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Reading Song Lyrics

Internationale Forschungen zur
Allgemeinen und
Vergleichenden Literaturwissenschaft

In Verbindung mit

Norbert Bachleitner (Universität Wien), Dietrich Briesemeister (Friedrich

Schiller-Universität Jena), Francis Claudon (Université Paris XII), Joachim
Knape (Universität Tübingen), Klaus Ley (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität
Mainz), John A. McCarthy (Vanderbilt University), Alfred Noe (Universität
Wien), Manfred Pfister (Freie Universität Berlin), Sven H. Rossel (Universität

herausgegeben von

Alberto Martino
(Universität Wien)

Redaktion: Paul Ferstl und Rudolf Pölzer

Anschrift der Redaktion:

Institut für Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft, Berggasse 11/5, A-1090 Wien
Reading Song Lyrics

Lars Eckstein

Amsterdam - New York, NY 2010

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ISBN: 978-90-420-3035-0
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction 9

Part I: Toward a Cultural Rhetoric of Lyrics

2. Performativity and Performance 23

3. Generic Conventions and Cultural Capital 43

4. Sound and Songfulness 67

5. Mediality and Musical Multimedia 87

6. Bridge: Song and National Culture 113

Part II: Case Studies: Performing Englishness

7. Love is in the Ayre (1597) 127

8. Broadsides and Backsides (1811) 171

9. Toasting the English (2000) 215

10. Conclusion 267

11. Works Cited 271

1. Introduction

In their November issue of 2007, Blender, a US magazine billing itself as

“the ultimate guide to music and more” with a reputation for ranking every-
thing from the “Hottest Women in Music,” “The Filthiest Lyrics of All
Times” to “The Worst Rock Star Plane Crashes” came up with a new list, this
time lambasting “The 40 Worst Lyricists in Rock.” The assembly contains
more likely candidates (Noel Gallagher of Oasis comes fourth on account of
being “incapable of following a metaphor through a single line, let alone a
whole verse”) and less predictable ones (Paul McCartney lands on 38, given
that after The Beatles his verse “descended into weedhead whimsy and sen-
timental cotton candy”); the top spot as “worst lyricist ever,” however, is re-
served for former Police front man Sting. Here is how the authors argue their

It didn’t have to turn out this way. In the Police, Sting wore ripped T-shirts and wrote catchy
new-wave songs about hookers. Sure, he name-dropped Nabokov in “Don’t Stand So Close
to Me,” but he balanced it with the awesomely post-lingual “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.”
But once publications labeled [sic] him “The Thinking Woman’s Sex Symbol,” a low-watt
lightbulb popped on in his head, illuminating the way toward a self-serious future. Sting
would go on to rip off Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, St. Augustine’s Confessions … even
After the Police split, Sting pursued a second career liberating soccer moms from their
“soul cages.” Jazz musicians were involved. A lute was purchased. Volvo bumper stickers
were quoted (“If you love someone, set them free”). Surveying the Cold War, he found the
West “conditioned to respond to all the threats / In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets.”
His rage at Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was so heated, he castigated the scoundrel in
Spanish. Holy frijoles, was Sting mad!
These searing insights befit a sociopolitical seer “cursed with X-ray vision” – and capable
of doing folkloric parables about seventh sons and mystical fisherman and taking us on jour-
neys from the battlefields of World War I to the ancient kingdoms of “the high Sahara.” But
does Sting care? He doth not. He’s the King of Pain, kids. And no pain, no gain. (Dolan et
al. 2007)

What is it really here that makes Sting the “worst lyricist in rock” ever (for
the authors of Blender, at least)? Surely, quoting Nabokov or Shakespeare
and speaking out against inhuman dictators is not too ‘bad’ in itself, and as
poetry on paper, many of Sting’s lyrics would probably not fare too badly
compared with the lyrical output of other rock musicians. Song lyrics are not
poetry, however, and it seems that the authors’ problems with Sting have
precisely something to do with the fact that they are not. Where is the
difference, then?
10 Reading Song Lyrics

Lyrics and poetry are similar; they both employ verbal language, often
using characteristic rhetorical and stylistic devices, to tell tales (in the ballad
tradition), to propose ideas about life and the world, sometimes to illustrate
the limits of language in negotiations between ‘subject’ and ‘world’ (as in
The Police’s “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”). Yet they are also different in at
least one respect: while the voice in poetry is generally perceived as an inter-
nalised one encoded in the medium of writing, the voice of lyrics is by
definition external. Lyrics, this is to say, cannot be conceived outside of the
context of their vocal (and musical) actualisation – i.e. their performance.
Mark W. Booth remarks: “The existence of songs in sound, in time, is the
simplest distinction between them and written verse. Song words are only
given once in a performance and then are gone, carried along by the music
and succeeded implacably by the next words” (Booth 1981, 7). We may en-
counter songs in a myriad of medial formats and generic situations – in an
aristocratic chamber, a Victorian parlour, in a concert hall, a football stadium,
on TV, in a pub, a shopping mall, on YouTube, on the street through iPod ear
phones – yet in all cases, language is given the body of a voice and saturated
in musical sound; and when it is not, as in printed lyrics, it is meant to be
sounded. The art of lyrics is fundamentally, therefore, a “performance art”
which implies, in Christopher Small’s words, that “its meaning lies not in
created objects but in the acts of creating, displaying and perceiving”; it is an
art in which “we think with our bodies” (Small 1998, 140), and one firmly
embedded in continually changing, yet always particular and actual “per-
formance arenas” (Foley 1995, 47).
Whereas the intellectual and institutional history of reading poetry over
the course of the 20th century has been dominated by an emphasis on the
autonomy of the text based on its graphemic medial core – from Russian
formalism to Anglo-American new criticism to French and American struc-
turalism and post-structuralism – and has only more recently yielded again to
a renewed interest in reader- and context-oriented approaches, textual auton-
omy is much harder to postulate for song lyrics. Based on the vocal and mu-
sical embodiment in actual sound, performed by flesh-and-blood persons and
situated in concrete historical and spatial contexts (even if recording technol-
ogy has increasingly emancipated sounds from their production context to
travel freely across time and space since the late 19th century), lyrics more
readily resist the temptations of formalist dissection and indeed invite read-
ings which take vocal embodiment, institutional framing and processes of
social distinction (Bourdieu 1984) as integral to the production of meaning.
It does not really come as a surprise, therefore, that the above lambasting
of Sting’s lyrics is overtly ideological, and joyfully expressive of a few writ-
ers’ rather idiosyncratic musical taste (or rather distaste). Sting’s ill fate is
Introduction 11

obviously that his critics interpret his lyrics by adhering to a specific “genre-
normative mod[e] of listening” (Stockfelt 2004, 383) which tacitly pledges to
a (punk-inflected) rock ethos in which the performance of excessive intel-
lectualism is not too well taken – things are still good when Sting writes
“catchy new-wave songs about hookers” (“Roxanne”), but once the subcul-
tural capital (Thornton 1996) of straight-forward anti-bourgeois entertain-
ment is exchanged for various assets of high-cultural respectability, things
start to go wrong. Meddling with Chaucer and Shakespeare is not for the au-
thentic rock lyricist, nor is meddling with world politics or musical genres
that demonstratively exceed three-chord complexity. Sting, for the writers in
Blender, is a traitor to the unwritten conventions of a brand of rock still re-
presented by The Police whose only intellectual pursuit, it seems, was the art-
ful performance of catchy and danceable straight-forwardness. Rather than
the actual quality of Sting’s lyrics themselves, the Blender ranking thus really
reveals much more about their interpreters’ tacit understanding of what de-
cent rock lyrics are supposed to do, or rather not to do, in a song. Surly, we
can take issue with these assumptions – my point is, however, that such tacit
understandings by specific interpretive communities are inevitably influential
in any interpretation of lyrics (or poetry for that matter, despite all famous
claims to the contrary), and that they manifestly frame or condition the func-
tion of lyrics in specific cultural performances.
A plurality of ‘texts’ across disciplinary boundaries matter in the emer-
gence of lyrical meaning in songs. There are the lyrics themselves, of course,
yet the words do not amount to autonomous ‘works’ of art; much more obvi-
ously than in printed poetry, they are continually inflected by surrounding
medial, spatial and historical ‘textures’ and conventionalised ‘scripts’ of per-
formance. Trying to do academic justice to such ‘texts’ comes with the chal-
lenge of having to answer what Jacques Attali in a related context phrased as
a “call for theoretical indiscipline” (Attali 1985, 5, italics in the original).
Like few other art forms, lyrics fall between disciplinary chairs, which may
explain why to this day hardly any veritable academic study has taken on
song lyrics as its central subject. 1 In pursuit of a ‘cultural rhetoric of lyrics’, I
have accordingly rather liberally marauded across the institutional boundaries
of literary, cultural, and postcolonial studies (my academic home ground, if
you like) and took whatever I found helpful from musicology, linguistics,
sociology and ethnography all the way to media, theatre and performance
studies. Such trespassing comes at the risk of occasionally dabbling in ideas

A notable exception is Mark W. Booth’s excellent 1981 yet relatively unsystematic The
Experience of Songs, which presents exemplary readings of lyrics from Old English song to
20th-century advertising jingle.
12 Reading Song Lyrics

and theories with insufficient grounding to which I admit; yet it is a risk that
can hardly be avoided in trying to come to terms with a cultural practice that
cares little for institutional demarcations.
Part of the inspiration to write this book was my experience teaching in an
English department where students increasingly propose song lyrics rather
than ‘conventional’ poetry for reading lists and exam topics. There is no good
reason, I believe, to discourage such choices – after all, the emphatic disso-
ciation of (written) poetry and (performed) lyrics in English literature is es-
sentially a relatively late cultural invention. It only took hold after Wyatt’s
introduction of Petrarch’s sonnets in the first half of the 16th century and the
concomitant gradual establishment of iambic pentameter in place of the more
‘songly’ four-stressed line as the dominant mode of English verse. Antony
Easthope remarks:

Promoted into dominance by the new courtly culture, pentameter is an historically consti-
tuted institution. It is not natural to English poetry but is a specific cultural phenomenon, a
discursive form. […][T]wo forms – the [medieval] ballad and the Renaissance courtly poem
– exemplify opposed kinds of discourse: one collective, popular, intersubjective, accepting
the text as a poem to be performed; the other individualist, elitist, privatized, offering the
text as a representation of a voice speaking. (Easthope 1983, 55, 77)

Under the ensuing hegemony of the new brand of ‘writerly’ poetry, per-
formed lyrics of course never disappeared from the scene, even if the West-
ern canonisation of poetry in the academy often suggests as much. While
poetry serves as a “paradigm of modernity” (Iser 1964; Reinfandt 2003;
Jahraus 2003) in critical assessments of social and cultural differentiation that
allows to exemplarily trace the increasing individualisation, self-referentiality
and professional specialisation of modern discourses – culminating in the
often obscure, isolated and fragmentary language games of Modernism and
Postmodernism that so many students shy away from – it never replaced al-
ternative forms of lyrical communication. Instead, it relegated them to a
“subordinate or oppositional position” (Easthope 1983, 65): forms valorising
alternative models of inter-subjectivity and mediatisation have largely, but
not exclusively, thrived and survived in the realm of popular culture. 2 As op-
posed to an increasing elitism, hermeticism, and monologism which Mikhail
Bakhtin (2000) attributes to the genre of poetry, ‘popular’ song lyrics have

Easton et al. conceive of the emergence of popular culture in three periods: “First the emer-
gence of a separate popular culture in the period c.1500-1700, second, the hardening of that
culture into distinct, although regional cultures of the poor from approximately 1700-1850,
and third the creation of a national popular culture beginning perhaps as early as 1800 but
not coming into its full force until after 1914” (Easton et al. 1988, 27).
Introduction 13

tended to remain strongly rooted in antiphony, collective experience and

communal performance. Still, it would be wrong to construct a history of
binary opposition between (written) poetry and (performed) lyrics, or be-
tween the elite culture of modernity and a popular counterculture more gen-
erally; most lyrical practices have always occupied an interstitial position
between elite and popular discourses which became further complicated by
the advent of sound recording and the mass-production, reproduction, and
distribution of song in the 20th century.
This is true in several ways: lyrics encompass a vast discursive field cov-
ering, today, a myriad of genres all trading their own cultural capital between
the poles of what Simon Frith refers to as the bourgeois, folk, and pop “music
worlds” (cf. Frith 1998, 35-42), while even at the ‘purist’ ideological ends,
there is necessary diffusion. Art music culture, for instance, has tended to
emphatically draw on canonical written poetry as a resource for lyrics since
around the 19th century, yet a poem turned embodied Lied and entered into
the intersubjective situation of performance inevitably takes on aspects of the
popular (which the performative conventions regulating the staging of art
songs – such as an ‘impersonal’ singing style, a strict separation of performer
and audience, a strict etiquette of quiet and restraint – again seek to repress,
cf. Cone 1974, 71-80 and Small 1987 and 1998). Conversely, the ideology of
folk music culture emerging in the late 18th and 19th century emphasises im-
mediacy, the oral transmission of lyrics and collective experience against the
alienating effects of print culture and industrialisation – yet ironically, the
staging of an “imagined community” (Anderson 1991) of the ‘people’ through
songs had from the start been dependent on mechanical reproduction in print
and, later, recording culture to keep the modern ‘folk’ together. The advent of
an overtly commercial music culture over the course of the 20th century
celebrating massmedial reproduction eventually bridged ideological schisms
by offering “collective individuality” (Reinfandt 2003, 278), a synthesis,
however, which comes with its own bag of problems and in turn fuelled the
diffusion of generic hybrids in-between the angles of art, folk and pop that
marks our time.
Nevertheless, the particular validity of lyrics in the culture of modernity
remains that they present an integral cultural complement to readings which
see the evolution of poetic discourse exclusively based on what Walter Ong
called “the technologizing of the word” (1982) and a concomitant ideology of
increasing individuation and textual autonomy. Surely, poetry has produced
its own counter-discourse to the increasing solipsism of the literary system
under modern conditions, namely the discourse formation commonly referred
to as ‘romantic’. Yet while writers from John Donne to William Wordsworth
to Linton Kwesi Johnson (the poet) attempt to redeem modern alienation and
14 Reading Song Lyrics

an increasing loss of ‘world’ in a mediatised culture by strategies of feigned

orality, immediacy, or communalism encoded in the medium of writing, peo-
ple like Renaissance song writer John Dowland, Romantic street balladeers or
dub artist Linton Kwesi Johnson (the performer) provide the material for
actual orality, sonic immediacy and – in a live context – communalism. Seen
in this light, lyrics provide a paradigmatic case of “romantic communication”
(Reinfandt 2003) which is again challenged, of course, by medial changes
from music printing to the advent of analogue recording technology and
mechanical reproduction to digital recording, reproduction and sampling.
Lyrics are, no more and no less, the other tradition of modern poetry which
has been notoriously neglected by a prevailing focus on graphemic artefacts.
Any literary or cultural history that excludes lyrics from its scope presents a
dramatically lopsided view of verbal art, and, by extension, modern culture.
If lyrics matter, why then have they so persistently fallen through the nets
of academic fishing? Surely the afore-mentioned institutional particularisms
come into play here, yet especially from a literary studies perspective, the
blame lies fundamentally with a stubborn bias towards the written word and a
persistent refusal to work with a concept of ‘embodied’ language. Without a
doubt, most lyrics come across as banal on paper and fail according to the
standards of received literary analysis and aesthetic judgement. Such read-
ings, however, overlook that what is negligible as a poem may be intricately
functional at the intersection of sonic, social, bodily and medial discourses.
This is not denying that there are still as many awful lyrics in the world as
there are mediocre poems – but aesthetic value judgements are not what I am
after in this book, nor is this an instruction manual for struggling songwriters
to sex up their lyrical game. What this book tries to perform, instead, is first,
a systematic approximation to the question of how lyrics are implicated in the
emergence of meaning in songs – in particular performative contexts, specific
generic conventions, musical structures, and medial situations. In a second
step, I then try to illustrate, via three extended case studies from around 1600,
1800 and 2000 respectively, how such meaning in turn matters in relation to
larger ideological discourse formations. My specific interest, here, is in how
songs ambivalently perform in the formation of a ‘national culture’ between
institutional pedagogy and potentially subversive, individual signifying prac-
The first part of this book, titled Toward a Cultural Rhetoric of Lyrics,
accordingly outlines an encompassing analytical framework for the interpre-
tation of lyrics. It unavoidably comes along with quite a load of theory, but
attempts to always counterbalance theoretical abstraction with exemplary
readings of a single song which each chapter addresses from a relevant theo-
retical angle, progressively adding levels of lyrical complexity. I picked
Introduction 15

“Scarborough Fair” for these purposes, a song which forms part of a group of
traditional ballads that Francis James Child collected under the title “The
Elfin Knight” in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Child 1957, I, 7-
14), and which was re-popularised during the British folk revival in the 1960s
by the English folk singer Martin Carthy. Carthy recorded a version of the
song on his debut album in 1965, and the tune was subsequently adopted by
Marianne Faithfull in early 1966. It was left to Paul Simon, however, to make
it perhaps the most popular (and commercial) English folk song in recent
history by including his own take on Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 album
Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme, and republishing it on the soundtrack
album to Mike Nichols’s Oscar-winning film The Graduate (1967). From
here, “Scarborough Fair” entered almost every imaginable musical genre and
was performed by innumerable artists, of which I will only consider Sérgio
Mendes in some detail who entered the charts with a bossa-pop version in
1968. My reasons for picking “Scarborough Fair” were, on the one hand, its
status as a modern ‘classic’ which most people should be familiar with in one
way or the other; on the other hand, “Scarborough Fair” lends itself ex-
tremely well to illustrating how the same verbal material can take on vastly
different meaning in shifting contexts of performance, generic framing, musi-
cal realisation and medial presentation.
Chapter 2 dealing with “Performance and Performativity” begins by un-
ravelling the genealogy of “Scarborough Fair” over the past centuries and
traces the lyrical transformations that it underwent until Martin Carthy re-
corded it in 1965. From here, I investigate how lyrics more generally ‘per-
form’ by first reviewing linguistic approaches in speech act theory, prag-
matics and deconstruction, then juxtaposing these to notions of performance
in cultural studies, and finally offering a synthesis of the two with the help of
relevant research in ethnopoetics. The critical vocabulary offered here such as
“performance arena,” “register” and “communicative economy” (Foley 1995,
47-56) is then tested with Martin Carthy’s 1965 recording.
Chapter 3 turns to “Generic Conventions and Cultural Capital” in order to
account for the vastly different practices of performative “framing” (Goffman
1974) on the musical scene. In a first step, different aspects of song genre are
outlined, from communicative conventions (affecting, among other things,
the shifting agency between lyrical author and performer), via social and
ideological conventions (crucially involving Pierre Bourdieu’s notions of
“distinction” and “cultural capital”), all the way to economic and juridical
conventions. In a second step, I take up these aspects in order to chart the
larger field of lyrical practice between the art, folk, and commercial “music
worlds” drawing especially on Simon Frith’s seminal study of Performing
Rites (1998, esp. 35-42), before offering short readings of the transformative
16 Reading Song Lyrics

power of generic conventions in Marianne Faithfull and Simon and Gar-

funkel’s performances of “Scarborough Fair” respectively.
Chapter 4, “Sound and Songfulness,” tries to tackle the intricate question
of how the music affects verbal meaning in songs. Since there is so much
critical disagreement about whether music means anything beyond itself at
all, and if it does, how and what in particular, I found it necessary to begin by
fundamentally sussing out what sounds may mean before trying to answer
how such meaning affects verbal signifying. The chapter consequently takes
a shot at debunking ‘myths of musical meaning’ in a somewhat daring sweep
from Plato to Hanslick and beyond in order to propose an alternative, ‘tria-
lectical’ model of how musical meaning emerges every time anew at the
crossroads of cognitive, social and bodily dynamics. I then try to trace one
possible effect of such dynamics and its interaction with verbal language in a
comparative reading of Martin Carthy and Sérgio Mendes’s versions of
“Scarborough Fair,” illustrating with the help of Lawrence Kramer’s concept
of “songfulness” (Kramer 2002, 51-67) how verbal meaning is effectively
suspended by musical meaning in Mendes’s take.
Chapter 5 finally addresses “Mediality and Musical Multimedia.” It be-
gins by charting the field of medial performance by applying changing modes
of technological saturation (from print to analogue to digital recording cul-
ture) to changing modes of performance visibility. From here I discuss the
continuing validity of ‘liveness’ in a culture dominated by the mass media,
discussing the relation of live performance to different kinds of ‘recorded-
ness’ from printed songs to (digital) music video, touching, among other
things, also on the cover art of some albums featuring “Scarborough Fair.”
The final extended reading of “Scarborough Fair,” however, is offered in the
context of Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967), often credited with being
the first film to use pre-recorded popular songs instead of post-production
scoring, and investigates how the generation of lyrical meaning is affected by
the multimedial dynamics of film or video.
Chapter 6, titled “Bridge: Song and National Culture,” then provides the
transition to the second part of this book. It again briefly takes up “Scarbor-
ough Fair” and its ideological implications in the romantic nationalisms
which underwrote the projects of ballad collectors such as Johann Gottfried
Herder or Francis James Child, only to inquire more generally into what ‘na-
tional culture’ could be and how it is constituted. Arguing against Antony
Easthope’s (1999) notion that there is something like a deep-structural core
structuring the ‘Englishness’ of English discourse formations, I propose that
notions of Englishness are rather constantly produced and reproduced (often
with a difference) through multiple discursive practices fluctuating between
what Homi Bhabha refers to as the “two times of the nation” (Bhabha
Introduction 17

1990b). Such practices are always performed against, or, indeed, from posi-
tions of cultural ‘otherness’ which produce ambivalent desires of belonging
(or unbelonging). The case studies in Part II of this book, titled Performing
Englishness, accordingly offer extended readings of three exemplary songs
covering very different musical genres and historical times (yet all located in
London) where lyrics intersect in ambivalent ways with ideas of ‘national
Chapter 7 investigates to which ends so much melancholic “Love is in the
Ayre” in John Dowland’s lute songs. It takes “Come again” as its starting
point, a song printed in Dowland’s First Booke of Songes in 1597, the first
songbook of its kind to be published in England. Through “Come again,” I
venture to interpret John Dowland’s presumably ‘very English’ melancholy
in a different light than musicologist have hitherto tended to do, namely as a
strategic sonic and lyrical trademark Dowland consciously put on in order to
pursue his desire for courtly recognition. Barred from a position at the court
of Queen Elizabeth I – and thus from the epicentre of national culture – by
his Catholicism (or at least so he thought), he used the mask of the disap-
pointed Petrarchan lover to set extremely ambiguous and often subversive
panegyric lyrics to music, and failing to achieve his goals as a traditional
‘musicus’, intriguingly employed the rapidly shifting institutional, legal and
medial contexts of Elizabethan and Jacobean musicking for the purpose of
lobbying the court. If Dowland consequently ‘sounds English’, his Eng-
lishness is indeed a performative inscription of his ambivalent desire to na-
tionally and professionally belong.
Chapter 8, titled “Broadsides and Backsides,” jumps to the year 1811, and
highlights the validity of broadside ballads for the study of culture. As one of
the few types of (performed) literature that was affordable to all classes ever
since the early Renaissance until the mid-19th century, street ballads provide
rare insights into the reception of cultural phenomena beyond bourgeois dis-
courses. As I will argue in this chapter, such insight is particularly instructive
in the spectacular case of Sara Baartman: Baartman, a Khoisan woman from
the Southern Cape, was a cause célèbre in London where she was exhibited at
Piccadilly Street as “The Hottentot Venus” between autumn 1810 and spring
1811, then toured the British provinces and was eventually moved to Paris
where she fatefully fell into the hands of French anthropologists shortly be-
fore her death in 1814. Since the mid-1980s, Sara Baartman has become
something of a ‘master trope’ in gender and postcolonial studies; the recent
“critical industry” (Magubane 2001, 816) surrounding Baartman, however,
tends to reiterate a number of sweeping statements about her person, gender
and race which hardly stand the test of historical verification. My interest in
this chapter, therefore, is to explore the actual popular reception of Sara
18 Reading Song Lyrics

Baartman during her London sojourn through the corrective lens of a broad-
side ballad titled “The Hottentot Venus; A New Song,” a song which invites
linking her ambivalent iconic status less to questions of race and sexuality,
but to the rise of “illegitimate theatre” (Moody 2000) during the Romantic
period and the perceived demise of a ‘national’ theatre culture.
Chapter 9, finally, turns from the early whiffs of “imperial melancholy”
which enmeshed Sara Baartman’s stage career to the “postcolonial melan-
cholia” which, according to Paul Gilroy (2004), haunts contemporary life in
Britain. My particular focus in this context is on pre-millennial manifesta-
tions of such melancholia in the mediatisation of rock bands like Blur and
Oasis, and New Labour’s populist love affair with so-called Britpop in the
process of ‘rebranding’ Britain as ‘Cool Britannia’ before and after the land-
slide election victory of 1997. Under the title “Toasting the English,” this
chapter more specifically investigates how the emerging Asian British music
scene has located itself in the midst of such discourses, and I again focus on a
single song which tackles Tony Blair’s music populism head-on. My reading
of the song “Real Great Britain” (2000) by ‘Asian punk jungelist’ collective
Asian Dub Foundation (ADF) is, in this sense, particularly interested in how
lyrics function as a ‘romantic’ antithesis to a thoroughly ‘modernist’, digitally
sampled sonic fundament. The relevance of this dynamics lies in the fact that
it provides a model with larger reverberations for the study of postcolonial
culture: it implies how syncretistic, planetary allegiances may be forged
through strategic ‘mis-uses’ of late capitalist flows of commodities and tech-
nologies, while at the same time a highly localised grassroots politics may be
retained which fends off the grip of “corporate multiculturalism” (Gilroy
2001, 52). The chapter closes with an outlook on the politics of Asian British
lyrical practices in the altered landscape after the events of 9/11, focussing in
particular on the immensely controversial song “Cookbook D.I.Y.” (2006) by
Fun^da^mental, and a more inspiring play on post-9/11 anxiety by Sri Lankan-
British artist M.I.A.
Before getting seriously started, I should perhaps state that I have deliber-
ately tried to avoid writing on lyrics as a fan – which in a way is a contradic-
tion in terms after I have opened by arguing that personal taste and the dy-
namics of social distinction are inevitably at play in any interpretation of lyr-
ics. So let me come clean: my choice of lyrical examples for the most part
consciously drew on material that I am relatively dispassionate about – none
of the recordings I have picked in the first part of this study is terribly close
to my heart, even if it may transpire that I find Paul Simon a slightly less im-
pressive character than Martin Carthy, Marianne Faithfull or Sérgio Mendes.
As regards the second part, I have encountered John Dowland and Romantic
street balladeers with very little previous knowledge or exposition to their art,
Introduction 19

working my way into the critical discourse more or less from scratch; still, I
have emerged with a great deal of fascination, and especially in the case of
Dowland, a certain affection. Things are slightly different for the Asian Dub
Foundation, as I was attracted to their sounds long before I started writing
this book. Jungle and trip hop more generally formed part of the soundtrack
of my undergrad years and have stayed with me since, and such affinities
may show. Nevertheless, I have constantly tried to check my own preconcep-
tions and predilections throughout this volume, to be open to all genres and
sounds, and to interrogate all of their tacit conventions with a similar sense of
critical distance.
Still, I hope that this book manages to transmit some of my own fascina-
tion with and affection for this “performed literature” (Bowden 2001) which
most academic text books shamelessly pass over. Poetry as it is usually an-
thologised and taught is notoriously conceived as difficult, opaque and inac-
cessible (at least by my own students), and it is time to realise that there is
more poetry than there is in the Norton Anthology, and that most of us take
pleasure immersing ourselves in it every day. Yet lyrics also need to be en-
countered on their own critical terms: the following pages try to carve out the
transdisciplinary framework which may help to better understand how song
lyrics matter.
Part I

Toward a Cultural Rhetoric of Lyrics

Construe my meaning, wrest not my method

(Giles Farnaby, 1598)
2. Performativity and Performance

Lyrics are not poetry, and their study therefore requires a different set of
analytical tools from that which is conventionally applied to poetry. In the
subsequent chapters, I will try to successively outline a ‘cultural rhetoric of
lyrics’, by addressing notions of ‘performativity’ and its relation to perform-
ance, the dynamics of generic convention and social distinction, the interre-
lation of verbal and musical experience in songs, and, finally, issues of me-
diality and multimedial dialogue. My choice of speaking of ‘a cultural rhetoric’
takes its cue in part from Wayne C. Booth’s important study The Rhetoric of
Fiction (1983). But while I, like Booth and modern rhetoric more generally,
take an interest in the generation of meaning between producers, (performed)
texts, and audiences which finds expression in textual traces and structures,
the following chapters contradict Booth when it comes to claims that such
meaning is essentially a product of (implied) authorial agency which
eventually guarantees the moral coherence and value of the ‘work’. Not only
is authorial agency in the performance art of lyrics severely complicated by
the fact that it is (often unevenly) divided between author and public per-
former (even when both are the same person); but more importantly, such
agency is continually checked and balanced by the material and medial con-
ditions of embodied lyrical communication in ever shifting contexts. The
medium surely is not the message as McLuhan would have it, but the mes-
sage invariably bears the traces of the medium, and each message is shaped
by social and institutional discourses that frame its performance, as much as by
receptive strategies by specific audiences. The term ‘cultural rhetoric’ accord-
ingly proposes a synthesis of cultural and rhetorical perspectives; its specific
heuristic value, following Thomas Rosteck, lies in the realisation “that every
discourse is an action upon an audience; that it occurs within a specific
material context; and that it reproduces this context in its structures and in its
assumptions about what ‘discourse’ and what ‘audiences’ are” (Rosteck
2001, 54). But before delving into the abysses of theory and to avoid the
drags of excessive abstraction, let us begin with a practical example which I
will continually come back to in the course of the following five chapters.

Scarborough Fair (I): Historical Transformations

In the early 1960s, British folk singer Martin Carthy had a piece in his rep-
ertoire which he considered as “basically [his] song” (Carthy 2003) at the
time, a tune called “Scarborough Fair.” In his own account, he came across it
24 Reading Song Lyrics

in a songbook compiled by the older folk singers Ewan MacColl and Peggy
Seeger (1960, cf. Carthy 2001), who in turn seem to have adapted it from
Francis James Child’s seminal late-19th-century collection of English and
Scottish Popular Ballads. These are the lyrics of “Scarborough Fair” as re-
corded by Carthy on his debut album in 1965:

Scarborough Fair

Are you going to Scarborough Fair

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
For once she was a true love of mine

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Without no seam or fine needlework
And then she’ll be a true love of mine

Tell her to find me an acre of land

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Between the salt water and the sea strand
And then she’ll be a true love of mine

Tell her to plough it with a lamb’s horn

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
And to sow it all o’er with one peppercorn
And then she’ll be a true love of mine

Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
And to thrash it out with a bunch of heather
And then she’ll be a true love of mine (printed in Carthy 1987)

The bare meaning of the words, here, is not quite as straight forward as one
would expect from a popular ballad at first sight, and one may as well try to
start out by trying to make better sense of them as one would with a printed
poem – by looking at the quality of the rhetorical form, argument and im-
agery, or for instance by looking at the ballad’s tradition and intertexts.
The latter option seems particularly promising, as “Scarborough Fair,”
like many songs that were re-popularised in the British folk revival of the
1960s, is a ballad which comes with a considerable bag of history. As Francis
James Child minutely illustrates in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads
(1882-1898), it is part of a vast legacy of ‘riddle’ songs which abound in the
folk traditions not only of Scotland and England, but also of Germany, South
Siberia, Tibet, India, Persia, Greece and Iceland, among others (Child 1957,
I, 7-14). The core argumentative structure of such songs usually consists of a
Performativity and Performance 25

suitor, often a prince, and a maid who will have to satisfyingly solve a num-
ber of riddles to become his wife, or vice versa. In the British context specifi-
cally, as A.L. Lloyd puts forth, one can make out three subtypes of this
model, which he labels “supernatural,” “homilectic” and “amatory” (Lloyd
1967, 163). The supernatural versions almost certainly date back to medieval
lore, and propose the suitor to be a demon in disguise; the lady who has un-
wittingly called forth the spirit will usually counter his riddles by posing her
own which the demon fails to answer. The homilectic versions move from
paganism to Christianity by modifying the suitor into the devil, and an inno-
cent maid proves to be rightly God’s by answering all riddles correctly. The
amatory ballads, finally, are secular, and their suitors are luckily what they
seem (i.e. desirable men or women throughout) who win over the other sex
by cleverly mastering their questions. 1 The peculiar place of “Scarborough
Fair,” in this context, is that it has apparently shifted from originally super-
natural to later amatory implications.
“Scarborough Fair” is a version of a group of ballads which Child col-
lected under the title “The Elfin Knight” (Child no. 2). The first written re-
cord of these was found bound at the end of a book printed in Edinburgh in
1673, but it is very likely that variations of the same song had been circulat-
ing in the oral memory far earlier than that, probably as early as the 14th
century. Half of the written records collected by Child (A-E) open with the
rather medieval motif of a fairy knight who is summoned by a lady, as the
1673 version (Child no. 2 A) may illustrate:

The elphin knight sits on yon hill,

Ba, ba, ba, lilli ba
He blows his horn both lowd and shrill.
The wind hath blown my plaid awa

‘I whish that horn were in my kist,

Ba, ba, ba, lilli ba
Yea, and the knight in my arms two.’
The wind hath blown my plaid awa

She had no sooner these words said

Ba, ba, ba, lilli ba
When that the knight came to her bed
The wind hath blown my plaid awa (Child 1957, I, 15)

Prominent examples from the Child corpus would be “Riddles Wisely Expounded,” Child no. 1
(see 1957, I, 1-6); or “Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship,” Child no. 46 (see 1957, I, 414-25).
26 Reading Song Lyrics

What follows are first riddles posed by the demon, which are then countered
with new riddles by the lady – including, clearly, those that Martin Carthy
presents us with in his verses 2-5 of “Scarborough Fair.” The outcome, in-
variably, is that the fairy backs off, and the maid continues to enjoy her vir-
ginity: “‘My maidenhead I’l then keep still, / Ba, ba, ba, lilli ba / Let the El-
phin knight do what he will’” (ibid.).
The earliest written records of the ballad that come close to “Scarborough
Fair” as sung by Carthy only date to the early 19th century (Child no. 2 F, G
and J), and the closest versions by far, listed in Child’s “Additions and Cor-
rections” section of English and Scottish Popular Ballads (ibid., 496-97),
were set down in written form still later. These are, first, a version related to
Child by his colleague Frank Kidson in 1884 (“‘Oh where are you going?’
‘To Scarbro fair.’”), and second, a version published by J. Collingwood
Bruce and John Stokoe in their Northumbrian Minstrelsy (1882) (“Are you
going to Whittingham fair?”). The latter version is related to a manuscript by
Thomas Hepple which already dates to around 1855, but deviates in some
detail from the Bruce and Stokoe publication. It is again likely, of course, that
these versions circulated in the oral tradition long before and coexisted
alongside the ‘elfin’ versions; the most obvious indication of this is that the
Scarborough Fair, a huge trade event starting in mid-August and lasting an
exceptional 45 days, was no longer held after 1788, and has a history
reaching back into the 13th century.
Nevertheless, there are aspects of the later “Scarbrough Fair” ballads
which make them distinctly more ‘modern’ than the earlier variants. The first
thing to note, here, is that the opening involving the summoning of an elf or
similar demon is eclipsed. They are replaced, instead, by an opening stanza
presenting a speaker in the first person addressing an anonymous traveller or
a group of travellers in the first line, who are then directed to “remember” the
speaker to his or her ex-lover who lives in the town of the travellers’
destination in the third and fourth lines. The effect of this new beginning is
three-fold: first, it at first sight displaces all associations with the supernatural
pervading the ‘elfin’ models. A.L. Lloyd ventures to explain this type of shift
with changing social realities of the British peasant communities and links it
to the gradual disappearance of the epic in the oral tradition. Ballads such as
the “Elfin Knight,” he argues, were detached from epic tales but initially
retained some of their “intense heroism and magic” (Lloyd 1967, 164). With
the shift from tribal and feudal to capitalist systems, however, these ballads
became outdated due to society’s “new tempo, outlook and demands” and
had to be adapted to new standards, which involved, among other things, a
more immediate awareness of the “audience and the need to win it, a need
that had hardly existed in a close-knit and homogeneous society” (ibid., 165).
Performativity and Performance 27

The latter observation is indeed particularly relevant in view of the 19th-

century versions of “Whittingham Fair” or “Scarborough Fair” and points to
the second effect of their revised openings: by introducing a speaker and an
addressee (or a group of addressees), they provide a narrative frame which –
contrary to the ‘elfin’ models – invites the listeners’ immediate participation
and even calls for their mediation between the speaker and his or her beloved.
The clever shift to addressing the listener in the second person (“Are you
going,” “Remember me,” “Tell her” etc.) forces the audience to pay careful
attention to the riddles that are subsequently posed.
This mediation through a narrative frame set in the present moreover es-
tablishes a third effect, which is the introduction of a rather complex temporal
relation of past, present and future. The listeners no longer follow a fresh
course of love, but are presented with an affair that is already past, while they
learn nothing immediate about the relationship, nor why it finally went to
pieces. The only obvious source of speculation are the riddles themselves
which are subsequently posed; the riddles, however, offer ambiguous impli-
cations at best pointing not only to the past quality of the lovers’ affair (“For
once she was …”), but also to their future chance of a reunion (“And then
she’ll be …”). They range, basically, between the notion of a serious attempt
to win back the ex-lover through riddles proving his or her truthfulness on the
one hand (in the tradition of conventional amatory ballads such as “Riddles
Wisely Expounded,” Child no. 1), and a much more ‘modern’, disillusioned,
or even sarcastic view of love and truthfulness on the other.
It is important to note in this context that other than in Martin Carthy’s
version of “Scarborough Fair,” the earlier versions feature two speakers and
voices instead of just one: after the first three riddles, the ex-lover comes in
and turns the argument around, as in the “Whittingham Fair” version col-
lected by Thomas Hepple:

Three hard questions he has putten to me

Parsley sage grow merry in time
But I’ll match him with other three
Before he shall be a true lover of mine (Hepple 2004)

This shift in voices, of course, on the one hand complicates the narrative
situation considerably; as the two ex-lovers cannot be in the same place (she,
after all, is meant to be in Whittingham, isn’t she, and he someplace else) the
situation demands either a degree of spatial, or of temporal abstraction from
the listeners. On the other hand, it rather indicates a playful game of love
leading to a happy reunion and leaves less interpretive space for resignation,
frustration or sarcasm. Indeed, the reduction to just one speaking voice as in
Carthy’s version seems almost prerequisite to fully exploit the song’s poten-
28 Reading Song Lyrics

tial of emotional ambiguity and melancholy. While two perspectives point

towards a playful dialogue, a singular perspective complies much more thor-
oughly with the demands of romantic subjectivity and emotional depth which
fascinatingly resists external verification, and thus invites all sorts of specu-
lation about the lovers’ past.
A last innovation of the “Scarboro” and “Whittingham Fair” ballads which
Carthy’s version is obviously heavily indebted to, finally, is the new type of
refrain. The list of four herbs, “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,” certainly
strikes as rather cryptic in the context of the ex-lovers’ plight at first sight,
and audiences in the 1960s surely would have found it quite hard to make
sense of them. There is some indication in fact that this was already the case
for the ballads’ 19th-century singers and audiences, as only two recorded
versions feature the refrain as Carthy sings it – “Whittingham Fair” printed
by Bruce and Stokoe, as well as Child no. 2 G (dating to 1810) –, while the
others use variations such as “Savoury, sage, rosemary, and thyme” (the Child
version related by Kidson), “parsley, sage, grow merry in time” (Hepple’s
“Whittingham Fair”), “Sober and grave grows merry in time” (Child no. 2 F),
or “Every rose grows merry wi thyme” (Child no. 2 H). There is clearly a
pattern at work here that drives at a more obvious relationship with the
amatory meaning of the rest of the ballad in a process which highlights the
flexibility of oral tradition. The homophones ‘rosemary’ / ‘(g)rows merry’
and ‘thyme’ / ‘time’ offer a tempting semantic effect at little phonetic cost,
and the latter three refrains clearly soothingly imply that time will eventually
heal the lovers’ wounds (it is very likely that “thyme” in Child 2 H is a
transcription error and should actually be “time”).
On the whole, there are three ways of coming to terms with “parsley,
sage, rosemary, and thyme” in Carthy’s version. The first would be to follow
the renowned folklorist Maud Karpeles, who notes on the use of refrain in her
Introduction to English Folk Song that it “may be external, occurring at the
end of the stanza or, more usually, internal, being interspersed between the
narrative lines,” and continues: “Sometimes it consists of words that have a
connection with the ballad or song […] At other times it has no connection,
but appears to consist of words arbitrarily introduced, such as [in] ‘Scarbor-
ough Fair’” (Karpeles 1973, 43-44). As such, the refrain would mainly be
used for its sound rather than meaning, and work on a similar level as the
“Ba, ba, ba, lilli ba” of the early “Elfin Knight” documents.
Alternatively, it may be assumed that the refrain survived from much
older days when herbology was less a matter of alternative medicine than
popular knowledge. This again offers two roads of interpretation: the first is
to read the herbs as symbols of the lovers’ amatory quest. According to De
Jong, parsley was often employed to sooth bitterness (both culinary and
Performativity and Performance 29

emotional) in medieval discourses, sage was associated with strength, rose-

mary symbolised faithfulness and remembrance, while thyme was thought to
engender courage (in men) and, to round things off, fertility (in women) (De
Jong 2003). The refrain may thus be read as a thinly veiled invitation to over-
come the bitterness of separation, and find the strength, love and courage to
get back together again for a (possibly reproductive) happy ending.
The third option, however, is to interpret the herbs in the supernatural
rather than amatory context, and to see them as a remnant of the precursors of
“Scarborough Fair” involving the elfin knight and maid. It should be noted
that there is some evidence that calls such a reading into question; after all,
the “parsley, sage, etc.” refrain is exclusively documented in versions where
the opening stanza’s summoning of a fairy knight is either missing or substi-
tuted with the new “Are you going etc.” type of opening, while the 18th-
century records still explicitly featuring the demon mostly stick to variations
of “Ba, ba, ba, lilli ba” or “Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw” (Child no. 2 B-E).
It is true nevertheless that all four herbs were associated with the supernatu-
ral. This is particularly stressed by Martin Carthy himself, who insists in the
liner notes of his debut album Martin Carthy:

Folklorists and students of plant mythology are well aware that certain herbs were held to
have magical significance and were used by sorcerers in their spells and conversely as
counter-spells by those who wished to outwit them. The herbs mentioned in the refrain of
this song (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme) are all known to have been closely associated
with death and also as charms against the evil eye. (Carthy 1965)

Carthy takes this as a cue to argue against a purely amatory reading of “Scar-
borogh Fair” and emphasises a continuation with the supernatural tradition,
quoting in support Sir Walter Scott, Anne Gilchrist and Lucy Broadwood
who believes, in Carthy’s words, “that the refrain might be the survival of an
incantation against such a [demonic] suitor” (ibid.).
Carthy’s insistence on the supernatural implications of the herbs in the re-
frain poses some difficulties in view of the version of “Scarborough Fair”
that he selected. After all, his choice of an opening stanza introducing a rather
complex spatial and temporal relationship between a lover and his beloved,
the fate of which the lover puts in the hands of an anonymous traveller
(travellers, the audience), actually opens up possibilities of reading the ballad
in less than merely sentimental terms, but in terms of a much more complex
conception of love. This and the reduction to just one perspective and speak-
ing voice invite a view of love that involves varying associations of emo-
tional ambiguity, frustration, melancholy, sarcasm, intense longing or despair
– all of which makes little sense, of course, if we read the speaker as a stock
demon in pursuit of an innocent maid.
30 Reading Song Lyrics

Yet while it makes little sense to take the elfin knight lore and its mythi-
cal background literally, it may nevertheless make good sense to instead in-
sist on the symbolic implications of the supernatural tale. Ballads such as the
“Elfin Knight,” or alternative variations such as “Lady Isabel and the Elf-
Knight” (Child no. 4, see 1957, I, 22-62), are, of course, cultural manifesta-
tions which both dramatise and sanction (female) sexuality. One need not be
a Freudian to suspect that what is actually happening in these early ballads is
that the sexual desire of young maidens is, quite literally, ‘demonised’, and
that all those elfs are in fact mythically veiled, externalised and embodied
fantasy structures that are called forth unwittingly by ‘impure thoughts’.
Read in this sense, the cultural validity of the older models suddenly becomes
very effective again for the later versions of “Scarborough Fair”: to call upon
the elfin tradition’s emphasis on sexuality and desire – rather than sense and
sensibility – is actually very much in tune again with the reading of the inter-
human relationship in “Scarborough Fair” proposed above, and may give
some suggestions as to why the lovers’ affair is in need of magic mending.
What we would end up with is a reading of the refrain not as an incantation
against the evil eye, but against the rather worldly pains of amorous betrayal.
Read as a poem on paper, the lyrics of Carthy’s version thus seem to revolve
around the following semantic field in the widest sense: the anger, anguish, or
pain of a single – presumably male – speaker trying to come to terms with the
loss of a female lover, whereby the reason for the their separation seems to
have a lot to do with that lover’s sexual expressivity or, perhaps, promiscuity.
As I have stated at the outset, though, the quest for the possible ‘meaning’
of “Scarborough Fair” does not end here; in fact, this is only where it begins.
The verbal content of words, lines and stanzas is certainly important – but
what lyrics indeed ‘mean’ involves more than just language. This fundamen-
tally has to do with the fact that other than the words of printed poems, lyrics
are always ‘actualised’ in the sense that they are given the body of a voice
and set in relation to musical sound. As a performance art, they are always
‘situated’, spatially, temporally, socially, physically and medially, in a par-
ticular arena in which they are performed. Let us in the following investigate
some of the theoretical and practical implications.

Performativity: Linguistic Perspectives

Surely, to argue that the words of Martin Carthy’s “Scarborough Fair” and
indeed all lyrics can only be interpreted by addressing the particular contexts
of performance sounds like stating the obvious after what has been termed
the ‘performative turn’ in the humanities: according to the new credo, all
Performativity and Performance 31

cultural practices, or all uses of language for that matter, are already per-
formative per se. There has been an inflationary use of the term ‘performa-
tive’ ever since John L. Austin coined it for his language philosophy in the
mid 50s, and it has been appropriated into many contexts and given various
implications by different disciplines and critical camps – from philosophy
and linguistics to sociology and ethnology to theatre studies and musicology.
As a result, the meaning of ‘performative’ has become irrevocably multiple
and blurred (cf. Parker and Sedgwick 1995, Fischer-Lichte and Wulf 2001;
Wirth 2002; Carlson 2003). For a theoretical basis of the discussion of lyrics,
it is therefore promising to begin by highlighting some of the critical devel-
opments of the terms ‘performance’ and ‘performativity’, and to sort out
which approaches are in fact useful when we talk about the performance and
performativity of lyrics.
The starting point of all discussions of performativity is John L. Austin’s
distinction between two different types of language use in the first of his
seminal lectures which were later published under the title How to Do Things
with Words. Here, Austin calls attention to a particular type of utterances
which do not actually ‘state’ something, but instead perform an action. He
uses the category of “constatives” for the class of utterances forming state-
ments, and introduces the term “performatives” to label the other (Austin
1975, 2-8). This latter class, instead of expressing something that may either
be ‘true’ or ‘false’ according to semantic truth values, performs “conven-
tional procedures” in which, according to Austin, truth conditions are actually
irrelevant. The most famous examples Austin gives are, for instance, the
declaration of a minister marrying a couple by uttering “I now pronounce you
man and wife,” or the naming a ship by uttering “I hereby christen this ship
‘Queen Elizabeth’.” Rather than the mere description of things, what matters
here is whether the action performed is successfully completed in the real
world and changes the state of the world via the use of words (the partners
are married, the ship has a name).
For Austin, the meaning of “performatives” relies on a mix of verbal and
contextual givens. On the one hand, performative verbs such as “declare,”
“christen” or “promise” are self-referentially descriptive of what they actually
‘do’, and the act of uttering them already forms a part of what the verb
describes. On the other hand, the success of performative utterances also
relies on aspects of the contextual situation depending, first, on the “serious-
ness” of the speaker, and second on “institutional conditions.” Thus, the mar-
rying partners must not be married already, they must be of a certain age etc.,
and it has to be a minister, registrar or captain who pronounces their mar-
riage. If not, Austin more generally remarks, “the utterance is then, we may
say, not indeed false but in general unhappy [or ‘infelicitous’]” (Austin 1975,
32 Reading Song Lyrics

14, italics in the original). “Infelicity,” he moreover holds, “is an ill to which
all acts are heir which have the general character of ritual or ceremonial, all
ceremonial acts” (ibid., 18-19, italics in the original). It is here that Austin’s
(first) lectures become interesting for the interpretation of lyrics: if we also
read the act of performing songs as similarly embedded in ritual or ceremo-
nial contexts, lyrics may similarly ‘do’ something rather than merely ‘mean’
– but let us for now further trace the critical history of Austin’s ideas.
The afterlife of Austin’s use of the term ‘performative’ in speech act theory
is basically the story of its disappearance. In his following lectures, Austin
himself begins to sacrifice the label “performative” in favour of a more
global theory of ‘illocution’, in a step that was then strictly consolidated by
Austin’s student and self-proclaimed administrator of his legacy, John R.
Searle (1969 and 1976). In a first step, Austin draws our attention to perfor-
mative utterances which do not feature performative verbs, such as in “Go
away.” He labels these implicit performatives as opposed to explicit ones
(such as “I order you to go away”). In a second step, however, this leads to
the realisation that also conventional statements (and thus all utterances) may
be considered implicit performatives, as they may be read as acts of assertion,
description, or reporting; and Austin consequently self-confidently suggests
to recognise “that they are speech acts no less than all these other speech acts
that we have been mentioning and talking about as performative” (Austin
1979, 249). In place of the dichotomy of performatives and constatives, he
develops (from lecture VIII onwards) a more encompassing notion of speech
acts in which any utterance may be read on three different levels – first, on
the level of the locutionary act, which involves notions of ‘sense’ and ‘refer-
ence’, second, the level of the illocutionary act, which focuses on the con-
ventional ‘force’ of an utterance in a discursive situation, and third, the per-
locutionary act, which focuses on the effect on the hearer. It is here that John R.
Searle takes over and develops a theory of Speech Acts which primarily focuses
on the aspect of illocutionary force as a language universal. Without going
into detail, it is important to note that Searle clearly departs from Austin’s
interest in particular situations to formulate a general theory in which it is
less contextual circumstances which determine what an utterance ‘does’, but
rather language itself: a theory of language, as Searle sees it, is a theory of
words and action as “a rule-governed form of behaviour” (Searle 1969, 17). 2
This focus on illocution as a conventional force rather than on aspects of
perlocution and context has allowed theorists such as Karl-Otto Apel (1976a

It should be noted, however, that Searle re-emphasises the importance of social context in
his later writings (see Searle 1989 and 1995).
Performativity and Performance 33

and 1976b) and Jürgen Habermas (1970 and 1984/1987) to associate notions
of the performative in speech act theory with Noam Chomsky’s entirely dif-
ferent notion of performance as the surface structure of language in everyday
use, which is but a ‘distorted’ and ‘particular’ manifestation of a universal
deep structure forming our language competence (see Chomsky 1965). Apel
and Habermas expand Chomsky’s narrow focus on syntax to ethical concerns
of communication and action and posit an ideal pragmatic deep structure
which governs the interplay of arguments in social interaction. Both Apel and
Habermas assume that this tacit pragmatic competence allows us to identify
and avoid ‘performative contradictions’, i.e. floutings of rules which are seen
as the constitutional prerequisite of social practices and discourses, even if
actual communicative performances are usually distorted by the ideologies of
particular social contexts.
While all this may seem of little relevance to the performances of lyrics at
first sight, it is important to trace the critical trajectory from Austin to Searle
and on to Apel and Habermas in order to understand the deconstructivist
criticism of the term ‘performative’. The deconstructivists’ first point of at-
tack, here, is of course Apel and Habermas’s underlying assumption that
communication conventionally aims at and results in consensus and agree-
ment, and that ‘performative contradictions’ are therefore to be avoided.
From a poststructuralist perspective, this type of universal rationalism is
thoroughly at odds with the dissensual and agonistic nature of language itself;
thus, for Derrida, Kristeva, de Man and others, it makes no sense, as Martin
Jay puts it, “to charge someone with performative contradiction, when such a
crime is the original sin of all language” (Jay 1989, 184).
Jacques Derrida’s critique of Austin’s ‘performatives’ in his “Signature,
Event, Context” has perhaps been the most influential critique of Austin and
Searle’s language philosophy (Derrida 1982) in this vein. As most post-struc-
turalist readings of Austin, Derrida particularly grapples with the following
passage in How to Do Things with Words:

a performative utterance will, for example be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an
actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in soliloquy. This applies in a simi-
lar manner to any and every utterance – a sea-change in special circumstances. Language in
such circumstances is in special ways – intelligibly – used not seriously, but in ways para-
sitic upon its normal use – ways which fall under the doctrine of the etiolations of language.
All this we are excluding from consideration. (Austin 1975, 22, emphases in the original) 3´

See Parker and Sedgwick for a discussion of the implications of ‘etiolate’ (1995, 1-18).
34 Reading Song Lyrics

Derrida fundamentally questions Austin’s distinction of a “normal” and

“parasitic” language use, and of “happy” and “unhappy” speech acts. The
crucial twist in his argument is that he charges Austin with working with an
ideal concept of language which does not take its “graphemic” core into ac-
count. Other than Austin, Derrida approaches the problem of performativity
from the angle of writing and representation, assuming that a more general
theory of communication is closely tied to his particular notion of writing.
From this perspective, an utterance is neither bound to the subject or “scrip-
tor” who produced it, nor to the original context that it was produced in, nor
to a particular addressee; it may instead be infinitely quoted in other contexts
without losing its basic functionality. 4 Thus confronting Austin’s concept of
performativity with the notion of an infinite “iterability” of utterances, Der-
rida elevates those cases that are labelled ‘parasitic’ in Austin’s example –
the ‘quoted’ or ‘staged’ uses of performatives in theatres, poetry or fiction –
as perfectly ordinary rather than peculiar. In Derrida’s view, all language uses
after all simply rely on mechanisms of repetition (with a difference), and all
texts are thus ‘parasitic’. 5
This matters with regard to the performance and performativity of song
lyrics, as Derrida crucially proposes that it makes little sense indeed to locate
the peformative thrust of language in any conventional force of a certain ver-
bal or (universal) social competence, neither for linguistic (Searle) nor ethical
(Habermas) reasons or purposes. Instead, the notion of a general iterability of
verbal expression (and thus also of lyrics) in changing and shifting verbal,
but above all also communicative, social and ideological contexts (which
Derrida admittedly takes little interest in), suffices as a general fundament to
account for pragmatic effects. Drawing on Derrida’s notion of ‘iterability’, a
focus on song lyrics, however, also requires a good deal of reservation
against Derridean predilections for an anonymous, disembodied concept of
language adhering to the universal metaphor or ‘writing’. The problem is
probably less Derrida’s insistence on a graphemic base of verbal behaviour,
but rather the impression that through the notion of iterability, we may side-
track the notion of subjectivity in communication altogether. Mikhail Bakhtin’s

In Derrida’s words, “one can always lift a written syntagma from the interlocking chain in
which it is caught or given without making it lose every possibility of functioning, if not
every possibility of ‘communicating,’ precisely. Eventually, one may recognize other such
possibilities in it by inscribing or grafting it into other chains. No context can enclose it. Nor
can any code, the code being here both the possibility and impossibility of writing, of its
essential iterability (repetition/alterity)” (Derrida 1982, 317, italics in the original).
As Roland Barthes puts it elsewhere, “the citations which go to make up a text are anony-
mous, untraceable, and yet already read: they are quotation marks without inverted com-
mas” (Barthes 1977, 160, italics in the original).
Performativity and Performance 35

intersubjective theory of dialogism (see esp. Bakhtin 2000) – unjustly appro-

priated by Julia Kristava into a theory of ‘anonymous’ intertextuality (see
esp. Kristeva 1980) – may serve as a helpful corrective here, as it always
insists on the “contact of personalities” within the “dialogic contact between
texts” (Bakhtin 1986, 161).
The intersubjectivity of interaction between singer and audience is surely
highly relevant in performances of song lyrics. A certain chain of syntagmas
such as those forming the lyrics of “Scarborough Fair” is marked by their
very iterability and, as in the case of “Scarborough Fair,” has been cited in
multiple variations and contexts over the preceding centuries by various sing-
ers; and even a single singer like Martin Carthy will re-cite the words anew in
shifting contexts every time he performs the song. Yet while the alienating
effects of différance and iteration do matter and constantly work against no-
tions of a simplistic intentionality, the actual materiality and mediality of the
words at the very moment of their performance, as well as the specific dia-
logic and generic context of their utterance are equally crucial. To get at these
contexts it is necessary to momentarily set the abstractions of linguistic and
literary approaches aside, and to turn to notions of ‘performance’ as devel-
oped by disciplines in the cultural studies tradition.

Performance: Cultural Perspectives

The shift from the notion of ‘performativity’ as a rule-governed force to cul-

tural notions of ‘performance’ goes hand in hand with a critical interrogation
of what Sybille Krämer calls a “two-worlds-ontology” in the humanities.
Krämer critically reviews the academic preference of representation rather
than presence (in a vast trajectory from Plato to Chomsky, Searle and
Habermas), which results in a preoccupation with universal or ideal structures
rather than questions of their actual realisation. The everyday use of langu-
age, in turn, is more often than not seen as deficient and distorted. This em-
phasis on ‘virtual’ language is countered by the notion of an ‘embodied’ lan-
guage, which insists that “there is no language outside of the spatially and
temporally situated execution of its vocal, written or gesticulatory articula-
tion” (Krämer 2002, 331, my tr.).
To work with a notion of embodied language demands, first, foreground-
ing the materiality and mediality of language which shapes its meaning in a
way that is neither intentional nor fully controlled by the speaker. Rather than
perpetuating McLuhan’s credo that the medium is the message, Krämer as-
sumes that a message invariably bears the traces of the medium (cf. Krämer
1998), and that on these grounds written texts ‘do’ very different things than
36 Reading Song Lyrics

spoken texts do. The second major implication of working with a concept of
embodied language is a re-alignment of Derrida’s fundamental notion of
iteration with an understanding of the larger social embeddedness of
language. Michel Foucault quite early prepared the ground for this in The
Archaeology of Knowledge where he claims that an historical statement
(énoncé) is less defined by its content, but by its situatedness in certain
discourse formations. The mere historical fact of an utterance – as substantial,
in a certain medium, at a certain place, at a certain time – provides genuine
indices which are paramount in Foucault’s notion of discourse analysis, and
take away much of the arbitrariness of Derrida’s disembodied notion of
iterability (see Foucault 1982, 79-88).
Let us try to come to some sort of conclusion on these grounds, then, re-
garding the relationship between the performativity of lyrics in Austin’s sense
of ‘doing’ something, and performance as a form of mediatising and staging
an event. 6 It is helpful in this context to turn to ethnological research and its
particular interest in the performance of rituals. Certainly, performances of
songs in both formal (concert) and informal settings (sessions etc.) fall under
the category of ritual, at least in Stanley J. Tambiah’s rather inclusive defini-
tion of the term: Tambiah conceives of ritual as a “culturally constructed
system of symbolic communication” which is “constituted of patterned and
ordered sequences of words and acts, often expressed in multiple media,
whose content and arrangement are characterised in varying degree by for-
mality (conventionality), stereotypy (rigidity), condensation (fusion), and
redundance (repetition)” (Tambiah 1979, 119). For Tambiah, rituals are set in
a particular dualism between formulaic repetition and sameness on the one
hand, and difference which is produced by evolving actualisations in specific
situations at specific dates and places on the other. Thus taking account of
both the iterative foundation, and of the actual mediality, social embedded-
ness and spatio-temporal framing of ritual events, Tambiah goes on to de-
scribe rituals as performative in at least three senses:

My account of the relation of performativity and performance may seem conspicuous in
bypassing the seminal work of Judith Butler. In “Critically Queer,” Butler puts forth that
“performance as a bounded ‘act’ is distinguished from performativity insofar as the latter
consists in a reiteration of norms which precede, constrain and exceed the performer and in
that sense cannot be taken as the fabrication of the performer’s ‘will’ or ‘choice’” (Butler
1993, 24). Butler’s precise notion of performativity, here, fully ties in with the scope of this
study. Her notion of performance as, roughly an act of ‘deliberate self-fashioning’, however,
clashes with the more specific and quite literal notion of the ‘performance of songs’ as a
ritually framed ‘sounding’ of lyrics.
Performativity and Performance 37

in the Austinian sense of performative wherein saying something is also doing something as
a conventional act; in the quite different sense of a staged performance that uses multiple
media by which the participants experience the event intensely; and in the third sense of in-
dexical values […] being attached to and inferred by actors during the performance. (ibid.)

Tambiah’s recourse to Austin and the notion of “conventional acts,” here,

ignores the later legitimation of such acts in linguistic conventions, and in-
stead aligns their force with the enabling tradition of material performances
and their always renewed indexical positioning in larger discursive forma-
tions. Indeed, developing Austin’s ideas in very different directions from
those of Searle and Habermas should be seen as perfectly legitimate, and
critics like Shoshana Felman (1983) even argue that one is invited to do so by
Austin himself, whose undogmatic and almost carnivalistic choice of exam-
ples and argumentation has little of the rigidity of the later administrators of
his speech act theory. 7 The step that Tambiah encourages us to take here is to
emancipate performativity from the notion of illocution, and to consequently
shift the issue of the ‘felicity’ of ritual acts entirely towards questions of their
successful medial embodiment and staging – i.e. questions of their successful
performance. Whether a performance is perceived as successful or not will
then very much depend on ideological formations and conventions prefigur-
ing particular types of ritual events (a rock event typically works with a very
different performance ideology than concerts of classical or folk music). The
performativity of lyrics, one can conclude on these grounds, is firmly embedded
in the larger frames of performance of which both performers and audiences
have a tacit understanding, and what lyrics ‘do’ may range considerably ac-
cording to particular performing conventions.
Tambiah’s third implication of the performative in rituals, the “indexical
value,” thus proves a crucial link between performativity and performance.
An ‘indexical value’ expresses more or less what Umberto Eco refers to as
“ostentation,” which he calls the “most basic instance of performance” (Eco
1977, 110): the ostentative function of words simply signifies the fact that
they are enacted by specific performers in specific contextual situations. Os-
tentation is related to Erving Goffman’s notions of framing and keying
(1974), as every act of ostentation serves as a ‘key’ to mark specific relations
between audiences and performers, which in turn help to ‘frame’ a specific
ritual or theatrical context. What Charles S. Pierce calls ‘genuine’ indices are
thus transformed into ‘degenerated’ indices (cf. Wirth 2002, 37) which take

In a memorable reading of Austin’s How to Do Things with Words against Molière’s Don
Juan, Shoshana Felman charges Austin of a latent “Don-Juanism.” For a critical discussion
and perspectives see Krämer and Stahlhut 2001, 41-45, or Carlson 1996, 63-65.
38 Reading Song Lyrics

over specific theatrical functions as “performative gestures” (Fischer-Lichte

1983, 65-67). The particular context of performances, this is to say, not only
enables the performativity of words and sound, but performances at the same
time rely on performative input to keep up or establish a theatrical or ritual
The interpretation of lyrics thus involves much more than their verbal
content – it involves the iterability as well as the mediality of language, it
involves questions of style and musical context, of social embeddedness and
cultural value, and it demands an understanding of the reciprocal relationship
between (embodied) verbal input and performance ideology. While these
issues have been given little attention so far in literary studies, a basic blue-
print for the study of lyrics may instead be found in the field of ethnopoetics.
Without being able to do justice to the great diversity of ethnological and
ethnopoetical approaches to performance (see Carlson 1996, 13-33 for an
introduction), let me selectively focus on two texts which I find the most
helpful in this context: 8 Richard Baumann’s Verbal Art as Performance
(1977) which already expresses much of what has been developed in this
chapter, and its more recent reception by John Miles Foley in The Singer of
Tales in Performance (1995). 9
Foley introduces three core categories (drawing heavily on Baumann) to
capture the dynamics of verbal art in oral traditions and cultures, namely the
notions of “performance arena,” “register” and “communicative economy”
(Foley 1995, 47-56). The concept of performance arena, to begin with, refers
to the “locus in which some specialised form of communication is uniquely
licensed to take place” (ibid., 8). The spatial metaphor of the arena, here,
refers both to very real locations of performance, and to the more abstract
conventions and traditions of framing, or in Baumann’s words, “patterning”
them (see Baumann 1977, 25-35). For Baumann, this involves questions of
genre and the typical structure of events relating to them, “including setting,
act sequence, and ground rules of performance” (ibid., 28), as well as the
typical roles taken by performers and the audience. The relevance of the per-
formance arena for the interpretation of lyrics may become clearer when

“If some grammarians have confused matters by lumping together what does not interest
them under ‘performance’,” Dell Hymes memorably put it, “cultural anthropologists and
folklorists have not done much to clarify the situation. We have tended to lump what does
interest us under ‘performance’” (Hymes 1975, 13, emphasis in the original).
Baumann and Foley’s focus, of course, is not (lyrical) songs, but oral narratives in
contemporary and ancient societies. Both writers are heavily influenced by Albert B. Lord’s
groundbreaking study The Singer of Tales (1960).
Performativity and Performance 39

briefly applied to the practical example that will guide us through the first
part of this study.
Our starting point, Carthy’s performance of “Scarborough Fair,” is un-
mistakeably positioned in the genre of folk music. Even though we are deal-
ing with a recorded song on LP (or, reissued, on CD) which is thus not
directly linked to a live setting, Carthy’s tune is thus evocative of a certain
kind of (imagined) performance arena which conforms to the conventions of
what Simon Frith termed the “folk music world” (Frith 1998, 39, see the fol-
lowing chapter 3; for the problem of liveness vs. recordedness see chapter 5).
A conventional setting within the folk scene as it presents itself in Britain
after the early 1960s comprises informal club scenes, sessions or festivals,
whose informality, as Niall MacKinnon points out, is generally a carefully
constructed one (see MacKinnon 1993, esp. 77-98). One of the core conven-
tions is to avoid, if ever possible, PA (public address systems, i.e. ampli-
fication) which in turn requires a certain quiet and attentiveness on the audi-
ence’s side, where for instance ordering drinks is fine (to keep things infor-
mal), but loud conversations are discouraged. On the other hand, audience
input is very welcome musically when it comes to joining the singer in the
chorus, in a rather dialogic and democratic performance structure which is
also mirrored in the performer’s role and status. The singer is ideologically
conceived of as ‘one of the people’ and ideally no higher in status than the
audience (which is underlined by often having ‘floor singers’ who share the
stage with booked artists). All these unspoken conventions and traditions
come together to form a ‘performance arena’ which, in Baumann’s words,
“sets up, or represents, an interpretive frame within which the messages being
communicated are to be understood, and […] this frame contrasts with at
least one other frame, the literal” (Baumann 1977, 9).
In order to signal and maintain this interpretive frame, performances rely
on a certain indexical ‘register’, or, in Dell Hymes’s definition, on “major
speech styles associated with recurrent types of situations” (Hymes 1989,
440). The ‘register’ of a performance is closely associated with what
Baumann, referring to Goffman, calls the “keying of performance” (Baumann
1977, 15-24). He argues that

each speech community will make use of a structured set of distinctive communicative
means from among its resources in culturally conventualized and culture-specific ways to
key the performance frame, such that all communication that takes place within that frame is
to be understood as performance within that community. (ibid., 16)

In Carthy’s “Scarborough Fair,” for instance, one may observe a number of

performative ‘keys’ which come into play: among the more obvious is of
course the language itself with its archaisms (such as in “cambric shirt” or in
40 Reading Song Lyrics

the obsolete reference to the Scarborough Fair), which provide references to a

much older tradition of balladry. This is sustained by the ballad’s typical
form, and particularly so by the refrain in the second and fourth lines of each
stanza which would rarely be tolerated in written poetry but is essential in a
folk context to key audience participation. A similar phatic key is provided
by the opening stanza’s address (“Are you going etc.”) which is not to be
read/heard as a purely rhetorical question in a folk context, but rather estab-
lishes a dialogue between singer and audience and marks the singer as an
accessible and ordinary member of the group.
It is interesting to note again that the recorded history of “Scarborough
Fair” indicates that the opening stanza probably only came into play in the
late 18th or early 19th century – and thus at a time when the effects of social
stratification and the loss of communal coherence may have troubled an easy
equation of performer and ‘ordinary folk’. With regard to the British folk
revival of the 1960s and after, of course, the resulting need to key ‘ordinari-
ness’ is even stronger. As Neill MacKinnon observes in an empirical survey
of The British Folk Scene, the “search to revive the ‘music of the people’
resulted in a movement of intellectuals and the middle class,” the ultimate
irony being “that the ‘music of the people’ cannot be readily taken back to
them. It does not fit into working men’s clubs for instance, and has to remain
the refuge of the folk clubs” (MacKinnon 1993, 59). Certainly, the low and
rustic farming imagery in the riddles of “Scarborough Fair” is therefore rather
alien to the lifeworld of today’s folk audiences, and ordinariness and
authenticity are by no means given but need to be carefully staged. A sense of
‘ordinariness’ is particularly keyed by the choice of vocal quality and sound
in this context: Carthy sings at an ordinary middle pitch with a full and ex-
pressive, yet conversational voice avoiding sterile perfection and artificiality.
Apart from some hall reverb, moreover, the input of recording technique
seems comparatively small, and the attempt to avoid the register of amplified
sound is palpable. If Carthy in effect establishes an impression of honesty,
immediacy, and a continuity with the musical tradition of the ‘folk’, these are
performed notions that are far from universal and certainly not an inherent
part of the lyrics or music. Rather, Carthy’s performance is firmly entwined
with the British folk clubs of the 1960s, and his performing ideology can only
be understood by taking the larger context of the folk revival and its dis-
tinctive practices into account.
The interplay between a register and its particular ‘keys’ with the social
formation of the performance arena, finally, is captured by the notion of a
‘communicative economy’. In Fowley’s words, communicative economy
“speaks of the dedicated, focused relationship between the register and its
traditional, performance-centred array of meanings” (Fowley 1995, 53),
Performativity and Performance 41

while it posits an habitual and efficient exchange of meaning between real

performers and real audiences once relevant keys have been decoded. Two
problems need to be briefly addressed in this context: first, the focus on the
communicative economies of certain performing traditions does not rule out
innovation. Richard Baumann therefore speaks about the “emergent quality
of performance resid[ing] in the interplay between communicative resources,
individual competence, and the goals of participants, within the context of
particular situations” (Baumann 1977, 38, my emphasis) in order to express
the mutability and dynamics of generic frames. John J. MacAloon surely has
a point when he claims that “there is no performance without preformance”
(MacAloon 1984, 9); yet performing traditions are nevertheless not to be seen
as structuring confines, but rather as blueprints that are open to active re-
newal, transformation or even transcendence. Alastair Pennycook puts it suc-
cinctly when he writes that

we need, on the one hand, to avoid the pull of performance as open-ended free display […]
and, on the other, the pull towards oversedimentation (we can only perform what has been
prescripted): to some extent, the performative is always along the lines that have been laid
down, and yet performativity can also be about refashioning futures. (Pennycook 2007, 77)

Carthy’s version of “Scarborogh Fair,” for instance, works as a folk song

precisely because it actively adapts an older model to changing social con-
texts. According to MacKinnon, the British folk revival has often treaded a
borderline between a sense of “re-enaction” (or, frankly, parody) where the
structuring ethos is a “suspension of the present,” and a sense of “revival,”
which “also requires that the past be ‘entered’ in some symbolic way […] but
allows continuity through a process of artistic evolution” (MacKinnon 1993,
63). Carthy, I think, clearly revives rather than re-enacts an old textual source
in new contexts, as his keying of an ‘authentic’ and ‘honest’ performance of
an old British traditional for ‘ordinary’ people does not aim backwards,
really, but forward. Carthy’s vocal performance and idiosyncratic guitar style
do not, or at least not exclusively, appeal to nostalgia, but are positioned
against the rigidity of much contemporary art songs as much as against the
commercial alienations in pop and rock. 10 The communicative economy of

Carthy explains that “what we have [in the revival] is the song in a stage of its development.
[…]. It’s not a finished article. I think that the attitude of the people who are listening to the
Brittens and the Vaughan Williamses, is that what they are being presented with is a finished
polished article, and that’s not what I think” (Carthy qtd. in MacKinnon 1993, 97). On the
issue of commercialisation Carthy tends to be more drastic: “the music industry is a pack of
dogs, fuck em! They just look at it as you being a product and that’s all there is to it; I don’t
think that’s the way to treat music” (Carthy qtd. in Folkmaster 2001).
42 Reading Song Lyrics

lyrics, this implies, not only relies on its own performance arena and corre-
sponding register in social isolation, but on processes of social distinction
against the competition of other social arenas and their registers.
The second point to make, here, is that the ‘communicative economy’
surely facilitates certain aspects of verbal meaning, but does not fully dis-
place the basic polyvalence of language which Derrida among others attested
against the notions of a conventionalist language philosophy. Lyrics, this is to
say, remain informed by their iterative history despite or rather because of the
fact that performances are always embedded in particular frames of interpre-
tation. While the communicative economy within a performance arena may
help to emphasise certain possibilities of interpretation, these are hardly de-
finitive and always embattled by other performances and readings. Thus,
Martin Carthy certainly expected that his (ideal) audiences is familiar with
the tradition of ‘riddle songs’ that “Scarborough Fair” forms a part of, and
perhaps even with its early supernatural contexts (he exclusively foregrounded
the supernatural implications in the liner notes in case they are not).
Additionally, the folk music world does not allow for the isolation of the
singer, who is always meant to perform as an egalitarian part of the commu-
nity. All this works against readings of “Scarborough Fair” as the innocent
lament of an helplessly lonely lover. It facilitates, on the contrary, readings
which foreground notions of a partly self-reflexive and pensive, partly
(self)mocking disappointment, and a concept of love which is informed by
the earlier ‘demonic’ aspects and their coding of female sexuality and desire.
This is enabled precisely because there is a sense of emotional distancing
from the amorous or supernatural content of the lyrics, as the artist does not
perform the role of confessional poet here, but rather assumes the mediating
role of communal storyteller.
Still, all this does by no means rule out conflicting readings of the song,
nor does it fully resolve its ambiguities (“parsley, sage, rosemary, and
thyme,” for instance, will always remain something of an obstacle in any
interpretation). The entire business is complicated, moreover, by the song’s
recordedness and medial availability, which means that it is by no means
bound to its original (folk) performance arena but basically free to encounter
any array of new contexts across the globe at any time after its release. This
way, Carthy’s recording could not only travel to very different performance
arenas and be exposed to a wide array of “genre-normative modes of
listening” (Stockfelt 2004, 383), but has also been available to innumerable
other performing and recording artists who work with very different genric
frames and ideologies. The different musical genres and their typical registers
and performance arenas (many if not most of which “Scarborough Fair” has
entered after Carthy) merit some closer attention in the following chapter.
3. Generic Conventions and Cultural Capital

As the discussion of Martin Carthy’s version of “Scarborough Fair” has

shown, the type of performance arena a song is grounded in and the register
that it draws upon are intimately linked to questions of musical genre. Let us
probe more deeply, therefore, into how the distinction of genres and their
different conventions affect the interpretation of lyrics. For our purposes, the
most comprehensive and systematic approach to this issue was provided by
Franco Fabbri: he defines musical genres as “a set of musical events (real or
possible) whose course is governed by a set of socially accepted rules”
(Fabbri 1981, 51). Before turning to what Fabbri refers to as different types
of “generic rules” which come into play, though, I should briefly note that I
find Fabbri’s use of the term ‘rules’ somewhat problematic. It suggests two
things: first, that there is something like an ideal ‘deep structure’ of genre
types which governs actual performances, and second, that there is a pre-
scriptive rigidity which prevents transformation and development (even if
Fabbri explicitly deals with generic change). In the previous chapter, I have
proposed that Derrida’s notion of iterability, combined with the notion of an
‘embodied’ language suffices to replace the notion of ideal types and ‘rules’.
There is good sense, therefore, in speaking of performing ‘conventions’
(resulting from repeated acts of embodiment) rather than ‘rules’ in the con-
text of musical genre. In John Fiske’s terms, such “[c]onventions are the
structural elements of genre that are shared between producers and audiences.
They embody the crucial ideological concerns of the time in which they are
popular and are central to the pleasures a genre offers its audience” (Fiske
1987, 114). In this view, generic conventions are essentially the product of
what Tzvetan Todorov (1990) would label a ‘metadiscursive discourse’ on
specific musical events that is negotiated between active combatants (musi-
cians, audiences, institutions, etc.) in ever changing social contexts, and ac-
cordingly generic frames are not bound to any ‘ideal’ types, but are both
fuzzy and highly mutable products of cultural practices. Still, Fabbri’s ap-
proach to musical genre must be given credit for precisely shifting the per-
spective on genre from the traditional interest in textual or musical form to a
wider interest in matters of performance (see Fabbri 1981, esp. 54-59).

