Difficult Subject Matter in 90’s Song Lyrics

I don’t want to make one of those click bait “the 90’s had the best music EVER!!” posts. One can find really terrible music and really excellent music in any decade. It would be a futile task to claim one decade had the best music.

I went down a strange rabbit hole the other day, though. I just put up a song on youtube and let the autoplay happen while I worked on some other things. It shifted into some sort of 90’s nostalgia playlist, and I kept hearing very surprising lyrics. They were songs I knew from living through the time, but they handled difficult subject matter in subtle and beautiful ways I hadn’t noticed.

I’d be surprised if songs like these could get on the radio today, but I distinctly remember hearing both of these songs on the radio in the 90’s.

Let’s start with “Round Here” by Counting Crows. First off, I’d like to point out that the song is through-composed, already something that could never happen today. The song appears to be about a depressed girl who attempts suicide. But it’s also about the disillusionment of growing up and finding out all those things you were told in childhood probably didn’t matter.

If you think it’s farfetched to have so much in one “pop” song, listen to it a few times. It’s all in there and more. A quick google search brings up wild, yet convincing, interpretations. This “universality” is the hallmark of great song art. Everyone listens to it and thinks it’s about their experience.

Here’s the opening:

Step out the front door like a ghost
Into the fog where no one notices
The contrast of white on white.
And in between the moon and you
The angels get a better view
Of the crumbling difference between wrong and right.

It opens with a beautiful simile. Sometimes pop songs have similes, but they tend to be funny or ironic. It’s hard to think of any current ones that do the hard work of writing something real. “Like a ghost into the fog” is such apt imagery for the point he’s making. Ghosts are white and ethereal. Fog is white and ethereal. A ghost that steps into fog loses all sense of self and no one else can see the person. They’re lost.

Then angels see a crumbling of the difference between wrong and right. This sort of moral ambiguity is another thing it would be hard to find in today’s lyrics. In the context of one of the interpretations I provided, this is probably in reference to how adults tell children right and wrong with clear certainty. As one grows up, one learns that it’s never that obvious.

The lyrics just keep getting better from there.

Next up is “Freshmen” by the Verve Pipe. This song hit Number 5 on the Billboard Top 100. Fifteen years ago, I thought I understood this song. Now I hear it from a totally different perspective.

Originally, I thought it was about a girl that broke up with the singer and then she killed herself over it. The singer is ridden with guilt. But the lyrics, when carefully analyzed, paint a slightly different picture.

Here’s the opening:

When I was young I knew everything
She a punk who rarely ever took advice
Now I’m guilt stricken,
Sobbing with my head on the floor
Stop a baby’s breath and a shoe full of rice

The singer is a typical Freshmen. He thinks he knows everything. This is part of what has changed for me in the song. I was pretty modest as a Freshmen, but now I can look back and it terrifies me how much I thought I knew. I’ve heard this feeling only gets worse as you age.

The key to the song is given right up front. “Stop a baby’s breath” is a reference to his girlfriend getting an abortion, and how this led to a fight and breakup. “A shoe full of rice” is about how they were even planning on getting married. Again, this is subtle imagery that blows by early on in the song. It requires careful attention if one is to understand the rest of the song.

I can’t be held responsible

This is something he tells himself, but he doesn’t believe it. This is a shift in voice, because it goes from narration of the story to internal thoughts. If one takes this line at face value without understanding this shift, one will misinterpret it. Here’s the chorus:

For the life of me I cannot remember
What made us think that we were wise and
We’d never compromise
For the life of me I cannot believe
We’d ever die for these sins
We were merely freshmen

Here’s another reference to his youthful arrogance. He thought he knew everything, and convinced his girlfriend to get the abortion. He refused to compromise and it destroyed their relationship. If you don’t know this song, it’s worth a listen to the rest. It progressively complicates as the guilt reverberates. He can’t hold other relationships out of fear of it happening again.

There’s something haunting about the reiteration of “we were merely freshmen” at the end of each phrase. When we’re young, we think we can do anything without much lasting consequence, but the singer learns the hard way that one devastating mistake can haunt you forever.

