Monday, April 12, 2010

Igor Stravinsky, Erykah Badu, Mugshots, and Strange Loops

Igor Stravinsky was arrested by Boston police in 1940 for his unconventional inclusion of a major seventh chord in his arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner. Here is the recording:


Here Stravinsky makes use of his signature discordant Major 7th chord, the one that legend says caused riots and insanity when first heard repeated throughout the composer's Rites of Spring. An excellent RadioLab episode speculates that the brains of the music-goers at the time had not acclimated to these new sounds yet and that, with no context for them, it didn't sound like music. It was a literal maddening cacophony. Our ears have had a century to get used to it and it no longer drives listeners to violence, but even to today's ears these notes sound unsettling, and intentionally inharmonious.

The detail that interests me is that in his version of the Star Spangled Banner he waits until the end to be discordant. Ninety percent of the performance sounded as patriotic and boastful as our national anthem always sounds, up until he reaches the end (the 1:15 minute mark on this recording). The jarring chords are only used during the line "...the land of the free".

Which seems to be making a cynical comment on the very overreaction that the line caused: locking him up for creative expression. Could he have predicted the overreaction and intended the whole act, including being arrested, as one conceptual collaboration with the corrupt authorities?

That may be wishful thinking on my part. But regardless of the artist's intention, the result is a self aware event that comments on itself. It's what Douglas Hofstadter might call a strange loop.

There was another musical strange loop circling around the media a few weeks ago: Erykah Badu's infamous video for her song, Window Seat. In the video, which was shot illegally in front of shocked passersby and without permits, she walks down the Dallas street gradually undressing until she arrives completely nude at the Dealey Plaza where JFK was assassinated, at which point a shot is heard, she drops to the ground and the words "Group Think" ooze from her skull in blue gel.

You can watch the video here.

Unlike Stravisnky, she wasn't arrested. This time it was the group thought of public perception that overreacted and condemned the musician. Instantly, media outlets began reporting on the popularity of twitter feeds calling the video, "The height of bad taste" and exclaiming things like, "This is a public place. You oughta be ashamed". Even Alice Cooper, a man who regularly killed chickens and used a guillotine in his live act, came down on the video, calling public nudity "an easy way to shock." To some degree, the video has derailed her public image even while it put her name in headlines across the nation.

This is where the second strange loop comes in. Erykah Badu garnered real world publicity from self-assassination of her public image via self-inflicted images associated with assassination.

To some, Window Seat is as viscerally repulsive (or uncomfortably tacky) as a discordant National Anthem must have sounded a hundred years ago. Also like Stravinsky's Star Spangled Banner, it abused untouchable American iconography in order to pre-emptively comment on very outrage the act later caused. For both of these cases, the piece and the reaction to it are inseparable halves in a self-perpetuating cycle that is given life by it's ability to be self-aware and comment on itself.

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