Aspects of Generic Convention

For Fabbri, “formal and technical” conventions (‘rules’, in Fabbri’s terms)

are only the first in a set of several aspects of genre. Formal and technical
44 Reading Song Lyrics

conventions essentially determine how we differentiate music from noise by

organising sounds according to familiar principles and aural characteristics.
The organisation of sound involves matters as diverse as the particular use of
instruments and musical skills that are required to adequately play them, the
relationship between voice and music, typical rhythmic, harmonic and me-
lodic qualities, the type of technical processing (acoustic or amplified), and
so forth. There is more at stake, however, than the quality of sound and form
(which present particular problems and merit a separate discussion in the
following chapter).
Musical genres are also marked by what can be more generally termed
conventions of communication. 1 Conventions of communication address the
issue of how those involved in a performance position themselves first, to-
wards the musical sounds and content, and second, towards each other. The
latter focus for instance concerns the typical spatial arrangement of a per-
formance arena and the resulting proximity or distance between performers
and listeners – an informal club setting differs widely from both a rock venue
or the seating arrangements and hierarchies in a formal concert hall, for ex-
ample. Accordingly, there are very different conventions of audience in-
volvement, as well as of performers’ attitudes towards the crowd. Fabbri
speaks of “gestural-mimic codes” (Fabbri 1981, 57) here, i.e. conventions of
bodily interaction during performances, which moreover forge role expecta-
tions that are attributed to performers and audiences. In terms of the commu-
nication of contents, Fabbri primarily refers to Roman Jacobson’s communi-
cative functions and how a performer’s foregrounding of, for instance, phatic,
emotional, poetic or metalinguistic aspects affects musical meaning and thus
genre. Something he does not discuss, though, are different generic notion of
authorship and creative authority in the communication of songs. These are
indeed of paramount importance for the interpretations of lyrics.
The communicative system of songs crucially differs from that of written
poetry. Certainly, written poetic communication is already polyphonous in
itself, in that the written word may bear several layers of (internalised, as it
were) ‘voices’: conventionally, literary studies distinguish the voice of the
(historical or implied) author; that of the (fictional) speaker whose voice may
(in lyrical poetry) or may not (e.g the persona in dramatic monologues) be
more or less congruent with that of the authorial voice; and possibly those of
fictional characters (in epic or dramatic poems) – the voices roughly corre-
sponding to T.S. Eliot’s “three voices of poetry” (Eliot 1953). As a written

Fabbri refers to “semiotic” and “behavioural” rules, here; both labels, however, are slightly
misleading in their linguistic and sociological overtones.
Generic Conventions and Cultural Capital 45

poem, “Scarborough Fair,” for example, simultaneously presents us, first,

with the ‘voice’ of an author(function) whose historical origins are unknown
to us, but whose lines have been adapted and changed over the centuries by a
multitude of co-writers, giving the ‘voice’ a collective rather than individual
provenience; and second, that of a fictional speaker addressing a fictional
addressee. The third level, the voice of dramatic characters, has been lost
over the centuries, but was clearly present in the elfin knight precursors
where fairy and maid ‘speak’ in dialogue.
The move from poetry to lyrics, however, dramatically complicates this
communicative system by adding at least two further ‘voices’: that of ‘music’
in the widest sense, and the actual, ‘embodied’ voice of the performer. The
first comes with its own bag of problems, and the debate about what the
‘voice of music’ means or ‘says’ has to be relegated to the following chapter;
suffice it to say at this stage that the musical arrangement is of course au-
thored just as the lyrics are, that the writer(s) of music and text may be iden-
tical or not, that either text or music may come first, and that text and/or
music may have been conceived independently of, or specifically designed
for the song at stake (see Cone 1974, 41-80). But let us focus on the second
voice – that of the performer – and its alignment with the internalised
‘voices’ of a lyric or poem. The classical source to turn to, here, is Edward T.
Cone’s study of The Composer’s Voice (1974). According to Cone (and the
bias toward art music is obvious, here), there are two ways of ‘interpreting’ –
i.e. singing – lyrics: a “legitimate interpretation, the ‘faithful’ interpretation
for which every singer should strive,” and an “illegitimate interpretation.” In
the ‘legitimate’ case,

the two aspects of person and persona fuse. The physical presence and the vitality of the
singer turn the persona of the poetic-musical text into an actual, immediate, living being: the
person of the singer invests the persona of the song with personality. If the impersonation is
successful, if the illusion is complete, we hear this embodied persona as “composing” his
part – as living through the experience of the song. The vocal persona may be of various
kinds – protagonist, character, etc., but […] the persona is never identical with the singer.
(ibid., 62, emphases in the original)

The last qualification is crucial, here: in Cone’s definition of a ‘legitimate’

interpretation, the singer’s “person” – i.e. his or her biography, character,
media image – is meant to step out of the way; rather, singers ideally are
empty vessels of sorts who are readily filled with the ‘voice’ of the speaker or
persona of the lyrics and music (the “poetic-musical text”) just as designed
by the indisputable authority of the composer/poet. Performances, this means,
ideally re-create an authorial blueprint in such a way that they feign a live
“experience” of the original composition. The title of Cone’s study is far
46 Reading Song Lyrics

from accidental in this sense, as it is indeed “the composer’s voice” which

has been granted maximum authority in art music discourses since the late
18th century.
The preference for the “composer’s voice” as opposed to that of the per-
former, though, is a generic convention rather than an universal musical
given, as Cone’s definition of ‘illegitimate’ performance suggests. Here,

not the vocal persona but the singer – Mr. X or Miss Y there on the stage – becomes the
“composer,” the experiencing subject of the song. […] This misappropriation can occur
when a singer performs songs of his own composition, if – as is often the case with pop
singers – the emphasis is entirely on immediate performance. I do not mean to imply that
there is anything morally, or even esthetically, wrong about this practice. I merely insist that
what one is listening to in such cases – as in many virtuoso performances of “serious” music
– is not the piece being performed, but the performance itself. (ibid., 62-63)

Despite his claims to the opposite, there is of course an ideological bias against
popular styles in Cone’s evaluation, and the distinction between ‘legitimate’
and ‘illegitimate’ interpretations is certainly less categorical than Cone tends
to suggest. His notion of legitimacy is, as Cone occasionally admits, rather a
prescriptive ideal rather than a description of the practical habits of reception
marking the ritualised framework of art song performances. But let us return
to the remaining items on Fabbri’s list of generic conventions.
Fabbri insists that formal and communicative conventions are embedded
in larger social, political, economical and juridical formations. His notion of
“social and ideological” implications of genre remains somewhat undevel-
oped, yet it implicitly comprises what Pierre Bourdieu has captured with the
notions of “distinction” and “cultural capital.” At the risk of simplifying,
Bourdieu’s core argument in Distinction (1984) is that there is no such thing
as intrinsic aesthetic value (in a Kantian tradition), but that such value is so-
cially constructed and attributed in the inverse interaction of economic capital
(informing social class) and cultural capital (informing lifestyle). Taste, and
by extension, genre preference, is therefore informed by social determinants
such as family background, income, education, gender, age group or ethnic-
ity, and genre politics express certain groups’ battles over the ‘distinction’
from the cultural practices and preferences marking the taste of other life
styles and class fractions. In Bourdieu’s approach, the degree of agency in
this processes is closely entwined with social background: while ‘popular
taste’ (which Bourdieu basically locates among the working classes) is seen
as obliged to dominant models with little chances for individual aesthetic
decision-making, ‘middle brow’ taste is marked by an anxiety over status
often leading to cultural docility, even if Bourdieu accounts for a diversity of
choices among the petit bourgeoisie. Only the ‘legitimate taste’ informing the
Generic Conventions and Cultural Capital 47

practices of the cultural elite, however, is allowed a “playful seriousness”

(Bourdieu 1985, 54) in its aesthetic choices.
One may deduce a strong and a week hypothesis from Bourdieu’s empiri-
cal evidence and arguments. The strong hypothesis – to which I do not sub-
scribe – is basically Bourdieu’s own; it argues that taste and aesthetic judge-
ment are exclusively social in nature, and that they are moreover functional in
a ‘field’ which, while allowing for some mobility, more or less constantly
reproduces the status quo of social hierarchies (see also Bourdieu and Passe-
ron 1977 on the notion of ‘reproduction’). This hypothesis is questionable on
several grounds: first, its relies on data collected in 1970s France which can-
not be fully representative of other places or times. Second, Bourdieu’s ar-
gument borders on social determinism, despite his claims to the opposite. It
diminishes the importance of individual input and psychology, and particu-
larly so in what he refers to as the ‘popular’ realm.2 Finally, it is questionable
that aesthetic judgement in general, and of songs and lyrics in particular, is
indeed a purely social affair. Rather, I will propose in the following chapter
that we are rather dealing with a complex negotiation of social, but also of
cognitive and bodily dispositions.
The weak hypothesis, however, shall be fully endorsed, which is that taste
and distinction are key elements of our social identity formation and conse-
quently also of genre formations. A musical genre is inevitably expressive of
cultural capital which is used in processes of distinction between social
groups. It is important to note in this context that the cultural capital embod-
ied by musical genres is hardly ever singular but may range considerably
between different groups and accommodate various ideologies. The example
of punk may be a case in point: as Susanne Rupp (2006) has shown, the cul-
tural validity of punk has been assessed very differently in retrospective
views. Different ideologies of the rise and fall of punk have, for instance,
been proposed by Dick Hebdige in his influential Subculture: The Meaning
of Style (1997 ), Simon Frith in The Sociology of Rock (1978) and Jon Savage
in England’s Dreaming (2001). Hebdige takes a neo-Marxist stand interpret-
ing punk as the expression of working class sentiment and the reaction of
English youth in the face of rising unemployment in the 70s. Frith, in turn,
sees such social explanations surrounding issues of class and economy as too
simplistic and instead highlights musical trajectories; punk is explained as a
reaction against major label mainstream rock and its ‘arty’ pretensions. Jon
Savage, finally, disagrees with Frith’s positioning of punk within the larger

Richard Jenkins complains that Bourdieu’s model cannot account for radical generic
transgressions such as, for instance, Bob Dylan’s first electric performances: “There is re-
bellion in this model,” Jenkins concludes, “but, alas, no revolution” (Jenkins 2002, 137).
48 Reading Song Lyrics

field of rock, and instead elevates it to an independent genre which is not for
the masses, but for a cultural elite. Focussing on the Sex Pistols and the man
behind them (art school drop-out Malcom McLaren), he highlights punk as a
carefully calculated avant-garde movement which only collapsed when
commercial success arrived in 1977 with “God Save the Queen.” Despite
their very different focuses it would be wrong, I believe, to exclusively prefer
one of these narratives of punk to the others. Rather, the conflicting narra-
tives highlight that genres are highly heterogenous formations which allow
for multiple points of entry opened up through the complex intersections of
class and lifestyle.
It is important to see, finally, that questions of taste are firmly embedded
in complex economies of cultural production and consumption (as Frith and
Savage’s readings of punk indicate). Songs are usually rooted in specific in-
stitutional frameworks, and Fabbri takes account of these by referring to
“commercial and juridical” aspects of musical genres. Musical events and
recordings, this is to say, are part of a larger market system, and generic con-
ventions are informed by specific market segments and their specific legal
and economic demands. This involves the labour organisation of musical
events, the influence of record companies, promotion processes, marketing
and distribution, as well as overarching legal issues involving the ownership
of music (see Negus 1999). Such issues may have crucial effects, as an ex-
ample from the world of professional pop may suffice to illustrate: as Avron
Levine White explains, contracts in the commercial music world often as-
signed 50 per cent of the publishing royalties to the writer of the music and
50 per cent to the writer of the lyrics. Once this is discovered, White argues,
bands often no longer work in groups, but band leaders instead tend to “work
in pairs or alone in order to monopolise the copyright” (White 1987, 165),
while session musicians are hired for studio jobs and live performances. Such
changes in the communicative structure within bands clearly affect issues of
performance ideology, and are likely to affect the formal and aural quality of
the music itself. The various aspects of genre – form and sound, rhetorical
and communicative structures, social and ideological dimensions, institu-
tional frameworks –, this example again serves to point out, are indeed to be
seen as an interdependent and dynamic whole which is open to constant ne-
gotiation and change.

Music Worlds between Art, Folk and Pop

In view of the different aspects and complexities of genre, it should now be

possible to more clearly map out a discursive frame or field in which musical
Generic Conventions and Cultural Capital 49

genres move and evolve. The focus will be less on intrinsic musical or textual
form, but on the communicative, social, ideological and institutional con-
ventions outlined above. The resource to turn to here is Simon Frith’s
seminal study Performing Rites (1998), which establishes the notion of three
core types of discursive practice which are linked to three different types of
musical ‘art worlds’. For a sociological grounding, Frith draws heavily on
Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital, and combines it with Howard S. Becker’s
notion of Art Worlds (1982) that allows for a more thorough institutional
perspective on how certain socially accepted responses to works of art are
created. The three core art worlds or “taste groups” Frith discerns are the
bourgeois or “art music world,” the “folk music world,” and the commercial
or “pop music world” (see Frith 1998, 35-42). 3
The origins of the art music world (as well as of the pop and folk music
worlds, arguably) lie in the late 18th and the 19th century which have wit-
nessed, according to Peter Van der Merwe, a very gradual “divorce between
classical and popular styles” (Van der Merve 1989, 18). Van der Merwe as-
sesses the development of European music according to the criteria of musi-
cal literacy, social class and aesthetic status, and notes how “from around
1790, the classical tradition gradually pulled away from a mass of middle-
and lowbrow music” (ibid., 17). The key momentum is a shift in attitude to-
ward ‘popular’ influences on bourgeois music, which coincides with the
growth of an aspiring industrial elite (which hoped to cash in their economic
capital for cultural capital) on the one hand, and a growing urban working
and lower middle class (which enhanced an increasing commercialisation of
popular music) on the other. Whereas in the 18th century, processes of dis-
tinction between popular music and the ‘high’ arts seem to have been less a
question of aesthetic or ideological criteria, but rather of musical literacy and
training (cf. Weber 1975), art music composers of the 19th century tended to
increasingly emancipate themselves from popular influences. Even though
professional musicians for a long time continued to inhabit the spheres of
both the popular world of parlour music and the world of art music, compos-
ers, music entrepreneurs and bourgeois audiences sought to distinguish new
modes of refinement and exclusiveness. The development of a cult of musical
genius and the idea of a transcendent ‘absoluteness’ (see Dahlhaus 1989) in
music (both of which originate in German Romanticism) have done their turn
to elevate the art music world from the everyday. In the long run, moreover,
transcendence and genius were easier to allocate to the great composers of

Frith’s primary differentiation of art, folk and pop is quite common and has been made on
slightly different grounds, for instance, by Van der Merwe (1989 and 2005), Booth and
Koch (1990) and Bruhn and Rösing (1998).
50 Reading Song Lyrics

the past rather than to living artists, which led to the gradual establishment of
a fairly restrictive classical canon with little space for an avant-garde and
even less space for the contemporary. As a result, “‘classical’ music […] was
rapidly becoming predominantly the music of the past” (Van der Merwe
1989, 20): while between 1817 and 1827, the ratio of works by living and
dead composers performed by the Philharmonic Society of London was 56%
to 43%, this significantly shifted to 30% to 70% in the period between 1856
and 1862 (cf. Weber 1994).
The generic conventions of the art music world as it presents itself today
have been intriguingly assessed by Christopher Small (1987 and 1998) in his
encompassing studies of the ‘ritual’ nature of symphony concerts, which are
certainly valid also for typical performances of art songs or Lieder. The
communicative conventions marking such performances are crucially shaped
by a performing space which if ever possible shuts off auditory or visual
connections to the outside world. Also, there is usually no direct access to the
concert hall itself; instead, a transitional ante-room is employed, first, to se-
cure that only paying and thus ‘entitled’ guest may attend, and second, to
provide a space in which socialisation between the audience may occur. In
the ‘sanctuary’ of the concert hall itself, any obvious interaction between the
audience is strongly discouraged, and the same is true for the interaction be-
tween audiences and performers – the only exception are strictly coded re-
sponses at the end of pieces or sets, when the crowd is allowed to abandon
the ideal of motion- and noiseless contemplation to choose from a set reper-
toire of clapping, rising, and bravos. Similarly, the communicative involve-
ment of performers is also restricted. While singers and musicians are in fact
invited to discretely enact the emotional content of songs by coded mimic
and gesticulatory means, they are nevertheless expected to show dignity and
restraint both in dress and movement. By and large, the interaction with the
audience is kept to a minimum: there is usually no verbal exchange between
pieces or sets, performers enter through separate doors, and they remain out
of sight when they do not perform. The overall ideology of all these conven-
tions, as Small puts it, is to “depersonalise the performers and to emphasize
the universality and timelessness of the proceedings” (Small 1987, 11). This
depersonalisation is crucial to foreground what Cone calls “the composer’s
voice” whose unfailing genius the rituals of art music concerts worship, and
whose creative authority is not to be blemished by the vanities of individual
performers. 4

There is good reason to suggest that the author-function in Western art music discourse is
similarly a product of the turn from the 18th to the 19th century as it is for literary
discourses in Michel Foucault’s famous assessment (Foucault 1977). As Small notes: “per-
Generic Conventions and Cultural Capital 51

Far from exclusively owing to the aural quality of the song, the transcen-
dent ideal of art music performances is thus a carefully staged one which is
moreover strongly indebted to economic and institutional conventions. For an
art music performance to run smoothly, a whole commercial apparatus is at
work ranging from the notoriously underpaid “built-in proletariat of the con-
cert hall” (ibid., 9) to the highly unionised musicians and on to the often no-
toriously overpaid star conductors and managers. Performances of art music
in renowned locations are usually subsidised, but of course additionally fi-
nance themselves through their audiences’ willingness to pay for status
(which finds expression in either a gallery or stalls seat). To ensure quality
and exclusiveness for money, an entire institutional framework is at work.
Music conservatories and university departments single out talents through
processes of competitive selection and ensure lengthy spells of ‘apprentice-
ship’ before performers are allowed on stage. But the academia is also in-
strumental in the process of consumption: as Frith notes, “the bourgeois art
world depends on scholarship, on the accumulation of knowledge of musical
history and the compositional process without which score and performance
cannot be understood” (Frith 1998, 38). On the one hand, this knowledge is
essential in the elitist establishment of a canon, but it also has to be broken
down and packaged (in liner notes, journals, radio programmes, reviews, etc)
on the other, so that a more general and less tutored audience can access the
art world that classical music inhabits. Nevertheless, the classical world re-
mains strictly hierarchical: “There is a clear distinction, that is, between the
composer of a work and its performers, between the performers and their
audiences; and the central bourgeois music event, the concert, offers (in its
ideal) a transcendent experience, something special, something apart from the
everyday world” (ibid., 39).
The second cornerstone in a triangular discursive field of musical genres
is the commercial or pop music world. Again, the origins of pop as a distinct
art world are usually seen in the 19th century. In an approach very much in
line with the Birmingham School, Richard Middleton sees the evolution of
the commercial music world as rooted in three “situational changes”

forming musicians, even eminent concert and operatic soloists may go through an entire ca-
reer without ever making a musical gesture they can call their own. This situation would
strike musicians of the past [before 1800], including many of those who created the scores
on which modern performers depend, as strange indeed. In the first place, it seems unlikely
that those musicians would feel much interest in the first of those objectives, having little or
no interests in the preservation of musical compositions, not even their own and certainly
not over centuries. Dissemination, yes, for which a score is well suited; but preservation, no,
and in that respect they have more in common with today’s pop musicians making records
than with contemporary concert musicians” (Small 1998, 111).
52 Reading Song Lyrics

(Middleton 1985, 10-14; see also 1990). Emphasising, with Antonio Gramsci
(1971) a relative autonomy of cultural practices within contexts of economic
and social hegemony, Middleton’s first situational change is the “bourgeois
revolution” which he locates in phases between the late 18th century and
roughly the 1840s in Britain. These were “marked by complex and overt
class struggle within cultural fields, by the permeation of the market system
through almost all musical activities, and by the development and eventual
predominance of new musical types associated with the ruling class” (Mid-
dleton 1985, 10). Middleton then takes little interest in the development of
the Victorian parlour and music hall culture (see Russell 1987 and Scott 1989
for an introduction), and instead sees the next crucial situational change in the
arrival of “mass culture running from the late 19th century to around 1930”
(Middleton 1985, 10). This phase is characterised by the development of
monopoly capitalism, both with regard to an emerging American hegemony
on the British market (seen in the impact of ragtime, jazz and later Tin Pan
Alley songs), and to the new modes of mass production and distribution.
Finally, the third situational change arrives after 1945 and is labelled the
moment of “pop culture” (ibid., 12). It marks the starting point for a diffusion
of multiple styles and subcultures which came along with the development of
new media (television, tape, digital recording, video, etc.) and particularly
with the discovery of teenage audiences as a crucial market segment.
Simon Frith, conversely, argues that there is no room in purely commer-
cial pop for subcultural distinction: “Pop does not have a specific or subcul-
tural, communal market/culture. It is designed to appeal to everyone. Pop
doesn’t come from any particular place or marks off any particular taste”
(Frith 2001, 95). He defines today’s world of contemporary pop as follows on
these grounds:

Pop is not driven by any significant ambition except profit and commercial reward. Its his-
tory is a history of serial or standardised production and, in musical terms, it is essentially
conservative. Pop is about giving people what they already know they want rather than
pushing up against technological constraints or aesthetic conventions. […] Pop is music
provided from on high (by record companies, radio programmers and concert promoters)
rather than being made from below. […] Pop is not an art but a craft. (Frith 2001, 96)

The performance arenas of pop are consequently to be seen in the everyday

intersections of business and entertainment, and there are clear trajectories
from music hall to today’s disco and pop concerts in the public, and from
sheet music in Victorian parlours to MP3 files ringing in iPod ear phones in
the private realm. As regards the public spaces of pop performances, the most
obvious aspect they share with typical art music performances is the obliga-
tion to pay good money to gain entrance. This apart, their communicative and
Generic Conventions and Cultural Capital 53

social conventions have very little in common. At pop concerts, interaction

among the audience as well as between performers and the crowd is abso-
lutely encouraged, and kinaesthetic response to the music is expected and
expressed in dancing.
The position of the singer in pop in relation to the lyrics he or she sings
and to the audiences he or she entertains is a peculiar one in this context. The
communicative dynamics of pop appear to be paradigmatically based on what
Cone calls “illegitimate interpretation”; or in other words – the authorial
voice of pop is not that of the composer/poet, but almost exclusively that of
the performing singer. What Cone refers to as the musical “persona” – say,
the speaker’s voice in “Scarborough Fair” – tends to be fully appropriated by
and readily identified with the personality (or rather the media image) of the
performer. Frith thus proposes that “the pop performer draws attention to
performance itself, to the relationship between performer and work,” and that
pop songs “clearly ‘belong’ to their singers, not their writers. Interpretation in
this context does not mean realizing what the composer (or, rather the music)
meant, but using the music to show what interpretation means” (Frith 1998,
In cultural practice, the pop music world therefore developed an eco-
nomic system where songs are specifically designed, written and produced
for singers and specific performances, all the while the cultural authority of
the multiple ‘composing voices’ backing the singers is eclipsed by the sin-
gular authority of the performance. As Frith shows, since the 1940s, pop
singers have more or less ceased to write their own material but almost fully
depended on professional writers and producers in a process that is strictly
oriented at the singers’ media image and the demands of the market. While
the production process of a pop song is thus almost paradigmatically ‘post-
modern’ or late capitalist (cf. Jameson 1991) in nature – in terms of multiple
authorship, assemblage rather than organic creation, and an aesthetic scope
that bows to strictly economic imperatives – its reception, however, continues
to work along rather romantic lines. As Will Straw notes, pop audiences still
typically “evaluate a musical recording or concert as the output of a single
individual or integrated group,” and “the precise input of composers, produc-
ers, engineers, and back-up musicians is, most of the time, unclear” (Straw
1999, 200). In reception, thus a sense of organic creation and integrity oddly
prevails: pop lyrics and pop songs, it can be argued on these grounds, are “to
a large extent carefully calculated postmodern simulations of the romantic
authenticity which the market demands” (Eckstein 2009, 242), and seem to
work on the basis of a certain willing suspension of disbelief on all sides.
This arrangement, moreover, only works if it is based on a particular kind
of relationship between audiences and performers which is paradoxically
54 Reading Song Lyrics

marked by intimacy and accessability on the one hand, and a simultaneous

sense of remoteness and unattainability on the other. Pop artists are expected
to express and share very personal themes that audiences can identify with,
yet they are never really part of their mundane world, both literally and figu-
ratively. Literally, pop performers inhabit the stage and back-stage areas to
which audiences have no access (contrary to folk performers, who tend to sit
and drink with the crowd before and after gigs). Figuratively, the advent of
the star system – which fully took hold only after WW II when singers and
vocal music had almost entirely replaced band leaders and instrumental mu-
sic – demanded that artists increasingly serve as unattainable foils for inti-
mate projections of fantasy and desire.
Sexual love and desire (almost anathema in the art music world, as
Christopher Small is careful to point out, which instead favours untainted
transcendent love; see Small 1987, 25) have consequently not always had a
firm place in popular music. During the 19th century, popular songs could
embrace many themes, and the shift towards an almost exclusive preoccupa-
tion with sentimental or sexual love only occurred with major changes in the
technological processing of songs. The perhaps most important change is
marked by the introduction of the electric microphone in pop recordings,
which opened up entirely new dimensions of vocal embodiment and inti-
macy. Furthermore, there is a more general shift of popular music from the
public sphere into the private, from collective experiences fed by the 19th-
century sheet music industry to highly individual modes of consumption
brought about by ever new recording and storing devices. If the themes of
pop songs nowadays tend to mostly revolve around rather narcissistic one to
one relationships between two individuals, the new scope for intimacy both
in sound production and consumption certainly plays a role.
The third cornerstone in a triangular field of genres, finally, is the folk
music world. Folk music is essentially seen as the music of the people devoid
of artistic pretension and commercial devaluation; as Frith puts it, the core
argument, here, is that “the value of music has to be understood in terms of
cultural necessity – ideally, there is no separation of art and life” (Frith 1998,
39). While folk music is thus perhaps as old as mankind, folk music dis-
course is certainly not; instead, it is very much a product of the 19th century
again. The present usage of the word ‘folk’ only originates in the Romantic
period (deriving from the German ‘Volk’), and the great collectors of folk
songs such as Francis James Child or Cecil Sharp enter the stage at a time
when the ‘music of the people’ was perceived to be in danger of vanishing (in
the second half of the 19th and early 20th century); Richard Middleton ac-
cordingly states that “[f]olk song is usually seen as the authentic expression
Generic Conventions and Cultural Capital 55

of a way of life now, past or about to disappear (or in some cases, to be

preserved or somehow revived)” (Middleton 1990, 127).
One consequence of this is that the performing conventions of ‘folk’ are
valued primarily against the conflicting values of the commercial music
world. Similar to the workings of art music discourses, the folk world heavily
relies on scholarship and institutional frameworks which research the musical
tradition and distribute their knowledge in liner notes and scholarly
magazines. The emphasis, however, is a different one, as it is placed “less on
history and the accumulation of knowledge, than on ‘purity’ and the correct
(traditional) way of doing things. Folk music is thus evaluated […] according
to concepts of unchanging musical ‘truth’” (Frith 1998, 40). Such ‘truths’ are
usually retrospectively seen as endangered already during the Renaissance
period when the ‘traditional’ rural songs and ballads were confronted with
urban ballads, written by professional writers and commercially distributed
on what could be called the first mass medium of music distribution, the
broadside. Early folklorists such as Francis Child were full of disdain for the
commodified versions of balladry and insisted on the ‘true’ popular ballad as
an independent literary type; but as Dave Harker has put forth, this view
owes very much to a ‘ballad consensus’ (Harker 2004) and is hardly ground-
ed on stringent criteria with which folk and commercial ballads may be
differentiated. 5 It is rather likely, in fact, that rural and urban traditions have
mutually influenced each other from very early on, and the folk music
world’s romantic obsession with ‘purity’ and musical ‘truth’ against the
progress of ‘alienated’ pop is thus problematic, to say the least. As Richard
Middleton is careful to emphasise, “the voice of the people is always plural,
hybrid, compromised.” This, however, does not divest folk music culture of a
vital discursive power; instead, folk has functioned as “a ‘counterculture of
modernity’: it is constitutive of modernity itself (modernity as it actually de-
veloped), its role not only reactive but also productive, not only responsible
to but also responsible for (that is, dialectically implicated in) its own
apparent negation” (Middleton 2006, 23, emphasis in the original).
The folk music world needs to be taken serious on these grounds as a
deliberate and productive counterforce to the art and pop music discourses,
and as a generic model that has established its very own social, communi-
cative and ideological performing conventions. I will not go into detail, here,
as I have dealt with much of what is to say in the previous chapter with
reference to Martin Carthy’s version of “Scarborough Fair” – covering the

In an engaging study of the 17th-century professional ballad writer Laurence Price, Dave
Harker (1987) shows how commercial ballads have entered the Child canon.
56 Reading Song Lyrics

elaborate construction of informality within typical performance arenas such

as the folk festival or folk club, the ideally egalitarian sharing of stage and
floor between performers and audiences, and the immersion in a tradition that
may either be ‘re-enacted’ or ‘revived’. I have also already touched upon the
preferred distribution of communicative authority in folk discourses, where
singers are – quite like in the art music world – to grant authority to the
“persona” of the song, rather than appropriate it as pop artists typically
would; yet of course what is ‘worshiped’ here is not the genius of “the
composer’s voice,” but the presumed ‘authenticity’ of popular heritage and
the tradition of communal storytelling. Ideally, therefore, there is no single
voice that ‘owns’ a song – neither that of a composer, nor that of the artist;
folk songs, rather, are the common property of the entire folk community,
and violations against this unspoken convention tend to be punished by
excommunication (the popular history of “Scarborough Fair” indeed provides
a model case for such an excommunication, but more about this later).

Art Music World

Jazz Progressive
City Blues

Country Blues
Folk Music World Commercial (Pop)
Music World
Folk Rock

Fig. 1: Field of generic distinction

For now, it needs to be emphasised that what has been outlined so far in
terms of art, pop and folk music worlds is not to be seen as three independent
categories of cultural practice. On the contrary, as Frith puts it, “what is
involved here is not the creation and maintainance of three distinct, auto-
nomous music worlds but, rather, the play of three historically evolving
discourses across a single field” (Frith 1998, 42). Musical discourses and
genre formations, this is to say, are situated in a field of conflicting
ideologies pulling either toward artistic refinement and exclusiveness (art),
Generic Conventions and Cultural Capital 57

commercialisation and entertainment (pop), or authenticity and communal

practice (folk). What is more, the most interesting genre formations are
probably those that are located in the hybrid space in-between the core art
worlds outlined above (see fig. 1, which only situates a few representative
examples). I will in the following briefly address some of these – drawing,
very selectively only, from an almost unending list of possible subcultures
and genres of the extremely differentiated post-World War Western music
scene. Our underlying example of “Scarborough Fair” is a particularly handy
one in this context, as there are perhaps only few other songs that have trav-
elled in as many different versions and in as many different genres since the
mid-60s. Let us take a break then and turn to the story of its late popularity.

Scarborough Fair (II): Generic Transformations

The English folk clubs of the 1960 were very popular not only among young
and aspiring British musicians and singers such as Marianne Faithfull, but
also among American folk artists such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. All
three of them knew Martin Carthy and heard him perform “Scarborough
Fair” in London, and all three of them seem to have been touched in some
way or the other, as they clearly made use of the song in their own careers.
Bob Dylan is the earliest and perhaps least obvious case, but his “Girl from
the North Country” released on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) draws
heavily on “Scarborough Fair” in terms of lyrics: “Well, if you’re travelin’ in
the north country fair, / Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline, /
Remember me to one who lives there. / She once was a true love of mine.” 6
Dylan must have heard the song during his first trip to London in winter
1962, yet he hardly acknowledged the debt, withdrawing instead to clichés of
romantic inspirationalism. As Nat Hentoff writes in the liner notes: “‘Girl
from the North Country’ was first conceived by Bob Dylan about three years
before he finally wrote it down in December 1962. ‘That often happens,’ he
explains, ‘I carry a song in my head for a long time and then it comes burst-
ing out’.” There is some irony, then, in the fact that the first version of “Scar-
borough Fair” to be recorded and released after Martin Carthy’s debut
appeared on an album titled North Country Maid (1966) by Marianne
Faithfull. 7

As Patrick Humphries (2003) argues, moreover, the melody of “Scarborough Fair” has signifi-
cantly affected Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Lether” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Allright.”
Faithfull’s “Scarborough Fair” was recorded already in September 1965.
58 Reading Song Lyrics

The generic frame of Faithfull’s version is located somewhere in the

hybrid space between the folk and pop music world, as can already be seen in
the album’s eclectic blend of traditional folk tunes with cover versions of
popular songs by Donovan or Tom Paxton. Faithfull, who had her first hit
with a version of The Stones’s “As Tears Go By,” did not write or arrange
her own material, and was pretty much of a typical pop singer in this respect
(her guitarist Jon Mark is credited for the arrangement of “Scarborough
Fair”). Without going into the details of sound organisation at this stage, the
vocal performance and instrumentation suggest a register and performance
arena that draw equally on folk as well as on pop conventions. On the one
hand, the restrained accompaniment on a single acoustic guitar is clearly
oriented at the folk world; on the other hand, Faithfull’s voice is much more
heavily processed than Martin Carthy’s, and operates with a softer and more
intimate vocal embodiment. The communicative economy resulting from this
register is such that there is a clear privileging of intimate melancholy and
sentimental love.
This is underlined by the particular choice of text, which differs from
Martin Carthy’s version in some significant details: most crucially, there is an
apparent shift from a triangular constellation involving the fictional speaker,
his or her lover, and a mediating addressee in the first three stanzas (“Have
you been to Scarborough Fair? / Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme /
Remember me to one that lives there / For once she was a true lover of mine
// Tell her to make me new cambric shirt […]”), to a dual constellation where
addressee and (potential) lover suddenly become one:

Ah, can you find me an acre of land

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Between the salt sea and the sea sand
Or never be a true lover of mine.

This shift crucially works toward the identification of speaker and singer in
the last three stanzas: whereas in the first stanzas, a heterosexual context re-
quires some fictional abstraction (the beloved, after all, is a she, and so is the
actual singer), the final three stanzas suddenly allow both male and female
listeners to feel directly addressed as potential lovers by the young and desir-
able media persona of Marianne Faithfull. There is a clear movement, then,
not only in terms of performing conventions, but also in the rhetoric structure
of the lyrics themselves, from a communal folk-appeal to the privacy and
erotic pseudo-intimacy of pop.
But even if “Scarborough Fair” has been canonised among Marianne
Faithfull’s greatest hits (e.g. 1987), it is of course Paul Simon who is cru-
cially to blame for perhaps making it the best known English folk song in the
Generic Conventions and Cultural Capital 59

Western world by translating it into the rhetoric of rock. Simon came to

England and played in local clubs after having recorded his first LP Wednes-
day Morning, 3 A.M. (1964) with Art Garfunkel. The fact that the album,
which drew on the duo’s immersion in the New York folk scene and com-
bined folk with a close singing style inspired by the Everly Brothers, basi-
cally flopped after its release did not exactly encourage Simon to leave
Britain, and he consequently toured England with a folk repertoire some of
which he recorded on The Paul Simon Songbook (1965). It is during that
time, also, that Simon came across Martin Carthy; as the latter relates: “[Paul
Simon] heard about ‘Scarborough Fair’, and he came up to me […] and I
sang it and he liked it. And during the course of the evening I wrote the song
down for him and he went off happy as a sound boy. The rest is history,
folks” (Carthy 2003). This history has not been an untroubled one, but let us
see first how “Scarborough Fair” made it into the international billboard
The story requires a brief detour via another Simon and Garfunkel hit,
“The Sound of Silence,” which Simon wrote in the aftermath of the Kennedy
murder. The song already featured on Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. (and on
Simon’s solo Songbook) in acoustic folk style, but it was only after the duo’s
US producer Tom Wilson dubbed electric guitars, bass and drums to the song
and re-released it as a single that it eventually hit no. 1 in the US in Decem-
ber 1965. Even though Simon and Garfunkel did not approve of Wilson’s
arbitrary move, they nevertheless readily reunited, abandoned acoustic folk
and (re)jumped onto the bandwagon of rock with their succeeding releases;
Paul Simon’s version of “Scarborough Fair” became the title track of their
third album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966), and fully made it to
the masses by its inclusion on the original soundtrack of Mike Nichols’s
Oscar-winning motion picture The Graduate (1967).
The distinction between rock and pop is a much contested one, and may
need some clarification in this context. Keir Keightley puts it most straight
forwardly, I think, when he notes that from a rock perspective, “[p]op is un-
derstood as popular music that isn’t (or doesn’t have to be, or can’t possibly
be) ‘taken seriously’. Rock, in contrast, is mainstream music that is (or ought
to be, or must be) taken seriously” (Keightley 2001, 128). As the inverted
commas indicate, ‘seriousness’ is a highly subjective category at the cross-
roads of musical practices and musical preference (Bourdieu’s ‘taste’), and
one should indeed rather conceive of a continuum between rock and pop than
of a binary opposition. The focus on seriousness is helpful, however, to
question limiting associations of rock with rebellion against dominant social
values, and to highlight that “rock’s oppositionality operates in the […] sys-
tematic stratifications of capitalist consumer society” (ibid., 129, see also
60 Reading Song Lyrics

Frith 1978). This notwithstanding, the ideology of rock is rooted in an aware-

ness of popular music’s complicity with late capitalism, and the value of ‘se-
rious’ rock is thus seen in a refusal of artistic and ethical compromises and
commercial sell out. Rock artists typically author their own songs, and
propagate an awareness of their social and political role in society. As
Keightley puts forth, there are moreover two essential roads to stage a sense
of ‘authenticity’ that elevates rock from the pop music world: the first road is
to go for what Keightley calls “Romantic authenticity,” which basically con-
sists of importing folk values into the pop music world – key values include
tradition, community, populism, sincerity and hiding musical technology
(most of the singer/songwriter genre is to be located here). The second road is
to perform what Keightley calls a sense of “Modernist authenticity,” which,
crudely spoken, imports values from the more progressive branches of the art
music world – values listed by Keightley are experimentation, artistry, elit-
ism, irony or obliqueness, and celebrating technology (Keightley 2001, 137).
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s performance of “Scarborough Fair” in-
triguingly integrates features of both folk and art music. The foundation of
Simon and Garfunkel’s version is Martin Carthy’s folk arrangement for guitar
and Carthy’s lyrics (leaving out, ironically, stanza four, proceeding immedi-
ately to reaping without ploughing and sowing, so to speak). This arrange-
ment is complicated, however, by the interlacing of a vocal countermelody,
referred to as ‘canticle’ in the song title (“Scarborough Fair/Canticle”) setting
in with the second stanza. There are clear allusions to classical music dis-
course, here – not only in the effective use of counterpoint, but also in terms
of instrumentation by adding floating (synthesised) harpsichord arpeggios to
the acoustic guitar. The lyrics of the ‘canticle’ part originate in a song called
“The Side of a Hill” which Simon recorded earlier on his Paul Simon Song-
book in England, but were substantially revised to fit “Scarborough Fair.”
While “The Side of a Hill” is a – frankly – rather pathetic song about a seven-
year-old boy killed by a soldier (presumably in Vietnam), 8 the canticle part in
“Scarborough Fair” has not only been adjusted to contrapuntal requirements
of metre and length, but also uses much more elaborate imagery clearly ori-
ented at romantic models, giving it a Lieder appeal. The words are not always

“On the side of a hill / In a land called somewhere / A little boy lays asleep in the earth / While
down in the valley a cruel war rages / And people forget what a child’s life is worth // On the
side of a hill a little cloud weeps / And waters the grave with its silent tears / While a soldier
cleans and polishes a gun / That ended a life at the age of seven years // And the war rages on in
a land called somewhere / And generals order their men to kill / And to fight for a cause
they’ve long ago forgotten / While a little cloud weeps on the side of a hill” (Simon 1965).
Generic Conventions and Cultural Capital 61

easy to make out beneath the dominant vocal layer of the folk song, but here
are the lyrics:

On the side of a hill in the deep forest green,

Tracing of sparrow on snowcrested brown.
Blankets and bed-clothes, the child of the mountain,
Sleeps unaware of the clarion call.

On the side of a hill there’s a sprinkling of leaves,

Washes the grave with silvery tears.
A soldier cleans and polishes a gun.

War bellows blazing in scarlet battalions,

Generals order their soldiers to kill,
And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten. (printed in Simon n.d., no 19)

Both folk and art music components are integrated in a register which is to be
counted, overall, among the variants of rock. Apart from the institutional
mechanisms of major label production and mass market distribution, the most
telling key, here, is the type and quality of the vocal performance. Particu-
larly Art Garfunkel’s disembodied and effeminate singing style is firmly em-
bedded in the rock conventions of the time. 9 The rather thin vocal tracks are
heavily processed, i.e. sexed up with an overdose of reverb and an extensive
use of overdubbing, 10 and thus key generic conventions which facilitate a
reading of the lyrics as the intimate expression of sentimental love, quite
similar to Marianne Faithfull’s version. Such a reading, however, is of course
contested by the lyrical content of the canticle part, which ranges somewhere
in-between conventions of art music and the protest song as a folk variant.
Consequently, the interpretation of the lyrics of “Scarborough Fair” in
Simon and Garfunkel’s performance very much depends on individual re-
cipients and their own generic preferences. While neither folk nor art music
purists will take to the song too well, someone with a less exclusive taste for
classical music will probably foreground keys such as the contrapuntal ar-
rangement and harpsichord instrumentation which invite a reading of “Scar-

“The high voice is heard as a young voice, and rock is a youth form,” Simon Frith holds, and
explains moreover that “one of the lasting effects of doo-wop was to break the male voice
up into its components such that a combination of all its sounds, from high to low, defined
masculinity” (Frith 1998, 195, emphasis in the original).
Art Garfunkel explained in an interview: “We probably did two-part harmony on the melody
and then doubled it. So that gives a kind of turbular, strong, commercial sound to the front.
Then on the ‘Canticle’ part, Paul takes some of those lines and I take the others that are
higher. And we double that melody. So there’s one voice unharmonized in the background
but that one voice is doubled” (Zollo 1997b, 48).
62 Reading Song Lyrics

borough Fair” in an art music frame. The concept of love in the ballad’s lyrics
is then likely to be read in the Petrarchan vein where love is, by definition,
unrequited, transcendent, and peppered with the knowledge of the transience
of human affairs. A listener more steeped in the ideologies of folk rock will
instead focus on very different keys, presumably, and recognise the align-
ment of folk tradition with collective social protest in the light of models
such as Guthrie or Baez. This would imply to more thoroughly try and nego-
tiate the semantic field of war in the canticle part with the ballad’s concept of
love, and to see how they shed light on each other. Love is thus affected by
notions of senseless battle, and in true protest song fashion, the failure of love
as expressed in the cryptic riddles in turn highlights the futility of war. Most
listeners, however, probably do not bother about any of that, and take the
song as a good piece of pop entertainment, enjoying and foregrounding the
intimate harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel’s close singing and the slightly
psychedelic touch owing to the vocal processing and ‘exotic’ instrumentation
in 6/8 time. These listeners will probably relegate the irritating parts of the
lyrics to the background, highlight the “and then she’ll be a true lover of
mine” bit, and appropriate the entire package into the generic conventions of
the torch song.
There are in fact several reasons to suggest that the last option – to read
Simon and Garfunkel’s take on “Scarborough Fair” as tending towards the
pop-angle in the triangular continuum between pop, folk and art – is the cul-
turally dominant one, and not only because of the musical keying and huge
mainstream success that the song enjoyed after its inclusion on The Original
Graduate Soundtrack (to which I will come back in more detail in chapter 5).
This also has to do with a faux pas at the crossroads of communicative, eco-
nomic and legal generic conventions Simon committed and which all but
meant his excommunication from the British folk scene for many years to
come. What’s the story? Either out of neglect, vanity, greed, or because he
thought his own contribution to “Scarborough Fair” as a composer significant
enough (in terms of the added countermelody), Simon credited the song as
his own composition both on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966),
and on the soundtrack album to The Graduate (1967), neither signalling his
debt to Martin Carthy’s arrangement, nor to the fact that “Scarborough Fair”
is a ‘traditional’, i.e. common folk property. English folk singer Ralph McTell
remarks that “there is a story that Simon copyrighted the arrangement the day
after Martin wrote it down for him. Whether it is true or not, what incenses
me is that Simon and Garfunkel took the credit for a traditional song featur-
ing Martin’s arrangement” (McTell, qtd. in Cooper 2004).
McTell, Bert Jansch and other folk greats have to this day been unfor-
giving of Simon’s ‘theft’, whereas Carthy himself made his peace with
Generic Conventions and Cultural Capital 63

Simon some 35 years later in 2000, when he followed Simon’s invitation to

perform “Scarborough Fair” together at the Hammersmith Apollo – yet this
only happened after Carthy took legal action and achieved a settlement in
1970 (see Cooper 2004), and after Simon publicly admitted his debt to
Carthy in an much later interview. 11 The damage, by then, had of course been
done, and for many fans, the cultural capital which Simon still entertained in
the 1960 – that of a folk, or later ‘authentic’ rock singer – was in shambles
(and also troubled his later success as an avatar of ‘world music’). 12
All this indicates two things, really: first, that the conventions of genre
and social distinction may be tacit, yet can be very powerful and unforgiving;
and second, that this has nevertheless rarely prevented songs from being
bended into all sorts of generic conventions and appropriated into all sorts of
musical and social contexts. This is particularly unfortunate for Martin
Carthy, as his arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” could have made him a
very rich man indeed had Paul Simon only acknowledged his debt; for after
Simon and Garfunkel made it a global hit, “Scarborough Fair” became most
probably the most widely covered folk song of all times and entered the rep-
ertoire of many if not most musical cultures. The ongoing popularity of the
song ranges from Europop and Schlager (e.g. Sandy Shaw, Nana Mouskouri
and many more) to soul/pop (e.g. Harry Belafonte) and jazz (Wes Montgom-
ery) to folk rock (e.g. Pentangle) and heavy metal (e.g. Queensrÿche) all the
way to pop goes classical (e.g. Sarah Brightman) or classical goes pop (e.g.
the Vienna Choir Boys, Lesley Garrett and may more). In all cases, the lyrics
are framed in typical generic conventions and ideologies, and it would ex-
plode this chapter to go into detail of how all these affect aspects of verbal
meaning. 13 I would instead like to close this chapter by briefly lingering with

The lines read: “Well, that was a beautiful song. I learned it from Martin Carthy. ‘Scarbor-
ough Fair’ is like three hundred years old. Martin Carthy had a beautiful arrangement of it,
and my arrangement is like my memory of his arrangement. He was a wonderful guitarist
and singer. Very popular and still playing” (Zollo 1998b, 108).
Simon Frith notes: “What is it about a record that makes us say, ‘I just don’t believe it!’ (my
reaction to Paul Simon’s Graceland, for example)? This is obviously related somehow to the
ways in which we judge people’s sincerity generally; it is a human as well as a musical judge-
ment. And it also reflects our extra-musical beliefs – what I already knew about Paul Simon
obviously had an effect on how I heard his music” (Frith 1998, 71). The ensuing controversy
over Paul Simon’s Graceland album in many ways underscored the notion of ‘insincerity’ in
his dealings with Carthy. What is at stake is a well-intended and benevolent, but at the end of
the day ego- and Eurocentric appropriation of South African music culture, indicated not least
by the fact that Simon retained the exclusive copyright for the final product of his collabora-
tion with South African artists (cf. Lipsitz 1997, 56-60 for an introduction).
Just take the liner notes of two albums featuring “Scarborough Fair” to see how readily
generic ideologies and clichés are confirmed. In Seattle metal band Queensrÿche’s liners, for
64 Reading Song Lyrics

one of the earliest cover version of Simon and Garfunkel’s take on “Scarbor-
ough Fair,” namely by Brazilian pianist and arranger Sérgio Mendes (1968),
as Mendes’s version serves to highlight an aspect of genre evolution which
has not been sufficiently acknowledged so far, which is the cultural hybridity
(Bhahba 1994) of musical formations.
Music has always been a product of what Mary Louise Pratt refers to as
the cultural “contact zone,” a term originally coined to denote “the space of
colonial encounters, the space in which people geographically and histori-
cally separated came into contact with each other and established ongoing
relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and
intractable conflict” (Pratt 1992, 6), yet one which has more recently gained
more encompassing currency as a “metaphor [which] includes all kinds of
cultural encounters from the colonial days to the ubiquitous exchanges in
today’s globalised world” (Eckstein 2006, 14). The Oriental cultural he-
gemony during the middle ages, for instance, not only affected Sub-Saharan
African folk music styles, but also European aristocratic and in turn folk mu-
sic to a considerable degree (see e.g. Rösing 1998b, Van der Merwe 1989,
11-14). All of these musical styles travelled back and forth across the Atlan-
tic and elsewhere since the multiple voluntary and forceful migrations of
aristocrats, merchants, labourers or slaves ever since the colonial expansions
of the Renaissance, where they continually came in contact with each other as
well as with new musical ideas. While almost all music is thus – ontologi-
cally, so to speak – hybrid, the ideological and institutional politics of genre
formations do not equally acknowledge or encourage syncretism and
transcultural dialogue. While the folk music world’s obsession with purity
and the art music world’s emphasis on individual genius, universality and
transcendence tend to negate processes of syncretistic ‘dilution’, this has less
been the case for commercial music.

instance, Paul Suter wallows in rock ideology when he writes that “none of their longtime
fans was crying ‘sellout,’ as is so often the case with rock bands finally achieving long-
overdue commercial success. Queensrÿche had evolved as a band but had not compromised,
and the success of Empire was a just reward for all their hard work” (Queensrÿche 1990; for
a brilliant resource on heavy metal discourse, see Walser 1993). In a very different genre,
star soprano Lesley Garrett readily confirms Christopher Small’s observation that classical
music discourse tends to “depersonalise the performers and to emphasize the universality
and timelessness of the proceedings” (Small 1987, 11) and affirms the authority of what
Edward T. Cone calls the “composer’s voice” when she claims: “I have no idea where music
comes from. When I sing, all I know is that I’m a vessel, a conduit, for something much,
much greater than any of us know. My faith in this great spirit is total and unquestioning.
When it leaves, then so will I” (Garrett 2002; paradoxically, of course, the booklet features a
total of 9 photos of the humble ‘vessel’ in changing settings and opulent costumes…).
Generic Conventions and Cultural Capital 65

One may briefly illustrate some of the problems in this context by taking
a look at jazz, which has historically travelled between folk, pop and art mu-
sic discourses. 14 While there was hardly ever an argument about the deeply
transcultural foundation of jazz owing to a negotiation of European, African
and later also Oriental and other musical elements and communicative modes
(see esp. Schuller 1986), the jazz world has been torn between two conflict-
ing ideological positions or camps since around the 1990: a first camp of
critics insists on the continuing transcultural openness of jazz to ever new
influences and mutations. For Cornel West, for instance, jazz bears a “critical
and democratic sensibility [that] flies in the face of any policing of borders
and boundaries of ‘blackness,’ ‘maleness,’ ‘femaleness,’ or ‘whiteness’”
(West 1993, 105). This attitude, however, has lost much institutional ground
to a powerful neo-conservative camp around trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and
his mentor Stanley Crouch, who basically reject any musical innovations
starting with the 1960’s free jazz movement, propagate ‘respectability’ (black
suit and tie are expected) and demand a sense of musical traditionalism
(acoustic, walking-bass and blues-oriented performance). Jazz is thus ele-
vated from ‘popular’ to ‘bourgeois’ realms, and implicitly reduced to a dis-
tinct national and primarily ethnic (African American) phenomenon in a
dominantly male tradition. 15
The politics and boundaries of the discursive formations called genres,
this again testifies, are always contested and fluid, and whether Sérgio Men-
des’s performance of “Scarborough Fair” falls under the genre of jazz may
consequently be answered very differently by different people. Whatever it
is, Mendes’s “Scarborough Fair” thoroughly transforms Simon and Gar-
funkel’s version by fusing generic models taken from Brazilian folk, North-

The secular 19th-century precursors of jazz such as the country blues, work songs and field
hollers largely inhabited the folk music world (drawing heavily on a call-and-response dy-
namic between performers and audiences derived from West African models), and early urban
jazz at the turn of the century similarly worked in communal contexts. The social and institutional
conditions of the so-called swing era of the 20s and 30s, then, were such that much of jazz was ap-
propriated into the commercial music world, with almost exclusively white band leaders and en-
trepreneurs at the forefront. The bebop and later free jazz movements consciously incorporated
conventions of the art music world by cultivating an aura of connoisseurship and musical gen-
ius to regain a sense of artistic agency, while at the same time deliberately returning to the
blues roots and complex African poly-rhythms of earlier folk modes (see esp. Jost 2003,
more generally Campbell 1996 or Tirro 1993).
The canon favoured by Crouch and Marsalis is perhaps best documented in Geoffrey C. Ward’s
Jazz: A History of America’s Music (based on a popular documentary film by Ken Burns),
featuring contributions by Crouch, Marsalis and Albert Murray and clearly representing their
ideas of “Great American Music” (Ward 2000). Broecking (1995) provides an excellent com-
pilation of responses to Marsalis’ influence on the jazz scene among musicians.
66 Reading Song Lyrics

American variants of jazz and Euro-American popular as well as art music.

Mendes transposes the tune from 6/8 into 4/4 time and creates a heavily syn-
copated rhythmic and antiphonal melodic structure for a percussion-based
bossa nova setup plus an entire string orchestra. What is interesting for our
context is that the bulk of the lyrics seemingly did not go along with this
scheme: Mendes gets rid of both the canticle part and all stanzas of “Scarbor-
ough Fair” except the first (“Are you going to Scarborough Fair / Parsley,
sage, rosemary and thyme / Remember me to the one who lives there / He
once was a true love of mine”) which is instead simply repeated four times
over. One could reasonably expect that the song loses much of its appeal on
these grounds, and that the verbal repetitiveness should be rather annoying;
this is, however, not necessarily so. Other than in the folk context of, for in-
stance, Martin Carthy’s performance where lyrical content and story play a
crucial role, the embodiment of language in Mendes’s “Scarborough Fair”
seems to rely less on verbal content than work with the musical quality of the
voices themselves – with the voice as a musical instrument. Generic frames
indeed also matter when it comes to the typical relationship between words
and music in songs; but the issue of verbal and musical meaning is a complex
one, and it takes a new chapter to address what is at stake.
4. Sound and Songfulness

Song lyrics, as I have argued in the previous two chapters, rely on the em-
bodiment of language in specific situations of performance, and their mean-
ing is affected by generic conventions which shape the lyrical register and
performance arena with regard to communicative, social, ideological, eco-
nomic and juridical conventions. What has not been addressed in any detail
so far is how the particular organisation of sound in songs (Fabbri’s first as-
pect of musical genre) comes into play in all this. The most distinctive
marker that distinguishes song lyrics from written poetry, after all, is that
they are sung and that the verbal meaning of the words is set in relation to the
musical meaning of their vocal embodiment and, if applicable, musical ac-
companiment. The words of songs, that is to say, are always doubly encoded,
as both verbal and musical referents. Within this double coding, moreover,
the balance between musical and verbal relevance may shift according to
generic conventions, as the comparison of Martin Carthy and Sérgio Men-
des’s versions of “Scarborough Fair” indicates. While the first seems to rely
heavily on verbal referents in the construction of meaning – the ‘story’ of the
riddle song is of paramount importance to Carthy, and the music is rather to
supplement it – Mendes relies much more heavily on musical meaning,
which largely ‘swallows’ the importance of verbal content. There is some-
thing, then, that music can ‘do’ to words to alter their performative value,
something that I will approach by turning to Lawrence Kramer’s notion of
‘songfulness’ later in this chapter. Yet a discussion of how ‘musical meaning’
affects verbal meaning first requires a sorting out of what we possibly mean
when we talk about what music ‘means’. While there is wide-spread agree-
ment about the fact that words carry meaning, the case is much less straight
forward for music. What exactly is the meaning of music, and how, or in how
far, does music mean anything in particular?
When Aristotle claims in his Politics that “[i]t is not easy to determine the
nature of music, or why any one should have a knowledge of it” (Aristotle
1990, vii, 7), he hits the nail pretty much on the head. For centuries, philoso-
phers have tried to come to terms with what it exactly is that music can tell
us, and possible answers have varied widely between all sorts of philosophi-
cal camps. In fact, rather than putting forth what music actually is or does, it
is easier to start out with what music most likely is or does not, by reviewing
some of the traditional positions of music philosophy. I will do so by briefly
addressing a number of commonplace positions which I will call, somewhat
68 Reading Song Lyrics

daringly, ‘myths’ of musical meaning – the mimesis myth, the idealist myth,
and the formalist myth. 1

Myths of Musical Meaning

The ‘mimesis myth’ proclaims that music is capable of more or less objec-
tively imitating the real world or, alternatively, its ‘ideal’ essence, and ac-
cordingly evoke a set of emotional states with which human beings respond
to real world experiences. The earliest Western philosophical endeavours in
this vein date back to Pythagoras, whose theories start from empirical evi-
dence – the most famous being the discovery of the relationship between
pitch and the length of vibrating bodies – but extend into highly speculative
and metaphysical realms. Pythagoras put forth that planets and stars emit
different pitches which result in a vast music of the spheres producing a cos-
mic harmony grounded in particular numerical, rational relations. Since such
numerical relations provide the hidden essence of perceived reality, profane
musicking that similarly employs measured modulations and corresponding
harmonic patters may therefore “affect changes in human character, so that
moral and spiritual life [are] intimately wed to musical phenomena” (Bow-
man 1998, 25).
The Pythagorean school substantially influenced Plato’s ideas, in which
music – conceived in a much more encompassing sense than we think of it
today, uniting poetry and song – partakes in the imitation of universal and
essential ideals. Platonic attitudes to music tend to have a slightly schizo-
phrenic edge, as music, on the one hand, is lauded as a gift that allows us
fleeting insights into the perfection of ideal harmony (“poets are a divine race
and often in their strains, by the aid of the Muses and the Graces, they attain
truth” qtd. in Bowman 1998, 29), but more often, on the other hand, alienates
us from the ideal by appealing to pleasure and cheap appetites in mindless
imitations. Music is therefore only partly desirable in Plato’s ideal state, as
“even in mere melodies there is an imitation of character” (ibid., 55), and not
all kinds of music are welcome. Among the Greek harmonai, the Dorian
mode, for instance, was considered ethically sound by Plato, as it expresses
“stern resolve,” and was, together with the ‘temperate’ Phrygian, to be toler-
ated. Melodies in Ionian and Lydian, which expose, for Plato, softness and

My reference to ‘myth’ draws on Roland Barthes’s notion of ‘mythical speech’, which he
conceives of as an ideological endeavour to ‘naturalise’ meaning: “Myth consists in over-
turning culture into nature or, at least, the social, the cultural, the ideological, the historical
into the ‘natural’” (Barthes 1977, 165).
Sound and Songfulness 69

indolence, as well as the Mixolydian mode, expressing lamentation and sor-

row were in turn to be banned. Plato similarly posits set relations of other
features of sound organisation (such as timbre, rhythm, or instrumental quail-
ties – the shrillness of reeds and flutes, for instance, or the confusing
polyphony of panharmonic instruments were undesirable) with predictable
social and moral effects on the listeners.
The assumption that music, through a certain mimetic capability, pro-
duces specific, rationally predictable effects has been taken up by modern
philosophers and still reverberates in contemporary commonplaces about
music. There is, however, what may be called a watershed between medieval
and (early) modern conceptions of music: whereas the latter tended to con-
ceive of music as part of the artes mathematicae (by emphasising the impor-
tance of numerical relations in a larger cosmology), modern scholars began to
allocate music to the artes dicendi, implicating a shift of interest to the pur-
poseful generation of specific effects in specific listeners (Bray 1995a and
1995b). Athanasius Kirchner, for instance, assumed in his Musurgia univer-
salis (1650) that

[t]here are eight main affects which music may express: First, love; second, mourning and
lament; third, happiness and exultation; fourth, fury and indignation; fifth, mercy and sorrow;
sixth, fear and affliction; seventh, resolve and courage; eighth, astonishment; all remaining
emotional dispositions can easily be traced back to them. (Kirchner 1650, 598, my tr.)

Kirchner’s theory of ‘affections’ thus basically transforms Plato’s largely

socio- and cosmological argument into a psycho-physiological one: he holds
that the numerical relations of sound within musical compositions (involving
intervals, chords, keys, time, rhythm, tempo, pitch and dynamics) are sym-
pathetically or antipathetically related to the listeners’ temperaments, whose
sensory perception of the measured sounds affects the physical movement of
nerves and organs resulting in tears, laughter or pain; affects producing sadness
and tears, for instance, can be measured in minor keys, small, descending
tonal movements (or else by dissonant augmented or diminished intervals),
combined with slow tempi and a restrained dynamics (cf. Ruf 2002, 508).
The overall argument, which is duly exemplified in analyses of contemporary
compositions (by Palestrina and others), is that the meaning and emotional
effect of music is a singular, rationally predictable, and universally valid affair.
To call the mimetic powers of music a myth on these grounds is not to
doubt that music has the power to call forth emotions and associate specific
ideas such as ‘sadness’ etc. What is highly questionable, rather, is of course
the claim to a rational, direct relation between musical quality and social,
psychological or conceptual effect. Shakespeare’s Jessica, after all, famously
held that “I am never merry when I hear sweet music” (in The Merchant of
70 Reading Song Lyrics

Venice; V.i.69) – but even beyond questions of individual disposition, what

mimetic theories of music essentially gloss over is that musical effects will
vary considerably in shifting contexts with varying performing conventions
and receptive attributions forged by specific interpretive communities.
The fundamental criticism that the value and evaluation of music is nei-
ther an (exclusively) intrinsic, nor a purely mental affair, but relies heavily on
contextual attribution is also the main criticism levelled against what I refer
to as the ‘idealist myth’, and has been, for instance, formulated by Pierre
Bourdieu against the Kantian legacy of interpreting the arts, as already
indicated in the last chapter. Kantian music philosophy draws on Immanuel
Kant’s more general views on aesthetic judgement, which commonly assume
that judgements of beauty are ideally unaffected by either social constraints
or bodily appetites, and thus exclusively based on “delight and aversion apart
from any interest” (Kant 1952, § 5, 50). Second, such judgements are, other
than rational or ethical judgements, not based on mental concepts, but con-
ceptless; in a blend of empiricist and rationalist arguments, aesthetic beauty is
perceived to be located in the object itself, yet nevertheless in need of being
processed by human understanding in disinterested fashion to be properly
acknowledged. Third, this effects the universality of aesthetic judgements,
which – as our minds work identically and the process of perception is ideally
‘free’ and disinterested – are eternally valid irrespective of cultural variation
and change. Music only acquires significance, it can be concluded on these
grounds, when ‘natural’ beauty is autonomously mapped onto our cognitive
faculties and is set into free play with universal imaginative and conceptual
The particular consequences of the Kantian legacy for the interpretation
of music have been far-reaching in received Western cultural practices, and
implicitly affected Western school syllabuses at least far into the second half
of the 20th century (see e.g. Cook 2000). This concerns less Kant’s rating of
music below poetry, which he sees more apt to “invigorat[e] the mind by
letting it feel its faculty – free, spontaneous, and independent of determina-
tion by nature” (ibid., § 53, 191-2); music, for Kant, is too transient and
fleeting to achieve lasting food for reflection. 2 What has been more influen-
tial is the promotion of listening for ‘pleasure’ – which results from attentive,
disinterested contemplation – rather than going for the interested counterpart

One should add that in Hegel’s system of thought, music plays a more important and valu-
able role in his notion of a telelogical, dialectical progressing of humanity. Music, for Hegel,
gives us direct access to the inward world of feeling, which he does not see as opposed to
the world of ideas, but as a firm part of it; music thus forms an essential step in matters of
the spiritual elevation of the human mind (see Bowman 1998, esp. 94-112).
Sound and Songfulness 71

of ‘gratification’ – read individual (and thus subjective) sensuous experience.

The problem with Kant’s transcendental idealism and its legacy in musicol-
ogy is obvious; as Bowman puts it: “A music emancipated from history, from
science, from morality, and from sensation is ultimately a music emancipated
from meaning itself” (Bowman 1998, 87). The price to be paid for aesthetic
autonomy and universal viability tends to be, quite literally, insignificance.
Nevertheless, a highly influential school of ‘formalist’ music philosophers
has started from and radicalised Kant’s disinterested principles. The essential
proposition of what I choose to call the ‘formalist myth’ is that music bears
no reference whatsoever to anything beyond itself, and that musical meaning
is found exclusively in the intrinsic formal principles of sound organisation.
While idealist positions still emphasise music’s importance for the extra-mu-
sical realm – at least with regard to the world of ideas – and thus give it an
epistemological relevance, formalist positions take from idealism the idea of
autonomy and universality, but deny all extra-musical effect. One of the
founding documents of this trend is Eduard Hanslick’s polemical piece On
the Musically Beautiful dating to 1854, which is explicitly levelled against
so-called “feeling theories” promoted by “music enthusiasts.” As Hanslick
argues, their enjoying music as a “fuzzy state of supersensuously sensuous
agitation” is utterly banal, as “for all they would know, a fine cigar or the
piquant delicacy of a warm bath produces the same effect as a symphony”
(Hanslick 1986, 59). Feeling has no relation to musical quality itself, but is
arbitrarily attached to it; Hanslick therefore concludes that “the representation
of a specific feeling or emotional state is not at all among the characteristic
powers of music” (ibid., 9).
While he may have a point here, his debateable solution to the problem is
that feeling is to be discarded altogether in favour of a disinterested and
purely ‘objective’ analysis of music’s “tonally moving forms” (ibid., 29). As
music has no content but itself and any metaphysical endeavours to bridge
the form–content divide are inevitably misleading, the true meaning of music
must exclusively be sought out in music’s formal proportion and progression.
Enjoying music, as I was still taught in school, is to painstakingly attend to
unfolding tonal patterns and to take intellectual pleasure from anticipating a
composer’s intricate tonal design. 3 When Hanslick claims that “contempla-

Formalist approaches to music have since lost much of Hanslick’s polemical edge and taken
a more nuanced approach; nevertheless, the works of Edmund Gurney, Leonard Meyer,
Stephen Davies or Peter Kivy have neither departed from Hanslick’s core assumptions nor
satisfyingly countered the problem of musical ‘insignificance’. As Nicholas Cook memora-
bly notes: “Pure music, it seems, is an aesthetician’s (and music theorist’s) fiction; the real
thing unites itself promiscuously with any other media that are available” (Cook 1998, 92).
72 Reading Song Lyrics

tive hearing is the only artistic, true form,” this of course implies that first,
the appreciation of music inevitably demands a thorough expertise of its
structural and compositional principles, and second, that music of any value
and challenge is more or less found in the emerging canon of the art music
world only. Obviously, there is a heavy ideological edge in the presumed
‘objectivism’ of formalist approaches to music; but it would be too easy to
simply shrug them off as tools of bourgeois distinction, as the philosophical
problem they depart from continues to be troubling: if we do not wish to ex-
clusively resort to music as autonomous form, how can we come to terms
with the apparent arbitrariness and fuzziness of its possible effects?

A Trialectical Approach to Musical Meaning

Let us try and take stock of what can indeed be asserted about musical
meaning. The most enlightening source to begin with, in my view, is Jean-
Jacques Nattiez’s Music and Discourse (1990), which is aware of earlier pre-
cursors in Western music philosophy and revisits them from a post-structuralist
angle. Subtitled Toward a Semiology of Music, it implicitly challenges the
formalist tendencies in, for instance, Theodor W. Adorno’s writings which
insist that “what is said [by music] cannot be abstracted from the music; it
does not form a system of signs” (Adorno 2002, 85). As musical organisa-
tions of sound are, after all, perceived as ‘meaningful’ by most listeners dis-
regarding of formal training and social background, Nattiez affords music
semiotic status, albeit in a strictly Peircean sense. Defining the musical sign
by taking recourse to Charles S. Peirce’s tripartite system comprising the sig-
nifier, the signified, and the interpretant implies that it relates to a (virtual)
object by always drawing other elements – interpretants – into the relation-
ship, which similarly acquire the status of signs and in turn draw further ele-
ments into the equation. There is, consequently, no such thing as a stable,
unchangeable relationship between signs and objects (as conceived in struc-
turalist approaches), neither for musical nor for verbal signs. But particularly
in view of the more blatant fuzziness and polyvalence of music, Peirce’s
system, which allows that “the process of referring effected by the sign is
infinite” (Nattiez 1990, 7, emphasis in the original), provides a conceptual
groundwork which renders the claims of musical ‘mimesis’ obsolete: there is
certainly no such thing as an ‘objective’ referent of music, but only poten-
tially infinite “webs” of interpretants which are, moreover, always “frag-
ment[s] of actual experience” (ibid., 9). The latter observation is particularly
relevant regarding idealist or formalist approaches to music, as it insists that
the generation and perception of musical meaning is everything but a univer-
Sound and Songfulness 73

sal affair, but firmly embedded in human practices at specific times and spe-
cific places: “The meaning of an object of any kind is the constellation of
interpretants drawn from the lived experience of the sign’s user – the ‘pro-
ducer’ or ‘receiver’ – in a given situation” (ibid., 10).
Music thus works on very similar premises as language does, the only dif-
ference being that musical discourse is marked by a greater degree of arbi-
trariness; the webs of interpretants drawn by musical signs tend to be far
more unstable than the webs drawn by verbal signs. It is on these grounds
that music is much less of a communicational art than verbal art can be. Nat-
tiez addresses this issue by taking recourse to Jean Molino’s ‘tripartition’ of
semiotic processes involving the “poietic” (or “encoding,” in Stuart Hall’s
terms, see Hall 1993) processes of musical production, the “immanent” or
“neutral” level of the organisation of sound itself which bears the traces of
the encoding process, and the “esthetic” (or “decoding”) process involved in
musical perception. Both encoding and decoding are seen as largely autono-
mous procedures, and are performed on the grounds of the individuals’ “lived
experience” and the discursive universe surrounding them. As such universes
are rarely congruent for producers and receivers; since situational contexts
and individual dispositions of reception are open to infinite variation; and
owing to the general instability and rather arbitrary nature of clusters of in-
terpretants, successful communication is the exception rather than the norm
in musical discourse: “In fact, a perfect balance between the poietic and the
esthetic, in which poietic and esthetic strategies closely correspond, seems to
be the rarest bird in the history of music” (Nattiez 1990, 99). This is not to
endorse notions of the purely random and relative, however, or to resort to
exclusively social models of explication: interpretive processes remain bound
to the ‘neutral’ materiality and “traces” of the sound itself, even though such
traces are by no means prescriptive or directive, but have at best a suggestive
quality. Musical signs, for Nattiez, “manifest a level of specific organization,
that must be described. But this level is not sufficient: the poietic lurks under
the surface of the immanent; the immanent is the springboard for the es-
thetic” (ibid., 29).
There is clearly no room in this model for any such thing as musical uni-
versals in the Kantian sense; musical meaning is an historically and culturally
relative affair. More fundamentally, even within cultural frames, there is
hardly a singular, dominant conception of what differentiates music from
mere sound, as quite simply, “music is whatever people choose to recognize
as such” (ibid., 49, emphasis in the original). If there is any such thing as
universals in music – after all, the music of other cultures is by no means
unintelligible to us in ways that language often is, but may ‘speak’ to us in
multiple ways – they are not to be found in “immanent structures, but in the
74 Reading Song Lyrics

behaviors associated with sound phenomena, particularly in poietic strate-

gies” (ibid., 65, emphasis in the original). While there seems to be something
like an anthropologically given, common faculty or drive to create meaning
from sound, this meaning nevertheless remains rather elusive.
Oddly enough, Nattiez himself seems somewhat uncomfortable with the
‘postmodernist’ results of his lucid and demystifying assessment, and un-
willing to accept its radical consequences. His response is that “excessive
culturalism should not prevent us from recognizing, from accepting, the ex-
istence of facts and truths” (ibid., 196, emphasis in the original), and he con-
sequently claims that behind all relativisms, there lurks something he is fond
of calling the “total musical fact.” This ‘fact’, of course, can never be fully
grasped, but it may nevertheless be circumvented by adopting and collecting
a multiplicity of perspectives and descriptions. The heuristic value of this
assumption, to my mind, is rather limited, though, and diverts from the ana-
lytical grounds on which the elusiveness and polyvalence of music may be
partly contained. In particularly, it diverts from the commonsensical notion

musical meaning is continuous with meaning in general – an idea that is only surprising be-
cause we are so used to thinking the opposite without enough surprise. We make sense of
music as we make sense of life. And since we make sense of life only amid a dense network
of social, cultural and historical forces, musical meaning inevitably bears the traces, and
sometimes the blazons, of those forces. (Kramer 2002, 163)

Departing from this statement by Lawrence Kramer, I suggest that what we

make of musical sound and experience indeed evolves from the interplay of
different yet interdependent aspects of perception: first, the cognitive expo-
sure to given formal properties of sound organisation (favoured by idealists
and formalists); second, the embeddedness of musical sound in contextual
and generic conventions which frame musical performances, involving, among
other things, economic and institutional constraints (something Nattiez is
hardly concerned with); and third, the physical and kinaesthetic dimensions
of responding to music. Each aspect – cognitive, social, physical – informs
the other. While certain generic conventions may put particular emphasis on
any one of these aspects (often with vested interests – certainly, the art music
world propagates a predominantly cognitive experience, the folk world
emphasises social interaction, and musical styles associated with pop often
relish in physical hedonism), all three aspects of music evaluation invariably
come into play. At the risk of stating the obvious: what music eventually
Sound and Songfulness 75

‘means’ to us is always a product of the trialectical dynamic interaction of the

interdependent spheres of mind, society, and body. 4
Understanding sound to some degree always involves attending to what
Nattiez refers to as musical immanence – be it with the professional vocabu-
lary of the expert musicologist or the intuitive descriptive vocabulary of
Hanslick’s detested ‘philistine’. The cognitive sphere is crucial in the pro-
posed triad as without cognition, bodily experience cannot be reflected upon,
nor can it be verbally communicated and shared with others. Inversely ar-
gued, however, cognition is never disinterested, i.e. exclusively affected by
manifest musical forms, but invariably constricted by the sounds’ relation to
social ritual and convention, as well as by their sensuous, bodily processing. I
have dealt rather extensively with the social and performative aspects framing
musical meaning in the previous two chapters: clearly, just like the poly-
valence of verbal meaning, the musical meaning of songs is equally contain-
ed by certain generic conventions of performance and their respective com-
municative economies. Such conventions charge particular patterns of musi-
cal immanence with culturally specific meanings which can be shared with or
withheld from others in processes of distinction, and they are firmly embed-
ded in specific institutional, juridical and economical frameworks of produc-
tion and consumption.
In Feminine Endings, Susan McClary, for instance, demonstrates how
elements of musical immanence are perceived as ‘gendered’ in both art and
pop music discourses – as, say, in the notion of ‘male’ and ‘female’ cadences.
However, they are gendered, McClary carefully makes clear, not because of
their musical ‘character’, but by social convention and coding. “These codes
change over time,” she explains:

the ‘meaning’ of femininity was not the same in the eighteenth century as in the late nine-
teenth, and musical characterizations differ accordingly. To be sure, some aspects of the
codes are strikingly resilient and have been transmitted in ways that are quite recognizable
up to the present […]. But if some aspects of the codes prove stable, it is not because music
is a ‘universal language’, but rather because certain social attitudes concerning gender have
remained relatively constant through that stretch of history. (McClary 1991, 8).