To wrap this up, I want to reiterate that it isn’t the difficulty of the subject matter that I find so amazing about these 90’s hits. Plenty of current hits have difficult subject matter. It’s the delicacy with which the lyrics handle the subject. It’s poetic and abstract so that the feeling comes through but the listener interprets it to apply to their own life.

Two Letters of Wallace Stevens

I’ve been travelling for the holidays, so I don’t have a good place to pop out a nice 1000-word blog post this week. I’ve been reading The Whole Harmonium, a biography of Wallace Stevens. He is one of the greatest American poets, yet most people outside of poetry haven’t heard of him.

Honestly, his life isn’t all that interesting to read about. He basically lived a common life as an insurance salesman and wrote poetry in his spare time. It’s not like he was a Beat roaming the country for adventure.

Since many people return home during the holiday season, I thought I’d share some of my own interpretation of Stevens’ “Two Letters,” which I think is one of his lesser known poems. Stevens was a deeply nostalgic poet, and his poems often become self-reflective of this fact. It’s almost like he understands that nostalgia can distort our memory of the past, and he’s embarrassed that he feels it so much.

The “Two Letters” are addressed “A Letter from” and “A Letter to.” We’ll look at “A Letter from.” The central theme of this poem is a longing for his carefree childhood home again. The opening is breathtaking in its imagery, and once you parse the complicated phrasing, it strikes me as a deep truth about human nature.

Even if there had been a crescent moon
On every cloud-tip over the heavens,
Drenching the evening with crystals’ light,

One would have wanted more-more-more-

Humans can never be satisfied with what they have. We could be given the most stunning piece of heaven as described, but we’d still want “more-more-more-.” I thought this was an appropriate opening sentiment for a time of year that is all about consumerism and wanting more. We rarely step back and appreciate what we have.

Stevens opens this way, not for the consumerism aspect, but the nostalgia aspect. He’s saying he has trouble appreciating what he has now because he longs for the past too much.

Some true interior to which to return
A home against one’s self, a darkness

An ease in which to live a moment’s life,
The moment of life’s love and fortune,
Free from everything else, free above all from thought.

The poem then turns inward and clarifies that it is about his home. There’s comfort in reliving your life, but there’s darkness to it if you do it too much. I’ll try not to focus on interesting wordplay, but this is the type of stuff Stevens is most known for. He has “moment’s life” then “moment of life’s love.”

The first instance still only means a “moment.” You can ease whatever is going on for a moment by returning to those earlier comforts, but he chose this wording to prepare for a transition to contemplating the whole of life. These nostalgic memories let us stop thinking about our current life, if only for a moment.

It would have been like lighting a candle,
Like leaning on the table, shading one’s eyes,
And hearing a tale one wanted intensely to hear,

As if we were all seated together again
And one of us spoke and all of us believed
What we heard and the light, though little, was enough.

Stevens really delivers in the conclusion to the poem. He drops that nostalgic imagery again. This is like those scenes in movies where the music surges, the two main characters are standing in the rain, one declares their love, …

While reading these stanzas, he paints that image of being with family around a table. Everyone is telling stories and laughing. The light from the candle brings warmth to the scene. It’s brilliant how he puts that in to heighten the emotional content of the image.

He then concludes by returning to the opening idea. This is enough. Being with the family, telling stories, a gentle candle light. We can be grateful for that moment. We don’t need more-more-more-.

Using Poetry to Improve Prose

This is going to be a short one. I recently broke my ankle, so I’ve been kind of busy with other things.

I often talk about what makes good prose style. Most of these posts follow and give convention writing advice. I’ve done a few posts on poetry but not much. One of the most important pieces of advice for improving prose style that I never see given is to write some poetry.

You have to take the right attitude for this exercise, though. The point of doing this is to work intensely at exact and evocative word choices; brief sensory detail; creative metaphor; flow and rhythm of the phrases; and so on.

To compose a good six line poem could take weeks or months, but you’ll come out of the other side of the experience with a very different concept of how words can be used to create meaning in a better way.

I’d advise not using a standard form. If you’re trying to fit the words into a preset rhythm or rhyme scheme, then you’ll be thinking about the wrong things. The focus should be on the right words and flow to achieve the purpose—not on finding a word that’s close enough and completes a preset scheme (though that is a good different exercise).

I have a set of 20-30 poems I’ve been tinkering with for about 3 years now. They’ve finally gotten to the point where I don’t think they’re embarrassing anymore, but it’s taken a long, long time. I started releasing them to the public at a rate of about one a week through Poets Unlimited on Medium.

I’ve learned a lot from it, and I’ll continue to do it. If you’re curious you can check them out here.

Extrapolating Meaning from Ashbery’s “The System” Part 3

The previous section ended by pulling ourselves out of the futility of knowledge and the search for happiness. The next section begins by throwing us back into real life. This reminds me of the movie I Heart Huckabees in the separation of the philosophical and the real. We can achieve peace by solitary meditation, but as soon as we go back to living we lose that:

“…back to the business of day-to-day living with all the tiresome mechanical problems that this implies. And it was just here that philosophy broke down completely and was of no use.”

Real world problems seem so different than the abstract problems we worry about in academic settings. He proposes a labyrinth image for the path of our lives, but returns with some optimism. It only seems the labyrinth directs our steps “but in reality it is you who are creating its pattern.”

The next segment returns to the Frost symbolism of a fork in the road and can be read as almost a meditation on the meaning and application of the idea in real life. Ashbery points out that we take the straightforward path first and only after understanding its destination do we return to the convoluted and less traveled path.

In a previous part, I commented on the cyclical nature of using “track” instead of “path” and this returns as well. After going down the less traveled path you find out the two options actually join up at the end, and the end is actually the beginning where the fork was.

He goes on to condemn wallowing in the difficulties all this presents. Go out and live. “Do you really think that if you succeed in looking pathetic enough some kindly stranger will stop to ask your name and address and then steer you safely to your very door?” He then proposes many explanations for why you would stand there looking like that and references Robert Browning’s poem saying Childe Roland probably had that look as well.

As you change, words that have stayed the same take on new meanings. You hope for a moment in the future where you can participate in the play being performed in front of you; for a time where artist, viewer, actor, director are all one and the same, but there is no “indication this moment is approaching.”

The poem switches back to the big universal questions. “Who am I after all, you say despairingly once again, to have merited so much attention on the part of the universe?” It moves to grandiose language of dying and rising. I think this is a return to the knowledge issue: realizing everything you knew is wrong and revising your worldview based on this.

But “clouds of unhappiness still persist in the unseen mesh that draws around everything,” so this new life hasn’t changed anything. The language here is what I consider quintessential Ashbery. He takes the small and personal and expands it into the gigantic. The personal is you waiting for a reply. Look how he makes the transition so naturally:

“There is not much for you to do except wait in the anticipation of your inevitable reply. Inevitable, but so often postponed. Whole eras of history have sprung up in the gaps left by these pauses, dynasties, barbarian invasions and so on until the grass and shards stage, and still the answer is temporarily delayed.”

The reply comes, and it is God giving comfort. Yet you should not expect any more comfort in your actual existence from this. Ashbery switches from a long period of “you” pronouns to “we” which softens the harshness of the section. We all have childish wants and get angry at delayed satisfaction. We give in to impulses.

After coming full circle on the path, you end up rejecting “oneness” in favor of a plurality of experiences and diversity. Paradoxically, once embraced, you realize everyone is basically the same. He begins an extended movie metaphor. It starts out by claiming that the movie doesn’t lie. It will show us things about ourselves we didn’t realize. It then moves on to classic Ashbery paradox. “That is why we, snatched from sudden freedom, are able to communicate only through this celluloid vehicle that has immortalized and given a definitive shape to our formless gestures.”

In the last part, Ashbery comes back to the “new year” language. It is a strange summary of what you experienced. “These ample digressions of yours have carried you ahead to a distant and seemingly remote place, and it is here that you stop to give emphasis to all the way you have traveled and to your present silence.” It turns sort of David Lynch-esque. The film is maybe a mirror, and all the characters are played by the narrator. It is a return to the solipsism of the beginning and the poem itself comes full circle.