A good friend of mine, Ford Seeuws, recently went to the park with fellow musician Zachary Stidham and recorded a cover of Radiohead’s “No Surprises” song. The recording captures a little wind and has a missed note or two, but it has haunted me nonetheless for the past day.
You can listen to their rendition here:
The original “No Surprises” music video is iconic in its own right, but I found that Ford’s video had a specifically useful setting.
Radiohead’s song and lyrics attempt to convey a degree of malcontent with a banal middle-class lifestyle, the prototypical, surprise-less American dream (thus the title). Like many Radiohead songs, it’s overtly tragic fare wrapped in a beautiful minor key.
But Ford’s rendition has more than just the notes. The very setting of his video becomes a part of the song, from the lapping of the bay to the soft swishing of the wind — not to mention Stidham’s use of the setting as an actual instrument.
So the setting flavors the rendition of the song. A beautiful Florida park and the sounds of the Gulf meld with the haunting Radiohead notes to create a new song. The Seeuws “No Surprises” does not feel like the Radiohead plea for help. It feels more like a farewell to a friend or an ode to a bygone era.
Setting can have that same affect on writing. At the heart of most stories are the conflict and characters. These tend to be the most important components for any successful story. Setting becomes, more often than not, decoration or flourish. Sometimes setting is a component of the conceit, as in many science fiction and fantasy stories. Other times, it is merely a byproduct of wherever the author happens to be at the time they wrote the story.
For Shakespeare, whose stages had more actors than props, setting rarely played a major component for his non-historical stories. That is why many adaptations of his tragic and comedic work have moved Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello through all manners of time and space. But these moves are not entirely lateral ones. The best-ever rendition I saw of my favorite Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, had characters dressed in modern attire, with the fairies wearing togas and costumes made from ties and belts and a quilting other business-y accoutrements.
The play was very much the comedy written in 1590s England for a English, 1590s audience, but the setting morphed subtle elements too difficult to iterate. And to the young high school student seeing his first proper Shakespeare play, it made a difference. It showed a young me that the director and the audience did not see A Midsummer Night’s Dream as an ancient comedy, but as a timeless glimpse of humanity. And that is, perhaps, the reverberation of setting, the indescribable or difficult touch that a sprinkling of trees and sand can bring, the echoing subtext that a three-button suit on Duke Theseus can offer. Setting may be just decoration, but decoration can send a message too.
So thanks, Ford and Zach, for reminding us that a setting can speak.