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Postmodern Cupid


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
February 11, 2008

I am back for another year and a strange one at that. I intend to keep my promise to steer clear of economic prognostication. Whether or not the bull that will not die who kicked off these commentaries survives the current crisis or not, he will have to do so without my chiming in on his fate.

My commentaries will tend to focus on two of my favorite things in life: music and cinema. My traditional summer threesome of commentaries for 2008 will discuss three directors of films that feature teenagers. (Yes, one of them is John Hughes, the master of this art form.) This commentary is one of several concerning music.

Once again, that medieval fertility festival that has come to be known as Valentine's Day is upon us. In case you haven't noticed, economists and Cupid don't mix. Economists are most comfortable with rational decision-making and their few excursions into the irrational, no matter how freaky, stay well out of the passionate path of Cupid's arrow.

Michael Penn, brother of both Sean and the late Chris Penn, was the inspiration for this commentary. Mr. Penn has been undeservedly characterized as a one-hit wonder for his late 1980s tune "No Myth," known by many as the "Romeo in Black Jeans" song. That song was notable for its drum machine track at a time and was released at a time when drum machines had started  to wear out their welcome. "No Myth," however, benefits greatly from the monotonous beat; unplugged versions of the song just don't have the right feel.

There is one Michael Penn song that even his most devout fans (I am just a casual fan) find unbearable, "Cupid's Got a Brand New Gun." It is from the same album ("March") as "No Myth." As one of a long line of anti-love songs, it is both clever and annoying. It was only after I listened to it several times (being either too lazy or preoccupied to skip to the next track) that I noticed something strange about it. Although it comes across best on the CD, even a careful listen to the iTunes or Amazon sample of the song will reveal that the drum machine is programmed so that each downbeat of the drum is actually the synthesized sound of a gunshot. (YouTube does not have video of the original version, but during the beginning of the sample at Amazon you can hear the gunshot beat.)

Gunshots are integral to electronic music; indeed, they are the last (Patch 128) of the official instruments in General MIDI specification. Yes, it's a clever thing to do in a song about an armed Cupid, and no, it doesn't really work.

Clever musicians like Michael Penn have a problem; people start to compare them to Bob Dylan. Bruce Springsteen, who started his career drinking from the clever well ("Blinded by the Light," "Rosalita," and many others) managed to escape Dylan's shadow even if he had to dance with Courteney Cox on MTV along the way. 

Of course, if you are Bob Dylan's son, then you are never going to escape the man, which brings us to Jacob Dylan. Jacob's group, The Wallflowers, also made an anti-love song that calls on Cupid by name, "Sleepwalker." Unlike Penn's Cupid song, the younger Dylan's song is much beloved, and not just because it is not being constantly punctuated by gunshots. "Sleepwalker" directly cites the mother of all Cupid rock songs, Sam Cooke's appropriately entitled, "Cupid." 

As this song predates the age of irony, it is an old-fashioned love song, though not the least bit silly. The late, great Mr. Cooke viewed Cupid in purely aphrodisiacal terms, requesting him to "let your arrow go straight through my lover's heart for me." The junior Dylan, however, knows better than Cooke; he'll "never be your valentine."

Clever songwriters are not in short supply, especially where Cupid is concerned. Squeeze's much-underrated Difford/Tilbrook songwriting team asks the musical question, "Is That Love?" and invoke Cupid's name three times in succession in formulating their answer. 

Also from the 80s, fellow BritPoppers ABC only invoke the bediapered one twice, but make up for it by rhyming it with "stupid, stupid" in their song "Poison Arrow."

Really clever songwriters go the next step and don't call Cupid by name but simply alludes to the fellow. When Pat Benatar sings, "Hit me with your best shot, fire away," it is clear metaphorically who's got her in his aim. Similarly, we know who shot Jon Bon Jovi through the heart.

When it comes to postmodern (and, by extension, post-romantic) love songs, the undisputed champion is Liz Phair. Cupid is somewhat more subtle in her songs, becoming a cherub minus the diaper in "Supernova." 

Women who want to really impress their husbands, boyfriends, etc. should sing this song to them on Valentine's Day. Trust me on this one, but be warned that like much of Liz's canon, this song is R-rated for language. Also, her more recent "What Can't I" makes a good encore, if one is needed.

Liz Phair is the poster grrrl for the trivialization of romance that took hold in the 1990s. Her rock foremothers, however, were more into romance than most people would imagine. While the aforementioned Ms. Benatar had her tender moments, even more striking is the "Godmother of Punk" and subject of KT Tunstall's "Suddenly I See," Patti Smith. 

Patti's ballad "Because the Night" has strong romantic overtones even if Cupid appears as "an angel disguised as lust." (Although the aforementioned Bruce Springsteen produced the original draft of the lyrics, the "angel" line is one of Patti's additions.) Since Cupid (a.k.a. Eros) comes from antiquity and so predates any notion of romantic love, he is more of a lusty angel than a loving one.

Patti's over-the-top romantic credentials, however, come from her version of "You Light Up My Life." This song dates from the late 1970s and, because it was popularized by Debbie Boone, daughter of the square-as-can-be Pat Boone, was considered a joke by anyone outside of what remained of Richard Nixon's silent majority. Removed from its historical context by the distance of time, the song is truly one of the greatest love songs of all time.

My final Valentine's Day present to my readers is the following video:


This features Patti's performance of "You Light Up My Life" on a children's television show. Her performance here, which was among the many times she performed the song, is completely without irony. We know that it is real Patti and not some impostor because she repeatedly mangles the lyrics. Moreover, she butchers the delivery, but it's the emotion that matters and she is Patti Smith after all.

See, I made it through the commentary without once mentioning the financial markets. Next time, I will continue my romp through the past with a piece called "Back in the Day."

Copyright 2008 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to