"Build Me Up Buttercup" was a number one hit for The Foundations in early 1969. I was fourteen years old at the time, and I fell in love with the song.
I think now -- though I certainly didn't realize it back then -- that "Build Me Up Buttercup" appeals to me because it is a song about erotic rejection. It's Proust in two minutes and fifty-seven seconds. The Farrelly Brothers knew what they were doing when they used it over the closing credits of their 1998 comedy of heterosexual-male humiliation and panic, There's Something About Mary.
Listen to the words. The singer has been stood up by his girl. Repeatedly. She lets him down time and time again. She doesn't call, she doesn't come by, she doesn't show up for their dates. But he keeps on waiting by the phone, keeps on running to the door, hoping against hope that she'll be there. He begs her to return, which will obviously never happen. The song is addressed to the girl, but she isn't even listening.
"Build Me Up Buttercup" is a passionate song, but this passion has been thwarted again and again. Don't break my heart , he sings, but she already has. The song tells an implicit story of degradation. Desire turns into longing, which turns into frustration, which turns into desperation, which turns into masochistic grovelling, which turns into solipsistic thrashing about in a void.
There is something deeply abject about pleading for love in this way. You can debase yourself for sex, for drugs, for money, for a job, for recognition. But for love? It would seem impossible, almost by definition. If you've got to beg for it, then you ain't got it. It isn't love, if she only accords it to you as a special favor. It isn't love, if she only pays attention to you out of pity and exasperation.
The lover is always abject in relation to the beloved, of course. This asymmetry, or irreversibility, is fundamental to desire. One person always needs more than the other, and thereby is in the other's thrall. That's why the best way to get somebody to want you is by feigning indifference. Declaring the full extent of your desire, on the other hand, is always fatal. The Other, as Proust and Levinas both remind us, is never just another Same. He or she is radically unlike me, because his or her desire is not commensurate with mine. I can only touch you at a distance, by reaching over an abyss. And no matter how intense or intimate the erotic contact, it never manages to abolish this distance, to fill in this abyss.
But I love you still ... That way lies obsession or madness. Think of Proust, think of Hitchcock's Vertigo . But enough is enough. Isn't there a statute of limitations or something? A point of release, beyond which the lover can let go of the beloved? A break so complete, that there isn't any relationship at all, any more? Isn't it ever time to "move on," as they say on the talk shows?
No, the singer of "Build Me Up Buttercup" is in love with his own abjection, more than he is in love with the girl. He wants her to build him up, only to let him down. He wants to be her boy toy, to fill up her idle moments, only to be thrown aside as soon as her attention wanders. He gets off on all this, even as he complains about it. He explicitly admits as much towards the end of the song. Her unfaithfulness, he sings, is a turn-on; it only makes him want her all the more. After this confession, there's nothing more left to say. There's just a final reprise of the chorus -- I need you, more than anyone, darlin' -- and then, instead of a cadence, a modulation upward, to a second, ghostly reprise, as the song fades out.
Such is the drama conveyed by the lyrics of "Build Me Up Buttercup." But the song doesn't sound like a cry of erotic despair. If anything, it is cheerful and upbeat: a warm, jaunty, bouncy pop/soul number. The production recalls the slickness of Motown, only thinner, and with less rough edges. Colin Young's vocals are smooth, and much more relaxed than you'd expect of somebody who is crying out in passion. There's a slight tremor each time he enunciates the word "why," and an edge of pleading in the chorus; but for the most part his voice flows on, fluent and unperturbed.
Instrumentally, the song is stylized in ways that make it difficult to take the singer's complaints entirely seriously. There's a goofy backing chorus, for instance, echoing the lead singer's lines, and throwing in a few extra "ba da da"s and "hey hey hey"s and "ooh-ooh-ooh"s here and there. Blaring horns make things bright and poppy. Bongos and tambourines add a bit of snap. A chintzy organ provides background color. All in all, the music evokes many of the sonic qualities of soul, but skimps on the emotional resonances. "Build Me Up Buttercup" is not quite bubblegum, but it's more a song that wants to make you happily sing along, than it is one that wants you to feel its pain, or to convince you that it shares yours.
In short, the music is at odds with the lyrics. The song says one thing, but it does another. Affect and meaning do not coincide. "Build Me Up Buttercup" is a feel-good song about feeling bad.
Could this disjunction be one reason for the song's appeal? Meaning and affect work in such disparate ways, and on such different levels, that it's hard even to describe how they interact. The same goes for such pairs as lyrics and sound, or the constative and performative dimensions of utterances. None of these pairs are dialectical opposites. They overlap at times, and often pass into one another; but they always remain conceptually distinct. And any attempt to map out their interaction already involves a bias on one side or the other. Shall I talk about the interplay of affect and cognition affectively, or cognitively?
Most important, none of these pairs are symmetrical or reversible. Moving in one direction is different from moving in the other. It's easy to say, for instance, as I have already implied, that, in "Build Me Up Buttercup" the mood of the music ironically undermines the meaning of the words. But it sounds a bit weird to say -- although this is much closer to what I would like to say -- that the meaning of the lyrics ironically undermines the feeling conveyed by the music.
An emotion can be distanced, or "alienated" in performance, or made ridiculous by campy overacting, or subverted and swamped by another, contrary emotion. But it cannot be "ironically undermined" in the way a meaning can be. Irony is a cognitive operation; but affect operates in a far different register than that of cognition. When a feeling signifies, and thereby interferes with another, more explicit signification, we have irony. But when a meaning becomes charged with affect, and thereby interferes with another, more explicit enactment of affect, we have something else: ambivalence, perhaps, or dissonance; and at the limit, schizophrenic dissociation.
"Build Me Up Buttercup" isn't ironic, therefore, so much as it is ambivalently suspended between its upbeat music and its downbeat words, the former serving to make the latter bearable. Indeed, this is only one of a series of not-quite-oppositions that run through the song. "Build Me Up Buttercup" is also suspended between originality and imitation, between soul music and rock, between pop aspirations and more arty ambitions, between Britain and America, and -- most crucially of all, perhaps -- between black and white. The Foundations were one of many 1960s British bands that, in the wake of the Beatles, appropriated and reinterpreted American musical forms, then sold the results back to American audiences. They were also one of the relatively few bands in either country that, in the wake of Sly and the Family Stone, were racially integrated, with both black and white members.
White American popular music is ultimately an imitation of black American sources, and British rock and r&b an imitation of both black and white American sources. To a certain extent, The Foundations were able to negotiate these differences, and to make something of them that wasn't merely derivative. By reworking their American models, and by crossing black and white, they forged a recognizable style: which is to say, one that could be imitated and reworked in its own turn. They made music that was graceful, and not too lightweight, and that appealed to both "black" (r&b/soul) and "white" (rock/pop) sensibilities. Obviously, though, they never managed to create the sort of larger-scale, innovative and influential synthesis of black and white musical forms that Sly did.
The Foundations were a bit more than one-hit wonders. "Build Me Up Buttercup" was actually their second big hit. It was preceded by "Baby Now that I've Found You," also a song about erotic rejection. But all in all, their success was marginal and ephemeral. I think of "Build Me Up Buttercup" as a fragile song, barely able to sustain its balance between suavity and desperate pleading, putting all its energy and style and sophistication into a totally hopeless cause.