Recently I gave up listening to music on short journeys, particularly while walking to places. I read an article in The Guardian about i-pods, and in it a professor claimed that the current trend of filling every moment with music was distracting us from from what we should be engaged in: deep reflective thought. I agreed, partly, though I enjoy listening to music enormously, and time spent on buses and trains seems like the perfect place to do it. I gave up. I made my regular walk from my flat through the leafy streets of south Manchester to the University Campus deeply entrenched in thought, occasionally tripping over a squirrel or slipping on wet leaves. I enjoyed myself, I chatted amiably with me, I concocted and lived many fantasy lives in my head. I learned not to walk underneath horse-chestnut trees in late September without a hard-hat, found puddles immensely engaging.
I gave up. This time I gave up not listening to music whilst walking, and my brief spell of abstention left me refreshed and eager for new listenings. I popped 'The Best of Simon and Garfunkel' into my tragically archaic "mini-disc" Walkman and walked, ignorant of squirrels and puddles alike.
I heard again:
All my songs come back to me
In shades of mediocrity,
Like emptiness and harmony.
I need someone to comfort me.
Now, previously I had heard this punctuated as above, with a full stop after harmony, the last line being on its own. Thus the meaning being that his songs are mediocre and consist of emptiness and harmony; because of this he needs someone to comfort him. This is of course rather critical of the song lyric itself, the song has melodic harmony but is empty, it has no meaning or soul, perhaps the words are just superficial. It becomes cleverly self-critical, the lyrics say that lyrics have no meaning, but of course these lyrics do have meaning, they convey their own meaninglessness. Crikey. Harmony, music, is no comfort either, it has no value without meaningful words and the only escape is the thought of another person, some human contact. The last line alone sounds desperate and disillusioned.
This time though, the break came after mediocrity, and the quatrain was split into equal halves. This time he clearly said "Like emptiness and harmony, i need someone to comfort me". The implication is very different now. There is no reference to the emptiness of lyrics, harmony is someting that comforts just like a person can. It now suggests the benevolent, soothing power of music that can quell the despondent spirit. I think i like it better this way, thanks professor.
The point is that listening can be an active process that induces a deep, reflective thought process. It's not just a lazy, passive pastime akin to playing 'I-spy' on long car journeys. The lyrics in pop music often present us with dazzling layers of meaning, word-play, humour, imagery and the like, they're not all emptiness. Sometimes they can relate, playfully to the music. Take these lines from a song by Chicago band Joan of Arc:
we fall into patterns quickly
we fall in patterns too quickly
The syntax alters slightly, retaining the same word sounds but altering the literal meaning; just as the rhythm shifts slightly and forms a new pattern using the same melody. The meaning of the sentences reflects this process too, the lines and music become a pattern as they are repeated several times. Sentence structure and musical structure reflect literal meaning of words and vice-versa. Its very playful, very modern, and I think provocative of much thought. I like it a lot.
Unfortunately this playfulness and imaginative word use has not fully permeated the ultra-mainstream yet, as is clearly illustrated by Katie Melua's recent song "9 Million Bicycles". I believe that this song has already provoked a backlash from academia, claiming certain vague estimates to be "facts" when they are arguably not. i guess this is poetic licence though. i can't stand the song myself, i find its lyrical content rather trite and superficial. But, there might be something going on below the surface that we don't at first notice. Let's take the following lines:
There are 9 million bicycles in Beijing, that's a fact
Like the fact that i will love you till i die
Now, the bicycle image is of course indicative of mass poverty in china's capital. The equation of 'love' with the notion of 'fact' seems to suggest a poverty of spirit or of soul, and the whole enterprise itself is steeped in an ingrained poverty of imagination. Good so far. These 'facts' are of course very wittily played off against the 'fact' that Katie will never have to go anywhere near real poverty due to the fortune she makes from the hit song. She's bloody brainy for a girl.