an appropriate soundtrack background to Stuart’s melancholy, we hear the sad piano notes beginning Slade’s “Hot One,” a song from Stuart’s past, lost and gone forever. The song, with its promo video, combines Slade’s openly-expressed bisexuality with the fantasy of being from outer space, a world far better than our shitty Earth.

Actually, “Hot One” is sung and performed by Shudder To Think, who also wrote and recorded “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” (the soundtrack CD version). It’s interesting how Rhys Meyers, playing Slade, is mouthing the words of “Hot One,” as well as lip synching “The Whole Shebang” (performed by Grant Lee Buffalo) and the covers of Roxy Music’s “Ladytron” and “2HB” (performed by The Venus in Furs, a fictional band for the movie, but with vocals by Thom Yorke); while Rhys Meyers himself sang “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” (the movie version), the cover of Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire,” and the covers of Cockney Rebel‘s “Sebastian” and “Tumbling Down.” These alternating singers symbolize the shift back and forth between Slade’s False and True Selves.

Slade, in his False Self persona as Maxwell Demon.

Consider the prettiness of the voices whenever Rhys Meyers is not singing, as opposed to the rawness of his own voice. Not to disparage the immense talent of the other singers (Rhys Meyers, too, sings well, of course, but just with a different style); but my point is that the pretty vibratos of Craig Wedren of Shudder To Think and of Thom Yorke can be symbolically associated with the poseur primness of Slade’s Maxwell Demon persona, while Rhys Meyers’s earthier sound symbolically suggests the real Thomas Brian Patrick Stoningham Slade hiding underneath.

Since Slade is modelled largely on Bowie, this alternation between pretty and raw voices can be seen as a parallel of Bowie’s sometimes rawer, higher register (which can be heard in much, if not most, of his singing on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, as well as in other songs) and his more typical elegant baritone.

That ‘poseur,’ posturing voice is heard when Rhys Meyers’s Slade is mouthing the words of “Ladytron” to Collette’s Mandy, just before he steals her (and the emerald pin) from Jack Fairy. Recall the lyrics of the song: “I’ll use you, and I’ll confuse you, and then I’ll lose you…still, you won’t suspect me.” These words reflect the idealize, devalue, and discard phases of narcissists’ relationships with their victims…and these three things are exactly what happen to Mandy.

Since Slade is comparable to Dorian Gray in their narcissism, aestheticism, and libertine indulgence, so is his relationship with Mandy comparable to Gray’s with the actress Sibyl Vane. Gray loves Vane only when she acts well, that is, when she is not being herself; but when she does a poor performance of Juliet, showing obviously fake emotions because she’s too distracted in her love for him, he loses interest in her. (Wilde, Chapter seven, pages 97-102)

Similarly, Slade loves Mandy only when she does as much posturing (the American woman even faking an English accent) as he does. Later, he falls in love with the raw, real Curt Wild, she is doing less and less posturing, and Slade loses interest in her.

Slade has a love/hate relationship with his image; he’s told Wild, “A man’s life is his image.” He needs his phoney personae, but too much of living in them drives him mad. Dorian Gray has a similarly ambivalent relationship with the portrait Basil has painted of him: he envies and covets the permanence of its beauty, yearning to trade the impermanence of his own beauty with it; later, after the trade has been achieved, the picture’s growing ugliness, representing his growing sinfulness, makes him hate and fear the painting, since it’s a mirror to his soul.

Slade has also traded his True Self for the beauty of Maxwell Demon…later, Tommy Stone. And since Maxwell is paralleled to Bowie’s Ziggy, Tommy–in his white outfit, the next big image Slade has made for himself–can be paralleled with Bowie’s Thin White Duke, appearing in a white shirt from 1974-1977, right after Ziggy appeared. And as The Thin White Duke spoke in a pro-fascist way, there is Tommy Stone’s support for “President Reynolds” (sounds like right-wing Reagan) as “Excellent. Excellent. I think he’s doing brilliant work. He’s a–tremendous leader, tremendous spokesperson for the needs of the nation today.” (And post-Ziggy Bowie, as did Slade after the end of Maxwell, snorted a lot of cocaine.)

Slade repels his True Self, yet sees an idealized (i.e., fake!) version of it in Curt Wild’s raw energy. His falling in love with Wild is Narcissus adoring his reflection in the pond.

Wild’s excessive drug use, incompetence in the recording studio, and violent temper tantrums (to say nothing of Mandy’s jealousy) mean that Slade’s symbolic ‘True Self’ is unacceptable to his peers. When he loses Wild, he must lose his False Self, Maxwell Demon, too…for that False Self is a true demon, like Gray’s portrait.

Stuart’s also had to lose his False Self, the glitter-eye-makeup-wearing gay groupie of the band who covers T. Rex‘s “20th Century Boy” (actually performed by Placebo); and so now all he has is his melancholic, lonely True Self.

Curt Wild keeps screwing up in the studio.

Slade’s indulgence in his Maxwell Demon persona, pushed to the extreme of thinking he is Maxwell (“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person! Give him a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth!”), is him going to the ouroboros’s biting head of extreme posturing. His love of earthy, real, proto-punk Curt Wild is Slade pushing past the biting head, over to the bitten tail of his ‘True Self,’ projected onto Wild, and therefore he’s not really being his True Self. This means Slade has not only gone past the serpent’s head to its tail, but he’s gone another circle around the ouroboros’s coiled body, back to the head. And since Wild can’t be the ‘True Self’ Slade needs him to be, their affair ends.

Similarly, teen Stuart–idolizing Slade, narcissistically identifying with him, and masturbating to pictures of Slade and Wild–shifts past the serpent’s biting head of an extreme False Self, and over to his True Self again, when his father catches him in his room and shames him for expressing his sexuality.

The fact is, all of us have a mixture of False and True Selves, and with this reality comes our place on the narcissistic spectrum. But since most of us have integrated our True and False Selves, our narcissistic tendencies are usually at moderate, healthy, mature, and realistic levels. It’s when the True and False Selves are polarized and split, the ‘ugly’ real self being repressed and/or projected onto other people, that’s when narcissism becomes pathological, resulting in hurting those around us. (I’ve written much about this problem elsewhere.)

The splitting of True and False Selves is a manic defence against dealing with our pain. Pushing these defences to extremes–the libertine hedonism of Slade in his orgies and cocaine-sniffing, and of Gray in his opium den–results in an explosion of pain, going from the ouroboros’s biting head to its bitten tail.

We can’t run away from the pain of such bigotries as homophobia and transphobia by escaping into a sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll fantasy world; we must change our world as it is…not in the idealistic way Slade and Wild try to do and end up only changing themselves, but in the realistic way of changing all of ourselves, together, slowly but surely, through teaching people love…not the fake love of religious authoritarianism, but the real love of tolerance and open-mindedness.

Todd Haynes, Velvet Goldmine, Miramax Books/Hyperion, New York, 1998

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Penguin Popular Classics, London, 1994

Analysis of ‘Three Friends’

Three Friends is a concept album by Gentle Giant, released in 1972. At this time, the band was a sextet, with saxophonist/singer Phil Shulman playing beside his younger brothers, Derek (vocals) and Ray (bass, violin, acoustic guitar, backing vocals); original drummer Martin Smith was replaced by Malcolm Mortimore, who played only on this Gentle Giant album before being replaced in turn by drummer/tuned percussionist/singer John Weathers, who would stay with the band until their breakup in 1980.

This album is not as dissonant or complex as the other Gentle Giant albums, and I say this in full knowledge of how they abandoned progressive rock in the late 70s in an abortive attempt to become more radio-friendly. Put another way, I don’t consider their attempt at going pop to be genuine Gentle Giant…and I don’t think mine is a minority opinion. The profit motive ruins art by forcing it to conform to trends.

The outer front album cover shows three boys, sharing a similar whitish-blue-purple colour for their bodies, sitting and facing each other, with a seagull in the middle; the back cover shows the three boys with their backs to each other, their colours now different (reddish-white, greenish-white, and purplish-white), and the seagull flying away. The front cover thus suggests their similar nature at first as boys, enjoying each other’s company by the sea, an image I’ve elsewhere associated with the highest peace; this then changes, on the back cover, to their growing different from each other, and thus alienated, with the memory of their togetherness by the sea having flown away, like the seagull.

The inner sleeve shows black and white drawings of the boys at school, with their strict, authoritarian teacher, their blissful memories together hearing an old brass band, and playing with kites on the beach, with the seagulls flying nearby. Then, we see each of them as men in their respective career choices: a wealthy businessman in his coat and hat looking at his nice, expensive house and car; a construction worker with his pickaxe; and an artist in his (basement?) studio with his drawings. The three men are facing away from us, for they are as alienated from us and the rest of the world as they are from each other.

The six songs of the album tell the story of these three boys, whose childhood friendship ended with them as men going their separate ways–a worker, a painter, and a businessman. This story can thus be seen to be an allegory of how class conflict causes alienation among people who, except for this class conflict, would be close and happy together.

Here is a link to all the lyrics on the album.

The first song, “Prologue,” sets the tone for the album by presenting a precis of the story in the lyrics, and by creating a dark mood in the music. A snare drum roll by Mortimore leads into a mildly dissonant opening, with Kerry Minnear‘s organ, Gary Green‘s guitar, and Ray’s bass; these three are playing in 6/8 time while Mortimore is drumming a cross-rhythm in 4/4.

Next comes a dark theme, the main one of the song, played on Ray’s fuzz bass, Green’s guitar, and Minnear’s Minimoog. Phil joins them on baritone sax, then sings the lead vocal, with a backing vocal by Minnear, singing contrapuntal melodies that are independent of each other, and reminding us of the independent voices of a polyphonic Renaissance madrigal, already a staple of Gentle Giant’s music.

Phil sings of how the boys’ friendship shared all the joys and sadness that any childhood relationship would have. “But fate and skill and chances” would eventually separate the boys, not just geographically, but also in terms of class, most crucially. As Phil and Minnear are singing, we hear Ray’s sad notes plucked on a 12-string acoustic guitar in the background.

