Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Fiona's Tragedy in "Shrek: The Musical"

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I'm going to do a bit of dramaturgy on a work you might never have given more than half a thought to: Shrek, The Musical.

There are plenty of complaints you might feel tempted to make about the show, many of them no doubt valid, but there is one element that I love, and confidently call an unqualified improvement on the original movie: the characterization of Princess Fiona.

The show took it upon itself to invent backstories for all of its mains (with the exception of Donkey, but the contrast between his inherently absurd nature as a talking animal and his refreshingly uncomplicated life was always a central part of the joke, so fair enough). The characterization for Shrek adds a little bit to the character, but mostly leaves intact the crucial dynamic between him and Donkey, where he starts out as the straight man to Donkey's over-gregarious affect, but ends up with Donkey being the voice of reason to his overbearing misanthropy. The backstory for Farquaad is arguably an improvement, giving him a fairy tale parentage that adds an element of self-loathing to his persecution of the fairy tale creatures in a distinctly (if uncertainly intentional) Hitler-esque fashion.

However, the character of Fiona gets the most fascinating revamp, and this is arrived at by trying to flesh out the actual mechanics of her situation in the first place.

Fiona is locked in a tower guarded by a dragon, waiting for a rescuer to come and free her. This much is established in the movie. The show, however, establishes that she was about seven years old when she was first sent off to live in the tower and left there in isolation for around twenty years. And while this is never taken in the Oldboy-style psychological direction that premise could imply, the unfairness of it all is not glossed over. In fact, the best song in the show is entirely about precisely that.

"I Know It's Today" shows Fiona at three different ages, eventually all appearing onstage at the same time (very good use of the flexibility of theatre there, bravo), each singing about how they know that today is going to be the day they are finally freed from the tower. And yet there are subtle differences in the attitudes of the three.

The youngest version of Fiona very much buys into the supposed romance of it all. She is not stupid, however - her feelings of repulsion towards the bad parts of Rapunzel's experience imply that she only finds it romantic because she has been given the impression that she will not be made to suffer on account of the asinine tradition she has been forced to take part in.

"There's a princess
In a tower.
Oh my gosh, that's just like me!
Poor Rapunzel
Needs a haircut,
But the witch won't set her free.
She passes time by singing
Like someone else I know
As years go by she sits and waits,
As years go by...Uh oh...
A torturous existence...
I don't remember this part!
She wishes she were dead...
Skip ahead, skip ahead!
But in the end, Rapunzel finds a millionaire.
The prince is good at climbing and braiding golden hair!"

As a side note, the fact that she is sent away to fulfill her role at such a young age is a wonderfully pointed jab at how these stories often indoctrinate young women with a potentially toxic vision of femininity from far too early in childhood, but that is not presently the point.

As she ages, Fiona becomes more cynical. She has had to wait, but not for too long so far.

"There's a princess
In a coma
Glad it's her instead of me.
Pretty maiden
In a glass box
How, I wonder, does she pee?"

The line, "Glad it's her instead of me," is a blatant indication that Fiona does not yet realize that she, too, has been locked away in a box both literally and metaphorically, but again she is far from stupid. She questions the mechanics of the fairy tale she is reading, and specifically the part that ignores (as so many fairy tales do) that its female lead is a biological human being and not simply a will-less love doll. How is Snow White supposed to pee while catatonic? How is Fiona supposed to live in a tower on her own for years without losing her mind? The stories do not care, and neither did the society that created them.

When we get to adult Fiona, we reach the end of this progression. Young Fiona believes that she'll be rescued today because she genuinely believes the system works. Teenage Fiona believes it because it would just be unthinkably unfair if it didn't. Adult Fiona believes it because it has become psychologically necessary for her to do so in order to stay sane.

"Now I know he'll appear,
'Cause there are rules and there are strictures
I believe the storybooks I read by candlelight
My white knight, my knight and his steed
Will look just like these pictures!
It won't be long now, I guarantee!"

Each Fiona sings this verse in turn and then together, but it means something slightly different to each one.

