Thursday, September 26, 2013

Because You Are Lukewarm, I Will Spew You Out of My Mouth

I just got home from work, turned on the radio, and found myself in the middle of an interview with a musical duo -- two teenaged sisters, it turns out -- who'll be performing at the big international music festival this weekend.  Even after listening for ten or fifteen minutes, I haven't caught the group's name. But the interview brought up some issues that I consider important.

In the first question I heard, the interviewer, a much older male and the musical director of the station, remarked on how "universal" the group's lyrics were: they used "only pronouns," which made it possible for, like, anybody to relate to them.  (They did not, in fact, use "only pronouns" -- the song the interviewer played as a sample of their work included some verbs, adjectives, and an article or two.  But I'm being overliteral, I know.)  Because they usually sang "you", they were more universal.  The musicians agreed.  One of them said that though it wasn't intentional, she preferred it that way, because she didn't really want to put her private life out there, and besides, everyone could identify better if it was only pronouns, and she wanted everyone to be able to relate, it was more universal.  The word "universal" kept coming up, more annoying with each repetition.

This, of course, made me less able to relate to them.  In the first place, many pop songs are addressed to an unspecified "you," sometimes in interesting ways.  (Think of the "you" in "She Loves You.")  Many of the Beatles' songs, for example, many Motown hits, many standards from the Thirties and Forties.  More recently, in her early career k.d. lang relied on "you" as a closeting device.  One of her first singles was a rockabilly number about a cute girl, but after she got onto a major label such exuberance disappeared until she came out publicly.  The use of "you" may be partly motivated by economic considerations from the days when songs weren't identified with just one performer: it was simpler not to have to make any changes for male or female singers.  Another factor was to allow the listener to feel addressed personally by the singer.  In the second place, "he" and "she,", "him" and "her" are also pronouns; I suppose the interviewer and singers had in mind the second-person pronoun.  But I've seen published sheet music which included alternative pronouns and sometimes other lyrical changes for a male or female subject.  (Heterosexual supremacy, of course, fed the assumption that a male singer would obviously be singing to a woman, a female singer to a man.)  Any performer could and did change the pronouns to that end at will; I've often done it myself.  This can produce interesting effects, not always related to the performer's sexual orientation.

There's a more insidious aspect to all this talk about "universality," to my mind.  It assumes that people can only relate to the most unspecific song lyrics, and that referring to someone's sex, let alone giving them a name, impairs identification.  I don't believe this.  Take the Beatles' "Michelle," which is not only about a girl, it's addressed to a French girl.  But it was a huge hit.  I'm sure millions of young women imagined Paulie crooning those words to them, whether they were named Michelle or not.  Songs built around names are a staple of pop, sometimes as novelties but not always, as with "Michelle."  Apparently McCartney didn't base the song on a real French girl he knew, but it hardly matters: the song's popularity didn't depend on his biography.  (It doesn't hurt to remember that more songs addressed to named subjects may not refer to real people.)  Often people get intensely voyeuristic about "you" songs, such as Carly Simon's "You're So Vain."  Universality was hardly at issue there: forty years after its release, there are still people speculating about what celebrity Simon was singing to, and of course it must have been a man, right?  (A look at the lyrics indicates that the subject could just as easily have been a woman -- a womanizer like Rita Mae Brown, say.)

And it goes beyond songs.  If I take these ideas about universality seriously, how can fiction or drama be "universal"?  In a narrative it's almost necessary to be specific.  (Occasionally someone tries to get around specificities of sex in narrative fiction, but such a tour de force tends to become the subject of the work.  Not always -- Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body, carefully avoided specifying the sex of the narrator's beloved for the length of a short novel, and it works pretty well; but since Winterson has always been openly lesbian, it was a safe assumption that the "you" was female.)

The main reason this whole business annoys me so much is that it accepts the premise that people can't, and don't, relate to or identify with characters in song lyrics or other works who aren't exactly like them.  This is a complicated issue, and some artists (to use the word broadly) have fed it by insisting on sameness, even at the expense of mere factual accuracy.  (I'm thinking here of the English filmmaker Andrew Haigh, who whined to Dennis Lim (via) that "A wide swath of so-called gay cinema 'never represented how I felt about being gay, ever ... I haven’t got muscles and I don’t live in West Hollywood.'"  This caricature actually refers to at best a narrow swath of gay film.)  But most people manage to identify perfectly well with songs and movies and books about people who aren't particularly like them, and I think this is something that should be encouraged.  It's a commonplace that girls don't mind reading books with boy protagonists, but boys often will refuse to read books with girl protagonists.  Like many commonplaces, this is oversimple, but to the extent it's true, it should be a spur to encourage people to enjoy art or entertainment that focuses on people unlike them. But again, they do anyway: there's a lot of idealized identification with characters and performers who are not like their fans.  How many boys have muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger?  How many young women have hot jobs in Manhattan like Carrie Bradshaw?

Besides, I want songs that are clearly gay -- that is, songs that are unambiguously, unapologetically males addressing males, or females addressing females.  There aren't enough of them, as far as I'm concerned, though there are more than most people realize.  And, paradoxically perhaps, out singers have sung "you" songs to a beloved of unspecified sex (perhaps because they knew their fans would know which was meant), and some closeted singers have sung songs that at least hinted and sometimes were explicit that a same-sex beloved was meant.  At the same time, I can and have quite happily identified with explicitly heterosexual songs and books and poems and movies.  It just seems that people mostly invoke "universality" when out gay artists start making out gay art and entertainment.

Apparently at least one of the two singers is still in high school, a junior so she said.  So I'm not judging her harshly for not wanting her songs to be taken as overt expressions of her "private life," whether she likes boys or girls.  On the other hand, a performer's reliance on "you" in song lyrics makes me start speculating about their private life.  I wouldn't have thought about any of this if the interviewer, who is old enough to know better, hadn't brought in the red herring of "universality." I imagine some readers will criticize me for "asking" these young women to be flaming queer militants and write Politically Correct song lyrics that will alienate most people, etc. etc.  I'm not asking them to do anything of the kind.  They should write the kinds of songs they wish.  I don't even object to songs addressed to an unspecific "you," for whatever reason -- as I've already pointed out, such songs are not a novelty, not anything out of the way in pop music.  I guess I am asking them not to turn this very ordinary stylistic device into some kind of high artistic virtue, though.  It isn't.  At best it's already a well-worn device in popular music; at worst, it's a closeting tool, and we don't need any more of that.

I gathered as the interview drew to an end that the name of the duo is simply the first names of the sisters.  I'm not going to give their names here, partly because I'm not so concerned with them specifically, and partly because naming them wouldn't be "universal" enough.