This One’s For the Boys

Sometimes a song offers an archetype or a role model for persons to emulate.  I recently heard the phrase “motivational rock.”  More commonly I think of such a song as “aspirational.”

 “This One’s For the Girls”

Martina McBride had a 2003 hit with “This One’s For the Girls,” written by Chris Lindsey, Hillary Lindsey and Aimee Mayo.  If you don’t know it, check out the music video and the lyrics.

This One's For the Girls - young girl and older womanAs Wikipedia puts it, “The song’s lyrics are a salute to women of various ages (early teens, middle twenties and approaching middle age) dealing with the struggles of different phases of life—starting high school and facing new pressures, coping with uncertainty about a career, and reaching middle age—and tells them ‘You’re beautiful the way you are.’”  It’s addressed to “girls” of all ages, “from one to ninety-nine.”  (The varying usage of the term “girl” over the last fifty years is a whole separate subject.)  The song is explicit about expressing an archetype, or an ideal, for women of any age:  “we’re all the same inside.”

This One's For the Girls - girls w.soccer ball singingIt’s interesting to see what characteristics are asserted of this common core identity.  The refrain implies that women are characterized by wholehearted love—“who love without holdin’ back.”  They’re sentimental:  “who’ve wished upon a shooting star.”  They’re idealists—or maybe just striving for some lofty goal:  “who dream with everything they have.”  And this willingness to put oneself on the line is courageous, because they’re also vulnerable:  “who’ve ever had a broken heart.”  Each verse portrays integrity and being true to oneself.  All these characteristics are commended:  “beautiful.”

There could be vigorous debate about any or all of these specific ideals.  But the popularity of the song testifies to the notion that at least some listeners can identify with this vision of womanhood.  More generally, “Girls” a member in good standing of the large family of female empowerment songs.  Just as a sampling of recent hits, we could instance “Fight Song,” “The Road Less Traveled,” “Scars To Your Beautiful” . . .  There’s no lack of inspiring characterizations for women.

The Missing Complement

It’s less clear what the corresponding archetype is for men or boys.  We’ve been challenging traditional stereotypes of masculinity for several decades.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  But we seem to be having trouble figuring out what should replace those stereotypes.

There are plenty of general-purpose motivational songs about—which makes sense, because most of what we are, we have in common as human beings.  But what would a comparable song for guys look like—a “This One’s For the Boys”?  We don’t see a whole lot of candidates stepping up for that position.

I’m thinking of good role models for boys.  We have plenty of bad ones, to be sure.  We can discard at once the overly violent, the nihilistic, or the tedious “bro-country” stereotype (to which “Girl in a Country Song” made an entertaining response).  But what do we want young men to take as an ideal?  Are they supposed to be really sensitive?  Really tough?  Down-to-earth?  Geeky?  It seems to me there’s a significant gap here, or at least a state of considerable confusion about masculine ideals.

This isn’t as trivial as it sounds.  Sure, one song isn’t going to make the difference between a world of well-developed mature men and the reverse.  But we do need the subtle guidance our stories and our songs provide as we grow.  So I’ve been on the lookout for the kind of song that would say to men the kind of things “This One’s For the Girls” says to women.

“Never Enders”

Never Enders, band performingEarlier this year I ran across the title song from Lonestar’s 2016 album “Never Enders,” written by Dean Sams, Richie McDonald, and Marv Green.  I liked the full-speed-ahead energy of the music, but I loved the lyrics:  one of those cases where you say to yourself, “yes, that’s just right, I’ve been wanting to hear someone say that!”

At first hearing, the song struck me as evoking an ideal that anyone could sign onto.  And so it does.  Just as men, not only women, could perfectly well aspire to the wholehearted love and “dream big” of McBride’s song; in the same way, both women and men could identify with Lonestar’s lyrics.

In fact, some of the same characteristics appear in both.  In “Never Enders,” the unidentified “we” are, among other things, “crazy wild dreamers” and “long shot believers,” and we “wear our hearts out on our sleeves.”

