Saturday, 2 October 2010

Pop Culture Overthink #2: Smalltown Boy

I couldn't tell you exactly what it is about this song and video that sends a tingle up this straight, big-city boy's spine every time, but it still does:

Just look at the understatement. In the early going, it doesn't show his parents being abusive, or trying to force women on him; it simply shows an awkward breakfast in an old-fashioned council flat and manages to say it all. The video is composed entirely of little moments like this. You never see any actual sex or violence. It's all coded in the way the characters look at one another and reinforced by the recurrent railway motif.

Another quiet flourish worthy of note comes during the first iteration of the "run away, turn away" refrain. It plays over images of black-and-white photographs depicting a provincial, conservative upbringing, magisterially capturing the bittersweet nature of the Smalltown Boy's decision to leave it all. The images, including some of a very heterosexual wedding, emphasise what he's running away from, but also convey some sense of security and innocence. The familiar is always a kind of safe haven, after all, whose leaving is none the easier for being absolutely necessary. While the gay dimension certainly amplifies the mingled sense of tragedy and catharsis, this story has meaning for anyone taking a leap into the unknown (or anyone who ever has, for that matter).

Now to the song itself. What is it about that voice? Jimmy Somerville is one of a tiny handful of vocalists (Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Thom Yorke also come to mind) who really do seem to have been sent to us from elsewhere, such is the otherwordly manner in which their music cuts into you. It's the epitome of vulnerability, resilience and deep, deep pain, all at once. The rest of the track is just about perfect, too. Like Eurythmics, Bronski Beat knew how to wring warmth from the machine.

In conclusion: if the Christina Aguilera cut I posted about earlier is a textbook example of how to make a dance-based track and video, Smalltown Boy does the same for narrative-based efforts. Take note, aspiring musicians and directors.

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