The Musical Lamentation of Violence
The Musical Lamentation of Violence against the Individual and its Effect on Society
Baudrillard argues that present-day consumption and interpretation of an object, is not object-based but that consumption and interpretation hinges on the ‘idea and the meaning of the object... that is desired, taken and employed for one’s own benefit’. Consequently I intend to evaluate and discern the ‘ideas’ produced by musical lamentations and in turn analyse both the benefits and detriments it may cause to society and the individuals themselves.
If one is to agree with Baudrillard then the question that arises is what ‘idea’ is presented by music? And perhaps more importantly, why, indeed, purchase or listen to music that laments violence against an individual when examples of violent discrimination are so extraordinarily prevalent in society? The answer in my opinion is in Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality, in his argument he states that:
'Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the hyperreal... It [Disneyland] is meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that adults are elsewhere in the “real” world.'
At a basic level this would imply that all America is infantile, however, Baudrillard is stating that due to the knowledge that Disneyland is a society ‘realised’ through signs people explicitly witness and experience Disneyland as a false symbol of innocence. In essence society is aware of Disneyland’s falseness. Therefore the defining distinction between the falseness of Disneyland and the present hyperreal society is that people are not aware of, or, are unwilling to believe the semiotic status of society, to them it is the real, when in reality it is also purely symbolic and materialistically false, this being the hyperreal. Arguably, then the purpose of Disneyland is to disguise the falseness of society, paradoxically, through the sheer quantity of its falseness and more critically the self-acknowledgement of its own falseness.
Moreover, by comparing these two contrary perspectives of fictional and factual violence and their semiotic implications I intend to draw conclusions on the lack of boundaries in society’s interpretation of reality and fiction. To achieve this I intend to examine the soundtrack of Edward Scissorhands and two songs lamenting the death of Matthew Shepard both musicologically and ideologically so as to ascertain their inherent ideas and the methods the composers have utilised to portray their message.
Fictional allegory is arguably the easiest way to portray ‘the individual’ and therefore I intend to start by analysing the most surreal and fictional of texts and begin with the film Edward Scissorhands. At its fundamental level the film is a narrative and therefore exists purely to convey its story through itself, however, to successfully achieve this both the characters and themes must resonate fully within its target audience and therefore, for the story to be conveyed effectively, the director must create empathy for Edward. In this interpretation of Edward Scissorhands I presuppose that Edward is ‘the individual’ while suburbia represents a microcosm of society. Musically, the distinction between these two ideas is vast, Danny Elfman utilises a haunting children’s choir and full orchestra for to create a whimsical innocence Edward that is at any time both beautiful and tragic while Suburbia’s diegetic muzak is nothing short of monotonous. The musical lament is at the end of the film and begins as Edward plunges his scissored hands into Jim, the epitome of society’s chest. Musically this is represented by a single pedal note in the choir. As Kim whispers ‘I love you’ so Elfman scores Edward’s most innocent motif of a rising stepwise perfect fifth sung a cappella lamenting the destiny society’s violence has sealed for Edward and starting the emotional climax that ends with a huge choral rendition of both of Edward’s motifs as the film itself ends.
Ideologically the music in Edward Scissorhands is inherently false; it creates sympathy for a false entity that’s only existence is semiological. However, society relishes the semiological, as it is the new ‘real’ the hyperreal, people are more empathetic to symbolic people then to people devoid of semiological meaning. The contradiction between the diagetic muzak of suburbia and of Elfman’s haunting score is therefore paramount to the creation of the sense of the hyperreal making our association and sympathy with Edward purely semiological, ironically, the haunting choir creating more ‘real’ emotion than the source music. Moreover, the primary chord sequence of I to iii is highly mystical enhancing the sense of the hyperreal and the idea of Edward as the innocent outsider.
Music has a low semiotic modality; that is, it can be interpreted as widely as an audience’s experiences dictates, likewise, music generally has no anchorage other than lyrics or a title thus if there are no lyrics or otherwise lyrics which the audience is unable to interpret then surely it have a wider range of interpretations. In Edward Scissorhands there are no lyrics to Danny Elfman’s soundtrack therefore the devoid of musical anchorage it is able to explore wide spanning ideas of myth, fairytale and innocence and more importantly enhance the sense of the semiological and ideological as stand-alone it is devoid of meaning and reality and only exists in the confines of the film. The audience is forced into create meaning for the score purely from the timbre, harmony and rhythm, the music itself. Due to the whimsical triple time metre, innocent children’s choir and hopelessly tragic I-iii chord progression it undoubtedly creates a sense of otherworldly beauty.