But it also occurred to me that this song might be especially well keyed to guys.  The song commends some traits that seem particularly suited for young men’s aspirations.

Never Enders, soldier embracing wifeOne major theme is faithfulness.  The singers are, in the lovably idiosyncratic phrasing of the song, “make-a-promise keepers.”  We “ain’t never gonna walk away.”  “We are now, we are forever / We are in this thing together / We don’t give up or surrender.”  Here traditional masculine qualities of steadiness and persistence are embodied in loyalty and standing by one’s partner—“for worse or better.”  Since unfaithfulness or lack of commitment (to a relationship) is a traditional male shortfall, the song’s assertion seems all the more decisive—embodied in the very title.

What’s even more interesting is a notion of balance and growth.  The first words are:  “We’re lettin’ goers, we’re hold-on-ers”—someone who knows when to hold tight and when to allow space.  Moreover, we’re “changers with the timers.” “We are the fire that keeps on burning / Always living, always learning.”  The notion of lifelong learning is a somewhat surprising meme to hear, considering how often country music devotes itself to standing by traditions—but “always learning” is an excellent lodestar for someone who’s trying to become a real man.

Never Enders, astronaut kid on bikeThe music video depicts the band itself cruising around, seeing sights that evoke a healthy sentiment—like a kid on a bike pretending to be an astronaut—and occasionally participating.  If we focus on this, we could read the “we” very narrowly to mean the band members.  But it’s clear the song is aiming for a wider applicability than this.

So on this Father’s Day, I recommend “Never Enders” as a song we can all join in on to help point ourselves in the right direction—especially, perhaps, us boys.

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Action and Passion

Our story approaches its climax:  Our Hero prepares for the cataclysmic action on which all depends.  She tenses her muscles, tightens her fists, screws up her face into a tense grimace.

Or does she?  There are actually two ways to imagine how one achieves some brilliant feat.  We have conflicting ideas about what makes action most effective.

Passion Conquers All

The most common view is that passion brings a sort of high-tension focus that intensifies action.  (I’m using “passion” here to mean any violent emotion or supreme effort, not specifically romantic passion.)  The more you feel, the more vigorously you act.  This connection obviously correlates with our common experience.  F&SF, as always, takes the idea to new levels.

The HulkWe picture this most obviously in fighting.  Today’s most iconic image is probably that of the Hulk, from Marvel Comics, who changes from mild-mannered Bruce Banner to a massive powerhouse when Banner gets angry.  The idea isn’t new to comics, of course; it goes back at least to the Norse berserker, who fights in what Wikipedia calls “a trance-like fury.”  In a more mundane case, we see the milquetoast George McFly motivated by anger at a threat to the girl of his dreams when he finally decks Biff in “Back to the Future.”

But we also see passion as the path to other kinds of achievement.  Great stress, suffering, or effort leads to a breakthrough in ability.  Jean Grey of the X-Men becomes the cosmic-powered Phoenix when her power and endurance are tested to the limit piloting a space shuttle through a solar flare.

Gully Foyle achieves a previously-impossible interplanetary teleportation (“jaunte”) when he’s at the end of his rope in the SF classic The Stars, My Destination.  Roger Zelazny’s hero Corwin recovers his memory and his full powers when he effortfully “walks the Pattern” in Nine Princes in Amber:

          It was agony to move.  Everything tried to beat me aside.  The waters were cold, then boiling.  It seemed that they constantly pushed against me.  I struggled, putting one foot before the other.

In Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile, the tormented Felice Landry achieves new levels of power under extreme stress (The Golden Torc, part III, ch. 3).  On a more positive note, the coda of E.E. Smith’s Lensman series shows Clarissa MacDougall, intensely suffering the loss of her beloved, finding the power necessary to retrieve him from unimaginable reaches (that chapter is a trope namer for TV Tropes’ “The Power of Love”).  Just last night, I saw the movie version of Wonder Woman (excellent, by the way) use the same trope:  a climactic accession of power under immense emotional strain.

Some of the modern roots of the passionate effort concept can be found in the Romantic movement.

