Friday, October 23, 2009

Surfing With Outkast (CUSSING CAUTION)

A sad gospel wail, punctuated by frantic doubts:

Over three verses, Andre and Big Boi detail some of their relationships with women and then explode the meanings of those relationships into world-historical philosophical musings, sort of like how Jack and Diane sucking on a chili dog and talking about running off to the city becomes "Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone." And I can't claim this song makes a whole lot more sense than "Jack and Diane," either. But it's inescapable once it's in your head.

In verse one Andre talks about being a crack baby (actually cocaine baby), then about the cattiness of women who won't even give him back rubs; then he disses the powers that manufacture guns while they simultaneously criticize rap music for its violent imagery. I think. Remember, this is PERCUSSION-EFFUSIVE, so meaning is secondary. But then we get the sadsoul chorus:

"Ooooh, I fear the battle's just begun
Ooooh, though we're here someday we will be gone
so i'm hopin, wishin, prayin
to keep my faith in you, in you"

What battle? The battle for life? For learning to deal with being born a crack baby? For living in a world that's an inescapable web of violence and not getting what you want or need, and being unable to even distinguish what you want (back rubs from women) from what you need (a society without gats, the freedom to speak truth)?

And then we're back to the second verse! Which is all about dry humping in the woods during P.E. class! With... the squirrels? (It does rhyme with "girls".) Fun stuff, but the point of the verse seems to be the last couple lines, "They call it 'horny'/ Because it's devilish/ Now see we dead wrong." So Andre, because of his Adventist upbringing or whatever, feels guilty about his lust, and his lust is also part of this "Babylon."

Big Boi gets verse three, which is about his estrangement from "Rene" and people criticizing his lyrics for promoting violent crime, when in fact the violent crime and sex trade have been around since people could write, and probably before. And then he talks about the "pinks" who "moved in"--gay people? So to recap: characteristics of Babylon include drug-addicted babies, girl troubles, stifling of creative expression, violence in society, stifling of creative expression BY those who create the violent society, lust, estrangement from other people, and societal ills like drugs and prostitution, especially when you get blamed for them.

The song's borderline incoherence works to its favor in this sense: it convincingly depicts the desperation you feel when you have to deal with a problem so huge that you can't break it down, you can't separate the parts that are urgent from those that are inconsequential. And since it's a Babylon Song, Babylon seems to be the inescapable web of societal and personal ills that we can't break away from. If that's so, it's similar to reggae's Babylon--the web of civilized evil that staves off the Kingdom of God.

The chorus's simplicity settles the seeming randomness of the verses. Never mind that we don't know what the "battle" is, or even in whom the singer (Andrea Martin) is trying to keep her faith. She sees into the abyss--"though we're here someday we will be gone" (which, if you really UNDERSTAND it, is pretty much the deepest thing you can understand)--and expresses her "ultimate concern" (as dead theologian Paul Tillich would say). Unlike some Rastas (but like some others), Outkast aren't worried about "chanting down Babylon" here; they just have faith. For all they know, Babylon'll go on forever, but they'll still have faith. And that faith can be defined as "ultimate concern", NOT "expectation that Babylon will meet a sticky end at God's hand."

Babylon's overwhelming litany of sin either blinds you from your ultimate concern or--more interestingly--pushes you into your ultimate concern. Without Babylon, would faith be as accessible, or even possible? The chorus comes as a relief from the verses, because its meaning is less convoluted, and also because its musical style is much more straightforward. (NOTE: THIS IS WHERE I TIE IN THE MUSICAL ANALYSIS!) The chorus is sung, it sounds like a slow beautiful gospel song, nothing tricky to it, whereas the PERCUSSION-EFFUSIVE verses are full of weird rhythmic figures and oddly accelerated syllables, making us listeners uneasy and disoriented. Seriously, don't listen to the verses while you're on your feet, or you'll bump into walls! On the other hand, if you fall down during the verses, Ms. Martin's refrain will help you figure out where you are, and might give you what you need to rise again.

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