Category Archives: Music as text

Kanye, Cage and Detournement

I just wanted to share one of the most fun pieces of writing I have undertaken since starting my career as a student. It was a visual culture project but I asked for special permission to write about music instead. I don’t think text has to be read. I think it can be sung, performed, or seen. And that’s postmodernism to me. Of course I think this approach can be simplified by just presenting the ‘texts’ and allowing students to reflect, with some prompting. They’re such great pieces that they really don’t need all this explanation, but what the hell. Here’s the piece:

Detournement, as defined by the Situationists, is the act of appropriating cultural assets for use in new contexts in order to create value-added readings. These cultural assets can be text, image, sound or film. The new outputs or cultural critiques may take the form of art, performance, for example comedic parodies, music in the form of sampling and lyrical and melodic appropriation, or appropriation of text for use in new literary works.

Kanye West uses Detournement in his piece Gold Digger. The piece samples a well known Ray Charles hit. The original lyrics describe a relationship where Ray Charles is supported by a generous lady friend:

I got a woman way over town that’s good to me
Say I got a woman way over town good to me
She give me money when I’m in need
Yeah she’s a kind of friend indeed
I got a woman way over town that’s good to me (Charles, 1954)

Jamie Foxx’s lyrics in Kanye’s version describe an inverse situation:

She take my money when I’m in need
Yeah she’s a trifling friend indeed
Oh she’s a gold digger way over town
That dig’s on me (West, 2005)

The success of the detournement technique relies on the fame of Ray Charles and the audience’s familiarity with the melody and lyrics of ‘I Got a Woman’. Sampling tends to take the form of musical collage, but in this instance we see evidence of inverted meaning as well as just a remixing of the assets.

John Cage in his minimalist masterpiece 4’33” (Cage, 1952) appropriates the everyday sound of silence in order to open a discussion about the purity of silence and to question silence’s very existence. ‘Dead air’ is a powerful dramatic tool in traditional music. Here Cage isolates and draws out the use of this instrument, allowing the ambient sounds (and accompanying private mental meditations of the audience) to interpellate the space.

Cage, J. 4;33”
Charles, R. I Got a Woman
West, K. Gold Digger
West, K. Gold Digger


Lyrics and Lit

There has been a bit of Facebook study group discussion on the nuttiness of Kate Bush. It got me wondering if there had been any other novels turned into wacky pop songs. I will share the first lines of the lyrics to Wuthering Heights here:

Out on the wiley, windy moors
We’d roll and fall in green
You had a temper, like my jealousy
Too hot, too greedy
How could you leave me?
When I needed to possess you?
I hated you, I loved you too.

It’s such an iconic song (can a song actually be an icon? I am not sure if I have over-colloqualised that word.) Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden have slightly ‘mondegreen’ed the first line, but here it is on The Trip, surely affirming the song’s iconic status.

While I can’t think of a single other novel which has been canonised in pop, I did recall a book belonging to my kids called One More Sheep. Definitely a cute Po-Mo take on Bronte with:

“Out on the moor
the wind whistled and wuthered,
while the sheep safe indoors
snuggled under the covers,
drifting through dreams
until a loud…
woke them all up.

“Who’s there?”
“What was that?”

Don’t worry, a waif doesn’t lay her icy hands on the sheep. It was just a wolf. Kids find wolves more terrifying somehow than waifs.

Bronte, Emily. 2009. Wuthering Heights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kelly, Mij and Russell Ayto. 2005. One More Sheep. London: Hodder Children’s Books.