Certain Songs #1080: The Magnetic Fields – “The Death of Ferdinand De Saussure”

Album: 69 Love Songs
Year: 1999

Since Ferdinand De Saussure died in 1913, the murder confessed to in the amazing second verse of this song probably didn’t happen.

He was a linguist who was a great contributor to what is called semiotics which — I think, cos I’m trying to boil this down from several wiki articles — is all about the relationship between a word (the signifier) and what it means (the signified). In Saussure’s mind, that relationship was completely arbitrary.

And at one point, Saussure apparently said that language was an inefficient tool for expressing love, which Stephin Merritt used as the basis of the chorus.

We don’t know anything
You don’t know anything
I don’t know anything
About love
And we are nothing
You are nothing
I am nothing
Without love

Now, I know that this sounds like heady stuff: linguistic philosophy in a pop song. But just like The Good Place subverts its philosophical premise about the afterlife with wordplay and general hijinx, so does “The Death of Ferdinand De Saussure” with its music and melody. The music is a driven by a burbling bass and a swelling keyboard, and is basically the same music repeating endlessly throughout the entire — verse and chorus and verse and chorus, as if everybody is stuck in a loop from which they can’t escape.

Meanwhile, Stephen Merritt doesn’t like a philosophy that dissuades him from using words to talk about love, so he takes action.

I’m just a great composer
And not a violent man
But I lost my composure
And I shot Ferdinand
Crying, “It’s well and kosher
To say you don’t understand
But this is for Holland-Dozier…

So much crazy awesomeness in this verse: first off, Merritt invokes The Handclap Rule just after the word “composer,” with five quick claps that both highlight and take the piss out of that statement. And of course, all of the great rhymes — “composer” with “composure” FTW — climaxing with the breaking off of “Holland-Dozier” for the rhyme (with “kosher”!), and then finishing with a lone “Holland.”

Holland-Dozier-Holland, were, of course, key Motown composers, who wrote scores of love songs. One of which, of course, compared love to a heat wave, which — had he lived long enough — Ferdinand De Saussure would have probably agreed blew his theory on the inadequacy of words to convey love to little bitty smithereens.

“The Death of Ferdinand De Saussure”

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