The overall effect of this is the simulation of the ‘individual’ an idea that cannot be based in reality as there are far too many individuals to truly warrant an idolisation and consequently ‘it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum’; that which is created by itself and exists only for itself. This separation of reality and ideas is in my opinion detrimental to society as it promotes and allows hypocrisy as people are able to proffer their acceptance of an idea while still managing to reject an individual. I now intend to examine this theory through the music created as a lamentation of the murder of Matthew Shepard. Naturally then, in this example, the ‘individual’ relates to the ‘homosexual’ and I wish to seek ideas and theories that one could argue separate the idea of homosexuality from, ironically, the homosexual individual.
In the aftermath of the event of the murder of Matthew Shepard many successful musicians brought it upon themselves to lament the violence perpetrated against him by writing songs expressing grief, anger and a call-to-arms for legislation of federal law making homophobic violence a hate crime. Through each of the two songs I have chosen their composer and performer evidently wanted to create empathy and sorrow at the loss of Shepard’s life, however, to do this they have to portray Shepard as a symbol. As illustrated above in the example of Edward Scissorhands society prefers the semiological, ironically, and as before the semiological does not have to portray reality. To this end, not one of the songs state the name “Matthew Shepard” anywhere; they all, arguably, are intent on idolising the young boy as a figurehead for discrediting homophobia and perhaps more relevantly to pass the law against hate crimes in Wyoming. Semiologically because each is anchored by lyrics and a title to Matthew Shepard it is less symbolic then Elfman’s wordless score and the music is only a secondary factor to the lyrics seeking only to augment their effect. Furthermore, in Elton John’s American Triangle I would argue that any idea of Matthew as an individual is destroyed by the lyrics:
‘Seen him playing in his backyard Young boy just starting out So much history in this landscape So much confusion, so much doubt
Been there drinking on that front porch Angry kids, mean and dumb Looks like a painting, that blue skyline God hates fags where we come from.’
As Elton John is clearly utilising the idea of a symbolic homosexual raised in a conservative state and while he may empathise with Shepard’s upbringing to say that he can ‘see him’ is in my opinion churlish and even perhaps disrespectful. This is also mirrored in Kristian Hoffman’s song “Scarecrow” where both he and Rufus Wainwright profess to know him. Consequently the idea of reality when discussing even reality is unnecessary as it seems society is able to empathise with falseness easier than actual truth, if indeed truth still exists. That is not to say the entire song is fake as it laments the actual act of violence against a homosexual and, I would argue, it achieves this by maintaining the individuality of the attack as opposed to the individual as the witness who discovered Matthew first though he was a scarecrow hence the names of Hoffman’s song.
Undeniably the idolisation of Matthew Shepard as a gay messiah is useful when trying to push for legislation; however, I would argue that this separation of the idea of homosexuality from the individual allows people to appease their guilt far too easily. It is too easy to say “I support homosexuality” as the idea of homosexuality is not real, how can an idea be so wide ranging as to encompass and include anything between 2-11% of a population and still have worth? Moreover, the separation of homosexuality from the individuality renders it inherently false. It is an idea that relies, somewhat understandably, on long held stereotypes and misconceptions and if the population is to accept homosexuality then surely it is more socially profitable to try and humanise Matthew Shepard then to idolise him and remove all the humanity to preach an idea?
To enhance the ideological nature of the song all the lyrics are loaded with symbolism and references the most obvious being the line ‘god hates fags where we come from’. This clearly references the Westboro Baptists Church’s hate filled sermon of homophobia and absolute and unrepentant devotion to the bible and again widens the range of the song from a lament about a dead boy to a general condemnation of homophobia. Also, the symbolic weight of portraying Shepard as a deer hunted by two wolves implies innocence another characteristic of the individual and perhaps also of the tragic hero. However, in my opinion the most interesting lyrics occur at the end of the piece:
'You pioneers give us your children But it's your blood that stains their hands'
This in my opinion could have many meanings Elton John states that it symbolizes that ‘Bigotry is passed on from parents to their children... at an age where children just take in everything that they hear as truth.’ Or the ‘pioneers’ could refer to the religious conservatives who first colonized America in the eighteenth century. Either way it changes the entire meaning of the song as it blames more than just Matthew Shepard’s two murders for his murder widening the blame to their parents for condoning and raising their children with bigoted view. This, for a second time, refers to the institutional homophobia present in Christianity and maybe in society itself. Moreover the futility portrayed in the lines:
‘Three lives drift on different winds Two lives ruined, one life spent’
Further exemplifies the uselessness of the ordeal. This wide-ranging condemnation evidently utilizes the murder of Matthew Shepard as a starting point and argument against homophobia which while effective does to an extent alienate the individual Matthew Shepard and therefore begins to idolise homosexuality and remove it of all meaning. Ironically one could almost argue that it is homophobia that retains a sense of individuality in the piece as while the piece is venomously opposed to homophobia it has to retain some idea of the individual to perform an act of homophobia.
