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I’ve been listening to Petra Haden‘s recordings for years now. I’ve never had the pleasure of hearing her sing live, but still respond to a vibrant directness, a deeply engaging vitality, that inheres in her music, particularly in the overdubbed choric covers of popular song that she’s been self-releasing through YouTube and Facebook. I associate her vibrancy with an adaptive, attentive and essentially improvisatory approach to singing—improvisatory not despite the compositional fixity of any recording, but as a structural principal of this kind of recording. That claim needs to be argued, rather than taken as a given, and making a version of that argument is what I’m starting to do in the essay I’m posting here; it’s a paper that I delivered on Friday, March 30, 2018, at UCLA during the annual conference of the American Comparative Literature Association, as part of a seminar called ‘“Stay Woke”: The Politics of Protest Song,’ organized and chaired by Bronwyn Malloy of the University of British Columbia. I’m working with Petra Haden’s cover of the David Bowie-Pat Metheny Group collaboration, “This Is Not America,” which is the theme song from the 1985 spy-thriller The Falcon and the Snowman, to try to discover the ways in which dissent voices itself not necessarily as dissonance or discord but rather in the re-figurations of plurality in the varietals of community represented by choral song: to concoct a multiplicity out of an initial gesture at negation or lyric refusal, the promise of an America sounded from what it is not or what it refuses to be. Many of her covers of film themes and of pop and pop kitsch (such as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”) operate neither as satire nor as mere celebration, but produce a form of Americana – Haden’s collaborations with Bill Frisell and with Jesse Harris, as well as her work with her father Charlie Haden’s legacy operate in this vein, in my view – that sustains a democratizing impulse in its aural blend of irony and joy; her songs open up an auditory and audible space in which an attentive and open-hearted America can begin to hear itself more fully.
[This essay, focusing on Patti Smith’s early songs, emerges from teaching and writing I’m doing around an undergraduate course on the poetics of song lyrics and pop culture studies.]
Patti Smith Complete 1975-2006 is more than an anthology of lyrics, and it’s also hardly complete. Patti Smith’s writing – along with her music and photography – is marked and informed by an essential contrariety, by a conflictedness suggested ironically in the book’s blandly generic title, which gestures, I’d say, toward an admixture of excess and fragmentation, of spontaneous overflow and fraught insufficiency that drives her thinking around the making of poems and songs and around her performance style. She frames this set of contradictions, her sense of voice and of self as embodied contradictions, in the snippets of memoir and reflection scattered throughout the book; commenting on the lyrics for “Birdland,” a track for Horses spontaneously and collectively realized by her and her band in the recording studio, she says that the “concept of improvisation” – and it’s worth nothing that she says concept, rather than practice – “has long repelled and excited me, for it contains the possibilities of humiliation and illumination,” that is, both of the degrading and the vatic. “Sha da do wop da shaman do way sha da do wop da shaman do way,” she sings at the close of her extemporaneous soliloquy; song, as contingent melody, emerges (as in “Land”) off-and-on in the piece from passages of loosely narrative spoken word; the final gently looping chorus blurs doo-wop girl-group nonsense syllables into a vestigial chant of the word “shaman,” and it’s as a kind of nascent and androgynous rock’n’roll shaman that Smith wants here, at the outset of her singing career, to position herself. In a New York Times review of her 1978 collection Babel, a precursor to the “complete” collection we’re now reading in our course on song lyrics and popular culture, Jonathan Cott nicely encapsulates the contradictions that inhere in Smith’s stagy shamanism as he traces out the complexities of her performance persona, of her onstage self-fashioning:
Patti Smith has taken this magic amalgam and manifested it in what she calls “3 chord rock merged with the power of the word,” claiming that rock-and-roll is “the highest and most universal form of expression since the lost tongue (time: pre-Babel).” . . . [B]y adopting a paradoxical theatrical stance – one that confuses male and female roles and that combines the acoustic magic of Rimbaud and the Ronettes – Patti Smith has been able to develop, explore and create a certain shamanistic presence that has eluded many aspiring rock-and-roll seers and heroes.
Counterpointing bits of scripture with caustic fragments of French symbolist poetry, her performative “magic” emerges as an uneasy blend of what she calls – ventriloquizing Jean Genet’s poem“Le Condamné à mort” on the back cover of her 1979 album Wave – a doubling of menace into prayer, of prayer as menace. (In the pages of her Complete, the crux of the line – “Use menace, use prayer.” – becomes an epigraph to the section reproducing the lyrics for Easter .)
