Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘interpretation’

So, last week, I went out for a short jog, and I had an idea. (Yeah, I had the idea a week ago… it just took a while for me to write the darn thing…) Anyway, the idea Running Musicwas this: why not write a blog entry on the songs randomly playing on my iPod during my run? Hey, it’s just as inane as 91% of all the other stuff on the Web, right? So, in a very much particular order:

“Runaway,” Bon Jovi: Even though this song is their first hit (in fact, it essentially pre-dates the band, in that Bon Jovi the guy was performing it before he assembled Bon Jovi the band), I just figured out the lyrics recently– as in, like, today.

To me, the song was always about a girl who turned to prostitution because her daddy never showed her love when she was a kid. The lyric at the beginning about the gaudily made-up women lays the groundwork for this interpretation, and the “Now she works the night away” line at the end cliches it.  But then there’s that part in the second verse, that begins “Now you sit home alone ’cause there’s nothing left for you to do.”  What’s that all about?

Then I realized I was falling victim to that ol’ poetic pitfall: ambiguous pronouns.  See, the song makes reference to a “you,” only sometimes the “you” is the girl, and sometimes, the “you” is the dad.  So in the second verse, the “you” is the dad sitting home, looking at pictures of his daughter, beating himself up for not being there for her when she was younger and thus sending her down this path of self-destruction. So, really, this song is about the importance of paternal love in shaping a child’s fate.

And thus, I have spent more time thinking about this song than perhaps anyone else in the world (with the possible exception of Bon Jovi himself).

“You Give Love a Bad Name,” Bon Jovi: Hey, whaddaya know?  Two Bon Jovi songs in a row, even though I had the iPod on shuffle!  What are the odds?  (Actually, I guess I could figure out the odds quite easily: 529 songs on the iPod, 10 of which are Bon Jovi. Of course, the same song is not going to play twice in a row, so that means… Ahh, screw it.  I lost interest.)

When I was out running, I almost skipped this one, not only because it came on the heels of another JBJ song, but because, after nearly twenty-eight years, I have perhaps grown a little weary of it. Heck, after twenty-eight years, even Bon Jovi himself is probably sick of it.

This got me thinking: Is “You Give Love a Bad Name” Bon Jovi’s “signature song”?  I mean, it’s one of his signature songs… but is it THE signature song? I’d probably give the honors to “Livin’ on a Prayer”… but it’s close. (And where does “Wanted Dead or Alive” fit in?  Is it a dark horse?)

“Doctor My Eyes,” Jackson Browne:  Juxtaposin’ Jackson gives us a great contrast here, with the upbeat piano coupled with sort of depressing lyrics.  And apparently, the first incarnation of the song was even grimmer. The central metaphor of the song has always been the same: a guy goes to see a doctor because he believes he’s having problems with his eyes– particularly, his tear ducts don’t seem to be working.  But the doctor can’t help him because the guy’s problem is not physical but metaphysical: the guy has soured on everything he’s seen in life and has “learned how not to cry.”

At the urging of some record company folks, Jackson removed some of the more pessimistic lyrics (e.g. a reference to an “Angel of Darkness”), sped up the piano, and added bongos. The result is Jackson Browne’s first big hit and a surprisingly great running song– yes, even better than “Running on Empty.”

“Bad,” U2: Another surprisingly great running song– and I say “surprising,” because it’s allegedly about heroin abuse. Even though never released as a single, this is the song that made U2 the Best! Band! in the World! back in 1985, thanks to Bono’s antics at Live Aid.  If you haven’t seen the Live Aid performance, check it out, especially the part where Bono jumps into the crowd and embraces two female fans, after the security plucks them out of the packed-like-sardines crowd.

The name “Bad” is actually fitting, since the Live Aid performance has a “Bad” news/ “Good” news thing going on:

“Bad” News:  the crowd interaction (plus some snippets from Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones, which Bono threw in) stretched “Bad” out to twelve minutes, which meant they didn’t have time for their third song (“Pride”).  As a result, the band was initially disappointed with their set; in a 1987 interview, guitarist Edge admitted, “We came offstage after Live Aid, and we thought we had really blown it.”

