Monday, September 12, 2011

he's a real nowhere man, but i'm a loser: pronoun use in lennon's songs

This post is inspired by a recent study that examined the use of pronouns in Beatles songs. Basically, the study concluded that the use of first person pronouns (I, me, etc.) dramatically declined as the band's career proceeded. The authors reasoned that this shift was due to a shift in substance from interpersonal relationships (boy meets girl, girl leaves boy, etc.) to more complicated narratives and political statements.

That seems reasonable enough to me, but I don't find it a particularly novel conclusion.

I'm more interested in how pronouns were used in unusual ways. It's easy enough to conclude from John's "I'm a Loser" that the loser is John himself. It's logical, and John has confirmed that it's true. But what about "Nowhere Man"? John has said that the song is about his insecurities during a rare unproductive writing session. If that's true, why would he write "he's a real nowhere man" and not "I'm a real nowhere man"? "I'm a Loser" shows us that John wasn't afraid to write highly personal songs in the first person, so why the shift to the third person?

As you've probably concluded if you've read my blog a bit, I like to answer such questions by categorizing relevant songs. What follows is a categorization of all of John's Beatles-era songs that we know are about him. I've categorized them based on the pronoun used to describe the song's protagonist.

It's important to note that I'm not including every song John wrote that has some sort of protagonist in it. Instead, I'm only including those songs that we know to be about John himself. For example, I'm including Help! because we know it describes John's struggles with low self-esteem in 1965, but not Misery because there's no indication he wrote it about himself, as opposed to a generic guy whose girl left him. As such, there's actually no song in here that was written before Beatles for Sale.

First Person

I'm a Loser (Beatles for Sale - 1964)
Help! (Help! - 1965)
Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) (Rubber Soul - 1965)
The Word (Rubber Soul - 1965)
In My Life (Rubber Soul - 1965)
I'm Only Sleeping (Revolver - 1966)
She Said She Said (Revolver - 1966)
Glass Onion (White Album - 1968)
I'm So Tired (White Album - 1968)
Julia (White Album - 1968)
Yer Blues (White Album - 1968)
Revolution 1 (White Album - 1968)
Across the Universe (Yellow Submarine - 1969)

Third Person

Nowhere Man (Rubber Soul - 1965)
Doctor Robert (Revolver - 1966)
Come Together (Abbey Road - 1969)

Second Person

You've Got to Hide Your Love Away (Help! - 1965)

That list is actually surprisingly short. Please let me know in the comments section if I've missed any song.

The most interesting songs are obviously those that use second or third person pronouns, so those are the songs we'll tackle here. The songs in the first category are certainly interesting, though, and could merit their own post.

In any case, let's start with the only one that uses the second person in the most prominent position in the narrative.

You've Got to Hide Your Love Away

You've Got To Hide Your Love Away is usually thought to be about the affairs John was having at the time, so we could see the use of second person pronoun to be either a linguistic device meant to allow him to write about the affairs without making it obvious that he was having them, or it could serve as a warning to him to stop the affairs. I'm actually inclined to think it's the latter, because of the switch from first person to second person from the verse to the chorus:

Here I stand, head in hand
Turn my face to the wall
If she's gone, I can't go on
Feeling two foot small

Everywhere people stand
Each and every day
I can see them laugh at me
And I hear them say

Hey you've got to hide your love away

It seems to me that John is describing his shame at having the affair, and then using the crowd's judgment as a device for self-admonishment. If you want to get particularly metaphysical, you could also say that the crowd represents the materially/physically motivated part of his brain, which his conscious is warning against committing immoral acts. If you agree with this interpretation, then this song represents clear musical evidence that John regretted his infidelities.

In any case, let's move on to the three songs that use the third person most prominently.

Nowhere Man

Nowhere Man was supposedly borne from the rare unproductive writing session. John felt as though he couldn't write anything good, and ended up almost unconsciously writing Nowhere Man. As in You've Got to Hide Your Love Away, John uses the first (and second, in this case) person pronouns in a quite interesting way. Let's take a look:

He's a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans, for nobody

Doesn't have a point of view
Knows not where he's going to
Isn't he a bit like you and me?

Nowhere man, please listen
You don't know what you're missing
Nowhere man, the world is at your command

He's as blind as he can be
Just sees what he wants to see
Nowhere man, can you see me at all?

Nowhere man, don't worry
Take your time don't hurry
Leave it all, til somebody else lends you a hand

At that point, the lyrics begin to repeat themselves. As in You've Got to Hide Your Love Away, it seems to me that John uses the three classes of pronouns to separate himself from one part of his conscious, and then speak to that part. In this case, he's separating himself from the part of his consciousness that is intensely insecure about the prospect that he might not be productive after all (the first two verses strongly suggest that).

The third and fifth stanzas use the second person pronoun in order to speak to the nowhere man and reassure him that he is actually something special (the world is at your command) and that he shouldn't worry. Perhaps he should even relax and allow himself to be vulnerable enough to ask for help (leave it all, til somebody else lends you a hand).

That seems evident enough to me. But the most confounding line is, "Isn't he a bit like you and me." With that line, the "you" could switch from the nowhere man to the audience. However, if we keep this song's universe as John's own mind, perhaps we have the following:

John realizes he is intensely insecure. He separates himself from that insecurity in order to examine it (he's a real nowhere man). He realizes that it's part of him (isn't he a bit like you and me?), and then begins to comfort himself and give himself advice (nowhere man, don't worry). So this song becomes essentially a self-administered therapy session.

Doctor Robert and Come Together

In the interest of not rambling on too much, I'm going to give these two tracks slightly more superficial treatments. Doctor Robert is supposedly about how John used to be the one to carry around and distribute the speed during the early days. It seems to me that he wrote about that through the alter ego of Doctor Robert simply to protect himself from scrutiny.

Come Together really should be its own post (perhaps I'll do that soon). There's controversy over whether this track includes cryptic references to each band member, is simply a sardonic self-portrait, or whether its both. In any case, it appears to me to simply be a slightly druggy, riddle-filled portrait of John's life at that time. "He shoot coca-cola" refers to John's cocaine use; "he got Ono sideboard" is obviously a reference to Yoko. As in the above songs, John appears again to talk to himself ("one thing I can tell you is you got to be free"). Perhaps that's John's advice to himself to spend time with Yoko without regard for the judgment of others.

But what about that chorus ("come together, right now, over me")? Given how druggy this song is, it might not mean anything at all. It could also refer to all the different parts of him (the cocaine use, his mojo ... everything "he got") coming together to form a cohesive conscious/identity that exists in his head, almost over his own material body.

So what can we conclude from this? It appears that John used second and third person pronouns in conjunction with first person pronouns when he wanted to speak to himself, and almost split up different parts of his identity/conscious. I'm sure that I've missed songs that could be relevant here (please let me know if you can think of any), but I've hopefully made my point clear.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

sometimes tension is ok (anatomy of a lennon melody)

In my last post, I dissected a typical McCartney melody (the song "I Will"). This one will use "Julia" to look at what makes a Lennon melody intriguing.

Now, it's important to say upfront that John wrote some melodies that are appealing for the same reasons Paul's melodies were (i.e. because they build up and resolve tension). But I'm going to examine a melody that typifies the type of tension-filled, almost non-melodic melody John himself believed he more naturally wrote.

Most listeners of Western music prefer melodies that build up and resolve tension. Resolving tension basically means that the melody and chords work such that we feel like the melody goes somewhere (i.e. builds up tension) and then returns home (i.e. resolves the tension). Once the melody gets back home, we feel satisfied and that the melody is complete.

Usually, when a melody ends without resolving tension, we feel unsatisfied and as though we don't like the song very much. However, in "Julia," John doesn't always resolve the tension, and we still love the song. Why is that?

I think it has something to do with the fact that melodies (or at least the melody in "Julia") play a different role for John than Paul. As we saw in "I Will," a McCartney melody is front and center in the song. Everything else is built around the melody. In "Julia" and other Lennon songs (ex: I Am the Walrus, Come Together), the melody is somewhat secondary to the words, the instrumentation, or both. I think this is because John approached songs as efforts to construct a particular soundscape/atmosphere (at least once he started writing more personal songs in 1965/1966).

It might help to look more closely at "Julia" in order to understand how the melody works to support the soundscape John built. The beginning of the song has three elements: an acoustic guitar, vocals, and lyrics. In my opinion, John is attempting to convey both beauty (through the fingerpicked guitar part) and helplessness (through the lyrics and the melody). Beauty--or his mother/his love for his mother--and helplessness--his pain at losing her, and his inability to reach her--exist in opposition to each other. The melody thus acts as a way of enhancing the meaning of the lyrics and, consequently, the soundscape of conflict and opposition John has built.

How does the melody enhance the soundscape of conflict?

Let's take a look at this idea of unresolved tension. If you listen to the last line of the first verse ("but I say it just to reach you Julia"), you'll hopefully notice that he's about to resolve the tension (which is what Paul would've done at the end of a verse). But then we notice that the last note of the first verse is cut off by the first note of the second verse. In this way, John doesn't resolve the tension. Why would he do that? I think it's a way of conveying pain, which supports the themes of helplessness and pain we hear in the lyrics.

Another aspect of the melody that conveys pain is the lack of tonal variety. In other words, we hear the melody resting on just one or two notes. This is in marked contrast to the guitar part, which flows through many notes. Thus, we see again the contrast between the pain-filled melody/lyrics and the beauty-filled guitar part. The melody also involves half-step intervals and the introduction of sharps and flats that create a melancholy sound, which only builds up more contrast between the melody and the guitar part, which involves several major chords, which sound happier.

