That Thing You Do!

I recently acquired a new disc of the movie That Thing You Do! (1996), since my copy had gone missing.  The new copy turned out to include an extended edition, with considerable new material (148 minutes, vs. 108 for the theatrical version).  The new version lent additional interest to rewatching a favorite story.

Why It Works So Well

That Thing You Do posterI would say That Thing You Do! (“TTYD”) is an archetypal story about a band—it’s the title photo for the TV Tropes topic Music Stories—except it isn’t quite typical, which is one of the movie’s virtues.

TTYD is basically the story of a “one-hit wonder,” a band that has a single major success with a song but never scores again.  That theme is lampshaded by the fact that the band itself is (eventually) named the “Wonders.”  In the summer of 1964, a college-age rock-and-roll group recruits Guy Patterson to sit in on drums for a college talent show, since their original drummer has broken his arm.  The group briefly rehearses their song, an original by guitarist Jimmy Mattingly, the eponymous “That Thing You Do.”  When they perform the song at the talent show, the audience loves it.  The Wonders proceed to get better gigs; make a recording of the number, which begins to get radio airplay; and are noticed by a promoter, setting them on the road to short-lived stardom.

Part of the fun is simply to absorb the ‘60s music culture, which is lovingly re-created—not the high lives of major stars, but the everyday business of performing.  Tom Hanks, who eventually takes over as their manager, guides them through the nitty-gritty of publicity gimmicks (he hands Guy a pair of dark glasses to make him distinctive) tours, beach movies, screaming fans, and the like.  The amiable cynicism and pragmatism of Hanks’ character grounds the story and makes sure it never spins off into the kind of melodrama all too characteristic of the Music Stories genre.

The Wonders at Talent show performing That Thing You DoTo me, the most enjoyable part of the movie is where we see a song coming together—a moment I always find exciting.  At the talent show, Guy, who hasn’t played in public in a while, is nervous and starts the song faster than they’d played it at rehearsal.  Jimmy, miffed at having his creation tampered with, frantically tries to tell him to slow it down.  But the faster beat works:  kids in the audience start to dance, and the band itself realizes that the song is going over better than in Jimmy’s original mournful, draggy form.  While Jimmy is still fuming at the end—“It’s a ballad!”—they can’t deny the livelier version is a rousing success.

Music and Lyrics, Alex and Sophie with notebookI always love seeing something like this:  a musical piece when it finally gells, when the fusion of the musicians’ talents works to make the underlying soul of the song shine through.  Music and Lyrics (2007), for example, works the same kind of magic, though spread out over a longer period than a single performance.  It’s rare when we get a chance to see the creative process actually at work, right there in front of us.  It’s one thing to see the final end product performed, but to be in on the formation of what becomes a first-rate work is both inspiring and exciting—even when it’s half-accidental and serendipitous, as here; or maybe because that spark jumps forth unpredictably.

Faye and bassist dash into storeThis sense of creative vitality is reinforced by the general high spirits of the characters—that effervescent sense of something new and wonderful.  When their song first gets played on the local radio station, the band members and Faye, Jimmy’s girlfriend, go madly dashing around the town, alerting each other that they’re on the air, dancing around the appliance store where Guy works and turning up the radio full blast.  While the effervescence wanes over the course of the story as the business of music becomes more mundane, we never quite forget that boundless enthusiasm with which the group started out.

Not Your Average Music Story

The typical movie about a band or other performing group tends to follow the same pattern as a certain type of sports story.  (That is, for imaginary bands:  biopics about real groups don’t necessarily track that pattern, bring constrained by history.)  A group of young underdogs gets together, challenges the stuck-up ruling clique, engages in something like a “battle of the bands,” and emerges with a satisfying victory.

Bandslam posterDifferent shows may ring different changes on that model, but there tends to be some competitive moment that brings the story to a well-defined climax.  Take, for example, Pitch Perfect 1 and 2 (2012 and 2015—I haven’t seen the third installment), featuring a motley a cappella group.  School of Rock (2003), with Jack Black and a mob of precocious grade-schoolers, ends with a Battle of the Bands competition.  The obscure but surprisingly good Bandslam (2009) is named for a band competition the scrappy underdogs are determined to win.  (In that film we also get a sense of a song coming together for the first time, at about 1:10.)  If we move to dance rather than singing, there’s the competition at the end of Shall We Dance (2004).  A cheerleading competition caps off Bring It On (2000).  Et cetera . . .

But TTYD is not that kind of story.  The only real competition involved is the talent show at the very beginning.  Rather than moving to a victorious climax, TTYD traces the whole arc of a one-hit wonder band, from humble origins, to a degree of national celebrity, to disintegration under the pull of the band members’ conflicting interests.  At the end of TTYD, the Wonders actually break up, with one joining the military, another running off for a Vegas marriage, Jimmy quitting in a huff due to “creative differences,” and the band in breach of contract (though Tom Hanks’ character placidly informs Guy that “nobody’s going to jail”).  A band that ends in a breakup doesn’t exactly follow the trope.

Yet the story isn’t a downer either.  There are some strong secondary plotlines running through the movie.  One is Guy’s devotion to jazz music (an infallible sign of artistic integrity for a character in a film).  During the Wonders’ peak period of success, he gets a chance to meet, and then jam with, his idol, jazz pianist Del Paxton.  It’s clear that Guy, at least, is going to have the chance to pursue his dreams.  Indeed, the American Graffiti­-style epilogue tells us that each of the four original band members went on to a reasonably satisfactory career (though not necessarily in music).

Faye and Guy, from That Thing You DoMoreover, there’s a well-drawn romance that also runs throughout.  Faye is supposedly Jimmy’s girlfriend, but he’s too wrapped up in his musical ambitions to pay any real attention to her.  Meanwhile, Guy, whose former girl has dumped him for a handsome dentist, is the one who looks out for Faye, makes sure she’s included in the group’s travels, and takes care of her when she’s ill.  It’s positively endearing when they finally get together at the end—and the epilogue describes them as founding a music conservatory together.  The successful resolutions of these ancillary plots offsets the somewhat tragic arc of the main storyline and leaves us feeling good about the characters’ fates, despite the meteoric rise and fall of the group.

The Music

The songs we hear were written specifically for the movie—but you’d never know it.  The songwriters, who include Tom Hanks, Adam Schlesinger, Rick Elias, Scott Rogness, Mike Piccirillo, Gary Goetzman and Howard Shore, pull off an amazing simulation of early 1960 styles.  Even aside from the title piece, they give us dead-on compositions in the style of the Ray Conniff-type pop chorale (“Lovin’ You Lots and Lots”), the solo chanteuse (“My World is Over”), the girl group (“Hold My Hand, Hold My Heart”), the pseudo-Beatles crowd-pleaser (“Little Wild One”), and more.  To my mind, a successful imitation or pastiche of someone else’s style is a noteworthy artistic achievement; the music here lends an authentic-sounding ’60s air to the film.

The title song is an even more remarkable accomplishment.  In the first place, it sounds exactly right to have been a hit around 1964.  In the second place, it’s so good (IMHO) that it holds up even through the dozen or so times we necessarily hear it, in whole or in part, during the movie.  “That Thing You Do” is still on my playlists; it’s irresistibly catchy.

