Friday, March 28, 2008

Limited interpretations

I occasionally listen to a college radio station in my area. Whenever I turn to it, I expect to hear songs I've never heard before. It plays music from different genres and eras, with an emphasis on indie or obscure or up-and-coming artists--things that fall below the radar of the mainstream.

One day, I heard on this station an odd song with striking, evocative lyrics that I assumed were directed at President Bush. The genre was hard to place: it sounded like folk, but had a certain jazzy quality. Featuring a synth riff and a sort of pop-gospel chorus, it was sung by a man with a very low, raspy voice that might have become annoying if not for the infectiously catchy melody and complex chord arrangement.

I learned that the song was Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows," and that it was recorded in 1988, kind of early to be talking about Dubya. What made me think it was an anti-Bush anthem? Well, read the first two verses:
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long stem rose
Everybody knows
If this song were part of the current Bush-bashing bandwagon, it would probably be the best thing along those lines ever written. Most such music today just sounds cranky and self-righteous. (Green Day is the worst offender in that area.) This is surprising when you consider the many great protest songs from the Vietnam era. Those were better in part because their grievances had less to do with a specific U.S. president, in part because the threat of censorship encouraged more subtlety.

I'm not the only person to have interpreted Cohen's song this way. The only Youtube video currently playing the studio version consists of slides attacking the Bush Administration. Whether Cohen would approve of his song being used for that purpose, I have no idea.

If the song isn't about Bush, what is it about? Commenters on Youtube said it was about the AIDS virus. While I do agree that the song alludes to AIDS (especially in the fifth verse), I don't think that's the whole picture. The pivotal line "Everybody knows the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost" would seem to encompass more than the battle against a disease. At least I like to think so. Listen for yourself if you want. (It is five-and-a-half minutes long.)

A popular cover version by alternative rock band Concrete Blonde, done for the 1990 movie Pump Up the Volume (which I have not seen), provides a somewhat different take on the music and lyrics. I go back and forth on whether I prefer this version. On the one hand, the female lead, Johnette Napolitano, is a far more polished and expressive singer than Cohen (who sounds like he has laryngitis, and not in a charming Louis Armstrong sort of way). On the other hand, the cover omits two of the six verses and rearranges the remaining ones so that it ends with the one about infidelity, which almost makes the song sound like a failed-relationship ballad. (Here is the official video, which is four-and-a-half minutes long.)

I don't think the song can be reduced to one topic. It's more of a general meditation on the endless cycle of suffering and betrayal in the world. (I suspect it was partly inspired by the old black spiritual "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen.") In limiting its scope to war or infidelity or AIDS, listeners overlook the poetry. They ought to sit back and lose themselves in the words and imagery before intellectualizing the experience.

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