The infamous first line of “Gloria” – the first track and the first single from her first album, Horses – combines the liturgical and the blasphemous along this same trajectory: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” As an opening gambit, her declaration doesn’t simply articulate what sounds like a resiliently agnostic, existential individualism, but also voices an entitlement – hers, “mine” – to her own deliberate marginality. Her rock-and-roll “magic,” understood as a gestural negation, isn’t so much about belief and shared redemption as it is about disturbance, about a faith – a belief both in and as resistance – that wants uncompromisingly to test its limits and to refuse any vestiges of comfort or assurance. While never quite rejecting Christian iconology and aesthetics (especially the ritual of Roman Catholicism, as the tone poem “Wave,” for example, makes abundantly clear, as well as a very recent photograph of her meeting Pope Francis) Patti Smith describes her Jesus, in the wake of viewing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to St. Matthew, as a “revolutionary figure”: “I began to see him in another light – a teacher, a fighter, a guerrilla” (96). Her Easter is closer to an Easter uprising, a rebirth in turmoil that implicates her in an uncompromised, if not violent, self-remaking. As she appropriates and repurposes the glorified masculine desire that informs Van Morrison’s (as one of Them) original 1963 single “Gloria” (“And oh, she looks so good. Oh she looks so fine / And I got this crazy feeling that I’m gonna make her mine”), the subject position that defines itself in a tirade of possessives (“And I’ve got to tell the world that I made her mine made her mine / Made her mine made her mine made her mine made her mine”) degenerates into a repetitive chant that pulverizes poeisis, making, and diegesis, telling, into thudding particulate phonemes: her voice, the “I” that sings and by singing both hails and possesses its feminine other, becomes drumming, becomes unclosed, brutal and primeval rhythm, a beating. Liturgical responsorial from the Latin mass – gloria in excelsis deo– is both secularized into an erotic object and pulled apart, as she intones each letter of Gloria’s name, into the molecular fragments. The song at once catalyzes into insistent, thetic syllables and disintegrates into undifferentiated verbal noise: pronouncing and dismantling a beloved name that, through the poetic agency of the lyric itself, becomes simultaneously both mine and not-mine, supplement and other.
This double move is, I think, characteristic of many of Patti Smith’s lyrics, which often assert a confidently singular subject while gesturing to the iterative, collaborative and unsettled character of that voice, of her voice. The sexual ambiguity of “Gloria,” for example, as Patti Smith’s lyrics overtake and then fall into a cover-version, a repetition with difference, of Van Morrison’s original (sung, as the lyrics claim, to “twenty thousand girls” at an imaginary stadium concert), disturbs any clear sense of the erotic narrative in the song: Is this a woman ventriloquizing heterosexual desire? Does the song become a queer paean to same-sex desire? The indeterminate androgyny of Patti Smith’s stage persona unknits any normalizing of the dynamics between man and woman, suitor and ingénue. “Because the Night” (from Easter, two or three years later) thematizes desire as belonging, assembling want and succor into an amalgam of contrarieties that becomes more a testament to faith than its deconstruction: “Because the night belongs to lovers / Because the night belongs to us.” Notably, that belonging is shared, ours instead of mine. Smith describes herself as reluctant to listen to a demo cassette of an early version of the song, supplied through producer/engineer Jimmy Iovine from its composer, Bruce Springsteen. Taken by what she describes as its “anthemic quality,” she finishes the lyrics and “somewhat begrudgingly” presents it to her band to record (100). The resulting hit song, she says, is a “testament to Jimmy Iovine’s vision and the co-writer’s New Jersey heritage,” which is also close to her own. As with “Gloria,” what emerges on record isn’t so much a cover or a version of someone else’s song as much as it is a collaborative mix of voices and articulations. For instance, one line that I take to be closer to Smith’s idiom than Springsteen’s (though who can tell or separate them out?) offers in an archly poetic inversion a strong disavowal of the imperious first-person singular: “Have I doubt when I’m alone.” While such a declaration might easily be taken as an avocation of conquest (and assertions in the lyric about “the way I feel under your command” would likely only reinforce such a reading), it seems to me that what we also hear – given the ambiguity and even absence of gender markers for example – is an unsettled and androgynous collaboration, an affirmation that belonging consists in shared desires rather than in their satisfaction through erotic subjugation. When the song asks us to feel and to heal through touch, to “touch me now” in its performative moment, subject and object are inverted in the imperative form, as “I” becomes “me.” Demand and uncertainty produce a temporary hiatus, an almost: contact suspended in the looping repetitions of the refrain. For me, as a listener, this persistence of desire sounds itself in the rhythmic phase-shift of the chorus; because of where it’s placed metrically, “becáuse” becomes “bécause”, and the song gently but persistently jostles against its own formal limits.
