Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Rock 'n' Roll Devices - They Call Me "Mellow Yellow"

In Lit Rock 101 we explored literature and its association with rock music. Literature requires a keen purview; i.e. songwriters need to read. Literary Devices however may be the forte of the writer, or simply dumb luck. For Andrew McMahon's "Synesthesia," the artist was obviously aware of the literary device, using it to color the lyrics. "I see colors, when I hear your voice," is about as synesthetic as it comes. The concept goes beyond literary trickery though. Many creative types claim to have synesthesia, a neurological condition that causes a person to see color when they hear music, see certain numbers or letters, or perceive certain times, days, weeks, months etc. One would probably find similar afflictions in the DSM5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Volume 5). Both Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Nabokov reported having synesthesia.

As a literary device, synesthesia can add depth and mysticism to ones writing by conjoining multiple senses. A classic example of synesthetic elements in a poem is Dante's Divine Comedy, in which he went "back to the region where the sun is silent." He combines the sound (or lack of sound) with the image of the sun. In the song "Bold As Love," Jimi Hendrix sings a rainbow of synesthetic images: "My red is so confident that he flashes trophies of war,/ and ribbons of euphoria/ Orange is young, full of daring,/ But very unsteady for the first go round/ My yellow in this case is not so mellow/ In fact I'm trying to say it's frightened like me."


Giving human voice to objects and animals is a very common part of many poems and songs. However, when I think of songs that include personification as a major component, Ben Gibbard's relatively recent ode to the Smith Tower in Seattle called "Teardrop Windows" comes to mind. The whole song is written from the point of view of the building—once the tallest building in the West, now dwarfed by nearly every other building in the city (and in every other city): Teardrop windows crying in the sky/ He is all alone and wondering why/ Ivory white, but feeling kind of blue/ 'cause there's no one there to share the view/ There's too many vacancies/ He's been feeling oh so empty.../ When the sun sets over the Sound/ He just goes to sleep/ Built and boast as the tallest on the coast/ He was once the city's only toast/ In old post cards, was positioned as the star/ He was looked up to with fond regard/ But in 1962, the needle made its big debut/ And everybody forgot, what it outgrew/ He wonders where the workers are/ who once filled every floor/ The elevators operate,/ but don't much anymore, anymore, anymore...


I can probably include every song ever written here, as metaphor is a common trope used in writing of all kinds to convey an idea on multiple levels. In fact, many songs are really just one long metaphor. That said, I recently heard a song with a lyric that reminded me of the famous Ezra Pound micro poem, "In a Station of the Metro:" "The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/ Petals on a wet, black bough." But how 'bout this: "Oh dressed like that/ You are a flag of a dangerous nation." That line comes from the song "Trance Manual" by John Vanderslice. It uses a similar style of juxtaposition metaphor.

While they may not be one-for-one comparisons—(i.e. Pound's comparison is more visual (he was an imagists after all) and Vanderslice's is more conceptual, I mean, what does "the flag of a dangerous nation" look like?)—but they carry the same method of weighting one idea against another to make a point—and to make it very quickly.