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for September 8, 2005


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Informed 'Entertain'ment
by Bill Stella

Sleater-Kinney's "Entertain": The Lyrics. (From their new album "The Woods")
 
It's not just the attitude which makes a great Rock song great – lyrics count. Thousands of songs have moments of greatness, or aspirations to it. But great songs – with great lyrics - are rare. Not "great", as in the blind loving eyes of a fan; nor songs that pretend to be Art and hope no one will notice the faults; nor any "I'm ex-press-ing myself here!" amateurishness raised to cult status, but great. Whether it hits your pre-conceived notions over the head, displays your hidden romantic intentions to your true love, throbs achingly, or has a great beat you can dance to, the lyrics must transport you someplace else, somewhere beyond one's mundane existence, but connected to one's life by a common thread.
 
"Entertain" is one great Rock song. "Entertain" is the centerpiece of Sleater-Kinney's The Woods, which critics are calling "The best rock album of the decade." (Well, this critic is.)
 
Once common, it is unusual to see a review explore the poetry of a rock song lyric. In another attempt to bring attention to what's under-appreciated, this column Dances To Architecture furiously, focusing on a few aspects of this one lyric. Sleater-Kinney as a band has the songwriting credit ((c) 2005), but I believe the lyrics are largely the work of bisexual co-leader Carrie Brownstein.
 
Other artists have taken shots at society's excesses. (Joe Jackson's "Heaven & Hell" suite for one.) "Entertain" breaks ground by taking on the forces of entertainment's dark sides: brutal nostalgia, hypocrisy, appeals to one's basest consumer instincts, outright lying. It engages you in an amazing conversation, one you can take part in by having your own response to the LYRICS that follow.
 
Questions are asked right from the start. With a mix of skepticism and disbelief, they begin:
 
SO YOU WANT TO BE ENTERTAINED? / PLEASE LOOK AWAY (DON’T LOOK AWAY) / WE’RE NOT HERE ’CAUSE WE WANT TO ENTERTAIN / PLEASE GO AWAY (DON’T GO AWAY) .
REALITY IS THE NEW FICTION THEY SAY / TRUTH IS TRUER THESE DAYS, / TRUTH IS MAN-MADE / IF YOU’RE HERE ’CAUSE YOU WANT TO BE ENTERTAINED / GO AWAY, PLEASE GO AWAY
 
Like a conversation, the meter of these words is not steady, but like friends arguing, the replies establish a rhythm. Instant responses to anticipated reactions cook the brew to instant boil.
 
[CHORUS 1]:
IF YOUR ART IS DONE, / JOHNNY GET YOUR GUN.
JOIN THE RANK AND FILE, ON YOUR TV DIAL.
 
YOU COME AROUND LOOKING 1984 / YOU’RE SUCH A BORE, 1984. / NOSTALGIA, WELL YOU’RE USING IT LIKE A WHORE. / IT’S BETTER THAN BEFORE, AH IT’S BETTER THAN BEFORE.
YOU COME AROUND SOUNDING 1972. / YOU DID NOTHING NEW, 1972 / WHERE IS THE “FUCK YOU”? / WHERE’S THE BLACK AND BLUE? (3X)
IF YOUR ART IS DONE, JOHNNY GET YOUR GUN.
JOIN THE RANK AND FILE, ON YOUR TV DIAL.
 
Speaking of TV... A modern means of giving new weight to your lyric? Change them in the video. Because MTV (owned by Viacom) runs the new "gay" cable station Logo, videos are part of the programming, Sleater-Kinney's video (of a self-shortened version) of "Entertain" aired regularly in Logo's first month. (Never before in heavy rotation on any MTV channel, the first video played on Logo was Sleater-Kinney's.) If you chance to see it (videos aren't announced in the schedule, but placed between programs), notice that not only is the "FUCK" silenced, but the "GUN" from the line "JOHNNY GET YOUR GUN" is silenced, too! I'm led to conclude the band meant to question which words are truly obscene.
 
It is particular genius to refer to years iconically. 1972 – or 2002 - is missing its essential "FUCK YOU". And, the lyric implies, how dare they fuck with that?
 
