Saturday, November 13, 2010

Deconstructing "Columbia"

One of the things we have to do as SpinTunes judges is rank the songs. We also have to provide a critique of each one. In addition, I've been doing something that ISN'T required, which is "deconstructing" my top pick and telling you in excrutiating detail why I like it. This is really more of an extended review than a deconstruction, but... meh.

I'm actually glad I started doing this. In neither case has my top pick been for the winner of the round. My tastes obviously differ somewhat from the other judges. Last round, for instance, my top pick was eliminated entirely. This round is a little more difficult than that for me, because my top pick for this deconstruction isn't the song I ranked at the top, though it is a very, very close call.

I ranked Zarni DeWet's "Eric" as my #1 entry. It's a highly emotional piece about the mother of Columbine shooter Eric Harris, and fully deserves its spot. It's one of the few real artistic pieces in the round. I define 'art' very simply. Art makes you emote. Specifically, it makes you feel what the artist intends you to feel, as it is a form of communication. I give a lot of weight to art in a piece. Some art is more difficult than others. Not to minimize anyone's loss, but it's relatively easy for an artist to make someone mourn a dead child. There are subtler emotions; the more subtle the emotion, the finer the art. That's why so much effort is spent analyzing that smile of the Mona Lisa's. While it's not my top ranking, my top pick for the round is "Columbia" by Duality (Joe 'Covenant' Lamb and Denise Hudson). This song is a shadow -- it's not an official entry, as Duality were eliminated last round.
When I first saw the title, "Columbia", and that it would involve astronauts, I was prepared for the easy tearjerker... that being the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. Duality had something far more subtle in mind.

Nearly everyone knows that Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the Moon. Many know that he was accompanied by 'Buzz' Aldrin. But while those two were making history on the surface of the Moon, astronaut Michael Collins was making history possible as he piloted the command module Columbia in orbit around the Moon during Apollo 11. How would it have felt to watch as your companions became celebrated heroes and you were quietly acknowledged and largely forgotten by the public? It can't be just loneliness, or disappointment.

Collins himself has said that he didn't feel loneliness or disappointment. He himself said he felt "awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation". After all, regardless of what he didn't do, he did fly around the Moon. And I'm sure that feelings of disappointment are not something that Collins himself would admit to even given the opportunity. But keep in mind that this isn't a documentary, it's art. What he felt isn't the point... it's what we feel on his behalf. Duality recognizes the injustice in the way the public memory is perpetuated and reminds us of that, not only by making us feel what we would feel in that situation, mixed with the guilt of that injustice. It's what I feel when I listen to this song.

Breaking it down isn't that complicated, because the lyrics are pretty straightforward, but they're broken up so it's a little difficult to scan. Usually I break these verses up for analysis, but this time I'm going to pull out some white space below for the sake of discussing the text. The original formatting is here. If you're interested in the historicity of the event, go on to the Wikipedia article. In this fictionalization, the slots are chosen by lot.
I couldn't leave with you.
It wasn't what I would choose,
But the choice was taken out of our hands, and they were tied
And they told us who would go, and how long they'd stay below
They all stood congratulating both my friends
They sympathised and I knew then it was true
I just had this job to do
It made it more bearable to know that hist'ry would recall today,
But down beneath it all I just couldn't shake it off and keep that thought from running through my mind
The song begins with a simple guitar, a bit of echo on Joe's voice, and an electric piano, all of which impart a feeling solitude and vague 'spaciness'. In performance, each line ends with the first word of the following verse, tying the whole thing together until the last thought, which stands apart.
Will they remember me at all?
The next verse continues in the same vein, with Collins recalling a promise to his wife Patricia. Again, historical accuracy is unimportant here. Everyone who has loved has made this sort of promise, in thought and intent, if not in words.
I always said to you that I would give you the moon if I only had the chance but that promise couldn't last
It broke when they broke my heart and said I would play a part
But I sat there devastated while my friends were idolised
And the pain within your eyes is worse than that I feel inside
It makes it unbearable to know that hist'ry would recall today,
But down beneath it all I just couldn't shake it off and keep that thought from running through my mind
One way we communicate emotion is by tapping into universal truths. Letting down a loved one is worse than disappointing yourself. It can even turn a "well done" into a failure. Likewise, we feel a loved one's pain more than we feel our own. Here Duality simultaneously invoke both of those feelings by describing the pain in Patricia's eyes as seen by Collins, and Collins' dejection, as seen by Patricia. Now, as Collins once again questions his legacy, we segue into the bridge, which I love...
Will they remember me at-
-All I can say now is I'll try to silently wait while hist'ry writes their names
And all I can do now is to say I flew
But why does it feel that after the fear of planetfall
They won't remember me at all?
One of the purposes of a bridge is to give us a break between the verses and offer some variety... to keep the song from becoming monotonous and boring. If that's all a bridge does, it's pretty successful. This is way past being merely successful. This is smooth, it's melodic, and it takes us to another emotional level. This is what I mean by "contour". Underlying the music are recognizable sound bites of the Apollo 11 radio transmissions, which communicate to us the momentous nature of the undertaking at hand. This gives us an auditory and melodic reminder that Collins is alone, tethered to humanity only by his radio as he glides over history in the making. The bridge ends not with the question, but afterwards with the recorded soundbite, "Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed."
So here I am alone, oh so many miles from home
I see were the Eagle's gone, where valour and fame are won
But thanks to the choice they made, now fortune favours the brave
As I sit in my tin can they take that one small step for man and the race for space is won by America's new favourite sons
It makes it unbearable to know that hist'ry will recall today,
But down beneath it all I just couldn't shake it off and keep that thought from running through my mind
Will they remember me at all?
They will if they listen to this song. Four times the question is asked, and that is our hook. The final question fades, sans accompaniment, to silence. In this last verse we almost subliminally hear Armstrong announcing "one giant leap for mankind". It's almost salt in the wound.

Again, this is art on behalf of another; an empathetic piece of work. In it is not merely sorrow, or disappointment for one's self, or loneliness; but all of these together, plus the feeling of letting down someone else; of feeling someone else's pain; and our own guilt at forgetting those who made the larger achievement possible. It's a subtle cocktail, not easy to concoct. I like the song a lot; on top of everything else it has a "geek factor" that I connect to, and it will find a happy home alongside David Bowie's "Space Oddity", Elton John's "Rocket Man", Jeff MacDougall's "High", and my own "Mission" mp3s.

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