Wednesday, March 4, 2009

On song meanings and giving it all away

I was listening to a recent episode of Sound Opinions with Neko Case, and I was struck by the following exchange. The hosts brought up Case's vow to not write love songs anymore, and her response included a statement on why a songwriter shouldn't share too much of him/herself:
A) because I'm pretty boring and B) because you don't want the people to know how boring you are. 'What did she do? She went on petfinder.com last night for eight hours? Wow. What a voice of our generation. Then she made a salad. Then she put wonton noodles on it. Whoa.'
And
'Cause you don't want the listener to... you don't want to give the ending away for them, because if somebody is connecting with a song and can make it about themselves, I think that's kind of a nice feeling. I remember reading - and don't to do this, I'm not saying to do this - I remember reading an article about how the song "Strange Fruit" came about. Totally ruined it for me. So don't ever do any research about music or read about it. Because it'll ruin it. And you know, you want the song to give you that nostalgic feeling. Cause it's like this unbiased voice of compassion in the dark.


I half-agree and half-disagree. In the case of "Strange Fruit," I definitely disagree.

Written in response to a widely distributed newspaper image of a lynching that occurred not too far from where I'm writing, Meeropol's song is both a searing political statement and a touching human reaction to real horror. It doesn't take much imagination to get at the meaning, given the lyrics, but in this case, the story of the song's composition, its performance history, and its recording history all tease out a revealing story of early 20th century race relations that only underscores the meaning.

On the other hand, when writing songs about more personal subjects there's a real tension when it comes to how direct or how personal one should be. I remember very distinctly having the same reaction of horror when I learned that the narrator of Paul Simon's "I am a Rock" was meant to be autobiographical and taken seriously. It hasn't exactly ruined the song for me, but I've certainly avoided reading too much on Simon since then.

As I wrote in my old blog, I think John Linnel hit the nail on the head when he said (in Gigantic)
As far as I'm concerned, for what we do, it's not interesting to just publicly cry, you know? It doesn't even have the effect of making me sad if somebody else is doing that. I think the thing that's really sad is when somebody represents some kind of inner sadness in some other way.
That's very much true of their song "They'll Need a Crane", which achieves such a wonderfully obtuse view of heartache through lines like "call off the wedding bells / no one wants to hear that one again / play it again."

I can't imagine that learning the particulars of what the songwriter (or his parents) were experiencing would help anyone understand it. On the other side, there are songwriters like Ani Difranco who could do with trimming away some details. I can't help but be bored with some of her songs no matter how personally meaningful they might be to her (like "Serpentine" from Evolve). Like Case states, not every song should read like Twitter updates. "The worst poetry is sincere" and all that.

(Side ramble: I remember a bit from Tom Waits's Storytellers appearance for which I can find no video. Waits, apologizing for not remembering the real stories behind the songs, asks whether finding out that a bad film is based on a true story really makes the film any better.)

Case herself is walking the walk. Her lyrics and music remind me at times of one of my favorite poets, Wallace Stevens, who was often deliberately "irrational" (as he called it). Take Case's "I Wish I Was the Moon." Very different from the TMBG song, but it still creatively skirts around its subject even when ostensibly direct (as in the third verse):

When the writing is a cascade of images like this, half the craft is leaving it to the audience to work out a meaning. The moon of the refrain is a bit like the blackbirds of Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird": anyone who walks away thinking there's only one interpretation has missed the point (or so I say).

A professor during my undergraduate years made the observation that we tend to assume poetry (and, by extension I suppose, song lyrics) are written from the perspective of the author but we do not do this for novels or short stories written in the first person. The assumption is usually a mistake, at least when dealing with better poets than the coffeehouse crew. I myself tend to steer clear of writing anything personal. In a way, since all my lyrics are about my little obsessions, most songs are more-or-less pale reflections of what goes on in my head, but I rarely use myself as a narrator anymore, even when the song is pulled from real events (e..g., "Gut Rot"). That adds it's own tension in trying to avoid creating a character for the sake of making a point or compliance with genre, as I might be accused for "Seymour".

Still, no one derides Homer for not having sacked Troy. The Illiad isn't an instruction manual for soldiers.

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