Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Shakespeare? Sonnets? Nah, Man. Blues Traveler.

One of the greatest birthday presents I'm giving to myself today (hint hint) is the right to completely brag about Blues Traveler @ing me on Twitter a couple days ago.

A friend of mine commented that his favorite song was "Run Around." I responded that back in college I had actually written a 5-page paper citing the similarities between Blues Traveler's "The Hook" and Shakespearean sonnets in iambic pentameter with a little ABBA Petrarchan bent at the end. And I got an A on it. That friend asked if I was kidding or being serious. I informed him this actually happened, and honestly thought that was it for the discussion.

And it was, for a week or so. Then Blues Traveler tweeted back at me, saying it was an honor. Baller. So, on the advice of my oldest friend on this joyous occasion, I present the most relevant portions of said college paper:

When I first sought a song written in the form of a sonnet, I began with my favorite music and songs that had recently caught my ear. Sadly, it turned out that all of my preferred music was based on syncopated, unrhymed lyrics.

After three days of analyzing everything I could, I threw in the towel on my way to class and queued up some just generally fun music for my own enjoyment–a playlist where every song is based off of the chord progression from Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

Three steps out the door I was struck by the musical equivalent of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55: “Hook,” by Blues Traveler. By form, it is comprised almost entirely of sonnets; by rhyme, it covers multiple sonnet forms; by theme it is Shakespearean. This is why John Popper sings. “The hook will bring you back.”

The English Sonnet is often referred to as the Shakespearean sonnet, not just because Shakespeare became the most famous poet to utilize the form, but also in that, while earlier English poets had mostly translated and built off Italian originals, Shakespeare was truly innovative in his use of the sonnet, breaking traditions and striving to surpass them.

Of the several rhyme schemes used in English Sonnets, Shakespeare favored the format of three quatrains, rhyming a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, and  e-f-e-f, followed by a rhyming couplet, g-g. This is the exact pattern by which “Hook” opens. Taken in blocks, the first verse-and-chorus and the second verse-and-chorus are rhymed in this very precise manner.

However, as any drunken undergrad in front of a beer pong table, angrily shouting for someone to put on Four can tell you, “Hook” is most memorable for it’s ludicrously fast second half. While this section does not fit into the form of a Shakespearean sonnet, taking the time to space out the lines by rhyme and rhythm reveals something both fascinating and amusing to the educated listener:

Just as the sonnet has multiple rhyme schemes, so does “Hook.” Throughout what I will call the 'breakdown' in “Hook,” one finds the major sonnet rhyme schemes of a-b-a-b, a-b-b-a, and even a-a-a-a, as well as multiple couplets:
Suck it in suck it in suck it in
If you're Rin Tin Tin or Anne Boleyn
Make a desperate move or else you'll win
And then begin
                to see
What you're doing to me
This MTV is not for free
It's so PC it's killing me
So desperately I sing to thee
of love. Sure but also rage and hate
and pain and fear of self.
And I can't keep these feelings on the shelf
I tried, well no in fact I lied
Could be financial suicide
but I've got too much pride inside
To hide or slide
I'll do as I'll decide
and let it ride until I've died
And only then shall I abide this tide
Of catchy little tunes
Of hip three minute ditties
I wanna bust all your balloons
I wanna burn all of your cities
                                 to the ground
I've found I will not mess around
Unless I play, then hey
I will go on all day. Hear what I say.
I have a prayer to pray
That's really all this was.
When I'm feeling stuck and need a buck
I don't rely on luck
because the hook brings you back…
Why would Blues Traveler make such a break from the Shakespearean sonnet form? For this, one must examine the lyrical and thematic content of both “Hook” and Sonnet 55.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets, as stated, were made famous not just because he himself became famous, but because they were vastly more innovative than what what had come before. Originally, English Sonnets were merely translations of Italian Sonnets, expressly the Petrarchan Sonnets. 'Original' English works up until Shakespeare's time followed along with the major goal of the Renaissance, that is, to mirror Classical works.

