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.

 

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Third-Party Love Songs

The Third Party

Girl at door, from "(Kissed You) Good Night"

“(Kissed You) Good Night”

Typically a love song is sung by one lover to another, just as you’d expect.  The lyrics are some combination of first and second person:  “I love you.”  (Oddly enough, there’s only one song on my playlists entitled “I Love You”; you’d think it would be a more common title.)  Or the lovers may sing to each other in a duet—from “People Will Say We’re In Love” to “(Kissed You) Good Night.”

But every now and then we get a case where the singer is a third person.  The song is still about love, but the singer isn’t one of the lovers.  Rather, they’re talking to someone else’s lover, or potential lover.  What kind of story is implied by moving the focus to a third party?

Wonderful Counselor

The most appealing case is where the singer is giving good advice to the lover.  The attitude may be paternal or maternal, fraternal or sisterly (sororal?).  Or the informal counselor may just be a friend putting in a good word at the right moment.

Chronologically, Melissa Manchester’s “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” stands at the very beginning of a love affair.  Melissa’s telling a guy that the nameless “she” is sweet on him:  “she’s half out of her head.”  Hence her encouragement is right there in the opening line:  “you should break the ice.”  Take the first step, fella, she’s waiting for you.

A similar encouragement, a little later in the relationship, is offered by Billy Joel in “Tell Her About It.”  The guy he’s addressing has already found his mate (“let a good thing slip away”).  But a punk kid from New York is likely to be inarticulate, or too macho to let emotions show, or both—like Danny in Grease.  If he doesn’t want to lose her, he’s going to have to learn to talk to her about how he feels.  The contrast between the singer (“a man who’s made mistakes”) and the addressee yields a nice contrast of worldly-weariness and blundering innocence.

Mending the Rift

Another good time for a wise advisor to drop in is during a lover’s quarrel—a “rift in the lute,” as Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster likes to say.  In the Beatles’ early classic “She Loves You,” the singer is actually carrying messages for a couple who aren’t speaking to each other:  “She says you hurt her so . . . But now she says . . .”  He’s also forthright enough to express his own opinion:  “I think it’s only fair . . . Apologize to her.”

Roxette performing Listen to Your Heart

“Listen to Your Heart”

The complementary female-to-female version is exemplified by Roxette’s Listen To Your Heart:  “Sometimes you wonder if this fight is worthwhile” . . . but the person sung to should consider carefully “before you tell him goodbye.”  While Billy Joel or the Beatles advise actual conversation, Roxette suggests the first step is simply to consult your own deeper feelings or gut reaction.

Amy Grant’s slightly offbeat but arresting “Love Can Do” is a bit more pointed about sticking around rather than giving up.  “Sometimes love means we have to stand and fight . . . Everybody runs, everybody hides.”  In particular, she puts her finger on a ubiquitous misunderstanding:  the idea that love simply evaporates of itself.  “It’s not like that.”  What we do has a crucial role to play.  If you want those feelings back, “no running.”

Carly Simon sings "The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" at Martha's Vineyard

Carly Simon sings “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” at Martha’s Vineyard

The perceptive Carly Simon targets a still later point—that midterm period when a couple has been together long enough to get bored with each other.  In “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of,” Simon advises a Chestertonian re-imagining or re-envisioning of the relationship:  “What if the prince on the horse in your fairytale / Is right here in disguise, / And what if the stars you’ve been reaching so high for / Are shining in his eyes?”

Rather than providing advice for a particular relationship, another family of third-party songs makes a more general recommendation of an individual.  Alabama’s “She Ain’t Your Ordinary Girl” tells us at length how extraordinary “she” is—“No empty promises; proof is what it takes to win her heart.”  Yet “when you see her smile, nothing seems to matter any more.”  It isn’t quite clear whether the singer is speaking to a particular friend, or to the world at large.

We see this generality more often when we come to the negative examples.

