Dropping Like Flies: The Fine Line between Provocation and Invocation
“Not the Same” by Ben Folds. From Ben Folds Live
Ben Folds likes to give music lessons.
When I saw him on his Rockin the Suburbs tour, he gave this intro to one of his songs: “This song is in D major. Now how many sharps is that?” To which the true musicologists in the room responded, “Two!”
But he hadn’t yet come up with his greatest lesson: the audience harmony. On his next tour, he ditched his band in favor of a stripped down solo approach, aptly titled “The Ben Folds and a Piano Tour”. Songs from this tour were eventually compiled into the album Ben Folds Live. Generally, solo musicians are much more interested in developing a rapport with their audiences because, unlike with bands, there’s no one on the stage to hang out with.
So, on the solo tour, Folds stopped to teach the audience to sing harmonies. Before the song “Army,” he divided the audience into halves and had them mimic the two distinct horn parts that appear on the original recording. And if audience members didn’t know the parts yet, Folds led them in a repeat-after-me round of “Ba-ba-baaaa! Ba-ba-ba-baaa!” before he began the song. When the time came, the audience delivered.
Then, before “Not the Same,” Folds divided the audience again into groups of three. At the appropriate time, he had them sing a harmony of “ah’s,” each group ascending at the chord change. Not only were the “ah’s” in tune (itself a remarkable feat), they were haunting. Spiritual, even.
It’s up for debate whether or not Folds could have known how good the live recording of “Not the Same” would sound. If you usually can’t trust an audience to clap in time, how could you trust them to manage a vocal harmony? But he picked the best track on Rockin the Suburbs for the experiment, with its bright piano, crashing drums, screaming bridge, and light piano outro.
How appropriate that the song about the man who comes down off an acid trip a born-again Christian is the song Folds has chosen to turn into a church experience. It’s a song that is more about Folds’ own suspicion of religion than about religion itself. In the chorus, he characterizes his witnessing a conversion as seeing people “drop like flies from the bright sunny skies,” evangelism as “knocking at your door with this look in their eyes, and faith as, “You get one good trip and you’re hanging on to it.” The metaphor of Religion as Drug is an oversimplification, but it can be pretty apt at times. He doesn’t have to elaborate what “this look in their eyes” means. We know. It’s the look of a Christian who sees you as a potential conversion rather than a person, an “It” rather than a “You.”
When Folds plays “Not the Same” nowadays, he lets the audience members choose which “ah” part to sing, based on his or her vocal range and preference. Everyone already knows the drill, and it sounds even better for our having practiced in the car on the way to the concert. For a moment each night, the crowd has transformed from Audience to Participant, and Ben from Musician to Conductor: everyone in the room has ascended.
At the end of the song, he signals for the audience to raise and lower their pitches in rapid succession. We play along, and he’s right—it’s funny. We sound like Tarzan. But I suspect it’s a joke bred in fear. Ben Folds can’t let a silly thing like audience chanting get too gorgeous, or God may suddenly show up, assuming he was invited.
*Somewhat inspired by Nick Hornby.