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December 17, 2008

Who are you?

When I was in college, I was introduced to a theory that the early success of the Beatles was due, in no small part, to the fact that their songs were loaded with pronouns. Because they weren’t limited by the appearance of proper names (like Richie Valens’ hit “Donna,” for instance), Beatles songs like “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” made it possible for the fans to plug themselves into the little romantic episodes about which the Fabs were singing.

Over the years, my ruminations upon this theory have shifted into another style of thought regarding the psychology of pop music. In short: How do we, as listeners, establish connections with the songs we love? It’s easy to see how an amorous fan could hear “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as a sweet proposition from a polite young man (not so much so with “Please Please Me,” right?), but how do we fit into the equation where the “you” of the lyric is a less-than-attractive role?

“Hound Dog,” for instance, originally sung by Big Mama Thornton in 1953 and later remade by Elvis Presley in 1956, is not a song that anyone would want to hear sung to or about them. In this case, it’s easy enough to see that the lyric functions as a catharsis for calling out some other person who may have done the listener wrong, i.e. we identify with the singer’s position, and the “you” of the song is someone else. It seems obvious that our brains will naturally find the most comfortable alignment without drawing attention to the process.

Over the years, songwriting has become a lot more complex. Going back to the Beatles, we can see the shift in complexity with the advent of “Eleanor Rigby.” Here, the listener is introduced to a metaphorical “other,” a lonely old nobody who dies and is buried along with her name, utterly forgotten. As a counterpoint, the chorus describes All the lonely people, not just one, and asks Where do they all come from? As a lifelong Beatles fan, I never really liked the song until I heard it as a bit of instinctively disguised documentary reportage from the band about their relationship to their fans. At that point it became truly terrifying. Considering the perspective of the songwriter, I have to assume that Paul McCartney was reacting to the throngs of people who were following the band everywhere they went, screaming at the top of their lungs at the merest chance of seeing one of them from a distance.

I suppose it isn’t unusual for an artist to wonder what it is about their work that might appeal to their audience, but it seems a bit rude to me that one might refer to their entire fan base as lonely. Perhaps it was McCartney’s intent to describe people who weren’t Beatles fans as lonely, that as we come together as fans of the Beatles, our loneliness might diminish, and the lonely people are the ones outside of our circle. But that doesn’t bear out, because of the line about where they “come from,” because they do “come,” they do appear, they do not simply stay where they were, alone in lonely rooms, quietly letting their lives pass by without becoming apparent to anyone. No, “all the lonely people” have gone out into the world and bought Beatles records and have come to let us know that we have reached them.

I believe that my interpretation of “Eleanor Rigby” and its function as a comment on Beatlemania is borne out with the supposed concept behind Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. There’s that word again. Are you a member of this club? What does membership entail? Do you feel less lonely when you listen to records?

Neil Young’s album Silver and Gold opens with a song that perfectly captures the confusion between audience and muse, “Good to See You.” Who is Neil singing to when he says, It’s good to see your face again? When I first heard it, I felt like I was being watched, haunted. Who is the “you” that has inspired him to write this stunningly simple song? And where do I fit in? Or do I? How am I supposed to hear a song like that?

 

For further consideration: Listen to Daniel Johnston’s masterpiece Hi, How Are You? and watch Paul Verhoeven’s first American feature, “RoboCop” (which is currently being considered for a remake by Darren Aronofsky).