The Prudent Warning

The third-party intervention isn’t always to encourage.  Sometimes it’s negative:  a sort of warning to the general public against an unreliable lover—generally based on the singer’s unhappy experience.

She's So Mean, girl smashes guitar

“She’s So Mean”

There are quite a few of these too.  From the early rock-and-roll era we have Dion’s “Runaround Sue,” which cautions us that “Sue goes . . . out with other guys.”  Hall & Oates want us to watch out for the “Man-Eater.”  Over on the country side, Eric Church tells an aspiring suitor that the object of his affections is “heaven on the eyes,” but “Hell on the Heart.”  Matchbox Twenty explains in vivid detail how “She’s So Mean.”

There ought to be a comparable category of songs by a woman warning about a hard-hearted man, but for some reason the only example that comes to mind is the old Three Dog Night tune “Eli’s Coming,” which issues a general alert about an irresistible guy who appears to be a sort of force of nature.  You can probably think of better examples.

Nostalgic Advice

Sometimes the kindly advisor is a parent or relative.  In that case, the advice is often freighted with nostalgia, looking back on the days when the person spoken about was in the singer’s care.  The country band Heartland has a ballad called “I Loved Her First” that sounds at first like a rejected lover commending “my girl” to a new romantic interest, but turns out to be her father giving her away at her wedding.

Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” (not to be confused with the earlier Bob Dylan song of the same name) speaks to the young person’s romantic future (“And may you never love in vain . . .”), but in general terms, a kind of open-ended hope.  (Incidentally, that was the song we picked for the father-daughter dance at my daughter’s wedding.)

In these examples, the third-party love song shades into a more open-ended field of advice songs.  Somewhere in that vicinity is a category of reflective “sadder but wiser” songs about love generally, addressed to a particular listener or listeners.  “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific falls roughly into this category.  Even though Émile is singing it directly to his beloved, Nellie, he words it as if he’s talking to someone else:  “Once you have found her, never let her go.”

Anna sings Hello, Young Lovers in The King and I

“Hello, Young Lovers”

This kind of reflection seems to have been a favorite of Rodgers & Hammerstein.  In The King and I, Anna sings “Hello, Young Lovers” (which has perhaps the most beautiful introduction of any song from a musical) to an array of Siamese princesses.  “Cling very close to each other tonight /  I’ve been in love like you.”

Conclusion

I find the third-party advice and encouragement songs especially enjoyable.  They gain points for a kind of genial altruism.  An I-love-you song generally expresses care for the other person—we want our beloved to be happy.  But there’s inevitably a certain self-interest involved, too:  a healthy exchange of love will also make me happy.  (“And I wish you all the love in the world / But most of all, I wish it from myself”—Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird.”)

The third-party advisor is in that sense disinterested.  Like the Master Contriver in a romance, he or she has the generosity of the matchmaker.  The smiling friend’s endorsement reflects and redoubles, as it were, the appeal of the underlying romance.

Einstein, Heinlein, and Queen

Science-fictional ideas have been gradually percolating through our popular storytelling and entertainment for years, as I noted at the beginning of these observations.  One example is the idea of time dilation—that time passes more slowly at very high velocities—in the theory of relativity.  The classic illustration is the “twin paradox.”  We can trace this image from the science itself, through a classic novel, to—of all things—a rock song.

The Physicist’s Version

Those who are already familiar with relativistic time dilation can skip to the next heading.  Otherwise, here’s a rough layman’s explanation of the phenomenon:

One of the consequences of Einstein’s theory of relativity, noted as early as 1911, is that time passes more slowly as we approach the speed of light.  More precisely, a clock (or other process) that’s moving at a high velocity, relative to the observer, will be seen to operate more slowly than a clock in the observer’s own reference frame.  If I sit in my comfortable lab on Earth and watch what’s happening on a spaceship accelerating away from the Earth, I’ll see the spaceship’s clock running slower and slower, falling further and further behind the clock on my wall.  The closer to the speed of light (usually symbolized as “C”) the spaceship gets, the greater the discrepancy—the “time dilation.”

