Revisitation of 1960s Baroque Rock in St. Vincent’s Paris is Burning:
Classical Music Motifs in the Evocation of Historical Themes and the Musical Destruction of the Genre.
Paris is Burning is a popular song composed by the American singer and songwriter Anne Clark, known professionally under her stage name St. Vincent. It was first released in 2006 as a part of her EP, and shortly after included in her 2007 debut album Marry Me. Revisiting the baroque rock genre that emerged in 1960s and faded by 1970s, the song stylistically differs from her rest in its distinctive use of classical music motifs in order to recall the past revolutionary and war-time eras, when the civil disorder was expressed through radical and violent means. In this article, I will identify these musical motifs and how they have been modernized and filtered through the lens of contemporary popular music, providing social commentaries relevant to our own era, as well as how they confront and ultimately destroy the baroque rock genre itself.
Beginning with a short outline of baroque rock, the genre originated in 1960s as a part of the flourishing counterculture, establishing itself, as Gulgas (2017, pp. 22-23) points out drawing from the ideas of the literary theorist Susan Sontag, by bridging the gap between the polarized binaries of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, through the intertextual and referential layer of incorporating classical music into rock. Furthermore, primarily characterized by what Gulgas terms ‘the postmodern nostalgia’, baroque rock is a genre where the past is musically rearticulated into the present as a type of ironic detachment and interpretation. Among the musicians who explored the postmodern nostalgia and its idea of non-linear time are the Beatles with songs such as Yesterday and In My Life, Rolling Stone with As Tears Go By, The Kinks with The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, The Left Bank with Walk Away Renee, and others. All of these songs tackle the notion of memory by utilizing the musical borrowings from classical music, such as string and brass quartets, baroque counterpoint and instrumentation, etc., in order to appropriate them into an ironic, tenderly bittersweet depiction of one’s sentimental remembrance, in which the past is perpetually repeating in one’s experience of the present. Although often grouped as a baroque rock song, as I will now examine, St. Vincent’s Paris is Burning not only challenges the role of baroque rock musical strategies by slanting its representation and understanding of temporality, but it is essentially what I would call, an anti-baroque rock song.
The opening of Paris is Burning is a short brass quartet introduction in the minor dominant region of the Ab minor key, in which the song is set, as a stately, but already dim anticipation of the tense and dark atmosphere, which is soon to emerge in a considerable discrepancy to the light mood of the 1960s baroque rock. Despite the pentatonic melody resulting from the minor dominant region, which would rather appear as the major dominant in classical music, the timbre of the brass instruments transforms the phrase into a type of rustic sound, which invokes the feeling of bygone epochs of Western musical traditions. Yet, in the last moment of the brass introduction, the listener will suddenly notice the modern manipulations added to the final notes, such as the striking, unexpected artificial crescendo and the change to a computerized timbre, suggesting the present day and its technology lurking and controlling the instrumental soundtrack. This sharp, electronically-accomplished rise in dynamics, makes the listener aware, at the very beginning of the song, of the contemporary lens through which the past is looked upon, revealing the modern sound editing processes that were concealed in the 1960s baroque rock songs. Along these lines, the instance could be seen as a musical example of the breaking of the fourth wall, an idea introduced by Brecht in regards to theatre and performance. (Brecht, 1964, pp. 91-92)
As the brass instruments and their ceremonious quaver and crochet notes fade, the soft and thin-sounding acoustic guitar takes over with the fast broken arpeggio semiquavers in high register. Having a quality similar to the fast arpeggio passages and note repetitions that would be often played on harpsichord and other plucked-keyboard instruments, the guitar nods to the age of baroque and classical music. Interfering in this texture is the hollow ringing of the hi-hats that is repeating fast rhythmical patterns, suggestive of the percussive patterns usually heard in marches, which constitute a large part of classical music repertoire, with famous examples, such as Radetsky March by Strauss and Grand March by Wagner from his Tannhauser. However, with its slow tempo, minor key and gloomy mood, Paris is Burning touches on a specific type of march – the dead or funeral march, such as Alkan’s Marche Funebre Op. 26, Ferdinand David’s Marcia Funebre, Mahler’s funeral march from Symphony No. 1 and similar. As I will describe, the dry- and cold-sounding, mechanical sonorities of the funeral march music stand in stark opposition to the lyricism of the 1960s songs I have mentioned, placing the listener in a certain historical context accompanied by the actualities of killings, executions and massacres. Yet, by being interlaced into the modernized facet of the song, these elements are also ahistorical in the sense of portraying the timeless nature of militarism and death that overshadows all history of humanity, including our own age.