“They tell their tales to justify,” that is, justify why they have had to go their separate ways; for, in spite of how, deep down in their unconscious, they’d much rather be together again, as adults they are in deep denial of how empty their lives have become. “Skill” separates them, for their differing skills (or lack of them) result in their going either higher or lower in terms of social class, the “chances” being their differing economic opportunities.

“Schooldays” is my personal favourite song on the album, for it is the richest in melody and harmony, in my opinion. It opens with a playful melody on Minnear’s vibraphone and Green’s jazz-toned guitar. It suggests the joyful, spontaneous energy of children running around, laughing, and playing together. Minnear and Phil sing in reminiscence of the happy time the boys shared, one voice following the other, as one boy chasing the other in play.

Each of the three men, in his dreams or internal monologues, has moments remembering his Edenic childhood; for only in their unconscious minds, or their private thoughts, would they allow such idyllic moments to be experienced. “Was it real, or did we dream? The days of children gone,” young Calvin Shulman (Ray’s son) sings as Minnear sings of the boys together with their ice cream on the beach, or hearing the brass band play.

The childlike innocence of the first half of the song gives way to a dark melancholy in Minnear’s pounding piano chords, based on the tritone interval (the diabolus in musica), suggesting the loss of that Edenic innocence as childhood naïveté acquires devilish knowledge in the authoritarian setting of school. The bitonality between these dark piano chords and the simultaneously playing, but also fading-out instrumentation of the previous “How long is ever,…” section also emphasizes the conflict between childhood innocence and adult experience.

The strict, Yahweh-like teacher wants obedient, unquestioning pupils who get all their homework assignments done on time. One suspects that the boy who thinks “it’s worth the pain to go out when [he] want[s]” will become an underachieving student who, when he becomes a man, will be…

“Working All Day” begins with Green playing a guitar part whose tape recording is slowed down, the discordant lowering of pitch suggesting how the first of the three friends has gone down in social rank, and how discordant the resulting class conflict feels. Indeed, since he’s a member of the working class, the painful contradiction between him and the bourgeoisie will be most keenly felt of all three men.

“Digging up the roads,” he has to do the most menial of labour to live. As miserable as he is, though, he’s often in denial of that misery, for he gets his money to “spend it where [he] like[s],” and “money buys escape” (drinking and partying, presumably), so he’s “got no regrets,” apparently. This denial of discontent is just as evident in the other two friends, as we’ll soon see.

The guitar- and sax-driven main riff reflects the meat-and-potatoes life of the working class, a strong contrast to the jazzy playfulness of “Schooldays,” and the Baroque lushness of the first part of “Peel the Paint.” The rock-oriented voice of Derek is thus most appropriate for “Working All Day.”

“Papa was rough. He didn’t care for learning. Hell, life is tough.” Either Papa was “rough” in the sense of unrefined, or “rough” in the sense of beating the boy, or both. In any case, the first friend wasn’t encouraged to be ambitious, hence he’s a worker.

The bitterness he feels over his life’s disappointments causes him not to believe in socialist ideas about equality, so one assumes he isn’t in a union; from this, we can assume that “working all day” means working more than eight hours a day for him.

He does all the work, “the boss gets all the money. Life ain’t just.” Without a union to help him fight for his rights (and this at a time, in the 1970s, when unions were at their strongest), “who can [he] trust?” The dissonance of the background instrumentation at the end of each verse symbolically reinforces the sense of class conflict, the contradiction between the interests of the boss and those of the overworked, underpaid workers.

Since the painter, whose story is sung by Phil during the first half of “Peel the Paint,” is “free from the start” and “thinks he has won a place in the sun, free from the worries and the ways of everyone,” it seems reasonable to assume that he isn’t the stereotypical starving artist. I’m guessing that this second of the three friends has achieved a moderate level of success, though “high in the air, his dreams are there,” as he hopes for greater financial success.

Since the first friend is working class and the third friend is among the upper classes, and since all three friends have gone “from class to class” (as we hear in the title track), that is, separated from each other in terms of social class, it is safe to assume that the artist occupies the remaining section of the social ladder–the middle class.

He fancies himself a creator of great art, of the sort that will be remembered among the masterpieces of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Vermeer; hence, in the background instrumentation we hear Ray plucking violin pizzicatos behind Phil’s singing, then after we hear Phil sing “colour the brush,” we hear a lavish pastiche of Baroque music with Ray bowing harmonized violin overdubs. This Baroque/Rococo parody suggests the artist’s snobbish pretensions.

The contrast between Phil’s gentle singing of “colour the brush” (i.e., put on the paint, and hide yourself), as against Derek’s aggressive singing of “peel the paint” (i.e., take off the paint, and show who you really are) symbolizes the artist’s pretence of artistry against the moral imperative to reveal the ugly truth, that the artist has compromised his integrity for money. Putting on the paint, versus taking it off, is like a prostitute painting her face with bright colours of makeup (as if pretending to like what she does), versus removing it and showing her unhappy self.

The artist imagines himself to be refined, but underneath he’s “the same old savage beast,” whose savagery is reflected in the change from the fancy first half to a balls-out hard rock second half, now with Derek on lead vocals. This brutish materialism is what the artist really exudes underneath the phoney genteel surface, since he’s a mere panderer to lucrative trends; Gentle Giant’s moral condemnation of the painter is ironic given how the band made a failed attempt to do what Genesis succeeded at in the late 70s, a pandering Gentle Giant would soon regret.

Speaking of pandering for the sake of financial success, consider now the third friend, who’s grown up to be “Mister Class and Quality?” He brags of “the prizes [he has] showing,” then denies his narcissism by saying he “never shout[s] about them,” namely, his “house and car and pretty wife.” His friends are his only in terms of how they can help him rise higher; put another way, those two childhood chums of his are no longer of any use to him, so why try to reunite with them?

After each verse, a dissonant counterpoint is heard between the guitar, organ, and bass, once again representing the class conflict between him, “the artist [and] the lazy workers” as well as between him and those at work, among whom he must “give and take the orders.” There’s a similarly dissonant bitonality between the fading-out end of the instrumental jam (licks courtesy of Green’s bluesy guitar and Minnear’s wah-wah electric piano) in the bridge and the return of the main riff (lead by Ray’s violin) for the final verse.

The title track is a sad epilogue for the album. Some on the internet claim either that the three friends see the error of their ways and reunite in the end, or at least imply a possible reunion. I see no evidence anywhere in the lyrics or in the music, especially with this last song’s melancholy melodies, to justify such an interpretation.

Their childhood past was “sweet in sadness,” for it included both the good and the bad times that occur in every relationship. The “gladness” that comes “in the end” must be ironic, a reference to how gladly the businessman chooses money over friendship; how the painter gladly panders for money, instead of sacrificing comfort for the sake of preserving artistic integrity; and how the worker gladly spends his meagre wages as a fleeting “escape” from his miserable existence as a wage slave.

The tragedy of the three friends–a tragedy whose cathartic quality is what makes the album so artistically satisfying–is their mutual alienation, an inevitable consequence of moving “from class to class,” lower, middle, and upper. People on different rungs of the social ladder don’t mingle, except “to give and take the orders.” That’s the whole point of Three Friends: all of us, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, are like those three lost boys, separated by skill, fate, and opportunity, mutually alienated.

Analysis of ‘Animals’

Animals is a 1977 concept album by Pink Floyd. It was all conceived by bassist Roger Waters, who not only wrote almost all the music as well as all the lyrics, but also sang most of the lead vocals (except for ‘Dogs,’ much of which was sung by guitarist David Gilmour, who also co-wrote the song), and even played much of the acoustic and rhythm guitar [with Gilmour playing bass on ‘Pigs (Three Different Ones)’ and ‘Sheep‘].

Here are the lyrics to all the songs on the album.

The album’s concept, with its dogs, pigs, and sheep, was loosely inspired by George Orwell‘s Animal Farm; but don’t expect this album to be a criticism of Marxism-Leninism. These dogs don’t represent Stalin‘s secret police; these pigs are not the Bolsheviks; and these sheep, while docile and unthinkingly obedient at first, eventually rise up and crush the real enemy of modern humanity–capitalism.

Again, as with my analysis of The Dark Side of the Moon, I’m writing this as a tribute to Roger Waters, and his principled stance against such current issues as what’s happening in Syria, the West Bank and Gaza, Brazil, and now, Venezuela. Though not quite as radical a socialist as I’d prefer him to be, Waters is as opposed to the ruling class now as he was back in the 70s. His socialism is what justifies my doing a leftist analysis of Animals.

Since I wrote my analysis of Animal Farm, I’ve continued my transition away from staunch anarcho-communism and grown much more patient about when the withering away of the state should occur. Because of this change of heart, coupled with my sense of horror at what’s happened to the world since the catastrophic dissolution of the Soviet Union, I’ve come to view Orwell’s novella in a much less positive light.

This change of heart has made me want to write of Animal Farm in a far more critical way, but without hassling to update my old post. (Remember, Dear Reader: if you want to know my current views on a subject, check the dates of my posts; my views evolve and change all the time, so if my newer posts contradict anything I said in the older ones, you should know which views to judge me by now.) So I’ll be critical of Orwell here, if indirectly.

Tankie readers, I give you my anti-Animal Farm!

The cover colour photo of Animals shows a pig balloon floating over the Battersea Power Station. Black and white photos on the inner sleeve show more of the power station, as well as a bigger image of the pig balloon, a gate, and barbed wire.

So instead of the private property of a farm, which in Orwell’s allegory becomes the so-called state capitalist property of the Stalinist pigs, we have the actual state capitalist property of the bourgeois UK government, whose pigs, gates, and barbed wire seem to say “Keep out!” (as the sign of an owner of private property would say) to the disenfranchised rest of us.

These images are ominous: though state-owned enterprises can be for the public good, they can also be privatized. The cover of Animals seems to be warning us of what will happen to such things as the welfare state if people like Thatcher are allowed to have their way…as, indeed, they eventually would, so many years following the release of the album. Don’t let pigs gain ascendancy over public services!

The ‘Pigs On the Wing‘ songs were written for Waters’s then just-married wife Carolyne Christie, though their message of love can easily be extended to a general sense of comradeship.

