Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"Bernadette" and False Endings

Oddly enough, I'm reading two novels in a row that mention/discuss the song "Bernadette," by the Four Tops.

From A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (this is in the infamous PowerPoint chapter, so I can quote the text but not the formatting):
Right now, [Lincoln's] obsessed with rock songs that have pauses in them.
Songs with Lincoln's Comments:
"Bernadette," by the Four Tops: "This is an excellent early pause. The voice tapers off, and then you've still got 1.5 seconds of total silence, from 2:38 to 2:395, before the chorus kicks back in. You think, Hey, the song didn't end after all—but then, 26.5 seconds later, it does end."
From Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann:
The jukebox finished a song, then whirred to a new start. It was the Four Tops.

Bernadette. People are searching for—
the kind of love that we possessed. 
Some go on searchin' their whole life through
And never find the love I've found in you.

"Do you know the lead singer's name?"

"Levi Stubbs," Mark said matter-of-factly.

I reached for his sleeve. "Listen," I said, adding his name, "Mark. I love this part. The false ending. The way he screams her name. Bern—a—dette."

I sighed. "I'll never be loved like that."

He shook his drink, looking into it. "I doubt that."
I couldn't recall ever hearing "Bernadette" and had no idea that it was so widely known for its false ending/mid-song pause.  So I looked it up. Here it is for your listening pleasure:

The trouble with listening to songs on YouTube or an iPod is the little bar that indicates how long the song is and how much more of it remains, meaning that the false ending can't surprise you the way it could on the radio or an LP record. False endings and hidden tracks are becoming a thing of the past. Music is more convenient than ever (I mean, how nice that I could look this up on YouTube instantaneously!) and yet less able to surprise us.

Then again, when you read a book, you always know exactly where you are in it and how many pages remain, and that doesn't ruin your enjoyment of it. Why should it be any different when you know exactly how many seconds remain until the end of a song?

And now this is making me think of the "Aria with Diverse Variations" dialogue in Gödel Escher Bach where the Tortoise and Achilles discuss exactly this problem.
Tortoise: You've undoubtedly noticed how some authors go to so much trouble to build up great tension a few pages before the end of their stories--but a reader who is holding the book physically in his hands can FEEL that the story is about to end. Hence, he has some extra information which acts as an advance warning, in a way. The tension is a bit spoiled by the physicality of the book. It would be so much better if, for instance, there were a lot of padding at the end of novels.

Achilles: Padding?

Tortoise: Yes; what I mean is, a lot of extra printed pages which are not part of the story proper, but which serve to conceal the exact location of the end from a cursory glance, or from the feel of the book.

Achilles: I see. So a story's true ending might occur, say, fifty or a hundred pages before the physical end of the book?

Tortoise: Yes. This would provide an element of surprise, because the reader wouldn't know in advance how many pages are padding, and how many are story.
(And then, because this is Gödel Escher Bach, it all gets very meta.)

I don't have a Kindle, so I'm curious to know: on an e-reader, do you know exactly how much of the text you have remaining, or is it left mysterious? Wouldn't it be funny if the iPod caused this problem for music (of always knowing how long the work of art is) but the Nook or the Kindle eliminated this problem for books?

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