bliumchik: Mommy, I dropped my giant cowsicle!  :( (Um.)
[personal profile] bliumchik
So I uh. Apparently my hermit week has affected me more than I thought, since I forsook my escrima class in favour of hiding under the blankets and mumbling to myself. Hay agoraphobia hay! Nice to see you again! Give me a ring in advance next time and I shall bake you muffins! Well in advance, as this would involve learning to bake muffins.

*cough* oh well, I'll go on Wednesday. I went out to the park later and practiced a bit by myself, anyway. For shits and giggles I also did a couple sprint laps - and I mean a couple very literally, not in the modest sense: I was going to do three but I couldn't breathe by the end of the second. *sweatdrops* possibly something to work on.

Anyway, I dug up that Lovecraft In Brooklyn essay! It is behind the cut! We were asked to do a semiotic analysis, which is sort of like a regular analysis only you have to use certain buzzwords like "signified (noun)" (although I actually like some of the buzzwords - "polysemic" is a fucking awesome word) and namedrop Roland Barthes at least once. Go easy on me, it's from first year and while I don't remember specifically, there is pretty much no chance I WASN'T skimming way too close to the deadline. In fact I can tell I was by the ridiculous introduction which was clearly just an attempt to bring the damn thing up to a reasonable wordcount... oh, university. Let's play spot the pastede on yey cultural studies jargon! So much wince. That said, my actual tutor's only real complaint was that I fail at referencing. Which I do. I really kind of suck at it. This would also be something to work on, but so far I am not planning to stick with academia long enough for it to really matter. ...yeah, you guys can all laugh at me when I decide to do honours :P

So here's the essay: no edits, pure Maggie 2008!

Semiotic analysis: Lovecraft in Brooklyn, by The Mountain Goats
The Mountain Goats is a band led by American singer-songwriter John Darnielle. The song Lovecraft in Brooklyn is found on their 2008 album Heretic Pride, and lyrics are provided at the end of this essay. The signifiers in this song can be split into music and lyrics, but not neatly – it is impossible to listen to one without the other, as the music is not available without the vocals and the lyrics simply in print lose something – otherwise they would be poetry, not lyrics. In any case their relation to each other is also important to the analysis of this song. However, between the two it is easier to consider the lyrics separately than to do the same for the music.

To analyse the musical signifiers in the song is problematic as they are both more complex and less fixed to agreed-upon signifieds than linguistic signs. According to Rosario Mirigliano (1995) the central problem in a semiotics of music is “the operative and epistemological need to fix the borders of a sign.” For instance, it is clear that the music of this song provokes a feeling of urgency with a rhythm that mimics a shortness of breath and a paramusical disharmony of squeals and scratches, but it is difficult to assign a specific “meaning” to any particular sign, or indeed to separate the whole piece of music into separate signifiers. Mirigliano goes on to apply Barthes' five codes (semic, symbolic, referential, proairetic and hermeneutic) to classical music, even so admitting that they only readily apply to a given subset of that genre. It therefore seems a more sensible task to approach the analysis of this song from the side of the lyrics, delving into the music as necessary along the way. This approach appears to suit the song, as well, since the rock genre and Darnielle in particular are known for lyrics-focused music and it is likely that the song as a whole, considered as a sign, places the primary emphasis upon the words, with music taking a supporting role in the overall signification.

The form of a song by neccessity creates meaning in a chronological fashion. The song begins with a series of strong guitar riffs separated by a jagged and frenetic four-four drumbeat, both of which continue throughout the song (although the beat evens out during the bridge, which we'll come to). Also right from the start we hear the squeals and screeches that lend this song an unusual eerie quality. These sounds have two referential effects: the first to lend a rough, unpolished note to the music and the second to echo a set of paramusical sounds we are accustomed to hearing in a different context. The first effect comes from considering the sounds within the paradigm of musical production. The primary sound effects are of 1) amplifier feedback and 2) the squeak of fingers up and down a nylon guitar string. Amplifier feedback is a known effect of errors in sound production, while the squeak of guitar strings is not usually heard at such high relative volume in professional performance. The cumulative effect, enhanced by the imperfect, slightly nasal and almost conversational vocal style, is therefore the denotation of a “rough draft” of the song, as it were, or of faulty equipment. However, in combination with the otherwise technical proficiency of the song, we are in fact left with the connotation of “indie,” improvised or underground music, as contrasted with the extremely studio-smoothed sound of popular music.

