My Lyrical Ineptitude, or Stephin Merritt is Gay?
It should be obvious when a guy sings, "I thought you were my boyfriend," or, "I die when you walk by / so beautiful and strong," or
My evil twin would lie and stealthat he's gay. Not to me.
And he would stink of sex appeal
All men would writhe
Beneath his scythe
He’d send the pretty ones to me
And they would think that I was he
I’d hurt them and I’d go scot free
Last week Slate had an article about some silly music critics that were basically accusing Stephin Merritt of being racist because he doesn't like hip hop or Justin Timberlake. Here's how the Slate article starts:
Stephin Merritt is an unlikely cracker. The creative force behind the Magnetic Fields, Merritt is diminutive, gay, and painfully intellectual.When I read that I was like, "Gay? Oh yeah--'I thought you were my boyfriend.' That makes sense." Point being, at the time I read that article I had listened to the Magnetic Fields album i half a dozen times or more. Not once when listening to those lyrics that I quote above did it cross my mind that this dude might be gay.
To my credit, I did notice that "I thought you were my boyfriend" isn't something that straight guys usually say, but I figured the "I" in the song was a fictional female character. As I listen to music, as often as not I figure that any given "I" is not the lyricist speaking for himself but speaking for a fictional someone else. I don't know how to tell the difference.
My ineptitude at understanding and interpreting lyrics extends beyond not noticing something as painfully obvious as Stephin Merritt's gayness. I had listened to an Elvis Costello best of album half a dozen times when I read somewhere that Costello was known for clever wordplay. The next time I listened to that album was the first time I recognized any clever wordplay. I probably have dozens of albums that I've listened to quite a lot about whose lyrical content I couldn't tell you the first thing.
There are a few reasons for this, I think. First: my life of school + married with children is such that I'm usually only able to listen to music while my mind is at least semi-occupied with something else. Very rarely can I just sit and relax and listen to an album and read the lyrics along with the music. Second: truth be told, I have a short attention span. Even when I try to listen attentively to the words I find my mind wandering. If an intro to a song is longer than ten seconds or so my mind becomes impatient and starts thinking about chromosome transmission, the pros and cons of feminism, or the qualities of a good hamburger. There have been so many times when halfway through a song I realize that I have no idea what it's about and I commit to really listening to the words. So I start it over and then about thirty seconds in I realize that my mind is wandering and I haven't heard a word. Then I start it over again. And again. And so on until I space for long enough to forget that I had committed to listening closely to the words. Third: I'm more of a music guy as opposed to a words guy. I usually need intriguing sounds and movement in the music to keep me interested. Now that I think about it, this second reason may be a byproduct of my lyrical slowness/short attention span rather than a cause. Either way, the music that really captivates me is dramatic, kinetic, dynamic, and sometimes ugly. I have a theory about why ugliness in music is often a virtue, but I've gone on long enough.