On the Radio: The Musical Chimera

The goat head breathes fire!

In Ancient Greek myth the terrible Chimera—part lion, serpent and fire-breathing goat—represents the degeneration of the offspring of the earth and the type of marginal monster mankind needs heroes to kill. By destroying such beasts in stories, early man, in part, assuaged his own fears of the unknown and tamed the world around him.

(we even get a nice adjective from this that is not commonly used in English: chimerical, “fantastic or imaginary”; perhaps even “unnatural”).

Modern science, however, uses the term to describe a creature made from the parts of distinct species. For us, disturbingly or not, the threats to the order of things come not from the earth itself but from our own ‘unnatural’ meddling. (Although I am not so sure that scientists use this term pejoratively, as we might expect.)

Why am I thinking of the Chimera? Well, as I have mentioned, I have been listening to the radio a good deal thanks to the demands of parenthood. Now, recently, I wrested the control of the station from my wife and children (well, from my children who can’t articulate what station they want to listen to; my wife isn’t in the car when I do this…) and returned to my adolescent roots: the local independent alternative rock station.

Now, local alternative independent rock stations are really not all that different from one state to another (unless they are college stations, a topic for another post) : they all tend to play the same ‘classic’ alt-rock songs from the 90’s, they all play too many Foo Fighters tracks (a rant for a later date), and they all play the latest alt-rock hits. So, as a result, my brother and I can live 3000 miles apart and hear the same songs every day by listening to our ‘local’ and ‘independent’ rock stations.

Where is the Chimera, you ask? One song that I cannot escape is Fun’s “We Are Young”. I don’t want to tear the song down—it is actually quite catchy, appealing content-wise, and not hard to listen to. After hearing it, I find myself humming it as I walk from house to car or even in bed when the baby won’t sleep (and when I feel far from young).

The problem with the song is that I feel like it is not one song, but two. The first verse and the last bit sound like something from a David Gray or Mumford & Sons. The middle part sounds like a discarded AWOLnation track or a glam-rock anthem from the 1980’s. The two parts just don’t go together at all. They are so ill-fit  as to make the pairing unnatural, chimerical. (Now, this may be intentional (to create a jarring feeling, to wake the addressee into thinking about fleeting youth and to “gather rosebuds” while we may) but I suspect it is not).

Or so I thought. I decided to embark upon an experiment to test the case. It was simple and fast. I tricked my wife into listening to the radio station that was more than likely to play “We Are Young” every hour. When it came on, I let my wife listen for a few seconds and then turned the volume down. Then I asked her, do you know that “We are young song” (and I sang her the chorus). She did. I told her the song I just turned down was the first part of that song. She swore at me . I turned it up and waited for transition. Typically, laconically, my wife said: “that’s stupid”.

I am not sure I agree with that, but I do wonder about the effect on the audience of the contrast. Cynically, I suspect that the chorus was written first and the rest of the song just thrown around it. (Which is, incidentally, the way I feel about Maroon 5’s highly chimerical “This Love”). But even if that is the case, should we care if part of the song is so good?

In the case of Maroon 5, I think the contrast between the parts makes this creature completely monstrous and the song unlistenable. For Fun’s “We Are Young”, the more I hear it, the more the less beastly it seams

PS: Although I am not the biggest fun of the type of a cappella that plagues small college campuses, I actually like this version of the song a lot: