Monday, 20 December 2010

Name | Music | Monica, Erica, Rita, Tina, Sandra, Mary, Jessica, It Was Really Nothing

Writers who think the names of their characters are important are stupid and annoying. I’ve overheard creative-writing-seminar conversations along the lines of, I’m trying to work out if he’s an Edward or a James, y’know, I wanted to go for something Old Testamenty but I think the associations would be too strong. When I started out he was definitely a Peter but he stopped behaving like a Peter for some reason, it was a real shame. Writers who talk about ‘their’ characters as though ‘they’re’ one, their friends, and two, changing outside of their control, are fucking stupid and annoying.

Actually, it’s not quite as simple as that (well, it probably is re. the second thing). Onomatopoeic and connotative names are fundamentally important to a certain type of brilliant, stylised writing, everything from Dickens to Jonathan Coe’s What A Carve Up! via Roald Dahl. And actually, just as Jon pointed out all the way back in May that even the most seemingly unadorned, unelaborate first lines of novels betray a considerable degree of craft (usually in order to look unadorned and unelaborate) so the most ‘normal’ names in literature are, very obviously, the product of cautiously imaginative design. An example to demonstrate what I mean: were a novelist, having plotted and created his or her story utilising archetypes along the lines of Man A, Woman B, Child C – as is perhaps the most sensible approach of all – to then turn those sketches into John Smith, Karen Jones and so on (i.e. making use of what are, potentially, still the most mathematically common names in the UK) he would be accused of making a BS Johnson-style meta point that detracted utterly from his or her text’s attempts at naturalism. And we turn again to Brecht’s question to Lukács (paraphrased, obvs): how naturalistic can naturalism actually be?

Either way, people giving too much a shit about names is way more prevalent in English literature than it is in, say, German (even though Goethe decided to rhyme his most famous protagonist’s name with his own, the fucking idiot) for one, rather obvious reason: the cliché even more beloved by unimaginative journalists than ‘causes cancer’, the English and their obsession with class. As somebody who, due to my decidedly double-barrelled surname, gets a fair bit assumed about him by people he hasn’t met, I’m extremely attuned to the fact that character names from Shakespeare to Harry Potter are an issue of class-defining shortcuts. Does anything scream ignorant, prosaic peasant like ‘Dogberry’ or ‘Bottom’? Anything suggest petit-bourgeois barbarian like ‘Pumblechook’ or ‘Dursley’? And the relationship between the aristocracy and centuries-old surnames hardly needs repeating, except to say that literature which professes to find such things disgusting doesn’t half buy into the aesthetic thrill of such aristocratic mythology.

So yes, things worth talking about with reference to names in literature: idiots, naturalism and class. So here’s an interesting thing: none of those things are worth talking about with reference to names in music. Rather, songwriters who don’t think the names of their characters are important are the stupid, annoying ones. A fact which suggests that names offer an interesting entry-point into discussing the different processes involved in word- and song-writing. Let’s see.
Enter Morrissey, master of dependent-upon-a-single-name song-writing, most notably in William, It Was Really Nothing and Sheila Take A Bow. Both songs are thought to be about actual figures (well, sort of) the character William Fisher from Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel Billy Liar and Shelagh Delaney, the playwright responsible for A Taste of Honey – to some degree anyway. Indeed, of Shelagh Delaney, Morrissey said the following: ‘I’ve never made any secret of the fact that at least 50% of my reason for writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney.’ For the record, Strangeways Here We Come is a paraphrased version of a line from the movie adaptation of Billy Liar, whilst the Smiths’ This Night Has Opened My Eyes is a retelling of A Taste of Honey directly quoting the play in several places.

And yet neither figure’s name is used straightforwardly, Billy (as he is throughout the book) returning to William and Shelagh becoming Sheila. With both these decisions feeding into the rest of what the songs are about, their ambiguities and structures of musical meaning. Mozza’s own description of William, It Was Really Nothing’s meaning is this:

It occurred to me that within popular music if ever there were any records that discussed marriage they were always from the female’s standpoint – female singers singing to women: whenever there were any songs saying ‘do not marry, stay single, self-preservation, etc.’ I thought it was about time there was a male voice speaking directly to another male saying that marriage was a waste of time... that, in fact, it was ‘absolutely nothing.’

‘William’ creates an atmosphere of adult, masculine seriousness that ‘Billy’ obviously lacks. And turning Shelagh into Sheila means Steven Patrick can inhabit his female alter-ego without the issue of, y’know, Gaelicness or Mozza’s lack thereof getting in the way. For let’s be frank, his Sheila might resemble one of Delaney’s characters – or even Delaney herself – to some degree, but does the following read as a description of anybody but himself?

Is it wrong not to always be glad?
No, it’s not wrong – but I must add
How can someone so young
Sing words so sad? 