Neurological and psychological research confirm this view; as Herbert Bruhn notes: “Sum-
ming up, it may be concluded that it is inadequate to contemplate music as a singular object
of perception in psycho-physiological processing. The effect, which only seemingly origi-
nates in the music alone, is in fact generated by an interplay with other areas of perception;
with the previous personal experiences of a human being, with the perception of the situ-
ational context, and with lasting or ephemeral emotional conditions. Scientific research still
does not sufficiently attend to this fact” (Bruhn 1998, 182, my tr.).
76 Reading Song Lyrics

McClary’s point also serves as a transition to the third element in the triad:
the body. Attributing notions of gender, sexuality and desire to music, of
course, not only relates to questions of social construction, but also to the
body as the core sensorial medium of experiencing musical sound. For a very
long time, the notion of music as ‘embodied’ experience had little room in
Western music philosophy which tended to propagate music as something
‘absolute’ and ‘transcendent’, and only began to resurface in phenomenologi-
cal theories in the wake of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
One of the most intriguing phenomenological approaches to (art) music
has been proposed by Thomas Clifton in Music as Heard (1983). Music, for
Clifton, is “the actualisation of the possibility of any sound whatever to pre-
sent to some human being meaning which he experiences with his body –
that is to say, with his mind, his feelings, his senses, his will, and his me-
tabolism” (Clifton 1983, 1). Clifton thus outright defies the Cartesian mind-
body dualism characterising much discourse on art music. Music may exist
outside of human perception, yet it becomes meaningful only if a human be-
ing attends to it with his or her whole body; it requires the complicity and
presence of a person who interacts with the musical source in reciprocal dia-
logue. Moreover, Clifton proposes that much of the descriptive vocabulary of
traditional musicology – such as pitch, interval, harmony, dissonance or to-
nality – are not foundational to what we hear and perceive. While they may
serve as tools of formalist reconstruction, what we actually perceive or hear
more fundamentally unfolds on the grounds of interdependent musical strata
which he labels ‘time’, ‘space’, ‘play’ and ‘feeling’.
The actual human experience of musical time, Clifton argues following
Husserl, has little to do with the organised and ordered “transitive succession
of discreet nows” (ibid., 56) indicated by musical notation, but presents us
with a much more complex phenomenon. The passage of time is hardly ex-
perienced as unidirectional or constant: on the contrary, acoustic presence
may be obliterated by the affective impact and mnemonic associations of past
notes, or their future anticipation; accordingly, musical sound as lived experi-
ence may impede the passing of time, as when sounds agitate or displease, or
it may speed up its passing when “we and it move in the same direction de-
liberately, desiringly, and possessingly” (ibid., 54). Time, moreover, always
interacts with musical space or “texture” as Clifton conceives it. Necessarily
‘situated’ in spatial contexts as all lived experience, musical space is never-
theless different from ‘objective’ as well as purely ‘acoustic’ space, but
emerges as the product of a synesthetic physical exposure in which visual,
tactile and auditory functions synergetically interact. Notions of ‘thinness’ or
‘thickness’ of musical lines, of ‘colour’ or ‘extension’, are thus not mere
metaphors, but “bodily enaction[s] of meaning” (Lochhead 1995, 36).
Sound and Songfulness 77

With the notion of ‘play’, Clifton partly refers to what he calls the alea-
toric and heuristic dimensions of listening; music as experience, for him, is
based on anticipation and surprise in a dialectics of stability and disintegra-
tion. Yet more importantly in our context, play also refers to the inevitable
‘ritual’ framing of music in designed contexts and social settings which guar-
antee the seriousness of the bodily enactment of sound. In such ritualistic
enactment, space and time are infused with ‘feeling’. This last stratum refers
to the degree of mutual possession of music and embodied self: “[music] has
value because I possess it, and it possesses me” (Clifton 1983, 273). Experi-
encing sound as music thus requires active and deliberate immersion, or, in
Clifton’s terms, “bodily complicity” (ibid., 279) – otherwise music slips back
into noise. For Clifton, music is not ‘about’ feeling or ‘denoting’ feeling, but
in a more encompassing phenomenological sense, it is feeling itself.
This (re)inauguration of the body as a formative category in experiencing
music is crucial; yet it also bears the danger of both new essentialisms –
Clifton thinks of his four strata time, space, play and feeling as essential and
universal – as well as of relativisms. It is important, therefore, to align no-
tions of bodily subjectivity with cognitive and social processes in a more
fundamental way than Clifton does. As Lawrence Ferrara notes, approaches
such as Clifton’s do not appear “to follow a basic shift in phenomenology
from subjectivism into ‘intersubjectivism’ in which man exists within an
onto-historical situation marked by interaction” (Ferrara 1991, 153). Pierre
Bourdieu’s insistence on the social foundation of bodily habits and dispositions
is vital here, which he captures with the notion of ‘hexis’. “Bodily hexis,”
Bourdieu explains, “is political mythology realised, em-bodied, turned into a
permanent disposition, a durable manner of standing, speaking and thereby of
feeling and thinking” (Bourdieu 1977, 93, emphases in the original). Even
though she does explicitly refer to Bourdieu, the idea of a socially framed
bodily disposition or hexis is basically also what Susan McClary drives at
when she writes on the importance of the body in musical communication:

music is foremost among the “technologies of the body,” that is, a site where we learn how
to experience socially mediated patterns of kinetic energy, being in time, emotions, desire,
pleasure, and much more. […] These patterns inevitably arrive already marked with histo-
ries – histories involving class, gender, ethnicity; music thus provides a terrain where com-
peting notions of the body (and the self, ideals of social interaction, feelings and so on) vie
for attention and influence. (McClary 1994, 32-33)

Bodily behaviour and dispositions are a core aspect of competing musical

genres and thus interact with all other social aspects (communicative, eco-
nomic, institutional, juridical) discussed in the previous chapter; and of
course, bodily ‘feeling’ is never entirely random, but remains linked to sound
78 Reading Song Lyrics

that is open to rational description and intersubjective sharing with a commu-

nity of other listeners.
Let us return to the core questions asked at the beginning of this chapter
then and see whether we can make better sense of them in the light of what
has been said: what exactly is the meaning of music, and how, or in how far,
does music mean anything in particular? Following Christopher Small, it
turns out that these may have been the wrong questions in the first place; for
Small at least, “[t]here is no such thing as music. Music is not a thing at all
but an activity, something that people do. […] If there is no such thing as
music, then to ask ‘What is the meaning of music?’ is to ask a question that
has no possible answer” (Small 1998, 2-3). I do not think that we need to go
as far as to provocatively renounce ‘music’ as such; but Small’s point is well
made – musical meaning is hardly an inherent proponent of abstract musical
‘works’ of art, but a product of multiple cultural practices. It evolves every
time anew in the trialectical dynamics between cognitive contemplation, pro-
cesses of social interaction and distinction, and corresponding conventions of
kinaesthetic involvement and bodily complicity. Rather than a product of
‘pure’ sound, musical meaning is a paradigmatically ‘impure’ product of
what Small coins as “musicking” – of mentally, socially and bodily partaking
in a performance, be it live or recorded.
This understanding of what music means (or rather means to us), is fun-
damental not only with regard to musical sound itself, but also when it comes
to the question of how sound and verbal meaning interact in songs. “The
ways in which song words are subject to the pressure of their music are subtle
and fascinating,” Mark W. Booth writes: “They are reinforced, accented,
blurred, belied, inspired to new meaning, in a continual interplay” (Booth
1991, 7-8). Such possible ‘sound effects’ on verbal meaning are too varied to
allow for detailed coverage in the framework of this chapter (yet will be cov-
ered, to some extent, in the specific case studies in part two). Let me empha-
sise again, however, that word-music relations cannot be sufficiently
accounted for by merely investigating formal relations. 5 Rather, we need to
conceive of two complex (trialectic) meaning-creating systems – one verbal,
one musical – that are short-circuited in a feedback loop in such a way that
they continually and dynamically inflect each other. Both systems, moreover,
are instable in themselves, even if verbal meaning is more conventionalised
and depends to a lesser degree on pragmatic fixture. Whether meaning is then

The assumption that meaning is a product of musicking rather than exclusively inherent in
the music itself will have to serve as a justification for the fact that I will largely bypass
‘formalist’ literature dedicated to the relationship between words and (art) music, including
formative texts by Cone (1957), Scher (1984 and 1992), Bernhart (1988), or Berley (2000).
Sound and Songfulness 79

stabilised (“reinforced,” “accented”), further destabilised (“blurred,” “be-

lied”), or whether an unexpected synthesis produces newness (“inspired”) in
the enriching encounter of words and music in song really depends on in
which way not only the formal, but particularly also the social and bodily
conventions of lyrics and music correlate in a specific performance arena in
the very act of musicking. The results of word-music interaction in this sense
are hardly predicable and shift with shifting social and bodily dispositions
from arena to arena. But let us nevertheless try to exemplarily approximate
one specific sound effect in word-music relations – an effect that Lawrence
Kramer calls “songfulness” – which may help to ultimately also make better
sense of the lyrical discrepancies between Martin Carthy and Sérgio Mendes’s
versions of “Scarborough Fair.”

Scarborough Fair (III): Songful Transformations

Kramer introduces the category of “songfulness” in order to come to terms

with the fact that we are often surprisingly unaware of the actual verbal
meaning of lyrics – meaning that would be quite obvious to us if presented as
a poem on a piece of paper – in the performance and reception of particular
songs. 6 Kramer’s own perfect example is that of Schubert’s setting of
Goethe’s “Heideröslein” – a poem that is commonly read as a thinly veiled
and rather cynical extended metaphor for the act of deflowering and the van-
ity of resisting masculine domination (read penetration). 7 Through the par-
ticular kind of vocal embodiment engendered by Schubert’s setting, this less
than charming content is, according to Kramer, curiously suspended in an
alternative denotative realm of diffuse comfort and fantasy, in a process that
has to do with particular generic conventions of musical communication (in
this case of the Volkslied), and a corresponding “bodily complicity,” as
Clifton would put it, between singer and listener. Kramer’s description of the
vocal effect merits quoting at some length:

Some empirical evidence of this phenomenon has been provided by two studies of teenage
and college students’ responses to popular protest songs in the 1970 US – the majority of
students interviewed had no idea what the lyrics of such songs as “Eve of Destruction” were
actually about (see Denisoff and Levin 1972; Robinson and Hirsch 1972). Rather than turn-
ing exclusively to sociological explanations involving problems of production and con-
sumption to account for this phenomenon (see e.g. Frith 1978), I believe that the ‘songful’
organisation of sound in many protest songs plays a considerable role.
The third and final stanza reads (in my tr.): “And the wild lad picked / the little rose on the
heath / little rose fought back and pricked / but her ‘woe’ and ‘ah’ did her no good / she just
had to let it happen / little rose, little rose, little rose red / little rose on the heath.”
80 Reading Song Lyrics

As the medium of meaningful utterance, voice brings the music into a space of potential or
virtual meaning even when actual meaning is left hanging; as the medium of social relation-
ship, voice involves the listener in a potential or virtual intersubjectivity that in some cir-
cumstances may be realized in the course of song; and as a corporeal medium, voice
addresses itself in its sensuous and vibratory fullness to the body of the listener, thereby of-
fering both material pleasure and an incitement to fantasy. These effects all depend on the
ability of the singing voice to envelope or suffuse both melody and text so that their inde-
pendent existence is obscured. One way of defining songfulness is as the condensation of
this distinctness into a quality, the conversation of the absence of textual and melodic dis-
tinctness into a positive presence. (Kramer 2002, 54). 8

While there are many scenarios in which verbal content becomes unintelligi-
ble on purely acoustic grounds – through drowning in musical sound, for
instance, through vocal polyphony, through excessive vocal embellishment
which violates intonation and speech rhythm, through high frequencies
(above 312 Hz), or through electrical distortion in variants of rock – the loss
of verbal meaning in songfulness cannot be explained acoustically. Verbal
meaning is suspended, here, despite the fact that words remain perfectly
audible and intelligible; instead, they are suffused with another, larger semantic
realm opened up through what Ola Stockfelt calls “genre-normative modes of
listening” (Stockfelt 2004, 383) and their mnemonic inscriptions on the body.
Songfulness is probably not the only mode in which the exclusion of ver-
bal content in favour of other semantic fields may occur – Kramer describes
at least one other mode which he calls ‘overvocalisation’, denoting “the pur-
poseful effacement of text by voice [through] emotional and metaphysical
extremes” (Kramer 1986, 132). 9 Yet while “overvocalization is extraordi-
nary, or at least a convention for signifying the extraordinary,” songfulness in
contrast presents the unmarked case: “it is, in fact, the ideal ordinariness of
song” (Kramer 2002, 64). The conspicuous feeling that making sense of
Martin Carthy’s version of “Scarborough Fair” very much depends on the
verbal meaning of the lyrics, whereas Sérgio Mendes’s “Scarborough Fair”
rather makes sense despite its words, must have something to do then with
the fact that the first consciously thwarts songfulness (in the specific histori-

Kramer reads the songfulness of Schubert’s “Heideröslein” as playfully and deliberately
troubled by the comparatively demanding high G lingering over the final “Röslein rot,” which
undercuts the tune’s folk tone and renders its songfulness “self-conscious” (Kramer 2002, 61).
In his earlier Music and Poetry (1986), Kramer distinguishes the following modes of “eras-
ing” verbal meaning as summarised by Nicholas Cook: “expressive revision (when the mu-
sic subverts the poetry through its incongruity); imitation (when music corresponds only
superficially to the poem, so creating an arena of semantic indeterminacy), and structural
dissonance (when music denies ‘its expressive support in a crucial way or at a crucial mo-
ment’)” (Cook 1998, 124).
Sound and Songfulness 81

cal and cultural context of its performance), whereas the latter deliberately
seeks it within particular generic conventions.
Let us first reconsider the vocal performance of Carthy: Carthy sings with
a full-bodied, expressive, yet conversational voice shifting between rough-
ness and tenderness while carefully avoiding sterile perfection. In Roland
Barthes’ terms, the voice would indeed be rather on the “grainy” side and
work on a genotextual rather than phenotextual level, i.e. affect on the grounds
of an immediate, pre-cognitive bodily complicity between singer and listener
(cf. Barthes 1977). 10 The ‘personality’ of that voice and intersubjective en-
counter, however, does not drive at individual, but at collective intimacy.
This is partly effected by Carthy’s use of the microphone: if, as Simon Frith
holds, “[o]ne effect of microphone use is to draw attention to the technique of
singers as singers […] as volume control takes on conversational nuances
and vice versa” (Frith 1998, 188, emphasis in the original), Carthy
deliberately shuns the possibilities of the microphone as an instrument to cre-
ate pseudo-erotic intimacy. Rather, except for the addition of some reverb,
the processing attempts to retain the original quality of a voice that is not
trained classically, but rather through sufficient practice in having to carry
without amplification in pubs and smaller venues.
Even before communicating any verbal content, the embodied voice thus
signifies notions of gender, class and performing space, demarcating a par-
ticular speaking position within the context of the British folk revival. As a
distinctly male, and presumably working class voice, Carthy’s “Scarborough
Fair” clearly appeals to a very different fantasy-structure than Mendes’s ver-
sion, which rather clearly caters to global fantasies of Hollywood-enhanced
images of the Copacabana. Yet while Mendes rather blatantly caters to the
escapist desires of his listeners, Carthy’s performance equally evokes a fan-
tasy, in this case of an ‘ordinariness’ and egalitarian sense of communalism
which, in the thoroughly middle class 60s folk scene, was hardly given but
needed to be carefully constructed and keyed through a particular register
involving generic, vocal and musical qualities. Such keying, then, allowed for
a particular communicative economy, triggering the modes of listening which
are “adequate” (Stockfelt 2004) within the particular performance arena.
The ideal generic conventions of listening to a Carthy-style folk perform-
ance work against songfulness: first, the folk music world is grounded in a
particular hexis that socially regulates the bodily complicity between per-

In “The Grain of the Voice,” Barthes famously compares the vocality of the singers Fischer-
Dieskau, who moves audiences through outward technical bravado and vocal perfection, and
Panzera, whose vocal range is not of Fischer-Dieskau’s calibre, yet communicates its pas-
sion on a bodily, guttural level.
82 Reading Song Lyrics

former and audience. While listeners are encouraged to enjoy the physicality
of the music and ‘graininess’ of the voice, they are meant to do so reflexively
and consciously; self-absorbed kinaesthetic response, as in dancing, is dis-
couraged, while casual, yet attentive and devoted listening is encouraged (see
MacKinnon 1993). Second, folk ideology quite simply tends to privilege nar-
rative over sound, and folk performers are cherished for their quality as story-
tellers as much as for their skills as musicians: the music is expected to supple-
ment the narrative and carry or reflect its content rather than vice versa.
As a consequence, the performance of musical accomplishment is care-
fully checked in order not to get in the way of the verbal message. Carthy is
commonly considered one of the most refined guitar players within and
beyond the world of folk, yet his technical brilliance is seen in the elab-
orateness with which he hides the artfulness of his arrangements behind de-
ceptive simplicity and ease. Carthy’s own account of his guitar style in a
1975 interview may give an idea of this ‘elaborate simplicity’:

it’s basically that, only cutting one of the beats out, so that you use the thumb as well to play
a melody note. Instead of going ‘dong, ding, dong, ding, dong’ you go ‘dom...dom...dom...
dom,’ and the second beat is used to play a note of the melody. On certain things I rest the
heel of my hand on the guitar. If you whack the bottom string with the heel of your hand on
it, you get this ‘thunk’ and it carries over onto the fifth string, which then drones. You’re not
actually striking the second string, you’re just sounding it as you’re going past[.]

Carthy significantly concludes: “I tend to play either what I’m singing or a

very, very basic variation on that, or just the skeleton of what I’m singing”
(qtd. in Kidney 2004). The arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” is a perfect
example of such a restrained and deceptively simple musical arrangement
that is put into the service of verbal content: set in (swayable, but not quite
danceable) 6/8 time, the dominant pattern is built of 8th-note arpeggios using
as many open strings as possible to allow for the ‘droning’ effects mentioned
above (while indeed the thumb tends to strike a melody rather than bass note
on the 4th beat). The resulting sound thus has a repetitive, mesmerising, and
resounding steadiness producing a quietly pulsing beat; in fact, the guitar
arrangement in itself would have potential for songfulness (which was later
fully exploited by Simon and Garfunkel). Yet it is Carthy’s vocal perform-
ance – setting in after only four bars – which dominates the tune; the musical
sound, this is, mainly serves to set the mood for the verbal narrative and the
‘enveloping’ and slightly mesmerising quality of the music merely underlines
the mysteriousness of the posed riddles and the curious tale of lost love.
How does the vocal performance help to key the (generic) dominance of
narrative over sound? The most effective keying here, I believe, is highlight-
ing melodic and vocal anachronisms rather than glossing over them in the
Sound and Songfulness 83

context of the larger musical conventions of 1960s Britain. Take Carthy’s

phrasing of the refrain “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,” for instance:
unlike Faithfull, Simon and Garfunkel, Mendes and most others, he uses
striking melismata on both the words “Sage” and “and.” On the one hand, the
effect may reside in a dramatisation of the uncanny in the vocal line, which
Carthy after all sees as the remnant of an invocation against the evil eye ow-
ing to the tune’s evolution from the much older, supernatural “Elfin Knight”
variations. Similar effects may for instance have been intended in the brief
lingering on the last syllable of “rosema-ry” (which sounds the raised 6th on
the Dorian scale unfamiliar to contemporary listeners, and perhaps underlin-
ing the mysterious tinge), or in the demonstrative aspiration of the plosive in
“th-yme.” On the other hand and more importantly, the perceived archaisms
of such vocal performance distance the rendition of “Scarborough Fair” from
the contemporary norms of songfulness in both art music (by its roughness
and imperfection) and popular styles (through the ‘outdated’ vocal ornamen-
tation). While calling for bodily complicity in Clifton’s sense, ‘bodily com-
placency’ is thus carefully checked to foreground a dominantly lyrical message,
not in the sense that verbal performance eclipses or fully appropriates the
potential meaning of the musical lines, but rather by preventing that their
independent denotative capacities merge within a larger semantic and per-
formative realm. What matters in Carthy’s performance is the complementa-
tion of word and sound, as much as a sense of contrast or irony. It is due to
the friction between the rough and unpolished singing style and the
unvarnished elegance of the melodic and instrumental arrangement, that the
listener is continually called to pay attention to the re-enacted narrative;
Carthy quite simply takes good care that “the singing voice [does not]
envelope or suffuse both melody and text so that their independent existence
is obscured” (Kramer 2002, 54).
Conversely, Sérgio Mendes’s 1968 re-arrangement of Simon and Gar-
funkel’s 1966 hit single is a prime example of carefully crafted songfulness.
Trained as a classical pianist, Mendes intensely participated in the Rio ses-
sions that gave birth to the distinctly Brazilian style of ‘bossa nova’ in the
late 1950s, playing with, among others, Antônio Carlos Jobim und João Gil-
berto. When bossa was discovered not only by the post-bebop US jazz scene
(Mendes for instance recorded with Cannonball Adderly on Cannonball’s
Bossa Nova) but also for a larger mainstream audience through the mediation
of Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, Mendes moved to California in 1964 and his
fusion of traditional bossa styles with elements of jazz and pop styles quickly
became the craze of the day. He soon became the commercially most
successful Brazilian musician in the States ever, partly through adaptations of
Brazilian compositions (his arrangement of Jorge Ben’s “Mas Que Nada”
84 Reading Song Lyrics

was the first Portuguese song to make the US billboard charts), yet mainly
through appropriations of Western hits: his breakthrough with Brazil ’66 was
a bossa arrangement of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “The Look of Love”
which quickly outsold Dusty Springfield’s take; and the same recipe proved
successful for the Beatles’s “Fool on the Hill” and “Scarborough Fair”
(climbing the billboard charts to no. 16, and thus not far below Simon and
Garfunkel’s version, which had held no. 4 two years earlier).
Bossa nova underwent at least two critical transformations on its way
from small Copacabana clubs in the late 50s to Hollywood and on to a global
phenomenon in the 60s: musically, there was a move from minimalist guitar-
based accompaniment to increasingly lavish orchestral arrangements while
harmonic and rhythmic complexities were often reduced to make for more
up-tempo and up-beat ‘easier’ listening; socially, the ‘adequate’ mode of
reception shifted from folk-oriented contemplation to dancing (the relevant
dance steps were published in many Western newspapers during the bossa
craze, cf. e.g. Castro 2000). This variant of bossa catering to the global mass
markets quite obviously created a particular fantasy-structure for Western
audiences drawing on Hollywoodised associations of the Copacabana; it
emphasised an exoticist sensuous pleasure and pseudo-erotic easiness which
was then translated into a formalised dancing pattern that was all about
loosening lower body stiffness. Sérgio Mendes has been accused of selling
out Brazilian folk art to the masses on these grounds, and such argument are
not entirely unfounded, even if they tend to be based on a simplifying notion
of authenticity which Mendes rejects. Independent of whether one considers
Mendes’s “Scarborough Fair” to be pathetic or not, though, what interests me
here is the ease with which he appropriates the lyrical content of an age-old
folk song to effectively suspend its verbal meaning within a soundscape that
sets out for something (seemingly) completely different.
The first thing to note, here, is of course that Mendes uses a heavily trun-
cated version of the text, by merely adopting the first stanza which is then
repeated three times. On the one hand, this selection is indicative of the value
that Mendes attributes to the respective verbal and musical content, where the
latter clearly has the upper hand. Mendes obviously had little interest in the
larger narrative scope of the song which most of his original audience, how-
ever, would have been vaguely familiar with through the recent popularity of
Simon and Garfunkel’s version which peaked just a few months earlier. On
the other hand, the truncated version fits the aesthetic scope of bossa nova
quite well as originally, bossa lyrics hardly extended beyond a few lines
which were simply repeated (as, for instance, in the early recordings of João
Gilberto). Such lyrics tended to paint rather clichéd images of melancholy
and love which provided the impressionist verbal material that was needed to
Sound and Songfulness 85

communicate a predominantly musical message on the levels of voice and

sound. Working largely within this generic model, Mendes’s “Scarborough
Fair” is thus not only stripped of the meaning of stanzas two to five to begin
with, but also musically eclipses the literal meaning of the first.
The appropriation of the tune into entirely new generic conventions first
called for obvious formal adjustments such as the transposition into 4/4 time
and a heavily syncopated rhythmical fundament performed between Dom Um
Romau, Rubens Bassni and Sebastião Neto on percussion, a bassplayer lost
to history, and Mendes himself through his jazz-inspired off-beat piano
phrasing. This new rhythmical quality, which also crucially affects the vocal
phrasing, promotes an entirely different type of bodily complicity than that of
Carthy’s version, one that ties in with generic modes of ‘adequate’ listening
inviting, above all, relaxation and dancing. All this is embedded in a larger,
commercially and institutionally supported social framework propagating
feel-good self-indulgence and escapist fantasies engendered by the culturally
coded ‘tropicality’ of the rhythmic phrasing in conjunction with the cinematic
spaceousness and opulence of the orchestral support (arranged by Dave
Grusin – who incidentally also collaborated with Simon and Garfunkel on the
soundtrack to The Graduate). Yet it is the quality of the voices floating above
the luscious soundscape which particularly engenders the tune’s songfulness.
The vocal lines are dominated by Lani Hall and Karen Phillips in crystal-
clear unisono, with Mendes occasionally adding a lower and mellow octave
parallel line. The overall vocal peformance is thus gendered as dominantly
female, yet at the same time slightly androgynised. In Barthes’s terms again,
the voice is neither too ‘grainy’, i.e. objectively linked with the bodily
presence and uniqueness of a singular personality, nor too brilliant: there is
no excessive display of technical proficiency or harmonic intricacy, but rather
a ‘teasing’ vocal play with the new rhythmic format, involving, for instance,
vocal glissandi (on “there” in “the one who lives there”) or punctuated,
syncopated stops (in “He once was”). Put differently, the vocal quality is
strangely anonymous and distant, yet at the same time full of playful and
intimate eroticism and thus bodily ‘felt’. There is, as Lawrence Kramer puts
it in another context, “a sense of immediate intimate contact between the
listener and the subject behind the voice,” while the subject position is filled
by an “embodied fiction,” or what Kramer calls a “specific fantasy-structure
that underlies the experience of songfulness” (Kramer 2002, 53).
While in the context of the “Heideröslein,” Kramer thinks in terms of the
re-enactement of the primal “gift of song” of a mother to her child, what we
are dealing with in Mendes’s “Scarborough Fair,” I believe, is something less
oedipal, though similarly Homeric: Mendes’s musical and vocal arrangement
aims at sublimated and vocally encoded seduction and the voices transport
86 Reading Song Lyrics

‘pure’ sex; sex which, as in the song of Homer’s sirens, is somehow both
transcendent and physically immediate, and which appeals, though clearly
gendered as female, to the exoticist fantasies of both genders. The verbal
content is of little matter in all this – what matters instead is the physical and
kinaesthetic indulgence in the “singing-in-itself,” as Kramer puts it: “Song-
fulness is a fusion of vocal and musical utterance judged to be both pleasurable
and suitable independent of verbal content. It is the positive quality of sing-
ing-in-itself: just singing” (ibid.). The repetitiveness of the vocal and musical
content – unbearable to the art music connoisseur preferring a disinterested
mode of listening – turns from aesthetic obstacle into a prerequisite: it is
integral to the “genre-normative mode of listening” to bossa-pop, one that
avoids Kantian aesthetic pleasures in favour of the self-indulgent bodily
gratification of losing oneself in the beats and sounds, of relishing hedonistic
immersion in musical fantasies of luscious sexuality and seduction.
It would certainly be easy to dismiss Sérgio Mendes’s artistic tour-de-
force as an utter violation of the original folk tune on these grounds, and es-
pecially so in comparison with Martin Carthy’s folk version. Yet one could
also argue that in a curious way – and most probably unwittingly so – Men-
des’s musical realisation of “Scarborough Fair” is just as true to the original
implications of the tune as Carthy’s much more informed and faithful ‘re-
vival’ of the song. After all, the narrative kernel of the early predecessors of
“Scarborough Fair” (the “Elfin Knight” variations) is all about seduction: a
young and innocent maid calls forth a devil or demon ‘by mistake’ who
threatens to take her virginity and can only be held at bay through an elabo-
rate game of riddles which the maid eventually wins. As already remarked, it
does not take a lot of Freud to interpret the ‘demon’ of these early songs as an
externalised personification of female erotic fantasy which is culturally sanc-
tioned and checked by (patriarchal) rationality. If it is true that the later
versions of “Scarborough Fair” carry on a latent preoccupation with female
sexuality which is perceived as uncanny and simply translated into the
rhetoric of modernity – as a destructive force in the love affair between two
human beings –, it may not be entirely off the mark indeed to produce a
version of “Scarborough Fair” which translates siren-like seduction into the
musical rhetoric of the 1960s. Surely, the message has shifted from social
demonisation to one of sexual liberation and indulgence in Mendes’s musical
vision of 1968, and has thus moved beyond the (male) melancholy or,
alternatively, sarcasm marking the narrative that Carthy recorded three years
earlier. The irony remains, though, that Mendes’s corresponding fetishisation
of sexuality works not because, but despite the narrative scope of the original
tune – Mendes drains the lyrics of their verbal meaning in songfulness, and
instead drives his message home musically rather than verbally.
5. Mediality and Musical Multimedia

In the previous chapters, it has been tacitly assumed that making sense of
lyrics has a lot to do with (live) performance: the chapter on performance and
performativity made much of specific ‘performance arenas’ shaping and
‘keying’ communicative processes; the chapter on musical genres fore-
grounded performing ideologies and the ritual framing of musical events; the
chapter on sound and songfulness highlighted the social embeddedness of
musical communication and the importance of varying kinds of ‘bodily com-
plicity’ between performers and audiences. This requires some qualification
and complication, of course, as participating in live events has long ceased to
be the dominant mode of experiencing lyrics, even if the popular music in-
dustry has experienced a paradigmatic shift towards liveness again in the
wake of the digital revolution and the demise of the traditional recording in-
dustries since around 2000. It is vital, therefore, to turn to questions con-
cerning the changing medial base of lyrics.
The mediality of song lyrics may be conceived in a narrow and a wider
sense of the term; in the first sense, mediality refers to the particular state of
‘encodedness’ in a particular medium, i.e. to the core ‘materiality’ of verbal
utterances: while both poetry and song lyrics are constituted of verbal signs,
the primary material base of lyrics is ‘sound’, while in poetry, it is ‘writing’.
This first aspect of mediality has already been tackled in the previous chapter
to some extent, and will serve as a basis for the following discussion. This
chapter will mainly concentrate on the second, more encompassing connota-
tion of medialty as a particular apparatus of communication. In Werner Faul-
stich’s definition, this approach conceives of a ‘medium’ as an “institution-
alised system involving an organised channel of communication with a spe-
cific performance value and social relevance” (Faulstich 2004, 12, my tr.).
To begin with, it should be noted that even in the sense of medium as a
systemic and technical apparatus, live performances of songs can by no
means be seen as non- or pre-medial; rather, what we confront, here, is a case
of “primary” mediality which is increasingly challenged by competitive tech-
nological inventions and the ensuing technologising of word and sound. One
of my main arguments in this chapter will be that despite an apparent mar-
ginalisation of ‘liveness’ over the course of the 20th century (in the 1990s,
live performances apparently accounted for less than 1% of all music use, cf.
Rösing 1998a, 110) and the advancing cultural dominance of recorded song
in multiple medial formats, genre-normative modes of listening have contin-
ued to be informed by performing conventions and rituals of liveness. The
realms of live and recorded song have not drifted apart into mutually exclusive
88 Reading Song Lyrics

worlds as is often claimed, but have evolved in close dialogue with one
another. I wish to also illustrate, however, how the transposition of lyrics into
new multi-medial contexts affects the emergence of meaning in songs, and
will again close with another brief exemplary reading of “Scarborough Fair,”
this time as part of the soundtrack of Mike Nichols’s film The Graduate.

Modes of Medial Performance

In order to provide a first overview of the increasingly complex field of me-

diatised communication in relation to song lyrics, it is helpful to turn to
Werner Faulstich’s basic distinction of four types of media according to their
degree of technological saturation (Faulstich 2004, for an English intr. see
Voigts-Virchow 2005, 20-22). Faulstich distinguishes “primary” or “human”
media, which are grounded in ritualised human face-to-face communication;
“secondary media,” which are based on printing technology; “tertiary” media
or, alternatively, “analogue” media, which are typically based on electronic
recording, storage and transmission devices (such as radio, tape and vinyl
recordings, film, video, TV, or telephone); and finally “quaternary” or “digi-
tal” media, which are introduced as a separate category, not necessarily be-
cause of their distinct encoding system (sequences of the binary digits 0 and
1), but because they brought entirely new potentials of editing, disseminating
and communicating data (e.g. digital image and/or sound files via computer
software, email, intranet/extranet or the world wide web). 1 The distinction of
four basic media types conceives an historical trajectory of technological
inventions which have shaped the way that lyrics were produced or staged,
distributed and received up until the early 21st century, leaving us with a
composite and diffuse mediatised landscape as most new medial develop-
ments have not led to the displacement of older technology, but to a situation
of cumulative coexistence of multiple medial formats.
In order to more fully map out this mediatised landscape, I suggest to
supplement Faulstich’s focus on technological saturation (here, regarding the
recording of words and sound) with a focus on the visual presence of the per-

It is important not to confuse this categorisation with an altogether different distinction of
‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ media along the lines of the recipients’ degree of ‘complicity’,
where primary media are seen to typically involve active involvement, while secondary me-
dia provide the background noise to everyday life – the radio, for instance, is commonly re-
ferred to as a paradigmatically secondary medium as, in Jody Barland’s terms, “no one cares
whether you listen to the radio so long as you don’t turn it off […]. Radio is humble and
friendly, it follows your everywhere” (Barland 2004, 193).
Mediality and Musical Multimedia 89

formance. It is possible to again distinguish between four different types of

visual presence, here: a ‘primary’ presence where performers and listeners
physically co-inhabit a performance arena during live events; ‘zero’ presence
where the experience of words and sound is severed from the visual experi-
ence of their performance; a ‘secondary’ presence where the performer is not
directly present, but represented by two-dimensional (more recently also
three-dimensional) images; and finally, an ‘ersatz’-presence combining or
substituting the immediate visual context of a performance with another vis-
ual universe which may or may not be related to the first. Admittedly, the
lines between zero, primary, secondary and contextual/ersatz visual presences
are often blurry and sometimes difficult to draw at all; yet they will do in
order to more clearly organise a number of different modes of medial per-
formance with regard to song lyrics, as illustrated below.

sound recording live event, digital digital video / digital video /


on CD, DVD- playback film representing film without

audio, MP3, etc. performance performer(s)

sound recording live event, video / film video / film



on cylinder, analogue representing without

shellac, vinyl, playback performance performer(s)
tape, etc.
lyrics/score in (performed sheet representation of artwork / design

songbook, music, karaoke) performer(s) in in songbook,

booklet, etc. songbook, booklet etc.
booklet etc.
live event, live event live event, virtual artwork / design

invisible performer(s) of stage / setting


zero primary secondary contextual/ersatz


Fig. 2: Modes of medial performance

The system of primary mediality is of course historically the oldest mode of

staging lyrics, and has arguably been culturally dominant until the turn of the
20th century, when the new modes of sound recording developed by Thomas
A. Edison and Emil Berliner began to more thoroughly take hold (cf. e.g.
Laing 2004). Admittedly, though, it may be argued that it had lost some of its
relevance already in the Early Modern period, when both printed notations of
sound were for the first time distributed outside of the clerical world, and the
first mass distribution of printed secular lyrics in the medial format of the
90 Reading Song Lyrics

broadside challenged the relevance of human beings as the sole preservers of

vocal tradition and narrative. Faulstich thus argues that the particular ‘medial’
character of most traditional human media dissolved in stratification proc-
esses since the Renaissance when, for instance, the singers of an hitherto
largely oral culture were reduced to professional roles – master singers founded
professional singing schools, while traditional balladeers, by making mercantile
use of the new mass medium of the broadside, became primarily ballad venders
(Faulstich 2004, 35). In view of songs and lyrics in particular, however, I
hold this view to be problematic, as the symbiosis with other medial formats
has, neither then nor today, fully displaced the social relevance of the human
medium. Singers have managed to continually carve out a social space for the
primary mediality of songs, and the cultural validity of the live concert cannot
be simply subsumed under the validity of theatre either, which, according to
Faulstich, remains the only human medium today (a medium which, one feels
tempted to add, has similarly evolved in dialogic relation with printed texts –
and, more recently, analogue and digital technology – and has been similarly
affected by increasing professionalisation and commercialisation).
What, then, is the particular performance value of live events which dis-
tinguishes primary mediality in a thoroughly mediatised culture? It is helpful,
here, to turn to Erika Fischer-Lichte’s outline of an “aesthetics of the perfor-
mative” (2004) which she specifically envisages in view of the reaction of
performance art since the 1960s to the rigidity of the theatrical tradition, yet
which, I believe, may be profitably extended to explicate the value of primary
mediality more generally. One core aspect of Fischer-Lichte’s work is the
substitution of the received triad ‘production – work – reception’, which has
dominated the history of theorising theatre and emphasises the static status of
the artwork in its symbolically encoded (written) state, with the triad ‘mise-
en-scène – event – aesthetic experience’, which accounts for the flexibility,
actuality, and embodied nature of performances. Fischer-Lichte’s distinction of
work and event has larger cultural repercussions, especially if work and event
are not perceived as a Manichean binarism, but as opposite poles in a con-
tinuum. This holds especially true in view of the mise-en-scène of songs, where
performing conventions have shifted between approximations to both poles
not only historically, but especially generically as has already been illustrated.
While some aspects of Fischer-Lichte’s ‘aesthetics of the performative’
may thus be more intense, or more applicable to songs according to generic
convention, it is possible to argue that all live ‘events’ involving lyrics bear
the potential for an aesthetic experience that is exclusive to primary medial-
ity. The core prerequisite for this experience is the “bodily co-presence of
performers and audiences” which inevitably engenders a “self-referential and
continually changing feedback loop” that both generates and directs an event,
Mediality and Musical Multimedia 91

and introduces an irrational element which may be actively encouraged or

suppressed (Fischer-Lichte 2004, 58, my tr.). An extreme case of suppression
(which accounts for the somewhat constructed case of primary mediality /
zero visuality in the table above) is to stage performances in complete dark-
ness, as for instance Richard Wagner did during the first Bayreuth Festival in
1876, in an attempt to interrupt the feedback loop by ‘extinguishing’ not only
the visual bodies of the performers, but also the distracting visuality of other
members in the audience (ibid., 59). All events, however, whether highly
scripted as in the art music world, or deliberately unscripted as, for instance,
in a jazz session, remain defined by the notion that their full materiality
emerges in the performance itself rather than in an untroubled reproduction of
a pre-existing ‘work’.
According to Fischer-Lichte, the physical co-presence of performers and
audiences matters in at least three respects: first, this co-presence offers the
possibility of role-changes, in the sense that audience members inevitably
participate in performances and thus become actors rather than mere viewers
and listeners. Such involvement may range from the involuntary signalling of
discomfort to clapping to dancing to singing-along all the way to actively co-
performing on stage; but in any case, “where human beings physically meet,
they react to each other, even if this is not always perceptible to eyes and
ears. It is not possible not to react to one another” (ibid., 67, my tr.). Second,
events constitute communities which are temporarily generated by the
embodied activities of performances. Such communities are ephemeral as
they disappear as soon as the activities end; yet nevertheless, they cannot “be
conceived as ‘fictional’, but as the emergence of a social reality” (ibid., 90,
my tr.) and thus enhance a specific social dynamics. One of the core commu-
nity-building properties of performances highlighted by Fischer-Lichte, for
instance, is rhythm and its invitation to collective kinaesthetic response (ibid.,
97). Third, events are marked by the potential of physical contact between
performer and audiences, in the sense of sight as well as touch which can
both be read as markers of intimacy breaking down the opposition of public
and private spheres. Within the material performance arena of an event,
audience–performer relationships thus become to a certain extent ephemeral
physical realities rather than mere fictions and fantasies.
As an effect of these properties, events are, as opposed to ‘works’, to a
certain extent inherently singular, as no technology has so far been able to
reproduce the individual dynamics marking the temporality, spatiality,
soundscape and physicality of live events. Surely, curious hybrids have
emerged trying to combine the experience of liveness with advanced visual
reproduction technology, as in the case of the entirely virtual rock band Go-
rillaz (which accounts for the again somewhat constructed category primary
92 Reading Song Lyrics

mediality / secondary visuality in my table). In 2005, Gorillaz famously gave

five shows at the Manchester opera house where the band was put right in
front of a live audience in 3D by means of a more advanced version of the
Victorian ‘Pepper’s ghost’ stage trick (while the real life artists around
Damon Albarn backing the cartoon characters performed behind the scenes). 2
This was topped in 2006, when Gorillaz opened the Grammy Awards co-per-
forming first with a virtual, and then flesh-and-blood Madonna – yet of
course, Gorillaz’s performances do not (yet) really live up to an aesthetics of
the performative, as the characteristic feedback loop is interrupted by the
virtual band’s inability to react to their audiences. The human medium, it
seems, will remain the paradigmatic factor in any experience of ‘liveness’ in
the nearer future.

Liveness and Recordedness in a Mediatised Culture

The question remains what kind of status we wish to attribute to live events
on these grounds. This question has been vigorously debated in what has
come to be known as the Phelan-Auslander debate, which is representative of
a larger controversy in cultural studies over the alleged ‘authenticity’ or
‘simulatedness’ of events. Peggy Phelan’s argument in this context stands for
an assumption shared by many performance theorists, purporting that live
events are the last resort of integrity and authenticity in an otherwise fully
mediatised culture. In a world dominated by what Adorno and Horkheimer
(2002) have branded as the “culture industry,” they are hailed as sites of cul-
tural opposition to a ubiquitous commodification in the arts, and as still reso-
nating with what Walter Benjamin referred to as “aura,” albeit no longer in
the sense of being ‘artworks’, but precisely because of the ephemerality of
their event-status which defies the logic of mass reproduction:

Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circula-

tion of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than
performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction,
it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology. (Phelan 1993, 146) 3

I have dealt with the Gorillaz-phenomenon in detail elsewhere (see Eckstein 2009).
In a very similar vein as Phelan, performance artist Eric Bogosian, for instance, holds that
live theatre is “medicine for a toxic environment of electronic media mind-pollution. […]
Theatre is ritual. It is something we make together every time it happens. Theatre is holy. In-
stead of being bombarded by a cathode ray tube we are speaking to ourselves. Human lan-
guage, not electronic noise” (Bogosian 1994, xii).
Mediality and Musical Multimedia 93

This proclamation of a binary opposition between live events and mediatised

representations, however, is questionable in a number of ways, all suggesting
that the proclaimed difference is of a largely ideological, rather than, as
Phelan implies, purely ontological nature.
To begin with, the perceived opposition of liveness and recordedness is
problematic when thrown into historical relief. There is simply no evidence
to suggest that live performances have universally and always been perceived
as sites of ‘authenticity’. On the contrary: before 1800, performances of
(secular) music which were later retrospectively incorporated into the canon
of art music were hardly recognised as unique in any sense of the word by
their audiences; instead, reception habits were very reminiscent of those we
would today associate with the ‘corruptions’ of mediatised culture. Donald
Sassoon notes on aristocratic audiences in the 18th century:

Their behaviour reflected the absence of any profound interest in the performance. To have
an idea of the degree of attention pre-1800 audiences paid to what they were watching or
listening to, we should consider not modern audiences, but the relatively relaxed and dis-
tracted way in which people watch television: they speak on the telephone, they go to the
toilet whenever they feel like it, they make themselves a drink, they eat, they talk loudly,
[…] and then abruptly switch the set off when they are tired and bored. (Sassoon 2006, 233).

Within art music culture, the 19th century was then marked by the extension
of musical experience into the bourgeois domestic sphere through, first, the
mass distribution of musical instruments and the piano in particular, and sec-
ond, printed sheet music, which after the invention of lithography at the turn
of the century could not only be produced at affordable cost, but also embel-
lished with colourful illustrations and thus very effectively marketed to pri-
vate households. While in 1750, there existed only 12, and in 1794, 30 shops
which sold sheet music in London, this number dramatically increased to a
total of 124 in 1824 (cf. Weber 1994, 180). The expansion of the live music
market, the establishment of a concert scene with specifically designed con-
cert halls, and particularly the advent of performer stardom which shaped the
devotional listening conventions of both the art and pop music world are thus
intimately related to the wider dissemination of printed music. 4
It follows that from the start, the appreciation of a musical event as ‘au-
ratic’ was hardly a function of a primary ‘ontology’ of liveness, but ironically
precisely a function of secondary (and later of tertiary and quaternary) me-

As Walter Weber argues, the “secret behind the legendary popularity of the virtuosi of the
early nineteenth century was their shrewd exploitation of the market for sheet music. […]
The functioning of the relationships within the concert’s life was now controlled by the
larger musical market” (ibid., 181-82).
94 Reading Song Lyrics

diality. The cult of the ‘real’ is inextricably linked to the conservative effects
generated by culturally shared blueprints which allow for the unlimited re-
production of sound, or in other words: the larger history of valuating live-
ness is probably less one of an avant-garde resistance to mass culture in
Phelan’s sense (“Performance’s independence from mass reproduction, tech-
nologically, economically, and linguistically, is its greatest strength,” Phelan
1993, 149), but one of complicity.
This argument is certainly not restricted to the cultural dynamics of art
music but in a similar fashion also holds true for the emerging folk music
world in the 19th century and its fetishisation of the ‘authentic’. For centu-
ries, Britain’s longstanding tradition of balladry made little fuss about a dis-
tinction which only after 1800 gained enormous cultural currency, namely the
separation of what Francis Child was fond of calling “true popular ballads” as
opposed to supposedly inferior “artificial literature”:

Widely different from the true popular ballads, the spontaneous products of nature, are the
works of the professional ballad-maker, which make up the bulk of Garlands and Broadsides.
These, though sometimes not without grace, more frequently not lacking in humour, belong to
artificial literature – of course an humble department. (Child 1861, qtd. in Harker 2004, 45)

The quest for a ‘genuine’ British folk tradition in the wake of romantic ideol-
ogy thus confronted scholars with a large corpus of mediatised and mostly
anonymous ballads – “Garlands and Broadsides” – which now needed to be
verified as to their status of “true” popular balladhood. This was either at-
tempted by syntactic and semantic analysis (with often dubious results, cf.
Harker 2004), or by an ethnographic impulse to record rural performances
which were presumably still unspoiled by the corruptions of urban com-
merce. In 1855, for instance, the Ancient Melody Committee under the pa-
tronage of the Duke of Northumberland set out on a large-scale ‘rescue-mis-
sion’ of songs to which one Thomas Hepple of Kirkwhelpington significantly
contributed with a number of tunes he recorded in the Northumbrian coun-
tryside, among them a version of “Whittingham Fair” (Hepple 2003) which,
with some alterations, was later included in the Committee’s printed
collection of Northumbrian Minstrelsy (Bruce and Stokoe 1882). This
version, then, found its way into Francis Child’s “Additions and Corrections”
section of English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Child 1957, 497) to further
authenticate the medieval genealogy of “Scarborough Fair.” Quite obviously
again, the valuation of folk performance as a site of authenticity is predated
by the abstraction of printed lyrics, and, moreover, subsequently marketed in
the mediatised form of printed collections to a growing middle class buying
public newly fascinated with its own English heritage. Again, performance
and mediatisation prove to be complicit rather than mutually exclusive.
Mediality and Musical Multimedia 95

This brief account of 19th-century recording in the realm of secondary

mediality ties in with Philip Auslander’s investigations of the relationship
between liveness and recordedness after the advent of analogue and digital
recording technologies. Auslander’s argument, put in one sentence, goes
thus: there cannot be any such thing as an ontology of liveness, since in a
culture that is evermore dominated by tertiary and quaternary media, live
events have become simulations of recordedness in increasing degrees. He
contextualises this claim by investigating “performance in a mediatized cul-
ture” in contemporary theatre and performance art, court sessions, and, most
significantly in our context, rock music culture. To focus on the world of
rock is of course no arbitrary choice here, as rock can be read as the para-
digmatic case where the preoccupation with the ‘auratic’ and ‘authentic’ that
emerged in the 19th century art and folk music scenes has been translated
into the 20th-century mass market. Auslander is mostly interested in the di-
mension of what I have referred to earlier as “Romantic authenticity”
(Keightley 2001) in rock, i.e. in music primarily defined by its ‘recordedness’
– its saturation in the technological possibilities of multi-track recording and
analogue or digital sound effects – yet nevertheless aspiring to ‘seriousness’
by propagating a sense of ‘folk’ integrity. Auslander’s point of departure is
his claim that the early discourse of rock in the 1960s and 70s was hardly, as
some rock fans would claim, built on “a relation of opposition in which the
live was seen as the authentic and the recorded as inauthentic. Rather, au-
thenticity was produced through a dialectical or symbiotic relationship be-
tween live and mediatized representations of music” (Auslander 1999, 160).
To make better sense of this, it is necessary to take a brief detour via the na-
ture of recorded sound and its relation to the visuality of performance.
The dissemination of sound recording technology in the 20th century un-
doubtedly revolutionised the cultural economy of songs and firmly estab-
lished analogue and later digital media formats as culturally dominant. While
written texts and musical notation to some extent allowed the storage of
sound and its mass marketing, these ‘recordings’ remained abstract until
songs were put into practice, i.e. until they were actively performed by hu-
man beings. The medial availability of recorded, actual sound consequently
had far-reaching effects: 5 first, with the introduction of the radio and its

It is impossible to retrace the technological advance of recorded sound in detail here. For an
excellent overview of the evolution of recording technique, see Campbell, Martin and Fabos
(2005, 64-103), as well as Théberge 2001. Some of the core steps were the invention of the
wax cylinder phonograph (Thomas A. Edison, 1877), the flat disk and the gramophone
(Emil Berliner, 1888), later the phonograph (first working with shellac discs, replaced dur-
ing the 1940, when shellac was needed for ammunitions, by polyvinyl discs), audiotape
96 Reading Song Lyrics

dissemination of ‘free music,’ and with the increasing affordability of re-

production devices songs and music increasingly became ubiquitous in the
economy of everyday life, both public and private. Second, by entering into
an externalised, archival cultural memory, sounds became emancipated from
the confines of human interaction to freely travel across time and space,
leading to an hitherto unknown simultaneity and ubiquity of historically and
culturally specific acoustic material. Third, music entered the capitalist logic
of production and consumption in hitherto unknown degrees, leading to con-
tinuing battles over the ‘ownership’ of music between artists, a small oligar-
chy of record companies, intermediaries and consumers. But most basically
and crucially, perhaps, the experience of songs and lyrics initially became a
purely auditory experience suddenly severed from the primary visual aspects
of their performance (cf. Laing 2004).
Nevertheless – even if the dimension of ‘zero’ visibility can be seen as the
defining trait of the culturally dominant form of song in the 20th century at
least until the advent of music television – this did not really challenge the
visual nature of musical performance per se, but rather engendered new di-
mensions of visuality. These initially manifest themselves, in the absence of
primary visuality, in what W.J.T. Mitchell would term mental or perceptual
images (Mitchell 1984, 505). Simon Frith notes that

the simultaneous emergence around the turn of the century of the telephone, the gramo-
phone, and he radio meant that people became accustomed, for the first time ever, to hearing
a voice without a body (previously such an experience would have meant the supernatural,
the voice of God or the evil). But, of course, in practice we don’t hear telephone or recorded
voices like this at all: we assign them bodies, we imagine their physical production. And this
is not just a matter of sex and gender, but involves the other basic social attributes as well:
age, race, ethnicity, class – everything that is necessary to put together a person to go with a
voice. (Frith 1998, 196) 6

(first introduced in the 1940, enabling multi-track mixing and editing) and digital recording
in the 1970s. The first marketable format for the distribution of digital recordings, the CD,
was launched in 1983, while MP3, a data format that compresses music to file sizes that can
be distributed via the world wide web, shook up the music market in 2000 and led to the
Napster crisis (cf. Garofalo 2004). In 2003, Apple Computer’s iTunes Music Store became
the first major server to sell music on the internet; in April 2006, Apple and EMI decided to
distribute their complete digital catalogue via iTunes Store without DRM (digital rights
management), i.e. without copying and access restrictions (cf. EMI 2007).
Already Jean-Jacques Rousseau insisted that “[w]hen I hear a melody, I am aware of the
presence of another, like myself, a sentient being” (Rousseau 1990, 287). In the context of
rock, Frith is convinced that “to hear music is to see it performed, on stage, with all the
trappings” (Frith 1998, 211). The metaphysical reverberations around disembodied voices
after the invention of ‘singing machines’ have been discussed extensively by Friedrich
Kittler (1986); for a sobering critique of ethnographic evidence, see Middleton (2006, 50).
Mediality and Musical Multimedia 97

What is crucial for our context, moreover, is that Frith and Auslander hold
against the views of, for instance, Theodore Gracyk (1996) and others that
this does not change even if, as in the case of rock, music is a product of an
elaborate studio recording which could never have existed as an organic per-

I listen to records in the full knowledge that what I hear is something that never existed, that
never could exist, as a ‘performance,’ something happening in a single time and space; nev-
ertheless, it is now happening, in a single time and space: it is thus a performance and I hear
it as one. (Frith 1998, 211)

The aesthetic experience of recorded music thus remains crucially and para-
doxically informed by certain notions of liveness.
What are we to make of this? To begin with, it seems reasonable to sug-
gest that the cultural dominance of recorded sound does not mean that no-
tions such as ‘performance arena’, ‘communicative economy’ and conven-
tions of ‘genre-normative listening’ become obsolete. On the contrary: the
performance arena of a song continues to crucially inform its lyrical mes-
sages in a mediatised culture. However, it needs to be conceived as an
‘imagined’ arena which is increasingly keyed by visual representations, i.e.
what W. J.T. Mitchell would term “graphic images” or what I have referred
to as ‘secondary visuality’, rather than primary visual contexts of live per-
formances. Such keying is for instance performed by the visual paraphernalia
of recordings, as can be easily demonstrated by having a brief look at the
cover art of three of the albums featuring versions of “Scarborough Fair” I
have discussed in the previous chapters.
The covers here are exemplary in that they are clearly keying genre-nor-
mative modes of listening in the absence of live visuality. Let us begin again
with Martin Carthy (fig. 3): I have argued that Carthy’s version of “Scarbor-
ough Fair” is expressive of a distinctly male take on frustrated love in which
the singer functions less as confessional artist, but as communal storyteller.
In this constellation, the tune evokes, rather than the intimacy of private mel-
ancholia, a self-reflexive tale of frustration, perhaps sarcasm, in the face of
‘irrational’ female sexuality presumably shared with an integrative, even-
minded community of listeners. I have so far argued thus by illustrating the
song’s genealogy dating back to the earlier “Elfin Knight” variations of
which Carthy is very well aware (as he signals in the liner notes), by taking
recourse to the particular (live) performing conventions marking the British
folk revival, drawing mainly on Niall MacKinnon’s (1993) thorough investi-
gation of the scene, and by addressing the particularities of Carthy’s vocal
and musical embodiment of the song’s narrative. In its de-contextualised,
recorded state, though, the verbal and acoustic keys are in need of additional
98 Reading Song Lyrics

visual keying to establish an “imagined community” (Anderson 1983) and

performance arena to support this reading. The cover design of Martin
Carthy’s self-titled debut album performs precisely that: depicting the singer
sitting cross-legged on a suspended industrial pallet, in a leatherjacket with
an acoustic guitar, it ingeniously signals almost all the ingredients of a
workable folk ideology – working class honesty (marketed to a largely mid-
dle-class community of intellectuals); acoustic immediacy unspoiled by the
technological corruptions of sound amplification; and a sense of being ‘one
of the people’, of a folk community sharing a common popular tradition of

Fig. 3: Martin Carthy, Martin Carthy (1965) Fig. 4: Marianne Faithfull, North Country Maid

The effectiveness of this kind of ‘graphic’ keying can be similarly high-

lighted for Marianne Faithfull’s version of “Scarborough Fair” and her album
North Country Maid (fig. 4), which translates the tune into the generic con-
ventions of the popular torch song. I have argued that this transformation
works on the grounds of certain sound effects (especially the technological
processing of Faithfull’s voice to evoke an enveloping physical intimacy), as
well as verbal operations (the shifting from third to second person in the third
stanza, directly addressing the listener as the lost lover [“And oh can you find
me…”]). But it also vitally depends on the visual marketing of the sound re-
cording, which depicts the singer in a singular emblematic image, set in a
golden, oval frame on dark blue ground, not unlike in a treasured medallion.
Faithfull is mise-en-scène as both innocent and openly erotic, frankly facing
the viewer with her blue eyes, while her blond hair is draped on suggestively
naked shoulders. By extension, the imagined performance arena of “Scarbor-
ough Fair” is similarly framed as an exclusive, and inherently private realm
Mediality and Musical Multimedia 99

inviting a highly personalised relationship between singer and listener.

Moreover, it is meant to be charged with a fantasy structure which dramatises
the lyrics’ preoccupation with desire and, arguably, fatal female sexuality by
throwing it back onto the singer herself, who, in a curious doubling, poses
simultaneously as a melancholic victim of unrequited love, and as innocent
femme fatale. The listener is thus potentially drawn from the role of external
witness (in stanzas one and two) into the role of the (presumably) unfaithful
lover, whereas all the while he or she is really meant to become fatally entan-
gled, in a reversal of fictional roles, in the seductive intimacy of Faithfull’s
voice and visual representation. Progressively moving towards a properly
“illegitimate,” in Cone’s sense, pop interpretation, the tune thus increasingly
relies on the imagined “personality” of the artist – on Faithfull’s media image
– to imbue the performance with meaning. The choice of the album cover
really does an excellent job in this sense by encapsulating in a single image
the larger, rather schizophrenic marketing of sex and innocence in Faithfull’s
early career.

Fig. 5: Sérgio Mendes & Brazil ’66, Fool on the Hill (1968)

If the cover art on Martin Carthy and North Country Maid provides ef-
fective visual keys to the lyrical register, things are similarly straight forward
for Sérgio Mendes’s “Scarborough Fair” on Fool on the Hill (fig. 5). I have
argued in the previous chapter that Mendes’s version drains the lyrics of
“Scarborough Fair” of their verbal meaning in what Lawrence Kramer calls
songfulness, only to dramatise their preoccupation with seduction and desire
in the intersubjective physical quality of the sound itself which propagates a
self-indulgent, liberating celebration of sexuality. This interpretation may
seem a bit shaky on the grounds of acoustic primers alone, but it is well-sup-
ported by the visual paraphernalia of the recording. The record sleeve depicts
Mendes and his Brazil ’66 happily grouped on the hips of a gigantic nude
100 Reading Song Lyrics

female torso (with a breast that strangely resists the laws of gravity to
proudly form part of a silhouetted, hilly backdrop) before a lush orange
sunset. The artwork ties in perfectly with the sound effects, not only in terms
of its clichéd Hollywood-iconography of the Copacabana, but also in terms of
being charged with a sexuality which is physically real, yet at the same time,
unlike in Marianne Faithfull’s case, thoroughly de-personalised. The visual
image thus does not get in the way of the oblivious enjoyment of the “singing
itself,” but rather enhances its songful, siren-like seduction.
This type of ‘secondary visuality’ and its keying of particular kinds of ge-
neric listening conventions is vitally important in a mediatised culture in
which the successful marketing of songs depends on the adequate placing of
a product in a highly differentiated field of consumer interests and subcultural
modes of distinction. Obviously, however, recordedness and ‘secondary visu-
ality’ have never fully replaced live events and their promise of ‘primary
visuality’, even during the heyday of the recording industries between
roughly 1960 and 2000. As Auslander argues, this has to do with the fact that
such imagery does not suffice to ‘authenticate’ a recording, at least in rock
music culture: because only “seeing is believing,” ‘true’ rock musicians need
to be able to recreate recorded sounds in a live setting in order to live up to
the romantic ideology of ‘handmade’ and honest sound, no matter how
determined their studio sound may be by technological processing and mod-
ernist assemblage. Put more generally, the more a musical genre ideologi-
cally drifts towards the angle of folk in the triangular field between the pop,
art and folk music worlds, the more it depends on primary mediality to vali-
date its sound. The crux of Auslander’s argument, however, is that the kind
of ‘liveness’ which is generated in this process has very little to do – in rock
music culture anyway – with Phelan’s ideals of resisting the culture industry,
nor with an ontological state which is diametrically opposed to the state of
recordedness. With the recording as the original blueprint for ‘authentic’
sound, live performances aspire to simulate the recording rather than provid-
ing a space for opposing the culture industry.
This is evident in at least two respects: first, live events have increasingly
been designed for reproduction in tertiary media, and especially for TV. Sec-
ond, the realm of liveness has been invaded by recording and reproduction
technology without which the simulation of studio sound would be incon-
ceivable. This begins with the employment of PA-systems, and extends to
elaborate sound engineering all the way to the use of pre-recorded sound in
live settings. At the pop end of the continuum, recordedness will usually be-
come the dominant source of musical experience when singers lip-sync to
studio-recorded playback (the case of primary visuality / tertiary or quater-
nary mediality in the above graph). In such cases, the characteristic feedback-
Mediality and Musical Multimedia 101

loop marking events is of course again interrupted, as singers cannot (acous-

tically) react to audience input.
The ‘technologising’ of liveness has become more complex, still, with the
advent of specifically designed moving images to market songs, i.e. with the
promotional music video (inaugurated with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in
1975, and definitely acquiring media status in 1981 with the launching of
MTV). According to Gerhard Bühler (2002), promo videos may essentially
come in five different formats:

(1) Performance clips (based on musicians performing and lip-sychronization), (2) visual
flood clips (high cut frequency montage and disparate images), (3) pseudo-narrative clips
(which mix performance and montage of narrative sequences, (4) narrative clips, which il-
lustrate a song’s story, often narrated by the lead vocalist […], (5) avant-garde art clips (fo-
cussed on merging image and music rather than on advertising the performance). (Voigts-
Virchow 2005, 67-68, italics in the original)

This range indicates that the intermedial dynamics between lyrics, sound and
moving images may take on multiple shapes and functions, and Auslander’s
argument may be slightly reductive in its implicit concentration on the first
(and to a lesser degree, third and fourth) category which admittedly, though,
appear to have been the preferred genres of 90s rock video culture. 7 This
focus allows him not only to claim that “[v]ideo is the primary experience of
music in a mediatized culture,” but to conclude that “music video works to
authenticate sound recordings in much the same way […] as when live per-
formance was the main guarantor of authenticity” (Auslander 1999, 92-93).
The peculiar twist, though, resides in the fact that this has again not led to the
displacement of the live event by the video; instead, “[a] relationship that had
previously centered on a couple became a threesome: live performance of
rock did not cease to exist, but was reduced to replicating and, thus, authenti-
cating, the video rather than the music” (ibid., 160, emphasis in the original).
The video as the new site of authenticity is itself in need of authentication,
and the culturally dominant aesthetics of the video (itself a simulation of the
CD recording) therefore becomes the blueprint upon which live performances
are increasingly modelled. Following Auslander, the ‘liveness’ of rock events
has, in the digital age, entered the stage which Baudrillard labels “simulation
proper” (Baudrillard 1983, 83): far from being originary events, live
performances are essentially simulations of a simulation, doubly refracted
from their mutable digital model.

Andrew Goodwin speaks of the “all-pervasive mise-en-scène of the rehearsal room/
warehouse space” in rock video clips (Goodwin 1993, 77).
102 Reading Song Lyrics

I have some reservations against these Baudrillardian conclusions. Rather

than fuelling ideological battles over the cultural superiority of liveness or
recordedness, I would instead hold that it is indeed possible to mediate some
of Auslander’s ideas with Fischer-Lichte’s notion of an ‘aesthetics of the per-
formative’ as I can only briefly indicate here. My first reservation against the
final outlook of Auslander’s argument is that the increasing contamination of
liveness and recordedness in rock music culture indeed limits, but hardly ever
fully displaces the feedback loop shaping the aesthetic experience of events.
While the claim of an ontological difference between liveness and recorded-
ness, just as the celebration of liveness as the last refuge of the auratic and
authentic are hardly tenable, Auslander’s radical denunciation of liveness as a
mere simulacrum of the culture industry has a similarly ideological edge (see
Fischer-Lichte 2004, 117). Surely, the communicative energy of live events
has been informed (at least since the Renaissance), often determined, and
more recently, perhaps, overdetermined by medial representations, both vis-
ual and auditory; yet the aesthetic experience of events remains in a sense
unique, simply because even the most medially scripted performances remain
informed by the unpredictabilities of audience–performer interactions in an
historically and spatially situated, physical and social ‘reality’.
My second reservation concerns the universal applicability of Auslander’s
analysis. Once we accept that liveness and recordeness continually inform
each other it seems paramount to distinguish various generic conventions
regarding the proportions of recordeness and liveness in the mélange of pri-
mary and tertiary/quaternary mediality. It is important to keep in mind that
Auslander himself deliberately narrows his focus on rock music culture, not-
ing that, for instance, in

jazz and classical music, recorded and live performances are considered separate art forms.
No concertgoer, for example, would expect the flutes in Khatchaturian’s Second Symphony
to be louder than the brass, as they are on Stokowski’s recording […], and jazz fans expect
the music they hear live to feature spontaneous inventions and improvisations different from
those on recordings. (Auslander 1999, 81)

More crucially, though, styles revolving around the ideals of the folk music
world continue to define themselves primarily through liveness rather than
recordedness (MacKinnon 1993), while art music arguably continues to be
dominated by secondary mediality, i.e. by the authority of the composer and
his or her score, despite the advent of performer stardom and the ready avail-
ability of studio recordings. Yet it is also important not to lose sight of the
heterogeneity of performing conventions marking the sub-genres of rock it-
self, ranging between what Keightley calls “Romantic” and “Modernist” no-
tions of authenticity (Keightley 2001, 137).
Mediality and Musical Multimedia 103

This brings me to my final reservation: while I find Auslander’s analysis

of romantic rock authentication convincing, the Baudrillardian rhetoric re-
garding the sublation of liveness in “simulation proper” – in the wake of
which ‘authenticity’ has become a mere function of corporate interests – tends
to gloss over the dimension of artistic agency and self-reflexivity in a me-
diatised culture. Auslander admittedly highlights a tendency in rock music
culture (with reference to David Bowie) which capitalises on what Lawrence
Grossberg defines as a “logic of inauthentic authenticity” (Grossberg 1992,
234). Yet he aligns it too readily, I think, with the post-structuralist rhetoric
informing, as Simon Frith puts it, a “rock version of the postmodern condition”
surrounding “a media complex in which music has meaning only as long as it
keeps circulating […] and rock history only matters as a resource for recurrent
pastiche” (Frith 1988a, 91). My concern is that when musicians and singers
deliberately recycle recorded sounds (or images) of the electronic archive (and
propagate “Modernist authenticity” in that sense), the results are not necessarily
as a-political or contingent as the provenience of the terms ‘simulacrum’ or
‘pastiche’ would suggest. Through creative strategies of musical quotation, or
by taking recourse to material recordings in techniques of deejaying or live
sampling, the work-status of recordings may be re-appropriated for an
“aesthetics of the performative” and significantly re-entered into the feedback
loop of liveness. Of course, such dialogicity between liveness and recorded-
ness should not be hailed as the ‘new authentic’ or as an overly potent space
of postmodern oppositionality; yet it would be equally wrong to deny that
artists may critically reflect upon the exploits of the culture industry even
while operating within its confines, as I will argue in more detail in relation
to more recent acts in the Asian British music scene in chapter 9.

Scarborough Fair (IV): Multimedial Transformations

I wish to conclude this chapter, however, by coming back to the question of

what actually happens when recorded songs encounter visual contexts that
are not directly related to the presence (either live or recorded) of their per-
formers, turning to the dimension I have labelled ‘contextual/ersatz visuality’
in the chart above. This is vital, of course, since with the emancipation of
sound from the primary context of its performance, songs have come to form
not only the soundtrack of our everyday lives (the visual contexts of which
are too eclectic and amorphous to be discussed in this framework, see DeNora
104 Reading Song Lyrics

2000 for an introduction), 8 but have since been significantly combined with
recorded visual material in film and video, and channelled via the arguably
most powerful media of the 20th century – cinema, television, home
video/DVD, and the world wide web. This extension of perspectives is vital
not least in view of our guiding example, because the medial context in
which many or most contemporary listeners have encountered “Scarborough
Fair” is probably neither that of live performances (primary visuality), nor
that of recordings – on LP, CD, via the radio or as MP3 downloads (zero
visuality) – but as part of Mike Nichols’s 1967 motion picture The Graduate.
The Graduate is a particularly interesting case to look at in this context,
partly because it is one of the most widely-screened movies of all times, yet
more importantly since it is often credited with being the first film to use pre-
recorded songs instead of traditional post-production scoring (see e.g. Shum-
way 1999, Celeste 2005). 9 The Graduate thus marks a significant caesura in
the history of film music in several respects: Claudia Gorbman shows in her
Unheard Melodies how earlier, classically inflected film scores typically
worked “toward the goal of transparent or invisible discourse” (Gorbman
1987, 72), while (rock) songs in film were suddenly meant to be consciously
‘heard’. This new presence, built on the assumption that “the audience will
recognize the artist, song, or, at least, a familiar style,” significantly affected
film production at large, and established close commercial ties between the
music and film industry which have at times moved film in the vicinity of the
promotional music video; as David Shumway notes, “[t]ie ins between film
and sound track recordings have become so important that producers now
routinely hire musical consultants to assemble a collection of songs that not
only will make the movie more appealing but will also lead to sales in music
stores” (Shumway 1999, 37). But most importantly in our context, the advent
of pre-recorded songs in film also marked the entry of non-diegetic, pre-re-
corded lyrics, adding an entirely new dimension of semantic complexity to
filmic composition.
The question whether the creative genesis of The Graduate was still in-
formed by a traditional model (where the filmic ‘imagetext’ 10 comes first and
the music is to supplement the images) or whether it radically anticipated the
logic of the music video (where the songs are first and the images are chosen

In her Music in Everyday Life, DeNora empirically studies music use e.g. in fitness studios,
shopping malls, high streets, etc.
Alternatively, Kenneth Anger’s avant-garde classic Scorpio Rising (1963) is credited to be
the first film to feature non-diegetic rock music (see Denisoff and Romanowski 1991, 162).
The term ‘imagetext’ is W.J.T. Mitchell’s and in its widest definition refers to the medial
interrelatedness of word and image; see Mitchell (1994, 83-107).
Mediality and Musical Multimedia 105

to illustrate the music and lyrics) is a matter of debate. Surely, the basic
storyline of The Graduate is not provided by its music, but by Charles
Webb’s eponymous novel (which Paul Simon incidentally did not find very
impressive). The film focuses on Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), who
just successfully completed a high class East Coast college education and
returns to the Los Angeles suburbia of his childhood. Feeling thoroughly
alienated in the material reality of his parents’ world and unconvinced by the
future it promises (encapsulated by the career advice provided by one of his
parents’ friends according to whom the future is in the corporate reality of
“plastics”), he is seduced by the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs.
Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Their dragging affair is complicated when Ben
falls for Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross), who visits from
Berkeley, and terminated when he confesses his affair to Elaine. The setting
then mostly moves to Northern California, to where Elaine returns and where
she gets engaged with the ‘decent’ medical student Karl. Ben, however, sets
out to pursue her and attempts to convince her of marrying him against all
odds. In the famous conclusion, Ben takes another desperate drive up to
Berkeley to prevent Elaine’s speedily arranged marriage. He only arrives
when the vows have just been exchanged, but wildly banging on the church
window and screaming ‘Elaine’, he is eventually answered by his beloved,
and after some mayhem and fighting, the couple manages to escape on a local
bus to an uncertain future.
Within this narrative frame, though, Paul Simon’s songs form an important,
perhaps even foundational part if we are to believe the man himself: “Mike
Nichols had our music in mind when he decided to make a movie out of the
book,” he later insisted. “The truth of the matter is that Art Garfunkel and I
didn’t really score the movie; in a funny way, the movie was scored around
us” (qtd. in Swenson 1984, 112). Things were probably a bit less straight
forward than this statement suggests since The Graduate was already half-
way shot when Nichols approached Simon and commissioned him to write a
number of new songs which, mainly because he was excessively touring at
the time, Simon could not produce. Two songs he did eventually come up
with, “Overs” and “Punky’s Dilemma,” were outright rejected by Nichols,
and only one new tune, originally conceived in a completely different context
and going by the working title of “Mrs. Roosevelt,” was, as legend has it,
rechristened “Mrs. Robinson” by Nichols to become the film’s title anthem.
It was not really by deliberate choice, therefore, that Nichols resorted to pre-
recorded and pre-released material by Simon and Garfunkel to score his film.
The three additional songs Nichols finally picked were “The Sound of
Silence,” “April Come She Will,” and “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”; a fifth
Simon and Garfunkel song featuring on the soundtrack album (1968), “The
106 Reading Song Lyrics

Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine,” is really only part of the diegetic
soundscape, as is the “additional music by David Grusin” who is in this sense
misleadingly credited as score writer. Altogether, The Graduate uses very
little non-diegetic music which particularly highlights the songs when they
actually play. “April Come She Will” gets the shortest running time in this
context, playing only once back to back with “The Sound of Silence” which
forms the actual theme song of the movie. It gets a full length run in the
introduction, another full run followed by “April Come She Will” during a
montage sequence tracing Ben and Mrs. Robinson’s affair over summer, and
finally plays again in the very end as Ben and Elaine elope on the bus. The
musical frame provided by the song is of major importance, here, since if, as
most commentators agree, the lyrics are expressive of Ben Braddock’s sense
of alienation and lack of direction, the final return of the song significantly
undermines the bildungsroman-plot and its promises of gained insights and
experience, suggesting that Ben’s little stunt has left him as shallow and
confused as he was in the beginning. I will pick up this idea later, though, and
for now wish to focus again on the other major song in the film (receiving by
far the longest running time) – “Scarborough Fair” – after sorting out how we
are to conceive of the emergence of meaning in the interplay of the filmic
imagetext, music and lyrics more generally.
The most stimulating contributions to the discussion of musical multime-
dia, to my mind, have been provided by Nicholas Cook and, again, Lawrence
Kramer in this context. In his Analysing Musical Multimedia, Cook admon-
ishes a

terminological impoverishment epitomized by film criticism’s traditional categorization of

all music–picture relationships as either parallel or contrapuntal, and a largely unconscious
(and certainly uncritical) assumption that such relationships are to be understood in terms of
hegemony and hierarchy rather than interaction. (Cook 1999, 107)

He consequently proposes to analyse cross-medial dialogue by critically in-

vestigating complementation, yet above all contradiction and contest, and to
consequently upturn the received notion that music is to merely supplement a
dominant imagetext; this, for Cook, is paramount especially in view of de-
velopments in film and video after Nichols’s The Graduate, as “approaches
derived from film criticism, which proceed from the exegesis of narrative
content to the analysis of music’s role in reinforcing or subverting that con-
tent, are clearly of limited value […] where music is not intended to be inau-
dible […] but just the opposite” (ibid., 167).
Lawrence Kramer fully supports Cook’s notion of the emergence of
meaning in multimedial dialogue as opposed to the notion that “music simply
expresses a meaning fully present elsewhere, usually a text.” Yet he questions
Mediality and Musical Multimedia 107

Cook’s “notion of free, variably hierarchical negotiation among the media,”

as this alternative “does not quite do justice to the historical and cultural force
of the imagetext, which does enjoy a semantic authority that music is denied”
(Kramer 2002, 151). Kramer’s argument is vital in its insistence that the
analysis of “musical multimedia” cannot do without a Foucauldian assess-
ment of the incongruous power relations between the media. Such an analysis
will, on the one hand, have to account for the semiotic instability and fleet-
ingness of musical signs as opposed to the relative stability and permanence
of words and images, yet also, on the other hand, for institutional, economic
and, not least, academic modes of establishing medial dominance which have
tended to marginalise the significance of sound. 11 It would be wrong, of course,
to perpetuate the compensatory reflex of the art music world and to proclaim
the ‘absoluteness’ of music and its independent transcendence of verbal and
iconic meaning on these grounds. Rather, Kramer argues, “[w]hat’s needed is
a way to recognize semantic priority in the imagetext without conceding pri-
macy to it” (Kramer 2002, 151).
His own solution to the problem is to propose that rather than interacting
freely, text, image and music are linked in a semantic loop where music is
initially dependent on the transferral of meaning from the visual and verbal
context to become meaningful. Music then provides a presence and intensity
to this meaning which in turn affects and saturates the imagetext – yet also
unpredictably exceeds it –, thus creating a space for fraction and irony:

In sum: musical meaning in mixed media is experienced in inverted form; it runs on a loop.
The music seems to emit a meaning that it actually returns, and what it returns, it enriches
and transforms. […] Music, indeed, is one of the defining modes of an immediacy that the
imagetext has to exclude in order to stabilize itself, to enable its generalizing, abstracting,
speculative capacities […]. But as soon as meaning effectively runs from the imagetext to
music along the semantic loop, the music seems to convey the meaning to and through the
imagetext in preconceptual, prerepresentational form. (Kramer 2002, 153).

