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Understanding Lyrics: Consider Sounds

This post is the start of a series on how to do close readings of lyrics. For the full list of analytical tools for lyrics, see my introductory post. To help flesh out the previously posted list on close readings of lyrics, I shall go through each item listed and give some examples to help illustrate some real-world examples of the concepts being talked about. Those familiar with analyzing poetry will find much familiar in this list, as this post will be a basic overview examining the purpose of a song’s lyrics. Songs cannot be examined by their lyrics alone, but they serve as an important piece of the work to evaluate. This series seeks to help shape the conversation in lyrical analysis to broaden the rhetorical discourse on song lyrics.

  • Consider the sounds.
    • Do you notice any alliterationassonance, onomatopoeia, rhythm, or rhyme that is used to create a particular effect on the poem?
    • Does the rhyme scheme or metrical patterns in the lyrics have a purpose, and if so, what is it?

This time around, I’ve linked to good introductions to the various literary devices to save us both time. To see how they all work together, let’s look at the first line of the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”

The strong alliteration with the letter “T” draws us into the “tale”: “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.” While pleasing to the ear, the alliteration is also striking, the sharp “T” sound reflecting the abrasiveness to the tale about to unfold. It helps accent the choice of diction as well. By choosing the term “tale” instead of “story” or “account,” lyricist Stephen Sondheim accentuates the fictionalization and grandiose nature of the musical about to unfold.

The rhythm of the first line is Iambic tetrameter, further accentuating the “T” alliteration. Thus the various lyrical elements of the text reinforce each other, drawing the listener in. Add in the foreboding music and deep-voiced singer, and you get a strong, memorable opening line that also sheds light on the nature of the work itself. You, dear audience, are invited, nay, ordered to hear the sale tale of a man whose mind, body, and soul is ultimately consumed by 19th century England. Take heed.


Sucker Punch Promises, or, Burying the Author

I promised in my “Fight over Frozen” article that I would also later critique this review of Sucker Punch. It’s a bit of a lumbering mess, so I decided to cut through it by highlighting a few main points.

  1. Saying something is “creative,” “interesting,” or “gorgeous” does little to describe how the film techniques actually function or look like. A “shot of the button spinning on the floor is beautifully evocative” actually tells me very little. Evocative of what?
  2. Praising Zach Snyder for merely not making “decisions arbitrarily” is praising him for doing the bare minimum in attempting cohesive storytelling.
  3. By stating that “A film can — and should — be enjoyed or hated on its own merits,” Coleman contradicts an argument she makes against Frozen. She thinks the film suffers with no love interest for Elsa, directing her critique at something non-existent, outside the text itself . It’s an argument beyond the films “own merits” as it were.

Next up, we’ll look at some quotes and dissect them.

“For one thing, Snyder isn’t a director who makes decisions arbitrarily — in fact, the only other director I can think of who considers every detail of a scene quite so carefully is Guillermo del Toro.”

Paging Wes Anderson. Or Peter Jackson. Or really any good director, really.

“Even the soundtrack is the product of carefully considered choice. One of my favourite moments in Watchmen is the scene in which Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl) meets with Adrien Veidt (Ozymandias), and the ambient music is Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World. It’s an instrumental version, so you can’t hear the lyrics, but if you know the song — if you know what the lyrics are — then it adds dimension to the scene. It’s a clever and subtle soundtrack [sic] decision, underlining the power dynamic between the two characters and hinting at Ozymandias’ ultimate plan without ever shouting it out.”

Much of the article suffers from this kind of vague summation. How does the song add dimension to the scene? What is the power dynamic? Instead of given a fully realized example, the article does not deliver the details to really give the argument any bite or nuance.

“Yes, the five leads are all very attractive women, and yes, their costumes all at least have elements of the fetishistic to them, but if the film were really just some kind of pornographic fantasy for Snyder, it would have been more…well, pornographic.”

You know, just a little skin here, a little fetish there, it’s not that big of a deal, right? I mean, they aren’t totally naked, so clearly it’s not pornographic at all!

Coleman goes on to claim that Snyder’s main trait is that he’s satirical, then goes through his filmography to support the claim. Whats more accurate to say is that Synder is perhaps more comfortable working with film adaptations, as all of the films she lists are based on pre-existing properties. Indeed, the satirical edges she speaks of are really leftovers from the original Watchmen and Dawn of the Dead than Snyder’s own craft.

The rest of the article goes into defending Sucker Punch as a satire, at which point I can’t really be bothered. Though the article begins to wrap up with the perfect encapsulation of the writer’s worldview.

“There’s a real problem in media today in that audiences no longer know how to separate a piece of media from what they think is the voice of the author. After a certain point, it doesn’t even matter what the author him/herself actually [sic] says, in interviews, press conferences, DVD commentaries and so on: what seems to matter is the idea of what that author is trying to say.”