Smith’s songs, though, are hardly ever so gentle. (There is nothing, nothing gentle about “Rock n Roll N****r,” an in-your-face provocation that offers a sort of blasphemous flipside to “Because the Night.” [The actual b-side on the 45 was “God Speed.”] I can’t bring myself to type the word without self-censoring: to me, it’s unredeemable and ugly, a verbal violence out of which Smith draws an insurmountable and irresolute alterity, a brutal vocal enactment of Rimbaud’s grammatically fraught claim that “Je est un autre.” There is a good discussion of much of the background to Smith’s reappropriation of the term n****r here.)
The sequence “Land” (also on Horses) begins with a spoken-word piece “Horses” that builds from rubato free-form narrative to four-on-the-floor incantatory, blistering rock. “Horses” sketches a tale of Johnny and his mirror-image, a nameless boy, who confront each other in an unspecified hallway. This doubling is also echoed, literalized, in the restrained overdubbing of another vocal track by Smith, out-of-synch with the lead, her words softly clashing and crashing into each other, as her delivery becomes more emphatic. As the boy approaches, “a rhythm was generating” the song tells us. Johnny is penetrated by the boy as he’s pushed against a locker. (Is this a high school hallway?) The boy disappears, but Johnny starts crashing his own head against the locker, a violence that seems to produce either delusion or vision, concussion or transcendence: either way, the “rhythm” Johnny now sees and hears with increasing intensity in his head, in his ears, sounds like the hoofbeats of fire breathing horses, a pounding verbalized in a chant-like repetition – similar to the chorus in “Gloria” – of a single word: “He saw horses horses horses / horses horses horses horses horses.” The surging drums and guitars behind Smith’s vocal reach a vatic climax – these are versions of the horses of the Christian apocalypse – only to find release into a high velocity version of “Land of a Thousand Dances.”
As with “Gloria,“ the group inhabits in the fierce present tense of their performances a dynamic trajectory through rock’n’roll history. The apocalyptic horses transform, in the first line of Wilson Pickett’s top 40 hit, into one of a set of teenage dance crazes: “Do you know how to pony like bony maroney” Smith wails. Whoever her Johnny might have been, as a representative disaffected teenager, he now appears to find a moment of catharsis and of shared vitality in the song’s hypnotic repetitions: it’s an old song recovered and made new, and it also asserts an insistently driven 4/4 rhythm in which you can’t help getting caught up and pulled to your feet – “Got to lose control and then you take control [. . .] Do you like it like that like it like that.” Spontaneity and self-control collide and smash; what you (not I and not even we, but the vocalist’s externalized other, her audience) . . . what you get to like in this music – liking taken both as likeness, as in the mirrorings and identifications inherent in popular music, and as Eros, as liking what you feel – what you get to like in this music are the conflicted pleasures of its own creative unmaking, its audible gristle.
