- Area: Humanities
- Program: English
- Type of Writing: Essay (Analytical, Interpretive)
- Course Level: 1000
- English Speaking Nativeness: Native
- Year: 2018
- Paper ID: H.E.1.N.2.1
Alvvays’ “Pecking Order” Analysis
Alvvays has been known for dreamy-sounding, indie-pop songs. These are sometimes described by some as Twee, due to “the wist and melancholy to the lyrics that’s balanced out by a peppy melody and bright synths (Goodrich par 29-40).” Dream-pop is another descriptor assigned to Alvvays’ music (Teo-Blockey par. 2). Commonalities between these two genres are melancholy and melody.
The song being discussed in this paper appears on a small B-Side record to the 2017 album Antisocialites, released quietly while on tour (DeVille par. 1, 2). Antisocialites was Alvvays’ big hit, after their self-titled album. Matt Gerardi, a journalist for the AV club, writes of Antisocialites, “When she [Molly Rankin, the lead singer] isn’t singing about breakups, Rankin is tearing into the self-important—or self-defeating—characters around her (par. 4).” This provides interesting context into the quiet release of the B-side songs. Perhaps the B-side is songs that simply were good, but not good enough for the album, or perhaps they don’t fit in with the “Antisocialites” themes, as hinted—but not obvious—from the name. To emphasize this, Alec O’Hanley, the lead guitarist, said in an interview,
I think we’re introverts by nature. I do this band thing with a large degree of reluctance. We love talking and meeting new people, but being the person up on stage with the mic isn’t the most natural hat for us to wear… I would say too that the connotation of “anti-socialites” shouldn’t be nihilism, because we’re anti-nihilists by nature (Goodrich par. 47, 53).
O’Hanley’s words are perhaps indicative of the kinds of people who listen to Alvvays’ music as well. If the introverted, “anti-nihilist” type makes the music, perhaps the audience is the same kinds of people. This is the lens needed to look at the song.
Pecking order starts with a simple, dark chord from a synthesized keyboard. It leads into an equally grim sounding guitar melody before pitching up into a happier, more pop-style guitar chord, with a quick and light drumbeat in the background with a light cymbal crash on the 8th beat corresponding to the highest note of the guitar melody. The bassline starts as the lead singers voice echoes,
Pecking order’s got you wasting time
At the border and you’re way behind
Fill a Honda with your property
Am I falling, I’m falling in line.
If a violet should wither and die
You’re picking petals trying to decide
My pain, your gain
I’m falling, I’m falling in line. (Alvvays 1-8)
There’s an immediate reference to the song title name. The website for the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary lists the definition of “pecking order” as “the order of importance of people in a group (pecking order sec. 1).” In short, the pecking order is a hierarchy, and it’s wasting your time. Perhaps this is a reference to bureaucracy at the border, or customs enforcement on a metaphorical level. Certainly, there’s a connotation of painful waiting in the first four lines. In the second half of the stanza there’s talk of flowers, specifically violets, and “picking petals to decide” in the metaphorical sense of using flower petals to pick between two options. This conveys the feeling of a love song considering the quintessential petal-picking is asking the flower, “he loves me, he loves me not.” How exactly does this relate to a violet, specifically, withering and dying? In a pamphlet to a session on “The Language of Flowers,” the Smithsonian Garden defines violets to mean “thoughts occupied with love (The Language of Flowers p. 3),” or perhaps limerence. If our limerent affection should fall apart there must be a choice between “my pain, your gain.”
The agent in this stanza seems purposefully ambiguous. “You” are being subjected to the watching and waiting, yet it is “I” who is falling in line. Is “you” a separate person from “I” or perhaps the perspective is different from what’s immediately perceived? The introverted nature of the band could imply that the use of “you” your thoughts directed at your second-person self. Perhaps “you” implies both the standard “you” and the self. “My pain, your gain” holds a key to this. If love has fallen out of fashion between “you” and “I” why should only one of “us” be gaining and the other losing? If there is indeed atypical perspective in the lyrics, “my” and “your” are determiners for both people in the relationship.
And your brain still bows to your racing heart
And your brain’s devout to your racing heart
And your brain devours your racing heart
If you strain, it makes things hard. (Alvvays 9-12)
This has a less nebulous timeline compared to lines 1-8. At first your brain (your thoughts) submit to your racing heart (your emotions). Then your thoughts are devout to your emotions; your brain doesn’t cast them aside but respects them and is faithful to them. Then you rationalize, your thoughts devour your heart. Perhaps it’s anxiety, maybe it’s that violet withering and dying that’s causing your thoughts to overpower your passion. If you strain (think too hard), it makes the relationship, or perhaps life, more difficult.
