Vol 5, No 1 (2009) Sour Grapes, Fermented Selves: Musical Shulammites Modulate Subjectivity


Heidi Epstein


How might a strange intersection of disparate fields – biblical criticism and New Musicology – generate mutually sustenant fruit? ‘Seeds’ for the latter, I propose, would lie in reading musical settings of the Song of Solomon with interpretive lenses that New Musicologists have been developing since the late 1980s. In this essay, musical settings of the Song are read from this perspective in hopes that such new musicological ‘exegeses’ may add discursive breadth to the latest biblical critical discussions about the Song’s thematics. This paper places two pop music settings of the Song ‘in conversation’ with opposing sides of a recent debate over the Song’s erotic content: feminist (biblical) scholars conventionally framed the Song and its heroine’s romantic pursuits as odes to the joy of egalitarian heterosexual love; more recent provocateurs have queered its pitch to accommodate s/m fantasies of a bottom’s ‘pain-filled pleasures’ (Boer, Moore and Burrus). Steeleye Span’s ‘Awake, awake’ (1977) and the Pixies’ ‘I’ve Been Tired’ (1987) curiously anticipate these polemics. Steeleye’s electric folk and the Pixies’ post-punk alternative styles seem respectively to honour and revile this canonical text and its mysterious animatrice. The former’s music and lyrics reproduce the harmonious, linear pas de deux thatreaders coerce from the text. By contrast, the latter’s soundscape drags the pair through musical grunge. However, reread via New Musicology’s sense of music as a culturally inflected ‘technique of the self,’ study of text-music relations, the songs’ historical contexts, and the social meanings of musical genre recast these two settings as fraternal twins. Additionally, the Shulammite’s musical peregrinations produce new allegorical registers within the canticle, and broaden in unlikely directions the scope of the sonically rendered ‘sacred erotic,’ now disruptively reconfigured within popular music.


Bible; music


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