Monday, June 11, 2012

Under the Bridge: Red Hot Chili Peppers & Film Noir

I was listening to Pandora over the weekend and heard the Red Hot Chili Peppers platinum 1992 hit Under the Bridge and was surprised at the sophisticated structure of the song's lyrics. Let's examine the structure because it actually fits in with our film noir series:
I was trained as an art historian so I love research, but sometimes it's not possible to research a work of art, or even if you do, to gain access to the most important information (it's being withheld from the public, it's mis-remembered, no one simply knows) so let's place ourselves in a realistic situation that we are just seeing this video or hearing this song for the first time, (the tabula rasa paradigm as it is called, that we have a blank mind) and don't know anything about the song's background, and we are just given the information provided by the lyrics (full lyrics are below).
Frusciante (who is no 75 on The Rolling Stones list of all-time greatest guitar players) standing on a pedestal with inverted superimposed images behind him in the music video for Under the Bridge. Please note the multitude of surrounding clouds in the open image--probably referring to a storm--but also that something is hidden, in this case, the real details and meaning of the song. It's also the image of a desert behind him, which long-time readers should recognize as coming from the 1950s science fiction films we recently completed. Why the desert? There is not only the obvious symbolism of the desert spirituality being invoked--the song's narrator talking about loneliness--but also the desert is where atomic bombs are tested. In the video, at 3:23 and following, if you look behind Anthony Kiedis, an atomic explosion goes off behind him, at specifically the moment the narrator discusses what happened "under the bridge."
Immediately, the narrator of the song talks about loneliness and "my only friend, Is the city I live in," which is an animation of what is not animated: "Together we cry," "she's my companion," "she knows who I am," "she sees my good deeds," "she kisses me windy," "at least I have her love, The city she loves me." Each bold-faced action has to be performed by an animated being and the city is inanimate, having no life. This state of contradiction, however, is re-enforced later when the narrator sings "Oh, no, no, yeah, yeah, yeah," pulsating negative then positive, to enhance the state of confusion for the listener; there is also the dread of the place under the bridge where something bad happened, but then longing to be "taken to the place I love." Why? What does the narrator gain by creating this subtle confusion? By listening, the audience affirms participation with the narrator, so the ambiguity of the song allows each person to unconsciously fill in times when they themselves were in such a state of confusion and contraction, permitting the sought-after catharsis.
Anthony Kiedes, lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In this still, we can see the atomic mushroom cloud exploding behind him as he runs towards the viewer; the explosion occurs at the same time in the song when the explosion of the lyrics take place, when the narrator "drew some blood" under the bridge on that day he wants to forget. In the upper-right portion of the still (and even better in the video at this shot) you can see airplanes in bomber formation. Why? The previous year of the song's release, 1991, is considered to be the end of the Cold War as the Soviet Union collapsed and there appeared to be a general end to the threat of nuclear war. The image is ambiguous, and how we answer it reflects ourselves more than anything else--as all art does--but the image of him running, while it immediately lends the interpretation of the great explosion going off within him in the event he discusses happening under the bridge, also fits in with the very traditional images of the "Space Race" and America's rush to out-produce the Soviet Union in nuclear warheads (the idea of the race was particularly popular in the 1960s with images of drag races, such as in American Graffiti and Carnival of Souls). There is the suggestion that whereas the crumbling of the Soviet Union ended the guilt of the atrocities of the Soviet regime (and believe me, there were atrocities) America couldn't out-run what it had done in dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What had finally ended for the Soviet Union was still going on for America, and the video seems to suggest that many of our problems still in the 1990s were from the World War II era, perhaps even the drug problems the song is reputedly about (more on that below).
It should not surprise us then, that in the last stanzas, the back up vocals are high-pitched females' voices, almost like the Greek chorus of ancient plays, both commenting upon the narrator's actions, drawing out more and more information from him as he approaches the climax of what happened "that day" and a part of the drama, the female voice of the city of Los Angeles the narrator compares to a woman, being given life by the narrator like Frankenstein's monster, the city his lover and his destroyer.
