Imaginary Brazilian Revolution

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

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 steal
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
that he's gay. Not to me.

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.

7 Comments:

At 5/16/2006 9:28 PM, Anonymous Susan M said...

Let's hear it.

Most of the song lyrics I've never caught onto are songs I knew as a child. I never realized what exactly "Magic Man" by Heart was about, until my son asked me recently when I was listening to it. And you'd think I'd know what "Wake Up Little Susie" is about, so many people sung it to me all through my childhood--but that's probably why I never knew. I couldn't stand to listen to it.

But other than that, I'm not usually clueless about lyrics. Well, except for in doom metal or death metal. Someday I'm gonna learn all the lyrics to every Opeth and Isis song, but for now I'm content to just be blown away by the sound.

But my very favorite artists are usually the ones where I don't just want to know every word to every song, I NEED to know every word to every song. Like Ted Leo. He's very wordy. Very very wordy. I'll listen to a song of his on repeat for hours to learn (as in be able to sing along with perfectly) the lyrics.

But that's probably just my OCD showing.

 
At 5/19/2006 8:26 AM, Blogger White Man Retarded said...

I think that is why I like techno so much. The music speaks for itself and there is no need for words, although Chem'Bro's songs w/lyrics are good. I actually like long songs. My friend calls them epics. Like Starla, Drown, 1983 A merman I shall turn to be (?)...

 
At 5/19/2006 11:44 AM, Blogger Tyler said...

Wow Tommy...you didn't realize Stephin Merritt was gay huh? This situation is worse than I thought. He makes it trasnparently clear several times on i, and elsewhere throughout TMF catalog. It just seemed so obvious.

This condition explains perfectly why you have an aversion to Bright Eyes. You even tried to explain it before and I just couldn't grasp what the problem was. My eyes have been opened.

There's something charming about Merritt's homosexuality. It adds such a unique element to the music because with his husky crooners voice, one might easily imagine him as a wild ladies man. Instead, almost as a joke, he sings very openly (at least I THOUGHT it was very openly,) about his gayness. I should've told you he was gay all those months ago when I first recommended the Fields. The first song I ever showed Lyman was "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" and Lyman was like, "Wow...that's really gay."

Tom...just so you know- sometimes Conor feels a little bit sad. That's what he's singing about.

 
At 5/19/2006 3:02 PM, Blogger Tom said...

Oh man, I can't stop laughing at your "sometimes Conor feels a little bit sad" thing. I don't usually laugh at my computer.

Yes, it is painfully obvious that he's gay. I haven't thought about whether that adds to the music, though. It is a quite incongruous, that manly voice, but it's only really incongruous to stereotypes. Papa bear gay types rival my Uncle Dave in the huskiness department. Before the gay thing clicked I just thought he wrote great little pop songs. I think I still think he writes great little pop songs. Some of them just make more sense.

And that's exactly right--one of the reasons I'm not as keen on Bright Eyes as you are is that I might as well be deaf when it comes to words. Okay, that's an exaggeration, but not by too much, obviously. "Road to Joy" is a bad-A song. And there is that lyric that I like: "noone ever plans to sleep out in the gutter/ sometimes that's just the most comfortable place." From memory. I'm awesome.

 
At 5/19/2006 7:41 PM, Blogger Tom said...

By bad-A I mean badass. I read it and it sounded like I was calling the song bad. It's not bad, it's badass.

 
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