UCLA Seminar: The Music of Rufus Wainwright #2

January 25, 2006

Today we discussed two songs: “Go or Go Ahead” and “I Don’t Know What It Is.”

Go or Go Ahead

Another excellent class with passionate and excellent interpretations of the songs. The juxtaposing concepts in the opening lines (“thank you” vs. “bitter knowledge,” “guardian angel” and “stranded”) were cited as strong ironic images. The religious/sacred imagery was pointed out: “guardian angels” “looking at stars” “Mars” “feathers” “Heaven” “crucify” “unholy” “mythic powers of love.” There were differing views as to whether there was a God hovering above the song and whether Wainwright’s agnosticism imprinted itself on the song. There was a brief speculation that this was another family song, but this was dismissed. The bulk of the lyric analysis dealt with the notion of the song being addressed to a lover. This theory was tested with a line by line analysis. The notion seemed to fit. Many related the images to their own experiences in love, and falling out of love. The image of “Mars” was discussed as the god of war, as was Medusa, a goddess who turns those who stair at her, into stone. These images were puzzling in the context of a song about a lover. The lines about “steel eyed vampires of love” and “kiss me and crucify” continued to confuse the lover theory. After the class seemed somewhat convinced of their interpretation I told them “Rufus says: ‘this song is about crystal meth.'” I assured them I wasn’t telling them to take crystal meth or glorifying its use, only what I had heard in interviews and in print. We then revisited the lyrics with this theory seeing that all the “lover” images could also be seen as “drugs as lover.” I posited my own take on the lyrics as a grand exorcism — an exorcism being a (Catholic) rite to expel demons, in this case, crystal meth — and that this perhaps accounts for the religious imagery, as well as the incredible dynamic crescendo that the piece has. I also pointed out the highly effective use of holding back the climactic section (the part beginning with “look in her eyes”) and how it took the song to even higher ecstacy. The almost but not quite shouting order “Go or go ahead” thrusts the intensity ever higher. The room was quiet; an angel flew over.

I Don’t Know What it Is

This song was interpreted as the conflict between uncertainty (“I don’ know…”) and certainty, or resolution (“but you got to do it”). The omnipresent train imagery was pointed out as an element of continuity and meaning in the song. The image and symbol of the “locket” as something held dear to one’s heart, and often a picture of family, was brought up as something yearned for, but illusive. This locket, or person symbolized thereby, pushes the writer to “lose my perfunctory view” of everything. This person encourages him to take a step toward positive resolution. The notion of drugs came up with the line about “mysterious bruises” as one student, who worked in an AIDS ward, told the class that crystal meth users easily bruise and gave us of other disturbing images. The image of “war in far off places” was interpreted as both an anti-war statement and as a reference to his familial “war” with his parents’ divorce. “Is there anyone else who is through with complaining about what’s done unto us” was interpreted as Rufus’s resolve to put the pain of his parents divorce behind him, perhaps a veiled message to his sister who clearly has tremendous anger towards her father. And the final line “you gotta do it” and “you gotta be there” as either Rufus pushing himself to heal, or asking the person in the locket to be there and give him courage.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

kae January 26, 2006 at 10:21 am

Did you get a chance to take a look at the threads about the song “In with the ladies”? There have been some good discussions about this song lately on both rutopia and the rwmb. There’s an impression that “In with the ladies” tells of the same events or contexts depicted in “Go or Go Ahead”, but with a very different angle.

Cikgu January 28, 2006 at 8:18 am

Prof. Berlioz, my favorite co-guru
(my screen name is cikgu, a malay version of the sanskrit guru=teacher. Cik=Mr. Gu=guru, so I’m Mr Teacher… and you’re the Mr. Über-teacher of all).

Did you have a look at the thread? “Does Rufus believe in god?” (in the RWBB)
I only recently discovered it, and I think there’s some pretty good stuff in there that you might make use of for this discussion.

As always: Thanks for bringing up all these brilliant discussions.

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