Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Pop optimism

It has been over four months since I last wrote anything for this blog, and my apologies to anyone who follows it--does anyone follow it?--for having disappeared, or gently slipped into other modes of visibility, for a while. I returned to Ithaca last night from Italy, where I'd spent ten days reacquainting myself with a country I first encountered (and whose language I first fell in love with) fifteen years and nearly half my life ago. While I was there, I had time to witness firsthand the therapeutic value of a certain strain of pop optimism in the music that would play in heavy rotation on Italian television, specifically on All Music, a channel that suddenly, around 9 in the morning each day, at least in my hotel room, would become All Shopping, purveyor of a miracle (and, who knows, perhaps also musical) product called the Vibratone.

All Music plays, as far as I can tell, about fifteen or twenty different videos, about a third of them by Italian artists. The rest is the usual (although slightly Eurotrashier) stuff you'd expect from Vh1 in the early morning: too many pitch-corrected little girl voices singing about revenge and resistance over big 1980s arrangements. (Thank you, Sweden!) What was fascinating, to my inexperienced ear, was how much less cynical, how downright optimistic, the Italian popular music idiom is, in comparison to ours: where Lady GaGa (who is--does this matter?--Italian-American) sings about her poker face (and I love this song, even as I keep wondering whether it will ever be possible to make a dance anthem about a face incapable of hiding anything), Laura Pausini's new video makes an argument for obviousness as the ground of futurity: "what's there," she sings in possibly the most Heideggerian moment in recent popular songwriting, "is the most evident proof [comunque quel che c'è / è la prova più evidente]."

Don't get me wrong. This is an enormous ballad, and by every standard a colossal piece of crap, but I love it. Just as I love--to be honest, not quite as much as I love--Gianna Nannini's "Attimo," where the only out lesbian in Italian music promises, again in a future tense that we seem less eager to use, "In just a moment / I'll hold you [In un attimo / io ti stringerò]," just before asserting, with equal conviction, "Within just a moment / I'll lose you [Dentro a un attimo / io ti perderò]." (The chorus swells into a giant affirmation of this hope and this ambivalence: "Don't go away / before it hurts / Don't go away / without my life [Non te ne andare / prima che faccia male / Non te ne andare / Senza la mia vita].") At the risk of sounding every bit as sentimental as what I'm describing, I love the way these songs promise, and how Nannini's in particular acknowledges the risk of promising--and abiding with--something. (It also helps that the chorus of "Attimo" sounds a lot like Melissa Etheridge's "Come to My Window.")

What does this all amount to? Just the sense--fostered in part, I imagine, by jet-lag--that there's a place for promising in popular music, a place for acknowledging that hide and seek isn't the only game in town. Sometimes what's out there is the most compelling proof, the easiest thing to build a future on. To sing about a future isn't to claim to know what that future will hold; it is, nonetheless, to be committed to the idea of a future, to the idea of something or someone to hold on to. God knows that in the intervening "attimo" everything could change, but songs like these encourage us to place our bets on something, to come down on the side of holding or losing. I, for one, am determined to hold.