PopMAC day 2: Into the Mythic. Richard Parfitt #popmac

Bob and WoodyInto the Mythic. Richard Parfitt (Bath Spa University)

Through universal themes we understand and make sense of the world. Our reaction to art is imbued with unintentional responses. That we may see rebirth in the constant reinvention of David Bowie, or perhaps find the spirit of Odysseus in Bruce Springsteen, is testament not just to the power of myth, but the exploitation of that need by market forces. The metaphor retains its power and the message finds its medium in whatever culture is available at the time. Narratives from the Bible and Greek drama, as well as Hollywood movies and fiction chime with the semiology of many contemporary acts. Non-Western traditions are represented through comparative mythologies and mystical archetypes. One only has to look closely at Florence and the Machine to see not just the modern Pre-Raphaelites, but also the White Goddess. In this secular age, paganism has gone mainstream, and that means the free market is on to it. Don DeLillo once wrote: When the old gods leave the world, what happens to all the unexpended faith? (1) The philosopher John Gray believes that that the need to worship is hardwired into the human brain (2). If he is right then people will seek out the old myths in whatever context they have put their faith. This presentation will look at implied narrative and the significance of psychic landmarks as a way of validating music and unifying aspects of pop culture.

Richard J. Parfitt is Senior Lecturer in Commercial Music at Bath Spa University where he runs the MMus in Songwriting. He crossed over to the ‘dark side’ of academia late, having previously worked professionally within the music industry, where he was guitarist and songwriter for the 60ft Dolls. In 2005, he worked closely with Rough Trade Management developing the career of Grammy and Brit Award artist Duffy, and as a songwriter he has sold over a million records. He is currently working towards a doctorate in Music and Myth.


Richard sets out his arguments by outlining questions of authenticity and voice in the context of the question he is often asked ‘how do you teach songwriting’. He then lists many ‘teachable’ parameters – metre, rhyme, imagery, melodic shape etc. But he asserts that although craft can be taught, songwriting is also an art.

Richard’s first case study is McCartney; he points out that PM began writing songs aged 14 (and is now 71), and observes that Yesterday, an arguable creative peak, was written when McCartney was 23. Does PM know more about songwriting now than when he was 23? Certainly. Was Yesterday a songwriter at the height of his powers? Perhaps so.

We now look at Tom Waits’s ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker’ and notes its deviation from many songwriting norms;

Hey Charlie I’m pregnant and living on the 9th street
Right above a dirty bookstore off Euclid Avenue
And I stopped takin’ dope and I quit drinkin’ whiskey
And my old man plays the trombone works out at the track

Waits’s first and second singles are contrasted, and the stark (and perhaps arch) transformation that has been achieved between the two is sonically clear to all in the audience. This takes us into a discussion of mythology – Peter Parker as Spiderman, Dylan as Woody Guthrie. The latter suggests an inference of a symbolic passing of an eternal flame. Richard acknowledges that this is almost certainly an inferred fiction, but rather that it illustrates an inconvenient truth – that there is no real history in popular music, only myth. The idea of self-made identity is illustrated by a very early source;

First say to yourself what you would be: and then do what you have to do (Epictetus: AD55-AD135)

Brian Jones’s narcissism is now cited, and Richard notes that the surviving Stones still reflect negatively on the period between initial fame and his death. The parallel is with the original Narcissus of myth – not being in love with oneself, but with the image of oneself, a distinction that many do not make, he says.

Richard now displays two photos of Amie Ann Duffy (aka ‘Duffy’) and shares some of his personal music industry experience in helping her to achieve transformation. He compares her 2003 limited-release first album with the international hit album Rockferry, and partly deconstructs the myth of artists being manipulated in terms of creative control, noting that Duffy retained this throughout. The cover of Rockferry is deconstructed, with its working class ‘Northern Soul’ imagery (and the anachronistic steam train style carriage in the background). Duffy’s work was defined by certain songs, and Richard demonstrates the aesthetics of her production values by playing sonically similar songs, including Breaking Up Is Hard To Do and Ferry ‘Cross The Mersey, followed immediately by the title track of Rockferry. This song was the sonic core (as a cultural reference) around which the rest of the project was built. This implies stories within stories and is related to marketing theory – the ‘law of contraction’. He discusses the power of association, noting the obvious ‘Dusty’ parallel, asserting that ‘The birth of a brand is achieved with publicity, not advertising’, and notes the way the UK press leapt eagerly to support the ‘Dusty’ mythology through headlines. He infers from the Duffy project that ‘The crucial ingredient in the success of any brand is its claim to authenticity’. Many ‘authentic’ people and brands were associated with the perception – Jarvis Cocker, Don Letts, Rough Trade records etc.

He concludes that (as pop music consumers) we consciously or unconsciously seek out authenticity. “We began to marvel at our own ability to manufacture awe” (Delillo, 1985). He suggests that myth-building is not the same as telling a lie.

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