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Last week, I started off the current version of an undergraduate course I’m teaching on song lyrics and popular culture with a four-class unit about Bruce Springsteen. I have tried to use his music as an introductory case study in how popular music works, and in what it can do. One of the things we began to think through was the way in which his songs consistently thematize their own reception, representing both textually and musically a set of relationships between singer and audience. Specifically, I tried to read his songs as invitations not only into an erotic reciprocity – to touch and be touched, to feel each other’s presence – but also into a form of shared community: the nascent and loving democracy his “America” promises to be, even if maybe it can never realize that dream. These songs want to communicate, hopefully.
In what’s really the first essay in 31 Songs(2002), Nick Hornby asserts that his all-time favourite song is Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” That song both addresses and enacts, for him, a durable and enduring moment of love, and it describes the living arc of his own long-term fandom:
I can remember listening to this song and loving it in 1975; I can remember listening to this song and loving it almost as much quite recently, a few months ago.
[. . .] So I’ve loved this song for a quarter of a century now, and I’ve heard it more than anything else, with the possible exception of . . . Who am I kidding? There are no other contenders.
This one song manages, whenever he hears it, to speak to him, for him and about him. I have to say, too, that I know exactly the feeling and exactly the identification that Nick Hornby maps out here, exactly what it is that “Thunder Road,” even despite itself sometimes, makes happen for listeners and for fans every time it plays. Hornby describes his experience of the song as a kind of mimesis, in its perennial capacity to “express who you are, perfectly”: who he is, he must mean, although the second person – in which the bulk of the song is written – is significant. The song itself begins – after a brief descriptive intro – with a series of apostrophes, of interpellations that present themselves as urgent invitations, open doors:
The screen door slams. Mary’s dress waves.
Like a vision she dances across the porch
as the radio plays.
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely,
Hey that’s me, and I want you only.
Don’t turn me home again. I just can’t face
myself alone again.
Don’t run back inside, darlin’ – you know
just what I’m here for.
So you’re scared and you’re thinking that
maybe we ain’t that young anymore.
Show a little faith there’s magic in the night.
You ain’t a beauty but yeah you’re alright.
The shift from the distance of romantic spectacle to something like discursive proximity – close enough to make yourself heard – hinges on another inset moment of audibility, and of interpellation: Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” (echoed in the end rhymes) not only mimes the persona’s desire for Mary, but also hails him into existence, into audible range, as both a listening and a speaking-singing subject: “Hey, that’s me . . . .” Hearing Roy Orbison’s song on Mary’s radio gives him voice, and lets him talk, and also offers him a vocabulary and an idiom through which the rest of his own song can play out.
Professing desire beyond what he’s able or willing to say means for him returning to a literacy, to a kind of “talk,” a cultural field that the soundscape of rock’n’roll provides him with: “Now I got this guitar, and I learned how to make it talk.” Springsteen positions himself both as ventriloquizing fan and as nascent legend to produce a kind of proactive audience, a practice of listening that means trying to learn how to attend to others while still managing to talk for yourself, and to talk yourself up. The song offers an extended invitation to a feminized, idealized other; Springsteen, from somewhere within the heteronormative city limits of an imaginary Freehold, New Jersey, asks his own listeners – on this the opening track of Born to Run – to be like Mary and to get in the front seat of his car and pull out of the deadened space of here with him, to win. That idealization is also both fractured and resisted, even as it’s declaimed as an article of faith, by insistent disavowals and negations (“ain’t . . . ain’t . . .”), and by Mary’s coy but very real refusals. If she seems to be framed merely as an object of his desire, existing “only” for him to overcome his loneliness and affirm his masculine agency, his long cascade of pleas and poetic flattery, of goading and passive aggressive come-ons, also tends to undermine itself from the outset; after all, who in their right mind would accept a date from a man who tells you you’re not beautiful, but just alright? Sure, he’s just being honest, I guess, but the conventional hyperbole inherent in love song lyrics, diffused into something plain and mundane, also loses most of its persuasive tug, its “magic.”
What’s worth noting is that, even if we end up choosing not to go with him somewhere else (and as “Born to Run” puts it, to “get out while we’re young”), or if on the other hand we turn out to be willing to trade in our angelic wings for some very earthbound wheels, what we experience for the five minutes of “Thunder Road” is still a sustained and open invitation, a seemingly one-sided conversation that nonetheless keeps asking us to respond, and that leaves its requests unanswered, those imaginary responses as-yet and always unheard, either from Mary or from us: they’re all potential, all unfulfilled promise. “The door’s open,” we’re told, “but the ride ain’t free.” And the return, that cost, is a commitment to reciprocity. So when Nick Hornby says the song expresses “who you are, perfectly,” what he must mean, what he can only mean, is actually opposite to perfection or to closure; the song’s conversant subject, the “me” who both listens for and sings to Mary, never coheres, but remains unfinished, a figuration of desire.
When I was sixteen, I finished my grade eleven economics exam early, and I couldn’t leave the exam room, so I copied out from memory the lyrics to “Thunder Road” on the back of the exam booklet. It was a young fan’s act of mimicry, though I’m not sure what those lyrics might even have meant to me then, if I understood them or identified myself through them the way I might now, or might not. But what I do recognize in retrospect is that re-writing, transcribing, Springsteen’s words by hand was an initial gesture at that reciprocity. In those few free minutes, I started to write myself into a dialogue – a little like fourteen-year-old Terry Blanchard in Kevin Major’s YA novel Dear Bruce Springsteen – a conversation with whoever it was I’d always want to become. “My love, love, love,” he sings later and elsewhere, “will not let you down.” That’s not to say Springsteen’s songs will tell us who we are, but that they will always keep that reciprocal Eros, that mutuality, live and open, that invitation to join him heading down the road.
