SPARKS have just released ‘So May We Start?’, the opening song from their long-awaited musical-movie Annette, Like so much of Ron and Russell Mael’s music, it’s instantly catchy and unashamedly funny. But there's also a lot more going on in this songs than you'd first think. In this post I’m going to break down the many things that connect it to 2020 album ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’ and offer a theory about what that means for the movie and the Mael brothers themselves.
‘So May We Start?’ is meta as hell. It’s a song that’s giddy with excitement about the movie that you’re about to see, and is completely confident that you’re about to be dazzled. This is a theme that’s come up with them a lot recently.
Three songs on ‘A steady drip, drip, drip‘ feature characters on the brink of revealing something extraordinary. The first is 'One for the Ages', in which an anonymous office worker is writing a book that will earn him great acclaim, and his co-workers have no idea. Then in ‘Nothing Travels Faster than the Speed of Light’ a scientist is about to demonstrate a great breakthrough thought to be against the rules of physics. In ‘iPhone’ we have a verse from Steve Jobs’ neglected wife - all of his attention is focused on developing the phone, a world-changing device that nobody saw coming. While the surface readings of these songs are completely distinct from each other, all feature a shared subtext about a great reveal, and with a band like Sparks that can’t be a coincidence. So just like in these songs, the thing that the Maels are “starting” with ‘Annette’ may be something important that will take everybody by surprise.
EDIT: Since writing this, more music has been released from the movie, including 'The premiere performance of Baby Annette'. This has Adam Driver's character announce to the audience that they're about to see a miracle. This is the same concept again.
All songs on the album can be tied to ‘Annette’ if you look at it a certain way, and this even applies to the one-off singles released before and after it. First, in 2017 they released 'Check-Out Time, 11am’, about a couple who are ending a long-term affair. It features the line “It’s time to start, don’t reminisce, it’s time to start, paralysis”. This is strikingly close to ‘So may we start?’. They recently released new single ‘Your fandango’ and this also includes a reference to starting something: “Everyone (and by that I mean everyone) loves it when you begin your fandango”. So with these one-off singles the whole album is bookended by the concept of starting something.
There are other songs about working on something great. ‘Lawnmower’ talks about “jaw-droppers” and “show-stoppers”, both terms that could apply to ‘Annette’. ‘Left out in the cold’ has a man researching winter clothing in Winnipeg, and he’ll settle for nothing less than perfection. He doesn’t mind the thankless work and lack of recognition because “one day he’ll be warm again”, which could represent the success they’re due with the movie.
So here I’m claiming that Sparks are routinely pushing the meaning in their music beyond individual songs. If that sounds unlikely then consider ‘Stravinsky’s only hit’ where the great composer writes a pop song (with help from Sparks). He was a music theorist who published papers and even lectured at Harvard about meaning in music. Sparks themselves are furthering the composer’s developments by pushing the limits of how much meaning can be put into music. They’ve been releasing concept albums where there the concept has been a closely guarded secret, to be revealed when the brothers are ready. In ‘Stravinsky’s only hit’ the composer “hated minor thirds”, and in ‘So may we start’ they say “we’ll sing and die for you, yes, in minor key”.
‘Onamata Pia’ is about a woman with a beautiful speaking voice but nobody understands a word she’s saying, just as we don’t yet understand the intent of Sparks music but we love how it sounds. Incidentally, there are so many Sparks songs about people not getting the point, not least ‘‘iPhone’ where the audience is too distracted to see something important. Their demand to “put your fucking iPhone down and listen to me” ties nicely with ‘So may we start?’, where they ask that “ladies and gents, please shut up and sit”.
‘Self-effacing’ is about somebody who doesn’t shout about their achievements, just as Ron and Russell have kept theirs a secret. “Want to be known as someone unknown” could mean that they’ve relished being out of the limelight while supported by a devoted fan base. It’s a theme that can be found all over 2008’s ‘Exotic creatures of the Deep’ album.
‘So May We Start?’ says “there’s fear in them all, but don’t let it show”, and this same fear is present elsewhere. There’s a sense of impending doom on ‘I’m Toast’, ‘The Existential Threat’, ‘Sainthood is not in your future’, and ‘Please don’t fuck up my world’. This could be because they’ve enjoyed their years of relative obscurity. They’ve spent their whole career keeping fame at arms’ length by never taking the easy choices that other bands would. They’ve never capitalised on their rich history, instead choosing to wait until their later years to share their story. They’re about to get the recognition they deserve but hope that fame and success don’t “fuck up their world”.
‘I’m Toast’ includes the line “what does it all mean?”. As you may gather, I think there’s an answer to that question. The same applies to ‘So tell me, Mrs Lincoln, aside from that how was the play?’ with “what lies underneath it all? What lines underneath, ignored?”. Another big question is posed in ‘So May We Start?’ with “Where is the stage, you ask. Is it outside? Or is it within?”.
I think the answer will be both. They’ve mastered the art of parallel meta-driven storytelling in music, and now they’re extending it to the big screen. This film will be completely fictional but will tell us something new about what Sparks are about. My prediction is that we’ll learn more about the Mael brothers work from ‘Annette’ than in Edgar Wright’s upcoming documentary ‘The Sparks Brothers’ (trailer: https://youtu.be/6KkXcs8eBtk).
Back in 1994, after more than a decade of diminishing success they released ‘When do I get to sing “My Way”?’. It was about a singer who‘s treated as a has-been, yearning for the success that he deserves. It was a big critical success, and served as a reversal of fortune that’s carried them right through to this day. Here they made a wish for recognition through their music, and the resulting song was good enough to grant it.
I believe that ‘Annette’ will set out to achieve the same but on a much bigger scale. It'll somehow be about showing Sparks to be legends, leading the audience to be complicit in making that a reality. This will turn out to be a masterpiece that’s been decades in the making, and they know it. When they say “the authors are here, and they’re a little vain” it’s tapping into a rich history of narcissism played out by characters in their songs, all driven by their supreme self-belief.
After years in a kind of self-imposed exile, it’s now “high time to start”. They’re breaking through to the mainstream completely on their own terms. The song even includes a hidden answer to its own question, making the chorus a call / response: “So may we start?“ / “Mais oui, now start”.
Thanks for reading. There's still so much that I haven't had a chance to write, so expect more soon. Check out my other posts on Sparks here.
Paul Barrett 2021