Chords for That Thing You Do (partial)How did Hanks and company pull that off?   For one thing, while the instrumentation and overall sound puts it squarely in the ’60s, the song is not the four-chord masterpiece one might expect.  The chord progressions are more sophisticated than those of the average rock-and-roll song of the period.  Even the brief instrumental introduction uses the chords I – IVm (E to A minor), which is hardly typical—at least if, like me, you have your roots firmly planted in the folk/rock tradition.  There’s more substance to the music than you’d think.

Then there’s the fact that the song never does tell us exactly what is “that thing you do”—what makes the girl so irresistible.  We know she does it, we know the singer can’t live without it, we know he can’t stand her doing it with “someone new”; but we don’t get anything specific.  It’s one of those fruitful ambiguities, where leaving something to the imagination is better than being too  definite.  The listener can picture their own charming trait or mannerism to fill in the gap.  The song keeps one guessing.

Finally, the curious contrast between the rather moody, discontented lyrics of a breakup song (“It’s a ballad!”) and the bright, up-tempo sound and dance beat creates another kind of tension that continues to make “That Thing You Do” more interesting than the unsophisticated setting would suggest.  That contrast, in a way, reflects the tone of the whole story.  There’s lots of enthusiasm, but it burns out; we do get a happy ending, but not the kind of easy victory as in the battle-of-the-bands stories.

Extended Cuts and Deleted Scenes

As the movie’s Wikipedia article indicates, the longer “extended” version fills out the story in several ways.  We get more of Guy’s backstory:  for instance, he’s old enough to have been in the Army, which may explain why he’s more mature than the other boys in the band.  We see more of his relationship with his original girlfriend Tina, and how that relationship unravels (freeing him to link up with Faye).  Other relationships are also followed up in more detail, as with the bass player and one of the girl-group “Chantrellines.”  At the end, it’s clear that Guy gets a new job as a radio DJ on the West Coast, which puts him in a better position (with a steady job) to marry Faye, and also puts him on track for a musical career.

The Wonders, Beatles-styleHowever, none of these elaborations of the basic storyline are really necessary.  The theatrical version of the movie does fine without them.  The extra time for these digressions does alter the pace of the story:  my impression on viewing the extended version was that the experience was slower and more leisurely than with the original, shorter version.  The shorter cut’s brisk pace seemed to better express the bewildering swiftness of the Wonders’ sudden success and equally sudden collapse.  In that respect, I’m inclined to think that in the future, I’ll stick to the original version.  Conciseness can be a virtue.

This parallels my usual reaction to the deleted scenes we often find in a DVD release.  When I go back and watch the deleted scenes, I can see what they add, and why the original plan for the story would have included them; yet in every case I can recall, I could also see the reason they were deleted—I agreed, in the end, that the extra scenes were better cut from the final product.

It may be that the theatrical version of a movie is generally preferable to the extended “director’s cut” (though I haven’t canvassed enough examples to draw that broad conclusion with any confidence).  The exception—naturally—is the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings movies, where the original source material is simply so huge that even three two-hour movies couldn’t do it justice.  I’ll always prefer to watch the longer version of LotR, and still lament that it’s too short.

But for TTYD, I’ll recommend the tighter theatrical version—not to mention the soundtrack album.

Tell Me What You’re Doing

Shakespearean Description

A few years ago my kids gave me a copy of The Jedi Doth Return—or, in full, William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return:  Star Wars Part the Sixth, by Ian Doescher (2014).  This little book is a retelling of the movie Return of the Jedi in the form of a Shakespeare play, with the entire text in iambic pentameter.

The Jedi Doth Return, cover

It’s great fun to see the swashbuckling space epic transformed into sixteenth-century poetry.  And the reading is surprisingly good as well, with some memorable phrases bringing out nuances not necessarily detectable in the movie; at least one passage was striking enough to make it onto my Quote of the Week page back in 2017.

But one thing in particular caught my attention, perhaps because of the contrast between SF subject matter and Shakespearean technique:  how frequently the characters describe in words what’s happening.  For example, in Act I, Scene 3 (p. 25), Leia sneaks into Jabba’s palace to rescue Han Solo:

In stealth I move throughout the palace dark,
That no one shall bear witness to my acts.
Now cross the court, with footsteps nimbly plac’d.
Ne’er did a matter of such weight depend
Upon a gentle footfall in the night.
Put out the light, and then relume his light—
Aye, now I spy my goal:  the frozen Han.
Thy work is finish’d, feet.  Now ’tis the hands
That shall a more profound task undertake.
Quick to the panel, press the needed code.
O swiftly fly, good hands, and free this man
From his most cold and undeservéd cell.
O true decryptionist, thy codes are quick!
The scheme hath work’d, the carbonite doth melt.

Han & Leia illustration from The Jedi Doth Return

She’s narrating what’s happening, in just the fashion of a true Shakespeare character (“What light through yonder window breaks?”).  Of course, if she were actually saying this aloud, she’d have roused the whole palace; but of course the Shakespearean convention of the inaudible (except to the audience) soliloquy is also in effect.

This self-description seems to be even more necessary in an action sequence.  When Luke peels off from Leia to pursue Imperial scouts in the landspeeder chase through the forest (Act III, Scene 1, p. 77), along with stage directions, we get a similar blow-by-blow account:

LEIA:  ‘Tis well. Be safe, and I shall see thee soon.
LUKE:  [aside]  O sister, all my thanks for tender words.

[Luke falls behind, alongside
Imperial Scouts 5 and 6.

Now shall this bike’s keen blaster find its mark!
I shoot, and one is dead; the other next.

[Luke shoots and kills Imperial Scout 6.

LEIA:  I shall fly high o’er this one’s bike, that he
May think that I have fled.  Then shall I from
Above make my attack.  Ha!  Now beside
His bike, surprise is my sure strategy.

[Imperial Scout 4 shoots at Leia.

Alas!  My bike is hit, and off I fall!

Reading this as a book, the narration helps me figure out what’s going on (and helps me visualize the appropriate scenes from the movie I know so well).  Of course, if I could see the play actually performed, some things would be clearer.  Still, a stage play can’t provide all the visual background we’d get in a movie.  I have no idea how they’d depict the land-speeder chase on stage—though I’d like to see them try!  Maybe it’s the shortage of visual imagery that requires the dialogue.

But it’s not quite that simple.

The Comic-Book Monologue

In an old-style comic book, we also see characters providing a lot of description.  The villain doesn’t just whip out his infernal device and fire it at the good guys; he’s also likely to announce something like, “Now, tremble before the power of my unstoppable Meson Beam, as it suppresses the strong nuclear force and disintegrates your very molecules!” Here’s an example from Fantastic Four #52, the first appearance of the Black Panther (1966):

3-panel action scene from Fantastic Four number 52

Sometimes a quantity of prose is expended on a mere landscape scene, as with this magnificent Kirbyesque high-tech jungle shot.

