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|Written by Dante Kleinberg|
|Sunday, 02 September 2007 19:00|
Almost all songs, particularly love songs, refer to the existence of a person other than the singer: you, she, him. Most of the time the listener assumes this person is an abstraction, the idea of a person rather than an actual person. One can easily interpret the lyrical reference as the life experience of the songwriter distilled to a single concept, elaborated upon, and then re-personalized. Whether or not The Romantics ever actually learned of any secrets when a lover was “talking in [her] sleep” is irrelevant and goes unquestioned.
Some songs are more specific. They give you names, facts, places: verifiable information with which to work. The most obvious type are those that tell the listener precisely who the singer is talking about. In “David Duchovny,” Bree Sharp sings, “David Duchovny, why won’t you love me?,” and there is no room for misinterpretation. The name ‘David Duchovny’ is not a metaphor for something else. He is that guy from The X-Files, and she digs him. The end. In “Kim,” Eminem sings, “So long, bitch, you did me so wrong, I don’t wanna go on,” and we know that he is referring to his on-again off-again ex-wife, Kim Mathers. (She finds her way into the lyrics of a lot of his songs, actually.) In “Me and Mr. Jones,” Amy Winehouse never says the name ‘Nas’; however, she leaves so many personal details (including his last name, Jones, right in the title) that there can be no doubt for their fans. She sings, “Mr. Destiny, 9 and 14, nobody stands between me and my man.” Astute listeners know that Nas’ daughter’s name is Destiny, and that Winehouse and Nas share the same birthday: September 14th (another type of destiny). Songs like these use the listener’s knowledge of the subject’s identity in a deliberate way, to pull you further into the world of the song.
A subcategory of this larger group includes songs that refer to real world people, but in an impersonal way. In “Bette Davis Eyes” Kim Carnes sings, “She’s got Greta Garbo’s stand-off sighs, she’s got Bette Davis eyes.” In this case, Bette Davis is a metaphor. “Rosa Parks,” by Outkast, doesn’t talk about Rosa Parks directly, but by naming the song after her, they give listeners an intellectual starting point from which to interpret the rest of the lyrics “James K. Polk,” by They Might Be Giants, goes in a different direction with a straight-up biography of a historical person: “Austere, severe, he held few people dear. His oratory filled his foes with fear.”
The most popular and prevalent type of name song uses a first name only, and doesn’t seem to be about any specific person. This approach was especially popular in the 1960s. Memorable numbers such as “Sherry” by The Four Seasons, “Bernadette” by The Four Tops and “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly all took advantage of this trend. Songs like these may or may not have been inspired by real people, but the assumption is that, at the very least, names were changed to protect the innocent (as well as the not-so-innocent). In “Help Me Rhonda,” The Beach Boys declare, “Rhonda you look so fine, and I know it wouldn’t take much time.” It’s doubtful if there ever was a Rhonda, but the circumstance the singer is experiencing could certainly have happened. Elvis Costello’s first big hit, “Alison,” has some details that feel torn from real life: “I heard you let some little friend of mine take off your party dress.” ‘Alison,’ however, certainly isn’t the subject’s real name. (Costello has refused to reveal who the song is about, noting only that it would cause problems if he did.) “Janie’s Got a Gun” by Aerosmith was inspired by articles Steven Tyler read about child abuse. “What did her daddy do? What did he put you through?” There’s no actual girl named Janie. As with the previous two examples -- but for completely different reasons -- a specific name has been used to give a sense of realism.
Occasionally, a name is used not to provide realism, but merely for aesthetic reasons. The Beatles tell listeners directly within the lyrics of “Michelle” that the name itself is irrelevant. “Michelle, ma belle, sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble.” In English this translates to: “These are words that go together well, my beautiful Michelle.” Sometimes, that is the sum justification for including a name in a song title or lyric: they are just words that go together well.
Other times, identity in a song becomes the subject of intense scrutiny by fans and scandal mongers. “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette has lent itself to absurd amounts of speculation. Alanis belts through the song’s chorus, “And I’m here to remind you, of the mess you left when you went away.” These lyrics have been a plot point in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as the topic of countless articles and interview questions. (Most people think it is a reference to Dave Coulier, star of Full House and Out of Control. Take a moment to absorb that odd detail, and then we can move on.) Jack White of The White Stripes dated Renée Zellweger for a while, after they met on the set of Cold Mountain. The album Get Behind Me Satan contains several little hints of White’s Zellweger troubles that fans and critics have latched onto. In “Forever For Her (Is Over for Me),” he sings, “Everybody’s reaction is changing you, but their love is only a fraction of what I can give to you.” Zellweger won an Oscar for Cold Mountain; it was her first big award. In “The Nurse,” White sings, “The nurse should not be the one who puts salt in your wounds.” Zellweger played the lead role in the film Nurse Betty. Coincidence? Maybe.
Of course, we can not escape this topic without mentioning “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon, the most scandalous identity song of all time. “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you, don’t you?” About who? Is it Warren Beatty? Mick Jagger? James Taylor? Unlike Alanis and White, Carly courts the controversy. She auctioned off the identity for charity, making highest bidder Dick Ebersol promise not to tell anyone. She has dropped hints in interviews, revealing single letters in the subject’s name: an E here, an R there, but little more.
Sometimes the identity of a song’s subject isn’t meant for anyone but the singer and the subject him- or herself. “Sad Songs and Waltzes” by Willie Nelson tells someone, “I’m writing a song all about you, a true song, as real as my tears,” and, “I’ll tell all about how you cheated, I’d like for the whole world to hear.” Barenaked Ladies tell a story, in their song “In the Car,” about being a teenager fooling around in the car with a girlfriend. The singer has also had a dream about the girl’s mother, which he kept “a secret all along, unless she hears this song, unless she hears it on a tape inside her car, with her new husband, and she turns to him and says, ‘I think that’s me’.” The Violent Femmes send a Chance Encounters personal ad with “I Saw You in the Crowd”: “I probably would forget, this episode of regret, so I wrote this song, so when you sing along, I hope my message you will get.”
This is just a summary overview of identity themed songs and the reasons one might choose to name a song after someone. From taking advantage of the listener’s existing knowledge of a subject (“David Duchovny,” “Bette Davis Eyes”), to making a standard love song seem more realistic (“Denise,” “Help Me Rhonda”), for pure aesthetics (“Michelle”), to vent personal frustrations (“You Oughta Know,” “You’re So Vain”), or to send a message to someone (“Sad Songs and Waltzes,” “I Saw You in the Crowd”). We can all think of a dozen more examples. In the end, however, listening to music remains a personal and highly subjective experience. Disregarding what may be considered an objective truth by others is always an option, and lyrics are continually subject to the whims of listeners’ interpretations. Put simply, it’s perfectly all right to think the song is indeed about you.