Monday, 3 December 2007

She has floppy ears...

is one of the most amusing 'mis-hearings' of the lyrics that back up Peter Gabriel in one of his most surreal and fabulous songs, "Games without frontiers".

I was hypnotised by that song when I first heard it a quarter of a century ago, and it's still an all-time favourite. It's a testament to the fact that enduring popular music isn't the anodyne, ungrammatical, uninteresting, talent-show cr*p that's coming out now - I've been curious about Peter Gabriel's references for *25* years. That's not going to happen with Girls Aloud or Westlife now, is it?

Ok, time for my confession: I heard those lyrics as "She's so popular." Actually, they're "Jeux sans frontieres" - French for "Games without frontiers".

Directly from songfacts:

"Kate Bush sang backup - that's her singing "'Jeux Sans Frontieres'." (I thought it was Peter Gabriel doing falsetto)

"Gabriel got the idea for the title from a 1970s European game show of the same name where contestants dressed up in strange costumes to compete for prizes. A version of the show came out in England called "It's a knockout," giving him that lyric."

The 2nd verse of the song begins:
"Andre has a red flag/ Chiang Ching's is blue/They all have hills to fly them on, except for Lin Tai Yu.

"Andre could refer to Andre Malraux (1901-1976) the French statesman and author of the book Man's Fate, about the 1920s communist regime in Shanghai. Red flag may refer to Malraux's leftist politics. Chiang Ching could refer to Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) Chinese leader of the Kuomintang who opposed the Communists - hence, the rightwing Blue Flag. Chiang's forces lost the civil war in 1949 and fled to Taiwan, where they set up a government in exile.

"Lin Tai Yu may be Nguyen Thieu (1923-2001), South Vietnamese president during the height of the Vietnam war. After the Communist victory of 1975, Thieu fled to Taiwan, England, and later to the United States where he died in exile.

"The lyric could refer to the fact that while leftist politicians like Andre Malraux had a secure position in France, and rightist leaders like Chiang Kai Shek had a secure country in Taiwan, those caught in the middle like Nguyen Thieu were pawns in the Cold war and had no secure country. This could also be a reproach to either Thieu or his United States backers, saying that he was now a nobody."

Marvellous. How many songs have THAT much learning packed into 4 minutes? How many songs haunt you for a quarter century? And even if the above surmise is incorrect, how much do you learn from researching and debating what it means?

All in the guise of a catchy tune.

The song does something else that all good pop songs should: it taps into deeply held emotions. When I first heard it, it helped me articulate my feelings that adults were playing silly games with other people's lives, so they could fly their flags from as many hills as possible. The chorus - "If looks could kill, they probably will/in games without frontiers/war without tears" also tapped into that fear of those of us growing up during the Cold War in the Reagan era - the fear of imminent nuclear war, vividly brought to life in movies such as "The Day After" and "Threads". Little did we know how soon it would lift, and that the end of the decade would see the demise of the Berlin Wall.

Since that time, pop doesn't hold the same appeal - I can't think of a single song that has the impact of Paul Hardcastle's "19" or Peter Gabriel's "Games without frontiers". There's no attempt at intelligent writing or tapping into real emotions, no Dylanesque social commentary, no interest in the world at large, just a self-absorbed obsession with looks and puppy love. I'm a bit worried that this generation will be ruling the world in a couple of decades, and they don't seem to care enough to write songs about it or debate what's happening in it. The time to start is now.

Mind you, no one will ever be able to surpass "Games without frontiers":

It's a knockout.

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