Soap Opera is the most cohesive and unified of the three works from The Kinks’ theatrical period. While the day-in-the-life structure certainly helped Ray Davies avoid wandering off-topic, the strength of Soap Opera owes more to the depth of Ray Davies’ compassion for those condemned to lead lives of quiet desperation in the modern workplace and his acute perception of the effect of organizational life on the human soul. Soap Opera explores the meaning of identity in an increasingly anonymous world where only the few people we call stars seem to “be somebody,” while the un-rich and un-famous stuck in meaningless jobs are considered nobodies sentenced to a life of insecurity spiced with constant and largely frustrating attempts to justify their meaning in the world.
Critics have been fairly consistent in attacking Soap Opera for its “ludicrous production” and “hackneyed” lyrics. John Mendelsohn, the critic who hated those lyrics, called it “a lame and tepid rehash” of Arthur. It’s pretty obvious he hardly listened to the album, as he completely misrepresents the plot in his perfunctory review. Then again, what do you expect from Rolling Stone? As I stated in my review of Preservation, these criticisms are silly. Soap Opera is an operetta, which means it’s supposed to be theatrical, you meathead! People may legitimately prefer Ray Davies, songwriter extraordinaire, to Ray Davies, descendant of Gilbert and Sullivan, but that’s another debate entirely. The comparison to Arthur is also invalid, for while Arthur may have been a “plain simple man in a plain simple working class position,” Arthur is concerned with the common man’s place in the larger social structure, while Soap Opera specifically deals with the existential reality of daily working life and its deleterious effects on the human spirit. They share a common concern for the Everyman, but that is a theme you could apply to nearly all of Ray Davies’ work.
A more accurate criticism is that Soap Opera is really The Ray Davies Show and not a Kinks album. Okay, so we’ll ding Ray a few points for false advertising. Sometimes an artist is consumed with a vision, and realizing that vision may mean he or she has to break a few rules and offend a few colleagues in the process. Get over it! If you want, let’s just call it a Ray Davies album and move on! Sheesh!
The play opens with “Everybody’s a Star,” a musical monologue from a rock icon who calls himself The Starmaker, who is searching for “the most mundane little man” to turn him into a star. Depending on your interpretation, The Starmaker is either going to turn a chap named Norman into a star or actually become Norman (“He’s changing places with Norman/To get background for his songs.”) It really doesn’t matter: what matters is (as the liner notes on the vinyl album make abundantly clear) that Norman is in the habit of trying to compensate for what he perceives to be a meaningless life by fantasizing he is someone else. Whether The Starmaker makes that happen or Norman himself invents a new identity is irrelevant. As shown in the song, “Ordinary People,” Norman’s tendency towards fictionalization helps to temporarily raise his status as well as his testosterone level, because in his new identity he can indulge in naughty fantasy (“I’m immortalizing his life/And I’ll even sleep with his wife!”). That loving and incredibly patient wife plays along with his fantasies in part because she’s trying to make things work and in part because the “New Norman” is a sexual tiger (as the “You’ll never get up in the morning” interchange demonstrates.) Although the music for both songs is upbeat and playful, it is painfully obvious that the lives of these ordinary people feel so empty that they have to resort to illusion to keep their fragile psyches alive and their sex lives going. This is great satire: you can’t help but laugh at the story, but you feel the pain of the underlying message.
The identity switch is also very clever device for Ray Davies to explore the daily grind from the perspective of uninterested observer. He begins exploring that reality as the alarm clock awakens him to the song, “Rush Hour Blues.” A fun, rocking number with perfectly executed dialogue between temporary rock star Norman and his nagging wife, the lyrics eventually confront us with the dehumanization that many of us face every day as we join the crowds and head out for another draining day at the office:
In the rush hour queues no one gives a damn
No one knows where I’m going to, no one knows who I am
I’m sitting in my office, in the metropolis,
I’m just part of the scenery, I’m just part of the machinery
Chained to my desk on the 22nd floor,
I can’t break out through the automatic door,
I’d jump out the window but I can’t face the drop,
I’m sitting in a cage with an eye on the clock.