Even after Shrek rescues her but before he unmasks, Fiona is obsessed with making the scene conform to the idea she was given of how this was supposed to work. She rationalizes his oddness as best she can, and in her song "This Is How A Dream Comes True" she manages to briefly convince herself that everything she has been through has ultimately worked out for the best. As long as the rules and strictures hold, she can almost convince herself that what she suffered was worthwhile.

"This is how I pictured it,
More or less I must admit... 
A thumping in my heart,
A life about to start...
I knew this day would come 
And you would find your way.
At last my dreams come true. 
I knew, I knew, I knew...
It would be today!"

It is only after she realizes that her rescuer was an ogre that her confidence in the system breaks down and she begins the back half of her character arc in which she gradually comes to love the aspects of herself that fall outside what society has told her is expected.

What we have, essentially, is the story of a woman who is literally put in a box and told that if only she waits for long enough, the system will eventually work for her. She waits twenty years for this to happen, and being rescued by an ogre is the system failing her that one last time that pushes her over the edge.

All of this, of course, is slightly undermined by the fact that the musical is still named Shrek and not Fiona, but I still love how far the idea was taken, to the point where I think that Fiona is the most genuinely compelling character in the show, and certainly the one whose arc I am most invested in by the end. Whatever else the show did right or wrong, this quietly subversive change both fascinates and pleases me.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Original Song: Nothing Would Please Me More

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This is a one-minute, one- joke song. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Hit Song Review: Cheerleader by OMI

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I typically consume my pop songs online these days, and it's from online consumption that I derive material sufficient for my roughly monthly pop song limericks. Of late, I've made more of an effort to listen to pop music on the radio when I can, which gives me a very odd impression of what's popular at any given moment. Maybe it's just the stations I listen to, but the week after "Want To Want Me" by Jason DeRulo seemed to me to be in its heaviest rotation, it dropped out of the top ten. I hear "Talking Body" by Tove Lo all the time, but if it was ever in the top ten for long enough to get well and truly limericked by me, I must have missed it.

I say this to preface an account of my initial reaction to this song when I first heard it on the radio a few weeks ago: "Oh. Wouldn't it be nice if this became a hit?"

And now, there it is just behind Taylor Swift in a comfortable #3 slot. This pleases me.

That's not to say that I think it's a perfect song. Well, okay, that's not a fair criterion anyway, even "Uptown Funk" isn't perfect and I love the hell out of that. Let's try again: I don't think that it's a particularly great song, but I do think it's good, and more importantly I do think it's different, and different is something the pop charts always need.

Let's talk music first. It sounds like nothing else on the charts right now. The tropical drums, the sturdy chord progression, the laid-back vocals, the trumpet that busts in right from the start to steal the show, this is what charmed me when I first heard it. The lyrics could have been pretty much anything from that point and I would have been at least highly sympathetic. The trumpet's solo in the middle fills me with joy, and the fact that it keeps on riffing under the vocal line even after its allotted bars have elapsed is a trick that I always love, even when - like here - it isn't used for any particular dramatic purpose.

But my knowledge of such things is limited. Eternal Salieri that I am, I can't plausibly presume to pass judgment on the music with any real degree of authority. As such, let's talk lyrics.

The lyrics are...well, I would definitely give them a passing grade, at minimum. If you didn't bother with listening to the version embedded up top, the central notion of the song is that looks are nice, but what the narrator really loves about his girl is her emotional supportiveness and dependability. And to be fair, the first verse does a good job of conveying this.

Some of the rhymes don't land, like corner and want her, but I love the rapid-fire internal rhyme (or at least intimate assonance) of "All these other girls are tempting but I'm empty when you're gone," disavowing any interest the narrator might have in others almost as soon as he admits their merits. As you would.