If we don’t care about each other, we’ll just “zig-zag our way,” that is, move about aimlessly, with no sense of direction. “The boredom and pain” of alienation and ennui will have us only “occasionally glancing up through the rain,” that is, rarely noticing the cause of our woes.

Note how irregular the rhythm of Waters’s acoustic guitar strumming gets at this point, ultimately switching from its 3+3+2 subdivision of (2 bars of ) 4/4 at the beginning to 3/4 at the end, when he sings of who the cause of our pain is: the “pigs on the wing,” who cause our irregularity, our zig-zagging.

The pigs are flying because they are the ugly beasts at the top of the political and economic ladder, like that pig balloon on the album cover. They’re also “on the wing” because the ideal they represent will come true when pigs fly.

…and what is that ideal? Not full communism, for recall, this album is the anti-Animal Farm. These pigs’ ideal is ‘free market’ capitalism, already championed in the mid-1970s by such people as Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher, at the time the Leader of the Opposition. This ideal would quickly degenerate into the ugly reality of neoliberalism, the effects of which we’ve been suffering increasingly for the past forty years.

The dogs in Animal Farm, as I mentioned above, were the NKVD, whose excesses during the 1930s (unjust incarcerations and executions) are blamed on Stalin, but were largely the fault of Yagoda and Yezhov.

The dogs of Animals, however, are the dogs of capitalism, not communism. These bourgeois barkers are those of the middle and upper classes. Those who “can work on points of style, like the club tie, and the firm handshake” are clearly those of the upper classes, who “as [they] get older…in the end [they’ll] pack up and fly down south.” The rest of the lyrics can equally apply to all those from the lower-middle to upper classes.

Since the dogs of Animal Farm are understood to be the secret police of the proletarian state, the dogs of Animals can be seen to represent, at least in part, the police of the bourgeois state, loyal to their upper class masters to the point of fawning, while vicious to, and growling at, the working class.

The petite bourgeois, “when…on the street,” has “got to be able to pick out the easy meat,” that is, find good opportunities in his upwardly-mobile ambitions, and “strike when the moment is right without thinking.” Indeed, not thinking about the workers he’s exploiting. Then, if he’s one of the small minority of petite bourgeois who rise up the ranks of the rich, he “can work on points for style.”

The back-stabbing capitalist has “to be trusted by the people that [he lies] to.” These people include not only the masses of exploited workers, but also the traumatized veterans of imperialist wars, all those people deceived by the corporate media, and also the petite bourgeoisie, whose hopes for advancement are frustrated by the super-rich’s use of the state to keep down the competition. “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, p. 929) Capitalism is a dog eat dog world.

It’s significant that musically, the whole song has a sad tone to it, for the rule of the bourgeois makes sadness, depression, and alienation all epidemic problems. Gilmour’s harmonized guitar leads imitate the sad howling of lonely dogs, who symbolize the alienated people of all classes.

You could be a worker, a petite bourgeois, a cop, or a billionaire, and “it’s going to get harder…as you get older.” And while you may be rich enough to afford to “pack up and fly down south,” your wealth won’t save you from having to suffer what so many of the rest of us suffer, to “hide your head in the sand, just another sad old man, all alone and dying of cancer.”

The tendency of the rate of profit to fall results in financial crises when the capitalist will “lose control” and “reap the harvest [he has] sown.” One day, the crisis will be too great to recover from, and it will be “too late to lose the weight [he] used to throw around. So, have a good drown,” bourgeoisie, “as you go down all alone, dragged down by the stone.” That stone dragging down the self-destructing, suicidal bourgeoisie is tied to the same dialectical wheel that ended feudalism; that echoing “stone, stone, stone,…” symbolizes the cyclical turning of that wheel.

Gilmour has sung so far; now, Waters takes over the lead vocals. He is singing in the voice of one beginning to develop class consciousness, for he’s “confused,” sensing he’s “just being used.” He has to “shake off this creeping malaise” of alienation, and “find [his] way out of this maze,” the base and superstructure created by the ruling class.

He tells all those without class consciousness that they are “deaf, dumb, and blind…pretending that everyone’s expendable, and no one has a real friend.” The pro-capitalist dogs of class war, regardless of their social class or occupation (businessman, cop, soldier), justify their defence of society’s class structure, for they “believe at heart everyone’s a killer.”

The pro-capitalist has this cynical view of the world because he “was born in a house full of pain,…was told what to do by the man,…was broken by trained personnel, [and]…was fitted with collar and chain,” for he’s been a good, obedient dog who never questioned his indoctrination that there is no alternative. As a result, he “was only a stranger at home,” for that’s how deep worker alienation cuts.

And when the capitalist mode of production finally collapses under its own contradictions, the obedient dogs of the bourgeoisie will be “dragged down by the stone” with their masters.

“Pigs (Three Different Ones)” takes on three political influences in England that Waters had, and still has, no love for.

It’s hard to know specifically who Waters had in mind for the first one, a “big man, pig man, ha-ha, charade you are.” As a pig, he’s a politician, by reference to the Bolshevik pigs in Animal Farm; but since this is Waters’s anti-capitalist allegory, and since he’s probably thinking about a 1970s British politician, it’s safe to assume he’s thinking about a right-winger.

Allied to the above is the notion of ‘war pigs,’ an expression that, by the late 70s, was already popularized by the Black Sabbath song. So I’ll venture to guess that, whoever this pig was, he was probably hawkish and imperialistic, hoping to get his filthy hands on the natural resources of an exploited Third World country, hence the pig’s “digging.” “What do you hope to find?” Waters asks, “down in the pig mine.”

The second pig seems to be Margaret Thatcher, who at the time of Animals‘ release wasn’t yet prime minister, but who as Leader of the Opposition was already up to no good. We often think of the rise of neoliberalism as something that began in the 1980s, with her and Reagan; but the precursors of it were already going on in a big way from the mid-70s, after the oil crisis caused many to consider Keynesian economics to have run its course.

The influence of Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys was already felt in Chile, after the September 11th 1973 coup replaced democratically-elected Salvador Allende with authoritarian dictator Augusto Pinochet. A popular myth claims that the “free market” policies of Pinochet‘s regime revived the Chilean economy, but the only beneficiaries were the ruling class. Their benefit, nonetheless, was enough to encourage ideologues like Thatcher to apply “free market” capitalism to the UK and the rest of the world.

In making Animals, Waters was being prescient in a way I’m sure that today, with neoliberalism having metastasized into a global evil, he would wish he’d gotten horribly wrong.

Many, if not most people, in the UK and around the world would agree that Thatcher was a “fucked up old hag.” As one who wanted to maximize privatization, she is aptly described in the song as a “bus stop [i.e., stop the progressive movement of public services] rat bag” [i.e., the filth and squalor that results from ending those public services]. She radiated “cold shafts of broken glass,” and she did “like the feel of steel” (the term Iron Lady was already being used for her).

Like the first pig, she was “good fun with a hand gun,” for she would soon prove to be an imperialist, too; also, she’s “nearly a laugh, but…really a cry”: we should be laughing at clowns like her, but what they do is so hurtful, we can only cry. The surprise in how these ideologues’ asininity actually hurts is felt in the brief switch from 4/4 to one bar of 3/4 on hearing Waters sing “cry,” then back to 4/4.

The third pig was Mary Whitehouse, an old prude who protested against the growing permissiveness of British society. Again, her wish to restore a repressive sexual morality would have been laughable if not for her later political alliances with highly-placed conservatives like Thatcher. The ruling class wants to control us in every way, including our sexuality.

Today, however, the ruling class controls our desires in the opposite way, by overindulging us through the media and markets, so we’ll be too distracted to think critically about the system we’re all stuck in. Recall my use of the ouroboros as a symbol of the dialectical relationship of opposites: as regards sexuality, the serpent’s biting head of repression (Whitehouse) shifts over to its opposite, the bitten tail of such things as addiction to internet porn, strippers, prostitutes, etc. We think about fucking, so we won’t think about how we’re all being fucked.

“Do you feel abused?” Waters taunts Whitehouse, then pants lewdly into the microphone, as if watching a porno. She’d have us “keep it all on the inside.” She’s “nearly a treat,” another sexual taunt at her priggishness, but she, like Thatcher et al, is “really a cry.”

Nick Mason punctuates the beat in this song by hitting a cowbell, an ironic allusion to the cows in Animal Farm, and perhaps another jab at Thatcher and Whitehouse. In the middle section, Richard Wright plays a hypnotic melody on the organ, later adding a synth to it: B-E-F#-G-F#-E-F#-G-B-E-F#-G-F#-E-F#-G-C-E-F#-G-F#-E-F#-G-C-E-F#-G-F#-E-F#-G…,” etc., suggesting the way these politicians hypnotize us all into going along with their agendas.

Switching roles, lead guitarist Gilmour plays sad bass licks over the sad E minor/C major progression that bassist Waters strums on the rhythm guitar (with a delay effect), and with Wright’s mesmerizing keyboard melody. Elsewhere, Gilmour uses a talk box to imitate pigs’ oinks and grunts as he plays lead guitar licks. It’s so sad being mesmerized by political pigs.

Waters’s “Sheep” aren’t the usual passive type, at least not by the end of the song. They’re like the rebelling animals at the end of the CIA-financed cartoon version of Animal Farm, which was an egregious bit of anti-Soviet propaganda going even further than Orwell had intended. Thus, the irony of this anti-capitalist song, when compared with that cartoon, is a masterstroke for Waters.

At first, the sheep are like most of us, “only dimly aware of a certain unease in the air.” We all suffer the discontents of neoliberalism, but many of us still think that either voting Trump out of office, or pushing for still more “free market” deregulation, or voting in Labour in the UK, or voting in anybody, in and of itself will solve the problem. “You better watch out! There may be dogs about.” Remember to be careful not to let slip the dogs of class war.

Waters has looked over the Jordan River, and instead of seeing the band of angels coming for to carry the evangelical Christian Zionists home, he’s seen the oppression of the Palestinians. This is “what…you get for pretending the danger’s not real.”

