Something That She Said
454 · 9 October 03
The Bangles: Doll Revolution
For all the inertia that plagues us, it doesn't actually take very long to adjust to a new life. We got to Barcelona on a Monday-to-Tuesday overnight flight, and by Friday morning, as we sat eating pastries while Plaça George Orwell slowly rattled into life around us, it already felt like we'd been there for weeks. By the time we got on the sleeper train for Paris on Sunday evening, we'd obviously been away for months. By the time we packed up our bags next, it was no longer entirely clear why we were carrying these plane tickets to Boston. But there they were, and we must have had a plan when we bought them, so we got on the airplane and came back.
And now our time and yours are running in sync again, but for twelve days we were blissfully adrift. We didn't bring phones or computers, we didn't call home or log on, and although we were in two major modern cities the language barriers were high enough to shield us from the media. For most of two weeks, our world was reimagined as walking epics lined with classics of art and architecture, punctuated periodically by inept (but mostly successful) negotiations for food. Sitting at my desk in my windowless West Cambridge office again, last week, picking quarter-heartedly at the self-propelled hairball that acquisition has turned the company I work for into, being back hurt. There are things I love and care about here, but do they really require all this personal infrastructure? I wake up, and go to work. Why? What does that accomplish? Waking up with the woman I love, rolling out of bed just late enough to miss hotel breakfast, and then wandering off to spend the day gawking at things we've read about and taking silly pictures of each other mocking statuary: surely that's more spiritually nourishing for us, and ultimately less destructive to the rest of society.
The only electronics I took on the trip was my digital camera, but it was my PowerBook that got me through the reentry work-week. I brought it to the office and plugged it in in the corner of my desk, and watched my little allegory of technology play itself out again. In front of me, my wheezy work PC coughed up bureaucracy and dysfunctions. In the corner, my Apple cross-faded its random way through the four hundred pictures I brought home, and jukeboxed two weeks of new records. In front of me, I have six contradictory automatic invitations to a meeting I don't want to go to even once. In the corner, Belle and I are walking barefoot down the beach in Barcelona. In the corner, the harbor fans out under the cable car to Montjuic. In the corner, an orange balloon spins in a fountain outside the Orangerie, and the trees they're bringing out or in have sculpted bugs high up the trunks.
In the corner, and through the speakers that flank the bad screen and make it better, the Bangles are playing. I wouldn't have asked them to save me. I loved "Manic Monday", but abhorred "Walk Like an Egyptian". I had Different Light, but only bought the other two a couple years ago. I loved the Go-Go's more. I passed over imports of this album for months. And maybe the sale price was lower than my confidence was high.
But here in my office, wishing I had a plan this wasn't part of, Doll Revolution turns out to be exactly what I need. The pile that arrived from Japan while I was gone will wait. The buzzy French bands we discovered on listening stations at the Virgin on the Champs Elysées will wait. Grim metal and hoarse emo and astringent Brit-glam and Emmylou and Meat Loaf will wait. The album of the year will wait. Right now, I need the simplest music that makes me happy.
So the record soars into life with "Tear Off Your Own Head (it's a doll revolution)", like the Go-Go's once restarted with "The Whole World Lost Its Head", and I don't know whether the Bangles bring out simple greatness in writers or just superimpose it on the sheet music, but Debbi Peterson punches her drums implacably, Michael Steele's bass grinds lasciviously, Susanna Hoffs' voice still does that thing, somebody clangs out a one-chord piano riff, and by the time the sighing chorus comes around there's as little Elvis Costello mannerism left as there was residual Prince funk in "Manic Monday". The Bangles are simple the way America is simple when it's good, when I can imagine I'm somehow proud of it. "Stealing Rosemary" cartwheels like they once spiraled "A Hazy Shade of Winter". "Ride the Ride" reworks "Walk Like an Egyptian" without the novelty curse. "I Will Take Care of You" stretches out grandly, like "Eternal Flame" matured into its own clothes. "Song for a Good Son" jangles and breathes like they've finally noticed what the different light is illuminating. "Between the Two" purrs raggedly, like a leftover demo from before David Kahne got his hands on All Over the Place. "Grateful" blows a kiss after George Harrison. There are simpler songs in oscilloscope breakdowns, but not many simpler in context. Pop music has old rules for melodies and harmonies, whether it's currently fashionable to admit you know them or not, and the Bangles are classicists. So they chime, and twine together, and I sit in my chair thankful that somebody remembers what we should be effortlessly capable of.
