Planet of Sound: Nellie McKay, “Clonie”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.) 

 

“This is about the evils of science, so I think it’s perfect…”

Nellie McKay‘s introductory comment before performing “Clonie” at a February 2008 TED Conference, where her audience was surely filled with people who put quite a lot of faith in science, does not actually tell us much about the song itself… but it does tell us something about Ms. McKay, who has always enjoyed putting provocative statements in unexpected contexts.

To be unfairly broad about it, her 2003 debut Get Away from Me was all about delivering heavy leftist satire via eclectic cabaret pop. And while it would be a rather cheap trick if the only kick in the music came from that contrast, the real thrill was in the mischief, glee, and cleverness with which McKay invested her tinkling piano melodies and warm show-tune vocals.

“Clonie,” a two-minute jingle about human cloning and the sort of person who might want their own clone, is too slight to have the staying power of some of her other songs (e.g., “Ding Dong,” which still finds its way onto playlists and ever-rarer mix-cds), but it packs a laugh into every available couplet. It starts just a little overly-cute, with the implicit suggestion-via-title that perhaps someone who wants a “clonie” may not be taking their genetic clone seriously as an actual person.

My oh my, walkin’ by
Who’s the apple of my eye?
Why it’s my very own
Clonie

…and eventually reaches rather less subtle territory:

We’ll be huggable
Get a publicist and show them
Be the most lovable thing
Since fucking Eminem
Oh my friend
Multiply, we’re a franchise
Like Walt Disney or Hannibal Lecter…

The points of the song as a whole seem to be both that that the impulse to clone oneself is essentially narcissistic and that such cloning may not be healthy. But it’s odd — despite the fact that the satire is no more extreme than it is on many of her other songs (and despite the fact that I can’t imagine wanting a clone, and that cloning at or near our current level of technology definitely isn’t safe), I often found myself a little irritated with this one. It did read as anti-science to me — after all, there’s no reason to cut off whole fields of inquiry just because there are ways to misuse them, right? And if McKay wasn’t opposed to the cloning endeavor, why bother writing the song?

But in the course of thinking about it, I realized and/or remembered two things:

Firstly, that McKay, a “proud member of PETA,” is also a lot more opposed to animal testing than I am, and than the scientific community is in general. If animal testing is off-limits, there’s no good way at all to get to human cloning (or its cousin, genetic modification), and the necessary experiments must seem morally abhorrent.

Secondly, and more importantly, just because a venture may be worth attempting doesn’t mean that one should ignore all cautionary voices. This is the flip-side of the pro-science view; to rush forward without any consideration or constraints at all virtually guarantees eventual misuse. I don’t like the idea of letting concerned voices stop the scientific inquiry, but letting them temper it… well, that seems more reasonable.

In any event, human cloning hasn’t been in the public dialogue much lately, as the years since Dolly have passed without more such obvious advances, but when it is brought up it still occasions quite a bit of debate (here are a couple interesting pro/con articles from 2010). I almost hesitate to ask, but does anyone reading this have an opinion on the matter to share? And, back to the music — did you find McKay’s poking at the issue annoying or amusing?

I leave you with the closing thought of one commenter on the TED conference video:

“But I wonder, how many of us could actually stand to hang around ourselves all the time?”


Joshua Starr learned all he needed to know about cloning from Calvin & Hobbes.

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