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Monday, June 7, 2010

Saving Great Pop Songs From The Dust Bin Of History

Ever since the 1990’s, cultural products have been co-opted for the purpose of selling things. The reason for this is obvious: people maintain strong emotional connections to these cultural products and the marketers/advertisers hope that these emotional connections will rub off on the product and lead you to buy, buy, buy.

But of all the cultural products, none have made out worse than pop songs, which have been used to sell everything from toilet paper to cars. For some artists the use of their music can mean a massive boost in sales (e.g. Phoenix’s “1901” in that Lincoln commercial), but oftentimes the boost in sales, and the identification with the product advertised can also obscure, or even undercut, the meaning of the song. Remember when Nike used John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” to sell running shoes? Now I’m not entirely sure what shoes have to do with karma (though they both involve soles/souls *wacka wacka wacka*) but I’m sure the meetings for this particular ad involved a little bit of “Hey, Michael Jackson just acquired half the Lennon/McCartney catalog, I wonder if he’d be willing to license one of these massively emotionally resonant songs to help us sell shoes. He will!? Alright, awesome! Let’s choose the one that’s about raising your consciousness above material things like consumerism and use it to sell shoes.” Or, you know, it probably went something like that.

But the point to all this is that I recently bought a discount collection of songs from the ‘90s and stumbled across a song which owes its success to incredibly fortuitous TV placement, but which also paradoxically has been misunderstood and relegated to the dust bin of history because of the very same placement. The song is Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want To Wait” from her 1996 album This Fire, which started life as a barely-played second single from an artist mostly known for having armpit hair in her video for “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?”, then became a monster hit because of its placement during a climactic scene in Dawson’s Creek, and then became such a cliché of teenage heart-throbbing longing that even SNL parodied that moment in Dawson’s Creek, and the song.

The sad thing about this song’s fate is that it has become so identified with Dawson’s Creek, and hence 1990’s teenage melodrama, that the original and true meaning of the song has been obscured. Far from being a lusty, carpe-diem-style anthem for the high school set, “I Don’t Want To Wait” is actually one of the most heartfelt and honest portrayals of the domestic damage inflicted by war of the late 20th century. The song tells the story of a married couple during WWII, first from the woman’s perspective as she waits helpless for the phone call that will tell her that her husband is dead, and then from the perspective of the man who finds himself coldly going through the motions of the rest of his life. The titular line then is not a live-for-today teenage fantasy but instead the cry of a desperate wife who gave everything she could for her country (the promise of domestic stability) and now simply wants her husband back.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the lyrics of the song, I have posted them below with a few notes sprinkled throughout. As with all songs, sometimes the lyrics sound much more powerful when combined with the music and the melody, but this particular song works almost as well as sheer poetry, without the music.

The song begins with a prayer, ostensibly spoken by the wife, as she wishes not just for world peace but also for inner peace, and a peace to befall her husband as well. This is an interesting choice to begin this song in such an upbeat manner and, as you will see, the prayer is used to much different effect at the end of the song. I will ignore, for the purposes here, the obvious grammatical issue in the second line.

“So open up your morning light
And say a little prayer for I
You know that if we are to stay alive
And see the peace in every eye”

“She had two babies
One was six months one was three
In the war of '44
Every telephone ring
Every heartbeat sting
When she thought it was God calling her
Oh would her son grow to know his father”

The first verse speaks to the horror of waiting for some seemingly inevitable trauma. Every heartbeat, every time the telephone rings is another reminder that her husband is somewhere very dangerous. In the case of both verses I am amazed at how much poignancy is built into so few lines. The characters and narrative arc is created in just seven short lines, and there is tension there too. Will the husband die? Will he be alright?

The first chorus, then, is about the anguish of waiting.

