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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.

Monday, August 5, 2013

You Don't Have To Read That Text Tonight

One of the big parts of being a critic of media is paying attention. Like, there's this whole attitude on the Internet at least that theorists and close readers like moi's truly are "reading too much into things." See, for example, the crap about the teacher that thinks the blue curtains are symbolic and the students who are far more clever and obviously realized that the curtains are just blue curtains lol aren't people with multiple degrees so stupid compared to us teenagers, &c. &c. That crap.

And in fairness, yeah, sometimes that's the sort of thing we do. I don't think it's wrong or bad to do that, though. I mean, we fill in blanks as a natural part of reading, for one thing, so we might as well be open about the process, and for another thing, the arguments against this mode of criticism are usually pretty trite, unimaginative, and ignorant.

But that's not always what we do. Sometimes all we do is... well... pay attention and actually focus on what we're listening to or reading or watching is, like, actually saying. We're talking kinda basic level comprehension here. It's listening to Sweet Home Alabama and noting the fact that A. a whole verse of the song is spent whining about a Neil Young song criticizing Jim Crow laws and segregation, B. Lynyrd Skynyrd's reply is "A Southern man don't need him [i.e. Young] around, anyhow," which as burns go barely rates as Brush With A Birthday Candle, and C. the song is therefore both absolutely racist and absolutely laughable. Like, this isn't rocket science. It's literally just listening to the lyrics and saying, oh, wait, these lyrics consist of words that have actual meanings.

Anyway, I'm running short on time so today's article is just a brief walkthrough of this arcane process known as Actually Paying Attention To The Media You Consume, And Drawing Conclusions From Said Media. I don't think you really need a whole lot of Theory to do this, you just have to think kind of critically about the implications of things. I think, though, that it'll highlight the way thinking critically brings the reader around to Theory in the end. Alright?

So, here's another one of those songs that I don't think people really pay a lot of attention to:

The song has a pretty straightforward narrative. The speaker falls in love with a prostitute (a worker in the "red light" district, in the song's terms) and vows to save her from her degrading work. She no longer has to sell her body, he's here to save her! Aww. How sweet.

Alright, alright, I know that you know where this is going. You've probably read an article like the one I did about The Verve and Bittersweet Symphony, and you know how I love to flip interpretation on its head, and you want me to get to the thesis before you get too far into your drink.


The song is actually really about female disempowerment and male jealousy.

Listen closely to the lyrics again--there's a decidedly controlling and demanding bent to the speaker's ostensibly romantic and heroic arguments. Consider the second verse:

You don't have to wear that dress tonight
Walk the streets for money
You don't care if it's wrong or if it's right

That last line is interesting to me because of the moral judgment it places upon Roxanne. She is described as an amoral being, and her actions are met with disapproval. If we take it one step further, the speaker is asserting Roxanne's ability to make a moral decision, but choice not to. This can mean one of two things:

Either Roxanne is in a position where economically and socially she is choosing sex work rather than being forced into it, and the speaker is commenting upon that and disapproving...

Or the speaker is just kind of self-righteously asserting that Roxanne is lacking in morals when really she is lacking in economic or physical autonomy.

Neither of these options really endears me to the speaker, but the second one is actually pretty vile, if you think about it. We've had centuries worth of this sort of moral judgment, generally entailing all sorts of pearl-clutching about "fallen women," while no one makes a move to actually alter the conditions under which lower-class women worked and often suffered. And the rest of the song pretty much continues in that fashion: the main reasons given for "saving" Roxanne from prostitution are that the speaker "won't share [her] with another boy" and that "it's a bad way." There's one line about love, the rest are either orders or judgments.

So... yeah, so much for romance.

Since we're doing this whole Paying Attention thing, let's look closely at that second possibility for what position Roxanne is in. This interpretation is, I think, the most common assumption: that Roxanne is helplessly enmeshed in a life of sin and needs to be rescued. Alright, I'm not exactly comfortable with the implications of that reading but sex work often can be a very coercive system. That's a historical and political reality, so it basically must be laid on the table as an interpretive possibility, even if I object to the idea that the solution is to save fallen women with monogamous marriage.

But look how the speaker reacts to that reality: he judges Roxanne furiously and behaves as though her shitty life is an affront to his honor or something. Yikes. That's pretty skeevy behavior.

The thing about this analysis, though, is that it's not super original. Others have pointed it out before, so I'm kind of late to the party, even if I did formulate the analysis independently. Which means that, yes, it's time for another twist!

Which is that I'm less interested in the different interpretive possibilities of what Roxanne's life is really like and more interested in the fact that there ARE different interpretive possibilities, and what that reveals about the song. The fact that the song is entirely from the male perspective, and about the male's desires and experiences, is very telling. It suggests that the female experience is subordinate to the male experience.

This is actually quite common in media. Male speakers are given greater attention and authority than female speakers, when females are allowed to speak at all. I think to a recent occurrence in my own life, when my sister and I were chatting in the college art gallery where she works. A tour group for the college happened to come in to check out the gallery, and twice, on the way in and on the way out, the (male) tour guide made a great show of deference to me as he led the group in, despite the fact that I had fuckall to do with the gallery. He even thanked me on the way out, for standing there and not throwing things I guess. This was a day when I was marching off to work on a sculpture, so I was dressed in clothing that was literally caked with mud. And yet, it was assumed that I was in charge.

That's the kind of force at work in this song--the female voice and presence is subsumed by the male voice and presence. We can go beyond an analysis of the dynamic between the two characters based on alternate interpretations of Roxanne's life and acknowledge the fact that she never gets a chance to tell us just what that life is. We have to piece things together from what scant clues the speaker lets slip between the recrimations. It's less interesting to me, in short, to consider the alternate readings than to analyze what the presence of alternate readings suggests, because their presence suggests that everyone from singer to audience is collectively ignoring Roxanne's thoughts and opinions and choices. They aren't paying attention to what she has to say, or even given the opportunity to pay attention to what she has to say.

So, what we've done, you may have noticed, is arrive right back at a feminist theoretical reading of this text.

But we got there not by starting with feminist theory (although, in fairness, I wrote this knowing about feminist theory) but by simply asking a series of questions:

  • What is this song about?
  • What might be Roxanne's actual life situation? What does that imply about the singer?
  • What does it mean that we never hear Roxanne's side of the story?
These are basic questions that you can arrive at simply through critical thought about the song's content, plus a little outside knowledge of what a "red light" is. This isn't "reading too much into" a text, it's just paying attention to the text and being willing to ask questions about its setting and characters, rather than letting it all pour in one ear and out the other like a big torrenting program blithely shuttling the song's data from The Pirate Bay to your mom's desktop.

This suggests to me that much of Theory simply consists of treating media like one half of a dialogue. Really, what I'm trying to get at here isn't so much that this is a terrible song and you should feel bad for liking it (I mean, hell, it's a catchy song, even if the lyrical content squicks me out). It's that you don't have to just accept whatever food is being forced down your throat via the airwaves from moment to moment. You can actually stop and ponder what you're chewing, and make judgments about whether or not it's really healthy to be eating today's fifth bowl of caramel-coated whale blubber. This isn't about teaching you to hate the stuff you loved, it's about teaching you that you don't have to just unthinkingly love everything while understanding nothing! It's about your freedom as a consumer of media, basically.

And while it certainly helps to have some training courtesy of a book-headed, chair-stealing, wine-swilling blowhard (i.e. me) the first step is always to make the choice to pay attention.

Sweet Home Alabama is basically a terrible song. Follow for updates, random thoughts, artwork, and news about articles. As always, you can e-mail me at Circle me on Google+ at you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

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