This review is literally asserting that authorial intent is the only way understand their work. Of course, this is not true. Here’s a link to Roland Barthes seminal essay “The Death of the Author” for all the details. But beyond that theory, Coleman’s implies that whether it be content or its execution, the author’s word is law. Snyder says he shot a good, non-exploitative satire, therefore Sucker Punch is a good, non-exploitative satire. I’m sure Snyder had good intentions, but the execution (I.e. production of the film) is what matters, and the cultural product that lasts with us.

But you have to believe me this was a stupid decision. But I did it with the best intentions.

 with the best intentions… Some other worst things imaginable have been done with the best intentions.

And with that wonderful bit of wisdom from Jurassic Park III, I’ll bid you adieu.

Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

One of the more prominent Marxist scholars working today is David Harvey, whose latest book, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, I finished recently. It is an excellent text, open enough for a general educated audience to understand, but also nuanced and incisive in its criticism. As a novice to Marxism, I found it quite engaging.

Harvey’s intention is to articulate the contradictions that power and sustain capitalism, dividing the contradictions between three groups: foundational, moving, and dangerous. Foundational contradictions are present wherever capitalism has a foothold (which is everywhere), whereas moving contradictions are constantly changing and evolving (capitalism’s constant quest to update technology, for instance.) The dangerous contradictions are the most volatile, such as capitalism’s relationship to nature (treating the land as both valuable and utterly disposable.)

Throughout the book, Harvey is careful to guide the reader to the different contradictions, making it a very accessible text, particularly good for students. This doesn’t limit the enjoyment of the academically inclined, however, as Harvey’s analysis (and, upon occasion, humor), is razor-sharp. He condenses sprawling movements and trends and carefully illustrates the connective tissues and underlying assumptions. Though it tackles quite a lot of material, it obviously isn’t meant to cover everything. Harvey makes clear that his analysis is only one part of the scheming mass that is capitalism, but it’s a text that flowing with clarity, and well worth your time.

Thoughts on The Legend of Korra Season 1 Finale

This is an older piece I actually wrote on facebook a few years back. I figured it could be put to better use here, with edits for clarity.

I have been steadily enjoying The Legend of Korra since its first two episodes leaked to fans in late March. Its late in the game to give the show accolades, but suffice it to say that the show is well-written with great animation. Now I’ve recently learned that the show was late into production when the team found out Nickelodeon granted them another season. This explains A LOT about how it turned out. Let’s look at the positives of the finale first.


The good stuff:

  • The music by Jeremy Zuckerman has been fantastic in both supporting the action and drama, as well as establishing the series as an ‘in continuity show’, but its own separate entity as well.
  • The filmic nature of the series really lends itself to creating atmosphere really well. The creators are ambitious and know what they want to do and how certain techniques will create that. And when they want to get creepy, they can get creepy. The scene of Amon taking Korra’s bending away is sincerely frightening. The panic and tension are visceral, and I admire that such emotion is created from the use of angles, and again the great supportive score.
  • Steve Blum.
  • No seriously, it’s always a treat to hear him, and his final scene with Tarrlok was fantastic (not just because of Blum or course, but the silence from Tarrlok, the tear; it was a really poignant scene.)
  • The new and unique bending tactics used. It’s been interesting to see the practical evolution of bending for stadium use (being more direct in techniques, etc.), but the finale adds some more interesting uses, such as the use of fire bending for various propulsion. It illustrates creativity and reflects a growing and changing world. (Also, I shall now nickname General Iroh Firefly.)

The Tricky:

Because of the aforementioned production schedule, the entire series was originally planned to wrap up in these finale two episode. And it shows. There is simply not enough time to exposite everything, and there is plenty of subtly I didn’t see the first time around. Here’s the stuff that I had trouble with, but as I read and rewatched, actually makes sense.

  • Bloodbending being the source of Amon’s power: The flow of chi is established as a the key to a bender’s power. Block the flow with accurate attacks, and a bender’s power is rendered temporarily useless. It’s feasible then for Amon to take bending away by permanently messing up their chi flow with his bloodbending – detailed knowledge at the hands of someone who can manipulate and control your body would be disastrous. The question then is how did he figure out the proper technique to remove bending, but seeing as chi blocking has existed long before his time and he’s a bending prodigy, there were plenty of resources at his disposal to figure that all out.
  • Korra getting her bending back: At first glance, I was really frustrated with this because it appeared that all Korra needed was an emotional low point to get want she wanted. Aang’s statement that change often happens when things are at their worst made sense, but how Korra actually made a connection to him then didn’t make sense at first. She wasn’t meditating, and any kind of sub-conscious connection would feel forced and unearned. However, reading the A.V. Club article helped shed some light on the scene, revealing it to actually make much more sense in the series. The article asserts that Korra’s identity issue and spiritual block were connected. It’s explained much more in detail here, but the basics are this:
  1. Korra prevailing identity in her life has been that she’s the Avatar. Those are even her first words in the whole show.
  2. Amon theaters to take here identity away. (Episode 4 really highlights this the best.)
  3. Flashforward to later: Amon does take away her bending (He severs the connections she has to the three elements she had ties to. Afterwards, Korra finally connects to air, so that fact that she can still air bend makes sense as well – Amon can’t sever a connection that didn’t exist.)
  4. Korra visits the best healer in the world – Katara – but her previous bending skills cannot come back.
  5. She leaves in anger, even telling Mako she’s not the Avatar anymore. As a person whose identity was intrinsically linked to her bending, what’s left for her now?
  6. She journeys to a cliff. Here is where the subtly comes in: Korra considers suicide. It’s never explicitly named, but the angles, her actions, and her reactions, all make perfect sense with this motivation (remember, in film, like all media, there is always an intended purpose for a shot, a scene, etc.)
  7. However, she doesn’t do it! it’s this affirmation of acceptance of identity that finally breaks her spiritual block, and she acquires her bending powers again.
  8. The theme of identity is highlighted again and brought to fruition when Tenzin finally calls Korra “Avatar Korra.”
  • The above is just a summary, but the crux is the suicide contemplation. Without this, her triumphant return would be totally unwarranted.
  • Because the Avatar has the power to take bending away, it makes sense why the Avatar can also give bending back (even if that original power was a deux ex machina of the first series.)

