“Africa” versus Andrea Baker’s
“she wears your body like a shirt”
This song & this poem have been locked in battle for decades. It has been at times amusing but has grown exhausting. The battle between Toto’s “Africa” & Andrea Bakers poem from the Gilda Cycle, which appears in the fabulous new online journal Harp & Altar
, must come to an end. I have been appointed by the high court to put this battle to an end. I am here solely to mediate the battle & to assess the winner. I am a completely neutral judge.
Maybe not, but since first reading Baker's poem last week I've been thinking about it a lot. The immediacy, the space of it, the simplicity of it. At this same time I've been getting the Toto song stuck in my head a lot. The kind of stuck in my head when I don't notice that I've been singing it to myself for perhaps an hour. So for some reason or another both of these are inhabiting me right now & I need to have them battle it out. Only one may remain in my head.
First category: use of simile & metaphor.
Andrea Baker’s “she wears your body like a shirt” jumps immediately into a beguiling & compelling simile. I ask myself how this she could wear another body like a shirt & it leads me in multiple directions at once. The most immediate is a kind of grotesque surrealism of entering into a torso & buttoning it up, but the line “she wears your body like a shirt” is so direct & simple, that I see it not as a silly horror movie trope but somehow loving. Another view I have of it is sensual, the other’s body so close as to become a piece of clothing. Then there is the more abstracted idea of how we try others on & what we admire of them in us & another of how a body can become so familar & comforting. All of these work immediately & then the poem extends the simile: “saying/ this beautiful long sleeve shirt.” This continues to produce disjunctive images attempting to correlate the sides of the simile. The next line, “but she folds,” continues to extend the metaphor & through that the scene I have built in my head. The she has removed the body & is now folding it back up. But then the final two lines might create another simile or might be creating a sense of time. “as fumes//from marching.” The extended space before these two lines make me wonder whether they have fragmented from the initial idea, and given that I allow myself to move farther from the notion of how they might directly extend or set the beginning of the poem.
Toto’s “Africa” seems to bank on a big metaphorical idea of what Africa represents, which is unclear to me & decidedly Orientalist. It is possible that Africa is the metaphorical equivalent of the state of sexual desire the speaker feels. The song starts “I hear the drums echoing tonight/ But she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation.” This could imply that the drums he hears are not physical drums but the beating of his own desirous heart, which the she does not hear. The song extends the seemingly archetypal images of Africa, without delving into how these metaphors propel the emotions or narrative. We get an old man, whom the speaker stops “Hoping to find some old forgotten words or ancient melodies,” though it is unclear why. One might think that these would be for the song, but it contains no musical cues that relate to the aforementioned melodies. The old man cryptically responds “’Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you’" but we, as listeners are unsure what this it is, the woman? the words? the melodies? All in all the use of metaphor in this song is dependent on racist assumptions of associations between passion and Africa.
Andrea Baker’s “she wears your body like a shirt” wins this category: AB 1, Toto 0
Second Category: Explosive Chorus
Andrea Baker’s “she wears your body like a shirt” does not have a chorus. It is a fragmented lyric.
Toto’s “Africa” has a kick-ass swell of keyboards that follows a somewhat sterile drum-fill. The singer, who had up until then been quiet & introspective, begins to wail desperately & by the end of the chorus some cheesey but effective distorted guitars rise. All in all this is a pretty strong chorus for radio synth-rock. This is definitley the part of the song I get stuck in my head the swelling lead-in to the chorus.
Toto’s “Africa” wins this category: AB 1, Toto 1
Third Category: precision of language
Andrea Baker’s “she wears your body like a shirt” consists of twenty words. Not a single one of them is extraneous. Not a single one of them strikes a sonic or tonal chord outside the aura of the poem. In my daydreams I speak in Andrea Baker lines.
Toto’s “Africa” contains the line “Gonna take some time to do the things we never had.” There is not a single evocative or effective word in this line.
Andrea Baker’s “she wears your body like a shirt” wins this category: AB 2, Toto 1
Fourth Category: Keyboard solos
Andrea Baker’s “she wears your body like a shirt” contains so keyboard solos. It is a lyric poem, not a synth-rock song.
Toto’s “Africa” has a big keyboard solo in the breakdown after the second chorus. Just when you think the song is going to return to the verse, it switches things up on you. The synth setting sounds like a mix of both pan flutes & steel drums, somehow. It sounds a bit like the keyboards I would imagine used in an interlude of Full House, when the scene changes & they are using an establishing shot of Uncle Whatever’s practice space.
Andrea Baker’s “she wears your body like a shirt” wins this category: AB 3, Toto 1
Fifth Category: Ability to not only stomach but look forward to repeated engagements with the poem or song
Andrea Baker’s “she wears your body like a shirt” is a lovely poem, quick & haunting it produces an immediate response in me, it draws me to the other poems of hers in Harp & Altar & it makes me want to read the entire Gilda sequence. I’m not sure how often I would read this particular poem over & over again. It has a lot to offer & I love what it does, but I look forward to seeing the whole sequence, which I imagine I will want to read & reread repeatedly.
Toto’s “Africa”: My brother used to drive me to the pool every morning for swim practice. He is the type of person who listens to the same song over & over again. One summer he played “Africa” just about every morning & every morning I thought it was awesome. Yes this might be simply older-brother hero worship, but that doesn’t not diminish the aesthetic effect of the song. Like I said above I've had this song stuck in my head a lot recently & I tend to not think of any aesthetic pleasure as a "guilty pleasure" & instead just try to dig it for whatever reason I'm thinking of it. Today, after listening to this song repeatedly I notice that I went through a four-stage process of reaction:
Stage One: rediscovery, during which I became aware of how gross & Orientalist the lyrics are & how bad the keyboard solo sounds.
Stage Two: reveling, during which I might have even pursed my lips & nodded my head to the chorus.
Stage Three: interest, during which I listened closely to the production of the song & the strange style of the drummer.
Stage Four: overload, at which point I felt somewhat gross. I don’t want to hear this song for quite a while.
Andrea Baker’s “she wears your body like a shirt” wins this category: AB 4, Toto 1
So, in final Andrea Baker’s “she wears your body like a shirt” kicks Toto’s “Africa”’s ass. It is a comprehensive defeat that should finally silence those who consider Toto’s “Africa” to be in aesthetic contention with Andrea Baker’s “she wears your body like a shirt.” But I wonder whether being aware of the superiority of Andrea Baker’s “she wears your body like a shirt” is going to help to banish it from my head. I guess I'll find out soon.