The Death of Meaning and Mystery in Overplayed Music
On another part of this site, Joanna Colangelo posits a poetic appreciation of the quintet of 1960s-70s Canadian and American musicians known as The Band – Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, and Garth Hudson – and how they successfully iconized aspects of America’s long gone agrarian past — or seemed to.
Like Ms. Colangelo, there is not one song in the quintet’s impressive body of work that I do not find profoundly moving or even instructive, on one hand, or just sublimely good pop music on the other. However, I also believe Ms. Colangelo and I differ where it comes to the repetition of song and its ability to continue to elicit in us affective and thematic meanings after the song has been heard by the same listener for literally thousands of times, in a variety of audio and filmic contexts.
Ms. Colangelo writes:
Unlike traditional American songs, however, where there is often a vague understanding of where and when the song originated, or how it has changed over time, the origin of “The Weight” isn’t nearly as mythic and mysterious as what it has come to represent….
This mythic lens into America led to a catalog of songs which have become musical precursors to the Americana movement today: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Across the Great Divide,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Shape I’m In” and, of course, “The Weight.” I’ve found myself wondering lately, out of all of these songs – and many others – why has “The Weight” emerged as the iconic American standard?
I, too, am a fan of “The Weight,” – though not nearly as much as when it was new. I also wish the song – like its brethren “Hey, Jude,” “Light My Fire,” and “Blowin’ in The Wind” — wasn’t subject to being churned into cliché the way we Americans do when we come upon something nice THAT WE LIKE. We fuck it up with overuse and misuse in the hopes of conveying that we might actually be hip and/or have an original idea.
Let’s face it, though: “The Weight,” with its myriad FM and AM-radio playing back when it was new, plus its use as soundtrack in all the places Ms. Colangelo mentions (and more), for nearly 50 years, has rendered it all but unlistenable for any vestige of content or surprise.
Stripped from it is original emotive context the moment it was first broadcast or purchased for personal listening, the song (like many others) continues to devolve into a hollow icon that represents “that old Sixties creativity,” without any longer being able – like an old man without teeth – to bite into consciousness. It is now, sadly, almost a cliché.
Which leads us to those fortunate enough to have been able to purchase artists’ catalogues and sell the rights for strictly venal ends (Michael Jackson and his benighted sale of rights to the Beatles’ work for commercial advertising, for example.) Then there are those who are biting off their own feet by selling rights to their own music (Dylan, Kinks) against the interests of their own posterity. (Does GAP really foster “revolution” by using “Revolution #9” in its ads? Will Stella McCartney’s great-grandkids think so? Does Stella?)
I was hoping when I started the article written by Ms. Colangelo that she would be alluding to “Chest Fever,” “King Harvest,” or “Across The Great Divide” — surely more darkly Gothic and “American” songs than “The Weight,” especially if one accounts for overuse and resultant change/diminution in meaning of the latter, and the relatively pristinely emotive condition of the former. I would have included “Dixie” but have to omit it from the “Americana” roster for similar reasons of overplay and overuse.
After all, a newfound music exploration into “Gothic Americana” is what intrigued us about the band’s first outing on Big Pink, and later on The Band. Their songs were newly synthesized celebrations of America in its shifts from agrarian to industrial economies from the mid to the late 1800s. Was it rock? Not quite, but sorta. Did it roll? You betcha!
More important, I think the media outlets she alludes to have done to that song what advertisers have “accomplished” with Edward Hopper’s once resonant “American Scene” painting of the urban diner at night. Overuse has killed any resonance that picture could possibly hold for me ever again — it’s become hackneyed through commercialization and overuse on everything from telephone directory covers to mouse pads!
I believe almost any other tune by the Band has been far less abused by the mindless search for a cheap hook than either “Weight” or “Dixie.” The result is that the other, less-played tunes have kept their emotional and intellectual resonance — as much intellect as a four-minute song possesses! — whereas the more overdriven vehicles like “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
“Subterranean Homesick Blues,” anyone?