For our second class of English 228B here at the University of British Columbia, I drafted a short lecture on reading – on beginning a close reading – Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe,” a song which I had used as an introductory example in the first class, on pop music and lyrics. The students had been asked to look at the video, and to look at the “parody” done by Carly Rae Jepson with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots. I decided to write out some lecture text – the preferred mode for the class, I’m imagining, will be workshop discussion – in order to give something of a firm anchor point from which to begin thinking about how reading takes place. The class took place on Wednesday, January 8, 2014. An audio capture of the lecture portion of the class (hosted on my SoundCloud page) is attached below. (Just a note – in the audio, I credit Eve Kosofsky Sedwick with the term “heteronormativity” [I am thinking of her introduction to Epistemology of the Closet], but the term seems to have originated with Michael Warner.)
The protagonist of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel High Fidelity, Rob Fleming, defines his self-awareness in terms of his record collection, an accumulation of popular music he inhabits and that gives him a second-hand voice: “Is it wrong, wanting to be at home with your record collection? It’s not like collecting records is like collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. There’s a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colorful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in; there is history, and geography, and poetry, and countless other things I should have studied at school, including music.” Following on our initial reading of Carly Rae Jepson’s song “Call Me Maybe” at our first class, I want to suggest some of the ways we can begin to address what I called the “cultural work” of popular music, how (in more contemporary terms) the playlists of favourite songs – a version of what Rob Fleming and his record-store colleagues call their “top five“ lists – both produce and define their listeners as subjects, and speak to the welter of value systems – taste, morals, desires – through which we circulate.
For this course, I’m suggesting that we concentrate on the poetics of song lyrics, on the kinds of texts that popular music articulates but also on the cultural contexts in which those words operate. One of the things to notice in the passage from Nick Hornby’s novel – which we’re not reading in this course, and which I’m unlikely to mention again – is its utopianism: text and context intersect to form an ideal “whole world,” a world that appears to promise comfort and escape but that also presents a qualitatively better, richer position from which to view our contemporary world critically. (This is, as a matter of fact, one of the ways in which the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch understood the transformative political impetus of utopian, as offering what he calls “the principle of hope,” as an instance of the “not yet.” ) In class last day, we arrived at a what seemed like an essential conflict in our assessments of “Call Me Maybe” – both the lyrics and the video – that suggests that the song might either encourage conformity to an illusory middle-class heteronormativity (the romantic idealism that manifests itself in clichés that come from other pop songs and romance novels – “I trade my soul for a wish”) or that it might be a critically-minded parody of those dangerously mindless delusions, that it does in fact see the boy-girl, romantic-rescue scenario it thematizes as “crazy” and disempowering (some of you noted, for example, how the song appears to invert the terms of agency, so that the stereotypically passive ingénue becomes the one who is actively seeking an erotic encounter, thus undermining heteronormative gender hierarchies – an inversion marked in the video, although not in the song itself, by the singer’s disappointment when it’s revealed that the object of her desire, of her gaze, is gay). We might appear to have reached a bit of a stalemate: which reading of the song is right, or at least to be preferred? Is the utopianism of the song’s vestigial “romance” narrative self-reflexively critical or does it merely reproduce coercive mass-culture escapism?
I want to look at the lyrics to try to work our way through this dilemma, and to think about how popular song interpellates us as listening subjects. By “interpellate,” I mean what Louis Althusser describes as “hailing,” when the apparatus of the state or of “ideology” calls out to us. Althusser’s famous example is a policeman’s “Hey, you!” but I want us to think for a moment about how this song calls us, maybe. The trope in the title is the phone call, after the persona behind the lyrics has given her number to a prospective lover. That number is, if you think about it, a marker of personal identity, like her name. To be called at your number is to be recognized, to be desired back, and, as the title indicates, to be hailed as a “me,” as somebody who’s seen, whose gaze (“I looked to you,” “I wasn’t looking for this”) is returned, who gets noticed, seen herself. Not to be noticed, in this schema, is to be nobody.
The song remains, however, in a kind of state of abeyance around this possibility. We don’t know if her call or her gaze is answered, if she does get interpellated by her prospective “baby.” The title (which is also the tag line of the chorus) indicates this uncertainty in its clipped and tenuous syntax – it doesn’t feel like a proper sentence – but it can also be read as the persona naming herself: her name, what she’s called, is Maybe. Her sense of self consists in the dilemma we’re contingently trying to resolve here. She’s an aggregate of her own desires, uncertain of the terms in which those desires can articulate themselves. Her sense of the rightness of her object of desire, the “foresight” she seems to have, attempts to firm itself up in the circular repetition of the chorus and the bridge – “Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad” – but in the temporal paradox that she voices here, that sureness and that feeling of (his) presence are effects of desire, of want, of absence, of “missing,” which in turn suggests that her maybe-ness is the only space she has, a fractured assemblage of clichés and skewed grammar that is as catchy as it is troubling.