Fantastic Four enters Black Panther's high-tech jungle

Why all the verbiage?  The trouble is, the special effects alone doesn’t tell us much.  In primarily visual media, we don’t get internals or narrator comments.  A genius like Reed Richards may be able to figure out instantly what an exotic weapon is doing, but we poor readers can’t.  Even in a non-action scene, the implications of the Panther’s “jungle” might not be obvious without having someone to explain.

Of course, as the first panels above illustrate, wedging all this dialogue into an action sequence requires another convention, as arbitrary as the Shakespearean soliloquy:  “talking is a free action.”  We are simply to accept the notion that a character can deliver a lengthy speech while taking split-second actions.  The expository lecture is more plausible when cruising through a landscape, as in the second image.

Thor's instantaneous declaration, From Beyond This UniverseWhen my brother Matt and I were working on our great unfinished comic-book epic back in grade school, we faithfully replicated this convention, allowing a hero to get off an appropriately heroic declaration while a roof is falling on his head.  (Apologies for the black-and-white shot; I don’t have the full-color original ready to hand.)

 

Sailor Moon manga attack sceneNot all graphic novels use this convention.  It may not be as common in manga, for example, where there’s a lot more action without explanation—and where, as a consequence, I sometimes have trouble figuring out what’s going on.  This discrepancy may reflect a cultural difference; I didn’t grow up with Japanese comic culture and may be missing some clues.  Still, I think it’s harder to make out events  without the occasional verbal aside.  In the Sailor Moon manga and anime, for example, if there’s any dialogue at all that relates to a superpower, it’s likely to consist in calling out an attack name like “Moon Princess Halation,” which by itself communicates even less than “magnetic anti-polarity.”  I’ve encountered some similar problems reading contemporary American graphic novels like Monstress.

On-Screen Obscurity

Visual media have some advantages in being able to show directly what people are doing, depending on the medium.  However, the audience for a stage play is likely to be at some distance from the performers, which means that very small actions may be hard to make out.  If a character on stage is, say, picking a lock, there will probably have to be some setup to make clear what they’re going to do (especially if the locked door is invisible and not actually part of the stage set).  In a movie, on the other hand, the director is free to show the character crouching next to the door with her tools, then cut to a close-up shot of her hands working the tools in the lock, then back out to the door opening.  Comic books can do the same thing.

This assumes we already understand what picking a lock is.  The need for explanatory narration is accentuated in science fiction and fantasy stories, where the things that are happening may be extraordinary.  When the action is more mundane, we can get by with less explanation.  If the villain fires a pistol at the good guys, we don’t need to be told how a pistol works.  But if the action uses superhuman powers or advanced technology that we haven’t seen before, an explanation may still be necessary.

Consider Marvel Comics’ Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff).  Her powers originally consisted rather vaguely in casting a “hex,” which caused things to go wrong (in unspecified ways) for the target of the hex.  Later retcons and expansions introduced a number of different power sets.  But in the Marvel Cineverse movie versions, her powers are hardly explained at all.  We may see her blasting Thanos, but we don’t actually understand (even in the lenient comic-book-movie sense of “understand”) what her powers are supposed to be.  For all practical purposes, she might as well be Sailor Moon.  (Now there’s an idea for a crossover . . .)

As always, there are good and bad ways to supply the necessary explanations.  As I’ve mentioned before, the original Star Wars is good at this:  Han can snap out the line “. . . while I make the calculations for the jump to lightspeed,” and that’s all we need to know.  On the other hand, there’s what Shamus Young describes as “Super Exposition” in a 7/6/17 blog post:  “The villains blabbed their plans for no reason. Heroes narrated their own actions to themselves, out loud, during a fight. Characters would stop and explain why something was good or bad right in the middle of it happening, because the writers didn’t set anything up ahead of time.”  Overdone, the practice falls into condescending overexplanation.

On the whole, the different media seem to require different types and levels of exposition.  In a purely verbal medium like a book, when we have only the words to work with, every action must be described.  On stage, at least some forms of presentation describe the action verbally as well.  And even in a movie, where we can see what’s happening in detail, we may still need to have the events analyzed.

Changing the Past – Or Avenging It

Introduction

Avengers Endgame posterI set out to do an analytical essay on Three Theories of Time Travel—until I realized that Larry Niven’s astute and entertaining brief article “The Theory and Practice of Time Travel” (1971) had already covered those theories pretty well.  (You can find that article in Niven’s All the Myriad Ways, and a couple other locations.)  So I decided instead to comment on how they’re used in Avengers:  Endgame, which seems to invoke at least two and possibly three different theories.

Maybe I’d have been better off sticking with the original plan; this post has turned out to be considerably longer than I’d planned.

Endgame came out on April 26, 2019, and was released on disc August 13, so it’s still new enough at this writing that I should issue a

Spoiler Alert!

I’m not going to address the mechanics of how one might travel into the past—whether via Tipler machines, or wormholes, or simply thinking oneself into the past à la Jack Finney.  (Endgame manages it via what the movies refer to as the “Quantum Realm,” which is completely incoherent in one way but rather fascinating in another—a side issue I won’t go into here.)  I’m interested in what happens if you let causality turn back on itself.  I can think of three main ways of handling the question of changing the past.  Each has its pros and cons, from a storytelling point of view.

“Make It Didn’t Happen”

First, let’s suppose we can change the past (and, by extension, the present and future).  The idea arises because we often wish we could go back and undo something—either our own actions, or the broader course of history.  Niven observes, “When a child prays, ‘Please, God, make it didn’t happen,’ he is inventing time travel in its essence.”  He goes on to note, “The prime purpose of time travel is to change the past; and the prime danger is that the Traveler might change the past.”  These twin aspects of the idea generate plot tensions and conflicts immediately, on both a personal and a historical scale, so it’s not surprising they’re so popular.

Back to the Future posterThe most familiar example, of course, is Back to the Future (1985-1990).  In the three movies, Zemeckis played several variations on the idea of making history come out differently.  The cultural reference is so well-known that Marvel was able to riff off it for a comic moment in Endgame.  Scott Lang, the young and relatively naïve Ant-Man, says they’ll be okay if they obey the ‘rules of time travel’ (at about 0:35).  Tony Stark, the all-round genius of the Marvel movies, derides Scott for having gotten his “rules” from BTTF, and proceeds to shoot the notion down as hopelessly unscientific.

And Tony’s right, in the sense that building a theory of time travel purely on the assumptions made in fictional stories is silly.  We don’t know what would happen if it were possible to change the past; we haven’t done it.  That would make time travel really dangerous if it could be attempted in real life.  On the other hand, that same lack of knowledge leaves a wide field open for the fiction writer.  We can make whatever assumptions we like, as long as they’re consistent.  We can imagine that you can only go back in time a certain distance, at a certain geographical location, as in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile (1981-84).  We can imagine that the transition requires vast energies, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s story “Technical Error” (1950).  Or we can invoke the imaginary “Pym particles” of Ant-Man lore and time-travel at will.

This first theory of time travel generates the paradoxes we know and love.  We have the “grandfather paradox,” in which an effect removes its own cause.  (I go back in time and kill my grandfather.)  We have what Wikipedia calls the “ontological paradox,” in which an effect becomes its own cause.  (I go back but my grandfather fails to show up, so I marry my grandmother instead and name my son after my dad…)  I talked about these a bit in a 2016 post on the TV series Timeless.

