Not With The Band: This Song Is Not Always About You
People want to relate, we want to relate all the time, and if we don’t relate to some art, some song, well, this art is simply not interesting? Because it has to be always about us, our life, our personal feelings, what else matters? Nothing! People interpret songs the way they want and also very differently, that’s normal because we all have different personalities and different experiences, but this constant appropriation of a song is getting really tiresome. Isn’t it the beauty of art, that everyone can find some important meaning into it? Sure, but everyone has to stay open to different interpretations and the problem begins when someone regards his own interpretation for the truth, for the only truth, or worst, for a revelation, a prophecy, a moral guide, you name it!
People have gone overboard with song interpretations and I will start with the worst example of all, Charles Manson. The infamous rockstar wannabe was convinced that the Beatles’ White Album was as prophetic as the Bible, he would often quote ‘The Beatles and the Bible’ and considered the fab four as the ‘four angels’ as in Revelation 9…. Which strangely talks about locusts,… locusts, beetles, got it? Manson read so much in the Beatles’ songs that he thought the lyrics were directly speaking at him, and his interpretation was that of a racist mad man – he was ‘thinking’ that the album was announcing a coming revolt by blacks against whites. Nobody can tell for sure if Manson was really thinking this, or was faking it, but he sure managed to convinced a few people (his family) that this was the truth. According to Manson, ‘Rocky Raccoon’ meant black people, ‘Blackbird’ meant the blacks are gonna revolt, ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ meant you better get some guns and start a revolution, and of course how could he be wrong? There were two songs entitled ‘Revolution’1 and 9! The members of his family wrote ‘Helter Skelter’ on the fridge of one the home where the atrocious murders were committed….
Sure Manson was a mad man, nobody reads that much into songs, nobody is going to project his own madness into lyrics right? Although his insanity is still in debate, we are not as crazy as Manson was, most people would never go on a killing spree because of some lyrics — this is also in debate when you think at the list of musicians who have been blamed for some recent massacres, Marilyn Manson and the Columbine High School killers come to mind… which means that the Beatles as MM can inspire the worst and this is crazy!
But there is plenty of evidence that everyone projects his or her own life and experience in songs lyrics, it could be fun, but when people get very serious about it, it becomes dangerous and simply wrong! Republican candidates have projected their own view into songs like Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ when Reagan started using it during his campaign, turning the protest song into a patriotic tune? That’s the worst projection I can think of, because if you really pay attention to the lyrics, the Springsteen’s song was not really open for interpretation! Strummer’s song, ‘Rock the Casbah’ had basically the same faith when it was used as a Desert Storm anthem… there are many other examples.
But there is worst than misinterpreted lyrics, when the whole work comes from artists who have a certain image, the so-called ‘tortured artist image’, the projections go wild. Take any songwriter who had a drug/alcohol addiction problem — and there is no shortage of them — or who suffered from depression or other mental illness, and suddenly a whole population of people can relate and project their own experience into their work…all their songs are about heroin because I am/was an heroin addict? There are several Elliott Smith’s fans who told me they were sure all the songs of his self-titled album were about drugs! And this after learning that Elliott was not a drug addict before living in Los Angeles years later… ‘How could he know so much about drugs though? I was a drug addict and he depicts so well what is drug addiction!’ How could these people not see that fact that Elliott was using drugs as a metaphor for relationships? Should songs be read so literally? Of course not! But it fitted so well with their own drug addiction, their own life… because at the end a song is always about you, yourself and you
And of course, the unavoidable happens when these songwriters died of mysterious deaths… no matter how much you repeat the facts, the open investigation, the inconsistencies and the inconclusive autopsy report, these people are certain of one thing: of course he killed himself, because I have the same exact experience, ‘I was depressed and I tried to commit suicide’. I had once an argument with a person whose boyfriend had hung himself, a very terrible thing to happen in someone’s life no doubt about it, but this person started an insane rant because I dared to question her conclusion? ‘Of course Elliott killed himself, he was suffering from depression, just like my boyfriend and my boyfriend killed himself!… and he told it in his songs’. Sure, because all human beings follow the same path, act the same way, because all situations are the same… and because my situation is the universal truth.
The same can be said about Kurt Cobain’s tragic end and many of his songs, he also left a diary with many drawings – if you have seen Montage of Heck you know what I am talking about! – and even more room for the most dangerous projections. From Jeff Buckley to Nick Drake, once they have been declared so-called ‘troubled artists’, they are a blank canvas on which fans can project their own problems, their own pain and the projection could be just this, an idea, a level of interpretation, but it often becomes a complete appropriation, robbing the artist of his own life and faith, robbing other fans of their own projections. This is the point of any good art, being a mirror to a reality, and sending us a picture, but we have no right to freeze our own projection, show it to the world and declare ‘this is the truth’! This song is about me, my life… no this song is not always about you.