Number Ones - Flo Rida ft. Sia 'Wild Ones'In a recurring series, we analyse the current Australian number one so you don't have to.
Flo Rida feat. Sia
The new #1 single in Australia this week is 'Wild Ones' by Flo Rida featuring Aussie songstress Sia. It's Flo Rida's ninth top 10 hit in Australia, and his third number one (after 'Low' ft. T-Pain and 'Right Round' ft. Ke$ha). In contrast, it's Sia's first #1 single - though 'Titanium', her collaboration with David Guetta was one of the top 20 bestselling singles of 2011. It's the first #1 single featuring a female Australian artist since Vanessa Amorosi in 2009 (Kimbra's a Kiwi, fool!), while Sia, at age 36, is the oldest female artist to top the charts since Madonna, who was 50 when '4 Minutes' was a #1 in 2009. Surprisingly, it took not one, not two, but eight co-writers to write 'Wild Ones' (including Flo and Sia). The song was produced by soFLY & Nius, and Axwell; soFLY & Nius are French producers who have not troubled the Australian charts before, while Axwell is a member of Swedish House Mafia. Last week's number one, 'Pumped Up Kicks' by Foster The People, falls to #7 this week. Clearly, after 18 months, everyone in Australia who wants to buy the song has now finally bought it.
There is a long and venerable history of Wild Ones. In the 1950s, an era famously perceived as staid and conservative, rock and rollers and beatniks saw themselves as wild, mad, untamed. The hypocrisies and strictures of the era drove plenty of people wild, and those who rebelled against society often emoted their rebellion instead of offering up articulate politically savvy critique. Most famously, in the 1953 biker movie, The Wild One, Marlon Brando's character is asked "What are you rebelling against?" and utters the iconic reply "What've you got?".
It's hard to find a more succinct summary of the Wild One mentality than that. If John Lennon wore sideburns, it was likely because of The Wild One, and it's not entirely unlikely that the band he was in was named after The Beetles, one of the biker gangs in the movie. And the very first fair dinkum Aussie rock and roll song to reach the Australian charts was Johnny O'Keefe's 'Wild One' from 1958. "Gotta shake, gotta jive, got the message that I gotta be alive", sings O'Keefe, "I'm a wild one." When O'Keefe sings about being alive, he's explicitly contrasting 'alive' with the deadness of the roles society expected of most people - the nuclear family, the steady job. And it's fair to say that, when Jack Kerouac famously talks about his love for "the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars", that his mad ones are the same as the wild ones.
Paeans to the wild ones didn't leave us after the 50s either - see the Troggs and Jimi Hendrix doing 'Wild Thing', see Lou Reed's 'Walk On The Wild Side'. And Iggy Pop, who sliced himself up with glass and rolled around in his own vomit onstage, tried to live his life as a Wild One, and eventually sung a version of 'Wild One' called 'Real Wild Child' where he sings "in a world gone crazy, everything seems hazy, I'm a wild one" (you'll most likely recognise this as the theme to Rage).
Mind you, the rebels of the 1950s didn't invent the idea of the wild ones, the mad ones. In an 1872 book titled The Birth Of Tragedy from the Spirit Of Music, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that the Ancient Greeks had two Gods of art, Apollo and Dionysus, and that the Greeks accordingly had two conceptions of art, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Apollo was the god of light, of art, of inner fantasy and dream. Apollonian art, for Nietzsche, sought to use form and technique to inspire and civilise us; Apollonian art was an art of dream. Dionysus, on the other hand, was the god of music and the god of wine, and the God who inspired Bacchanalian orgies. Dionysian art, argued Nietzsche, was art of intoxication, of the "mystical obliteration of the self" through music, drink and/or sex. It's fair to say that Dionysus was the Greek God of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And rock critics and even musicians were often well aware of Nietzsche and his dichotomy; Lester Bangs famously called Jim Morrison of the Doors the 'bozo Dionysus'. Morrison himself, who studied film and art theory at university before starting a rock band, was allegedly quite taken with The Birth of Tragedy. Robert Christgau even wrote a critical essay about the idea of Dionysus and Apollo in rock music, analysing the way other music critics had used the analogy.
