Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sarah McLachlan: Angel

Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” has been getting a tremendous amount of TV airplay in the last several years as the music behind her public service announcement (PSA) for the ASPCA regarding abused pets. It qualifies for our weekly TV Thursday feature – and so here it is.

This is a haunting song that charted in 1999 at #4 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the Adult Contemporary charts. I just love her voice on this tune. The simple, but beautiful arrangement allows her vocal to shine through especially on this live rendition. One major difference between this live interpretation and her studio release of 1997 is the change in key. The original is in Db, while she performs this more recent recording in D. Usually, people drop the key signature with age; however, Sarah uncharacteristically raises it a half step. It may have been done for ease of play – I certainly prefer D over Db any day on any instrument.

Wait, I can hear William Conrad's voice now, "Join our heroes next time for the exciting adventure: 'Sarah's all keyed up' OR 'You can tune a piano, but you can't tuna fish.'" (Apologies to Rocky and Bullwinkle, as well as to REO Speedwagon). 

The studio version was originally released on her 1997 album “Surfacing.” The single would not be released for another two years. While the credits list drum programming by Pierre Marchand, I hear no percussion (electronic or otherwise) on the studio version of this tune. It is possible that it is so far down in the mix that you cannot discern that it is there.

The only other instrument besides Sarah’s piano is the upright bass provided by Jim Creggan. In fact there are two tracks of the bass – one track played pizzicato that carries the rhythm. On the other, Creggan plays arco, providing some effects that are comparable to a synthesizer. I had to double check the credits on this, as other cuts on the album have a musical saw and Creggen’s playing seems very saw-like at times.

Studio Version

What does it all mean?

As I was listening to several versions of this song in preparation for today’s post, I found many people equating “Angel” to being a religious song; however, outside of references to angelic beings and being down on one's knees – there is not an overt spiritual message here. As I analyzed the lyrical content, the song seemed almost suicidal. The musician protagonist seeking a release from the troubles that he or she is encountering on the road.

I was not far from the truth, as McLachlan admitted that the song was written about the heroin overdose of Smashing Pumpkins’ keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin. The first verse corroborates this futile escapism via drugs, as she sings, “I need some distraction, Oh beautiful release. Memory seeps from my veins. Let me be empty, and weightless and maybe I’ll find some peace tonight.” Unfortunately for Melvoin there was no peace in the experience.

Massaging the song for a new Message

Occasionally marketers tend to take a snippet here and there out of context from a song to promote a particular message.  Does Royal Caribbean’s use of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” come to mind?  Well, that has happened with “Angel” – and it has been very successful, I might add. For three years, "Angel" has been used by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in a heart wrenching video that reaches out for help. It is a very effective message that utilizes at least two of Aristotle’s three artistic proofs of argumentation and rhetoric.

One proof is ethos – motivating others to a course of action by encouraging that they pursue the “right” direction. The other is pathos or an emotional appeal.  Ninety percent of this this two minute message tugs on the proverbial heart strings. You can be the “angel” and rescue these abused animals.

While it may not be conclusive, Aristotle's third proof - logos may also be present.  This is the logical course of action, and if present, may be seen in the evidence that it costs less than 60 cents a day to care for one of these abused pets. It has been a very effective campaign for the ASPCA as they have reportedly raised over $30 million in donations from this PSA alone. Bravo ASPCA and Sarah for a job well done.


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