In Hoffman’s Scarecrow to make it as universal as possible he employs love as a symbol of humanity so that regardless of the audience’s sexuality they are able to sympathize with the lyrics. To me the lyrics do create an idea of homosexuality and Matthew Shepard but also through the rhetorical questioning maintains a sense of intimacy and individuality as the audience is asked to question their own view and to place themselves into Matthew’s position which, in my opinion, is both deeply intimate and powerful, it still idolizes Matthew but by explicitly creating an atmosphere in which people can imagine being in his position it also makes the idea intimate and human. Throughout the song there are again many allusions to the homophobia of religion, the line of reasoning stating that God is man’s creation to justify homophobia, again universal and therefore benumbing to the Individual.
When one simply looks at the forces employed in the music in Edward Scissorhands in comparison to Hoffman’s Scarecrow the difference is blatantly explicit. Edward Scissorhands utilizes both a full orchestra and choir whereas Scarecrow is defined by a far smaller ensemble with only two solo voices therefore producing a much more intimate and individual based song. Kristian Hoffman and Rufus Wainwright’s voices complement each other perfectly and the general sense of futility is amply communicated through their soaring yet strangely distanced vocals. Arguably a film score has to be more universal as it has to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible whereas a pop song is marketed at a smaller more defined populace and therefore can afford to express personal experiences and ideals that otherwise may alienate the casual listener.
Both Edward Scissorhands and Scarecrow share harmonic similarities as thematic harmony is arguably universal (minor is sad) and harmony the context of these pieces provides architecture and ballast to the lyrics in Scarecrow and the on screen action in Edward Scissorhands. As mentioned above the I-iii chord scheme in Edward Scissorhands does create a whimsical and, due to the switching of major and minor modes, tragic atmosphere. Dissonance is utilised perhaps a little more in Scarecrow than in Edward Scissorhands as there are many leaps of a tritone between D7 and G# this echoes the fallacy of the lyrics that ‘only God can make a man it’s true’ and further heightens the sense of irony. Likewise, the utilisation of unresolved chords imbues the piece with a sense of momentum and continuity that echoes the continuous arpeggios and quirky nature of Edward Scissorhands. However, the smaller instrumentation of Scarecrow accentuates these chords and increases their prominence to an almost destabilizing level. The unresolved nature of Scarecrow is also maintained through dominant seventh chords with the third in the bass such as the D7 that accompanies ‘fashioned with such flair’, before resolving up a perfect fourth to Gm before again declining down a third to Eb minor, a jarring and despair invoking move that conflicts with the audience’s expectations.
In Hoffman’s song the idea of the scarecrow is paramount to his portrayal of Shepard; this also links to Tim Burton’s interpretation of himself as Edward Scissorhands as both are fantastical creations linked by a character trait that undoubtedly lead to their own destruction. This is undoubtedly idolizing homosexuality or indeed individuality, however, the ways in which the two artists and mediums portray this is incredibly varied. Burton’s Scissorhands is the epitome of innocence, he has a highly romanticized sense of morality and perhaps most significantly his tragic flaw is inherent, undeniably not a choice. Hoffman’s Scarecrow is incontrovertibly inspired by both the character of the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz and by eyewitness accounts of Shepard resembling a scarecrow. The Scarecrow referred to at the end of Hoffman’s song though is somewhat ambiguous:
‘Scarecrow - those who seek metaphor compare Scarecrow - that other man left hanging there. But it seems to me that comes too easily. Scarecrow, this much is true. Scarecrow, I know you... If we only had a heart. If we only had a brain. If we only had a chance again, just a little chance again.’
‘That other man left hanging there’ who ‘those who seek metaphor compare’ is very ambiguous as there is no reference to any ‘other man’ in the entirety of the song, therefore semiologically the sentence lacks anchorage and is based entirely and intimately on the audience’s interpretation. For me the image of a murdered man who has been left hanging would be Jesus as, debatably, the media surrounding Shepard’s death idolised him as a ‘gay messiah’ implying that he was killed for another’s sin and intolerance This would mirror the previous religious aspects of the lyrics in many ways. Ironically Hoffman’s lyrics
‘But only man can make a scarecrow out of you. And only man can make a God who might approve.’
Suggest that man is God’s creator and as a result in the next verse, if one is to agree with the Christ allegory then man is also the killer of God ergo it would appear that Hoffman maybe commenting on the inherent violence and hypocrisy of humanity, something he elaborates on in an interview: ‘If I can recognize my own idiocy, perhaps we as a species can bumble erratically towards a more loving relationship with the universe and each other.’
