Seconds
Chumbawamba: Amnesia



stylus Magazine‘s Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you’ve never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.

No matter how unworthy and inaccurate you know the impulse is, political paternalism can be massively satisfying. The biggest, most glaring example of such would be Thomas Frank’s much-discussed What’s the Matter with Kansas?, from the title on down. Although Frank does actually try to grapple with the reasons for the shift from progressive (that’s what we call ourselves now, right?) to conservative in the heartland, there is some amount of pure exasperation: Don’t these people know they’re voting against their own interests? Don’t they know what’s GOOD for them?

Of course that’s a reaction borne out of frustration and, hopefully, the best of intentions. As even Stylus maestro Todd Burns has pointed out, a momentary bout of such self-righteousness is a natural part of our human reactions to the kind of horribly wrenching defeat American political life seems to have taken great glee in providing the last few years. Canada, of course, also had an election recently; by a narrow margin we elected Stephen Harper, who doesn’t look creepy as long as he doesn’t try to smile and who doesn’t seem scary as long as he’s not restricting the hell out of press access to his government. This isn’t the place to talk about the man’s faults, however. This is where I want to talk about the morning of January 24th, 2006.

I’m not even asking you share my politics; if you’re Canadian and conservative, you certainly will have experienced similar mornings in the recent past, right up to 2004. The other party, the one that’s now winning, has in the recent past egregiously failed the country by your lights, and now they’re in again. We all know that feeling. This time it was even worse here in Ontario, where we’d had a provincial Conservative government lead by someone nearly as odious as Harper in recent memory. I don’t have a car, and my riding didn’t go to the Conservatives, but while looking up the results the morning after (predictable but disappointing), all I wanted to do was hang out the side window of a vehicle with a boombox, blasting Chumbawamba’s “Amnesia.”

Everyone remembers “Tubthumping” and justly so, but Tubthumper had more than just one superbly crafted rousing dance-rock track. I’d even argue that “Amnesia” is better than the hit for a variety of reasons; but as much as I love the fact that the Seconds column often highlights the less-than-obvious delights of songs, in this case what sticks with me and resonates is exactly the first thing you’d notice. In the midst of the bells and whistles of late-90s production sheen, there is one belter of a chorus from crowd of shouting women—“Do you suffer from long term memory loss?”

The song is about exactly the kind of political, well, amnesia that I’m talking about here, and the verses are bluntly functional and vague enough to apply to whatever particular regime/election/blunder/what have you that you’d need them to. There’s even some dry wit in the shy, solitary response “I don’t remember,” and the lounge-y middle eight, where some Lothario drawls out the title before the song launches itself headlong into that frantic refrain. The beats hit on each syllable of the chorus, and that mass of voices turns the question into something at once fierce and strangely joyful, admonishing and hectoring and not willing to listen to reason at all. There’s a sense of sticking it to the song’s target, as if the question itself is so brilliant it counts as a win. It doesn’t, of course, things are always more complicated than that, but the glory of the song’s maximalist, vaguely disco-rock approach is that it feels that way.

I’d loved the song for years, since a family member had gotten Tubthumper for Christmas and I’d snuck a couple of listens out of curiosity. But it wasn’t until the last election, walking through a campus full of people glaring suspiciously at each other in the wake of what most there figured was a serious turn for the worse that its full force really hit me; we need that cleansing surge of superiority and anger before we can focus on being reasonable and productive again, and with “Amnesia” not only did I have that, I was light on my feet, smiling.


By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2006-07-12
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