One thing that’s not always obvious is that the idea of changing the past requires a second time dimension.  There’s the familiar one that’s typically represented by a “timeline,” a one-dimensional line ordering events from past to future.  But if someone changes the past, then the old line has to be replaced by a new one:  imagine a second timeline lying next to the first.  Every time a change is made, another timeline gets added.  The set of lines forms a plane, extending through a second dimension, in which each new timeline happens after (in some Pickwickian sense) the last.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t make any sense to say that we’d changed history.  Marty can’t rejoice in having “fixed” his family unless the new timeline succeeds the first, just as events along the timeline succeed each other.  Hence, a second time dimension, to accommodate the sequence of timelines.  (This may, or may not, be related to what TV Tropes calls “San Dimas Time,” a reference from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).

As a narrative device, the chance to change the past creates suspense.  But it only works if you don’t look too closely.  The author has to stage-manage things carefully so that changes of all sorts don’t start happening in all directions, and this means that time travel must be rare.  If we imagine a period of hundreds or thousands of years, during which people invent time machines every so often and start changing the past, it would become impossible to make sense of what was happening.  Different changes, each with their rippling “butterfly effects,” would take place, one after another—or even at the same, er, time.  (I tried playing around with that idea in an as-yet-unpublished story called Getting to Gettysburg.)  So I’m skeptical about stories based on letting time travel become routine, as in “Time Patrol” scenarios or Asimov’s The End of Eternity.

Avengers Disassemble

Does Endgame, after all Tony’s disclaimers, involve changing the past?  Maybe not; but it’s hard to see how the story can avoid it.

Thanos with Infinity GauntletThe screenwriters chose to set themselves an interesting dilemma that makes the simple time-travel solution (go back and kill Thanos) unusable.  When the time-travel possibility arises, five years have passed since the Snap, in which Thanos killed off half the people in the universe.  Life has gone on.  Tony and Pepper, for example, have an adorable little girl.  But eliminating the Snap would also eliminate Tony’s little daughter Morgan, along with everything else that’s happened since.  That’s unacceptable (at least to Tony).  So the Avengers are not trying to avert the Snap; instead, they want to bring back, in the present time, all those who disintegrated.

The reason they have to go into the past is to retrieve the six Infinity Stones, which Thanos destroyed after the Snap.  The Avengers will need to use the Stones for a Snap of their own to bring back all the people Thanos destroyed.  But in order to avoid changing the past, they will have to put the Stones back in their earlier times after they’ve been used.  This is a clever idea, but it’s going to be really tricky to execute in practice, as we’ll discuss below.

It’s Already Happened

Meanwhile, the business of a second time dimension may make us start to wonder about the whole idea of changing the past.  Maybe we’ve forgotten to take into account the integrity of the original time dimension.  After all, if something happened in the past, it has already happened.  The effects of past events should be baked into the present that follows from them.  If I go back to 1800 and leave a hidden time capsule, let’s say, I should be able to dig it up in 2019.  You might say that the change I wish to make has already taken place.

Kate and Leopold posterBut it follows that if I can find the evidence in the present, then I know the event occurred in the past.  (That’s what “evidence” means.)  If I find the time capsule, I know that it was buried.  This may allow me to predict or “retrodict” my future changes to the past on the basis of what’s known now. If I find the time capsule, I know I’m going to bury it—or someone else will.  A key scene in Kate and Leopold (2001) relies on just such a discovery about a future event that changes the past.  (Have we mixed up the tenses enough yet?)  Bill and Ted makes even more comically inventive use of this aspect.

But on this theory, the event in the past isn’t really a change.  It was always that way.  The time capsule persisted through all the intervening time.  You can’t change the past, because your change is already included in the past we know and thus embedded in the present.  As Niven puts it, “any attempt on the part of a time traveler to change the past has already been made, and is a part of the past.”

This approach deprives us of the fun of changing history, but I rather like it.  It ensures the timeline remains consistent with itself.  In fact, one version of this postulate is referred to as the “Novikov self-consistency principle,” named for Russian physicist Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov.  We avoid grandfather paradoxes:  we already know I didn’t succeed in traveling into the past and killing my grandfather, because here I am.  If I try, something will go wrong.  On the other hand, ontological paradoxes are still allowed, as in Heinlein’s classic novella By His Bootstraps (1941).  In fact, I tend to think of this as ‘Heinlein’s theory of time travel,’ because he used it extensively—not only in Bootstraps and the even more baffling  “—All You Zombies—” (1959), but also in the delightful The Door Into Summer (1957).  Of course, Heinlein’s by no means the only writer using a Novikov-type theory.

One reason I like this type of time travel story is that everything fits neatly together, like a puzzle.  The fun of the story is in seeing how they’ll fit.  In that sense, the enjoyment of you-already-changed-the-past stories resembles that of the Greek tragedies, in which an oracular pronouncement tells what’s going to happen, and the story shows how it happens.  No matter how Oedipus tries to avoid the awful future foretold, he can’t.  The efforts to avoid the predicted outcome may themselves produce it.

In such a tragedy, where time travel isn’t involved (except to the extent the oracle itself is future information acting on the past), the Greek tragedy tends to suggest that the outcome is determined by some kind of Fate, whether we like it or not.  (Niven puts this view under the heading of “determinism.”)  But the Novikov-type theory can also be seen as compatible with free will.  Even actions freely taken, once they are complete, become part of the fabric of history, not subject to further change afterwards—except to the extent that backward causation via time travel is possible, which alters the whole meaning of “afterwards.”

The Door Into Summer, coverA subclass of these stories assumes that the time continuum somehow defends itself against change.  It may automatically “self-heal” to swallow up minor changes, or all changes:  Edison doesn’t invent the light bulb, but someone else does.  Or the time stream may simply be designed so that with “fail-safes” that prevent catastrophic causality failures.  At the end of The Door Into Summer, the engineer hero seems to be speculating in this direction:  if time travel could be used commercially, he thinks,

it will be because the Builder designed the universe that way.  He gave us eyes, two hands, a brain; anything we do with them can’t be a paradox.  He doesn’t need busybodies to “enforce” His laws; they enforce themselves.  (p. 158)

To Say Nothing of the Dog coverIn a modern context, God seems to take over the role of Fate—not by predetermining everything, but by designing the system (i.e., the universe) so nothing can go fatally wrong with causality.  Something similar, I think, lies behind the way the time travel “net” portal functions in Connie Willis’s time travel stories.  If allowing something through the net would create a paradox, the net simply won’t open—which leads to some tortuous reasoning by the characters as to what is keeping the net from openingaat  a particular moment.  Something like Providence seems to be at work.  The only causal loops allowed are what we might call ‘virtuous loops’—those that work out right.

What makes this confusing is that we’re used to analyzing causality by looking at the conditions preceding the effect.  Here, we don’t see the ‘virtuous loop’ conditions being set at any particular point in time.  The conditions have to apply to the continuum as a whole—from outside it, in effect.

