Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Surfing with Sheryl Crow (and, if you'd like, Nick Cave)

I love embedding! Unfortunately, Sheryl Crow's hippie label has requested that I not embed her video for 2008's "Shine Over Babylon", from the album Detours. Here's the url:


So I'm going to embed this Nick Cave video, instead! It's completely unrelated, but it's way cooler and employs a similar directorial strategy. Play 'em simultaneously!

Now, the reason they called it Super Tuesday 2008: not only because it was the first step on the Obaman road to X-Treme wealth redistribution, but because we got not ONE but THREE new albums by rich hippiez--Lenny Kravitz, Jax Johnson, and the aforeviewed Ms. Crow. FOUR if you count K.D. Lang, which I don't because just being a lesbian doesn't make you a hippie, and it's rude to suggest otherwise.

So anyway, on the aforementioned album by Ms. Crow there's the aforeviewed song, which I don't mind admitting that I hate unreservedly. But since it's been Babylon's highest profile in a while, it's good we discuss it here.

In Billboard, they asked Ms. Crow what the song meant. In words not quite as idiotic as what you'd find in a Jewel interview, but pretty close, Crow sed:

"Babylon represents so many different scenarios throughout history; in the book of Revelations [sic] it's kind of represented as the end of the world, Babylon is in Iraq, and also Babylon represents total chaos in the Bible. The Tower of Babel was where we were all relegated to speaking different languages. We were all made separate, we were all rendered somewhat helpless.

"The idea of shining over all that chaos, of rising to our better selves, being able to look at it and find out, figure out, who we are, that's the idea of it. Even though the song somewhat sounds like an apocalyptic diatribe, it is meant to be hopeful." [Billboard 1/26/08]

Hopeful how, exactly? Are we to look forward to a Glorious Revelation when Sheryl Crow rises like some gleaming Messiah over the chaos of everyday life, bronzed skin shining like that "golden cow" in verse 2? Haste the day!

Let's look at her Billboard quote first. I certainly can't blame anyone for not being as obsessed with this stuff as I am, so I'll try to get off my High Horse. Basically, Sheryl's understanding of Babylon jibes with what we've got going more generally--"a civilization that runs counter to some better or more correct civilization." Sheryl's incorrect "Babylon" civilization is the entire post-Babel world, where there is chaos and everyone speaks different languages. Her more correct civilization, one which may be attained through "shine" (Sarah Michelle Gellar to blog!), is the pre-Babel state of everyone speaking the same language. "Rising to our better selves," "finding out who we are," and what have you. (This is why I associate the woman with "hippies".)

Since Sheryl seems to have latched on to the Tower of Babel story as her primary source of meaning, we should refamiliarize ourselves with the tale. (goes, gets Bible...) It's a tale oft told. (flips through pages...) Homogeneous population learns to build buildings, becomes proud of itself, starts to build a really tall building, and is thwarted by God, who craftily turns them heterogeneous. (You might call God a "hetero-GENIUS"!) My Concordia Self-Study Bible, which destroys its editorial credibility by attributing this tale to the pen of Moses, interprets this story as a pedestrian tale of God vs. Pride (if that tower got built, "there would be no limit to humanity's unrestrained rebellion against God"--eek!).

(Careless foray into alternate and preferable views of Bible history: My playa Harold Bloom, on the other hand, recognizes that this is a literary adaptation of a story out of oral history, and that it wasn't written by Moses but by the J writer, probably around the era of King David. In the Book of J, according to Bloom, the character of Yahweh is "an antithetical imp or sublime mischief-maker, in no way morally or spiritually superior to the builders of Babel, except insofar as his own tongue certainly is not baffled... He blesses or he scatters; we are scattered unless, like Abram, we hear and answer a call." And that fabulous trapstar Gerhard von Rad concurs that the Babel story leaves us hanging for the emergence of Abram's profound new God revelation, an event that, thanks to some thoughtful redacting work, follows the story of Babel in the text. Well, first you get one of those boring Priestly genealogies, but THEN you get Abram's profound new God revelation. Which, let's face it, is why you're reading in the first place.)

But Sheryl Crow hasn't been reading her Babel story THAT closely, or she'd see that Babel didn't result in anything close to "total chaos." Obviously there were still nations that could communicate among themselves; they were just separate from the other nations. And if Sheryl read a little bit further, say into 2 Kings, she'd see that the civilization of Babylon, far from being chaotic, was a well-oiled military machine that trounced our protags pretty good for a while. So when she wants to "shine over Babylon," she wants to offer hope to all those who are down and out; and she's basing her image of "Babylon" not on a concrete historical or literary source, but rather on the cultural definition of "Babylon" that we've been dealing with all along. Let's say it together: "a civilization that runs counter to some better or more correct civilization."

Fine! No problemo! That's what all these other metal yaks and my beloved impenetrable Pajama Party are doing too, right? So I should cut Sheryl some slack for using an under-researched historical metaphor. But should I cut her slack for brainless sub-Dylan malarkey like this?:

"Buying bread and paying for none
Creatures of a waning sun
Teacher's hands are overrun
Clowns and gypsies have all but gone"

I'm not even sure what the first line is supposed to evoke, but presumably it's meant to evoke SOMETHING, since it makes no literal sense. Like, are we buying bread with our souls? Is this some sort of Dio-esque diabolical barter system? Second line works, third line is overly literal for the context, and the fourth line comes from the "Ploys of Desperation" chapter of Songwriting for Dummies:
"If you're desperate for a line, pretend you're writing 'Desolation Row.' Who's gonna complain?" [Songwriting for Dummies 2006 ed.]

More problematic is this:

"Freedoms etched on Sacred pillars
Hollow stones of mindless filler
Can lead to madman oil drillers
Won't be long before we all are killers"

This is obviously about GW Bush's Iraq, and Crow wants to solve this problem, too, by shining over Babylon--which she acknowledges in her interview "is in Iraq." Say what you will about Bush's oil motives getting us into Iraq, or the fictional WMDs; wasn't the main ideological reason for invading that country that the neo-cons ALSO wanted to "shine over Babylon"? That we would bring the shining light of freedom, liberty, and democracy to their doorstep? Be viewed as a great liberator?

I mean, I appreciate that Sheryl wants to spread goodwill and cheer, but the way you do it isn't by shining, or even "wanting to shine", over the chaotic milieu inhabited by your proletariat public. And it's CERTAINLY not by rhyming "Alexandria," "ganja," "hand ya," and "damned ya". I mean, HERE'S Sheryl Crow de facto shining over Babylon, in happier-if-still-imperially-ambitious Clintonian times:

I'd even take something that "sounds like an apocalyptic diatribe." But I'm not your damn charity case, Sheryl Crow! and Babylon doesn't need you, either!

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