But observe also how the musical emphases tend to land on the most important words. This is a common technique in musical theatre, but is more rarely observed in pop music. In this song, there are typically two emphasized words in each line, the word that gets pitch/rhythmic emphasis and the word that gets to end the line. Those words, in order, are "motivation," "solution," "queen," "strong," "always," "corner," "there," "her," "other," "tempting," "empty," "gone." In short, the key words of every line tend to get the most emphasis. This is a perfectly serviceable way of going about things that most pop songs don't exploit as much as they ought to.

The pre-chorus is fine, reiterating that there might be other girls who are just as pretty, but the narrator is uninterested. The demure, casual, "No, not really," is a lovely little detail that works perfectly.

The chorus is not as good, but it's still fine. Cheerleading is a bit of a clumsy metaphor for emotional supportiveness because cheerleading remains deliberately the most artificial and choreographed expression of team support one can observe at a sporting event, but you can at least grasp the intended meaning. It's merely an imperfect metaphor, not one that's antithetical to what it's intended to represent.

Then we get to the second verse, where things go kind of stupid. It contains my least favorite lyric in the entire song, "I'm the wizard of love/And I got the magic wand," which essentially translates to, "Hope you liked all that sincerity! Now let's talk about my penis." Also, the genie metaphor in this verse adds an unpleasant layer of ick to the scenario presented that feels out of place with the rest of the song.

The third verse, while not as good as the first, is a return to form, reiterating the most positive points of the prior material while additionally informing us that the narrator's mother gets along well with the love interest and that the narrator is getting ready to propose. Aww. And the emphases are where they should be in this verse as well, so full marks there.

Yes, it's eleven kinds of corny. Yes, it's one of those songs that expresses its ideas so perfectly in the first verse that the rest is left with nowhere to go but straight down (see Billy Joel's "I Don't Want To Be Alone Anymore" for an unsettlingly perfect case study in this). But its musical merits keep it afloat even when the lyrics are diligently trying to ruin everything, and it's obvious that more thought was put into the lyrics of this song than those of pretty much anything else in the top ten right now.

For that alone, I both commend and recommend it.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Hit Song Limericks, Week of 7/11/15

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1. See You Again by Wiz Khalifa feat. Charlie Puth

While I no longer find this one fun,
I'm glad that it's had a good run.
It's sweet and it's mild,
And behind "Young & Wild,"
It's the best thing Wiz has ever done.

2. Bad Blood by Taylor Swift feat. Kendrick Lamar

T. Swift is fine, as a rule,
But this is the dregs of that pool.
I think you can tell
It wouldn't do as well
If the video weren't so cool.

3. Cheerleader by OMI

It's a slightly clumsy metaphor,
But there's so much that I still adore.
With no beats to thump it,
Just a roving trumpet
To keep the thing sweet at its core.

4. Trap Queen by Fetty Wap

Fetty has much cause to rejoice,
As the people's unanimous choice.
Not bad for a guy
With weird tones and one eye
Who sings in Kevin Rowland's voice.

5. Shut Up And Dance by WALK THE MOON

Before, this song's jubilant shout
Would outweigh my niggling doubt,
But since many a day
Of intense overplay,
Its welcome is getting worn out.

6. Can't Feel My Face by The Weeknd

His last had orchestral pretense,
Of which this is glad to dispense.
Which can work a treat,
Though the central conceit
Just doesn't make a lick of damn sense.

7. Watch Me by Silento

There's nothing especially wrong,
And yet any listen's too long.
It's just a big blend
Of prior dance trends,
And, as such, is just barely a song.

8. Uptown Funk! by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars

Next time I do this, it'll be gone,
But I'm very glad that it held on.
The cream rarely rises,
When someone devises
A track that's this carefully drawn.

9. Good For You by Selena Gomez

This song is what you would engender
Mixing Goulding and Lorde in a blender.
Too bland for romancing.
Too quiet for dancing,
Too overproduced to be tender.

10. Hey Mama by David Guetta feat. Nicki Minaj, Bebe Rexha, & Afrojack

It's hardly a new record-setta',
But it's still churlish to expect betta'.
Its Caribbean beat's
Such a genuine treat,
I can scarcely believe that it's Guetta.