You Can’t Avenge the Future

When Tony initially declares Scott’s proposed “time heist” impossible, the remaining Avengers bring in Bruce Banner as a substitute scientific resource.  Banner (who now combines his own brain with the Hulk’s body) does make a nod to the fact that his scientific expertise is primarily in biology, not physics, but the story remains basically true to the comic-book idea that a scientific genius is a genius in every science.  At about 0:59, Banner says something that sounds rather like the Novikov principle we’ve been discussing:  if you kill someone in the past, that doesn’t erase their later selves.  Apparently causality doesn’t propagate down the world lines of already-existing characters to wipe them out when their original causes go away.  On this theory, Marty wouldn’t have had to worry about disappearing even if he couldn’t get his parents back together.

On the other hand, Bruce doesn’t seem to be saying you can’t kill the person in the past; he seems to be saying that if you did kill them, it wouldn’t make any difference.  This may have more to do with what TV Tropes calls “ontological inertia” (see here, but also here).  Bruce’s approach seems to allow for wild inconsistency in the timeline, because I can be alive in 2019 even after being killed in 1971.

The simplest answer may be to conclude that Bruce wasn’t a very good physicist; maybe Tony silently corrected Bruce’s theory when Tony finally did agree to join the party.

Branching Timelines

At some point in SF history, people realized that the whole paradox thing could be avoided by introducing a third theory, the notion of multiple branching timelines.  Niven’s phrase is “multiple time tracks.”  If you change the past, the original future going forward from that point remains unchanged, but a new future comes into existence, branching off to take into account the change.  (The character making the change always seem to end up in the new branch, not the old.)  We can have our cake and eat it too:  one version of me devours the cake, but another, equally real, version of me prudently saves the cake for later.

The multiple-timeline approach gains some headway from the general popularity of alternate-history stories, and some plausibility from the fact that physicists take seriously the suggested “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics.  It appears to solve the problem of time paradoxes.  However, it runs very close to an assumption that would make it impossible to tell a good story at all.

Stories are about action and choice.  A mere recounting of a series of experiences that happen to someone wouldn’t be much of a story (which is one reason the ending of 2001:  A Space Odyssey is so weak).  James Michener’s introduction to the novel Hawaii (1959), which describes the geological formation of the islands, is only part of a story because it lays the groundwork for what the characters later say and do.

All the Myriad Ways coverIf every possible alternative branched off a new timeline whenever there were options, there would be no point in making a choice, because whichever choice I made, another version of me would make the opposite choice.  Niven captures the problem exactly:

. . . did you ever sweat over a decision?  Think about one that really gave you trouble, because you knew that what you did would affect you for the rest of your life.  Now imagine that for every way you could have jumped, one of you in one universe did jump that way.

Now don’t you feel silly?  Sweating over something so trivial, when you were going to take all the choices anyway.  And if you think that’s silly, consider that one of you still can’t decide . . .  (p. 117)

The title story in All the Myriad Ways explores exactly that issue—what would happen if people really started to believe that all alternatives were equally real.

But suppose we assume that every choice doesn’t spawn alternate universes—just the changes caused by time travel, by backward causality.  That doesn’t destroy all narrative in the way just described.  It just ruins the story you’re trying to tell.  The main characters move heaven and earth to get into the past and make the necessary change.  They succeed!  Whew.  Victory.  —Except that in another universe, the original one, they didn’t succeed.  Somewhere, the sad failures who are Marty McFly’s parents still languish by the TV.  That’s not a really satisfying conclusion.

Alternating Avengers

The multiple-timeline approach certainly comes up in Endgame.  What I can’t make out is whether it prevails in the end, or is averted.

Ancient One and Banner with timeline simulationAt about 1:24 in the movie, Bruce Banner is having a tense conversation with the Ancient One (Dr. Strange’s mentor) about the plan to return the stones to their original places in time.  The idea is that if he takes the Time Stone from the Ancient One at (let’s say) 1:03:12 p.m. on January 31, 2010, and eventually Steve Rogers returns it to her at 1:03:13 p.m. on January 31, 2010, there won’t be a need for a branch to form.  History continues on as it had always been.  (Steve describes his mission concisely at 2:43 in the movie:  “I know.  Clip all the branches.”)  Thus, the timeline of the movie, in which Thanos Snapped half the universe away, and five years later the assembled Avengers brought them back and did away with Thanos, remains the one-and-only timeline.  There’s a helpful description of this procedure in an article from July 2019 (which is also full of spoilers, by the way).

If we leave aside how hard it would have been to put things back exactly as they were, given the butterfly effect—not all the Stone retrievals were as simple as Bruce’s—does this work?  Did the screenwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) come up with a way to manage the dizzying time loops and still save the story?

I’m still not quite sure.  One glaring plot hole, as various people have pointed out, is that we have to account for Thanos himself.  In order to give us a great battle at the end (and what a battle it is!), the movie has Thanos in pre-Snap 2014 discover what’s going to happen and time-travel forward to 2019, where he’s ultimately disintegrated by the Avengers.  He never returns to 2014.  That seems to mean that the disappearance of Thanos did create a branch, since if he vanished from 2014 and never came back, the Snap would never have occurred.

At least that reduces us to two timelines, the one we see in the movie and another where Thanos does not continue to exist after 2014.  And, interestingly enough, the Avengers’ actions saved both of those timelines from the Snap.  The people who lived through the movie timeline experienced the Snap, but the lost people were eventually returned.  Meanwhile, in the new alternate timeline, Thanos never came back, he never got the Infinity Stones, and the Snap never occurred.  That’s not such a bad (dual) ending.

I don’t know.  All these causal loops produce a kind of shell game in which I’m not quite sure how things came out.  Nonetheless, it’s a great movie, if you like the Marvel characters at all.  If you haven’t seen it, you shouldn’t have been reading this (but maybe the circuitous account above will be helpful).  If you have—see it again!  Just don’t try to go back to April to catch the premiere a second time; who knows what that would do to the space-time continuum.

The Select Society of Protectors

Sorry about the delay between posts—I’ve been under the weather lately.

 

I was recently reading a new “Sharing Knife” story by Lois McMaster Bujold, and it suddenly occurred to me that the relationship of Bujold’s Lakewalkers to Farmers is exactly that of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders to Holders.

But let me back up a bit.

The Sharing Knife

The world of Bujold’s Sharing Knife series is a difficult and dangerous one.  Most people live in a basically agrarian culture, a sort of cross between the traditional medieval fantasy world and the Wild West.  They fear the enigmatic “Lakewalkers,” men and women who wander about the countryside in “patrol” groups and are rumored to have magical powers.  The Lakewalkers claim to be searching for what ordinary people call “blight bogles,” but some consider these to be a mere myth.

They’re not a myth, of course.  In reality the Lakewalkers, who have the ability to use a kind of magic they call “groundwork” (an extremely interesting and well-developed idea in itself), are constantly on the watch to destroy “malices” as they arise.  These malices are truly nasty beings that can mentally enthrall normal humans and mutate animals into humanoid minions.  If the Lakewalkers weren’t killing them off (via the grim “sharing knife” methd of the title), the malices would overrun the whole world.

Many Lakewalkers tend to look down on the people they are defending, whom they refer to generally as “farmers.”  Much of the interest of the story has to do with the prickly relationship between these two interdependent groups, explored through the romance between a farm girl, Fawn, and a Lakewalker patroller, Dag.