In this respect then the events surrounding Matthew Shepard’s death have become a symbol of humanity’s failure and the song likewise is aimed at humanity as a whole rather than one particular idea. The overall effect of this is that through the portrayal of humanity as flawed it achieves the difficult balancing act of individuality and ideology. Hoffman idolises Shepard through the audiences own individual beliefs. The juxtaposition of the singular Shepard and plural audience, is reversed as the audience’s introverted idea is intimate with itself; Shepard becoming the universal. Hoffman recognises the latent idolisation and effect on society in the next line where he states that to compare Shepard to ‘other man’ ‘seems to come to easily’, both shocking that a reference to Jesus comes easily and, perhaps, a recognition of the ease of accepting an idea.
If the Scarecrow is in reference to the musical The Wizard of Oz as would be suggested by the small musical quote it would narrow the interpretation of Shepard from a universal human to a homosexual as it is widely accepted that The Wizard of Oz can be interpreted as a ‘coming out’ allegory. However, the line ‘if we only had a heart’ is again ambiguous as it refers to the scarecrow’s quest in the Wizard of Oz and yet the plural pronoun suggests Matthew Shepard’s killers, which, when coupled with the following line ‘if we only had a brain’ suggests that it was their ignorance and an unwillingness to understand that allowed the murderers to kill and that if they actually had a heart they would perhaps have questioned their actions. If indeed Hoffman has purposefully idolized the two killers then he is again reversing the role of idea and individual and therefore in collusion with Baudrillard’s theory of the hyperreal he is alienating them from the songs prospective audience.
Similarly the lament ‘if we only had our chance again,’ is decidedly cryptic as it would appear that in the final two lines Hoffman has reversed the role of Scarecrow from Shepard to both McKinney and Henderson as I would find it difficult to believe that Shepard had any choice in the attack and therefore the only people whose choice actually mattered were his killers. The Scarecrow allusion then might imply the effect a mass-hate campaign from the media had against the two men and that they have been prosecuted by the media somewhat unfairly, however, I find this unlikely and believe it to refer more to Elton John’s American Triangle and the blaming of the ‘pioneers’ and forefathers for the homophobic ideologies present in society.
This sudden reversal of ideas is incredibly powerful as throughout the song Hoffman has established Shepard as both an idea and individual through the almost palimpsestic positioning of ideologies on the audience thereby forcing them to interpret them in an individual and personal manner. Therefore by the end of the song it seems that the last task Hoffman has to fully cement Shepard as an individual is to remove his killers from any sympathy by idolising them thereby making both themselves and their motives immaterial as an idea cannot have thoughts or indeed emotion. This is almost ironical as Hoffman explicitly distills sympathy for them through his lyrics but due to the only other reference to them being through the idea of a scarecrow the sympathy is remains fixed to an idea rather than the individual and therefore is inherently flawed.
Overall, I would argue that the idea of an individual is absurd, however, through imprinting the idea over an individual interpretation by suggested rhetorical questioning and allowing people’s experiences dictate their ideas Hoffman has managed to bridge this idea. Moreover, in this postmodern age where the signifier and signified are forever blurred and distorted, Hoffman has coerced this bastard-son bereft of meaning into an intimate voyage of discovery that both idolizes and intimates Shepard throughout and the grim journey of homosexuality. In a lesser songwriter this could undoubtedly have become pure idolization, perhaps this is the case in Elton John’s Scarecrow where he seems to preoccupied pointing out that homophobia is bad to fully individualize Shepard or the attack or perhaps he thought that idolization would result in hastier legislation protecting the gay community from hate-crime, either way his song is absolutist in its condemnation of the ‘pioneers’ in a world where absolutes become pure ideas: non-existent and bereft of meaning.
Elfman mirrors John’s outlook in the score of Edward Scissorhands by using massive forces and easy diatonic harmony that hints at its own falseness through some off-kilter rhythms and interesting harmony. However, purely due to the nature of film score it has to mirror the on screen action and therefore in general has little meaning of its own. Having said that Elfman deftly creates empathy for the idea and amply demonstrates Baudrillard’s theory that the idea is more emotional then the individual as pure emotion has no individuality to limit it and is pure idea which can easily be interpreted by all.
Music can lament violence or it can lament the idea of violence and it is this distinction that the postmodern world is eroding, to sell media it is far easier to promote an idea of lamenting violence as it is readily sympathetic and easy to assimilate. Regrettably though it has no meaning, the idea of a homosexual or even more perversely the individual without an actual person is totally and absolutely false and non-existent. In conclusion then while one may feel more emotion towards an idea true meaning, as always, has to be worked for and is difficult and I believe that Hoffman has achieved the balance of idea and individuality through his distillation of the idea of Homosexuality and the idea of Matthew Shepard imposed on an introverted examination of the audience’s life and experiences. It is more difficult to look inside yourself and ask questions then it is to accept blind idea but it is generally far more wholesome and meaningful.
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