“Good” News: fans really appreciated Bono’s spontaneous persistence in getting to those fans, the song sounded great, and the whole thing put U2 on the mainstream map.

“Boy in the Bubble,” Paul Simon Not necessarily a great running song (with that funky, South African piano accordion), but a fascinating song nonetheless.   To me, the song is about advances in technology, both good and bad:  the “boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon heart” (good) juxtaposed with the “lasers in the jungle somewhere” (bad).  Allegedly, Paul Simon once said the song is about “hope and dread… but coming down on the side of hope,” and I guess the repetition of “these are the days of miracle and wonder” in the chorus underscores that sense of hope. (For a way more advanced analysis of this and apparently every other Paul Simon song, click here.)

By the way, is  “boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon heart” just about the best alliteration in pop music? At the very least, it’s tied with Warren Zevon’s “little old lady got mutilated late last night” from “Werewolves of London”…

“Here’s Where the Story Ends,” The SundaysAnd here is where the run ends, as it turns out. Great song, and I love the poetry of the line “a little souvenir of a terrible year.”  As for the rest of the lyrics?  In truth, I couldn’t understand all of them; even when I went back and finally read the lyrics, I didn’t understand them. (Who knew she was talking about a “shed” in the chorus?  What happened there?)  But I love the sound nonetheless, and I always thought it should have been more popular.

And there it is– the musical score for that day’s run.  I’ve heard some folks say that they don’t like to listen to music as they jog, but personally, I don’t know how you could run without music.  A good song can get your feet moving as well as your mind– and even give you the material for a blog post.

Read Full Post »

Wizard of OzMake no mistake: he—or she—had a brain, all right.

Unlike a certain singing scarecrow, whoever initially found the parallels between Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the film The Wizard of Oz definitely did not have a head full o’ stuffing.  Only an intellectual wizard, after all, could notice that “The Great Gig in the Sky” plays when Dorothy’s house flies in the tornado.  Or that the cash register sound at the start of “Money” is synchronized to the exact moment the movie turns from black-and-white to Technicolor.  Or that Dorothy’s listening for the Tin Man’s heart coincides with the sound of a heartbeat on the album.

It’s all very fascinating.  Provocative.  And completely impossible.  I mean, come on: are we really supposed to believe the guys from Pink Floyd were watching Wizard of Oz while recording the album? Not likely.

This isn’t a knock on the anonymous wizard (or wizards) who originally noticed the similarities.  Far from it: making these connections is a creative act in itself.  And does it matter whether or not Pink Floyd intended to connect its album to Wizard of Oz?  I don’t see why it should.  When an author puts something out into the world, he or she gives up a degree of control.   The audience takes it from there.

Of course, I can’t give props to the folks interpreting the text without acknowledging the greatness of the text itself.  If The Wizard of Oz wasn’t so rich, so paradoxical, so chock full of themes and iconic characters, could those anonymous folks have made so many connections?

That’s not to take anything away from Dark Side of the Moon, which is a trippily complicated text in itself.  I’m just saying that if you take a text as complex as Wizard of Oz and juxtapose it with an equally complex text (such as Dark Side of the Moon, or hundreds of other texts), you’re bound to find some connections.

I actually have an example of my own, regarding the similarities between The Wizard of Oz and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  In case you never read The Sound and the Fury (or, as in my case, you read it but had pretty much had no earthly idea what was going on), the novel focuses on a promiscuous Southern woman named Caddy Compson and her three brothers: Benjy, who is mentally handicapped; Quentin, whose incestuous obsession with Caddy contributes to his suicide; and Jason, who is… just mean.  (There is also a plot in there, apparently… but I don’t think I was ever smart enough to figure it out.)

I took a Faulkner seminar in college, and in one of my papers, I made the case (only half-jokingly) that Faulkner borrowed liberally from L. Frank Baum’s original Wizard of Oz novel (published in 1900) for The Sound and the Fury (published in 1929). Caddy, Faulkner’s centerpiece character, is obviously Dorothy; Benjy matches up the brainless Scarecrow; Quentin—or Quen-Tin—is Tin Man; and Jason, the gruff yet easily frightened “king” of the Compson household, is the Cowardly Lion.

