Size Matters

I miss Beavis and Butt-head. They watched with me but, more importantly, they watched for me (even while I was watching them), taking on the responsibility of being the moronic consumers so I could stay distant and clean. MTV knows all this; their on-staff Critical Theorists developed this strategy specifically for my demographic. Seconds after B&B rode off into the sunset, a new posse of interlocutors appeared: 12 Angry Viewers. They're weaker characters than Beavis (let alone Butt-head), but they do the same job of inserting their video-watching foolishness between ours and the videos themselves. By being our on-screen presence, they allow us not absence exactly, but more distance. We aren't watching videos anymore. We're watching watching.

This distance problem, in a slightly different form, lies heavy on this month's fetish item: the soundtrack single. A common single is understood to be pretty much about us, whoever we are. Maybe we're the kind of person Sublime is singing about. Or Shante. Or Spice Girls. Sure we have some self-awareness, and a basic grasp of marketing and its effects on popular culture. Still, there it is. When the Verve guy sings "The airwaves are clean and there's nobody singing to me," we all know what he means.

In the case of the soundtrack single, we understand that the first audience for such a song is some character in the movie. For the most part, we encounter Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" just like we do "MMMBop"--as a recording broadcast through an electronic box, made in some place we've never been--but we understand that it's a song for Rose and Jack, the Titanic lovers. We hear her hearing it and thinking about him, and somehow that makes it even more of a tearjerker--with that extra level of separation we are even closer to being pure spectators than before, weeping uncritically.

Functionally, Rose and Jack occupy the exact same space as Beavis and Butt-head: They float at the meeting point between us and the song. In fact, it's their song; we're the second audience. From this distance we can perceive size and scope better; it's no wonder the scale of the song is itself magnified accordingly. When we hear that Titanic tune, we're far enough away to see everything at once, panopticon-style: history's biggest boat and biggest movie, all those models and extras, the phantom of absolute wealth and the dream of the New World.

Also, we can accommodate that most outsized of items: Celine's voice. If we had to reconcile her pipe work with ditties of the daily drag, or minimalist angst, it would literally be incomprehensible. But a movie soundtrack allows it all to make sense. No wonder she sings "Near, far, wherever you are"; she knows that we (who aren't part of the "you") have been backed away so far we can take in any motion--even that of Celine's unsinkable corazon steaming on into the dark, bearing the totality of tragic love while the sounds of drowning and gunfire fade into the international night.

On soundtracks, size matters. Maybe this explains the true horror of Godzilla: not the monster, not the flick itself, but the Wallflowers' hideous cover of "Heroes." Bowie's original is certainly plenty outsized in its emotional reach: On the sheet music I have, a note between the third and fourth verses says "Repeat first verse (sing an octave higher, sound desperate)." Mix in Brian Eno's oceanic, obliterative keyboard drone and it doesn't get more overwrought.

If only Jakob Dylan could read, or hear. Then he might have understood that the apparent size of "Heroes" is a self-knowing sham--the boozy romanticizing of a lovelorn sod. Beneath the huge gestures is exactly the kind of domestic drama Celine could never sing--that's the song's whole pathos. Ironically, Lifetime Achievement Award Jr. probably could pull it off; "One Headlight" engaged a similar stoned mythologizing. Instead he disappears the first two verses entirely, including the whole "you can be mean and I'll drink all the time" part. Now the song's just about actual fucking heroes. Oops. Then he sets the instrumentation for soaring rather than crushing, and goes for the glory; it's the most abject misreading of a song this decade. All we can do is stand back--way back--and watch his unremarkable voice try to climb grandiose heights that were never there in the first place, and still fall short.

On Bulworth, it's at first cognitively dissonant and annoying to realize that the ghetto superstar in question--the song's first audience--is Bulworth himself, knighted as "my nigger" by black queen Halle Berry at movie's end. But even after Warren Beatty has morphed clumsily from Family Values Man to Quasi-Radicalized Rhymesayer, and makes his speech about the necessity of mass miscegenation for a colorless society, he's still one extremely white nigger.

The movie rises or falls on the dubious politics of his transformation. But "Ghetto Supastar" only rises, and rises some more. It's a great single even in a month of great pop-hop singles, rotating heavily with Master P's "Make 'Em Say Ungh" and Big Pun's "I'm Not A Player" in the best season for soul radio since Coolio and Warren G lit up the summer of '94. But more importantly, "Ghetto Supastar" is the race-mixingest single in memory. Hearing both a Fugee and a Wu-Tang banger strapped with a Brothers Gibb beat is cool enough, but the chorus--a two-fisted tearaway from "Islands in the Stream"--makes my day. "Islands in the Stream," in case you forgot, was a duet by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, both of whom are even whiter than Warren Beatty. But Mya heats it up like a soul afire.

Because we're not allowed to imagine that the song is about us in a way we otherwise might, "Ghetto Supastar" makes us hear it as passed through Senator Bulworth, or through the otherwise ludicrous Halle Berry/Warren Beatty romance. And at our distance, we have to hear the politics of the music itself, in a way we otherwise might not. The cross fader is the crossbreeder: Mixing country and western, inner-city narratives, and blue-eyed disco, it sells the idea that miscegenation will cure our ills. And we are healed, we are free. For four minutes we are completely sold.

No matter what the radios broadcast this spring, there's really only one song and it's 19 years old. The Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays" is the secret soundtrack playing behind every news show, in every schoolyard, each time you see a blank-faced kid on a magazine cover. It pours in waves through Pearl, Mississippi, and West Paducah, Kentucky; through Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Springfield, Oregon. The New York Times' description of the graduation dance in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, sounds exactly like a set instruction from a screenplay: "Sobbing girls in satin dresses and terrified boys in neckties huddled outside the hall."

When I was in eighth grade, everything felt too close; I wanted life to be farther away. Or maybe I just wanted to see the scale of things and manage to receive it in its entirety. Pretty much what the kids in Edinboro must've wanted as eighth grade came to its outsized conclusion, "dancing to 'My Heart Will Go On,'" as the Times told it, "when the first of several booms rang out in the hall," the picture dissolving into tiny fragments of panic and pistol-fire.

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