Mon
May 9 2011 5:59pm

Planet of Sound: Pixies, “The Happening”

The Pixies Bossanova

(With a hat tip to Frequency Rotation, Planet of Sound is a new weekly speculative-fiction music feature.)

I can trace the inspiration for Planet of Sound, a new SFF music column on Tor.com, to one song, so why begin anywhere but at the beginning?

Pixies, the band, are indie-rock legends, cited as an influence by everyone from Nirvana on down, with a critical reputation about as solid in their field as, say, Isaac Asimov’s in the genre. However, frontman Frank Black had a bizarre attraction to the most hokey science fiction ideas—the kind more likely to appear in the National Enquirer than Analog. And somehow, what he does with them elevates both the music and the stories to something transcendently weird.

Bossanova wore its science-fiction influences more openly than its predecessors—just check out that cover. Come on Pilgrim, Surfer Rosa and Doolittle skirted these topics, filled with Black’s twisted interpretations of biblical and mythological themes, as well as various skewed metaphysical musings on death, love, and the afterlife. The general tone was conspiracy-crank eccentric, the affect of a man who couldn’t help but see the unsettling and uncanny in everyday life and shared history. He didn’t identify with other people. He did identify with “Caribou.”

However, on Bossanova, Black literalized his obsessions with the unearthly and alien. And with “The Happening,” he switched it up a little; he showed us something not strange and scary, but unifying and inspiring, in the extraterrestrials. “The Happening” is about a UFO landing in Las Vegas. When the narrator hears the news coming across the radio band he swings his car around to check it out, and everyone else on the road does the same. How could they miss this?

“I’m almost there to Vegas where they’re puttin’ on a show / They’ve come so far, I’ve lived this long, at least I must just go and say hello.”

Even though it’s more narrative than many examples of sci-fi in music, the construction of this song would never work as a prose story. There’s no in-depth exploration and explanation. There’s no coming to terms with what the knowledge of extraterrestrial life means for humankind. There’s just the happening, and our brave and stupid exuberance at a chance to see something wonderful. It helps that the music is the perfect combination of creepy and excited, too, like someone screaming along with the X-Files theme song.

But the non-functionality of the song as prose is entirely appropriate. Science fiction or fantasy music doesn’t have to do the same thing as science fiction or fantasy stories. Genre readers might enjoy genre songs, but generally not for the same exact reasons; it has to do with pleasurable associations with the content, maybe, or a shared sensibility. But music can do things prose, and even poetry, can’t. One doesn’t tend to re-read a favored story or poem a dozen times in a row, day after day, for example. But when a song, ahem, strikes a chord, it gets lodged in the brainstem deep. (Great stories will stick with us, too, of course. But do you hear them in your head in quite the same way?)

Anyway, the song inspired the feature by being the first illustration I considered of what happens when science fiction and music mix, but also, I think, in its attitude: aliens are coming, so let’s go watch! I love speculative fiction. It really is that fun, and if it ever stops being so, I’ll probably stop writing about it.

Obviously, not all SF books are “fun” in the sense of being light or fluffy or inconsequential—often, they are very far from those things—but I do have a sort of warm, fuzzy affection for the genre as a whole that the song mirrors in a way. Even after Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Star Wars, SF still has an underdog’s air about it. As a fan, I hold it close to my heart. And even when the prudent course would be to stay away, stay far away indoors, there seems to be value in admitting: you’d be curious. “The Happening” captures the wide-eyed wonder—more than that, the joy in the wonder—that ought to be familiar to any SF fan.

It might not be realistic, but I like to hold the hope that, if the aliens did come, I’d be one of the ones who said hi, too. That’s better than greeting them with guns blazing, right?

(There’s an atmospheric, but un-embeddable, fan-made video for the song here.)


Joshua Starr works for DAW Books, wrote for College Music Journal, and is a fan of speculative fiction in all media. ALL MEDIA.

6 comments
Chuk Goodin
1. Chuk
Huh, I would have thought you'd pick something off of Trompe Le Monde. I don't know the Bossanova album very well.


