Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Getting There: Nine Million Bicycles

Katie Melua: Nine Million Bicycles


Katie Melua's sweet 2005 single Nine Million Bicycles uses Beijing doubly, as a musical setting and as a cultural touchstone for population mass, in order to frame a sweet, gentle song of love in scale; indeed, a close read of the song reveals that its effect is driven, in part, by quite deliberate production parallels, in which the use of relatively authentic traditional Asian instrumentation and rhythmic flourishes fade in and out as the city is mentioned, only to dissipate into soft folk pop (which then, predictably, expands at the mention of outer space).

But the song is of cultural interest, too, for the way in which notable naysayer Simon Singh - a well-respected science writer for the Guardian - suggested that the Georgian-born, UK-based star was engaging in "pop sci politics", by noting at the beginning of her second verse that "we are 12 billion light years from the edge", a measurement which doesn't really match most agreed-upon measurements of the size of the universe. In response to this accusation that her song was a thinly-veiled attack on the accuracy of cosmologists, Melua appeared on a BCC program with Singh, and performed a version of the song which changed the lyrics to Singh's specs as follows:

We are 13.7 billion light-years from the edge of the observable universe, That's a good estimate with well-defined error bars, And with the available information, I predict that I will always be with you.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find a copy of the entire BBC recording, but here's an audio clip of the performance of Melua's new and totally hilarious verse replacement as compared with the original, embedded in a TED talk found over at YouTube:

And just for fun - because it's brand new, and because our rules allow for recent covers of songs as long as the original song being covered dates back far enough - I've included Arap Strap frontman Aidan John Moffat's tiny 2012 cover of the song, from his all-covers solo album Stolen Songs. Because I love the way it trades the bridge and final chorus away, leaving us with just 1:45 of weary, stripped-down glory. And because the song is quite different, in the end, without all the orchestral majesty and "ethnic flutes" credited on the original.

Aidan John Moffat: 9,000,000 Bicycles


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