too much typing—since 2003


Sting: Imminent Suckitude Prefigured

Okay, okay - easy target. But still: on a mailing list I'm on, someone asked why there was such animosity toward Sting. Well, let's see...there's his cloying sense of righteousness, a predilection toward facile New Age philosophizing, and a tendency to think of himself as much smarter and more well read than he actually is (see also: Lou Reed). And there's his way of bringing all the enormous powers of his ego to bear in tediously berating everyone all about the third world and solar power and saving the whales and loving someone and letting them free.

Oh - and the tantric sex bragging.

Still, the first few Police albums had their moments, even if they seem a bit dated by now. And for the most part, Sting kept his excesses in check. However, they were there from the very beginning, if only one looks for them. For an example, let's look at the band's very first single, the immensely popular "Roxanne." The lyrics begin (cleverly, with what will prove to be the words of the song's chorus) Roxanne / You don't have to put on the red light. So immediately, we know the character's name, her occupation, and that the narrator's addressing her directly. We continue: Those days are over / You don't have to sell your body to the night. We begin to wonder, who is the narrator that he can be so positive about Roxanne's career change? And "sell your body to the night" is a classic Reg. A "Reg" is a word or series of words that add no meaning to a lyric but are there solely to create a rhyme. (It's named after lines from Robyn Hitchcock's "Brenda's Iron Sledge," which uses the name "Reg" pretty much because it rhymes with "sledge": "Please don't call me Reg / It's not my name." Hitchcock, though, gets a pass, because he's quite obviously aware of what he's doing - and also because, according to certain Hitchcock conspiracy theorists, "Reg" isn't meaningless at all, but short for "Regina," i.e., the Queen, and the song is an allegory of Britain's decline. Anyway.) "Sell your body" is fine; but "to the night" is pointless anthropomorphism, if it's even that (it's a Reg, dammit).

Next verse: Roxanne / You don't have to wear that dress tonight / Walk the streets for money / You don't care if it's wrong or if it's right. Kind of a limited rhyme scheme here, no? And "or if it's right" is another Reg: the point is made by "you don't care if it's wrong." Also, a bit of confusion: We might have thought Roxanne was a relatively high-class hooker, with a place of her own (thus, the red light), but now, she's out on the streets. Uh, Gordon? If she's out on the streets, the red light on at her place isn't going to do her any good: what, she's going to leave a message, "Roxanne is with another client right now. Your business is very valuable to us; please hold"? No, Sting's not really addressing a person here, he's throwing out a bunch of cliches, assuming that his audience might not get the "prostitute" idea by the red-light image alone. Condescending little bastard, isn't he? You ain't seen nothin' yet...

After the chorus, we're onto verse 3: I loved you since I knew you / I wouldn't talk down to you. Oh, really? Just what exactly are you doing here? I have to tell you just how I feel / I won't share you with another boy. Sorry, Gordon: such rights are not included with your purchase. I know my mind is made up / So put away your make up / Told you once I won't tell you again / It's a bad way. I suppose that whenever someone says "I wouldn't talk down to you," it's a guarantee that they're about to do so - sure enough. It would seem that Sting is recruiting Roxanne for the Amish or some group that prohibits makeup - surely, he wouldn't be guilty of clumsily wielding synecdoche? Roxanne, in the narrator's mind, is pretty stupid - since she apparently needs to be told (and be told that she's being told, and been told, but won't be told again) of the narrator's disapproval of her occupation.

Who the hell is this guy? I mean, I'd give Sting points if he even hinted the narrator was, say, a clueless, abusive pimp - but as far as the song suggests, he's actually some shnook who's been gullible enough to fall in love with a prostitute (cliche alert level has been raised to RED)...and thinks that he can tell her what to do on that basis. Well, hey - I guess if you're Sting, surely Roxanne's going to listen to you. You're a local face; you're a former schoolteacher; you've got this record contract with a creepy American with unsavory business and political connections (who's related to your drummer yet!) - so of course she'll obey his every whim.

Okay, okay - it's just a pop song. But I'm thinking, you'd have to have a certain frame of mind to write such a song, to create such a character, to imagine that such a situation isn't worthy of comment. But this shouldn't be surprising: the Police were every inch a completely calculated act. (That shouldn't be held against them, to the extent they made good music for a while.) Punk was the thing; what could be more "punk" than a love song to a whore? (British radio duly followed suit, and banned it for a while, if I recall.)

To be fair: the song's cleverly put together, and the chorus is catchy. The band already had mastered the art of subtraction, with much of the music's impact coming from what isn't played. (Listen for Andy Summers' part on the chorus, for instance: it's barely there, because it doesn't need to be.) And if the stories are true - that Sting knew so little about reggae that Stewart Copeland had to tell him where to play and where not to - well, he didn't quite get it right in terms of traditional reggae, but in so doing he creates a part that's rhythmically more interesting than a "proper" reggae bass part would have been anyway. The chorus has clever vocal harmonies, and the rhythm of the changes is a nice variation on that bass guitar part's rhythm. So yeah, they knew what they were doing...or knew when what they were doing worked. But the overbearing, self-regarding jerk that Sting became is already evident here in the lyrics.

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