by carl wilson

(Nellie McKay) Is She Tough or Not Tough Enough, Really?

Today's column is fairly harsh on Nellie McKay, so I want to talk a bit about the one song that especially convinces me she does have a possible future as more than a very agile prancing pony.

Generally I've been annoyed by all the comparisons drawn between McKay and Randy Newman, one of my most cherished songwriting heroes. There are some obvious convergences in their allegiance to the history of American song and especially American piano music, and their common political outspokenness and wry senses of humour. But if that's all there is to it you might as well be comparing McKay to Van Dyke Parks. Or hell, Dick Van Dyke.

Where Randy and Nellie part company is in McKay's solipsism. Her inability to get out of the way of her songs goes beyond being a tic, turning her into a one-ingenue debating society in which, surprise, she almost always wins. [...]

The young Newman especially, gifted and afflicted by quite a different psychology, made it his business to remove himself from his songs, and part of why he spent so long so misunderstood was the difficulty listeners had separating the "I" in his songs from the singer himself. Usually, as I think is now more widely understood, the perspectives of the songs were an ironic turn away from Newman's own, all the way from slightly askew and exaggerated to the crude diametric opposites.

Some of his early portraits of racists were all too unsubtle that way (as in Yellow Man or even Sail Away, which is saved by the doubled irony of being set to truly grand, majestic music) but by the time he'd reached his masterpiece Good Old Boys he had mastered the ability to attack both the Other and himself, to butcher reactionaries and liberals in the same swing of his songwriting scythe. Each line would refract and twist the one that preceded it until the vulnerabilities of his subjects were laid bare in an operating theatre in the round.

McKay's version of satire doesn't even get as far as Newman's early caricatures. She can never resist interrupting to interject a literal denunciation, a "gotcha," just at the moment when she might have pulled off a nice move. When Eminem does this, he's rescued by the fact that all his moves are so unsettling. McKay, whose opinions are very much parallel to any others at the democratic-socialist dinner parties where her fans play her records, needs much more slyness if she hopes to upset our digestion.

But in the song I'm thinking of, Really, the formal slowness and the conscious use of her storehouse of popular-song knowledge stays her hand just long enough that the song is given a chance to creep up our shoulders, slip into our ears. It's only right when we're beginning to wonder what it's up to that it lets loose and sinks in its fangs.

It begins in a Porter-Gershwin-Sondheim rhetorical form that will recall a thousand 1930s ballads, a sense memory the melody encourages: "Am I sad? Not sad enough, really/ Am I mad? Not mad enough, clearly..." At this point it could be a tune about the deflating, anticlimactic end of a love affair. But then it makes its first pivot: "Am I complacent, completely lacking in sincerity?/ Yes, indeed I am."

In a brisk next few lines, she establishes that this is somebody faced by a social problem, a beggar in the street, who realizes he or she isn't doing enough about it: "What can I do? What can I do?"

From verse to verse McKay ups the ante: "I feel sympathy, empathy, it's just that I'm super-busy right now, really." (That "super" is a perfectly struck note of false overstatement in today's demotic.) "I don't know why I'm such a shit/ I realize this doesn't help a bit/ But what can I do, what can I do?"

And then in the coda, she reprises the start: "Am I bad? Not bad enough, really/
I feel angry and upset/ I could write you a small check..." until at last she breaks through to the direct and brutal truth: "Look I wish you luck/ And here's your buck/ It's just that I'm a yuppie fuck/ Yes indeed I am/ Really."

And this is where the serial shifts in levels of language set off their effective little personal-political quake: Her yuppie is not a stereotypical go-getter with a martini and expensive cigar. Rather, it's someone who does not consider him- or herself a yuppie at all, but a "compassionate" liberal who feels too consumed by neurosis, too overwhelmed, to act for any sort of justice.

The final shift might be too broad - but there's some fun in that, and it drives home a point you might not quite expect: This person is not nearly so weak as she pretends. In the end, she bluntly prefers self-hatred to any threat of actual self-sacrifice; in fact, her well-tended self-hatred only camouflages how much she loves herself, at the expense of all the world.

Now that's a deft little number. It unspirals with a patience and craft that Newman (or the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt) could admire. Formally (not substantially) it reminds me of a Newman song such as Same Girl from 1983's Trouble in Paradise, in which it becomes clear in the turnaround that the guy singing this rapturous sentimental ode to his longtime lover is actually the pimp who's keeping her hooked on junk and on the streets, year after year.

What's more, Really goes at the solipsism that is McKay's very own weakness, and unlike almost all her other songs (Sari being one notable exception) makes no manoeuvres to separate herself from the object of her attack - she graduates from me-versus-them to me-versus-us, which to my mind is a far more potent and credible attitude, and one that does much more to uphold the old cabaret tradition's take on irony, which wasn't just savage but self-deprecating - because to protect yourself from your own perspicacity, you've gotta put blinders on. Cabaret was fiercely against any willful blindness - even if it was just an eyepatch meant to protect your one good eye. (It was, after all, the first post-Freudian age.)

Really, unlike McKay's other tunes, doesn't damper its flame just because she might get scorched in the process. It gets her out of the debating club into the open air of song, where ideas aren't bought or traded but allowed to burn like flares. If she has more like this in her, I'll take it all back. As I wrote today, the trouble is whether her fire will get the oxygen it needs while she's in the confusing artificial sunlight of the fame she so compulsively desires.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, June 24 at 8:40 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

COMMENTS

Re Randy Newman separating himself from his lyrics, you'd think we might have got the point with 'God's Song.'

Posted by seandix on June 25, 2004 10:40 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson