Thursday, June 18, 2009

Song of the Moment: Fifty in Five

UPDATED: I sit here and listen to the last song on the new Hilltop Hoods CD – Fifty in Five off the album State of the Art – and I am literally speechless.

Listen to this song. Read the lyrics.

This is a narrative about humanity. My interpretation of the title is that it reflects on the last fifty years of world events in five minutes and it does so with absolute style and precision.

I was listening to it repeatedly last night knowing that I wanted to write about it and yet hours later still feel that I cannot find the words to do it justice. I had thought to write up something about all of the individual events that the lyrics cover but what I really want to write about is the emotion that this song brings out in me. This song makes me feel sad, angry, disappointed and worried. The lack of repetition and the lack of chorus are indicative of the fact that this song is not an anthem. It is not there to make us want to do something. It does not try to bring people together to make a positive change. It is the epitome of sadness and the confronting, bitter truth.

The sheer volume of lyrics is overwhelming. I have written shorter essays than this. They cover an enormous range of topics and events with an international perspective that shows the wide spread damage and devastation of the corruption and decay of modern society. I hesitate to give examples because the nature of the lyrics are to mention so much in such a short space that not one thing is given priority over another; it is a list. I wonder if the composers had to restrict themselves and had to leave things out. Ironically we might applaud the level of detail and quantity of information they have included and yet the song itself is written to speak of the sheer dissatisfaction of how so much wrong has occurred in just fifty years.

It mentions the future but only in context and connection with the past. It is not at all hope for what may change or what may come next. It tells us how we have set ourselves up to fail. How stupidity, ignorance, lack of leadership and ourselves are to blame for what comes next: ‘the generation next will degenerate and die’.

In sections the song talks about the distractions that prevent us from seeing the destruction that is before us. Things like the Macerena, superman, chicken dance and botox. The song reflects on the youth – women getting fake tits and young kids in detox. My interpretation is that references to technology including the internet and 3g cellular phones are also negative statements about distractions and how we have the technology to communicate and yet we just don’t in the way that matters. The reference to how ‘mp3s saw the death of an industry’ reflects on how the loss of the music industry renders poets/musicians incapable of helping us to make sense of the world and to be the agents of social change that we so desperately need.

Towards the end, the lyrics move from merely being a list to using cultural references to characterise the distraction of society. It warps into text that includes numerous references to horror movie titles and the names of drugs – aspects of our culture that reflect the sentiments of the song: the terror and dependence that we suffer. At the height of the passion, questions are asked - a rhetorical question: 'what happened to the love?' and another that asks 'what happened to the cubs?' [they were fed to the wolves]. Questioning the loss of the positive motivations of the 1960's and the focus on the needs of children, brings an element of uncertainty to the lyrics when concepts rather than events are considered.

The musicality of the song is well worth mentioning too.

As with most hip hop, the lyrics flow without a break but here the lack of pauses and the perpetual motion illustrate how these events have taken place one after the other without room for reflection, without the chance to stop and take account of what’s happening. The flood of events and the flood of lyrics parallel a world that does not have a chance to take its breath.

At one stage the lead singer sounds like he is gritting or clenching his teeth in frustration or disgust. He is easily heard above the music but as the song builds he becomes louder, more predominant and has more and more angst. The incomprehensible sweet whispering layered above the tale reminds me of the sugar coating of the media but perhaps is really meant to be the spoonful of sugar to be taken with the medicine.

The music has moments that seem regular – when it is not overwhelming and provides a solid background to the text. At others times there are distinct samples and the integration of instruments and styles – a sample of Martin Luther King (the loss of hope), John F Kennedy (a small, barely audible sample that depicts that we can no longer hear or remember what he said), groaning/moaning (pain), helicopters, rifles, a bomb (war), a brass line from an 'olden days' song at the same time as the discussion of right wing overlords and refugees, the building of tension and urgency by the use of piano chords and the interposing of another voice which yells out key words (adding emphasis and trying to get our attention).

Indeed the dynamics of the song depend heavily on the change of colours in the underlying score with little change in the pitch and speed of the vocalist and drums that have a consistent tempo. The song does not noticeably speed up but rather the consistency illustrates the persistence and unrelenting nature of the chaos that we face.

When discussing the ozone layer and the how the earth is cooking itself the music becomes harsh and percussive which reflects the pain, discomfort and discord of the global suicide that is taking place.

Finally, at key points the music goes quiet with a small number of instruments playing a thin or light melody in the background. This gives the lyrics the space to make some points stand out from others: ‘A blowjob brought about the fall of a dynasty, and Mp3s saw the fall of an industry... Rich bleeding the kind, the blind leading the blind and history competes, no competing with time... The government and church on which we try to rely, both rob us til it hurts chasing lie after lie.’

The song finishes with resignation: ‘Can you believe what we have become? As we walk into the sun.’ The phrasing here speaks of how things are going to get worse; disgust and disbelief; and makes the statement that the end is here. This part is sung by a different vocalist which completely removes it from the body of the song.