The first verse begins with the appearance of the voice in the topline, as the bass kicks in with deep slow notes. The sound of the voice is very echoey, giving a feeling as if it is calling from distant past, broadcasted over an old radio or similar device. The lyrics are in epistolary form, being spoken words of an imaginary letter:
I write to give word the war is over,
Send my cinders home to mothers,
They gave me a medal for my valor,
Laden trumpets spit the sooth of power.
(St. Vincent, 2006)
While in the 1960s baroque rock songs the lyrics recollect the past in relation to personal, everyday life circumstances that have been romanticized through memory to express nostalgia, here, although addressed in first person form, the lyrics are presented in an official and factual way, as if written by a soldier figure indifferently reporting about the events from a revolution or battle, unfolding during a period of historical unrest. Stripped from the baroque rock’s ironic sensibility, the past is encapsulated not as somebody’s experience of it, but as somebody’s historical documentation of it. It’s also interesting to discern that the brass quartet already anticipated the idea of trumpets, mentioned now in the last line of the verse, showing the independence of the soundtrack in relation to the topline; it is not just a passive background pastiche for the voice to recount the past as in 1960s songs, but just like the topline, it has its own active temporality in the construction of past.
The pre-chorus begins with the thickening of the texture and louder dynamics, as the thin, repeated guitar notes are replaced by the stronger timbre of the computer-generated, siren-like ostinato, and the hi-hats are simultaneously taken over by the kick drum, joined in with the bass, in order to fortify the dark pulsation of the funeral march. Meanwhile, the voice switches from the deep to middle register, no longer being echoey, but ghostly in quality with the added sound effects, illustrating the universal deception of the sovereign forces in war and revolution, delineated by the lyrics that allude to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “sleep while I slip, poison in your ear.” After this, with the ascending low-register guitar notes reminding of the lute, the short instrumental break climbs into the chorus, which alternates in texture from the unison playing of topline’s melody by the lute-like guitar, to the even stronger thumping of the funeral march pulse. At the same time, the voice became percussive in the articulation of the words, alternating between the chest and head voice, the latter implying the operatic and classical music singing styles.
At this point, the lyrics talk about the burning of Paris, which as Bentley (2016) suggests, isn’t connected to any concrete historical destructions of the city. Instead, I would propose that the song is using the imagery of Paris burning as a metaphor for the revolutionary turmoil that slowly swept the globe, which began with the 18th-century uprisings in France. Furthermore, the song also reflects upon the contemporary decades, considering their Modernistic and Postmodernistic tendencies in society and art, which are, as Larrissy (1999, p. 1) described, ultimately linked to Romanticism and its ideologies – the driving forces of the Age of Revolution. Whereas the approach of the 1960s baroque rock musicians to the classical music motifs was to provide deconstruction of the everyday, turning it into an environment where the fabric of one’s present and its familiarity are disturbed by memory, epitomized in the sounds of the past (Gulgas, 2017, pp. 24-25), the motifs are appropriated only as neoclassical stylistic flourishes. St Vincent responds to this, by using the classical music motifs in combination with the visions of Parisian revolt and destruction from the standpoint of New Romanticism, in order to demonstrate a larger historical fabric, one where the everyday is a “transition from a place not yet left behind, to another space it has not yet entered, and probably never will” (Notes on Metamodernism, 2010), an allegory for the state of our generation.
