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December/January 2020

by Dr Mark Baynes

X-Factory: Aldous Harding – The Barrel

by Dr Mark Baynes

X-Factory: Aldous Harding – The Barrel

Question: What do Finding Nemo, Taylor Swift and Aldous Harding have in common?

Answer: Perhaps more than you might think. In October, Harding’s song The Barrel claimed the 2019 APRA Silver Scroll Award. It’s a groovy little folk number, containing whimsical imagery through its lyrics and video, each of which are ambiguous enough to support multiple interpretations.

Talking about music is always a difficult task, and I am of the understanding that Harding doesn’t often reveal her thoughts on meaning in her work. Those caveats aside, perhaps the importance of The Barrel can be explained somewhat by looking through a postmodern lens. This article considers elements such as fragmentation, eclecticism, storytelling, and I will throw in a little bit of semiotic analysis into the mix for good measure. I hope you will come along for the ride.

Postmodernism, Holistic Songwriting, and the Art of 2+2

Postmodernism is a late 20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism, and is typically defined by an attitude of scepticism, irony, or rejection toward the meta-narratives and ideologies of modernism. Common targets of postmodern critique include universalist notions of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, language, and social progress.

According to Jonathan Kramer, definitions of postmodern music may include (but not be limited to) use of irony, eclecticism, contradiction, fragmentation, may present multiple meanings and multiple temporalities, and locate meaning and even structure into listeners, rather than being absolute. (Kramer, 2002.)

Friedemann Findeisen’s blog, Holistic Songwriting, provides examples of post-modern thinking in popular music. Findeisen argues that Taylor Swift uses ‘colder’ qualities in her album ‘1989’, arguing that by removing musical events that provoke strong emotion (such as harmonies in thirds/sixths, and extended functional harmonic movement), the listener is freer to interpret the emotional connotations associated with any given passage or song. Findeisen proposes ‘the major leap modern song writing has made, is to give the listener just enough so they can figure it out themselves.’ (Findeisen, 2012.)

Broadly speaking, a lack of emotion in song writing is currently considered more authentic, harmonies often reduced to octaves or unison and simplicity (such as the root note) favoured. This obviously serves as stark contrast to emotionally charged music prevalent in the last quarter of the 20th Century found in music or film.

In Andrew Stanton’s TED talk, The Clues To A Great Story, Stanton says he first started really understanding this storytelling device when he was writing on Finding Nemo.

“We would call this the unifying theory of two-plus-two. Make the audience put things together. Don’t give them four, give them two-plus-two. The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience… It’s the invisible application that holds our attention to story. I don’t mean to make it sound like this is an actual exact science, it’s not. That’s what’s so special about stories, they’re not a widget, they aren’t exact. Stories are inevitable, if they’re good, but they’re not predictable.’ (Stanton, 2012.)

So what does this all have to do with Aldous Harding and The Barrel?

Well in a recent NPR interview, Bob Boilen quizzes Harding on the meaning of both the video and music. Boilen reminds us that Harding is not known for talking about the meaning of her songs, but states that in this case, the video (described by Boilen as having Amish/futuristic/sci-fi tendencies), is not intended to be any visual representation of the content of the song – it is intended to keep it loose. Furthermore, Harding then rejected the notion of expectation and purpose with regards to songwriting in general. (Boilen, 2019).

Scott Russell from Paste Magazine was more descriptive. ‘The quietly off-kilter video for The Barrel, co-directed by Martin Sagadin and Harding herself, finds the artist singing her new song in an unusual outfit and environment; she dances in place behind a Mona Lisa smile, dressed like a witchy pilgrim throwing a one-woman party in the world’s biggest blanket fort. The clip has a trick or two up its sleeve, though, so you’ll want to see it through – the payoff takes the video’s unsettling charm up a notch.’ (Russell, 2019.) 

Certainly, the music video to The Barrel is postmodern in nature. It contains many elements as discussed previously (eclecticism, contradiction, fragmentation etc). However the video is not alone in this regard. Harmony, instrumentation, and vocal persona play a major role too. Table 1 below shows how the key centres in the verse and pre-chorus, alternating regularly between B major and C# major throughout the song.

Harmony in The Barrel

Section  Harmonic Progression
Verse B – F# – C#m – G#m (I-V-II-VI)
Pre-Chorus C# – G# – B – F# (descending in 4ths)
Chorus B – F# – C#m – G#m (I-V-II-VI)
Bridge  C#7

The instrumentation of The Barrel is largely idiomatic, comprising of guitar, bass, drums, shaker, and some simple piano lines. During the pre-chorus however, a bass clarinet provides a welcoming and surprising, yet congruent addition to an otherwise normative timbral palette. Harding’s vocal persona is very distinct, and to my ears provides an eclectic stamp that’s hard to define in words, but has the effect of somehow distancing the singer from the listener. Finally, the silence as the track stops abruptly but briefly at 4m04s, before the outro section, adding to the feeling of fragmentation.

Genius (2019), reminds us that the lyrics contain no discernible meaning, and according to Harding there is no tenable link between video and audio. Her vocal persona has an eclectic and cooler quality, coupled with a fragmented harmonic palette and disjointed form (with an abrupt stop, and pre-chorus up a tone), leaves us wanting, emotionally. However, The Barrel is also quite alluring and charming, the groove is soft and persuasive and you can’t help but buy into it. So whatever your interpretation of this song may be, and I think Harding is looking for our individual interpretation, it still contains a story worth telling if you ‘just keep swimming’!

Dr Mark Baynes is Programme Manager for the Bachelor of Musical Arts degree at MAINZ, Auckland; a degree program that fosters students’ ability to find their own musical voice, culminating with the creation of a capstone project such as an album, film score or music for game audio. For more information visit mainz.ac.nz

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