Lightness: Deerhoof, “Scream Team” (2005)

Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose . . . the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times—noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring—belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.
—Italo Calvino[1]

Rock isn’t invariably heavy, but “light” in a rock context, like “watery” in the context of wine or beer, is most often not a good thing, though it may be popular. The best rock wailing and shredding is always about plunging in and running with the world rather than levitating above it. I think this is true even for the classic fun music of Little Richard and The Beach Boys and The Beatles. I hear genius and joy in “A wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom,” but not a “sudden agile leap.”

Poetry provides lift. Dylan, of course, can rise above the world anytime he likes with a great line: “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken” (“Tombstone Blues,” Highway 61 Revisited, 1965). But that’s turning on the lights on an upper storey of the song while the rock band keeps hammering on the ground floor. It’s not really a rock effect.

Because of his theme, Marty Balin was bound to go for lightness somehow in “Share A Little Joke With The World” (Jefferson Airplane, Crown of Creation, 1968), partly with a subdued near-conversational delivery in the verse and partly by a little stutter in the song’s forward progress at 2:27:

Still and all, what makes this song great is that it’s passionately heavy in every other respect. Balin’s rocking romanticism prevails.

Does any rocker have the secret of lightness, in the music? Is that an impossible proposition?

There may be a band you love that holds that secret for you. I suspect that when Natalie Portman told Zach Braff in Garden State that The Shins would change his life, she felt that The Shins fulfill the impossible proposition.[2]

Which thing gives you lightness depends on which things are weighing you down. That’s why it’s such a good dramatic hook to have Portman’s character say that—instead of unthinkingly accepting her as standard-issue Lightness in the form of The Free-Spirited Girl, we’re made to wonder backwards about her problems as well as forwards about what her Shins-based personal solution will look like.

Around that same time, lightness came into my own life with Deerhoof. Deerhoof shows there’s no incompatibility between committed rock playing and the lightness of being able to take or drop any vantage point anytime; you can even realize lightness by pounding fiercely, as long as you turn to it with sudden agility. Consider the turn at 1:17:

“Scream Team”

For a riff that leaps lightly by design, thanks to high bass notes and clever rhythmic displacements, consider the beginning of “Running Thoughts”:

“Running Thoughts”

So, if you see me pass my headphones over to Natalie Portman and Deerhoof starts playing, what can you infer has been weighing me down? Ah! That question is another good hook, no?


[1]  “Lightness” [on Guido Cavalcanti],  in Six Memos for the Next Millennium (New York:  Vintage, 1988), p. 12.

[2] The song she has him listen to is “New Slang.” My own Shins pick for Lightness might have been “Girl Inform Me.”


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Passions & Attitudes, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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