Monday, July 6, 2009

Guest Post by Max Stevens: Dripping girls gone

(Le Roy Grannis, Hermosa Beach Strand, 1967)

Hello dear readers of Art On My Mind. Molly asked me to write down some thoughts on the subject of intuition in song lyrics, so here goes... Let me begin by asking you to make a comparison between two songs, "Califronia Girls" and the somewhat more obscure "Surf's Up".

Listen to "California Girls" here.

Listen to "Surf's Up" here.

Both songs have an evocative beauty that elevates the listener's soul into a state of all-out bliss. Somebody once asked me to describe the sensation I feel in my body when I hear a Beach Boys song, and the only way I could think of to describe it was as a "permanent orgasm." But there are different kinds of orgasm, and I think Molly is onto something with her interest in intuition in song and art more generally. ...The meaning of "California Girls" is transparent and its impact on the listener is immediate. It's the California Dream writ large, California at the absolute pinnacle of its post-war expansion, a world of golden sands, endless leisure, youthful exuberance, and beautiful girls dripping with perfect, nubile sexuality. The serpent has yet to appear with its fateful apple, and the emergent youth culture remains outside the messy world of political struggle. Listening to "California Girls" is an immensely satisfying experience, but it's also an exercise in passivity and escapism.

"Surf's up," which Brian Wilson wrote about a year later with Van Dyke Parks, reflects the enormous cultural changes that took place in the mid 60s. Returning to the biblical metaphor, the song is an expression of the youth movement after it has eaten from the tree of knowledge. And what's really fascinating is that the new-found knowledge and experience paradoxically make the world a much more complicated place...
Surf's Up
Aboard a tidal wave
Come about hard and join
The young and often spring you gave
I heard the word
Wonderful thing
A children's song

I remember taking an interest in postmodernism as a college student and learning about how the information age would ultimately destroy any notion of timeless, absolute truth. Knowledge, in other words, makes the world less knowable. "Surf's Up" seems to be a musical instantiation of an increasingly unknowable world. Whereas with "Califronia Girls," the payoff is immediate and transparent, requiring very little work on the part of the audience, "Surf's Up" is opaque, associative, and brings the listener actively into the creative process. The meaning of the song is intuitive, subjective and much more slippery as a result. "California Girls" is one of my favorite songs ever, but the experience of hearing Surf's Up - with its thought fragments and words that are more about rhythmic sound than imagery - is quite a bit more satisfying because its meaning is contingent on my creativity as a listener. I appreciate songwriting that places a certain amount of trust in the audience. I would imagine that this is true of anyone who takes the practice of artistic appreciation seriously. There are sublime works of art that ask nothing more of us than to observe some fixed concepts and emotions, and then there are those where the artist communicates intuitively with the audience and, in doing so, demands that the audience contribute to the work's impact. Both have their place, but the latter is ultimately more gratifying.

Max Stevens is a writer living in Los Angeles. Molly and Max are brother and sister.

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