Music education always & always looking forward.

Almost Like Diminution, But Not: Changing Meter in The New Pornographers' "Jackie, Dressed in Cobras"


Sigh.  What to do when you have a passion for teaching pop but cannot mention the name of your favorite band to your middle school students?

I saw The New Pornographers in Orlando in 2007 and bought a lithograph concert poster from the show.  It's still hanging up in my house.  My mother-in-law has looked at it and always given me questioning glances.  What she and most people don't know is that The New Pornographers are far more musically akin to the writing of Burt Bacharach than any sort of explicit hardcore band.  When looking at 90% of their songs, only their name is the least bit profane.

And people are not happy about it.  There was a letter written by a woman in Utah who was really really mad about the name of the band.  And then in April 2017, with the release of the band's Whiteout Conditions, children's singer Raffi began a Twitter spat with frontman Carl Newman.  (Being a longtime fan & ardent twitter follower of Newman, I don't think that Raffi was aware of what he getting into.  Nor was he aware that the band had existed with that name for 20 years.)

This particular song came from what was arguably my favorite album in college.  It seemed that at my off-campus apartment, any parties my roommates threw always happened directly after my college orchestra concerts.  I have very good memories of dancing to The New Pornographers in my living room dressed in full concert black (at least before someone else would hijack the music and put on Mike Jones, who we'll get to later this week).  Continual affection for this band aside, it is almost impossible to mention their name to a classroom full of kids, so please proceed with caution.  

“Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” - The New Pornographers

Intro: A group comprised of many solo artists who live and work in and around Canada, including Carl Newman, Neko Case, Dan Bejar and Kathryn Calder, The New Pornographers have remained critical and indie darlings since their first release in 2000. This song (from 2005's Twin Cinema) was not released as a single, but found favor among many New Pornographers fans upon release of the album. Twin Cinema was shortlisted for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize for 2006, bestowed upon a Canadian album on the basis of artistic merit.  Multiple media outlets, including The Village Voice, Pitchfork, PopMatters, and Rolling Stone have heaped praise upon the band, which has released seven full-length albums to date.

Analysis: The tune starts off in a straightforward rock 4/4, but after the second verse, as the piano starts, the meter shifts into a 3 pattern, mixing in with measures of 2 & 4 as well. There are almost two choruses in this song, one starting with the lyrics “On a train devouring the light...” almost serves as a pre-chorus, except that it is separated from the real chorus (beginning with “wrecked on the jungle floor...”) by a significant instrumental break. Because of the contrast between the basic 4/4 drum beat and chugging electric guitar in the first portion of the song, the piano break and “jungle floor” chorus almost seems like an entirely different song plugged in after the first verse & pre-chorus.

Considerations for Teaching: This is the great problem with Canadian band The New Pornographers – their music contains many Burt Bacharach-inspired hallmarks of great pop writing, and most of their songs do not contain profanity. However, I wish luck to any educator wishing to explain the band's name to a classroom full of middle school students. (Bandleader Carl Newman came up with the name, not from a famous quote as in legend, but after watching a Japanese film entitled The Pornographers.)


*Edited lightly for clarity & some additional content, September 16th, 2017.

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