And if this album, fifteen years after their last one, accomplished nothing but remembering why the band once mattered to anybody, it would be on par for the comeback form. But the players' lives have continued during the band's life's pause, and only a few of the songs pretend not to notice. Sort these tracks by gloss, and the matte half of the record fits snugly into the twangy adult-contemporary spectrum between Vicki Peterson's Continental Drifters and Amy Rigby. Hoffs is just one of four singers, this time, and the other three haven't her seductive polish. "Ask Me No Questions" is reedy and plaintive. "The Rain Song" actually is a Continental Drifters composition. "Nickel Romeo" could be Patty Larkin in an impish mood. "Here Right Now" is as uncluttered as anything Holsapple and Stamey ever managed, right down to the unhurried guitar solo. Vicki's declarative "Single by Choice" sounds a little self-contradictory with backing vocals, but that's also part of its point. "Mixed Messages" sounds so much like Amy Rigby that I have to check the credits to make sure she really isn't involved somehow. Even if you don't think the Bangles were a real band the first time around, they are now.
But in the end it isn't the old songs or the new songs that pull me headlong into this album, or pull this album warmly around me. There are two songs that fall between, and that's where I find myself in air. "Lost at Sea" is the only song Susanna and Debbi wrote together, just the two of them, and I don't know the politics but in ignorance I'm free to imagine. Debbi takes the vocal lead, and frames herself in a stately drumbeat, and the song unfolds out of and back into atmospheric restraint, like a sheepishly momentous truce.
And against this careful texture, "Something That You Said" is the hyper-calculatedly ebullient first single. The Bangles may have grown up, but the boys who re-signed them haven't, and so the single is a caricature amidst portraits. Programmers and remixers are bussed in, along with an extra truckload of lip gloss for Hoffs to put her (or, more likely, them) in the right mood, and the result is egregious and inexplicable, like plastic trees in a national-park postcard. "Something that you said", Hoffs shivers dreamily, "Turned me from the inside out." "Running through my head", she says, "Something I have dreamed about". These are not new lines. As text, they are as timidly inconsequential as the rest of the song. "And I feel so real," she explains, "And it feels so right." If these are not clichés, it's only because there's not enough to them. Put the words and music together, and they are the aural equivalent of Hallmark soft-focus. Every moral and aesthetic principle I can imagine invoking begs me to rebel.
But I can't. The power and efficacy of cheap sentiment is never a function of what it is, it's what we are. We keep the clichés alive, each of us in turn, because we keep having the moments they trivialize. This song may be indefensible, but it describes a truth that could hardly be more mundane or profound. It doesn't make a bit of difference whether I want to endorse it or not, it describes exactly what I'm feeling. We came back from Europe, and the Bangles helped me through a bad work week, and then last weekend, sitting quietly on the rocks in Marblehead with the sunlit ocean wrapped around us, Belle and I got engaged. The song is correct in every inexcusably lazy detail. She said something I've dreamed about, something that has run through my head, and I feel precisely those silly things: like everything I've guarded has been freed, and like I'm suddenly real in a way I wasn't until now, and that we are doing something terrifyingly and incomprehensibly perfect. As poetry or performance, it's nothing. As a change in our own lives, it's the biggest thing ever. The song doesn't express that, and isn't ours, and isn't even mine. Sometimes music tells stories that explain our selves to us. This isn't one of those times. This isn't the story of my engagement, or even its soundtrack. The ocean and the rocks know us better. But the song is here, and if Belle and I don't need it, as we to try to spend the rest of our lives together, then it goes out into the rest of the world. It will reach you in a moment of pain, or doubt, or helplessness, or fury. Or maybe it will reach you in the haplessly ordinary moment when it's true for you, too. Or if not this song, the next one.