Academic journal article Music Theory Online

From Me to You: Dynamic Discourse in Popular Music

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

From Me to You: Dynamic Discourse in Popular Music

Article excerpt

[1] Johnny Cash's 1963 recording of "Ring of Fire" begins with a short, provocative statement: "Love is a burning thing and it makes a fiery ring." Although these could be the words of a distant, third-person narrator, it soon becomes clear that they are part of a first-person story: "Bound by wild desire, I fell into a ring of fire." We also learn-in the second verse-that they are addressed to someone specific: "I fell for you like a child. Oh, but the fire went wild." A distinct intimacy gradually emerges in the song's lyrics. Even though the listener knows, in retrospect, that all of these words are addressed to the song persona's lover, it takes time before that aspect of the song is fully unveiled.

[2] Similar examples abound. Percy Sledge begins his hit song "When a Man Loves a Woman" with seemingly distant ruminations about the troubles of men in love. But halfway through the song the lyrics shift into a far more intimate and expressive mode-"Well, this man loves you, woman"-and we quickly realize that the song persona is suffering under the same spell that he had been describing earlier from a distance. Unlike in "Ring of Fire," the change to direct address is coordinated with a crucial shift in the music: it initiates a new formal section, a contrasting bridge, the song's only deviation from the repetitive strophes of the preceding (and following) verses.

[3] The persona of Simon and Garfunkel's "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her" similarly delays the song's eventual direct address, in this instance by recounting a dream of wandering alone down "empty streets" and "alley ways." But the loneliness portrayed in these passages gives way to a more effusive, intimate expression with a sudden dynamic surge in guitar and vocals and a melodic leap to the song's highest pitch: "And when you ran to me, your cheeks flushed with the night. . . " All of this sets up an especially ardent conclusion, which breaks from the past-tense narration of the dream into a present-tense exclamation: "Oh, I love you, girl. Oh, I love you." The emphasis on "you" poignantly contrasts with the distant, third-person references to Emily in the song's title (wherever she may be), and the change from "I" to "you" highlights an important dynamic shift in the song's discourse.

[4] Scholars of popular music have long acknowledged the various complexities of song personas and narrative voice.(1) It is no secret that lyrics frequently involve changes in tone, character, and addressees, including both real and fictional audiences. As Simon Frith astutely observes, the question of "Who is singing to whom?" can be staggeringly complex (1996, 184). This complexity is often directly linked to the deployment of pronouns. David Brackett points out that Elvis Costello often uses pronoun shifters in a way that "creates a sense of multiple narrators or authorial voices" (2000, 194). Barbara Bradby's seminal research on "girl group" discourse emphasizes the significance of various pronoun pairs, especially the way they position the persona as either subject or object: "active and passive pronoun sequences do not occur randomly, but can be correlated rather precisely with a structural opposition in the meaning of the songs between fantasy and reality" (1990, 350). Moreover, several scholars have shown how specific shifts in perspective can establish narrative complexity in lyrics and a corresponding change in the music. Nicholls suggests several connections between point of view and instrumentation in The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" (2007, 303-7) and Negus shows how changes in perspective can affect narrative meaning in Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne" (2012, 383).

[5] What I aim to show with this paper is that the specific movement that I've outlined in the songs above-a path from "distant" narration to more "intimate" discourse-is particularly important and deserves special scholarly attention.(2) It is a template that can guide us in our analysis and interpretation of countless songs. …

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