The Curmudgeon: Interpreting Lyrics

Music Features

A Column Questioning the Assumptions of Popular Music

A quick surfing run through the blogosphere confirms that the Dylanologists are already poring over Bob Dylan’s lyrics from Tempest as if the bloggers were CSI scientists bent over laboratory microscopes. Some of their interpretations may be plausible (numerous bloggers point to the “Duquesne Whistle” as a death warning; others to “Scarlet Town” as a microcosm for modern America); others are implausible (A.J. Weberman insists that “Pay in Blood” is addressed to Barack Obama and that the song’s glancing reference to a purse is a symbol for homosexuality).

Plausible or not, such efforts to decode Dylan’s symbolism mark the worst possible way to engage Tempest or, for that matter, any art work, whether it be James Joyce’s Ulysses or Kanye West’s Late Registration. Certain academics and critics want you to believe that art is an encrypted system that only they have the key for, because it insures their continued employment. But this idea that texts are puzzles to be solved, coded languages to be translated, reflects a profound misunderstanding of how art works.

Why would artists such as Dylan, Joyce and West create texts where the key phrases are merely stand-ins for abstract concepts? If they were truly interested in those concepts, why wouldn’t they address the ideas directly? Are these writers nothing more than Sudoku puzzle makers who create artificial difficulties for their audience to overcome? If the “Duquesne Whistle” is nothing more than a symbol for approaching mortality, why didn’t Dylan sing, “Death is coming,” instead? Couldn’t he have discussed the end of life more directly and effectively then?

Yes, if he were interested in only the intellectual aspects of the topic. But the reason we turn to art rather than, say, philosophy or sociology, is so we can explore the emotional, sensual and intellectual aspects of a topic at the same time. And the more the artist can make us forget the “topic” and lose ourselves in the imagined world of the song—or novel or movie or whatever—the more powerful our experience will be. The more we can hear that whistle as a piercing note in the Midwestern night, bringing the singer into his final stop, that rural depot where the blue and red lights are flashing, where his lady may or may not be waiting with the porch lights on, the more fully we connect with the song.

Only after we’ve made that connection does the situation’s similarity to other circumstances—approaching death, romantic reconciliation or whatever—carry any weight. To short-circuit that process by turning the whistle into a symbol is to turn the image into a mere intellectual conceit and thus rob it of its sensual, emotional potency. By doing so, listeners do not cheat Bob Dylan, who can no doubt imagine that Midwestern night better than any of us; the listeners cheat themselves. To get the most out of a song, one must enter into its invented environment and take up residence; only then can one gain anything from the resemblance between this new world and the world where we actually live.

To get the most out of a song such as “Scarlet Town,” we can’t start off by asking, “What does the town symbolize?” or “Who do the characters represent?” We have to start off by accepting the town as a real place, the same way we might take such equally fanciful locations as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts or William Shakespeare’s island in The Tempest as real places. We have to walk the streets of Scarlet Town, so entranced by its ivy-clad cottages and palm-covered hill that we really care that Sweet William is dying, that family feuders are shooting each other in the wintry wind, that a jukebox is playing a hillbilly drinking song for a flat-chested junkie whore. Only then can the comparisons between Scarlet Town and any other city or nation really mean anything.

As wrongheaded as it is to turn lyrics into symbols, it’s just as foolhardy to turn them into autobiography. To obsess over the questions, “Did it really happen?” and “Who was she in real life?” on songs such as “Simple Twist of Fate” or “Tangled Up in Blue” is to rob them of their purpose. Whether or not they were inspired by real events in Dylan’s first marriage is irrelevant to their impact. By becoming art, these songs conjure up worlds as imaginary as Middle Earth or Hogwarts and to the extent we become residents of those worlds we may grow to care about the ways those imagined relationships began and ended. Only if we care about love in that alternative universe can we gain any insights about love in our primary universe. To be distracted by celebrity gossip is to undermine the songs.

Even “Roll On John” from Tempest, a song that is obviously based on a real person, John Lennon, takes place in an invented realm where the narrator—not necessarily the real-life Bob Dylan—is able to address his dead friend. It’s tempting—god knows it’s tempting—to tick off the Beatles quotes in the song, but that’s just another distraction. To fully appreciate this number, you have to imagine yourself standing next to the narrator, on just this side of the boundary between the living and the dead, speaking to a shade that cannot answer, pouring out that strange mix of anguish and affection we so often have for the dead. If we can stand by that border, we may feel something that will help us with any death we may encounter.

Of course, just because a song invites us into its imaginary world doesn’t mean we can or should take up residence there. Many songs are so poorly imagined—so obviously constructed from cheap clichés and vague generalities—that we can’t find a place to stand or sit. Other songs may be powerfully imagined but seem so dishonest that we want to flee their worlds, go home and take a shower.

But when lyrics evoke a world as full, as real and as inviting as the songs on Tempest, Kevin Gordon’s Gloryland, Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE or Craig Finn’s Clear Heart Full Eyes have this year, you owe it to yourself to avoid the temptations of looking for symbolism or autobiography and to instead immerse yourself in each song’s artificial world before looking back at the world from whence you came.

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