When, “meek and obedient, you follow the leader…into the valley of steel”–the steel of the Iron Lady who helped bring about the neoliberalism that has resulted in an epidemic of homelessness in the UK, San Francisco, and elsewhere–you finally have “terminal shock in your eyes,” and you realize that “this is no bad dream.”

Waters warned us about people like Thatcher decades ago. In allowing May‘s ascendancy, we proved we never heeded this warning. The scraping on the dubbed strings of Waters’s rhythm guitar suggests that “terminal shock.”

In the midsection of the song, we hear a bassline and some keyboard harmonizing (based on a D diminished seventh chord) that seem inspired by the Doctor Who theme. Do we need The Doctor to intervene and wake us complacent sheep up?

Also during this section of the song, we hear Waters speaking through a vocoder and parodying Psalm 23, indicating that Church authoritarianism has been used to help the ruling class, that is, people like Whitehouse helping people like Thatcher. Is The Doctor one of those sons of God who, in consorting with the daughters of man, will do the forbidden mixing of the human and divine worlds (symbolic language for sharing the power of the wealthy with the poor), and thus give us the strength to revolt against the ruling class?

The rich would naturally see such a development as a great evil; for when the revolution comes, and we erstwhile timid sheep have fallen “on [the bourgeois’s] neck with a scream,” we “wave upon wave of demented avengers” will have finally replaced the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie with that of the proletariat.

Then, when “the [capitalist] dogs are dead,” and any petite bourgeois puppies hope to revive the profit motive, we’ll warn them to “stay home and do as you’re told,” for the workers will have power over the rich…for a change. The surviving bourgeois wannabes will have to “get out of the road if [they] want to grow old.”

The song ends with Gilmour strumming triumphant chords high up the guitar neck in the key of E major, then over background progressions of D major and E major (with a bass pedal point in octaves of E), and also E major and A major.

“Pigs on the Wing, Part Two” reaffirms that we care for each other, now that we’ve defeated the capitalists and done away with the attendant alienation. We thus “don’t feel alone, or the weight of the stone.”

Waters also acknowledges that he’s a dog himself, as a wealthy member of a successful 70s band…and as the then-spouse of a British aristocrat! (He thus seems, as a critic of capitalism, to be acknowledging his ‘canine nature’ in anticipation of the old tu quoque retort.)

To be fair, though, we all need a home, even the bourgeois; accordingly, socialists strive to provide homes for everyone. “A shelter from pigs on the wing,” those dangerous ideologues who try to charm us with the empty promises of the “free market,” promises that will come true only when pigs grow wings.

Analysis of ‘The Power and the Glory’

The Power and the Glory is a political concept album recorded in 1974 by British progressive rock band Gentle Giant. While the eccentric, complex (by prog standards!), and dissonant music of this band, for obvious reasons, never resulted in widespread commercial success for them, this album–despite being one of their most dissonant–was an attempt, on some level, to expand their audience in the US.

Sherman Hemsley, having been an accomplished musician himself, was a fan of progressive rock; on Dinah Shore‘s TV show, Dinah!, he apparently danced to ‘Proclamation,’ the rather funky first track on the album. If anyone out there has footage of this holy TV moment, I would be eternally grateful if he or she could present me with video of it.

Here is a link to all the lyrics on the album, including those for the bonus title track. The songs tell the story of a politician who, at first, seems to want to help the people, but then gets mired in the corrupt system and ends up the very kind of politician he was supposed to be trying to cure the system of…an all-too-familiar problem, making the album as relevant today as it was forty-five years ago.

The studio version of ‘Proclamation’ begins with a roaring crowd of supporters of the rising politician, unnamed because…really…he or she could be anyone, past, present, or future. Then we hear multi-instrumentalist Kerry Minnear playing a jaunty tune on an electric piano, typically idiosyncratic Gentle Giant. This quirky jauntiness suggests the shaky hope we feel that the politician will deliver on his promises.

Singer Derek Shulman comes in on the off-beat (or at least what feels like the off-beat, at the beginning of the studio version of the song), an example of Gentle Giant’s typical trickiness, but also a suggestion that we already have little reason to trust the tricky politician’s promises to cure the ailing nation.

“You may not have all you want or you need.” May not? Of course we don’t! Politicians, conservative or liberal, always ensure the imperialist, class structure of society while making empty promises of change, for the sole purpose of appeasing the masses and stopping them from revolting.

“All that you have has been due to my hand.” What do we have that’s come from you? Empty promises? Blind hopes? Not what we genuinely need.

“It can change. It can stay the same./Who can say, who can make their claim?” The situation can change only through revolution; voting will keep it the same, with only the outer appearance of change. That’s my claim, for what it’s worth.

“The situation we are in at this time/Neither a good one, nor is it so unblest.” The politician must acknowledge the discontents of the people, yet from his privileged point of view, it isn’t so bad, either. Hence, all he has to make are some cosmetic changes to satisfy the herd, while leaving the same basic structure intact.

“Hail!” the crowd of mindless supporters shouts.

“Unity’s strength and all must be as one.” Solidarity and oneness are what we want, but “confidence in you, hope will reflect in me.” Mr. Politician, you have not yet earned our confidence, nor should we hope too much from you. “You are my people,” the politician says, putting on the charm, but that “there must be no change” is a hint that he has no intention of curing any of our societal, economic, and political ills. This is what he “will say,” this is how he “will make [his] claim.”

Still, the mindless rabble listens uncritically, chanting “Hail!”

The music gets increasingly discordant in the middle section, especially with Minnear’s organ, culminating in “Hail to the power, and to glory’s way!” The loud, dissonant chords emphasize the evil that inevitably results from the kind of blind nationalism and chauvinism that is too often inspired by manipulative demagogues, who lead the masses by the nose.

Next, we hear harmonic resolution (relatively speaking, of course: this is Gentle Giant, after all) behind the words “day by day,” which is repeated under an electric piano in the bass, bitonal in relation to the fading-out singing and organ. This bitonality suggests the two-faced nature of politicians, as well as the discordance between, on the one side, the lying politician, and on the other, the gullible public.

The next part uses a technique frequently used by Gentle Giant, one called hocketing, only with the instruments here rather than voices, so it is rather like Klangfarbenmelodie. It reassembles the fragments of the opening jaunty tune played on the electric piano, yet this time played not only on that keyboard, but also on organ, Gary Green‘s guitar, and a high-hat on John Weathers‘s drum kit. This need to reassemble the parts suggests an attempt to heal the collective wounds of the nation…and yet, we end up right back where we started. The song fades out with the roaring crowd again.

The studio version of ‘So Sincere‘ opens with a dissonant counterpoint played by Derek Shulman on sax, his brother Ray on violin, and Minnear plucking pizzicatos on a cello. This dissonance makes it clear that we should note the utter sarcasm in saying politicians’ words are “so sincere.”

“Hear, he’ll do it all for you,” sings Minnear…and so the insincerity begins. “Wise, and knowing what to do.” Knowing what to do…for whose benefit?

“And every word is…” Wait for the punchline…”Lies.”

“He only tells the truth…Means, not anything he says…” Later, “Wrong, he makes his promise right.” Note the proliferation of contradictions: lies/truth, yes/no, wrong/right, full/empty, good/bad. Corrupt politicians confuse us with their contradictory speech, denying what they said earlier, which they now contradict, and never resolving class contradictions–they only perpetuate those…and if you don’t watch carefully, “You’ll never know why.”

The dissonance comes to a head in the chorus, with Derek singing, “So sin-cere!” and ending with the deliberate pun, “So sin.”

Now, the guile and cunning of politicians are one thing, but there’s another side to this problem–the credulity of the public who listen to their revered leader’s bullshit, hoping that finally, this new one is going to make everything right. This is the subject of ‘Aspirations,’ sung by Minnear as he plays the electric piano.

This is probably my favourite song on the whole album, for in this one we can feel the pain and hopes of the people for a better world, sung in a sympathetic melody. “See our dreams all coming true, it depends on you.” (Not if “you” is your average politician.)

The followers already have some vague sense that their faith is “aimless blind,” yet they hope all the same that their new leader’s claims are “really so sincere.” They hope he can “be our guide,” even after they’ve been disappointed so many times before. They never learn. “Make us strong, build our unity, all men as one, it is all in you.” Seriously? All in one man?

“Hopes, dreams, hopes, dreaming that all our sorrows gone…” Apart from noting how ungrammatical this line sounds, I can’t help hearing, “go on,” rather than “gone,” suggesting an unconscious Freudian slip, revealing the death drive behind all these foolish “hopes [and] dreams.”

Playing the Game‘ is interesting when heard juxtaposed with a viewing of the album cover: vying for political power is like a card game–part luck, part strategy, all about trying to win as big a portion of the pot as possible.

Minnear’s marimba opening of the studio version of the song was replaced in live performance by Derek’s strumming a “Shulberry,” a kind of electric ukulele with three strings. Furthermore, instead of playing a violin as he did in the studio version, Ray played a second electric guitar in concert.

The politician has “the key to the back door” of his secret connections, his “hand touching bounds never had before.” He has power for the first time in his life…and he likes it. His games are all “won before they’re played for,” and “no opposition can stage a fight.” He’ll “never, ever lose” at the game of politics.

Corruption no longer seems ugly when it benefits you, with your “thoughts never spoken,” your “silent words left unsaid.” Because of the success that corruption allows you to cheat at getting, the music of the song is upbeat.

The politician may be content, but the masses have finally caught on, and they are furious, as we hear in “Cogs In Cogs,” which opens with intricate counterpoint in Minnear’s keyboards, Ray’s bass, and Green’s guitar, played in alternating 6/8 and 9/8 time. Next, we hear a tricky riff with a bar of 6/8, then one in 4/16; then there’s a brief riff in 9/16, then another brief riff in 7/8 before Derek comes in singing. This structural complexity symbolizes the trickiness of politicians’ unending deceit.

Derek’s voice, loud and aggressive, unlike Minnear’s soft and gentle singing, is apt for a song about the “anger and the rising murmur” of the people over the politician’s every “empty promise.”

