Friday, April 10, 2015

Uninvited

I imagine everyone's favorite music comes from when they first begin to discover it on their own. Growing up, I listened to whatever eclectic variety the rest of my large family brought home-- Andrew Lloyd Webber, Holst, Simon and Garfunkel, Bon Jovi, Enya, Roy Orbison, Pachabel, John Williams. (One of my favorites at a very young age was the William Tell Overture. I loved how it built to an exciting crescendo, and then gave one satisfying ending after another. I would run and jump and leap off the furniture to the galloping orchestra.) But I never owned a CD of my own until I went away to college. I was driving for the first time, and would change the radio station to whatever I liked as I drove.
What was becoming popular in those days, the mid-90s, was what was called Alternative music. It was the alternative, I guess, to the rest of popular rock music. My impression was that the radio stations were called alternative first, and the music they happened to play picked up the tag from them. I liked it because it was a little bit richer-- the melodies did more complex things, the lyrics were more thoughtful, the voices cracked with pain, as if the singers were just barely holding it together. (And it was coming from the left-- there's nothing like being dropped into a hyper-conservative place like BYU to make you realize that your own opinions are rather more liberal on things like feminism, environmentalism, and the roles of government.)
When I tried to share the music with my family, they were unimpressed. Where I heard suppressed anger and pain, they heard mostly whining and swearing and drugs. And I guess I liked that, too: it was transgressive, a little shocking.
Alanis Morissette was at the center of the genre. The songs from Jagged Little Pill-- "You Oughtta Know," "Hand in my Pocket," "Ironic," "You Learn"-- were all among the most popular. I liked them, but I don't know that I would have picked her as a particular favorite. And then came "Uninvited."
The song was written for the soundtrack of City of Angels. (a good romantic movie in its own right, if far less rich than the black-and-white European film Wings of Desire it was based on.) Although some of the lyrics make sense in the context of the movie, I didn't see it until it came to the dollar theater (where it had been edited, as was the custom in Provo) and by then I had already imagined what the song might be about-- a picture that fits the lyrics better than the movie does.
The song starts minimally, with four notes played over and over. Then Alanis's voice comes in, carefully controlled, precise, beautiful and cold. The words she uses-- "unfortunate slight," "worthy," "deliberate"-- they aren't the pop radio sound of "love me, baby, yeah, yeah." It's precisely the way a royal would speak. Whenever I hear this song, I imagine her sitting on a throne, a little like this, though surely wearing black instead of white:
It's capturing a single instant in time. A man has just entered the court, someone mysterious and handsome and powerful in his own right. We never see him-- he's the listener, addressed in second person throughout the song-- but we see her reaction to him. She's flattered by his fascination. He, like her, is a ruler, a shepherd meeting a shepherd. There's a mystery here, for both of them. She calls herself an uncharted territory, he's an uninvited stranger. What she's feeling is an a attraction to the dangerous unknown that he embodies, and she knows he feels the same about her.
But what kind of royal court could this be? There are electric guitars in the background. The singer, Alanis herself, is inescapably part of the modern city world. What I imagine is the urban fantasy of Charles DeLint, where hiding behind the everyday reality of life in the city, there are supernatural courts of powerful and secret people. 
The lyrics spell this all out, but it's backed up at the same time by an incredible synthesis of modern and classical styles. Everything about the music is calculated to produce a feeling of uncomfortable, building, dangerous excitement. The minor key, established in the first repeated measure, grows repeatedly richer and wilder. Strings come in at unexpected moments, bending the notes to a new, even more unsettling harmony. The stoic squirms. The instruments come in a few at a time, building and building, blending perfectly the electric guitar and the symphony in a wild dance, and then, suddenly-- back to the first four notes themselves, and her ever-so-carefully chosen words of dangerous politeness: "I don't think you unworthy / I need a moment to deliberate." Again, in a rush, it all comes back, building to an even more frenzied peak before ending with a single, dying guitar chord.

Alanis Morissette never again wrote anything similar. I've looked for other music like this; Orchestral Metal has the guitars and the violins, but ruins it by filling it with angry men yelling at me. The group Evanescence managed to capture the feeling, occasionally, but never manages to get it all in the same song, and inevitably goes to a repeated chorus, which "Uninvited" never stoops to. Part of the power of the song is its uniqueness, its sense of otherworldly origins.

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