In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” John Donne famously cautions his beloved to keep composed and quiet – like a dying “virtuous” man – as they part from one another:
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Rarefied, sinecured, privileged and private, their bond differentiates itself, at least as far as the poem’s speaker is concerned, from “[d]ull sublunary lovers’ love.” Refurbishing clichés of neo-Platonic idealism, Donne labours to distinguish their joys from vulgar heterosexual desire – his opening conceit enacts, literally, a mortification of the flesh – by linking love parasitically to a form of spiritually-ascendant class mobility. That elitism, moreover, is tied directly to a contradiction built into the poetic speech act: he’s telling her not to tell, creating an exclusive circle of two – speaker and listener – as his poem’s contingent public domain. Or maybe even a circle of one, himself, since the poem’s success depends wholly on whether his audience, the beloved interlocutor hailed by his lines, is even willing to listen, and to be correspondent to his desire, to do as he tells her to. There is a doubled model of listening articulated through the poem that seems to me to hinge on what its reader, its audience, is inclined to do with its profanity, its repurposing of the sacred for its own persuasive ends. Donne’s inflated coinage “profanation” casts our inner ears back, I think, to the word’s Latin etymology: the verb profanere (to desecrate, to violate, to make unclean) suggests being outside or before (pro-) a temple (fānum), which at least implicitly prods its listeners to consider the ersatz sacredness of this or any poetic text: how metaphysical, how hermetic, how divorced from this world, can such words ever be? The hyphenated compound nouns (“tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests”), while presented under prohibition, also make audible in their clashed, clumped consonants (rfl, dsn, stsm) the very – and very human, embodied – noise that Donne wants to suppress. The poem tends to profane itself, I mean.
I am teaching The Commitmentsby Roddy Doyle this week, and part of the reason I have started off with this excursus through Donne is that the novel is one of the most profane and noisy texts I have encountered. Reading excerpts and examples aloud in class, in public, activated some shame in me that’s most likely connected both to my own well-spoken intellectualism – despite common sense and academic privilege, it still felt a bit wrong and even a bit dangerous to utter all those “fucks” and “shites” and racist epithets in front of students – and to a hackneyed moralism circulating around how we listen to popular music, which is arguably the governing trope of the book as well as the focus of my course (and I’m thinking of how iTunes, for example, labels its downloaded songs, based on assessments of the lyrics, as either “clean” or “explicit”). The Commitments, at its heart, is an explicit, expletive text.
It’s hard to gauge student reactions sometimes, but this class on the literature of popular song has tended so far to be a bit quiet, and who knows exactly why. Faced with reading Doyle’s novel, however, I can imagine they might feel a little shouted down, and a little affronted. In the book, as the band is cobbled together and starting to rehearse, they’re presented as Jimmy Rabbitte’s students. The book opens with Outspan and Derek asking for Jimmy’s musical advice, a moment that leads directly to the formation of The Commitments:
—We’ll ask Jimmy, said Outspan. —Jimmy’ll know.
Jimmy Rabbitte knew his music. He knew his stuff.
Jimmy is the discursive centre for this particular configuration of Barrytown, this orchestration of their disenfranchised urban space, their north Dublin, and the vocabulary, the knowledge, in which he trades and which constitutes his cultural capital, is pop music. Jimmy, it’s worth noting, doesn’t play an instrument (well, none of them do, at first, except maybe for Joey The Lips Fagan), and he never performs on stage with the band; his music consists of talk, and his way of organizing the band involves giving lectures, correcting and managing what they “know” about and what they can learn through African-American soul music: “They loved Jimmy’s lectures,” the narrator tells us, although it’s not always clear that Jimmy has any more privileged access to Black music than anyone else. Even Joey The Lips’s stories of playing with Otis Redding, James Brown and just about any other “name” in R & B canon seem like a mix of fiction and wishful thinking; he claims to get a call to play with Joe Tex, but after he leaves Jimmy remembers that Joe Tex had died in 1982. When Joey The Lips confesses that “The biggest regret of my life is that I wasn’t born black,” the insurmountable disconnect, around race, between the given and the made, between provenance and aspirational self-fashioning comes crashing to the fore. The learning project in which Jimmy has the band engaged is doomed by its inherent dislocations, by its insurmountable, racially marked otherness. If “soul is community,” as Jimmy and Joey both contend, the success of their common project, the outcome of their commitment to any “real” provocation to social or cultural transformation through what Jimmy keeps calling “sex and politics,” remains inexorably out of reach.
