UCLA Seminar: The Music of Rufus Wainwright #5

February 16, 2006

Today we discussed “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” (CaCM) and “Poses.”

Both of these songs are on this CD, “Poses” RW’s 2nd album

Discussing the music, we determined CaCM to have the following form:

A A A’ B
A A A’ B
B'(instrumental) A” A”’

A’ is the minor version of A; the instrumental “interlude” that appears after the second B is based upon the refrain “B.” The final section, A” is harmonically still A, but the melody is varied, and the last line of the A is repeated and varied (“Tower of Pisa…”). A”’ is simply the reiteration of the opening line, giving the song a book-end close.
The child-like qualities were identified with the piano introduction’s almost merry-go-round character. The tune is largely a pentatonic (the “black” keys) scale, which evokes a sense of simplicity.

Regarding the words, the class determined it was a song about “desire” or, to use Rufus’s favorite word “Want.” The “things we won’t mention” were thought to be sex and drugs. All objects of desire may ultimately leave one “brokenhearted.” Most of the imagery was self-explanatory, but I was surpised that only I found “the Tower of Pisa” to refer to an erection. “So please be kind if I’m a mess” shows Rufus’s state with his various obsessions/desires. (I will post a complete analytic essay on this in coming months.)

The class had some interesting interpretations as to the imagery in “Poses.” Many tapped into the notion of a self portrait in Manhattan, a reference Rufus himself has made. Different kinds of “poses” were found in the lyrics:

  • walls lined with portraits
  • my new red fetching leather jacket
  • comparing sunglasses
  • smoking
  • drunk and wearing flip flops on 5th Avenue
  • classical virtue and torture

Other interesting observations included:

  • the three predominant colors mentioned, red, yellow, and green, are the colors of a stoplight
  • picking up roses or pretty as princes are effeminate images for a man
  • a concerned friend or family member is cautioning “Baby, watch your head about it”
  • Eden is referenced in the passage about “classical torture ruined my mind like a snake in the orchard”
  • classical torture was thought by one to be “the rack” and by another as parental discipline

Harmonically, “Poses” is fairly straight forward. However, I pointed out the utterly unusual chord that plays against “all these poses, such beautiful poses” and how damn near impossible it is to analyze it. I pointed out that the powerful chord imprinted a marvelous sense of magic on each of the passages. The left hand figure was pointed out to resemble the latin rhythm, the habaƱera, not unlike the one from Bizet’s Carmen.

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Maria Callas in Bizet’s “HabaƱera” from Carmen.

Both songs exemplify an excellent sense of overall melodic shape and design, with a dramatic sensitivity to placing the high notes in the appropriate structural place. Both songs were deemed to be self-portraits.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Granados February 16, 2006 at 1:15 pm

Ahhh I love these two songs. I love the juxtaposition in ‘Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk’. You get the fairly trivial and innocent lyrics:

Cigarettes and chocolate milk,
these are just a couple of my cravings.
Everything it seems I like’s a little bit stronger,
a little bit thicker, a little bit harmful for me.

And then the key changes from major to minor to show something more sinister and serious:

And then there’s those other things,
which for several reasons we won’t mention.
Everything about ’em is a little bit stranger,
a little bit harder, a little bit deadly.

A similar shift in lyrics is seen in ‘Poses’ aswell. The first verse sees yet again fairly trivial matters, and care-free:

The yellow walls are lined with portraits,
And I’ve got my new red fetching leather jacket
All these poses, such beautiful poses,
Makes any boy feel like picking up roses
There’s never been such grave a matter
As comparing our new brand name black sunglasses
All these poses, such beautiful poses,
Makes any boy feel as pretty as princes

Followed by the slightly more serious second verse later with that ever so sad lyric . I feel like that myself right now:

Reclined amongst these packs of reasons,
For to smoke the days away into the evenings
All these poses of classical torture, ruined my mind like a snake in the orchard
I did go from wanting to be someone,
Now I’m drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue
Once you’ve fallen from classical virtue,
Won’t have a soul for to wake up and hold you

Haha, as you can tell this isn’t in reponse to your seminar title….sorry Berlioz . Even though this is a very brief, simple and obvious analysis I just wanted to share my love for these two songs!

Cath February 16, 2006 at 1:15 pm

RE these two songs, it always seems to me that Poses is written by someone in the middle of a crisis who has suddenly realised where he is and what he has become (drunk and wearing flip flops on 5th Avenue…), whereas C and CM has the feel of someone who is standing back and looking at his life and lifestyle and commenting wryly on it, and who is more comfortable with where he is. I don’t know how that works out chronologically – they are both on the same album and both (I assume) are pre-crisis and rehab. C and CM has a feel of “OK, this is me…” whereas Poses feels like “Oh God this is me….”

dysonation February 16, 2006 at 1:16 pm

Roo says it’s more about fears than truth.

Cath February 16, 2006 at 1:16 pm

Oh, that’s interesting – do you mean (does he mean??) that the truth is the same in both songs, but one accepts his situation and the other is afraid of it? (sorry, brain is on half-term school holiday and working very slowly!)

Rhapsody February 16, 2006 at 1:17 pm

I like the distinction in tone you have pointed out, Cath. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that C&CM was written before Poses.

What I have heard him say (through interviews) is that at the time he wrote Poses, he thought he was writing about what he saw happening to other young boys, dreaming of becoming famous. He thought that he, himself, could dabble in living an excessive lifestyle without becoming a victim. It was only after he crashed and burned that he saw, in hindsight, that he was writing about himself.

I’ve always considered Poses and Rebel Prince to be love songs that Rufus’ “muse” wrote to warn Rufus about his impending fall from grace. We have had conversations among fans speculating as to whether or not the price he has had to pay for his fall from grace has been a very expensive one, indeed–lack of media attention for his talents. He seemed to receive far more media attention (1998-99) from mainstream America’s press than he does now. He has been relegated to a kind of cult following, with only critics singing his praises. Interesting to consider….

Rosa February 16, 2006 at 6:43 pm

Who hasn’t thought CaCM wasn’t their own personal soundtrack. Gotta say, ix-nay on the erection/Pisa comparison (but believe it, Roger, if that’s what you think it is). One thing I’ve never understood is how he figured out how to milk those chords at the beginning of the song. The organ figure is wicked! Well, enough of surfing high hopes for now.

As for Poses, it’s a totally homosexual song – no straight man would ever write those lyrics. Great lick/riff – and classic lyric: “life is a game and true love is a trophy”. One for the record books, as far as I’m concerned. I wasn’t aware of an unanalyzable chord. Perhaps the music has reached Schoenberg’s early style.

Each of the two songs obviously are self portraits, maybe there is no bone of contention there at all. Call me skeptical, but I fail to see how there is any other information to be gathered in that regard.

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