David McFarlane - Rain and Rainbows: Ambivalence, Optimism, Wonderwall
I wrote about Wonderwall for the first issue of Revoice! back when it launched, and I’ve wanted to write a follow-up ever since. Luckily, living in Manchester there is no shortage of Wonderwall in my life as inspiration, and the song has a habit of popping up elsewhere too. When I took a trip to Llandudno this Summer, it was less than a few hours before I came across a floppy-haired teenage boy in the city centre playing Wonderwall with an acoustic guitar and a portable amp. After the Manchester Arena attack happened, Wonderwall saturation only deepened, as part of a broader wave of appreciation for Mancunian culture in solidarity. Two Oasis songs in particular, Wonderwall and Don’t Look Back in Anger, were sang in vigils and tributes to the victims across the country. One of the things I’d considered writing about was why exactly it is that Wonderwall continues to appear in so many different places, and why the song has the broad (but far from universal) appeal that it does. In light of recent events, I’m going to discuss a few of the times I’ve crossed paths with Wonderwall, both before and since the attack.
The first actually happened in Manchester Arena, weeks before the attack, and when I was least expecting it - at a Craig David concert. Grime star Big Narstie was the support act, and opened his set - to my joy and amusement, sitting in the lower tier by the stage on a friend’s spare ticket - with an a cappella rendition of Wonderwall.
Months later, the Manchester Arena attack happened in the same space. The response was a huge outpouring of grief, and at the same time deeply moving expressions of hope and solidarity. Manchester’s symbol, the worker bee, was mostly unknown and unnoticed before the attack - even to many residents - despite it being on every bin and bollard in the city centre. After the attack, it was everywhere - an estimated 10,000 people had the bee tattooed on their skin to raise money for the victims.
Among the responses was this from The Cherwell, one of Oxford University’s student newspapers:
“Hundreds of Oxford students joined faith leaders and local residents on Tuesday evening to remember the victims of Monday’s horrific terror attack in Manchester which claimed the lives of 22 concert-goers, many of them young children.
Around 100 students attended a vigil outside the Radcliffe Camera, organised by the Oxford University Student Union, to “stand with Manchester”.
.As the vigil ended, the crowd sang a rendition of the Manchester band Oasis’ song ‘Wonderwall’, reading the words from lyric sheets handed out by student union organisers: “And all the roads we have to walk are winding / And all the lights that lead us there are blinding”.
At one point, an irritated student stuck his head out from a Bodleian Library window above to shout: “Don’t you realise you are right outside a library?”
The crowd, with tears and smiles on their faces, sang louder.”
In my last article, I discussed how Wonderwall, in all its ambiguity, can be filled with any emotion the listener wants it to - ’I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now’ can refer to any feeling you want. Jon Savage has observed that popular music does its work ‘not by specifics or slogans, but by hints and inferences loose enough for the imagination to leap in and resonate.’ (1) Wonderwall hints at and implies both pain and hope - on the one hand, ‘the fire in your heart is out’, ‘all the roads we have to walk are winding’, ‘they’ll never throw it back to you’. On the other hand, the optimism and hope of the chorus, ‘maybe you’re gonna be the one that saves me’.
This juxtaposition of dark and light - but ultimately, optimism winning out - is something of a recurring theme in Mancunian popular culture. When I asked Chris Oliver, writer for Mancunian music website Silent Radio, if there is anything particularly unique about Manchester’s popular music, he put it this way:
Most of the similarities found in Mancunian indie music are stylistic, and production-based, but to my mind, there is a certain sensibility, as well as a bright "silver lining" kind of melancholy (or a dark cloud hovering over every happy lick). I think in a place with so much rain, you have to celebrate the sunshine. [...] [In the music of The Beatles], while you heard the contrasts between Lennon's introverted anxiety and McCartney's bold optimism, the two poles remained more-or-less apart, and never really seemed to come together in the way that they do in The Smiths 'This Charming Man' or The Stone Roses 'Sally Cinnamon' or 'I am the Resurrection'.
The title of Kevin Cummins’ book collecting three decades of Mancunian music photography expresses a similar rainy sentiment in a different way - ‘Manchester: Looking for the Light Through the Pouring Rain’. Lemn Sissay’s poem ‘Rain’, which is written on the side of a takeaway on Manchester’s Oxford Road, says:
When the rain falls
They talk of Manchester
But when the triumphant rain falls
We think of rainbows
That’s the Mancunian Way
At this juncture I’d like to point out that Manchester actually gets LESS than the average UK rainfall, and the idea of Manchester as a ‘rainy city’ is a popular myth, but the point stands - despite its reputation as ‘the rainy city’, Manchester has a streak of optimism running through it.