The Dragonriders of Pern

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern is a science fiction series that reads like fantasy.  The planet Pern is protected by men and women riding flying dragons.  The dragons breathe fire to destroy an alien organic “Thread” that falls from the sky and, if allowed to spread, would multiply to consume the planet.  To qualify as a full-fledged dragonrider, one must have the potential for a certain kind of telepathy that allows rider and dragon to bond at the dragons’ birth.

Dragonflight coverOne of the things that makes the Pern stories sound like fantasy is the quasi-medieval political structure.  A “Lord Holder” resembles a feudal monarch ruling over a sizable population of farmer/serfs, crafters, and minor nobility.  But here the dragonriders form a separate hierarchy.  The riders’ internal pecking order is a combination of aristocracy and meritocracy:  the rider of the senior gold (female) dragon is a kind of queen; the rider whose bronze dragon mates with the gold becomes leader of the entire group that constitutes a Weyr; and those who lack the telepathic talent are servitors (at the lowest level, “drudges”).

While the depiction of Pernese society mellowed a good bit over the course of the series—both holders and riders were pretty high-handed and violent at the beginning, less so later—one consistent theme is the uneasy relationship between the dragonriders and the common folk.  Everyone knows (though they may forget in the generations between periodic Thread attacks) that the riders are essential to preserve the planet:  “Worlds are lost or worlds are saved / From those dangers dragon-braved.”  But the holders often resent the taxes imposed to support the Weyrs and the “searches” in which the dragonriders carry off likely young people to see if they can “impress” a dragon.  Managing this tension consumes a good deal of the main characters’ time in the early books.

The Protectors and the Protected

Now I can make clear the analogy I noticed.  In each case we have a relatively small society of people set apart from ordinary folks, in a good cause:  they are dedicated to protecting the larger population.  The select group of protectors are genuine heroes who possess special talents that fit them for the role.  But the protectors are not stainless; they can abuse their powers.  And the grateful population they defend aren’t always grateful; they may resent the special powers and privileges of the defenders, even aside from the possible abuse of those advantages.

It seems to be a fruitful trope for storytelling.

Rangers and Protectors

Strider with pipe at the Prancing PonyWe can find a similar structure, though not so dominant, back in The Lord of the Rings.  You’ll recall that Strider—Aragorn—is one of a mysterious group of wanderers who travel the countryside, the Dúnedain or Rangers.  They are regarded with suspicion by the ordinary folks in Bree; Barliman Butterbur the innkeeper warns Frodo about the suspicious-looking stranger sitting in the corner.  Yet all the time the Rangers are patrolling the borders of the peaceful lands of Bree and the Shire, fending off possible threats.  Aragorn says at the Council of Elrond:

‘Strider’ I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly.  Yet we would not have it otherwise.  If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so.  (Fellowship of the Ring, II.2, p. 261)

Aragorn’s fond, if slightly aggrieved, remark brings out a difference.  Pern’s dragonriders are a public society of defenders; everyone knows of their special role.  But Tolkien’s Dúnedain, like the Lakewalkers in Bujold’s more recent fantasy, play a less public role.  They are set apart, but because their heroism is unrecognized, they are objects more of suspicion than of admiration.

Pak protector (by Christopher Bretz)

Pak protector – illustration courtesy of Christopher Bretz (bretz@bretz.ca)

For a more science-fictional take, consider Larry Niven’s Protectors, which figure in the novel Protector (naturally) and in the Ringworld stories.  Niven imagines that humanity is descended from a species called the Pak, which matures through three life stages:  child, breeder, and protector.  The transition from the not-very-bright breeder stage to the highly intelligent and formidable protector stage is triggered by eating a root the characters call “tree-of-life.”  When a Pak colony arrived on Earth ages ago, however, the soil lacked a chemical necessary for the tree-of-life root to function.  The “breeders” could not change into protectors; instead, they evolved on their own into modern-day humans.  Niven’s intriguing conceit is what we see as symptoms of old age actually represent the incomplete transition to the gaunt, tough, hairless protector stage.

Niven depicts the protectors as genetically compelled to protect the members of their own family or clan—the ones who “smell right.”  A functioning Pak colony wouldn’t be as much like a human society as on Pern or Middle-Earth or Bujold’s imaginary world:  it would consist of carefree, barely-sentient breeders watched over by creatures ruthlessly dedicated to their preservation.  Think of it as an extreme case of the separation of defenders from defended.

Counter-Examples

On the other hand, a number of stories depict defenders who are much more thoroughly integrated into their broader societies.

Nita and Kit ascend over New York, from Young Wizards

Young Wizards

In Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, youngsters with the potential for wizardry are called, not by receiving a letter from Hogwarts, but in more obscure ways—for example, running across a library book called So You Want To Be A Wizard.  There are more wizards around than one might think, because on our planet they don’t advertise their powers:  young wizards still go to school, grown-up wizards might be writers or sell advertising.  (And not all of them are human; there are some very entertaining books about feline wizards.)  But all of them are dedicated to the preservation and fostering of Life, by way of the Wizard’s Oath each must take.  In this setup, there’s no resentment of the society of protectors because no one knows they exist; and abuse of wizardly powers is almost unheard-of, since violating the Oath tends to result in forgetting that wizardry even exists.

Lensman image

Kim Kinnison, Gray Lensman

By contrast, the elite corps of Lensmen in E.E. Smith’s famous series are publicly known and highly respected.  They play the role of galactic policemen and secret agents, with particular attention to the mysterious pirates and drug-runners called “Boskone.”  Like the Young Wizards, the Lensmen are (conveniently) incorruptible, being screened at the outset by the equally mysterious but benevolent Arisians.  (This whole business of incorruptibility is something we need to examine more closely on another occasion.)  But they don’t mind mixing in ordinary society—Gray Lensman includes a scene set at a formal ball—although their grave responsibilities often make them feel set apart in their lonely dedication.

Superheroes, as a class, may occupy the same position.  They live as part of the general public, though their identities are usually secret.  They tend to act as individuals rather than as a whole society, though they do come in small groups (and may occasionally take part in mega-battles that engage the whole range of heroes).  But the modern superhero does show the ambivalence that often characterizes the select defender (Mr. Incredible’s remark that he sometimes wishes the world would just stay saved for a while).  And some graphic novels take up the question of what it’s like for the ordinary person to live in a world full of superheroes—notably Kurt Busiek’s thoughtful Marvels (1994).

Narrative Tensions

The select society of protectors is a fine place for heroes.  But it’s also dangerous.  What if the protectors aren’t incorruptible, and turn bad?  What if they become contemptuous of the people they protect, and come to think of themselves as better than the “rabble”?  In many of the scenarios above, it takes special talents to qualify as one of the defenders.  How likely is it that those who see themselves as specially qualified will end up thinking of themselves as superior?  These questions form fertile ground for various plotlines.

The notion of the select (if not superior) set of defenders may even be seen as applying to a military organization, whose purpose is to protect the general public.  “Citizen soldiers,” or draftees, may see themselves as primarily part of the overall society, temporarily detailed to do their civic duty; but a professional military, which can form its own tightly-knit society with its families and dependents, may be more easily tempted to think of itself as a group apart, with its own loyalties and camaraderie.  In fiction, the entire genre of military SF borders the trope we’re examining here.  In real life, the American military, at least, seems to have avoided that trap; we have not yet seen anything like a military coup.