And that’s not even getting into the musical manner in which the three-syllable cadence of ‘William’ with its formal, royal connotations, falls in line with the meandering whimsy of the Smiths mid-eighties sound. The royal thing is worth emphasising, particularly considering that two years later, The Queen is Dead would be released. And the way a shorter spelling of ‘Sheila’ encourages the ‘Sheila / Take a’ bouncing rhyme at the heart of the second song should not be underestimated either.

Oh, one more thing, the ambiguity of ‘William’ also succeeded in catalysing a whole strand of speculation about Morrissey being in love with Billy MacKenzie from the Associates, almost all of which is apocryphal except for the fact MacKenzie’s band recorded a response song called Stephen, You’re Really Something in 1993. The power of the name in song is not, in short, something to be trifled with.
Mozza’s William, It Was Really Nothing model of a name followed by a comma followed by the rest of the song-title is much copied – and represents, indeed, an indie by-word for elegantly thought-out name usage in songwriting (and yes, of course the Beach Boys’ Caroline, No came first, but I’m convinced this is more of a post-Smiths kingda thing). Architecture in Helsinki’s two and a half minute track, Frenchy I’m Faking, is a masterpiece of half-rhyme and alliteration a la Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – all of which is dependent upon the syllabic symmetry and chiming sonics of that first line. Indeed, there is some amazingly crisp writing here:

Frenchy, I’m faking,
Been longing to stir you up,
Changing looks slightly like back in the 90s,
Far and away, whistle-delayed delights.

The prospect of lightning was ever so frightening,
She said, your kisses are nice,
But I’m looking for hills to roll
Down with abandon and no understanding.

I borrowed your suitcase and filled it with pearls and gold,
You let me down lightly,
I killed you politely.

And AiH’s awareness of the Smiths reference in the title is proved, I think, by the first line of the second verse’s nod in the direction of Bohemian Rhapsody. Meanwhile the Magnetic Fields’ hilarious Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long is a brilliant inversion of Morrissey’s earnest intent precisely because the name it centres on fits so well into its comic framework. The song is obviously about cheating – so using such an archetypal, unimaginative dog name ensures ‘Fido’ is understood to be partially symbolic. The song is also about funny, childish wordplay – the ‘shit’ of ‘Shitzu’ and, more surprising, the ‘fuck’ of ‘foxhounds’ are emphasised with puerile glee – and calling a dog as stupid a name as ‘Fido’ buys into that.

Fido, your leash is too long
You go where you don’t belong
You’ve been diggin’ in the rubble getting bitches in trouble
Fido, your leash is too long

Fido your leash is too long
I don’t know where I went wrong
You scare me out of my wits when you do that Shit
-zu Fido, your leash is too long 

Fido, you’ve gone far enough
I must have all of your love
You’ve just run out of luck I don’t care what you fox
-hounds do, but your leash is too long
Mambo No. 5, you’ll notice, doesn’t have a name in its title – indeed, its full title, Mambo No. 5 (a little bit of…) reveals a self-conscious decision not to include a name. But look what the song itself contains. This, folks, is what happens when the naming tendencies of naturalistic fiction, when casual, arbitrary, connotation-less naming meets songwriting:

a little bit of Monica in my life
a little bit of Erica by my side
a little bit of Rita is all I need
a little bit of Tina is what I see
a little bit of Sandra in the sun
a little bit of Mary all night long
a little bit of Jessica here I am
a little bit of you makes me your man

MISOGYNY and TERRIBLE HALF-RHYMES, that’s what happens. So what does this all mean for the word-writing versus song-writing question? There’s a whole bunch of obvious stuff that barely needs pointing out – that the sound and rhythm of proper nouns matter more in the constraints of a song that in the open-endedness of a novel, that titles play a much more fundamental role in song-writing than they do in word-writing (even poetry), that sorta thing. But there’s one question that’s come out of this what's much more interesting than those differences everybody’s got some idea of. Namely, if names, one of the more prominent signposts pointing to whether a piece of writing is let’s say ‘realistic’ or ‘stylised’, are only effective things in songs when used for purposes other than pure Lou Bega naturalism, does this mean it’s impossible for a song to be ‘realistic’ in the way we understand a certain type of fiction or poetry to be realistic?

And does this matter? When so much music is valued for being ‘real’ in the sense that it accurately reflects, say, African American, or working class British life, I suspect it does.

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

1 comment:

  1. Two things:

    Umberto Eco's analysis of the proper nouns (inc. names) in James Bond in The Role of the Reader is a glorious complication of conventional assumptions about the role/meaning of character names in a text/narrative.

    I came across a wonderful, barely disguised connotative name in Jonathan Franzen the other day - a corporate puppet called Merilee Finch.