Friday, February 01, 2008


A couple of months ago, among many other strange experiences, I had the strange experience of listening to the Indigo Girls' "This Train Revised" for the fifteenth time and realizing for the first time that it was a Holocaust song.

About a week later, in a much less disturbingly monumental fashion, I realized for the first time that They Might Be Giants' "Twisting," from the album Flood, which I loaded onto my computer about two years ago, is about a breakup. (For an excellent, articulate discussion of why TMBG is/are great [which one is grammatical?], you should see Bilal.)

In case you haven't noticed, I like words. I like them a lot. I particularly like adverbs (though not as much as J.K. Rowling does), but I'm pretty bloody attached to all of them. I know all the words to at least four hundred songs and more than ninety poems (yes, I have counted, if you must know), and I write an awful lot of things and say perhaps even more than I write. (Perhaps not, but it's pretty close.) Yet I listened to these songs repeatedly, certainly enough to feel attached to them, without hearing the lyrics enough to have even an inkling of what their subjects were.

I'm not a big fan of the Idiot Savant School of the Arts, that somehow it's enough if it's just about soul. I have too much respect for craft and for the community of artists to engage with that notion. But nevertheless knowing everything remains boring, pointless, and more to the point, impossible. This has been part, for me, of the process of doing Blindside: the revelation that, however proud I am of the play, there were several scenes I did not understand in any way until I saw actors doing them. And given that I wrote them, and have thought A LOT over the last three years about this play and how the ideas and characters in it are put together (as any number of my friends and/or collaborators can attest). I would not come anywhere near classifying myself as an idiot savant. And yet I'm still working in ways I consider visceral. When I make a mistake I can fix it better by figuring out how to explain things to myself, but for a very logical person I'm often not working with logic. I am, loath though I am to admit it, following a less calculable/measurable form of knowledge.

And such is the way I listen to songs. Verbosity or otherwise, I hear music first, and often as not the power of the music I'm hearing will keep me from engaging with the lyrics, the form I understand much better, for a long time. Does this harm the songs—as in, did I do a disservice to "This Train Revised" by listening to it so poorly that I briefly had it on a playlist called "Vagabond Music" alongside Tom Waits' "Cold Water," Harry McClintock's "Big Rock Candy Mountain" and Beck's "Derelict"? (I adore all those songs, don't get me wrong, but the relationship between their subject matter and that of "This Train Revised" is tentative.) I know many people would say "to whom is that relevant besides me?", but it's relevant in considering audiences for the arts. It's okay with me, where it is not with some of my friends, that different people read different things in works of art—I believe very strongly that one should not attempt to tell audiences how to feel. But that doesn't eclipse my belief that there do exist right and wrong interpretations—plural, yes, but the criteria by which one judges art should be at least as rigorous as those used to judge politics or anything else that exists in the "real world." My interpretation of "This Train Revised"—its story—resulted from my not listening carefully and was therefore a wrong interpretation. And even with this completely wrong interpretation I found the song, through the way its music reached me, incredibly compelling. (Same deal, albeit more lightly, with "Twisting"—I was just having fun listening to it long before I realized that the refrain "She wants to see you again" referred to a recent ex-girlfriend.) Is it a sign of good artistry that there's room, and time, for really wrong interpretations? Is that an easy answer?


At 6:38 PM, Blogger Lawrence said...

well, it's probably pretty obvious that this entry really got me going... actually, it's more like a combination of this entry, the old entry of yours that you refer to, and Bilal's thing about TMBG that got me going (and actually, it was more the comments on Bilal's thing than Bilal's thing itself) but let me see... i'll try to keep my thoughts on the other entry out of this comment, by the fascinatingly advanced method of not reminding myself what your other entry actually says until later.

the thing is, right, i don't actually see how it's possible to *not* be visceral when creating art. whatever you create has to remain made primarily out of intuitive flashes on *some* level, i'd think, even if it's just word by word. it's always seemed to me like if you tried to follow a completely logical process, you'd work ten times as slowly and frustratingly as you had to and you'd lose sight of what you were trying to accomplish before you got close to finishing. (Although Edgar Allen Poe did claim that he was being completely logical and hewing to method like a Scotsman's nonexistent knickers when writing "The Raven". He musta been stark raven mad to say that.)