Everyone Is a Tuvela

It’s interesting to contemplate the opposite trope:  the citizen soldier model taken to its limit.

The Demon Breed, coverIn James Schmitz’s 1968 novel The Demon Breed, a biochemist named Nile Etland on the human colony world Nandy-Cline discovers that independent researcher Ticos Cay has been captured by cruel and formidable aliens called the Parahuans.  Ticos has played on the Parahuans’ own near-superstitious fears to convince them that Nile is a Tuvela, a member of a secret society of superhumans that are the real rulers of human civilization.  All Nile has to do is convince the invaders that she is, in fact, a superior being it would be death to tangle with.  And, with the help of Ticos, two mutant otters, and her own encyclopedic knowledge of the unique biology of Nandy-Cline, she does a marvelous job of pulling the wool over the Parahuans’ eyes and sending them fleeing back to their own worlds.

But there are no Tuvelas.  Nile is a brilliantly resourceful and competent woman, but she’s not superhuman.  Neither is Ticos, nor any of the other inhabitants who are involved at the end in dispersing the Parahuans.  They’re simply ordinary humans.  And there is no secret organization.  Rather, Schmitz’s hypothesis is that a significant fraction of ordinary people (Ticos calls them “antipredators”) can take on that defensive role when extraordinary circumstances require them to do so.  As one character remarks, the Parahuans would have run into “Tuvela” behavior no matter where they sought to attack.

The title The Demon Breed doesn’t refer to the Parahuans.  It refers, from the unfortunate Parahuans’ point of view, to the uncannily resilient humans.  Like the sturdy hobbits of the Shire, human beings are capable of rising to the occasion.  At the end of the story, when the local Nandy-Cline military forces have mobilized to make sure the fleeing Parahuans don’t escape, Nile reflects:  “The human demon was awake and snarling on Nandy-Cline” (ch. 9).

The select society of defenders is a potent storytelling trope; but so is the distributed resourcefulness of the ordinary person.  And both may be useful to keep in mind as we act where we are needed.

Lyrical Misfires

“You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”
—Inigo Montoya, in The Princess Bride (1987), screenplay by Willam Goldman

 

What the Lyrics Say

When we listen to popular music, we may not bother paying attention to the lyrics at all.  If we’re mainly focused on cool guitar leads or Beach Boys “wall of sound” harmony, we may not care.  But human beings are rational animals, and we can’t escape the words forever.  Eventually, we’re going to wonder what the singer is talking about.  And when that time comes, it’s a good idea if the lyricist has put something into them that satisfies us.

Of course, making out the words in the first place isn’t a trivial task.  There are songs I’ve puzzled over for years, and others where it only dawned on me decades later what the singer was saying.  “Louie Louie” (1955) is famous for its unintelligible lyrics, to such an extent that according to Wikipedia, the FBI conducted an investigation on the assumption the words were obscene.  Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs includes an anecdote in which Barry asked the singer in his band about the words to a song they were playing, and the vocalist admitted he had no idea; he was simply mouthing nonsense syllables to match what he heard on the record.

Olive the Other Reindeer, TV posterSince sung words can be hard to make out, there are whole books’ worth of “mondegreens”—misheard lyrics.  For example, when “Rudoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” says “All of the other reindeer . . .”, one could easily hear the line as “Olive, the other reindeer.”  That mishearing actually spawned a 1997 children’s book by that title, which later generated an animated special:  mondegreens running wild.  But that’s really another topic.

Suppose we can make out what the singer is saying.  The real lyrics can still go wrong, in sense rather than in sound.  And sometimes we only notice the errant meaning once we’ve heard the song umpteen times:  the umpteenth-plus-one repetition makes us wonder about it.  The lyricist needs to make sure that even on repeated rehearing, the words say what they’re supposed to say, and not something else—or the result may be unintentional comedy.

Unintended Consequences

If the songwriter isn’t careful, the words may come out to mean exactly the opposite of what the writer wanted.  A famous example also cited in Barry’s book is the Rod Stewart song “Tonight’s the Night” (1976) (lyrics / lyric video).  Stewart tells the girl he’s seducing, “Just let your inhibitions run wild.”  He wants to minimize her inhibitions, not give them wider scope—but the contrary connotations of “run wild” have apparently confused him.

General Waverly and company, White Christmas, opening sceneRemember the song in the movie White Christmas (1954) where the soldiers are professing their loyalty to their general?  “The Old Man” (lyrics / video) occurs first on a battlefield.

We’ll follow the old man wherever he wants to go,
Long as he wants to go opposite to the foe.
We’ll stay with the old man wherever he wants to stay,
Long as he stays away from the battle’s fray.

Because we love him, we love him,
Especially when he keeps us on the ball,
And we’ll tell the kiddies we answered duty’s call
With the grandest son of a soldier of them all.

I’ve always been baffled as to whether “opposite to the foe” means they want to follow him into battle, which would fit the mood of the song (“we answered duty’s call”) or whether it means they want to join him in running away from the enemy (“away from the battle’s fray”).  For all I know, Irving Berlin intended both meanings – comedy and sentiment at one time.

There’s a more recent (2008) patriotic song from Rodney Atkins, “It’s America” (lyrics / music video), in which Atkins describes stopping at some children’s lemonade stand.  He says, “They were the cutest kids I’d ever seen in this front yard.”  What he meant to say, surely, is that the kids in this front yard were the cutest kids he’d ever seen.  But the literal meaning of the sentence could just as well be that these were only the cutest kids in this particular front yard.  How many kids has he actually seen in this yard, for purposes of comparison?

Belinda Carlisle, sheet music coverI like the Belinda Carlisle song “Leave A Light On” (1989) (lyrics / lyric video / songwriter’s explanation), but one line makes the song seem faintly silly.  Carlisle tells her lover how much she will miss him, but asks him to leave the porch light on because she’s coming back.  Her urgency to return is such that she says, “I’ll be there before you close the door, to give you all the love that you need.”  Now, she’s just told him “I don’t know when I’ll see you again,” but apparently her absence is going to be pretty brief:  he won’t even have the chance to let the door close before she pops back in.  The pain of parting isn’t exactly going to be extended.  I remarked to my kids years ago that apparently she wasn’t going any further away than to take out the trash; and this became the “taking-out-the-trash song” ever after.

A song called “Everytime You Go Away” (1980) by Hall & Oates, also recorded by Paul Young (lyrics / music video) isn’t a great favorite of mine, but it did stimulate what TV Tropes calls “Fridge Logic”—the afterthoughts that occur to you after you’ve finished watching a show, when you go to the fridge for a beer.  The chorus repeats endlessly that “Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you.”  I began to think that if she takes a piece of him with her every time she goes away, she’ll eventually be able to reassemble him in toto at the other end, once she’s brought over all the pieces.  And what then?  Perhaps she then transfers him back, piecemeal, to where he started from.  It begins to seem more like a perpetual cycle than a loss.

