More Analysis of Social Space: Sting’s Dead Mans Boots

Last weeks post commenced with a discussion of the ways in which the background of a musical mix can resonate with the persona in a song – describing it as ‘Inert’,  ‘Active’ or ‘oppositional’ (I still need more examples of this last one). I also discussed the three potential; sides of a musical persona – the ‘Real Person’, the ‘Persona’ and ‘The Protagonist’. All of this is influenced by Allan Moore’s excellent book Song Means – a book which I recommend to anyone interested in the analysis of songs.

This weeks post takes some of these paradigms a step further – still considering the distance between the singer and the background environment (ie the instrumentation), but also the distance of the musical persona to ourselves. Indeed this begs the question which is related to Kant’s famous maxim – ‘we can’t know the thing in itself’. Although I tend to agree with this perspective – these are techniques which enable the musicologist to move a step closer.

The first thing we worked on in the class today was listening to a variety of  examples related to the ‘social space’ a singer finds themselves in a mix. Moore describes them as outlined in the grid below

moore grid

Although the ‘distance between the ‘intimate and personal’ and the ‘social and public’ may be open to some debate – these factors provide an interesting starting point when considering the impact of the use of texture and dynamics in a mix – and more importantly – how a vocalist sits within it.

We then moved onto the ways in which we as listeners can engage with the ‘characters’ in a mix –  the ‘Passive Observer (where we have no emotional relationship), what I describe as ‘the possessed protagonist’ (where we not only have a relationship with the character in a song – but can actually ‘become’ that person. I think this also works with instrumental music – for example in ‘air guitar’!), and finally the ‘Antagonist’ – where we can relate with who the protagonist of a song is addressing.  I have found in my own listening that I can fluxuate between the possessed protagonist and the antagonist very easily. What is especially intersting – is the ways in which a vocalist or indeed ourselves can work with all of these paradigms as outlined below

moore model

Here is a short extract from my Sting book, that resonates with some of these ideas. As you will see here – this resonates with Sting’s current identity as a songwriter.

These considerations are useful when analysing Sting’s portfolio. As an indicative example, a song such as ‘Dead Man Boots’ from his most recent album The Last Ship (2013) can be seen to include a number of ‘protagonists’, all of which are related to Sting’s past. The song commences with a father speaking to his son Gideon, directly using first person narrative. However, although this dialogue is on one level part of the ‘script’ of The Last Ship, it can also be considered autobiographical – with the father easily being read as addressing the young Gordon Sumner. This parallel dialogue can therefore be considered as either fictional – where the father to son dialogue can be seen to be between two protagonists, or autobiographical – where the interchange is an allegory of a conversation between two actual people – Sting and his father.This father to son perspective continues into the first chorus of the song – where the ‘advice’ the father is giving continues. Interestingly, The 2nd verse progresses from what is thus far a private conversation between father and son, to a narrative which is more social in nature – in which the performer/persona (be it Gordon Sumner or his alter ego Sting), or indeed the fictional protagonist (the son/Gideon) is now telling an audience (the listener) the story which commences “he said I’m nearly done in asking this, could you do one final thing for me”. This shift in emphasis, which is essentially a recollection of a father, has the impact of including the listener in the narrative more profoundly –  as either a passive ‘observer’, or, if our connection with the personas are more profound, as a ‘possessed protagonist’: in this case leading to we as listeners becoming the father or the son. This is something which as impacted me personally – having a similar social background and North Eastern heritage to Sting – it is easy to identify with either the son (as myself) or the father (as my grandfather). After the 2nd chorus is repeated, the narrative then shifts to a Bridge section, once again delivered by the son who this time asks the audience “why the hell would I do that, why would I agree?”. As this statement is asking at least a rhetorical question, it can once again be considered a development of the ‘social’ nature of the dialogue – although once again it can be considered to be a statement from Gideon, Gordon Sumner, Sting or indeed ourselves –depending on how one interprets.

Finally – a lecture on the subject given in November 2015.

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
This entry was posted in Musicology, podcast and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to More Analysis of Social Space: Sting’s Dead Mans Boots

  1. Thomas says:

    Great analysis. The only thing missing is the actual context of the song in the context of the show itself: who in the song is, or may be “repeating” what was said, when and by whom to whom? Outside of the actual narrative, it is in fact somewhat difficult to pinpoint actual/intended protagonist and antagonist. I look forward to your book. And to the performances in Chicago of “The Last Ship” where some of those answers lie.


  2. Paul Carr says:

    Thanks for the comments. What performances are taking place in Chicago? Best, Paul


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