Kramer’s model is convincing in its reflection of the cultural heavyweight of

the imagetext, yet I believe that it goes too far in proposing that in multime-
dial contexts, music acquires its meaning only via the imagetext, which it

The notion that our post-modernity is culturally dominated by the imagetext as Mitchell
(1994, 83-107) defines it may be illustrated by the fact that the critical exegesis of music
videos (where music technically comes first) has rarely paid attention to the music, but al-
most unanimously concentrated on the visual composition (Frith 1988b and Andrew Good-
win 1993). As Nicholas Cook summarises, “Goodwin’s and Frith’s argument is that post-
modernist critics see fragmentation, discontinuity, and heteroglossia in music videos be-
cause they don’t listen to the music” (Cook 1999, 148).
108 Reading Song Lyrics

then amplifies, exceeds, and in return destabilises. Especially in a case such

as ours where music is pre-recorded and pre-released, I would insist that mu-
sic is already imbued with cultural content that it previously acquired in the
afore-mentioned trialactics between cognition, social distinction and bodily
hexis, and consequently enters the semantic feedback loop with a certain se-
mantic weight of its own. We are probably getting closest to the matter,
therefore, if we opt for a middle ground between Cook’s model of a non-hi-
erarchical semantic interplay and Kramer’s feedback loop.
I would propose the following basic model to conceive of the emergence of
meaning between (non-diegetic) song lyrics, music, and the filmic imagetext:

song lyrics
songfulness music irony
filmic imagetext

Fig. 6: Song lyrics and the emergence of meaning in film

In this model, we have two interrelated mixed media systems – the first be-
tween lyrics and music (as already discussed in the previous chapter), which
is interlocked with a second loop between music and the filmic imagetext.
Music thus provides a crucial interstitial category between lyrics and visual
composition, and is granted an a priory semantic capacity, even though the
imagetext of the film is credited with a semantic priority as opposed to the
more fleeting signification of musical sound and the vocalised language of
the lyrics. 12 The song as defined by the first loop thus affects the filmic im-
agetext in various ways, most of which have found ample debate in film
studies and cannot be discussed in detail here – a selection of the most im-
portant functions of music in film would be: to create atmospheres, to illus-
trate movement, to integrate images, to represent emotions, to mediate social
contexts, to forge collective identities, to parody, among many others (see
e.g. Schneider 1990, 88-105). In turn, the meaning of the song is at the same
time flooded by the semantic potential offered by the narrative and visual
composition of the film, both in terms of its musical meaning, and in terms of
the related interpretive framework of the lyrics. Neither semantic level,
however, fully yields to the allocating force of the other, despite the relative
dominance of the filmic imagetext in this double loop: there is ample space

Kramer argues that “[t]he semantic loop is the formal means by which music asserts its
unrivalled capacity for mixture and through which it appears as an active, almost drive-like
tendency to mix with and inform that which initially excludes it” (Kramer 2002, 153).
Mediality and Musical Multimedia 109

for fraction, contest, and ironies within this triple-voiced discourse, and
particularly so between filmic intertext and song lyrics. The question whether
the semantic fraction between lyrics, music and visual composition may be
contained, or whether it impinges upon a sense of coherent and holistic re-
ception therefore depends on in how far the intermedial soundscape is ‘song-
ful’ enough to suspended semantic differences. Or in other words: the contest
between lyrical meaning and the meaning of the filmic imagetext is grounded
in the continual tension between irony and fraction on the one hand, and in-
tegrating songfulness on the other.
Let us try to make better sense of this by retuning to “Scarborough Fair”
in the context of Nichols’s The Graduate. In simplifying terms, the song pro-
vides the leitmotif of Benjamin Braddock’s quest for Elaine after the climactic
showdown between him, Mrs. Robinson and Elaine which abruptly ends his
affairs with both women (only when Ben’s prospects of getting Elaine back
brighten up, the soundtrack moves from the melancholy “Scarborough Fair” to
the more upbeat “Mrs. Robinson”). Without being able to go into the nuances
of Nichols’s innovative filmic technique in relation to Simon and Garfunkel’s
tune – e.g. the visual, verbal and musical symbolism, or the rhythmic phasing
of film vs. music – the most basic observation, here, is that the song is immedi-
ately put into perspective by establishing Ben as the central focaliser in the
first frames to which it is first sounded. The opening three stanzas of “Scar-
borough Fair” are set to a visual composition that makes use of a whole range
of filmic focalisation techniques, combining gaze shots, point of view shots,
over-the-shoulder shots and more elaborate variants (as when Ben is shown
helplessly watching Elaine from afar through the rear-view mirror of his Alfa
Spider) with more conventional shots showing Ben lethargically lingering
around. This type of focalisation is held up throughout the following scenes
when, after announcing his intention of marrying Elaine to his parents,
Benjamin speeds up north and eventually spots Elaine on Berkeley campus
(the song is played in full here), or when Ben watches Elaine and Karl walk
away at the Berkeley zoo (accompanied by the tune’s closing stanza).
Quite obviously, then, Nichols wants us to associate Simon and Gar-
funkel’s performance with Benjamin Braddock’s predicament, as Paul Simon

See, it was Mike’s concept that we would be the voice of Benjamin, the graduate, in the
film. Every time you would hear us, it would be as if Benjamin was speaking. A song like
“The Sound of Silence” is really Benjamin talking about his life and his parents and where
he lives and what he sees around him. (qtd. in Swenson 1984, 113)

What is it then that “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” brings to the character and

film, and what is it that the film in return brings to the song? As I have ar-
110 Reading Song Lyrics

gued earlier, Simon and Garfunkel’s take on “Scarborough Fair” provides a

very hybrid, and extremely flexible generic mix in which meaning is very
difficult to pin down. On the one hand, the performance draws on a folk reg-
ister, by adopting an age-old folk tune, by taking over Martin Carthy’s guitar
arrangement, and by adding to it an anti-war protest song. On the other hand,
the contrapuntal interlacing of two melodies, as well as the musical instru-
mentation (cymbals and synthesised harpsichord) cater to art music tastes,
while Simon and Garfunkel’s close singing style and the heavy processing of
the vocal tracks tend towards the pop end of the continuum. While it remains
sufficiently clear that we are dealing with a tune that lyrically seems to be –
primarily, at least (the “Canticle”-part again complicates things) – about lost
love, the particular kind of love-relationship at stake remains diffuse, as the
musical keying simultaneously facilitates readings of pure and transcendent
love (unsullied by sex), a highly personalised tale of erotic intimacy and be-
trayal (as in Marianne Faithfull’s folk-pop version), or a more sarcastic, per-
haps political, and collective take in the vein of Martin Carthy’s model.
The contextual framing by the filmic imagetext does much to resolve this
ambiguity: by positioning Benjamin as the ‘speaker’ of the lyrics, by sug-
gesting Elaine as the lost lover, and by putting the (implied) viewer in the
position of the mediating addressee, the story of lost love loses much of its
mysterious edge and is duly explicated. The latent theme of intimidating fe-
male sexuality (literally ‘demonised’ in the “Elfin Knight” forerunners) is
played out by Mrs. Robinson, while “true love” is reserved for Elaine, who is
granted the transcendent chastity of the tune’s Petrarchan thrust, and who is
even appropriately shoved off again to the “North Country” after she finds
out about her mother’s affair.
While the meaning of the lyrics and music is thus effectively put into
dialogue with the larger meaning of the imagetext, the song is of course si-
multaneously free to bounce back and inform the film in more general terms.
It is here that the communal and political thrust of “Scarborough Fair’s” folk-
authenticated rock appeal comes into play in view of the cultural capital with
which performances by Simon and Garfunkel were (still) imbued before
1968. As David Shumway argues, “Simon and Garfunkel’s songs encourage
the identification of Benjamin with a disaffected generation and discourage
our seeing him for the isolated, idiosyncratic individual he might otherwise
seem” (Shumway 1999, 38). Mike Nichols’s primary impetus to hire Simon
and Garfunkel for the film was that they were commonly associated with a
newly politicised youth, as explicated in the anti-war lyrics of the “Canticle”
part or in the lyrics of “The Sound of Silence” lamenting the marginalisation
of an ailing generation whose voices are drowned in the noise of the busy
mainstream. Paul Simon’s songs thus saturate the film with an atmosphere of
Mediality and Musical Multimedia 111

stylised discontent in which Benjamin Braddock’s predicament and his rebel-

lion against the promises of his parents’ bourgeois world gain an allegorical
quality which all but reflects the zeitgeist of a pending social revolution.
However, things are of course hardly as smooth as this interpretation
would suggest. While certain implications suddenly crystallise in the mutual
allocation of meaning between song and filmic imagetext – above all the ac-
tual nature of the amorous disaster that predates the song lyrics’ lamentation
– other elements stand out in their refusal to cohere to the dominant reading.
What, if we take the lyrics literally, are we to really make of the “soldier
polishing a gun” in the “Canticle”-part, more specifically? And what of the
mysterious riddles that Benjamin apparently intends to present, together with
Simon and Garfunkel, to Elaine to win (or not to win?) her back? And what,
to make things worse, of the elaborate interlacing of anti-war lyrics with the
riddles of Ben’s amorous quest? Whatever it is, should we really listen to
“Benjamin talking about his life” here, as Simon insists, Benjamin Braddock
would be quite a thinker. Quite obviously, though, Benjamin Braddock is
hardly a thinker at all, but superbly enacted as a beacon of shallowness. As
Nichols notes, “Dustin [Hoffman] has always said that Benjamin is a walking
surfboard” (Smith 1999).
It is worth quoting at some length what Stephen Farber and Estelle Chan-
gas had to say about this in an early review of the film:

Nichols does use a few fine Simon and Garfunkel songs (written long before the film was
conceived) to pump poetic and intellectual content into The Graduate. Because all the songs,
especially “The Sounds [sic] of Silence,” are so concise, lyrical, eloquent, we are tempted to
believe that the film contains their insights and that Ben understands them. We are supposed
to assume that Ben shares Paul Simon’s perceptions of “people talking without speaking,
people hearing without listening” in a world whose “words of the prophet are written on the
subway walls,” but in truth Ben couldn’t begin putting the world in that kind of order. He’s
only a beer-drinking Time magazine type, as Hoffman recognized, rather harmlessly stupid
and awkward, but tricked up with a suffering face and an Angst-ridden song intent on
persuading us that he’s an alienated generational hero. And audiences eager to believe that
all young people are sensitive and alienated and that all old people are sell-outs or monsters
gratefully permit Hoffman’s mannerisms and Paul Simon’s poetry to convince them of a
depth in Ben that the part, as written, simply does not contain. (Farber and Changas 1968, 38)

What exactly is it, then, that allows audiences to so readily associate the flat-
ness of a “walking surfboard” with the depth of Paul Simon’s lyrics, or, in
our case, the poetry of a traditional ballad like “Scarborough Fair”? Quite
simply, what should provide a prime case for blatant irony if ever there was
one is contained by the mediating force of music in the double feedback loop
outlined above. The simple test case is to imagine the The Graduate without
Simon and Garfunkel’s music, but instead with the narrative of “Scarborogh
112 Reading Song Lyrics

Fair/Canticle” projected onto the images as voice-over narration – the result, I

believe, would be utterly ridiculous. It follows that in order to glue lyrics and
the visual composition/narrative of the film together and to skimpily cover up
potential ironies, it is paramount that the interplay of sound, word and images
is sufficiently “songful” to suspend verbal and visual discontinuities.
I would propose, therefore, that although “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” is
meant to be ‘heard’ in The Graduate, it is nevertheless never meant to be
carefully listened to in terms of its lyrics, and moreover that Mike Nichols
could reasonably suspect that his viewers indeed would not. After all, Simon
and Garfunkel’s recording of the song has great potential for songfulness
already in itself, partly through the fact that the interlacing of two vocal
melodies beginning with the second stanza makes it hard to make out the
words in the first place and demands a deliberate effort to understand the rid-
dles and protest song on mere acoustic grounds. More crucially, however, the
multiple overdubbing of the vocal tracks in combination with the Everly-
Brothers-style close singing produces an enveloping softness and pseudo-
intimacy which indeed invites relishing in the “singing-in-itself: just sing-
ing,” as Kramer (2002, 53) would put it. Fed into the second loop and set into
dialogue with the visual composition of the film, the songful appeal of Simon
and Garfunkel’s performance is then rather enhanced than troubled by the
intense and patient shots of Ben and Elaine, just as by the dominating sense
of melancholy engendered by the filmic plot. As a result, Paul Simon is in-
deed for the most time, in a supreme twist of irony, “talking without speak-
ing” in The Graduate as the viewers are mostly “hearing without listening.”
Surely, though, while excessive semantic conflict and irony are thus ele-
gantly contained, they are by no means dissolved. In fact, I believe that Nichols
subtly highlights the ironies of his choice of scoring, and most obviously so
in the afore-mentioned framing of the film with “The Sound of Silence” as a
leitmotif which undercuts the bildungsroman-aspirations of the plot. The most
memorable – perhaps unwitting – comment, though, occurs during Ben and
Elaine’s first date, when they have a late snack in a drive-in. They genuinely
talk – for the first time, really – yet their conversation is suddenly drowned
by a rock song blurting on the car radio next to them, to the effect that Ben
and Elaine close the folding roof of their Alfa Spider and speedily wind up
the windows. Farber and Changas comment the scene thus: “What two such
uninteresting people could talk about is a real stumper; and Nichols must
have thought so too, since he bars us from one of their few conversations,
placing them behind the windshield of Ben’s convertible” (Farber and Changas
1968, 39). The rock song that mercifully spared us their exchange of ideas, of
course, is Paul Simon’s very own “Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine,” the
fifth Simon and Garfunkel song on the original soundtrack album.
6. Bridge: Song and National Culture

In the previous four chapters I have tried to make better sense of lyrics as a
performance art – an art that is invariably framed by specific medial contexts
and conditions; that is materially grounded in sound rather than graphemic
writing; that is embedded in questions of taste and social distinction which
also affect the communicative, economic and institutional mechanisms of its
production and reception; and an art that is marked by the intersubjective
dynamics of repeated performances which generate the performativity of its
verbal conventions. One thing that should have become clear at this stage is
that there is little point in interpreting lyrics as works of art on this basis,
whose meaning mainly resides in the properties of the text itself. While
written poetry may tolerate such readings, song lyrics do not: what lyrics
‘mean’ is (even) more radically a function of the text in varying cultural
contexts or ‘performance arenas’.
As I have tried to demonstrate by proposing various readings of “Scar-
borough Fair,” a single song with a roughly identical verbal and melodic core
may accordingly take on widely different ‘meanings’: in Martin Carthy’s folk
version of 1965, we are presented with a song which calls upon the ballad’s
historical genealogy from supernatural to amatory implications, and in which
the singer performs as storyteller within an (imagined) folk community. In
Marianne Faithfull’s version of 1966, the tune is turned into a torch song, and
the lyrics are consequently subsumed under the singular authority of Faith-
full’s ambivalent media image which simultaneously deals in innocence and
seduction. In Simon and Garfunkel’s version of 1967, we encounter a rock
song which is curiously suspended between the commercial, art and folk mu-
sic worlds, and which Mike Nichols adopted to score his 1968 feature film
The Graduate with the zeitgeist of a generation in a multimedial move not
without its inherent ironies. Finally, Sérgio Mendes’s 1968 bossa nova ver-
sion of the song drives at suspending the verbal meaning of “Scarborough
Fair” altogether, only to charge the words with an alternative – musical –
message of sensuous seduction. In all cases, the performance of “Scarbor-
ough Fair” revolves around a common theme, which is, of course, a cause of
lost love – yet the perspective radically changes, roughly, from detached sar-
casm to intimate seductive despair to elusive social protest all the way to
erotic self-indulgence.
114 Reading Song Lyrics

Scarborough Fair (V): Ideological Transformations

Something I have largely left entirely aside in the attempt to sketch a “cul-
tural rhetoric of lyrics” in the first part of this study is the specific ‘English-
ness’ of “Scarborough Fair” – English, this is, not by virtue of its possibly
Northumbrian origins, or in the sense that the lyrics or melody are essentially
evocative of a particular national character (if they were, how would they
have worked for Mike Nichols to capture the spirit of Californian youth cul-
ture in 1968, or for Sérgio Mendes in the same year to serve global fantasies
of the Copacabana?). My point is, rather, that “Scarborough Fair” has been
invested with certain ideas of cultural identity over the course of the 19th
century in particular, when the song was performatively inscribed into a dis-
course formation which attempted to re-negotiate notions of national culture
in the wake of the romantic thought of Herder, Schiller, Wordsworth, Col-
eridge, Scott and others. It is worth quoting Francis James Child again in this
context, whose monumental English and Scottish Popular Ballads did much
to guarantee the survival of “Scarborough Fair,” and which formed the start-
ing point of my own discussions of the tune. Here is Child in his 1878 ency-
clopaedia entry on “Ballad Poetry,” explaining the cultural validity of ‘true’
popular ballads:

These ballads were […] the creation and manifestation of the whole people, great and hum-
ble, who were still one in all essentials, having the same beliefs, the same ignorance, and the
same tastes, and living in much closer relations than now. The diffusion of knowledge and
the simulation of thought through the art of printing, the religious and intellectual conse-
quences of the Reformation, the intrusion of cold reflection into a world of sense and fancy,
broke up the national unity. (Child qtd. in Bell 1988, 292)

Child’s notion of “reflection,” “sense” and “fancy,” correspond almost di-

rectly to Coleridge’s triad of secondary imagination, primary imagination,
and fancy as put forth in chapter 13 of his Biographia Literaria (1817). For
Child, then, true popular ballads originate in times still governed by
immediate perception (primary imagination, sense) and fancy as “a mode of
Memory emancipated from the order of time and space” (Coleridge 1967,
167) which allowed for the re-organisation of perceived reality, but not for its
creative and analytical investigation (secondary imagination, reflection). The
advent of “diffusion,” “simulation” and recreation as the finite Cartesian echo
of the “infinite I AM” (ibid.) of Coleridge’s primary imagination, then, is
obviously seen less as a gift to mankind (Coleridge’s dominant reading as a
poet) than a curse: marking the advent of modern individualism, it displaces
the collective consciousness of ‘the people’ with the self-awareness of
individual ‘persons’ or ‘authors’. Thus Child notes that popular ballads, while
Song and National Culture 115

“differentiated by circumstance and idiosyncrasy […] will always be an

expression of the mind and heart of the people as an individual, and never the
personality of individual men” (Child, qtd. in Bell 1988, 189). In a striking
move, the dissemination of print media, concomitant notions of individual
authorship, and personal self-fashioning are then, together with other factors,
blamed for the break-up of “national unity” which a revaluation of rural
popular culture, however, may help to redeem.
Such statements illustrate how deeply Child’s oeuvre is indebted to Jo-
hann Gottfried Herder’s vision of national renewal, even if Michael J. Bell
claims that Child evades the idealist notion of Herder’s mythical ‘Volk’ in
favour of the ‘real’ communities of the middle ages (Bell 1988, 16), and even
if Child’s primary aim was to foster an “ideal cultural unity in the newly
United States […] under the hegemony of British diaspora culture” (Chees-
man and Rieuwerts 1999, 10) rather than taking a decided interest in Euro-
pean nationalisms. Both Herder and Child conceive of an historical trajectory
in which organic cultures were displaced by the increasingly complex differ-
entiations of the modern age, and both propagate a reactivation of the ‘popu-
lar’ to correct the aberrations of urban taste and the hegemony of foreign
artifice in order to “recall a literature from false and artificial courses to na-
ture and truth” (Child qtd. in Bell 1988, 290).
The rhetoric of Child and his fellow folklorists is not without its own in-
herent ironies and contradictions, of course: this concerns, first, the fact that a
ballad like “The Elfin Knight/Scarborough Fair” is programmatically ‘res-
cued’ from the oblivion of oral culture by laborious research and minute aca-
demic dissociation of ‘true’ from ‘false’ popular ballads, that is by an
impressive intellectual effort of the very “cold reflection” which allegedly
brought about the loss of communal tradition in the first place; and second,
that the ballads are subsequently mediatised and marketed in the form of
books, i.e. in the very medium which is typically blamed for the loss of or-
ganic popular culture. Yet again, books presented a curse and a blessing for
19th-century folklorists: as Benedicte Anderson emphasised, book publishing
and print capitalism not only contributed to the demise of pre-modern com-
munities, but have simultaneously been among the enabling forces behind the
romantic movements of national consciousness. Specifically referring to the
rise of the novel and newspapers over the course of the 18th century, Ander-
son highlights how print media played a crucial role in bridging the differen-
tiation of modern societies and allowing the formation of what he famously
styled “imagined communities,” i.e. “invented” nations which are “imagined
as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson 1991, 6, 25).
What Child and others thus essentially perform when putting ballads into
books is an attempt to extend the performance arena of songs like “Scarbor-
116 Reading Song Lyrics

ough Fair” from ‘real communities’ to the level of the nation as an ‘imagined
community’, in the hope that the ballads’ organic “expression of the mind
and heart of the people as an individual” will rub off, eventually, and help to
mend the discontinuities of national culture. This mode of cultural identity-
fashioning, of course, operates as much by an inclusive recovery of the
genuinely ‘popular’ and ‘national’ – all that which found its way into the
English and Scottish Popular Ballads – as much as by a politics of exclusion:
a further parallel between the ideas and research of Herder and Child which
merits attention in this context is that both deserve credit for the encompass-
ing comparativist dimensions of their work which acknowledges the trans-
cultural relatedness of popular songs and epics (Herder is often seen as the
founding father of cultural relativism), yet that both nevertheless highlight
the importance of distinct national traditions and character. As Herder notes
in his Letters for the Advancement of Humanity (1791-1797):

The difference between languages, customs, dispositions and ways of living were intended
to be a mechanism against the arrogant chaining of peoples, a dam against foreign floods:
because the supreme being, to secure the whole picture, had an interest in giving every peo-
ple and every race their own imprint and character. Peoples were meant to live next to rather
than onerously between and on top of each other. (Herder 1877-, vol. 18, 235-36, italics in
the original, my tr.)

No doubt, this type of rhetoric still sounds uncannily familiar in the 21st
century – even though the trajectory from Herder’s warning against “foreign
floods” to the ideological legacies of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” is
hardly a straight-forward one: there is obviously a qualitative difference be-
tween Herder’s cultural nationalism (formulated in a heavily particularised
Germany decades from the arrival of state nationalism), Child’s New Eng-
land diaspora patriotism, and the endemic “postcolonial melancholia” which
Paul Gilroy diagnoses in post-imperial Britain. As Gilroy notes: “An older,
more dignified sadness that was born in the nineteenth century should be
sharply distinguished from the guilt-ridden loathing and depression that have
come to characterize Britain’s xenophobic responses to the strangers who
have intruded upon it more recently” (Gilroy 2004, 98). The evolution of the
discourse of national culture, this implies, has created many facets with mul-
tiple ideological overtones, even if all facets seem to depend on a similar core
mechanism, namely the performance of national belonging against cultural
In the second part of this study, I wish to more closely investigate how
songs and song lyrics relate to the discourse formation of national culture by
extensively looking at three exemplary songs from three very different times
– the Renaissance, the Romantic period, and the final years of the past mil-
Song and National Culture 117

lennium respectively. What interests me in more detail in these contexts is

again the nexus between the performance arena of songs – which is invaria-
bly complicated at the moment of mediatisation and the concomitant genera-
tion of the audience as an ‘imagined musical community’ – and the imagined
community of the nation. The readings are thus meant to complement a
growing amount of critical work on the relationship between narration and
nation in the fields of literary and cultural studies. Two foundational texts in
this respect to which I will return are Homi Bhabha’s contributions in his
edited volume Nation and Narration, which have, however, done much to
shape the critical outlook on “the nation as it is written” (Bhabha 1990a, 2,
italics in the original) – my interest, in contrast, will be in the nation as it is

Two Times of Singing the Nation

The theoretical framework of the following chapters is much indebted to the

last of Antony Easthope’s important studies, Englishness and National Cul-
ture (1999), both as a source of inspiration, yet also because I wish to dis-
tance myself from some of Easthope’s ideas. I take from Easthope the
fundamental notion (which he develops with reference to Edward Said’s Ori-
entalism [1977] and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s The Signifying Monkey [1988])
that “national culture” is a discourse that emerges from multiple signifying
practices. Even though Easthope uses national culture in the singular, there-
fore, the notion of national identity it enhances is by definition plural and
heterogeneous; as Easthope explains: “If identity is understood as an effect of
discourse, national identity in a national culture can never achieve the unified
homogeneity it wishes for itself” (Easthope 1999, 23-24). I part company
with Easthope, however, when it comes to the explanation of the discourse
formation of national culture as the hybrid surface expression of underlying
“primordial movements, constitutive for the species, in which the subject
strives to win a place for itself within language and so become a speaking
subject,” and which effects that “at its deeper levels, in the way things are
said and written […], discourse is as solid as a rock” (Easthope 1999, 18-19,
Easthope’s argument is particularly levelled against ‘materialist’ theories
of the nation in the wake of Benedicte Anderson, which he (justly) considers
to be flawed in two respects: first, he argues that Anderson and his followers
reiterate the romantic fallacy that traditional, pre-modern communities were
somehow ‘real’ whereas modern communities are “imaginary, false, unreal”
(ibid., 10). Following Derrida, who admonishes that Rousseau’s idea of pre-
118 Reading Song Lyrics

modern community as something “immediately present to itself, without dif-

ference, a community of speech where all members are within earshot” (Der-
rida 1976, 136) is outright illusory and ignores the inherent alienation of
verbal signification, Easthope rejects the contrast between authentic identity
and the inauthenticity of national culture. Second, Easthope remarks that
Anderson “makes no attempt to theorise what might count as a materialist
explanation of the nature and function of collective identity” and notes that in
order to understand the modern nation, it is paramount to understand “how
the individual is ‘projected’ into the collective” (Easthope 1999, 10, 11). His
own solution to the problem is to counterpoise ‘materialist’ models with a
trajectory of psychoanalytical accounts of the nation from Freud and Kristeva
to Lacan and Žižek who, each in their own way, conceive of the nation as an
idealised object that is introjected in processes of collective identification,
processes which are, moreover, deeply complicit with a mass rejection of
alterity which only constitutes the identity of national discourse.
I have two basic problems with Easthope’s approach, here. My first prob-
lem is that Easthope proposes a pervasive “national desire” as the impetus for
individuals “to become familiar and habituated to [national discourse], to
become competent in that identity, unconsciously taking on something of it
as oneself” (ibid., 23). National desire is thus associated with an ideal “un-
conscious structure” (ibid., 4) not unlike Chomsky’s linguistic competence
that is constitutive of the “formal operations” (ibid, 32, italics in the original)
which generate the discourse of national culture. Even though he never ex-
plicitly calls it that, what Easthope proposes, really, is a transformational
grammar of ‘Englishness’, in which he singles out empiricism both as a para-
digmatic operational rule and as an outstanding subject of discourse. The in-
genious deconstructive twist of his account is of course that the English
valuation of factuality and ‘common sense’ over ideas and speculation is re-
vealed to be a function of the very ‘desire’ which the English constantly wish
to denounce (while the commonsensical lucidity of Easthope’s own narrative
style in Englishness and National Culture adds another ironic meta-level to
the argument). Yet this comes at the price of an unmistakeable circularity:
Easthope presupposes a largely unspecified, relatively unchanging psycho-
logical deep structure which engenders the national preference for particular
types of discourse, which may then be detected in a vast array of cultural out-
put (from the writings of Locke and Milton all the way to the lingo of today’s
journalists and comedians), which in turn confirms the deep structure at
work. This kind of argument moves Easthope’s inspired ‘ridicule’ into the
unfavourable vicinity of the many popular and academic defences of Eng-
lishness which sprang up in the wake of Tom Nairn’s influential study of The
Song and National Culture 119

Break-Up of Britain (1977), many of which make out an organic and un-
changing national ‘character’. 1
As I already suggested in a different context in the chapter on “Perform-
ance and Performativity,” it is possible to account for the relative consistency
of some aspects of tradition while simultaneously opening the discourse
(here, of the nation) to “the possibility of other narratives of the people and
their difference” (Bhabha 1990b, 300) without succumbing to the lure of
what Sybille Krämer calls a “two-worlds-ontology” (Krämer 2002). The key
is to conceive of individual signifying practices as performative inscriptions
into the discourse formation of the nation whose tradition is thus simultane-
ously accumulated and potentially disrupted, rather than as a question of pre-
formation by an ideal system or deep structure. Easthope in fact introduces
this line of thought when he refers to Derrida’s readings of the “performative
acts” inherent in the American Declaration of Independence and Nelson
Mandela’s political rhetoric during apartheid (Derrida 1984 and 1987, East-
hope 1999, 7 and 40), yet he fails to follow up on Derrida’s fundamental no-
tion of “iterability” – other than Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, for
instance, who open their influential collection on The Invention of Tradition
with the remark that traditions – unless they are invented – depend on
cultural practices “which seek to inculate certain values and norms of
behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the
past” (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983, 1). It is particularly regrettable in this
context that Easthope entirely fails to take note of Homi Bhabha’s reworking
of Freud and Lacan’s ideas, whose work demonstrates that a theory of
national consciousness may draw on psychoanalytical conceptions of alterity
while simultaneously highlighting the “performativity of language in the
narratives of the nation” (Bhabha 1990a, 3). Thus, Bhabha links notions of
liminality and cultural alienation with “the alienating and iterative time of the
sign” (against the stasis of Anderson’s argument), positioning the nation in “a
signifying space of repetition rather than a progressive or linear seriality”
(Bhabha 1990b, 309-10).

The conclusion of BBC-journalist Jeremy Paxman’s best-selling The English: A Portrait of
a People, for instance, noting that “for all claims that the country is ‘finished’, the attitudes
of mind that made the English culture what it is – individualism, pragmatism, love of words
and, above all, that glorious, fundamental cussedness – are unchanged” (Paxman 1998, 264),
sounds uncannily like Easthope’s final verdict. The notion of a national character also per-
vades works as diverse as Geoffrey Elton’s historiographical take on The English (1992) or
Clive Aslet’s journalistic Anyone for England (1997); for an overview see the introduction
of Mergenthal 2003.
120 Reading Song Lyrics

This brings me to my second misgiving about Easthope’s approach, which

is a pervasive evasion of more particular manifestations of ‘the other’ in na-
tional desire. Desire, for Easthope, is a function of the inevitable heterogene-
ity of discourse which constitutes a lack that the English attempt to com-
pensate with the assurances of empiricism: “National collectivity occasions
desire, then, because it is always incomplete, constituting a lack, an actual
heterogeneity” (Easthope 1999, 47). This line of argument supports East-
hope’s idea of an autopoietic Englishness which (without external input) is
doomed to constantly reproduce itself in a discourse that has surreptitiously
remained “solid as a rock”; yet it is very susceptible in its neglect of the pro-
ductive frictions between that discourse and those surrounding it. Thus, East-
hope glosses over Linda Colley’s work in Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-
1837 (1992), dismissing her valuable insight that British national identity has
critically evolved against the perceived cultural otherness of Catholic France.
Similarly, the implications of the British Empire in processes of national
identity formation are entirely left aside, except for a suggestive line in which
Easthope proposes that “the English continue to repeat Empire through irony
– an irony which recognises its inevitability and at the same time mourns the
loss” (Easthope 1999, 31). To read up on the full implications of this state-
ment, though, one needs to turn to Simon Gikandi’s important analyses in
Maps of Englishness, where he insists that “questions of Englishness cannot
be discussed except in relation to different forms of colonial alterity” (Gi-
kandi 1996, 50).
In the following readings of three exemplary song lyrics, I wish to sustain
the notion that national culture is in many respects shaped by the contact
zone in the widest sense – often marked by “conditions of coercion, radical
inequality, and intractable conflict” (Pratt 1992, 6) – where orthodoxies of
Englishness are continually invoked or contested in multiple signifying prac-
tices in the unstable dynamics between self and other. It will not do, more-
over, to conceive of ‘the other’ as an unspecified ‘lack’, but indeed as closely
associated with real ‘others’ who are both targets and agents in negotiations
of Englishness – be they French or Irish, Catholic or Muslim, colonial sub-
jects or postcolonial migrants. My approach really follows Simon Gikandi,
therefore, who appreciates Linda Colley’s proposal in Britons that “British-
ness was superimposed over an array of internal differences in response to
contact with the Other, and in response to the conflict with the Other” (Colley
1992, 6), but takes the argument “a step further” by claiming that at least in
the context of empire, “this other was a constitutive element in the invention
of Britishness; that it was in writing about it that the metropolis could be
drawn into the sites of what it assumed to be colonial difference and turn
them into indispensable spaces of self-reflection.” By the same token, Gi-
Song and National Culture 121

kandi insists, “the colonial space was to reconstitute itself in response to the
imposition of Englishness; in inventing itself, the colonial space would also
reinvent the structure and meaning of the core terms of Englishness, includ-
ing Shakespeare and cricket” (Gikandi 1996, xviii).
Gikandi’s project is obviously informed, here, by Homi Bhabha’s recep-
tion of psychoanalytical thought in his interrogation of The Location of Cul-
ture (1994). Bhabha’s argument in the magisterial essay “Signs Taken for
Wonders” is, roughly and simplified, that when purportedly universal cultural
symbols (say, Shakespeare or cricket) based on purportedly unchangeable
“rules of recognition” are imposed upon the colonial other, a dynamic sets in
which invariably leads to a displacement from fixed symbol to contested
sign. Once adopted and uncannily iterated by colonial subjects (Bhabha fa-
mously takes over Lacan’s notion of “mimicry” as “a technique of camou-
flage,” Bhabha 1994, 121), the imperial desire for cultural discrimination and
“domination through disavowal” (ibid., 112) gives way to ambivalence – “an
uncertainty that estranges the familiar symbol of English ‘national’ authority
and emerges from its colonial appropriation as the sign of its difference”
(ibid., 113). Such discursive hybridity is indeed an inevitable product of any
intersubjective dialogue across cultural difference – even though specifically
conceived by Bhabha in the context of ‘peripheral’ colonial exchange – and
pertains, therefore, to many forms of cultural difference (gendered, social,
religious), and matters in the colonial space as much as in the metropolitan
centre which will form the dominant focus of my own readings. 2 Following
Bhabha and Gikandi, then, Easthope correctly assesses national desire as a
function of an insurmountable heterogeneity of discourse; yet he fails to suf-
ficiently account for the fact, first, that this heterogeneity is an inevitable
side-effect of the imposition of finite notions of Englishness upon all sorts of
‘others’, and second, that national desire cuts across binarisms such as in-
side/outside or self/other in both directions, informing transnational and
transcultural webs of signifying practice.
It is on these grounds that Homi Bhabha’s proposition that national cul-
ture is constructed “within a range of discourses as a double narrative move-
ment,” suspended between “two times of the nation,” gains its particular
importance. Bhabha conceives of a doubling of nation-time into an imposing

The ubiquity of cultural difference in metropolitan contexts far predates the mass migrations
following WW II, but already motivated, for instance, Queen Elizabeth’s “open letter” to the
Lord Mayor of London in 1596, authorising the deportation of “divers blackmoores brought
into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here to manie” (qtd. in Bartels
2006, 305). On the substantial black presence in Britain’s cities since the 16th century see
Fryer (1985), Dabydeen (1984 and 1987), Gerzina (1995) and Innes (2005).
122 Reading Song Lyrics

orthodoxy of accumulative tradition on the one hand in which “people are the
historical ‘objects’ of a nationalist pedagogy, giving the discourse an author-
ity that is based on the pre-given or constituted historical origin or event,”
and the recursive temporality of a “process of signification” on the other in
which the people are subjects, and which “must ease any prior or originary
presence of the nation-people to demonstrate the prodigious, living principle
of the people as the continuing process by which the national life is redeemed
and signified as a repeating and reproductive process” (Bhabha 1990b, 297).
All signifying practices in national discourse, this implies, are accordingly
split in the sense that they partake both in the “pedagogical,” and in the re-
peating and reproducing mode of the “performative.” However, it is at the
margins of the social, for Bhabha, where the friction between both voices is
most felt – hence his valuation of the peripheral within the nation as a site of
“prodigious” and productive ambivalence, and as a speaking position for
“[c]ounter-narratives of the nation that continually evoke and erase its total-
izing boundaries [and] disturb those ideological movements through which
‘imagined communities’ are given essentialist identities” (ibid., 300).
The following readings wish to illustrate how songs and lyrics take part in
the imagination and iteration of Englishness in-between the two times of the
nation. This is topical, I believe, since the exclusive focus on narrative and
writing in Bhabha’s work and most of those who followed in his footsteps
contradicts Bhabha’s own critical programme. If the nation, as Bhabha puts
forth in an often quoted line, “[d]eprived of the unmediated visibility of his-
toricism […] turns from being the symbol of modernity into becoming the
symptom of an ethnography of the ‘contemporary’ within culture” (ibid.,
298), any approximately comprehensive “ethnography of the contemporary”
cannot possibly limit its scope to the signifying practices of writing only. The
critical assessment of narratives of Englishness, therefore, needs to be com-
plemented with a wider array of perspectives, such as in Ian Baucom’s ex-
cellent investigation of Englishness, colonial spaces and architecture (1999),
or, in this case, by looking at the performance art of song.
The readings of song lyrics in the second part are exemplary case studies
in this vein – they do not propose to outline a conclusive historical trajectory
of the relationship between English song and national culture, nor can they be
in any sense comprehensive or representative of the range and diversity of
musical and lyrical practice. They do, however, cover a relatively wide range
of generic, medial and contextual variation by taking up songs which can be
(retrospectively) attributed, roughly, to the art, folk, and commercial music
worlds, which have been mediatised in the form of songbook, broadside, CD
and video among others, and which cut across very different strata of society
in terms of class, religion and ethnicity. They are also meant to introduce a
Song and National Culture 123

larger historical perspective after the exemplary readings of “Scarborough

Fair” in the first part have mostly revolved around a rather tiny span of four
years in the 1960s. I will begin with a song by John Dowland, printed in his
path-breaking First Booke of Songes in 1597, which is intricately evocative
of the ambivalent desire of a Catholic exile for the pedagogy of Queen Eliza-
beth’s courtly culture. My second reading will be of an anonymous Romantic
street ballad (adopting the tune of a ‘true’ popular ballad) which mourns the
demise of metropolitan theatre culture in view of the exoticist craze around
the ‘Hottenot Venus’ in 1811. My final reading will then be of the opening
track of the album Community Music by the musical collective Asian Dub
Foundation, released a year before the attacks of 9/11 as a scathing attack on
the national identity politics of Tony Blair’s New Labour.
Before turning to Dowland’s lyrical and musical identity politics, how-
ever, I should briefly explicate my usage of the term ‘Englishness’ in distinc-
tion to the rivalling ‘Britishness.’ In my understanding, Britishness refers to a
discourse formation which since the Act of Union, throughout the history of
Empire and at least until the British Nationality Act of 1981 followed, in Ian
Baucom’s words, a “rhetoric of disaffirmation” (Baucom 1999, 7). British-
ness, in other words, has been defined negatively across internal cultural dif-
ference against an ideological, and importantly, territorial beyond. British
identity, by extension, is something that individuals automatically gained –
whether they wanted or not – by being British subjects across the British
Union and the British Empire in an ideological framework which until 1981
largely adhered to the legal principle of ius soli (law of place). It was only
with Margaret Thatcher’s Nationality Act that this principle gave way to a
dominantly genealogical principle by codifying “a theory of [British] identity
that sought to defend the ‘native’ inhabitants of the island against the claims
of their former subjects by defining an inheritance of race” (ibid., 8).
The pedagogy of Englishness, in contrast, “has regularly exhibited a dou-
ble logic of affirmation and denial” (ibid., 7) which attempts to foreclose
cultural heterogeneity. Invocations of Englishness therefore tend to draw on
organic metaphors pertaining to notions of either (native) place or race. Bau-
com traces back a localist tradition from the anti-Jacobite writings of Burke
through Wordsworth’s mature poetry and Ruskin’s social criticism to 20th-
century writers who perpetuate the notion that setting creates an essential
character, 3 and juxtaposes it to a genealogy of racialised thinking about Eng-
lish identity culminating in the rhetoric of Enoch Powell. It may be worth

For a critique of the localist prejudices of English Romanticism, see Liu (1990) and Simpson
(1993, esp. 138-40).
124 Reading Song Lyrics

quoting one of Powell’s most infamous lines, here, to illustrate the distinct
pedagogies of Englishness and Britishness, and to illustrate the scope of their
political instrumentalisation: the perverse logic behind an argument like
“[t]he West Indian or Asian does not, by being born in England, become an
Englishman. In law he becomes a United Kingdom citizen by birth; in fact he
is a West Indian or an Asian still” (Powell 1991, 393) really points to the con-
venience of the dissociation of Englishness and Britishness during the days of
Empire, and to its reactionary potential in view of the mass migrations to the
‘sceptred isle’ in postcolonial times. In Tobias Wachinger’s words,

Englishness […] was dissociated from the legacy of empire as a pure cultural content from
which Britannia drew the strength to rule the waves. ‘British’ was the name of the empire,
the administrative name for the new subject people and the name for the cultural values ex-
ported beyond the British isles, while the ‘English’ identity of the home country of the green
island was left untouched by possible contamination. (Wachinger 2003, 25)

What interests me in the following readings, therefore, is less Britishness, of

which Robert Young writes that it is the “cunning word of apparent political
correctness invoked in order to mask the metonymic extension of English
dominance” (Young 1995, 3), but distinctly the performance of Englishness
in songs. If there is a political edge to my readings, it is to show that the
‘contamination’ and transcultural exchange which the discourse formation of
Englishness constantly seeks to disavow is indeed its enabling condition –
both in terms of creating an ambivalent desire to belong, and by informing
the multiple signifying practices, split between the two times of the nation,
which constitute the formation and transformation of national culture.
Part II

Case Studies: Performing Englishness

So will the real, the real great britain step forward

(ADF, 2000)
7. Love is in the Ayre (1597)

In late 1914, German writer Oscar Schmitz dubbed Britain “the land without
music” (cf. Blake 1997, xi). No doubt, this was part of the ideological skir-
mishes between two nations freshly at war, yet the phrase hit a weak spot in
the English national consciousness, so much so that it gained almost prover-
bial currency. What Schmitz wished to communicate, of course, was not that
there was no music in Edwardian England – rather, what he was hinting at
was that basically after Purcell, Britain failed to produce any ‘great’ compos-
ers (but instead imported them from the mainland). Surely, there is an obvi-
ous art music bias to the entire debate, and as Andrew Blake is careful to
point out, Schmitz’s statement was somewhat belated since the English
standing in the art music world had already started to significantly improve at
the time with the international successes of Elgar and Vaughan Williams,
among others. For Blake, Britain in the following decades really became “the
land with music” as he demonstrates in a critical survey from Britten to Brit
Pop, so that “in the 1980s, London could (and did) call itself the music capi-
tal of the world” (ibid., emphasis in the original).
The celebration of the 1980s and 90s as a musical ‘golden age’ probably
does not go down to well with art music devotees; yet of course there is an-
other ‘golden age’ of English music centred in London which much more
unambiguously serves as a source of national pride, namely the years be-
tween, roughly, 1588 and 1632. Schmitz and his contemporaries probably
would not have been aware of the musical achievements of this period, since
its revaluation only began in the early 20th century, partly, as Susanne Rupp
(2005a, 1) speculates, in response to the stigma of ‘the land without music’. It
was especially churchman Edward H. Fellowes who took on the national
agenda of collecting, editing and explaining the secular inheritance of English
Renaissance music to a dominantly bourgeois English audience by compil-
ing, first, The English Madrigal School (1913-1924, in 37 volumes), and sec-
ond, The English School of Lutenist Songwriters (1925-1932, in 39 volumes).
The national identity politics in Fellowes’s monumental effort is palpable,
and unmistakeably formulated in the Preface to the second endeavour where
he proudly notes that “The English School of lutenist song-writers stands by
itself as something that had no parallel in contemporary Europe.”
Other than the English madrigal tradition which was – musically, at least
– more or less an “imported exotic” (Doughtie 1986, 123), the English ayre
was indeed in many ways unique, even if it would be wrong to assume that it
evolved in national isolation. This is also true for the songs of John Dowland,
who is today justly credited with being one of the most accomplished song-
128 Reading Song Lyrics

writers, if not the most accomplished songwriter, of his times. As Dowland’s

biographer Diana Poulton points out, the English ayre “derived certain spe-
cial characteristics from its own native background” – particularly from the
ballad tradition and the consort song – yet it needs to be seen as part of the
“general European tradition” (Poulton 1982, 182). Dowland’s songwriting
evolved in intimate transcultural dialogue with the Italian madrigal and the
French genres of chanson, voix de ville, and air de court (cf. Kelnberger
2004a, 44-52), just as Dowland spent much of his professional life not in
Britain, but abroad – in France, Germany, Italy and Denmark. What is it then
that marks Dowland’s songs as specifically ‘English’ apart from the language
he employs and the nationality of their composer?
One answer that has been repeatedly given in this context is Dowland’s
pervasive preoccupation with melancholy which he made a trademark of both
his songs and his public persona. When Anthony Rooley, for instance, notes
that “[i]t is the ‘Englishness’ of Dowland’s music that strikes one most force-
fully” (Rooley 1983, 6), what he really refers to is Dowland’s immersion in
the English cult of melancholy. The pervasiveness of melancholy in Elizabe-
than culture since about the 1580s cannot be contextualised in detail here (see
Yates 1979 for a comprehensive introduction); what is striking, however, is
that the critical literature offers vastly different interpretations of the motiva-
tions behind Dowland’s melancholic trademark. It is possible to make out at
least four different approaches: the first is taken by Diana Poulton, who be-
lieves that Dowland quite simply had a melancholic disposition. Admitting
that “in no period in England before the Elizabethan had the individual been
as conscious of the subjective emotions or as articulate in expressing them,
and side by side with the genuine cases of psychological disturbance and jus-
tified pessimism, a vogue or fashion for melancholy grew up,” she neverthe-
less counts Dowland among the “genuine cases”: “That Dowland suffered
from periods of intense melancholy is shown throughout his life” (Poulton
1982, 77-78). This view, however, is speculative to say the least, given that
there is little historical evidence to sustain it, and taking into account that
reading Dowland’s songs as romanticist expressions of private emotion is a
fallacy: Robin Headlam Wells warns us that “[w]e should not forget that
Dowland was the product of an age that did not expect to find in a poet’s or
composer’s work an intimate record of his private life” (Wells 1994, 204).
An alternative to Poulton’s reading is presented by Anthony Rooley, who
holds that Dowland’s preoccupation with melancholy is neither to do with
fashion (which was wide open to ridicule in the English arts since around
1594) nor with personal affliction, but a serious intellectual pursuit that aligns
him with a group of neo-Platonic poets gathering around powerful patrons
such as the Queen or Lucy Harrington, Lady Bedford (to whom Dowland
Love is in the Ayre 129

dedicated his Second Booke of Songes [1600]). For Rooley, Dowland was in
pursuit of ‘inspired melancholy’, a concept brought to the Elizabethans via
the writings of Florentine Platonists and Marsilio Ficino in particular. Draw-
ing on Frances Yates’s readings of the three stages of inspired melancholy
(the union of music and poetry, philosophical contemplation, divine revela-
tion) which she bases on Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1514 painting “Melencolia
I” (cf. Yates 1979), Rooley argues that “[by] taking melancholy as his artistic
persona, Dowland embraced the highest ambitions in the Renaissance tradi-
tion of inspired melancholy – through his art and his choice of potent images
he hoped to achieve the deepest possible contemplation” (Rooley 1983, 12).
Rooley sustains this view with analyses of Dowland’s ‘songs of darkness’, in
which he makes out a fundamental neo-Platonic concern with numerology
which has since been supported by the musicological expertise of Christian
Kelnberger (2004a, esp. 83-92).
Rooley’s ‘ennobling’ elevation of Dowland to the esoteric ranks of neo-
hermeticism has again come under attack, however, by Robin Headlam Wells
for being historically shaky. This concerns, first of all, more recent evidence
that Frances Yates’s speculations about a conspiratorial Elizabethan ‘School
of Night’ (see esp. Yates 1936), steeped in hermetic thought and including
figures as illustrative as “Marlowe, Raleigh, Drayton, Donne and Shake-
speare” (Rooley 1983, 12), has not quite stood the test of academic verifica-
tion (cf. Wells 194-95). There seems to be little evidence that apart from
George Chapman, any other poet of the English Renaissance had been seri-
ously dedicated to hermeticism, and it is thus rather unlikely that Dowland’s
melancholy should be explicable as a purely esoteric pursuit. Wells supports
this view by arguing that Dowland’s choice of lyrics generally draws on
highly conventional rather than hermetic melancholic sujéts. Noting that the
remarkable trait of Dowland’s lyrics is precisely the “absence of any specific
intellectual content, manifest or occult” (ibid., 198 – a view that has been
vigorously contested, for instance, by David Fischlin [1999]), he instead reads
Dowland’s melancholy as a rhetorical exercise less interested in ideas than
emotional effect. He thus reiterates the grand récit of Renaissance studies
that the Early Modern period marks the passage of music from the classical
Quadrivium or artes mathematicae to the Trivium or artes dicendi (cf. Rupp
2005a, 62-67), stating that the interest in numerical relations and speculative
cosmic correspondences was gradually displaced by an interest in worldly
affective powers and the rhetorical strategies with which they could be elicit-
ted in listeners.
Rooley’s and Wells’s arguments need not be seen as mutually exclusive,
though. As Susanne Rupp is careful to point out, Dowland’s age indeed wit-
nessed a gradual shift from ontological to rhetorical explanations of music –
130 Reading Song Lyrics

yet the one did not generally replace the other. Both models coexisted for
many writers and practitioners, and Wells’s exclusive foregrounding of the
expressive dimensions of Renaissance ayres is partly based on a selective
reading of contemporary music theory. 1 As Rupp demonstrates in a careful
analysis of the most important document in this vein, Thomas Morley’s A
Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music (published in 1597, in the
same year that Dowland’s First Booke of Songes hit the market), Morley’s
notion of ‘poetical music’ “meant to carve out a space between pure specula-
tion and unreflecting expressivity” (ibid., 88, my tr.); neither did Morley wish
to readily sacrifice the cultural capital associated with the ancients, nor did
his instructions to musically ‘rhetoricise’ verbal content go far beyond a
rather unspecific notion of decorum (“you shall have a perfect agreement
and, as it were, an harmonical consent betwixt the matter and the music,”
Morley 1952, 292). What Morley’s concept of poetical music instead wished
to foster and which marks it out as new, for Rupp, is practical instruction,
rational reflection, and a learned dialogue among the new professional guild
of ‘composers’ it sought to establish. But Rupp’s work is important in an-
other respect, namely in offering a fourth way of interpreting Dowland’s
melancholy as “strategic” (Rupp 2003 and 2005a, 135-43).
Rupp’s critical materialist account of Dowland’s melancholy draws on
aspects which Rooley and Wells largely leave aside – the shifting institu-
tional framework of musicking in Dowland’s time (and his own marginality
from the centre of musical practice); the cultural capital associated with lute
songs; the changing opportunities of print culture and music marketing; and,
finally, the implications of what Stephen Greenblatt famously termed Renais-
sance Self-Fashioning (1980). In the following, I wish to follow this lead by
proposing an extended reading of one of Dowland’s best-known songs,
“Come again,” published as no. 17 in his groundbreaking First Booke of
Songes (1597). “Come again” is certainly not part of the 14 out of Dowland’s
87 surviving songs which Rooley marks out as “Songs of Darkness” (Rooley
1983, 6), and has, at first sight, a rather up-beat than melancholy thrust; it is a
song, however, which has so far been underestimated, I believe, in terms of
an intricate complexity that is expressive of Dowland’s ambivalent relation-
ship with the institutions of English national culture. The song may serve as a
key, therefore, to Dowland’s contradictory performance of Englishness, and,

Rupp notes: “The gap between the ‘ontological’ Middle Ages and the ‘rhetorical’ Renaissance
has been greatly exaggerated in the past and is informed by 20th-century notions of medie-
val alterity and Renaissance modernity, and the difference between their respective notions
of expressivity is probably less fundamental than often maintained” (Rupp 2005b, 213).
Love is in the Ayre 131

by extension, also to the fashioning of his melancholy persona. These are the
lyrics as printed in the 1597 folio edition of his First Booke of Songes:

Come againe: sweet loue doth now invite

Come again; sweet loue doth now inuite,
Thy graces that refraine,
To do me due delight,
To see, to heare, to touch, to kisse, to die,
With thee againe in sweetest sympathie.

Come againe that I may cease to mourne,
Through thy vnkind disdaine:
For now left and forlorne,
I sit, I sigh, I weepe, I faint, I die,
In deadly paine and endlesse miserie.

All the day the sun that lends me shine,
By frownes doth cause me pine,
And feeds me with delay:
Her smiles, my springs, that makes my ioyes to grow,
Her frownes the winters of my woe:

All the night my sleeps are full of dreames,
My eyes are full of streames.
My heart takes no delight,
To see the fruits and ioyes that some do find,
And marke the stormes are mee assigned,

Out alas, my faith is ever true,
Yet will she neuer rue,
Nor yield mee any grace:
Her eyes of fire, her heart of flint is made,
Whom teares, nor truth may once inuade.

Gentle loue draw forth thy wounding dart,
Thou canst not pierce her heart,
For I that doe approue,
By sighs and teares more hot then are thy shafts,
Did tempt while she for triumph laughs. (Dowland 1970, n.p.)
132 Reading Song Lyrics

Petrarchism, Anti-Petrarchism and Elizabethan Panegyric

The first two stanza’s of “Come again” are pretty sassy stuff. They form an
intriguing seduction poem which, in the first stanza, puts forth a radically
anti-Petrarchan argument which in many ways anticipates the erotic daring
and wit of John Donne’s secular poetry, 2 and stages an unmistakeable parody
of melancholic (amorous) pursuit in the second which contradicts, really,
overly serious readings of Dowland’s melancholic afflictions. Let us begin
with the first: in Wells’s terms, “Come again” masquerades “as an innocent
complaint” by beginning “with what appears to be a polite and decorous in-
vitation to a reluctant mistress” (Wells 1994, 106) – this impression, how-
ever, is then thoroughly and skilfully overturned in the last two lines (“To
see, to heare, to touch, to kisse, to die / with thee againe […]”). Quite unmis-
takeably, the lines trace a rising emotional excitement and intimacy eventu-
ally culminating in sexual climax (as Diana Poulton charmingly notes, “and
surely here the words ‘to die’ are used in the figurative sense, meaning to
reach the final transports of physical love” 1982, 238) which on a musical
level is mirrored by a scale of rising fourths culminating in the longest note
by far in the tune (a whole note plus attached minima, set, obviously, to the
word ‘die’), and followed by a brief pause which allows the ecstatic
lover/singer to catch his breath 3 before descending a relaxed progression of
seconds towards the end of the stanza. 4 As Wells has shown, there is an addi-
tional piquancy to Dowland’s choice of verbal and musical setting, here, as
Dowland takes recourse to a stylised rhetorical form – documented, for in-

David Fischlin reads the Renaissance ayre “as a significant transitional genre from late-
Elizabethan to early-seventeenth-century Metaphysical lyric. […] Thus, the ayre fills an
important gap in the development of an English lyric tradition; its mixture of Petrarchism
and anti-Petrarchism combines with its propensity for metaphysical literary strategies to
place it squarely on the traditional dividing line between Elizabethan and Metaphysical
styles” (Fischlin 1999, 25-26).
Given that according to Petrarchan as well as anti-Petrarchan convention, the ideal singer is
male, I will refer to the speaker/singer of “Come again” as male in the following; this does
not imply, however, that women did not perform Dowland’s lyrics in Elizabethan times;
against Pamela Coren’s view that Renaissance ayres were an exclusively masculine musical
as well as cultural sphere (cf. Coren 2002), Susanne Rupp compiles a number of indicators
that women indeed partook in this culture (cf. Rupp 2005, 145-61).
Christian Kelnberger points out that the melodic mimesis of the love act is also mirrored
harmonically: “From H, the bass climbs in seconds, only to reach the above mentioned cli-
max in three pronounced octave leaps (g-G-g-G); above this there is a layering of increas-
ingly insistent harmonic progressions which can also, of course, only be fully resolved with
‘die’: G3-C; C-D; D-e (deceptive cadence – not yet); e-D3; D3-G (we are there)” (Kelnberger
2004a, 149, my tr.).
Love is in the Ayre 133

stance, in Lemaire de Belges’s Illustrations (1511-1513) – which parodies

“the medieval devotional five-point gradus amoris” that was meant to lead to
“spiritual beatitude” but in practice “was likely to lead to bliss of a more ter-
restrial nature” (Wells 1994, 106-08). The first stanza of “Come again” quite
outrageously uses (or rather abuses), therefore, the rhetorical figure of
auxesis, commonly associated with the five-step ladder to divine love, to
form a “ladder of lechery” (ibid., 106) – a ladder of lechery, moreover, which
by being framed in one of the rare cases in song that “achieves a mergence of
text and music which in its flawless coherence need to be called ideal”
(Kelnberger 2004a, 148, my tr.) not only cunningly subverts both Christian
and Petrarchan dogma, but exalts sexual fulfilment in aesthetic perfection. 5
The second stanza then forms a counter-piece to the first in which the an-
ticipation of sexual exaltation has given way to frustration – the rhetoric of
seduction laid out in the first stanza, obviously, has not quite produced the
hoped-for effect, and the poem falls back into the familiar patterns of Pet-
rarchan complaint. The ladder of lechery is thus mirrored by a “ladder of
melancholy” (ibid., 148) – “I sit, I sigh, I weepe, I faint, I die, / In deadly
paine […]” – which, however, has a distinctly pathetic ring because of its
immediate juxtaposition with the ladder of lechery whose melodic and har-
monic qualities it mimics. In other words: due to the demands of strophic song,
the singer is forced to rhetorically and musically stylise his own melancholic
pining away in exactly the same way that he just intimated a sexual climax,
envisaging his own tragic death – a quite literal death this time, of course – as
an ecstatic parody of the earlier and more pleasurable draining of spirits.
Dowland’s handling of the theme of melancholy in the first two stanza’s of
“Come again” is therefore clearly a playful, highly ironic, and I believe, self-
reflexive one which signals that the dominant preoccupation with “sighs and
teares” – at least in the rest of the song – is to be taken with a pinch of salt.
The relationship of the following four stanzas of “Come again” with the
first two has proposed a riddle to Dowland scholars that has not been satis-
fyingly solved to date. There are a number of indicators that we are dealing
with a new set of lyrics, here, so much so that individual commentators such
as David Greer (in Dowland 2000, 199) have proposed that we are probably
presented with two different and thematically independent songs set to the
same music, whereby the second is generally read as a contrafact of the first.
The first song would then consist of the first two stanzas only, the second

It may not be too far fetched to argue that the song title itself draws on an obvious pun; after
all, the OED lists the word “come” in the context of experiencing sexual orgasm as early as
1650 (in Bishop Percy’s Loose Songs: “Then off he came, & blusht for shame soe soone that
he had endit”).
134 Reading Song Lyrics

(which Greer titles “All the day”) would contain the remaining four stanzas
in the folio edition of 1597. That Dowland himself intended to signal a
change in lyrical quality is indicated by the odd fact that the counting of stan-
zas in the folio begins anew after the first two – a singular phenomenon
which is nowhere repeated in Dowland’s other printed songs, and which is
consistently held up in the following four (amended) editions published dur-
ing Dowland’s lifetime, including the folio version of 1616 (cf. Dowland
1970). Then, there are a number of formal features which distinguish the first
set of lyrics from the second, most notably the rhyme scheme (abacc vs.
aabcc) and the length of the last line of each stanza, which in the first set
comprises ten syllables, whereas the second features only eight (effecting that
singers will have to distribute the syllables more attentively to match the mu-
sic). Rhetorically, the stanzas in the second set do not feature the characteris-
tic figure of auxesis in the fourth line, and do not really tie in with the musi-
cal progression – all indicating that it was clearly the first set of lyrics which
provided the model for the musical composition, and that the second set was
later either adopted or created to match the already existing tune.
Thematically, the second set of lyrics curiously relapses, at a first glance,
into the clichés of conventional Petrarchism after the mocking subversion and
erotic daring of the first. The lover/singer’s unattainable beloved is intro-
duced right away in the most conventional of Petrarchan metaphors – that of
the sun whose smiles are a source of eternal comfort, but whose frowns can
also bring winters of discontent. In the midst of a range of further clichés
involving streams of tears and much pain at heart, there is a possible devia-
tion from Laura’s chaste ideal, depending on how we read the allusion to “the
fruits and joyes that some do find” in the second stanza (do these people find
pleasure more generally, or indeed with the mistress who so violently rejects
our lover?); yet more generally, the poem sticks to the common Petrarchan
fashions of its time: the swearing of eternal “faith” despite the mistress’s in-
difference (framed in the popular flint-stone metaphor), just as the accusing
resignation in the final stanza (with the obligatory reference to Cupid’s ar-
row) presented commonplaces in the Elizabethan love poetry of the day.
Given that the second set of lyrics is thematically rather conventional and
much less compellingly related to the music than the first (even though rather
effortlessly matching the melody, with the exception, perhaps, of the shortish
last lines), I find the assumption that Dowland’s “Come again” basically pre-
sents us with two independent ‘choices’ of song rather unconvincing. Why
should Dowland have added four seemingly mediocre stanzas to a gem of a
song (both aesthetically and intellectually), if there is no more serious impli-
cation in it? I tend to agree with Diana Poulton, therefore, when she notes that
“[t]here appears to be no good reason why the later stanzas should have been
Love is in the Ayre 135

added if Dowland did not intend them for use” (Poulton 1982, 237), and wish
to suggest that there is a meaningful and indeed deliberate relation between
the two sets of lyrics. Such a connection becomes more feasible if we recon-
sider the conventional Petrarchism of the second set of lyrics, first, in the
larger context of Tudor courtly culture, and second, in the context of the other
songs in Dowland’s First, but also the later Bookes of Songes (1600 and 1603).
It is vital to remember in this context that from the start, there were vested
interests in Petrarch’s (1304-1374) introduction to England; Wyatt’s (1503-
1542) translations of Petrarch’s sonnets were much more than mere transla-
tions, but came along with stylistic transformations (the introduction of ‘plain
style’ to which most of Dowland’s lyrics conform), and the introduction of a
distinctly political dimension, introducing a lyrical format to English culture
which fostered critical reflection of the often precarious situation of the
poet/singer in the midst of courtly conniveries. With the ascent of Elizabeth I,
Petrarchan conventions were then increasingly employed for overtly panegy-
ric ends. With the ascent of a woman into the epicentre of political and reli-
gious power, Petrarchan love poetry – devoid of sexual overtones and expres-
sive of an unfailing loyalty to an unattainable mistress – gradually became a
core resource for panegyric politics. This politics was more often than not
expressive of what Louis Montrose calls “Machiavellian calculations”: pane-
gyric literature “was a medium through which court society manifested its
ethos and the channel through which those within the orbit of the court
pursued and negotiated their individual and common interests” (Montrose
1999, 133). Helen Hackett accordingly notes that “[p]anegyric needs to be
understood as the rhetoric generated by various kinds of political and per-
sonal ambition and dependence, rather than as a sincere effusion or infatua-
tion with Elizabeth’s personality” (Hackett 1995, 238).
Petrarchism played a relatively minor role in panegyric literature between
Elizabeth’s ascent to the throne in 1558 and, roughly, 1578, i.e. while it was
commonly assumed that she would soon marry; the imagery employed in
poetry often suggestively refers to biblical women (Deorah, Judith, Esther –
all married), all the while references to her virginity were understood quite
literally rather than as overt references to the Virgin Mother. This began to
change when it transpired that Elizabeth did not intend to relinquish her po-
litical powers through marriage. Susan Doran (1998) highlights the enter-
tainment performed before the Queen at Norwich in summer 1578 as a
crucial event which marks the beginning of stylisations of the queen as the
‘perpetual virgin’, forever youthful and attractive (at 45, it seemed unlikely
Elizabeth would ever have children). The arts therefore really anticipated the
outcome of marriage negotiations with the duc d’Alencon between 1579 and
1583, whose failure officially sealed Elizabeth’s status as the ‘virgin queen’.
136 Reading Song Lyrics

The result was a boom in panegyric writing which attempted to turn this un-
conventional and unprecedented state “into symbolic capital,” among other
things by “making the virgin queen a symbol of national independence”
(Rupp 2005a, 186, my tr.).
That Petrarchan imagery played a core part in these endeavours is con-
firmed by Philippa Berry, who notes how Elizabeth’s “courtly cult gradually
introduced modifications to the status of lover and beloved” in this context,
but insists that the courtly makers reiterated the underlying chauvinism of the
Petrarchan tradition: “when her unmarried state began to be accepted and
even idealized in courtly literature […] it was as the unattainable object of
masculine desire that Elizabeth was presented, in an assimilation of Petrarchan
and Neoplatonic attitudes” (Berry 1989, 62, italics in the original). The ‘cult
of Elizabeth’ which the Queen obviously tolerated to sustain her position of
power but never responded to, Perry thus again demonstrates, was hardly
fashioned by herself, but “fabricated by a group of male courtiers who at-
tempted to use it to further their own political and personal ambitions” (ibid.).
This realisation particularly matters with regard to the late phase of Eliza-
bethan panegyric, beginning in the 1590s and lasting to the queen’s death in
1603 (cf. Hackett 1995, 163-234), thus covering the time span during which
Dowland composed and published the ayres in his three Bookes of Songes.
The 1590s were a time of relative political stability after the defeat of the
Spanish Armada in 1588 (and indeed a time of unprecedented patriotic sen-
timent), yet they were also a time of rising discontent with the Queen. This
had to do with a number of economic pressures (as a consequence of the
costly war with Spain, failed crops, and the return of the pest, among other
things), yet also with political rivalries among Elizabeth’s chief advisors
which the Queen eventually failed to successfully negotiate. Towards the end
of the 1590s, these rivalries centred around Sir Robert Cecil on the one hand,
and Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, on the other, an impetuous
war hero and darling of the masses whose already strained favours with the
Queen sharply declined after 1599. Essex accepted a military appointment in
Ireland, yet fearing for his influence in London, deserted his post against the
Irish insurgents to report to the Queen; he was consequently put under house
arrest and step by step stripped of all privileges, until he attempted a
desperate coup d’état, failed, and was beheaded in 1601. The panegyric
fashion of the last years of Elizabeth’s reign is accordingly increasingly
ambivalent, and couples excessive Petrarchan adoration of the ageing Queen
with subversive variations of the Petrarchan legacy of amorous complaint. As
Helen Hackett notes: “1590s panegyric becomes progressively divided be-
tween increasingly extravagant professions of devotion to the Queen, and
oblique expressions of dissent and disillusionment” (Hackett 1995, 166).
Love is in the Ayre 137

In a compelling long essay dating to 1969, Lilian M. Ruff and D. Arnold

Wilson put forth the hypothesis that “the madrigal and lutenist composers
from 1598 to 1600 were overwhelmingly of Essex sympathies” (Ruff and
Wilson 1969, 23), and that such political sympathies manifestly influenced
not only the publication histories of lute song and madrigal collections, 6 but
also the choice of subject matter and the mood of verse and music (ibid., 24).
Ruff and Wilson’s hypothesis seems a bit overstated in singling out an iso-
lated political cause (they themselves admit that “[p]olitical consciousness
and, indeed, all kinds of ideological systems were at that time still in a con-
fused and amorphous state” ibid., 19), and I do not wish to endorse their ar-
gument in full. Yet their observation that London’s aristocracy “would recog-
nize political pressure in certain madrigals; and singers could express an
incantatory sympathy and loyalty in them at a time when open expression of
political sympathies was treason” (ibid., 19) nevertheless presents a valuable
starting point for the discussion of Dowland’s ambivalent politics.
That Dowland’s work indeed covers the whole schizophrenic range of
late Elizabethan panegyric is nowhere as obvious as in his Third Booke of
Songes, which came out only a month before the Queen’s death in 1603. Two
examples will have to suffice to illustrate this. The second song in the vol-
ume, “Time stands still,” is probably the most beautiful and stunning of all
the “extravagant professions of devotion” to the Queen in Renaissance music:

Time stands still with gazing on her face,

Stand still and gaze for minutes, hours and years, to give her place:
All other things shall change, but she remains the same,
Till heavens changes have their course and time hath lost his name.
[…] (qtd. in Fellowes 1929, 432)

Lyrically and musically exploring the Queen’s motto of semper eadem, it is,
in Kelnberger’s words, “one of the most uninhibited adorations of Elizabeth’s
beauty” as much as “one of the most spellbinding examples of Dowland’s
artistry” (Kelnberger 2004b, 127).
A radical contrast to this tune, however, and the most pronounced “ex-
pression of dissent and disillusionment” in Dowland’s entire oeuvre is pre-
sented by song no. 18 in the same collection, “It was a time when silly bees”
– which takes up the central motive of “Time stands still” only to heretically
subvert it in a mocking personification of “Time” as the ‘perpetual virgin’:

Cf. Thomas Morley’s strategically panegyric collection The Triumphs of Oriana, published
in 1601, but commissioned of the foremost madrigalists of his time as early as 1597 (see
Rupp 2005, 183-224 for an extended reading).
138 Reading Song Lyrics

It was a Time when silly bees could speak,

And in that Time I was a silly bee,
Who fed on Time until my heart ’gan break,
Yet never found the Time would favour me.
Of all the swarm I alone did not thrive,
Yet brought I wax and honey to the hive.

Then thus I buzzed when Time no sap would give:

Why should this blessed Time to me be dry,
Sith by this Time the lazy drone doth live,
The wasp, the worm, the gnat, the butterfly.
Mated with grief I kneeled on my knees,
And thus complained unto the king of bees:

My liege, gods grant thy Time may never end,

And yet vouchsafe to hear my plaint of Time,
Which fruitless flies have found to have a friend,
And I cast down when atomies do climb.
The king replied but thus: Peace, peevish bee,
Thou’rt bound to serve the Time; the Time not thee. (qtd. in Fellowes 1929, 440-41)

As Edward Doughtie demonstrates, there is overwhelming evidence that the

lyrics have been adopted from the manuscripts of the Earl of Essex himself
(Doughtie 1970, 519), and the song presents a bitter, and only thinly allegori-
cally veiled attack on the Queen’s fickleness and injustice. Publishing a set-
ting of these lyrics only two years after Essex’s capital punishment for high
treason, and with no way of knowing that the Queen would succumb to sick-
ness in only a matter of weeks, was an extraordinarily subversive act, so
much so that Diana Poulton marvels that “[i]t is impossible to imagine what
impulse betrayed Dowland into such an error of misjudgement” (Poulton
1982, 59). I find it hard to believe, though, that Dowland was unaware of his
political daring, but like to think instead that he (reasonably) expected that
his musical artistry, and the cultural capital associated with his comparatively
private rather than public, and elitist rather than popular ‘art world’ would get
him off the hook. 7
This brings us to the political dimension of Dowland’s First Booke of
Songes. The first question that needs to be briefly addressed in this context is
the authorship of Dowland’s lyrics. The only safe answer here is that to this

I will discuss the particular performance arena of Dowland’s songs later in this chapter. As
T.G. Bishop notes in an essay on “Elizabethan Music as a Cultural Mode”: “The crossing
into music seems often to have stripped sensitive issues and texts of their actively polemic
and even subversive force, or rather, to have enabled such force to appear disguised in plain
sight” (Bishop 1992, 62).
Love is in the Ayre 139

day we know comparatively little about it: of the 83 different poems which
Dowland set to music, only five can be unambiguously attributed to specific
poets – in the First Booke, this concerns “Who ever thinks” (II) and the last
song, “Away with these self-loving lads” (XXI), both of which appear in
Fulke Greville’s Caelia cycle (printed posthumously in 1633). At least 21
other poems have been attributed, more or less convincingly, by Fellowes,
Poulton, Doughtie and others to writers as diverse as

Sidney, Greville, Daniel, Jonson, Donne, and of course Thomas Campion. Other poets rep-
resented are Nicholas Breton, William Browne, Henry Chettle, Walter and Francis Davison,
Thomas Lodge, Anthony Munday, George Peele, and Robert Southwell; courtiers like Sir
John Davis, Sir Henry Lee, Sir Edward Dyer, and the earls of Cumberland and Essex; and
even anachronisms like Wyatt and Gascoigne. (Doughtie 1986, 123)

The authorship of the vast majority of Dowland’s songs, however, is still in

the dark (cf. Kelnberger 2004a, 52), even though two things can be stated
with some certainty based on the evidence that we have: first, that Dowland
heavily drew on the manuscript culture of the courtly makers (in his address
“To the courteous Reader” in the First Booke, Dowland notes that “The
Courtly judgement I hope will not be seuere against them [the songs], being
itself a party” Dowland 1970, n.p.) which professes a relative disinterest in
individual authorship beyond intimate courtly circles; and second, that Dow-
land adopted this (performed) disinterest. This is important with regard to the
central question whether Dowland indeed wrote at least some of his lyrics
himself. Ruff and Wilson’s notion that this is “very unlikely” since Dow-
land’s “forewords and dedications do not bring to mind a man who would
hide his light under a bushel” (Ruff and Wilson 1969, 32) really overlooks
the fact, here, that Dowland complied with an ethos of staged modesty – with
regard to the lyrics, at least – which still characterised the literary production
in the orbit of Elizabeth’s court. That Dowland significantly violated this
ethos as a composer by emphatically publishing the musical settings of
courtly lyrics under his name is another, if closely related issue which de-
mands closer inspection later in this chapter.
The rise of the modern concept of authorship in literary texts was closely
entwined with the rise of print culture over the course of the 16th century
which – in terms of distribution numbers and affordability – only began to
replace the dominant manuscript culture at around the turn to the 17th cen-
tury (see e.g. Wall 1993). It is important to remember in this context that
print culture was initially seen as a threat by the courtly makers, as it implied
that basically anybody with sufficient financial means could present texts to a
wider public; this of course “threatened the continuity of social hierarchies
which regulated textual production,” and accordingly, the aristocracy associ-
140 Reading Song Lyrics

ated printed collections and emphatic authorship in the modern sense with an
“aura of vulgarity [and] inferior commerce, […] lacking the cultural authority
of manuscripts” (Frenk 2003, 55, my tr.; see also Marotti 1991).
On the one hand this explains why Dowland (except in a single case in his
son Robert’s collection The Musicall Banquett [1611], cf. Kelnberger 2004a,
45) carefully maintained the anonymity of his textual sources; on the other
hand it would have given Dowland reason enough not to overtly advertise his
own lyrical creations. That Dowland was capable of writing decent verse is
documented in commendatory poems he wrote, for instance, for Giles Farnaby
(1598) and Sir William Leighton (1614). Whether this is sufficient evidence
to assume, as J.A Symonds does, that “Dowland and the other lute-song
composers were the occasional poets of their own settings” (qtd. in Fischlin
1999, 315) remains a matter of debate. Yet especially in a case like “Come
again,” I tend to side with Christian Kelnberger who puts forth – with regard
to the first two stanzas – that “the perfect symbiosis of text and music […]
indeed suggests that poet and composer may have been the same person (i.e.
Dowland)” (Kelnberger 2004a, 151, my tr.), while the second set of lyrics,
“because of its pronounced references [to Elizabeth I]” (ibid., 226, my tr.)
could well be Dowland’s own, too.
The unresolved question of the authorship of the majority of Dowland’s
lyrics notwithstanding, most critics today agree that Dowland’s songbooks
present more than just casually assembled songs whose choice of lyrics
represents a random cross-section of the contemporary vogue in poetry, in the
fashion of Tottel’s Miscellany (1557). Edward Doughtie is certainly right,
therefore, when he notes that “many poems set by the lutenists were not nec-
essarily set because they were technically suitable for singing [but] because
they were popular” (Doughtie 1986, 128), yet it would be wrong to assume
that Dowland’s commercial instinct ruled out a very careful choice of texts,
arrangement and larger ideological design. 8 Thus, there is an unmistakeable
thematic unity in the First Booke in that the overwhelming majority of lyrics
(19 out of 21) revolve around topoi of rejection and infidelity. Without being

Fischlin notes in view of the First Booke of Songes in particular: “Though the Dowland
songbook does not appear to be as organized literarily as other books of ayres, this is not to
say that the poems were organised as in an Elizabethan miscellany or that they were chosen
randomly by the composer, his publisher, or his patrons. The poems in Dowland’s songbook,
as suggested by […] their obvious courtly contexts, their stylistic coherence, and their […]
known authors […] are representative of general lyrical trends at the end of the sixteenth
century, as well as of more specific literary characteristics of the ayres” (Fischlin 1999, 73).
Love is in the Ayre 141

able to do justice to all of these here, it is worth taking at least a brief look at
how the collection is strategically framed by the first and last song.
Dowland’s First Booke of Songes opens with the intriguing “Unquiet
Thoughts” (of unidentified lyrical authorship), which alone would merit a
much longer discussion than I can offer. These are the first and third of its
three stanzas:

Unquiet thoughts, your civil slaughter stint

And wrap your wrongs within a pensive heart;
And you, my tongue, that makes my mouth a mint
And stamps my thoughts to coin them words by art,
Be still, for if you ever do the like,
I’ll cut the string that makes the hammer strike.

How shall I then gaze on my mistress’ eyes?

My thoughts must have some vent, else heart will break.
My tongues would rust as in my mouth it lies,
If eyes and thoughts were free, and that not speak.
Speak then, and tell the passions of desire,
Which turns mine eyes to floods, my thoughts to fire. (Fellowes 1929, 408)

Dowland’s choice of lyrical opening spectacularly establishes a sense of

“stag[ed] introspection, solitude, and dialogical intimacy” (Fischlin 1999, 21)
which, according to Fischlin, is not only characteristic of the contemporary
performance practice of Dowland’s songs, but also pertains to the quality of
the poems he chose to set. Much could be said about the compelling, proto-
metaphysical imagery of the first stanza – the ‘yoking together’ of private
emotional turmoil with the public disruptions of civil war, and the association
of verbal art that grows out of such turmoil with the commercial craft of
money printing which, in the light of the stigma of print culture among the
courtly makers, may indeed be read as a strategic plea to excuse the chosen
commercial medial format of the (printed) songbook. What is most interest-
ing in our case, however, is that the lyrics – just like in “Come again” – re-
lapse from ‘metaphysical’ intellectual complexity into fairly conventional
Petrarchism. As Fischlin notes: “The Petrarchan imagery of the third stanza
(flooded eyes and fiery tears) conventionalises the state of ‘unquiet’ the poet
experiences, while nonetheless asserting the primacy of the self’s experience
of desire that is disruptive of the poet’s psychic economy” (ibid., 88). Other
than in “Come again,” however, the functional link is more immediately ob-
vious: there needs to be some sort of social explanation for the private tur-
moil laid out in the first two stanzas, and it is through a recourse to the fa-
miliar intersubjective torments of unrequited Petrarchan love that the speaker
(Dowland?) justifies that the “string” holding the “hammer” of the vulgar
142 Reading Song Lyrics

(printing?) press is not cut, and that going public (“Speak then and tell the
passions of desire”) is the only feasible strategy of emotional survival. Most
lyrics in the First Booke of Songes, according to Fischlin, follow the lead of
“Unquiet thoughts” in this manner by presenting “elaborate fictions of the
self,” which “seek self-projection […] primarily in the conventional love
situation of the Petrarchan lover” (ibid., 73).
With the last song in the book, however, the Petrarchan chickens are
coming home to roost. The 21st song, “Away with these self-loving lads,”
sets a poem that can be clearly attributed to Fulke Greville, and these are the
final three of its five stanzas:

My songs they be of Cynthia’s praise

I wear her ring on holidays,
On every tree I write her name,
And every day I read the same.
Where honour Cupid’s rival is
There miracles are seen of his.

If Cynthia crave her ring from me,

I blot her name from every tree.
If doubt do darken things held dear,
Then well fare nothing once a year!
For many run, but one must win;
Fools, only, hedge the cuckoo in.

