August 23, 2019

15-year cover song echoes: "A Whiter Shade of Pale"

Both the original by Procol Harum and cover by Annie Lennox are from a manic phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle (1967 and 1995). Both are slow songs, showing that "manic" does not mean constantly bouncing around in a frenzy, but sometimes feeling carefree and almost invincible -- as opposed to the refractory period feeling of the vulnerable phase, or the return to normal energy levels during the warm-up phase.

This pair also fits into a pattern that I've discussed before, one with very few examples. That is, a mellower cover of an intense original -- but using more synthetic instrumentation than the original, rather than more acoustic. The usual move is to switch from electronic to acoustic in order to reinforce the mellower interpretation (e.g., the "Unplugged" era of the 1990s).

Here, the original is not fully acoustic, but it does have a piano, and sounds more naturalistic at any rate compared to the distinctly more synth-y and danceable cover version. You'd think the synthetic timbre and danceability would be reinforcing a higher-energy interpretation of the original, but it's much more mellow -- a pleasing surprise.


  1. I don't think of the song as being carefree/invincible. He's singing about feeling seasick and turning pale while his surroundings are overwhelming. I'd say the perspective here is coming from a refractory period coming down after partying a bit too hard.

    I recall when Dave Weigel wrote his "Prog Spring" one of his earliest examples was this song melding classical with rock. And it was from that I learned that British listeners would have associated Bach's Air on a G-String with Hamlet cigar commercials. Wikipedia summarizes the gist of them all as "scenes in which a man, having failed dismally at something, is consoled by lighting a Hamlet cigar".

    In terms of feeling invulnerable, the first song that comes to my mind is Early Man's "Like a Goddamn Rat", although it's not really popular enough to say much about its time. La Roux's "Bulletproof" is about that theme, although it's more aspirational in the wake of being vulnerable.

  2. No, it's evoking the headiness of that situation. He feels seasick for a bit, but he keeps going forward -- the opposite of a refractory period.

    On a roller-coaster, you feel your stomach give out, but that doesn't mean it isn't exciting, or that adrenaline junkies won't want to ride it again.

    And the tone is clearly not one of pain or discomfort -- not, "Holy shit, can't believe how drunk I got, it was awful and I'll never do *that* again." It's more of a sublime or transcendent tone -- those situations, too, can throw you off your balance. But you power through them, commune to some degree with the sublime, and come away feeling more invincible than you did before the test of your mettle.

    And just listen to his delivery -- does he sound whiny, pained, emo, withdrawn, hungover, etc? He sounds exhilarated.

  3. I would agree with the headiness description. I would note that he doesn't follow up the seasick comment with some note about pushing himself forward, instead he attributes what happened to the crowd crying out for more. After the initial description of his actions, there's relatively little emphasis on himself and instead on his surroundings. I think we can also assume that when he was cartwheeling across the floor he was listening to something more manic than Whiter Shade of Pale.

    I don't think he's disavowing ever repeating the experience, but he doesn't sound up for it in the immediate present. This is music to relax to, perhaps with a Hamlet cigar. I wouldn't say he sounds "exhilarated", the energy level is fairly low. I'd say he sounds reflective and not even trying too hard to psych the listener up with his account.

    I brought up a couple other songs which I think are worth contrasting. Like a Goddamn Rat is entirely in the present-tense, consisting largely of a sort of chemically assisted megalomaniacal bragging of the state the narrator has attained which isn't even construed as a peak, along with some goading of the listener to join in. The tempo is faster than their usual and the beat is fit for a four-on-the-floor track in an entirely different genre. I don't know any other La Roux tracks to compare with, but the tempo is at least faster than Whiter Shade of Pale. There is mention of an indeterminate past, but most of the song concerns the present in which the narrator claims to be hardened by experience and prepared to shrug off anything the world throws at her, so in a post-refractory period. The narrator of Whiter Shade of Pale is making no claims about his capabilities in the present. Perhaps confident people don't need to protest too much (which I'd say is an undercurrent of Bulletproof) and offhandedly mention a time they didn't feel invulnerable, but pop music shouldn't require that much in the way of the complications of countersignalling.

  4. How can you misunderstand such simply written lyrics? Of course he talks about pushing forward: "When we called out for another drink / The waiter brought a tray". And the two of them must have stayed together longer after that: "And so it was that later... That her face... Turned a whiter shade of pale". He keeps pursuing her further: He "would not let her be".

    If you can't hear the tone of exhilaration or elation in the way he raises the volume and draws out the length on "was" and "later" in the chorus, you're autistic. It's reinforced by strong drum beats on each syllable of "and, so, it, was". Or you're confused by reducing all feelings of being excited and thrilled to undergoing a sugar rush, and can't tell he's elated in his delivery b/c it's not frenetic.

    The point stands: he's not pained, discomforted, bored, depressed, or any of the other feelings that come from being in a refractory period. He's in a sustained good mood that rises toward exhilaration during the chorus, just like someone would in the spiking phase of an excitation cycle.

    I'll delete other comments, since this is so simple to understand, and is just one little pop song that doesn't deserve 10,000 words correcting basic emotional confusion.


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