Pecking order’s got you wasting time
Discrepancy you’re pulled aside,
Don’t mock the bureaucracy
I’m falling, I’m falling in line
Convey that you’ve lost your mind
The obligatory one-four-five
Clenched fist, blacklist, zig-zags trunk sags
You’re flagged for life. (Alvvays 13-20)
This stanza also uses a border crossing as a metaphor. Something out of the ordinary is noticed, “a discrepancy.” This could be in reference to infidelity or perhaps a metaphorical start of a fight. The agent is different in this compared to the last verse. The bureaucracy could be “I” in this verse. There seems to be an argument as next that follows is “convey that you’ve lost your mind.” “You,” the person “I” is dealing with, has admitted they made a mistake. “The obligatory one-four-five” could be a reference to a makeup, as one-four-five is a common, very happy sounding, chord in reference to the song “One-Four-Five” by The Cat Empire, about one-four-five being a healing medicine.
The one-four-five is only temporary though. The next two lines imply a fight and a breakup with “clenched fist” being the most indicative of this. If one-four-five is the makeup, then “you’re flagged for life” could mean that, the relationship is over with forever. There’s no more making up from this from now on, like there was before.
Surrounded and you get overwhelmed
You’re drowning and everyone can tell
And your brain bows to your racing heart
And your brain’s devout to your racing heart
And your brain’s devoured by your racing heart
And your brain still bows to your racing heart (Is this what you want)
And your brain’s devout to your racing heart (Is this what you want)
And your brain’s devout to your racing heart (And you wait for the wave, for the wave)
And your brain bows (And you wait for the wave, for the wave, and you wait for the wave)
For the wave. (Alvvays 21-30)
Again, this looks at the struggle between “your” thoughts, and rationalizations and “your” love, passion, and emotion. This time, however instead of the brain devouring the heart, “your” heart wins. This could mean that despite the breakup the love still exists. You can see evidence of contemplation with the background singing asking, “Is this what you want?” And instead of going into the thoughts overtaking the emotion, we see a stall. The brain starts to cede and eventually gives in to the heart.
This is a love song sung in metaphor, which would make sense considering the label of Twee and Dream-pop given to the band. The song is contemplative in nature, with the agent of the song ultimately asking herself a question, “is this what you want?” The themes are subtle and metaphorical, something that may not have fit within Antisocialites despite the underlying love-story. It’s a small, barely noticed release that is likely to be noticed by few and perhaps that’s exactly why this song is on the B-side. It’s contemplative and poetic, but perhaps it’s too personal to be shared on an album assigned to a label only to be shared with those few who really enjoy the band and take the effort to go to see them play in the small venues that they do.
Alvvays. Antisocialites B-Sides. Not On Label, 2018. 7” Vinyl.
DeVille, Chris “Alvvays – ‘Pecking Order,’ ‘Supine Equine,’ & ‘Echolalia’ Stereogum. 28 February 2018, www.stereogum.com/1985054/alvvays-pecking-order-supine-equine-echolalia/music/ Accessed 29 June 2018.
Gerardi, Matt “Alvvays lives up to its promise on the wonderfully contradictory Antisocialites” The AV Club. 8 September 2017, www.avclub.com/alvvays-lives-up-to-its-promise-on-the-wonderfully-cont-1798717356 Accessed 30 June 2018.
Goodrich, Matthew M. “Anti-Social Antisocialites: Alvvays On Their Sophomore Record” Brooklyn. 7 September 2017, www.bkmag.com/2017/09/07/anti-social-antisocialites-alvvays-on-their-sophomore-record/ Accessed 29 June 2018.
“pecking order Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary” Cambridge English Dictionary. dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/pecking-order#dataset-american-english Accessed 29 June 2018.
“The Language of Flowers” Smithsonian Gardens. www.gardens.si.edu/come-learn/docs/Template_HistBloom_Language%20of%20Flowers.pdf Accessed 29 June 2018.
Teo-Blockey, Celine “Interview: Molly Rankin of Canadian dream-pop band Alvvays talks retreating to her island” AXS. 24 October 2017, www.axs.com/interview-molly-rankin-of-canadian-dream-pop-band-alvvays-talks-retrea-124556 Accessed 29 June 2018.