Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Those times when you can't keep it in...

I'll write about why I started this blog later. I was going to mainly focus on favourite artists and albums and what not, but there is plenty of time for that later too. Right now, however, I'm going to talk about musical numbers. You know the ones that seemingly come from nowhere.

Now, I do enjoy my music very much, and the musical, I feel, is a very deprived art form, it certainly isn't appreciated as much as it should be. I guess all the glitz and glamour of it all can feel a bit laboured, a bit surreal in a "get over yourself" sort of way, although I have never really felt it myself. The milk-bar innocence of middle America (and the wholesome family tunes produced therein) juxtaposes nicely with the gritty, bloody narrative that is the man-eating plant on Skid Row in "Little Shop of Horrors, and projects lyrics and music in a delicious pulp-filled package that is brimming with irony that feels so wrong it's right. The friendly barber of 19th century London goes drastically over the top, slashing his victims to tunes that hardly match the sincerity of the act, but tell the tale in a very rigorous and involving manner. Yes, I think musicals are just brilliant, but the subject of my talk here today is a derivative, a by-product, let's call it, of the ever-fading musical art form.

Set the scene. This is not a musical. This is a world where impromptu singing in rhyme and rhythm to an unseen band is not normal. It's like a surprise party for the audience. You're being led along by the actors, they're grinning ear to ear as they string you along but you don't know anything because they don't say anything. They get you to close your eyes. Then they take you through a door where the musical world hits you with the "surprise!" and the tune strikes up and they start singing and it's this musical grandeur, this brilliant spectacle, just for you, and you can't help but not get into it.

No, it's not something you'll hear on the radio or listen to while driving to work. It's very much limited to the text in which it's produced, but I do love a good musical number. And I do love how some TV shows or movies will just belt one out for good measure and then drop you back in the world of the non-singing, non-dancing TV world with awe etched into your face. I'm currently spooling through the entire Futurama collection (that is at this point, four seasons and four movies) and those guys have done this on more than one occasion.

Most of the time it's just a little tune here or there, often a schoolyard-esque parody of known tunes (Santa Claus is gunning you down), but there have been several occasions on the show that they've brought out a real ripper of a tune appropriate to the plot and timing in which they appear. In the episode "Hell is Other Robots", the Robot Hell song kicks up when Bender breaks his vows to the church of Robotology and finds himself at the mercy of the robot devil, truly the climax of the episode, partly due to the narrative arc, and partly due to the tune that aids itself to the intensity and theatrics of finding oneself in a real, physical hell for robots.

What I really like about this song is the smooth, jazzy tone, which pulls along at a pace which is very much out of the control of the main characters. Bender finds himself being pushed and pulled into all sorts of ironic punishments which condenses and intensifies this image of hell and really brings it to life, in a way, as a world outside our own, as a world dictated by rhyme of increasing urgency the further you descend in hell, and the levels of hell mentioned in the song, of course, refer to Dante's nine circles of hell, with each progression further representing a worse level of sin, and thus, deserving a more severe punishment. The ease at which Bender descends first from level one to two, then through to five and onwards signifies his terrible wrong-doings in a comical manner matching in tone with the cartoon itself.

The other tune I wanted to share is from the first movie, "Bender's Big Score". "This Trinity's Going to War" adopts a variety of styles, from the jazz infused syncopated rhythms of the retro seventies/eighties synths and guitars with an old school hip-hop beat carrying the song underneath.

The song revolves around the "trinity" of reinvented religious icons; the robot santa, living on Neptune, with a malfunctioned naughty/nice program; the hanukkah zombie, a jewish undead zombie; and the kwanzaabot, an African-American rap/hip-hop robot. Their gathering is in rebellion to alien scammers taking over Earth, with their retaliation emerging as a convergence of forces, rather brutal in their reappropriated natures, the funky tune and singing with gusto works as a sort of mini-montage, testing artillery and all that, and introducing the characters and their unique qualities verse by verse, with the backup vocals of the elves (do do, do doo).

The concept of using music to pump up for confrontation is nothing new, but I think what really works with the song is how it works with the context of the show (ie or knowledge of the characters, the style and all that) and to some extent, our cultural understanding of the Jewish, Christian and African-American holidays on which they are based. Again, the timing of the musical number is well articulated, and the song works as a preparation for the fight to come, it springs life into the main characters who sit idly to one side for the song's duration and it drops them into the music-less heat of the battle with a newfound sense of optimism.

Like hell, the toyshop works as a place outside the norm in which these songs can burst forth without causing too much doubt. Who knows if the devil sings in rhyme in hell or whether santa strikes up a tune in his toy factory? In a way, the unreliable constructs of the show position us to read these musical numbers as possible within their world, however, as the show is not constructed as a musical (ie, there isn't a song hiding around every corner), it constructs spaces within the world in which the characters themselves plunge into an unfamiliar "musical" space, where the constructs of the musical seems to be a present norm taken for granted by the characters that exist naturally within that space.

Although there aren't too many more examples in the show outside of this, it's enough to really catch my attention and bring a smile to my face. I think the musical is a brilliant art form, and I love that it's still working its way around today. I'm a Futurama fan, through and through, and I really think these songs of theirs are a great testament to the musical.

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