Time dilation graph and equationThis isn’t an illusion.  When the spaceship eventually returns to Earth, I’ll find that the traveling clock is behind the stay-at-home timepiece.  The same is true for living organisms.  If I planted a pair of trees before the ship left, the tree that made the flight may still be a sapling when it returns, dwarfed by its towering ‘sister’ on Earth.  If you’d like the math, the Wikipedia article on the twin paradox gives an example for a trip to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.

As with most of the peculiar consequences of relativity, we don’t notice such differences in ordinary life because they’re so small as to be undetectable at the speeds and scales we normally deal with.  But if we look closely enough, the same effects are observable.  Even the humble GPS app on your smartphone has to take into account the slowdown of the clocks on the GPS satellites, which move slowly compared to C but fast enough that the very precise positioning signals are affected.

Early on, physicists came up with a vivid illustration involving a pair of twins.  If one twin takes a trip at near-lightspeed, she will end up younger than the twin who stays home.

At low velocities, the difference will be unnoticeable.  A twin who spends a few months on the International Space Station will come back slightly younger than the stay-at-home twin, but only slightly.  Up the velocity, though, and we up the ante.  It would be quite startling, by normal standards, if the astronaut twin were still college-age while the earthbound twin were ready for retirement.

Sounds like a story, doesn’t it?

The Storyteller’s Version

Robert A. Heinlein’s 1956 young adult novel Time for the Stars does exactly this:  it makes a story out of the twin paradox.

Time for the Stars coverTom and Pat Bartlett are teenagers growing up centuries from now.  Tom is our viewpoint character.  Pat is the “dominant” twin:  he always seems to end up with the bigger piece of pie.

In this future, population pressure is extreme.  The Long Range Foundation commissions twelve near-lightspeed “torchships” to look for colonizable planets among the nearby stars.  The LRF has discovered that certain pairs of twins can communicate with each other instantaneously, by telepathy (which baffles the physicists no end, since that’s theoretically impossible).  This gives the LRF a way for the starships to get their findings promptly back to Earth, and incidentally explains what an average teen is doing aboard an interstellar exploratory ship.  One twin goes abroad; one stays home.

Heinlein’s characteristic mixture of sound scientific detail and relatable characters makes the novel a highly engaging story.  We see the finagling by which it’s decided which twin (Tom) goes to space.  We get a vivid picture of life aboard a starship that will travel independently for years (even according to its own time frame)—which is where I first learned the word “ecology.”  We see strange worlds and watch how the people aboard the Lewis and Clark (known to its passengers as the “Elsie”) interact.

Time dilation is described with realistic detail.  As the Elsie approaches the speed of light (never quite reaching it), Tom has to “speak” to his brother more and more quickly, and Pat on Earth has to communicate more and more slowly, because their time frames are increasingly out of sync:  “he complained that I was drawling, while it seemed to me that he was starting to jabber” (ch. 11, p. 113).

But it’s the age difference that makes things really difficult.  At the end of the first near-lightspeed jump, Pat is eleven years older than Tom and has a seven-year-old daughter, Molly.  It becomes harder for Tom and Pat to connect; they’ve grown apart to the extent that they now have little in common.  Fortunately, it turns out that the twins’ connectedness can sometimes be passed on (stretching the original concept considerably):  Tom can communicate with Molly as well.  As time goes on, Tom’s connection with Earth is increasingly through his brother’s descendants, though Pat is still alive.

The Lewis and Clark’s expedition ends when she’s met by a new ship from Earth.  Based on investigations into the instantaneous telepathy, scientists have developed a new theory that allows for an “irrelevant” space drive—one that can whisk the whole crew home in mere hours.  The twin imagery is vivid when college-age Tom meets his brother Pat, now an old man in a wheelchair.  The time slippage is even more pointedly illustrated when Tom meets his great-grandniece Vicky, whom he’s spoken with telepathically for all of her life—and is now going to marry.  (The appearance of incest is illusory:  Tom and Vicky have only 1/8 of their parentage in common, or five degrees of consanguinity in terms of Wikipedia’s table.)

