|Lou Reed: a great American songwriter.|
Sado-Masochism, Intoxication & Love:
The Artistic Themes of the Songs of Lou Reed
A thorough understanding of the importance of Lou Reed can only be obtained by understanding the classical and romantic aesthetics which informed his songwriting and gave his most well known songs their lasting impact. A consideration of the secondary qualities of Lou Reed's artistic existence: the LOOK, the collaborations with John Cale (most of all), Nico, Andy Warhol and the other members of the Velvet Underground (Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker mostly.) And then there are the tertiary characteristics: the legend, the hagiography.
In my opinion, Reed's primary contribution was in introducing previously avant-garde artistic themes into the songwriting of Western pop music. The best single example of this in a specific song is Reed's use of sado-masochism in the well known "hit" song, Venus in Furs. The title of the song is, of course, the name of a famous s&m text Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Sacher-Masosch shares pride of place with the Marquis de Sade in terms of being the "inventors" of sado-masochism, a sexual proclivity that was essentially "discovered" in the aftermath of the enlightenment, and subsequently developed upon multiple lines of discourse simultaneously thereafter.
But not in American Popular Music between the beginnings in the late 18th century and Lou Reed. The explicit sado masochistic lyrics of Venus in Furs are wholly without parallel in the history of the musical forms that Reed was drawing upon. The sheer originality of taking hardcore s&m imagery and pairing it with an essentially "rock" format, on a record that was released by a Major Label in 1967 in the United States.
There was nothing NEW about sado masochism in 1967, but there was certainly something new about a popular musician writing and releasing songs about it and gaining a wide Audience with that material.
Reed's use of intoxication in songs like Heroin were not as novel and noteworthy as his use of s&m imagery in but what was noteworthy was the level of explicitness. Explicit discussions of drug based intoxication were by no means unknown in western culture in the 1960s, but explicit pop songs about the joys of shooting heroin were quite. Drugs are essentially synomous with American popular music of the 20th century, but at the time Reed wrote Heroin, reference were limited to innuendo, or at the most "soft" drugs like marijuana and cocaine.
Reed was also unusual because his use of intoxication was inward looking and not oriented to the kind of dionysian celebration associated with the artistic theme of intoxication in the wider 60s American popular culture. This was a darker roast, so to speak. It was also a field where Reed was basically on his own at the time.
Reed was closest to the existing themes of american popular songwriting when he wrote about love, but even here he created songs that were novel in thematic content and proved capable of keeping. Here, the best example, and perhaps Reed's best, most popular song, is Walk on the Wild Side. The couplets reference transvestite culture but the lyrics are fairly conventional reference to love and life in the big city. This combination of a fringe culture with the canons of American popular songwriting: rhyming, a "do-do-do" chorus, back up singers, combine to create a new artistic experience essentially without parallel in what comes before.
These three themes run deep and true in the collected work of Reed, and he will surely be remembered for decades on the strength of the embodiment of those themes in his songs.