Sunday, November 16, 2008

So What's a Bullet with Butterfly Wings, Exactly?

So I was reading this article about the 9 most inappropriate soundtrack choices of all time (care of Cracked) which references The Vapors' Turning Japanese and Timbuk3's The Future's So Bright I've Gotta Wear Shades, two of the three most well-known instances of "Hey, that song's not about what you think it's about" (The third being Every Breath You Take by The Police).

Now, there's always a certain schadenfreude on the part of writers when their work is misunderstood--it grants them the opportunity to appear both wise and condescending (silly listener!).  But I've been mulling these over a bit and I've come to the following conclusion: widespread misinterpretation is a failure on the part of the songwriter.  The fact that people dance to Every Breath You Take at their weddings is not tragically ironic so much as it indicates a flaw in the way the song was crafted.  And don't get me wrong, it's a great song; it's just not actually about what Sting intended it to be about.

Let me further stipulate that I have nothing against ambiguity in songcraft.  I'm a child of the 90's; there are myriad songs I love that are not obviously about anything or that are obviously about something but it's not immediately apparent what that something is.  The classic example in the case of the latter would be Pearl Jam's Jeremy, which references a specific, horrific event but does not spell out the bloody details in the lyric sheet--but it came out at a time when MTV was ubiquitous and the video told all.  Just to be balanced, for an example of the former, look at, I dunno, anything at all by Stone Temple Pilots or Smashing Pumpkins.

I like ambiguity.  I like the fact that Seal never prints lyric sheets because he wants people to interpret his songs independent of, you know, what he actually wrote.  Granted, Don't Cry is hardly a labyrinth of imagism, but you see what I'm getting at.  What I'm taking umbrage with here is the instance in which a song is obviously about something but the writer insists that it's obviously about something else.

Of course the grand-daddy of all misinterpreted song meanings is Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, with its colorful acid-rock imagery and title that can be abbreviated "L.S.D."  Lennon always insisted that it wasn't directly a reference to the drug, but rather was inspired by a picture with the same title drawn by his five-year-old son.  While I would hesitate to call that bad writing, Lennon and McCartney have both admitted to oversight, that they simply didn't notice the initials of the song until it was pointed out to them years after Sgt. Pepper's release.  And, to be fair, it was the 60's, there was a lot more cause for members of the counter-culture to veil the less wholesome bits of their public fare--this was, after all, the same era that saw The Kingsmen formally investigated by the F.B.I. over the possibility of cursing in their cover of Louie Louie.  That the misinterpretation has persisted is more of a cultural phenomenon than anything else.

Okay, all things disclaimed, let's get on to some unqualified bad writing.

Turning Japanese was, and in some circles still is, thought to be about masturbation--the verses involve the song's narrator looking at a picture of his former love, and the joke was that a man in coitus makes an expression similar to that which he would make if he was imitating a Japanese person.  The authors of the song insist that it's not about masturbation, but rather the way that Japanese manufacturing was outpacing American manufacturing in the 80's tech industries.  Nice story, but it doesn't hold up to scrutiny.  The lyric sheet gives no mention of technology, so if that's what they were going for, they failed miserably.  One could make the argument that it's nonsensical, that they had the bones of a love song constructed, then started it off one day with that classic Japanese-sounding pentatonic riff (as a joke) and liked it so much that they worked the chorus around it.  I totally buy that.  But I can't help wondering if The Vapors thought they were being extremely clever when, in reality, they were only being moderately clever.  Perhaps they simply never expected anyone to figure out the masturbation reference and had the "tech" story ready as an explainer "just in case".  I think it's possible that they simply suffered from a gross lack of subtlety, only to be rousingly trumped by The DaVinyls' I Touch Myself a few years later.  Nowadays the idea of a song about wanking off is nothing special--hell, there were two of those on Green Day's breakout album, including the lead single Longview.

Timbuk3, conversely, seem to have overdone subtlety.  With The Future's So Bright... they constructed what is arguably the most upbeat song for any graduation party ever, ever.  However, they claim that it's actually about the grim prospect of a nuclear holocaust, which makes it tragically ironic.  No.  No, I don't think so.  Here's my reasoning: if your song is about nuclear holocaust, it ought to have words in it like "bomb" or "explosion" or "death" or something.  "Nuclear" comes up, always in the context of "I study nuclear science".  But most nuclear scientists don't grow up to make bombs.  Many of them work in nuclear reactors, power plants--signs of a bright future and advancing technology.  Bad writing, pure and simple: if you're going to write a song about something, make sure that the song at least hints at what it's about.  There is no doubt in my mind that Timbuk3 intended the song to be about bombs, and knowing that does give the song a bit of a macabre sheen.  In fact, there is even a slower version of the song with an added verse that mentions "blowin'" things.  But the definitive version of the song--i.e., the one that people have actually heard--is bereft of any clue that might point the listener towards the intended subject.  Fail.

None of this is too surprising: The Vapors and Timbuk3 were one-hit wonders, a status that might have been avoided if they were better at songwriting.  Our last example is a bit more in the vein of the Beatles song mentioned above: The Police's Every Breath You Take, which is about a stalker but which is regarded by the casual listener as being simply a song of unrequieted love.  Sting is not a bad songwriter--he's had an expansive career as a solo artist and as the front man for The Police.  He's also written many mainstream songs about misplaced love and awkward relationships--e.g., Don't Stand So Close to Me about an affair between a student and teacher, or After the Rain which tells the story of a princess who falls briefly in love with a thief (and implied rapist) who breaks into her room on the night before her pre-arranged marriage.  Why shouldn't we believe him that the song is about a stalker?

Because it isn't.  Read the lyrics.  Listen to it.  It isn't about a stalker.  Maybe he meant for it to be, but it just isn't.  It is, pure and simple, an unrequieted love song.  Yes, some of the lyrics are vaguely stalker-ish, but isn't that true of most love songs?  The only hard-and-fast clue is a musical one: under the word "you" in the line "I'll be watching you," at that cadence the song drops to a minor key.

Not good enough.  To paraphrase my wife in her rants about modern art (and she's an art historian, so she can speak with some authority here), art needs to work without explanation.  It can be the doorway into a larger world, but if you have to read the description in order to appreciate the piece at all, then the piece is a failure.  If you have to have played the video game or read the comic book in order to appreciate the film based on it, it's a failure.  This applies to just about anything.  It can be intentionally vague, it can have fan-service, but it needs to work as a stand-alone project as well (with the possible exception of sequels, which can be seen as chapters in a larger work).  Every Breath... works as a stand-alone artistic work, as an unrequieted love song.  So that's what it is.

With due apologies to Sting.

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