The second effect of the paramusical sounds is to echo a different paradigm entirely, bypassing the symbolic code and moving straight into a cultural/referential code. While in the first option the sounds we hear are taken to signify the things that create them and the further denotation and connotation is extrapolated from there, in this interpretation they occupy a paradigm composed of “squeaks, creaks and high-pitched noises, cause unknown”. Considering the sounds separately from the instruments brings up a broader referrent that can be analysed outside of a purely musical perspective. This paradigm contains a variety of items as squeaky doors, animal calls, windscreen wipers, almost-silent footsteps... for a syntagmatic narrowing down of terms we must rely on other cues from the rest of the text.

Assuming the listener is aware of the title of this song, “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” we can begin this process at the beginning. Before hearing any lyrics, the title carries a denotation of person and place. The place, Brooklyn, would suggest that industrial noises are not unexpected, but the more culturally significant is the person: there is only one H.P. Lovecraft. So from the title down how a listener understands this song depends on their initial knowledge of Lovecraft. However, the one pervasive fact that most people can be relied upon to remember is that Lovecraft wrote horror stories involving eldritch and often-tentacled monsters. The squeals and creaks can therefore be put into context, either consciously or subconsciously, in terms of their resemblance to horror movie noises – creaking doors, etc – and the calls of some unknown kind of creature. The Lovecraft reference in the title also highlights the similarity of the introductory music to a modern horror film soundtrack, which not only tends to use “dark and brooding” rock music (Hübinette, 2002) but usually includes “shrieks and snarls” and noises of this type mixed in with the music (Stevens, 2000).

So primed to consider the song in a horror paradigm, we move on to the lyrics. “It's gonna be too hot to breathe today,” our narrator matter-of-factly informs us, emphasising “breathe” by extending the “ea” sound in a sentence full of truncated vowels. The idea of “shortness of breath” is thus firmly implanted with the first line and the jagged rhythm, just that tiny bit too fast and erratic to breathe in time to it. Disruption to breathing patterns commonly carries a denotation of fear or anxiety in narrative or descriptive language. This sense of anxiety is then spun into suspense as the fearful set-up leads into a perfectly ordinary first verse, full of mundane signs like cigarettes and brand names. Barthes' hermeneutic code comes into play here as we pose the question: what are you afraid of? And reach as yet no answer. The first chorus serves merely to remind us of the sense of fear – “stick to the shadows” denotes hiding, from which follows the inevitable question “from what?” and the description of hubcaps as funhouse mirrors bestows upon the city a surreal quality borrowed from the image of twisted, inverted reflections.

We then reach the titular line “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” which is now polysemic due to the fact that “Lovecraft” can be used to refer both to the man in question and to the body of work he authored. Therefore this line can be interpreted either as H.P. Lovecraft, the man, being in Brooklyn, or as events of a Lovecraftian nature, occurring in Brooklyn. The second verse would seem to imply the latter: “armies of the voiceless,” in the context of Lovecraft's stories of invasion by extra-dimensional creatures, would appear to suggest something from one of said stories. This connotation is supported by “bloodstains,” the streetlights sizzling out and the strange paradox of the “voiceless” coming out with “their voices raised in song.”