It's also fair to say that Nietzsche preferred the Dionysian, and that he likely would have been a fan of Flo Rida and Sia's 'Wild Ones', were he living today. "There are people who, from a lack of experience or out of apathy, turn mockingly or pityingly away from [sex, drugs and rock'n'roll] as from a “sickness of the people,” with a sense of their own health," said Nietzsche. "These poor people naturally do not have any sense of how deathly and ghost-like this very “health” of theirs sounds, when the glowing life of the Dionysian throng roars past them." Nietzsche argued that, while Apollonian art sought to better us, the Dionysian art showed us as we really are, as the savages underneath our civilised clothing. "With what astonishment must the Apollonian Greek have gazed at [the Dionysian]! With an amazement which was all the greater as he sensed with horror that all this might not be really so foreign to him, that, in fact, his Apollonian consciousness was, like a veil, merely covering the Dionysian world in front of him." This is all stuff you can imagine a Flo Rida fan saying about a Fleet Foxes fan.
And it's fair to say that Flo Rida's 'Wild Ones', like much of the music which revolves around The Club, is a pretty good representation of Dionysian art. Flo Rida raps about his intoxication, both metaphorically and literally. "I like crazy, foolish, stupid/ Party going wild, fist pumping music/ I might lose it" are the first words he raps, and before too long he mentions how he has "got a hangover like too much vodka". All that Flo Rida knows is that "somehow, someway" he's "gotta raise the roof, roof". He's pure, unrestrained party id here.
Sia, on the other hand, is more reserved in her hedonism, at first. In her odd, Billie Holiday-esque voice, she sings the first two choruses over little more than anthemic Coldplay-esque block piano chords; "Hey, I heard you were a wild one", she sings, and further comments that "If I took you home, you'd be a home run". Oddly, the two parts of the song - Sia's chorus and Flo Rida's verses - sound like different songs altogether. In contrast to Sia's Coldplay piano, Flo Rida sings his raps over fairly standard post-Guetta disco beats. It's not until the third chorus that Sia sings her chorus over the disco beats, bringing the two parts of the songs together. But before too long she's singing the bridge over minimal piano again. But this makes a sort of sense; Flo Rida is a fairly unabashed Dionysian - his music has always celebrated intoxication of one sort or another. In contrast, Sia's music is generally more Apollonian, more concerned with self-expression than self-obliteration.
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It is quite strange to see Sia singing with Flo Rida for this reason - she's someone who has made a career making individual, thoughtful music, from the chillout music of 'Destiny' with Zero 7 to solo albums with titles like Healing Is Difficult and Some People Have Real Problems. Even the more upbeat tunes from We Are Born which first saw her enter the Australian charts - 'You've Changed' and 'Clap Your Hands' - feature lines like "I might need help to see the good things" and "stealing hearts was your pastime". You do wonder what an unsosphisticated clubrat like Flo Rida would think of Sia's well-publicised relationship with androgynous Le Tigre member JD Samson. No doubt there's a fair few people out there who are horrified at Sia's turn to pop's dark side.
But at the same time, I suspect that previous knowledge of Sia is necessary to understand 'Wild Ones'; certainly she's more well-known in Australia than in the UK or US, and 'Wild Ones' has barely dented the charts outside of Australia. I think it's necessary to understand that Sia, up until this point, has not really come across as a wild one. And so when she sings the chorus, phrases like "I heard" and "if I took you home" speak of uncertainty. She likes the idea of wildness, but isn't certain how it will go. Flo Rida's role in the song is to convince her that she actually does want to be a wild one, to convince her that it is okay to let go, to obliterate herself. So in the bridge, when she sings that "I am a wild one/ Break me in/ Saddle me up and let's begin", she's singing of her conversion to the ways of Dionysus. This understanding about Sia's Apollonian nature is a lot of the reason why this song got to Number One, while other songs about such decadence, with equally catchy choruses, languish further down the charts. After all, while we are all attracted to the ways of Dionysus, most of us live humdrum lives where we mostly work and then watch television when we get home. Sia's uncertainty about all that decadence mirrors our own - "what about the aftermath?", we think.
