Friday, February 6, 2015

Favorite Song Friday: The Emperor's New Clothes

It seems years since you held the baby
While I wrecked the bedroom.

Call it a vast oversimplification on my part. But even with a decent knowledge of the huge and wondrous canon of rock-n-roll lyrics, I can’t think of a song that opens up with more of a lyrical gut-punch, with a more clearly defined and blunt statement of purpose.

Yes there are equals. “Like a Rolling Stone.” “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Patti Smith’s “Gloria.” The Who’s “I Can See For Miles.” "Born in the U.S.A." I get that. They are all equally as visceral, as pointed, as clear and concise in intent from their opening lines.

Just no more than Sinead O’Connor is in the words that open one of her best, most personal and most raw and pointed songs, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

The song is laced with acid and spite, seething anger and frustration. And it comes with the full knowledge that she is a part of this story, that she holds a stake in all that has happened. It’s not victimization; it’s realization and self-reporting. It’s about love that’s not there and anger that is difficult to express. That’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”—that’s what Sinead is doing in this 25-year-old song.

And that’s why those opening lines floor me. The juxtaposition of the sad regret of the first line with the unhinged madness of the second line is a warning shot for what’s to come. It will not be sentimental. It will not be wistful. It will not be apologetic. But it will be honest and it will—it will—be something we won’t forget.

That’s why in the old school lesson vein of a “topic sentence”—make your intent clear from the outset, Mr. Marcus always advised—those opening lines are so perfect.

The rest of the song is a marvel. Two chords, from opening to close, that never deviate. The dance beat comes with a not-at-all subtle layer of menace. Sinead’s voice, always a fascinating instrument in her ability to go from vulnerable to commanding within nanoseconds (Mikal Gilmore of Rolling Stone called it going from "ethereal to feral," and he was very right), stays more towards the understated side mostly throughout, but it drips with pathos and soul-bearing desperation.

And the writing is so…primal. This isn’t Sylvia Plath, but it does come across like a Sylvia Plath rough draft, or maybe even a page of notes. A sampling:
I see plenty of clothes that I like
But I won't go anywhere nice for a while
All I want to do is just sit here
And write it all down and rest for a while
Everyone can see what's going on
They laugh 'cause they know they're untouchable
Not because what I said was wrong
Whatever it may bring
I will live my own policies
I will sleep with a clear conscience
I will sleep in peace
Maybe it sounds mean
But I really don't think so
You asked for the truth and I told you
Through their own words
They will be exposed
And they've got a severe case of
The emperor's new clothes
These are words that need to get on the page now. Not tomorrow, not when they are fully formed, not after they’ve been pondered and thought-about for awhile. This is a bleeding, struggling need to get these thoughts out without any more hesitation, whether they or anyone else is ready or not. This is as confessional as confessional songwriting gets in its sense of urgency and immediacy.

(I haven't even mentioned the video, which it equally jarring. Sinead in some ways almost seems to want to blend into the background, clad in a shapeless black tunic, remaining largely expressionless as she reluctantly half-dances/careens he way across the stage in front of a small, collegial audience. But that face, those eyes. That's what you keep seeing; you can't look away.)

For that reason and others, “The Emperor's New Clothes” this is one of the bravest, most brutally honest songs I have ever heard. From one of the bravest and most brutally honest—for better and for worst—songwriters/performers I have ever heard.

And it all starts with that opening line.
It seems years since you held the baby
While I wrecked the bedroom
It might not be as poetic and soaring as, “Once upon a time you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?” But it’s no less shocking. It may even be moreso.

1 comment:

  1. I just learned that O'Connor is romantically linked with Liam Neeson.

    Should have stuck with Gabriel, is all I'm sayin'....