The dehumanization is reinforced by the repetition of “no one” and the caged animal imagery. Hackneyed lyrics, my ass! This is what work feels like to us plain folk, dude!
The dreary and absurd reality of the workplace is poignantly reproduced for us in “Nine to Five,” a far more effective exposé of the existential reality of the workplace than the silly Dolly Parton number of the same title. The angst one feels when “making decisions that affect no one” and “checking a list that’s been checked out before” is suppressed in a melody brilliantly designed to capture the ho-hum feel of the environment. When the alleged rock star states with faux objectivity, “He’s starting to lose his mind,” we feel a bit of Norman peeping through the façade as he faces the thing he is most terrified of admitting to himself . . . that his life and his work have no meaning.
And how does the average person cope with the existential wall? Booze! Lots of it! That’s why there are two numbers that deal with getting loaded: “When Work is Over” and “Have Another Drink.” While this may seem “obvious” to unperceptive critics, what Ray Davies is doing is holding up a mirror to us and asking us to think about the cause of our almost Pavlovian reaction to work: have another drink! He’s entirely empathetic with the ritual of dulling the pain of another dull day with a few glasses of scotch, but he is asking us to question the cause that makes us reach for that bottle. He wants us to stop and think, “Is this reality really worth it? Is a life that requires us to forget who we are the kind of life we want?”
When work is over he likes to hit the bars,
Go down the boozer and have another jar,
Because drinking can help ease the strain
Of his boring occupation, dull conversation
Living by the book and the rules and regulations.
Drinking helps us to forget what we are,
We leave the office and walk straight to the bar,
Don’t stop to think, have another drink!
That’s not being obvious: that’s accurately describing the painful truth that we often live lives that require us to cope instead of lives that are actually enriching and worthwhile.
Once he’s had his anesthetic, tipsy Norman stumbles out of the bar to make his way home through the concrete jungle in “Underneath the Neon Sign.” The purpose of the song is to demonstrate that the dehumanization in the workplace is only part of the larger movement towards dehumanization in all aspects of society, particularly the environments we create for ourselves. As is usually the case when Norman confronts reality, he cooks up another fantasy, in this case a secret romance! “Holiday Romance” is a musical hoot, with its classic 1930’s movie music and story that would have easily made it past the censors of that time. As is usual in Norman’s life, nothing really happens on his fantasy holiday, and he now finds himself facing the front door of his “suitably uninteresting house.”
His loving wife is waiting for him, with dialogue supported by lullaby-like, soap-operatic background music, ready to make him a nice cuppa tea to help him forget about his hard day. Making what she thinks is small talk, she asks Norman the one question he doesn’t want to face: “How’d you get on at the office?” The music abruptly shifts to two pounding intro chords that lead to a minor key segment with punctuated strings that mirror Norman’s deep, underlying fear of vanishing into nothingness . . . but also the dim realization that his wife is there for him (or that he feels obliged to make her feel appreciated; the ambiguity is deliberate):
I mustn’t stay in this job too long
I gotta get out before the hold is too strong
I gotta get out before my ambition is gone
Cause it’s breaking me up and bringing me down.
But when I get home you make it all worthwhile,
You make me laugh and you make me smile,
And after a hard day of sorting out the files,
You make it all worthwhile.
The soap operatic aspect of the story is strongest in this piece, with the perfect introduction of melodramatic organ as the two have a tiff over shepherd’s pie. While some may think the soap opera aspects of the work trivialize the issues, I think it enhances the theme. We believe our problems are trivial because we believe ourselves to be insignificant, even when “a boring occupation” is so toxic that “it can kill your spirit and destroy your mind.”
