Thursday, April 30, 2009

Surfing with the 39 Steps, as we enter the Bottom of the Barrel!

And believe you me, it's a big barrel.

So the 39 Steps were Canadian Cult soundalikes (at least for the duration of their Babylon song) who titled an album Neon Bible 13 years before their Montreal landsmen in the Arcade Fire. Their song "(All Roads Lead To) Babylon" was released as a single and got some MTV play in '93, but is currently unfindable on Youtube, and the lyrics don't seem to be anywhere either, so you'll just have to trust me. Interestingly, eight years before their Babylon song, 39 Steps got to portray The Band Woody Allen Hates in Hannah and Her Sisters:

"(All Roads Lead To) Babylon" is a "she said" song, like Matchbox 20's "Push" and innumerable other annoying tunez, in which the singer ducks any blame for his insipid lyrics by prefacing them with a "she said," thus pinning any lyrical blame on the girl he's obsessing over. In this case, "she" says that all roads lead to Babylon, and I'm trying to discern what "she" means by that. She looks older, wiser, and worldlier, anxious to die. Go on, beautiful! Where have you been? And that's when she chimes in with the title claim.

Essentially what we've got here is the same plot as Train's "Drops of Jupiter" (note how this song keeps making me cite abhorrent Hot AC shit, another reason I resent it, despite its catchiness), where a small-town narrator marvels over a woman who's left him for greener pastures, or in Train's case, liquid planets. In each case, the narrator is obviously hurt and lonely. In Train's case, he imagines himself a "plain ol' Jane" who was "too afraid to fly so he never did land." (Please make me stop.) In 39 Steps' case, singer Chris Barry feels "so alone, but I just thought that one last call... might be worthwhile..." We've all been there, and I suppose making anthemic CBGB rock out of the sentiment is more worthwhile than making sadsack Facebook status updates.

Interesting to note is the similarity between this type of song and another subgenre of Babylon songs, exemplified in the work of Everlast and Jo Jo Gunne, who actually name their female subjects "Babylon." For example, Everlast's Babylon taunts him with her "forbidden thrills," and then becomes the woman by which all other uncomfortable relationships shall be measured--they all give him a "Babylon Feeling." Babylon is, of course, the "other," and in this case a brazen sexual other that brings out feelings of inferiority in our sadsack narrators. 39 Steps don't go as far as naming their woman "Babylon," but by putting the words "all roads lead to Babylon" in her mouth, they imbue her with the same incomprehensible sexual power. In their aforementioned tunes, Matchbox 20 and Train do pretty much the same thing, which makes me think this is a symptom of LOTS of male pop songs.

I wonder (this can be a Topic For Further Research) if you find this sort of inequality--with the woman as the holder of sexual power, and the man as her insecure complement--only in Western Babylon imagery, or if Mesopotamian sexual relationships had the same sort of power structure? For example, is this at all related to the Shamhat/Enkidu relationship in Gilgamesh, wherein Shamhat civilizes the wild beast-man Enkidu by having sex with him for a week? Are men sexually insecure throughout the history of civilization, regardless of location, because the woman always has the power to say "no"?

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