The worth that worthiness should move

Is love, which is the bow of Love.
And love as well the foster can
As can the mighty nobleman.
Sweet saint, ’tis true you worthy be,
Yet without love naught worth to me. (Fellowes 1929, 420)

By setting this poem, Dowland significantly chose to close his Book of

Songes with one of the most daring literary productions of the Queen’s last
remaining favourite. The crucial twist, here, is of course Greville’s – and by
adoption, Dowland’s – straight-forward admission that his songs “be of
Cynthia’s praise.” The reference would have been unmistakeable to anyone
vaguely familiar with the cultural production in the orbit of the Court: as
Helen Hackett amply illustrates, the moon-goddess Cynthia was, after all,
“[o]ne of the most common images of Elizabeth in the last fifteen years or so
of her reign” (Hackett 1995, 174). It is commonly assumed that it was Sir
Walter Raleigh – nick-named ‘Water’ by the Queen – whose Cynthia poems
set this fashion; Hackett remarks that “there was a particular aptness in his
representing himself as in the thrall of the moon, drawn in and out of her fa-
vour like the movements of the tides” (ibid., 175). Yet the lunar image rose to
Love is in the Ayre 143

its exceptionally prominent status precisely because it lent itself so aptly to

express the full ambivalence of late Elizabethan panegyric. Not only did the
heavenly body of the moon “invoke qualities of radiance, ethereality, mysti-
cism and other-worldliness,” it was also “identified with virginity and female
power” by the ancients. The moon as ruler of the seas, moreover, “could be
used to assert English claims to imperial power,” but it was just as useful to
allude to its ‘dark side’ and thus “import negative undertones of criticism”
(ibid., 175-76). Waxing and waning, the moon made for an excellent meta-
phor of the Queen’s inconsistency, and it is this association which “Away
with these self-loving lads” pairs with popular images of the Queen as a ran-
domly shooting Cupid (who is herself immune to arrows of love).
The song’s unmistakeable and final ‘outing’ of the lover/singer’s beloved,
and its light-hearted withdrawal of the (unilateral) Petrarchan contract which
so crucially informed the melancholy despair of most proceeding songs is
really an outstanding manoeuvre (culminating in the cheekiness of “Sweet
saint, ‘tis true you worthy be, / Yet without love naught worth to me”). David
Fischlin comments: “The closural parody of previous poetic poses is notable
for what it conveys about the larger organization of the songbook, especially
the subversive framework that the songbook establishes in relation to courtly
and poetic convention” (Fischlin 1999, 103). Certainly, the parodying rever-
sal of earlier melancholic poses in the final song does not come as an utter
surprise. The lyrics of the third song, for instance (which Poulton ascribes to
Raleigh as one of his Cynthia poems, cf. Poulton 1982, 223-24), a galliard
titled “My thoughts are winged with hopes,” make overt references to the
moon-goddess and thus indicates that the Queen may be the addressee of all
melancholy complaints (“Thoughts, hopes, and love return to me no more /
Till Cynthia shine as she hath done before” Fellowes 1929, 409); a sense of
playful defiance is suggested by the lyrics of the fifth and perhaps most
popular song in the collection, “Can she excuse my wrongs?” generally as-
cribed to the Earl of Essex; and not least a song like “Come again” does much
to anticipate the subversive bravado of the final song (which takes up the erotic
innuendos of “Come again,” especially in the closing couplet of the first
stanza: “For Cupid is a meadow god / And forceth none to kiss the rod”). 9
I would argue that “Come again” in a way encapsulates the larger politi-
cal strategy of the First Booke in a single song. Why would Dowland have
been tempted to include a second, much less compelling set of lyrics in terms
of word-music relations, to a pre-existing, perfect song? In light of the

The pun being, obviously, that “rod” evokes both the sceptre of the monarch, as well as
Cupid’s more literally phallic variant (cf. Kelnberger 2004a, 237).
144 Reading Song Lyrics

previous evidence, I hold it to be very likely that he simply could not resist
because the added stanzas are expressive of the perhaps most intimate vent-
ing of ‘unquiet thoughts’ and frustrated ‘desire’ for courtly recognition in the
whole songbook. As such, the two lyrical sections of “Come again” are
hardly mutually independent: instead, the first two stanzas of the song act as
both camouflage and trigger for the subversive message underneath the con-
ventional Petrarchan surface which marks the added four.
The first stanza in particular operates as a camouflage since its obvious
sexual innuendo effectively displaces panegyric readings. For Elizabethan
audiences, it would have been outright inconceivable that a poem or song
advertising sexual gratification could in any way refer to the epitome of na-
tional political and religious power, quite simply because the Queen’s Marian
iconography was firmly hooked onto the notion of perpetual virginity. The
first stanza therefore suggests a fictional addressee who is (and has been –
after the lover should “come again”) attainable to the lover/singer, and thus
sets a performative frame of reference, not only for the following stanza, but
initially also for the second set of lyrics printed on the same sheet. To pre-
sume, however, that this is only part of a rather cunning strategy of double
address is justified by the parodying effects of the second stanza: surely, it
only superficially performs an unproblematic link between the attempted
sexual seduction in the first stanza and the conventional Petrarchan complaint
of the second set. While it does retreat into melancholy complaint after the
lover has persistently ignored the lover/singer’s renewed immoral invitations,
it is also a far cry from the seemingly more conventional sighs and tears in
the remaining stanzas. It clearly presents a “parodying […] representation of
the symptoms of melancholy” (Kelnberger 2004a, 149, my tr.) by musically
and rhetorically juxtaposing ladders of ‘lechery’ and ‘melancholy’, and thus
exposing the fashionable excesses of ‘orgasmic’ melancholy as rather comi-
cally solipsistic. The transition to the following four stanzas is thus hardly as
smooth as it may look; instead, it sets up a playful and highly ironic frame of
anti-Petrarchan sentiment which invites indirect or allegorical readings of the
following conventional Petrarchism. Just as the first stanza defers panegyric
contexts, the second, therefore, triggers them again, suggesting that the ad-
dressee in the remaining stanzas may be an altogether different institution
than in the first.
It remains to be asked whether the concrete Petrarchan imagery in the
second set of lyrics would allow for a subversive strategy of panegyric dou-
ble coding set up through the first two stanzas. It may seem contradictory at
first sight, here, that the lover/singer opens with an invocation of the sun,
rather than drawing on the more suggestive lunar iconography of “My
thoughts are winged with hopes” (III) or “Away with these self-loving lads”
Love is in the Ayre 145

(XXI). Yet as Helen Hackett illustrates, the sun really predated the moon as
“a favourite image for Elizabeth,” partly because “the sun could connote the
inspiring radiance of the Petrarchan mistress,” and partly because the
“Sun/Son was a favourite punning emblem for Christ, and therefore had mes-
sianic overtones which made it highly applicable to Elizabeth as the supposed
saviour of the nation, restorer of the faith, and dutiful heir of her father”
(Hackett 1995, 81). On the one hand, this still speaks against “Come again,”
as solar imagery really peaked at an earlier phase of Elizabethan panegyric
which still struggled with the Queen’s legitimacy, and which was typically
employed with strategically celebratory rather than subversive overtones. On
the other hand, however, the choice of the ‘sun’ as a core metaphor is par-
ticularly fitting, as its association with religious legitimacy in the context of
Elizabethan national pedagogy establishes a political field of reference which
resonates not only in Dowland’s personal career (and that of prominent fel-
low musicians like Byrd and Morley), but also in the further lyrics of the
song. The most suggestive line, here, is “Out alas, my faith is euer true” in
stanza three: the exclamation “Out alas” intriguingly takes up the thrust of
“Speak then, and tell the passions of desire” in “Unquiet thoughts,” while
“faith” presents a pun: it may at once be read as the profession of unrelenting
loyalty (to the mistress/the Queen), yet also as an affirmation of individual
religious faith in the face of the national Anglican dogma which Elizabeth I
personified. There are so many resonances of Dowland’s personal career in
“Come again” if read in subversively-panegyric fashion that it would seem
foolish not to consider it in the context of Dowland’s own ambiguous rela-
tionship with the institutions of the English crown.

The Life and Times of John D.

The intimation of a mistress who “for triumph laughs” while others earn the
“fruits and joyes” that by right should be granted to our loyal lover/singer
matches the commonplaces of Dowland’s biography almost one to one, and
the politics of religious faith are indeed at the heart of the story. 10 We know
comparatively little about John Dowland’s early life other than that he was
born in 1563 somewhere in England. The documented history of Dowland
sets in with the year 1580, when, aged 17, he entered the services of the Eng-
lish ambassador in Paris, Sir Henry Cobham. His sojourn in France lasted for

The standard reference work regarding John Dowland’s biography is still Poulton (1982), to
which I am indebted for most of the information in this section.
146 Reading Song Lyrics

four years, and marked a significant period in Dowland’s life for at least two
reasons. The first is that Paris was the Mecca of lute musicians at the time –
almost all lute schools circulating in England were translated from the
French, Europe’s foremost writers of lute songs lived in Paris, and France
was moreover far ahead of the English in that there already circulated a re-
markable number of printed collections of chansons, voix de ville, and airs de
cour (Kelnberger 2004a, 19-20). Paris, therefore, was the ideal place for
Dowland to perfect his abilities as a songwriter and musician. The second
legacy of his time in France of which Dowland himself thought that it had a
major impact on his later career, however, is his conversion to Catholicism.
In a desperate letter to one of the Queen’s Privy Counsellors, Robert Cecil,
Dowland wrote from Nuremberg in November 1595: “I have been thrust off
of all good fortune because I am a Catholic at home. For I heard that her
Majesty being spoke of me, said I was a man to serve any prince in the world,
but I was an obstinate papist” (qtd. in Poulton 1982, 38).
Whether Dowland’s conversion was motivated by religious conviction, or
whether it was originally a rather pragmatic decision remains a matter of
speculation. Kelnberger puts forth that in the midst of the Huguenot Wars,
and only a decade after the massacres of the Bartholomew Night in 1572,
Dowland may well have converted for reasons of personal safety (Kelnberger
2004a, 35). Poulton speculates instead that “he had been deeply affected by
the colour, the warmth and the emotional appeal of Catholicism – ‘the idle
toys of religion’ – during his stay in France,” and goes on to assume

that on his return, when be [sic] began to move in the circles of families surrounding Eliza-
beth, the Cecils, the Sidneys, the Careys and, of course, Essex, he fell in with the generally
prevailing Protestant frame of mind and, while moved to horror and indignation by the exe-
cutions, his Catholicism faded to the background of his mind with the removal of the influ-
ences which had first fostered it. (Poulton 1982, 44)

That Dowland was not really an “obstinate papist” – or at least hardly pub-
licly regarded as one – after his return from France is obvious for a number of
reasons, beginning with the fact that recusant Catholics were not permitted to
proceed to degrees from either Cambridge or Oxford as Dowland did in the
late 1580s. A few years later, the unquestionably Protestant Sir Robert Sidney
became the godfather of one of Dowland’s sons, and upon failing to receive a
position at Court, Dowland was warmly received by the Duke of Brunswick
and the Landgrave of Hesse respectively in the mid 1590s, both fervent Prot-
estants who would have hardly welcomed a musician with a Papist reputation
(cf. ibid., 41-43). This certainly bears relevance for possible biographical
resonances in “Come again”: to read the pun of “My faith is euer true” in the
third stanza as an orthodox assertion of sincere Catholic conviction against an
Love is in the Ayre 147

Anglican hegemony – side by side with a profession of continuing faith to the

crown – would be misleading; at best, the line would evoke a spiteful asser-
tion of personal identity and its ‘otherness’ in a frustrated response towards
institutional rejection.
Frustration must have peaked in 1594, when Court lutenist John Johnson
died and Dowland had justified hopes that he would finally obtain the much
desired position at Court – after all, he had already gained an outstanding
reputation; John Case counted him among the most famous musicians of his
age as early as in 1588 in his Apologica Musices, and there is evidence that
his compositions had been repeatedly performed before the Queen in the
early 1590s (ibid., 28-30). Still, his application was rejected, and the post
remained vacant for more than a year. In his letter to Robert Cecil, Dowland
comments on this rejection:

Then in time passing one Mr. Johnson died & I became an humble suitor for his place
(thinking myself most worthiest) wherein I found many good and honourable friends that
spake for me, but I saw that I was like to go without it, and that any may have preferment
but I, whereby I began to sound the cause, and guessed that my religion was my hindrance.
(qtd. in Poulton 1982, 37)

It is difficult to miss a parallel to the argumentative structure in “Come

again” in this passage: Dowland’s complaint to Cecil that “any may have
preferment but I” and that at the end of the day, it all boils down to
“religion,” is hardly far from “My heart takes no delight / To see the fruits
and ioyes that some do find / And marke the storms are mee assigned,” which
similarly leads towards the (indirect) singling out of the issue of “faith”: “My
faith is euer true / Yet will she neuer rue, / Nor yeeld mee any grace.” If it is
true that “Come again” draws, either on personal experience as documented
in his letter to Cecil, or, alternatively, on Dowland’s identification with a
disillusioned group of courtiers around the Queen, it speaks powerfully of a
sense of exile from the centre of English national culture.
Why the Queen really bypassed Dowland’s application is difficult to
make out. Poulton suspects that Dowland’s own guess – that his Catholicism
barred him from the institutional elite – would have been insufficient cause.
She argues that the Queen exhibited relative tolerance towards loyal Catholics
in her favour, despite the fact that she (grudgingly) agreed to rather draconian
measures against Catholic dissenters. In terms of Elizabeth’s musicians, the
shining example of this tolerance is William Byrd, who was elected to the
Chapel Royal in 1569, and enjoyed the benefit of the Queen’s unwavering
protection. This is remarkable because, in Joseph Kerman’s terms, Byrd was
“a determined recusant, the term for one who refused to attend Church of
England services as required by law […]. Later in life he was even accused
148 Reading Song Lyrics

for ‘seducing’ Protestants back into the old religion.” Nevertheless, and
particularly despite the fact that several of his motets express rather overt
sympathies for the relentlessly persecuted Jesuits and their cause, “Byrd was
never prosecuted, though clearly he sailed close to the wind” (Kerman 2000,
276). On the contrary: the Queen expressed her loyalty to Byrd by granting
him, together with Thomas Tallis, the exclusive licence to print polyphonic
music for 21 years in 1575 and never withdrew it. Shortly after the monopoly
expired, it was renewed and, with Byrd’s consent, handed to his student and
fellow Catholic Thomas Morley in 1598 who held it until his death in 1602
(cf. Holman 1999, 1-2).
To equate Byrd’s case with that of Dowland, however, means to overlook
a number of important differences. Byrd made his career at the Chapel Royal
(it is assumed that he sang in the royal choir already under Mary Tudor) at a
time when “most of [Elizabeth’s] subjects were Catholic, and her religious
policy was predicated on tolerance” (Kerman 2000, 280) in a way that it no
longer was in the 1590s (when Byrd significantly withdrew from London to
his family’s ancestral home in Essex). Moreover, the Queen most likely held
on to Byrd against all odds, not necessarily for reasons of religious tolerance,
but because “she understood that the distinction of her chapel rested on him”
(ibid., 281). Byrd was a major player in what can be termed Elizabeth’s cul-
tural foreign policy, not least because he ensured a musical lavishness in An-
glican religious services (held in Latin by Queenly assent) which exasperated
the Puritans, but soothingly reassured continental visitors. It is important to
see in this context that Byrd was Elizabeth’s most distinguished composer of
official (Anglican) sacred music alongside his private engagement with mo-
tets and masses, while Dowland’s reputation rested on an entirely secular
oeuvre. 11 Given that the Chapel Royal played a core part in the politico-reli-
gious identity fashioning of the Court, it may quite ironically be that it was
precisely the secularity of Dowland’s brand of Catholicism – as much as sus-
picions of religious subversiveness – which cost him the job. In any case,
Dowland’s own guess “that my religion was my hindrance” is probably
closer to the truth than his biographers tend to admit. 12

Fischlin remarks: “The reasons for the disparate treatments of Dowland and Byrd […] have
as much to do with Byrd’s seniority in the court musical hierarchy as with Byrd’s promi-
nence as a composer of sacred music, despite his own religious predilections” (Fischlin
1999, 39).
Poulton’s suspicion that rather than religion, Dowland’s personality is to blame – “Im-
mensely self-centred and highly emotional, with a just appreciation of his own powers, but
with an almost childishly irritable reaction to criticism; subject from time to time to attacks
of melancholy” (Poulton 1982, 44) – sounds rather suspicious in its obvious debt to the
stereotype of the romantic genius.
Love is in the Ayre 149

Whatever the real causes of his rejection in 1594, what matters for a
reading of “Come again” and the First Booke of Songes is that Dowland him-
self suspected that the politics of religious affiliation barred him from Eliza-
beth’s court – and that this suspicion turned into panicking conviction re-
garding his further prospects within about a year’s time. Having abandoned
all hopes of filling the post vacated by John Johnson, Dowland decided to
seek his luck on the continent (“my mind troubled, I desired to get beyond
the seas” qtd. in Poulton 1982, 37), and after obtaining the permission and
council of Cecil and Essex, travelled south, via the German courts of Wolf-
enbüttel and Kassel, to Venice and Florence, where he performed at court.
Dowland’s stay in Florence was initially intended as a stopover on the way to
Rome where he hoped to study with his idol Luca Marenzio. Yet he got him-
self into so much trouble in Florence that within a matter of weeks, he obvi-
ously gave up his plans, hastily travelled back north across the Alps to
Nuremberg, and posted a panic-stricken explanatory letter to his friend Privy
Counsellor Robert Cecil, to save his neck.
What happened? Dowland must have got involved with a conspiratorial
group of English Catholic exiles, most notably one John Skidmore who ap-
parently sussed Dowland out, realised that he would be of little use for their
conspiratorial ends, and accordingly went on to present himself as loyal to
the Queen. If we are to believe his own account, Dowland seems to have
been too naïve to realise what had been going on in his dealings with
Skidmore, and it only hit him with hindsight that he got himself into some
existential difficulties. 13 Accordingly, he reported Skidmore to one Lord
Grey the next day, and basically offered himself as a spy to do amends:
“Moreover, I told my Lord Grey whosoever I was for religion, if I did per-
ceive anything in Rome that either touched her Majesty or the state of Eng-
land I would give notice of it though it were the loss of my life” (qtd. in
Poulton 1982, 39). The plot thickened when about a month later, an English
friar by name of Bailey communicated a letter to Dowland which offered him

It cannot be ruled out entirely that Dowland officially worked as a spy, perhaps even as a
double agent; his professed naivety would then merely perform as a cover up of his political
job. This is not entirely implausible as musicians were often recruited as spies, not least be-
cause they tended to be unsuspicious; Thomas Morley almost certainly spied for the Queen
in Flanders, and Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder was reputedly notorious in the spying game.
There is evidence against this view, though. As Poulton notes: “The main argument against
any more sinister interpretations is, however, the tone of the letter [to Cecil] itself, which,
with its incoherencies and contradictions, seems to mirror the mind of a man reduced to a
state bordering on panic through being entangled in activities that could jeopardize his
whole future” (Poulton 1982, 45). It seems unlikely that the incoherently panicking style
should have been a strategic masterpiece to cover up rational spy-work.
150 Reading Song Lyrics

a lucrative position at the Vatican which he seems to have momentarily con-

sidered (at least, he enquired of Bailey how he intended to get his “wife and
children” out of England and to Rome). Yet again with hindsight – if we are
to believe Dowland’s words – he must have realised the full implications of
the offer, and the rest of the letter to Cecil is panicking (and to some extent,
certainly strategic) repentance:

I called to mind our conference & got me by myself & wept heartily, to see the fortune so
hard that I should become the servant to the greatest enemy of my prince : country : wife :
children : and friends : for want, & to make me like themselves. God he knoweth I never
loved treason nor treachery nor ever knew any, nor never heard any mass in England, which
I find is great abuse of the people for on my soule I understand it not. Wherefore I have re-
formed myself to live according to her Majesty’s laws as I was born under her Highness, &
most humbly I do crave pardon, protesting if there was any ability in me, I would be most
ready to make amend. (qtd. in Poulton 1982, 39)

In the remaining lines, Dowland basically squeals on every suspicious subject

he came across during his travels, and closes by restating his “desire to serve
my country.” Dowland obviously believed that he had seriously screwed up
any remaining chance of a future employment under Elizabeth I, and his let-
ter to Cecil is a desperate attempt to make the best of a bad job. 14
This realisation is important with regard to the First Booke of Songes, as
it has to be assumed that Dowland strategically published his songbook in
1597 in response to the circumstance that chances of a future at the English
court under the Queen’s reign were near zero. 15 After his renewed rejection,

That Dowland was most probably seriously distressed shows in his assertion, for instance,
that he does not “understand” Catholic mass anyway, i.e. that he has insufficient Latin: that
Dowland was well versed in Latin is obvious (in 1609, he published an English translation
of Andreas Vogelsang’s [alias Andreas Ornithoparchus] musicological compendium Mi-
crologus [1517]), and there is little reason to suppose that Cecil, who had most probably
been Dowland’s employer for some time, would have been unfamiliar with this.
Most probably, Dowland proceeded from Nuremberg to Kassel after posting his letter to
Cecil, and took up residence again with Landgrave Maurice of Hesse, postponing his return
to England until he received news from home which would suggest “a more cordial wel-
come” (Poulton 1982, 46). Such news indeed arrived by way of a letter from Henry Noel.
Noel writes, sometime in 1596: “You shall not neede doubt of satisfaction here, for her Matie
hath wished divers tymes your return: Ferdinando [possibly Ferdinando Heybourne, a
student of Tallis, cf. Poulton 1982, 47] hath told me her pleasure twice, which being now
certified you, you may therewith answer all objections. Therefore forbare not longer then
other occasions (then your doubts here) do detain you” (qtd. in Poulton 1982, 47).
Unfortunately, Noel died shortly before Dowland’s arrival in Lodnon in February 1597.
Noel’s death basically left him “with no one to keep his interests alive with the Queen”
(Poulton 1982, 48), and instead of pursuing his reinstatement, Dowland was commissioned
to provide music for his last advocate’s funeral service at Westminster Abbey.
Love is in the Ayre 151

he accordingly turned his back upon England again in 1598 and took up an
exceptionally lucrative position at the court of Christian IV of Denmark,
where he resided until 1606. Dowland had a number of veritable offers
(among others from Maurice of Hesse) and there is good reason to suggest
that Dowland’s choice was informed by professional as much as political
calculations. It was sufficiently clear in the late 1590s that the Scottish King
James IV (later James I) would follow on the English throne upon Elizabeth’s
death, and since James had married Christian’s sister, Anna of Denmark, ten
years earlier, Dowland must have hoped that the Danish connection could
boost his chances in London under a new English monarch (cf. Kelnberger
2004a, 23). That Dowland entertained hopes of an eventual return from the
beginning of his Danish exile is indicated by the fact that his wife and chil-
dren remained in London throughout, that he significantly overstayed two
official leaves from the Danish court (between 1601 and 1602, and again
between 1603 and 1604), and that he bought a costly house in Fetter Lane
during his second leave in London (Poulton 1982, 57-60). This second leave
in particular was most certainly motivated by Dowland’s persistent desire for
English courtly recognition, which motivated his decision to publish his only
printed instrumental collection, Lachrimae (1604), strategically dedicated to
the new English Queen, Anne of Denmark. Peter Holman writes:

It is often thought that Dowland made the 1603-4 journey to England specifically to publish
Lachrimae, but his main motive seems to have been to lobby James I for the court post he
had repeatedly failed to obtain from Queen Elizabeth. Indeed, he probably began to make
preparations for the trip soon after the news of Elizabeth’s death on 24 March 1603 reached
Denmark. He clearly planned to approach James through the queen, Anne of Denmark, sister of
his employer Christian IV, using Lachrimae to attract her attention. (Holman 1999, 3-4)

Dowland’s moves, however, again remained fruitless; and should his perma-
nent return to England in 1606 indeed have been wearily motivated by hopes
of an employment under James I, such hopes were disappointed for another
six long years; only on October 28, 1612, the year that incidentally saw the
publication of his last collection of songs, A Pilgrim’s Solace, was Dowland
finally appointed one of the King’s Lutes. 16
Curiously, with Dowland’s eventual entry into the much desired ranks of
a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, also his publishing career ended, and apart
from a few instrumental pieces which were almost certainly composed for

The fact that Dowland was appointed in place of one Richard Pyke is indicative of the fact
that “some special effort was made to find a post that he could conveniently be offered [as]
Pyke died on May 21st 1568, and his place had remained unfilled from that date” (Poulton
1982, 79).
152 Reading Song Lyrics

instructional purposes, no music survives from the remaining 14 years of

Dowland’s life. Poulton remarks that “[i]t is odd that inspiration should have
died on the achievement of a lifelong ambition, but as we have seen, the vol-
ume of his output had perceptibly lessened during his later years and it seems
likely that A Pilgrim’s Solace was the last magnificent flowering of his gen-
ius” (ibid., 79). As such revealing terms as “inspiration” and “genius” sug-
gest, Poulton’s conception of Dowland has a thoroughly romantic tinge
which, at least with regard to his musical silence after 1612, may be in need
of some critical complementation. Kelnberger alternatively believes that to-
wards the end of his life, Dowland felt increasingly out of tune with the
world surrounding him, both in larger philosophical terms (the rapid decline
of The Elizabethan World Picture [Tillyard 1972] with its medieval rem-
nants) and, more convincingly, in musical terms. Dowland was, according to
the standards of the early 17th century, outright conservative in musicologi-
cal preference – which is most obvious in his decision to publish a translation
of Andreas Vogelsang’s Micrologus (1517) in 1609 – and Kelnberger may
have a point in speculating that he felt alienated enough from a younger gen-
eration of musicians that he withdrew from composing. Yet there is good
reason to assume that things were in fact much more straight forward than
this: Dowland probably ceased to compose and publish quite simply because
he no longer saw any good reason to do so.
In order to make better sense of this claim, it is vital to turn to questions
of the economic and cultural capital associated with professional musician-
ship in Renaissance England. Dowland’s promotion of musicological conser-
vatism, in conjunction with a no less pronounced capability of self-fashioning
and self-marketing, intriguingly matter in this context as they epitomise, in a
way, a larger paradigm-shift in English music professionalism from the late-
medieval musicus to the early modern ‘composer’ (cf. Rupp 2003, 117).

Mediascape: 17 The Cultural Authority of Early Modern Songbooks

That the Renaissance engendered a fundamental shift in notions of individual

authorship and concomitant attitudes to the ‘work’-status of artistic products
has been amply demonstrated in the field of literary studies following Michel

My use of ‘mediascape’ in this and the following two chapters draws on Arjun Appadurai’s
introduction of the term in his seminal account of modernity and global cultural flows in
“Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” (1990). The spatial metaphor
allows to simultaneously conceptualise the dissemination of specific media technologies and
the “images of the world created by these media” (Appadurai 1990, 9).
Love is in the Ayre 153

Foucault’s seminal essay “What is an Author?” (Foucault 1977; on the larger

discourse on literary authorship, see e.g. Burke 1995; Jannidis et al., 1999;
Reinfandt 2003). The textbook example in this context is generally taken
from the world of English Renaissance drama: 18 while Ben Jonson emphati-
cally claimed the status of author in the publication of his Works in 1616,
William Shakespeare never professed a similar interest – instead, he con-
ceived of himself as a maker of scripts which were primarily designed to en-
able theatrical productions. Once the stage run of a piece was completed (and
financially exhausted), he accordingly took little or no interest in the public
survival of his manuscripts or their association with his name, nor did he ex-
pect his dramatic ‘works’ to transmit his fame to posterity. Shakespeare the
author was thus only posthumously ‘invented’ by two former members of his
company, John Heminge and Henry Condell, who hoped to economically
capitalise on Shakespeare’s popularity by following Jonson’s model with an
‘authorised’ edition of Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories,
Tragedies, Published according to the True Originall Copies in 1623.
The trajectory from Shakespeare to Jonson is indeed representative of a
general trend in Renaissance cultural production; yet it is also important to
note that it is closely entwined with the specific cultural capital associated
with the stage. Before Jonson, quite simply, “plays for the theatre were con-
sidered to be an inferior genre […] unworthy of a representative printed col-
lection. An author would have deemed it improper to present a dramatic text
to an educated, critical and wealthy reading public” (Schabert 2000, my tr.),
and whoever wished to be a ‘serious’ poet consequently needed to engage
with lyrical poetry (or the epic). In other words, it is important to keep in
mind the generic differences in the development of artistic authorship and
authority in early modern England, and to pay attention to the different social
attributions and performance arenas of, for instance, the drama of Kyd, Mar-
lowe or Shakespeare (initially associated with the theatre as a site of mass
spectacle), the poetry of Wyatt, Surrey or Spenser (primarily circulating
among intimate circles at Court), and the songwriting of Byrd, Campion or
Dowland, and how all of these were affected by the rise of the print houses
and increasing social differentiation. 19

Susanne Rupp believes that drama and the stage may have affected notions of musical
authorship as the London theatres presented veritable options of employment for Elizabe-
than and Jacobean musicians. Philip Rosseter possessed a licence for the musical education
of the Queen’s child actors and led an acting company later in his life; John Danyel similarly
worked for the stage (cf. Rupp 2005, 105-07).
The emergence of the Modern composer over the course of the Renaissance has received
surprisingly little attention in this context; the standard reference for continental music and
154 Reading Song Lyrics

The first thing to note pertaining to Dowland’s art and its marketing in
this context is that Dowland himself would have dreaded any association
with the term ‘composer’ as the musical pendant to the literary ‘author’. At
around 1600, the implications of the term were very much in a state of flux:
Thomas Morley, the musicologically more progressive of the two, already
connoted it positively in 1597 when he speaks of “skilful composers” in his
Plain & Easy Introduction to Poetical Music (Morley 1952, 215, 292, 294,
296). In contrast, Dowland’s 1609 translation of Vogelsang’s 1517 Micro-
logus sticks to an older association of the term which associates ‘composing’
with a lack of skill – the work of composers, here, is not “grounded in the
principles of art,” and Dowland/Ornithoparchus go as far as to call composers
“Monsters of Musicke” (Dowland qtd. in Rupp 2005a, 108). Dowland conse-
quently avoided the term ‘composer’ throughout his career. How can we ex-
plain such terminological discrepancies, given that in compositional practice,
Morley and Dowland were hardly worlds apart? Obviously, the difference is
less one of musical practice, but one of professional self-conception, and the
concomitant cultural capital both artists associated with their art.
Dowland’s idea of musical professionalism must be called traditionalist in
this context, in that he apparently assumed that his worth as an artist should
be established, first and foremost, through external attributes of social stand-
ing, and secondly, not primarily through notated compositions on paper, but
through their performance in appropriate and respectable (courtly) contexts.
In that sense, Dowland’s idea of musicianship is deeply indebted to the late-
medieval notion of the musicus. As Rob Wegman comments (on European
contexts around 1500): “While the word musicus denoted social status and
public respect, the merely technical term compositor was devoid of any such
overtones. Anyone could be a compositor by simple virtue of committing
new music to paper, irrespective of social category or rank” (Wegman 1996,
438). The ensuing low regard for musical scripts and their ‘authors’ in late-
medieval contexts also owed to the fact that the notational system was not yet
capable of fully representing, as it were, the polyphonic complexity of actual
musical performances. Consequently, the “perception of sounding simultane-
ity did not depend on an act of reading but one of singing and hearing,” and
“[n]otation neither represented nor embodied the ‘work,’ but served the

the Italian-speaking world in particular is still Ludwig Finscher’s 1975 “Die Entstehung des
Komponisten,” which has been supplemented by an extended survey of Flemish music and
musicology in the 15th century by Rob Wegman (1996). The specific development of Eng-
lish early modern musicking and composing has only been thoroughly investigated in Su-
sanne Rupp’s recent Die Macht der Lieder (2005a, esp. ch. IV), to which I am particularly
indebted in this part.
Love is in the Ayre 155

purely utilitarian purpose of providing instructions for performing counter-

point” (ibid., 451). 20
It is vital to see, therefore, that the ‘work’-status which we tend to un-
thinkingly attribute to Dowland’s compositions today is based on ideas that
would have been in many ways alien to Dowland’s himself. The idea of the
notated musical text as an authoritative blueprint for performances only very
gradually emerged during Dowland’s career, to the extent that Thomas Cam-
pion could flippantly warn the “Reader” in his Third and Fourth Booke of
Ayres, dating to 1617: “To be briefe, all these Songs are mine, if you ex-
presse them well; otherwise they are your owne. Farwell” (Campion 1967,
168). Yet such assertions of compositional authority and ethos only very
gradually replaced earlier notions of authorship where “[t]he thought of a
composer exercising authorial control over the performance and interpreta-
tion of his work was virtually unknown” (Wegman 1996, 460). If we accept
that Dowland was still deeply rooted in a late-medieval professional ethos as
expressed in the Micrologus, the fact that he came out with a printed song-
book in 1597, then, is very unlikely to be an attempt to lay down his undis-
putable ‘works’ for posterity. Rather, it is the move of one who had internal-
ised the ‘pedagogy’ of English musicianship, desperately craving the cultural
capital of an official royal musician, but saw his chances of getting there
rapidly dwindle; or put differently: it is the move of one who apparently re-
mained musicus in professional ideology, but saw himself forced to explore
new ways of marketing and self-fashioning – and thus to become composer –
after being barred from the epicentre of English religious and secular profes-
sional authority. The astonishing contradiction of Dowland’s professional
career, indeed, is that it unites both – a pronounced conservatism in terms of
late-medieval ideas of professionalism, and a distinctly early modern mar-
keting instinct and capacity for public self-fashioning. In order to better un-
derstand this paradox it is helpful to take a closer look at the institutional
landscape in 16th-century England, and to investigate more closely which
opportunities print houses had to offer to music professionals.
England is a rather special case in European music history in that it intro-
duced university degrees in music as early as in the second half of the 15th
century, both at Cambridge and Oxford. Bray remarks that “the appearance

This is confirmed by the fact that the professional focus in job descriptions of respected
musici, at least until the 16th century, was not on composition, but performing practice (cf.
Bowers 1981, 10); it is also revealing that until and beyond the Old Hall MS (ca. 1420,
which for the first time lists compositions together with the names of their composers), codi-
ces of European music generally professed a profound disinterest in composers by listing
their works anonymously, ordered by titles or genre (cf. Finscher 1975).
156 Reading Song Lyrics

by 1500 of a route to a degree and to academic respectability was alluring,”

as this meant that more so than in other European countries, “composers were
academically respectable, and they had developed a complex, private craft
known only to themselves” (Bray 1995b, 9). This did not automatically make
for a secure standing in society, however, and the English musico-literate
elite therefore adamantly defended its social status against less educated and
non-literate musical classes. These were the non-literate instrumental practi-
tioners, or minstrels, and the cantors. While the true musicus, for Dowland/
Vogelsang “hath the faculty of speculation and reason,” the cantor “hath only a
practick fashion of singing”; for Dowland, therefore, minstels and cantors
were little more than “brute Beasts” (qtd. in Rupp 2005a, 116). Such rather
unfriendly rhetorical fire is hardly the exception, and around 1600, the English
musical elite still had a habit of lashing out against minstrels and cantors
whose cultural relevance they denied and social standing they denounced – all
indicating that all was not well at the time in terms of professional security.
The acute sense of a professional precariousness among early modern
English composers becomes more feasible when we consider a number of
institutional changes over the course of the 16th century which we would
today probably call an increasing ‘privatisation’ of the professional scene. In
late-medieval England, the most aspiring musicians were typically employed
by the church or the Court (or less lucratively, by the cities as town waits).
The attractiveness of church employment, however, significantly dwindled
since the Reformation, partly, as Le Huray (1967, 72-73) speculates, because
salaries were not adjusted to the rapid inflation. At the same time, opportuni-
ties for the musical elite at Court grew fewer, because since around 1530,
most Court musicians tended to be hired from abroad, and because after
Henry VIII – who could himself lay claim to the status of musicus as a skilful
lutenist and composer of songs, and who surrounded himself with musicians
(cf. Rupp 2005a, 15-58) – the number of generally available positions de-
creased again. This development roughly coincides with the rise of alternative
employment options: these concern institutions such as the theatre, but much
more significantly private households, whose importance for musicians sig-
nificantly increased since around the mid-16th century (cf. Price 1981, 21).
The aristocracy and the emerging rich bourgeoisie professed an increasing
desire to emulate the culture at Court, and consequently became a lucrative
market for literate musicians mainly in the function of music teachers, yet
also as composers. One consequence of this is the appearance of instructional
text books on the market, the most important being Morley’s Plain & Easy
Introduction to Practical Music, which provided accessible advice to ama-
Love is in the Ayre 157

teurs, clearly catering to and attempting to expand the private sector. 21 Still,
Price emphasises that without the traditional insignia of institutional em-
ployment, “the position of the literate musician as a semi-professional dogs-
body remained highly insecure,” and accordingly attests “a problem of status
which was acute enough to encourage patrons to continue retaining their mu-
sicians in the most old-fashioned way possible” (ibid., 70). Freelance private
employment was more often than not experienced as unsatisfactory, and con-
sequently seen as little more than a temporary sojourn on the way to the eco-
nomical security and satisfactory social status of a permanent contract with a
reputable private or, ideally, public, employer. It is in this situation of a
flexible and increasingly insecure job market that the profanities of print
culture suddenly became highly attractive for educated music professionals –
as a tool of public self-assertion, and as a new marketing instrument.
The main impetus behind publishing songs in print would rarely have
been commercial for most composers (in Morley’s modern sense of the term)
in the beginning, as printing music was costly compared to the cheaper, and
more ‘courtly’ alternative of distributing manuscripts. 22 One of the few musi-
cians who made relatively good money with his publications was, indeed,
John Dowland after the sensational success of his First Booke. The only sur-
viving evidence of this is documented in a legal battle which ensued after the
publication of the Second Booke of Songes (1600) between its publisher,
George Eastland, and its printer, Thomas Este. The nature of the strive is of
little concern, here, 23 yet we know from the legal proceedings that Eastland
bought the Second Booke from Dowland’s wife for ǧ DUDWKHULP pressive
sum, given that Dowland’s later income as one of the King’s Lutes amounted

Morley’s book is rhetorically set up in Aristotelian fashion as a dialogue between a master,
Gnorimus, and his two students, Philomathes and Polymathes. The volume tellingly sets out
with an episode of social failure: attending a banquet with “excellent scholars, bothe gen-
tleman and others,” Philomathes has to admit his inadequacy during the animated theoretical
discussions of music over dinner. Still worse, when after the meal music books are brought
out, he fails to be able to adequately play and sing – “so that upon shame of mine own igno-
rance I go now to seek out mine old friend Master Gnormius, to make myself his scholar”
(Morley 1952, 9). Morley thus cleverly sells musical skill as an invaluable social skill in re-
spected families.
Significantly, most instrumental music continued to be medially channelled through manu-
scripts which were distributed among a relatively small number of experts, and could more-
over be more individually embellished and dedicated to particular occasions. Obviously, the
popular genre of songs was associated with a very different cultural capital and concomitant
marketing strategies.
At the heart of the matter was Eastland’s suspicion that Este secretly printed more than the
agreed 1000 plus complimentary copies with the intention of selling for his own profit (cf.
Poulton 1982, 245-46).
158 Reading Song Lyrics


Countess of Bedford to whom the volume was dedicated (cf. Poulton 1981,
245-56). The maximum benefit that could be expected from patrons was an-
this particular case, Dowland had to go without it as Lucy Bedford did not
like the songbook a bit for reasons I will turn to later). Yet Dowland played
in a league almost of his own after the First Booke; and given that the holders
of the royal licence for printing polyphonic music (then, Thomas Morley and
his associate, Thomas Heybourne) also made a killing with every print run ( ǧ
s 10 in the case of Dowland’s Second Booke, cf. Kelnberger 2004a, 42) and
additional fees were due at the Stationers’ Company, most publishers probably
did not amply reward their songwriters.
Meagre financial gain, however, was hardly the reason why only very few
secular songbooks were published in England before 1588. The reasons why
a publishing boom only really set in after Dowland’s First Booke (the rela-
tively short time between 1597 and 1613 saw the printing of 27 collections of
ayres by 17 different composers), and thus belatedly compared to continental
Europe where music printing set off in the 1560s, also had to do with a number
of other factors. I have already mentioned a continuing stigmatisation of print
culture in England as commercial and vulgar (which Dowland probably took
up in his apologetic opening of the First Booke with “Unquiet Thoughts” and
the trope of the ‘mint’), and the political unrest of the Armada-years. But there
were also more practical problems, for instance that English printers did not
possess their own types but had to import used types from the continent, which
resulted in an inferior print quality (cf. Rupp 2005a, 120). The most inhibiting
influence, however, surely was the fact that the Queen granted the exclusive
licence to print polyphonic music (and also to sell and produce music paper)
to Byrd and Tallis for 21 years in 1575. Byrd and Tallis did everything but
capitalise on this privilege, partly perhaps because they wanted to protect the
market from too much competition, yet also because they exercised their
rights according to their very exclusive tastes (which were mainly in religious
vocal music, and certainly not in secular lute songs, cf. Kelnberger 2004a, 42;
see more generally Krummel 1975). Only when the licence, after a year
without official legalisation, was handed down to Thomas Morley in 1597, a
man with sustained business instincts, did the floodgates open.
What was it more precisely that drew professional songwriters to the print
houses, and how did musicians play out the new opportunities offered by the
new medium? A particularly telling and intriguing case study in this vein is
Thomas Whythorne, who published a collection of his Songs as early as 1571
(when music printing was still unlicensed), and wrote an autobiography
which was only discovered in the 1950s (cf. Whythorne 1961, Rupp 2005a,
Love is in the Ayre 159

110-15). From his autobiography, we retrospectively know that Whythorne

economically struggled for many years in diverse private employments, until
he was permanently hired in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury,
probably shortly after publishing his Songs. The considerable efforts it must
have cost to produce a printed collection at this early stage in history (the
process of issuing the collection stretched itself over a course of two years
during which Whythorn time and again questioned the validity of his project)
thus apparently paid off, not because Whythorne publicised his composed
‘works’, but because he ‘invented’ and marketed himself as a recognisable
and attractive musicus. This particularly pertains to a strategy of “gentleman-
fashioning” (Rupp 2005a, 113) which, as Rupp argues, is pervasive in the
paratextual framework of early modern songbooks, and is merely particularly
pronounced in Whythorne’s early example. Whythorne added his own por-
trait to the collection, framed by a coat of arms “as I hav fownd to be left
vnto me by my poor Aunsesterz” (Whythorne 1961, 211), together with a
personal motto (Astra, ma non troppo). His autobiography intriguingly re-
veals, though, that Whythorne made up the coat of arms, his noble family
background, and the motto from scratch, simply in order to create a market-
able public persona, and to associate himself with an aura of leisurely artistic
freedom which would dissociate his name from the commercial compromises
of minstrelsy. For Whythorne and his followers, then, the particular advan-
tage of print over the more intimate manuscript culture was that it offered
itself to the fashioning of trademark (musical as much as extra-musical)
identities which could be launched into a wider public sphere to boost
chances of adequate employment in an increasingly flexible job market. With
his First Booke of Songes, Dowland indeed played a very similar game, only
at the top end of professional musicianship.
Some critics read Dowland’s decision to go into print with his First
Booke mainly as the attempt to assert authorial control over his compositions
(cf. Ruff and Wilson, 1969, 44); and indeed, Dowland notes in his address
“To the courteous Reader” that “[t]here have been divers Lute-lessons of
mine lately printed without my knowledge, false and imperfect, but I propose
shortly myselfe to set forth the choisest of all my Lessons in print, and also
an introduction for fingering” (Dowland 1970, n.p.). Dowland almost cer-
tainly alludes to William Barley’s A New Book of Tabliture, here, published a
year earlier in the legislative vacuum after Byrd’s royal licence had expired,
and containing seven corrupted lute compositions by Dowland. Two things,
however, weaken this argument: first, Dowland only came round to print
some of his most famous instrumental compositions in Lachrimae in 1604,
and continued to reserve much of his instrumental music for manuscript dis-
tribution. Second, while Dowland betrayed a desire for authorial control over
160 Reading Song Lyrics

his lute music, he never expressed any similar concern about his songs, to
which he attributed a comparatively lower status as a more popular genre (cf.
Rupp 2003, 123-24). Rather, then, Dowland’s main impetus must have been
to make himself, quite literally, a household name across English cultural
spheres, i.e. as much in the highest courtly circles which he explicitly ad-
dresses and whose (lyrical) corroboration with his songbook he enlists, as in
wider aristocratic and bourgeois circles upon whose desire to socially distin-
guish themselves he capitalises.
The paratextual strategies of professional self-fashioning Dowland em-
ployed in this context are very reminiscent of Whythorne’s example. The first
thing to note here is again a dissociation from the “simple Cantors” already
on the opulent rontispiece, where Dowland emphatically draws on the cul-
tural capital of being a “Lutenist and Bachelor of musicke in both Vniuersi-
ties” – i.e. an accomplished instrumental (rather than merely vocal) musician,
professionally schooled in both the speculative and practical arts. This asser-
tion of professional status is indeed representative of virtually all printed
collections of madrigals or ayres, with the significant exception of the publi-
cations of Thomas Campion – Campion had already distinguished himself
socially and intellectually as a poet of Latin verse, and was thus the only
composer who could afford to title his collections with his name only. The
verso of the title page of the first two editions of Dowland’s First Booke then
shows the coat of arms of Sir George Carey, Baron of Hunsdon (cf. Poulton
1982, 218), to whom it is dedicated. This dedication was a strategic move in
various ways: as Carey was “Lord Chamberlaine of her Maiesties Royall
house, and of her Highnes most honorouble piuie Counsell” (Dowland 1970,
n.p.), securing his patronage would have meant securing a benevolent influ-
ence on the Queen. It certainly mattered in this context that Carey was one of
the stoutest Anglicans at Court, and an avid supporter of Cecil against the
Essex-coalition (cf. Ruff and Wilson 1969, 29); Dowland’s dedication to
Carey thus needs to be read as a calculated statement against any papist and
revolutionary associations with his name. On the other hand, Carey’s patron-
age endowed the First Booke with a courtly and aristocratic aura more gener-
ally, as did Dowland’s counting of the Landgrave of Hesse and the Duke of
Brunswick among his personal friends and benefactors in the address “To the
courteous Reader.” Dowland strategically ends this address with a short
commendatory letter by Luca Marenzio, obviously intending to associate his
art with the avant-garde of European musical production.
While emphasising an unquestionable professional integrity, however,
Dowland simultaneously ensured that his songbook be of use to the widest
possible range of potential buyers. He needed to advocate his art as elaborate
enough to appeal to fellow professionals at Court and elsewhere, but also as
Love is in the Ayre 161

accessible enough to appeal to his largest market segment, i.e. wealthy ama-
teurs in private households who would use the songbook for private evening
entertainments or the education of their children. Dowland had to consider,
here, that not every household would automatically feature a cantus, tenor,
altus and bassus voice, nor any number of expensive musical instruments.
The advertisement on the frontispiece consequently emphasises a maximal
flexibility of suitable line-ups, ranging from one to four voices, and none to
three different musical instruments:

The First Booke of Songes or Ayres of four partes with Tableture for the Lute: So made that
all the partes together, or either of them seuerally may be song to the Lute, Orpherian or
Viol de gambo. […] Also an invention by the sayd Author for two to playe vpon one Lute.
(Dowland 1970, n.p.)

Fig. 7: Table-book layout of “Come again” in The First Booke of Songes and Ayres (1597)

One of the most ingenious marketing moves of Dowland and his printer Peter
Short in this context is – if probably not the invention, then certainly the re-
162 Reading Song Lyrics

introduction and popularisation of 24 – the so-called table-book layout with

the First Booke of Songes. The songs were printed on two opposite folio
pages: while the left page contained the notation of the cantus voice, the lute
tablature and the lyrics, the right page was reserved for the altus, bassus and
tenor parts respectively, printed so that the cantus, altus, bassus and tenor
could each comfortably sit on one side of a table without having to read their
vocal parts upside down or sideways.
Even if this may sound curious at first, the table-book layout helps to ex-
plain why Dowland got away with the subversive daring – both in sexual and
political (panegyric) terms, but especially in their explosive association – of a
song like “Come again.” This becomes more feasible if one takes the table-
book layout as one of the main indicators of the imagined performance arena
of the lute songbook as a new cultural medium. There is very little evidence
from Renaissance sources about the actual performing practice of lute songs,
which has left the field wide open to speculation. One school, represented by
Robert Toft (1993) or Robin Headlam Wells (1994), proposes that singing
and playing practices need to be seen in the context of the larger ‘rhetorical
turn’ marking the Early Modern period; Toft, for instance, believes that a
successful performance of ayres depended upon “the singer’s ability to feign
the affections in the texts and use the musical and rhetorical devices present
in the songs to create the persuasive style of delivery they demand” (Toft
1993, 128). Susanne Rupp (2005a and 2005b) and Daniel Fischlin (1997 and
1999) take issue with this approach, however, because it unquestioningly
equates the performance arena of public oratory with that of the privacy and
idealised intimacy of lute song recitals. It is vital to mention, here, that Dow-
land himself fosterers an aura of the private and intimate, opening his address
“To the courteous Reader” with the following lines:

How hard an enterprise it is in this skilfull and curious age to commit our priuate labours to
the publike vew, mine owne disabilitie, and others hard successe doe too well assure me:
and were it not for that loue I bear to the true louers of musicke, I had concealed these my
first fruits […]. (Dowland 1970, n.p.)

Surely, this is all part of Dowland’s elaborate advertising strategy and may
also be read as another apologetic twist to tone down the ‘vulgarity’ of his
chosen medium; but Dowland certainly marketed his songbook for private
rather than public declamatory use. The table-book layout confirms this im-

The British Library holds an early Elizabethan manuscript of instrumental music in table-
book format (cf. Brett 1979, 157); Krummel (1975) falsely attributes the invention of the
layout to Morley.
Love is in the Ayre 163

pression, as it insists that musicians face each other rather than anyone else or
indeed an entire audience, which makes a larger performance context rather
inconceivable – and even if there were such performances, the audience
would have been comparatively small simply owing to the limited acoustic
reach of the solo lute. Fischlin, who additionally looks into contemporary
paintings of lute performances which significantly tend to picture “a theatre
of intimacy,” concludes:

Both from the evidence in composers’ prefatory remarks to the songbooks and from the
iconographical evidence of contemporary representations of the lute in performance, then, it
becomes evident that the lute song’s performance context is neither geared towards a notion of
audience as contemporary performance practice would have it nor possessed of the public
dimensions of Renaissance entertainments. If anything, the radical newness of the lute song
as an early modern manifestation of European secular song lies in its marking out of a pri-
vate space apart from the public dimensions of theatre, courtly entertainment, or sacred mu-
sic, all of which were intractably associated with public spectacle and functioning. (Fischlin
1997, 59)

This strategic carving out of a sphere of privacy apart from “public spectacle”
is indeed crucial when it comes to the question of how “Come again,” and the
entire First Booke of Songes, could become a firm part in the stock repertoire
of most amateur musicians in England without getting Dowland into more
serious trouble with the authorities.
It is certainly unlikely that Dowland’s subversive employment of Eliza-
bethan panegyric was little more than an innocent private joke that went by
and large unnoticed. His indirect reckoning with the Queen would not have
eluded those who were well-versed in the courtly manuscript culture. Actual
evidence of this is sparse, yet a telling instance in provided by Lucy Har-
rington, Lady Bedford’s reaction to Dowland’s Second Booke: according to
David Price, she “showed herself openly hostile to a book which seemed to
contain so many references to the recent demise of the Earl of Essex” (Price
1981, 185) and accordingly refused the artist the expected reward for the
dedication. Given that Lady Bedford was one of the greatest patrons of the
arts since the mid-1590s (supporting, among others, Ben Jonson, Samuel
Danyel, George Chapman and John Donne) as much as an influential figure
at Court (waiting upon the Queen), it is moreover unlikely that she stood
alone with her view of the political outlook of Dowland’s art. It may well be,
of course, that Dowland overestimated the subtlety of his complaint – surely,
the dedication to Lucy Bedford proved to be an error of judgement which not
only cost him some five pounds, but also hardly speeded his chances of the
much desired employment as a gentleman of the Chapel Royal – yet he was
certainly taking a conscious and, I believe, calculable risk, as his art bypassed
the familiar institutions of censorship of church and state, partly, at least,
164 Reading Song Lyrics

owing to the privacy of its imagined performance arena. While Elizabethan

performances of public spectacles (in theatre culture in particular) were ha-
bitually suspect of promoting sedition or profanity – and consequently any
theatrical script needed to be presented to the Lord of the Revels for censor-
ship 25 – the performing context of Dowland’s lute songs seems to have pre-
vented any such measures.
It transpires, then, that Dowland’s calculated launching of the songbook
followed an ambivalent double strategy. Dowland probably would have been
happy as a sound boy and never degraded himself with print culture, had he
only been accepted as one of the Queen’s musicians. But once he saw himself
nationally ousted by the standards of his traditionalist model of musicianship,
a printed collection of lute songs was tempting for two (to a certain extent
contradictory) reasons: on the one hand, it offered Dowland a medium to,
among other things, clandestinely publicise his discontent – either with his
own professional situation as England’s most gifted musician, or with the
proceedings of royal politics more generally as expressed, for instance, in the
Queen’s dealing with Essex – without having to fear overly capital conse-
quences. On the other hand, he could make sure that his name and reputation
would remain a fixture on the English songwriting scene for years to come.
Dowland obviously not only intended to boost his market value, but given
that he saw the necessity of leaving England (which did not offer the position
of musicus which would have done justice to his talents), he must have in-
tended to ensure that he remain the talk of the town, even while musicking in
exile. This way, he could entertain hopes that should the political sentiment at
Court change in his favour again (something he admittedly did not exactly
promote with his panegyric subtleties), he would be the first address for a
new job opening. This brings us back, finally, to the complexity of Dowland
the melancholy man, as arguably, the most ingenious marketing twist in
Dowland’s career was that he basically took out a patent on the English
sound of melancholy.

The only surviving source document that gives witness to the drastic ‘suggestions’ Edmund
Tilney (Master of Revels 1579-1610) could issue is a surviving manuscript of The Book of
Sir Thomas More. The best known example of Shakespearean censorship, however, is Rich-
ard II whose deposition scene was censored in all quarto publications during Shakespeare’s
lifetime, and may have been cut in stage productions as well. The play has become the stock
example of the actual subversive dangers of theatre as mass spectacle after it was commis-
sioned by Essex loyalists to be staged in the night before their abortive rebellion in 1601 in
order to rally public support (cf. Clare 1987 and 1990, Dutton 2001).
Love is in the Ayre 165

Soundscape: 26 The Sound of Melancholy

In order to better understand this marketing coup, we need to briefly return to

the rudimentary beginnings of lute song publishing predating Dowland’s
First Booke by a year, namely William Barley’s A new Book of Tabliture,
Containing sundrie easie and familiar Instructions (1596). When Byrd’s li-
cence ran out, Barley tried his luck with a wild collection (printed from
wooden blocks, with many errors, and two pages assembled upside down) of
seven lyrics (two of them only set to music), and a larger number of instru-
mental pieces (two of which may also count as songs, even though only the
first lines of the lyrics are printed). 27 The compositions were plagiarised from
continental composers, eleven pieces were appropriated from manuscripts of
the English lutenist Francis Cutting, and seven from Dowland’s manuscripts
(Ruff and Wilson 1969, 25-26), including a corrupted version of Dowland’s
“Lachrimae” pavane for solo lute which, according to Poulton, probably first
appeared in manuscript form in 1595. 28 As we have seen, Dowland was
rather furious at Barley for manhandling his compositions in the way he
did; 29 still, it is rather likely that Barley’s book at the same time provided a
source of encouragement to go ahead with a full-fledged, carefully edited and
more appealing version of a book of his own ayres, and moreover, that it in-
spired Dowland’s marketing strategies to a considerable extent. It is remark-
able in this context that Barley dedicates his collection “to benefit such, as
desire to have a tast of so ravishing a sweet Science as Musique is, being the
soveraigne salve of a melancholy and troubled minde, and a fitting compan-
ion of Princely personages” (qtd. in Ruff and Wilson 1969, 26, my empha-
sis). Dowland was thus not the first on the musical scene who attempted to
capitalise on the pervasive fashionability of melancholy in Elizabethan Eng-

My use of the term ‘soundscape’ in this and the following two chapters is indebted to R.
Murray Schafer’s coinage (1977), even though I strictly use it in context of musical per-
formance rather than in the sense of a more general acoustic ecology.
Despite such rather unprofessional beginnings, Barley managed to make an impressive ca-
reer as a printer when against all reason, Thomas Morley decided to work with him rather
than with the established music printers Peter Short and Thomas Este upon receiving the
print privilege.
The manuscript in question is Dd. 2.11. (B) held at Cambridge’s University Library (cf.
Poulton 1982, 126 and 479).
It is interesting to note again that Dowland apparently did not mind not having been asked –
the notion of musical ownership was only emerging at the time – but that he seemed to mind
being associated with the jumbled form of the entire project. Barley, as Ruff and Wilson re-
mark, “might have been an instrumentalist, though he was neither composer nor poet” (Ruff
and Wilson 1969, 25) and thus would have ranked among the inferior ‘minstrels’ for Dowland.
166 Reading Song Lyrics

land, and his move to take on melancholy as a musical and professional per-
sona cannot be called radically new; what is new, rather, is the consequence
with which he pursued his melancholy image throughout his career, the
overwhelming popular success he had with it, but also the complex ideologi-
cal rationale behind his melancholy mask.
In the light of the previous discussions, the theme of melancholy must
have appealed to Dowland for several reasons. It may indeed be true that, as
Rooley and Kelnberger speculate, Dowland was drawn to melancholy in the
ways of a specifically metaphysical pursuit. Holding a degree from both uni-
versities and intimately familiar with speculative music theories in neo-Pla-
tonic fashion, he was certainly aware of the philosophical relevance of cos-
mogonic references and numerological relations. This especially pertains to
the number four which, as we will see, is a key number in Dowland’s trade-
mark musical phrase. Yet Dowland was too much of a master of multiple
addressing that this would have been his only reasoning, which was, overall,
probably more terrestrial and strategic than esoteric in nature. Thus, Barley’s
scrambled ‘test run’ a year earlier probably had enough success and potential
to encourage Dowland that fashioning a melancholy persona looked like a
promising bet in order to inscribe himself more permanently into the art
world of the Court and its aristocratic ambit. It is also vital to see, moreover,
that the ideally private space of the lute song lent itself perfectly to the ex-
pression of melancholy Petrarchan complaint with its intimately staged no-
tion of solitary pining.
The most convincing argument for Dowland to go for the melancholy
man, though, was probably that the persona of the hopelessly rejected, but
nobly and faithfully suffering Patrarchan lover provided him with a conven-
tionalised resource that had already dominated the melancholy fashion in the
field of poetry: not only could Dowland thus draw on the cultural capital of
some of the most popular literary productions in London’s courtly circles for
his songs and thereby ramp up his market value; but as we have seen, the
mask of the Petrarchan melancholy man also served as the strategic disguise
under which Dowland could play his game of panegyric revenge – not unlike
in the poetic works of Essex, Greville, or Raleigh whose texts he appropri-
ates, but in an apparently less suspicious medium. What Dowland did, there-
fore, was primarily translating the cultural capital of his melancholy lyrics
into musical sound, so that on the one hand, it could encapsulate the fashion
and craze of his time; on the other hand, however, Dowland must have also
counted on the notion that the ‘sound of melancholy’ made his songs ‘song-
ful’ (see chapter 5) enough that he could relax about the subversiveness of his
lyrics (in addition to the securities which the privacy of their performance
arena could ensure). Or in other words: it was probably also in Dowland’s
Love is in the Ayre 167

interest that his art be associated with a singular, popular and unsuspecting
‘humour’ which would somehow contain his politics, by suffusing it with an
overarching sonic trademark.
R.W. Ingram sustains this argument in a way when he proposes that
Dowland’s ‘dark’ songs unsettle the characteristic balance between words
and music in the English ayre. 30 Ingram especially refers to “In darkness let
me dwell” (published in Robert Dowland’s A Musicall Banquet in 1610)
when he notes:

The power of music lies in its ability to express emotion; when the composer allows himself
scope for expressing the more intense and dramatic personal emotions, the voice of the mu-
sician becomes too clearly dominant for the partnership with the poet to be equally main-
tained. The poet is relegated to mere assistant. The personal quality […] finds overwhelming
expression in the music. (Ingram 1960, 136-37)

This line of argument does not really work for “Come again,” of course, since
here, the musical setting is more heavily inflected by the upbeat cheek of the
first two stanzas than by the melancholy thrust of the second set. Of such
“lighter Airs” in Dowland’s oeuvre, Ingram notes:

The most satisfying balance between words and music in the sense of each contributing
more or less equally is found in the lighter Airs where lilting words are cunningly married to
ear-taking tunes and the deftness and wit of the words is matched by the subtle harmonic de-
vices and rhythmic counterpoints of the music. (ibid., 137)

Still, Ingram insists that “in the best of these, the strong tendency of the mu-
sic to lead remains. [In the best songs,] such is the memorability of the tune,
it is the tune which lingers” (ibid.). The soundscape of “Come again” certainly
lives up to such standards of memorabiliy which may indeed help to explain
why the song’s political daring has been by and large overlooked, not only by
Dowland’s contemporaries, but especially also by Dowland’s interpreters in
our times. Additionally, the larger melancholy framing of the whole song-
book sets listening/reading expectations which help to defuse subversive lyri-
cal content: melancholy is already the underlying theme of the First Booke
which Dowland launches with a calculated motto from Ovid’s Metamor-
phoses: “Nec prosunt domino, quæ prosunt omnibus, artes”; in Poulton’s
translation, “The arts which help all mankind cannot help their master,”

In his preface to the reader in the Two Bookes of Ayres (1613) Thomas Campion famously
describes this balance thus: “In these English ayres I have chiefely aymed to couple my
Words and Notes lovingly together, which will be much for him to doe that hath not power
over both” (Campion 1969).
168 Reading Song Lyrics

Poulton 1982, 215). As Robert Burton suggests in his Anatomy of Melancholy

(1621), 31 music was commonly seen as one of the strongest antidotes to
melancholy in the English Renaissance, and Dowland thus professes to pro-
vide a remedy to the fashionable ailment, while he tragically continues to be
the slave of fate and Saturn’s morbid influence on man.
It is only with the Second Booke of Songes (1600), however, that melan-
choly also surfaces as a strategically dominant sonic trademark. In the First
Booke, the theme of melancholy is only consistently transported in (most of)
the lyrics and paratext, while the soundscape is still comparatively heteroge-
neous and often rather upbeat. Apparently, Dowland did not dare yet to bet
on a single musical horse with the First Booke, but employed a wider range
of styles, drawing especially on popular dance rhythms. Six out of the 21
songs in the First Booke, for instance, are galliards and two are allemandes
(Kelnberger 2004a, 67), while in the second book, dance rhythms have van-
ished completely – with the notable exception of the second song, “Flow my
teares,” which presents an adaptation for two voices and lute of the instru-
mental “Lachrimae” pavane Barley appropriated four years earlier, and which
was to establish Dowland’s melancholic ‘signature theme’ in such a way that
it became the soundtrack of the English melancholy craze for decades to
The sensational success of the First Booke certainly convinced Dowland
that the melancholy concept is more than perfectly workable, and he conse-
quently turned his following oeuvre into what we would today probably call
‘concept albums’. In the Second Booke, especially the first five songs set the
musical fashion by providing a coherent and thematically closely interlinked
block, set off through its particular setting for only two voices (cantus and
bassus) and lute. The lyrics unmistakeably partake in the melancholy fashion
and share a common repertoire of imagery, but most notably, all five songs
(“I saw my lady weepe,” “Flow my teares,” “Sorrow sorrow stay,” “Dye not
before thy day,” and “Mourn mourn”) are musically connected via the la-
chrimae-motif “which traverses the thematic block like a cantus firmus. The
block begins with Lachrimae, and with Lachrimae it ends” (Kelnberger
2004a, 123, my tr.). 32

“Many men are melancholy by hearing Musicke, but it is a pleasing melancholy that it
causeth, and therefore to such as are discontent, in woe, feare, sorrow, or dejected, it as a
most present remedy, it expels cares, alters their grieved mindes, and easeth in an instant”
(Burton 1989-94, II, 116).
Kelnberger also highlights the artificial blackening of the last note in the block, set to the
word “night,” which illustrates how Dowland also innovatively used the more subtle possi-
bilities of the print medium to fashion his melancholy persona.
Love is in the Ayre 169

The ur-form of the lachrimae-motif is set down in the cantus opening of

“Flow my teares,” based on Dowland’s legendary “Lachrimae” pavan. Con-
sisting of two descending tetrachords connected by the minor sixth, the tear
motif quickly became inextricably entwined with Dowland’s name, and he
did much to cultivate this association by repeatedly varying and quoting his
signature musical phrase in later songs and instrumental compositions. Dow-
land himself clearly thought of the lachrimae-motif as his greatest cultural
capital, and chose to present an extended musical study of it to Queen Anne
of Denmark, as a last and desperate shot at the desired position at Court after
the death of Queen Elizabeth. Dowland’s Lachrimae (1604), featuring Seven
Teares Figured in seaven Pavans (see Holman 1999 for a detailed discus-
sion) in the first part, effected that definitely no one could raise the issue of
melancholy and music anymore without drawing on the authority of Dow-
land. Once established, he therefore no longer had to rely on his own mar-
keting machinery, but could count on other songwriters to pay homage to his
signature phrase, and on other media to disseminate his fame. There are a
large number of references in poetry, and Dowland’s persona even entered
the emblematics of melancholy (cf. Rupp 2005a, 142). The most efficient
intermedial marketing dynamic, however, ensued within the world of theatre,
and his Lachrimae are quoted by most playwrights of his time (with the nota-
ble exception of Shakespeare; see Poulton 1982, 182-83, Kelnberger 2005a,
107). The “Dowland phenomenon” could thus spread to the broader public
for whom songbooks were still financially inaccessible, but who could afford
to buy theatre tickets (Rupp 2005a, 140).
What does all this tell us about the Englishness of Dowland’s art? It is vi-
tal to emphasise in this context that Dowland’s sonic trademark is hardly
Dowland’s own, or indeed an ‘English’ invention in this sense. The descend-
ing tetrachord was a commonplace in the continental music of Dowland’s
time, and firmly culturally coded as “a standard emblem of grief” (Holman
1999, 40). There have been many attempts to locate the exact provenience of
Dowland’s compound tear-motif (ibid.), but the two most likely options are
that Dowland appropriated it from Lassus’s cycle Psalmi Davidis poeniten-
tialis (1584) – even if there is no clear evidence that Dowland knew Lassus’s
work –, or that he took it from Luca Marenzio’s six-part madrigal “Parto da
voi, mio sole” (1585). This latter option seems particularly plausible, first,
because Dowland was a great admirer of Marenzio and stood in personal
contact with him, and second, because the madrigal in question was reprinted
as “Now I must part” in Nicholas Yonge’s collection Musica Transalpina
(1588) which basically introduced the madrigal tradition to England, and
which Dowland definitely knew. Peter Holman concludes that “[o]f course, we
have no means of knowing how conscious any of these borrowings were,
170 Reading Song Lyrics

though they at least suggest that Dowland was immersed in the music of his
great continental contemporaries” (Holman 1999, 42). It is fair to say, there-
fore, that Dowland’s sound of melancholy is as much a product of transna-
tional dialogue and syncretism as is his lyrical melancholy with its pro-
nounced if ambivalent recourse to (originally Italian) Petrarchan convention.
What marks Dowland’s art as ‘English’, therefore, is hardly an effect of
the work itself, but a consequence of the way in which Dowland marketed it
in view of English conditions and taste, and particularly so in view of the
core institution of English national authority. James Day is in a way right,
therefore, when he remarks in his ‘Englishness’ in Music that Elizabethan

did not need to demonstrate their nationality by setting xenophobic or chauvinistic texts.
Even the dance rhythms that they exploited both in their solo songs and their instrumental
pieces were West European rather than specifically English. They were able to demonstrate
it by dedicating their art to the Queen, who was the all-too-human yet conventionally ideal-
ised symbol of the community in which they lived or the God they believed to preside over
both her destiny and theirs. (Day 1999, 39, italics in the original)

What Day fails to note, though, is that John Dowland in particular has been
transmitted to us as an icon of English songwriting precisely because he did
not belong to the centre of English national culture and the Queen’s musical
“community.” Dowland’s publishing career was crucially characterised, and
indeed, probably critically motivated, by his own marginality, and his address
to the Queen as the “conventionally idealised symbol of the community” is
consequently expressive of a highly ambivalent desire to belong: Dowland
performs a pervasive ironic distancing from the core symbol of the nation in
his subversive lyrical double address, even while his work is desperately
geared towards personal recognition and admittance into the centre of the
English courtly community. Together with his unrivalled sense of self-fash-
ioning and self-marketing, it is this liminal location between the two times of
the nation, suspended between the desire for self-affirmation and for the or-
thodoxy of tradition, which probably makes John Dowland the first truly
modern English songwriter.
8. Broadsides and Backsides (1811)

If the more recent popularity of John Dowland far beyond the confines of the
art music world has something to do with former Police front man Sting’s
decision to record of some of Dowland’s most popular ayres on Songs from
the Labyrinth (2006) (including a version of “Come again” with a rather un-
satisfying choice of text, oddly breaking off in mid-stanza two of the second
set of lyrics), and if Sting’s recording of Dowland is ultimately a conse-
quence of his famed decision to exchange a safe career as an English teacher
for the chances of rock stardom, it follows that Dowland’s more recent fame
may after all have something to do with a Jimi Hendrix performance in New-
castle upon Tyne in 1968, attended by 14-year-old Gordon Mathew Thomas
Sumner (dubbed ‘Sting’ only much later during a Dixie-jazz gig, as legend
has it, wearing a black and yellow jersey with hooped stripes that made him
look like a bumblebee). In an interview, Sting animatedly recalled the effect
of seeing Hendrix perform thus:

He was like a Venusian. Like someone from another planet. All that hair. And there were
hardly any black people in Newcastle – I think he actually was the first black person I’d ever
seen. It was absolutely electric, almost too awesome to deal with. […] That was what de-
cided me to become a musician, although I’d probably decided in some vague way already.
(Salewicz 1987, 22)

Jimi Hendrix was ‘discovered’ in Greenwich Village by Chas Chandler, for-

mer bassist of The Animals, who was just launching himself as a rock man-
ager. Chandler consequently brought him to London in September 1966
where Hendrix hit the music scene with a vengeance; partly, of course, owing
to his unparalleled musical skills and style, partly, however, because he
played out his exotic status as an African American to the full. As Paul
Gilroy writes in The Black Atlantic: “A seasoned, if ill-disciplined, rhythm
and blues sideman, Hendrix was reinvented as the essential image of what
English audiences felt a black American performer should be: wild, sexual,
hedonistic, and dangerous” (Gilroy 1993, 93). Hendrix was staged – and
staged himself – as an unprecedented threat and thrill, both musically and
sexually, across the contested intersections of race and gender. What appar-
ently thrilled adolescent Sting scandalised white British mothers and lovers
who feared that their loved ones would fall for a dangerous “Wild Man of
Borneo” as Hendrix was styled in the London tabloids, which treated him
172 Reading Song Lyrics

much like an “anthropological discovery,” 1 or, in Hendrix-biographer

Charles Shaar Murray’s words, “like a freakshow” (Murray 1989, 44). Such
exoticist sensationalism in the popular press was accompanied by persistent
rumours about the alleged size of Hendrix’s penis, which was eventually
‘objectified’ in a legendary encounter with the Plaster Casters in February
1968, two Chicago groupies whose fame rests on a substantial collection of
plaster casts of rock circuit genitalia. Hendrix, of whom Cynthia P Caster
enthusiastically claimed that “[h]e has got just about the biggest rig I’ve ever
seen!” (qtd. in Henderson 1983, 180) became their first exhibit.
Hendrix’s mythicised potency and sexuality was uncannily tied to ideas
of race in popular British discourses, and Gilroy accordingly remarks that
“the overt sexuality of Hendrix’s neo-minstrel buffoonery seems to have been
received as a sign of his authentic blackness by white rock audiences” (Gilroy
1993, 93). Race served to ‘authenticate’ sound, and Hendrix consequently
presented a thrill and threat not only to British audiences, but also to the pro-
fessional guild of London-based rock musicians in terms of “the political
aesthetics implicated in representations of racial authenticity” (ibid.). Oper-
ating within the conventions of a genre that claims a large part of its legacy
from the blues, the British rock scene found in Hendrix a protagonist in their
midst against whom ideals of authenticity and masculinity could be negoti-
ated and acted out. Some, such as Eric Clapton, saw in Hendrix’s stage per-
formances a showiness which deflected from his artistry, 2 while others per-

Charles R. Cross writes, recounting the anecdotal evidence of Hendrix’s arrival in London in
The Rolling Stone: “Once in England, Chandler immediately set out to turn Jimi into a star.
On the way from the airport, they stopped by the house of bandleader Zoot Money. […]
Also rooming in the house was twenty-year-old Kathy Etchingham, who would soon also be
smitten by Jimi. […] Money’s wife tried to wake her to tell her about the new sensation in
the living room. She said, ‘Wake up, Kathy. You’ve got to come and see this guy Chas has
brought back. He looks like the Wild Man of Borneo.’ The tag would later end up as one of
Jimi’s nicknames in the tabloids, a consequence of his unkempt physical appearance and his
race, both of which were so unusual on London’s music scene that he might as well have
been a new anthropological discovery” (Cross 2005).
Clapton stated in an interview in 1968: “You know English people have a very big thing
towards a spade. They really love that magic thing. They all fall for that kind of thing. Eve-
rybody and his brother in England still think that spades have big dicks. And Jimi came over
and exploited that to the limit, the fucking tee. Everybody fell for it. Shit. I fell for it. After a
while I began to suspect it. Having gotten to know him, I found out that’s not where he’s at,
not at all. The stuff he does onstage, when he does that he’s testing his audience. He’ll do a
lot of things, like fool around with his tongue and play his guitar behind his back and rub it
up and down his crotch. And he’ll look at the audience, and if they’re digging it, he won’t
like the audience” (Wenner 1981, 28). Clapton’s rather twisted opinions about Englishness,
immigration and ethnicity will be briefly discussed in the following chapter.
Broadsides and Backsides 173

ceived an ideal organic connection between bodily performance and musical

sound (cf. Waksman 1999). Hendrix himself began to feel increasingly un-
comfortable with the racial and sexual overdetermination of his artistic persona
which he had certainly actively fostered during his European rise to fame,
and began to ascribe to himself the “nomadic identity of the gypsy” (Gilroy
1993, 94) before his untimely death in 1970.
Jimi Hendrix’s status as the ultimate black performer in rock culture re-
mains unchallenged to this day; yet of course, he was not the first ‘exotic
import’ to the London entertainment industry. With some daring, one may
indeed see him less as an isolated phenomenon in the transatlantic exchanges
of rock, but in a much longer trajectory of alien exponents in London that
reaches back to the beginnings of Britain’s imperial aspirations and thus to
the days of William Shakespeare and John Dowland. The stories and metro-
politan experiences of many of the earlier exotic performers often betray a
number of rather surprising parallels to Hendrix’s career, even if we ac-
knowledge that Hendrix retained a degree of creative agency not only over
his music, but also his stage persona which would have been inconceivable in
colonial times, and that his musical talent outshined that of most who came
before and after him. One of the colonial ‘Venusians’ who throws some of
the ironies of Hendrix’s sojourn in England into relief is Sara Baartman, 3 a
Khoisan woman from the Southern Cape who was transported to London and
exhibited at 225 Piccadilly Street under the epithet of ‘The Hottentot Venus’
between 1810 and 1811.
Like Hendrix, Sara Baartman died young (Baartman at 26, Hendrix at
27), and like Hendrix, she performed as a ‘guitarist’ and singer. From con-
temporary newspaper coverage and pictorial evidence we know that Baart-
man not only played the gimabarde (or Jew’s harp), but also a ramkie with
some skill, 4 a four- to six-stringed African guitar which evolved as a colonial

I will stick to the name and spelling ‘Sara Baartman’ in the following. Baartman’s original
Khoisan name has not survived, and there exist different spellings of her adopted English/
Afrikaans name (‘Sarah,’ ‘Baartmann,’ ‘Bartman,’ ‘Bartmann’). She exclusively referred to
herself, apparently, as ‘Saartjie’ (‘Saartje,’ ‘Saartji,’ ‘Sartjée’) throughout her life, a Dutch
diminutive construction which was used by colonialists to express condescension and
enforced servitude, but which was also used to express affection among family and friends.
Critics are divided by their preferences for one or the other form of the first name, some
opting for the term she herself preferred which is more evocative of her association with
South Africa where she has become “the most famous and revered national icon of the colo-
nial era” (Holmes 2007, xiv); most, however, opt for the anglicised version (cf. ibid, xiii-xiv,
Qureshi 2004, 233).
For the newspaper coverage, see e.g. Strother 1999, 33; for a representation of Sara Baart-
man playing her ramkie on stage, see e.g. Lindfors 1984, 49.
174 Reading Song Lyrics

hybrid between native Khoisan gourd instruments and various European,

Arabic and Asian variants of lutes and guitars (cf. Kirby 1934). We also
know that she accompanied herself to traditional Khoi songs, Dutch popular
tunes, and probably also to English ballads and shanties. Baartman’s musical
performances were rarely commented upon in contemporary discourses, how-
ever, and instead it was almost exclusively her physical appearance which
took centre stage. If this sets her apart from Hendrix the musician, what
brings their cases together again is that just like Hendrix in the tabloids, Sara
Baartman ranged between freak (that is, an abnormal, but therefore perfectly
unique individual) and ethnographic type (that is, a genuine representative of
her race and culture) in the eyes of many of her contemporaries. What is
more, the unprecedented fame and fascination she stirred in the London
entertainment scene in the months of her exhibition triggered a discourse on
cultural and national identity in which Baartman, like Hendrix, served less as
an agent, but as a projection foil for multiple fears and desires.
In this chapter, I wish to throw some new light on the popular reception of
Sara Baartman in London, and I will do so again through the lens of a single
song, a popular broadside ballad titled “The Hottentot Venus.” What makes
Baartman’s case so interesting in this context, is that her tragic story epito-
mises in many ways the uneven transition from cultural to scientific racism in
19th-century European letters, even though recent critical investigations of
the ‘Hottentot Venus’ have tended to retrospectively appropriate her case
almost exclusively for the scientific side of the argument. This has to do with
Baartman’s spectacular end and afterlife in Paris, where she was moved by
her manager Hendrik Cesars after one year in London and an extended tour
of the British provinces and Ireland. In Paris, Baartman had a brief stage ca-
reer, but eventually ended up in the hands of Georges Cuvier and Etienne
Geoffroy Saint-Hillaire, founding members of the world’s first anthropologi-
cal society (the Societé des observateurs de l’homme), and Cuvier’s protégé
Henri De Blainville at the Muséum d’histoire naturelle. The three men’s sci-
entific agenda was, among other things, to uncover the anatomical secret of
Baartman’s uncommonly pronounced steatopygia (an enlargement of the
buttocks), but especially to unveil the mystery surrounding an anatomical
feature that was unreliably reported in various travelogues since the early
17th century, the so-called ‘Hottentot apron’ or ‘tablier’. Referring to an un-
usual prolongation of the labia minora, the tablier was hotly debated among
anthropologists and travellers such as Cuvier’s friend François Le Valliant,
who believed in a cultural explanation (i.e. a form of mutilation), and others
who believed in natural deviation. What Baartman managed to modestly hide
Broadsides and Backsides 175

from her scientific observers during her lifetime 5 (quite unlike Jimi Hendrix,
of course, who gave his sexual organ rather freely into the hands of the Plas-
ter Casters) lay at Cuvier’s disposal after Sara Baartman succumbed to illness
and alcohol in late December 1815. Cuvier subsequently took plaster casts of
her body of which he created a painted true-to-life model; he performed a full
body dissection and embalmed the brain; but most triumphantly, he em-
balmed her genitalia after carefully modelling them in wax – and here is of
course the final ironic parallel to Hendrix, the plaster cast of whose member
presently towers the Cythia P Caster Foundation’s online photo exhibition
and shop (replicas available for US$ 1.500; cf. Caster 2007).
From around the 1850s, Sara Baartman’s plaster cast, her skeleton, and
her genitalia went on public display at the National History Museum in Paris,
until step by step, first the genitalia were removed from display in the early
1970s, followed by the skeleton in 1974 and the body cast in 1976, 6 under
pressure from a feminist campaign (cf. Qureshi 2004, 246). Only in May
2002, following a long post-apartheid campaign led by Nelson Mandela, did
the French government release Baartman’s remains and she was laid to rest in
her native earth. More significantly for the purpose of this chapter, however,
palaeontologist Stephen Gould stumbled across the bottled genitalia and
brain of Sara Baartman in 1980 in the museum store rooms and re-entered
them into the consciousness of the academic scene (see e.g. Gould 1985), and
it was through one essay in particular – Sander Gilman’s “Black Bodies,
White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nine-
teenth-Century Art, Medicine and Literature,” published in Henry Louis
Gates’s extremely influential collection ‘Race,’ Writing, and Difference among
further seminal writings by the likes of Said, Bhabha, Spivak or Derrida –
that Sara Baartman was catapulted to a late academic fame.
What Gilman basically performs (in the context of a comparative ap-
proach to the medical discourse on colonial subjects and prostitutes in the
later 19th century) is the transformation of Sara Baartman into a veritable
academic master trope. According to Zine Magubane, the 1985 article shaped
the “curious theoretical odyssey of the ‘Hottentot Venus’” to such an extent
that “[a]ny scholar wishing to advance an argument on gender and colonial-