Jo Walton has a review with a fascinating (and telling) aside on what Heinlein’s book would have been like if it were written today, rather than in the 1950s.  But we’re going to go on to look at a more unlikely treatment of time dilation.

The Musical Version

As far as I know, no one is contemplating making Time for the Stars into a musical.  But years ago I ran across a song on a 1975 album by the rock band Queen.  The song is called “’39.”  The official lyric video gives you both the recording and Brian May’s lyrics.  Note the imagery the band chose for the introductory graphics.

'39, official lyric video openingIf you didn’t have the lead-in we’ve walked through here, the song might seem rather baffling.  The acoustic sound, the rather antique style, and the mention of sailing off to discover new lands makes us think of olden times.  But what’s with “. . . the day I’ll take your hand / In the land that our grandchildren knew”?

One clue is the songwriter’s coyness about the first two digits of the date that forms the title.  If someone says “’39,” we normally assume they mean 1939.  But there was nothing like this happening in 1939.  The song is full of this careful ambiguity.

If you come to the song with a science-fiction background, however, it’s clear what it’s really about.  Clues are scattered all through the lyrics.  We’ve got the population pressure:  “the days when lands were few.”  The brave crew is “inside” the ship, rather than “aboard.”  It sails “across the milky seas”—the Milky Way.  The singer is “many years away” from his beloved.  The Volunteers bring back news of “a world so newly born” to colonize.  Most significant, he’s “older but a year,” yet the earth and his beloved have radically changed.  We haven’t got twins or telepathy in sight, but otherwise, we might well be talking about the mission of the Lewis and Clark.

When the Web was invented and I finally looked up the song in Wikipedia, I was tickled to find my guess was correct.  According to the Songfacts site, the composer May studied astrophysics, and he himself has referred to the piece as a “sci-fi folk song” (commonly referred to as a “filk song”).

The story line isn’t as clear as Heinlein’s, to be sure.  For one thing, the traveler seems astonished at the relativistic time slippage when he returns (“this cannot be”).  No real astronaut would be that unaware of what to expect.  In addition, in the chorus the singer seems to be addressing both a stay-at-home spouse with whom he’s had grandchildren (“my love”), and a descendant (“your mother’s eyes”)—unless perhaps, like Tom Bartlett, he’s fallen in love with a much younger family member.

In any case, with the necessary compression of a story into the poetry of lyrics, we don’t expect as literal a narrative as in a novel—particularly when, as here, May seems to have been deliberately indirect, even tongue-in-cheek, as a sort of joke on the listener.

But, just as in the novel, the song’s emotional resonance involves a romance as the most poignant expression of the results of time dilation.  It also ends with an appeal for sympathy with the personal dislocation of the narrator, who returns to a world far different from the one he left (“For my life still ahead, pity me”)—a theme also touched on at the end of Time for the Stars.

The three-part comparison reminds us that, even as far back as the 1970s, science fiction turns up in the darnedest places; and that scientific developments can bring new aspects to the timeless concerns of our hearts.

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.

Let it Go

Buying gifts for small granddaughters reminds me that the popularity of Disney’s Frozen (2013) is undiminished.  This is a fine thing.  It’s a great movie and includes some good role models for little girls.  However, there is something faintly disconcerting about seeing children’s clothing emblazoned with the slogan “Let It Go” (title of the lead song from the movie).

“Let It Go”

At these links, you can find the lyrics to the song (by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez); a video clip of the song as it appears in the movie, sung by Idina Menzel, with the lyrics helpfully added; and a pop version, with a driving rock beat, by Demi Lovato (with slightly different lyrics).

