Thursday, September 3, 2009

"They Don't Know" by Tracey Ullman (1983)



Music tends to be, in my experience, a struggle between irony and sincerity. With the advantage of added-on hipness, usually irony-mongers dominate the FM dial and critical opinion. Sincerity-mongers, on the other hand, often dominate the AM dial and are sneered at.
Music can bring you down or lift you up. It’s your choice as a listener, frankly. Which doesn’t explain this song at all. Tracey Ullman, most famous as the person who midwifed the birth of the Simpsons, is a comedian. Out for yuks. She made one album, “You Broke My Heart in 17 Places”, where she tarted up a handful of covers in a kind of 60’s girl-group fashion. The whole thing screams ‘conceptual joke’. It screams ‘artifice.’ It has no right to be any good.
Yet it is. It’s utterly fabulous. I was 8 when it was released, too young to understand irony. I just fell utterly in love with the song, with the Farfisa, with the church bells, with the harmonies and, of course, with the ‘bay-bay’ squawked 1:51 into the song. I would never have questioned its sincerity, having had precisely the sincerity of an 8-year-old at the time. Even the obvious piss-take video, with our girl Tracey living up to her name in slippers and face mask (and Paul McCartney, for some reason).
It’s all heart-breaking, really. Taking advantage of a wide-eyed child like that, making him fall head over heels in love with the ‘poetry’ of a song that is ultimately a punch-line. Once more the cruel forces of fate take the beauty out of something and replace it with grim reality.
Except that whenever I play the song I immediately become that 8-year-old again, forgetting everything and instantly wide-eyed and in love with the world again. I am completely unable to listen to this song in public, even through headphones, because it inspires in me nothing so much as an uncontrollable desire to spaz-dance around the world yelping out the lyrics like a basset hound.
And then, it doesn’t really matter who Tracey Ullman is or how she earns her living. I’ve seen a fair amount of Ullman comedy. I see it as occasionally hilarious and frequently ha-ha half-funny. She is, ultimately, a footnote in history to me.
Yet on precisely one occasion she tapped into that spirit that animates all that is great in the universe and recorded three minutes of wistful hope and defiant joy that illuminates all that is great in the universe.
And a quick note concerning the songwriter, the late great Kirsty MacColl, who had regular access to this spirit-tap and used it to make wonderful and wonder-filled music right up until her tragic drowning death. Perhaps her version is even better. Unfortunately, I’ve never heard it.


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