However, a knowledge of Lovecraft's personal history would contradict this idea once the second chorus lines “Rhode Island drops into the ocean/No place to call home anymore” come into play. In 1925 Lovecraft moved to Brooklyn from Rhode Island, an experience which he is reported to have hated and which is thought to have contributed to his paranoia and xenophobia, as his Brooklyn neighborhood's ethnic diversity was a stark contrast to the predominantly-white Rhode Island. This interpretation is corroborated by the artist in a press kit (Lewis, 2008), but is not immediately obvious on a cold listen of the song by someone unfamiliar with both the Mountain Goats and Lovecraft. In addition there is no reason for the song not to retain its polysemy even in the face of confirmation of a primary meaning, as neither possibility contradicts the other. If one accepts that the song is about Lovecraft the person rather than actual supernatural events, the second vrse can be read as a dream, or as Lovecraft projecting his horror-story imagery onto the Brooklyn crowds that frightened him.

The bridge is the only place where this song deviates from its jagged, furtive rhythm, suddenly moving into a gallop of drumbeats. It's also the only place where the proairetic code is interrupted, as the rest of the song has a verse-by-verse forward momentum chronologically, while the bridge speaks in achronological tense, describing something that happens “every day.” The rhythmic variation carries a connotation of running, the steady thump of sneakers upon pavement, and in the context of the horror-story paradigm this song has indicated “running” can only mean “running away from.” This interpretation is supported by the line “try to keep the wolves away.” It's followed by the plaintive “if company should come,” which in a purely semic sense denotes merely a possibility, but within the cultural paradigm is recognised as a formal syntagm with a curious connotation: “company” is the most non-specific word for visitors, so that bordering it with “if” and “should” implies that no specific person is actually expected. In the context of the rest of the song, especially the earlier “companionship is where you find it/so I take what I can get,” the primary connotation is one of loneliness. This gives a new meaning to the wolves that the narrator is trying to keep away, which are highly likely to be a metaphor signifying loneliness, depression or other personal demons, considering that the narrator's method of keeping them at bay is to try to avoid staying at home all day, which is the traditional domain of such worries.

The final verse connotes a sense of heightened desperation. The discordant noises in the background have increased and the singer's voice is hoarser, louder and more emotional. The words, too, carry a connotation of fear and conspiracy theorism made more definite than the vague paranoia of the first verse and the surreal dream sequence of the second (and the idea that it was a dream is supported by the narrator waking up at the start of the next verse). Now there's an interesting polysemy to the first two lines of verse three: “Woke up afraid of my own shadow/Like, genuinely afraid.” The phrase “afraid of my own shadow” is one of those instances where a metaphorical connotation has slipped into the public consciousness so firmly that the phrase itself automatically denotes “afraid of every little thing” or “unneccessarily afraid.” However, the next line tells us to re-examine it in one of two ways. Either “like, genuinely afraid” is meant to place emphasis on the previous line, to tell the responder not to internalise that second meaning, not to simply gloss over the cliché and dismiss the paranoia, that there is a real fear there (which is supported by the next lines, in which the narrator goes to buy a weapon to defend himself against whatever he's afraid of). Or, the line means to return that phrase to its face-value semic meaning. The narrator is genuinely afraid of his literal, actual shadow. Both interpretations freshen up the old cliché and add to the sense of desperation, paranoia, although the second also adds to the surrealism of the song.

The height of paranoia is reached in the second half of the last verse, where the narrator descends into classic conspiracy theorist territory by claiming that “someday, something's coming” - a nonspecific prediction suited to the free-floating anxiety denoted in earlier parts of the song. A slightly ridiculous note is added with the sudden detail in the last line of the verse, bringing to mind a still-more-surreal image of fruit jars full of brains. This combination of a lack of specifics in terms of dates, names and methods with a few bizarrely specific details is typical of prophets and conspiracy theorists, and provides the climax of the overall connotation of extreme paranoia. This seals the primary signification of the song as a whole in terms of being a description of Lovecraft's state of mind during his stay in Brooklyn. That interpretation is corroborated by the “bleak and misanthropic” turn his stories took at the time (Joshi, 2006) and by Darnielle's own description of the song in the 2008 press kit: “one must condemn his racism ... but his not-unrelated inclination towards a general suspicion of anything that's alive is pretty fertile ground.”

The final chorus does add a third meaning to the overall polysemy I outlined in paragraph seven. “I feel like Lovecraft in Brooklyn” carries the semantic implication that the person who feels like Lovecraft in Brooklyn is therefore not Lovecraft. This creates the possibility that the whole song is rather about somebody who is experiencing the same loneliness and paranoia as Lovecraft, a signification which is supported by the entirely modern feel of the first verse, especially the Marcus Allen jersey which definitely didn't exist in 1925. Once again, I feel that nothing stands in the way of both these interpretations being either correct or intended by the author. One need merely consider Lovecraft's point of view to be one order of signification higher than that of the nameless modern narrator, so that we are thinking about someone who is thinking about Lovecraft. The mostly-abandoned idea of literal supernatural invasion can be placed one order above that.

In conclusion, the lyrics of this song tell the story of a lonely, paranoid Brooklyn resident comparing his experience to that of H.P. Lovecraft and the stories that resulted from it. A cursory knowledge of Lovecraft's life and work is extremely helpful to understanding this song, but the connotation of paranoia and loneliness comes across even without it. The music is essential to setting up the horror-story atmosphere and an underground-music feel which feeds into the persecution complex presented to the audience. The song leaves the listener with a diffuse sense of anxiety, and a wealth of surrealism to untangle.

Lyrics: Lovecraft in Brooklyn, by The Mountain Goats
It's gonna be too hot to breathe today
And everybody's out here on the streets
Somebody's opened up the fire hydrant
Cold water rushing out in sheets
Some kid in a Marcus Allen jersey
Asks me for a cigarette
Companionship is where you find it
So I take what I can get

Hubcaps on the cars like funhouse mirrors
Stick to the shadows when I can
Lovecraft in Brooklyn

When the sun goes down the armies of the voiceless
Several hundred thousand strong
Come out without their bandages
Their voices raised in song
When the streetlights sputter out
They make this awful sizzling sound
I cast my gaze toward the pavement
Too many bloodstains on the ground

Rhode Island drops into the ocean
No place to call home anymore
Lovecraft in Brooklyn

Head outside most every day
to try to keep the wolves away
Imagine nice things I might say
If company should come

Woke up afraid of my own shadow
Like, genuinely afraid
Headed for the pawn shop
To buy myself a switchblade
Someday something's coming
From way out beyond the stars
To kill us while we stand here
It'll store our brains in mason jars

And then a girl behind the counter
She asks me how I feel today
I feel like Lovecraft in Brooklyn

Stevens, K. 2000 The Sound of Horror,
Hubinette, J. 2002
Lewis, J. and Darnielle, J. 2008 Mountain Goats Press Kit,
Joshi, S.T. Extract from H.P. Lovecraft Centennial Guidebook, accessed at 4/10/2008
Mirigliano, R. 1995, 'The Sign and Music: a reflection on the theoretical bases of musical semiotics' in Tarasti, E. (Ed.) Musical Signification: Essays in the Semiotic Theory and Analysis of Music, published by Walter de Gruyter

Full Bibliography
Genosko, G. 1994, Baudrillard and Signs, London Routledge
Stevens, K. 2000, The Sound of Horror,
Hubinette, J. 2002,
Lewis, J. and Darnielle, J. 2008 Mountain Goats Press Kit,
Wikipedia article on Mason jars, accessed 5/11/08 to find out what one of those is
Joshi, S.T. Extract from H.P. Lovecraft Centennial Guidebook, accessed at 4/10/2008
Chandler, D. 2002, Semiotics for Beginners, Routledge
Mirigliano, R. 1995, 'The Sign and Music: a reflection on the theoretical bases of musical semiotics' in Tarasti, E. (Ed.) Musical Signification: Essays in the Semiotic Theory and Analysis of Music, published by Walter de Gruyter
Gane, M. & N. (Ed.) 2004, Roland Barthes, London, SAGE Publications
Mac Cormac, E. 1985, A Cognitive Theory of Metaphor, London, Bradford Books


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