Let It Go poster with ElsaYou’ll recall that Elsa, the newly-crowned queen of Arendelle, has her uncontrollable ice powers suddenly revealed in public, and flees the city.  Alone on the mountainside, she abandons the careful restraint and concealment that her dead parents imposed, and gives her abilities free rein.  As she creates a magnificent ice castle, she renounces the land and people she’s left behind.  She proclaims that she will break through the limits and use her powers as she will:  “No right, no wrong, no rules for me:  I’m free!”

It’s a great song.  I have both versions on my playlists.  The music is powerful, and the lyrics take some clever turns.  (It’s the first time I’ve heard the term “fractal” used in a song.)  Moreover, the movie visuals that accompany the song are amazing.

Elsa as Role Model

As an anthem for young girls, “Let It Go” is a very appealing choice.  It praises the kinds of qualities we all want to see in young people growing up:  asserting your own identity, using your abilities, being unafraid to admit what you are.  (“What you are” could represent anything from personal tastes and talents to sexuality—the latter of which is suggested by Elsa’s costume change).  The song evokes the “breaking free” trope that’s so appealing to the young—not to mention, now and then, the rest of us—and speaks for self-reliance and independence.

So far, so good.  We can always benefit from another strong female role model.  The trouble is that fixing on “Let It Go” as a rallying cry assumes these attitudes are what we admire in Elsa.  But that’s not actually the role the song plays in the story.

Renunciation

I assume that by now pretty much everybody has seen this movie, so I won’t issue the customary caution about spoilers—since we now have to discuss specific plot points.

Elsa wants to cast aside all association with humanity (“kingdom of isolation”).  She has a praiseworthy motive—she feels she has to be alone, so others won’t be harmed—but she also revels in the freedom of isolation.  She declares independence, not only from arbitrary constraints, but from moral rules (“No right, no wrong”).

Once we’ve seen Elsa’s moment of solitary glory—and it is glorious—the story starts to subvert that declaration.  Her isolation leaves her unaware that she’s transformed summer to winter, not just where she is, but also back in Arendelle.  Not until her sister Anna and the skeptical Kristoff struggle up the mountain to find her does she find out how far-reaching the consequences are.

To her credit, Elsa is taken aback at these unintended consequences (which are not a consequence of her self-assertion per se, but an incidental side effect).  She hasn’t really abandoned all concern for other people.  On the other hand, she still doesn’t know how to release this Fimbulwinter.  She can’t turn it off.  Her only resort is to further distance herself—which endangers Anna and doesn’t solve the problem.

Redemption

Elsa and Anna embraceIn the end, renunciation of human contact and human limitations is not the right answer for Elsa.  Her salvation comes in re-establishing contact with her sister and, eventually, with the rest of the world.  Anna’s loving sacrifice reminds Elsa that love is the right answer.  As soon as she realizes this, she is able to use her powers under full control, for good purposes.  (The abruptness of this solution is a little implausible, but this is a fairy tale, and we’ll let it pass.  Maybe she’ll return to Dagobah to “complete her training” some other time.)

Love does enable and empower; but through connection, not disconnection.  In the end Elsa renounces the very withdrawal she was expressing in “Let It Go.”  The disjunction may have been a necessary stage, but eventually it’s replaced by a deeper bond.  Which is, after all, just the kind of development that normally faces a child making her way through adolescence to adulthood.

To Be Continued?

So I have some misgivings about “Let It Go” as an ideal motto for kids.  The message of the whole story is broader and deeper than that of the song alone.  It’s still a great song, though.  What I’d really like is to have it paired with a song that’s as powerful an affirmation as ”Let It Go” is a renunciation.

There’s actually a sequel to the movie scheduled for release in 2019.  I have no idea what it’ll be about, and such sequels don’t have a good track record for coming out well.  But maybe the story will develop in such a way as to give an opportunity for just such an affirmation song.  We can always hope so.