“Cogs in cogs” is a vivid image to describe the revolving cycles of hope and disappointment felt with each new politician voted into office. The anger, accompanying disillusionment over the latest in a line of corrupt politicians, should be the thing that “breaks the old circle,” but the cycle soon begins turning again, “the wheel slowly turns around.”

“The air is sour with discontent,” but we never learn; for after this current politician is reviled and removed, a new one comes along to raise our hopes, then disappoint us once again. “The circle turns around, the changing voices calling…” Derek’s overdubbed voice in the studio version, during the bridge (a section played instrumentally live), sings these words over and over again, reflecting this unchanging cyclical reality of hope, disappointment, hope, disappointment, hope, disappointment…

No God’s a Man‘ expresses more of the sadness and disillusion than the anger felt when realizing the politician is like all the others. Our idealized politician, a “god,” is never the reality, just a man. Hear the sadness in Ray’s and Green’s acoustic guitar doubling; hear it in Green’s bluesy electric guitar licks in the middle of the song, a style that is natural for him to play.

The singing of the first two verses, harmonizing in independent voices (Derek, Minnear, Ray, Green, and Weathers), in a style reminiscent of Renaissance vocal polyphony (a singing technique frequently heard in Gentle Giant’s music), suggests the clamour of disappointed people who, frowning at the face of the corrupt politician, are “now telling him to go.”

The music grows dissonant again in ‘The Face,’ which focuses on the corrupt nature of politics, and how one tries to hold on to power in spite of waning popularity. When the politician’s face is showing, he tries to put his mask back on. “Hide your mask, show the face that is sorry.”

Normally, Gentle Giant’s use of dissonance is more subtle, hidden in the counterpoint; not blatant and obvious, as it is in King Crimson (e.g., the chaotic ending of ‘21st Century Schizoid Man,’ or Keith Tippett‘s piano cluster chords in ‘Cat Food‘) or in Frank Zappa’s modernist orchestral music (e.g., the 200 Motels soundtrack).

In ‘The Face,’ Gentle Giant is blatantly dissonant, too, particularly with Ray’s grating electric violin solo. This dissonance is, again, suggestive of class conflict, between the greed in the leaders and the wishes of the people.

Valedictory‘ is a hard rock variation on themes played more jauntily in ‘Proclamation.’ We’ve come full circle (as in ‘cogs in cogs’), and while the corrupt politician is doing all he can in terms of damage control after all the scandals have exposed him, we know “things must stay, there must be no change.” We’ve come back to the beginning…again.

We start looking for another idealized politician we can follow blindly: “time to rearrange.” The dissonant keyboard music in 5/4 that we heard in the middle of ‘Proclamation’ is heard again (on Green’s guitar and Minnear’s synthesizer), descending chromatic notes that come round and round in circles, culminating, at the end of the song, in a cry of “Hail!…”

…then the tape speeds up and spins out of control, bringing the album to an abrupt end, and implying that nothing’s been learned…

No, nothing at all. (Oops, wrong album.)

But that’s the whole point of the album. We never learn. Will we ever?

Politicians on both sides of the mainstream political fence have made big promises, then disappointed us. This is true of leaders in the remote past, the recent past, and…I prophesy with utmost confidence…the future.

Voting and reform do nothing to change the system, for it was never meant to change anything. It keeps the same class structure intact and placates the masses, with liberals throwing a few bones to the poor to prevent revolution; with conservatives hypocritically preaching about the need to cut costs…while they spend wildly on the military; and with fascists stomping on us with their jackboots if we dare to…dare I say it?…start a revolution.

“Anger and the rising murmur breaks the old circle” [my emphasis]

Analysis of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’

In the Court of the Crimson King: an Observation by King Crimson is a 1969 progressive rock album by King Crimson, the band’s debut. Its dark, lugubrious, and portentous sound, combining woodwinds and the Moody Blues symphonic sound of the Mellotron with rock, helped define the art rock genre that would soon be represented by such bands as Yes, Genesis (the Peter Gabriel/Steve Hackett era), Jethro Tull, ELP (whose L was Greg Lake, King Crimson’s original bassist/singer), Gentle Giant, and Van der Graaf Generator.

Pete Townshend endorsed the album, calling it “an uncanny masterpiece,” and while it initially got a mixed critical response, it was commercially successful (making an unusually good ranking, for a King Crimson album, on the charts), and it’s now considered a classic.

Here is a link to all the lyrics.

The cover, a painting by Barry Godber (1946–1970), shows a closeup of a terrified face, reminding me of Edvard Munch‘s The Scream. The inside cover, a dominant blue to contrast the dominant pink of the outer cover, shows a face with an evil grin to contrast with the outer face.

The album was released in October 1969, when opposition to the Vietnam War was at its height. I’ve always thought, mistakenly, that “King Crimson,” coined by lyricist/light-show man Peter Sinfield, was meant as a synonym for the Devil; apparently, a ‘crimson king‘ is historically understood to mean a ruler mired in blood, one governing during a period of great civil unrest and war. Somehow, though, the Devil metaphor doesn’t seem too far off the mark. Certainly, US imperialism was, and is now even more so, a devilish crimson king for our time.

The first song on the album, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” is prophetic to us now, from its title alone. “Schizoid” should be understood to mean the fragmented character of the modern personality. We’re all split, not in the schizophrenic or split personality senses, but in the sense of dividing the inner representations of our objects (e.g., other people in relation to oneself, the subject) into absolute good and bad–friends and foes, rather than the actual mixes of good and bad in each of us and them.

This dichotomous attitude, taken to an extreme, has led us to all of these horrible wars–the Vietnam War of the time of the album’s release, and all the wars we’ve had in this schizoid 21st century. The psychological fragmentation of modern man is symbolized in these lyrics–disjointed, standalone images of violence: “Cat’s foot, iron claw…Blood rack, barbed wire…Death seed, blind man’s greed.”

Neurosurgeons scream for more/At paranoia’s poison door.” I suspect, given the song’s focus on “paranoia” and being “schizoid,” that neurosurgeons is meant more metaphorically than literally. This seems especially plausible, since Freud shifted from neuropathology (via a study of neurosis) to psychoanalysis. Hence, for neurosurgeons, read psychiatrists, who have often forsaken their duty to their patients for the sake of profit. Also, there has been all that psychiatric complicity during the ‘War on Terror.’

“Politicians’ funeral pyre/Innocents raped with napalm fire” is an obvious reference to the Vietnam War, though of course the use of napalm can equally apply to any modern war from WWII till Nam, and a number of wars fought since this album was made.

The fast middle section of the song, mostly a change from 4/4 to 6/8, is called “Mirrors.” Given how Lacan‘s mirror gives us a falsely unified sense of self, to the point of alienating oneself from the reflected image, the title of this frantic, dissonant (i.e., Ian McDonald‘s alto sax solo) section–and with its awkward time changes during the fast-picked, alternating 4/16 to 6/16 “down-up” guitar part, doubled by the sax, towards the section’s end–reflects that spastic alienation from oneself, as “I Talk to the Wind” (the following track) reflects alienation from other people (more on that later).

The last verse demonstrates the root cause, the “Death seed,” of all this madness, killing, and suffering: “blind man’s greed,” also known as capitalism. The blindness of these greedy men comes from the capitalist’s denial that his economic system is responsible for the woes of the world–typically blaming the problem on the state, while proposing a ‘free market‘ solution instead…as if we haven’t had enough deregulation and tax cuts for the rich as it is. “Poets starve” because the profit motive has no use for art unless it can make money, thus cheapening art and turning poetry into the titillating superficiality of performers like Nicki Minaj.

Imperialist war makes “children bleed”: consider what happened to Phan Thị Kim Phúc, or what’s happening to Yemeni children now, to see my point. The super-rich have so much money, they don’t know what to do with it; so on the one hand, they avoid taxes by putting their money into offshore bank accounts, and on the other, their addiction to money drives them to cause more wars for the sake of profits for Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, et al. Hence, “Nothing he’s got he really needs.”

Because of all these horrors, the song’s chaotic, dissonant ending shouldn’t surprise anyone: ever-increasing neoliberal, capitalist imperialism will inevitably lead to barbarism. Small wonder guitarist/bandleader Robert Fripp once introduced the song in a 1969 concert, dedicating it to Spiro T. Agnew. Here’s a live version of the song, done by the Cross/Fripp/Wetton/Bruford lineup of 1973, which I really like. 

The very title of the second track implies social alienation. “My words are all carried away,” and not listened to. Capitalism brought the madness expressed in the first song because it also brought the alienation described in this song. While I prefer a more uptempo version sung by Judy Dyble, the sadder, slower version on the album seems more thematically appropriate.

Where has “the late man” been? He’s “been here” and “there” and “in between.” He hasn’t been with “the straight man”: he was late. He didn’t care enough about his commitment to meet the straight man to arrive on time. Alienation causes this apathy.

It also causes one to be “on the outside, looking inside,” seeing “confusion…[and] disillusion.” Those who alienate us “don’t possess,” “don’t impress,” “can’t instruct…or conduct” us…they just “upset” us and waste our time.

Epitaph,” with its “March for No Reason,” evokes such things as the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the nuclear arms race. “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is an allusion to Macbeth, and to that crimson king’s famous speech, upon learning of the death of his queen, when he speaks of the meaninglessness of life, and our day-after-day misery.

The lyrics of “Epitaph” put our present-day troubles into historical context. The words of the writers of scripture have little meaning for us today, for the wall of their etched words “is cracking at the seams.” “The instruments of death” are historic and modern ones, and the sunlight is our knowledge of such Vietnam War atrocities as the My Lai Massacre.

We’re “torn apart with nightmares and with dreams,” for the latter are rarely fulfilled, while the former all too often come true. Media “silence drowns the screams,” for we know of far too few of the atrocities of war, especially the wars of our schizoid 21st century.

We feel “confusion…as [we] crawl a cracked and broken path” paved by the lies of those who fraudulently got the US into the Vietnam War…and now the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and “I fear tomorrow” Iran, China, and Russia.