And, when it comes down to the choice between boring Apollonian safety and uncertain Dionysian freedom, people are often conflicted. This conflict is the bread and butter of politics, of course, fueling arguments between liberals and conservatives, between libertarians and nanny-staters. Even the conservative Republicans in the U.S.A., are currently unable to decide who they want to be their Presidential candidate against Obama later this year. Do they go for the boring, safe one, or the wild one? The boring safe option is Mitt Romney, who has immense reservoirs of self-control, is very well-organised, and who says things like "oh gosh" in interviews. But because of his self-control, Romney is bland and uninspiring, and Republican voters have flirted with a series of wild ones, from Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain. Currently they favour Newt Gingrich, willing for the moment to ignore Gingrich's hypocrisies, affairs, and general air of thinking he is much smarter than everyone else, because, as The Economist argues, voting for Gingrich is a way of expressing themselves. But the common ground between the Romney-alternatives is their general willingness to say the kind of nonsense that Republican voters find emotionally satisfying, to appeal to the Republican base's bestial side. Gingrich is a creature of Dionysus, and voters are fascinated by that in a way they'll never be fascinated by Romney.
So are we better off following our Dionysian urges or our high-minded Apollonian ideals? The modern psychology of emotion says pretty unambiguously that we can't live on high-minded ideals alone. There is an area of the brain behind your forehead called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), and people whose VMPFCs are damaged (e.g., in a car accident) sometimes retain their intelligence but lose the ability to feel emotions. And it turns out that these people who can't feel emotions are terrible at making decisions. They endlessly weigh up the alternatives without being able to pick one. And this includes relatively simple decisions that most of us barely think about - e.g., one sugar or two? (interestingly, this also seemed to be Kevin Rudd's worst trait as a Prime Minister - according to former staffers, he would endlessly weigh up alternatives, and seemed to be unable to decide what to do - maybe Rudd really was a Ruddbot). As annoying and dumb-headed as our emotions sometimes are, we can't do without them.
On the other hand, there are other people who can't resist following their ids, and their lives are also disasters. Most famously, in 1848, a man named Phineas Gage was working on the railroad, when a railway spike flew through his left eye, and exited the top of his head, destroying a large portion of his brain. He surprisingly survived with few major neurological problems, except that he seemed to lose his self-control as a result of the injury. Gage's family thought his personality had utterly changed. Where he had been polite, patient and a shrewd businessman, he was now irreverent, largely motivated by sex and drink, and prone to making wild plans and abandoning them. In the end, Gage drifted from job to job, including a spell as an exhibit in a New York circus.
The upshot of this is that we are all both creatures of intellectual self-control and emotion; we can't make decisions without emotion, but we make stupid decisions without self-control. Some people have more of one and less of the other, but the good life is one with a healthy dollop of both. Nietzsche also argued, in fact, that the best art was in fact not purely Dionysian, but a synthesis of Apollo and Dionysus. For Nietzsche the best art both acknowledges the beast within, and channels that beast into working with civilisation and refinement.
If I have reservations about 'Wild Ones', it's that I'm not convinced the world needs yet another song about debauchery at The Club. And by 'the world' I mean me. Sure, life is hard, and people want to forget about their troubles. Sure, (imagined) debauchery at the Club is one way to do that. But, like many people over the age of 25 or so, it seems to me that a night on the town every so often is pretty good, but I don't seem to regret spending more of my nights catching up with friends, looking at pictures of cats on the internet, watching TV, listening to music, reading books. It's no coincidence that, just as the charts are full of Dionysian excess, the indie world/underground/ whatever has gone cerebral, individual, Apollonian. Even the Occupy movement, which by all rights should be an incoherent roar, comes across mostly as painfully cerebral/Apollonian, driven by carefully-thought-out ideals.
You can hear this cerebral Apollonian-ness when you hear Fleet Foxes sing about feeling helpless watching the world on 'Helplessness Blues', and you can hear it when Bill Callahan sings about watching Letterman on late night TV in Australia in 'America!'. You hear it when PJ Harvey sings of the men who maketh murder. And you hear it not only in the lyrics and the vocals but also in the sound of the music - it's often music-history-aware, polite, adult-contemporary sounding music. Tasteful music. And when you're used to listening to a quiet, tasteful Fleet Foxes, or a PJ Harvey, the sheer volume and in-your-facedness of David Guetta-style beats like the ones on Flo Rida's sections of 'Wild Ones' often seem like way too much, and Flo Rida's lyrics seem painfully tossed off.
But culture doesn't stand still. Before too long, Flo Rida will be old hat, and all this stuff about the debauchery of the Club will be embarrassing for all concerned, the same way the debauchery of eighties hair metal seemed especially embarrassing circa 1993. Apollo will rule for a while, until that eventually seems embarrassing too. And so it goes.
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