Archive for the 'Music' Category

07
Oct
09

You killed my author, prepare to die

I’d only intended to stay a day or two while I recovered from exhaustion, but by now it seems that the abandoned camp has become my temporary home.  The trees are less dense here, so the place has the feel of a vaulted cathedral compared to the shadowy netherworld just a few yards away; at night, the dim glow of the Google logo on my laptop gives the clearing the subtle sheen of a polished stone.  If I really squint, I can even pretend that the clusters of beady, hungry eyes out beyond the edge of the clearing are candles twinkling serenely at the end of some neglected alcove.

I’m only joking about the eyes, of course.  Death here comes without the luxury of a warning.

But I won’t let it worry me.

***

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing lately.  This is, clearly, no substitute for the real thing.

I’ve been reminded, though, of an essay I read in one of the first classes I took on literary theory.  I can’t remember the title or the author (clearly, it made quite an impression), but it dealt with the Fallacy of the Author (also known as the Intentional Fallacy, or, more whimsically, the Death of the Author), an idea which has informed my reading process ever since.

The concept states, basically, that when we read we shouldn’t worry about the author’s intentions.  The words, once written, speak for themselves and we should look to them if we want to find out what a work means.

Music provides some illumination into how this should work.  Beethoven’s Ode to Joy has lyrics by Frederick Schiller – lyrics so majestically overblown that they practically float away like a German airship.

No ticket.

But even without its lyrics, perhaps more so without the distracting verbal flourishes, the chords and melody exude joy.  We don’t need to know what, precisely, inspired joy in Beethoven in order to understand  the piece’s meaning.  In fact, this one is best left alone, because I’m pretty sure he’d just won a bunch of money betting on a slapping contest.  Perhaps Joy was the name of the winning competitor.

***

SIDEBAR: Speaking of Beethoven, what if the radioactive goo that simultaneously blinded and empowered Daredevil had gone into his ears instead of his eyes?  We might have ended up with a deaf but eagle-eyed avenger, spotting danger before it appears.  Tough to get his attention, though, if he’s not looking at you.

Ludwig van Murdock

Hey Daredevil, help me light my barbecue? Daredevil? DAREDEVIL? ...Ah, I'll just do it myself.

But I digress.

***

Ode to Joy is just that – a celebration of human emotion.  Things get more complex when we deal with popular music, in which lyrics play a central role.  What do we make of something like Layla by Derek and the Dominos?  The song’s narrator begs the eponymous Layla to leave her neglectful husband and be with him instead.

I tried to give you consolation/When your old man had let you down/Like a fool, I fell in love with you/You turned my whole world upside down. (Eric Clapton could have been incredibly emo if he’d been born 30 years later.)

Rock fans know that Clapton wrote Layla about Beatle George Harrison’s wife, whom Clapton would later marry.  The song is grounded in fact, which lends it an extra dose of poignancy.

Layla provides a nice illustration of the limits of the Intentional Fallacy.  If we ignore Clapton and look at the song on its own, we can still understand the narrator’s woe.  The listener may even be able to see its sentiments reflected in his own life.  Clearly, though, the feelings expressed were intensely personal ones for Clapton, and ignoring this aspect of the song excises a whole layer of meaning.

***

The Fallacy of the Author comes in handy when parsing more opaque songs like Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.  It’s only natural to want to find meaning in a song that is one of the few things people remember from the ‘70s, and Stairway’s words clearly have a lot going on.

Then again, If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow/Don’t be alarmed now/It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen just sounds a lot like Robert Plant forgot the lyrics mid-session and decided to ad lib.  The thing makes little enough sense that it’s not surprising some listeners thought the whole point of the song was as cover for a backmasked salute to Satan.

Much has been made of the song’s symbolism, its reference to Celtic mythology, etc., etc., etc.  But without asking the songwriter himself, any conjectures are just that.  For all we know, a drug-addled, Tolkien-loving Plant may have thought he was writing a sequel to The Lord of the Rings.

No Stairway? Denied.

No Stairway? Denied.

In the end, it is probably best not to worry about what was intended here.  Authorial intent, as in the case of Layla, can sometimes make things work on another level, but mostly, listeners trying to unscramble the contorted brainwaves of an earlier decade in search of illumination are just going to do themselves an injury.  Some see Stairway as a parable about materialism, some hear a call to arms for the grand tradition of western mythology, and of course, there’s always the Satanists-with-a-sound-engineer theory.

Myself, I find it’s easiest, and most accurate, to say what I always say when someone asks “what’s this song about?”

Uh, heroin?

***

Next time on Uncomma: what the Fallacy means to writers – or Why Kurt Vonnegut totally deserved that F.

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