HEY! LOOK AROUND THEY ARE LYING TO YOU / THEY ARE LYIN’, HA! THEY ARE LYIN’ AND / CAN’T YOU SEE IT IS JUST A SILLY RUSE? / THEY ARE LYING, AND I AM LYING TOO.
ALL YOU WANT IS ENTERTAINMENT. / RIP ME OPEN - IT’S SO FREE, YEAH.
 
Acknowledging one's own part in entertainment-as-storytelling-as-lying is scary courageous, but a kind of redemption comes from offering one's self to your audience and in the same breath warn you about the lies lying beneath entertainment's ruse. Only by metaphorically getting inside ("RIP ME OPEN") can one freely know the artist, the art, and oneself; and have a moment of freedom equal to the risk taken getting there, more satisfying than mere entertainment. Then, three rounds in, the sacrifice and strain showing, they introduce a second chorus:
 
"DON’T DRAG ME DOWN, / I'M NOT FALLIN’ DOWN" (2x)
 
It's what you say when you've made your point, and made your point, and made...your...POINT, and given your all. One musters one's confidence and takes a stand. (And it's a chant I wanna sing in the faces of counter-protesters at next year's Pride marches; hell, in any protests to come.)
 
Then the only thing left to do is rally your forces around you. But what follows is very ambivalent rallying. The next "LINE"s are simply queues at first. But complacency and comfort contrasts with condescension, and the "LINE"s soon become drawn:
 
1!,2!,3! / IF YOU WANT TO TAKE A SHOT AT ME / WELL, GET IN LINE. [...]/ IF YOU HAVEN’T HAD ENOUGH OF ME / WELL GET IN LINE, LINE.
1!,2!,3! / YEAH, YOU DESERVE IT NOW / IT’S ALL RIGHT.
1!,2!,3! / WE CAN DROWN IN MEDIOCRITY / IT FEELS SUBLIME, SUBLIME. /
1!,2!,3! / YEAH IT SOUNDS LIKE SOMEONE PUSHED THE REWIND
1!,2!,3! / NOW, GIVE IT TO ME EASILY / MY FEEBLE MIND NEEDS TIME.
1!,2!,3! / YEAH, YOU MAKE IT SWEET / AND SYRUPY WITH RHYME/
 
The two choruses come together...
 
DON’T DRAG ME DOWN, I'M NOT FALLIN’ DOWN.
IF YOUR ART IS DONE, / JOHNNY GET YOUR GUN.
JOIN THE RANK AND FILE, ON YOUR TV DIAL.
 
...and the final verse packs a wallop:
 
THE GRIP OF FEAR / IS ALREADY HERE / THE LINES ARE DRAWN / WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON?
 
The song ends as it began, with an unanswered question. If you've sung along, entertained by the push and pull of nostalgia vs. present tense reality, the sweet come-ons vs. the rejections – personal and political, then the last lines – especially the final question – has you pulled up and double-taken.
 
We're challenged explicitly to take sides, but the question refers as much to how we've gotten here, how we "GET IN LINE", as it does to choices. One moment we find ourselves in line; the next we've suddenly assumed we're on one side or the other. Are we conscious about where we're standing? Or are we in "THE GRIP OF FEAR"?
 
We live in a period that gives us whiplash in our rush to make everything a circus, to turn not just children's but all education and information into entertainment. Polls show the public disenchanted with the news media; we're clear they're just in it to sell ads. But we can't seem to stop rewarding them for merely entertaining us - we buy their crap anyway. Surely we're not enthralled. Are we in thrall?
 
"Entertain" rocks between fun and fight, forces the engaged listener to grapple with the balance between entertainment's dark side: "Reality" describes fiction, disengaged consumption makes us diminished, actors portray reflections our surfaces, not our – and entertainment's – light: Our deepest, truest dreams.
 
(The fan-site Sleater-Kinney.net offers a message board where discussions about the band's lyrics are in full swing.)
 
+ + Sleater-Kinney are part of the annual New Yorker Festival Saturday, 9/24. festival.newyorker.com & at The Borgata (.com), Atlantic City, 9/30 & 10/1, with Pearl Jam.
 
From the column "Dancing to Architecture"
By Bill Realman Stella, in GAAMC's "Challenge",
and posted at blog.myspace.com/bearealman

 

 

©2005 Bill Stella

All material ©2001-2014 Sean Carolan, except as noted.

 







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