Part of what makes this album great, sadly, is that it’s even more relevant today than it was when it was released. We’re in a new Cold War with Russia, with NATO troops along the Russian border (and in the Arctic), ready to fight. The trade war with China could escalate, especially with tensions in the South China Sea. If we can prevent these problems from getting worse, “we can all sit back and laugh, but I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying.”

Fate has “iron gates,” for it seems to have an implacable will. “The seeds of time were sown” between those gates, “and watered by the deeds of those who know”–Lake’s voice seems ironic with that last word–“and who are known.” Those in authority, the ruling classes, have dominated history and our collective fate; we know them all too well. What they know–how to manipulate us, keep us divided, and make us kill each other–“is a deadly friend” without ethical rules. Our fate “is in the hands of fools,” especially today, when MAD is being disregarded in the temptation to use nukes.

The song’s ending is one of the most emotively powerful ones, if not the most powerful, of the whole album, with Lake’s expressive voice, “Crying,” and backed by Ian McDonald’s weeping Mellotron string section tapes, as well as the kettledrum rolls by drummer Michael Giles.

[As a side note, I’d like to mention that these three songs each have their own ‘new versions’ on Side One of King Crimson’s second album, In the Wake of Poseidon. Fripp wanted to rework the first album his way, with “Pictures of a City” paralleling “Schizoid Man,” “Cadence and Cascade” paralleling “I Talk to the Wind,” and “In the Wake of Poseidon” paralleling “Epitaph.” In fact, on Side Two, towards the end of “The Devil’s Triangle” (adapted by Fripp and Ian McDonald from “Mars, the Bringer of War,” from Holst’s The Planets), a little bit of the “ah…ah-ah-ah…ah-ah-ah” singing from “The Court of the Crimson King” can be heard in the background.]

Now, let’s come to Side Two.

Moonchild” begins with “The Dream,” which is the section with Lake’s singing. She is “dancing in the shallows of a river,” “dreaming in the shadows of a willow,” “gathering the flowers in a garden,” and “playing hide and seek with the ghosts of dawn.” Throughout the darkness of the gloomy night, her frolicking and “waiting for a smile from a sun child” represents our long-held hope for peace and a better world. The long instrumental improvised section, however–with its almost Bartókian night music, seemingly going on for hours in a sad minor key until McDonald’s vibraphone switches to a major key, bringing on a happy daybreak of hope–is fittingly titled “The Illusion.”

The Court of the Crimson King” includes “The Return of the Fire Witch” and “The Dance of the Puppets.” A witch casts spells, mesmerizing and transforming those under her spells; fire is desire, craving, attachment, greed, hate, and delusion. Since the Fire Witch is in the court of the crimson king, her spells keep the fire of our desires aflame, and distract us from his evildoing, keeping us ignorant of it. Similarly, the puppets’ dance keeps us mesmerized and distracted, so we’ll ignore the bloodshed, carnage, and oppression the crimson king is responsible for.

The other songs of the album have dealt with the wars, as well as the suffering, greed, alienation, fear, and misguided hope we all feel; this last song deals with the bread and circuses, the entertainment and titillation used by the bloodthirsty ones in power to keep us at bay.

“The rusted chains of prison moons/Are shattered by the sun.” The prison of dark night, of lunacy, no longer keeps us in chains when we see the sunlight of truth. “I walk a road, horizons change”: I explore what’s out there in the freedom of my thoughts, and my whole perspective changes because of this sunny enlightenment. “The tournament’s begun”: the powers-that-be are ready to contest my freedom by attempting to put me back to sleep, back in the “rusted chains” of my former lunacy, a mental illness that comes from being denied the truth. 

To lure me back into hypnotized compliance, the “purple piper plays his tune/The choir softly sing/Three lullabies in an ancient tongue…” The three lullabies seem to represent the Trinity of the authoritarian Church, tricking me into thinking all these wars are for the glory of Christ (e.g., as against Muslims, etc.).

A king’s court is full of servile flatterers, and the contemporary equivalent–the media as part of the superstructure of the ruling class–is no improvement. All this lulling, hypnotizing music of the piper, the choir, and the orchestra symbolizes the deceitful narrative we get in the mainstream media, a problem every bit as real back in the days of the Cold War–with Operation Mockingbird–as it is today, with similar mind games going on to make one wonder if Operation Mockingbird ever really ended.

“The keeper of the city keys,” who controls who can enter and leave, and thus controls us in general, “put shutters on the dreams,” preventing us from realizing them. The “pilgrim” wishes to go on a far-off journey to a far better, holier place than our corrupt city, and “I wait outside” his home, thinking of how I can help him escape, but my “insufficient schemes” can’t get us out of town.

The “black queen” of Thanatos, the death drive that inspires war and lulls us into joining her with her “chants” and ringing “cracked brass bells,” more mesmerizing music to fan the flames of desire and hate, “To summon back the Fire Witch.” We take pleasure in satisfying our desires and in causing death.

The ruling class seems to do good in one place–that is, it “plants an evergreen/Whilst trampling on a flower,” or doing evil elsewhere. Distracted by all this, “I chase” empty pleasure, “the wind” (which I aimlessly talk to, knowing it won’t hear, much less satisfy my yearnings). In Shakespeare’s day, a juggler was a “trickster, deceiver, fraud” (Crystal and Crystal, page 248); lifting his hand, the juggler makes the mesmerizing, “orchestra begin/As slowly turns the grinding wheel” of the empire of bloodshed.

“The Return of the Fire Witch” section has a pretty flute solo by McDonald. We’re lulled in the bower of bliss of our desires, not noticing the death and destruction elsewhere in the world.

The “mornings [, when] widows cry,” are “grey” because the Moonchild’s illusory hope for a sunny morning never came true: the widows’ husbands came home from Vietnam (and the other wars of recent memory) in bodybags. “The wise men [who] share a joke” are the academics of today who are full of witty, clever observations, but are cut off from the common people because they’re all in ivory towers. 

I read the newspaper propaganda, the “divining signs,” because I want to be reassured in my prejudices of what’s going on in the world, “to satisfy the hoax,” and not face the truth. This propaganda is part of what the “jester” does as he “gently pulls the strings/And smiles as the puppets dance”–all part of the ruling class’s control of the media, the minds of the public, and therefore the political direction of the world, pushing us further and further towards even more bloodshed, inequality, and despair.

“The Dance of the Puppets” section, like the “Fire Witch” one, has a sweet melody played by multi-instrumentalist McDonald; again, we’re tricked into thinking all is well, so we never hear the screams of the suffering.

The dissonance heard coming towards the end of the song (including Giles’s magnificently precise and fast drum licks) suggests the pain and sorrow hidden behind the pleasant melodies of the “Fire Witch” and “Puppets” sections. In fact, the song ends almost as chaotically and abruptly as “21st Century Schizoid Man,” fittingly bringing the whole album full circle, and reminding us of the horrors that are hidden, because the crimson king uses silence to drown the screams. 

Analysis of ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’

The Dark Side of the Moon is a concept album by Pink Floyd, released in 1973, with Alan Parsons as the engineer. It is widely considered the band’s masterpiece. The album was on the Billboard charts from 1973 to 1988, and is considered one of the greatest rock albums of all time.

The album is not my personal favourite, as I much prefer the Syd Barrett era, but I do consider its themes of madness, greed, materialism, stressing over time, and human conflict well worth exploring. This worthiness is so especially when seen in light of Roger Waters‘s championing of PalestinianSyrian, and Brazilian civil rights. So out of respect for his principled stance on these issues, I want to honour an album that conceptually was based on his ideas (i.e., the lyrics).

Here is a link to all the lyrics (and spoken dialogue) on the album.

The cover, a black background with a line of light going through a prism to reveal a spectrum of colours, establishes–with the album’s title–one of its main motifs: light vs. dark, or how we lose the light of truth–which, when reflected on, gives us all the colours of life–and find ourselves instead shrouded in darkness. The sun gives us that light, but night after night, as the moon wanes, we get more and more of her dark side.

The recording begins with a fading-in heartbeat, the beginning of life; but even in birth, there is suffering, as the Buddha taught us: “birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.”

Hence, in ‘Speak to Me,’ we hear the cash register that we’ll hear again in ‘Money,’ the clock ticking in ‘Time,’ Claire Torry‘s scream from ‘The Great Gig in the Sky,’ manic laughter from ‘Brain Damage,’ and the helicopter sound from ‘On the Run,’ as well as the voices of people discussing their own madness. Speak to me, indeed, of your suffering: only by giving expression to your pain will you cure it.

Breathe, breathe in the air/Don’t be afraid to care.” What kind of air are we breathing? The beautiful, fresh air of nature that we should care about, or the filthy air of the city, which we shouldn’t be afraid to care about cleaning up?

When you “choose your own ground,” is it yours by right to have, or do you just think it’s yours, when really you’ve just chosen it by taking it from others?

“…all you touch and all you see/Is all your life will ever be.” Reality is materialist. I don’t know if Waters’s socialist leanings have ever gone as far as outright Marxism, but his atheism surely leads to a materialist conception of the world. The conflict between opposites (night vs. day, sun vs. moon, light vs. dark, “Us and Them”) suggests a dialectical understanding of material contradictions.

We are like the running rabbit: we’re vulnerable creatures that “forget the sun” and the light of its wisdom as we “Dig that hole,” which leads us into darkness. And when we’re done, we don’t rest; instead, we race “to dig another one.”

“…high you fly,” riding the tide, and when you reach “the biggest wave” (getting to the top), “You race towards an early grave” (you hit rock bottom). The preoccupation of modern man is success at all costs, including life. We forget the sun, and we forget to breathe the breath of real living. We reach the highest height of the ouroboros‘s biting head of material success, then plunge down to an early death, the serpent’s bitten tail, which is the dialectical opposite of its head, as I’ve described elsewhere.

This constant racing to achieve, to succeed, like that rabbit, is the tension behind “On the Run.” We hear a flurry of notes speeding past our ears, played on a Synthi AKS, as well as the helicopter sound mentioned above, which combined with the title of the instrumental, suggests the frantic rush to work, the annoying commute. We thus have a meditation on the pressures of travel, for indeed we also hear a VCS 3 synthesizer making a Doppler effect, sounding like a vehicle passing.

