The Duchess Rants: On a Different Note…

What happened to music?

Yeah, I know I am entering the full ‘get off my lawn’ curmudgeonly territory – but honestly – I can’t say I remember many songs from this millennium. Or from some ten years before, actually. It all blurs into a maelstrom of NOISE and forgettable lyrics. Yes, yes I am perfectly certain that someone out there is going to sit up in fury and go, but what about…?

Maybe I am just a weird anomaly, but I like substance. I LOVE story songs and poetry songs. Not so much “baby baby baby, the bedroom’s over there” but something… more.

I will throw two things your way and you may choke on the comparison because at first sight they really have pretty much nothing to do with one another, but bear with me for the duration of this rant. After that you can stalk off in a huff and defend your own musical icons if you wish. But, two things…

First, ABBA

I admit that they are, have been for decades, my secret sin. *I LOVE ABBA*. Not so much the early bubblegum pop (I mean, I know “Waterloo” won Eurovision, but dear hearts I grew up with Eurovision and I well know the kind of music that wins that sort of thing. “Waterloo” was a great example. It was pure sugar water.)… but ABBA didn’t stop there. They grew. They changed. And they evolved into songs that are memorable, that have stories, that have heart, that have soul, and that go through you like a hot knife through butter.

“Waterloo” and Eurovision-launched fame hit in 1974; “Mamma Mia” came along the year after that, and their first #1 album the year after that… and dance and disco (“Dancing Queen”, “Voulez Vous”) followed. But it was by the time they hit the late seventies, early eighties, that they really began to interest me. They sang about life. And some part of me understood it viscerally. “Winner takes it all” is devastating, to anyone who is raw from a recent breakup.

Then came the song that I want to talk about specifically – “The Day Before You Came”. Someone interviewed about the group in a BBC TV program described this as ABBA having “succumbed to the darkness at the edge of town”, and yeah, exactly. There is something in that song that opens me up almost surgically.

There’s an account of a perfectly ordinary, routine, humdrum life, one of thousands, one of millions, one of many that will never ever change – a wasted life, perhaps, because nothing important would happen, no dream would come true, perhaps no dream would ever exist, because you (the rhetorical you, the protagonist) basically doesn’t have enough existence to dream. You are a shadow, a ghost, a wraith, your entire being almost transparent, plodding along in a predetermined rut, doing the same thing over and over again.

In this song, you get up, you catch the train, you go to work, you go to lunch (“the usual place, the usual bunch”), you finish work, you stop to buy take-away, you go home, you watch some inane television, you go to bed, maybe read a little while you listen to the sound of rain on the roof, and the vision, the bleak horrifying vision, is that you have done this yesterday, you did it today, you will do it tomorrow, you will keep doing it until you grow too old to do it, and then it will be over.

Then all of this gets punctuated with five words, just five words that open a chasm inside you. It was all like this, exactly like this, with no prospect of ever being different and it didn’t matter to you… except for those five words. All of this was true BEFORE. It is true no longer.

All of this numbing routine happened… “the day before you came”.

And there is a sense that this coming has wrought chaos, anguish, agony, unspeakable loss… but also an awakening. You are awake now. You were asleep, “the day before you came“, before someone came to shatter your world completely and shake you from sleep and complacency, but you are wide awake now.

That song takes me by the throat every time, and makes me cry. It is an  anthem of change. I have never heard anything like it before or since.

They knew the power of it too, the people who wrote it. In an interview one of the songwriters said about this song in particular that there comes a time when you question a song, question about whether you can improve it – and with a song like this, the answer is simply, no. This song can’t be improved. It’s pure raw truth wrapped in a melody that doesn’t ever quite leave your mind.

Am I being a curmudgeon if I question the fact that I can’t think of many other songs, of more recent vintage, that do this to me? To anyone?

Is it surprising that they made the Mamma Mia movies – because ALL of ABBA’s songs are stories, and it was easy to weave them together into an overarching one and give it life? Are there many – are there ANY – other groups whose oeuvre dating from 1972 to roughly 1982 *still lives on in the way that ABBA’s songs do?

Second, Leonard Cohen

I discovered him late in life, but that only makes me a more utterly astonished and devoted fan. I heard “Everybody Knows” as soundtrack in a TV show and it fit perfectly where it was put – but I don’t think I knew it was Cohen at the time. It was just a perfect song.

Then I was hit between the eyes with “Hallelujah”. And I state unequivocally that if there are indeed gates to any kind of heaven at all then Leonard Cohen  walked through them as they swing wide on the simple basis of having written that song.

Of course I quickly piled on the favorites, once I found the man – “Dance me to the End of Love”, “Anthem”, “Closing Time”(that’s the one that makes me dance).