Dispassion Also Has Its Points

But there’s a more paradoxical view that we can achieve more when we stop concentrating and enter a state of calmness or centeredness.

This approach also has many roots.  We’re frequently advised, when struggling with a difficult task, that we’re “trying too hard.”  Zen and other Asiatic traditions mobilize a strategy of detaching one’s mind from too great a concentration.  The currently popular practice of “mindfulness” seems to partake of the same idea:  a focus on the present moment without worry or intense concern.  Wikipedia even refers to “choiceless awareness,”  “the state of unpremeditated, complete awareness of the present without preference, effort, or compulsion.”

A nonpassionate sense of focus also appears in F&SF as a way to great achievement, though it’s much more rare.  In Robert Jordan’s massive fantasy epic The Wheel of Time, for example, Rand al’Thor is receiving sword training from a mentor who recommends “[n]ot the wild leaping about and slashing that Rand had in mind . . . but smooth motions, one flowing into another, almost a dance.”

“ . . . Blank your mind, sheepherder.  Empty it of hate or fear, of everything.  Burn them away. . . .”

Rand stared at him.  “The flame and the void,” he said wonderingly.  “That’s what you mean, isn’t it?  My father taught me about that.”  (The Eye of the World, ch. 13, paperback p. 177)

It’s through “the Void” that Rand can be most effective with the sword—and, later, with other things.

Honor Harrington faces the duelDavid Weber’s military SF heroine Honor Harrington, after surviving a shuttle explosion and emotional trauma, faced with a ritual duel to the death, dramatically decapitates her opponent with a single stroke.  But she doesn’t do it in a burst of rage, well-justified as that would be.

Honor waited, poised and still, centered physically and mentally, her eyes watching every part of [her opponent’s] body without focusing on any.  She felt his frustration, but it was as distance and unimportant as the ache of her broken ribs.  She simply waited—and then, suddenly, she moved.  (Flag in Exile, ch. 29, paperback p. 376)

We might also compare Frozen, from a previous post.  Elsa gains full control over her powers not when she lashes out passionately, nor when she painfully restrains herself, but when her power flows freely and gladly.

It’s hard to specify exactly what this dis-passionate state is.  It’s not pure rationality, à la Mr. Spock.  We might consider it a sort of pure will; but it’s not a blind will creating its own goal à la Nietzsche.  What you’re seeking still matters greatly; this Void state is how you approach it.

Nor is it lack of restraint, as we saw with Frozen.  Rather, the mindful actor seems to have perfect direction, perfect control, by means of this very Void state.  The arrow goes straight to the target—but it strikes with unparalleled force.

We don’t see as many examples of such centered intensity in the movies.  Film tends to prefer the display of passion:  it’s showier.  A character whose action arises from an inner balance is likely to look entirely inert, from the outside—until she moves.

Convergence

What these two approaches have in common, maybe, is wholeheartedness.  This seems to be the point of Yoda’s famous advice:  “Do, or do not; there is no try.”  Mr. Miyagi says something very similar to Daniel in The Karate Kid (at about 0:54).

The best modern description of a condition in which complete involvement in an action combines calm with wholehearted dedication may be “flow state.”  Most of us have probably experienced this ourselves.  There’s a certain detachment; yet there’s also deep involvement.  Emotion doesn’t get in the way, but the activity itself involves a sort of ecstasy (which, etymologically, means ‘standing outside oneself’).  Note that the berserker was described above as possessing (or possessed by) a “trance-like fury.”

In other words, the two paths may converge in the end, where maximum emotion is wholly embodied in or transmuted into the act.  None of that energy is wasted on subsidiary symptoms or mechanisms like straining, sweating, grimacing, screaming,

 

The way we approach these two paths affects how we tell a story.  Depending on our hero, and the hero’s personality or way of life, we may depict the climax as the moment of greatest strain or passion, or as a great achievement in a moment of crucial calm—“the still point of the turning world.”

If we’re simply living life—dancing, singing, coding, negotiating, loving—this may be good advice as well.  The way to do our best may not be to strain every sinew, but to relax and center.  Or possibly both.