The above can be best recognized in the structural skepticism which occurs at the end of the chorus, where the topline introduces a semiotic proposal that the funeral march is instead a “black waltz”. In this exact instant, the listener begins to question whether the pulsations heard are actually a part of the word-painting – oom pah pah rhythm of the dance. As such, the pulsations illustrate the concept of the ‘familiar’ that at the same time has the ‘aura of the unfamiliar’, highlighted as an important feature of New Romanticism. (Notes on Metamodernism, 2010) However, the listener has been deceived, since the funeral march is the rhythm that carries on into the instrumental break, whose descending baroque sequential passage has been modernized into a fiery sound of the electric violin, bringing forth the repetition of the verse, pre-chorus and chorus. Yet, after the second chorus, we are once again cheated, since the oom pah pahs of the waltz actually do take over this time, changing the time signature and accelerating the tempo of the song from the stately 4/4 of the funeral march into the fast 3/8.
The outro waltz is the point of culmination of the whole song, initiating a sense of increasing agitation and anxiety through its whirling repetitiveness of the ostinato rhythm. Accompanied by constant gradations, such as the incorporation of the tambourines and claps, fast quaver notes of the fiery electric violin, countermelody of the electric guitar, and other elements, the texture, dynamics and musical motifs are more and more intensified, until the complete breakdown in fortissimo where the song ends. Waltz is an interesting choice, since as early as its emergence, it carried ‘revolutionary implications’ in contrast to the sophisticated minuet of the court, featuring the controversial close embrace of the couples and the continuous circular turning, which the early writers criticized to have induced vertigo and nervous symptoms. (Yaraman, 2002, p.5; pp. 7-9) Furthermore, the waltz in Paris is Burning is also comparable to the ‘dance-destruction trajectory’ (Mawer, 2011, p. 65) explored by the 20th-century classical composer, Maurice Ravel. Besides his famous Bolero, Ravel also tests the waltz genre itself in his La Valse, eliminating the sentimentalism of the dance in order to accentuate its machine-like nature, elevating “musical materials to their breaking-point”, as the mechanism and automation of endless circularity and ostinato prove to be cataclysmic. (Mawer, 2011, pp.150-155) Within this frame of reference, I would assert that Paris is Burning uses its black waltz to destroy the baroque rock genre, with the lyrics and the rising musical calamity painting an utter defeat:
Dance poor people, dance and drown,
Dance fair Paris to the ground.
(St. Vincent, 2006)
Ending with “Dance fair Paris, ashes now,” the frantic waltz torments the listener with the nightmarish connotations of nostalgia and the destructive power of its fantasy, while the imagery of complete annihilation of those dancing the waltz attests to New Romanticism’s “finite with the appearance of the infinite” (Notes on Metamodernism, 2010) that haunts the twenty-first century. With the repetition of the brass introduction that fades with ritenuto into complete softness, the song concludes with the removal of the lens through which we observed the past. There is a sense of relief in the silence after the song’s ending, as the listener returns to the present-day and its ‘impossible possibility of another here and now.’ (Notes on Metamodernism, 2010)
In conclusion, despite often being categorized as a baroque rock song, St Vincent’s Paris is Burning actually epitomizes the antithesis of the 1960s genre in its distinctive approach to the classical music motifs. From its musical breaking of the fourth wall that makes the listener aware of the present day’s technology mediating the experience of the past, the soundtrack that has been liberated from the topline to have its own temporality in the construction of such past, to the destruction of the postmodern nostalgia in the modernized use of the borrowed classical music motifs, as well as the structural skepticism that occurs all throughout, the song offers a New Romantic perspective in the revisitation of the genre, wrecking it into the chaotic imagery of the Parisian ruins. As a result, despite the recent revivals of the genre in bands such as the Divine Comedy, Paris is Burning, once and for all, musically dismantled and sabotaged the main ideas of baroque rock, whose ironic sentimentality towards the commonplace and the quotidian in the form of the neoclassical soundscape has, just like the Paris in the song, been smoldered into ashes.
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