Conflicting Imagery

Sometimes the anomaly isn’t so much a confusion of meaning, as a confusion of imagery.  Metaphors, like Rod Stewart’s inhibitions, can run wild and get into trouble.

Waiting For a Star To Fall, scene from music video

“Waiting For a Star To Fall”

Mixing the literal with the figurative is one way to confuse the listener.  There’s a bouncy pop song from 1988 called Waiting for a Star to Fall by Boy Meets Girl (lyrics / music video).  The chorus opens:  “Waiting for a star to fall / and carry your heart into my arms / that’s where you belong / in my arms, baby, yeah.”  The conceit that a falling star carries her heart, sure, that’s cute.  What throws me off is the conjunction of your heart (metaphorically) and my arms (literally).  The star could carry her into his arms; it could carry her heart in some sense into, say, his heart; but carrying her heart into his arms actually begins to sound rather gruesome, if you look at it the right way.  (Or the wrong way.)

Another heart goes astray in Lauren Alaina’s 2015 empowerment anthem “Road Less Traveled” (lyrics / audio / music video)  The refrain breaks out with:  “If you trust your rebel heart, ride it into battle . . .”  It’s a nice thought:  trust your independence, fight for what you believe.  But the idea of riding your own heart into battle seems, if not physically impossible, at least rather peculiar.  I can’t help but picture Alaina mounted atop a larger-than-life version of one of those diagrams you see in cardiologists’ offices, the four-lobed red organ with the truncated blood vessels leading out of it.  That deprives the fierce encouragement of some of its force . . .

We can lay the physical image to rest in Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” (1986) (lyrics / audio), but that doesn’t get us out of the woods yet.  The object of Madonna’s desire is not responding as she wishes; the song is a plea for him to open his heart.  But what she tells him is, “Open your heart to me, baby, I hold the lock and you hold the key.”  What’s she doing holding the metaphorical lock that closes his heart?  It would seem to make more sense for him to be the lock and her the key.  But I suspect Madonna just couldn’t resist the phallic imagery of turning it the other way around.

There’s a lot of unlocking to be done in love songs.  Richard Marx pleads with his beloved not to let fear keep her loveless in 1991’s “Take This Heart” (lyrics / music video). In the bridge, he tells her, “Don’t keep the dream in you locked outside your door.”  That’s an effective image; in fact, it’s two effective images.  She could be keeping her dream locked away inside herself and not following it; or she could be barricaded against the dream that’s trying to come in to reach her.  But he can’t have it both ways.

Steppin’ Out,” from Joe Jackson in 1982 (lyrics / music video), evokes the glamor of night life in New York City.  The singer persuades his girl to go out on the town with him.  “You . . . in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile / We’ll be there in just a while / If you follow me.”  But if they’re together in a taxi, there’s hardly much question as to whether she’ll follow him, right?

Have A Nice Day album cover imageOne of my favorite rousing tunes is Bon Jovi’s ”Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” from 2005 (lyrics / music video).  The lyrics are cheerfully all over the place; the song succeeds on its energy and its defiantly sentimental ‘attitude’ (an attitude that’s neatly captured in the simple graphic on the album cover, shown here).  The singer(s), who have traveled all over the world, declare that they can still come back to the place where “they call me one of their own.”  I still think that Jon Bon Jovi and his co-writer Richie Sambora got it backwards when they tell us, “You take the home from the boy, but not the boy from his home.”  Seems to me you take the boy from his home when he travels the world, while something of his home remains inside him (you can’t “take the home from the boy”).  But the song is such fun that one can hardly quibble about the details.

Conflicting Emotions

Some songs can’t seem to make up their minds whether they’re a ‘love is wonderful’ song or a ‘please come back to me’ song.  Going all the way back to 1971, the beautiful Jackson 5 number “Maybe Tomorrow” (lyrics / video) has that problem.  In the first verse and the refrain, she is looking into his eyes, she is the four seasons of his life, and so forth.  But in the second verse and elsewhere in the refrain, she’s left him (“Maybe tomorrow / you’ll come back to my arms, girl”).  Maybe she did mean that much to him and now she’s gone; but that isn’t what the words say.

On the other hand, sometimes the “wait, what was that?” double-take is intentional.  The Turtles, a popular 1960s group, were known for a subversive tongue-in-cheek style.  In “You Don’t Have to Walk In the Rain” (1969) (lyrics / video), round about the second verse, we get the line, “I looked at your face / I love you anyway.”  Anyway?  That doesn’t sound like a compliment . . .  I suspect the Turtles were just putting one over on us there.

Incoherence

Sometimes it isn’t so much that the lyrics don’t go together, but that they don’t go anywhere at all.

Backstreet Boys, I Want It That Way, scene from music videoThe famously obscure Backstreet Boys earworm “I Want It That Way” (1999) (lyrics / music video) falls into this category.  It’s pretty, and one gets the impression that two devoted lovers are having problems, but what exactly is the desire to which the singers object so strenuously?  According to this 2018 summary, and this 2011 article, apparently the mystery has something to do with the fact that the songwriter’s English wasn’t too strong at the time.  But the most entertaining fact is that the group tried coming up with a version that did make sense—and everyone liked the nonsensical original better.  Sometimes one’s ear and one’s brain just go off in different directions.

We get a different kind of coherence problem in which I like to call “general aspirational” songs, where the lyricist is trying to encourage or uplift without getting too specific about the moral or spiritual basis for the uplift—the content.  We had a whole lot of these back in the 1960s.  A more recent example is “Under One Sky” (2015) (lyrics / lyric video) by a group called The Tenors.  It’s a nice song, and I like to listen to it.  But I cannot make out what it’s talking about, and promising lines keep falling flat.  For example:  “It takes a city of dreamers”—okay, that sounds interesting, what is it that uniting a city of dreamers can do?—“to help you get this far.”  Well, that finishing clause doesn’t say anything.  How far is that?  In what direction?  Why does it take all these dreamers to help with whatever it is he’s doing?  But the lyricist is already off to something else, and we never find out.  I do like an overall sense of hopefulness or encouragement—but it helps if there’s at least a little content or substance to it.

Practical Conflicts

Train, Marry Me, music video, collage of imagesOther songs makes sense syntactically, but not as a practical matter.  In Train’s lovely “Marry Me” (2010) (lyrics / music), everything says the couple has a long history of deep intimacy.  Until we get to the line, “If I ever get the nerve to say “Hello” in this café.”  He’s never even spoken to her?  That longing-from-a-distance can also be a touching story—but not the same touching story.  At best, we have a really extreme case of love at first sight, as the video seems to suggest.

But these pragmatic plausibility issues really take us off in another direction, and I’ve already rambled on long enough here.

Conclusion

We don’t want to take our parsing of song lyrics too seriously—especially when it comes to an overliteral reading.  What these silly examples show us is partly that there can be unintentional humor lurking in all kinds of places; and partly that if a songwriter wants to produce a vivid impression on the hearer, it’s necessary to pay close attention to all the angles.  It takes some precision to put an effective musical story together, from the exact meaning of words to the interplay of image and metaphor.  Just as when we’re choosing names for a baby, we have to think about all the ramifications of our choices, even the silliest ones.