In light of this, early English sonnets were flowery and full of classical imagery, likening lovers unto famous figures and generally producing the 17th Century equivalent of that which is currently read by nineteen year olds in itchy sweaters and horn-rimmed glasses, as they strum sadly on their guitars in Starbuckses across the country.

What Shakespeare did with the sonnet I can only describe as “ballsy,” taking the form as-is while professing his own works and subjects to build off classical models and actually surpass them. In Sonnet 55 Shakespeare describes “the gilded monuments of princes,” marble, statues and edifices as being great, yes, but bound to the death and decay of time. Invoking the classical figure, Shakespeare claims even Mars’ sword and the fires of war will not destroy this sonnet. As Shakespeare says, his lover shall live eternally in the poem, and the poem itself shall last until the very end of time at Judgement Day. To reject the accepted model for an art is one matter, but to openly use it to compare itself poorly with your own work is a powerful statement, and it takes great talent to defend.

This is in fact the message in “Hook.” As Popper sings in the opening stanza:
It doesn’t matter what I say,
so long as I speak with inflection
That makes you feel I’ll convey,
some inner truth or vast reflection.
Yet I've said nothing so far,
And I can keep it up for as long as it takes.
And it don't matter who you are,
If I’m doing my job then it’s your resolve that breaks,
(Because the hook brings you back.)
The verse comprises the first two stanzas of the opening 'sonnet,' while the subsequent chorus completes a couplet. These lines expressly state that it is the job of the singer (John Popper) to say something, but what that something is doesn’t particularly matter as it is the hook of a song–the catchy, repetitive musical bit–that will draw listeners back in.

Furthering their rejection of musical tradition, Blues Traveler invokes in the second “sonnet” the literary opposite of “Hook,” and of course say they are doing exactly that. “To confuse the issue,” they say, “I’ll refer/to familiar heroes of long ago/No matter how much Peter loved her/what made the pan refuse to grow.” Again, the band expressly states that the summoning of beloved heroes is merely a tactic by which to obscure the superfluous nature of everything beyond “the hook.”

Interestingly, this line drives directly into the second verse, which completes the second “sonnet” of the song. Yet by this reading the sentence reads “What made the Pan refuse to grow was that the hook brings you back.” Not a question, but rather a declaration. Pan could face the personification of growing old and cynical, Hook, but he could not admit these realities implied by the notion of the hook itself.

Running into the “breakdown” section, Blues Traveler cements its position against the music of convention. Popper demands the listener, everyone from Rin Tin Tin and Anne Boleyn, ingest the song and understand it, to see what empty copies of the same song over and over do to a truly creative person, the singer and the artist.

The singer condemns MTV and political correctness, willing to sing of love so long as he can sing of “rage and hate and pain and fear of self” as well, the entire human condition. The singer says he has tried to keep silent, but that he no longer can, and though it might be his financial ruin as a popular musician, he must refuse to play “catchy little tunes” and hollow “hip three-minute ditties.”

Popper laments that he may in fact be kidding, and that his tirade was at worst a rant, and at best a prayer to the tastes of his audience. Ultimately, when Popper is “feeling stuck and need[s] a buck” it’s not luck that he turns to but the hook, implying that while Blues Traveler might be better than mere utilizers of the hook and convention, they still depend on these features for the foundations of their livelihood.

Many mornings, I wake up with a song stuck in my head. Usually it’s something I recently listened to, but sometimes not. Often I wake up with “Suck it in, suck it in, suck it in...” in the back of my head, likely because the firsts few sounds I heard while waking fit that quick repetitive pattern. That’s catchy. That's a hook.

I like “Hook” because of the rhyme scheme. I like it because of the enjambment–now that I know the word for it–in the breakdown–and I like the anti-pop mentality, but I wake up singing songs like this because of the hook.

By rhyme, theme, and form “Hook” is the 20th Century descendant of Shakespeare’s more self-touting sonnets, namely Sonnet 55. Matching modern lyrics for bounce and innovation, perhaps this explains the morning where half asleep I find myself reciting “To be, or not to be” over and over in the shower. Shakespeare has his own hooks.

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