“I don't want to wait
For our lives to be over
I want to know right now
What will it be
I don't want to wait
For our lives to be over
Will it be yes or will it be

The second verse, for me, is the heart of this song’s lyrical brilliance. Not only does it answer the questions posed by the first verse and chorus (the husband does survive and he is not alright) but it further complicates the narrative by introducing both the emotional toll of the war, and the endless difficulties this toll will place on the family. It is a sort of narrative switcharoo, in which the listener goes into Verse Two thinking the big question is whether the husband will survive or not, only to find that survival in war is not just a matter of physical well-being, but a far more complicated matter entirely.

Every line of this verse is inspired and thus deserves individual attention:

“He showed up all wet
On the rainy front step
Wearing shrapnel in his skin”

This line is a wonderfully surrealist depiction of the injury that sent the husband home. But beyond that it is evocative of what he saw there. In order to have shrapnel inside of him he had to have been involved in actual battle. Perhaps he had friends die? Maybe he was close to death himself? Did he kill other men? All of these questions arise from this one simple line, and it is delivered poetically.

“And the war he saw
Lives inside him still
It's so hard to be gentle and warm”

The first part of this line, while beautiful in its own right, is essentially leached of its impact without the preceding line about the shrapnel, but as it is, juxtaposed with the shrapnel in his skin, this is an awesome choice of words for describing the experiences of war, and for building on the promise of the preceding line.

But it is the second line that truly caps the image off. It is ambiguous as to who the line is referring to; is it the husband who is having difficulty being “gentle and warm” or is it the wife? And the sudden switch to the present tense gives the impression of a continuing to the affliction which also imparts a sense of sadness and quiet desperation to the line. Perhaps it is both, the husband and wife, who have difficulty with warmth, and it begs the question whether there is any hope for them.

“The years passed by and now
He has granddaughters”

The verse ends on an even sadder note. Combined with the present tense of the preceding line we are then invited to speculate as to what sort of grandfather the husband is. Notice Ms. Cole doesn’t give him grandsons to work out his feelings about the war with, but instead granddaughters, further exacerbating his difficulties with gentleness. This is a small variation but one that makes a world of difference.

Then Ms. Cole repeats the chorus. This time it becomes a desperate plea from a wife to her husband to not let their lives pass in coldness and reserve.

“Oh so you look at me
From across the room
You're wearing your anguish again
Believe me, I know the feeling
It sucks you into the jaws of anger
Oh, so dig a little more deeply,
All we have is the very moment
And I don't want to do what
His father and his father and his father did
I want to be here now”

This bridge reveals a further motivation for the song: to not just be a description of wartime anguish, but also an explanation of 1950’s suburban frustration. While there is something about this bridge which strikes me as slightly selfish given the previous justifications for the husband’s silence, the Feminist wrinkle is not entirely unwarranted. See, the wife spent years raising children on her own and keeping things straight at home, and waiting for that horrible call that would turn her into a single mother, only to have her sacrifice (which in many ways was no less than the husband’s) in the whole ordeal belittled, her own anguish for those years squashed and subservient to her husband’s.

There is anger in this bridge, a pent up frustration with her husband’s silence, which forces her to also be silent about what she felt and went through as she waited by the phone to find out her husband was dead. In many ways it is a betrayal that he won’t talk to her now, even after all these years. Isn’t she at least owed that? To be a full partner in the trauma, instead of merely a pillow and comfort when he needs it? It is an interesting level of further complication to toss onto an already complicated narrative. And, again, Ms. Cole manages to explore all of these themes in a matter of a few well-written lines.

Then she repeats the prayer from the beginning, only this time it almost seems like an ultimatum, or a last ditch effort to save their crumbling marriage.

“So open up your morning light
And say a little prayer for right
You know that if we are to stay alive
And see the peace in every eye”

In one song, Paula Cole has managed to create a plausible summation of the emotional experience of the Greatest Generation, giving sympathetic voice to all parties involved. There is no right or wrong, merely people who were involved in something big and terrible and who even now can’t reconcile it in their own heads, let alone between themselves. It is extraordinarily powerful and beautiful poetry and in no way deserves the shabby identification with Dawson’s Creek it’s received through the years. For that reason I have done my best to save this song from the trash bin of history and restore it to its rightful place in the pantheon of great pop songs.