Songs from Musicals: #16, “Elaborate Lives,” from Aida

Honorable mentions: “How I Know You,” “Not Me”

Aida hit Broadway in 2000, about four years after Rent did, and they bear surprisingly strong similarities. Both of them want to be socially conscious: Aida is Romeo and Juliet for race (though it could say significantly more about race than it does), while race is just about the only thing that Rent doesn’t take a stab at. Both of them are reactions to the ’80s and especially the ’90s, when the dot-com bubble wasn’t popped and we were (ostensibly) torn apart from one another by chatrooms or the clunky bricks that passed for cellular phones; Aida and Rent are both concerned that we’ll lose sight of whatever passes for shared humanity, and they’re both particularly worried that the time to reclaim real life has already passed. And Aida and Rent share a similar rock and roll pedigree; there’s a heavy reliance on guitars, piano, and drum kits in both shows, yet they are rarely overbearing. They co-exist with Oasis, Foo Fighters, U2, Green Day.

“Elaborate Lives” is a killer love song. It’s a terrible duet. It falls into that weird category of love songs where the guy gets three-quarters of the song to himself and most of the good parts while the woman gets like, something the guy has already said and the backing part. But it has all of the power-pop gravitas you can ask for; it feels very much like “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” which makes sense, because Elton John wrote the music for both. If you don’t listen to the lyrics of “Like Father, Like Son,” you could be fooled into thinking that it was ripped off of Too Low for Zero. One could also be forgiven for thinking that Michael Bolton has something to do with “Elaborate Lives.”

Romantic duets in musicals tend to come in one of three flavors. They either remain subdued and nuzzling like “Something Good” from The Sound of Music, or they start that way and look for the big finish like “If I Said I Love You” from The Pirate Queen, or they take a rollicking pace and try to bring you along, like “There Once Was a Man” from The Pajama Game.  (I can hear you from here. “All music is like that!” Sure, but in pop/rock, you find that the vast majority of love songs are either in the “Something Good” category or the “There Once Was a Man” category; you also find far more examples of people breaking up than people trying to be together. This concludes my PSA.) “Elaborate Lives” fits the second type pretty neatly, but most of those want to be pretty at the end. “If I Said I Love You” is all about the harmony and the feeling of reunification, and so is “The Next Ten Minutes” or “All the Wasted Time,” but “Elaborate Lives,” which would be able to fend for itself if it got kicked out of the musical, isn’t pretty. There’s a rawer quality to it, one which isn’t as interested in the notes as it is in the noise. Its harmony is evocative more than beautiful; it is the sound of someone who is genuinely desperate, who understands that in his time, there can be no peaceable retreat where he can take his love.

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