Saturday, September 23, 2006

London Bridge is Falling Down

On our last day in London, Mary and I took a break from surveying horses to go down to the the Tate Modern to see the big Kandinsky show. Snap review: I like Kandinsky; who doesn't? It seemed like a fairly thorough overview of his work, with an impressive number of major paintings. The exhibition subtitle was "The Path to Abstraction," and there was indeed a predictable emphasis on his chronological progression from early impressionist landscapes to the more abstract stuff. I'm not sure that was particularly enlightening, but I did like one room where they displayed one of his major paintings alongside all the sketches and studies for it. I imagine it is rare to see all those parts together in one place, so that's neat.

Kandinsky is not what I want to talk about today, however. Because on the way to the exhibition, we got off at the London Bridge tube stop. And thus, two songs immediately entered my head, one old, one new:
London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down
London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady.

and then,
How come every time you come around
My London London Bridge want to go down
Like London London want you to go down
Like London London be going down

The first is a nursery rhyme, the second is from this summer's hit song "London Bridge," by Fergie, on her first solo outing. Fergie's version, of course, has been the inescapable hit of the summer. The first time I heard it, it sounded to me like it was the same basic idea behind Fergie's hit with the Black-Eyed Peas, whose chorus goes "My hump, my hump, my lady lady lumps." Which is to say, it pushes inanity to the point where it becomes so shocking you can't help but be attracted to it. As such, it was in the same vein of songs like Kelis's "Milkshake," or maybe some tracks by 50 Cent.

But man, "London Bridge" has been everywhere. I have to ask myself, what else is interesting about it? I mean, for one thing, there is the fact that it wears its intertextuality on its sleeve, which is the academic way of saying it rips a lot of other songs off. There is the lyrical allusion to "Me So Horny," which, interestingly enough, can be found in two or three other pop songs on the charts right now. There is the more subtle nod to Missy Elliot, particularly the Missy of "Work It." (Really, go listen to the Missy track--it's hard to tell the two apart, except that of course Missy can eat Fergie for breakfast any day.)

Then there is the issue of historicity. I've blogged about this before, and it is something that a number of critics have noted about Top 40 music right now. It is the "simple" idea that under postmodernity, our sense of history has collapsed. As Fredric Jameson writes, it is a sense of "historical deafness," punctuated by "a series of spasmodic and intermittent, but desperate, attempts at recuperation." Of the pop hits of this summer, I would put John Mayer and Jessica Simpson's tributes to, respectively, Curtis Mayfield and Madonna into this category of recuperative attempts.

But London Bridge? Hard to say. There is, of course, the titular object. As is well-known now, both the cover and the video for this song feature Fergie dancing in front of a bridge in London (see above). Unfortunately, it's not actually the London Bridge, but rather the Tower Bridge, a Victorian construction that is very pretty and elaborate, and suitably old-looking (the Victorians could collapse historicity like nobody's business), but is unfortunately quite different from the London Bridge.

The London Bridge is a much more pedestrian affair. As any Wikipediast will tell you, it has gone through three main incarnations. The "Old" London Bridge was a gothic stone construction that crossed the Thames from 1029-1831. As the nursery rhyme tells us, this bridge was falling down and the enterprising Victorians put up a replacement in 1831, the "New" London Bridge. This bridge was then replaced in 1973 by what most call the "Ugly" London Bridge, the current incarnation pictured above that is essentially a freeway on-ramp plopped over a river.

But what is fabulously postmodern about the saga of the London Bridge is that the "New" London Bridge was not destroyed. No, in a triumph of late globalized capitalism, it was sold to the highest bidder, taken apart brick by brick, and then reassembled in a new home. And that new home was none other than Lake Havasu, Arizona, where today it is surrounded by blonde coeds flashing their breasts at the Girls Gone Wild cameras in the shadow of the poor old London Bridge.

Which finally brings us to the ultimately unanswerable question of this song. At a party I was at tonight, the claim was made that Fergie's "London Bridge" is part of a trend of recent popular songs which celebrate powerful female sexuality, a trend that stems from Christina Aguilera's album Stripped and perhaps some fin-du-millennium hip-hop by Missy Elliot and Lil' Kim, music widely seen as representing a turn away from the de-sexualized ideology of Britney Spears, the boy bands, and "Genie in a Bottle" Xtina. The argument was made that the lyrics, which do indeed seem to involve somebody performing sexual acts on the singer, somehow represent a positive vision of assertive feminine sexuality. On the more performative sound, Mary pointed out to me that maybe it isn't the lyrics, but the ferociousness with which Fergie launches into the chorus that gives us an attractive sense of power. But how does this all tie together? From medieval London to Girls Gone Wild, from "Hit Me Baby One More Time" to "I'm a Slave 4 U"?

So yeah, it's a complicated text. If anybody has any other ideas about it, let me know.

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