I went on to talk about how both texts involve the idea of dreams vs. reality, with Benjy’s stream-of-consciousness narration being particularly dream-like, in that he tends to collapse past and present events into one.  Admiitedly, a bit of a stretch.

Years later, as a high school teacher, I came up with a better Oz-connection; this time, I didn’t connect Oz to a text but to American history.  On some level, I was inspired by Henry Littlefield’s “The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism,” which spelled out the allegorical aspects of Baum’s novel: The Scarecrow is the supposedly ignorant American farmer; the Tin-Man is the industrial worker who toils so hard for so long, he actually becomes a machine himself; the Cowardly Lion is (believe it or not) William Jennings Bryan; the Wizard is any president who doesn’t have the power to give the people what they need; and Dorothy is Everyman (or Everywoman), trying to muddle his/ her way through.

Now… did Baum intend any of this?  Henry Littlefield seems to think so, and he makes an extremely compelling case why. But again, does Baum’s intention even matter?  Littlefield’s reading is an interesting intellectual exercise, one that gives us a new way of looking at a classic text.  That’s enough for me. (I should note: Littlefield was also a high school teacher… just saying.)

My interpretation goes in a different direction than Littlefield’s.   Most significantly, I’m interpreting the 1939 film version, not the novel.  I start with the song “Over the Rainbow,” the lyrics of which were written by a gentleman named Yip Harberg.  A businessman who lost everything in the Great Depression, Harberg went to Hollywood and became a songwriter.   His work on Wizard of Oz won him an Academy Award.  Talk about an American success story (which is sort of curious to say, since he was a committed socialist).

Now, two things you need to know about “Over the Rainbow.”  First: the rainbow symbol does not appear in Baum’s novel; it was used in the film to help reinforce the innovative use of Technicolor.  (That’s why they changed Dorothy’s magic slippers, silver in the book, to ruby red.)  Secondly: Yip Harberg is the son of Russian immigrants, who emigrated to the United States before Harberg was born.

Though not an immigrant himself, is it possible that Harberg was telling the story of his immigrant parents in the song “Over the Rainbow”?  Check out some of the lyrics:

* “There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby”…
* “Dreams that you dare to dream really do come true”…
* “Where troubles melt like lemondrops”…

Aren’t those exactly—I mean, EXACTLY—the kinds of things that someone a hundred years ago, living in Eastern Europe, would say about America?

With that as a foundation, I suggest that the entire 1939 Wizard of Oz film can be seen as an allegory for the American immigrant experience of the early 20th century.   The black-and-white Kansas portion represents their life back home, where they wistfully think about this mythical new world, America—a place where the streets are literally paved with gold. (That’s the yellow brick road.)  Filled with this hope that their daring dreams really will come true, they arrive at the new country, draped in their new home’s colors. (Dorothy, remembers, wears a blue and white dress and ruby-red shoes.)

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for many of these immigrants to realize that this wonderful new place is not what it’s cracked up to be; like the Wizard itself, the new world is an illusion.  And soon, these same wide-eyed immigrants, who risked everything to come to America, face a hard truth: “There’s no place like home.”

Granted, the interpretation needs some work.  I admittedly have some holes to fill. (Who’s the Scarecrow?  What about the Flying Monkeys?)   But it does offer a new perspective, doesn’t it, on a century-old tale?

To me, it all comes back to the text, L. Frank Baum’s original vision.  What started in 1900 as merely America’s greatest fairy tale has had so many lives, so many incarnations—from the 1939 film to The Wiz in the 1970s to Wicked in the 2000s and now to the new film, Oz, The Great and Powerful.  Why has it had such a long shelf-life?

Answer: because Baum is not like his wizard.  He’s the real deal.  He had brains and heart and courage. His vision was rich and deep, great and powerful.  And the lesson all writers can learn from him, I think, is this: the more you put into a text, the more someone else can get out of it.

Read Full Post »