Monthly Archives: March 2014

Wrecking the Figure/ Ground

Miley_Cyrus_-_Wrecking_BallMiley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” is almost unfairly easy to parody, but over repeated, sweaty listenings–“Wrecking Ball” is the second to last song on my running playlist, when I really need the agony of a failed relationship to keep my feet moving–I’ve come to see it as lyrically, even syntactically sophisticated. (Stay with me.)

In poetry criticism, the “interlocutor” is the person who the speaker implicitly addresses, but let’s just call him “Liam.” In one of the early lines, the speaker sings, “Don’t you ever say I just walked away.” Without punctuation, which I couldn’t find anywhere on the Internet, the line could be read, “Don’t you ever say [that] I just walked away,” or “Don’t you ever say, ‘I just walked away.’” Sure, the first version makes a bit more intuitive sense, but both readings are available: the antecedent of “I” could be the speaker (“Miley”), or it could just as easily be the interlocutor (“Liam”).

And then the chorus smashes (ahem) in, laying out the governing trope:

I came in like a wrecking ball

I never hit so hard in love

All I wanted was to break your walls

All you ever did was wreck me

Yeah, you, you wreck me.

We start off with the fairly obvious simile of Miley being like a destructive force that breaks down the walls of another’s heart and then, almost surprisingly, end somewhere more complicated: by the end of the stanza the wrecking ball is Liam, and Miley is the ruined fortress. The tenors and vehicles are unstable, impermanent. (In metaphors and similes, “vehicle” is the thing whose attributes are being borrowed–in this case, a wrecking ball and walls; and “tenor” is the thing whose attributes are being illuminated by the borrowing–in this case, both Miley and Liam.)

This reading helps clear up a disagreement about lyrics in a later stanza. Some sources give

I never meant to start a war

I just wanted you to let me in

I guess I should’ve let you in

While some give

I never meant to start a war

I just wanted you to let me in

I guess I should’ve let you win

A haphazard Googling didn’t lead me to any kind of “official” source, but, pace Miley’s songwriters, the correct version should be, even if it’s not, the first. That first version cleverly picks up the unstable relationship between speaker and interlocutor, formally constructing the absolute destruction of the relationship that the song describes: a war so intense that at the end it’s not clear which side won, because neither did.

Setting aside any pearl-clutching about the visuals of the music video (which I think are lovely), and the upsetting appropriation of twerking and black women’s bodies in “We Can’t Stop” (which I won’t even try to close-read away), “Wrecking Ball” brilliantly evokes the way relationships feel when you’re nineteen. In the end, the lyrical slipperiness suggests to me that the real governing trope here isn’t the wrecking ball so much as the inability to distinguish between Self and Other–again, stay with me–that, let’s be honest, is pretty typical of intense teenage relationships. The song might be an exorcism of Miley’s past and a middle finger to Liam Hemsworth, but it’s also a lyrically complex exploration of identity and obsession.

Well done, sirs.

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Andrea Barrett’s Voyage of the Narwhal

763952Andrea Barrett’s Voyage of the Narwhal gets off to a bit of a slow start–who are these people, and why are they sailing to the Arctic, and why do we care?–but it quickly snowballs, so to speak, into exactly what it promises to be: a literary adventure story with a sprinkling of slightly anachronistic feminism and a large helping of Frankenstein.

There are comparisons to be made to other books of man-vs-nature (Moby Dick, The Heart of Darkness), but the book fundamentally asks what would have happened had Walton refused to turn the ship around. Power-hungry Zeke  ignores his crew and captain’s warnings and pushes onward into the Arctic winter, eventually trapping his ship in the ice and losing a rather large percentage of the crew along the way. When protagonist and naturalist Erasmus finally makes his way back home, he finds that, rather than being hailed as heroes, he and the rest of the returning crew are failures: just before their return, another Arctic naturalist and explorer shows up with stories, specimens, and maps.

A few of the book’s conceits ring a bit hollow–the plot involving the woman engraver feels especially anachronistic and forced–but Barrett raises core questions about discovery and exploration and (crucially) who gets to write to the book when everyone returns home. Voyage of the Narhwal doesn’t exactly succeed as a pure adventure story or rich character study, but it offers a highly readable revision of the Romantic quest to dominate nature–and a provoking critique of quests and questors.

Other Reviews:

Read for: Book club

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I like servants, Queen Victoria, and mundane details of daily life, so I had high hopes for this book. Sadly, it lived up to none of them. Exhaustively researched and competently written, the book failed–for me–to inject any actual life into its account of “Life in the Royal Household.”

To be fair, I went into the book with incomplete information: I expected the book to be more about day-to-day life in the Queen’s house, in the manner of Judith Flanders’s wonderful Inside the Victorian Home, when in fact it traced the service of six members of Victoria’s household a.k.a. court: high-ranking servants, not scullery maids. (Scullery maids, of course, being infinitely more interesting.)

I stopped reading the book because I just couldn’t summon enough interest in its characters or events. Blame Victoria, who strived to create a court free from the scandal and intrigue of previous rulers and appears to have been largely successful. The Bedchamber Crisis would have been much more compelling had it involved sexual rather than political scandal, but that’s hardly Hubbard’s fault.

Amount read: Four chapters, or around 50 pages out of 360

Kate Hubbard, Serving Victoria