Monday, June 23, 2008

Geosong of the Week: Natalie Merchant's "San Andreas Fault"

As someone with a strong background in the arts (visual art in addition to music), the latest edition of The Accretionary Wedge was particularly enjoyable to me. I had a great time reading all of the entries, and I was even more excited to see the numerous posts about geology in song lyrics that ensued. This, I figured, meant it was high time for me to start posting something I'd been thinking about doing for a while.

Last year, a friend and I went on a a road trip along the San Andreas Fault. (This was the trip that led to my accident, and also to the infamous LOLfaults.) In anticipation of such a trip, I figured we needed a playlist of relevant songs. The original list included only twelve songs, some of which were only related to earthquakes when put in context with the others (ie. "I Feel the Earth Move" and "Shake, Rattle, and Roll"), but some of which were directly relevant. The list was a great accompaniment for the trip, but with future trips in the works, the list needed to grow. A boring summer library job was all the time I needed to dig up more. At the present time, the playlist is 41 songs long, out of which about 30 are actually directly related to earthquakes, or mention them explicitly. My plan is to write a post featuring one of these songs each week, at least throughout the summer, if not longer.

The first song I want to feature is the first song I found in this whole project; if I hadn't found it, I might not have thought to build a playlist to begin with. When I mention to people that I have compiled a list of earthquake songs, I tend to get asked if this one is on there: Natalie Merchant's San Andreas Fault.
I get the impression that this is one of the most mainstream/popularly exposed songs on the list. I certainly didn't have to dig far for it. And it's even been quoted in a serious book about the 1906 San Francisco quake (Simon Winchester's A Crack in the Edge of the World) - not bad for a pop song!

"San Andreas Fault" is a song that seems subdued at first, but despite being quiet and predominantly-acoustic, the story within is devastating, to individuals and to whole regions. This is not a song with a snapshot narrative that doesn't go anywhere. It moves from complacence to conflict within a few minutes. I like this song. I like how the chord progression is different from the standard pop/rock I-IV-V-I. But I think the lyrics make this song - the imagery is very strong and poetic. Here are the lyrics.
I particularly like the image of the Fault moving its fingers through the ground, and the juxtaposition of "promised land" and "wicked ground." (I admit, nerdily enough, to titling an earthquake-related piece of fiction that I wrote "The Wicked Ground," after the line from this song.) Those phrases say so much about California, I think, with the combination of natural beauty and natural danger that pervades the state. I also find the verses about the Fault and its natural force to be all the more poetic compared to the first two verses, discussing human beauty and ambition. Those pale against what nature can do. Indeed, nature has no regard for human goals and dreams.

"San Andreas Fault" is the first track on Merchant's first solo album, Tigerlily, which was released in late 1995. Most of the recording was done in the winter of 1994. This timeline pretty much indisputably pegs this song as being a Northridge song. Since so much music comes as a response to historical events, it makes far more sense that the song was a response to the quake rather than an unconscious anticipation; if it had been written prior to Northridge, chances are there'd be blurbs along the lines of, "OMG SONG PREDICTS QUAKE!" I haven't found anything to that extent. Plus, the imagery in the first part of the song is clearly a reference to LA, what with the discussion of dreams of physical beauty and aspirations to the silver screen.

But the Northridge earthquake was not caused by the San Andreas - Merchant has blamed the wrong fault. This misconception is all too common (I even saw it on Wikipedia at one point, and promptly corrected it), particularly in songs. This is not the only time it turns up on the Playlist. Scientifically, it's an important misconception to get rid of, since people living in Southern California needs to realize the earthquake threat is not confined to one single fault, but is spread over many and is therefore even harder to evaluate and predict. But I suppose it can be excused for songs - if the songs are any good - providing people don't consider those songs to be literal lessons rather than poetic ones.

Natalie Merchant page on Rhapsody. You can listen to the song here.


CJR said...

Wow - I can't believe I didn't think of this song... even without the geological subtext, it's one of my favorites (I'm a great fan of Natalie Merchant), and I've even been playing 'Tigerlily' quite a lot in recent weeks.

Silver Fox said...

Thanks, a great song, and a great story to go with it. It's definitely not your standard R&R chord progression (eg, CFGC) - doesn't she throw in some minor chords, or even change keys?

I like all the geological music that's going around.