Everything Everything: Cough Cough

I’ve stopped listening to pop music for some time now, but recently found it acceptable to return to some bands I enjoy. My colleagues might give each other knowing looks at this point, because I’m going to talk about Everything Everything, or more specifically, “Cough Cough,” one of their better-known songs.

“Cough Cough” is a product of its time, in that it cannot be understood without its video, and the catchiness of its tune belies an almost despairing S.O.S. from the trenches of consumerism. Images: dripping (and drinking!) oil, petrol dispensers, rioters and riot police, guns, things burning. Also: The band bangs on these huge (not-oil) drums, a disciplined, rhythmical, symmetrical counterpoint to the portrait of a society teetering on the edge. Words:

And that eureka moment hits you like a cop car
And you wake up just head and shoulders in a glass jar
You clear your throat you raise your eyebrow but you don’t say
There’s something wrong but it’s okay if we’re still getting paid

Yeah you’re ravenous you’re champing at the bit
Just a cog next to a cog next to a pit
I would burn to break away and rest my ears
No more lightning, no more solace in arrears

Here, you have a perhaps tired anti-capitalist rant (“just a cog…”) pit (ha) against an almost anarchic and violent ideal of freedom and individuality (“I would burn to break away”). Given this tussle between order and disorder, the most fascinating thing here, for me, is the way in which the song uses rhyme, showily, unapologetically. Does it make any sense to express a desire to be free through the highly patterned conventions of music, metre, rhyme?

Robert Rowland Smith will probably say yes. In his book On Modern Poetry, he suggests that

A rhyme is a rhyme regardless of whether one can infer semantic links between elements rhymed, and so it possesses an aleatory superficiality that might appeal to the modern or at least modernist, sensibility, especially as the latter manifests itself in, say, surrealism or Dada. Strictly speaking, rhyme is nonsense.

He will go on to argue that formal verse is a container for the subjective self, in contrast to free verse, which, by its open-mindedness, causes subjectivity to leak out, “a loss, rather than a gain, of the self.” If only the rioters in the MV knew terza rima!

But some sectors of meaning-making society do know this, even though none of them would consider themselves avant-garde or academic in any way. I’m talking about those who do spoken word and rap, genres where rhythm and metre take on great significance, and, especially in rap, where rhyme is achievement, not embarrassment. Rhymefest, Kanye West’s sometime-lyricist, talks about his time growing up in the South Side of Chicago, reading graffiti and billboards, listening in on conversations, “realizing as a child that words and rhythms are two separate entities that work in tandem to create beauty”.

Rhymezone, my friend in times of need, tells me that there are no English words that fully rhyme with chaosStable, however, is suggested as an almost-rhyme. There’s something inherently destabilising about the simultaneously nonsensical and authentic nature of rhyme that, if placed in the right hands, gives poetry its polysemic power. In “Cough Cough,” the lines

You clear your throat you raise your eyebrow but you don’t say
There’s something wrong but it’s okay if we’re still getting paid

flirt with both denial and assertion of the self. Someone’s trying to speak but cannot, a disquiet resides under the surface “it’s okay,” say/paid almost make it but don’t. We can certainly empathise with the second line.

Perhaps poetry is the sounds we make when we express ourselves, while recognising something futile and illogical about it all. The throat-clearing to relieve the primordial itch, even though the sounds produced are technically meaningless. Cough. Hoth. Knockoff. Oath, troth, scoff. Rachmaninov.

Hao Guang Tse