Where You Are and Where You Want to Be: Cynical Optimism and Sara Bareilles’ “Uncharted”

In which the piano is futzed and the sound of pizzicato strings is very dry.


To my dear reader,

I’ll be the first to admit that my life has rarely gone as I planned. No lives do, but for me this statement is significant because I am so compelled to plan. I get this weird kick out scheduling the most minute things. Before a free day, I’ll make a little schedule of all the things to get done, such as “Eating Oatmeal,” “Playing Skyrim,” or “Futzing around on the piano.” Naturally, most anything planned will somewhere along the way derail and careen down new paths, but it’s taken me many years to accept that I’ll often have to make it up as I go. Once I did so, however, the attitude I took was one that I might call “cynical optimism.” In the wake of being rejected from a teaching assistantship I foolishly assumed I’d get, it’s one that I’ve thoroughly needed in the past week, and it’s one that I often find in the music of singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles.

As I’ve made evident through multiple blog posts about her music, Bareilles is one of my current favorite pop musicians. That’s not to say that I think her music is infallible – plenty of her songs suffer from maudlin lyrics and pop music clichés – but rather that I thoroughly enjoy her warm, powerful mezzo-soprano voice, her lyrical coherence and clarity, and the occasional flairs and twists she puts on the contemporary pop sound. What I enjoy about her music most, however, is not an individual aspect, but rather her musical personality – one that is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a musical personality that a critic once aptly described as “cynically optimistic,” and it is perhaps best demonstrated in her song “Uncharted.”

Musically, the song’s texture alternates between Bareilles singing over this staccato piano and dry pizzicato strings, thinly accompanied by bass and percussion, and a much thicker texture that adds vocal harmonies, bowed strings and guitar. What I find most appealing about the song, however, is the discrepancy between the lyrics and the music. Whereas the music is quick, bright, and almost forcibly cheery, the lyrics describe feelings of being trapped, uninspired, and dissatisfied. I find that this disconnect works to the song’s advantage, emotionally complicating lyrics that might otherwise sound merely whiny. By setting these downtrodden lyrics to such upbeat music, Bareilles lends a dry, sardonic humor to her situation almost reminiscent of the classical composer Rossini. She seems to imply that, although she’s making it up as she goes, she won’t be caught moping about – a sentiment that might as well describe my tiny life.

It’s a bummer that I didn’t get the teaching assistantship that I wanted, but now is no time for pouting! Now is the time for cynical optimism! Every minute spent pouting could be spent composing, reading about music history, practicing piano, or really any of the other things I would have done at the assistantship. It’s for this reason that I’ve begun a sort of music research project. Who is the project for? Me… duh. What’s the project about? Umm… it’s got something to do with composers’ personalities, with favored instrumentations, with trends in American commercial music, and with exposing myself to new pieces. That all effectively says “I don’t know!” I guess we’ll find out. Will anything come of the data I collect from this project? Good Lord, I don’t know. Only if I do enough research – and who knows if that’ll happen? Not me. Did I mention that I’m making it up as I go?

With all due respect,

Daniel Wolfert


2 thoughts on “Where You Are and Where You Want to Be: Cynical Optimism and Sara Bareilles’ “Uncharted”

  1. I love you I love this blog and I also love the sign off “with all due respect” to the readers of the blog because it’s like… I’m kind of giving you respect, but only the due respect. If you didn’t earn it by thoughtfully and completely reading this blog post, then very little respect is due to you.


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