This essentially describes the soundscape of the entire song. However, at the end, John does something very interesting. As I've said, the guitar part throughout 99.9% of the song acts as the representation of beauty. However, the song ends with a chord that sounds quite minor. Maybe that represents his mother dying, along with his hopes of connecting with her. In any case, it's quite interesting, I think.

So there you have it. John's melodies might not have tended to be as classically constructed as Paul's but they remain appealing to us because they act as one part of a coherent soundscape. Of course, this doesn't apply to every single John song (In My Life is one exception), but I think it describes most of his songs.

Stay tuned for an analysis of a George melody soon. And as always, let me know what you think in the comments section!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

were the beatles feminists?

Let's get something out of the way right away: I don't mean to imply that the members of the Beatles acted as feminists in their romantic relationships - at least at first. It's well-known that all four guys cheated on their first wives, and that John cheated on Yoko. I'll discuss what I see as the connection between their music and the women they chose as their second wives' at the end of the post, but the bulk of the post will be devoted to a very interesting trend in the way they depicted women in their songs.

It's well known that in the 1960s, before the feminist movement really took off, women were generally supposed to occupy a submissive position in their relationships--both romantic and otherwise--with men. Having grown up in the environment they did, it's not surprising that the Beatles would want their wives to remain at home. It's also not surprising that they would be unfaithful. What is surprising, however, is the way they depicted women in their songs.

I've broken up the love songs on the studio albums into three categories: ones that describe a basically equal relationship, ones that describe the man driving the action, and ones that describe the woman driving the action. The surprising results are below:
Equal Relationship
I Saw Her Standing There
Ask Me Why
PS I Love You
Do You Want to Know a Secret?
There's a Place
All I've Got to Do
All My Loving
A Hard Day's Night
I'm Happy Just to Dance With You
And I Love Her
When I Get Home
Every Little Thing
It's Only Love
I've Just Seen a Face
I'm Looking Through You
Here, There, and Everywhere
Good Day Sunshine
For You Blue  

Man Drives the Action

Not a Second Time (though the man has been hurt by the woman and is now lashing out)
You Can't Do That
I'll Follow the Sun
Another Girl
You Like Me Too Much
Tell Me What You See
If I Needed Someone
Run For Your Life  

Woman Drives the Action

Please Please Me
Love Me Do
It Won't Be Long
Don't Bother Me
Hold Me Tight
I Wanna Be Your Man
I Should've Known Better
If I Fell
Tell Me Why
Can't Buy Me Love
Any Time At All
I'll Cry Instead
Things We Said Today
I'll Be Back
No Reply
I'm a Loser
I Don't Want to Spoil the Party
Baby's in Black Eight Days a Week
What You're Doing
The Night Before
You've Got to Hide Your Love Away
I Need You
Ticket to Ride
Drive My Car
Norwegian Wood
You Won't See Me
What Goes On
For No One
When I'm 64
Lovely Rita Meter Maid
Honey Pie
I Will
Oh! Darling
I Want You (She's So Heavy)
One After 909

Ok, so it's pretty obvious from those lists that songs in which the woman drives the action dominate.

In fact, here's the percentage breakdown:
Equal Relationship: 21 songs (30.9%)
Man Drives the Action: 8 songs (11.7%)
Woman Drives the Action: 39 songs (57.4%)

Thematically, most of the songs in which the woman drives the action are about a man being totally smitten by a woman and wondering whether she feels the same way. She's got him wrapped around her finger. Others are about a woman leaving a man, and him chasing her (I Don't Want to Spoil the Party, Don't Bother Me). Some of them even admit crying (I'll Cry Instead). Girl--the song that apparently describes their ideal woman--depicts a highly independent woman ("when you say she's looking good, she acts as if it's understood, she's cool").

The few songs in which the man drives the action aren't even particularly aggressive. Not a Second Time and You Can't Do That are about a man reacting to a woman hurting him through infidelity. If I Needed Someone is arrogant, but mostly about a guy who just doesn't seem too interested, for whatever reason. The only truly aggressive song is Run For Your Life, which John has repeatedly said he hates and wishes he had never recorded.

This paints a pretty different situation than we expect to see in the world of rockers. It's certainly different than the Rolling Stones's depiction of women ("Trying to get some girl pregnant," for example).

It's not my place (nor am I able) to propose a reason as to why the Beatles described such strong, independent women in their songs. However, it makes their decision to eventually wed strong, independent women and stick with them (Yoko, Linda, Olivia, and Barbara all fit that description, I think) less surprising. It also suggests that the Beatles might have had ideas about gender equality in relationships that were a bit beyond their time. This doesn't serve as an excuse for their infidelities, but perhaps it introduces some nuance into the state of their romantic relationships, and their ideas about women in general. As always, let me know what you think in the comments!