by Lucas Fink
Rick Altman wrote about how Hollywood narrative cinema is basically structured around and propelled by a character with easily-understood motivations progressing through a series of events chained together causally. So, things like spectacle and pathos (musical numbers, action scenes, sobbing, screaming, bright colors, etcetera) are outside, are in excess of, this dominant Hollywood system. Altman offers a crucial nuance here, though: this excess is only conceived of as such relative to the system that asserts itself as dominant. The implications are that excess, secondary logics, minor positions, spaces of subversion, or whatever you want to call them are not in themselves excessive. In his words, “Unless we recognize the possibility that excess – defined as such because of its refusal to adhere to a system – may itself be organized as a system, then we will hear only the official language and forever miss the text’s dialect, and dialectic”(35).The rub here is that, if given the chance, that which is repressed by a given dominant system could very well organize itself into its own system. I wish ask if this has ever actually happened, if oppositional elements have ever been allowed to flower into a system of their own. The song “Brother Sport” by psychedelic pop group Animal Collective presents, I think, a decent approximation of such a system, a system in which the marginal becomes the dominant. The dominant’s status as such, then, is a product of contingency, and forever precarious.
First, we must define the dominant for pop music. Altman here is working with film, and thus defines the dominant for film: “With few exceptions they[film theorists of the past two decades] have stressed omniscient narration, linear presentation, character-centered causality, and psychological motivation … [as well as] the importance of invisible editing, verisimilitude of space, and various devices used to assure continuity”(15). It is in reference to these dominant standards of storytelling that Altman identifies the excessive: contingency/coincidences(33), parallelism/multiplicity of perspectives(20-26), overlong spectacles, and unabashed pathos. What, then, constitutes the dominant for contemporary pop music?
We can, with little research effort, determine that the vast majority of popular music adheres to the “verse A – chorus - verse B – chorus – bridge - chorus” structure, or some mild variation. It is now apparent why pop music is often said to be “hook reliant”, for the dominant structure is designed to foreground a singular catchy refrain. Everything that is not the hook/chorus then takes on a supportive role, becoming connective tissue which justifies the song’s existence as a song - as more than just one random earworm - usually via the delivery of some narrative related to the chorus’s lyrical content. Pop’s lyrical content is impressively diverse, making it difficult to explain the genre’s dominant in terms of lyrics. Whatever the song is “about” superficially, though, the lyrics almost always situate the listener comfortably in either a physical setting, interpersonal scenario, or psychological condition. Importantly, because of pop’s unswerving loyalty to its central refrain, the situation the listener finds themselves in is usually static; a given song is obligated by its structure to repeat its one refrain, and whatever lyrical content therein, multiple times. Charli XCX’s “Vroom Vroom” is about driving really fast; the listener begins the song in a fast car and ends the song in a fast car. Lorde’s “Royals” is about class resentment; the listener begins the song simultaneously fetishizing and repudiating inaccessible opulence and ends the song doing the same thing. However, just as Altman discusses the necessary presence of a counter-logic wherever there is a dominant logic(31), so too is the marginal present in pop. The verses, being the only non-repeated element of pop songs, are the marginal. More specifically, the verses’ promise of change, of a meaningful evolution throughout the song, is the marginal, even though this is a false promise. The verses exist to trick the listener into thinking the end of the song will be different from the beginning, just as unpredictable beginnings in American film exist to veil the fact that the ending will almost certainly be a happy one(Altman 32).
How does “Brother Sport” systematize elements that would otherwise be subordinate/tertiary? The track engages in a wholesale jettisoning of classic pop structure such that it becomes impossible to even locate a verse or chorus. Instead, the listener encounters three rhythmically distinct hooks woven into a lush soundscape of twinkling synths and thrumming African/Latin-inspired percussion. The second hook immediately follows the first, and the last hook is separated from the others by an unapologetically lengthy chunk of instrumental phantasmagoria. The rub here is that each hook – which, in the context of a classic pop structure, would be the centerpiece of its own singular song - is mercilessly excised from the track to make room for the next. The primacy of hooks/the revered status hooks enjoy in classic pop song structure is thus wholly undermined, indeed flatly rejected in favor of an entirely different system, an entirely different operationalization of hooks. “Brother Sport” then organizes itself not around the singular, imitable, omnipotent God-Chorus, but around a rhizomatic multiplicity of catchy lyrical nuggets, none of which are afforded more ontological significance than the others.
Furthermore, Animal Collective supplants the illusion of progression common to classic pop tracks by actual progression. In “Brother Sport”, the situation is an interpersonal scenario: the singer, whose father has just died, is giving his brother advice regarding mourning. Here’s the icing on the cake, though: the song, in virtue of its atypical structure, ends differently than it began, for the writers have the gall to conclude with a hook other than the one they began with. We begin with refusal of tragedy(“I know it sucks that daddy’s done but try to think of what you want”) and end with hopeful, future-oriented euphoria(“You’ve got a real good shot […] Keep it real; give a real shout out”). “Brother Sport” then affirms that, however naturalized the classical system may be, its position as such is perpetually tenuous and contingent on the subduing of its excess, excess which contains a world in itself, albeit unactualized. “Brother Sport” is this actualization of the worlds nestled in the crevices in the status quo.