Chiseled and Cooler Than Clay: Contemporary Myth and Patricia Barber’s “Pygmalion”

In which Ovid is reimagined, youth dance, and the highway becomes mystical.


To my dear reader,

Patricia Barber’s album Mythologies – the 10th album of the jazz pianist, singer and songwriter – is not for everyone. Created for the 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship in Creative Arts, the eleven track song cycle reimagines eleven characters from the Greek poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, musically and lyrically contextualizing them with contemporary American vernacular. With its thorny piano harmonies, its meandering melodies and its myth-ridden, infrequently metered lyrics, the album has much to relish, but equally as much to drive away wary listeners unaccustomed to jazz, Ovid, or contemporary chamber music.

Even amid its more conventional songs, such as the track “Pygmalion,” Barber’s capricious melodies and obscure lyrics shroud the song’s meaning. The gentle sway of the song’s 6/8 time signature and subdued percussion betray little anguish, and Barber’s dark, low alto voice rarely moves beyond its soothing warmth. It is the lyrics, however, which give hint to the song’s meaning. Barber uses the myth of Pygmalion – a Greek sculptor that fell in love with a beautiful statue he’d carved – as a metaphor for her own unrequited love, unsure as to whether revealing her feelings might cause her romantic interest to crumble and vanish.

I know what many readers might be thinking: What is this goddamn hipster bullshit?

Believe me, I get it. As sophisticated as I see this album, and as much as I enjoy and respect it, it is not conventionally catchy. But what Barber is doing thematically – reimagining myth into contemporary life and song – interests me very much.

I say this because I see myth infused not only in Barber’s music, but also in much of the popular music we hear today. Take “The Club” that appears in Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite.” Like so many dance songs, Cruz paints “The Club” as a mystical place of drunken, youthful frivolity, singing “We gon’ rock this club/We gon’ go all night/We gon’ light it up/Like it’s dynamite.” Take “The Highway” that appears in Tim McGraw’s “Two Lanes of Freedom.” Like so many country songs, McGraw paints “The Highway” as a mystical place of romantically fulfilling liberation. Both “The Club” and “The Highway” are not references to precise, real locations where these same things happen every time, but are instead to cultural ideals – stories cultures tell themselves to lend something significance and power.

They’re myths.

That isn’t to say that they’re untrue, but rather, intangible and representational ideas. Plenty of people have gone to clubs and indeed had nights of drunken, youthful frivolity. Plenty of people have also gone and thought, “Wow, this is actually the worst thing.” I’ve gone and had both experiences in one night, so clearly neither is a singularly true experience. But whether the myths of “Pygmalion” or “The Club” or “The Highway” are true is somewhat irrelevant. What is more relevant is the fascinating way that music and cultures continue to imagine, reimagine and reuse myths, whether it be jazz using Ovid, pop using dance floors or country using the Interstate.

With all due respect,

Daniel Wolfert


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