We’ve gone from the beginning of life in “Speak to Me,” which can also suggest the beginning of the week (Sunday, the Lord’s Day–symbolizing the new life of the risen Christ–to which we’ll return in “The Great Gig in the Sky”), to the middle of the hectic work week.

The stress not to be late for work, to meet deadlines, and to wake up, promptly but reluctantly, to the noise of an alarm clock, is suggested, by association, with the sound of clock bells chiming at the beginning of “Time.” Next, we hear Nick Mason improvising licks on rototoms while David Gilmour is playing low single notes on his guitar and Waters is making a tick-tock sound on two muted bass strings, creating a dark musical atmosphere suggesting that irritable feeling of having to get up for work in the morning.

The singing and music played during the verses suggests the alteration between the anger felt during the working day and the sadness of it all, empathically felt by the female back-up singers. “Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain,” we avoid the wise light of the sun and waste our time ruminating in sadness; then one day we find that we’ve let ten years go by without accomplishing much.

“And you run and you run, to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking.” We chase after the light of happiness and wisdom, but it eludes us, fading into the darkness of another night. It goes round and round in a cycle of day and night, “but you’re older,” nearing death, never taking the time to enjoy what you have.

Unlike how before, when we’d wasted ten years, now we “never seem to find the time.” Suffering in silence without complaint “is the English way,” especially now, after decades of Thatcher-style neoliberalism has made life in the UK so much more intolerable. This album is prophetic.

Next, we have a reprise of “Breathe,” suggesting the end of the work week…TGIF! We rest at home after a hard, tiring day at work. Then we contemplate going to church on Sunday. Thus, we won’t be “frightened of dying.”

While Claire Torry’s high-pitched singing during “The Great Gig in the Sky” sounds soulful and cathartic (along with Rick Wright‘s beautiful piano), the snippet used in “Speak to Me” seems like the screams of pain felt at birth, or of a mother in labour, or screams of terror. This equating of spiritual joy with material suffering once again implies the dialectical identity of opposites; for, remembering Waters’s atheism, we can see this ‘joyful pain’ as an indication of the false comfort that the Church provides.

So, that was Side One, the work week and weekend, given in miniature. Side Two is about the cause of such a work week–capitalism–as well as its effects–alienation and mental illness.

Recordings of coins jingling in a cash register, to a tight rhythm in 7/4 time, suggests the rigid, mechanistic, soulless life ruled by “Money.” The three verses give us the attitudes toward money of 1) workers who lack class consciousness (“Get a good job with more pay and you’re OK.”) and “daydream” of being able to “buy…a football team,” 2) right-wing leaning capitalists who don’t want to hear “that do goody-good bullshit,” and 3) liberals, who acknowledge the evils of the profit motive, and who pay lip service that one should “Share it fairly, but don’t take a slice of my pie.” As with the working-class bootlickers who support right-wing politicians, liberals won’t challenge the establishment of class differences.

Hearing 7/4, or 7/8 time, one always gets the feeling of incompleteness, of a beat having been lopped off; one instinctively expects to hear two bars of 4/4 (common time), or an additional eighth note. This incompleteness suggests the incomplete happiness that money gives us, though one may think one’s life is complete (i.e., the 4/4 section with the guitar solo).

It’s fitting that the song is essentially in the form of the blues, for that’s exactly what money gives us.

The song fades out with the voices of people who discuss having been in a fight (a Cockney-accented voice discusses a fight, too, during the piano solo in “Us and Them”); thus we see a link between capitalism and social alienation. It’s hard for money-worshipping people to be friends.

Us and Them,” is about war and human conflict in general; the fact that the song comes immediately after “Money” should make clear the suggestion that the worship of money naturally leads to imperialism and war–Lenin made this connection easy to see.

The lyrics go over a series of oppositions: us and them, me and you, up and down, with/without. The rhyming lines following each thesis/negation suggest some kind of sublation of each pair.

Instead of seeing us and them as an opposition in the context of war, we could sublate the contradiction by seeing ourselves as “only ordinary men,” not on either side, but together. Instead of me and you as enemies, by knowing war is “not what we would choose to do,” we’d unite as friends, a synthesis of the thesis (me) and antithesis (you).

Instead of the up and down of the dawn and the dusk, the coming and going of the light of goodness and wisdom, we could see the cyclical “round and round” of good and ill fortune, the unifying movement of the waves of the ocean of life, which reconcile all up and down dichotomies.

We’re deceived into thinking that there’s some terrible enemy who must be defeated (the Viet Cong, the Soviets, Milošević, Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad, etc.), when it’s really just a matter of with…without. When we understand the true meaning of this opposition, we’ll know “what the fighting’s all about,” and we can sublate the with/without contradiction by replacing it with a society in which neither side is without, and neither side is with too much. Then “the lines on the map” needn’t always move “from side to side,” nor need the front rank die.

“Black and blue” could be bruises from beatings (i.e., police brutality), or it could be blacks beaten or killed by the boys in blue…”and who knows which is which, and who is who,” that is to say, are the good guys really good, and are the bad guys really bad…or do we need to sublate that contradiction, too?

The title of the instrumental “Any Colour You Like” is ironic, for in capitalism, our sense of choice is really an illusion. Consider what George Carlin had to say on the subject.

As in the main chord sequence in “Breathe,” the one during Torry’s vocal improvisation in “The Great Gig in the Sky,” and the main ones in “Brain Damage,” and “Us and Them” (though this last one uses more sophisticated chord substitutions–such as the D minor/major seventh, a D6th with an added 9th instead of a subdominant G major, and the added ninths to the tonic D–as well as Waters’s pedal point of tonic D to dominant A), in this instrumental we hear a chord progression of tonic to a subdominant major, suggesting a departure, a leaving home (tonic) to go off somewhere (to work, to church, etc.–subdominant).

Yet, because the tonic is the dominant of the subdominant, especially if the tonic is a major chord (I, as opposed to i, thus providing a leading tone), these two-chord progressions could also symbolize a returning home, a dialectical relationship between leaving and returning (i.e., I-IV could, in this way, be heard also as V-I). The problem is that most of these progressions are i-IV rather than I-IV; that is, the tonic is usually a minor chord, lacking a leading tone to make it easier to go to IV, suggesting that it’s harder to get back home (v-I) than to leave it (I-IV). It’s certainly hard to leave home for work in the morning, hence i-IV.

So, musically there is a symbol for the drab routine of leaving and returning, again and again, in and out, back and forth, like the appearing and departing sun, the coming and going of the light.

In “Brain Damage,” first, “The lunatic is on the grass,” that is, projected onto other people, further off. Then, “The lunatic is in the hall,” then, those madmen “are in my hall.” Lunacy is acknowledged to be getting closer and closer to oneself, until finally, one confesses, “The lunatic is in my head.” Still, as one admits to one’s own mental illness, one also notes that the madness was introjected from outside, perhaps from abusers who traumatized you: “There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”

Note the use of the word lunatic, as opposed to madman, maniac, psychotic, etc. A lunatic is driven mad by the moon…”the dark side of the moon,” far away from the light of the sun. One needn’t worry, though (sarcasm), for the questionable institution of psychiatry, with its profit-making drugs and labels for anyone who won’t conform or be controlled, will “rearrange me ’til I’m sane.”

In “Eclipse,” “All that you touch/All that you see…,” reminding us of the lyric in “Breathe” about material reality, is a return of the ouroboros cycle to its beginning. “And everything under the sun is in tune,” that is, all is well in the light; “But the sun is eclipsed by the moon.” In a solar eclipse, light and dark are united, the dialectical, yin-and-yang relationship of opposites.

Everything under the sun is a contradiction. As conflict, “It’s all dark,” as a voice says when the music fades out. Our world will continue to get darker, unless we, unafraid to care, begin at last to breathe, to feel the heartbeat of life.

My Blog’s New Title

I’ve changed the title of my blog, formerly titled simply after my name (‘mawrgorshin‘), to ‘Infinite Ocean’, named after not only a song I wrote, recorded, and published on the Jamendo website (along with a number of other pop songs and classical compositions of mine [these latter under my original name, Martin Gross]), but also after the philosophy I’m trying to cultivate here.

On this blog, I will continue to write analyses of literature and film, typically from a psychoanalytic and/or Marxist/leninist slant (the lower case l is deliberate, for reasons that I hope are obvious; if they aren’t, please read these posts to understand). I’m trying to explore how inner fragmentation and family dysfunction result in social alienation and class conflict, as well as how the latter two rebound and cause the former two problems in turn, and the pairs of causes and effects go back and forth like a ball in a tennis court.

It is my hope that these analyses will contribute to a restoration, on at least some level, of social harmony and justice.

Analysis of ‘Slutlips’

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Slutlips is an album by Cat Corelli, which she released in 2017. It isn’t exactly a rock opera, since much, if not most, of the music isn’t even rock (you’ll hear an eclectic switching back and forth between neo-Baroque, jazz, rock [i.e., a kind of symphonic metalcore], and electronic styles, as well as dreamy, almost psychedelic passages, music reminiscent of the soundtracks of noir films, and even a piano waltz). You’ve heard of silent films; Slutlips is like a film without visuals. As the Chorus of Henry V advised us, we have to use our imaginations to fill in the visual details.

The first link above is to the entire playlist of songs/story scenes; I recommend listening to it all in order for the following analysis to make sense. Here is a link to the lyrics/script.

The story is non-linear, with flashbacks of Lily, one of the main characters, who was sexually abused by her father, Daniel (“Danny”) Torrance. The other main character is Alice, who sees herself in a mirror and imagines herself to be “a slut” (as is her reputation); she’s also a murderess, having bitten into the neck of Roy Torrance, sucked his blood like a vampiress, and slit his throat with a machete (we learn from the police investigation that Roy is Daniel’s brother). Daisy is another significant female character in the story, a nicer, more socially conforming type of girl, what I suspect Lily could have been had she not been abused.

