Friday, December 4, 2009

"Girl" power

Is there a better vocal in the Beatles' catalogue than John's bewitching turn on "Girl?" The thought occurred to me several days ago as I listened to Rubber Soul, and it prompted a more thorough survey of the song. After a few close listens, I came away thinking that, at the very least, perhaps no other Beatles' vocal shares the tangled web of emotions and tones that John conveys on "Girl." There's a lot happening in its two-and-a-half minute span.

If the song has a fundamental level, it's about the crippling frustration of dealing with a certain kind of lover. As John tells it, this kind of lover is proud, elusive, and icy. She's in control, and her lovers know that nothing could really change this. She deliberately mistreats you and toys with you. She makes a cruel sport out of it, in fact, and offers up few apologies. And by doing all of this, she somehow makes you want her only more.

Carrying on with a dicey sort like this would take its toll on most, and so we find John at the outset of "Girl" sounding forlorn and exhausted: "Is there anybody going to listen to my story/All about the girl who came to stay?" Down and out, he's seeking reprieve in the sympathy of others, and his fragile vocal emphasizes just how dire the straits are. Yet immediately afterward, he makes it known that the situation isn't so straightforward - he cannot simply leave or forget about this particular lover. Observe: "She's the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry/Still you don't regret a single day." Put another way, she has a hold on John that brings him both profound pleasure and pain. Pleasure wins out. In this conflicted, desperate state, he can't summon the resolve to resent her like he should. Such is the power of her appeal.

Then confusing matters even more is the wonderfully light and dreamy chorus that follows: "O-o-o-oh gir-ir-ir-l." What a break from the tension. It's almost as if John is releasing an amused sigh. This girl has left him so thoroughly undone that he can't help but shrug his shoulders, smile, and be impressed. He admires her, however manipulative she may be, because he has firsthand knowledge of the force of her will. He reflects on her machinations both ruefully and with a sentiment that's not terribly far from respect. You might even say that, positioned as he is, John is both in on the joke, so to speak, and also a hapless victim of it.

And this makes up just the first part of the song. From there, John admits that he has tried to part ways with this girl, but hasn't been able to follow through. Singing as one stung by shame, he reveals he couldn't resist her entreaties to stay, even if they were obviously hollow. It seems that he swallows lies a bit too often, as he further attests to on the next line of the song, which happens to be my favorite: "And she promises the earth to me and I believe her/After all this time I don't know why." The way he sings this part really captures the thorny, complex nature of his feelings. He hates himself for loving her, and he hates that he'd quickly allow himself to fall victim to her again. His vocal calmly communicates this sense of knowing but bitter frustration. Later, on the bridge, he touches on her penchant for belittling him in front of others and highlights one of the qualities that she likely prizes most about herself: "She's cool/ooo/ooo/ooo." (I wonder if we're not meant to almost hear "cruel.") And finally, the last verse witnesses John, with a very direct and engaged tone, aiming some barbs at the Church: "Was she told when she was young that pain would lead to pleasure/Did she understand it when they said/That a man must break his back to earn/His day of leisure/Will she still believe it when he's dead?" Notice what's happening here - John's been chronicling this girl's practiced mistreatment of him, but he refrains from lashing out at her. Instead, he reserves his most biting and forthright anger for Catholic teachings.

As I've noted before, the key to some of John's finest vocals is the control that he maintains. He doesn't always succumb to the heat of deeply-felt emotions, and his singing benefits tremendously. Staying on an even keel allows him to smoothly incorporate a wide spectrum of feelings into his performances. On "Girl," he ranges from weary and confused to melancholic and resigned to amused and tortured. He can run this gamut of emotions convincingly because he never gives in to any of them too earnestly. He doesn't overstate his case, and this seems to preserve the honesty of what he's trying to impart. And honesty is probably the most potent and lasting quality that we associate with John as an artist.

This post didn't go quite where I thought it would, truth be told. I failed to compare the vocal on "Girl" with one from any other Beatles' song, and I didn't answer the question I posed at the beginning. That'll have to wait, I suppose. Suffice it to say that this vocal seems to stand firmly on its own as compelling and complex stuff.

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