Saturday, April 05, 2008

Trying to hear 'I Will Always Love You'

I was a child of the nineties. Raised in a rather small town with nominal theaters and on solely-network television channels, I had first access to certain cultural phenomena through parody. The nineties were no exception to the Vaudvillian lineage which was by then the network sitcom and comedy hours, lampooning contemporary social conventions and trends. Realizing something first in parody develops a stigma of superiority within the viewer. In watching, and reading the comedy inherent in the ridiculed source, it is common to develop a sense of mastery over the once-earnest subject. In short, it establishes you as one of a body of people who choose (or, as they might argue, know) to laugh as opposed to cry. The parodic viewer might argue strength over he who finds the intentional value in that which is being parodied as he resists the parodied subject’s powers of persuasion.

Imagine the maelstrom of emotions colliding within me in recent months as I drive, cook, bathe, dance… to the motion picture soundtrack for The Bodyguard (a film that I viewed for the first time mere months ago). In the 90’s, the stigma of The Bodyguard was inescapable. Whitney was a force of nature that lurked in every sound-emitting device. Having never seen the film, only its cavalcade of doppelgangers, I had always assumed this “superior” position and read it as a frivolous picture, its soundtrack: audio wallpaper. I was too avant garde to even allow a moment’s listen to this pop disc.

In my (more) adult years, having a personal affinity to the Dolly Parton version of the (in)famous ‘I Will Always Love You,’ I took Whitney’s as a commercial affront to more heartfelt coos. I had recently ended a relationship and sat in a room with Parton’s take, crying. Dolly didn’t help, but her tune felt personal in a way that made Whitney’s meretricious.

It’s an elaborate construction – the buying of Whitney’s version. Ridiculed as the film is (and it is ridiculous), it is as much a key to the tune’s success as Whitney’s back catalogue. I don’t know if I ever actually sat down and listened to her ‘I Will Always Love You’ in its entirety before my recent viewing of the film, but the clumsy build of the film’s narrative erupts in a magnificent use of the power-ballad. The Bodyguard is, essentially, a feature-length, big budget trailer for the tune. In that final 3 minutes, my jaw dropped and I basked in the brilliant workings of this contrived picture. I let the track in – for the first time. And I will always love you.

It’s a way of owning a moment, of conjuring a feeling with every press of the repeat button. With one play, we’re whirling on the runway, loosening the scarf and leaping into the arms of our loved one (let’s, for the moment forget that he happens to be a be-crew-cutted Kevin Costner). The track’s structure is such that each listen is a mounting narrative unto itself. Whitney starts off solo. This is her Dolly moment. She’s isolated (read: emotional?) in her delivery – though that mechanically magnificent voice which gave her great fame also robs Dolly’s vulnerability from the tune. Hence the a capella. Hold the schmaltz. Tell it like it is. And then an acoustic guitar. That helps. We’re treated to this sparsity for what feels like some time – interesting in the Houston cannon. It picks up after a while and we earn a beat - there’s our Whitney and the title line that now arrives as naturally as the pledge of allegiance. (I still can’t get into that sax interlude, however.) Perhaps the most dramatic moment in the song does not even flow from Whitney at all. It’s that kick drum that assures us that the best is yet to come – that she will always love you, again – Bigger! Just before the final bellowing “Iiiiiiiii,” it penetrates a false close of the song like a lite in the darkness. Then we’re in Whitney’s downpour. This is the big crescendo, the Oscar moment (had the song not been written 19 years prior), the moment that sells the chemistry absent in the films preceding 2 hours. That’s a lot for one moment, but Whitney sure knows how to work it. Repeat.

It’s difficult to be of a certain cultural persuasion and try a listen at this song. Not listening in the spirit of my youth in which I snigger and alienate the tracks foolishness nor the non-listening which the track has probably most frequently found: pouring from mall walls, doctor’s offices and from parking lot speakers, disguised as rocks. Perhaps this is in partial reaction to the cold irony of my initial take, but I buy into it and allow myself to assume a subservient role to a tune so precisely constructed for mass consumption that it is still the greatest selling female pop single of all time.

My initial impulse was that of embarrassment. Much like Carl Wilson who recently contributed to the 33 1/3 series a slim volume on Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love, my first few weeks of listening were done at low volumes with closed windows lest the neighbors or casual passers-by know my folly. But that is no way to treat this track! This is a behemoth. Whitney does not deliver Dolly’s coos but traverses the world with her chords. As soon as I became comfortable with this new love, the volume raised and the car windows were lowered. I owned it.

Now I’m not thoroughly convinced that this tune has the slightest thing to do with the song Parton’s wrote and performed. I’m interested in how, in discussing the track, my allusions have been spacial and have only referenced the title line of the lyric. I think ‘I Will Always Love You’ obliterates the necessity of language. ‘I Will Always Love You,’ because of its being as a cover, its being as a vehicle and its exhaustive repetitions is post-linguistic. Just as Rachel never truly falls for Frank in the film, I never, for a moment, even register the words Whitney barrels through in her delivery. (I remember an embarrassing moment some years back at a Karaoke bar in which I selected the track in jest, feeling oh-so familiar with it, only to find myself surprisingly at a loss for words - I had no idea how this song I "knew" went.) I know this is ‘I Will Always Love You’ because I know ‘I Will Always Love You.’ It is impossible to hear ‘I Will Always Love You’ (as a recording, a woman singing in a room) as the first few notes find the listener rapt in the exhaustive pop connotations that the song has since endowed.

These are personal (at school dances, weddings or my television watching and solitary crying), cultural post- and narratively pre-scribed. The song’s great commercial success has rendered it a glistening beacon of connotation and abstraction. I listen and I recall late night hit collection infomercials. I see scenes from shows as diverse as The Critic and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I wade through memories so steeped in my unconscious that they’re not truly memories at all, but vague feelings of recognition. And finally I see Rachel Marron. I’ve been doing my best to hear it these past few months, but there I always find myself, on that runway, tugging at my scarf and hurtling into the arms of love. Until I hit repeat and do it all over again.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your essays. Keep 'em coming.

1:27 PM  

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