Monday, 12 April 2010

I've Told Every Little Pumpkin

The fact that I am in the process of finishing a semester teaching a class on the work of David Lynch, and am also a long-time fan of mashup mixes, must make me the ideal demographic for the Mashed in Plastic project: a collection of mashups featuring music from Lynch’s films and television shows ( Though all the tracks will be of interest to hardcore Lynch fans, Totom’s “I’ve Told Every Little Pumpkin” has an immediacy and power that ranks it with my favorite mashups. Totom has combined the vocals from Linda Scott’s recording of “I’ve Told Every Little Star” (1961) – which was featured in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) – with the backing track and chorus vocals of Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979” (1996).

The term “mashup” has gained widespread usage in the past five years or so, but it is often used in a broad sense to mean the same thing as a “re-mix.” In the strictest terms, a mashup is not simply a re-mix of multiple recordings, but a special category of re-mix that combines two discrete tracks (usually the vocals from one track and the instruments from another) in order to produce a new song. The technical simplicity of that maneuver is significant: mashups are not about virtuosic editing technique, but about “high concept” ideas and a certain DIY Punk attitude. Also like Punk, the best mashups work simultaneously as both pop music and pop music criticism: for example, when Destiny’s Child sing over a Nirvana track we are prompted to think about the segregation of white and black musical genres since the 1990s on radio formats and charts; or when we hear Christina Aguilera front the Strokes we confront the different approaches taken to romance in various genres of pop music, or how the division of labor between writing lyrics, melodies, and instrumentation tends to work in contemporary songwriting.

Another test of a classic mashup is whether or not it transcends its sources, and for me, Totom’s track passes with distinction. After hearing “Every Little Pumpkin,” Linda Scott’s 1961 record sounds too slow, and more importantly, its showtune chord structures create a harmonic landscape that doesn’t seem to encompass the full emotional range of the lyrical references to painful secrets, longing and loneliness. By contrast, the heavy, open guitar chords of the Pumpkins track lend both an emotional weight and a productive ambiguity to the lyrics. The bright, candy-coating of the 1961 track can, of course, be seen in a positive light, and must have been part of its allure for Lynch, who we should note, has been doing his own cinematic mashups since re-working Bobby Vinton and Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet (1986).

It is the Smashing Pumpkins track that fares the worse by comparison with the mashup, however. Listen to how flat and lifeless the verse melody to “1979” sounds after we’re used to hearing Scott’s vocals over the guitar riff. Billy Corgan’s anonymous delivery on the verses of “1979” helps the slight melody to fade into the background so that the track feels like an empty stage setting without any featured actors. Ironically, Scott’s vocal performance brings the Pumpkins backing track to life, fusing with the rhythm track in a more “organic” way than Corgan’s: listen for example, to how her phrasing weaves in and out of the kick drum pattern. When Corgan moves to a higher register on the chorus, “1979” finally switches into high gear, but now I can’t hear this section of the song without missing Scott’s urgent counterpoint in the background (“dum-da-dum…”); another example of how vocal performances work as instruments of rhythm as much as melody.

The chorus of “Every Little Pumpkin” creates a duet in which Scott’s brassy, full-voiced style coexists with Corgan’s alt-rock whispers and rasps. Mashups are, after all, inherently utopian, since they make us imagine a world where we can have it all; where we don’t have to choose between perky melodies and heavy tracks; between early sixties optimism and mid-nineties irony; between pop and rock. The fact that these utopian musical moments are “impossible” only adds to their bittersweet charm. It is on this point that we should recall “Every Little Pumpkin’s” connection to Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. After all, in her remarkable starring role in that film, Naomi Watts performs her own kind of actorly mashup, embodying both the perversely perky “Betty” and the dark, psychotic Diane Selwyn. Watts' performance gets folded into those of Scott and Corgan in the brilliant video mashup of the Totom track: