by carl wilson

Babytalk in the Furnace Room

It was with some shock that I recently heard the Fiery Furnaces' Tropical Ice-Land over the sound system in a Starbucks or some similar chain establishment, and further astonishment when I found out that the single was near the top of the UK charts.

What's adorable about the Furnaces is first the Weimar-cabaret slink of the music (which also has a Cornershop vibe going) and second the utter indifference to sanctioned sociability that's reflected in their lyrics: They are nonsense, the baby-talk of intimates, but with a beat and a swing. It all made more sense to me when I found out they were brother and sister; they have exactly that private-language cryptic sense to them, as if they were simultaneously (1) completely random, stream-of-consciousness babble; and (2) stating the most vital personal information but in a code only one other person on Earth could understand. [...]

I frequently adore things that fulfill this condition but am taken aback to imagine thousands, millions, of other people hugging such a poetry close. Is there an explanation in the siblinghood of the players, so that in fact what seems to be solipsistic is rendered open because it is about a relationship rather than an island consciousness?

It seems not only possible but entirely undeniable that - unbeknownst to or at least ignored by everyone - we all spend more time in this dada space of nursery-rhyme language than we do in the literary zone where critically acclaimed lyrics happen or the party zone where most of the rest do.

For example, I may occasionally blurt out, "Rawk on, MAN!" in some lamentable beer-garden episode of misplaced irony. Far more often, though, I can be heard by one single person saying, "I like to pet giraffes, the giraffes go up to the sky and get poked in the eye by saucy birds." It's just the passing-the-time chatter of love, an expression of being beyond sense and sensibility and being able to play together like toddlers do. It would be embarrassing if anyone could hear it; I certainly don't mention it in public (and even acknowledging it on this page is giving me a case of the shivers). It can also be damaging to relationships if it is allowed to get out of hand and substitute for genuine conversation. (There's a good, possibly unforgettable This American Life piece on this subject. (Approx. 23 minutes in; link requires RealAudio.))

But the Furnaces and their semi-popular success make me feel like this is a part of life that there has been a hunger to see reflected in pop culture. As Nancy Updike says in the TAL piece, "Baby talk is completely without any cool or dignity or redeeming social value - it is truly a dirty little secret, much more than sex. ... It's this very performative speech, like kabuki... but a performance for one person." So when, in a coolly unacknowledged way, this uncoolness is revealed, it becomes an unnameable kind of cool. Hell, unless you count certain works of Gertrude Stein, the Great American Baby Talk Novel remains to be written.

Plus, the Furnaces' Eleanor Friedlander is a stone fox. That might have something to do with it.

Read More | On Record | Posted by zoilus on Friday, March 05 at 3:19 AM | Linking Posts




Zoilus by Carl Wilson