In his classic 1968 study of Rabelais, Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin brought forth the notions of carnival and carnivalesque. Quoting professor/author John Fiske’s definition, the carnival is “characterized by laughter, by excessiveness (particularly of the body and bodily functions), by bad taste and offensiveness, and degradation”. Similarly, the indispensable French theorist Roland Barthes employed wrestling as a site of semiotic spectacle and focused on the participant’s bodies as signifiers of excess and the grotesque. These notions—especially that of the carnivalesque—have been applied across a wide spectrum of foci over the last 50-plus years by academic and pop writers alike, from television to religion to music to Mardi Gras and back to, um, more wrestling. With writing in a highly theatrical musical style and a first single entitled “Dick Around”, the 20th album from Sparks seems prime for a carnivalesque reading. Except it’s not.
Well, to be fair, Hello Young Lovers is as ripe for carnivalesque unpacking as any of the band’s previous albums. Granted, many of their earlier works were more clever in word play (1994’s Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins springs to mind), but given the sincerity of the Mael brothers’ approach to fun and music, over the course of 35 years, one has to take the band seriously. That being said, I have to go beyond (or stay at the surface of?) interpreting Sparks’ album of juvenile lyrics and musical theatre productions through a literary criticism lens and ask, how are two brothers, both in their 50s, still doing all of this?
“Wonder girl, do me right at this ungodly hour,” Sparks sing on their 1972 favorite “Wonder Girl.” As the ungodly hour of their lives is rapidly approaching, I must ask why the Mael’s insist upon delivering such lyrical schlock? From their 1982 ode-to-erection-as-hit-single (“Angst in My Pants”) to the silliness of mustaches (“one hundred hairs make a man”) to the aforementioned 1994’s album title, I would think that Sparks would not necessarily grow up (who wants to grow up in the world of rock ‘n’ roll?), but that they would just get bored treading the same adolescent ground over and over again.
Perhaps the shift to increasing musical complexity is what keeps it interesting for the hallowed Sparks, and, strictly musically speaking, Lovers is a remarkable feat. With the harmony and dissonance of a classical orchestration and the theatrical bombast of Queen, Sparks achieve a meticulous and joyous musical background. But, this begs the question, does one really want to listen to gorgeous musical crescendos and a falsetto singing “all I do now is dick around/ dick around” or a bouncy plea that “barometric pressure has no relevance to me”?
Sparks, perhaps, have become a spectacle in and of themselves. As Barthes says of the wrestlers, the function is not to win, or in Sparks’ case, carve new territory, but to “go exactly through the motions which are expected” of them. I cannot help but laud Sparks’ unending dedication to play.
// Notes from the Road
"Powerful Chicago soul-singer dips into the '60s and '70s while dabbling in Urdu, Punjabi and Italian.READ the article