I’ve been enjoying a reread of Barthes’ Mythologies, a collection of short semiotic studies of the foods, entertainments, and obsessions of mass culture. In “Wine and Milk,” Barthes picks up on an idea of Gaston Bachelard’s that wine corresponds to the element of fire; its opposite is the quenching power of water. Barthes is captivated by the idea of wine as a transformative substance like fire: wine warms and intoxicates, wine makes the weak strong and the silent talkative. But, he suggests, a more exact opposite to wine is milk. Where wine warms, milk cools; where wine penetrates, milk spreads. Where wine transmutes, milk soothes and restores.
In music, milk occasionally takes on that cooling, comforting connotation. Milk most often enters music by way of idiom: “milk and honey,” a biblical vision of plenitude; “the milk of human kindness,” that gentle substance which made Macbeth weak in fierce Lady Macbeth’s opinion; or the “milk cow blues,” an oft-covered blues standard about a stubborn partner who won’t come home and provide. On its own, milk can be used to connote comfort and sweetness (especially when paired with coffee and tea), domesticity, maternal warmth, or wholesomeness.
Those aren’t themes you typically find in commercial music, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that many of these songs invoke milk to emphasize its opposites: unwholesomeness, uneasiness, unsatisfied desire.
G.Love & Special Sauce, “Milk & Cereal” (1999)
Let’s start with the most cheerful and family-friendly of these milk-inspired tunes–so family friendly that G. Love recorded a video of himself singing the song with his young son, and Kelloggs covered the song for a cereal commercial. In this rhythmic rundown of all the different types of cereal you and your mom and grandma might enjoy at breakfast, milk is the staccato syllable that punctuates the hook and, I guess, makes part of a complete breakfast. This song is either tremendously catchy or tremendously annoying, depending on your mood going in, so tread softly with that play button.
Rufus Wainwright, “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” (2001)
Add a little chocolate, and the wholesome cooling properties of milk go right out the window. This upbeat melody details all of the habits of the singer–“Everything it seems I like’s a little bit sweeter / A little bit fatter, a little bit harmful for me”–including, as luck would have it, the objects of his affection.
Andrew Bird, “11:11” (2001)
This odd but lush little tune uses milk to invoke safety only to reject it. When the singer describes himself as standing by a window, drinking milk out of a cup, it at first appears that he’s contrasting himself to a woman on the street shaking her cup to collect money for gin. But, he sings, “So many die drinking milk in front of a window,” so “Don’t hold a cup in any season /
Don’t make me choose between rhyme or reason.” That window can only offer so much protection from the wind, and safe choices like milk don’t make you any less vulnerable.
Garbage, “Milk” (1995)
This slow, haunting melody is all about contrasts. The singer croons that she is milk and “cool as the deep blue ocean,” but she is also “red hot kitchen.” She is weak but she’s strong; she is cruel, but she’d be “love and sweetness / if I had you.” When I was a teenager listening to my Garbage album, I imagined this song as an extension of Shirley Manson’s femme fatale persona; the milk is a honey trap, a veneer of smooth sweetness used to ensnare men.
Massive Attack, “Black Milk” (1996)
This creepy but lovely composition engages some of the same allusions as Garbage’s “Milk”: there’s a similar tension between predator and prey, appetite and its objects. The word “milk” does not appear in the lyrics at all; instead, the singer breathily intones “You’re not my eater / I’m not your food.” But as half a pair of contrasts in the title, the milky connotations of lightness and coolness help set the ethereal mood.
The video does not belong to the song, but to a 1965 movie called “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.”
I don’t usually include release dates on these playlists, but I thought it worth noting that all of these songs came out of the 90s or shortly after. Why? In addition to all the connotations long associated with milk–femininity, coolness, comfort–there is one definite reason that milk got into everyone’s consciousness at the turn of the century.
This ubiquitous ad campaign started in 1993 and became a long-running cultural phenomenon. This commodity branding grab was intended to promote milk as a source of strength, healthfulness, and coolness in the slang sense as they painted moustaches on icons from athletes to models to rock stars to movie idols. the campaign was successful in raising dairy sales and establishing a healthful brand identity for cow’s milk, which made it a particularly convenient shorthand for those properties in song.