I know it’s almost impossible to believe it from the fact that I play the accordion and sing quirky songs, but growing up, I was actually a fan of They Might Be Giants. I was first introduced to their music when my sister Rachel played me the album Lincoln. In addition to my fascination with the accordion and other odd instrumentation, I was quickly taken with their odd songs with odd references. My sister had recently been awarded Poet Laureate status, and as such we would often try to break down the lyrics and try to discover the hidden meaning of their songs. If you’ve ever heard a TMBG song, especially the early ones, this is no small feat. There is often an abundance of non-sequitur imagery packed into a song that sort-of almost makes sense. Often at the last second of a song, the meaning I had worked so hard to interpret breaks down when one of the Johns contradicts an earlier line. Sometimes they just seems to defy all logic:
We yearn to swim for home
But our only home is bone
How sleepless is the egg,
Knowing that which throws the stone
Foresees the bone, the bone
Our only home is bone
Our only home is bone
They Might Be Giants, Cowtown
It seems like they enjoy wordplay, often at the expense of the logic and theme of the song. As an adult and critical listener, I find that admirable and just the coolest thing ever. As a 12-year old trying to seek meaning in the words, I alternated between frustration and feeling like I was going crazy (and thinking it was just the coolest thing ever). Sounds about right for a 12-year old.
Their being the band that I was obsessed with, I sought out their television and radio interviews in order to decipher their songs further. While their banter and ad-libbing was always animated, as soon as someone would ask them what a song meant, they got tight-lipped and a bit surly. There would be a pause and then, “Well, our songs… they mean a lot of things… and this one in particular might have some things… that mean something… to us.” Thus I learned the Songwriters’ Taboo: the songwriter does not discuss the meaning of his or her songs.
To some extent I understand that the feelings and situations in songwriting can be intensely private, and that one would not want to share the depth of those feelings. However, as a songwriter, we do write songs and typically perform them to as many people as will listen. This isn’t really a time to be coy. I find in general, discussing the meaning of your songs is looked down upon as amateurish by the music community. Perhaps the idea that one has to explain what a song means implies that it cannot stand on its own. Or maybe, songwriters prefer the listener to extract their own meaning from the song rather than follow down a prescribed path. I feel that both of those arguments are fallacies, however.
First of all, explaining a song’s meaning or origins is not necessarily related to the strength and clarity of the song. Granted, if a song is obtuse enough, it can be difficult to glean the artist’s original intention just from listening. But the explanation can also serve as a further connection between the songwriter and the songlistener. It can give us insight into the mind of the person who wrote it and allow us to appreciate their artistry that much more. One of my favorite songwriters, Carmaig de Forest, has a heart-wrenching song called “Bad Things Happen” which is about the loss of a loved one. We once had a discussion about it (and if Carmaig is reading, this is what I remember of the conversation; please correct me if I’m wrong), in which he told me he wrote it for World AIDS Day, and that it wasn’t about anyone in particular. The song sounds so strikingly personal (take a listen, even though the link is to myspace). His saying that it was more of an abstract view of loss had no impact on the strength of the song, but it did show me how skilled of a writer he is and how dedicated to his craft he is.
For the second point, the one about the listener finding their own meaning in the song, I don’t think the two of them are mutually exclusive. Certainly we can allow ourselves to get stuck once a meaning is nailed down, but we can also continue to explore what a song means to us. It may sound unintuitive, but a songwriter’s interpretation of his or her own song is not the final word. Good songs can be viewed a variety of different ways, including ways the songwriter never intended or imagined. When Michael Stipe says of the song Losing My Religion, “it’s just a classic obsession pop song,” (Snow, Mat. “R.E.M.” Q. October 1992) that doesn’t preclude us from focusing on the word “religion” in a different context and coming up with a whole new meaning. If we choose to be actively engaged in discovering what a song means to us, a songwriter’s discussing a song’s meaning can just be one more piece of the puzzle of what a song means and why we love it.
Over the life of this blog, I have taken several of my songs and run them through a full analysis, both with the music and the lyrics. I’m curious if you, dear reader, find it self-indulgent or illuminating. Even now I get a bit defensive about those posts, falling into the same trap of thinking it’s inappropriate to discuss song meaning. I just can’t help myself, though. The beauty of songwriting lies partially in our choices of harmony and melody, but also heavily in the words and how they can be interpreted. I’ll continue to write up a song analysis from time to time, and you can tell me if it augments or diminishes your listening experience. But I’ve worked really hard to create these songs; the least I can do is share as much of them as possible.