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Lyrical Dissonance: Musical Musings…

I don’t normally write about music here… probably because I know next-to-nothing of music. I couldn’t pick most modern musicians out of a line-up. Not in a “modern musicians suck” sort of way, but in a “I don’t really listen to the radio, and therefore pop music” sort of way. So I’m actually even less qualified than a layman to talk of music and such. Still, I have to admit that I am fascinated at how so few people who rate so many classic songs so highly seem to be aware of what the song they’re listening to (or singing along to) is even about. While it isn’t anything that “grinds my gears”, I am still a little amused every time I hear Every Breath You Take played at a wedding, or Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) played at graduation.

Of course, I accept that this is something peculiar to me. I understand that I tend to lean a bit heavily on the “lyrics” part of the “music & lyrics” combination. After all, it’s hard to imagine that songs like I Don’t Like Mondays or Don’t Stand So Close to Me would have caught on if they didn’t have a catchy riff – and I can appreciate that people just like the rhythm of the music playing in the background, more liable to hum the song than recite it verse-by-verse. And I accept that, like all forms of art, songs mean different things to different people – and different things collectively. We’re able to over-write the literal meaning of the lyrics with the collective sense of meaning we choose to give it.

So the very dark and sinister (and creepy) Every Breath You Take is transformed into a solemn declaration of love. “Oh, can’t you see, you belong to me?” Sting croons in what isn’t a disturbingly possessive piece of stalker-talk, but a genuine expression of a life to be shared. I’m not sure how one spins a romantic intent out of “every move you make, every vow you break, every smile you fake, every claim you stake”, which doesn’t sound at all pleasant – in fact, it sounds more like bitter loathing than love.

Even Sting himself has commented:

I don’t think it’s a sad song. I think it’s a nasty little song, really rather evil. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership.

I think the ambiguity is intrinsic in the song however you treat it because the words are so sadistic. On one level, it’s a nice long song with the classic relative minor chords, and underneath there’s this distasteful character talking about watching every move. I enjoy that ambiguity. I watched Andy Gibb singing it with some girl on TV a couple of weeks ago, very loving, and totally misinterpreting it. I could still hear the words, which aren’t about love at all.

Of course, it’s easy to miss out on some of the more subtle distinctions in song-writing, particularly when you have lyrics set to an engaging backing track, and most people only hear the song on radio – without dwelling too much on the words or context of the song. I can actually perfectly understand the way that the sarcasm of Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) has somehow managed to evade the popular memory of the song, buried as it is beneath a heartening chorus (“it’s something unpredictable, but in the end, that’s right… I hope you had the time of your life”) and some soft-sounding guitar riffs.

Similarly, the tragic irony of David Bowie’s Heroes tends to get lost between the soaring bassline and the romance of the central refrain. “We can be heroes!” sounds like a spiritual call-to-arms, and the track has been used time-and-time again to raise awareness of various charities and global campaigns, appealing directly to the viewer that they have the chance to make the world a better place. Of course, I suspect that most of the people watching at home, as well as those selecting the music, tend to miss out on the soul-destroying tragedy that Bowie’s whailing voice illustrates so well, as he seems to advocate an escape to a rapidly-collapsing fantasy instead of confronting the reality of the situation:

We’re nothing
And nothing will help us
Maybe we’re lying
Then you better not stay
But we could be safer
Just for one day…

“Just for one day” is not a good thing – it’s an acknowledgment that nothing will ultimately change as a result of the singer’s optimism, a sentiment coming from a singer who was himself on the edge of the abyss. Then again, Bowie is probably my favourite musician, and I want to – at some point – try to articulate what it is about his work that appeals to me.

I suspect that the reason I find this dissonance between the popular perception of a song, and its actual meaning (or “intended meaning”, as it can mean different things to different people) stems from my love of cinema and stories – I like narratives and tales, and I think that I tend to see songs in those terms, which isn’t how most people tend to look at them. I find the meaning of the words and the purpose for which the writer is using them to be deeply fascinating.

Again, this is just me, but I find Don’t Stand So Close to Me fascinating as the story of a teacher engaged in a relationship with his pupil. Reportedly based on something Sting heard about while a teacher himself, the lyrics aren’t even ambiguous on the matter. “Young teacher, the subject of schoolgirl fantasies,” he introduces one of his protagonists. When he gets uncomfortable, the teacher “starts to shake and cough, just like the old man in that book by Nobokov.” I’m amazed by the people who sing along to the chorus, but don’t seem intrigued about why the instruction “don’t stand so close to me” was given.

In fairness, I can understand that some song meanings are easy to brush over – particularly those referencing random events or news stories from times past. How many R.E.M. fans know that the title What’s the Frequency Kenneth? relates to the beating of Dan Rather (even though the song itself refers to generational gap)? I give credit to The West Wing for actually using I Don’t Like Mondays in a context similar to that which prompted Bob Geldof to write it – playing it over the aftermath of an attack on a school, while the song was written after a woman opened fire on a playground. I still can’t help but wonder about people who sing along to the line “and the lesson today is how to die”, believing that the song is about how awful Monday mornings happen to be.

That said, perhaps this lack of any fixation on the meaning given to popular songs is a good thing, ultimately. After all U2, spent quite some time in the 1980s trying to reclaim the song Sunday Bloody Sunday from various Northern political philosophies. “This song is not a rebel song,” Bono had to repeatedly assure fans during the band’s War tour, understandably uneasy at the way various groups had attempted to write political commentary into their song.

Still, I do find it a little funny that so many people are preoccupied with “mysteries” that simply don’t exist. Perhaps the most famous example is Meatloaf’s I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That), which is frequently the subject of debate, as many people protest that they have no idea what it was exactly that Meatloaf wouldn’t do. In fact, it’s all very clearly stated at the end of the previous verse (with the chorus serving as a response to that particular thing he would not do). Though it will undoubtedly disappoint some listeners, here’s the full list of things Meatloaf would not do for love:

  • he’d never lie to you (and that’s a fact)
  • he’d never forgive himself if you don’t go all the way, tonight
  • he’ll never do it better than he does it with you (so long… so long…)
  • he’ll never stop dreaming of you

And then he faces direct allegations, which he meets with a dignified “I won’t do that”:

  • after a while, he’ll forget everything
  • sooner or later, he’ll be screwing around

And then there’s the strange emphasis on the meanings of certain songs, with wholescale fictional accounts drafted to explain the mystical meanings of the lyrics to Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight, when even the singer knows little more than it’s a very dark song from a very dark place.

Of course, different songs mean different things to different people – just as different films and books and plays and paintings mean different things to different people. It’s reckless to assert an absolutist interpretation of an artistic work – all we can really do is make an argument for a particular approach. Many couples don’t think of Every Breath You Take as a “stalker song” or anything like it. Instead, they think of it as the first song they danced to as a married couple. When people hear David Bowie’s Heroes, they don’t hear the singer lament the oncoming tragedy, rising only to meet it with an optimism he knows is futile, they think of all the good we have accomplished for any number of worthwhile causes.

My own reading of these songs is based more on lyrics and commentary than it is on experience. I confess I’ve never truly had a musical ear – the most amazing musical feat I ever accomplished being the ability to play the opening strings of Shape of My Heart, and I struggle with the core line of Crockett’s Theme (which, to further solidify my status as a musical heathen, I consider the most romantic song ever written). I can’t dance. (“I can’t sing. I’m just standing here, selling everything.“) I admit that’s probably why I focus so much on the words being sung.

As I said, it’s not a pet peeve or anything. It’s just something I find fascinating.

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