They can’t help but profane their lofty goals. The alteration they want to bring about by singing about “real” love is framed, as in the Donne poem, by the negation of overwrought, mundane clichés and by the evocation of a transcendent ideal – an African-American idiom that inherently resists the idioms of both saccharine top-of-the-pops and Irish folk: “—All tha’ mushy shite abou’ love an’ fields an’ meetin’ mots in supermarkets an’ McDonalds is gone, ou’ the fuckin’ window. It’s dishonest, said Jimmy.” But performing covers of James Brown or Wilson Pickett hardly seems any more honest, any closer to the lived realities of Barrytown: “— It’s not the other people’s songs so much, said Jimmy. —It’s which ones yis do.” Connection and commitment means finding material that somehow speaks to their experience, and for Jimmy, that speaking means a felt connection at the level of a pre-articulate viscerality, something he hears, for instance, in the rough “growl” of Declan Cuffe’s voice. Jimmy links this fleshy throatiness both to James Brown’s thoroughly sweaty, embodied performance – the grain of his voice, an association mired in sexual stereotypes around black masculinity – and, compellingly, to the band’s obvious inability to get beyond imperfect mimicry of that style; their cultural “politics,” inured in an experience of pervasive alienation, seems best represented by their failure to represent themselves musically in any idiom. Everything is imperfectly borrowed, mistaken, and troubled. In Jimmy’s bedroom, listening to the record of James Brown’s “Sex Machine,”the complexities and complicities of musical and racial appropriation emerge in a mix of sacrilege and idolatry, in a prose that both mimes what it hears and disrupts any easy mimesis:
—Funk off, said Deco.
Outspan hit him.
Jimmy let the needle down and sat on the back of his legs between the speakers.
—I’m ready to get up and do my thang, said James Brown.
A chorus of men from the same part of the world as James went: —YEAH.
—I want to, James continued, —to get into it, you know. (—YEAH, said the lads in the studio with him.) —Like a, like a sex machine, man (—YEAH YEAH, GO AHEAD.) —movin’, doin’ it, you know. (—YEAH.) —CAN I COUNT IT ALL? (—YEAH YEAH YEAH, went the lads.) —One Two Three Four.
Jimmy positions himself dead-centre, as if to co-opt the sonic space of the recording, to claim it and manage it. The French-Joycean punctuation of dialogue with em-dashes tends to blur the distinctions between voices, to create a polyphonic overlay, a palimpsest. The identification of Jimmy with James manifests itself not only spatially but also in the collision of idioms from different “parts of the world”: James Brown’s sidemen aren’t Irish “lads” in any sense of the word, and when James Brown says “you know,” the point-of-view implicitly shared with Jimmy, the fella in the novel who, more than any other, presents himself as in the know, is both shared and dismantled; it’s worth noting how the transcription of the words in interrupted by editorializing and by typographical juxtapositions, but also how the original record itself involves call-and-response banter that cuts across and disrupts closure. That disruption is also audible in the textures of the transcribed words: “— GER RUP AH——“ they hear James Brown intone, abrading his words in a manner not too far removed from Donne’s noisy consonants.
If this record, though, is about affirming rough and vital cultural energies (YEAH YEAH YEAH), if it’s about the “politics,” of movin’ and doin’, Jimmy’s listening remains caught in a dynamic of negation and difference: “—No, listen, said Jimmy.” Making black music more “Dubliny” – by substituting, for example, the names of the stops on the DART line, moving North toward Barrytown, for the improvised train stops up the Eastern seaboard of the United States, tracing a kind of second-hand root for post-Civil War reconstruction, in James Brown’s improvised words for “Night Train” – enables what Jimmy wants to call “Dublin Soul” to be born, but those words also offer a fragile and finally untenable amalgam, as the band breaks up before it’s able to make even its first single on “Eejit Records,” and as Joey The Lips comes to realize that “Maybe soul isn’t right for Ireland. So I’m not right.” Their music, in its wrongness, is inherently profane, monstrous. But it also attains, in passing, in rehearsal, a kind of nascent greatness:
By now, The Commitments had about a quarter of an hour’s worth of songs that they could struggle through without making too many mistakes. They could sound dreadful sometimes but not many of them knew this. They were happy.
Though they’re unable to hear themselves, to “know” themselves for what they are – even when “[t]hey taped themselves and listened” – they still embrace the rough misprisions and imperfect “Dubliny” slippages and derive a happiness, a profane joy, in the struggle to connect with each other. The agonof music making, the profane and profaning effort to play together, forms a contingent community within that difficult nascence: “There were mistakes, rows, a certain amount of absenteeism but things were going well.” If the point seems to be not to put too much weight on the inevitable failure of their awful, unruly, “racialist” appropriations, neither is it to overlook or sanitize their offenses. Rather, we’re meant to bear witness to the possibility of creative coexistence, of producing a shared, poorly-recorded, mistake-ridden music that manages still, in its noisy and troubling way, to enact a poetry.
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.