Tension must resolve itself, so here comes the inevitable explosion. I’ve met quite a few people who are completely turned off by the song “Ducks on the Wall,” but I would argue that taken in its proper context, it’s an incredibly perceptive piece and demonstrates Ray Davies’ intuitive understanding of human psychology. Sometimes the inner tension within us causes us to explode, and rather than confront our feelings honestly and directly, we find an object on which we can focus our self-hatred. The objects that best symbolize and serve as a constant reminder of Norman’s pathetic existence are those fucking ducks on the wall, a cheap compensatory substitute for decoration favored by those who can’t afford to hang a Matisse in the parlor. Either lacking the courage or still possessing some respect for her feelings, Norman attacks her in the third person in what appears to be an inner dialogue (“My lady’s got a sort of strange fascination/An obsessive fixation for cheap decorations”). Only later does he attack her directly, blaming her (and the ducks) for the impotence that he likely experiences when he’s not pretending to be someone else (“I love you baby, but I can’t ball/When I see those ducks on the wall”).
At this point, the wife has fucking had it with Norman and his fantasies. You can be whoever you want to be, but don’t you dare attack my ducks! This is where the dialogue (sadly only in the liner notes, not on the record) reveals that Norman has a habit of turning himself into other people to cope with his inability to see his life as meaningful and important. His wife has given him unconditional support up to now, but here she finally tells him that enough is enough.
This leads to a tragic hymn of modern humanity, “(A) Face in the Crowd.” Norman claims to agree with his wife (“I’ve gotta stop faking it, I’ve gotta start facing it”) but like the alcoholic not quite ready to follow the path of recovery, he has a hard time letting go of the desire to matter, to be someone, to count for something:
Am I just a face in the crowd?
Is that all I’ll ever be?
I don’t want to be anything that isn’t really me
Mister, can you tell me who I am?
Do you think I stand out?
Or am I just a face in the crowd?
The struggle for self will continue for Norman, as it will for all who believe that unless they can somehow prove their worth through celebrity, money or notoriety, their lives will never amount to a hill of beans. That is the tragic and powerful message of Soap Opera: modern man has created a reality that serves to reinforce individual insignificance.
“(A) Face in the Crowd” is the proper ending of the play, but Ray Davies can’t resist appending an epilogue. If people thought Ray was spewing his venom about the music industry on Lola vs. The Powerman and the Money-go-round (an interpretation with which I violently disagree), he really lets it rip in “You Can’t Stop the Music.”
I’ve been half a million places
I’ve seen half a million people who stare
I’ve been a star and down and out
I’ve been put on, sat on, punched and spat on
They’ve called me a faggot, a spiv and a fake
They can knock me down and tread on my face
But they can’t stop the music playing on.
When compared to Ian Anderson’s rather snarky attacks on the critics, Ray’s rant at least has the quality of emotional honesty. I think I’ll give him a pass on this one.
I know I’ve driven some fans batty with my deviations from the prevailing opinions about the quality of some of The Kinks’ albums, but I guess I’ll never learn. To me, Soap Opera is a masterpiece of modern musical theatre, a powerful and enduring message about the meaning of the life of the individual in modern society. It is an unforgiving attack on an economic system that creates a psychologically poisonous trap for millions of people by giving them endless piles of meaningless work from which they gamely try to cobble some feelings of self-worth. It makes me laugh, it makes me smile, it makes me cry. Ray Davies’ on-album performance is superb, and despite the squawking of some of the band members, the music is well-arranged and performed with gusto.
Soap Opera is one of my favorite Kinks albums, the critics be damned.
- Classic Music Review: Muswell Hillbillies by The Kinks (altrockchick.com)
- Classic Music Review: Preservation by The Kinks (Acts 1 and 2) (altrockchick.com)
- Classic Music Review: Arthur (or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire) by The Kinks (altrockchick.com)
- Classic Music Review: Face to Face by The Kinks (altrockchick.com)
- Classic Music Review: Something Else by The Kinks (altrockchick.com)