Sunday, July 7, 2013

Master And Servant by Depeche Mode-Belated Insight

I listen to a lot of both new and old music but it's the old stuff that I've listened to over and over that surprises me.  Decades later I notice new things about it.

In the 80's I owned the US 12" single of Master and Servant by Depeche Mode, featuring the 8:02 "US Black and Blue Mix" of the song.  No fewer than six versions of the song were released in 1984, with the one I owned being only the second longest after the "Slavery Whip Mix" released on vinyl in the UK.  Sexual themes, so long as you don't go so far that you can't get the music released, have sold a lot of records over the years, but this is one of only a handful of hits I can think of that feature BD/SM-themes[1].

It's also great "industrial-lite" era Depeche Mode.  Musically it's a great record.

But like most good art it isn't just about one thing.  It is open to more interpretation than you might think.  I don't actually think Martin Gore is a world-class songwriter[2], but there really is something going on in the lyrics to Master and Servant.  Take the last verse, which ties everything together.

Domination's the name of the game
in bed or in life
they're both just the same
except in one you're fulfilled
at the end of the day

The rest of the song sets up a comparison between rough sex and the rest of one's life.  It also frequently uses words like "game," "fun" and "play."  So, is the comparison/contrast simply about escaping the grind of regular life into intense sex games, or is there more?

I've never read what Gore or any other band members have to say about this track, but listening back to it now what strikes me is that all of the positive statements are about the "game" of domination.  Put another way, domination is only fun when it is a game.  The refrain is "let's play master and servant."  It isn't "let's be master and servant."

Maybe this is just me looking for things that validate my egalitarian political views, but somehow I doubt it.  I think part of what is going on in this lyric is a statement about freedom.  BD/SM sex games between consenting adults may be an exercise in freedom, but it needs to stop there.  In the rest of life coercion, force and domination cause the real degradation that rob us of our freedom and fulfillment.

I'm sorry if I took the subversive, "dirty" fun out of this song for you.  Listen to it for the beat.  The fun will come back.


[1] The others I can think of right now happen to be from the same era, within two years of Master and Servant.  (I Love It When You) Call Me Names and Pleasure and Pain.  Notably, these two are much less positive than the Depeche Mode record; the Devynils track is ambivalent and the Joan Armatrading track is flatly negative toward BD/SM.
[2] People Are People is a great track but some of the lyrics don't make sense together.  I'm not going to pick it all apart in a footnote, but some of the lines that initially sound clever are actually contradictory.  My guess is that Gore went for coherent mood over coherent meaning.  Clearly it worked because the record sure as hell "works," but I still think it's a mark against him as a songwriter.

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