By The Landlord
“I don’t want to boast, but from the start I was willing to bet that there was going to be a universe, and I hit the nail on the head.”
“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”
“Oh! if people knew what a comfort to a horse a light hand is ...”
“He hit me, and it felt like a kiss.”
“Can the people on TV see me?”
“And I'll be happy to see those nice young men in their clean white coats … ha ha!”
“You think you’ve had a demonstrably hard time? I’ve been used: abused, disabused, misused, mused on, underenthused, unamused, contused, bemused and even perused.”
Welcome to the Bar. In a previous topic in 2016, we explored, with wonderful results, songs with intriguing or gripping narratives, but this week, it’s time to turn our attention less to the story, and more on the narrators. Their narrative may indeed be strange and compelling, but that is as much because of who they are and how they tell it. But what do we mean by unusual? In short, narrators who not so much confirm broadly shared experience, such as falling in and out of love, or feeling loneliness, and other universal themes, but challenge it, give it a new perspective from a life less ordinary, or perhaps more ordinary, but rarely told. But what kind of voices to they have? Human of course, but they could be also otherworldly, from spirits to gods to ghosts, or alternatively from animals, aliens, plant life, or even objects.
Songwriters may be writing from their own experience, or more often taking on the point of view of others, and will likely do this is the third person, singular or plural. We could be seeing the story from the fringes of society – murderers, thieves, prostitutes, vagabonds, prisoners or their victims, or people who have lived a life that's isolated, or extraordinary. They might be survivors of an extreme event. They might have unusual professions, or the song is written quite particularly from doing a particular job, from the outside looking in, from the top of a building, a tree, a lamp-post, from underground, from the point of view of someone who sees everything that’s going on, but isn’t normally noticed because they are not conventionally regarded as important. They might be female, or a child.
We all see the world slightly differently, and arguably at the moment, there is the ironic situation that perspectives on politics, society and the world around us have never been more stark, despite the availability of social media that in theory, should help us all share perspective. This brings us to the issue, on this topic, of whether the unusual narrator is also the unreliable narrator - a technique in literature where what the storyteller relates isn’t necessarily what the reader might perceive. This might become a whole new topic in itself, but let's see how the unsusual pans out.
Arguably the ultimate unreliable narrator in the modern public eye comes with stark evidence of the US president’s Twitter feed, in which he has an uncanny knack of describing and disparaging others exactly as he is. It’s an almost psychopathic form of self-deflection, yet ironically allied to a desperate, narcissistic need to be noticed and liked. True! Fake news! Sad! Horrible!
By contrast, very opposite of Trump, who for example, receives $30m a year in support from the gun lobby (his response to the latest school shooting making that even more pertinent) is that of that great saint of sanity, David Attenborough, the epitome of golden good sense and reliability. He explains on the topic of narration for his films: "It is vital that there is a narrator figure whom people believe. That's why I never do commercials. If I started saying that margarine was the same as motherhood, people would think I was a liar."
But whether reliable or unreliable, first let's concentrate on the unusual. So following on from the Trump feed example, your song suggestions might also be written from the perspective of someone with a mental health problem, or an unusual psychological condition. This might be aggressive, paranoid, or charmingly eccentric. Literary examples include Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, in which narrator Christopher John Francis Boone is a 15-year-old with a form of autism. "I know all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,507,” he says, by first introduction, and later adds: "People say that you always have to tell the truth. But they do not mean this because you are not allowed to tell old people that they are old and you are not allowed to tell people if they smell funny …” Are there any songs out there that express this sort of literal honesty from an unusual perspective?
Your song suggestions might also feature more than one voice, perhaps also in the first person, or hint at schizophrenia, perhaps inspired by the sort of character found in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, made even more famous by David Fincher’s film, in which the narrator, who is an extreme insomniac, meets, or think he meets the boldly confident Tyler Durden with establishes an underground bare-knuckle boxing club as a form of secret radical psychotherapy for men with boring jobs. But who is Tyler?
Violence, or the suppression of its memory, is often a trigger for powerful moments in song and narrator perspective. There are many great exponents of this, from Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Bob Dylan to Eminem and some of the more original hip hop artists and also country and folk singers, but songwriters who are particularly adept at capturing unusual narrator perspectives also include the impressionistic Joni Mitchell, Ray Davies, Jarvis Cocker, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Arlo Guthrie, T-Bone Burnett, Henry Chapin, Louden Wainwright III, Julie Brown, The Handsome Family, New Order, and Leroy Pullins among many more. .Several artists when telling from their own perspective, could certainly be seen to be unusual in simply being themselves, such as Ozzy Osbourne, or the band The Misfits, who certainly capture the mind of the violent and disturbed successfully
But my purpose here is not to list, only to hint at some examples, without actually explicitly naming them, for that, dear and learned readers, is your pleasure. And for inspiration here are more literary examples. Famous animal perspective narrators? Your childhood may hark back to Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel Black Beauty, told from the view of the eponymous horse. Or Richard Adams and his rabbit characters in Watership Down. Or less directly, Jack London’s Call of the Wild, following the adventures of Buck the dog.
Alongside animals, your songs might include child narrators, inspired perhaps, at the beginning by the likes of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell told from the point of view of a foetus, or indeed from Laurence’s Sterne’s Tristan Shandy, who narratives much of his life before even being born. Then again, there’s Jenny Diski’s Like Mother, narrated by an anhydranencephalic baby – ‘Nony’ born without a brain.
From the strange, bizarre and funny, there’s also the tragic. Perhaps some songs might might inspired by or pre-empt Markus Zukak’s The Book Thief (2005), set in the second world war, from the perspective of 10-year-old German Liesel Meminger as she witnesses the horrors of the Nazi regime. Or Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, in which 14-year-old Susie Salmon narrates her tragic story from heaven.
Then there are the great eccentric narrators, such as Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being A Wallflower, all about the observant “wallflower” Charlie going through adolescence, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the style-changing awakening of fictional consciousness Stephen Dedalus, or indeed the oddball Ignatius J Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Has anyone done this sort of thing in song?
There’s eccentric, and then there’s the transcendentally odd. One of my very favourite books is Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, told from the perspective of ‘Qfwfq’ who is, who knows, perhaps an atom or a piece of DNA. He/she/it is a shape-shifter, taking on different forms in different evolutionary stories: such as a fish among first to climb out of the primordial water, and a dinosaur, and child whose “only playthings” in the entire universe are hydrogen atoms. Or if that isn’t odd enough, how about Tibor Fischer’s The Collector Collector, a novel narrated by a particularly garrulous and articulate 6,000-year-old Mesopotamian ceramic bowl that certainly seen a few things of over the centuries, an idea that certainly bowls me over.
But from objects to animals, children to people, it’s now your turn to suggest unusual perspectives in song. This week’s omnipresent, omniscient narrator to retell your suggestions into playlist is the brilliant barbryn. Deadline? This coming Monday at 11pm UK time, for playlists published next Wednesday. Go tell it your way. Your perspective can also become ours.
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