Monday, May 17, 2010

Comparative Literature: They Don't Know

One of the things I really like about this blog is its relative freedom--when compared to other music blogs--from hipster consciousness. We may bemusedly post things we think are kind of woeful, but we see them as part of a larger artistic field, and I don't think we ever put up anything we don't at least think of as interesting.

In my (professional) field, criticism isn't, yanno, critical, as such. It's revelatory, explanatory. We compare not to place things on a suck-doesn't suck continuum, but to think about how and why things are different.

And so I present a song I have long loved in two incarnations. The original, written by the incomparable, deeply mourned Kirsty MacColl, came out in that banner pop year: 1979 (which I will cheerfully place against 1965 or 1991 as one of those years in which pop hit critical mass and almost got *gasp!* popular). At the time, there was some difficulty with her distributor in England, and so the song, though it received a lot of airplay, did not sell well. The charts were based on sales, not airplay, and so it was not a "hit," officially.

From 1979, then, MacColl's "They Don't Know."

Fast forward a couple of years. Pop flourished and crashed: it's all about asymmetrical haircuts and synths by 1983. MTV is still leveling the rural-urban cool factor, in that it gave hix in the stix (like yours truly) access to music easily as cool as that available to our City Mouse cousins. And into this comes comedienne Tracey Ullmann (who has pretty much always been cool), translating MacColl's gem for the MTV generation. The video is charming (and features the first self-consciously ironic use of 70's fashion I recall--eat your heart out Urge Overkill!), the cameo by Macca a stunning surprise at the time (Ullmann has a cameo in his Give My Regards to Broad Street), and even paid homage to its original: that's MacColl singing the plaintive "Baybee!" in the middle.

No great point here, just two terrific versions of a terrific song.