Christopher Floyd (drdeleto) wrote,
Christopher Floyd

What Is It?

So, having lambasted the entirety of modern music, it seems like the perfect time (despite it being four years old) to ask:

Is there a more flawless example of songwriting in recent years than Mark Knopfler's "What It Is"?

The drinking dens are spilling out
There's staggering in the square
There's lads and lasses falling about
And a crackling in the air
Down around the dungeon doors
The shelters and the queues
Everybody's looking for
Somebody’s arms to fall into
And it's what it is
It's what it is now

There's frost on the graves and the monuments
But the taverns are warm in town
People curse the government
And shovel hot food down
The lights are out in city hall
The castle and the keep
The moon shines down upon it all
The legless and asleep

And it's cold on the tollgate
With the wagons creeping through
Cold on the tollgate
God knows what I could do with you
And it's what it is
It’s what it is now

The garrison sleeps in the citadel
With the ghosts and the ancient stones
High up on the parapet
A Scottish piper stands alone
And high on the wind
The highland drums begin to roll
And something from the past just comes
And stares into my soul

And it's cold on the tollgate
With the Caledonian Blues
Cold on the tollgate
God knows what I could do with you
And it's what it is
It's what it is now
What it is
It's what it is now

There's a chink of light, there's a burning wick
There's a lantern in the tower
Wee Willie Winkie with a candlestick
Still writing songs in the wee wee hours
On Charlotte Street I take
A walking stick from my hotel
The ghost of Dirty Dick
Is still in search of Little Nell
And it's what it is
It's what it is now
Oh it’s what it is
What it is now

The lyrics are great, with remarkable tonal diction, but it's the cadence of them in the song that really makes them explode. Knopfler isn't the world's greatest singer, but he knows what he's doing, not afraid, for instance, to mumble his simplistic refrain. The literary references--Wee Willie Winkie is a nursery rhyme and Little Nell is the ill-fated heroine of Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop--are powerful by name, without you even needing to identify them.

Knopfler is, I think it's safe to say, one of the great riff-writers of rock guitar (Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" riff being the famous example, though far better is "Sultans of Swing"). I don't tend to like riff-heavy songs, but the "What It Is" riff is beautifully baroque and goes through numerous fruitful transformations as the song progresses.

It's possible the song's white bread style, the market it was released into, or the fact that many music cognoscenti probably consider Knopfler's golden age to be behind him will keep the song from finding a place in our cultural memory. But in a day when an unprecedented number of blockbuster songs become instantly forgettable, I think it probably deserves to be remembered.

So as an experiment, since I made some assertions about how we modern creatures consume music: Does anyone out there have either similar or dissimilar impressions of "What It Is"? (I assume just about everyone has heard it on the radio.) Does it leave you nonplussed? Bored? Or energized? Awed?

Obviously, not everyone is going to enjoy music identically, but what does it mean when there's probably not a single pop song you can get, say, 8 out of 10 people to agree is truly great? I attribute the problem as much to the enervated work being produced as to the inability of most of us to recognize serious musical craftsmanship. I said pop music is fashion, and maybe Neal's right that art has always been at some level about expression of status. But if we can only objectively describe a song's appeal from within its fashion context--"If you like metal-rap like Limp Bizkit, you'll love it!"--isn't it fair to say we seem to be approaching some kind of dead end, from a cultural standpoint? What it seems to suggest is that, as far as music is concerned, we are fractured into a hundred cultures.
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic
    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.