Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Musical rorschach

One of the paradoxes of contemporary popular music is that lyrics are both necessary and irrelevant. I can't remember the last time an instrumental piece made the charts, and yet most listeners pay little attention to a song's lyrics. It's no wonder that when they do, they usually get it wrong. I'm not talking about "mondegreens" or misheard lyrics--a fun topic in itself. I'm talking about misunderstanding a song's message.

Somebody on a lyrics discussion page suggested that Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" was about Freddie Mercury contracting AIDS. The person seemed unaware that the song came out in 1975, long before anyone knew what AIDS was. I suspect the person first heard the song through Wayne's World in 1992 and assumed it was brand-new. Another person suggested the song was about Mercury's bisexuality. That interpretation is harder to disprove, but it still doesn't fit.

Why assume this mock opera is autobiographical? The opening lines could hardly be clearer: "Mama, I just killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he's dead." The song is about a man who killed someone and is pleading for mercy. I guess some people are just so attuned to interpreting songs metaphorically they don't even consider the plain meaning.

One thing I've noticed on these lyrics sites is that for every song, there is at least one person who thinks it's about drugs. And why not? If people can interpret an innocent children's ditty like "Puff the Magic Dragon" as a pothead anthem, they can do it with any song. On the other hand, I found people denying that Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" is about smoking pot. (That's the one where he sings, "Everybody must get stoned." If you think he means death by stoning, you're on crack.)

Some interpretations are so obviously wrong you wonder if the people who came up with them were paying the slightest attention. One example that comes to mind concerns one of Nirvana's strangest songs, "Rape Me." According to Songfacts.com (where all the information is user-submitted), "Kurt Cobain wanted to make a strong statement in support of women and against violence toward them.... A guy rapes a girl. He ends up in jail and is raped there."

I've seen this explanation going around the Internet for years, even though it doesn't make the least bit of sense. While I'm not sure what the song is about, the lyrics make no mention of women or jails or really any context to the "rape" being described. Frankly, I don't think the song is even about rape. It sounds more like some kind of sadomasochistic desire, assuming it's to be taken literally at all.

Curiously enough, there is a song from around the same period that is clearly about a man who rapes a woman then ends up getting raped in prison. The song, Sublime's "Date Rape," uses straightforward storytelling, leaving no doubt what's happening. Maybe somebody mixed the two songs up.

I have heard people claim that Cobain himself gave the rape-as-poetic-justice explanation for his own song, but that could be an urban legend on par with the one about Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight." The latter has many variations, but the commonest is that Collins was singing about a brother who drowned. Rolling Stone has listed this belief as one of the top 25 urban legends of rock music, alongside "Paul is dead" and "Mama Cass died eating a ham sandwich." It's so widespread it even made its way into Eminem's song "Stan."

According to Collins, who had no brother who drowned, the song expressed his feelings after a divorce. The source of the urban legend is the line, "If you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand." The funny thing is, even if you ignore the rest of the lyrics, that line doesn't sound like it's talking about literal drowning. I'm amazed how many people accepted the false interpretation when the evidence against it was staring them in the face.

In some cases, the feel of the music can mislead. That may help explain why so many people incorrectly thought "Born in the USA" was a patriotic anthem rather than a bitter criticism of our country. The song has such an upbeat, energetic groove it's easy to gloss over what the verses are saying. But really, what did people think Springsteen meant with lines like "Sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man"? Did anyone seriously believe he was celebrating the slaughter of Asian people?

I often suspect that a large portion of the public is unable to understand irony. I was shocked when I learned that Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young" was widely perceived as anti-Catholic. Sure, the song's narrator, a young man trying to seduce a nice Catholic girl, complains about her religion's restrictions. But I never assumed that Joel himself was endorsing that attitude. Part of the song's humor stems from the narrator's failure to veil his true intentions, which we realize are cruder than he wants to reveal. It is a song about sexual frustration, not a critique of Catholicism or any other religion.

Still, I can understand why listeners tend to assume that a song speaks in the songwriter's voice. That is the standard convention in popular music. Making a distinction between the songwriter and the narrator isn't always convincing.

Take the controversial 1992 record "Cop Killer." In a widely circulated essay, the sociologists Mark Hamm and Jeff Ferrell defended the song by asking why no one ever complained about the Bob Marley/Eric Clapton hit "I Shot the Sheriff." Well, I would think the answer should be obvious to anyone who knows the difference between swearing you acted in self-defense and boasting about committing premeditated murder. Nevertheless, defenders of "Cop Killer" argue that if you think the song is advocating what the narrator is boasting about, you simply don't get it. My response is, guilty as charged.

I've observed that many people who fall back on the "irony" defense don't understand what the word means. You can't even depend on Alanis Morrissette, who thinks irony is what happens when it rains on your wedding day. (As the comedian Ed Byrne put it, that would be ironic only if you were marrying a weatherman and he set the wedding date.) If a songwriter as gifted as Morrissette can't get the concept straight, what hope is there for the rest of us?

I'll tell you what's ironic. When people think a song is about drugs, it isn't, and when they don't think it's about drugs, it is. When people interpret a song metaphorically, it is literal, and when they interpret it literally, it is ironic, and when a song is titled "Ironic," it is anything but.

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