The music at the end of the song is a solo piano - this contrasts dramatically with the thick and heavy instruments that come before it. The sound is much more melodic and has a sense of simplicity about it. The music in this section is far less challenging - more mainstream and verging on romantic in nature - perhaps highlighting the idea that this is the part of the message that everyone should hear or that we over romanticise the idea that humanity is good or that it will survive despite it all.

The contrast between the vocals and music in the last section of the song compared with what has occurred earlier depict how removed we are from our own history - how we look on these events as though they are someone elses responsibility and someone elses past. The very last vocal sound is a breath - the last gasp of air or a sigh - perhaps this the death of humanity or at least an expression of disappointment.

This is, at the same time, the most brilliant and yet most awful political song I have heard. I became very emotional after I listened to it tonight. I HATE THIS.



I was having trouble working out the origin of the brass line that I refer to above as the 'olden days' song as well as the whispering voice that is layered over the top.

Given the frequency of the whispering voice it is likely that this is the sample from a 1960s song called 2010 referred to in the following articles - see: GroopieBlog, Hilltop Hoods Preview State of the Art Tracks (6 April 2009) <> at 19 June 2009 & all aussie hip hop blog, State of the Art Preview (10 June 2009) <> at 19 June 2009. There are 27 songs listed with this title on iTunes - none of these appear to be the original all having release dates after 1990.

The brass line is also an important sample. While I realise the parameters of the song suggest that only samples from the past 50 years are likely to be included this seems to be a type of sound much older than the 1960s - it has a serenade feel to it. It verges on a type of 'national anthem' and to me feels more like something from the 1920s or 1950s.

These are important samples to this song and I would like to trace their origins - much like the need for this song to trace society's past to reach a conclusion. The architecture of the internet and the lack of copyright registrations prevent me from knowing with certainty where they have come from. While I do not, at this point, wish to delve into a detailed discussion of sampling and copyright law (even though I could!) it is worth noting these as examples of how this form of culture can take elements of the past and say something new with them, provided the regulatory forces at work enable that to happen.

I was also thinking about the place of this song on the CD. It is the last track and my first thought was that this was because it is the most serious of the songs - it is different from the content of the other tracks at least in its overt nature. On a more artistic level perhaps it is located at the end of the CD because this is the last thing, we as a society, want to hear or pay attention to - or because time is running out and our responses will undoubtedly be at the last minute.

I also took time to reflect on the fact that it is at the end of the CD from a tangible format perspective. Consider for a moment the nature of pay per song download stores and how unlikely it is that those that consume music on a song by song basis will ever hear this. Even the disconnection from the printed lyrics in the digital age presents a major hurdle to the consumption of the message of this song - lyric sites are on the web but their accuracy can sometimes be questionable.

A major label would definately hesitate to release this as a single but hopefully Golden Era Records don't. The loss of the tangible format presents may complications including the fact that things we need to hear cannot be packaged with the things we choose to hear - so many young kids will never hear this song - the world and the industry have indeed changed: we need to make it for the better.

[Imagine how long it took to compose this - the hard work and the dedication.... It is so rare to have a contemporary song so rich in detail; artistic and powerful... Will this make it to the mainstream media?...Imagine the beauty of the mashup that could be done with the video to this song... I could go on forever about this track but I have to stop here... for now...]


Anonymous said...

decent review... one thing, the 3 lines at the end, they're suff too... man of many talents

Anonymous said...

"My interpretation of the title is that it reflects on the last fifty years of world events in five minutes"

Suffa picks samples of old songs. He found one from the 60s which asked what the world would be like in 2010. It's a response to that song. Apparently the original artist likes it.

And yes, by any standards it's a fair chunk of song. By hip-hop standards, it's a marathon.

Anonymous said...

"The song finishes with ... This part is sung by a different vocalist which completely removes it from the body of the song."

No, that's the same guy.

"These are important samples to this song and I would like to trace their origins "

Contact Golden Era. These guys talk to fans while they're doing their grocery shopping.

Anonymous said...

SUFFA: This is my solo track. The sample is from a song called 2010. The original track was written in 1960, it’s asked what the world will be like in 2010. This track is sort of like a response. I had the idea of writing a track that broke down the last fifty years in five minutes – 1960 to 2010. It’s got my brother [Nick Lambert] playing guitar and one of the guys from Lowrider [John Bartlett] playing piano. He also wrote the string arrangements. The lyrics took me more than three months to write.
Lowrider & HTH....

Name: Sally Hawkins said...

Thanks for the quote, I have the reference here:, The Hilltop Hoods Return (July 2009) <> at 29 July 2009

If anyone comes across any other interviews in which they discuss Fifty in Five I would be really grateful if you could post the links as a comment, thanks Sal.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic essay. So good to see some more academics taking hip hop seriously. Thankyou for writing this essay.