He has songs the lyrics to which are pure incomprehensible poetry and they make no sense whatsoever if you just write them down by themselves (just LISTEN carefully in a literal fashion to “Suzanne” at some point, I double dare you to interpret that to me…) but somehow mean something when they get internalized by your ears and distilled into power deep inside your heart. I know every note of these songs. I can listen to them for hours, drown in them, dream in them.

There is no “modern” music that does this for me. I cannot name a single artist of the last – oh, let’s be generous – fifteen years whose name comes to mind when I talk of music I love, music that moves me, that owns me.

Am I just getting too old? Or have we passed out of an era…?

What have they done to music in modern times? Why is it just noise? Why aren’t there any tunes that stand out, that you remember? Why is everything so ephemeral, why does everything puff out and blow away, what is going to be left behind from today’s musical times?

Do you suppose that thirty years from now there will be people in their fifties waxing lyrical about something from 2015 or 2018 which has completely passed me by…

… or will we still be listening to a Canadian poet/songwriter and a Swedish pop group who remain immortal…?



About Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander's life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma on her website (, her Facebook page (, on Twitter ( or at her Patreon page (


The Duchess Rants: On a Different Note… — 8 Comments

  1. My tastes were created before ABBA, but I love Cohen.

    I am a typical old fogey, being ignorant about most popular culture from generations past mine. There are very few musicians from generations past mine that I ever listened to.

    My wife watches Jeopardy!. When they have kids on, the kids know everything I don’t know, and I know everything the kids don’t know.

  2. The advantages to having kids (yes, there are some) is that I got to hear a lot of music I would not otherwise hear, and some of it was terrific. I’m not going to enumerate here, because I gotta get to work, but: there are story songs out there, some with remarkably smart lyrics. I will cite just one: Eleanor, a plaintive rock song by Low Millions, about a guy who doesn’t understand why his girlfriend has broken up with him (which becomes clear–along with his cluelessness–over the course of the song). Low Million’s lyricist and lead singer: Adam Cohen, son of Leonard.

  3. Not mainstream, but I remember “Familiar’s Promise,” by Heather Alexander (now Alexander James Adams) brought you to tears more than once.

    The song was written for a series of my books, I heard the very first performance of it when Heather was still reading the lyrics off note cards and sang it accapella because she hadn’t written all of the accompaniment for it, and it still brings tears to my eyes.

    It’s on the Merlin’s Descendants album.

  4. I’m far from up on current music (though I adore Meghan Trainor’s “No”). But one thing I’ve noticed is that about half the time the music I hear playing in my neighborhood coffee shops dates back to my youth. And since I could have grandkids the age of some of the baristas, I think this says something about the staying power of some of that music.

    As for Leonard Cohen: I came to him early (I remember a concert in Austin in the early 70s where he and the audience ended up on the shores of Town Lake for hours afterwards). I loved his work back then, but I moved away because of how I came to feel about his songs about women. “Susanne” is about finding something special in a woman, though, of course, not a woman that he will stay with in any way. She gives him a glimpse of enlightenment and then he leaves, just as in “Sisters of Mercy” or “So Long, Marianne.” “Hallelujah” is wonderful, though.

    • Ah yes, and let’s not forget his rather cruel “Chelsea Hotel,” which he admittedly wrote about his dalliance with Janis Joplin (and later regretted having admitted this publicly). Cohen wrote some wonderful poetry, but his overarching misogyny has likewise made me less than enamoured.

      Certainly “Hallelujah” has taken on a life of its own—which, all things considered, is probably a good thing.

      There is plenty of wonderful and fresh music out there—it’s just a matter of expanding one’s genres. Most of what I listen to these days will never make its way onto any music charts.

  5. People love to hate on Taylor Swift. But listen to “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” sometime. It’s a perfect teen-girl anthem. And don’t listen to “The Best Day,” a love song Taylor wrote for her mother, unless you’re ready for a good sob.

  6. AS with someone else above, due to having progeny I hear more music of different genres than I would ever hear otherwise. There are artists doing stories, still. Some of what has caught us has been from Aviators in their Bleeding Sun Cycle, such as Godhunter – a couple albmums worth telling the story of the end of days and a false god hunted down; here are a bit of lyrics from their song Streets of Gold: “I see the golden years behind us
    I’m getting scared to move along
    My inspiration has subsided and …”

    Miracle of Sound/Gavin Dunne, and

    Blind Guardian which latter I tuned into to remark ‘that’s rather a lot of screaming for you to be listening to.’ and got the explanation that it was about JRRT’s Silmarillion event of the Elf King’s one-one duel with Morgoth. The screaming was the challenge. And the duel is in the music, not done in words. For a band labeled ‘heavy metal/mithril’ they are amazingly interesting to listen to, as well as melodic. (with screaming only when necessary:-)).

  7. I am very fond of Seanan McGuire’s CD WICKED GIRLS. Enough storytelling for an anthology of stories. I have her second CD of original folklore songs but have not listened to it yet. (I actually like her music more than the books I’ve read, and she’s a fine writer.)