The three men made Baartman comply with being painted in the nude. Londa Schiebinger
points out a major discrepancy between Cuvier’s official report of this event and De Blain-
ville’s account in a presentation he did not originally intend to publish: while Cuvier speaks
matter-of-factly of Baartman’s ready consent, De Blainville relates how she at first stub-
bornly refused to undress and categorically denied any close inspection of her genitals (cf.
Schiebinger 1993, 170; Strother 1999, 34).
Strother dates the removal of the body cast from display to 1982 (see Strother 1999, 1).
176 Reading Song Lyrics

ism, gender and science, or gender and race must, it seems, quote [it]” (Ma-
gubane 2001, 816). This as such would not be problematic were it not for the
fact that the new “critical industry” around Baartman’s case reiterated a
number of rather sweeping assumptions which have “largely abstracted [Sara
Baartman’s exhibition] from its political and historical context” (ibid., 831;
for a similar argument, see Mielke 1997). These are some of Gilman’s most
sweeping proclamations:

In the course of the nineteenth century, the female Hottentot comes to represent the black
female in nuce […W]hile many groups of African blacks were known to Europeans in the
nineteenth century, the Hottentot remained representative of the essence of the black, espe-
cially the black female. (Gilman 1985, 225)
The antithesis of European sexual mores and beauty is embodied in the black, and the es-
sential black, the lowest rung on the great chain of being, is the Hottentot. The physical ap-
pearance of the Hottentot is, indeed, the central nineteenth-century icon for sexual difference
between the European and the black [.] (ibid., 231)
[T]he figure of Sarah Bartmann was reduced to her sexual parts. The audience which had
paid to see her buttocks and had fantasized about the uniqueness of her genitalia when she
was alive could, after her death and dissection, examine both […]. Sarah Bartmann’s sexual
parts, her genitalia and her buttocks, serve as the central image of the black female through-
out the nineteenth century. (ibid., 232-35)

Such claims are questionable on at least three grounds (cf. Magubane 2001,
818). This first concerns that despite a constructivist overall setup (‘race’ in
the collection’s title has been carefully marked as a discursive concept rather
than an essentialist category), Gilman’s argument suffers from a considerable
dose of psychological determinism. With light strokes, Gilman replaces criti-
cal materialist notions of human relations in transcultural contact zones with
a universal Freudian scenario in which all boils down to seemingly objective
(“unique and observable”) venereal business: in a typical train of thought,
Gilman postulates that “[f]emale sexuality is linked to the buttocks, and the
quintessential buttocks are those of the Hottentot,” all the while the “nine-
teenth-century fascination with the buttocks” is nothing but “a displacement
for the genitalia” (Gilman 1985, 238).
Secondly, Gilman thus effectively avoids any need for historical, social
and ideological differentiation, and such negligence takes its toll: most bla-
tantly, Gilman’s argument that the ‘Hottentot’ represented “the essence of the
black” critically overlooks that “for four hundred years, those fantasy crea-
tures the Hottentots were usually considered a separate species from ‘the
black race’” (Strother 1999, 39). As Magubane demonstrates, early 19th-
century travellers to the Cape in particular tended to make sharp distinctions
between the ‘tawny’ Khoikhoi and San, and the much darker Xhosa, who
were again sharply distinguished from other sub-Saharan African tribes. The
Broadsides and Backsides 177

Xhosa were considered more physically handsome than any of the groups,
and only the latter two were generally associated with sexual lasciviousness;
the Khoisan were, by contrast, typically considered “undersexed” (ibid., ital-
ics in the original). Taking into account, moreover, that early 19th-century
British anthropologists avidly debated whether the “Xhosa should be classi-
fied as Negroes” at all, all the while the “‘Africanoid origin of the Irish” was
widely accepted in scientific circles, it is vital to re-state the obvious again,
namely that the ‘Hottentot Venus’ cannot possibly represent the black female
in nuce, as “Blackness is less a stable, observable, empirical fact than an ide-
ology that is historically determined and, thus, variable” (Magubane 2001,
To insist on the variation of ideological stances in Sara Baartman’s public
reception is vital in order to counter the third major problematic implication
of Gilman’s argument, namely that there was a unified response to Sara
Baartman’s exhibition (read: her genitalia; read: all black women) across
variables such as time, place, and class. Gilman’s analysis rests almost entirely
on Baartman’s posthumous absorption into the French medical discourse of
the later 19th century, and projects it back upon her entire career. However,
as Fausto-Sterling remarks (but fails to follow up upon): “Although a theatre
attraction and the object of a legal dispute about slavery in England, it was
only in Paris, before and after her death, that Baartmann entered into the
scientific accounting of race and science” (Fausto-Sterling 1995, 33). Baart-
man’s earlier reception in London was indeed of a different sort, and even
within London, those who were sufficiently versed in the latest imperial
travel writing – that is those of the upper trading and aristocratic classes –
will have seen very different things in her than those who could afford neither
books nor newspapers and were instead versed in the latest street gossip.
Magubane remarks:

Only by underplaying the existence and importance of ideological conflict can [theorists]
sustain Gilman’s argument that people from such widely different social locations as French
aristocrats, English merchants, displaced peasants, gentleman scientists, and factory workers
held a singular and unified opinion about, and image of, Black women and sexuality. (Ma-
gubane 2001, 825)

As the critical reception of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ in Gilman’s wake has

largely privileged the perspective of “French aristocrats” and “gentleman
scientists,” I wish set out in the following to investigate more closely what
the popular reception of Sara Baartman among the more common folk in
London would have been like. Challenging the orthodoxy of academic dis-
course, my argument will pay particular attention to Sara Baartman’s role in
178 Reading Song Lyrics

the London entertainment and theatre culture, and her enmeshment with the
ideological skirmishes that surrounded it during the Romantic period.
So far, the popular reception of Sara Baartman has been, where it was not
neglected altogether, mainly approached through the medium of caricature in
newspapers and newspaper reports, many of which have survived to this day
(owing to the fact that the more established stamped newspapers were col-
lected and archived). Such caricatures and reports, however, circulated among
a relatively small part of the London community as newspapers were still
costly: during Baartman’s exhibition, the stamp duty was at three and a half
pence, effecting that newspapers usually did not sell under seven pence. 7
Therefore, the numerous caricatures of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ (analysed in
closer detail especially by Bernth Lindfors [1984] and [1989]) will have been
mostly directed at and received by the educated and wealthier parts of soci-
ety, given that an unskilled male worker earned between a penny and two-
pence an hour (Bennett 1982, 70). There was an alternative tradition of media
coverage, however, that was within the financial means of the common
people, and moreover one that included the still relatively large part of soci-
ety that was semi- or illiterate: much of what the working class knew about
Sara Baartman, they would have learnt from broadside ballads.
Broadside ballads are defined, first, by their medial format, and second, a
specific culture of performance. They are printed on a single slip of paper (on
one side only; if printed on both sides, they are referred to as ‘broadsheets’),
often illustrated by a crude woodcut but never printing the music, “referring
instead to some well-known tune (often a folk-tune) or simply carrying the
tag ‘to a new tune’” (Shepard 1969, 14). Sound, however, was invariably
involved: “The text of the ballad was sung or recited as the printed copy was
being sold, and this distribution in the street, marketplace, public house or at
the fair, instead of through the usual channel of books, is another distin-
guishing factor” (Würzbach 1990, 2). Broadside ballads – usually available
for a halfpence or penny, i.e. the price of a pint of beer or gin – were in many
ways the ‘tabloids’ of the Romantic and early Victorian era; they were – if
not exclusively – “the literature of the urban working class” which “provides
one of the few insights we have into their popular culture” (Neuburg 1977,
142). 8

This only changed when the stamp duty was reduced to a penny in 1836 and lifted in 1855.
There was, however, a severely policed but burgeoning market for illegal unstamped papers,
often selling for twopence (see Wiener 1969).
It is remarkable in this context that the current representative studies of the Romantic age
bypass the tradition of broadside balladry almost completely. The 800 page Romanticism:
An Oxford Guide (Roe 2005) covers it within ten lines of ink spilled on “Cheap Print” (94),
Broadsides and Backsides 179

Unfortunately, there is only limited access to what may be called the first
mass medium in modern history because a vast number of broadsides simply
have not survived. Produced on cheap paper to cover the topicalities of the
day, they were pasted on shop fronts, taken home or to the pubs, sometimes
pasted on the wall of workplaces (cf. Palmer 1989, 7) – yet once their topi-
cality was superseded by new events and new ballads, the sheets were dis-
carded or put to more profane use. It is unclear, moreover, whether it is
mainly the most popular ballads that are still around today, or whether it is
more likely that “the less popular items, of which copies remained unread and
undiscarded, had the better chance of survival” (Neuburg 1977, 126-27);
many of the broadsides in today’s major collections, at least, stem from
stocks of non-selling leftovers that collectors bought cheaply directly from
printers in the Victorian era. 9
In the following, I will propose an extended reading of a ballad that sur-
vived against the odds, and which has been overlooked so far in the critical
debates around Sara Baartman. There is good reason to assume that the song
in question, “The Hottenttot Venus: A New Song,” was highly popular in its
time, not only because of its subject matter: first, it appears on a broadside as
printed by one C. Berry of Norwich, while there is very strong internal evi-
dence that the song originated and was first printed in London, probably in
the vicinity of London’s theatre district – which means that the present
broadside version is almost certainly pirated, a fate that many, but primarily
successful ballads shared. Second, I have not managed to come across a sur-
viving copy of the song from a London-based printer, which makes it not
unlikely that the plagiarised original(s) sold out. I will in the following try to
sustain these assumption by investigating, first, the medial context of the
Romantic street ballad and the broadside market more generally, and second,

despite the fact that almost every other imaginable “Romantic Form” from lyric and epic to
travel writing, newspaper or diary is discussed at some length. The encyclopaedic Oxford
Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776-1832 (McCalman 2001) fails to
discuss the broadside press in its chapter on “Popular Culture” (214-23), while at least
featuring a one-page entry on “street literature” more generally in the alphabetical entries
A case in point is the Madden Collection of some 30.000 ballads hosted by the Cambridge
University Library. The collector Sir Frederick Madden visited the legendary ballad printer
John Pitts in 1837, and cheaply bought from Pitts a large stock of his own imprints and a
collection of broadsides by other printers. Madden notes in his diary: “called again at Pitts,
who had looked out for me 58 dozen, all printed by himself since the year 1790. He used
formerly to reside at 14 Gt. St. Andrew St. and has been in business, he says, for 39 years.
Pitts told me, he had a large collection of old Ballads by other printers, which he had pur-
chased about 40 years since, and offered to sell them to me; an offer, which of course, I ac-
cepted” (qtd. in Thomson 1987).
180 Reading Song Lyrics

their singing context. The following sections will then probe into the cultural
relevance of the song in the framework of Sara Baartman’s biography, and
assess her ambiguous role as a foil against which popular ideas of national
culture have been played out. These are the words of the song: 10

The Hottentot Venus;

A New Song

Tune – We’ll go no more a roving so late in the night


O London is a puppet show, where curious sights are seen,

And at their head the Hottentot unrivall’d stands the Queen;
There are giants, dwarfs, and singing birds, which all are but a hum,
compar’d to Venus on the stage, exhibiting her bum.
We’ll go no more to other shows while Venus treads the stage,
We’ll go no more to other shows while Hottentot’s the rage.

His fam’d museum Bullock boasts, with Leopardallis skin

From Africa, which he’s got stuff’d to gull the people in;
Of Nature’s great phenomenon imported from that shore
To Britain’s Isle, the Hottentot above them all must soar.

Pidcock who long has bore the bell, as general in the field
Of lions, tigers cats and wolves, does now to Venus yield;
The fashionables too, we find, are stirring every stump,
With pads, and hoops, and petticoats to imitate her rump.

Our rival Theatres each night produce a something new,

But Convent-Garden soon, we hear, will bring to public view
A Pantomime to please the town, we’re told ‘tis wond’rous fine,
The Yorkshire Giant Harlequin, and Venus Columbine.

Old Mother Parker now no more need figure in the dance,

Grimaldi, too, with his grimace, may cease to skip and prance;
Even Siddons, as Melpomene, we fear must quit the stage,
And Glover, too, as Thalia, since Venus is the rage.

The Opera has ceased to please, and so has Catalani,

With all her demi-semi-quavers, fortes and piano;
Her vile Italian squeaks indeed, compared to Sartjee’s fine tones,
Are just like fiddles out of tune, or sharp’ning knives on grindstones.

The broadside is part of the ballad collection hosted by the Bodleian Library, Oxford, al-
legro Catalogue of Ballads, Harding B 25(863). The ballad is the only one on the sheet, and
it comes without a woodcut illustration.
Broadsides and Backsides 181

Miss Scott who leads the Sans Pareil as Jean the Lowland romp,
We’ve seen as Mary of the Inn, in all her tragic pomp,
In either part the Hottentot that Lady would outshine,
But she’s a Venus, and we all must bow to her fair shrine.

Poor Penley with great Marmion has long since tir’d the town,
And Denmark’s prince he’s now brought on, in hopes it may go down;
But what are princes, warriors, chiefs? Why they’re not worth a groat,
They must all yield to that damn’d jade, the Female Hottentot.

The Blood-red Knight will take no more nor yet the Pony Race,
And Sadler’s Wells with all its charms, to Venus must give place;
Spring Gardens, its attractions now appear but shilly-shally,
To Venus at the Lottery Office held at Piccadilly.

In days of yore when Garrick reign’d, with Pritchard and Dame Clive,
With Woodward, Shuter, Weston, Yates, the town was kept alive;
A sterling English play was then to men of sense a feast,
But now a Hottentot’s the rage – good Lord, how chang’d is taste!

C. Berry, Printer, Norwich.

Mediascape: The Cultural Authority of Romantic Broadsides

When and where was this ballad originally printed, who would have written
it, and where and how was it marketed and performed? The first question
(when?) can be answered most precisely in this context, based on rather un-
ambiguous internal evidence: the first key, here, is in stanza seven, which
refers to two stage productions at the Sans Pareil Theatre involving manager,
playwright and performer Jane M. Scott. From the play bills we know that
Mary the Maid of the Inn, a melodrama, was staged during the 1809-1810
season (December 27 till April 2, cf. Mann and Garland Mann 1996, 412),
while the following season featured Scott as the protagonist of her own comic
opera The Lowland Rump. The Lowland Rump premiered on December 27,
1810 and was performed 59 times until it closed on April 6, 1811 (cf.
McHugh 1992); since the ballad clearly signals that the show at the Sans Pa-
reil is still on, there is little reason to doubt that is was written, and most
probably also first printed and distributed, sometime between January and
March 1811. 11 The following stanza then allows to further narrow this down.

The Bodleian Library allegro catalogue dates the ballad to “1756-1807,” apparently based
on information about the printer, stationer and bookseller Christopher Berry of Dove Lane,
182 Reading Song Lyrics

“Poor Penley,” here, refers to the moderately successful theatre manager of a

minor theatre in St. Pancras which frequently changed names, managers and
owners, but in 1810 and 1811 was known as the New Theatre in Tottenham
Street. The New Theatre had a dramatic adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s epic
poem Marmion (1808) in its 1810 repertoire, and it was the first theatre to
stage what is retrospectively acknowledged as the first “Shakespeare bur-
lesque” (cf. Wells 1977), namely John Poole’s first dramatic attempt, Hamlet
Travestie (1810), a play that proved to be formative for the genre and found
many imitators. Poole’s play is indeed exemplary for the rise of an ‘illegiti-
mate’ theatre culture in London over the course of the Romantic period (cf.
Moody 2000, 139-41) which demands further investigation as it is vital for
the ideological stances taken by our song – yet this will have to wait till later.
Suffice it for now that Hamlet Travestie premiered at the New Theatre in
Tottenham Street on January 24, 1811 (cf. Wells 1977, xxi), and given that
the ballad speaks of it as “now brought on, in hopes it may go down,” my
best guess would be that “The Hottentot Venus” was first printed and mar-
keted in February 1811.
If the song can thus be rather precisely dated, the questions as to where,
by whom, and in which medial context it was first conceived are slightly
more speculative. What is clear is that Norwich is improbable as the original
place of publication, simply because it was rather far removed from the topi-
calities of London life with which the song abounds – until 1834 when a
railway connection was established, Norwich was geographically isolated to
the extent that “it was often quicker to travel to Amsterdam by boat than on
road to London” (Norwich 2008). It is rather evident that the Norwich copy
must have been plagiarised if we take into account that in the broadside busi-
ness, plagiarism was the norm rather than exception, and that the trade typi-
cally followed a logic that initially privileged local concerns and markets. 12 It
is highly probably that the first broadside featuring “The Hottentot Venus”
was in the stocks of a local London-based printer, and moreover one who
operated in the vicinity of the theatre district and larger entertainment scene 13
– after all, the ballad addresses a target audience (“We’ll go no more to other

Norwich. This attribution is evidently wrong. Almost certainly the imprint refers to
C[hristopher] Berry junior, son of the older printer.
Neuburg writes that “a great deal of plagiarism went on – successful items were shamelessly
copied – and local themes were of course exploited by local printers” (Neuburg 1977, 139).
Martha Vicinus remarks that “Seven Dials, the home of all the main London printers, was
close to Drury Lane and the theatre district; every evening the aggressive hawkers and
chaunters would ‘busk’ for the waiting crowds”; and she stresses that “[i]mportant theatrical
events were sure to yield a crop of new broadsides” (Vicinus 1974, 32).
Broadsides and Backsides 183

shows”) which is supposedly intimately in the know about the minor and
major theatrical sensations of the metropolis. 14 The fact that it subsequently
travelled and was plagiarised as far away as Norwich then speaks for the
ballad’s popular success, as it was first and foremost bestsellers which were
copied in the provinces to satisfy the demand for information about the latest
metropolitan news and scandals.
What can we assume about the kind of person who wrote a song like “The
Hottentot Venus”? Most likely the ballad was conceived by a London resi-
dent, immersed in the entertainment scene, and moreover well versed in the
ideological skirmishes around the decline of a ‘national’ theatre culture at the
Royal Theatres (Drury Land and Covent Garden) and the ‘foreignisation’ and
‘spectacularisation’ of theatre in both minor and patent houses. Whether our
writer and his target audience were part of the working class which the lit-
erature on broadsides likes to associate so firmly with its culture is question-
able. Theatre tickets, and particularly those at the major houses, would have
been costly (a gallery seat at Coven Garden or Drury Lane cost a shilling);
still, this did not exclude the poorer Londoners from taking passionate
stances on contemporary theatre culture and the gossip that surrounded it, and
it is not entirely unconceivable that our writer is mostly informed by such
passionate gossip. As Martha Vicinus remarks with reference to the ‘Old
Price’ riots to which I will return in some more detail later:

The O.P. (Old Price) riots in the autumn of 1809, protesting the introduction of higher prices
at Covent Garden, were zealously discussed by men and women who probably could not af-
ford even the cheapest of the old prices, but felt involved with an issue that had political
ramifications. (Vicinus 1974, 32-33)

It seems more likely, however, that the author of “The Hottentot Venus” was
relatively educated and had the financial means to acquire first hand experi-
ence of at least the more affordable minor theatre culture of London.
To assume as much would be fully in tune with the more recent research
on street ballads which holds that a considerable part of its authors and buy-
ers were, indeed, middle class. The tradition of broadside printing goes back
a very long way, and it seems that at no point in its considerable history
broadsides had been the exclusive privilege of the lower classes. According
to Leslie Shepard, the medium can be traced back to as early as 1477 in

The Sans Pareil, for instance, had only been called into existence five years earlier in 1806
by colour merchant John Smith, who got the Earl of Dartmouth, then Lord Chamberlain, to
license his house for winter sessions “as a small theatre to showcase the talents of his
daughter” (Moody 2000, 31); the New Theatre was even more marginal. Allusions to Penley
and Scott probably would have eluded a Norwich street audience.
184 Reading Song Lyrics

England (Shepard 1978, 49), but was almost exclusively reserved for ecclesi-
astic contexts until the reign of Elizabeth I. Religious pamphlets initially
vastly outnumbered early broadside variants of, for instance, the Robin Hood
ballads, even if secular ballads rose with anti-clerical attitudes under Henry
VIII. But it was only towards the end of the 16th century that there was “a
striking change from religious to secular thematic content” (Würzbach 1990,
8), 15 and the Elizabethan age and the years until the Civil War are usually
considered the first golden age of street balladry. There is little controversy
about the fact that the cultural economy of Renaissance broadsides cut across
class divisions (Würzbach remarks that “[t]he mass of the ballad public be-
longed to the urban bourgeoisie – merchants and craftsmen and the servants
of their households – and secondly to the urban and agricultural working
classes,” ibid., 26), and there is little ground to argue that things manifestly
changed with the shift from so-called black-letter to white-letter ballads to-
wards the end of the 17th century. 16 Over the course of the 18th century,
street ballads even acquired academic respectability by being discussed, for
instance, by Joseph Addison in The Spectator (1711), as the main resource of
John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (first produced in 1727 and soon the rage of
the town), or through collections such as Bishop Percy’s Reliques of Ancient
English Poetry (1765) which relied heavily on broadsides and geared the
Romantic ballad revival (cf. Shepard 1969, 27).
With regard to the 19th century, there still is a dubious academic consen-
sus that argues for a break with this longstanding tradition, and postulates an
increasing separation of classes and reading/performing cultures in what can
be termed the second golden age of street balladry, roughly from 1790 until
the 1850s (when the repeal of the stamp and paper duties, the rise of music
hall, and alternative forms of printing lyrics, e.g. in pocket ‘songsters’, began
to replace the broadside format). As James Hepburn summarises:

As Shepard writes, the rise of secular street balladry is in many ways to blame for the social
decline of the “the traditional and professional minstrels” whom Dowland and his fellow
musicians took so great pains to dissociate themselves from. “[B]y the period of Elizabeth I,
minstrels had become legally ranked with rogues, vagabonds and beggars. The printed bal-
ladsheet must have contributed largely to the downfall of ancient traditional balladry in favour
of new popular street songs. Who would pay a minstrel to sing long old-fashioned ballads of
far-off times when you could buy a smart up-to-date broadside for one penny? Besides, in a
period of great changes the emphasis was on topicality” (Shepard 1978, 51).
‘Black-letter’ refers to the old gothic type that Renaissance ballads were printed with, which
began to be replaced by ‘white-letter’ type [roman and italic] on narrower slips of paper;
black-letter “lingered on for more traditional-style broadside ballads, finally disappearing at
the opening of the eighteenth century” (Shepard 1969, 19).
Broadsides and Backsides 185

The argument goes that in earlier centuries broadside ballads were common reading for all
classes. Young men at universities wrote letters mentioning the buying of broadside ballads.
Samuel Pepys bought them. But newspapers and magazines developed, and by the nine-
teenth century broadside ballads were beneath the notice of middle and upper classes, and
newspapers and magazines were largely beyond the means of the poor. (Hepburn 2000, 65)

The evidence for this argument is unclear and particularly so since its logic is
waterproof only from one side: “For though the poor could not well afford
newspapers and magazines until after the middle of the century, the middle
and upper classes could afford broadside ballads” (ibid.). After carefully
reviewing the contextual evidence, Hepburn accordingly guesses that on
average, only around 65 percent of Romantic and early Victorian broadsides
were bought by the lower classes, with considerable variation according to
subgenre (ibid., 75).
If this supports the notion that we are dealing less with ‘two nations’ than
with a single culture of street balladry cutting across boundaries of taste, edu-
cation and income, evidence for this is even stronger – if again somewhat
unclear – for the production side. Hepburn convincingly argues that the wide-
spread assumption that 19th-century street ballads were usually written by the
poor for the poor is, at best, a half-truth, albeit a half-truth that has become an
important cultural capital already during the 19th century (cf. Hepburn 2000,
62-63). This first of all concerns the question of how many ballads and songs
around the time of Baartman’s exhibition were indeed written specifically for
broadside publication, and how much was plagiarised from other medial
contexts. In an 1856 article on “The Press of the Seven Dials,” Charles
Manby Smith holds that as much as three-fourths of the broadside ballads
were pirated – against this view, the author of an article on broadside ballads
in the National Review states in 1861 that street ballads were “almost all
written by persons of the class to which they are addressed” (“Street Bal-
lads,” 399, cf. Hepburn 2000, 36-37). Both arguments, contradictory as they
appear, are based on some evidence, and rather than opting entirely for one or
the other, the question is which side we wish to give slightly more credit.
It cannot be fully ruled out that “The Hottentot Venus” originated in an-
other medial context before it appeared as a broadside, for instance in the
context of theatre, free-and-easies (forerunners of music hall) such as the
Coal Hole, glee and supper clubs, or pleasure garden entertainments. Against
this possibility, however, stands that the song perfectly complies with the
specific characteristics of street balladry – it is set to a popular folk tune,
there is a strong communal appeal in the highly memorable chorus, it is topi-
cal, relatively bawdy, and quite long – which in combination indicates the
street rather than the stage as ideal performance arena. Should “The Hottentot
Venus; A New Song” have been pirated from another medial context, than at
186 Reading Song Lyrics

least with very good sense. Without being able to argue my case with abso-
lute certainty, I assume that our song was specifically designed for broadside
publication, either by a middle class freelancer or a (financially less secure)
hack. Both options seem possible: Hepburn managed to trace a considerable
number of broadside ballads to occasional poets from the middle class (Hep-
burn 2000, 36-43), but the revival of street ballads in the 19th century also
came along with the establishment of professional bards who collaborated
closely with the printers. The anonymous observer quoted above certainly
had the latter line of authorship in mind when he noted that street ballads are
“written by persons of the class to which they are addressed,” even after
modestly acknowledging that he has “very indistinct notions indeed as to
who write the ballads, who buy them, why they buy them, how many are
sold, in what places, and under what circumstances” (“Street Ballads,” 399).
Much of what eluded this man in 1861 is still somewhat unclear today. Of
the professional writers, only very few are known, and significantly for our
ballad, none of them operated before the mid-1810s. That they lived com-
paratively meagre lives is suggested by the bard J.H., who claimed to have
written 1000 ballads in 14 years (thus an average of three ballads every two
weeks), but reported to John Mayhew that he nevertheless earned more with
teakettle repairs than with his ballads, and only just got by with both incomes
(cf. Hepburn 2000, 38 and 45). The only professional writer of which we
have fairly substantial knowledge is John Morgan, who was visited by
Charles Hindley during research for his Curiosities of Street Literature
(1871), and to whom we owe rare anecdotal insights into the London ballad
trade. Morgan, however, only arrived in London as a young man in 1816
where he immediately set to work for the notorious printer James ‘Jemmy’
Catnach. What the professional scene looked like before Morgan is difficult
to tell; it is interesting to note, however, that the broadside market was also
something of a last resort for literary writers with higher pretensions: Isaac
D’Israeli observed in Calamities of Authors (1812, 1:ix, cf. Hepburn 2000,
44-45) – and thus around the time of Sara Baartman’s exhibition in London –
that many failed writers were drawn to the anonymous ballad trade to make at
least some scant living by their composition skills. There must have been a
number of struggling playwrights among these who would have been par-
ticularly equipped, and indeed motivated, to write a ballad like “The Hotten-
tot Venus” – but this is, of course, a relatively wild guess for which no
conclusive evidence can be provided.
Let us turn instead to the other questions that remain still open, namely
where “The Hottentot Venus” was possibly first printed, and how it was sold,
“in what places, and under what circumstances.” With respect to the where-
abouts of broadside printing in the 19th century, there is no way of getting
Broadsides and Backsides 187

past the legendary Seven Dials area, home of the most famous rival printers
of the period, John Pitts and James Catnach. Catnach only established his
trade in 1813 and thus two years after “The Hottentot Venus”; Pitts, however,
set up his first business at No. 14 Great St. Andrew Street in Seven Dials, St
Giles-in-the-Fields, as early as in 1802. Seven Dials was then still part of the
largest slum in London, “reeking with disease, poverty, vagrancy and crime,
crammed with poor immigrants from Ireland” (Shepard 1969, 39), but it was
significantly also just a few blocks from Covent Garden and, to the east,
Drury Lane, and more or less in equal (walking) distance from the other at-
tractions treated in more detail in “The Hottentot Venus”: Piccadilly Street to
the west (Bullock’s Museum and Sara Baartman’s exhibition), The Strand to
the south (the Sans Pareil Theatre and Pidcock’s Exhibition of Wild Beasts in
the Exeter Exchange), and Tottenham Street to the north (The New Thea-
tre). 17 Pitts’s extraordinary output and business connections soon established
Seven Dials as the epicentre of the Romantic and early Victorian broadside
scene, even though it is important to note that he was not without competi-
tion, most notably from the Evans family operating from Long Lane in
Smithfield, the neighbourhood where the renowned publishers of 17th-cen-
tury black-letter ballads had kept their warehouses (ibid., 39).
The central location, together with the fact that between 1802 and 1813
Pitts, in Leslie Shepard’s words, all but “monopolized the broadside ballad
trade in London” (Shepard 1969, 46) makes him a very tempting guess for
having had a hand in the original publication of “The Hottentot Venus.” Un-
fortunately, the title does not appear in the index of the Madden Ballads at
Cambridge University Library which hosts a substantial number of Pitts’s
imprints (bought cheaply directly from Pitts by the collector Sir Frederick
Madden in 1837, cf. Thomson 1987), but this does not rule out that Pitts was
somehow involved in the proceedings: after all, ballads that had sold out did
not fall into Madden’s hands, not all ballads were catalogued, and Pitts also
published using a number of minor or less specialised printers all over Lon-
don, especially in the beginning of his career – Shepard even believes that he
was influential enough to “orchestrat[e] the performances of most of the
London printers of ballads” (Shepard 1969, 42).
Let us stay with Pitts for a moment to get a better idea of how the ballad
trade was organised in the early 19th century. Obviously, printers like Pitts
worked a rather tight economic regime which involved commissioning songs

Only two of the attractions that are cursorily mentioned in the last but one stanza – Sadler’s
Wells to the north-east (in Islington) and Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre, which hosted the
equestrian spectacle The Blood Red Knight, to the south-west (on Westminster Bridge Road,
Lambeth) – are a bit out of the way.
188 Reading Song Lyrics

cheaply from occasional or professional local poets (when not pirating), and
then supplying the ballad sheets to a range of street sellers often specialising
in particular ballad genres or types of trade. The transactions would usually
not take place at the factory in Great St. Andrew Street, but in a nearby pub
in Church Lane popularly known as the Beggar’s Opera, the ‘Rose and
Crown’. In his John Pitts, Ballad Printer of Seven Dials, Leslie Shepard re-
prints a revealing eyewitness report dating to 1825, reminiscing the ‘old
days’ at the Rose and Crown, giving an impression of what the transactions
between the ballad sellers and ‘Bat’ Corcoran, Pitts’s manager, would have
sounded and looked like:

Bat Corcoran [...] held his weekly market at the Beggar’s Opera in Church-lane. […] Thither
flocked in each Saturday night unnumbered brothers and sisters of the profession, to pur-
chase, to pay, to exchange, to bleed a tankard, to fathom a roley-poley, and blow a cloud.
Ah, the glorious confusion of those festivals! […] But let us see Bat amidst his customers –
see him riding the whirlwind – let us take him in the shock, the crisis of the night when he is
despatching the claims of a series of applicants. “I say, blind Maggie, you’re down for a
dozen ‘Jolly Waterman,’ thirteen to the dozen.– Pay up you’re score, Tom, with the wooden
leg, I see you are booked for a lot of ‘Arethusas.’– Master Flowers, do you think that ‘Cans
of Grog’ can be got for nothing, that you leave a stiff account behind you.– Sally Sallop, you
must either give back ‘The Gentlemen of England,’ or tip for them at once.– Friday my man,
there are so many ‘Black Eyed Susans’ against you.– Jimmy, get rid of the ‘Tars of Old
England,’ if you can; I think ‘Crazy Janes’ are more in vogue. What say you to an exchange
for ‘Hosier’s Ghost’?” (qtd. in Shepard 1969, 71)

Whatever the accuracy of such reminiscences, they certainly reveal that the
ballad trade followed a predominantly economic logic, both regarding “the
authors who sought their recompense, however trifling, for a product that was
short-lived in the extreme; the sellers who felt a pressing commercial need to
reach as wide a public as possible in order to earn a meagre living; and the
printers, who were the only ones who did reasonably well out of it” (Neuburg
1977, 142). Neuburg argues that this is the reason why overall, 19th-century
broadsides are seldom subversive or ideologically provocative, but instead
show a tendency “to romanticize reality – to offer a kind of cultural jingoism
– to achieve as wide a sale as possible” (ibid., 137). This way, he believes,
broadside ballads faithfully mirrored the taste of their main target audience:
they “seized upon events and followed them in the way which, we can as-
sume, reflected best the developing tastes of their working-class readers”
(ibid., 142). Seen in this light, broadside ballads would indeed provide us
with an invaluable tool to rather reliably assess popular attitudes and devel-
opments of taste underneath the dominant discourse. There is good reason to
be slightly more careful about the unfailing cultural authority of Romantic
period street balladry, though. As James Hepburn warns:
Broadsides and Backsides 189

In all this, one has to keep in mind that what got published as broadside balladry was not
necessarily what people on the street wanted, needed, deserved, or approved. It was not nec-
essarily an adequate reflection or expression of themselves or their views. It was partly what
Catnach wanted to publish, including his own rather bad verses. It was partly what was
available to pirate at no expense. It was partly what could be bought at a dishonourable
price. (Hepburn 2000, 39)

With all due care, I would nevertheless venture to argue that “The Hottentot
Venus” is, if not representative, then at least indicative of one popular atti-
tude towards Sara Baartman with some authority, not least because it con-
verges with other contemporary evidence of a moral panic about the
endangered ‘Englishness’ of patent theatre culture in times of imperial ex-
pansion. But before addressing ideology, let us first consider the primary per-
formance arena of “The Hottentot Venus.”

Soundscape: Venus Meets the Jolly Beggar

The available information on the ways in which ballads were sold is mainly
based on the accounts of Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the Poor
(1861-1862), which suggests that the “blind Maggies,” “Toms with the
wooden leg,” “Master Flowers’,” “Sally Sallops,” “Fridays” and “Jimmies”
working with people like Pitts pursued various ways of advertising their
wares. Different types of sellers included the running or ‘flying’ stationers,
the standing patterers, the so-called ‘buskers’, pinners-up and chaunters (cf.
Hepburn 2000, 66-67). The flying stationers apparently specialised in sensa-
tional prose material on real or fake events (murders, rapes, executions, fires,
etc.), which they sold with loud patter running through the streets (often col-
laborating with pickpockets). Standing patterers operated from fixed stalls
and dealt with similar material, yet offered a wider range, including bawdy
and seditious tales. Bawdy stuff seems to also have been the main source of
income, together with drinking songs, for the buskers who exclusively sold in
pubs and taverns; the material of pinners-ups, by contrast, involved more
innocuous material which was pasted in large numbers on the walls of some
of the main streets of town (among them Tottenham Court Road and Oxford
Street). The by far largest group of sellers for ballads, however, were the so-
called chaunters about whom Mayhew has, unfortunately, very little to say.
Among the few things that Mayhew does note, though, and of which he
claims that there was wide consensus among the sellers, is that for chaunted
ballads the lyrics as such are of relatively little concern, and what matters in
the sales process instead is “the subject; and more than the subject the chorus;
and far more than either the tune” (Mayhew 1961, 275).
190 Reading Song Lyrics

There is little doubt that our broadside would have been part of the
‘chaunting’ tradition of ballad vending. This much is already indicated by the
fact that a tune is explicitly spelled out on the sheet (most broadsides do not
in fact specify the tune, but were sung to the melody of a popular song that
the seller chose from a repertoire of tried and tested tunes), and that the
“CHORUS” is announced in capital letters on the sheet. But it is also the
particular quality of the chorus and tune which suggest that “The Hottentot
Venus” was performed by singing street performers, and most likely so
among the crowds in the entertainment areas of London – perhaps in front of
the theatres and exhibitions at The Strand, Piccadilly, or Covent Garden, per-
haps in the pleasure gardens that were in reach from the Beggar’s Opera and
Seven Dials.
How do we have to picture the performance of ballad like “The Hottentot
Venus” among such a crowd? The most detailed description of the chaunting
trade can be found in Martha Vicinus’s The Industrial Muse (1974), even
though it is somewhat unclear on which sources she bases her argument. 18
Vicinus nevertheless rather compellingly proposes that:

The chaunter brought to life the story or song, portraying it dramatically to catch the eye of
potential buyers. As a skilled performer he considered himself above the ordinary coster-
monger or vendor, but his income was as precarious as theirs. […] The proper presentation
of a song was essential to attract a buyer. A chaunter, as the name indicates, sang in a mo-
notonous flat twang to conserve his voice and to be heard above the other street noise. He
began with a spoken patter, directed toward the audience gathering around, including some
local gossip and commentary, while recommending the purchase of the new song to be ren-
dered. He would then launch into selected verses, calling upon the audience to join in the
choruses, pausing to make sales, while keeping an eye out for the police or possible trouble-
makers. (Vicinus 1974, 19-20) 19

For skilled performing men and women, “The Hottentot Venus” would have
provided perfect stuff indeed for the dramatic enactment of select stanzas to

Vicinus’s only 19th-century source apart from Mayhew seems to be an essay by Walter
Tomlinson (1886) which comments on the older style of singing. Apart from this she gener-
ally draws on Muir (1965), Lloyd (1967) and de Sola Pinto and Rodway (1957) to empha-
sise that street ballads “were not part of a shared, communal art, as were the songs of an oral
tradition” (Vicinus 1974, 21).
Vicinus’ use of the male form is somewhat misleading, here, as chaunting was evidently a
trade for men as much as for women. Thus Vicinus quotes a petition of the residents of Old-
ham Street in Manchester illustrating the social status of chaunters in 1810: the residents
complain that they “are everyday (except Sunday) troubled with the pestilent and grievous
nuisance of profane and debauched ballad singing by men and women, to the corrupting of
the minds and morals of the public in general, and our children and servants in particular”
(qtd. in Vicinus 1974, 22, my emphasis).
Broadsides and Backsides 191

attract a buying public among, say, a waiting theatre crowd – imagine the
mimicking of fashionable ladies stuffing their petticoats with pads and hoops
“to imitate [Baartman’s] rump,” or a burlesque bravado performance of the
Italian star soprano Angelica Catalani, who became a major target of popular
resentment surrounding the ‘Old Price’ riots at Covent Garden in 1809. Such
theatrical allure, moreover, would have been efficiently supported by the tune
and its memorable and highly functional chorus.
The tune indicated on the sheet – “We’ll go no more a roving so late in
the night” – almost certainly refers to a cosmopolitan popular version of
Child ballad 279, “The Jolly Beggar.” Surley, “[So] we’ll go no more a-rov-
ing” first brings to mind George Gordon, Lord Byron’s eponymous short
lyric – a poem that was among the most frequently pirated in the Romantic
period and circulated widely in broadside format – but Byron’s lyric was only
written in February 1817, first appearing in a letter from Venice to his friend
Thomas More as a “lovely, melancholy little meditation on mortal tran-
sience,” but in fact ironically “describing Byron’s hangover after the Mardi
Gras revels” (McConnell 1978, 22). Byron scholars ascertain that the poem
was inspired by the refrain of “The Jolly Beggar,” but still seem to assume,
following a 1931 note by James A.S. Peek, that “Byron remembered The
Jolly Beggar from the time of his boyhood beside the Dee and that its burden
haunted his mind until it fused with a moment of melancholy in Venice”
(Peek 1931, 118-19). This argument is based on the fact that the first printed
versions of “The Jolly Beggar” featuring the “We’ll go no more a roving”
refrain were printed in Scotland, first in 1776 in John Herd’s second edition
of Ancient and Modern Scots Songs, and subsequently in James Johnson
popular The Scots Musical Museum in 1790. The exact genealogy of “The
Jolly Beggar,” however, is unclear. Francis James Child finds it difficult to
decide whether the antecedents of the song belong more to the Scottish or
English tradition, given that there exists an “English broadside ballad of the
second half of the seventeenth century [with] the same story as the Scottish
popular ballad” (which Child dismisses in view of the “far superior” Scottish
variants; Child 1957, V, 110). Bertrand Harris Bronson, who painstakingly
researched The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, compellingly remarks
that over the course of the song’s history of at least 300 years, “[t]he oral and
printed traditions are impossible to disentangle, and especially in England,
rifacimenti of the broadside press have had widespread oral currency” (Bron-
son 1972, IV, 213).
The evidence provided by “The Hottentot Venus; A New Song” indeed
suggests that Byron did not remember the refrain of “The Jolly Beggar” from
192 Reading Song Lyrics

his childhood in Aberdeen after all, but that he picked it up much later in the
streets of London. 20 The ballad would definitely have been around because
Joseph Ritson – a collaborator of Sir Walter Scott, and a notoriously difficult
man who took pride in the scrupulously exact editing of traditional ballads
(cf. Bold 1979, 11-12) – reprinted it in London in his 1794 collection of
Scottish Songs (Ritson 1794, 169). The first stanza and refrain in Ritson’s
version of “The Jolly Beggar” are:

There was a jolly beggar, and a begging he was ‘boun’,

And he took up his quarters into a land’art town,
‘And we’ll gang nae mair a roving
Sae late in the night,
And we’ll gang nae mair a roving, boys,
Let the moon shine ne’er sae bright.’ (qtd. from Bronson 1972, IV, 214)

If the “The Hottentot Venus; A New Song” was printed in London, if the
ballad was part of the chaunting tradition and if it appealed to the crowds,
then “The Jolly Beggar” must have found its way into the streets of the me-
tropolis some way or the other from here, and become fairly common popular
knowledge by around 1811. It probably went by the title of its refrain, and the
Scots spelling must have changed into English pronunciation (the polished
refrain is incidentally also what Byron recalled). The most likely way in which
this would have occurred is, as Bronson also seems to suggest, through pi-
rated broadside versions, and most probably from Ritson’s edition. Ritson’s
lyrics almost exactly follow the older copies of Herd and Johnson, but differ
in one significant detail: while the refrain in the Scottish publications features
a fifth line, repeating “And we’ll gang nae mair a roving” another time, the
refrain in Ritson matches the four-line refrain of “The Hottentot Venus” on
our ballad sheet by closing with “Let the moon shine ne’er sae bright.” It
cannot be ruled out, of course, that the tune came to London not primarily
through print culture, but via the oral memory of Scottish or other immi-
grants, or that it had been around in one form or the other all along – but the

It is tempting to assume that Byron was exposed to “The Jolly Beggar” sometime between
his return from his Grand Tour in 1811 and his permanent exile from Britain starting in
April 1816, a time during which Byron was avidly following the London theatre scene. It is
interesting to see in this context that Byron’s brief engagement with the Drury Lane theatre
between 1815 and 1816 was more or less a direct consequence of the perceived demise of
legitimate theatre. One plan to “revivify the licensed theatres [...] came to involve the estab-
lishment of an amateur board of directors for the recently rebuilt Drury Lane, with a sub-
committee empowered to run the theatre as a renewed centre for ‘national’ culture. As a
titled aristocrat aligned with the liberal Whigs and as an acclaimed poet, Byron was seen as
an ideal choice for the subcommittee” (Richardson 2004, 134).
Broadsides and Backsides 193

idea that “The Jolly Beggar” (re)entered the streets of London through
Ritson’s Scottish Songs is rather compelling, given that the lyrics of “The
Hottentot Venus” effortlessly match – in metre, phrasing, rhythm and empha-
sis – the music of Ritson’s “Jolly Beggar,” and that they do so in a slightly
more straight-forward manner than they fit the more ornate notation in John-
son’s Scots Musical Museum.
In how far would the tune of “The Jolly Beggar” have been functional in
the chaunting business? This question may be addressed in view of the
intended performative effect, i.e. the need to attract a crowd and to foster
shared sentiment and identification to boost sales of the ballad sheet; and by
briefly addressing the cultural capital that buyers would have associated with
the tune. Regarding performativity, it matters that “The Jolly Beggar” abso-
lutely supports a collective dynamics and appeal. The characteristic call for
collective identification and participation is most obvious in the chorus,
whose “We’ll go no more” opening effectively establishes what Natascha
Würzbach refers to as “a common reception area for performance” (Würz-
bach 1990, 44) in street balladry. The inclusive address not only encourages
the spectators “to participate in the performance,” but does so by the promo-
tion of jovial social bonding in “an atmosphere of communal feeling” (ibid.,
76). The type of chorus thus rather ingeniously ties in with the overall subject
of “The Hottentot Venus,” namely the demise of English theatre culture
which caused wide-spread popular indignation (mainly directed at the
theatrical establishment and less at the ‘illegitimate’ theatre scene, as we will
see later): the chorus rather ingeniously reels in the fish (each worth a half-
pence or penny) which are rather easily hooked in a shallow pond of topical
popular sentiment, with Baartman as the bait.
In all this, the specific music and melody would have been vital in pro-
viding a more generally sense of “familiarity” which backs up the implicit
appeals to the audience to participate both vocally and financially (Würzbach
1990, 76). One may speculate on these grounds which kind of associations
the melody of “The Jolly Beggar” would have brought to “The Hottentot Ve-
nus,” even if this needs to be done with due care: the overall evidence suggest
that tunes were very rarely picked because of thematic or emotive correspon-
dences between “new song” and popular model, but rather on purely prag-
matic (and often seemingly random) grounds. The least that can be said,
however, is that the melody of “The Jolly Beggar” would have carried a
certain attractive “jolliness” which its title suggests; and it is tempting to at
least consider the subversive bawdiness of the lyrics of the original ballad –
paired with a playful attitude towards barriers of class – which may have
surreptitiously seasoned the performance of the “New Song.” In the version
that Ritson reprinted, the story of “The Jolly Beggar” roughly goes thus: a
194 Reading Song Lyrics

jolly beggar asks for a bed of straw in a remote farm house, refusing to sleep
in the barn or byre. At night, the farmer’s maiden daughter stumbles across
him, and taking him for a gentleman, lets the jolly beggar seduce her. Only
when “he got his turn done” (Child 1957, V, 111), the man speaks and asks
her whether there are any dogs in town who could be after him. Now
convinced that she fell for a true beggar rather than a Lord, the girl throws
him out, upon which the beggar kisses her thrice, generously pays her off,
and summons his men to reveal his noble birth.
The closest we get to overtones of openly venereal business in “The Hot-
tentot Venus,” then, is indeed through such intertextual allusion via the
soundscape of the song, and it is apparent that there is no sense of sexual de-
viation or abnormality which Gilman associates so firmly with the image of
Sara Baartman. Rather, the concept of sexuality transported by the tune is
overall accommodated among the received bawdy tradition of innocent
country maids succumbing to crafty philanderers, based on a singing tradi-
tion, moreover, in which many sympathies would have been with the not-
quite-so innocent and rather hands-on girl whose initial instincts about the
beggarman prove to be rather rewarding in the end. Surely, “The Jolly Beg-
gar” is not “The Hottentot Venus,” however much his sound may have
worked on her – but there is more evidence which calls into question that
ideas of sexual freakery dominated the lower-class perception of either
Khoisan women or black women in London during the Romantic period. This
is not to say that the image of Sara Baartman was unified and stable over the
course of her exhibition in popular discourses; on the contrary, there are hints
that her standing with the London working class suffered quite a bit when she
found herself at the centre of an abolitionist campaign in October and No-
vember 1810. But let us take it from the beginning and briefly retrace Sara
Baartman’s career in London, framed around a few complementary broadside
ballads, in order to get a better idea of how the medial trace of the printed
broadside, street performances of “The Hottentot Venus” in February 1811,
and more general popular attitudes towards Sara Baartman and other ‘exot-
ics’ across different audience segments interrelate.
Broadsides and Backsides 195

The Life and Times of Sara B.

Sara Baartman was born in 1789 on the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony. 21
She seems to have lost her mother shortly after her birth, and was orphaned at
the age of 17 or 18 when her father, a hunter and cattle driver, was killed in
an ambush during a cattle run to the Cape. Subsequently, she was taken into
the custody of one Pieter Willem Cesars, a free black hunter and trader from
Cape Town who took her on the long trek to the capital where she entered the
(indentured) service of Pieter’s brother Hendrik Cesars as a nurse maid (cf.
Holmes 2007, 7-40). Hendrik Cesars himself was the manservant of one
Alexander Dunlop, a staff surgeon in the British Army (which had only
wrested the control over the Cape Colony from the Dutch in September 1795
and bloodily defended it against rebelling Dutch settles over the following
four years), and it was these two men who, after Dunlop got into trouble with
his superiors and was ordered back to England, hedged out a fateful plan to
seek new fortunes in London. They set off on April 1, 1810, in their baggage
the lucrative skin of a giraffe, and Sara Baartman.
During her few years in the multi-ethnic trading and military hub of Cape
Town before her transport to London, Baartman may have accompanied
Dunlop and Cesars to the city taverns where she could have acquired the in-
ternational shanties and songs which she reportedly later sang alongside tra-
ditional Khoi tunes, and attracted Dunlop’s attention as a performer. While
this remains speculative, what is documented is that she had “a Child by a
Drummer at the Cape with whom she lived for about two years yet being
always in the employ of Henrick Cæsar” (qtd. in Strother 1999, 41; the child
must have died at around the age of two, as it is subsequently reported to be
“since dead”). There are conflicting accounts of the ethnicity of Baartman’s
lover in Cape Town. The London Morning Herald claims that he was Irish,
while Cuvier and Saint-Hilaire report that “she said she had been married to a
Black” (qtd. in Edwards and Walvin 1983, 177). Both options seem possible,
as there was a long-standing tradition of employing non-Europeans as musi-
cians in the British army and interracial relationships were common in the
Cape Colony, even more so than among the lower classes in the major Eng-

The most comprehensive resource of information on Baartman’s life is Rachel Holmes’s
well researched, but not nevessarily reliable 2007 biography. Holmes relies on historical
sources, but also references seemingly factual evidence to fictional accounts of the ‘Hottentot
Venus’ such as Barbara Chase-Riboud’s eponymous 2003 novel or Stephen Grey’s 1979
collection of poetry, and rather freely fills the gaps in Baartman’s story. Complementary but
limited collections of first hand reports, court proceedings and other source material can be
found in Edwards and Walvin (1983, 171-82), and Strother (1999, 41-48).
196 Reading Song Lyrics

lish cities where black servants and the urban black poor “lived and worked
side by side [with whites] sharing a common social and economic life” (ibid.,
46). Superstitions prevailed, but there is evidence that among the working
and serving classes, ideas of racial alterity which so pervaded the contempo-
rary reports of travellers and gentlemen scientists were often levelled.
A surviving broadside ballad “printed and sold by T. Evans, 79, Long-lane”
(West Smithfield, London) and titled “The Hottentot Wife” may help to il-
lustrate this. The lyrical addressee and speaker of the ballad sound astonish-
ingly like Baartman and her (Irish?) drummer, but it is in fact very unlikely
that it was inspired by Baartman’s fame, given that the ballad trade was such
that it would have surely capitalised on it, and especially given that Leslie
Shepard dates the main printing career of Thomas Evans to the 1790s. 22 The
ballad thus seems to offer one of the few glimpses at the popular perception
of Khoisan women in London before the advent of the ‘Hottentot Venus’: 23

SINCE Ireland I left, by conscience I swear it,

I never saw a spot like the cape of Good Hope,
The Girls are so nate, troth and word I declare it,
Wid skins just the colour of dark yellow soap;
Then the devils so bodor a mans understanding,
And smite you wid lov, far a dasant consarn.
That the time I’ve oft curs’d, when I here took a landing
So much I’m in love, that I ne’er can return,
So farewell dear Ireland, and Shela so pretty,
I bid you farwell for the days of my life,
No more shall I see again Dublin’s sweet city.
But stay here and marry a Hottentot wife.

‘Tis lately I saw the dark angel that charm’d me,

Said to her, “pray jewel, how do you do?
Och! this was her answer, o’blood has it alarm’d me,
When she, the dear creature, said, ‘vat’s that to you.”
Blood-a-nouns, she boders my wig, the sweet creature,
No rest can I take, either morn, noon, or night,
St. Patrick, pray tell me, do, how I’m to treat her,
for she her dear self, sure is all my delight!
Then farewell dear Ireland, &c.

Thomas Evans was a minor player in the ballad trade at least compared to his brother John,
whose output could rival that of John Pitts in Pitts’s early career. Shepard assumes that
Thomas Evans and Pitts collaborated closely before Pitts set up his own business in Seven
Dials (cf. Shepard 1969, 37). Thomas Evans died in 1813 and still printed in 1811, so it
cannot be fully excluded that the ballad dates to Sara Baartman’s times.
Recorded in the allegro Catalogue of Ballads, Bodleian Library, Oxford, Harding B 17(131a).
The ballad is the only one on the sheet, without a woodcut illustration or specified tune.
Broadsides and Backsides 197

She laughs at my troubles, which makes me quite crazy,

Dear Patrick assist me or else I’m undone,
For my soul’s so distres’d, and my hearts so uneasy,
That tears just like rivers, down both my cheeks run.
Och! come to my arms let me hug, you, dear jewel,
To kiss you clear Hottentot lips with delight;
Then be my own darling, and cease to be cruel,
And never more hide you blackface from my sight,
Then farwell dear Ireland, &c.

Surely, it would be naïve to take this as a genuine love song – almost cer-
tainly, the performance of “The Hottentot Wife” would have involved lots of
bawdy humour and ridicule of our infatuated Irish soldier or sailor, probably
not devoid of a chauvinist slant. Yet the ballad equally refuses easy appro-
priation into an absurd, racist farce, given the charming and conventional
familiarity of its (performed) rhetoric of affection (“all my delight,” “tears
just like rivers,” “cease to be cruel,” etc) – or at least would have among a
working class crowd that abounded with Irish immigrants, rather than a gen-
tleman scientist audience otherwise writing treatises on Irish or ‘Hottentot’
savagery. The Irish lover and his African beloved share, moreover, not only a
common social world, but also a language in the song, epitomised in the
woman’s “vat’s that to you” retort to a pick-up line as inventive as “pray
jewel, how do you do.” Underneath the raw fun, the female ‘Hottentot’ is
thus granted a rather lively and unspectacular sense of humanity framed
around a discourse of thoroughly conventional sexuality which belies Gil-
man’s claims about her type.
Such lack of racial fetishisation arguably has to do with the fact that
Sting’s reminiscence about the “Venusian” experience of his first encounter
with a black man (touring Jimi Hendrix) in 1960s Newcastle would have
been utterly inconceivable in London throughout the Georgian era. Toward
the end of the 18th century, an estimated 15.000 to 20.000 black people re-
sided in England as freedmen and -women or domestic servants, “and the
great majority of them appears to have lived in London” (Edwards and
Walvin 1983, 18-19). Such numbers slightly decreased again by 1811 after
the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and partly owing to the repatriation
scheme to Sierra Leone beginning in the late 1780s (accompanied by much
philanthropic rhetoric, but indeed also conceived as a means to rid the streets
of the metropolis of the free black poor who had begun to settle in the city in
great numbers after the end of the American War). Overall, the scheme
proved inadequate enough as Folarin Shyllon remarks, because “by the end
of the Napoleonic Wars, begging among the indigent blacks and whites of the
metropolis had reached such a proportion that two Parliamentary Committees
examined the problem” (Shyllon 1977, 159). It is notable for our context that
198 Reading Song Lyrics

the largest poor black community in London lived in the slum of St. Giles –
popularly called the ‘Holy Land’ – in the vicinity of Church Street and Seven
Dials, and that many black men and women made a living selling ballads or
busking in the West End area between Seven Dials, Piccadilly, The Strand,
and Drury Lane (cf. Edwards and Walvin 163-67). Some of them acquired
local fame, and the most famous of them all probably were Billy Waters and
his partner, Black Sal.
Sal and Billy (who had lost a leg in the American war) habitually busked
in front of the Adelphi Theatre on The Strand, ‘Black Billy’ playing the fid-
dle and dancing on his wooden leg. They would have been impossible to pass
without notice by any Londoner attending the theatre, and achieved celebrity
status in the early 1820s when they were promoted from the street directly
onto the Adelphi stage, starring as themselves in W.T. Moncrieff’s dramati-
sation of Pierce Egan’s bestseller Life in London (1821), relating the extrava-
gantly profane adventures of the picaresque heroes Tom and Jerry and their
friend Bob Logick in the Holy Land. Billy Waters died in March 1823 in St.
Giles’s workhouse, shortly after the last performance of Tom and Jerry at the
Adelphi, and his death was occasion enough for James Catnach to print a
splendid ballad sheet titled “The Death, Last Will, and Funeral of ‘Black
Billy’.” The sheet must have been extremely popular, as it went into at least
ten editions despite the fact that it “sold for twopence instead of the custom-
ary halfpence or penny” (Hepburn 2001, 309). The broadside came with not
only one, but three woodcuts, a prose account of the “Life of Black Billy”
written by Catnach himself, and a ballad titled “The Merry Will and Testa-
ment of Master Black Billy”:

I Master William Waters, O,

A Minstrel of the Holy Land;
Well known among my betters, O,
And at the Adelphi, in the Strand,
Convinc’d that death will me soon call,
This day for may old Palls I’ve sent,
And in the presence of them all,
Thus make my Will and Testament.

I do bequeath unto Black Sal,

One penny for to buy a bun;
Likewise my Shirt so full of holes,
A flea thereon he should not run.
My Trousers (tho’ not worth a pin)
By public Auction shall be Sold,
All for to buy a drop of gin,
To warm her heart when it is cold
Broadsides and Backsides 199

Thus poor Black Billy made his Will,

His property was small good-lack,
For ’til the day death did him kill
His house he carried on his back.
The Adelphi now may say alas!
And to his memory raise a stone;
Their gold will be exchang’d for brass,
Since poor Black Billy’s dead and gone. (qtd. in Hepburn 2001, 308-09)

In how far can such a ballad contribute to our understanding of Sara Baart-
man’s exhibition? First, it confirms that no one who bought the “The Hottentot
Venus” sheet from a London chaunter or went to Baartman’s exhibition at 225
Piccadilly in 1811 would have been much surprised or shocked by the sight
of an African. This quite simply meant for Hendrik Cesars and Alexander Dunlop
that in order to successfully market Sara Baartman as an extraordinary sensa-
tion in the theatrical milieu of the West End, they had to emphasise her very
difference from the representative blackness of London’s African diaspora
(which obviously contradicts Gilman’s claim that the ‘Hottentot’ was “repre-
sentative of the essence of the black”). Secondly, the Black Billy ballad fur-
ther supports that the responses of working class Londoners to Africans, and
African women in particular, were varied to say the least, and could include
something like genuine and wide-spread affection and compassion as in the
case of Billy Waters and his impoverished widow Black Sal. “The Merry
Will and Testament of Master Black Billy” thus supports the evidence of
“The Hottentot Wife” (at the risk of conflating the difference between black
and ‘Hottentot’ again) that in Romantic period London, class solidarity more
often than not overruled that of race. There is good reason to assume that
Sara Baartman was met with a similar kind of solidarity, at least in the early
days of her exhibition.
Alexander Dunlop and Hendrick Cesars originally did not plan to host the
display of the Sara Baartman themselves. In August 1810, Dunlop ap-
proached London’s most famous museum manager William Bullock, who
had moved his “Liverpool Museum” of innumerable stuffed animals and ex-
otic objects (many acquired from James Cook’s returning ships) to 22 Picca-
dilly only a year earlier, and to whose enterprise the second stanza of “The
Hottentot Venus” is dedicated. Bullock’s testimony reveals that Dunlop of-
fered him the rare giraffe skin at a bargain price if only he agreed to purchase
the rights for a two-year lease of Sara Baartman together with it. To his
credit, Bullock resisted Dunlop’s coaxing “that the extraordinary shape and
make of the Woman [made her] an object of great curiosity and would make
the fortune of any person exhibiting her (for the said two years) to the public”
(qtd. in Strother 1999, 47), and took the animal skin only (which did not pre-
200 Reading Song Lyrics

vent him from exhibiting an entire family of living Laplanders twelve years
later, cf. Holmes 2007, 59-60).
Dunlop and Cesars consequently
decided to exhibit Sara Baartman
themselves and set up an exhibi-
tion room at 225 Piccadilly, dia-
gonally across the street from
Liverpool Museum. The location
proved to be ideal for an intricate
double strategy. On the one hand,
Piccadilly was the centre of Lon-
don’s theatrical curiosity shows
on whose tradition of displaying
every imaginable variety of ‘freaks’
of nature Baartman’s managers
evidently drew. 24 More than on
her status and appeal as a colonial
exotic, Dunlop and Cesars capital-
ised on Baartman’s uncommonly
pronounced steatopygia in this
context, and Cesars, acting as
manager and keeper of the ‘Hot-
tentot Venus’ on stage, would
encourage an audience wary of
Fig. 8: Frederick Christian Lewis, “Sartjee, The fakes to ascertain themselves of
Hottentot Venus, Exhibiting at no. 225, the genuine nature of Sara Baart-
Piccadilly” (March 1811). Coloured aquatint man’s buttocks. 25 It is her but-
(printed from Lysons n.d., 102.)
tocks which feature most promi-
nently in the cartoons and portraits
as her defining trademark, and “bum” and “rump” provide the inevitable
punchline in almost every surviving verse, including, of course, our ballad.
Baartman’s association with the popular freak shows of London is ascer-

For comprehensive information about The Shows of London, cf. Altik 1978, which also
includes a section on Sara Baartman’s exhibition.
Zachary Macaulay testified before the court that “the said female is called by the Exhibitor
towards the persons standing round the stage and they are invited to feel her posterior parts
to satisfy themselves that no art is practised” (qtd. in Strother 1999, 45). Comedian Charles
Mathews, who visited Baartman’s exhibition together with the star actor and manager of
Covent Garden, John Kemble, recorded in his diaries: “One spectator pinched her, another
walked round her; one gentleman poked her with his cane; and one lady employed her para-
sol to ascertain that all was, as she called it, ‘nattral’” (Mathews 1839, 137).
Broadsides and Backsides 201

tained right in the first stanza of “The Hottentot Venus” by associating her
with the “curious sights” of “giants, dwarfs and singing birds,” and most
powerfully, perhaps, in stanza four, sarcastically proposing that Covent
Garden soon stages a harlequinade with seven foot nine William Bradley, the
Yorkshire Giant (1787-1820) in the lead and the rather diminutive Sara
Baartman in the role of infatuated Columbine.
On the other hand, Dunlop and Cesars simultaneously drew on the emerg-
ing 19th-century tradition of the ethnographic exhibition (acknowledged in
the ballad by the prominent reference to Bullock), undoubtedly also planning
to benefit from the crowds that flocked to Liverpool Museum virtually next
door. Following Bullock’s example, they therefore created a rather elaborate
stage design, complete with a painted backdrop of pastoral Africa and a hut
into which Baartman could retreat, and advertised the ‘Hottentot Venus’ as
an anthropological sensation from the outer fringes of Britain’s latest new
colony to a potential middle and upper class audience. In September 1810,
personal invitations went out to Joseph Banks, then President of the Royal
Society, and other members of the social and academic elite for an exclusive
preview, and shortly after, Dunlop and Hendriks advertised the exhibition in
the papers. On September 20, the following could be read in the Morning

THE HOTTENTOT VENUS – Just arrived (and may be seen between the hours of one and
five o’clock in the afternoon, at No 225 Piccadilly) from the Banks of the River Gamtoos, on
the Borders of Kaffraria, in the interior of South Africa, a most correct and perfect Specimen of
that race of people. From this extraordinary phenomena of nature, the Public will have an
opportunity of judging how far she exceeds any description given by historians of that tribe
of the human species. She is habited in the dress of her country, with all the rude ornaments
usually worn by those people. She has been seen by the principal Literati in this Metropolis,
who were all greatly astonished, as well as highly gratified, with the sight of so wonderful a
specimen of the human race. She has been brought to this country at a considerable expense
by Hendrick Cesar, and their stay will be but of short duration. To commence on Monday
next, the 24 instant. – Admittance 2s each. (qtd. in Haywood and Leader 1998, 97)

The ad reveals quite clearly how Dunlop and Cesars managed to twist the
logic of the freak show, which capitalised on individual natural aberration,
into its apparent opposite, namely the portrayal of a seemingly authentic and
representative type (“a correct and perfect specimen”). To this end, Baartman
was outfitted with a tight dress matching the tone of her skin which was, in
the words of abolitionist Zachary Macaulay who led the campaign for her
freedom, “so tight that her shapes above and the enormous size of her poste-
rior parts are as visible as if the said female were naked” (qtd. in Strother
1999, 43), and adorned with a “pastiche of exotica designed by her exhibi-
tors, fancifully mixing Xhosa or other beadwork with fringed garters, skull
202 Reading Song Lyrics

cap, and bowed shoes” (ibid., 27; see fig. 8 which provides a relatively re-
alistic portrait of Sara Baartman shortly before she went on tour to the prov-
inces). Baartman’s drapery also included an embroidered apron with five
suggestive pendants which “may allude to the notorious ‘Hottentot apron’ for
those in the know” (ibid.), i.e. those versed in the “descriptions given by his-
torians of that tribe” mentioned in the ad. More importantly, however, the
explosive merging of sensationalist freak show with ethnographic pretence
led to a highly consequential effect, namely a shift of (buttock) symbolism
from the individual to the national level. As Z.S. Strother writes: “As a
‘freak,’ Baartman would have normalized the spectator as an individual.
However, transformed into an ethnographic ‘type’ on display, the Hottentot
normalizes and legitimates the British colonial project” (ibid., 29).
Accordingly, it was the ideological disputes over the right course of Brit-
ain’s imperial affairs, rather than a personal interest in Sara Baartman, which
motivated the abolitionists to step in and demand Baartman’s freedom and
return to the Cape. The campaign was led by Zachary Macaulay, a close as-
sociate of William Wilberforce and governor of Sierra Leone between 1794
and 1799, who started a heated exchange of open letters in the press between
himself and Dunlop (ghostwriting under Cesars’s name) on the question of
Baartman’s status as a freewoman or slave (cf. Edwards and Walvin 1983,
171-76, and Holmes 2007, 85-90), and eventually filed a law suit on October
17. Ironically, it was through the ensuing court hearings, gratefully lapped up
by press writers, caricaturists, and, not least, ballad writers, that Sara Baart-
man acquired the status of a popular icon, and that the outstanding success of
her show was guaranteed for the winter months. A surviving street ballad that
summarises the trial and outcome more succinctly than I could is “The Hot-
tentot Venus: A Ballad,” announcing “[t]he storie of the Hottentot ladie and
her lawful knight who essaied to release her out of captivitie, and what my
lordes the judges did therein.” I therefore quote it at some length, only omit-
ting four stanzas in the middle: 26

Oh have you been to London towne,

Its rareities to see:
There is, ’mongst ladies of renowne,
A most renowned she.
In Piccadilly Street so faire
A mansion she has got,
In golden letters written there,

The ballad was printed by “James Gillet, printer, Hatton Garden, London,” and is the only
ballad on the sheet. It is part of the Madden Collection at Cambridge, reel 07, frame 4870.
Broadsides and Backsides 203

But you may ask, and well, I ween,

For why she tarries there;
And what, in her is to be seen,
Than other folks more rare.
A rump she has (though strange it be),
Large as a cauldron pot,
And this is why men go to see
This lovely HOTTENTOT.

Now this was shown for many a day,

And eke for many a night;
Till sober folks began to say,
That all could not be right,
Some said, this was with her goodwill:
Some said, that it was not,
And asked why they did use so ill
This ladie HOTTENTOT.

At last a doughty knight stood forth,

Sir Vikar was his name;
A knight of singular good worth,
Of fair and courtly fame.
With him the laws of chivalrie
Were not so much forgot;
But he would try most gallantly
To serve the HOTTENTOT.

He would not fight, but plead the cause

Of this most injured she;
And so, appealed to all the laws,
To set the ladie free.
A mighty “Habeas corpus”
He hoped to have got,
Including rump and all, and thus
Release the HOTTENTOT.

Thus straight two gentlemen they sat,

(One English and one Dutch)
To learn if she did money get;
And, if she did, how much.
Who, having finished their intent,
And visited the spot,
Did say t’was with full consent
Of the fair HOTTENTOT.

When speaking free from all alarm,

The whole she does deride:
And says she thinks there is no great harm
In showing her b—kside.
204 Reading Song Lyrics

Thus ended this sad tale of woe,

Which raised will, I wot,
The fame, and the revenues too,

And now good people all may go

To see the wondrous sight;
Both high born men, and also low,
And eke the good Sir Knight.
Not only this her state to mind,
Most anxious what she got;
But looking to her latter end,
Delights the HOTTENTOT. (qtd. in Toole-Stott 1962, 335-36)

What “The Hottentot Venus: A Ballad” reveals is not only that Sara Baart-
man’s notoriety spilled into the streets, and not least because of the aboli-
tionist intervention, but that her association with Macaulay (“Sir Vikar”) and
the abolitionist cause presumably engendered a shift from some sort of trans-
cultural working class solidarity which still marks “The Hottentot Wife” to a
more ambivalent reception and response. Yvette Abrahams remarks that it is
important to see that the anti-slavery movement, confronted with a moral
panic about the black presence in Britain after the Haitian Revolution of the
early 1790s (and, less significantly, the Eastern Cape Khoisan Revolt between
1799 and 1802) changed its strategy from “a political popular radicalism that
used tracts, pamphlets, lectures, mass meetings to advance its course” in
favour of “parliamentary politics [and] increasing social respectability” (Ab-
rahams 1998, 231-32). Such respectability went hand in hand with a stout
Methodist evangelism, and particularly so in Macaulay’s case who was a
leading member of the Clapham Sect and editor of its mouthpiece, the Christ-
ian Observer, which not only condemned slavery, but – significantly in our
context – also theatre, dancing, and any other sort of profane entertainment.
Being the much publicised champion of the “sober folks” and “Sir Vi-
kar’s” puritan chivalry in particular would not have done Sara Baartman’s
street credibility too much good among a lower class public which a little later
elected Pierce Egan’s hard drinking and whoring hobby pugilists Tom and
Jerry of the Holy Land as their undisputed popular heroes. Baartman thus
became, it seems, a vehicle for ridiculing evangelical hypocrisy in popular
discourses long after autumn 1810. A broadside ballad probably written in
summer 1811 during Baartman’s tour through the provinces, “The Address of
Jack Higginbottom in behalf of himself and the Hottentot Venus, to the La-
dies of Bath,” still lambastes
Broadsides and Backsides 205

A strange Metamorphosis! – Who that had seen us

’Tother night, would take this for the Hottentot Venus
In pure virgin robes, full of fears and alarms
How demurely she veils her protuberant charms!
Thus oft’, to atone for absurdities past
Tom Fool turn a Methodist preacher at last
Yet the critics, not we are to blame – for ’ot rot em
There was nothing but innocent fun at the bottom! (qtd. in Kirby 1949, 57)

Nevertheless, Abraham’s conclusion that “the fact that the evangelicals came
to Sara Bartman’s aid did much to discredit her among the working class”
(Abrahams 1998, 232) seems slightly overstated. Given that Baartman’s no-
toriety soared over the winter months, her (satirical) presence in popular dis-
courses comes hardly as a surprise, and her ubiquity does not automatically
implicate an exclusive dynamics of racial and sexual ‘othering’. It is vital to
see in this context that Baartman is seldom the satirical target of the bal-
ladeers, despite the inevitable puns on her backside. Instead, she mostly
serves as a convenient vehicle to address various social concerns with which
she became – involuntarily, in almost all cases – associated. 27 Under these
auspices, the ballads betray a reciprocal dynamics of cultural rejection on the
one hand, and a concomitant familiarisation of the alien on the other: the fact
that Sara Baartman became satirical cannon fodder in the ideological skir-
mishes of Romantic period Britain, this is to say, does not per se rule out a
certain degree of popular solidarity. This is particularly obvious, I think, in
“The Hottentot Venus; A New Song,” where Sara Baartman’s buttocks are
recruited at the height of her popularity to level an ambivalent lament for the
death of ‘national’ theatre culture in particular, and the end of a relatively
untroubled sense of ‘Englishness’ more generally.