In 1992, if you just wanted one song off an album, you bought a single, and this is the single cover for Under the Bridge. The video was directed by Gus van Sant of My Own Private Idaho and Good Will Hunting fame. It's interesting the variation of people's ethnic backgrounds within the video: the lyrics discuss loneliness and specifically the differences between animated and non-animated personas (the city as being a person or person-like, and the absence of people, a friend or girlfriend) . The Hispanic and Asian by-standers on the street as Kiedis walks by, while I am sure not meaning to invoke their foreign-ness in the city, is meant to demonstrate the difference in Kiedis' own ethnic background and theirs'. In other words, the same animating of the city achieved through the lyrics is also achieving the de-animation of the narrator as he walks about really not belonging to any of the groups of people he passes by, kind of like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. (If you look at the cover above, the cloud formation above the building structure echoes that mushroom cloud in the video).
We don't need to inflate the techniques of the song to impart an artistic value to it, but it is also helpful to acknowledge where certain techniques have appeared before in culture because it will alert us to details which might escape us otherwise. The whole song is really upside-down, because if we heard the information provided by the last stanza first, we would understand why the narrator seeks out the friendship of the hills and streets, but because that is the last information we are given, that blood spill becomes shocking against the sterile world we have been touring with the narrator. Was it his own blood? Was it someone else's? How much blood? What were the circumstances? None of those questions matter, and that's why they aren't answered. What does matter is that the drawing of blood of another human is what caused his entire life to fall about, loosening another person's blood was loosening his own because he "gave his life away" that day and lost his love and that's the point, whatever we do to another is visited back upon us a hundred-fold.
The mushroom cloud from the Nagasaki explosion.
And this is the point leading us to the comparison of  film noir. As we shall see in Shane and other upcoming films, when a man has taken the life of another, like Cain who killed his brother Abel, they are not allowed to live amongst others, but are cast out from community life. Just as the narrator of Under the Bridge animates the city to be a female, so film noir was animating America to be the femme fatale so popular during this time. As we shall see in my next post on Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai, and as we have all ready seen in Out Of the Past, men in World War II had lost their humanity, but the country as a whole seemed to take it on, as if America was gaining strength from the loss of the souls of the men who had fought for her, specifically because of the dropping of the atomic bomb (please see The Second Original Sin: Art In the Atomic Age for more). Is this part of what is happening in the song, the narrator "gave his life away" to the city because of a crime against another human, so he has lost the right to participate in life? This is what I like so much about the song, the value it places on human life, because it was "some blood," not even a murder seemed to be committed, but that act against another person causes the narrator's own life to become less valuable because he failed to value life.
MacArthur Bridge in Los Angeles has been identified as the bridge in the song (invoking the great World War II hero General MacArthur). Supposedly, the lead singer had come to this location to buy drugs but ran into a gang controlling the area. This is where the singer would come to do speed balls, not caring who he was doing them with or what he had to do to get the drugs, and this sinking that his addiction caused him is what he never wanted to re-live.
This was a bit of a detour, but it's nice to find golden nuggets where you didn't expect them to be, and the great examples of conflicting life and death provides some valuable insights into artistic means of encoding, catharsis, and the employment of history to reach an audience and communicate a moral.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner

Under the Bridge,
Red Hot Chili Peppers

Sometimes I feel
Like I don't have a partner
Sometimes I feel
Like my only friend
Is the city I live in
The city of Angels
Lonely as I am
Together we cry

I drive on her streets
'Cause she's my companion
I walk through her hills
'Cause she knows who I am
She sees my good deeds and
She kisses me windy and
I never worry
Now that is a lie



I don't ever wanna feel
Like I did that day
Take me to the place I love
Take me all the way
I don't ever want to feel
Like I did that day
Take me to the place I love
Take me all that way (yeah yeah yeah)

It's hard to believe
That there's nobody out there
It's hard to believe
That I'm all alone
At least I have her love
The city she loves me
Lonely as I am
Together we cry

I don't ever wanna feel
Like I did that day
Take me to the place I love
Take me all the way
I don't ever want to feel
Like I did that day
Take me to the place I love
Take me all the way (yeah yeah yeah)
Ooh no (no no yeah yeah)
Love me I say yeah yeah

Under the bridge downtown
Is where I drew some blood
Under the bridge
I could not get enough
Under the bridge "
Forgot about my love
Under the bridge
I gave my life away (yeah yeah yeah)
Ooh no (no no yeah yeah)
Here I stay yeah yeah

Here I stay
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