Georgina Gregory has noted that contradictions and opposite poles are evident in the names of a disproportionate number of Mancunian bands – The Stone Roses combine ‘the harsh grittiness of northern masculinity’ with the ‘soft, feminising image generated by the flower of romance’. The Inspiral Carpets took their name from a local shop, but ‘the descriptor also conjures up escapism while alluding to the drug-induced mind expansion of the Manchester music scene’. (2) Happy Mondays is an oxymoron, which ‘connotes the possibility of eliding the constraints of the corporate world.’ And Joy Division, despite the ‘joy’ in the name, is taken from the name of a wing in a fictional concentration camp. (3)
This juxtaposition can also be found in the songs and lyrics of many popular Mancunian bands. After the Manchester attack, Mancunian DJ Dave Haslam tweeted ‘You've got the wrong city if you think hate will tear us apart’, a reference to Joy Division’s biggest hit. But imagine if Joy Division’s biggest hit were about something as predictable as hate tearing us apart, rather than the clash of two opposite feelings it is now - would it have nearly the same emotional impact?
As Chris Oliver points out above, The Smiths epitomise this clash. Johnny Marr has said that there was a sense of excitement that informed the work of The Smiths, but:
Balanced with this was the sensibility that has always been tuned to melancholia - which wasn’t that difficult because me and Morrissey had that disposition in us. It was a strange thing: we were ecstatic about what was happening to us and we had the melancholy. (4)
Morrissey's lyrics are famously both ‘miserabilist’ (5) and wryly funny and playful. They also reference opposing emotional poles all over the place - ‘I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour, but heaven knows I’m miserable now’; ‘I can smile about it now, but at the time it was terrible’, and layering of moods which on the surface seem contradictory - ‘A dreaded sunny day, so I’ll meet you at the cemetry gates’.
Sean Campbell has written about the different ways in which ambivalence manifests itself in The Smiths, in the lyrics and the rest of the music. This, for example, on “Back to the Old House:
‘In the opening bars of the song, the first-person speaker repeatedly insists “I would rather not go / Back to the old house,” before alluding, in the highest register of the bridge, to the “too many bad memories there.” Throughout the track, however, this negation of home sits incongruously with the song’s harmonic form, with the folksy style of Marr’s guitar being more usually associated with a yearning or desire for home. The quietly contrapuntal relationship that this sets up between the song lyrics and their musical setting is momentarily resolved, however, in the song’s final verse, when Morrissey emits a lyrical volte-face, unveiling a previously unexpressed desire for return: “I would love to go / Back to the old house / But I never will.” (6)
I wonder if The Smiths would have reached the giddy cultural heights they did if their lyrics were, for example, ‘I was miserable yesterday, and heaven knows I am also miserable now’; ‘At the time it was terrible, and I am still annoyed’; or ‘A lovely sunny day, so let’s go to the park’’. Even ‘and I’m not happy and I’m not sad’, though committing to neither, is a reminder that emotions are rarely one-dimensional - something complicated between both, rather than ‘I’m either happy or I’m sad, it is usually one or the other’.
Of course, this isn’t a trend at all specific to music in Manchester. The idea that Manchester is the only place whose culture brings together otherwise disparate moods is a self-evidently sketchy claim. Moving across the world to Australia for a moment, Nick Cave in his lecture ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’, says:
‘…the love song is never truly happy. It must first embrace the potential for pain. Those songs that speak of love without having within in their lines an ache or a sigh are not love songs at all but rather Hate Songs disguised as love songs, and are not to be trusted. These songs deny us our humanness and our God-given right to be sad, and the air-waves are littered with them. The love song must resonate with the susurration of sorrow, the tintinnabulation of grief. The writer who refuses to explore the darker regions of the heart will never be able to write convincingly about the wonder, the magic and the joy of love for just as goodness cannot be trusted unless it has breathed the same air as evil – the enduring metaphor of Christ crucified between two criminals comes to mind here – so within the fabric of the love song, within its melody, its lyric, one must sense an acknowledgement of its capacity for suffering.
In Lou Reed´s remarkable song "Perfect Day" he writes in near diary form the events that combine to make a "Perfect Day". It is a day that resonates with the hold beauty of love, where he and his lover sit in the park and drink Sangria, feed animals in the zoo, go to a movie show etc., but it is the lines that darkly in the third verse, "I thought I was someone else, someone good" that transforms this otherwise sentimental song into the masterpiece of melancholia that it is. Not only do these lines ache with failure and shame, but they remind us in more general terms of the transient nature of love itself – that he will have his day "in the park" but, like Cinderella, who must return at midnight to the soot and ash of her disenchanted world, so must he return to his old self, his bad self. It is out of the void that this songs springs, clothed in loss and longing.’ (7)
So perhaps that’s why Manchester has had so much success in the field of popular music - much of the music is ‘not happy’ and it’s ‘not sad’, it’s both, or some of both, layered on top of each other. Returning to Wonderwall - Where Wonderwall perhaps goes above and beyond most popular songs is that it works through, as John Savage said, ‘hints and inferences’, but what it hints at and implies is the combination Nick Cave refers to above. Wonderwall touches on both those things, but is just vague enough that a whole stadium of people can belt it out and feel like it’s about their own personal circumstances. Obviously, it would be ridiculous to claim Manchester is the only place in which music with these specific features is made. But it’s perhaps a more reasonable claim that a lot of bands who happen to come from Manchester are just very good at it. But we don’t like to go on about it. Obviously.