The Bad.

Jamming everything into two episodes means a lot got left out. Though I think overall the finale is satisfying, there is still plenty left that is far from perfect.

  • How did Tenzin and his family get captured? We never learn how it happened, though it’s plausible the airplanes could have contributed in some way.
  • What about the other council members? Tarrlok said he was the only one at Air Temple Island, so where are the rest? They probably are in the underground compound, so this is more of a nit pick.
  • “My grandfather would have respected the Avatar’s instinct.” That doesn’t change the fact that it’s probably not a good idea for Korra to directly confront Amon again (remember what happened last time?) Whatever happened to being patient? But that is totally Korra’s personality, direct and headstrong all the way.
  • Mako: “He’s baiting you.” Attacks Amon and both jump + fire walk towards him. This isn’t really a plot hole, but I suspect this sudden reversal is due to the squeezing of the plot a bit. Of course saving Tenzin and his family in that situation would be inevitable. How they got there in the first place is beyond me.
  • EXPOSITIONEXPOSITIONEXPOSITION: All of Amon’s backstory and motivations are all explained by Tarrlok rather than being fleshed out by the actual character. Tarrlok describes Amon revelling in his bending powers earlier, but now he thinks bending is the source of all evil? Maybe I wouldn’t be so confused is Amon/Noatok could get more time developing himself instead of through exposition. Because of this, I really find Amon’s  juiciest bits of the finale to be when his mask is off. That’s when it’s been really interesting. Oh well.
  • Lack of addressing class division: although Amon’s plans are ruined, all those equalists do have a point: most of those in power (politicians, police, and mafia) are primarily benders. What is really lacking is a scene of Korra bringing balance to the city, whether it be a speech or what have you, to help heal the relationship. There needs to be reconciliation to fully finish that story arc. The fact that it’s not there is a deep flaw.
  • How does the hobo have a working telegraph and a means of connecting to the reinforcement fleet?

The finale to The Legend of Korra is satisfactory enough, but upon probing deeper, both a surprising amount of subtly and plot hiccups certainly make the final two episodes far from perfect. Though the season wraps up completely leaving little tension left, there is plenty of world building and character development left to explore.

Stuff to look forward to! (or at least what I want to see explored more.)

  • Korra’s interactions with the spirit world: after finally clearing her spiritual block, here’s hoping for much more development both of her spiritual side (avatar state) and the spirit world itself.
  • Mastering airbending is pretty important too.
  • More of the dynamic between bending and technology.
  • I’m not really demanding this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we get more historical background of all the characters.
  • Reconciliation and the rebuilding of Republic City with the equalists.

Mao on the importance of practice

Mao Tse-tung: ON PRACTICE

Mao writes in detail about the conception of knowledge within the dialectical historical view in ON PRACTICE. To summarize some points briefly, Mao notes both perceptual knowledge (first hand experience, sense perception) and rational knowledge (logic) are necessary, and cannot be separated from each other like certain schools of thought (empiricists, among others) tend to do. We are not beings totally devoid of worldly experiences, or devoid of abstract thought either. Separating rational philosophy into a different school of thought is unwise, as sense perception grounds our very existence. And as material, social beings, our education relies on acquiring and distilling experiences. Thus “there can be no knowledge apart from practice” as “knowledge begins with experience–this is the materialism of the theory of knowledge.” Unpracticed theory is unfulfilled theory, hence Lenin’s statement that “Practice is higher than (theoretical) knowledge, for it has not only the dignity of universality, but also of immediate actuality.” Mao ends with a guide on how to start practicing:

Discover the truth through practice, and again through practice verify and develop the truth. Start from perceptual knowledge and actively develop it into rational knowledge; then start from rational knowledge and actively guide revolutionary practice to change both the subjective and the objective world. Practice, knowledge, again practice, and again knowledge. This form repeats itself in endless cycles, and with each cycle the content of practice and knowledge rises to a higher level. Such is the whole of the dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge, and such is the dialectical-materialist theory of the unity of knowing and doing.


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