Saturday, February 12, 2011

Guided Tour of Vitalogy: Whipping

by stip

Whipping is one of the outlier songs on Vitalogy, around the level Betterman or Nothingman. Connections can be made, but it isn’t immediately obvious what its relationship is to the broader themes of the record.

Musically it sounds like a protest song—a call to arms. STBC may be a harder, but it isn’t as angry or propulsive as Whipping is. STBC is more a moment of joy so intense you can’t stand it. Whipping is a song of defiance, and the music carries that feeling. It is music to take a beating to, complete with moments to catch your breath in the chorus, and some wordless howling by Eddie underneath the music leading into the first chorus (and during second chorus and outro as well).

So it’s a protest song of some kind. The album art clearly draws attention to abortion, but it isn’t a song about abortion per se. The lyrics make no specific reference to abortion as a political issue. Whipping is a template, to be used when and as necessary.

Whipping is a protest song, but it isn’t really a song about fighting back, which only makes sense in the context of Vitalogy. Vitalogy is a record about enduring, about Sisyphus continuing to push the rock despite the apparent futility of the act. The enemy is so big, so totalizing that resistance can only be personal, an act of self-purification rather than political engagement.

The choice of title is telling here. Whipping is associated with the image of the master and the slave, the punishment for disobedience, for not obeying the arbitrary rules that you never meaningfully consented to. And while there were occasional slave revolts, much of the resistance was personal, finding ways to keep your dignity and endure (and perhaps fight back in subtle ways) in the face of seemingly overwhelming, almost totalitarian force. It’s also worth considering that the reason the slave system lasted as long as it did was its effectiveness in keeping slaves isolated from one another. The numbers, and in important ways the power, were on the side of the slave, but what was missing was the communication and organization necessary to resist. As long as we fight back as individuals, rather than as a group, we cannot win. Defiance will be personal only. And there is a nice tie in later with the whip cracks at the start of Satan’s Bed, another song about personal defiance (although one centered more around authenticity than the bull headed endurance of whipping).

The lyrics reflect this throughout the song. It begins with images of protracted suffering. Too wet for a raincoat to matter, so much blood spilt that a bandage would be useless. It continues in the second verse. Too suspicious for help—there are always consequences and strings attached. There is anger at the people responsible for making the decisions that trap us (a shot at the culture industry in the context of Vitalogy, but easily read as a shot at conservative politicians, or whatever the listener needs it to be). There is also a sense of inevitability about the fight at this point. Too late to turn back—no choice but to endure. And as the song progresses it moves from a solitary act of pushing the rock to a greater sense of solidarity (a la Not For You). Some of the I’s become We’s—why must WE trust, I’m just like you, think We’ve had enough, we all got scars (again—the whipping), they should have em too. There is a moment of hope here. That even if nothing can be done but push the rock, at the very least we don’t need to push the rock alone.

I’ve always been a little uneasy about the placement of Whipping on the record. It is a bit jarring after Nothingman, which is fine except the pace is immediately slowed back down with Pry, To. Thematically it works with Corduroy, Not for You, or Satan’s Bed—the other moments of imperfect resistance, and makes sense surrounded by those songs, but it isn’t quite clear where it works best (perhaps this was the best spot for it). Thinking on it a bit I wonder if it might have been better placed between Corduroy and Satan’s bed (or after Satan’s Bed), moving Bugs up to earlier in the record..