These are some of my thoughts on the soundtrack of Hidden Figures , which I was listening to today
Hidden Figures tells the true story of three black women mathematicians who did the calculations that allowed the US to dominate in the cold war-period space race. It is based on Margot Lee Shetterley’s book of the same title and there’s a great article on her website that explains the inspiration for her research.
Anyway, I am very excited about this film which is only released in the UK on the 17th February (and in Poland on the 24th) fully a month after its US release date. I will hopefully review it for you soon.
So I was surprised and delighted to find out that Apple had released the soundtrack from the movie on Apple Music. First of all I must say that the film’s producer of this movie is Pharrell Williams. If you think you have never heard of him, I introduce you to his most famous song below
I don’t know where you’ve been hiding for the past few years if you haven’t heard it on the radio at least fifty times. Seriously. It’s a hit. It’s huge. And most of us originally loved it, but are now slightly fed up with it.
It goes without saying that Pharrell Williams has considerable credentials as a songwriter and it isn’t terribly surprising that he wrote the music for the movie he produced. He collaborated with the magnificent Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch on this soundtrack.
The first song from the Hidden Figures soundtrack, Running, features in the movie trailer. I think it should be an instant hit. It’s got a backtrack that reminds me slightly, but not overly of ‘Happy’. It’s got a similar hint of the drums and the saxophone, which as everyone knows gives it a good likelihood of success. [Although I do think Ellie Goulding overdid this slightly with ‘Love Me Like You Do’ and ‘ Still Falling For You’ which basically sound like she is singing exactly the same song].
Pharrell’s Running not only features an upbeat tune, but it also refers to the content of the movie it is featured in
I know they say you crawl for your own
But in my mind I already jog
If I stand still I cannot get far
They want the Moon, I’m on Mars
It’s a song about assertive women reaching for their goals. What’s not to like?
Well, my only grudge is that it is song of black women’s empowerment being sung by a man. Could we just have Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson, Rihanna , Ciara or anyone female and black singing a cover of this? I would feel a lot more comfortable. It’s not that I have anything against Pharrell Williams- I don’t, I really do think this song is great. It’s just that I would prefer it to be even more of a black feminist anthem than it already is.
Let’s have another look at the lyrics.
For Pharrell, ‘running’ oscillates between two contradictory meanings . On the one hand it is positive action – one runs to achieve one’s aims, ( if I stand still I cannot get far ) , on the other hand it symbolizes being marginalised – one runs from the forces that persecute you (Runnin’ from the man; runnin’ from the badge ).
Running is seen here as an emblem of escaping from oneself. Even running to a certain goal (being recognised as a serious mathematician in this specific case) is seen as an attempt to escape the limits of black female identity.
Sometime my mind dives deep
When I’m runnin’
I don’t want no free ride
I’m just sick and tired of runnin’
Some nights I cry
Cause I can see the day comin’
Together we fight
Oh, but no more runnin’
This verse emphasizes yearning for acceptance for black women on the same terms as for white men – through hard work regardless of race or sex- ‘I don’t want no free ride’.
I also think there’s an intertextual / interpop reference to Beyoncé and Naughty Boy’s collaboration from 2015 single Running (Lose it All) here.
For Beyoncé and Naughty Boy ‘running’ signified an escape from one’s own identity just as it does in the more recent Pharrell song “Runnin’, runnin’, runnin’/Ain’t runnin’ from myself no more/ Together we’ll win it all”. Running (Lose it All) (and especially its music video) emphasizes that return to one’s self is only possible through unity with another. Pharrell’s song also emphasizes that escape from ‘running’ can only be achieved in a sense of unity with other people. Crucially, instead of ‘winning’, Pharrell sings ‘fighting’ which suggests he is in favour of a more active, political stance of achieving one’s aims. If Beyoncé and Naughty Boy’s ‘running from myself’ signified escape from the self in a psychological level, Pharrell’s ‘running’ is more about the flight the self is forced into by social and political circumstances.
The music video to Beyoncé and Naughty Boy’s song is set entirely underwater – just think of Pharrell’s Sometime my mind dives deep/ When I’m runnin . The mind dives deep in the sense of despair and ‘sinking’, but it also dives literally in Beyoncé and Naughty Boy’s running video. I am pretty sure that I can also detect a musical echo of ‘running’ being sung on the same notes in both songs. But I have no way of checking this, so it’s probably safest to assume wrong.
This is by no means the only song of this album that is worthy of interest, but for reasons of space I will not analyse them all in such detail.
Pharrell Williams’s ‘Able’ is another track that would sound more powerful if it was sung by a woman. Lyrics such as “You’re my woman, don’t need another /Get behind me, and we can lift each other” just cry out for a strong female voice. I like the contemporary allusion to Obama’s ‘Yes we can’ motto hidden in the first verse of the lyrics though, so this song definitely gets an honorary mention.
A particular favourite of mine from this album is far less politically charged is Apple. It is sung by Pharrell and Alicia Keys. Its lyrics and general vibe remind me of something that could almost have been written by Cole Porter.
Funny thing about the apple
The peach is sweet, but ain’t the same
The pear compares, but that’s natural
It was Adam and Eve
And the God in the trees
And the snake, oh yeah
Cause everybody is destined
To learn all these lessons alone
Don’t be afraid
Alicia Keys’ and Pharrell’s execution is excellent and the songwriting is in top form too. It’s sexy and it’s subtle. The finger snapping and the drums reminds me of the beginning by Eddie Cooley’s and Otis Blackwell’s “Fever”. It’s just nicely done. But sadly, I can’t see it on youtube, so I can’t give you a direct link.
In short, despite my grumblings, I am definitely going to listen to the Hidden Figures album again. Pharell Williams has done a good job with songwriting – and I just wish he had let some powerful female voices do more of the singing…
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