Popular Culture, Illegitimate Theatre and Imperial Melancholy

“The Hottentot Venus” indeed suggests that Sara Baartman’s London sojourn
needs to be placed not only in the context of freak shows and the rise of eth-
nographical exhibitions, but also in the larger context of what can be termed a

That Baartman served mainly as a “foil for whites” has been confirmed for the field of
caricature. As Bernth Lindfors demonstrates, “she was used by such famous caricaturists as
George Cruikshank, Thomas Rowlandson and William Heath as an aside in graphic argu-
ments against the education of surgeons, the teamwork of musicians, the lavish pomp of the
royal family and the self-indulgent voluptuosity of the Prince Regent, the absurdity of colo-
nial initiatives, and the social chaos caused by abolitionists” (Lindfors 1989, 297).
206 Reading Song Lyrics

veritable theatrical revolution during the Romantic era. The origins of the
theatrical crisis reach back as far as to the re-opening of theatres after the
puritan interregnum, when Charles II granted Thomas Killigrew and William
Devenant the exclusive right to stage “tragedies, comedies, plays, operas,
music, scenes and all other entertainments of the stage” (Killigrew’s patent,
25 April 1662, qtd. in Moody 2000), and to build “two houses or theatres
with all convenient rooms and other necessities thereunto appertaining” (war-
rant dating to August 21, 1660, qtd. in Thomas 1989, 9). The patent became
firmly associated with the Royal Theatres at Dury Lane (1663) and Covent
Garden (1732), while the notion of theatrical legitimacy was tied to ideas of
“literary specificity (tragedies and comedy),” and the notion of illegitimacy to
“generic inclusiveness” (Moody 2000, 11). Over the course of the 18th cen-
tury, the patent thus became increasingly burdened with the moral obligation
to uphold a reputable and distinctly national culture of performance in view
of unlicensed houses which were forced to turn to imported genres such as
melodrama, burletta, Italian opera or pantomime (a popular operatic form
which evolved from the commedia dell’arte), all generically impure and as-
sociated with visual spectacle and an emphasis on graphic physicality. Jane
Moody consequently speaks of the “decisive emergence of an absolute oppo-
sition between authentic and spurious theatrical forms, an opposition which
soon begins to be imagined as a nightmarish confrontation between quasi-
ethereal textuality and grotesque physicality” (ibid., 12).
In the early 19th century, however, this opposition began to seriously
collapse, and it did so from both sides. On the one hand, the Romantic period
witnessed a post-revolutionary boom of minor theatres whose success pre-
sented a twofold threat to the legitimate scene: first, their popularity grew to
such an extent that they drew away the buying public from the major houses,
and second, the minors increasingly violated the received theatrical order by
staging faithful or abused versions of comedy and tragedy. Shakespeare be-
came “a major cultural weapon” (Moody 2000, 5) in this respect as the quin-
tessence of legitimate theatre, and it is in this context that we have to read
John Poole’s Hamlet Travestie whose first stage run at the New Theatre in
Tottenham Street our ballad alludes to in stanza eight. Poole twists “Shake-
speare’s language into a familiar, low, or slangy style” (Wells 1977, xviii),
replaces soliloquies and important speeches with popular songs, has Ophelia
munch cabbage and carrots instead of flowers, and thus effectively de-legiti-
mises the bard; moreover, such profanation was directly levelled at legitimate
productions through the “conscious exploitation and satirization of conven-
tions, techniques, and performers” (ibid., viii). The Tottenham Street play-
house was incidentally also the first that was sued for staging serious
legitimate drama when in 1830, Charles Kemble clandestinely established a
Broadsides and Backsides 207

network of spies recruited from the employees of Covent Garden and Drury
Lane to report illegal shows. Despite the fact that the managers were eventu-
ally convicted and heavily fined, the Tottenham Street defence “spectacularly
turned the theatrical tables, alleging that the patent houses had transformed
the ‘boards trodden by Garrick and Siddons’ into an arena for the exhibition
of beasts, and men in the shape of beasts” (Moody 2000, 43).
The clever defence that the Royal Theatres had gambled their exclusive
rights to legitimate performance themselves drew on the fact that on the other
hand, the financial pressures on the patent houses had grown such that they
began to incorporate melodrama, pantomime, romance, ‘quadruped’ theatre
and other illegitimate forms into their programmes (Poole’s Hamlet Traves-
tie, for instance, was performed at Covent Garden in 1813) which began to
overshadow performances of legitimate tragedy and comedy in the public
eye. The result was a widely mediatised rhetoric about the ‘decline of drama’
and a concomitant demise of national culture. Three characteristics in par-
ticular which were perceived to endanger the representative ‘Englishness’ on
the patent stages are noteworthy in this context: the first concerns a subver-
sive decadence, seen especially in the performances of melodrama and gothic
drama (in the tradition of Kotzebue, which was defamed by the established
romantic literati like Coleridge and Wordsworth who ranted against “sickly
and stupid German Tragedies” in his 1800 “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads
[Wordsworth 1992, 747]). Second, conservative critics lambasted the empha-
sis on graphic and bodily spectacle in which the actual text and art of acting
were reduced to an accessory. A rather drastic example of this is the appear-
ance of Chunee, a young male elephant, on stage as part of the oriental pan-
tomime Harlequin and Padmanaba at Convent Garden in late 1811 (cf.
Saxon 1975, 304), which is simultaneously exemplary for a third association
with theatrical illegitimacy, namely an infatuation with exotica and Britain’s
triumphant imperial exploits.
Exoticist colonial drama was not new at the patent houses (as early as
1785, Covent Garden staged the elaborate pantomime Omai, or A Trip
Around the World, based on a real Tahitian ‘prince’ brought to England by
James Cook and displayed in London by Joseph Banks in 1774-1776, cf.
Middleton 2007, 7), but it reached an early apogee in February 1811 with a
lavish equestrian version of George Colman’s oriental romance Blue-Beard
(followed suit by ‘Monk’ Lewis’s equally quadruped oriental drama Timour
the Tartar in April 1811). As Jane Moody demonstrates, these plays were
immensely successful, yet also caused public indignation; the Dramatic Cen-
sor of February 1811, for instance, laments the public’s “resolution to dis-
countenance and proscribe the Legitimate Drama, and establish in its stead a
kind of entertainment (forgive the misnomer) recognizable neither by the
208 Reading Song Lyrics

rules of critics, nor the laws of nature” (qtd. in Moody 2000, 72). Such re-
sentment against patent house politics was remarkably not restricted to the
conservative establishment, but crossed all classes and available media of
protest. A broadside pamphlet of 1809 accordingly accuses the management
of Covent Garden on equal grounds of cheaply gratifying the audience “with
singing and dancing, with monsters, eunuchs, or any other exotic rarity” (qtd.
in Baer 1992, 50). 28
In light of these developments, it is hard to miss how almost unavoidably
Sara Baartman ties in with the ideological battles surrounding notions of the-
atrical legitimacy. Not only was she associated (if involuntarily) with the
Methodist establishment by February 1811 which habitually served as a scape-
goat for the demise of theatre culture because of its general rejection of all
things theatrical; but more importantly, Baartman’s image was overdetermined
in public discourses, first, by her unfamiliar body shape and the sheer physi-
cality of her buttocks; and second, by her exotic status as a genuine repre-
sentative of the remotest part of Britain’s latest colonial acquisition – in other
words, she precisely embodied two of the very antitheses of traditional ‘Eng-
lishness’ which presumably accelerated the ‘fall’ of legitimate theatre culture.
Our ballad indeed suggests that at least one ideological function of Sara
Baartman in public discourses was to serve as a convenient symbol of theat-
rical decline.
It is important to see in this context that at the time of Baartman’s exhibi-
tion, Convent Garden – the sole beacon of theatrical legitimacy in 1811 as
Drury Lane burned down in 1809 and only reopened in 1812 – was only re-
covering from one of the fiercest, most enduring, and as Marc Baer argues,
most “theatrical” theatre riots in history which brought the popular opposition
against patent house politics to a spectacular head in autumn 1809. The ori-
gins of the riots lie in another tragic fire in September 1808 during which
Covent Garden burned to the ground. The theatre was rebuilt in neo-classical
style in only a little over eight months; yet when it re-opened in September
1809, the audience was confronted with a number of significant changes (cf.
Baer 1992, 20-27, Moody 2000, 63-65): the new Covent Garden featured
three whole tires of boxes, one of them exclusively reserved for private

It is important to see, though, that the outcry against spectacle and imperial exoticism was
restricted to what was seen as “the patentees’ cultural treachery,” all the while minor thea-
tres “successfully staged a wide variety of colonial and oriental dramas” (Moody 2000, 73)
to wide-spread public acclaim. A particularly fitting example in this context is the reception
of the black actor Ira Aldridge in London in the 1820s, who was “hounded from the stage
with disgust when he played at Covent Garden,” while “Aldridge’s performances at the mi-
nor houses were greeted with excitement and sympathetic interest” (ibid., 130).
Broadsides and Backsides 209

guests and to be rented for the season. To make room for all those boxes, the
gallery audience had been positioned far from the stage, so that the one-shil-
ling-seats, soon known as ‘pigeon-holes,’ allowed for little more than a re-
motely visual, but hardly auditory experience. The prices in the pit and
boxes, moreover, were increased from three and a half to four, and six to
seven shillings respectively. What was designed by the managing board
around John Phillip Kemble, the most famous actor of his time, as a “New
Grand Imperial incombustable Theatre” accordingly came under serious at-
tack from a formation of protesters who called themselves the OPs (‘Old
Despite the collective label, the protesters’ indignation was less fuelled by
the NPs (New Prices) than by the notion that the new Covent Garden no
longer complied with its obligations as a National Theatre. The introduction
of private boxes, for instance, was seen not only as a means to further
encourage prostitution in the theatre, but also as an affront against the idea of
equal access for all citizens; the increasing introduction of foreign forms such
as melodrama and opera was perceived as a threat to the English dramatic
tradition; and foreign performers in particular were greeted with suspicion.
Such popular chauvinism was levelled most violently against Italian opera
star Angelica Catalani who had previously performed at the King’s Theatre in
Haymarket for three seasons to the highest acclaim, but who became the
OPs’s target number one, particularly when it transpired that Kemble had
hired her at an astronomical ǧSHUQLJKW %DHU ,WLVUHSRUWHGWKDW
on the opening night, the audience remained mostly seated after the perform-
ance, bellowing “God Save the King – no Foreigners – no Catalani – no
Kemble” (ibid.), and from the following night onwards, the rioters shouted
down all performances, demonstrating banners and placards alternatively pro-
claiming “Old Prices,” “No Catalani,” “No Italian Private Boxes,” or “John
Bull against John Kemble.” Kemble’s successive strategies to appease the
crowd all failed: Catalani was sacked on September 24; scores of ‘bruisers’
(some of them professional boxers) were hired in early October to silence the
mob which only led to heavy pugilism during performances in the pit; legal
means were taken up against rioters, some leading to convictions in late
November but already in early December, the popular rioting barrister Henry
Clifford had to be released on charges of false arrest. In mid December,
eventually, Kemble capitulated and by the end of the year, not only Catalani
was gone, but also many of the private boxes, the new prices in the pit, and
all charges against rioting OPs.
Significantly, the OP riots were supported by members of all social
classes and were passionately discussed in the streets in pamphlets and bal-
lads, even though it would have been unlikely that many members of the
210 Reading Song Lyrics

working class protested in the theatre itself given that a shilling for a gallery
seat fed an unskilled worker for about a week. Checking the occupational
background of the 161 rioters who were arrested between September and
December 1809, Bear nevertheless lists 13 unskilled workers, 19 skilled
workers and 10 apprentices next to 39 clerks and tradesman, 41 businessmen
and professionals, and 12 ‘gentlemen’ (Bear 1992, 142), clearly indicating
that the outcry against the decline of theatrical ‘Englishness’ cut across class
barriers. The OP riots were a truly popular event in this sense, and the chau-
vinist tone of the riots must have rubbed off on the popular perception of Sara
Baartman in the following theatre season – without a doubt, it sets the pa-
rameters in the middle stanzas of “The Hottentot Venus; A New Song.”
The politics of Covent Garden are targeted in stanzas four, five and six,
before the ballad gradually descends into the illegitimate world of the Sans
Pareil in stanza seven, the rebellious New Theatre in Tottenham Street in
stanza eight, and finally to the spectacles at Astley’s Amphitheatre, Sadler’s
Wells and Spring Gardens in stanza nine. Stanza four offers a poignant cri-
tique of Covent Garden’s recent fondness of exotic pantomime and spectacle
by preposterously proposing that the next show on offer will be starring Wil-
liam Bradley and Sara Baartman in the lead, while the fifth stanza predicts
the end of some of the most respected names associated with Covent Garden
in the field of dance, pantomime, tragedy and comedy. What comes across as
a genuine complaint, however, may also be read as a sidekick against the
theatrical establishment – less so, perhaps, in the cases of Julia Glover (who
made her name as a traditional comedienne) and Joseph Grimaldi, the ‘King
of Clowns’, who divided his time between patent and minor stages and whom
Moody calls an “urban anarchist” (Moody 2000, 209), yet certainly in view
of John Kemble’s sister Sarah Siddons, the most celebrated female actor of
her time whose star role was Lady Macbeth. 29
Stanza six then turns to Britain’s unrivalled prima donna of the age, An-
gelica Catalani, driven out of Covent Garden by the OPs’s popular vote the
season before, and the ballad heartily joins into the chauvinist rant: Catalani’s
“demi-semi-quavers” and “vile Italian squeaks” are likened to “fiddles out of
tune” and “knifes on grindstones,” and thus very unfavourably compare (in
an almost Byronic moment of rhyming craft) “to Sartjee’s fine tones.” The
nasty rhetorical logic here is of course one of satirical inversion, of playing
out high against low culture with the profanation of Catalani as the main sa-

John William Cole remarks that Siddons acted only 33 times in the season of 1810-1811,
and retired on June 29, 1812 (Cole 1860, 33). Julia Glover is much less known today, but
Cole writes about her: “Assuredly, Mrs. Glover has left no duplicate behind her; no, not
even the shadow of a double, amongst her still-living contemporaries” (ibid., 368).
Broadsides and Backsides 211

tirical objective. Sara Baartman is again merely the vehicle, and whether she
really had a fine voice was probably the least concern of our songwriter. 30
Still, the passage is exemplary in view of the larger ideology of the ballad by
revealing that “The Hottentot Venus” does not stigmatise Sara Baartman as
the ultimate ‘Other’ in English society. It quite clearly suggests that from the
speaking position in the lyrics, and probably even more so from the singing
position of the ballad sellers and a large part of their target audience, an Ital-
make things worse, married to a French Captain in the midst of the Napole-
onic wars, was further removed from London street life than a popular, yet
poor colonial alien whose people had only recently acquired the (dubious)
benefit of protection under the British Crown.
Precisely because Sara Baartman is constantly used as a vehicle for
(rather than target of) satirical attack in such “cultural jingoism” (Neuburg
1977, 137) – scoffing not only at Catalani and Italian opera, but at the whole
range of illegitimate entertainment in colonial exhibitions, freak shows,
melodrama, travesty, quadruped theatre etc. – she is, unwittingly perhaps,
accommodated within the kaleidoscope of contemporary Britishness. Baart-
man’s reception in popular culture is, in other words, a prime example of the
inbuilt schizophrenia of imperial nationalism: on the one hand, she is grudg-
ingly acknowledged as representative of an irreversibly “changed taste” and
British zeitgeist in which theatre, among other things, increasingly takes over
the patriotic function of affirming the civilising authority and glory of empire
against the claims of other European nations, and especially the French. On
the other hand, however, she is at the very same time turned into an outward
sign of “imperial melancholy” (Gilroy 2004, 98), precisely because her but-
tocks serve as a symbol of the larger sensationalism, physicality and exoti-
cism which are about to replace good old English theatrical culture. Sara
Baartman’s presence and popularity in the imperial metropolis, this is to say,
already triggered the uncomfortable suspicion that the conceit which Enoch

A very similar objective is pursued by a ballad titled “The Ejaculations of the Great Catalani
to the British Public” which has Angelica Catalani speak in an unidentifiable, but distinctly
black patois:
Mr. K-MB-E very greedy, all de people do see dat;
Tousands of dem be starving, while we grow rich and fat:
Ven we see de Barrow Womans dat go troo London Street,
Dey be ragged and are torn wid de cold days and de wet:
But me be very comfort,
I sweetly preetty sing,
Me get Five Thousand Guineas
Dat be de preetty ting. (qtd. in Baer 1992, 203)
212 Reading Song Lyrics

Powell still managed to uphold in the 1960s, namely that “an autonomous
English character thrived beneath the culture of colonialism, untouched by
alterity and uncontaminated by the imperial experience” (Gikandi 1996, 74),
is just a self-deceiving lie.
The ballad’s sharp turn toward the outright admittance of nostalgia and
imperial melancholy occurs, of course, in the last stanza which invokes the
‘old’ theatrical world of Covent Garden and Drury Lane. At its core stands
David Garrick, the all-influential star actor, playwright, producer and theatre
manager in the 18th-cenutry whose name was firmly associated with the re-
popularisation of the most legitimate of English bards, William Shakespeare;
and he is accompanied by a phalanx of the most prominent actors who shared
his stage: Catherine (Kitty) Clive and Hannah Pritchard, Henry Woodward,
Thomas Weston, Richard Yates and Ned Shuter. It is very unlikely that the
anonymous author of “The Hottentot Venus” would have seen any of them
on stage, not only for restrictions of class, but since Garrick practically
ceased to act in 1766, followed suit by Pritchard and Clive who retired in
1768 and 1769 respectively. Rather, Garrick and his contemporaries are ob-
viously called upon as cultural capital, as canonical representatives of an ‘old
school’ of national theatre, to lament that once “the hallowed boards of Gar-
rick and Siddons abandoned rhetoric for the profits of imperial spectacle” a
“future of irreversible cultural decline” is inevitable (Moody 2000, 6-7).
“The Hottentot Venus” thus indeed falls within a more general pattern of
cultural conservatism and chauvinism which Neuburg and others have at-
tested for the majority of 19th-century street ballads. It needs to be consid-
ered, however, that such jingoism is unevenly pronounced, at least, and
perhaps even redeemed in certain contexts from the perspective of lyrics as a
‘performance art’. One should not forget that there is a rather blatant conflict
between medial form and content: after all, we need to imagine the ballad’s
satirical lament of the demise of ‘legitimate’ culture in the probably most
‘illegitimate’ medial context conceivable – in a graphic, sensationalist, and
thoroughly commercial street performance, sung to the bawdy popular tune
of “The Jolly Beggar.” The irony is obvious, and may help us to see that from
a thoroughly ‘illegitimate’ performing perspective, the ballad’s exploit of
imperial nostalgia may have served, in some performance arenas at least, as
little more than a cover-up for a more carnivalistic take that in fact celebrates
the inversion of traditional hierarchies.
Add to this the irony that the core milieu of the London ballad trade in the
East and West End was itself habitually compared to the darkest places on the
globe that still awaited imperial enlightenment over the course of the 19th
century, and a subversive interpretation of ‘legitimate’ nostalgia by some
singers and listeners becomes even more plausible: if “The Hottentot Venus”
Broadsides and Backsides 213

was indeed first chaunted and sold by “blind Maggie,” “Tom with the
wooden leg,” “Friday” and “Jimmy,” then it was part of a larger performing
culture which was regarded as little more civilised than the ‘Hottentot Venus’
herself. Henry Mayhew, for instance, to whose London Labour and the Poor
we owe much of our knowledge about the metropolitan ballad scene, re-
marked in another context: “If Arabia has its nomadic tribes, the British Me-
tropolis has its vagrant hordes as well. If the Carib Islands have their savages,
the English Capital has types almost as brutal and uncivilized as they. If India
has its Thugs, London has its garotte men” (Mayhew and Binny 1971, 4-5;
see also Schwarzbach 1982). Such conflations of the alterity of class and race
in much bourgeois rhetoric suggest that a theatrical world where “the Hot-
tentot unrivall’d stands the Queen” must have given some satisfaction and
thrill to the inhabitants of the Holy Land who a little later elected Black Billy
Waters ‘King of Beggars’. In many ways, “The Hottentot Venus” thus seems
perfectly suspended between what I have referred to, following Homi
Bhabha, as the “two times of singing the nation”: the cultural rhetoric of the
song oscillates, really, between an imposing “nationalist pedagogy” which
draws on the ‘legitimate’ orthodoxy of tradition on the one hand, and a range
of ‘illegitimate’ performance practices on the other, representing “the prodi-
gious, living principle of the people as the continuing process by which the
national life is redeemed and signified” (Bhabha 1990b, 297).
What does this imply for the popular perception of Sara Baartman and the
question whether she was accommodated or rejected, fetishised or normalised
in the gaze of the English public? The simple answer is that there cannot be
any simple answers, but that a close investigation of varying performance
arenas and their ideological framing is indispensable. Baartman’s reception
among the highly diversified metropolitan society was surely informed by
preconceptions of black or Hottentot female sexuality as Gilman suggests;
yet such ideas would have been mostly limited to upper class audiences, and
moreover severely complicated by Baartman’s interpellation into additional
ideological discourses. The most fascinating angle that our ballad adds to the
debate is that Sara Baartman was obviously entangled in early manifestations
of “imperial melancholy,” even as she served as the visible triumph of a new
global Britishness. Such melancholy may have been upturned in many pri-
mary performing contexts, yet in others it must have prevailed, clearly indi-
cating that what Gilroy and Gikandi basically see as a bourgeois Victorian
malady occasionally hitting the likes of Thomas Carlye or Mattthew Arnold
existed much earlier in popular form. The underlying agony of Arnold’s
“Dover Beach” (1867) – that while the “historic mission to civilize and uplift
the world was England’s unavoidable destiny, […] it would bring neither
comfort nor happiness” (Gilroy 2004, 98-99) – was indeed relatively widely
214 Reading Song Lyrics

shared across London in view of National Theatre culture already in 1811;

and some, at least, would have seen it all in Sara Baartman’s buttocks. One is
left to wonder what she herself would have said about this, a polyglot fluent
in at least Khoi and Afrikaans with enough broken English to get by, with no
return ticket from Europe after she turned Macaulay down, working her daily
shifts at 225 Piccadilly.
9. Toasting the English (2000)

According to astute cultural observers such as Paul Gilroy or Simon Gikandi,

imperial melancholy of the sort which enmeshed the popular reception of
Sara Baartman in Romantic period London (as discussed in the previous
chapter) turned into a fully fledged “postcolonial melancholia” when Britain
saw the mass immigration from its (ex)colonies during the 1950s and 1960s.
In Gilroy’s diagnosis, “Victorian melancholy started to yield to melancholia
as soon as the natives and savages began to appear and make demands for
recognition in the Empire’s metropolitan core” (Gilroy 2004, 99). At the
heart of this new melancholia fundamentally lies “an English identity that is
split between an imperial positivity (which thrives on nostalgia) and a post-
imperial negativity projected onto the immigrants” (Gikandi 1996, 70) in a
perverse logic which “allocate[s] a large measure of blame for the Empire to
its victims and then seek[s] to usurp their honored place of suffering” (Gilroy
2004, 103). The most radical political creed of this discourse emerged as
‘Powellism’ in Britain, named after conservative Wolverhampton MP Enoch
Powell, most infamous for his 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech which vividly
painted the apocalyptic scenario of “a nation busily engaged in heaping up its
own funeral pyre” (Powell 1969, 283) through unregulated black and Asian
immigration. Powell’s iconic status, however, should not deflect from the
fact that Powellism has been more than just the “enunciation of a specifically
defiant politics about race and the black population by a single person,” as
Stuart Hall emphasised, but indeed denotes an official policy that has been
“at the heart of British political culture” (Hall 1978, 29-30). A rhetoric of
“moral panic” directed at the immigrant population notoriously pervaded
Margaret Thatcher’s election campaign of 1978/1979 and has arguably re-
mained a hallmark of Tory politics; and while New Labour’s strategic “rheto-
ric of multiculturalism” (Balasubramanyam 2008) strikes a seemingly differ-
ent overall note, Blairite populism has repeatedly shown its uglier face espe-
cially in dealings with asylum and immigration.
The British mainstream music scene saw itself confronted with widely
publicised manifestations of outspoken postcolonial melancholia at the latest
since 1976 when a drunk and loose-lipped Eric Clapton used a Birmingham
concert to pledge his support to the Wolverhampton MP, expressing that
Britain is about to become a “black colony” and that he wanted “the foreign-
ers out” (Tyler 2007). The press coverage of Clapton’s gig predictably harped
down on the blatant irony that this should come from the mouth of someone
whose music was half black (and who had just had a major hit with Bob
Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff”), and the indignation led more or less directly to
216 Reading Song Lyrics

the formation of Rock Against Racism. Clapton himself in fact never felt
propelled to step back from his ravings and still in 2004 told Uncut magazine
that he found Powell “outrageously brave” (ibid.). The latest Powellite stunt at
the time of writing, however, was (re)performed by (Steven Patrick) Morrissey,
singer of The Smiths until their disbanding in 1987 and since pursuing a solo
career, in an interview in New Musical Express (NME) in November 2007.
Professing that “I don’t have anything against people from other coun-
tries, [but] the higher the influx into England, the more the British identity
disappears. […] If you walk through Knightsbridge on any bland day of the
week you won’t hear an English accent,” and affirming in a follow-up inter-
view that “[t]he gates of England are flooded. The country’s been thrown
away” (qtd. in Byrne 2007), Morrissey basically all but announced the ful-
filment of Powell’s apocalyptic prophecies – in his Biography of a Nation,
Powell predicted that “whole areas, towns and parts of towns across England
will be occupied by different sections of the immigrant and immigrant-de-
scended population [with] shattering effects on the lives of many families and
persons” (Maude and Powell 1970, 222-23). The fact that Morrissey, who
chooses to live in Rome, responded to the ensuing furore by suing NME for
indemnity and (again) insisted on his well-documented anti-racism (“Racism
is beyond common sense and I believe it has no place in our society” qtd. in
Byrne 2007) does rather confirm the larger pathological pattern of postcolo-
nial melancholia than deny it. “[M]elancholic Britain can concede that it does
not like blacks and wants to get rid of them,” Gilroy writes with unremitting
pungency, “but then becomes uncomfortable because it does not like the
things it learns about itself when it gives vent to feelings of hostility and ha-
tred” (Gilroy 2004, 114).
Morrissey’s twisted performances of Englishness are indeed full of para-
doxes which he to some extent deliberately stages, as Nabeel Zuberi high-
lights in a close reading of the most notorious Morrissey scandal of which the
2007 NME interview was indeed just a bizarre reprise. Opening for the ‘Mad-
stock’ reunion concert of legendary ska-formation Madness – a band with an
established fan base among National Front skinheads – at Finsbury Park
(North London) in August 1992, Morrissey felt inspired to tantalisingly wrap
himself in a Union Jack flag before a huge photographic backdrop of two
1970s skinhead girls, only to be basically howled off the stage – partly by
anti-racists in the audience who revolted against the white nationalist iconog-
raphy, but mostly by macho skinheads who found the same iconography in-
appropriate in the hands of someone with a reputation for asceticism, androg-
yny and an obsession with Oscar Wilde (cf. Zuberi 2001, 17-19). The subse-
quent press coverage of Morrissey’s 1992 Madstock debacle was a similarly
polarised affair: most reviewers sided with the view taken by the NME
Toasting the English 217

(which led to the first fall-out between Morrissey and the magazine) which
responded to Morrissey’s stunt with charges of racism in a long cover story
subtitled “Flying the Flag or Flirting with Disaster?”; others felt urged to de-
fend what they saw as a provocative, but valid artistic exploration of contem-
porary Englishness (e.g. Tony Parsons in Vox magazine, cf. ibid., 19).
Strikingly, a similar critical debate over ideas of Britishness, national(ist)
nostalgia and public acts of ‘Union Jacking’ which so marked the medial re-
ception of the ambivalent and in many ways theatrical performance of Mor-
rissey was almost completely absent only a little later in early 1995 which
saw the celebratory arrival of the term ‘Britpop’ in the music press. As John
Harris writes: “As far as the NME and Melody Maker were concerned […]
the old leftist worries about the politics of patriotism – last voiced in early
1994 – seemed to be completely forgotten. Layouts were set in red, white and
blue, and writers infused their reports with a newly acceptable kind of patri-
otism” (Harris 2004, 202-03). The uncritical and enthusiastic embrace of the
(marketing) aesthetics of Britpop, spearheaded by Oasis and Blur, is not self-
explanatory after the kerfuffle surrounding the flag-waving incident at Fins-
bury Park. After all, Noel Gallagher of Oasis made it his trademark to per-
form on a (Epiphone Sheraton) guitar custom painted with a Union Jack; 1
thoroughly middle-class Blur refashioned themselves with their second al-
bum Modern Life Is Rubbish by putting on cockney accents and a love of
football together with Doc Martin’s boots and blend of skinhead and mod
attire (ibid., 89); musically, Britpop has tended to draw on a distinctly and
strictly white English guitar rock tradition locating its ‘golden age’ in the
1960s, even if the more intelligent avatars of English rock such as Blur’s
Damon Alban or Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker have followed Morrissey and The
Smiths in combining nostalgia with a distinct sense of irony and camp.
Surely, even if lacking Morrissey’s provocative stance and occasional racist
slur, the musical discourse formation somewhat lazily labelled ‘Britpop’ by
the press is hardly without political ramifications. With all due caution not to
conflate sustained artistic and ideological differences, it is indeed inviting to
read the success of the media-phenomenon ‘Britpop’ as another belated
symptom of postcolonial melancholia.
Simon Reynolds supports this argument by drawing particular attention to
the “sheer whiteness” of Britpop’s imaginary Englishness which is not only
out of step with the urban realities of postcolonial Britain, but wilfully igno-
rant of black influences on British poplar music. “Britpop is an evasion of the

Union Jacking became a fully acceptable fashion statement at the latest with Spice Girl Geri
Halliway’s appearance at the 1997 Brit awards in a skimpy Union-Jack mini skirt.
218 Reading Song Lyrics

multiracial, technology-mediated nature of UK pop culture in the 90s,” Rey-

nolds argued in 1995. “If it started a few years ago as a revolt against Ameri-
can grunge […], it has now extended itself into the symbolic erasure of Black
Britain, as manifested in jungle and trip hop” (Reynolds 1995). Surely, the
consequences of such a politics of “symbolic erasure” cannot be laid at the
feet of the Gallagher brothers, Damon Albarn, or, indeed, Morrissey, who are
certainly free to musick in whichever way they prefer. Things become more
complicated, however, when it comes to the unconditioned endorsement and
mediatisation of such musicking by the press; and surely, things turn outright
political when politicians and political parties start courting popular music, as
has been the case with New Labour’s vehement and unprecedented flirt with
the “re-run jingoism of Britpop” (Hutnyk and Sharma 2000, 55) in the years
before and after their election victory in 1997.
In this chapter, New Labour’s recourse to popular music in their project
of ‘rebranding’ Britain as ‘Cool Britannia’ will be of particular interest; yet I
am especially concerned with how alongside and against the melancholic
pedagogy of Britpop, alternative visions of Englishness have emerged from
within the Asian British music scene in the years before the millennium, and
I will specifically do so by offering an extended reading of a song which
tackles the new Blairite creed of popular music populism head on. I should at
the outset qualify my use of the term ‘Asian British’ in this context as a
strictly operational term that is not meant to imply a sense of cultural unity,
origin or (strategic) ethnic essentialism which some critics such as Tariq Mo-
dood have tended to foreground (cf. e.g. Modood 1994 and 2005). Instead, I
would like to locate the term in the “spatial arena” which Raminder Kaur and
Virinder S. Karla refer to as ‘Transl-Asia’ where “South Asia is one of the
many reference points […] but not necessarily its originary location” as in
received diaspora theory. Transl-Asia, as Kaur and Karla understand it,
“might include changing configurations between parts of South Asia, Europe,
North America, the Caribbean, East Africa, Australia and the Far East” in a
planetary “arena of cultural flows, not entirely geographically grounded nor
always nationally bounded, but constantly on the move charting out new spatial
configurations” (Kaur and Karla 1996, 223-24). To open the field of Asian
British cultural production to a wide array of transversal cultural flows is
paramount particularly in view of the aesthetic syncretism of the post-bhan-
gra Asian British music scene and its alignment with technological innova-
tions and cultural practices that came to Britain mostly via the Americas and
emerged (amongst others) as the above-mentioned British formations of jun-
gle and trip hop in the 1990s which, for Reynolds, “speak eloquently but non-
verbally of the emergence of a new hybrid British identity, a mongrel muta-
tional mix of black and white” (Reynolds 1995). The very non-verbality of
Toasting the English 219

black and Asian British dance music – hailed by some like Kodwo Eshun
(1998) as its enabling (post-human) condition – can also be seen as ethically
and politically limiting, however. My interest, therefore, is in what happens
when song lyrics (re)enter the aesthetics of post-Bhangra jungle and hip hop
in the sounds of groups and artists like Asian Dub Foundation,
Fun^da^mental and M.I.A., and in the different ways in which the ‘national’
lyrically figures within a world of global transcultural flows.
Asian British acts or, indeed, audiences were markedly absent from more
widely mediatised reactions against the xenophobic ranting by the likes of
Eric Clapton over the course of the 1970s and 80s. The major Rock Against
Racism events co-organised by the Anti Nazi League in the late 1970s, for
instance, systematically bypassed bands from Asian British communities, and
hardly drew Asian crowds (cf. Hutnyk 2000, 156). Two factors come into
play, here: first, Asian British musicians in the mainstream rock circuit such
as Farrokh Bulsara (a.k.a. Freddy Mercury who was born in Zanzibar and
grew up in India) tended to avoid overt references to questions of ethnicity.
Second, the first mass-distributed and truly British Asian music, bhangra,
occupied a cultural niche which for a long time did not impact upon the
mainstream. Bhangra, originally (and still) a folk music played to celebrate
the harvest and New Year mela festival in the Punjab with a “strong dance
sensibility, led by the dhol – a loud and playful wooden barrel drum” (DJ
Ritu 1999, 84) was imported to Britain in the 1960s to still the demand for
Asian music at weddings and other festivities. Over the course of the 1970
and 80s, it developed into a genuinely transcultural British art form through
the successive introduction of Western (rock) instrumentation, technology
such as drum machines and synthesizers, and through the “incorporation of
other genres, such as reggae, rap, techno, and house” (Gopinath 2005, 298).
Even though popular acts like Alaap or Heera reached enormous sales
numbers, however, they were largely ignored by the music press or wider
public, not least since bhangra was rarely sold on vinyl or CD and instead
relied on the much cheaper cassette market and the distribution through local
Asian stores. It thus came to the attention of a wider British public not
primarily through its musical quality, but through the rather sensationalist
press coverage of bhangra raves which emerged in London and the Midlands
in the mid-1980s. 2
The tables dramatically turned for Asian British sounds, however, in the
1990s, spearheaded by the international success of ragga DJ/toaster Steven

Commonly held during daytime and attended by teenagers flunking school, the raves were
treated by the press as an emancipatory all-Asian space where Asian youth could temporar-
ily escape their purportedly repressive family structures.
220 Reading Song Lyrics

Kapur a.k.a. Apache Indian, whose ‘bhangramuffin’ fusion landed him an

unprecedented no. 5 hit (“Boom-Shak-a-lak”) in the UK single charts in
1992. In the following years, Asian British dance music began to establish
itself as a firm part of the mainstream club culture and music scene. Major
label deals were struck and abandoned (in 1994, Bally Sagoo is the second
artist after Apache Indian to sign to a major with his Bollywood Flashback, a
remix album of songs by the legendary Hindi film composer R.D. Burman);
tags such as “Asian Kool” (Simpson 1993) and “The New Asian Under-
ground” (Simpson 1997) were forged by the music press; a music video by
an Asian British band caused a minor scandal and was banned by the BBC
(the video to Fun^da^mental’s 1994 single “Dog Tribe,” cf. Hutnyk 2000,
56-60); in 1998, eventually, a Mercury Prize was awarded (to Talvin Singh
for his 1998 album OK) and a concomitant invitation to perform at the 1998
Labour Party Conference declined. The Asian British dance music scene of
the 1990s, all this indicates, increasingly covered a highly visible and highly
differentiated field of post-bhangra fusion sounds.
In retrospect, the field of musical practice developed between two aes-
thetic as much as ideological poles which may be demarcated by focussing
on the two acts mentioned last in the above list. Tabla prodigy, master DJ and
founder of the influential Omni label, Talvin Singh, whose Anokha sessions
launched in 1996 at East London’s Bluenote club did much to boost the
fashionability of Asian break beat sounds, basically falls within a musical
discourse David Hesmondhalgh refers to as “world dance fusion.” Asian
British variants of ‘world dance fusion’ in many respects grew out of, but, as
in the case of Talvin Singh, tended to dissociate themselves from the legacy
of bhangra by rejecting the “burden of representation” (Mercer 1990) that
many felt come along with it. Against the “burden of having to authenticate
and typify heterogeneous black communities” (Ross 1996, 52), Singh refuses
any ethnic, religious, regional or national attributions to his art, and instead
locates it within an emphatically outer-national and universalist frame of ref-
erence. The title of his Mercury Prize-winning album OK neatly encapsulates
this ideology of a strategically ‘planetary’ scope; as Singh remarks in an in-
terview, appropriately printed in a 1999 Singapore Airlines in-flight maga-
zine: “anywhere you go people know what OK is. Music should not have
boundaries” (qtd. in Zuberi 2001, 182).
At the other end of the spectrum, we get what Hesmondhalgh subsumes
under “Asian hip hop,” including acts such as Sikh formation Hustlers HC or
the aforementioned Fun^da^mental, (re)formed around Dave Watts (of Afro-
Caribbean descent) and the band’s mastermind Aki Nawaz (of Pakistani de-
Toasting the English 221

scent, co-founder of the influential independent label Nation Records and

formerly the drummer of the goth-punk formation Southern Death Cult). 3
Sonically, Fun^da^mental differs from ‘world dance fusion’ acts less in the
eclectic approach to musical material – they sample, indeed, everything from
Pakistani Qawwali sounds to Bombay film music, South African chant and
Caribbean dub-loops – than in a more low-tech approach that involves
“working within the red” (Rose 1994, 74) and aims at a much rougher musi-
cal breakbeat texture. 4 It is politically, though, that Asian world dance fusion
and Asian hip hop could not be further apart: Fun^da^mental loudly aligns
itself with anti-racist struggles across the globe as much as with local grass-
roots politics against institutional repression, and Aki Nawaz accordingly
dissociates Fun^da^mental from bhangra not to escape any ‘burden of repre-
sentation’, but because “it has no vision” (qtd. in Hyder 2004, 71). In contrast,
Fun^da^mental’s own vision lies in subscribing to a militant pan-Islamic
nationalism (inspired by the Nation of Islam) which not only pervades the
band’s iconography (the star and crescent of the Pakistani flag serve as back-
drop for live performances) but especially their ‘conscious’ lyrics.
This constellation is intriguing because both poles – Talvin Singh and
Fun^da^mental – in a way fall outside of the scope of established readings of
globalisation and popular music culture, best exemplified by George Lipsitz’s
seminal study of Dangerous Crossroads (1997). Lipsitz allocates a visionary
agency to transcultural music acts in a world where nation states increasingly
resign their power to transnational corporations and framing organisations
such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. As “the nation
state recedes as a source of identity and identification,” Lipsitz argues, the
site of resistance is no longer the arena of national politics, but the arena of
transnationally interconnected urban localities where subversive appropria-
tions of the global flow of commodities and technologies occur. For Lipsitz,
such “crossroads” provide the spaces where “artists from aggrieved commu-
nities can use the very instruments of their displacement and dispossession to
forge a new public sphere with emancipatory potential” (Lipsitz 1997, 5, 14).
Talvin Singh’s musical ideology, however, clearly eschews Lipsitz’s empha-

Fun^da^mental was originally founded by Aki Nawaz with an all-Asian line-up to play the
1991 Notting Hill Carnival; all original members (except Nawaz) soon left the band, how-
ever, and were replaced by a new line-up around Nawaz and Watts.
David Toop defines this as a central quality of hip hop: “The emphasis on early 80s sam-
pling with expensive machines like the Fairlight was high quality, but rap demands a raw,
xerox feel. […] painstaking hours could be spent, using state of the art technology [such as
cheap samplers like the Akai S900], to make a new track sound authentically old” (Toop
1995, 191).
222 Reading Song Lyrics

sis on “place as the constitutive problem of the post-industrial era” (ibid., 5,

emphasis in the original) by subscribing to what Ashley Dawson calls “cy-
ber-utopian visions of global exchange” (Dawson 2002, 28). The perform-
ance arena of the club, here, comes close to what Marc Augé describes as a
‘supermodern’ “non-place” (Augé 1995), supporting, in a way, a Pico Iyer-
style vision of globalisation most characteristically expressed in the (privi-
leged) feeling at home in the homelessness of globally interchangeable air-
port lounges (Iyer 2001). 5 Conversely, the ideological outlook of Fun^da^
mental troubles some of Lipsitz’s basic assumptions about the democratic
“emancipatory potential” of transnational musicking from the other end: by
appropriating the ‘hybrid’ urban places of articulation for an oppositional
politics that deals in the very essentialisms and militant nationalisms which
Paul Gilroy so fervently denounces in his study of black Atlantic culture
(Gilroy 1993b), a band like Fun^da^mental sits oddly with the utopian scope
of Lipsitz’s overall rhetoric.
The academic discourse surrounding the Asian British dance music scene
has accordingly reflected a mounting confrontation that is representative, I
believe, of a larger divide in cultural and postcolonial studies. One party, best
represented by the author collective which signed for the path-breaking col-
lection Dis-Orienting Rhythms: The Politics of the New Asian Dance Music
(Sharma, Hutnyk and Sharma 1996a), tends to eulogise acts like Fun^da^
mental in a neo-Marxist rhetoric that emphasises the validity of militant po-
litical struggle against the corruptions of a globally operating ‘culture indus-
try’ (see esp. Hutnyk 2000). They emphatically reject the “hybridity-talk”
that has emerged from some strands of postcolonial studies as a mere fashion
statement that is exploited for “marketing the margins” (Huggan 2001), and
instead promote a “politically committed academic practice” from the fringes
of “what continues predominantly to be a white and racist academy in Brit-
ain” (Sharma, Hutnyk and Sharma 1996b, 11, 10) – a practice, indeed, that
“white boy[s]” (ibid., 11) like myself apparently should not mess with. 6 The
politics of Talvin Singh’s music culture is unsurprisingly and characteristi-
cally dismissed with biting sarcasm:

The liner notes of Singh’s album Drum ’n’ Space (1996), recorded under the DJ name The
Calcutta Cyber Cafe suggestively express: “Calcutta cyber café is a virtual band created as a
meeting place for those on a journey for global communication and reconfigurations.”
Sharma, Hutnyk and Sharma suggestively close their introduction by stating: “Play that
funky music, white boy? We don’t think so” (quoting a Wild Cherry song). (Tenured) radi-
cal white boy John Hutnyk must have made it into Asian British discourse by adoption
somewhere along the way.
Toasting the English 223

Attending Anokha might not change the world but it certainly convinces enough punters that
they are better people for it: organic intellectuals getting urbanly high on the flavours of
multicultural clubbing. […] It is one of the lasting ironies of late capitalism that virtually
nothing can resist the pressures of commodification. (Banerjea 2000, 66)

Others are less quick to reject Singh’s fusion sounds as exoticist sell-out, in-
sisting that “[t]he rushing cybernetic beats and meditative melodies [can] be
seen as a mode of immanent critique of the social relations and technologies
that simultaneously emplot and displace racialized subjects” (Dawson 2002,
29). In response to the more radical positions of Sharma, Hutnyk, Sharma et
al., various musicians and critics have complained about the stifling effects
on a highly differentiated discourse when “bands are only allowed to function
as the resistive voice of an aggrieved community” (Hyder 2004, 43). Talvin
Singh’s self-defence may come across as slightly simplistic, here (“These
cultural crises really stay in your blood but instead of being sour about it, I
bring that into some beautiful energy rather than going ‘you fucked us up.
I’m gonna fuck you up.’ Fuck who up? Are these people any part of that?
Let’s move our shit on,” qtd. in R. Huq 2006, 75-76); yet there is indeed a
point to be made against a “worrying move toward a rhetoric of exclusivism
and cultural differentialism” (Zuberi 2001, 212) that not only marks the stra-
tegic politics of acts like Fun^da^mental’s, but is repeated in the rhetoric of
some of the above intellectual criticism.
In the midst of such controversies about theoretical and practical com-
mitment in a globalised world, a second look at some of the cultural practices
within the Asian British dance music scene may help to find models of
bridging the divide. In the following sections, I will therefore offer an ex-
tended reading of a song by Asian Dub Foundation (ADF), a musical collective
which I believe has intriguingly succeeded in offering a third way between
the conflicting politics of ‘world dance fusion’ and ‘Asian hip hop’ (even if
tending toward the latter camp), between the commodifying dynamics of
major label success and a radical grassroots engagement that is at once local
and global, between a propelling sonic syncretism and a punk ethos distinctly
directed at institutional racisms and manifestations of postcolonial melancholia.
My main argument is that this synthesis is crucially enabled by ADF’s lyrics,
which operate as a strategically ‘romantic’ corrective of an essentially ‘mod-
ernist’ soundscape without falling into the trap of new essentialisms.
I will in the following set out with a reading of the lyrics of “Real Great
Britain,” the first track on ADF’s 2000 album Community Music, in the con-
text of New Labour’s infatuation with Britpop and the larger marketing de-
sign of a corporate ‘Cool Britannia’. From here I will turn to the question of
how the lyrics work in relation to the syncretistic ‘punk jungelist’ soundscape
of ADF’s music, before discussing some of the medial, legal and institutional
224 Reading Song Lyrics

reverberations of electronic musicking on ADF’s politics. The final section of

this chapter will then attempt to broaden the view to exemplary lyrical reac-
tions from within Asian British dance music culture to the changing political
landscape after the events of 9/11, offering short interpretations of very dif-
ferent plays on post-9/11 and 7/7 anxiety by Fun^da^mental and M.I.A.
(a.k.a. Maya Arulpragasam) respectively. Yet first, here are the lyrics of
“Real Great Britain”:

Real Great Britain

Union Jack and Union Jill

Back up and down the same old hill
Sell the flag to the youths
But who swallows the bill
“Murdoch she wrote”
Him have his hand in the till

Blairful of Thatcher
Stuck on the 45
The suits have changed
But the old ties survive
New Britannia cool
Who are you trying to fool?
Behind your fashion-tashion I see nothing at all

Care for the commodity

Cuts the nation into three
Rich pickings for the first
Bottom third you never see
While middle England keeps swinging its loyalty
No concern for the future
Just with dead royalty

So will the real, the real great britain step forward
This is the national identity parade
Shoegazer nation forever looking backwards
Time to reject the sixties charade

Not enough schools

Not enough homes
Just “Phony Care” in his Millennium Dome
More prime cuts than beef on the bone
And there’s too many questions you’re not answering tone

Union Jack and Union Jill etc.

So will the real, the real great britain step forward etc. (printed in ADF 2000)
Toasting the English 225

Shoegazer Nation, or the Sound of Cool Britannia

Let us begin by reviewing some of the contexts that help to make better sense
of the lyrics of “Real Great Britain,” and return to two events in late 1994
which in very different ways marked a new quality in the relationship be-
tween British politics and popular music culture. The first event dates to 3
November 1994, when the conservative government passed The Criminal
Justice and Public Disorder Act (CJA) (cf. Office of Public Sector Informa-
tion 2008) without vocal opposition from Labour, an act which explicitly
clamped down on the British rave scene. Mainly reacting to sensationalist
press reports about ecstasy abuse, the CJA entitled the police to take action
against any assembly of ten or more people gathering in public spaces and
playing “amplified music” as defined by “sounds wholly or predominantly
characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” (CJA
63.1b). The CJA thus overnight politicised what was essentially a hedonistic
and ecstasy-besotten scene; yet it also made no distinction between the rave
culture of acid house/techno and other musical cultures based on “repetitive
beats” from sound system to the emerging jungle and garage scenes, flatly
criminalising a vast array of musical practices. It is moreover vital to see that
the anti-rave regulations were part of a larger parcel that stepped up author-
itarian measures in metropolitan ‘problem areas’ and curbed grassroots poli-
tical opposition more generally. “Powers in Relation to Raves” is indeed only
one item under Parts V (Collective Trespass or Nuisance on Land) and VI
(Prevention of Terrorism) of the CJA accompanied, for instance, by the
legalisation of police bans of any large-scale demonstration with or without
“the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”; an initiative against
“aggravated trespass” and “squatting”; and, most seriously, an amendment to
the 1989 Prevention of Terrorism Act granting any entitled police officer “the
powers to stop and search vehicles and persons […] at any place within his
area or a specified locality in his area for a specified period not exceeding
twenty eight days” (CJA 81.1). Even though it was widely acknowledged that
the “stop and search” legislation was little else than a renewal of the ‘sus
laws’ which fuelled the Brixton Riots in 1981, the Labour opposition
preferred to ignore that there might be any racist element in the CJA, as did
the mainstream press (cf. Hutnyk 2000, 53-54).
Only six days later, on 9 November 1994, young opposition leader Tony
Blair, whose street credibility had just been boosted by media reports about
his brief spell as lead singer of what was basically a Rolling Stones cover
band (Ugly Rumors) in his final college year, gave a brief speech at Q
magazine’s annual awards (which gave away Best Album to Blur’s Parklife
and Best New Act to Oasis). As John Harris points out, Blair used the
226 Reading Song Lyrics

occasion to imply that under a Labour government, the “benign indifference”

that characterised Tory popular music politics (Cloonan 2007, 39) could give
way to an altogether different kind of cooperation, and one in which “some of
the assembled revellers might just be allowed access to the machinery of
government” (Harris 2004, 191):

I just want to say two things to you here. First of all, rock’n’roll is not just an important part
of our culture, it’s an important part of our way of life. It’s an important industry; it’s an im-
portant employer of people; it’s immensely important to the future of this country. […] The
great bands I used to listen to – The Stones and The Beatles and The Kinks – their records
are going to live forever, and the records of today’s bands, the records of U2 or The Smiths
and Morrissey, will also live on because they are part of our vibrant culture. I think we
should be proud in Britain of our record industry and proud that people still think that it is
the place to make it. (qtd. in ibid.)

No matter that U2 are Irish and that The Smith’s had disbanded seven years
earlier – Blair rather unmistakeably made clear that he would take popular
music seriously, first, as a major corporate industrial force, and second, as a
tool in his very own electoral, and by extension, national image campaign.
The British musical pedigree outlined in this context is obviously no other
than Britpop’s favoured legacy of white guitar rock.
While in early 1995, stunts and rallies against the CJA continued, sup-
ported by benefit performances of Fun^da^mental and ADF among others,
Labour started to take measures that proved Blair was good for his words.
Just after Blur won an unprecedented four Brit awards in February, a member
of deputy leader John Prescott’s staff was set upon privately lobbying front
man Damon Albarn who agreed to support Labour’s campaign in a personal
meeting with Blair and Prescott in March (cf. Harris 2004, 196-98). Blair
could thus be sure to have one of the key players in his boat when in mid-
August of the same year, Britain was in a national frenzy over the simultane-
ous single releases of Blur’s “Country House” and Oasis’s “Roll With It,”
accompanied by a hysteric press coverage infested with Beatles vs. Stones
comparisons and stylised by NME as the “Britpop Heavyweight Champion-
ship.” A little earlier in the same month and in the midst of the frenzy, Met-
ropolitan Police Force commissioner Sir Paul Condon, who would come
under serious attack through the Stephen Lawrence inquiry into Police racism
in 1998 and 1999, 7 launched ‘Operation Eagle Eye’ without eliciting so much

18-year-old Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death by a gang of white youth in South Lon-
don in 1993. The perpetrators were never brought to justice due to flawed police investiga-
tions. Upon a media campaign initiated by the Lawrence family, Sir William Macpherson of
Cluny was commissioned by Home Secretary Jack Straw to carry out a public inquiry into
Toasting the English 227

as a political whimper – Operation Eagle Eye systematically put the new

“stop and search” legislation of the CJA into practice, and was announced to
community leaders as a crack-down on muggers, “very many” of which,
Condon saw fit to emphasise, “are very young black people” (Bennetto
That Tony Blair also could be sure of the loyalty of the party which
emerged as the new champions from the 1995 Britpop affair d’honneur was
clear at the latest after the 1996 Brit awards when swaggering Noel Gallagher
of Oasis, high on E and cocaine, concluded a jumbled speech upon receiving
the award for Best Band with the words: “And if you’ve got anything about
you, you’ll go up there and you’ll shake Tony Blair’s hand, man! Power to
the people!” (qtd. in Harris 2004, 273). Sober Tony Blair responded in kind
in his presentation speech for Outstanding Contribution (going to David
Bowie), announcing that “British music [is] back once again in its right place,
at the top of the world,” adding a distinctly Mancunian (The Smiths, The
Stone Roses) touch to a received Britpop legacy leading directly to Oasis:
“At least part of the reason for that has been the inspiration that today’s bands
can draw from those that have gone before. Bands in my generation like The
Beatles and The Stones and The Kinks. Of a later generation: The Clash, The
Smiths, Stone Roses.” In Autumn 1996, Noel Gallagher found himself on the
cover of the New Labour New Britain party magazine, backed by a Union
Jack (cf. Cloonan 2007, 39); and after the landslide general election victory
in May 1997, he was famously sported on almost every national newspaper
front cover sipping champagne with Blair in late July 1997 at a media recep-
tion at 10 Downing Street – a party which Damon Albarn notably decided to
stay away from, taking a critical stance against New Labour’s politics from
then on. 8
New Labour’s flirt with Britpop thus became more troubled after 1997;
yet it had by then firmly established a new form of relationship between po-
litical culture and popular music very different from “the sort of activism
required by RAR [Rock Against Racism] and called for by Red Wedge. Here,
celebrity was more important than commitment and nothing more was re-

the “matters arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence” (cf. Macpherson 1999). The con-
tinuing topicality of the Stephen Lawrence case is indicated by the fact that in February
2008, the Stephen Lawrence Centre in Deptford was vandalised.
Another Britpop great, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, who had apparently been similarly stalked by
a Labour intern in winter 1996/1997, refused cooperation from the start (cf. Harris 2004,
228 Reading Song Lyrics

quired than public messages of support” (Cloonan 2007, 39). 9 That this strat-
egy was initially successful is evident by the way the media picked up on it,
most stunningly, probably, in the March 1997 issues of Vanity Fair US and
UK which proclaimed that “London Swings!” again, and did much to firmly
associate a term that had in fact been dug up by conservative Heritage De-
partment minister Virginia Bottomley in late 1996 – ‘Cool Britannia’ – with
New Labour. It was opposition leader Tony Blair, rather than John Major,
whose high gloss image, titled “The Visionary” and sporting a blurb that re-
ferred to his spell with Ugly Rumours, adorned the magazine pages a few
weeks before the general election among a phalanx of Britpop greats (cf.
Harris 2004, 328).
Undoubtedly encouraged by such media coups, New Labour set upon the
gargantuan enterprise of “rebranding Britain” as a young, cool and forward-
looking nation as soon as they came to power, a project epitomised by Tony
Blair and Peter Mandelson’s fondness for the Millennium Dome and its cor-
poration-funded shows and fairs (which proved to be financially disastrous).
The marketing step from nostalgic ‘Rule Britannia’ to ‘Cool Britannia’ di-
rectly responded to warnings by the British Council, among others, that Brit-
ish businesses “had become wary of overtly marketing their national identity
for fear of the more negative connotations associated with Britain – busi-
nesses did not want to be thought of as insular, old-fashioned and resistant to
change” (Dinnie 2007, 30). 10 Given that the birth of the new British Cool
was based on an unprecedented “association of national identity with
economic performance” (Lee 1999, 106), it is only appropriate that it was
midwifed by a corporate think-tank called Demos which already in January
1997 produced a 70-page pamphlet titled BritainTM: Renewing Our Identity
(Leonard 1997). It is this corporate marketing logic also, as far as I can see,
which eventually led New Labour to refashion its official musical soundtrack
from the “sheer whiteness” of Britpop to a more ‘multicultural’ set once they
were in power, including the Asian fusion sounds of Talvin Singh who was,

Red Wedge was a left-oriented pro-Labour campaign started in 1985 and fronted by musi-
cians like Billy Bragg and Paul Weller in the hope of ousting Margaret Thatcher in the 1987
Protherough and Pick write: “The government’s attempted ‘rebranding’ of Britain has three
stages: 1) the commodification of every part of life, not just religion, the arts and education,
but hitherto unconsidered entities such as ‘ambition,’ ‘creativity’ and ‘fairness’; 2) ceding to
the state’s managers the right to measure and pass judgement upon all these things – in
matters of ‘quality’ as much as of quantity; and 3) repackaging these evaluated commodities
not just as the incidental products of the country, but as the essence of New Britain”
(Protherough and Pick 2003, 156-57, italics in the original).
Toasting the English 229

as already mentioned, invited to perform at the 1998 Labour party

conference, but politely declined the offer.
On the one hand, Labour’s hot affair with Britpop considerably cooled
when, with the notable exception of Oasis, not only many music acts one-
sidedly withdrew their love, but also the music press switched from hailing
the first “rock’n’roll government” to shows of disappointment (especially
regarding the introduction of student tuition fees which directly concerned a
considerable part of NME and Melody Maker’s target audience); in March
1998, NME accordingly featured Blair on the cover, now with the (Johnny
Rotten-quoting) headline “Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated?” (cf.
Harris 2004, 358). On the other hand, however, while a distinctly white ‘Cool
Britannia’ surely proved effective with regard to the native tourism industry,
it hardly helped in the project of establishing Britain as a major hub at the
crossroads of global corporate investment. 1998 consequently marked a pro-
nounced shift in rhetoric, as evidenced in a Gordon Brown speech in summer
1998 where he stressed: “My vision of Britain comes not from uniformity but
from celebrating diversity, in other words a multi-ethnic and multinational
Britain” (qtd. in Alibhai-Brown 2001, 100). Granting that this new agenda of
“celebrating diversity” was based on genuine conviction in some cases and
led to important decisions such as the Stephen Lawrence inquiry (1998-1999)
or the endorsement of the Parekh report (2000), 11 it is nevertheless valid to
critically question some of its motivations, and especially so after Tony
Blair’s love ride with Britpop’s postcolonial melancholia. Rajeev Balasubra-
manyam, for instance, insists on the calculated emptiness of New Labour’s
“Rhetoric of Multiculturalism”:

multiculturalism refers to propaganda that tells us that Britain, a multicultural society, is not
racist, or rather, that the state and corporations are not-racist and so the society is moving in
this direction.
The problem with this is that it isn’t true. The state and corporations do practice racism.
And yet, they spend millions on spreading this false propaganda of multiculturalism, mil-
lions which could be spent combating racism. The next question, then, is why? […]
Multiculturalism is fashionable. Racism, despite being endemic in the world today, is un-
fashionable and fashion is a tool of the capitalist world used to sell products based on their
image rather than their substance.

The publication The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain: Report of the Commission on the Future
of Multi-Ethnic Britain, ed. by Bhikhu Parekh (2000), was sponsored by the Runnymede
Trust and investigates “Issues and Institutions” such as “Police and Policing,” “The Wider
Criminal Justice System,” “Education,” “Arts, Media and Sport,” “Health and Welfare,”
“Employment,” “Immigration and Asylum,” “Politics and Representation” and, finally,
“Religion and Belief.”
230 Reading Song Lyrics

Balasubramanyam’s provocative conclusion – formulated, it should be added,

after New Labour entered the War on Terror – is that ultimately, Britain’s
“multiculturalist propaganda is used for social control, that is, the masking of
social injustice and dilution of social protest” (Balasubramanyam 2008, 34,
italics in the original).
If Balasubramanyam’s assessment is at least partly correct – and I believe
that underneath its spiced rhetoric and generalising thrust it is valuable – this
brings black and Asian musicians, many of which took public stances against
Morrissey’s Madstock fiasco, the CJA legislation or the political outcome of
the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, into a rather uncomfortable position. A gov-
ernment that suddenly co-opts transcultural sounds as a fashion statement in a
national image campaign which tends to deflect from, rather than wade into,
the mounting social problems of economic globalisation with the underlying
intention to in fact further attract and support the interests of corporate capi-
tal, proves a far more elusive target for opposition than earlier overt mani-
festations of neo-liberalism wedded to imperial nostalgia under Thatcher and,
to a lesser extent, Howard. The period between May 1997 and September
2001 thus provides a particularly interesting case for the relationship between
song and national culture and one, I believe, where lyrics particularly matter:
whereas the global fusion sounds of Talvin Singh, for instance, have little
(immanent) potential to resist corporate and institutional appropriation (which
is certainly one reason which made them attractive to New Labour’s own
marketing industry in 1998), the breakbeat sounds of ADF do retain an
oppositional potential not least through their alignment with strategically po-
litical lyrics.
Let us have a closer look at the lyrics of “Real Great Britain,” then, in the
light of what has been said: obviously, “Real Great Britain” sets out with a
playful yet stinging critique of the Union Jacking enterprises of Britpop, their
institutional endorsement in Tony Blair’s national image campaign, and New
Labour’s ‘Cool Britannia’ curry favouring with corporate capital (as ex-
pressed in the exquisite pun “Murdoch she wrote” on the all-English mystery
television series “Murder, She Wrote”). 12 All this is channelled through the
entry gate of a classical (and thoroughly English) nursery rhyme (first set
down in 1760 in John Newberry’s The Original Mother Goose’s Melody:

Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, owner of the TV networks Fox and Sky and
controlling roughly 40 percent of the British newspaper market emphatically supported
Tony Blair, even though notorious for his conservatism, since his election victory in 1997.
In June 2007, the government disclosed that Blair had a direct hotline to Murdoch in the run-
up to the Iraq war (which Murdoch’s publications aggressively supported from the start) (cf.
Grice 2007).
Toasting the English 231

“Jack and Gill / Went up the Hill / To fetch a Pail of Water / Jack fell down /
And broke his Crown / And Gill came tumbling after” Newberry 1969, 37),
which adds additional spice to the lambasting of Britpoppy postcolonial mel-
ancholia. It is the lines “Blairful of Thatcher / Stuck on the 45,” here – in-
spired by Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha [on the 45]” 13 – which give the
subverted nursery rhyme its pungency by inviting to associate Jack falling
down and breaking his Crown with no other than “Phony King Tony” whose
“crony courtiers” (Gilroy 2004, 119) are the new business-like “suits,” all the
while the ideological “ties” to Maggie/Jill’s imperial nostalgia and uncom-
promisingly neo-liberal agenda remain intact.
While the first two stanzas are thus deeply satisfying from a literary
studies point of view – after all they brim with language games, metaphors,
puns and intertextual references – the third stanza has less to offer to fans of
formalism. In a characteristic switch in tone, it has an overtly didactic thrust,
admonishing the neo-liberal ‘New’ in ‘New Labour’ (“Care for the commod-
ity / Cuts the nation into three”) in a straight-forward rhetoric that is taken up
again in the last stanza (“Not enough schools / Not enough homes”), clearly
aiming at the perfect clarity of a simple message that is only occasionally
interrupted by more playful uses of language (as in prime “cuts” minister
Tony Blair’s “Phony Care”).
The chorus, however, in many ways compensates for the intermittent di-
dacticism again and ensures a quality of multiple address in “Real Great Brit-
ain” that combines clarity of political message with poignant verbal manoeu-
vres. The call “So will the real, the real great britain step forward / This is the
national identity parade” is in this sense at once thoroughly ironic, and a sin-

Indie rock band Cornershop were the first Asian British act to land a no. 1 hit in the UK
single charts in 1998 with “Brimful of Asha” (albeit not in the original version which hit no.
60 in 1997, but in Norman Cook’s [of Fatboy Slim fame] remix version). Cornershop’s
memorable song is a tribute to the Indian film industry more generally and to prolific film
score singer Asha Bhonsle in particular, inspired by Cornershop singer/songwriter Tjinder
Singh’s childhood memories of listening to Hindi film music and other sounds on a Fergu-
son mono radio-cassette player (Zuberi 2001, 228). It is more likely though, that ADF call
upon the chorus motif “Brimful of Asha on the 45 / Well, it’s a brimful of Asha on the 45”
(45 of course referring to the 45 r.p.m record player) to pay tribute to an earlier Cornershop
stunt in 1992 when they demonstratively burned a poster of Morrissey (of whom they had
formerly been fans) outside of the London offices of Morrissey’s label EMI to protest
against his style of “sell[ing] the flag to the youth.” The gesture “earned the band some press
coverage as pop situationists,” Nabeel Zuberi writes, yet “was also motivated by a genuine
concern with the singer’s brush with fascinatin’ fascism at a time of increased racist vio-
lence” (ibid., 18).
232 Reading Song Lyrics

cere call for change in the relationship between song and national culture. 14
In its sarcastic implication, the chorus of course lambastes the marketing cal-
culations behind rebranding Britain as a “real great” nation which is, for
ADF, really the vision of a “shoegazer nation forever looking backward.”
‘Shoegazer nation’, for me, is the outstanding metaphor in “Real Great Brit-
ain,” intriguingly playing upon the intersections between popular music cul-
ture, postcolonial melancholia, and national identity politics. For the non-
aficionado, ‘shoegaze’ may need some explication: in the trajectory of (white)
English guitar rock, it basically provides the missing link between 1980s
post-punk alternative acts like The Smiths or Jesus and Mary Chain, and the
advent of Britpop in the 1990s. It subsumes a number of English alternative
rock acts in the late 1980s and early 1990s – most notably My Bloody Val-
entine, Lush, Chapterhouse, Ride, and Slowdive – many of which (such as
the latter three) emerged from the thoroughly middle class Thames Valley.
While Melody Maker tended to prefer the term ‘The Scene that Celebrates
Itself’ (on account of the bands’ habit of attending each other’s gigs), NME
stuck to the genre label ‘shoegazer’, a term that played upon the bands’ culti-
vation of a distinct aura of withdrawal onstage. “Guitarists, especially, seemed
to spend the whole gig staring at the floor,” Simon Reynolds explains.

There was a prosaic reason for this: The billowing amorphousness of shoegaze’s guitar
sound relied heavily on foot-controlled pedal effects. But the shoegaze bands’ seeming in-
ability to meet their audience’s gaze captured the essence of this neo-psychedelic genre,
which involved escaping from a troubled world into a narcoleptic dream-state. (Reynolds

Also dubbed ‘dreampop’ on this account, shoegaze thus significantly differed

from Britpop’s revelling in the spotlight, but it shared Britpop’s steadfast
avoidance of ‘black’ musical influences, barricading itself behind a misty-
white ‘wall of sound’. “There is a curious aptness, too,” Reynolds remarks,
“to the way so many young people during the ’80s and early ’90s went into a
kind of cultural exile by hiding in ‘the ’60s’ (the music of Byrds, Velvets, et
al.) just as Thatcher and her allies were steadily abolishing the gains of that
decade” (ibid.).
By emphatically demanding to “reject the sixties charade” that marks
shoegaze’s “aesthetics of surrender” (ibid.) and Britpop’s sonic nostalgia, and
by re-rebranding ‘Cool Britannia’ a ‘shoegazer nation’, ADF effectively dis-

In the liner notes to Community Music, the lyrics are printed all in capital letters. In reprint-
ing the lyrics, I have decided to avoid capitalisation in the line “So will the real, the real
great britain step forward” to account for the ambivalence of the phrase, i.e. to allow for
readings both in the sense of “real great Britain” and “real Great Britain.”
Toasting the English 233

mantles the new British Cool proclaimed by Vanity Fair and celebrated in
Downing Street media parties as a calculated escapism from the less market-
able realities on Britain’s streets. Yet the central toast “So will the real, the
real great britain step forward” is of course more than just a sarcastic signi-
fyin’ on nostalgic musical genres and their political instrumentalisation. It is
also a confident call for “real Britpop,” for a music that does justice to the
transcultural urban realities of postcolonial Britain. As ADF’s Dr. Das com-
ments: “Culture constantly moves very fast. It doesn’t have to dilute any-
thing. We see out music as a natural outcome of having been brought up in
this country. […] Our music is the sound of urban London today. It’s like a
soundtrack. It’s real Britpop – not revivalist or nostalgic” (qtd. in Zuberi
2001, 182).
The ‘conscious’ lyrics of “Real Great Britain” are in many respects typi-
cal of ADF, who are an avowedly political band whose commitment has
ranged from the Free Satpal Ram campaign (“Free Satpal Ram,” Rafi’s Re-
venge [1998]) 15 to the revolutionary struggle of India’s Naxalbari peasants
(“Naxalite,” Rafi’s Revenge [1998], cf. Hutnyk 2000, 180-210), from tackling
domestic violence in Asian British families “1000 Mirrors” featuring Sinead
O’Connor, Enemy of the Enemy [2003]) to attacking the Iraq War (e.g.
“Oil,” Tank [2005]), to name just a few examples. There is little space for
compromise in ADF’s lyrical approach indeed, which often brims with verbal
wit, but inevitably also comes along with the occasionally bland didacticism
that also pervades “Real Great Britain”, a didacticism which, at least for
some observers, is at times unsettling. In his outstanding study of Sounds
English, Nabeel Zuberi, for instance, confesses to a feeling of unease when
he first encountered ADF’s sounds, which he found “rich in their hybridized
textures and ominous sonic effect,” but marred by lyrics “full of naïve and
anthemic slogans” (Zuberi 2001, 219). The problem, for Zuberi, was not the
politics as such, but the lyrics’ rhetorical “flattening out” of the “ambiguities
and ambivalences of being British and Asian […]. One had to get with the
program,” Zuberi writes, “or get lost” (ibid., 220).

Asian Brit Satpal Ram stabbed (and himself received heavy knife-injuries by) a man who
later died in hospital (after initially refusing medical treatment) in a brawl that apparently
started over the playing of Indian music in a Birmingham restaurant in 1986. Arguments that
Ram acted in self-defence were ignored in what Jay Rayner in The Observer called “a farci-
cal trial,” and he was convicted for murder. After serving a life sentence involving “racist
abuse in jail” (Rayner 2000), he was released in 2002 after the European Court of Human
Rights overruled then Home Secretary Jack Straw’s decision to veto the recommendations
of the parole board to set Satpal Ram free; Satpal Ram’s freedom owes a lot to the media
interest that bands like ADF, Massive Attack and Primal Scream rose in his favour.
234 Reading Song Lyrics

Being neither Asian nor British, and probably even more liable for being
“a middle class wanker [out of ] touch with the realities of racism on the
streets” (as Zuberi supposes ADF would have called him for his qualms “like
any punk rockers worth their salt,” ibid.), I tend to share Zuberi’s sense of
unease regarding ADF’s radical pedagogy, yet find it redeemed on slightly
different grounds. After reviewing the continuing history of racial violence
and institutional racism in Britain over the course of the 1990s, Zuberi comes to
the conclusion that bands like ADF “are to be admired for channelling their
rage into music,” acknowledging that their songs “serve as funky pedagogy
for young people, even if their ‘politics’ are sometimes narrowly defined and
programmatic” (ibid., 222). While certainly not denying this (even if mis-
trusting the implied association of ‘rage’ with ‘authenticity’), 16 I would sug-
gest that ADF’s (romantic) lyrical engagement is additionally functional in
the sense that it effectively protects their propelling (modernist) soundscape
from being hijacked into conflicting musical discourses: most prominently
among them, electronic dance music futurism and world music liberalism.
Let us turn from the lyrics to their sonic base, then.

Soundscape: The Politics of Asian Jungle Punk Syncretism

Self-styled “21st century MIDI warriors,” Asian Dub Foundation characterise

their sound as a “combination of hard ragga-jungle rhythms, indo-dub bass-
lines, searing sitar-inspired guitars and ‘traditional’ sounds gleaned from their
parents’ record collections, shot through with fast-chat conscious lyrics”
(ADF 2002a). The beginnings of ADF lie in a music and technology work-
shop in East London’s Farringdon, organised by experimental musician John
Stevens in 1993 with a philosophy of promoting a collective approach to
electronic musicking. The workshop went under the title “Community Mu-
sic” – and ADF’s eponymous 2000 album is in this sense an homage to John
Stevens and the band’s origins. Workshop coordinator and bassist Aniruddha
Das (Dr. Das) teamed up with his fellow social worker, DJ John Pandit (Pan-
dit G), and a student, then 14-year old MC/toaster Deedar Aidullah Zaman
(Master D), to form a sound system to play at anti-racism events. In the fol-
lowing year, guitarist Steven Chandra Savale (Chandrasonic) from Birming-
ham (formerly playing with the ambient electronic setup Higher Intelligence

As David Hesmondhalgh observed, “the argument that such acts as Asian Dub Foundation
represent the ‘real’ face of contemporary British-Asian youth, against prevailing stereotypes,
has quickly become a cliché in itself, asserted routinely in nearly all coverage” (Hesmond-
halgh 2000, 299).
Toasting the English 235

Agency) joined the line-up, and in 1995, a second DJ, Sun-J, was recruited,
mainly for the task of adapting ADF’s studio sounds to the requirements of
live performance. ADF have increasingly moved towards being more of a
flexible musical collective than a band in the received sense, bringing in a
wide range of musicians and guest performers especially for live perform-
ances, some of which have joined the permanent line-up while others have
dropped out. After the release of Community Music, drummer Rocky Singh
and dhol player Pritpal Rajput came in together with MC/toasters Aktavata
and Spex from Ivasian (a formation that emerged from the educational branch
of ADF, ADFED, set up by band members in East London’s Tower Hamlets
in 1998, cf. ADF 2002c). At the end of 2000, Deedar Zaman, whose charac-
teristic breakneck toasting style fusing Jamaican Patois and (East)London
English defines the lyrics on “Real Great Britain,” dropped out for a career in
grassroots activism (cf. ADF 2002a), while for the 2005 album Tank, the lead
vocals of MC.Spex have been joined by black Rastafarian Brit Ghetto Priest
(who already appeared on the 2003 album Enemy of the Enemy).
ADF have themselves labelled their sound “Asian jungle punk” in most
interviews and press releases – the ‘Asian’ element in this nomenclature is of
course straight forward, simply referring to the fact that the majority of
ADF’s line-up have an Asian British background. The ‘punk’ element is less
obvious in comparison, as it only partly refers to a sonic trademark (and ADF
have indeed rejected “inadequate comparisons to well known previous punk
bands,” ADF 2002a). Even if Chandrasonic’s “aggressive, slashing, fast gui-
tar sounds punky” (Zuberi 2001, 218) as evidenced in the searing riffs on
“Real Great Britain,” this sonic thrust is not only complicated by Chandra-
sonic’s choice of tuning his guitar to one note (like a sitar), but especially by
the direction of the overall soundscape which is much more dominated by
“ragga-jungle propulsion” than punk guitars (ADF 2002b; on “Real Great
Britain,” see e.g. the off-beat 2+4 reggae-guitar [setting in with the second
stanza], and of course the overall jungle-inflected drum programming). The
punk in “Asian jungle punk” thus rather refers to a general in-your-face
energy, but particularly to a do-it-yourself low-tech ideology that is manifest
in the band’s approach to music production. As they disclosed on their web-
site, the “Approach to Sound & Technology” for Rafi’s Revenge (1998) and
Community Music (2000) included that “the sequencing was done using Cu-
base on an Atari and the sampling with an Akai S3000XL,” while loops were
“programmed in a Boss DR660 drum machine” – which were all affordable
‘street’ rather than the latest studio equipment at the time (cf. ADF 2002b). It
is the low-tech vibe, eventually, that also relates punk to the dub and jungle
elements of ADF’s sound – as Chandrasonic notes: “The idea of punk was to
236 Reading Song Lyrics

make good music and to use what original resources you have, which relates
to dub as well” (qtd. in Zuberi 2001, 218).
The middle and very often sonically dominant element in ‘Asian jungle
punk’ refers to a music discourse which draws on both (digital derivatives of)
Caribbean sound system and black American hip hop culture, and emerged in
metropolitan Britain over the course of the early 1990s as, for some observers
at least, the “first truly British black music” Collin 1997, 260, emphasis in the
original). 17 Particularly in the form which inspired ADF – “the ‘jump up’
hard ragga-jungle that had its heyday around 1994-1995” (ADF 2002b) –
jungle draws on the fundament of sound system drum and bass lines taking
their cultural origins in the practice of Jamaican dub avatars like King Tubby
in the 1960s, who used the advent of four-track analogue recording equip-
ment to break reggae tracks apart into their constituents. After phasing out all
instruments other than drum and bass, the bare backbone of reggae could
again be expanded into unlimited ‘versions’ by manipulating existing sounds
with effects such as reverb, hall or flange, by blending in any conceivable
new sound from other recordings, and not least by adding (usually heavily
processed) vocal lines by talkover artists (or toasters – hence my choice of
dubbing this chapter “Toasting the English” which only secondarily refers to
what the OED defines as “[t]o brown (bread, cheese, etc.) by exposure to the
heat of a fire, etc.”). The vocal effects on “Real Great Britain” nod to the
sonic culture of Jamaican dub, especially in the second chorus; the larger
production context, however, of course no longer draws on analogue, but
digital technology where the ‘ragga’ fundament is created from looped and
subsequently processed, ‘roughed-up’ percussion samples, in ADF’s case
often generated from Indian sounds (cf. ibid).
On top of the dub fundament, (ragga-)jungle characteristically layers paced-
up breakbeats – a technique which is palpably illustrated in “Real Great
Britain” when after Deedar’s toasting the first stanza, the measured ragga
beat is explosively fractured by a number of transversal drum-loops. The
breakbeats more generally align jungle with hip hop, with which it shares
“the basic materials and production (breakbeats and bass lines, samples, drum
machines, microphones, and sequencing program)” (Hesmondhalgh and
Melville 2001, 100). However, for many observers (UK) jungle significantly
differs from (US) hip hop discourse, not only because of its more fractured
sonic scope, but especially regarding an avowedly inclusive cultural ideology.

Jungle was later subsumed under the more ‘respectable’ tag ‘drum’n’bass’. As legend has it,
the name ‘jungle’ derived from the nickname for the Kingston neighbourhood Tivoli Gar-
dens, and was taken up when “a soundsystem tape was sampled for its cry of ‘Alla the
Junglists’” (Zuberi 2001, 169).
Toasting the English 237

While hip hop MCs and supportive intellectuals (such as Houston Baker or
Henry Louis Gates) have tended to subscribe to ethnocentric accounts of
musical culture and origin, major jungle artists such as Goldie or Grooverider
have in contrast emphasised jungle’s dynamic of transcultural fusion: “unlike
hip-hop battling, jungle’s about unification. The whole point of the music
was to break down racial boundaries” (Grooverider qtd. in Zuberi 2001, 170).
Hesmondhalgh and Melville accordingly draw on jungle’s ideological
affinity with Gilroy’s account of the “inescapable hybridity and intermixture
of ideas” (Gilroy 1993b, xi) in black Atlantic culture when they state: “Jungle
is an Afro-diasporic soundtrack that narrates the continual flow among the
United States, the Caribbean, and the United Kingdom. Syncretism, rather
than the expression of some form of racial essence, is at the centre of black
musical practice” (Hesmondhalgh and Melville 2001, 102). ADF’s vocal
subscription to the aesthetics and politics of jungle can in this sense be read
as an assertive cultural translation of black Atlantic culture into ‘Transl-
Asia’, aiming at an Asian British politics which “does not try to fix ethnicity
absolutely but sees it instead as an infinite process of identity construction”
(Gilroy 1993b, 223).
The association of Gilroy’s name with jungle is not entirely unproblem-
atic, though, as Gilroy repeatedly expressed his reservations against the digital
forms of black musicking that emerged in Britain over the course of the 1990s.
In an argument not free from Rastafarian nostalgia, Gilroy laments that digital
sonic culture replaced the inter-subjective ethics of older Caribbean-derived
musical forms where sound was still more important than video culture, and
public performance arenas (such as the dance hall) dominated over private
ones (such as the car). 18 What kind of ‘musical meaning’ (ragga-)jungle –
and by extension, the sonic fundament of a song like “Real Great Britain” –
generates at the crossroads of cognitive, social and physical experience is
indeed contested; yet some of Gilroy’s fears of a “regression of performance”
(cf. Zuberi 2001, 144-47) in the age of digital musicking may become more
comprehensible when read alongside what, in my view, remains one of the
most inspiring and insightful discussions of the sonic thrust of breakbeat
culture, despite its subscription to a rather questionable post-human futurism.

