Monday, 1 December 2008

Beautiful songs: Under Pressure

Like many members of my general age group, I'm sure, my first exposure to "Under Pressure" was not via the original Queen and David Bowie version, but another artist: a white rapper called Vanilla Ice, which (correct me if I'm wrong) basically translates into "Whitey White" or perhaps "Whitey Cool". In his hit single of 1990, "Ice Ice Baby", Vanilla Ice used a modified version of the bass and finger snap line (lacking the piano) from "Under Pressure", after which I'm sure it must have been one of the most recognizable bits of music of the 90s. It was certainly an extremely popular song, being the first rap song to reach number one on the Billboard pop music chart, spending several months on that chart, selling upwards of 15 000 000 copies, and reaching gold or platinum in several countries.

To preteens, without broader knowledge and greater discernment of the quality and depth of music—especially rap music—the song was great: it has a fun tune and beat, it's lyrics are easy to sing along to, the video is cheesy in a way kids can appreciate, and so on. And who at that time could tell that Vanilla Ice was basically a fraud? At 12 I just didn't have a deep background in hip hop music to base my judgments on!

By an interesting coincidence, another hit rap song came out that same year that sampled another 1981 song. The artist was MC Hammer, the current song was "U Can't Touch This", and the sample was from "Superfreak" by Rick James. Only time will tell which, if either, of these artists history will be kind to.

The point is, when I first heard Queen and David Bowie's performance of "Under Pressure", I was completely shocked. I'm pretty sure that it was in fact my first real exposure to Queen, as Wayne's World was still in the future. It was such a moment that I remember the scene pretty clearly: I was sitting in the living room at my parents' house, with all of my family, I think. I was probably 13 at the time. The television was on—I can't recall whether this was before or after we had a TV with remote control—and the video came on, incredibly, since we didn't have cable. (I guess that it was channel 11 (CHCH from Hamilton, Ontario), because they used to show music videos between programs at random times during the day. I recall seeing INXS's "Guns in the Sky" a lot for some reason.)

The image I remember from that moment is of a building collapsing in black and white. That image has probably defined my perspective on the song since then, though no doubt at 13 I could hardly appreciate the message. It was the performance that touched me. I guess, if I wanted to get all McLuhan on everybody, I'd say that the performance is the medium and the medium is the message; or, at least, the message is implied through the performance. I've never studied McLuhan though, so I wouldn't want to embarrass myself by getting into that. Regardless, the song's message, I believe, is one of humanity—my very favourite theme.

"Under Pressure" is remarkable for many reasons: coming during what was a decadent transitional period for both parties—Bowie had recently come out of his "Berlin period" and kicked the heroin habit—maybe—and Queen had begun experimenting with synthesizers and dance music—the ultra-group created something graceful, deep, and simple, which resulted in a strikingly original and powerful performance. It is the kind of performance that only seasoned and experienced artists can produce, and despite their decadence—and the spontaneity of the recording session—all were clearly at their best.

So the performance itself is simply excellent (a facade of objectivity prevents me from saying brilliant). Freddy Mercury's falsetto and Bowie's baritone complement each other in a way that I'm not sure I can compare to any other performance, and their passion is evident. The two lower and lift their voices at a moment's notice, giving the song its urgency and compassion, as well as softness and humour. And Bowie does backup vocal duties, too, which is a role he always does incredibly well (though usually to his own lead). His soft and purposeful voice ascends behind the lead, quietly supporting it and elevating it.

The music is simply terrific, managing to be both isolating, meditative, and inspiring, creating a great rush of emotion before the chorus: "It's the terror of knowing...". But there's nothing to it really, beyond two notes on a bass, two on a piano, and some light guitar picking, and building to a crescendo at the bridge that crashes into great timeless guitar rock. It creates the mood of the song, and the template against which Mercury and Bowie sing (particularly the scatting bits), while at the same time staying out of the way of the vocals. But it is undoubtedly there in its softness and hardness and underlying power, and I wouldn't change a thing about it.

As with most songs, at any given time, I recall only a few lines of "Under Pressure". Sometimes, when I read the lyrics of a song and sing along to it a lot, I'll remember the whole thing, but usually not. So I've heard "Under Pressure" probably hundreds of times—and there are not a lot of lyrics to begin with—but in a number of places I didn't hear the lyrics quite correctly:

Pressure, pushing down on me, pushing down on you, no man has fault
Pressure, the kind that builds with time, splits a family in two, puts people on streets
Close, but not quite (see below). But the first bridge, oh dear! I always had that right on. It's clear as day:
It's the terror of knowing what this world is about
Watching some good friend scream: "Let me out"
Pray tomorrow gets me higher
Pressure on people, people on streets
I mean, wow. It may not show up in the lyrics alone, but to me, rarely have so few words expressed such a great amount of anguish; and Bowie's smooth and tainted voice seems to express the pain of the world—or at least the pain of the world as understood by a 13-year-old boy and a 30-year-old man.

And the scatting says nearly as much as the words, tempering the tough subject matter with its playfulness and mirroring of the bass and piano line. But it's the crashing climax that brings the message home:
'Cause love's such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night
And loves dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves
This is our last dance; this is our last dance; this is ourselves
Broadly speaking, there are two sides to humanity: the fundamental "terror" that we experience in the face of life itself—the face we spend so much time trying to hide from—and the "love" we feel for others and ourselves in spite of it—the love that is so hard to feel when we are hiding. The terror makes us want to escape; the love makes us daring; and the eternal tension between them we call life. At the same time, "this is our last dance": this life is our chance to love and care and dare. "This is ourselves": this is who we are—human—and if we don't dare, this dance is our—humanity's—last. Or, it's always humanity's last dance: there is no other moment but this one, and why should we spend it in fear? And, then, what are we afraid of? This is us; why should we fear each other?

"Under Pressure" measures the musical modesty of Bowie's "Changes" and the breathtaking emotion of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody". And while it doesn't employ the humour of either of those songs, it does have their playfulness and optimism, and avoids any self-indulgence, criticism, and irony. To me, the performance and song come off as completely honest, devoid of pretense, existing for no other reason than to be a great song.

Pressure pushing down on me
Pressing down on you no man ask for
Under pressure: that tears a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets
It's the terror of knowing what this world is about
Watching some good friend scream: "Let me out"
Pray tomorrow gets me higher
Pressure on people: people on streets

Chippin' around: kick my brains around the floor
These are the days it never rains but it pours
People on streets
People on streets
It's the terror of knowing what this world is about
Watching some good friend scream "Let me out"
Pray tomorrow gets me higher high high
Pressure on people: people on streets

Turned away from it all like a blind man
Sat on a fence, but it don't work
Keep coming up with love, but it's so slashed and torn
Why, why, why?
Love love love love love
Insanity laughs under pressure we're cracking
Can't we give ourselves one more chance
Why can't we give love that one more chance
Why can't we give love give love give love give love
give love give love give love give love give love
'Cause love's such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And loves dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
Under pressure
Under pressure

1 comment:

Prashant Miranda said...

'twas fun talking to you at the party too. Hope all's well with you.


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The New Dilettantes by Adam Gorley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.