Jan/Feb 2010 Nonfiction

Songs, Poems, and Missing the Point Completely

by Kevin Brown

When the 2008 Olympic U.S. men's basketball team defeated Spain for the gold medal, someone decided to play Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." as they exited the court. I often wonder about song choices, often in relation to sporting events, as it seems that whoever chooses the songs must not really listen to them before they select them, as they are often terribly ill-fitting, as is this one. Being an English professor, I can only blame people's inability to read texts that are anything other than straightforward, and that problem becomes exacerbated when the readings are in verse form.

"Born in the U.S.A." is a perfect example, as it's been used in a variety of formats, ranging from such patriotic sporting events to fireworks displays to Ronald Reagan's campaign. However, even a cursory look at the lyrics shows how poorly it matches what whoever selects the song is truly trying to convey. The speaker in Springsteen's song talks about being sent off to Vietnam only to come back to no job and no V.A. support. He even talks of his friend who did not come back at all:

I had a buddy at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there, he's all gone.

The narrator tells that it's been ten years since then, and he still has "Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go." He may shout out that he is "Born in the U.S.A.," but Springsteen is actually criticizing America for the lack of support of veterans (see Reagan's presidency for examples) and the poor economic climate. When his speaker says that he's a "cool rocking Daddy in the U.S.A.," the listener is supposed to hear the irony, as the narrator's life is anything but pleasant. This idea has no relationship at all to American sports teams, and it can only be seen as insulting when played on Independence Day (though it may be a nice reminder of what we do owe our veterans, I'm guessing that's not why it's selected).

One may argue, though, that whoever selects these songs cannot be expected to listen to the entire song and that I am merely nit-picking by examining the lyrics closely. However, another example shows this lack of focus on what the song actually says even more so. When the women's soccer team won the 1999 Women's World Cup, they received a parade to celebrate their victory. The song that someone chose for this event was the Guess Who's "American Woman" (the Lenny Kravitz version was used for the 2004 Olympic women's volleyball team of Misty May and Kerry Walsh, as was Springsteen, yet again). Here, one does not even have to go beyond the chorus to hear that the speaker wants the American woman to "get away from me," "stay away from me," or simply "let me be." If one goes farther into the song and sees the verses, it gets much worse:

You're no good for me
I'm no good for you
Gonna look you right in the eye.
Tell you what I'm gonna do
You know I'm gonna leave
You know I'm gonna go
You know I'm gonna leave.

I'm guessing, too, that these icons of athletic achievement would not appreciate being called an "American chick" or "American broad," both of which show up at the end of the song.

Sometimes, these songs show up at the oddest times and places. I was teaching at a private high school in the South a few years ago, and part of my job was to work at a soccer game taking tickets. After a few minutes of the game had passed, I heard the loudspeaker begin playing part of Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle," but here's the part I heard:

Feed the babies
Who don't have enough to eat
Shoe the children
With no shoes on their feet
House the people
Livin' in the street
Oh, oh, there's a solution.

I was confused as to what a verse about social justice and poverty had to do with a soccer match. What is really odd is that this was a school whose parents and students prided themselves on their wealth. During a basketball game against their archrivals, they once had a battle of cheers. The opponents simply chanted, "Daddy's money." Rather than being ashamed of this, our school came back with "That's all right/That's OK/You're going to work/For us one day." Thus, I continued being confused as the game progressed and they continued playing the song until I could actually stop taking tickets and watch the second half of the game. It turns out that they only played the song when we scored. Our mascot was the eagle, but that section of the song plays very briefly, and they allowed the song to play throughout the section on social justice.

It's not just at sporting events, though; the general populace often helps make a song popular even though it is clear that they misunderstand the lyrics. In 1997, Chumbawamba became famous for "Tubthumping" (though most people knew it as "I get knocked down," which was in the chorus; the title does help with interpretation, which is why people's lack of knowledge is important here). People heard most of the chorus, which says,

I get knocked down
But I get up again
You're never going to
Keep me down.

They interpreted this song as a song about fighting back and not staying down when one is knocked down. Not surprisingly, it was particularly popular as a workout song, and it made its requisite appearance on sports shows. However, the song is yet again ironic. Just before the first chorus, we hear that "We'll be singing/When we're winning/We'll be singing." Thus, we'll sing the chorus about getting knocked down and getting back up again only when we're winning. When we're down, we'll sing other songs, like "Danny Boy" The speaker is thumping on the tub when he's winning, but it's a meaningless gesture, which does not carry him or her through difficult times. For that, the speaker relies on a "whiskey drink," a "vodka drink," a "lager drink," and a "cider drink." The fact that the members of Chumbawamba are anarchists who seem to be attacking blind nationalism here, as well, simply adds to the irony.

If I am surprised that many people struggle with understanding pop songs' lyrics, I am merely disappointed when they misunderstand poetry. It is difficult to attend a graduation without hearing someone quote Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," but it is one of the most misused poems in the English language. In the same way that listeners cannot or do not take the time to understand the meaning of the songs that are played at sporting events or political rallies, those who use Frost's closing lines of "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— /I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference." have also not read the entire poem. Earlier, he tells the reader that people's passing on the two paths "Had worn them really about the same." There is no difference between the two paths; instead, we look back years later and say that one decision made all the difference ("I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence") because that is how we shape our lives.

Like the information about Chumbawmba's anarchism, the fact that Frost had a friend in mind when he wrote this poem helps us see this analysis even more clearly. His friend Edward Thomas always regretted having to choose a path in the woods and wished he would have taken the different path. Thus, the poem becomes a joke about how we tend to romanticize past decisions and wish that we did not have to choose in life, not a call to strike out on our own, despite what everyone would tell us. It is Thoreau who says that "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away," not Frost.

I would like to believe that teaching people to be better readers of poetry would help solve this problem, but I fear that this is a windmill at which I must simply tilt. I would guess that most people, English professors included, do not care about which songs they play at the Olympics or political rallies. However, if we expect our music and our poetry to mean anything, then we must learn to truly hear it and understand it.


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