Gilroy writes in Against Race: “The citation and simulation of these [digital] cultures do not
reproduce their extensive ethical investment in the face-to-face, body-to-body, real-time in-
teraction. The distinctive privilege accorded to the process of performance and its rituals is
already under pressure from the de-skilling of instrumental competences. Digital technology
has precipitated a different notion of authorship and promoted a sense of culture that cannot
be confined to legal and habitual codes that imagine it to be individual property” (Gilroy
2001, 252).
238 Reading Song Lyrics

Kodwo Eshun’s idiosyncratic study More Brilliant than the Sun (1998)
flies in the face of Gilroy’s “Question of a ‘Soulful Style’” (Green and
Guillory 1998) by translocating the performance of (digital) black music be-
yond the reach of history, politics and, ultimately, what Gilroy calls the
“ethics of antiphony” (Gilroy 1993b, 200). The basis of Eshun’s argument is
encapsulated in his philosophy of the “sampladelia of the breakbeat” (Eshun
1998, 25-61) and its impact upon music reception. The notion of ‘samplade-
lia’ elaborates on the sensory state select hip hop, jungle and trip hop sounds
impose upon listeners through their unprecedented re-combinations of previ-
ous recordings irrespective of their historical or geographical origin. The
digital sampler, defined by Eshun as “the universal instrument, the instrument
that makes all other instruments,” operates as an “anachronizer that derealizes
time,” effortlessly layering, for instance, “a snare from ’69 Michigan United
Studio, a duet of the Bombay Studio Orchestra from ’72 on Led Zeppelin’s
Friends with gunshots modulated from a CCTV clip to videostatic from a ’63
ZDF documentary on Dogon cosmograms.” The concomitant musical effect
of such sonic bricolage, defined as ‘sampladelia’ by Eshun, results from a
combination of

both the reality-effect of samples you recognize and the Origin-Unknown effect of samples
you don’t. These Unidentified Sonic Objects can suddenly substitute themselves for the
world, eclipsing it, orphaning you, washing you up on its shores. There’s a powerful sensa-
tion of deletion as samples trigger successive waves of synthetic defamiliarization. (ibid.,

‘Breakbeat’ sampladelia more specifically marks the translation from what is

basically still an aesthetic experience – the sensory perception of imposing,
cut-up sounds from an almost unlimited, globalised sonic memory bank –
into an overwhelmingly kinaesthetic one; for Eshun, once digital samples are
processed into highly amplified and propulsive, transversal percussive loops,
breakbeat audiences are programmatically no longer “aesthetes, but kinaes-
thetes” (ibid., -2). “As beats ensnare you in the parallel complexity of ampli-
fied jungle,” Eshun writes in his unabashedly esoterical style, “your skin
starts to feel what your ears can’t. At these convergences, beats shift, cross a
threshold and become tactile sensations that sussurate the body” (ibid., 76-
The ‘close listening’ insights of Eshun’s “adventures in sonic fiction” re-
main valid, I believe, despite the fact that More Brilliant than the Sun gets
carried away by its hailing of a digital cyborg culture of sonic “hyperem-
bodiment via the Technics SL 1200” (ibid., -2), seen as the last step in a long
Toasting the English 239

series of ‘technologies’ that have constituted black diaspora culture. 19 As

Nabeel Zuberi observes, Eshun wilfully overlooks (as does, from the opposite
ideological end, Gilroy) that “there are continuities with previous forms of
performance and recording” (Zuberi 2001, 151) in (digital) hip hop, trip hop
and jungle which put many of his larger claims into question. But still: Eshun
is astute in his observation that the soundscape of jungle largely negates the
organic unity of ‘song’ as well as concomitant notions of musical tradition.
Through its irreverent sonic bricolage and an overwhelming percussive
physicality which tends to eclipse the social and conceptual in the “trialec-
tics” of musical meaning (cf. chapter 4), “The Song” in a way “disappears
forever in a polyrhythmodynamics of tense presents and pressure drops. […]
ruthlessly discarding The Song, blatantly disregarding original intent [and]
[i]ndifferent to tradition, the Breakbeat sacrifices the past to the now” (Eshun
1998, 23, 57).
Without a doubt, Eshun’s ultra-modernist reclamation of an inherent hy-
persensuous cyborg solipsism in jungle is at gross odds with ADF’s vocal
interest in cultural tradition, histories of social struggle and grassroots politi-
cal engagement, all of which rely on what Keir Keightley called “Romantic”
rather than “Modernist authenticity” (Keightley 2001, 137). 20 It is intriguing
to see, accordingly, how ADF have strategically counterbalanced their fun-
damentally ‘modernist’ soundscape with a number of ‘romanticising’ strategies
which precisely work against the chances that the syncretistic energy of their
(ragga-)jungle breakbeats is appropriated into a futurist rhetoric “[r]ejecting
today’s ubiquitous emphasis on black sound’s necessary allegiance to the
street” (Eshun 1998, -3).
This first of all concerns ADF’s pronounced emphasis on ‘liveness’ and
audience interaction: ADF have diligently cultivated “their reputation for
being one of the hardest working live bands” (ADF 2002a) over the last 15
years, a tag which was established at the latest after Primal Scream, with
whom they toured in 1997, boosted their publicity by labelling them “the best
live band ever” – against Eshun’s taste, of course, who believes that hip hop

Steeped in afro-futuristic millennialism, Eshun conceives of technology as the site of
“rematerializ[ation]” after the “alien abduction” of the Middle Passage which, following Sun
Ra and Greg Tate, not only rendered the category of the ‘human’ obsolete for the black di-
aspora, but also initially reduced culture to the oral continuum of “all the things you carry in
your head” (Eshun 1998, 192-93).
‘Romantic’ elements in Keightley’s list that are applicable to ADF’s musical and lyrical
style include, for instance, “tradition and continuity with the past,” “sense of community,”
“sincerity, directness” and “‘liveness’,” on top of a ‘modernist’ jungle fundament involving
“experimentation and progress,” “radical or sudden stylistic change,” “‘shocking’ sounds”
and “celebrating technology.”
240 Reading Song Lyrics

and jungle are “headmusic, not stage music” (Eshun 1998, 182). For live per-
formances, ADF crucially re-enter their digital sounds into the “feedback
loop” of liveness (and thus clearly out-mode the Phelan-Auslander debate I
have retraced in chapter 5). Digital ‘recordedness’ and ‘liveness’ are not at all
mutually exclusive as DJ Sun-J feeds ADF’s sampled sounds through an on-
stage (Spirit 328) digital mixing desk and processes them live (except for “a
few songs, where the programming’s too complex or there are too many
samples” where the “beats come off DAT,” ADF 2002b). On stage, ADF
insist, every musician and sound engineer, whether performing on ‘conven-
tional’ instruments or DJing, “listens and reacts to the changes other people
make. […] Audience reaction and energy seriously affects what we do on
stage. That’s partly how the music is constantly evolving” (ibid.). This of
course ties in with the fact that ADF have from their beginnings chosen to
supplement digitally derived breakbeats with a more conventional (punk)rock
instrumentation (bass and guitar, later also drums, tabla and dhol) both for
their studio and live sounds. For Community Music in particular, ADF addi-
tionally “utilised, amongst other things, strings and horns, surprising those
who had expected more ‘jungle punk’” (ADF 2002a), the sonic effect of
which is most spectacularly demonstrated, perhaps, in the choruses of “Real
Great Britain” where a full horn section (saxophones, trumpet, trombone) is
at work to momentarily ‘funk up’ the jungle fundament.
It does not really come as a surprise, therefore, when ADF also self-de-
scribe the process of technological “composition” by taking recourse to the
most romantic ideas possible, most prominently among them communality,
spontaneity, organic inspiration and emotional value:

Composition for the material on “Rafi’s Revenge” and “Community Music” was done col-
lectively. The computor [sic] would be programmed with guitar and bass being jammed
alongside, with each of these influencing the programming as well as each other. Even Sun-J
would be ‘dubbing up’ the sequences through the mixing desk. There would always be a
pool of samples and rhythms and basslines etc. that we’d try out in different songs. Some-
times, we used the same samples in different songs but ‘Eq’ed and pitched differently. A
song wouldn’t necessarily start from the programming but from anywhere – a guitar melody,
bassline or lyrical idea.
For us, programming wasn’t just a technical issue, but carried emotional weight – certain
sounds suggested certain themes and lyrics. We often wrote words, all of us sitting around a
piece of paper, scribbling down ideas. (ADF 2002b)

It is the lyrics, however – here framed in the thoroughly romantic image of

the collective “sitting around a piece of paper” and presented as almost or-
ganically emerging from the technological process – which ultimately protect
ADF’s soundscape from the limbo of sonic futurism and electronic dance
music hedonism more generally. Where Eshun refuses to consider the “liter-
Toasting the English 241

ary” as anything but “audio feed” (Eshun 1998, 183) and rants against the
“verbose verbal acrobatics” of more soulful hip hop acts (“There’s so much
intention in these musics that the machines can’t hardly breathe” ibid., 90),
ADF make sure via their lyrics in particular that the kinaesthetic power of
jungle propulsion does not absorb the social and political.
This is crucial not least since the ‘conscious’ recuperation of jungle’s ur-
ban syncretism and anti-essentialist thrust through a strategically romantic
emphasis on ‘organic’ technological creation, additional ‘proper’, later even
‘ethnic’ instruments (tabla and dhol), and on live performance alone would
generate new threats from the opposite ideological end. The danger, here, lies
in being subsumed under the discourse of world music which emerged more
or less contemporaneously with the rise of Asian British sounds.
The category ‘world music’ has its precise moment of origin, dating back
to June 1987 when eleven small record companies convened in a London pub
to talk about possible routes by which international popular music that does
not fall within the established categories of high street record shops could be
marketed. As Simon Frith remarks, this moment of origin has acquired an
almost mythical status, and is often evoked by critics “to show that the very
idea of world music was an assertion of Western difference, with core – An-
glo-American – musics being protected from the encroachment of other
sounds, and peripheral – non-Western – musics being assigned to their own
shop display ghetto” (Frith 2000, 306). The consequences of this kind of in-
terpretation are surely inherently problematic for Asian British music acts
and a musical collective like ADF in particular, especially considering the
fact that it has been mostly through world music festivals in the UK and
around the globe – most notably WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance,
midwifed by Peter Gabriel and associated with Gabriel’s market-leading Real
World label) – “that Asian musics in Britain gain[ed] ‘mainstream’ exposure”
(Hutnyk 2000, 22). ADF’s aspiration to perform “real Britpop” that is “the
sound of urban London today,” located at the very centre of British experi-
ence, of course hardly goes together with the marginalising moves of ‘world
music’ discourse.
Frith, however, considers the sole emphasis on world music’s tendency to
ghettoise sounds to be misleading, and instead proposes that the inclusive
rather than exclusive “authenticity claims” in world music marketing are just
as strong as its tendency to exoticise non-Western music acts. World music,
this is to say, offers a new field of social distinction for Western audiences in
search of the ‘Romantic’ authenticity which native variants of rock seemingly
no longer manage to cook up in a digitally mediatised culture. Frith writes:

This move is familiar enough from the long European Romantic celebration of the native
(the peasant and the African) as more real (because more natural) than the civilized West-
242 Reading Song Lyrics

erner. The implication is that world musicians can now give us those direct, innocent rock
and roll pleasures that Western musicians are too jaded, too corrupt to provide. (Frith 2000,

Even though world musicians are thus genuinely adopted into the social dy-
namics of Western culture in this reading, Frith concludes that world music
nevertheless “remains a form of tourism” (ibid.) in which the authentic and
exotic are inextricably entwined. 21
One would assume that the transcultural and thoroughly modernist, tech-
nology-driven jungle fundament of the sounds of ADF protects them from
the romantic authenticity claims of world music which inevitably, according
to Gilroy, result in a “mode of racialization” (Gilroy 1993a, 99). This logic is
undercut, however, by the fact that world music discourse, which relies
heavily on detailed ethnographic information for the packaging of com-
modities and events, has rapidly embraced ethno-musicological insights into
music globalisation and transcultural exchange which emphasise the ‘natural-
ness’ of cultural borrowing, bricolage and technological syncretism. “This is
the argument that best suits (and is most used by) world music companies,”
Simon Frith remarks: “it defines hybridity as authenticity and implies that
musical creativity depends on a free trade in sounds; ‘uncorrupted’ music can
now be seen as stagnant music, music constrained by reactionary political
and cultural forces” (Frith 2000, 312). 22
At first sight, the celebration of hybridity in world music marketing may
look like an emancipatory gesture – yet in fact it remains highly problematic
for a number of reasons: first of all, ‘authentic’ hybridity still appeals to the
aforementioned ‘tourist mentality’, and the exoticist appeal continues to be
world music’s defining marketing instrument, albeit now employed to strate-
gically commodify cultural difference rather than essence (cf. esp. Hutnyk’s
[2000, 19-49] reading of WOMAD). The most problematic fact, however, is
that even though festivals such as WOMAD are dedicated to provide a plat-
form for grassroots politics, world music discourse remains steeped in exces-

Tony Mitchell accordingly comments that “world music recordings and videos position the
viewer and listener as privy to a synthetic form of imaginary global travel” (Mitchell 1996, 73).
It seems important to state that ‘hybridity’, as far as I can see, is used to denote ‘cultural
mixing or intermingling’ on a more general level, here. My own use of the term tends to
draw on Homi Bhabha’s notion of a strictly discursive ‘hybridity’ that emerges when signs
are invested with meaning by cultural interpreters using different ‘codes of recognition’
(Bhabha 1994). The lack of differentiation between academic uses of hybridity that mainly
draw on biological metaphor and uses of hybridity as a semiotic category, for me, seriously
mars the sweeping ranting against “hybridity-talk” in Hutnyk et al. (e.g. Hutnyk 2000, 31-
Toasting the English 243

sive culturalism. The problem with such culturalism, as Walter Benn

Michaels pointed out among others, is that it tends to disarticulate difference
from inequality (Michaels 2004, 17; 176); “the critical preoccupation with
reaching a multicultural consensus,” in other words, “encourages us to feel
good about our supposed ability to tolerate difference in an apparently fluid
contact zone, while it lets us ignore the manifest economic differences or
political problems behind the spectrum of equally recognized cultures” (Eck-
stein and Leypoldt 2007, 256). This disarticulation is particularly felt, ac-
cording to Ashwani Sharma, among Asian musicians in Britain:

The ‘new’ politics of hybridity […] not only tends to essentialize Asian culture, it further
ignores the exploitative relations of power between the overdeveloped West and the under-
developed zones of capital. In this way the politics of hybridity tends towards the erasure of
the workings of highly differentiated global capitalism and racism. (Sharma 1996, 25)

It is here that the ‘punk’ element in ‘Asian jungle punk’ and its radical peda-
gogy become important again, as much as the more martial elements in self-
descriptions such as ‘militant scientists’ or ‘MIDI warriors’, which ADF
strategically stage in their live performances. Thus, the MCs often choose to
toast in combat outfit, and the overall live energy builds up an in-your-face
aggressiveness with the intention to shake up the culturalist complacency of
their liberal audiences (cf. Hesmondhalgh 2000, 294). Yet again, it is mostly
through their lyrics that ADF manage to steer clear of the discourse of world
music liberalism. “Jericho” on their debut Fact and Fictions (1995) asks the
audience to

Sample this. It’s an education

The sounds of the Asian Dub Foundation
We ain’t Ethnic, Exotic or Eclectic
The only ‘E’ we use is ‘Electric’

explicitly distancing ADF not only from electronic dance music hedonism
and sonic futurism, but especially from the tendency of world music audi-
ences to fetishise ethnicity, exoticism and ‘authentic’ hybridity in a way that
alleviates them from having to take active anti-racist positions. The talkover
in “Jericho” accordingly continues

[…] this militant vibe ain’t what you expected

With your liberal minds you patronise our culture
Scanning the surface like vultures
With your tourist mentality we’re still the natives
You’re ‘multicultural’ but we’re ‘anti-racist’ (ADF 1995)
244 Reading Song Lyrics

Mediascape: Nation Music, Music Capitalism, and Community


In many ways, the dialectics between the irreverently syncretistic, global

sampling practices which underlie ADF’s sonic jungle fundament, and the
‘conscious’ sincerity of the lyrics with their distinct emphasis on local poli-
tics provide a model case for Lipsitz’s vision of “oppositional” musical prac-
tices in the age of globalisation. In Lipsitz’s view, transcultural music acts
have the power to “subvert or invert the very instruments of domination nec-
essary for the creation of the new global economy – its consumer goods,
technologies, and images,” and Lipsitz (writing shortly before ADF hit the
scene) asserts that “it is exactly their desire to work through rather than outside
of existing structures that defines their utility as a model for contemporary
global politics” (Lipsitz 1997, 34, emphases in the original). Yet operating
through the new global economy also means working deeply within it, and
the line between opposition and corporate cooption is often more difficult to
draw than Lipsitz likes to suggest. The concrete medial and institutional
contexts of musical practice therefore merit some closer investigation par-
ticularly in the case of ADF, who at the latest since Rafi’s Revenge (1998)
and Community Music (2000) have hardly operated from ‘marginal’ plat-
forms of inscription into discourses of national culture, but instead firmly
established themselves at the very centre of late capitalist culture. The insti-
tutional position from which ADF level their critique of nationalist nostalgia
and corporate culture as evidenced in a song like “Real Great Britain,” in
other words, is hardly one of subaltern speechlessness (cf. Spivak 1994), but
one of relative discursive power, mediatised through British-headquartered
London Records, a label that has been part of the Warner Music Group since
1998 and thus one of the, at the time of writing, ‘big four’ transnational con-
glomerates (Warner, Sony BMG, EMI and Universal) which share among
themselves roughly 80 percent of the market (Campbell, Martin and Fabos
2005, 91). This, of course, raises a number of questions regarding the role of
corporate involvement in ADF’s oppositional practices, the ethics of sampling
‘second’ or ‘third world’ sources in ‘first world’ media, and the concomitant
representation of what Lipsitz likes to call “aggrieved communities.”
ADF brought out their first album Facts and Fictions in 1995 with Nation
Records, an independent label founded in 1988 by black Brit Kath Cannoville
and the mastermind of Fun^da^mental, Aki Nawaz, with the aim to, on the
one hand, promote Asian British musicians, and on the other to introduce
young audiences to unfamiliar, non-Western sounds “via the fusion of global
music with posthouse dance music culture” (Hesmondhalgh 2000, 282). Facts
and Fiction was, however, in ADF’s own words, “largely overlooked by a
Toasting the English 245

country obsessed with retro guitar pop” as epitomised in the Blur vs. Oasis
showdown in August of that very year, at a time when “to be ‘Asian’ was yet
to be considered ‘cool’” (ADF 2002a). After the limited success of Facts and
Fiction, ADF left Nation Records in 1996, frustrated with what they per-
ceived as a lack of promotional backing and conflicts over their name – some
people at Nation apparently thought that the ‘Asian’ in Asian Dub Founda-
tion inherently limited their appeal to wider market segments in Britain (cf.
Hesmondhalgh 2000, 299). Their debut album was well received, however, in
France where Nation had a licensing deal with Virgin, then still part of the
PolyGram conglomerate (which in 1998 was bought by Seagram and merged
into the Universal Group). ADF’s second album R.A.F.I. was therefore ini-
tially exclusively released for the French market in 1997 by Virgin France,
and only upon the looming success of R.A.F.I. were ADF signed by London
Records with a global distribution deal. London asked ADF to re-record the
songs on R.A.F.I. for global release and launched the album as Rafi’s Re-
venge in 1998.
Rafi’s Revenge received massive press coverage and became a major suc-
cess among audiences as well as critics. Two reasons come into play, here:
On the one hand, ADF had in the meantime brought their music to a very
wide range of audiences through excessive touring. In 1997, they crucially
supported Primal Scream in the UK whose lavish praise initiated ADF’s
popularity with the British media, and ADF consequently played a huge
number of festivals and gigs in Europe and Japan. On the other hand, ADF
became entangled in the emerging media phenomenon of the “New Asian
Cool.” If the NME still greeted Rafi’s Revenge with suspicion, reiterating
worries that “no-one would be interested in an Asian dub group preaching
political change” in May 1998 even while acknowledging that ADF’s success
may prove this wrong, the tables had completely turned with the release of
Community Music two years later which received an enthusiastic ten out of
ten rating (the first in seven years) by the very same magazine. Critical praise
brought commercial success: both Rafi’s Revenge and Community Music hit
no. 20 in the UK album charts.
There are of course several ironies in all this, one being that it needed the
(revolution-hardened) French to give the British a taste for the latest of their
very own metropolitan culture not steeped in sonic nostalgia. But the larger
irony surely is that ADF’s radical artistic and political scope was effortlessly,
it seems, accommodated by offshoots of transnational major corporations like
PolyGram or Warner, while the collective’s cooperation with Nation Re-
cords, “a successful black-owned independent record company” operated by
multi-ethnic staff “committed to antiracist political struggle” (Hesmondhalgh
2000, 281) failed to work out. Surely, the differences between major and mi-
246 Reading Song Lyrics

nor label politics should not be overstated, given that an aggressive politics of
buying out minors has increasingly given way to mutual cooperation. ADF,
for instance, left London at the height of commercial success to found their
own label, and released their albums Enemy of the Enemy (2003) and Tank
(2005) on Rinse It Out! which is, however, exclusively licensed through a
division of EMI Music France. Nation Records have taken an equally prag-
matic approach during the 1990s despite their avowedly critical attitude to-
wards global capitalism, and for instance licensed LPs of their commercially
most successful act, TransGlobal Underground, first to Sony and then to
BMG. Nevertheless, there remain sustained differences between an inde-
pendent label like Nation and major corporations, especially in the way they
afford critical “debate about musical and political ideologies” which may
result in adjustments to specific aspects of cultural production, as David
Hesmondhalgh (2000) has shown in a close study of Nation’s approach to
Sampling – the digital ‘lifting’ of sounds into new sonic contexts –, while
common sport in contemporary popular music, is of integral importance in
musical forms like hip hop, jungle and related electronic fusion musics
where, as Eshun’s ‘sampladelia of the breakbeat’ demonstrates, it serves as
the fundamental creative principle. Sampling does not take place in empty
legal space, however, but of course infringes upon international copyright
laws that regulate the ownership of sound and its medial representations.
Samples, this means, need to be legally ‘cleared’, and failing to do so makes
artists and their labels liable for copyright violation. Very much in Lipsitz’s
sense of ‘aggrieved communities’ operating ‘through’ the system of global
capital, the dissenting politics of hip hop have thus been associated with the
subversion of received notions of cultural ownership; as Thomas Porcello
remarked, “rap musicians have come to use the sampler in an oppositional
manner which contests capitalist notions of private property by employing
previously tabooed modes of citation” (Porcello 1991, 82).
There are two grounds at least on which renegade sampling may be asso-
ciated with an emancipatory potential: first, it works against copyright sys-
tems that tend to be severely biased against forms of creativity that have
emerged from the oral continuum of (especially black) cultural production.
Henry Self, for instance, remarks with regard to notions of creativity in Afri-
can American musics that a legal system rooted in “print culture that is based
on ideals of individual autonomy, commodification and capitalism” margin-
alises musical modes drawing on “a folk culture that emphasizes integration,
reclamation and contribution to an intertextual, intergenerational discourse”
(Self 2002, 359). Second and on a more practical level, royalties for samples
very rarely actually go to the original artists. On the one hand, recording mu-
Toasting the English 247

sicians often ceded all rights to their labels (particularly so in the history of
black American musicking) while many ethnomusicological recordings are in
the hands of public institutes like the Smithsonian; on the other hand, it is
only really the majors owning vast back catalogues who afford special de-
partments which track down samples to selectively claim royalty payments
where they are profitable enough. The literature on hip hop sampling has
consequently been rather supportive of renegade practices (cf. Schumacher
1995, Vaidhyanthan 2001) and called for changes in the legal framework that
would work toward the acknowledgement of social rather than individual
creativity (cf. Toynbee 2001). 23
The arguments in favour of unconditioned sampling are not entirely un-
problematic, however: according to Hesmondhalgh, a radical deregulation of
sampling would be as ethically detrimental as existing legal practice are, par-
ticularly when it comes to the corporate ‘borrowing’ of recorded sounds from
“more vulnerable social groups” (Hesmondhalgh 2006, 55), as he demon-
strates in a close reading of Moby’s 1999 album Play which extensively
draws on field recordings of the blues by musicologist/archivist Alan Lomax.
Hesmondhalgh’s worries about “Digital Sampling and Cultural Inequality”
are especially directed at powerful white recording artists who sample “non-
white and non-western musicians,” thereby continuing the debates about neo-
colonial practices in the music industry which were sparked off with particular
vengeance by Paul Simon’s forays into world music with Graceland (1986).
Rather unsurprisingly after his dealings with Martin Carthy (as discussed in
chapter 3), Simon retained the exclusive copyright for his collaboration with
various South African artists, thus triggering debates about “the way that mu-
sicians used, credited and rewarded non-western musicians” as much as about
“the motivations and fantasies of white/western audiences” (ibid., 56, see also
Lipsitz 1997, 56-60). Questions of ethnicity do not fundamentally change
institutional and medial parameters, though, and the sampling practices of
acts like ADF or Fun^da^metal are not automatically redeemed by their
‘Asianness’. In how far, then, do their sampling ethics differ from, for in-
stance, Moby’s “digital minstrelsy” (Hesmondhalgh 2006, 70)?
To begin with, there are differences in ideological contextualisation:
while Moby’s recourse to Lomax’s field recordings “foregrounded ‘primitiv-
ness’” and “deep spirituality” in a rather questionable “New Age” overall
packaging (cf. ibid., 60, 63), ADF and Fun^da^mental have actively com-
bated, as illustrated above, the culturalist “tourist mentality” of their potential

The solution most frequently offered in this context is a significant widening of ‘fair use’
provisions (cf. McLeod 2001, 145).
248 Reading Song Lyrics

audiences. But there are also sustained variations in institutional practice:

Hesmondhalgh’s empirical research into the attitudes towards sampling non-
Western sounds at Nation Records over the course of the 1990s revealed that
Nation’s musicians and staff have significantly been involved in “complex
political, aesthetic, and ethical debates over their own practices,” testifying to
how “independent record companies can serve as sites of struggle over
meanings, messages and rewards for labour” (Hesmondhalgh 2000, 281) in
ways that majors operating on a strict legal and commercial regime do not.
A major instance for Nation to rethink their practice was the first major
hit for a Nation act, the 1991 single “Temple Head” by TransGlobal Under-
ground, which features two samples taken from recordings of Tahitian gospel
choirs. Neither sample was cleared, and the copyright went instead to BMG
with whom Nation and TransGlobal struck a licensing deal. The implications
would not have drawn much attention were it not for the fact that the section
of “Temple Head” featuring the first sample was chosen by Coca-Cola in
1996 for their Summer Olympics advertising campaign in the UK (cf. ibid.,
289). The tune’s spectacular commercial success thus exclusively filled the
pockets of the Bertelsmann Group rather than those of the Tahitian women
who actually performed the sounds. Nation consequently tried to adapt their
recording politics for their world fusion acts, first, by clearing copyrights
(particularly in cases where the original artists had not sold out to major la-
bels or institutes), and second, by increasingly affording recording sessions
with real musicians which involved “paying session rates” as well as “sig-
nificant expenses in locating suitable musicians in the first place” (ibid.). In
contrast, co-founder of Nation Records Aki Nawaz remained dedicated to an
oppositional hip hop ethos by asserting not to clear any of his samples for his
own Nation act Fun^da^mental, at least in his communications with Hes-
mondhalgh. Nawaz justified this by claiming that “[t]here’s no point in me
clearing” samples, especially from more obscure Indian sources: “All over
the Third World, music doesn’t work like it works here […]. If I was to ring
someone in EMI India and say ‘I’ve taken a sample,’ he’d say ‘So what?’
[…] people copy their music all the time. And the artist would never see any
reward anyway” (Nawaz qtd. in Hesmondhalgh 2000, 291). It should be ac-
knowledged, however, that Fun^da^mental have explicitly opted for a rather
radical alternative to rewarding the ‘third world’ artists they sample, namely
by making payments “directly to the ‘people’” by donating to “active, hu-
manist groups” (Nawaz in Hesmondhalgh 2000, 292). 24

Such donations are indeed mentioned, for example, on the sleeve to their album With Intent
to Pervert the Cause of Injustice (1995), yet Hesmondhalgh missed any more specific details
as to which groups in particular are involved and where.
Toasting the English 249

As far as I can see, ADF have opted pretty much for a middle ground
between Nawaz’s defiant stance and Nation’s general drive toward a more
responsible sampling ideology in view of world fusion acts like TransGlobal,
even after ADF left Nation and were signed to London. The overwhelming
majority of ADF’s (presumably Indian) samples on Communitiy Music are
percussive and thus almost impossible to trace, largely amounting to what
Eshun calls “Unidentified Sonic Objects” in the listening experience. Me-
lodic or vocal samples are relatively rare, especially compared to the debut
album which makes extensive use of sampled melodies – notable exceptions
are vocal samples of Qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Khan on “Taa Deem” and
Benjamin Zephaniah on “Riddim I Like,” both of which are acknowledged in
the liners and thus presumably cleared. As the horn arrangement on the
opening manifesto “Real Great Britain” testifies, beyond the percussive loops
and basic punk instrumentation, several melodic tracks on Community Music
were recorded by studio musicians rather than sampled – a fact that probably
also ironically owes to the substantially larger recording budget at a major
label dependency.
Most convincingly, however, ADF have used the marketing machinery
and larger financial margins of major label production for very straight-for-
ward and long-term social commitment. Apart from investments into causes
such as the already mentioned and eventually victorious Free Satpal Ram-
campaign, ADF’s most sustained engagement has been with ADFED, launched
in 1998 as the educational branch of Asian Dub Foundation with the rewards
from their first major label production and funding from the London Arts
Board. ADFED organises regular music technology workshops and sound
system events that are “designed specifically to represent issues relating to
Asian/Black and Ethnic minority youth cultures, particularly around issues
relating to young people facing socio-economic barriers; social exclusion;
gender imbalance, refugee/asylum issues and more” (ADF 2002c). At the
time of writing, the now independently operating branch is about to move
into newly refurbished rooms at the Rich Mix cultural centre, the result of a
20 million pound project partnered by ADFED, in East London’s Tower
Hamlets. If ADF’s soundscape indeed takes from underprivileged musicians
around the globe (partly due to a legal system that makes adequate recom-
pense difficult), ADF have thus chosen to compensate such ‘exploitation’ by
means of a strategically local politics of training underprivileged aspiring
musicians in the very technologies of sampling, programming, sequencing,
arranging and mastering/mixing (cf. ibid.).
The album title Community Music – “named of course after the place
where they started and out of respect to their ethnically and culturally diverse
‘outernational’ fanbase” (ADF 2002a) – really encapsulates the interdepend-
250 Reading Song Lyrics

ence of a global, rhizomorphic connectedness, and simultaneous rootedness

in local grassroots action evidenced in this practice. In Ashley Dawson’s
words, ADF’s sounds “reflec[t] a convergence of outernationalist awareness
with a determination to remake national and local identity […] grounded very
much in responses to local struggles over space, place and identity that de-
velop in the context of globalisation” (Dawson 2002, 36). 25 It is important to
note, here, that ADF’s intricate forging of global allegiances and simultane-
ous emphasis on local struggle has not resulted in a radical opposition to or
bypassing of all institutions of national culture. Again, ADF are as pragmatic
here as in their alignment with the global music industry: on the one hand,
founding member of ADF, key organiser of ADFED and today board mem-
ber of the Rich Mix Cultural Foundation, DJ John Pandit, publicly refused an
MBE (Member of [the Order of] the British Empire) Award for “services to
the music industry” in summer 2002, arguing that the state should directly
invest in ADFED rather than decorate him with an “archaic” medal that is
evocative of “exploitation and colonialism” (qtd. in Lester 2003). On the
other hand, ADF accepted generous funding and organisational expertise by
the British Council that allowed them to go to Brazil in April 2001 to play
gigs and conduct music workshops in the favelas, initiating an ongoing part-
nership between the Council and ADF. This, of course, basically overnight
turned them into official cultural ambassadors of the very Britain they so pas-
sionately attack in the lyrics of “Real Great Britain”; yet it would be facile, I
believe, to engage in cynical arguments about the accommodating powers of
Blairite multiculturalism, here. Without a doubt, the selective cooption of
British institutions has afforded ADF with unprecedented cultural agency
which may eventually disprove Hasmondhalgh’s early prediction that “hybrid
‘acts’ [like ADF] may be relatively limited in their cultural effects” (Hes-
mondhalgh 2000, 299).

The importance of transcultural “place” is also underscored in the music video coming with
“Real Great Britain,” shot in various East London locations and portraying a young black
teenage kid dribbling a red, white and blue football (the signifier which is perhaps most
‘English’ and most ‘global’ at the same time) with “England” spelled across it through the
streets. The choice of a black British youth, here, is not accidental, I believe, and may nod to
ADF’s debt to Caribbean dub culture in their artistic kicking around of English national
culture. The black kid accordingly comes to face an Asian kid on a housing estate ground in
the video’s showdown – yet what momentarily looks like the beginning of a black vs. Asian
hip hop style (football) battle quickly turns into a collective game of street football, very
much in line with the transcultural inclusiveness of jungle philosophy. The video ends with
several close-up portraits of local white, black and Asian, male and female teenage kids who
obviously fall out of New Labour’s corporate high gloss multiculturalism, but for whom the
song insistently claims a place in “Real Great Britain.”
Toasting the English 251

Fast Forward: Asian British Lyrics after 9/11

My discussion of postcolonial melancholia, corporate state multiculturalism

and Asian British music has so far remained rather comfortably focussed on
the years leading up to the new millennium, focussing on ADF and “Real
Great Britain” in particular as a model of local as well as national musical
practice in the age of globalisation. In the remaining section, I wish to
broaden the scope and offer some comparative perspectives by proposing
exemplary readings of two acts and songs that vary ADF’s model, and take
the discussion to the state of affairs after the attacks on the World Trade
Centre and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Britain’s entry into a hugely
unpopular war on March 20, 2003, and the bombings of the London public
transport system on July 7, 2005. Surely, it would be misleading to read 9/11
as marking a sea-change that radically altered the social realities for Asian
Brits in this context, and it is vital to emphasise the continuities of institu-
tional racism (as e.g. uncovered in the Stephen Lawrence inquiry) as well as
benevolence (as e.g. expressed in the Parekh report on The Future of Multi-
Ethnic Britain). Few, however, would deny a new quality of anxiety about
multi-ethnic affairs in Britain after 9/11 (cf. Eckstein et al. 2008).
In immediate response to the September 11 attacks, London-based Sun-
rise Radio – billing itself “the greatest Asian radio station in the world” –
reacted, for instance, by banning the term ‘Asian’ from its news bulletins
altogether, justified as follows by chief executive Avtar Lit:

In the wake of September 11th and also following the [Bradford and Oldham] riots last year
we have had a lot of calls from Sikhs and Hindus worried that in many people’s eyes the
word Asian links them to events involving Muslims. Hindus and Sikhs feel that Muslims are
bringing the Asian community in disrepute in Britain and do not want to be put in the same
bracket as them. (qtd. in Hyder 2004, 22)

That such tensions were anything but short-lived reactions but have produced
lasting and statistically verifiable rifts was revealed more recently when the
Hindu Forum of Britain commissioned the Runnymede Trust (which also
issued the Parekh Report) with a special report on “the identity and public
engagement of Hindus in Britain” in 2006. According to the report, roughly
75 percent of the British Hindu population rejected the term ‘Asian’ (very
much to the liking of the Hindu Forum, of course) and instead claimed to
prefer being called ‘Hindu’ (Hindu Forum of Britain 2006, 31), clearly in
response to a growing fear of collective stigmatisation and Islamophobia; a
2006 BBC broadcast claimed that a very similar tendency is prevalent among
British Sikhs, while British Muslims quite tellingly tend to hold on to the
inclusive label ‘Asian’ (K. Huq 2006).
252 Reading Song Lyrics

While the ‘Asian’ tag is surely not without its own limitations and ethno-
centric overtones as problematised in the introduction to this chapter, the
more recent manifestations of religious/cultural particularism among the
Asian British communities clearly counteract notions of solidarity and open-
ness within the “arena of cultural flows” Kaur and Kalra refer to as “Transl-
Asia.” ADF themselves have attacked the opportunist logic behind such
moves with the eponymous last track of their 2003 album Enemy of the En-
emy, which is introduced as follows in the liner notes:

September 11th: Babylon is REALLY burning this time. Who’s responsible? It turns out it
was the enemy of the enemy who isn’t a friend anymore. So brown-skinned people beware:
whatever your religion or allegiance, we reserve the right to kick you off the plane.

But let us move on from ADF and turn to two significant variations on the
theme of post-9/11 angst: first, to what was perceived by the media as the
most controversial track on one of the most controversial albums in British
recording history, “Cookbook D.I.Y.” on Fun^da^mental’s All Is War: The
Benefits of G-HAD (2006), and second to the in several ways related, but
nevertheless very different single release “Paper Planes” on M.I.A.’s out-
standing second album Kala (2007).
All Is War was produced in Pakistan, South Africa and Britain and in-
cludes a range of very different songs which do not exclusively play on post-
9/11 and 7/7 anxiety. Still, the album doubtlessly called for the media frenzy
that it caused, as is especially obvious with regard to the tracks that Nawaz
chose to frame the album with. All Is War opens with the manifesto “I
Reject,” which deliberately fuels the latent Islamophobia of middle Britain: “I
reject your pork I reject your beer / Reject everything you stand for / […]
Reject your mini skirt liberation / Reject your concept of integration / Reject
your arse lick no10 invitation / Reject Tony Blair he’s a fucking liar / Reject
your order of the British Empire” (Fun^da^mental 2006). This surely would
have been provocation enough, yet Nawaz went one step further with the
tracks “Che Bin Pt 1” and “Che Bin Pt 2.” The lyrics of “Pt 1” (which closes
the album) consist of a speech by Che Guevara in Spanish (“Acts of sabotage
are very important”), while “Pt 2” juxtaposes a related speech in Arabic by
Osama Bin Laden (“How about the killing of innocent civilians”) – both
translated in the album notes. The press – most notably The Guardian – in-
terpreted this as an unholy equation (cf. Brown 2006) that intends to promote
Bin Laden’s status as a popular icon.
Yet it is difficult to pin Nawaz down: against allegations that All Is War
glorifies terrorism, it may be held that such a juxtaposition raises important
questions as to why images of guerrilla combatant Che on buttons and T-
Shirts have become accepted fashion items in a world that simultaneously
Toasting the English 253

stigmatises Bin Laden as the incarnation of the devil. Then again, a pacifist
reading is neither exactly promoted by the album’s apocalyptic choice of title
and cover illustration (where the statue of a hooded and wired Iraqi Abu
Ghraib prisoner stands on Liberty Island, surrounded by New York Harbour
water that is dyed blood-red), nor by Nawaz’s choice to exchange his veteran
stage name “Propa-Gandhi” for the more militant and Islamic “G-HAD” –
hence The Benefits of G-HAD, another of Nawaz’s double-codings that un-
cannily hovers between an apology of militant fundamentalism and a play on
artistic hubris. Such ambiguity on the tip of the edge is part of Nawaz core
political strategy and also pervades his contextual comments. On the one
hand, he has repeatedly insisted that he finds “terrorism and the killing of
innocent people […] repulsive” (BBC News 2006), that “his own son was on
the way to King’s Cross” on 7/7 and that his “only weapon is words” (Mead-
ley 2006); on the other, according to The Guardian, he “said he challenged
anyone to disagree with the statement by Bin Laden” (Brown 2006) on “Che
Bin Pt 2” which concludes that it “is permissible in law and intellectuality
[to] kill the kings of the infidels, kings of the crusaders, and civilian infidels
in exchange for those of our children they kill” (qtd. in Fun^da^mental 2006).
Even before the media frenzy really started (basically triggered by the
Guardian piece on June 28), Nawaz’s own professional scene had largely
dropped him. Most significantly, he was unable to publish All Is War on his
own label: in its early years, Nation Records had sold a quarter of the com-
pany to the legendary punk and independent label Beggar’s Banquet to whom
they are since licensed, yet until this stage retained complete control over all
artistic decisions (cf. Hyder 2004, 133-34). This type collaboration came to
an end when Beggar’s Banquet’s hitherto ‘silent’ shareholders, Martin Mills
and Andrew Heath, threatened to resign should Nawaz go through with his
plans for All Is War. The release of the album was accordingly seriously de-
layed, in part also in response to the fact that Nawaz realised, in his own ac-
count, that he “was used as a way into the coverage of the anniversary of the
7 July bombings” (qtd. in Bhattacharyya 2006). The album was initially only
available for download (from August 2006), and the CD came out slightly
later on a label (Five Uncivilised Tribes) Nawaz set up outside of Britain in a
location he keeps secret. “All the manufacturers pulled out,” Nawaz ex-
plained. “I’m also having trouble with my distributors. They love the album
and back what I’m trying to do. But they say the media frenzy made it too hot
to handle – shops and warehouses were refusing to stock it” (ibid.).
But let us turn to the lyrics which actually sparked off the frenzy in the
first place, and which motivated several MPs to call for Nawaz’s prosecution
under the 2006 Terrorism Act, an act specifically designed in response to 7/7
and creating new offences including the “glorification of terrorism, where
254 Reading Song Lyrics

this may be understood as encouraging the emulation of terrorism” (The

British Home Office 2006). It was the track “Cookbook D.I.Y.,” first and
foremost, which moved publications like The Sun to call Nawaz a “Suicide
Rapper,” selectively quoting the lines “I’m strapped up cross my chest bomb
belt attached / deeply satisfied with the plan I hatched” as evidence: 26

Cookbook D.I.Y.

I’m packed up ingredients stacked up my Laptop

Downloaded the military cookbook PDF
Elements everyday chemicals at my reach
Household bleach to extract the potassium
Chlorate Boiling on a hotplate with hate
recipe for disaster plastic bomb blaster
I mix up 5 parts wax to Vaseline
slowly … dissolve in gasoline
add to potassium in a large metal bowl
knead like dough so they bleed real slow
Gasoline evaporates… cool dry place
I’m strapped up cross my chest bomb belt attached
deeply satisfied with the plan I hatched
electrodes connected to a gas cooker lighter
switch in my hand the situation demands
self sacrifice hitting back at vice with a ǧSULFH

I’m 31.. numb …but the hurt is gone

Gonna built a dirty bomb
us [sic] this privilege and education
My PHD will free me
Paid of [sic] the Ruskies for weapons grade Uranium
Taught myself skills from Pakistan Iran
upgraded its stage two of the plan
Rage… a thermo nuclear density gauge
stolen by the Chechens from a Base in Georgia
I get some cobalt 60 from a food irradiator
so easy to send the infidels to their creator
it takes a dirty mind to build a dirty bomb
The simplicity is numbing genius is dumbing
down the situation to a manageable level
to make the world impossible to live for these devils
a suitcase of semtex a mobile phone trigger
Blow them all to hell for a million dollar figure

Aki Nawaz is neither credited for the lyrics of “Cookbook” (written by M. Kahn) nor for
their vocals (performed by ‘Vendetta’), but nevertheless channelled the media attention and
political attack on his person alone by vouching for “Music and concept” on all tracks.
Toasting the English 255

I insist I’m a legitimate scientist

paid by the government with your finances
I got a private room in the Whitehouse suite
So I can develop according to presidential Brief
The megaton don Gulf war veteran
The foremost proponent of the neutron bomb
at the centre atomic surrounded on all sides
wrapped in layers of lithium deutaride
the bomb detonates causing lithium to fission
into helium tritium neutron into Fission
The blast causes shockwaves that melt body fat
uniquely though it leaves the buildings intact
I made the 25 megaton daisy cutter
a great blast radius with very little clutter
There’s less radiation so your get a cleaner bomb
its [sic] your money people, it cost a billion (printed in Fun^da^mental 2006)

A close look at the entire lyrics reveals that “Cookbook D.I.Y.” does not
really make for stuff that invites prosecution under the new terrorism laws,
even if Nawaz himself coquetted with the idea that the MI5 will be after him
(cf. Hoffmann 2006) and announced to the eager media that “[i]f it means
taking the rap and promoting the album from Belmarsh prison, I’ll do it”
(BBC 2006). Not unlike “Che Bin” Pts 1 and 2, “Cookbook” presents a jux-
taposition of voices, this time entirely fictional rather than historical, which
intend to offer insight – not primarily into the chemical processes involved in
the creation of three types of bombs from home-made plastic to ‘terrorist’
atomic to US state-sponsored neutron bomb – but into the psychological
processes and motivations of their creators which are implicitly suggested to
mutually condition each other. Chris Campion is therefore right when he re-
marked in The Observer that the song is “neither a manual for terrorism nor a
jihadi recruitment tool” but “in its entirety dissects the hate that hate breeds”
(Campion 2006). “Cookbook” hardly presents an unambiguous case of “glo-
rification of terrorism,” and some of the more radical misinterpretations of
the song may boil down to the fact that speaking in character – something
that has been firmly established in British poetry ever since the Victorians
came up with the format of dramatic monologue – is less easily acknowl-
edged in performed (pop and rock) lyrics where verbal content is habitually
associated with the persona of the performer (cf. chapter 3).
Things may not be quite as simple or innocent as that either, though,
given that the dissection of “hate that hate breeds” is slightly unevenly per-
formed in the three verses of the song. Obviously, the least sympathy is in-
vested for the “legitimate scientist” who is imbued with a billowing cynicism
clearly highlighted in Vendetta’s vocal performance (most palpably in the
256 Reading Song Lyrics

line “uniquely though it leaves the buildings intact”), and whose greed is the
unmistakeable no. 1 motivation. The second character, as we learn, is “numb”
and disillusioned by the racist and
godless West, yet able to terrifyingly
reflect upon how “genius is dumbing /
down the situation to a manageable
level”; the renegade Muslim scholar is
thus treated with a distinct sense of
authorial distancing, too. Such dis-
tancing is markedly absent, though, in
the rap of first character, as we learn
nothing, really, about the ordinary sui-
cide bomber’s feelings and motiva-
tions except that there is “hate.”
Of course, this neither makes Aki
Nawaz a “suicide rapper” nor All Is
War jihadist propaganda, and indeed,
Chris Campion has a point when argu-
ing that All Is War was an important
and timely album to “provoke not just
a reaction, but thought and debate” as
governments “further erode civil lib-
erties and cow all dissent” (Campion
2006). Nevertheless, I find it difficult
to come to grips with Nawaz’s stun-
ning tightrope act between radical,
militant sincerity on the one hand, and
an unmistakeable inclination to role
play, hyperbole, and calculated pro-
vocation on the other. The rather
unsettling ambivalence is perhaps best
encapsulated in the promotional video
of “Cookbook D.I.Y.” (banned on UK
media), in which rapper Vendetta
successively impersonates all three
characters of the song. The lyrics are
performed in the fictional context of
Figs. 9-12: three staged press conferences – the
Fun^da^mental, “Cookbook D.I.Y,”All Is
War: The Befits of G-HAD (2006). Music first shows a youth wearing a Cross-
video, dir. Kashaan W. Butt, Nation Films. of-St-George-shirt, head stuck in a
lizard, zebra, and then rabbit costume
Toasting the English 257

(see fig. 9, playing, as John Hutnyk speculates, “on childlike toys and fears,”
Hutnyk 2006). The second scene presents the high profile Muslim terrorist
either as a renegade scholar with a kufiya and doctors’ hat (fig. 10), as a fully
geared guerrilla fighter or simply in hoody and shades, while in the third
scene, the “legitimate scientist” raps in a blood-stained lab-coat, as a member
of the Ku Klux Klan (fig. 11), or as a suited business man wearing a gas
mask before the backdrop of a NATO, UN, and Utah State flag (just in case
the viewer gets distracted by the many costume changes, the lyrics
prominently run through the image to ensure that none of their meaning is
lost). The video comes full circle, finally, when we are given full view of a
banner that a graffitist dressed in an orange overall (probably signifying
Guantánamo) is busy painting in quick frames between the three sets, amid
disturbing flashes on dolls and other abused toys. The banner reads “If we
make peaceful revolution impossible, we make violent revolution inevitable –
JFK” (cf. fig. 12), thus turning a famous line from a 1962 speech by an
American president into a prophecy of self-proclaimed doom directed against
the current US regime.
In his web blog, John Hutnyk eulogises the video of “Cookbook D.I.Y.”
under the header “Pantomime Terrors,” distinctly drawing on pantomime’s
roots in “popular christmas and summer holiday entertainments […] vaude-
ville and melodrama” which were indeed often put in the service of empire
and imperialism (as mentioned in the previous chapter). For Hutnyk, the
video explicitly uses and subverts this tradition in order to hyperbolically
expose the “performance of melodrama” and “operatically grandiose” shows
put on by the media in the coverage of, for example, the search for weapons
of mass destruction, the War on Terror or Saddam’s trial. “Pantomime,” Hut-
nyk enthusiastically concludes, “allows Aki [Nawaz] to point out the hypoc-
risy of an Empire with no cloths” (Hutnyk 2006). Pantomime, however, is a
more thoroughly carnivalistic genre than this interpretation would like to
make us believe, with a tendency to undercut sincerity on all levels. There is
a distinct sense, therefore, that the “pantomime terrors” of “Cookbook
D.I.Y.” not only expose the workings of melodramatic media sensationalism,
but indeed also Fun^da^mental’s own inherent contradictions and limitations.
In other words: having a white house scientist joyfully dance in Ku Klux Klan
gear in front of a UN flag surely makes a point, yet it is so (serio)comical, not
least in its hyperbolical flattening out of all subtleties of political argument,
that one cannot help wondering whether such stunts really add to or deflect
from Fun^da^mental’s avowedly serious agenda.
Isabell Hoffmann accordingly asks in Die Zeit whether Nawaz is not
“more clown than terrorist” when he “masterly plays on the fears of those
societies which he so eloquently decries,” concluding that if so, he is still
258 Reading Song Lyrics

playing with fire (Hoffmann 2006, my tr.). Chris Campion of The Observer
counters that “[o]nly an abject fool or someone with an agenda would suggest
that music has the power to incite others to kill” (Campion 2006). Yet even if
Fun^da^mental’s radical musical stunts are merely calculated pantomime acts
to shake us all up in our complacencies and silent complicities, it remains that
their uncompromising vision of a world in which “there can be no rap-
prochement between white and black” and “[w]e are headed for an apocalyp-
tic racial war,” as Zuberi (2001, 212-13) observed, is not only troubling but
regressive. Even if perhaps only strategically, Nawaz tends to simply invert
the collective stigmatisation of aggrieved Muslim (and other) communities he
so violently opposes in a rhetoric which uncannily preaches the very same
“Rivers of Blood” that Powell predicted some 30 years earlier from the op-
positional end.
Let me conclude this discussion, then, by briefly turning to a song which
in a way similarly plays on post-9/11 angst, yet manages to do so without the
overdose of masculine militancy that characterises Fun^da^mental’s (and to a
lesser extent, ADF’s) aesthetic and ideological stances, and proposes a more
self-reflexive, ironic and subtle, if no less poignant argument – an argument,
though, that has failed so far to spark off the kind of debate that Aki Nawaz
kicked off. M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” is the third and most memorable single
release from her second album Kala (2007) which, as most reviewers have
agreed, lived up to or even exceeded the high expectations that the lavish
praise for her 2005 debut Arular had set. Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam,
stage name M.I.A. (the acronym for, alternatively, “Missing In Action” or
“Missing In [the London district of] Acton”), was born in London where her
parents moved in the early 1970s. Her father, an engineer with a master’s
degree from Moscow, was a key player in the foundation of the London-
based militant Tamil group EROS (Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of
Students), and half a year after Maya’s birth relocated the family back to Sri
Lanka where, following three months of military training with the Fatah wing
of the PLO in Lebanon, he continued the revolutionary struggle of EROS
fighting alongside the notorious LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam).
After a childhood in the midst of civil war violence, Maya fled back to Lon-
don with her mother and siblings at the age of 11 where the family received
refugee status and lived in a run-down South London housing estate (cf.
Wheaton 2005).
For teenage Maya, hip hop and ragga became a major source of cultural
identification and survival; as she remembers about growing up near Tooting,
the area where most Sri Lankans moved in the 80s and which had been a fo-
cus of Caribbean settlement before: “all the Sri Lankan kids that came over
that were a bit on the edge soon adapted ragga culture. […] Sri Lankans find
Toasting the English 259

coming to England and talking with a Jamaican patois accent is easier than
learning the Queen’s English” (Pytlik 2005) – a fact which, not unlike in
Deedar’s toasting style, accounts for the amalgamation of Caribbean, Asian
and urban English vocal characteristics on M.I.A.’s tracks. Her career began,
however, not a as a music but as a visual artist. She made it into St. Martin’s
College of Art and Design and published a book of graffiti-inspired artwork
based, not quite unlike her music, on the montage of repetitive, iconic ele-
ments that won her a nomination for the Alternative Turner Prize even before
her debut album Arular got her a Mercury nomination in 2005. The music of
Arular, leaked to the public between 2003 and 2005, was received with a mix
of irritation and enthusiasm at something that was considered unprecedented,
not only with regard to the artist’s preference for garish technicolour and 80s
outfits thoroughly at odds with hip hop’s late emphasis on ‘slackness’, but
especially regarding a fresh soundscape heavily influenced by Rio funk (a
crude electronic hip hop variant brought to England by producers like Diplo
with whom M.I.A. collaborated on the early Rio funk ‘mixtape’ Piracy
Funds Terrorism [2004]). In terms of lyrics and themes, Arular (carrying the
fighting name of her father) mainly drew on the axis between multi-ethnic
London and war-torn Sri Lanka, getting M.I.A. into some trouble with the
censors when MTV refused to air the video to her single “Sunshowers” until
she removed the line “Like PLO I don’t surrender.”
All this pretext seems necessary to properly place “Paper Planes” and
Kala (which carries the name of the mother this time). Sonically and ideo-
logically, Kala is in many ways an extension of Arular which “goaded every
genre hiding within immigrant Britain into 14 songs,” but now performing
“the same trick for the whole of the planet” (Miller 2007). 27 Kala’s opening
track “Bamboo Banga,” based on sound samples from the Tamil ‘filmi’ Dal-
panthi, twists the lyrics of Jonathan Richman’s indie classic “Roadrunner”
into a song about begging kids banging on the Hummer of ‘slumming’ tour-
ists; “Bird Flu” samples Tamil filmi Jayam underneath a cacophony of cack-
ling birds; “Jimmy” has a distinct Boney M.-style Eurodisco-feel via the
sampling of Bollywood disco anthem “Jimmy Jimmy Aaja Aaja”; “Mango
Pickle Down River” remixes an original recording by aboriginal New South
Wales hip hop outfit Wilcannia Mob (“Down River,” a major hit on Austra-
lia’s JJJ radio in 2002), adding M.I.A.’s vocals to didgeridoo breaks and
Ozzie teenage rap; the track “20 Dollar” (referring to the price of an AK-47
in African war-territory) draws on a bass line inspired by New Order’s elec-

Kala is the result of a collaboration with a range of producers, most notably UK-based ‘dirty
house’ avatar Switch (credited on eight of twelve tracks), Diplo, and Baltimore club DJ
Blaqstarr; M.I.A. is credited as coproducer on all tracks.
260 Reading Song Lyrics

tronic classic “Blue Monday” and descends upon a distorted variation of the
Pixie’s “Where is My Mind” for the vocal chorus; “Hussel” (featuring young
Nigerian rapper African Boy) and “Boyz” are based on live recordings of
Tamil Nadu temple drummers which were later reworked in the context of
Trinidadian soca.
In the midst of tracks loaded with sonic influences from across the globe,
“Paper Planes” stands out, really, as not only the simplest, most straight for-
ward and catchy, but indeed the most recognisably ‘English’, as its sonic
backbone is sampled in its entirety from the intro to The Clash’s 1982 “Straight
to Hell,” merely slightly processed and furnished with percussive snipping
sounds and a more optimistic beat. “Straight to Hell” is one of The Clash’s
most downbeat songs, lyrically moving from the racism in Northern English
steel milling towns to the abandonment of children fathered by US military in
Vietnam to the plight of immigrants worldwide. The lyrical scope of “Paper
Planes” departs more or less directly from The Clash in this sense, and the
intertextual reverberations are undoubtedly intended: “Paper Planes” is in-
strumental in the overall framework of Kala in distinctly rooting M.I.A.’s
politics of “third world democracy” in the tradition of English punk – a tradi-
tion, however, that is in urgent need of being processed through a Roland 505
and shot through with breakbeat sampladelia for an updated 21st-century ver-
sion of Britain at the crossroads of global transcultural flows.
Kala indeed takes the internationalist politics of some variants of English
rock to entirely new levels and (technological) dimensions, as is evident not
only on the level of the lyrics, sonic influences and sampling practices, but
also reflected by the fact that Kala was recorded in locations as diverse as
“India, Trinidad, Australia, Jamaica, Japan and America” (Petridis 2007).
This global scope in recording was in fact not originally intended, but mani-
festly facilitated by US immigration officers: after the mainstream exposure
of Arular, M.I.A. planned to move to Brooklyn to record her second album
with US star rapper/producer Timbaland, but was doggedly refused an entry
visa to the States – probably on account of her family history more generally,
short-lived links on her webpage to groups associated with the militant Tamil
struggle after the December 26 tsunami in 2004, and lyrical as much as visual
references to the Black Tigers on her first album. The experience, according
to M.I.A., triggered her decision to defiantly produce an album that more
fully represents those people who were locked out of the same gates with
her. 28 “Paper Planes” is in this sense both a mocking response to her personal

In her myspace blog, she announced: “I was mennu work with timber startin’ this
week…I’m locked out! They won’t let me in! Now I’m strictly making my album outside
the borders!!!!” (qtd. in NME News, 2006).
Toasting the English 261

experiences with (US) immigration, and a more serious teasing of first world
paranoia in view of the subversive forces of “third world democracy” more

Paper Planes

Ill fly like paper get high like planes

[If you] catch me at the border I got visas in my name
If you come around here Ill make em all day
Ill get one done in a second if you wait.. (2x)

Sometimes I think sitting on trains

Every ste[/o]p I get to Im clocking that game
Everyones a winner, we ’re making our n[/f]ame
Bonafide husteler making my name. (2x)

All I wanna do is [4 sampled gun shots]
And I [sampled cash till ringing]
[And] take your [money.] (4x)

[Pirate skulls and bones

Sticks and stones and weed and bombs]
Running when we hit em
A [lethal poison for the system.] (2x)

Noone on the corner had swag(ger) like us

Hit me on my bun[/r]ner prepaid wireless
We pack and deliver, like UPS trucks
Already going hell for [/just] pumping that gas. (2x)


[M.I.A. third world democracy

I got more records than the KGB
So, no fun business – are you all ready y’all?]

Some some some [a] some I murder,

Some a some I let go (2x)
chorus (printed in M.I.A. 2007, additional words and deviations in performed lyrics in
square brackets)

With “Paper Planes,” M.I.A. lyrically fashions a trickster immigrant figure

who is basically an ironic factotum of the ‘first world’ paranoia directed at
the world’s poor, an ambivalent lyrical persona that is both her and not her.
The first stanza accordingly sets up a presumably fictional trickster who
dodges all border controls with forged visas, and invites the listener to join
262 Reading Song Lyrics

into a position of complicity (offering quick remedy in case he or she needs a

visa, too). The second stanza, however, introduces a level authorial self-re-
flection: stepping back, it seems that M.I.A. quickly assesses her own privi-
leged position in the global trickster game, acknowledging the extent to
which she made it as a “bonafide husteler” in the music business, “making
[her] fame” by playing along with the corporate slogans according to which
“everyone’s a winner” (a line distinctly ironised in the vocal performance).
In the subsequent lyrics, the levels of authorial experience and its fictional
extension into a voice representing a renegade “third world democracy” in-
creasingly blend. The ensuing ambivalence is already felt in the blatantly
ironic chorus which still uses the first person ‘I’, yet is performed by the col-
lective voices of a children’s choir which gleefully confirms all Western
prejudices against ‘illegal’ migrants who are, of course, violent criminals and
after our money, as is sonically brought home via the acoustic ‘iconography’
of four sampled gun shots and the ring of an old-school cash register. On one
level, this may surely be read as a playful and defiantly sarcastic response to
personal experiences with US immigration; yet there is an increasing sense
that the song breaches out to a larger politics of representation and the project
of “put[ing] people on the map that never seen a map,” as M.I.A. raps on “20

Fig. 13: CD booklet illustration for “Paper Planes.”

This is confirmed by the third stanza, which subversively questions the

idea that the chorus is merely a harmlessly provocative assembly of empty
words. Exquisitely playing on the proverbial “sticks and stones may break
my bones, but words will never hurt me,” the received and seemingly rather
Toasting the English 263

innocent repertoire of sticks, stones and bones is supplemented with more

frightening insignia of illegality – “pirate skulls,” “weed,” “bombs,” all the
while “stones” and “bones” receive alternative connotations that only tran-
spire in the artwork that M.I.A. created for the booklet (fig. 13). On the page
devoted to “Paper Planes,” the word “bone” is strikingly represented by the
image of an elephant, resonating with an adjoining larger design which de-
picts a doubled and shifted image of the African continent. ‘Bone’ thus really
calls up ‘ivory’, and symbolises colonial exploitation. This line of argument
is pursued to its neocolonial consequences through the word “stones,” which
is visually represented by three diamonds that reappear in the adjoining de-
sign, roughly around where we would locate Liberia and the Congo. We are
obviously dealing with blood diamonds, then, which is graphically under-
lined in the design work by M.I.A.’s choice to ‘sample’ images of boy
soldiers into the heart of the continent. All these kids carry the AK-47s
tackled in the lyrics of “20 Dollar,” and the boy soldiers, epitomising the
brutal flipside of Western affluence, begin to uncannily trouble the sweet
innocence of the (English) kids’ voices in the chorus. The lyrics consequently
begin to take a more radical twist, shifting to an inclusive “we” and now
talking about violent guerrilla attacks on the “system.”
Such attacks are more specifically spelled out in the fourth stanza. Again,
it remains unclear whether all this is M.I.A.’s very own empty and self-re-
flexively adolescent bragging (“Noone on the corner has swag(ger) like us”)
in response to post-9/11 paranoia, or extends towards a more serious investi-
gation of world politics and terrorism. The ambivalence is most intriguingly
played out in the second line, where “hit me on the bunner” (the spelling in
liners) toys with the idea of a playful slap on the ass, but “hit me on the
burner” (the actually performed lyrics) really calls up the “gas cooker
lighter” of the suicide bomber we encountered in Fun^da^mental’s “Cook-
book D.I.Y.,” and especially so when connected to a “prepaid wireless” (re-
calling the second bomb maker’s “mobile phone trigger”). This certainly is
“no fun business,” as M.I.A. emphasises after bragging about “having more
records than the KGB” in yet another supreme pun, pitting filed ‘records’ of
political subversion against the universe of musical ‘records’ sampled on
Kala. By the time the song reaches the finale of “Some some some a some I
murder / Some a some I let go,” “Paper Planes” has perfected its strategy of
double coding: are we listening, here, to M.I.A. sarcastically taking the piss
out of US immigration in a private vendetta; or are we given access to the
impotent fantasies of the discarded victims of globalisation more generally,
in a rhetoric that is actually pretty straight forward rather than ironic, and
more seriously prophetic than playfully pathetic?
264 Reading Song Lyrics

The music video of “Paper Planes”

released a few months after the album
in December 2007 (see figs. 14-17)
really does not offer a solution to this
question either, and instead deepens the
fundamental ambivalence. The video
was shot on a single day in the very
Brooklyn where M.I.A. had already
rented an apartment in 2006 before
being denied entry into the US, some-
thing that of course adds to the personal
twist in the episode – even if M.I.A.
emphasised that the video was origi-
nally meant to be shot in Ecuador and
that the location of Bedstuy, Brooklyn,
was are mere choice of convenience.
The video mostly shows M.I.A. and
rapper African Boy selling what looks
like hotdogs from a van in the street; the
goodies are, however, suggestively
wrapped in aluminium foil and paid for
by their customers with suspiciously
thick wedges of money (in a cameo
appearance towards of the end of the
video, Mike D. and Adrock of the Beasty
Boys desperately trade in a fancy watch
to get one of them), indicating that our
immigrant street hawkers are in fact
dealing with something less legal and
innocent than bread and sausage. The
video thus unmistakeably signifies upon
the received hip hop iconography of
undercover dealing and banking money
(see figs. 15 and 16); yet especially
Figs. 14-17: given that Kala for the most part derides
M.I..A., “Paper Planes,” Kala (2007).
Music video, dir. Bernard Gourley,
the attitudes of gangsta rap (“You think
Immigrant Film. its tough now, come to Africa,” African
Boy raps on “Hussel”), it is quite clear
that the video carries a more subtle
subtext beyond dope and cash.
Toasting the English 265

This subtext very much relies on the framing of the video with takes that
show leagues of paper planes soaring through the New York twilight. In three
opening frames in particular, these planes are flying high along Brooklyn
Bridge directly toward the skyline of Manhattan (fig. 14) in what can only be
a direct reference to 9/11. From the lyrics, it must be assumed that the paper
planes represent the very trickster immigrants with forged visas in their names
whose terrorist fantasies the song subsequently shares, and setting such fanta-
sies against the uncanny 9/11 iconography really amplifies the more serious
sense of foreboding in “Paper Planes” – at the same time, of course, it may be
argued again that such foreboding is undercut by the fact that what we are
seeing is really just paper planes which (like words and unlike sticks, stones
or bombs) will hardly strike hard when they hit ground. The intricate double
coding of “Paper Planes” is thus maintained on all levels, leading up to a
final and audacious twist: whatever these trickster immigrant planes bring –
“lethal poison for the system” or just harmless “swagger” – the closing take
of the video reveals that it is M.I.A. and African Boy who attract them in the
first place. What all those planes have been chasing all along, it transpires,
was M.I.A.’s van (see. fig. 17) and whatever it has to offer – and rather than
literal dope, what it offers is of course M.I.A.’s sound. M.I.A. thus (playfully)
claims that Kala is hardly a collection of ‘songs of innocence’.
Strikingly, though, “Paper Planes” has failed to draw any of the critical
reactions of the kind that so raged around Fun^da^mental’s “Cookbook
D.I.Y” just a year earlier. This certainly partly owes to the fact that M.I.A.
refrains from the aggressive, masculine militancy with which Fun^da^mental
stage their public appearances. Another thing that comes into playis probably
the ‘songfulness’ (cf. chapter 4) of “Paper Planes”: even though the lyrics are
perfectly audible, the song has something of a mesmerising quality (sup-
ported by the fact that every stanza is repeated) which perhaps encourages
listeners to overhear the more irritating lyrical bits in favour for the overall
enveloping ‘feel’ of the song. It is quite telling in this sense that the only en-
suing controversy around “Paper Planes” focused on an element of the
soundscape rather than the words, namely on the four sampled gun shots.
MTV (predictably, perhaps) decided to remove the samples from the video,
and without consulting the artist beforehand aired a version with some meek
beats in their stead – something against which M.I.A. reacted with calculated
outrage in her myspace blog. At the end of the day, the palpable political out-
come of all this is somewhat troubling. Obviously, the sheer artistic innova-
tion and creative ambivalence of the sort which M.I.A. so admiringly pulls
off, and which ADF pursue with less ambivalence and perhaps more integrity
have failed to make – or at least to publicly make – a massive impact on de-
bates about national culture, whereas the schizophrenic “pantomime terrors”
266 Reading Song Lyrics

of Fun^da^mental hit home. But then, I suspect that the sounds on Commu-
nity Music and Kala will stay, while All Is War will rather survive in books
on the cultural study of music such as this one than continuing to ring in peo-
ple’s ears around the globe.
10. Conclusion

The one theme which drew itself through my three case studies of lyrics from
around 1600, 1800 and 2000 respectively is that of melancholy/melancholia,
and it would be tempting, indeed, to close this book with a more sweeping
argument about English national culture, melancholy and the performance of
lyrics more generally. Instead, let me briefly re-focus on the various mani-
festation of melancholy as discussed in the three previous chapters to voice
some reservations against generalising equations of presumably pre-discur-
sive cultural ‘dispositions’ with invariably material and medial products of
cultural practice. Unlike Antony Easthope (1999) (and a vast number of
commentators who have, with less intellectual rigour, commented on the na-
tional ‘character’ of ‘the English’ in the age of globalisation), I doubt that
there is any such thing as a solid, deep-structural core that generates a par-
ticular kind of national discourse, a discourse in which ‘melancholy’ would
accordingly feature as something like a charming genetic disease, if you like.
Following Homi Bhabha, I believe instead that culture evolves as an accu-
mulation of signifying practices which constantly reproduce as well as chal-
lenge and subvert what Bhabha refers to as the authority of a “nationalist
pedagogy” (1990b, 297), and which, as Simon Gikandi (1996) (re)empha-
sised, are performatively inscribed not only against, but crucially also from
positions of cultural otherness or marginality.
The case of John Dowland and his politically ambivalent performance of
melancholy may again serve to illustrate this: as I have tried to show, there is
relatively little evidence for the argument proposed by Anthony Rooley
(1983) that Dowland’s melancholy trademark first and foremost owes to a
neo-Platonic esoteric pursuit in search of the deepest possible philosophical
contemplation (‘inspired’ melancholy); yet there is even less evidence that
Dowland’s musical and lyrical melancholy is a simple ‘reflection’ of either a
personal (Diana Poulton’s preferred reading, cf. Poulton 1982), or indeed of a
more widely spread cultural disposition. Surely, melancholy was the craze of
the day in late Elizabethan and Jacobean times, so much so that Shakespeare
saw enough reason to repeatedly ridicule it, most notably in the idle traveller
Jacques in As You Like It who famously claims to be able to “suck melan-
choly out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs” (II.v.11-12). These lines were
probably written pretty much around the time when Dowland conceived the
Second Booke of Songes (1600) which would fully establish him as the ‘mel-
ancholy man’ in the European songwriting business, and perhaps not coinci-
dentally so. Yet it takes Jacques’s most often quoted insight that “All the
world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players” (II.vii.139-140
268 Reading Song Lyrics

– albeit ironised in the play and primarily referring to the ‘seven stages of
man’) to point out that the melancholy in Dowland’s ayres, far from being an
unmediated reflection of an historical fashion, is grounded in complex proc-
esses of performative staging and mediatisation. Such processes are invaria-
bly implicated in dynamics of distinction (Dowland’s desire for recognition
in the tradition of the courtly ‘musicus’), institutional power relations (Dow-
land’s marginality from the Court and the politics of religion), and not least,
social differentiation and medial change (Dowland’s strategic turn from
manuscript to print culture, and from the courtly to the rapidly growing ‘pri-
vate’ market sector). The lyrical and musical melancholy in Dowland’s songs
in this sense does not simply ‘mirror’ a cultural disposition; instead, it testi-
fies to a highly intricate exchange between culture and art that is procedural
and reciprocal, and where all cultural evidence is by definition always al-
ready mediatised.
It is important to keep this in mind also when it comes to Paul Gilroy’s
(2004) discussions of “imperial melancholy” and “postcolonial melancholia”
which I have drawn upon in my readings of the phenomenon of Sarah Baart-
man (in relation to Romantic period broadside balladry) and late-20th-century
British music culture at the crossroads of global transcultural flows. The idea
of ‘melancholia’, here, of course no longer correlates to either 15th-century
Florentine hermeticism or (late-)medieval popular parapsychology surround-
ing bodily fluids and planetary correlations, yet is more or less directly in-
formed by Freudian psychology in a move that is not without its own
inherent difficulties. More specifically, Gilroy anchors his notion of ‘melan-
cholia’ in “the pioneering social psychology of the German psychoanalysts
Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich” (Gilroy 2004, 107), whose approach
in The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behaviour is, however,
not quite unproblematic, even if it sparked a highly important and timely de-
bate upon its original publication in Germany in 1967. 1 Without being able to
do justice to the nuances and complexities of A. and M. Mitscherlich’s argu-
ment, the core methodological problem lies in the sweeping extension of in-
sights drawn from individual psychology to the extremely heterogeneous and
elusive body of the nation, without making any conclusive assumptions about
the concrete medial processes which allow for the dissemination of presuma-

A. and M. Mitscherlich’s argument very roughly revolves around the melancholic elision of
the Nazi regime from post-War Germany’s collective memory, based on the inability to
mourn the loss of the ‘Führer’ who was, in the authors’ interpretation, the emasculating, nar-
cissistic ego-ideal for most German individuals to whom all responsibility for atrocities
could be relegated, allowing them to descend into a pleasurable “collective regression”
(Mitscherlich 19975, 15).
Conclusion 269

bly pre-discursive and pre-conscious affects. Like the Mitscherlichs, Gilroy

seems not entirely disinclined to a priori put the whole of a nation upon a
single Freudian couch; yet surely, there is good reason to very closely look at
the discursive phenomena and their performative, medial and institutional
framing first (as Gilroy then indeed does) before venturing to draw conclu-
sions about larger patterns or social pathologies.
Some of the complexities this introduces may again be highlighted in re-
lation to the 1811 broadside “The Hottentot Venus; A New Song”: on the one
hand, it makes sense to take the (printed) ballad as evidence of a nostalgic
yearning for a (theatre) culture that was presumably still uncorrupted by Brit-
ain’s capitalist imperial project and all the foreign and exotic influences that
it attracted at home. This can be supported by evidence concerning a more
general popular anxiety about the demise of the National Theatres (as most
loudly expressed in the OP riots), and indeed invites readings of the ‘Hot-
tentot Venus’ as the ideal projection foil for an emerging imperial melan-
choly; after all, Sara Baartman’s ‘freakery’ and cultural ‘otherness’ iconically
epitomised the perceived corroding effects of exoticist spectacularisation on
received English culture. On the other hand, however, this reading is compli-
cated by the fact that the very same ballad was in all likelihood originally
staged in a performance arena which in many ways lived up to Gilroy’s ideal
of multi-ethnic ‘conviviality’ avant la lettre: from the sparse evidence there
is, we can assume that the West End street ballad circuit was indeed a place
of “unheralded multiculture, which is distinguished by some notable demands
for hospitality, conviviality, tolerance, justice, and mutual care” (Gilroy
2004, 108) as evidenced, for instance, in the bestselling ballad “The Merry
Will and Testament of Master Black Billy.” Sara Baartman therefore simul-
taneously functioned as more than a symptom of imperial melancholy; she
became, as most observers have remarked, an icon of the emerging scientific
racism of the 19th century (primarily among the upper classes) shortly before
her death in Paris and in her afterlife; yet she will also have played a more
ambivalent and positive role during her lifetime in the carnivalist street cul-
ture of London.
The various ideological views of Sara Baartman in different medial repre-
sentations and across various social strata show quite clearly that sweeping
(psycho)sociological assumptions are perpetually in danger of glossing over
marked differentiations within the collective body of the nation, and that by
extension Gilroy’s understanding of British postcolonial melancholia equally
needs to be handled with care. What interested me in my discussion of pre-
millennial (and post 9/11) popular music culture, therefore, was not primarily
performances of nostalgia in songs by, say, Morrissey, Oasis or Blur as such,
but the relationship between song, melancholia, and corporate designs of me-
270 Reading Song Lyrics

dial packaging and political instrumentalisation. It is less against individual

artists, really, but against the force of a mediatised and institutionalised mel-
ancholic pedagogy that acts like Asian Dub Foundation, Fun^da^mental or
M.I.A. direct much of their political energy, not least by pledging transversal,
oppositional allegiances to cultures across the globe through strategic (ab)-
uses of digital technology. Such acts, however, operate from within the very
same corporate media system as does ‘Britpop’, and their transcultural
sounds are no less prone to institutional appropriation; and it is here, indeed,
that the performance of lyrics particularly matters again in providing an in-
herently ‘romantic’ site of resistance in the midst of fiercely embattled me-
diatised discourses.
If it is true, as the latter example again testifies, that culture is performed
(on the basis, of course, of discursive pre-formations and conventions) rather
than generated by more or less stable prediscursive (deep-structural or depth-
psychological) ‘rules’, then the performance art of lyrics has a particular va-
lidity for the study of modern culture. Reading lyrics exemplarily encourages
us – perhaps more so than the study of any other art form – to take intimate
account of the performativity of language in specific, historically and spa-
tially grounded contexts of performance; to take seriously rather than dismiss
the social dynamics of taste and distinction as much as the embeddedness of
art in specific communicative, economic and institutional conventions; to
investigate language as an embodied, material phenomenon that interacts in
complex ways with other, equally material semiotic systems; and to take ac-
count of the fundamental mediatisation of all cultural practices, be they based
on primary interaction, print, analogue or digital media. All these concerns
are by no means exclusive to the study of lyrics; they crucially matter in any
art form, even if we are frequently made to believe otherwise. It is high time,
therefore, to stop treating lyrics as the insignificant bastard child of legitimate
music and literature in academic disciplines. It is time to acknowledge them
as a paradigmatic art form in the culture of modernity, and to critically re-
value all those songs we live by. Fade-out. Press play.
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Selected Discography
Asian Dub Foundation (1995). Facts and Fiction. Nation Records.
——., (1998). Rafi’s Revenge. London Records 90.
——., (2000). Community Music. London Records 90.
——., (2003). Enemy of the Enemy. Rinse It Out!/EMI Music France.
——., (2005). Tank. Rinse It Out!/EMI Music France.
Carthy, Martin (1965). Martin Carthy. PolyGram, reissued Topic Records 1993.
Dylan, Bob (1963). The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Reissued Columbia 2003.
Faithfull, Marianne (1966). North Country Maid. Reissued Decca 1990.
——., (1987). The Very Best of Marianne Faithfull. Decca.
Fun^da^mental (1994). Seize the Time. Nation Records.
——., (2006). All Is War: The Benefits of G-HAD. Five Uncivilised Tribes.
Mendes, Ségio and Brasil ’66 (1968). Fool on the Hill. Reissued Verve 2004.
M.I.A. (2005). Arular. XL Recordings.
——., (2007). Kala. XL Recordings.
Simon and Garfunkel (1964). Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. Reissued Columbia 1989.
——., (1966). Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. Reissued Sbc 2001.
——., (1968). The Graduate Original Soundtrack Recording. Reissued Columbia 2003.
Simon, Paul (1965). The Paul Simon Songbook. Reissued Columbia 2004.
Singh, Talvin (1998). OK. Island.
Sting (2006). Songs from the Labyrinth. Deutsche Grammophon.
The Calcutta Cyber Cafe (1996). Drum ’n’ Space. Omni.

My heartfelt thanks to Christoph Reinfandt, who gave me the opportunity to

write this book, for being my first reader, a constant source of inspiration,
and a friend. Thanks also to all colleagues and friends in Tübingen, Sydney,
Potsdam, Berlin and elsewhere who willingly wasted their time on me – it is
those coffee breaks which make a book. And thanks, finally, to my family –
'MD\QDE=Rɺ0DUOH\ – for rocking this boat.