last year i went to see an exhibit at the Whitney Museum called "Summer of Love", which was actually plenty more inclusive than its title might have suggested: it was attempting to be a pretty comprehensive exhibit of hippie art. what fascinated me, and also in a way made me terribly sad, is that these days it seems to be logic and rationality that are the good leftist's weapon against the powers that be, whereas forty years ago it was the exact opposite. it made me think that the right had co-opted irrationality as its own -- and this is like the Democrats saying after Kerry lost that the left had to reclaim religion, but it's not exactly the same, because Democrats don't generally seem to have qualms that being religious makes them less of a Democrat; whereas the response to Bush has consisted, to a large degree, of liberals trying to purge their own vestiges of irrationality from themselves, in order to be steelier mind-warriors, i suppose. i don't think there's any reason it has to be that way, though. i find a totally rational approach to pretty much anything, i think, most terribly boring, and ultimately as conservative as Bush's family values.

so when you say "is it a sign of good artistry that there's room, and time, for really wrong interpretations", i'd have to say, no, i think it's actually a sign of pretty *bad* artistry -- at least, as bad as it is clear that the interpretations are wrong. Jimmy is fine with "Birdhouse in Your Soul" being a sort of updated version of a 50's style love song, and not about a nightlight -- and i think to argue against him would devalue the song. i'd say that if a song is going to trick you into thinking it's something it's not, it better not make all your prior experience of having an interpretation for the song seem slashingly worthless in this new light (which is actually what made be oh so terribly annoyed at that There Will Be Blood movie at the end). that's, to coin a phrase (or maybe not), the tyranny of objectivity for you.

but then again, i also think of interpretations as being on a lower order of things than judgment -- it's all the conflicting interpretations that snowball into a judgment of something, so i really don't see why, in my continuing reevaluation of these songs, i shouldn't say that "Changing of the Guards" (Bob Dylan) is about A Winter's Tale by Shakespeare or "The Black Angel's Death Song" (Velvet Underground) is about the Holocaust or "Cowtown" (TMBG, of course) is about de-evolution. well, maybe that's because that's how i actually *write*. but i don't see any reason to say that those interpretations *aren't* in there, in the mix, in at least some small part.

and i guess what i really object to, then, is a work of art acting like (in what's come to be one of my favorite metaphors lately) a Rube Goldberg machine, that puts you through all sorts of "plot twists" and "interpretation carousels" before it lets you off feeling a solid glowing lump of some emotion or another (somewhat resembling a radioactive mochi). lately in my family's poetry circles, i've been arguing about over-intellectualizing poems, where the conversation starts off trying to decide what the huge symbolisms or tiny word-definitions in the poem are before actually emotionally reacting to it. i think that's a mistake, and i think a poem that has to be reacted to like that has got to be pretty much a failed poem.

to me, it all seems too close to your credo of art needing not to be manipulative: the need for interpretation sometimes is plenty an emotional barrier to have to cross, and there's plenty of struggle involved in passing through that goldarned *machine* to get there. i hope this can all be summed up nicely enough in a quote i just read from "Péter Molnár Gál, a designer for the Budapest State Puppet Theatre" (for the class on puppetry that i'm just beginning to take): "Everything is what it is, plus something else."

(and, oh yeah: a school of the arts that says it's enough if it's just about soul, compels me about as much as a place to hang my hat as a school of the arts that says it's enough if it's just about time travel.)

At 7:48 AM, Blogger Ammegg said...

I think it's perfectly possible to be perfectly logical; just, as you said, bad/failed art/poetry tends to result.

I *love* "everything is what it is, plus something else."

Agreed that the Rube Goldberg thing doesn't work, because that is conclusion manipulation—while Rube Goldberg things are nifty to watch, there's only one way to get out (I think that's what you were saying, ja?).

Interpretations being a lower order of experience than judgment I'm going to have to think about more, but that's kind of what puts what you're saying all together, I think. I am going to continue to argue that there exist wrong interpretations—there exist reactiosn to songs/poems/plays/films/whatever that are complete projections, reactions only to relating the depth of what's in your head to a very, very surfacey skimming of the content of the piece—but there are, indeed, far fewer than you seem to have extrapolated from the post. As in, I do agree that a good work of art has room in it, somewhere, for many interpretations even when those interpretations don't propose an explanation of what the piece is About, and that often interpretations do not exist to the exclusion of other interpretations. So I guess my question then would be, do misjudgments exist? Does successful art allow for them; does failed art?


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