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.


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.

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