Other characters include Morgan, who plays the piano waltz, Investigator Andy Trudeau and Agent Matt Curtis, who aren’t able to find Roy’s killer, and who expect more killings in the future. There’s also a “Mystery Girl” (Alice? Or, perhaps, the ‘unknown self’ described in the concluding section of this link?), who speaks in an electronically altered voice. There is much mystery in this story, without any real resolution…but this all seems to be deliberate, for the plot is of secondary importance. Slutlips is, essentially, a character study, an exploration of the mind of a victim of child sexual abuse.

Everything about this album involves disjointed elements, with a sudden switching from one idea to another, in terms of the music and the non-linear story. In fact, the whole album began as a number of separate songs written and recorded years back, then later incorporated into the story. This sense of disjointedness shouldn’t deter the listener from enjoying the story, though, for it all serves a purpose in expressing the main theme of Slutlips: psychological fragmentation resulting from childhood trauma.

Much of the story involves Lily’s childhood memories of being dominated by her beast of a father, who, far from giving her the empathic mirroring and love she needed, sexually abused her, then hypocritically imposed the sanctimonious morality of the Church onto her.

Young children, whose personalities are only just forming, need psychological structure and cohesion, which can come only from empathic parents mirroring their kids’ grandiosity in the form of an idealized parent imago. Such mirroring, coupled with optimal frustrations of the dual narcissistic configuration (i.e., grandiose self/idealized parent imago), will help the child mature by taming his narcissism and transforming it, by transmuting internalization, into healthier, more restrained and realistic self-esteem, the sort that allows one to blend in comfortably with society.

Heinz Kohut explained it thus: “The child that is to survive psychologically is born into an empathic-responsive human milieu (of self-objects) just as he is born into an atmosphere that contains an optimal amount of oxygen if he is to survive physically. And his nascent self “expects”…an empathic environment to be in tune with his psychological need-wishes with the same unquestioning certitude as the respiratory apparatus of the newborn infant may be said to “expect” oxygen to be contained in the surrounding atmosphere. When the child’s psychological balance is disturbed, the child’s tensions are, under normal circumstances, empathically perceived and responded to by the self-object. The self-object, equipped with a mature psychological organization that can realistically assess the child’s need and what is to be done about it, will include the child into its own psychological organization and will remedy the child’s homeostatic imbalance through actions.” (Kohut, page 85)

Without that needed structure and cohesion, the child is in danger of fragmentation, which leads, in extreme cases, to psychosis and a detachment from reality. The unhealthy form of narcissism is a dysfunctional attempt at structure and cohesion, in the form of a False Self.

According to Kohut: “I believe…that defects in the self occur mainly as the result of empathy failures from the side of the self-objects–due to narcissistic disturbances of the self-object; especially, and I think, more frequently than analysts realize, due to the self-object’s latent psychosis…” (Kohut, page 87)

Because of the trauma Lily suffered as a child from her narcissistic father, she feels her personality in danger of disintegration, a fragmentation into separate selves, a psychotic falling apart of the personality. I’m not saying she suffers from dissociative identity disorder, but all the female characters in the story–Lily, Alice, Daisy, and the Mystery Girl–seem to represent different aspects of her fragmented self: respectively, the innocent victim, the slut/murderess, the nice girl, and the ‘unknown self’.

The men in the story, paired as Daniel/Roy/Morgan, and the detectives, all seem to be repeats of each other, too; for splitting into good and bad versions of people (the detectives and the Torrance brothers/Morgan, respectively, as the good and bad father) is a common defence mechanism. Also, Alice’s killing of Daniel’s brother, Roy, can represent a displaced wish to kill Daniel himself (in unconscious phantasy); remember that Alice is another version of Lily, slut-shamed as a result of her trauma from the child sexual abuse, and thus–to ease guilt and anxiety–Lily projects the murder phantasy (and sluttishness) onto Alice.

Alice seeing herself in the mirror can be seen as another manifestation of fragmentation, since Lacan‘s mirror stage, not limited to the spastic years of infancy, results in a fragmented body, an alienation of oneself from the ideal-I in the mirror reflection. The clumsy baby senses a discord between himself and the unified, coherent image in the mirror; just as Lily–with only one leg, it would seem–can’t even stand up or dance; while the image Alice sees in the mirror, “a slut” and a killer, can be the ideal-I (Lily’s other self) only of someone having suffered terrible childhood traumas.

Slutlips makes allusions to several films, the noirish Mulholland Drive and Pulp Fiction (another non-linear narrative that symbolically reinforces the theme of fragmentation), and the horror classic, The Shining, also a story involving parental abuse. Slutlips‘ Daniel Torrance, who doesn’t have the psychic powers of The Shining‘s boy (Danny), or of Dick Hallorann, since Lily’s father lacks the empathy of the boy or of Dick, and is trapped in the past (as Jack Torrance is, as I argued in my analysis of The Shining [the novel]), in tradition, Daniel’s Christian heritage.

One thing deserves attention: all of the men speak in overdone, affected accents, cheesy to the point of being comically stereotyped. Rather than be irked by this, the listener should hear in these caricatured voices a manifestation of the False Self of narcissists, or of otherwise alienated members of society, alienated from themselves–more fragmentation.

Lily’s father speaks with an affected German accent, like a clownish Nazi. I say ‘Nazi’, and not German in the general sense, because of his abusiveness to her and his authoritarianism. He’s also a racist, since he doesn’t want to “risk [his] reputation” by being associated with “niggers” in being seen playing the banjo [!]. Since he has a non-German surname, Torrance, it is truly odd that he has a German accent; but that’s just part of the surreal, non-rational world of the unconscious that this story inhabits, Alice’s nonsensical Wonderland, down the rabbit hole and into a world where an authoritarian monarch threatens physical fragmentation (“Off with her head!” says the Queen in Carroll’s story [and Alice’s creator, Lewis Carroll, photographer and drawer of nude children, could have been, like Lily’s father, a pedophile], but in Slutlips, Lily’s father says, “You’re supposed to have only one leg!”). The Alices of both stories, however, remain defiant (Lily: “Daddy, you’re a moron.”) to the dictates of others.

Indeed, this is a world of dreams, dissociations, and mish-mashes of identities. Since I suspect that Slutlips is semi-autobiographical, I get the impression that Daisy, Lily, Alice, and all the other females in this story represent different aspects of Cat Corelli’s personality, the nice girl/bad girl sides, and the good and bad object relations introjected into her unconscious.

The good and bad object relations include the males in the story, too; not just Lily’s father, but also Roy and Morgan, are internalized in her unconscious. Now, the unconscious tends to make confluent mish-mashes of such things as the self and objects, or, I believe at least, between internalized objects, good or bad; just as it makes no distinction between liquids (milk, blood, urine, as Melanie Klein observed–see my analysis of Alien for more details on that).

Compare Lily’s father with Morgan. Her father poses as a good Christian, but he molests her. Morgan presents himself–as a piano player of waltzes and a connoisseur of The Shining–as at least somewhat cultured (he seems to have Lily temporarily fooled into thinking he’s a ‘good father’ substitute), but there’s something creepy in his voice. Speaking of his voice, he too has an affected, overdone accent–a southern accent, making one think of the ‘redneck’ stereotype. Morgan calls blacks “niggers”, too, though he seems to have a more ‘enlightened liberal’ attitude. He even lies to little Lily that he’s Morgan Freeman, an absurd bit of gaslighting comparable to her father’s gaslighting about her “one leg”, which supposedly wasn’t an erroneous belief he’d manipulated her into having, but one she’d pushed onto herself.

So, her father’s a quasi-Nazi bigot, and Morgan’s a redneck hick who at least seems to be a closeted bigot. Her father would have her believe he’s a good church-goer, and Morgan would have her believe he’s a well-loved movie star whose soothing voice embodies all the phoney liberal values the mainstream media promotes (too bad the real Morgan Freeman recently promoted Russophobic thinking, in aid of needlessly escalating tensions between two nuclear superpowers, in a short Rob Reiner video). More False Selves.

In Daniel and Morgan we have two oppressor stereotypes: the Nazi and the American redneck, both racist, both manipulative, the one a double of the other, a fusion of the worst kinds of German and American. The former, as Lily’s abusive father and religious authoritarian, is also representative of the traditional patriarchal family. In contemporary politics, we see Daniel representative of Donald Trump, an American ignoramus of German descent who also has creepy attitudes toward his pretty daughter (and by extension, in US politics there’s a much closer relationship with Naziism than is commonly understood).  But redneck “Morgan Freeman”, being representative of the liberal Democrat who pretends to be progressive but does nothing substantive to help the needy, is hardly an improvement on Daniel. Morgan–presumably white, and claiming he’s a famous black actor–suggests how liberals replace the legitimate proletarian struggle with divisive identity politics. Thus, Lily, representing the proletariat, is manipulated by both liberals and conservatives.

So, how do we help abuse victims like Lily? Do we leave them to their phantasy world of wishing murder on their abusers, dreaming of how Daniel, for example, descends into fragmentation and psychosis on learning of his brother’s murder? Or shall we transform society, so the Lilys of the world can “wake up” (i.e., bring their unconscious traumas into consciousness, and thus, by establishing a coherent, structured self for them, we can cure them) and become whole?

If we plan to do the latter, we can start by listening to these victims, rather than preach to them about behaving better so they won’t ‘irritate’ us so much, as Daniel demands of his daughter. Listening with an empathic ear will help restore the damaged self. Part of listening will require liberating those of colour, LGBT people, and the working class, as well as ensuring equality of the sexes in a socialist, not bourgeois, context. Putting money into childcare will liberate women from domestic burdens; it will also lessen family strain and thus allow for more empathic parenting. Putting money into healthcare–rather than into imperialist wars–must include funding for improving mental health, to provide those listening ears for victims like Lily.

But for now, before a proletarian revolution happens, I urge you, Dear Reader, to listen to Slutlips with an attentive and compassionate ear. For, apart from the pain Cat Corelli screams out on this album, and in spite of (or rather, because of) the many idiosyncratic moments you’ll hear, she is an extraordinary musical talent, capable of a wide range of colours, styles, emotions, and timbres, as well as showing a creative fusion of musical and film genres. Daniel may not have the shining, but in my opinion at least, Cat Corelli does.

Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1977