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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Strange Speakers, Strange Subjects: Separating the Author from the Persona

Here's a quick question for you:

In a poem or a song, who is doing the speaking?

Most people would tend to say the author--especially when it comes to songs. After all, they're up there singing it; why wouldn't it be them speaking?

The odd thing is, we don't assume this in other media. In movies, comics, books, and even games (although that's a bit weird, since we take the role of a particular character there) the speaker, even a narrator sitting in the narrative and referring to themself as "I", is assumed to be a particular character, not the actual author. And yet, songs are assumed to be autobiographical, or, at bare minimum, spoken by obvious, simplified human characters created for the purpose of making a straightforward narrative. But what happens if we stop assuming that the narrators are what we expect them to be? Or, in the reverse, what if we assume that the things they're singing to aren't quite what they appear?

Who, in other words, is the speaker, and who is the addressed audience? Who is "I" and "You"?

Consider "Child of Vision" by Supertramp:

Sorry for the daft slideshow.

The most obvious interpretation here is that it's one person talking to another. In fact, considering the animosity between the two singers at the time of the song's creation, it's easy to see this as the two trading jabs back and forth. And, to some extent, that's completely accurate. But there's another meaning that comes from one of the underlying themes of the album. The album, after all, is called Breakfast in America. It includes the songs Gone Hollywood and the titular Breakfast in America, both describing America as an almost mystical, legendary place.

So, what if we jump straight off the deep end of interpretation and assume that this song is actually talking directly to America itself? Or, at least, a personification of America; some sort of American avatar.1

Let's look at the actual lyrics:
Well, who do you think you're foolin'?
You say you're havin' fun,
But you're busy going nowhere,
Just lying in the sun.
You tried to be a hero,
commit the perfect crime
but the dollar got you dancing
and you're running out of time.
You're messin' up the water
You're rolling in the wine
You're poisoning your body
You're poisoning your mind
You gave me coca-cola
You said it tasted good
You watch the television
It tell you that you should.

Rereading this bit with our new conception of the audience of the song, some of the odder lines begin to make a bit more sense. The "messing up the water" line, in particular, goes from seeming ambiguous and out of place to a seeming environmental message. And the last four lines here seem an injunction against not just personal excess but a whole system of blind consumerism.

The rest of the song continues on in much the same way, although there's less of interest in the next lines for this interpretation. It's just ambiguous enough to allow for these dual meanings. And by the end I feel that there is a suggestion of the speaker not just representing the singer or the band, but the rest of the world, which cannot seem to reconcile or find common ground with the American powerhouse.

This wouldn't be a StIT article, though, if I couldn't pull out an even more bizarre example. This one is actually courtesy of my sister, who has just the kind of marvelously twisted mind that we need more of in our culture. She has a rather interesting idea about the speaker of the Mr Bungle song "Pink Cigarette":

Again, the setup seems pretty straightforward: it's a man speaking to his (former) lover. It's a weird, freaky song, but the setup isn't that weird.

 Let's look at the lyrics:

Hush me, touch me
Perfume, the wind and the leaves
Hush me, touch me
The burns, the holes in the sheets

I'm hoping the smoke
Hides the shame I've got on my face
Cognac and broken glass
All these years I've been your ashtray

Not today

I found a pink cigarette
On the bed the day that you left
And how can I forget that your lips were there
Your kiss goes everywhere, touches everything But me

Hush me, touch me
Champagne, your hair in the breeze
Hush me, touch me
Lipstick, a slap on my cheek

Your eyes cried at last
Told me everything I was afraid to ask
Now I'm dressed in white
And you've burned me for the last time

This ain't the last time

I found a pink cigarette
On the bed the day that you left
And how can I forget that your lips were there
Your kiss goes everywhere, touches everything But me

You'll find a note and you'll see my silhouette...

There's just 5 hours left until you find me dead
There's just 4 hours left until you find me dead
There's just 3 hours left until you find me dead
There's just 2 hours left until you find me dead
There's 1 more hour and then you will find me dead
There's just..................... 

There's some really clever metaphorical work going on here, with the cigarette motifs carried all the way through. But that carried metaphor lets us do something really bizarre to the song.

It lets us view the metaphor as literal.

In other words, we can interpret this song as being sung from the perspective of a cigarette, abandoned by his former smoking companion. From this perspective, it's not a song of betrayed love and suicide, but a... well, wait, actually, it still is, oddly enough, only this time the protagonist is not a man but a cancer stick, horrified by the realization that his longtime smoker (no explanation for how this cigarette has stuck around for so long... a lucky item, perhaps?) is switching brands to the pink cigarette of the title. He's been literally burned for the last time, and his former smoker's lips go "everywhere" (an obvious hyperbole) but him.

And, finally, the silhouette at the end? The trail of ash that is all that remains of the poor singer after he burns himself down to the filter, destroying himself after his cruel abandonment.

Of course, none of this necessarily has to be true, or credible, or even coherent, it's just a fun exercise in pointing out that we shouldn't always assume that just because a singer is singing they are speaking for themselves, and that the intended audience is always so obvious. The wonderful result of this is that we can start to look at music and poetry as being spoken by many different characters, even if they aren't immediately obvious. It's how T. S. Eliot can, in his 20s, write about being an old man in "Gerontion" and "The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock." It's how Ross Gay can write horrifying, satirical love poems (remember that one I posted?) to America, all in terms of one lover speaking to another. It means that every time we sit down to listen to music or read a poem, we take part in the construction of a whole set of personas that add depth and complexity to a work. Sometimes they can even radically change our whole interpretation.

As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.

1 In case you're unfamiliar with the term, personification basically means you're taking a thing and turning it into a person. Pretty intuitive.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't really... get the examples. I understood them fine, but the interpretations just seemed a bit... jarring to me. I fully understand what you were driving at, though, so something worked, but perhaps different examples would have worked better (for me at least).


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