Huge Pixies fan -- saw their Doolittle tour on Tuesday and it was great.
Joshua Starr
2. JStarr
Well, "Planet of Sound" off Trompe le Monde gets a big-time shout-out in the column name!

I actually really like Bossanova (other favorite tracks on it include "Dig for Fire" and "Down to the Well"), and I prefer "The Happening" to, say, "Motorway to Roswell" as a straight-up science-fictional song. But Trompe le Monde is also great. Hell, all the albums are. Pretty jealous you got to see them.

Which are your favorite Trompe tracks, particularly as you'd interpret them for SF themes?
Nina Lourie
4. supertailz
Dude, this is awesome! And hopefully will introduce me to much music I have never yet met! I'm especially interested because I think there's sometimes a fine fine line between filk and sfnal-ish songs. Not that there's anything wrong with filk, but that it's a different feeling entirely.

I would love to see some kind of running playlist of all songs you mention/recommend for those of us interested in gathering them together. Would it be possible to either have that be a separate updatable-post that could be linked back to at the end of each post? or even have just a list running at the bottom of each post or something?

Also can't wait until you get to new stuff! Janelle Monae, while not being my favourite singer or anything, is the one who really introduced me to the concept of "sfnal" music in a way. Which is weird, now that I think about it, because Bowie did that *a lot* and could you maybe even argue that Led Zeppelin was doing that long before? And opera!

...ok, end of ramble now:)
Joshua Starr
5. JStarr
Thanks! I hope to introduce you (and everyone else!) to some cool new music, too--as well as remind everyone of some great older or more well-known music to consider in new context. Posting on a genre site as opposed to a music site gives us license to discuss this stuff in ways it doesn't always get discussed.

And yeah, I'd agree there's a difference in feel. I don't have any posts about filk or songs that otherwise come explicitly from within fandom planned for the next few weeks, at least, but I suspect I'll get to some eventually. If/when I do post filk, it'll probably be worth starting that discussion--what makes filk different? Off the top of my head, I think the circumstances of filk's usual performance (conventions) must, for one, have an impact on the way filkers think about making references--what they can assume the audience knows. I'm sure there are many people on the site who know much more about filk than I do, though, so I'll be interested in hearing their thoughts.

And then, beyond filk but still outside the mainstream, there are scenes like nerdcore hip-hop, fantasy metal, wizard rock, and so on, all of which are interesting to consider as musical genres and all of which have some exemplary songs in them, too.

And ooh, playlist. All the Planet of Sound posts will be shown if you click on the Planet of Sound tag, of course, though perhaps I'll talk with tordot powers-that-be and see if we can/should do anything else to collect them. But actually this request reminds me that there are a couple ways I might be able to put together a single-location listenable playlist of this stuff off-site, like GrooveShark.com. I may give that a shot.

Janelle Monae! Is wonderful. Jason Heller tackled her in Frequency Rotation (Bowie also got some mentions), so I probably won't spotlight any more of her songs unless/until she comes out with a new album, but there's plenty of other new music that still qualifies. I think one of the things I'm exactly as insistent as Jason about is that artists have been writing with spec-fic themes in music for a long, long time--it's not NEW. But the ways in which they do so, and the specific ideas they most engage with, may indeed have changed, and would probably be worth discussing in posts or comments!

(And yeah, Zeppelin has at least the two songs clearly referencing Lord of the Rings--yay "Ramble On"--and I'm sure they have others playing with similar ideas, right? They've certainly got the "epic" part of "epic fantasy" down, anyway.)

Heh. End ramble? For now.
Chris Lough
6. TorChris
Josh, I would like to encourage a follow-up into Black's solo career! His first album is chockablock with SF. (So is his second album, but you kind of expect it by then.)
Chuk Goodin
7. Chuk
@2; I think I would have gone with "Motorway to Roswell" myself, maybe "Planet of Sound". I guess if I think about the actual lyrics, stuff like "Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons" has more SF content in the title than in the actual song.

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