All the Existential Flavours of Pop

Your little brother’s a struggling actor. He’s been struggling for as long as you can remember. He’s got a walk-on part in the new Camus musical. His only line is: I am the Messenger. How should he sing it?

The Messenger in question moves through the world, observing but never partaking. The word Messenger needs to resonate with existential alienation. Of course, the word Messenger usually carries its stress on the first syllable: Messenger. Changing the stress pattern will attract the audience’s attention to the word (and to your brother). Try each one: I am the Messenger?  I am the Messenger? Or I am the Messenger? Which one should he use?

Decided? Sure? Watch this …

Actually – before you start watching, maybe I should issue a warning: Mr Pop is not in the best of health in this video from 1977. He doesn’t have the cleanest mouth in the business. If profanity upsets you, then this video will upset you. Look away now. If you’d like to follow the post, here is the recorded version of The Passenger. The intonation pattern is the same. No swearing and a bonus cheery photo of Mr Pop. Join us again when you’ve listened.

For those of a more robust constitution – it’s true, I tricked you just a little by substituting the word Messenger for Passenger. The standard stress pattern is the same in both words. I knew that if you’ve ever heard the line I am the Passenger sung by Iggy Pop, that Mr Pop’s version would play in your head as the only possible version. I  wanted you to think of the line afresh. Forgive me.

Back to the question – I’m guessing that you thought the first syllable – Mess – would carry the stress, but that the other syllables, in the context of this line, would carry fairly equal weight? If you thought something different, let me know in the comments below.

As I understand it, Iggy Pop’s Passenger, like the Messenger in my question, moves through the world, observing but not partaking. You chose one way to place the stress on the word Passenger or Messenger to encompass that meaning. Where does Iggy choose to place it? And, by the way, I chose this lengthy version because it shows how, even though Iggy is clearly a little the worse for wear, he never strays from his chosen intonation of the word passenger. We’ll come back to that later. He starts singing about a minute in:

So – Iggy Pop chooses to stretch the last syllable of Passenger. Every time. He places stress on the first syllable too, but draws your attention to the last by deviating from what you expect. True, if you read the sheet music here, you can see how it leads him down on the final syllable, but there’s more to it than that. At 6.16, when he begins to improvise, he’s speaking, not singing. He still chooses to pronounce the word Passenger with a stretched final syllable. He never deviates from his chosen pronunciation – though he plays with his other words during the song, he never alters the word Passenger.

There’s a richness to Iggy’s pronunciation of the word Passenger. He imbues it with an existential flavour. He makes it sound portentous. He draws your attention to the whole word by giving it an unusual stress pattern. He changes its meaning: a passenger is a passive traveller, sitting and waiting for the train, bus, car or plane to arrive at its destination. This Passenger is observing the world as it moves past his window. He’s active in his observation. Iggy Pop chose to inject the word Passenger with this altered meaning.

Imagine how the song would have changed if he’d sung I am a Passenger. Utterly passive. Just as Walter White is the One who knocks, Iggy Pop is the Passenger. It matters.

I’m going to stop here because I’m going to post on The Passenger again – next time about the mesmerising power of exact repetition. And the power of wild energy contained.

Let me just say, to native and non-native English speakers alike:

  • If you’re going to sing The Passenger, check that you’re giving the final syllable all the breadth and all the dimension it needs. Think of this mistake and don’t make it here.
  • Don’t sing a standard, dictionary version of the word Passenger. This Passenger is not the passenger you find in a dictionary. He doesn’t live there, he lives in this song.
  • Passenger is a word we all know, but it’s not a word you hear used in arguments or in love.  Most of us have never had an opportunity to stretch it or mould it into a persuasive shape. Now is your opportunity.

If you waste that last syllable, you’re not singing Iggy Pop’s song – you’re singing a song about public transport in Berlin.

© Sing Better English, 2014

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10 thoughts on “All the Existential Flavours of Pop”

  1. Thanks so much for providing the “sanitized” version (profanity does bother me), because I was fascinated by his choice of which syllable to stress. What do you think came first for him in “The Passenger”: the music or the lyric? I suspect the music.

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    1. Hi Sandi – yes, Mr Pop, in his stage incarnation, is not the kind of man you’d invite round to meet your mother!

      I put up the full 1977 live version because I thought it was interesting how he stuck to the pronunciation of the word ‘passenger’ throughout. Even though he obviously had other things on, and in, his mind.

      Apparently, the chord sequence for The Passenger was brought to the recording sessions for the Lust for Life album by Ricky Gardiner. The lyrics are based on a Jim Morrison poetry fragment : http://perceptionsofthedoors.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/iggy-pop-passenger-and-morrisons-lords.html

      So, he didn’t write the words, but he organised them.

      I have a theory that the enduring popularity of The Passenger owes a lot to his pronunciation choice. He has a rich voice, and he does make the word sound more weighty by pronouncing it as he does. He’s made the song sound full of meaning, through that choice.

      The magic of human language.

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      1. Thank you for such an informative response! It’s interesting to know the “story” behind the song (although one certainly doesn’t need to know the story to appreciate the song). I’ll check out the Jim Morrison link.

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      2. My pleasure.

        It’s true – you don’t need the story to appreciate the song. I’d always assumed that Iggy Pop had written it all, words and music, himself. I learn a lot writing these posts 🙂

        My aim, with this post, is to point out how any word in English can be moulded into shape, for the benefit of a song. I’ve heard quite a few cover versions of this song where the singer is using the standard, travelling, word Passenger. It doesn’t work and the only reason that the cover version sounds any good is because most listeners will have Iggy Pop’s version in their heads, to fill in the gaps. All words in songs are worthy of attention – and it’s always worth checking that you’re singing the right version of a word. Did you see the post about Jamming? https://singbetterenglish.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/jamming-marley/

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  2. Hi Elaine, enjoyed this! Have always liked this song. Reminds me a bit of the opening of Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Isherwood’s narrator may be passive (although I’m not convinced – surely the very act of observation is active), but he also recognizes that “Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” Ah art! The never-ending dance between detachment and engagement. …

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    1. Yes, I’ve always liked it too. When I started looking at it with a view to writing about it I was very taken with the fact that Iggy Pop is prostrate on the stage but rises, like Lazarus, as the opening bars of The Passenger start playing. I think there’s something quite mesmerising in the contrast between Iggy’s wild energy and the regular repeat of the song. When he sings it now, that wildness is absent and it feels much more of a singalong than anything else.

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      1. I suppose it’s hard to maintain that wild energy over the years. But it’s hard to see vigour dimmed, whether in a person or in a song. Looking forward to reading the next part of this, Elaine.

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      2. I suppose the song itself gets handed on, like a baton in a relay race, to the next young singer.

        It needs the frisson of ‘wildness contained’ to play against the repetition, otherwise it would begin to sound like a dirge or like a lengthy skipping rhyme. (Actually, thinking about it, maybe The Passenger would work quite well as a skipping rhyme!)

        Have you seen the Siouxsie & the Banshees version? Filmed in Portmeirion, by the looks of it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHkr4pb8Hcc

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