I was in London when the Manchester attacks happened, and watching the events from a distance was difficult. I was still there when the London Bridge attacks happened. Two days later, I was walking through London Bridge, just a few minutes’ walk away from where the attack there had happened, and passed some buskers, who as if by magic (or confirmation bias), started playing Wonderwall.
Wonderwall, and many other songs like it, are often criticised for not being clever enough, as if that’s the only way music can and should be experienced or judged (if you’d like a great example,, here is a painfully misguided article by Roger Scruton on the topic). Music and art can be intellectual, and a means through which people can explore new, stimulating ideas, and make things that have never been made before. But it doesn’t have to be purely that all the time. Sometimes music has a purely emotional function that isn’t necessarily connected to its intellectual function. Of course, the music people consume on a mass scale has to be handled with care, and put under close scrutiny- how we understand the world is shaped by the culture we consume, and if that culture leads us to see the world in hateful, unkind, or complacent ways, that culture should be challenged. But I don’t think Wonderwall is any of those things. I don’t know if those buskers intended to be playing the song as some kind of expression of solidarity between Manchester and London, or as a (vague) message of hope and that everything would be alright, but that’s definitely how it felt to me in that moment.
This is all, of course, very dependent on context. Analysing Wonderwall’s content, its music and lyrics, can only go so far - the song had specific resonances for me, as a person from Manchester, after the tragic events of the week before, and after all my personal experiences with the song. Do I think the song is a masterpiece of intellectual, enlightening, soul-elevatingly nuanced songwriting? No, I don’t. But does the song serve particular functions, as it did for me in that London Bridge station, in a way no other song could at that moment in time? Yes, I think so!
I am yet to read a convincing argument as to how Wonderwall is really going to damage anybody’s intellectual and cultural life - in fact, it’s songs like Wonderwall that keep people strong, healthy, and can be instrumental in how people grow up. Ariana Grande’s One Love Manchester concert was full of exactly the kinds of popular music that is put down by . On the other hand, as Alexis Petridis put it:
Almost no music is as widely reviled as pop aimed at tweenage and teenage girls. It is sneered at as vacuous and bland, pap for an undemanding audience incapable of telling good from bad. Sometimes it deserves to be reviled – when the people behind it are audibly as cynical and patronising as the people who sneer at it, when the grim stench of “will this do?” permeates the whole enterprise. But it also has a function that overrides any criticism you might want to throw at it. Live, it can provide the kind of indelible, empowering experience that was so beautifully described by the American rock critic Ann Powers on social media in the aftermath of the Manchester attack: “Telling your mom it’s OK and you’ll meet her right after the show, running toward the front hand in hand with your best friend like you don’t even have a mom right now, flirting with the kid who sells you a soda, dancing experimentally, looking at the woman onstage and thinking maybe one day you’ll be sexy and confident like her, realising that right this moment you are sexy and confident like her, matching your voice to the sound, loving the sound, falling into the sound.”
Giving people their first taste of freedom and independence: that strikes me as something at the top of the chart of Incredible Things Music Can Do. It is also something that the kind of people who manipulate others into blowing themselves up in public places hate.
When I told my friend Rohit I was writing about Wonderwall again, he groaned, and then patiently listened as I gave him the condensed version of this article. ‘That’s all fair enough, but why does it have to be Wonderwall? There are so many songs out there, why is Wonderwall the one everyone goes on about? It’s terrible!’ But that’s besides the point. Wonderwall has reached a level of popularity few other songs have, and serves a function few other songs do. Whether the song is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depends entirely on when and where you hear it. Wonderwall is bad if I hear it played badly for the billionth time by a busker on a street corner. But sometimes, Wonderwall can be very, very good.
David McFarlane is a musician based in Manchester. He is an active composer and writer, and regular contributor to silentradio.co.uk. He won a Blue Peter badge once, but he can't find it any more. http://d-mcf.com/
(1) Jon Savage, quoted in Sean Campbell, ‘“Irish Blood, English Heart”: Ambivalence, Unease and The Smiths’, in Why Pamper Life's Complexities? Essays on the Smiths. (Manchester University Press, 2010), 56.
(2) Georgina Gregory, ‘“Madchester” and Representations of the North-South Divide in the 1980s and 1990s’, in Popular Music in the Manchester Region Since 1950, vol. 25, Manchester History Review, 2014, 100
(3) Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (Faber & Faber, 2009), 111
(4) Johnny Marr, quoted in Campbell, ‘“Irish Blood, English Heart”: Ambivalence, Unease and The Smiths’, 49
(5) Simon Goddard, The Smiths: Songs That Saved Your Life (Reynolds & Hearn, 2004), 97
(6) Campbell, ‘“Irish Blood, English Heart”: Ambivalence, Unease and The Smiths’, 47
(7) You can read the full lecture here.